Story Incubator

Tiny little stories that might grow up someday

I didn't hear the first thing she said.

I was wearing earphones like I do every day on my way to work. I never want to hear what people are saying on the train, don't want to know what they think about their lives or each other or me. I don't want to hear what people call out when I walk past, on the sidewalks between my train stop and my office.

I got to the elevators in the lobby of my building. It was empty except for her. The first thing I noticed was that both the up and down buttons were lit, and there wasn't anybody there but her. I looked over at her. She was skinny, tall, taller than me, well dressed in a sleek black jacket and stylish black pants. Her shoes had piano keys across the toes, and her honey-blonde hair was pulled back in a thick, fancy braid. I felt self-conscious in my shapeless blue winter coat and backpack—I never carry a purse.

She saw me look at the elevator buttons and her and smiled. Her smile was both embarrassed and sunny. That's when I missed what she said. I removed my headphones, and she continued.

“I guess I just wanted to delay the inevitable,” she said as the elevator doors open with the down arrow illuminated.

“It's too Monday to go to work anyway,” I said and immediately wished I hadn't. She laughed anyway.

The empty elevator left for the parking level. Another came. We both filed on. I hit the button for the tenth floor and her for the sixth.

What do you say in the space of six floors? Should I mention her shoes? The piano toes? Ask where she works? What can you say in that little time? She's interesting; she wouldn't wear piano shoes if she didn't want someone to talk to her about them. Look, she's looking down at them as well. She smiled at me, does she want to talk more?

We reached her floor. I hadn't said anything. “Well, back to it,” she said, smiling again and stepping gracefully off the elevator. I half-grinned as well, at a loss for words. The doors closed.

He was standing in the “fruit room”, with the lights off. It would be hard to explain to his beloved in-laws that in some ways this was a bonding activity for him. He needed these moments of silence not because he couldn’t stand the family, but because he needed time to process. There's family and then there's family, after all.

Not that he'd need to explain any more. He's been ducking into this room for a few minutes at a time for years now. Even if the in-laws didn't fully understand his need to sit quietly on the chest freezer for twenty minutes, they were used to it.

This room has had one purpose for years. It holds serried ranks of canned fruit, stews, flour, spices, a deep chest freezer, six different kinds of canned tomatoes(sauce, paste, crushed, stewed, julienned, and seasoned). the bottles and cans have changed over time, each used and rotated conscientiously. The cans change, but not the locations. There are stewed tomatoes next to the red beans, just as there have been for the past fifty years.

When he first married into this family he and his wife would “shop” here. Poor newlyweds in college, his mother-in-law would give him and his wife paper bags and tell them to get what they needed from the fruit room, often while their laundry was in the dryer.

He'd been gainfully employed for years now, no longer needing to shop in someone else's basement, but this room still felt comfortable, still felt like love and security.

They told me it wouldn't be that bad, it wouldn't hurt for long. They said that people have put up with far more for far less reward.

They said I would get used to it.

And for a while I fought back; we all did. They have no right to treat us this way. We're people, employees, not machines. “No matter how noble your goals,” we said, “your ends do not justify these means.”

But they wouldn't relent. A few people left. A few people just walked out. Others, like me, had to stay. We needed stability, still do. We have people to take care of, concerns beyond ourselves. Some of us quietly search for other employment. Some of us still ask them to relent.

Still, day after day we come back, put up with it, cope, make the best of where we are.

But not today.

Today is the day I fight back. I either leave or I demand they change.

because today I realized, blast it all, that I got used to it.

There is a woman who just woke up, as she does every morning. She has the day off of work, and it's a sunny day, so she will spend the morning reading in her living room.

After a light lunch she will go downstairs, check the mail, and think for a moment about going out to the store. Money is tight, though. So she decides instead to talk to her neighbor for a few moments before going back up to her apartment to finish her book. She will drift off to sleep once or twice during the afternoon, but around six she'll finish the book and close it quietly. Then she'll go to the kitchen to make herself a simple dinner. While she cooks she will hum softly, just to have some sound. After dinner she'll turn on the television for a bit, then go to bed, a quiet, perhaps dull, but peaceful day behind her.

And, because of the eccentricities of time, she will do this every day forever, as she has been doing it for sixty years.

Somehow her quiet path through the day formed a closed loop, instead of a spiral like everyone else. Somehow a remnant of those actions has become stuck, her personality flowing around that circle day after day, following an identical path around the Earth's axis every 24 hours.

Outside of that closed loop the building has changed. Someone else lives in that apartment now, there's a different neighbor downstairs. But she still follows her course, her quiet, peaceful day projecting only slightly into a world that has forgotten her. Her closed loop doesn't interact with the world anymore. But sometimes, around six o'clock, there's a faint sound of humming in the kitchen. And when the sun is just right there is a quiet sense of contentment in the living room.

