361. To Fix A Light Bulb

Charlie thought he blinked. When it happened again, he blinked really hard a couple of times just to make sure it wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him. When he looked up, he saw the filament burning bright yellow inside the clear light bulb…

And then it went out.

He finished the rest of his double-glazed doughnut and wiped his fingers on the sleeve of his uniform before dialing a number.

“Yeah? Tony?” Charlie could still feel scattered doughnut crumbs in his mouth. “Light’s out in docs. Fix someone to have it looked at, will ya? Thanks.”

At the front desk, Tony put the phone down and sighed. So there goes his 5-hour streak of doing nothing. He might as well do something anyway. It was just one of those days that nothing seemed exciting enough to do, and nothing exciting happened at the same time.

The sound of the rain greeted him when he pushed the front door open. The mid-afternoon rain came rushing in with the strong winds outside. Tony shut the door and went back to his desk. Not today, he decided.

He called Andy.

Andy had been shadowing a lad named Gregory all week long. Suspecting the boy of dealing narcotics, they searched his car twice and house once in the past two months alone, but found nothing. Andy was sent to follow him to catch him in the middle of an incriminating act. There has been nothing so far.

The rain came after he had been waiting around the corner of Gregory’s house for forty-three minutes. And when the April showers came, they came in torrents. The world outside was a sea of melting grey. For all he knew, Gregory might have slipped right by his cruiser, and he would have been none the wiser. But when you had a job, you had a job.

His phone rang. It was Tony.

“Yeah?”

“Andy. Crazy rain, eh?”

Andy sighed. “This is the second time this week I’m getting doughnuts, mate. Look, I don’t mind popping by the store, but you guys have got to at least chip in-“

“No, no, no. Nothing of that sort. Well. Not doughnuts, at least. Charlie’s in the docs and the light went out or something. Strange thing, he hasn’t come out since. Think you could grab a couple spare bulbs on your way back? 50-watt, 60-watt, doesn’t matter.”

Some grumbling. “Fine,” Andy said. “But you pay for the next round of doughnuts.”

“Sure thing. And don’t forget the receipt.”

Andy killed the call. It was another two and a half hours before he could call it a day and report back. Surely Charlie had things he had to get done. Unless he was using the dead bulb as an excuse to weasel out of doing actual work.

He fumed at the thought. The bulb could not wait.

Laura was just done saving the laundry from the rain when her mobile rang.

“For crying out loud, Andy,” she said when she picked up the call. “It’s my off day.”

“I know. I know. But this is kinda urgent.”

“National emergency?”

“Well. No. But-“

“Good afternoon to you, then,” she said, then left the phone lying face-down on the tabletop without shutting the call.

The doorbell rang. She opened the door to find a tall lad standing there in a navy raincoat. He flashed a smile at her. He also flashed a handgun.

“Hello, ma’am,” Gregory said.

He made her sit down in her favorite chair, far from where her phone laid face-down on the tabletop. She prayed to God that Andy was, for whatever reason, still listening on the other end. Gregory pulled the hood of his raincoat back, revealing a rain-soaked tussle of orange hair.

“Listen to me,” he said. “I need your help.”

Around the corner from Gregory’s house, Andy scrolled through his list of contacts, wondering who he could call next. Laura had always been so cold, anyway. The sting of her last rejection when he asked her out for dinner hasn’t quite faded still.

A text came in from Tony.

“Hey buddy. Forgot you were on shadow duty. No worries, we’ll see if the rain lets up. If it does and I go get it, I’ll send you a message. Cheerios.”

He tried to look up at the sky through the windscreen. He could barely make out the outlines of the houses right in front of him. The rain didn’t look like it was going to let up any time soon.

“Ah, to hell with it,” Andy said to himself and started up the engine.

When the doors opened to the sound of the roaring rain, Tony was surprised to see Laura walking in.

“Just couldn’t stay away for long, huh?” he jested. Laura paid him no attention and went straight to the back. He shook his head. What was new?

At least he didn’t try and actually ask her out, like Andy did. He could still laugh at how brutally she turned him down, but mingled in his mirth was a sharp jab of melancholy. At least Andy tried, you know. He had the guts to approach Laura and spill the words out. Unlike some of us here.

