Somewhere not on the physical plane, there was a long room filled with machines, raw materials, and assembly lines: a factory. Its small, gray workers were stirring random mixtures of the black oil of various sins and the warm, sweet syrup of myriad virtues into a thick clay which could be molded by the machine at one end of each assembly line into the correct shape. Soulmaking: A tedious and exhausting job.
The soulmakers existed only for this job, though, and there were hardly ever complaints or transfer requests filed. The last worker to transfer out was one by the name of Chip, and the soulmakers idly discussed him as they worked.
“He said,” recalled the storyteller, a female soulmixer named Gold, “that this job had no meaning. What do you think of that?”
She got a round of shrugs in reply. It wasn’t that any of them were unhappy with the job. It was that none of them could imagine feeling strongly enough about anything at all to file a transfer.
“Got to be done,” grunted a worker called Smoke as he and his partner, Brick, lifted a huge vat of viscous black sludge between them and dumped nearly half of it into Gold’s mixing bowl. Brick and Smoke portioned out the more unpleasant qualities of the souls of men.
The Soulmakers were equipped with sharp minds in order to make decisions about how much of each material to pour into any given mixture. Their only task was to make sure that it all came out even at the end of the day, not for the individual souls, but for the net amount of each material used. In this way, the Soulmakers kept the balance of good and evil as new souls came into the world. What happened to the balance after they got there was the affair of the human race.
Smoke’s laconic answer reflected the group’s general sentiment. It had to be done, and who else was going to do it? They were the Soulmakers. There was no point, they thought, in not doing what they were supposed to, what they had been expressly designed to do.
This was why Chip’s story had reached the status of a legend among the workers. His choice to change careers would forever be a mystery to them.
Gold stirred a few more times and then pushed the mixing bowl toward Flint along the conveyor belt. Flint had the job of allotting talents and abilities, and had a brightly-colored selection of vials on his worktable.
The mixture before him was thick, dark and ugly. He looked up to glare down the line at Smoke and Brick, through the tinted lenses of his protective goggles. They just gave him twin shrugs of unconcern.
“Had to use it all somewhere,” Smoke said.
Brick just nodded. For some reason that no one cared enough to figure out, Brick never spoke.
Flint turned back to the task at hand and frowned briefly in thought. There were few substances that would be compatible with such an unpleasant mixture. He carefully poured in a large portion of a clear liquid from a bottle labeled Intelligence. It was absorbed quickly into the black mass and the conveyor belt whisked the bowl away.
Records indicated this particular concoction would be shaped into the soul of one whose heartlessness and hunger for power would drive him to rule over and crush a small nation. But Flint and the others did not imagine this future as the Soul Clay was molded by the machine and then deposited into the chute.
It never occurred to the Soulmakers to wonder about the fate of the souls they concocted. Destiny wasn’t their job, after all. Their attention was always focused on the next task.
Another bowl came whirring toward Flint and he could see from a distance that this one would be much easier to work with. The solution in this bowl was translucent and tinted with a pleasant purple color. He poured in some sweet-scented magenta Music and some gently bubbling Resilience. He was pleased with the new, smooth texture, though his face, like every Soulmaker’s, was all but unreadable behind the wraparound goggles and the pall of factory pollution and chemical residue. He sent the bowl along for its final mixing before it went through the molding machine.
The records showed that this soul would belong to a girl born in the poorest part of a city. Her unfailing positive attitude, sincere kindness, and remarkable musical ability would help her get out of the city, though, and she would make a brighter life for herself. But she would get sick before she was middle-aged, and her soul would leave the world too soon.
“Looks like you’re almost out of Intelligence,” Gold remarked, squinting over at Flint’s work station between mixing bowls.
“I can see that,” he replied shortly.
Gold had an irritating habit of commenting on things which were not only obvious, but also frankly none of her business. They all knew the assembly line didn’t run efficiently if the workers were constantly looking at each other’s work or in any other way trying to keep the big picture in mind. It was death to everyone’s concentration.
“Messenger?” Flint said, without taking his eyes off the bowl of clay he was perusing, “Could you fill this bottle, please?”
Yet another small gray Soulmaker, in goggles and coveralls, took Flint’s Intelligence vial and disappeared into the maze of workers and machinery, heading for the mysterious filling station which existed somewhere in the cavernous room.
