To English Teachers

Today I happened to find out that my 12th grade English teacher just recently passed away. Even though my senior year was an astonishing mumbleteen years ago, some aspects of that class I remember well.

When I was in school, there was significant “churn” among the ranks of the teachers. Inexperienced graduates with shiny new teaching degrees would arrive, teach for a year, and burn out. Many teachers were first-year teachers, substitute teachers, and people who preferred to be called “Coach”.

Mrs. Loggins was not among these. Already near the end of a long teaching career at my high school (she retired only a couple years after I graduated), she was well-known for teaching English and Yearbook.

What do I remember from her “English Lit” class?

Continue reading “To English Teachers”

Advertisements

Until the End of Time

Ever since toddlerhood, when Maria opened every tuna tin, and Purrsia anointed Maria her true master, the two had shared a special bond. Maria knew the spot behind the ears where her fluffy feline loved to be scratched, and Purrsia knew Maria’s every mood.

From dim childhood memories into the bright shining future, time marched relentlessly. Tock forever follows tick, and tick tock. Little girls become young women, take fancy to young men, and promise forever. Little kittens become fat old cats, and shed fur on fancy dresses. It was the way of the world: predictable as the sunrise, everlasting as words carved in stone, unavoidable as bullets from a gun.

Maria held the hymnal open, but her blue eyes rolled off the blurred lyrics. The words failed to focus, like writing in a dream. So she mouthed along silently to the somber organ music, swaying like a metronome to the steady measure of the choir.

Alone in a crowded church, when she meant to be front and center and wearing white. Instead, her dress and veil were black like the preacher’s vestments. The sound of gunshots haunted her waking dreams. Purrsia had cuddled in her lap all morning, kneading, rubbing her whiskers sympathetically against her longtime master. White furs intertwined with black fabric such that tears could not wash them away.

The sun set beneath the stone-strewn hillside, and her heart sank into the ground. Maria had always believed there would be new sunrises, but in this marble garden she had seen her future end.

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-46, where the novel prompt of the week was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This story includes an odd cat (all cats are odd) and a theme of death. The rather neat image prompt is “Alice in Wonderland: White Rabbit – Who Killed Time?” CC2.0 photo by Brandon Warren.

Homo Ultima

One final stroll through the garden. Solomon knew his would be the last footsteps to tread these grounds. And the beauty of this forest merited a last farewell. Once, a billion years ago, there were others. Humankind spread like a weed. Relentless and unstoppable, they subdued the Earth. But time waits not for man.

Solomon followed the time-worn stone footpath along the creek to the clearing. He knew every sparrow, every blade of grass in this hundred acre nature preserve. Since time immemorial, since the Sun was yellow and the days were short, he had tended the plants and cared for the animals.

High overhead, the immense red Sun hovered motionless, as it had for at least forty million years. The blue force barrier held in the atmosphere from the vacuum outside, shielded this Eden from the scorching Sun, and gave the appearance of a cloudless day.

All the others passed beyond the barrier, into the vacuum beyond. Accident and grief claimed a victim every few millennia. Mostly, though, it was the ceaseless boredom of the passing eons that led them to trade the dullness of immortality for the serenity of the grave. Now there were none but he. Homo ultima. The final human.

From bright blue, the barrier faded to dim indigo. No violent gale came: only a controlled release of atmosphere across the long-barren surface of the aged Earth. Birdsong faded away. The leaves of the mighty oak trees began to curl. The grass withered; flowers bowed to the inevitable.

Solomon resolved that his death would not be like the others’. His would not be an act of despair or grief, but love. Not love for any individual, but love for the universe itself. As the barrier faded to black, the grotesque red Sun was joined by countless diamonds in the sky: stars unseen for ages.

“We have been apart too long.”

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-38, where the inspiration was J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings. This story includes a humble gardener and a beautiful forest. Photo prompt: Mt. Teide: the conic-point that meets the skies. CC2.0 pic by Julie Ann Johnson.

Come to Grief

“I love you.”

“You’re only saying that because I almost killed you.” Zara pulled her hand away from the glass panel, and the crimson circle that would terminate his life support.

Paralyzed below the neck, the man in the biomedical bed tilted his head toward Zara. “Please… daughter. By law and custom, as my sole relative, only you may end my suffering.” His raspy voice raked against Zara’s heartstrings.

