The Exhibit

*This week for #52Weeks52Stories I was focusing on setting and description. I know my “creatures” in this story are not perfect yet, but I will continue to refine them* 

I could feel the knots in my muscles climbing up my shoulders to the back of my neck. As I wove my way between the throngs of pedestrians outside my busy office building, I rubbed my temples hoping for a bit of relief from the pressure mounting inside from inside the four walls of my job and from inside my head. I needed a change of pace. A change of scenery. Anything. I walked the quick two-blocks to the park, my personal refuge when life got a little too crazy.

Just looking at the entrance to Tawny Hill Park allowed me to breathe a bit deeper. This park stretched out before me in its quiet, green brilliance;  if I could find peace anywhere in the concrete chaos of my day, it would be there. I walked down the main pathway arched with rose-covered trellises, the flowers in full bloom. A few butterflies flitted from blossom to blossom, and bees buzzed, heavy with pollen. No one else was in the park, and I reveled in having nature put on her beautiful show just for me. I breathed deeply and let the warm, scented spring air settle at the bottom of my lungs. I could feel a change in my posture and felt my shoulders relax. Finally, the knots began to unwind themselves.

Ahead sat an aging greenhouse, its exterior a combination of copper gone greenish-blue from years of sun and rain, and curved glass panes, which reflected the midday sun back to me. I’d walked past it a million times, but it had always been empty and overgrown with the surrounding bushes and low-hanging tree branches. But not today. The grounds outside had all been cut and trimmed. The front door donned a fresh coat of paint, and on it hung a sign: Butterfly Exhibit Open Today 12pm-1pm. I checked my watch: 12:30. I had enough time to go inside, enjoy the exhibit, and still make it back to work before lunch ended. The thought of returning to my office gave my heart a stab of grief, but I shoved it out of my mind, swung open the door, and stepped inside.

In spite of being made of glass, the greenhouse held little light inside.  Large trees with leaves bigger than my head obscured the glass and only thin strands of light trickled down between the thick branches. Broad ribbons of dark, green moss roped across the ceiling and hung so low it nearly touched the coneflowers and daylilies, which nestled among giant ferns. Giant red flowers on heavy stalks leaned their heads down toward me as I walked as if listening to my footsteps.The air felt heavy and moist–almost suffocating–and for a second, I thought about just turning around and leaving. But I hadn’t seen any butterflies yet. And there wasn’t a butterfly in sight. Maybe I had misread the sign?  Maybe the exhibit was not really open, and I had wandered in at the wrong time? I was the only person in there–I had to be mistaken. I turned to leave, but in that same moment, three bright blue insects–the tiniest of butterflies– greeted me and danced about my head. I held out my arm and the trio gracefully alighted. For a second, they stared at me, unmoving, through their black orbs for eyes. Once again in flight, they circled me and then darted past me toward the interior of the greenhouse. I followed.

A bit more light filtered down inside at the center of the greenhouse. There were fewer trees and plants here and instead, up above, a mass of white web-work stretched beneath the topmost panes of glass. The web glittered in the bits of sunlight that fell onto it as if it were made of diamonds. From its center depended what appeared to be four massive cocoons. Are they supposed to be there? How long had they been in this greenhouse? What was in them? Was someone here watching over them? Maybe that’s what happened to all the butterflies.

I moved ahead for a closer look at the web.

“Hello?” I called out in a voice barely a whisper. I cleared my throat. “Is anyone else in here?”

No reply. Only a slight stirring from inside one of the cocoons. The entire web shivered with its movement.

I wandered a bit further back into the greenhouse and found a metal spiral staircase leading up to a catwalk that sat just below the glass ceiling and behind the dangling cocoons. Maybe whoever worked here was up there, I rationalized, as I took the first step. My footsteps clanged against the metal of the stairs and the sound reverberated around the interior; I felt like all the flowers and trees leaned towards me to listen, happy to have their silent void finally filled with some sort of sound.

When I stepped out onto the catwalk, a sense of relief washed over me. From up here, I could survey the entire greenhouse. The greenery seemed even greener,  and the bright blues and reds and yellows of the flowers almost hummed in the humid air. I not only had managed to sneak out of my insane job and take a break with a change of scenery, but I had found this intriguing building full of life and solitude. l felt such a tremendous difference from the negative emotions that had consumed me only an hour before.