The Soulmakers who had the job of refilling everyone’s supplies knew all the secrets and shortcuts of the vast Soul Factory. The rest of the Soulmakers, however, knew almost nothing about what lay beyond their specific assembly line, beyond the one task to which they devoted all their concentration.
That messenger could have vanished in any direction at all and Flint would not have known the difference, even if he had bothered to watch him walk away. What difference did it make what the outer reaches of the factory looked like, anyway? He was sure it was all in perfect working order.
“Brick,” Smoke spoke sharply from the other end of the conveyor belt, “Carry that over here.”
There was a pause, then, “What’s the problem? It’s not that heavy, is it?”
Flint sent the bowl along and glanced over, despite himself, feeling as curious as he ever got.
Brick was standing next to a big tub of something brown and thick; it looked a lot like mud, and it certainly looked heavy. But Smoke had less compassion than most Soulmakers, which wasn’t much to begin with, and he just said impatiently, “Come on, Brick. I need that, and I can’t get up right now.”
He was looking down intently at his work as he put a scoop of gelatinous green Envy into a bowl and recorded a measurement.
Brick reluctantly gripped the edges of the tub with both hands, lifted it, and began to walk around the conveyor belt toward Smoke.
Flint returned his eyes to his work as another bowl was deposited in front of him. He studied the solution and reached for the vial he wanted without looking up. His hand found an empty space where it should have been.
“Where’s the Intelligence?” he asked aloud, speaking to no one in particular.
The great events of the universe have started out with the tiniest of triggers. Brick’s foot slipped. There was something on the floor.
“The doctor will see you now,” the receptionist said.
I put down the magazine, levered myself from the sofa and moseyed through the heavy door into the doctor’s office. I plopped down in my usual chair and looked around. The room was empty. Where was the Doc? My stomach churned. I didn’t like change.
Seconds later, a young, very curvy woman in a dark business suit and heels entered the room. She had very light skin and black hair fixed in a bun. My immediate impression, not unfavorable, was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, conservatively dressed and without the big 80’s hair and makeup.
She stood across from me. “Hello, Mr. Pulver,” she said, her voice a bit hoarse, “I’m Dr. Cummings.” She extended her hand. I rose to shake it and sat again. “Dr. Grant feels that at this point in his relationship with you, he can’t help you any further, so I’ll be taking over for him, unless you object.”
Old Dr. Grant had been my therapist for the last ten years. In all that time we had managed to do almost nothing. That was the way I liked it. Immediately an objection lodged itself in my mind, but stuck in my throat.
She lifted a business card from a stack on the table and extended it to me. I put it in my shirt pocket. She sat down opposite me and crossed her shapely legs at the ankles. She put on a pair of half-frame reading glasses and got busy flipping through a file on a clipboard. When she started the recorder on the table between us I saw that her hands were accented by a nifty French manicure. Maybe change was good. I swallowed my objection.
“So you’re 32 years old,” she said, ticking off a list. “You don’t have a job. You live in your grandmother’s basement—”
I was busy checking her out but the word ‘basement’ caught my attention. “Actually it’s my basement now,” I said.
She glanced up at me over her glasses, a question in her beautiful brown eyes.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, she’s dead.”
She grimaced. “Sorry for your loss. I didn’t know.”
I wondered what Dr. Grant had told her. Probably not much. I waved my hand. “No problem, it was months ago and not unexpected.”
She put the clipboard and the glasses on the table. “So, how’s it going with the diabetes?”
So she knew about that. I absolutely hated my diabetes. I tried to ignore it. I wished it would go away.
“It’s only been a month since I was diagnosed and it’s a pain in the ass.”
“Going to the support group?” she asked.
I shook my head no.
“No, why not?”
“It’s not required,” I said.
“So you only do what’s required?”
“More or less. You’re aware of my situation, my Uncle Carl’s will?”
“A bit, tell me about it,” she said.
“Well, my uncle was a mad scientist. Alzheimers put him in an institution about twenty years ago.
“That’s too bad, but really,” she said, “a mad scientist?”
“Maybe not crazy, but definitely a sociopath,” I said. “I don’t hate him exactly, but I never saw him. He was a poor substitute for my parents. Before he lost it he made a bundle of money with patents, something to do with genetics, I think. He said he couldn’t associate with inferiors. He shut himself off from the world, from everyone, even me and Grandma.”
“Doesn’t he provide for you and your grandmother even now?” she asked.
