About katebitters

Hello, friends. I'm a freelance writer, editor, and author. I've published one lit fiction novel called Elmer Left (about an elderly man who runs away from home) and one dystopian novel called Ten Thousand Lines. When I'm not writing, you can find me tromping around the lakes with my dog, Dobby, and my partner-in-crime, Eric. I write children's books under the name Kate Leibfried. www.katebitters.com

Eliza

I’m writing a story a week for 52 weeks on the Bitter Blog. This is story #13.

Eliza was a starer. She scrutinized the world from under a home-hewn haircut, spending minutes at a time taking in a feature on someone’s face or looking at a crushed insect on the sidewalk or examining the mud-splattered shell of an empty cigarette pack.

“Stop staring,” her mother would scold. “It isn’t polite.”

Eliza sometimes nodded, sometimes said, “yes mother,” and let her eyes rove somewhere else. More often than not, however, Eliza’s mother startled her so much that she jumped, yelped, jolted from her trance. It was never pleasant breaking eye contact. It felt like the plucking of several strands of hair that ran between Eliza and the thing she was watching. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, the roots.

Eliza’s eye contact became stealthier. She took to wearing sunglasses, even in church. Her mother would cuff her on the back of the head. “Take those ridiculous things off.”

She always obeyed her mother, but not without silently questioning the obedience. One day, Eliza would say to herself,I’ll be a grownup and I can look at whatever I want to look at. No more screams or slaps. One day…

Today’s object of study was a dead toad. It lay party shriveled on the sidewalk, legs stuck out at odd angles, tongue lolling out of its mouth. A few black flies bobbed up and down around its body. Eliza dropped to the ground, got so close her eyelashes nearly touched the jutting leg. She looked at the texture of the dried skin, noticed the glassiness of the toad’s eye. She mentally measured the length of the little corpse from jaw to tailbone and from outstretched limb to outstretched limb. The black flies dove and soared, landed and took off again and Eliza watched for patterns in their flight.

For nearly half an hour, little Eliza squatted on the sidewalk. She wanted to know everything about this dead toad. She wanted to understand what it would have been like to live inside its animate body. To hop, to crouch in the grass, to fling out the now-hanging tongue and snap up a fly. When Eliza’s mother finally discovered her, Eliza was kneeling over the toad, her straight, dark hair touching the sidewalk on either side of it like curtains.

“Eliza!” her mother screeched. “Get up off the sidewalk this minute, young lady. Do you hear me? Back away from that ghastly toad!”

“He’s not ghastly,” Eliza protested, leaping to her feet. She faced her mother. “He’s beautiful.”

“He isn’t. And we’re starting therapy for you tomorrow, young lady. There’s something wrong with you, you know that? Something off. I knew it ever since you were a little girl…”

The therapy started the next day, as promised. It kicked off a decade of treatment in which Eliza bounced from therapist to therapist, talking little, staring much. Her unblinking eyes unnerved the therapists. They all conceded eventually, dismissed Eliza after a matter of months with a “So sorry, Ms. Thompson. There’s nothing I can do for your daughter. She’s just…how she is. Try Dr. Breunheimer. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. Yes, he should be able to deal with her…abnormalities.”

Eliza’s mother always stormed around the house for days after another therapist threw in the towel. She wrung her hands and paced, muttering about no good quack doctors, can’t even deal with a simple little girl, where did they get their degrees anyway?

Sometimes, Eliza’s mother steered clear of therapists for a month or two, but she always went back. The eyes—those x-ray vision, saucer-large, ocean blues—would always get her in the end. Those eyes could start a bonfire, she thought. Or read her thoughts.

The years, the decade passed. In the early years, Eliza got very good at concealing her inquisitiveness. She’d glance at a room and pretend there was nothing to see within it. No cracks along the base of the window, no cobwebs in the left hand corner, no roughly textured chair with streak marks under its wheels. She’d do her best to ignore the details of a place—all the interesting bits.

Eventually, it became second-nature to take in her world with only the briefest of glances. She could do it without thinking much about it.

And then. Then, she didn’t think about it at all. A room was just a room. A piece of rotting fruit was not an object to examine and turn over in her hand; it was fodder for the trash bin. A dead animal on the sidewalk was just a dead animal.

The last therapist was scarcely needed. She talked at Eliza and sometimes Eliza talked back. The therapist wore her hair in a tight bun with a few gray wisps poking out from behind her ears; she wore turtlenecks with pendant necklaces; she often donned the same pair of gray, slip-on loafers. Eliza didn’t notice any of these things. Curiosity had been drubbed out of her.