Zara stared at the husk of a man. Holographic indicators overlaid his medical data. Age: 437. Pulse, blood pressure, brain activity. Diagnosis: Immortality Treatment Rejection Syndrome. Prognosis: progressive paralysis, agonizing pain, death within the year. In his bloodshot eyes, she saw something virtually unknown to modern civilization: real pain. How could she let him suffer in this cold hospital room? She was his daughter: he was her responsibility.

Zara felt the impulse firing through her neurons: the electrochemical command telling her finger to press the button.

“No!” She turned away from him.

“My daughter… Medical science gave me four centuries of life, but has reached its limit. Close the circle. End my suffering.”

“Growing up, I dreamed of a father,” Zara confessed. “Someone to love me unconditionally. But you weren’t there.” She turned to him again. “I made my own way in life — and quite well! Now you send for me, not to make amends, but merely to press a button?”

“Then you hate me. Push the button. Give me what I deserve.”

“I don’t hate you,” Zara said pityingly. “I don’t even know you. You’re a stranger to me.” With one hand, she stroked his brittle hair. With the other, she pressed the button.

“I love you,” he mouthed silently, and then he was gone.

Zara slumped to the marble floor and cried. “I love you, too.”

Written for the Cracked Flash Fiction Competition, Year 1 week 8, where the prompt was the first two lines of dialogue. The judges had some very kind words for this story.

The Curse of the Manor

Ghosts danced across the stone walls: red spectres cast from the crackling fireplace. Dr. Aldous Haskell, retired, gripped the syringe shakily. “Mnemoline,” he verified the drug label. “What dosage?”

“Two milliliters, intravenous,” his robodoc replied dispassionately.

The aged doctor sighed heavily as the drug entered his vein. “My apologies, James,” he suddenly remembered his visitor. “I find I’ve developed a tolerance for mnemoline. I need more and more.”

“Is this healthy, Aldous?” asked the man sitting in the plush armchair, half in shadow.

“In controlled doses, it keeps my mind sharp,” Haskell reassured. “I need be cautious, though. Too much causes vivid hallucinations, even death. Too little, and the curse may claim me.”

“Curse?”

“The curse of the manor, my friend. Every inheritor has died within a fortnight of entering these walls.”

“Indeed? Then why stay? This curse does not frighten you?”

“It terrifies me, old friend.” Haskell quickly glanced over his shoulder. “But imagine. What force could be behind this superstition?”

The robodoc stuttered. “I am not programmed with that data. My role is medical diagnosis and–”

“Quiet, you obsolescent pile of memristors,” Haskell snapped at the device. “I wasn’t talking to you!” Dr. Haskell turned again toward his friend, but found the armchair empty. “James? Where did you go?”

The robodoc spoke again. “Dr. James Bunbury died on your operating table, Doctor. Five years ago.”

Dr. Aldous Haskell, retired, stared at the empty syringe in his hand. The curse of the manor had perpetuated itself once more.

A “Hound of the Baskervilles” inspired story written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-35. Photo prompt is Lyme Park House & Estate. CC2.0 photo by Purpura Mare Asinus.

Reading at the Event of my Death

Day 18 of the A-to-Z Challenge. R is for Retrocausality, or reverse-causality; the idea that an effect can precede its cause. Though some physicists, including Hawking, speculate that the laws of nature will conspire to prevent time travel, many physical laws, such as particle interactions, can be interpreted to include backward-in-time travel.

To be opened on the event of my death.
On the morning of April 20th, 2095

Dearest Mari, Kenneth, and Dahlia,

I cannot imagine how the three of you must feel at this moment. No doubt you are grief-stricken, as I was on the day that I lost your mother. Soon you will also be very confused, for the sealed envelope that I handed to Mari just minutes before my passing contained this letter. And though the date is 80 years in the past, and the paper is yellowed with age, this letter contains specific details of the day and hour of my death.

Let me first say how grateful I am for my time with the three of you, and especially for the chance to see all the grandchildren one last time this morning. Contrary to what my doctor has been telling you for the past several years, I do not suffer from a degenerative neurological condition. My mind was as sharp and focused on the day of my death as it on the date that I write this letter: April 20th, 2020.

Thirty-eight years before you, Dahlia, went crying to your mother when your first boyfriend broke up with you.