Tony scrunched up his face and focused on resuming to do nothing.

“One… There we go,” Andy pressed the note onto the counter, then took the light bulb and left. The worst of the rain had passed, and the streets were brighter now without the dark clouds. The shower was still coming in steadily, however. He got back into the cruiser and started driving.

Charlie blinked in the sudden light. Had he been asleep? His groggy head said yes. His mouth opened to say no. He heard the clicking of the light switch, and then he heard Laura sigh.

“What happened to the lights?”

“Dunno,” he shrugged. “They went out.”

“And you didn’t think to fix it?”

“I did,” Charlie said. “It was the first thing I thought of, in fact.”

“Good to know.”

“I told Tony about it, and he said he’ll handle it.”

“Really?” Laura folded her arms. “Because Tony’s sitting right outside doing nothing.”

“He probably got someone else to do it. Say, aren’t you supposed to be off today?”

“Change of plans. Got a flashlight I can borrow?”

Tony was still melancholy when the doors opened and Andy stepped in. Andy placed the new bulb in front of him.

The two men stared at each other for a while, saying nothing.

“Well,” Andy said finally. “Back to work.”

And then he went out the door and into the pouring rain again.

When Laura pulled the file out of the cabinet and walked out the door, Charlie was sure that it was against regulations, but he could not say for sure. Laura definitely knew the regulations a lot better than him – who was he to tell her otherwise?

Laura’s exit was blocked off by Tony.

“I need to tell you something,” he said, breathing heavily.

“Not a good time,” she said, and then tried to step around him. He cut off her exit again.

“It’s rather important.”

“I’m sure it can wait.”

Tony drew a deep breath. “I’m in love with you, Laura,” he said. “Truly, madly, deeply. And you might think of me as a lazy, unattractive, good-for-nothing, and you will be right. But you inspire me. You make me want to be a better man. And I know this might not be what you wanted at all, seeing how you turned Andy down the last time, but with all the courage I have, these are things that I must say, and – is that a suspect file?”

Laura clouted him hard on the side of his head, and he dropped to the floor, out cold.

Instead of heading back to haunt Gregory’s house corner, Andy decided to drive over to Laura’s place. His expression of surprise was only matched by Gregory’s when he pressed the doorbell and the lad answered the door with a gun in hand.

There was no time to think. Andy tackled Gregory before he could move.

There were gunshots, like the sound of hammers striking wood in a small room.

When Laura pulled her car up and found her front door open, she knew that something was terribly wrong. Instead of creeping in like she was in a typical Hollywood thriller, she went up to her neighbor, Miss Elise Rosenbaum’s door and knocked. The wrinkled old lady answered the door.

“Miss Rosenbaum, how do you do?” Laura mustered the sweetest smile she could.

“You still haven’t returned my frying pan!” the old lady said. Laura grit her teeth. She had been hoping that Miss Rosenbaum would develop amnesia, or dementia, and forget all about the frying pan. What happened was wholly unfortunate, to say the least.

“It will return to you soon, good as new,” Laura promised.

“I don’t see how it can. That thing is as old as this house.”

“Might you have a rifle just lying around? Firearms of any sort,” Laura said. “Just purely out of curiosity. And – hypothetically speaking – if I were to ask you to lend it to me, would you? Assuming – hypothetically speaking – that my life was in danger and by proxy, yours could be as well. And under the assumption that between the two of us, I’m the one better equipped to handle firearms.”

Miss Rosenbaum gave her a strange look. Then she lifted her chin, her mouth forming an o-shape, like she just remembered something.

“Frank used to have just the thing, but I’m not sure if it’s any good. Come on in…”

Tony had gotten quite well-acquainted with the floor when his eyes fluttered open. There was some blood on the ground as well, though he could not tell whose. Or if it had been there all week. The little details escaped him.

There was something about a light bulb, yes. That was how it started. But how did it end with him lying face-down on the floor? Someone must have hit him. That would explain the pain on the side of his head. Who would hit him, though? And what for?