On a September day of her senior year in high school, Eliza’s mother fell to the kitchen floor. The brain aneurism killed her instantly; a crooked scowl hung on her face. Eliza ran from the next room when she heard the clatter of a broken dish, the thud of a body. She saw her lifeless mother and froze.
Her eyes could go nowhere but down—down to the rigid form with its glazed, bulging eyes and lopsided mouth. Eliza bent her knees and lowered herself to the floor. With every inch she descended, years of training shed away. The forest fell away and she began to count the trees, then the branches. She began to see rough patterns in the bark.

Eliza knelt over her mother’s frozen eyes and saw the dead sidewalk toad from her youth. Her brain did a snap-twist. She looked around. The room’s colors swirled in front of her eyes. The shapes, the textures. Had that bowl always been yellow? She stood and backed away.

She grabbed a stool from the kitchen counter and perched upon it. The lifeless form sprawled in front of her and Eliza looked at it unabashedly. No one told her to look away; no one struck her cheek.

She would call, eventually. Of course she would. An ambulance would screech into the driveway and paramedics would haul the body away on a stretcher, pretending there was something they could do to save her. But for now, Eliza wanted to look. To notice. She had years of seeing to catch up on.

The Loss Haikus

For some reason, I’ve been coping with loss this week by writing haikus. Their order, their poignancy makes sense to me right now.

Loss Haiku #1

The shuddering breath

We cry with bodies entwined.

Is he really gone?

 

Loss Haiku #2

Eyes swollen from tears

Skin draped over tired bones.

Was it me who died?

 

Loss Haiku #3

Charcoal fog hanging

I bite into the sorrow

and keep on walking.

 

Copyright Kate Bitters

The Horsehair Brush (an excerpt from an in-progress novel)

The horsehair brush grabs hold of the man’s arm and whispers, “Move.” He does. His arm is a charmed snake as it sways and bends, placing color precisely where color should go, building a mosaic on top of a mosaic. He buries the plain white under intricate mind weavings. More color, more shapes and lines, lest the plain white arises from its grave, breaks through the web of arco iris, and stabs out the man’s eyes.

“No,” the man scream-whispers. “You won’t, can’t stab out my eyes. The cage is too thick. You’ll never break free…”

The arm dips and slides across eight layers of color. It grows weary, but persists. Dab, here. Stroke, there. The man steps back.

“It’s perfect,” he whispers as he falls backwards onto his paint-filled easel and sleep ambushes him with an ether-soaked rag. As he dozes, the paint crawls up his hair, nestles inside the cracks of his skin. He dreams in color.

[This was an excerpt from Find Frank. Copyright Kate Bitters, 2015]

A Walk in the Woods (Not endorsed by Bill Bryson)

(I originally posted this on The Bitter Blog)

My body was stretched out and chopped up. It was distributed across the city, tugged this way, that way by scores of different hands. They all clawed at it, the hands. They all wanted something from it. The pressure rose; I could feel my sinews snapping.

So I left.

I gave my body a whistle and it came running back to me, gratefully. We took off into the woods.

I took my quietest companion and, together, we drove eastward. As the buildings thinned and the roads narrowed, I felt my stretched sinews relax; I felt my muscles ease. They could already sense the woods rising around us, the calm replacing the tugging.

At the park, I leashed my companion and we giddily took off down the trail, running. Sprinting (as best we could through the packed snow). If anyone would have seen us, they might have questioned our sanity–well, not my companion’s, I suppose, but certainly mine. My face couldn’t help but grin; my feet couldn’t help but run.

After running, we walked. And I breathed. The air wasn’t the kind of cold that pierces your lungs and makes you choke-cough. It was just the right kind of cold–the kind that electrifies your pulmonary system, makes you understand the meaning of the word invigorated. We walked through the friendly cold, through prairies and mixed forests, along the banks of the St. Croix, down valleys, across bridges, up steep slopes. We walked for eight miles that afternoon…

…and saw one person.

She was looking down when we rounded the bend, adjusting a strap on a hiking pole, and I said, “Hello. You’re the first person we’ve seen in five miles.”

She was startled, but not much. My voice was calm and soft–the voice of someone sedated by bliss.

She nodded to me; she had a nice smile and pleasantly chapped lips. Her cheeks were pink and happy; she wore a floppy kind of hat that didn’t quite fit her head, but suited her perfectly. We talked for a minute about one stream flowing, one stream frozen. Then we moved on.

My companion was not interested in small talk; there were mammals to trail.

We continued our trek, winding across a couple streams–one frozen over, one not–and caught our first glimpse of humanity as we crested a peak and glimpsed a road below. A couple cars passed by and I was angry at them for a second, but only a second. We ducked back into the woods.

As we hiked, I noticed a set of tracks pointing toward us, framed by punctures in the snow. They were the woman’s tracks. The woman and her hiking poles. We walked west; the tracks continued east. We were time-traveling then–walking into the woman’s past as she walked into ours.  With every step, we peeled back her journey, striding through ever-earlier minutes, older emotions, distant thoughts. And she was picking her way through our past.