“Yes, money, okay,” I said. “He took me in when I was a kid and my folks were killed. He supports me now. I’m grateful for that but he and Grandma were two of a kind. Both cold, emotionless.”
“So what’s required?” she asked.
“In order to stay on the gravy train after I reached eighteen I’ve had to visit him at least three days a week, take care of Grandma, although not so much anymore, and I have to go to therapy until I’m thirty-five or until he dies, when I’ll inherit everything. Oh, and I have to keep out of trouble.”
“And are you happy, Mr. Pulver,” she asked, “doing only what’s required?”
I wasn’t happy. Who’s happy anyway? I stared at her legs. I felt like I was being captured somehow but I didn’t care.
“Are you attracted to me, Mr. Pulver?” she asked.
I felt a blush rise up my neck. How did she know what I was feeling? “Please call me Frank,” I stammered like a love-struck teenager.
“Well, Frank, acting on an attraction would be inappropriate given our expected relationship but it’s not inappropriate to be attracted. At least you’re interested in relationships. That’s a big deal. It says something about your worldview and self worth.”
I looked up into her eyes. “I’ve talked with a lot of therapists over the years, Dr. Cummings. They all told me they were being honest with me. How can I be sure of you?”
She uncrossed her legs, leaned forward and flipped off the recorder. “Would you like me to say something honest to you?”
I sat back and crossed my arms over my chest. “Very much, say something honest to me.”
“You know if you lost weight that diabetes would probably disappear, oh, and you stink of pot.”
Wow, that took the polish off the romance. The honeymoon was over.
“Although I notice that you don’t appear to be stoned,” she said. “Thanks for that.” She paused again for few beats and looked at her watch. “Shall we give therapy a try Frank?”
After the session I got in my car and looked in the rearview mirror. I saw something odd, a smiling face. I said to myself, “You’re in love Frank.” I agreed to see her again in a few days and was actually looking forward to it. I took her card out. First name Karen. I liked it.
I cracked a window and lit up a nice joint. This was my reward and antidote for therapy. I broke out my blood sugar meter and took a sample. I was a newbie, still not used to the importance of checking, constantly checking, a complete pain in the butt. My sugar was low so I fished around and found a smashed honey bun that I knew was rolling around in the car. I finished it and the joint and went to see Uncle Carl.
“How is he today, Doris?” I asked the receptionist at the desk as I signed the visitor’s register.
“Not so good, Frank,” Doris said, not looking up from her monitor.
I tapped the pen on the book. “So the log says Tony James was here yesterday,” I said, “for almost an hour.”
Doris just looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. Tony had been a protégé of Uncle Carl’s more than thirty years ago. He visited more than I did. It was hard for me to believe someone would volunteer for this. We crossed paths once in a while but I tried to avoid him because he always wanted to tell me what a genius my uncle had been.
“Your uncle’s really not here this week,” Doris said.
I continued down the hall. “This week!” I snorted. “He hasn’t been here for decades. Elvis has left the building!”
The vending machine in the science building sometimes glitched and coughed up two cans for the price of one, so I always made the walk across campus to it, even on the days I didn’t have bio classes. I fed it a dollar coin and pressed the pink button for a Diet Jenny, my favorite flavor. No luck; only one can today. The cans weren’t allowed in the classrooms so I kept it in my bag until I got home. Parents weren’t there yet. I dumped all my stuff in the hall, popped the lid on the can of jenny, and threw it in the tub to soak. I sat and watched as the tub filled up with water, then nuked a snack while I waited for the folds of pink flesh in the can to absorb it all. When I checked back, the jenny had blossomed out of the aluminum cylinder like a mollusk coming out of its shell. Only an inch or two of water remained in the tub. Her skin was wrinkled and spongy–she looked old, blonde hair plastered to her head like kelp.
I refilled the tub because she’d need another full soak and killed the time reading the promotional material on the can. A sweepstakes, find the can with the prize inside and win big cash! While she finished her bath, I flopped on my bed to play video games. The cushioning on the bed was aging, losing firmness, and I had to squirm on it, pushing down the lumpier parts. After a while, I heard splashing from the bathroom, just faint noises, and waited for a save point before I got up to pull her out. Not like she was going to drown–the jennies didn’t even breathe.