He shook his head, and immediately realized what a bad mistake it was. A wrecking pain exploded inside his head. For all the pain it caused him, though, a metaphorical light bulb flicked on in his mind.

“I arrest you in the name of the law” was what Andy was trying to go for. But with his lip split, his face swollen, and his tongue bitten to ribbons by his own teeth, the best he could do was, “Irish Stu in ge gname o’ de gaw.”

Andy had Gregory pinned to the floor of Laura’s living room. He twisted the lad’s arm behind his back and put cuffs around his wrists.

There was a rattling sound, like chains. Andy looked up and found himself staring at what appeared to be a full-sized minigun.

On instinct, he put his hands up to surrender. When faced with a person pointing a minigun at you, the only option was to surrender, no questions asked.

“Andy?” Laura’s voice.

“Laura?” Andy tried, but what came out was more like “Vova?”

Then came the sound of wailing sirens, and in through the open door streamed in special ops, all of them dressed in black from head to toe and carrying rifles aimed at Laura.

“DROP YOUR WEAPON!” one of them screamed at her. “DO IT NOW!”

Laura dropped the minigun without a word and fell to the floor with her hands on her head.

Back at the station, Charlie stepped out to the front and found the brand new light bulb sitting on Tony’s table.

“He had it all this time?” Charlie shook his head. He took the bulb and went to look for a ladder.

360. Full Circle

This is a true story about revolution, bloodshed, and cakes.

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away:

China – 1300s.

The Ming people were planning a revolution. They were tired of being oppressed by the Mongolian rulers, and decided that they will overthrow them. They had their battle plans laid out, their strategies made, and weapons ready… But at the last moment, the Mongolian rulers issued a ban on all social gatherings. And so the Ming revolutionaries were left sitting at home, waiting for the signal to attack, which never came because they could not talk to each other.

The leaders of the revolution, Ming Taizu and Wencheng, decided that they should do something about this. They hatched a plan.

The first thing they did was to spread a rumor that a deadly plague had broken out. Whomever contracted the disease died immediately. (Not Ebola, but similar). The second thing they did was bake small cakes.

(if you want to save the world and you’re serious about it, go learn how to bake. I believe that one day, cakes will save the world)

They baked small cakes. And the third thing they did was tell everyone that to survive the plague, they must eat these small cakes. Because these small cakes will give them special powers and immunity towards the disease, keeping them alive.

They all ate the small cakes. The Mongolians at the cakes. The Ming people ate the cakes. Everyone had cake. To the Mongolians, they were just eating cakes that tasted a little funky – but you did what you had to do to stay alive. When the Ming revolutionaries cut open the cake and found the egg yolk suspended in the lotus paste filling, however, they immediately knew that it was a secret message to launch their attack on the night of the full moon.

When the full moon came on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, the Ming revolutionaries picked up their weapons, took to the streets, and like in Les Misérables they stormed the palace. But unlike Les Misérables, 1) they did not sing; and 2) instead of dying one by one by one, they actually succeeded in their plan. Like that, the Mongolian rulers were overthrown and the Ming dynasty was formed.

Some happy events happened after, followed by a series of very nasty events. But we won’t go there. If you tell a story long enough, it always ends in death and heartbreak. If you want to have a good ending, you have to know when to cut it short. Slap an ending on it. Capture that perfect, triumphant moment in a photograph made from words and leave them be, going on only if you will say “and they lived happily ever after”.

Tell your stories beyond death and heartbreak, and you’ll always find yourself back at the beginning, where we all begin again, as though we have never left.

And always remember: if you want to save the world, learn how to bake.

Because cakes will one day save the world.

359. The Constellation Hunter, Aquila, and A Lot of Booze

When Aquila retired from Zeus’ courts to become the constellation in the northern sky, he imagined it would be an idyllic life full of pleasant monotony. Which was true, for the first couple of thousand years. Where he was stationed, there was enough alcohol for all the old gods of the forgotten pantheon; and since none of them were around, there was no obligation for Aquila to share any of it with them for old time’s sake.

Never would he have thought that he would find himself staring up at the pointy end of an arrow.

“Hi,” the Constellation Hunter said, grinning.

