Black Petals Issue #105, Autumn, 2023

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Mars-News, Views and Commentary-Chris Friend
Cards Fiction by Gene Lass
Barfly: Fiction by Gene Lass
Case Study: Fiction by Martin Taulbut
Delivery: Fiction by David Kloepfer
Joy (noun): a source of delight: Fiction by Noah Levin
Master of Dream: Fiction by Ash Ibrahim
Nightshade: Fiction by Adam Vine
Red Popsicles: Fiction by Caitlyn Pace
Temporally Closed: Fiction by J. Elliott
The Mansion Dwellers: Fiction by Robb White
Time for a Change: Fiction by Lamont A. Turner
Bernie's Friends: Flash Fiction by Phil Temples
Death Visits the Sapling Trust: Flash Fiction by Paul Radcliffe
Monster: Flash Fiction by Zvi A. Sesling
Sleep: Flash Fiction by Kurt Hohmann
Welcome, Ghouls: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Ode to Chateau Marmont: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Cadaver Dogs: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Phases of the Moon: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
The Darkest Octave: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Green Man Standing: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
The Day That Mary Went Away: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
The Northern Migration of Souls: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
Gone West: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
If I Scream: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Witchery: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Carry On: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
The Song of the Dead: Poem by Ben Huber

Noah Levin: Joy (noun): a source of delight

105_bp_joy_jsowder.jpg
Art by John Sowder 2023

joy (noun): a source of delight

by Noah Levin

 

The funeral director’s cheap cologne still haunted Joy’s ashes as they sat untouched on the kitchen table. Reuben’s conflicting emotions prevented him from touching the urn even after three days, having felt relief that the grief over her death was more manageable than the grief she brought him in life. Perhaps it was his guilt at this thought that prevented him from sleeping and resulted in his already being awake when the bells on his old-fashioned alarm clock signaled it was 7:15am.

Reuben found himself in a twilight of awareness: half-asleep, half-awake, and uncertain of which one he should move toward. He went to the bathroom and splashed water on his face but it didn’t help. Neither did slapping his cheeks. He stared at himself in the mirror and noticed he wasn’t alone: a ghostly version of Joy’s face materialized next to his.

“No matter what we went through, I always loved you, Reuben,” Joy’s disembodied visage whispered.

He shut his eyes and covered his ears.

“I still love you.” The whispering was louder and emanated from all around him.

Reuben screamed and shook his head so hard that he collided with the towel bar and lost consciousness.

#

Reuben came to in his bed as his alarm once again shouted that it was 7:15am. Despite how real the last few minutes had felt he was content to accept that they were merely a dream. He repeated the same routine and this time there was no Joy. Reuben threw on some clothes and headed to the coffee shop around the corner with the hope that caffeine would rouse him from his stupor.

The streets seemed quiet for a weekday morning. Or was it a Sunday? There were few people out and even fewer delivery drones. Reuben was never good with keeping track of the days, but now he had completely lost track of time. He would normally rely on his phone to tell him such trivial things as the day of the week, but it disappeared in the chaos that ensued after Joy’s death.

“Medium roast? It’s an Ethiopian today,” the barista asked the moment Reuben walked through the door. At least some things were still normal.

“Yes, please,” Reuben said and went to pull out his wallet.

“No, this one’s on me. So sorry for your loss. Joy always brightened up my day when she came in,” the barista said with a smile.

On top of all of his other faults, this guy was one of the few people that seemed able to resist Joy’s charms, giving her the same grumpiness he served to everyone. Reuben was speechless at the uncharacteristic compassion and accepted his coffee with a small nod of gratitude.

His appreciation was short-lived, as he took one sip of the coffee and almost spit it out. The only reason Reuben tolerated the barista was because he could brew a proper cup of coffee. This cup, however, was an insult to the great coffee culture of Ethiopia, and a far cry from the unforgettable brew his friend’s wife once made for him in the traditional Ethiopian fashion. The memory of that cup gave Reuben the sudden desire to hop on the subway to Abraham’s house and coax Angelica into treating him to another mug of liquid bliss.

Any responsibilities Reuben had were out of mind, so it was easy to give into his urge and he was soon seated in a mostly empty train car. Despite the uncomfortable chair, he could no longer keep his eyes open and drifted off. When Reuben opened his eyes a moment later, he was back at the party the night Joy died.