A rustling from the cocoons snapped me from my moment of reflection. First, one cocoon began slightly swaying side to side, and then the one next to it began to bulge and contort from the inside, pushing against the pulpy exterior. Soon all four cocoons began to move and squirm and split, and small fissures developed in the bottoms of each one.

I cupped my hands to my mouth and called out to the plants down below.

“Hello!? Something is happening here! Anyone? You might need to see this!”

I held my breath in anticipation. I’d never witnessed a work of nature of this scale! First, long, spindly antennae appeared. Or maybe they were legs? I wasn’t sure, but my heart beat faster with anticipation for the big reveal. No. They were definitely legs. Four of them, twiggy and thin. And then another. All four cocoons rocked as the appendages dangled from the bottom. The web groaned with movement. And then a human leg. And foot. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. And then another. Spider leg. Human leg  And another one. I leaned in closer. Then feet. And then the raw, pink flesh of human torso.

The awful creatures broke free, latched on to the outsides of the shredded cocoons and pulled themselves up on the web. Four half-humans, slicked with mucus, waxy stares, naked bodies, their human arms and legs dangling lifelessly amidst thick, hairy spider legs. Atop their human heads stared two huge eyes, mostly human, all pupil surrounded by white; six more, the small and dark eyes of spiders, wrapped the circumference of their heads.  I froze in horror as the creatures scuttled along the web. I tiptoed the length of the catwalk back to the metal stairs to escape, but their reverberations betrayed me, and at the clank of my footstep, the creatures dragged their listless human parts towards me. As they got closer, my eyes connected with one of the spidery humans. The gray eyes set in blanched skin looked straight at me, and the mouth formed one word.

“Run.”

I scurried down the next few stairs, but each of the spiders cast their strands of sticky silk in my direction. I resisted but to no avail. The thick silk strands wrapped around me and pinned my arms to my sides and looped around my legs. I fell hard on the stairs, sliding a stair or two before my body was lifted, dangling on the end of a strand and raised up to the web above. Once on the sticky netting, I quickly found I couldn’t move. My arms stuck, and then my legs, and the more I fought to get away, the more the glue covered me and solidified, and the more stuck I became. Down below me, the greenhouse was still empty except for the three butterflies, which clumsily moved among the flowers. The creatures continued to cast their threads, and I tried to work my head free, to move my neck, but my hair became tangled in the web. I tried to scream, but I was completely immobilized as the syrupy thickness became hard.

My head, now stuck to the web, focused on the glass panels above. Outside, a thousand tiny blue butterflies fiercely beat their wings against the glass. There they are. They’d been there all along peering down at me, the butterfly exhibit.

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Obituary

*This week for #52Weeks52Stories I focused on the use of first-person and practiced creating an “unreliable narrator.” 

 

Alva D. Reynolds

EDINA, KNOX COUNTY, MISSOURI–Alva D. (Hopkins) Reynolds, 79, of Edina died Thursday at the Martin Luther Memorial Home. I heard she died of natural causes. That’s unfortunate. I know an obituary is supposed to be where you say all the nice things you can about a person and where you’re supposed to make their life sound all meaningful and what-not, but I can’t do that. I’m not a liar. Alva, on the other hand, was the biggest liar I ever knew. A woman like her should have suffered a long, slow painful death.

Mrs. Reynolds was born December 17, 1939, here in Knox County at Edina General on the same day as me. My birth, according to my mama, was easy. I came out all pink and glowy like a baby is supposed to. My mama says that the nurses were just a cooin’ over me and everyone was taking turns holding me and sayin’ how precious I was. That is until Alva D. Hopkins showed up about an hour later. She came out a bruised, purpley color–something about comin’ out wrong side up, and swallowin’ some of that fluid. Couldn’t breathe. She was choking and carrying on and of course the doctors and nurses all panicked and left my room to go tend to her. That’s how she was, ya know. Always stealing the limelight. Always doing whatever she had to do to get all the attention even if it meant almost dyin’.