Aquila blinked twice. Thrice. Spilled his glass as he raised his hands in surrender. “Hi,” he replied.

The Constellation Hunter glanced at the alcohol cloud. “That’s a lot of booze.”

Aquila swallowed hard. “It is.”

“Care to pour me a drink?”

Alcohol coursing through his veins, Aquila’s brain was at least clear enough to know that he could not profit from defying the man who had the golden arrow pointed at him. He swirled the alcohol into a goblet made of stars and offered it to the Constellation Hunter. The Hunter did not receive it, keeping his bow and arrow trained at the spot between Aquila’s eyes.

“I know who you are,” Aquila said.

“Yeah?”

“You’re the death of the old gods. The collapse of stars. The darkness at the end of all things.”

“Oh, me? No, no,” the Hunter said. “You’ve got it all wrong. I’m just a hunter. Looking for good game, you see. What you’re talking about is the anti-life here.” He nodded at the bow. “This is the end of all things. I’m just here to collect the bodies for my gallery.”

“This is just a game to you?” Aquila said, straitening his spine. “Twenty-four of us you have hunted down. Tracked me all the way around the cosmos, searching through galaxies, only to find me here. You’re telling me that it is not for some grand purpose? That you’re not trying to blot the light of the sun? You’re just here because… because you think this is fun?”

“You can’t please everyone,” the Hunter said. “You just have to please yourself.”

“And when you have hunted down the last twelve of us. What then? Will that be enough for you, to have snuffed out the life of all constellations?”

The Hunter shrugged. “Maybe.”

Aquila doused the Hunter’s face in alcohol. It floated off his face in swirls of purple, orange, and pink. The Hunter did not even blink.

“You done?” the Hunter asked.

“Do what you must.”

Except Aquila never managed to finish his sentence. Somewhere towards the end of “what”, before he started to say “you”, the Hunter released the bowstring and the golden arrow split Aquila’s skull apart. Then Aquila was no more – one by one his light dimmed and died. On his split forehead, the star Altair went out in a brilliant supernova.

The Hunter checked his list. Next, after a crude drawing of Aquila, was what looked like a crab.

He can wait, The Hunter thought as he made himself a drink and took a long swig from the cup made of stars.

352. A Little Love For Your Coffee

Alice draws a little heart shape in every cup she brews. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first thing in the morning, before the sun even rises; or in the dead of the night, as people amble by as they would watch TV: inattentive, detached, bored. In the center of every mug, atop a pool of golden-brown coffee, she draws a little heart shape in cream, frothy and light.

Everyone just needs a little love sometimes, she reasons.

She learned how to make it on her own, through a step-by-step tutorial she found on the internet, and then through trial and error. God knows there were many trials and errors.

She will always remember the day she made the perfect heart shape: a week and two days after she found the tutorial on the internet. On the surface of her morning coffee, she traces delicate lines with a toothpick, making a little groove from the top of the milk circle, then pulling the lower edge out so that it grew a tail. In the spur of the moment, Alice puts a little dot at the end of the heart, like a full stop. She admires her handiwork.

And then she takes a picture of it for Instagram.

One day a man walks into the shop. It is near closing time: the chairs are stacked upside-down on the tables and the floors are newly mopped. The lights are dimmed and a pop-rock track plays in the background. The last of the cups are being washed. The trash is being taken out. Then the man walks in, shoving the door aside violently. He sits in the corner, by the window, takes out a cigarette and begins to smoke.

No one quite knows what to do.

The man was big enough and looked don’t-mess-with-me enough that they leave him alone. Cleaning up tobacco ash was a 5-minute inconvenience. A black eye, or broken bones, would be an inconvenience lasting significantly longer than 5 minutes. But by 1am, the man is still there, and everyone is anxious to go home.

Alice knows just what to do. She goes into the back, whips up a fresh batch of coffee; and while it steams away on the countertop, she pours the milk in and draws a little heart shape on the surface. Nervously, she steps towards the man with the cup balanced on a ceramic saucer. She lays it down. The spoon makes a little tinkling sound against the ceramic as the saucer touches the table.