Twenty-three years before you, Kenneth, scored your first point in the Little Lacrosse league.

Nine years before you, Mari, were born.

Dahlia, as the only one who followed in my prestigious footsteps to become a physicist, you will need to explain this to your siblings. For my entire life, I lived with my arrow of time reversed. I will not explain the technical aspects: all of the mathematics are derived in my papers on time-symmetry.

(I omitted the nature of my personal arrow of time from my published works. After all, I was known to my colleagues as Dr. Wynters, the innovative theoretical physicist, not Dr. Wynters the raving crackpot.)

My first memories are of the day of my death; the day that I gave Mari this letter. Since that time, I have aged backwards through time, growing younger and younger.

Those first (last) years of my life were filled with confusion. You had known me as your father for your entire lives: I had just met you as my adult children. As I heard you tell and re-tell your childhood stories (and learned to fake what I did not know), it became more natural for me to be your father.

On the day of your mother’s funeral, I was overjoyed: I knew I would soon meet the woman of whom you all had spoken so lovingly. I still remember the first time I heard my name roll off her tongue. “Edgar,” she whispered as I stroked her delicate silver hair.

Together we lived a good life, growing younger but always constant in our happiness. I watched your careers with great pride, then your college years, then your childhoods. Each stage brought me new understanding of how the three of you came to be the wonderful people that you are.

But time waits for no man, even when it travels in reverse.

From happy retirement, I moved on to become a celebrated physicist… then an obscure PhD student. My heart shattered into subatomic pieces on that day I met your mother, in the quad on the university campus. I suddenly realized that this was the last time I would ever see her. The pain of her unexpected loss stayed with me throughout my graduate and undergraduate studies; it lingers still.

Now at fifteen, I have only my childhood ahead of me. I dare not wait any longer to write this letter: already my memories of old age are fading, just as most people’s childhood memories fade. As my mind passes through puberty, then into childhood, I will undoubtedly start to lose the capacity to write a cogent letter to you all. From there, little time will remain until the inevitable conclusion of my life: birth.

Thank you all for being part of my memorable though temporally unusual life. Though I know you will grieve, please remember: for me, this day is not an end, but a beginning.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr. Ernest Wynters

The Last Pilgrimage

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-7, where the prompt is “beach”, along with the photo prompt “Old Woman,” by Giorgio Grande.

Gretchen’s journey ended seaside. The roiling clouds of the machines gathered at the horizon, scrubbing away the blue skies. Her blue bike, the last loyal machine, had carried her a thousand miles over broken asphalt, but gave out in the end. She reminisced as she walked that last mile to the beach. In her lifetime, she had lost good friends, two husbands, and both children.

But the sadness of their loss did not wash away the joy of their memory. She had given birth to a million lines of code and two sons, and shared uncountable laughs and international coffees with friends long gone. A thousand moons was time enough to understand that all things ended. So it was with mankind.

Gretchen settled herself onto the sandy bank, letting the timeless ocean lap at her sore feet, and breathing salty air into her aching lungs. As the sky darkened, gusts of wind cut through her woolen overcoat and babushka. The swarms of molecule-sized machines had been fruitful, and multiplied, and now they had subdued the Earth.

Unnatural dark clouds encircled the last remnants of blue sky. Directly overhead, the faintest sliver of the Moon smiled down at Gretchen. Close parenthesis.

L’Enfer, C’est La Guerre

A story for Flash Friday vol. 2-13. Update: Winner!

“War is Hell,” the barmaid reminded him, placing a mug of pale lager before him.

Until now, Colonel Boniface had never understood the sentiment. He lived for battle! Primping for the mirror in his dress blues. Saluting his men as they charged bravely past him, into the fray. And how the ladies loved an officer! (War widows needed comfort, too.)

And his Angelique, ever faithful, waiting at home.

Boniface regretted nothing, until that bullet found his brain.

“Vive la mort,” was the motto painted across this tavern’s wall. Time had no meaning here. Golden Horde, Napoleonic infantrymen, soldiers from conflicts past and future, all passed through. Some were heading home. Others…

“Angelique… I’m sorry,” he whispered.

The barmaid’s dress twirled as she turned away, head held high, cradling a dozen empty beer steins. Outside the tavern, a bugler played his muster call.

Boniface drank his beer — a final comfort — and looked to the door with dread.