Mrs. Reynolds graduated top of her class at Edina High in 1957 and was known for her involvement in the school and in the community. Like the time she stole the String Bean Queen crown from me. I don’t mean stole it like I had it and then she took it away. I mean like that crown was mine–it was all but in the bag. But you know Alva. She couldn’t stand for me to win, so she sabotaged me. That’s right. And I can prove it. I had this amazing baton routine. I practiced for hours and hours every day after school. And I was good. I could throw that baton so high, and it would twist and twirl and spin all over the place and then ta da! It would land gentle as a dove back in my hand. Alva, she saw my routine at rehearsals. I knew it cut her to the bone to see me looking so cute and just smiling and playing it up on stage. It was eatin’ her heart right out of her rib cage. The day of the show, she asked the pageant director if she could change talents–she started with this really ugly hula hoop routine. I could barely keep a straight face every time I saw her do it at rehearsals–so she changed talents, and guess what talent she picked? Yep. You guessed it. Baton twirlin’. She hadn’t practiced much, so, when she went on stage, she only did average like. It was better than I thought she’d do. But it was nowhere near my skills. And, then it was my turn to go on. And wouldn’t ya know it. My baton was missing. Gone. I didn’t want to take a zero in the talent category, so I had to think fast. Off to the side was Alva’s old stupid hula hoop. I had no choice. I went out there and did what I could, but who can get a good score with a hula hoop? So Alva won. I wanted to rip that crown right off her head when the director put it on her.

Mrs. Reynolds went on to attend the University of Central Missouri where she majored in Getting a Husband–she definitely got her diploma in that, if you get me. I swear she walked across the graduation stage then right down the aisle of the nearest chapel. That’s how fast it was. They moved back here and man, she always acted like she was so much better than us. Had that degree posted right up by the front door when you walked into their little house. She acted like everything was so good and wonderful in her life–that house with the white picket fence and her three kids. Always dragging them to some activity or another–swim, ballet, gymnastics, soccer, T-ball. Always somethin’ so she could sit in the stands and clap and play the good wife and the proud mommy. Rumors started flyin’ through the town that her husband was cheatin’ on her, and I believed them. Can’t blame the man for a wanderin’ eye with a wife that always wanted more. Every time that man got a promotion or a pay raise, there was Alva with her hand out askin’ for somethin’ new. Or so I heard.

Mrs. Reynolds served as Edina’s 4th of July Parade Chairperson for 17 years, as Treasurer of the Edina High School PTA for 10 years, and she was a part-time employee at Croswell Jeweler’s for 4 years. All during which time she was stealin’ money from everyone. I swear, it’s true. Wherever Alva went, there was hearsay about money goin’ missin’. My kids even told me that her kids used to steal the lunch money from other kids at school. Where’d they learn that? From their momma, Alva, that’s where.

Mrs. Reynolds is survived by her three children: Mrs. Barbara Rae Allen of Portland Oregon–who moved as far away as she could from her mother; Mrs. Judy Lee Danziger of St. Louis–she’ll probably be the only one to go to her own momma’s funeral; and Mrs. Robin Anne Nickerson of Toledo, Ohio–haven’t seen her back in Edina since she left years ago.

Funeral services for Mrs. Reynolds will be held at the Walton Funeral Center in Edina at 2pm on Sunday. I know I’m supposed to feel bad that she’s dead. But I don’t. Hard to pay respects to a woman you don’t have respect for.

The Bleeding Tree

*This week for #52Weeks52Stories I tried to focus on using the right amount of description and to improve my endings–I am so not good at those…*

My twin cousins and I were breaking my mother’s cardinal rule–to never go so far back into the woods that we couldn’t hear her ring the dinner bell. But the thick boredom of too-long summer days and the four walls of the house had suffocated us for too long.

“Maybe we’ll find some fairies,” I said, plucking one of each type of wildflower as I tramped through the woods.

“Or forest pixies,” said Orpha.

Ophelia picked up rocks and bounced them off trees as she walked. “I’d prefer dragons or trolls.”

We hiked several miles through the deep forest, tree roots grabbing at our feet and branches lashing our skin as we wove among the dense trees. Overhead, the leafy canopy grew so thick it felt like nightfall even though it was only mid-afternoon.Orpha had pilfered granola bars from the kitchen before we left, and she handed them to us. We decided to rest in the small clearing ahead where a humongous tree loomed, each branch more gnarly and distorted than the next. This tree, with its curious angles, stood separate from the rest of the forest. Its leaves were darker than the ones on surrounding trees. On the front of the tree, eye-level to the three of us, an oval-shaped knothole squatted in the hulking trunk. Orpha and Ophelia sat down on the craggy roots that protruded from the ground to finish their snack, but I circled the expanse of the tree. The bark of the tree drew me in with its intricate patterns carved and shaped by wind and rain. When I trailed my fingers along the bark, I swore I felt the tree pull away, and when I rested my palm against it, I was sure I could feel the tree expand and contract as if breathing.