The man looks at the cup, and then up at Alice. He says, “You made this?”

“Yes sir,” she says. “It’s on the house.”

The man offers a smile that turns sour. “It’s shit,” he says, and flips the cup off the table. It shatters into a messy puddle of wasted coffee and ceramic shards. Without a word, he walks past her and out the store, into the night. Alice continues standing there, looking at the mess for a long time.

Her coworkers help her clean up, and despite her insistence that she is okay and has no need for anyone to worry for her, she cries inconsolably into the night, only finding the solace of sleep an hour before dawn breaks over the city. She wakes up that day two hours late for her first lecture and misses the second one because the bus would not wait for her.

At 5pm she goes into the shop. She offers a smile to anyone who asks her if she is okay. She stashes her bag in the back, changes into uniform, puts an apron on. When she emerges a minute later, there is a cup of coffee waiting to be delivered to a glum-faced fellow sitting alone near the magazines.

She picks up the milk jug and draws a little heart shape in the middle of the coffee. The fellow seems pleasantly surprised by it. She offers a smile for him, and he returns one.

Everyone just needs a little love sometimes.

346. Troubled Time

-sentences.

Fred and Lloyd are twins. The identical sort. There’s no separating them, no matter how hard you tried. And if there is something they like more than anything in the world, it’s raising hell. Even better if you explicitly tell them not to.

They think alike. Like most twins. But unlike most twins, they are – how to say it – off sync. You would think there’s something wrong with one of them, but there isn’t. Just that one of them was born slightly disconnected from the space-time continuum.

It becomes a problem when they try to finish each other’s-

339. Tears Of My Enemies

Eugene never liked chemistry a lot.

While it was probable that chemistry probably didn’t like him a lot either, that was none of his concern. But the recipe called for a teaspoon of “the tears of your enemies”, whatever that was supposed to mean.

“What if it’s tear, like tearing paper,” Anita offered, “Not like teardrop? I mean, it could probably work just well.”

Eugene gave her a cold look. “Yes,” he said, “And what, pray tell, is a teaspoon of tear-as-in-tearing-paper?”

Anita sighed and sat down.

In retrospect, she should have stopped him from buying the tome at all. The gypsy shop looked dodgy to begin with – but the woman with the multicolored dress inside was one hell of a saleswoman. Before Anita realized what was happening, Eugene was already sold to the idea of a potion that will bring him victory in all his endeavors.

“If this is about your finals,” she had said, “I maintain that you should just sit down and study. You know, like the rest of us.”

He didn’t listen. He never did.

The other ingredients were easy to find: hair from a brown cat, a small pearl, mud from the battleground, a drop of blood… The last bit was where they got stuck. A little Google search made things further complicated when they found out that there were different types of tears for different types of emotions – and it wasn’t in the poetic way. Tears of joy and tears of grief literally had different chemical makeups.

They had argued back and forth about what kind of tears should an enemy shed; and after ruling out onion tears, joyful tears, and tears of humiliation, they finally agreed that the “tears of my enemy” should be tears of pain. A swift kick to the groin or a really hot chili would do.

“But who is my enemy?” Eugene piped up. “Does it have to be like, a sworn archnemesis, or something? Does he need to have tried to kill me? Or hate me, at least? What if I see him as an enemy, but he doesn’t feel the same way? Is he still my enemy?”

“Best to be safe on that one,” Anita said. “Would you happen to have any sworn archnemeses waiting around? Preferably within an hour’s drive and not too powerful or vengeful?”

“Nuts,” Eugene folded his arms. “Why does this have to be so difficult?”

“More difficult than just studying?”

“No.”

She sighed again. With the finals coming up in less than a week, you’d imagine that a reasonable person would put these silly things away and start being pragmatic. Here he was, lost in his fantasy, and he made fun of her for liking The Lord of the Rings.

The smack on the nose came hard and sudden. Lost in her pondering, Anita didn’t see Eugene walk around the table to where she sat, and now her nose was hot on the inside – it was going to bleed, for sure; and her vision was blurring up. She bent over, soundless more from shock than anything else.

“Hold that. Hold that,” Eugene’s voice came, and instead of an apology, something cold and metallic touched her face.