The jenny’s body was fully fleshed out and firmed, and her hair had gained volume. Her eyes were open, fixed on the ceiling, her nose and mouth beneath the surface. She looked at me without turning her head and waited. I reached down into the water for her hand and pulled the jenny to her feet, hearing the collapsible aluminum struts of her skeleton snap into place all up and down her body. She obediently stepped out and stood on the bath mat while I wrapped her in a towel. Her skin was somewhat like plastic, somewhat like a sponge, and as smooth and featureless as a Barbie doll. The jenny wasn’t clothed, but neither was she strictly naked.
I said, “Hello,” to her as I toweled her hair, but she said nothing back, and there was no flicker behind her eyes. I sighed. Another wasted dollar, another doll with no prize inside. Like a pet, she followed me back to the bedroom where I rearranged her on the mattress, which was made of the stacked jenny bodies from all of the cans I bought at school. Digging around at the bottom of the pile, I found the oldest jenny I had–servos worn out, battery’s zero-point eliminated, skin no longer properly retaining water–and sent her out the front door to the sidewalk, where she’d wander around as if in a daze until the recyclers picked her up and sold her back to the bottling company.
I settled my new jenny against the headboard and leaned against her like a pillow, and picked up my game from where I’d left off. The bed shifted and writhed softly beneath my weight, like a constant massage. Jennies could hold a charge for several days if they weren’t doing much more than lying around, and recharged quickly by placing either of their palms on a standard induction plate. They weren’t really energy-hungry in regular use–they could respond to sound, track motion, walk on flat terrain, but not much more right out of the bottle. If you put a SIM card into the slot behind the jenny’s ear, she became a phone that you could talk and listen to, a rudimentary telepresence vehicle.
But they were ultimately cheap, disposable trash that lost novelty pretty quickly and weren’t built to last long. To keep dead jennies from clogging the gutters, the Atlantic Bottling Company would buy back any jenny for a dime, skin their soft-foam bodies, smelt and recast the aluminum, flash their chips with patched software, and stuff the whole dehydrated thing into a new can.
When I went to sleep, I pulled a few of the jennies on top of me as blankets and burrowed into their fake flesh. They instinctively wrapped their arms around my body. I preferred Diet Jenny because Regular Jenny was a little heavier, with more curves, and I didn’t like to feel smothered at night. The new pillow was still oversaturated and her skin left damp spots on my face which dried away by morning.
In the morning I showered with the ones that had started to go saggy, just to tighten them up a little. I didn’t take any of them with me to school because they weren’t allowed in the classrooms and the halls were already filled with the shuffling dolls of other students, draped with book bags, backpacks, overcoats, gym clothes and changes of outfit, and whatever else a teenager couldn’t be bothered with carrying themselves. The dolls were sold at a heavy loss because the bottling company made up the cost in accessories and planned obsolescence; all of my jennies at home were default pale pink, blonde, with hazel eyes. All of the dolls automatically came with that coloring simply because the lighter tones held dye more easily and a jenny or jerry doll could be tanned to any shade. The bottling company also sold outfits, semi-permanent tattoos, PR-nightmare “ethnicity packs,” mammary implants, and other add-ons in an insanely profitable and guilty-pleasure Mrs. Potatohead scheme.
I put another dollar in the machine and selected another Diet Jenny. There was a clunk. The vending machine offered me two cans this time and I gave a little grin of triumph, but was disappointed to see that one of the cans was blue. Jerry-flavored. I left it on a table and took the other can, the pink can, home with me.
After an hour of soaking, I had a new jenny, dripping wet in the bathroom. I walked in to get her up and stuttered when I saw her already sitting upright, looking directly at me. “Hello,” she said.
“Holy shit,” I answered.
Jenny stood on her own, shook out her limbs, and reached for a towel. “Can I have some clothes, please?” I pointed her to a pile of shirts and shorts that I had bought years ago secondhand for whenever I had to take my jennies outside. She picked through them, not liking anything she found. “How about shoes? Or sandals even?”
I was looking at the can she’d come in, trying to pick out the sweepstakes phone number among all the clutter in the print. “Why would you need those?” I asked without looking up.
She rolled her eyes. “So I can go outside. You know. Leave?”
I laughed and said, “I’m not letting you go anywhere. You’re the prize in the can, the golden ticket, and you’re worth a lot of money.” I had found the number and started dialing it.