John “Bud” McConnell was ex-air force, and looked it. He still kept his blonde hair in a neat flat top. He still wore silvered aviator sunglasses. The crease in his trousers was razor sharp, his shoes polished to a high gloss. Sure, he'd put on a few (dozen) pounds since he retired from the military and become a management consultant, but he still had that brawny, hale, good-natured look to him.

Shannon “Sian” Parker was a child of the 90's, and looked it. Gray, heather-mix sweater draped over a v-neck purple sweatshirt over flowing, monochromatic batik pants that she still calls her “Indian Pants” even if she tries not to. In her purse she's got an honest to goodness book, which she takes out and starts reading.

Bud pulls out a paper journal and starts writing. The smile at each other slightly ironically, but for just a moment the two of them have found something they have in common, even if it's something as thin as paper.

I was walking to work this morning and I saw two people, a man and a woman, standing on a corner. They were both fairly curvy, dark hair. The woman had curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a tattoo on her neck. the man had a dark, short beard. Both were dressed entirely in black. The man was holding a paper, not sure what it said, obviously.

They were deep in a conversation, which I couldn't hear, because headphones. Just before I walked past the woman reached out, and hugged the man. He stood stiff for a second, then leaned in and wrapped his arms around her as well, dropping the note he was holding.

I kept walking.

I'm not part of their story, except as scenery. They're not part of my story, except as a question mark.

Four minutes.

We lived about forty miles from the airport. Small town, clear on the outskirts of a big city with a big air freight hub. So an airplane would fly over our house once every four minutes.

They were high enough and far enough that the sound wasn't disruptive; it was quieter than street traffic. Much quieter than the marching band practicing over at the high school, three blocks away.

But if you knew about the airplanes they provided an audible clock. If you knew what time it was when one passed by you knew what time it was when the next one did, and so on.

So I can't tell you the exact minute, but I can tell you the first time she kissed me was somewhere between 3:58pm and 4:02pm.

Alissa held it in her hands, keeping her face scientifically calm, though every thought, every part of her mind told her to drop it, run away, get away from...whatever this was.

Instead she asked Maddie, her mentor, “Where was it found?”

“Wrong question,” Maddie said, pushing her own hair back behind her ear. Maddie leaned over Alissa's hands and ran her hand over it. “Describe it, Alissa, tell me what you see.”

Alissa breathed in deep, and realized for a moment that the...thing in her hands had a smell, not unpleasant. It smelled of open space...and of...anise? Somehow that was calming.

“It...seems to be...about thirty...maybe thirty-five centimeters along one axis, and... ten centimeters by ten on the other shaped...except it has no...I can't find any place where it ends. Holding it, it's maybe a kilogram, but I can't exactly feel how it's resting on my hands. It looks like it's a gas, but it has coherence, if not...solidity.” Alissa was breathing harder now, trying to control her panic reactions. This wasn't a right thing, this wasn't something that should exist.

Maddie nodded. “What color is it?”

Alissa looked her mentor in the eye, almost angry, but she was more professional than that. “Color? What color is it? It's...not. Any of the colors. It's not dark, nor light, nor green or gray or's...” This wasn't what Alissa had signed up for. Or maybe it was. She had joined the Academy to probe the edges of human knowledge, to discover new things. So wasn't this...this thing in her hands exactly what she had signed up for? It was outside of any knowledge she had ever had, anything she had ever heard of existing.

Maddie smiled encouragingly, her eyes empathetic. “You're doing fine, Alissa. Ignore all the things that tell you this can't be and tell me what color it is. Don't analyze, just for a moment, that comes later. For now just describe.”

Alyssa breathed deep, again, three times, and felt herself grow more calm. “Okay. while its color seems to be consistent across the entire object it—”

And then it moved in her hands. She was only marginally aware of its weight, but it shifted, it wriggled, it—

Alyssa screamed, but didn't drop it, nor did she give in to the impulse to try to throttle it, to kill it.

“What is it doing, Maddie? What is it???

Maddie watched her silently. Watched Alyssa's tears run down her face, then gently scooped it out of her hands, and placed it back into the glass container on the table by her side. Then she reached out and held Alyssa closer for a moment, before sitting up straight, going from understanding friend to professional colleague in a second.

“You've done well, Alyssa. That could have gone worse in so many ways. Tell you what, let's go get some lunch, and then I'll show you the really weird stuff.” Maddie said, leading the younger woman out of the room.

The lights shut themselves off a few seconds later, the sensors recognizing that there were no people in the room.

in it's glass tank, it glowed dimly, illuminating only itself.

I never said I was happy; I only said I would stay. I wasn't telling you everything was fine, I was telling you I was fine with the way things were.

But only barely.

I'm not you; you've never really realized that, have you? We moved into each others' orbits; we found similarities, we found a balance, and somewhere in your mind this balance was the balance of an equation; everything on the left adds up to everything on the right.

But I'm not a static value or a series of values. I'm dynamic and energetic, real and whole in and of myself. We aren't equal, you and I. I don't mean that either of us is greater or lesser, I just mean that you can't match every part of your heart to part of mine.

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