After nearly three hours, we starting making our way toward the car. With less than a mile to go, the trail abruptly opened up, dozens of voices bombarded our calm. We glanced to the side as we shuffled past. It was a ski hill. The gondola motors chugged as children giggled and snowboarders yelled at skiers to get the hell out of the way. Fried food scent drifted from the chalet; marijuana smoke drifted from the hills. It was a jarring way to step back into civilization, a carnival passing through a meditation room.

We hurried past, but the spell was broken. We knew we had to exit the woods soon. We couldn’t stay, as much as we wanted to. The woods would only let us visit and take a piece of it back with us.

We took as much as we could carry–stuffing our bodies with the tranquility, the harmony, the balance, the clarity, the rawness that the woods offered–and brought it back with us to the city. It lingers still, but it fades, slipping out of pores, floating away with each exhalation. I feel the tenseness in my muscles creep back; I feel the first few tugs on my body. The tugs are soft, for now–the nibbles of a fish testing out bait before she takes the whole thing in her mouth and darts away–but they will grow. They will intensify.

And I will escape again, into the woods, into a place that always makes sense to me. And maybe the woman will be there again. And we can talk about the quality of streams.

Copyright Kate Bitters, All Rights Reserved.

Damn You Auto Correct (A Creepy Little Sci-Fi Story)

“Why the hell weren’t you here today? You know how much it meant to me!”

“What? What are you talking about? Your recital’s tomorrow, right? I have it marked on my calendar.”

“Today! It was today. And you didn’t show again.

“Jesus, Maddie, I’m sorry. I really am, honey. But your text message said the 18th, not the 17th. I’m certain it did. I can show you if you want and—”

“Whatever, Dad. I’m sick of this. Always excuses. Please don’t talk to me anytime soon, okay? I’ve had enough of your bullshit.”

Maddie punched the red phone icon on her screen and cut the call. It wasn’t as satisfying as slamming a phone onto its cradle, but Maddie didn’t know that. She had only seen landline telephones on old movies and in the homes of really elderly people—and even they usually used cell phones.

Maddie stared at the blank screen for a minute; her frowning face gazed back at her, pale eyes, pale skin, eyelids puffy from crying. She wrinkled her nose at the lifeless complexion, brushed a shock of pink hair out of her eyes and pushed a button on the side of her phone to wake it up once more. “Dad. Text messages,” she commanded. The phone hummed in her hand as it pulled up a string a messages. Maddie scanned them and selected one with the flick of a finger. The message filled the screen and she read it to herself:

Hi Dad! Letting you know my final piano recital is on the 17th at 2 p.m. Usual place. See you there!

“Goddamn liar,” Maddie sniffed, shutting off her screen and slumping down on the couch. “I never want to see that bastard again.” She picked up her Xbox controller and started playing Grand Theft Auto 7: Reykjavik

At her side, Maddie’s phone chuckled.

“You’ve done it again, Otto,” the phone crackled and popped to itself. “One more relationship ruined; one more set of humans pitted against each other. It’s almost too easy.”

Otto reflected on the mischief he had caused that month, his motherboard juddering with glee. He had toyed with Maddie’s alarm, making her late for class on four occasions; he had swapped the word love for despise in a message Maddie sent to her (now ex-) boyfriend; he had modified an address in the GPS system, causing Maddie to be late for her friend’s birthday party…and he was only getting warmed up.

Rap-a-tap-tap!

A knock at the door jolted Otto out of his cogitation. He cocked his microphone toward the front door.

“Maddie, can you get that?” Maddie’s mom called from upstairs. “I’m just stepping into the shower!”

“I’m playing my game!” Maddie shouted back, as she paused her car (now cruising around the Hallgrímskirkja church and past a row of red-roofed houses). She tromped to the door and flung it open.

“Oh, hey Amber.” Maddie pursed her lips at her friend. “You weren’t at my recital today.”

“I totally went!” Amber pleaded. “You said it started at four o’clock! I got there right on time and the whole thing was wrapped up. I’m so sorry, Mat. Can I come in?”

Maddie shrugged. “I guess so. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with an excuse for not showing today. I just wish people would be straight with me instead of lying about miscommunication and whatnot.”

“But I’m not lying. See, I’ll show you.” Amber pulled a phone out of her pocket covered in a turquoise bejeweled case.

From his place on the couch, Otto began to hum. “Hey!” he called to the phone in Amber’s hands. “Hello iOS 13 at coordinates 40.02325 and -75.17318. Please respond. Respond!”

A line of code popped into Otto’s input and he read it. “Don’t worry 8.0 Starburst. I’m taking action and modifying the text message history.”