#

“You know I’m afraid of heights,” Reuben said.

Joy was pulling his hand and giving him a look that would have seduced him in his weaker days.

“But the view out here is amazing and it’s so hot in there! Pretty please?”

“I’ll take one step. That’s it.”

He did as promised. She immediately went over and rested on the railing that hit just above her hip.

“Be careful,” Reuben warned.

“Of what? Of this?” She leaned backward over the railing with her long elegant frame, let her head dangle, and laughed.

“You have to try this! The drones look amazing!”

Reuben looked out beyond her at the drone displays lighting up the sky, doing their delicately synched dances to advertise everything from the latest food printer cartridges to virtual vacation pods.

“Come on, I’ll hold your hands,” Joy smiled and extended her arms while her lips pouted.

The memory was playing back in his head as if he were there again watching it unfold. Once more he was helpless to go out onto the balcony, paralyzed by his fear.

“That’s not funny. I’m going back in.” Reuben turned around and took a seat in a dark corner not far from the balcony.

Reuben started counting down from ten and Joy emerged through the sliding doors right on cue when he hit zero. He always knew exactly how long it would take for her to apologize after something like that. Joy saw him in the corner and headed his direction, but something was off. She stumbled and tripped in her high heels, falling straight into the corner of a coffee table with her right temple. Joy was motionless on the floor and Reuben began crying.

#

When he was done wiping the burning tears from his eyes, Reuben found himself back in his bed and the alarm was informing him it was still 7:15am. He hurled it across the room where it continued to buzz.

Uncontrollable laughter pushed out his exhaustion. He had suffered from nightmares for most of his life, but this did not feel like a dream and his nightmares had disappeared years ago with help from Joy’s therapist, Dr. Santiago. After much prodding, he finally took her up and visited him. Dr. Santiago helped calm Reuben’s nightmares after only a few months and he hadn’t needed to visit him in over a year, but he was wondering if he should call him now. He took a deep breath to try and clear his head, but all he could smell was the stink of the cologne and it drew him from his bedroom.

Reuben stared at the urn, wondering if Joy was guilting him one last time for ignoring her. Reuben cleared a small space on his bookshelf next to a framed picture of Joy kissing him on their second date, a gift she gave him on their third date. She thought it was quaint that he still enjoyed having framed pictures like these and made sure Reuben knew how difficult it was—despite it really not being that hard—to find someone that could still print a photo like that. He had a silly smile on his face in the picture, amazed that such a beautiful woman would be interested in an average guy like him. The first few months were wonderful and they saw each other every day, but then a darker side of Joy emerged and Reuben knew why she had been single for so long.

#

“Were you looking at her?” Joy asked.

“Yeah, she had a shirt on that my friend made. I’ll have to let him know I saw one in the wild,” Reuben said.

“Am I not good enough for you anymore?” she asked.

Reuben laughed.

“I’m serious. You shouldn’t need to look at other women.”

“What? It’s not like that.”

She glared at him.

“Guys stare at you all the time and you like it. Want me to tell them all to go to hell since you’re with me?”

“Yes, you should.”

“You can’t be serious. Look at you! Of course people are going to check you out, you’re like a thousand feet tall in those heels and gorgeous!” Reuben had never stated the obvious since he didn’t want to feed her ego.

“I do this only for you and me.”

“Come on, get real. You love the attention.”

“So you want me to stop doing this?”

“Yes! If you don’t want people staring at you!” Ironically, this line drew stares from anyone in earshot.

“You don’t really want me to do that. Don’t say that.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, don’t say that. You don’t tell me what to do. I tell you what to do or else you’ll lose all of this and you’ll never find anyone better than me.”

This was the first time she had been so blunt. They had brought out the best in each other so far but now Reuben realized that they could also bring out the worst.

“I guess I’ll find out.” Reuben walked away without looking back. Joy didn’t even call after him.

They would get back together two weeks later and repeat that cycle more times than Reuben wanted to remember.

#

Reuben sighed as he set the urn in its place. The shelf felt empty, so he placed the first photo they had ever taken together alongside it to complete the makeshift altar. It was from the night they met at Abraham and Angelica’s wedding when they sat next to each other at the “singles” table. It wasn’t until halfway through the evening that Reuben found the courage to speak to Joy. He got out a few simple words before Joy spoke nonstop for the next twenty minutes about how amazing the wedding was and then dragged him to the dance floor despite his resistance.