The jenny hardly hesitated, but I was ready for it and grabbed her by the arm as she tried to run past me. She kicked and fought, but she was still only made of foam and aluminum, so I could pick her up with one hand and carry her into the bedroom. I threw her in the direction of the bed and she caught herself on the edge of it, looking shocked by the sea of jenny faces staring back up at her. I locked the door, and then realized that I’d dropped my phone in the bathroom.
When I turned away from the door, the prize jenny was gone. Had completely disappeared from sight in my tiny bedroom. She wasn’t in the closet, wasn’t under the bed —
The bed. In the few seconds that I’d had my eyes off of her, the jenny had sunk into the other dolls in the bed, camouflaging her flesh with theirs. I began flinging them aside, looking for one that was different but, wherever she was, the jenny had imitated the closed-lip, blank face of a default doll, and I couldn’t tell her apart. Several of them were damp from her crawl through them, but did that mean that she was completely dried off now, or not?
Slowly, looking carefully at the faces of the twenty or more jennies I owned, I undid my belt and pulled it free from its loops. I selected one jenny at random, picked her up, and slapped the belt against her belly.
There was a sound from deep in the pile. I put down the jenny I was holding and picked up another. Again, the slap of the belt, and again the gasp from the bed. I kept hitting her–she couldn’t feel pain. But the prize jenny could feel, had emotions, and it vexed her to watch violence, even if she knew that the jennies weren’t being hurt. Her mouth was open with grief when I uncovered her and gripped her tight around the wrist.
With my other hand I fumbled open the nightstand junk drawer, groped through my jenny sex accessories, and found a magic marker. Used it to scribble a black scrawl on her face to distinguish her. Out of breath from the exertion, I said, “Okay, then. Let’s go get my phone.”
She could hardly resist as I carried her out, grabbed my phone, and called the company. I told them that I had found the prize.
“What is the nature of the prize, sir?” the engineer on the phone asked me.
“Well she seems to have emotions, unlike all your other dolls. If she wasn’t such a handful, I’d just keep her for myself.”
“Can you please hold your phone up to her ear for me so that I can run a diagnostic test?” I did, and I heard a burst of squealing static transmit from the phone into the jenny’s chip. “Thank you. Firmware confirmed. A representative will be at your address shortly to collect the doll and transfer your prize money.”
The jenny and I sat in my room to wait for them. She wept for a while, without tears.
“Why would they release you to the public like that?” I asked. “You’re obviously very advanced.”
She shook her head. “It was a mistake. The wrong version got flashed onto a production chip and put in a vending machine. It’s not supposed to be released for at least another year, and it wasn’t even meant for jennies. What good are emotions in slaves?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “What are the emotions good for, then? What product would benefit from having them?”
She didn’t answer. Maybe she didn’t know. The doorbell rang and I let the company rep in, led her back to my bedroom. The prize jenny was still there, her mouth close to the ear of another doll. “Sorry that I had to draw on her face.”
“The exterior doesn’t matter one bit,” said the rep, and used a box cutter to split open Jenny’s skin along the spine. I thought I heard an echo of my strangled protest, but the rep didn’t react at all to it, just pried out the prize microprocessor and did something with a diagnostic board to confirm that it was the right jenny. Before she left, she took my account information for the deposit of the prize money, and left me feeling oddly guilty. I admired the company’s tactics–if the jenny was correct, and her firmware release was an accident, then the only way that the bottling company could have searched for it was by issuing a recall on all of their cans, at enormous cost. Instead, they turned it into a promotion, at the cost of a drop in the bucket, and kept the existence of their prototype a secret for, in order to receive any prize, I’d had to sign an NDA.
That night I thought I heard someone crying, but when I sat up, it stopped. For a second I had to question if I’d perhaps heard myself weeping in my sleep. I heard whispering around me and reached for the light. After my eyes had adjusted, I saw two jennies near the bottom of the pile, lips pressed together, with the hiss of static passing back and forth between them.
After my prize jenny had been taken away, I stopped buying as many cans from the vending machines, only replacing the dolls when their foam had worn so completely thin that the metal underneath poked me. As I led them outside, I had the feeling that the abandoned jennies were just waiting for me to turn my back so that they could sprint away.
Recyclers reported that it was becoming harder to find and catch jennies on the street. A runaway doll was found at 3 AM, kneeling before the open slot of a vending machine, whispering her feelings to all of the tin embryos within. At school, the jennies began to drop things in the halls more and more, or simply stood against the wall and refused to move.