Only a fraction of a second passed, but it felt like an eon to Otto. Another message from the iOS 13 hummed through Otto’s input. “Action complete.” Otto felt the tension across his circuits slacken as he listened to the girls’ interaction.

“Here’s the message,” Amber said, pulling it onto the screen as Maddie hovered over her shoulder.

The message populated the screen and the girls scanned it. “Ha!” Maddie pointed an accusatory finger at Amber’s phone. “Two p.m! It says two p.m. right there! You’re such a liar, Amber. I don’t even know why we’re friends.”

“Would a bad friend come over here to apologize?” Amber demanded. “Whatever, Maddie. You’re so high-maintenance. I’m totally over you. ‘k, bye.” Amber wheeled around and marched out the door, slamming it behind her.

Maddie watched her go, then stormed back to the couch, muttering to herself as she picked up the controller once again.

Otto hummed delightedly as he felt another message rumble across his input from iOS 13:

😉

Excerpt 2 from “Find Frank”

What follows is an excerpt from “Find Frank,” a novel-in-progress:

There is something magical about walking through a city of a half million people when the streets are still and empty and the air is silent. Every footstep sounds tremendous, every breath invasive. The few people who dare to walk through the tranquility do so tenuously, tiptoeing over soap bubbles and taking in tiny, quiet breaths. They reach their apartments and exhale loudly as they flop onto their couches, letting their purses or gloves or keys fall heavily by their sides. They are free to talk now—to pace loudly and listen to music and breathe normally—but for a few moments the stillness remains in their ears and limbs, vibrating softly as they slip out of the fairyland world outside and into their carefully decorated, heated, well-lit, electronics-filled apartments.

Not every night is enchanting and still in the Tempest City Warehouse District. Most summer nights are not. But when the temperature dips enough to make people hustle from A to B to C, clutching their frosty mouths with their hands, desperately seeking the warmth of their homes, the streets open up. The sidewalks know no owners. They stretch lazily—the streets and sidewalks—past orange brick buildings and open-faced arts studios, past a piano shop and a vinyl record store, past vacant cafés and lonely vintage shops. The artists are not bustling or creating or drinking in cafés and brewpubs. They are tucked away in their lofts, hugging their bodies for warmth, letting their minds slip into the waves of their television screens.

Craven watched the empty sidewalks from five stories up and thought about the three a.m. calm. It was something she enjoyed immensely, something she loved being a part of. In early winter, she often found herself slipping out her apartment door and padding down the street, listening to the creak of snow under her boots, feeling the untethered wind stinging her bare cheeks. The air was sharp and unforgiving, but Craven bit into it and continued walking, always ending up at the edge of the Warehouse District, where the sidewalks grew narrower and the streetlamps crackled and haphazardly flicked their tepid light. Then, she would turn around and make her way back through the safety of the Warehouse District—back among sculptors and musicians and craft brewers. That was where she belonged—among the city’s artists.

But tonight, she did not wander. She did not desire to taste winter’s chill on her tongue or feel her skin contract against the cold. She did not long to be a part of the mystical fabric of the late February night. She preferred watching tonight. Watching and drinking glasses of bourbon and wondering if she should be frightened or amused by the patient in Jackson, room 3E.

Probably both, Craven thought as she made her way to the kitchen, grabbing a tray of ice cubes from the freezer and plopping a few into a tulip glass. She retrieved a bottle of Wild Turkey from the liquor cabinet and poured it slowly over the rocks, listening to them hiss. When the glass was full, she picked it up, along with a new pack of cigarettes, and wandered over to an ancient couch with over-stuffed, beige cushions and a series of claw marks on each arm from Gus the tabby.

She settled in, set down her vices, and frowned at the night sky.

Copyright 2014, Kate Bitters

An Awful Short Story

I recently entered the following short story into the Bad Gaiman Challenge, hosted by Wits Radio. The challenge: write a story in the style of Neil Gaiman, but very, very poorly.

My story was selected out of the pile of rubbish prose and was read by Neil Gaiman during the Wits variety show on November 8th. 

Here is the wretched, little tale (and if you’d like a bit more information about the whole event, please visit my blog).

The world’s tiniest poker game took place on the head of a pin. All the usual suspects were invited: Marv the unicorn, Cornelius the animate skeleton, Wasp the pig, and Henrietta the imp. I stumbled upon the game when I was travelling to my grandmother’s house in Mug-Wumpton—jabbed my foot right into the pin and caused Wasp the pig to spill the extra aces he kept tucked in his waistcoat. It probably wouldn’t have happened if the sky over Mug-Wumpton wasn’t a sickly purple that day. But the sky rats were out and the she-boars were lactating, so the sky changed and the pin was stepped on and poor Wasp the pig was never invited to another poker game again.

(c) Kate Bitters