Empty granola bar wrapper in one hand, bouquet of mismatched wildflowers in the other, I stared into the dark recess of the knothole. I could smell dank earth and the odor of something rotten. I curled my nose in disgust and discarded my wrinkled granola wrapper inside the knothole. Then I stuck my bouquet into the knothole so that it filled up most of the oval. Immediately, all of the bright blues, greens, and yellows of the flowers began to fade into grays and whites, their color drained away. The petals wilted and began falling to the ground below. The edges of the leaves turned brown and curled in on themselves.

Ophelia, wide-eyed, walked closer to peer at their sudden death.

“You made the forest pixies mad,” Orpha said, storming over to my side. “You put your trash in their tree. Get it out!”

Under my cousin’s impatient glare, I reached out to grab the flowers. At my touch, they crumbled into dust and scattered on the slight breeze.

“I’m not sticking my hand in there,” I said.

Ophelia, always the bravest, said, “I’ll do it,” and shoved me aside. She stuck her arm in the knotty hole up to her shoulder. “I don’t feel anything. Wait. Oh! There’s something.”

“Ophelia, get your arm out!” I begged. “You’ll get bit or stung or…”

“It’s soft and fluffy, and…I got it!” She pulled her arm out. At its end was a dead baby bird, its twisted wing pinched between her fingers. Ophelia screamed and dropped it to the ground atop the withered remains of the flowers. Pasty white maggots fell off of the creature and writhed on the ground next to it. Its small beak sat askew on its tiny face, and blood leaked onto its delicate brown feathers.Cracked and mangled, its skull was open, and bits of brain leaked through the crevices. Orpha turned her back on the bird.

“What happened to it?” I asked.

“I don’t care,” said Orpha, a tear leaking down her cheek. “I want to go home. It’s getting dark.”

“I want to bury it first,” said Ophelia, kicking dirt onto a group of squirming maggots.

Orpha’s face grew red, and a second tear dropped. “We can’t just leave it.”

Ophelia found a small branch just above her head and snapped it off the trunk of the mighty tree. She tried to scoop up the little bird with it, but the mangled creature thumped to the ground time and again.

“You’re hurting it,” said Orpha.

Ophelia shot her a dirty look. “It’s already dead!”

“Just leave it. Let’s go home before we can’t see,” I added, worried that soon the dark would swallow us and the forest whole.

Ophelia rolled her eyes and dropped the branch next to the bird.

“You’re bleeding,” said Orpha. Smears of deep red covered Ophelia’s palm and the front of her shirt.

I pointed to the growing pile of dead things on the ground. “It’s not her, it’s the branch.”

A stream of crimson oozed from the base of the branch, and in the fading light, a stream of scarlet dripped down to the hushed forest floor from the spot where the branch had been rent, and a pool of bubbly blood sat among dark leaves and mosses.

“It’s bleeding to death. It’s dying,” Orpha whispered.

Ophelia clung to her logic. “Trees don’t bleed when they die.”

“And forest pixies don’t do this,” I added.

Ophelia grabbed a second branch, pulled, and snapped it off the trunk. Within seconds, the same thing happened; the branch and the tree began to bleed. Seconds later, the mouth of the knothole bled, too, and soon, the greens and browns around our feet stood starkly against a red tide as a constant stream of blood exuded from the tree and pooled around the baby bird and the maggots. The three of us held hands and backed away towards the path we’d carved through the undergrowth. None of us dared turn away from the tree, whose body now bled from all the branches. Leaves browned and plummeted to the ground, and the grass, once half-green, now withered and lost the remainder of its color. The tree canopy snuffed out the last light of the day, and the tree, bathed in red, faded from sight.

Osmosis

There are misgivings here, lying fallow between these sheets
Where the curve of my body tucks gently into the fold of yours.

I have mistaken this for love.
But it isn’t.

Putting my hand over your heart doesn’t make it mine; I’m a fool for thinking so.
But in the sleepless still, I try anyway.

I conjure all the blood to the tips of my despondent fingers
And circle the places where I want to live inside you,
Press my hopeless palm against your chest
And hold my breath.
How can you sleep through the rattling of my desires, scrambling to make sense?

When you open your eyes, kiss my cheek,
I think for a fleeting moment that maybe, just maybe, it worked
That the circuits have been fused; the metal, soldered; the distance, traveled.
But then you leave, and this void stretches onward, dark and obtrusive;

And I drown in your wake.