“Oh, you piece of shit,” she spat as he carried the teaspoon of her tears away, then mixing it in with the other ingredients. If directed hate was what qualified one as an enemy, he had just earned himself one, all right.

God, she hoped he failed.

332. Neil

Neil would have you believe that he is a perfectly ordinary, mostly harmless person. But that’s what the imp in his head would like you to think.

“Where do you get your ideas from?” you will ask him. With the twisting of knobs, the pushing of buttons, the calibration of instruments, and the pull of a lever after a short folk rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine”, all of which happens in the fraction of the time it takes to blink, you will hear Neil say:

“Where everybody gets their ideas from: sentient poodles working 18-hour workdays in a sweatshop operating out of the underground level of a cotton factory in Algeria. They send me letters every Wednesday.”

You will write all of this down, drafting your article in your head. Neil will look at you and offer a kind smile. The imp will laugh, and laugh, and laugh…

He will tell you that he writes his stories one word at a time. He won’t be lying. He only tells the truth, and you will hear what you want to hear.

He writes with a quill, a feather plucked from the tail of a phoenix that once resided in the office of the Grand Archmage Durwin, who lived in a castle on the Isle of Man in the 14th century. The phoenix gave the quill to him after he helped her escape so she could be reunited with her love, the constellation Aquila. He watched her dive into the sky, tracing an orange trail through the obsidian sky, joining Aquila among the stars that were really leaves on the world tree.

The quill writes in words of fire, telling tales of dreams and death, stopping only to ask for apple juice. It writes the stories it remembers, of kings and saints and ghosts and gods and of the world, the real world, not this flimsy imitation of reality that is as solid and as permanent as a veil, half-transparent and fluttering in the wind.

Sometimes, Neil tells it to write something different. “Write me a story about a discontented housewife,” he tells it, or, “Give me a story about forgetting.” And the quill writes.

Neil has only ever written two stories by his own hand, when Morpheus required it of him. He won’t tell you which.

When he isn’t freeing forgotten kingdoms from tyrannical sorcerers or having tea with the seasons beside Ymir’s bones, Neil likes to sing. He also likes to cook, but the milk does that a lot better, so he mostly sings. He sings into the void these days, because his songs have a tendency of running off to live their own lives. One of them is now a famous Hollywood star.

Death visits him often. She hasn’t forgotten that he died ten years ago; but if she took him into heaven or hell, she would never know how the Marquis got his coat back. Every last Friday of the month, they meet for tea and biscuits. She is still eager to know how Loki made the gypsy witch cast the curse meant for him on her own son. He will have to figure that out soon.

His clones do his shows and book signings and shopping for him. In the unlikely event that he needs more time, he simply asks for more, and the eternal timekeeper steps aside for Neil to do what he needs to do. The eternal timekeeper only does it for Neil, and, if she asked, Mary Poppins. But Mary Poppins never asks. Time stops to ask her if she needs anything, something to drink, maybe. Neil has never met Mary Poppins, but Mary Poppins has met Neil. She sometimes sings about him.

Sometimes his words come back to him, after having seen the world and spoken the tongues of men and tasted their power, sweet and burning like wine; and they sometimes return with other words that they have gathered from the corners of the earth. They return to his head as white hair.

Woe to you if you are one of those who would hurt or lie to lure children to their deaths. Woe to you if you would squash the imaginations of children and take away their right to read, to daydream, to ask questions, to be children. Woe to you, because his words will find you, and they will bring you back to him.

In his hands the holds the book that once belonged to Fate. You do not want to know how he will write the continuation of your story.

When you look into his eyes, and instead of an impish mischief, you find there waiting for you a fury that hell cannot contain… Pray, oh pray, to your gods – to Mary Poppins, if she would hear you – that the ending of your story involves a sweatshop operating out of the underground level of a cotton factory in Algeria. Pray that your eternity involves writing letters to be sent off on Wednesdays. Ask him; ask him if he knows of the things you have done in the dark; if he would really do all the things I have said he would do.

He will open his mouth and tell you the truth. And you will hear what you want to hear.