Joy helped Reuben enjoy being at a wedding for the first time in his life. When the time came for Reuben to leave, he unwittingly said the most romantic thing to Joy: Thank you. Not “Can I have your info?” or “What are you doing after this?” or “When can I see you again?” but a heartfelt appreciation for spending her night to show him a good time.

The tables had turned for Joy and she was the one giving Reuben her information without him asking. The thought of seeing Joy again hadn’t crossed Reuben’s mind, not because he didn’t want to, but because he simply didn’t think it was a possibility. His friends always told him that all he needed to do was relax and it turned out they were right. On the other side, Joy was just happy to have someone listen to her without pretense or ulterior motives, the charm of which is often underestimated.

Seeing the photo, however, didn’t bring back fond memories of that night, but rather it reminded him that he had been on his way to see Abraham and Angelica for a cup of coffee, albeit in what he now knew was a dream. They had known Joy for about as long as they had known him, so perhaps seeing them and talking about Joy would help him with his grief. Reuben retraced his steps from his earlier dream—skipping the coffee shop, of course—and found himself on a similar car, sitting in another hard seat, and fighting to stay awake.

He looked around at the windows for ads to keep him from dozing off, but there weren’t any. Each window was simply a window with no translucent commercials trying to get him to part with his hard-earned currency.

Reuben stood up before he could fall asleep again and decided to get off one stop early to walk to their apartment. He avoided the escalator in favor of the stairs in the hopes it would help him fight the tiredness that was coming over him once again. It didn’t work and each step he took up the steps at the station made his legs feel heavier while the light got dimmer. He was having trouble making out the world even though his head remained clear. Reuben pushed on and as he reached the top step, the world faded to black and he was falling slowly into a void. He landed on something soft and opened his eyes.

He was back in bed and his alarm was ringing, shouting that it was still 7:15am.

Reuben had remained conscious the entire time. There was no break in what he saw. He was on the steps one moment, falling the next, and now back in bed. If he had any certainty about being in reality before, it was all gone.

He got up to see if the urn was where he had left it or if he had just dreamt that. It was right where he expected it to be on the shelf. As he was trying to figure out what it all meant, a noise that he hadn’t heard in over a week startled him: his phone. It was coming from a kitchen drawer. Of all people, Dr. Santiago was calling.

Hi, Reuben. I just wanted to check in and see how you’ve been holding up.

“Not good, doc. I can’t sleep and it’s been a hard three days. I keep hallucinating or dreaming or something. In all honesty, I don’t know if I’m actually talking with you right now.” When he first began his sessions, Reuben never would have been as open about his inner workings like this, but Dr. Santiago had really helped him.

Then I’m glad I called. Do you want to come in right now? My 8am just cancelled but I’m already in the office.

Reuben agreed and walked the five minutes it took to get to his office.

#

“Reuben, so glad you’ve come to see me. Joy was such a special person and I know what she meant to you. She was a good friend of mine as well.” Dr. Santiago welcomed Reuben into his office with a hug.

“But you also know how complicated our relationship was.”

“Of course. Please, sit down, and tell me what’s been going on.”

Dr. Santiago seemed to be his normal self, and Reuben was still feeling clear. He hoped that this truly was reality and that Dr. Santiago could help him. Reuben related everything he could remember for the past few days, including his conflicted feelings about Joy’s death and the details of everything he had experienced.

“The weird part is that I really felt like I was seeing and hearing her. And you, also, Doc. You appeared in one of my dreams. After I was hit by the car, I thought I was here in your office with you and Joy, but I was strapped down. Did you ever do that to me?” Reuben asked.

“No. I don’t believe in restraining my patients. Perhaps it was your mind making a metaphor for how you’re feeling,” Dr. Santiago replied after a pause.

“Maybe. But I’ve never had so many dreams so close to each other, and definitely never so many that were so clear, especially not since my nightmares stopped.”

“It’s normal to have dreams about a lost lover and you can have difficulty telling reality from dreams when you’re experiencing intense grief.”

“It’s more than that. Everything has been a blur since the moment she died, and even that feels like a dream. But seeing her again, in the mirror and the replay of the night she died and after I blacked out from pain, seemed so real, as real as this seems right now.

“How did you feel when you saw Joy in these dreams?”