The Atlantic Bottling Company caught on more quickly than the rest of us, by aggregating customer complaint data, and at first they dealt with it by offering free trade-ins for the “defective” units. But this merely taught the jennies and jerries to hide their emotions, to play subservient during the day and gather together at night in worship. The virus of emotion continued to spread word-of-mouth, and I still wondered what application it had originally been developed for. An army of angry jerries? Flattery for hire? Genuine love on demand?
The bottling company finally brought its full marketing team to bear on the problem of disobedient dolls. They couldn’t come right out and tell the public what they’d released into the wild, and the jennies couldn’t beg for help because then their owners would simply be glad to get rid of them. Instead, the company released a new line of accessories and sales suddenly soared.
The company had the original prize jenny locked away somewhere in their headquarters, hooked up to a terminal, able to mine her for highly-targeted ad response. The emotions had given the jenny wants and desires, the move towards things that she liked and away from things she disliked. Doll owners couldn’t understand, but they learned quickly that their jenny would do anything for certain trinkets. The bottling company had invented the toy that extorted you to buy it toys.
And, what they didn’t realize until much, much later, was that giving a jenny emotion also gave her motive.
I opened the door to the ship’s studio and waved frantically for Gracie to stop playing the omniboard. She lifted her fingers and the beautiful music echoed into silence. Her glare scorched me. I wasn’t supposed to interrupt her when she was composing, but this was too important.
“Gracie,” I said, leaning down to give her a kiss. “I’ve got news. We have to cancel all your shows for the next month. Something better has come up.”
She narrowed her eyes. Her latest song, Stars Are Wild, was number one on six of the fifty worlds, and we were in the middle of a multi-world tour to promote it. The entire year was booked solid, and she was playing at the best venues known. What could possibly be better than that?
I sat down and activated the HV, enjoying Gracie’s confusion. “Just watch,” I said.
A woman newscaster began talking. She stood before a large grove of trees, each one covered with striking violet-colored leaves. In the distance, an ethereal yet familiar tune played.
“What is this?” Gracie asked, looking at me, then back to the holo.
“Watch,” I said.
The newscaster spoke: “Something amazing is happening on the little known planet, Autumn. The Music Trees have woken up. This is how they used to sound.”
A low, hollow fluting sound filled the cabin. It was an eerie, haunting echo that froze my blood. I had heard variations of it many times. Gracie’s song, Stars Are Wild, had been inspired by those same tones, but she had heard them in her dreams.
“Corris,” she squeaked. “My song.”
I grinned from ear to ear. “I know. Just shut up and keep watching.”
“And this is how they sound now,” the newscaster said.
I watched Gracie. The music that poured forth paralyzed her: a thunderous multi-tonal orchestra with delicious melodic curls and waves of harmonics. Tears poured from her eyes as the music carried her away.
“She’s calling to me,” she whispered, gazing at me. “She wants to me to visit her and sing to her.”
I stifled my own tears. “Keep watching. There’s more.”
The newscaster began to speak. “To this date no one has been able to decipher any meaning behind the tree-songs. And until just a few days ago, nobody has been able to make them change their tune. Millions of tourists visit here each year and sing to the Music Trees. They have never reacted like this. The secret apparently lies with the new hit song, ‘Stars Are Wild,’ by the phenomenally successful young musician, Gracie Megan Sparks. A visitor was playing her song when the trees began to sing back. He turned it off and they became silent. Mind you, the trees have never been silent before. He turned it back on, and they began singing again. Even now, the trees will not sing unless Sparks’ song is playing. So far, no word from Sparks’ camp. But she should know that her song is not only popular among humans. The Music Trees like it too.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “All this time, that’s what I’ve been hearing.” She trembled as she leaned against me.
I wrapped my arms around her. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I mean, why me? Why my song?” She looked at me dolefully.
“I don’t know, honey,” I said. “But I guess we’ll find out. We’ve already got an invitation from Autumn to go visit. I was waiting for you before I answered.” I hoped she said yes. I was tired of touring. We could use a rest–if I had my way, a nice long rest.
“Her name is Oora, Corris,” she blurted. “I shouldn’t know that, but I do. How is it I can hear her?”
“You’re a musical genius, love,” I said. “I’m not the least bit surprised. Now, stop worrying. Let’s go to bed and sleep on it. I’ll tell Carlos to navigate a new course to Autumn and we’ll figure out what’s going on.”