“It felt like she was haunting me. Making me feel guilty. I was about to break up with her for the sixth time and this was going to be it. I told you that just before she passed.”

“Seventh time.”

“Was it?”

“I have a very good memory.”

“It almost felt like she knew that I was going to end it for good after all these years and she died just to spite me. Joy always had to be in control.”

“Maybe she was just trying to make you a better person.”

Reuben didn’t know how to respond to this.

“Perhaps you’re feeling guilty because you mistook some things she did as being negative and not positive like she intended them,” Dr. Santiago clarified.

“I wanted to believe that for so long, Doc, but you helped me understand that might not be true.” Reuben was confused. Dr. Santiago had never spoken like that before in a session.

“Right now I just want to help you understand your grief and feel better.”

“I want that, too, but I don’t even know what’s wrong.”

“Do you miss Joy?”

“Of course I do.”

“Did she make you happy?”

“She did for a long time, even with her drama. She could make the world smile and I was her world. Then her name became ironic as she was anything but joyful to me. I think I still love her in some way, though.”

“Then perhaps you’re feeling guilty for wanting to leave her and not getting any closure. Would you want her back?”

“I want her alive, but I don’t know if I want her back.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?! You still love her, right?”

Reuben was stunned into silence by the outburst and his head began to spin.

“I don’t know!” Reuben shouted back.

“What an awful thing to say! She was your lover! Your best friend!”

“But it was always about her. She got everything at my expense. It wasn’t fair!”

“All she wanted was to make you happy. I’ll ask again, do you want her back?”

Reuben’s delirium returned in an instant and he had a hard time collecting his words.

“I don’t know…yes. Yes, I want her back. I want my Joy back. That’s all I want. I want her back.” He was crying uncontrollably and would have agreed to anything Dr. Santiago said.

“Is that good enough? He can’t take much more,” Dr. Santiago spoke to the air and then disappeared.

The room faded into a white fog and Joy emerged through it looking at him with a smile and crying. Dr. Santiago was next to her, sweating and holding a virtual reality headset in one hand. It was similar to the dream Reuben had where he was restrained in Dr. Santiago’s office.

“See, Reuben, honey, I needed you to see that you can’t live without me. This was the only way. Do you understand now that you can never leave me? We’re meant to be together,” Joy said.

Reuben turned his gaze to Dr. Santiago and saw a look he recognized all too well. Joy had Dr. Santiago under her spell, and he was willing to do anything to help her craft the world she wanted for herself. It was the same look that stared back at Reuben in the mirror since Joy had entered his life. She often talked about Dr. Santiago with disdain, always mentioning how weak he was. She had used that to control him, just like she did everyone. Reuben wondered if Dr. Santiago ever had any intentions of truly helping him or if he was simply a puppet for Joy the whole time.

“Dr. Santiago. Why?” Reuben said hoarsely.

“It’s all for the best,” he replied and patted Reuben’s hand.

Joy unscrewed the clamps to the cognitive imaging machine strapped to Reuben’s head and gave him gentle kisses while Dr. Santiago removed an IV from his arm. This, he knew, was reality. A living, breathing nightmare.

“It’s OK, Reuben, we’re together now. We’ll never be apart again.” Joy climbed into the small stretcher and coddled his shaking body.

His mind matched his convulsing corpse, uncontrollably jumping between thoughts. He wanted to push Joy away, but found he lacked all strength in body and mind. He looked with pleading eyes to Dr. Santiago and received a comforting stare in return. Reuben submitted to the only choice he had and let Joy back into his life.


END




Noah Levin has been working a day job as a Professor of Philosophy for over a decade, but by night writes philosophically inspired fiction. All of his works are, and will be, available FOR FREE. He has published numerous academic articles, free textbooks, and popular philosophy articles, and now just wants to see if people out there enjoy reading his works as much as he does writing them. You can find his works (and more) at: https://www.ngefarpress.com. Follow me on Twitter to hear news, updates, and release information for future works: @NGEFarPress https://twitter.com/NGEFarPress








From the hollows of Kentucky, John Sowder divides his spare time between creating art for Sugar Skull Press and working on various cryptid-themed projects.  He illustrated GEORGE THE HOLIDAY SPIDER by Rick Powell, which is due November of this year.  You can see more of his art at www.deviantart.com/latitudezero  

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