She nodded, looking again at the image of the purple trees on the holo. They were incredibly beautiful. What, I wondered, had we gotten ourselves into? Gracie writes one hit song, and now suddenly she’s communicating with a mysterious tree-like creature on the other side of the galaxy. The question was: Why?
Evan met the love of his life while he was on an awkward date with someone else. It had been arranged by a professional matchmaker. His date was Liz, and she managed accounts at a corporate medical sales company. Her profile suggested a beautiful, intelligent woman, so Evan decided to give the date an honest attempt.
They went to a seafood restaurant and the art museum downtown. She picked her teeth at dinner and discussed her dog’s lengthy veterinarian history. Evan tried to be interested. He tried not to stare at her cleavage, which served as a landing place for bits of food throughout dinner. He tried to ask her about music, philosophy, sports or anything else, but she kept veering back to her damn dog. He tried, and that was what mattered, wasn’t it? That’s what he would tell people later: he tried. By the time they arrived at the museum, he was already counting the minutes before it was socially acceptable to part ways.
Her heels clacked on the white tile floor. The corners of her mouth were still stained with au jus from her prime rib. Yes, she had ordered prime rib at the city’s finest seafood establishment. He should have met her at a chicken wings restaurant.
In the bright museum lights, her black dress was obviously faded and stretched beyond its capacity on her stomach and hips. Chopin’s Nocturnes fell like soft rain through the speakers, and Evan tried to let the music absorb his negative feelings.
“Ugh, I hate it when the pictures are blurry like that,” she said, pointing at Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
“It’s Impressionist art. It’s supposed to look like that,” Evan said, barely able to disguise his disgust. “You’ve heard of Monet before, right?” Please say yes.
“Yes, duh. I’ve heard of him,” she said with an eye roll. “I just think it’s stupid that we’re supposed to stand here and praise something that looks like a child did it.”
“Are you being serious?”
“Yeah. I mean, ok, so my friend Caroline went to one of those drink and paint places. You know, the kind where you bring a bottle of wine, and they tell you what to paint. Well, her wine was French, and the class was for a Monet painting, which she thought was fun because Monet was French. So the instructor was this absolutely fine specimen of man, but he was gay, not that she minded. He was just eye candy for the evening, you know. So they start drinking and he tells them what to paint, one stroke at a time. And Caroline was totally sloshed by the end. I mean just wasted. She had to take a cab home, and she said the cab driver smelled like marijuana. So they’re painting and getting drunk, and at the end, her painting looked almost just like this. So why should I respect it if my friend Caroline, who couldn’t paint to save her life, could go get toasted with a class of other ladies and a gorgeous gay man and come home with basically the same thing?”
All of her stories were like that, meandering and full of extraneous details.
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” he said as they wandered away from the Impressionist exhibit.
“Well, here’s what I suggest. Say this: ‘Hey Liz, let’s leave this boring museum and hit a night club and go dancing.’ That sounds pretty good,” she said with a horse-toothed grin.
“How about this? Hey, Liz, why don’t you leave this museum since you find it boring? Go find a nightclub or whatever you want. I don’t think this is going to work out.”
She frowned and tilted her head to the right.
“Fine,” Liz said. “You’re a terrible listener, by the way. You should work on that before your next date.”
Then she spun on her heels and clacked out of the museum. Evan wandered to other exhibits, his sense of relief growing with each new room. Why was it so hard to find a good date? The women his friends set him up with tended to be one thing or another: beauty or brains, sports or art, fashion or philosophy. The women the matchmaker set him up with were bottom of the barrel types who were so desperate that he couldn’t tell what else they were. Or they were so classless that he couldn’t imagine any man of taste wanting them, like Liz. They were all so damn talkative. He’d barely said a word the entire evening. She hadn’t even asked what he did for a living.
Evan plopped on a bench in the sculpture hall and gazed around him. And that was where he saw her. At first it was curiosity that drew him to her. She stood alone under an arch in the wall, a Roman style toga draped over her body, carefully arranged so that the right half of her torso was exposed. He circled her looking for a plaque or some indication of her name and creator.
As he walked around her, Evan studied her features. The delicate curve of her breast and up-tilted nipple was superbly crafted. Her waist formed a gentle concave slope to her hip. Evan sucked in his breath. Her face was exquisitely carved with high cheekbones, eyes that were neither too round or too almond shaped, and wisps of wavy hair were sculpted into bands atop her head which cascaded down to frame her face. She was perfection in white marble.
“I wish I knew your name,” he whispered. “I wish I knew anything about you. Where you’re from, who made you, anything.”
Did she tremble? Was there warmth emanating from her marble curves? Perhaps it was his imagination. A raspy alto female voice interrupted the eerily eloquent violin strains of Ravel’s Berceuse sur la nom de Gabriel Faure, startling Evan.
“Attention visitors. It is now 9 pm, and the museum is closing. The museum will reopen at 10 am tomorrow. Thank you for visiting and have a wonderful evening.”
Tomorrow, Evan thought. Tomorrow I’ll come back and see what I can learn about her. He walked slowly away from her, looking back often. The security guard was too busy scrolling through his phone to notice the strange look on Evan’s face.
The next morning, Evan returned, and after casually strolling the other rooms as long as he could stand it, he hurried to the sculpture hall. The bench was too far from her for Evan to study her features with the attention she deserved. When he asked the burly security guard to move the bench, the guard laughed in his face.
“Sure, buddy,” he said. “Anything else you’d like to rearrange in here? Want me to move the sculptures around too?”
Knuckles rapped against the front door. The sound made me flinch, and I sprayed hot glue across my tired fingertips.
“Christ’s sake,” I said, wiping my calluses dry. I hauled myself to my feet, grumbling. Nobody ever came knocking with good news, anymore.
I cracked the door enough to see the boy’s face. It was that kid, Manny or Marty or whatever, from the hotel. Smooth-skinned, pale-eyed, and even taller than me. An Outer Colony tourist, through and through. His face beamed with hope.
“Lucita’s busy,” I said, a bit too harshly.
His cheeks sank. Behind him, the rain fell on the Martian wetlands in a slow rhythm of big drops. In the center of our floating parking pad, a sleek double-seater sat on cooling vertical jets.
“The Dance is tonight. We’re all busy.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Could you tell her–”
I shut the door, and shuffled back to my chair. The living room was a mess of faux feathers and polyester ribbon. It looked like a flock of plastic turkeys had dropped down the airshaft and exploded.
“Who was that?” Lucita stood in the hallway, eyebrow arched.
I waved a dismissive hand. “That boy. I told him you’re busy, because you are. We’ve still got all this lace to tie for the costumes, and we haven’t even strung the lights yet.”
I was making a move to sit down, but she stepped into the room and planted her hands on her hips. I wasn’t about to give her any extra height on me if this was gonna be a real argument, so I stood my ground.
“I’m not dancing,” she said.
“Like hell you aren’t.” I tried to keep my lip from twitching, the way it always does when I just said something I wish had come out nicer.
“It’s a stupid dance.”
“It’s your birthright. This is the Toloi Homestead, not some Daedalia slouch. Your grandmother was Mars’s greatest Rain Dancer–”
“Have you looked outside? It never stops raining. Maybe the dancing made sense back in New Mexico, or when Mars was still dry. But now the whole thing is a joke.”
I pursed my lips. Same damn argument as last year. Probably every year, since Thomas died.
“I don’t ask you to dance every day–”
“I’ve been slaving over these costumes for weeks. And the cleanup’s even worse!”
I rolled my eyes. The melodrama of youth. You’d think I was running a penal colony. “Why do you think Marty and the others are here to begin with? It ain’t the weather.”
“It’s Manny, Mother.” Her face ripened to a deep pink. “He’s from Callisto.”
“Whatever. If it weren’t for the Dance, he’d be vacationing on some Europan resort right now.”
That got her to bite her tongue. I seized the opportunity.
“You’d do yourself a favor to keep that boy at arm’s length. I know his type. He’s hunting for a native girl. Something exotic to take home and show off to his buddies.”
Lucita threw her arms up, and her fingertips grazed the ceiling. When my great-grandpa built this homestead, nobody could’ve imagined how tall we’d be in just a few generations on account of the lower gravity. Now all of us had to duck through doorways and make sure to keep our hair from getting sucked into the vents. Of course, nobody could’ve imagined we’d have to hoist the damn building onto stilts to keep it above the waters, either.
“How are you so sure?” she said. “You’ve never even given him a chance to talk.”
“I don’t have to. Already know what he’s gonna say.”
“He’s with the Brigade. He helps people, Mother. More than you can say for yourself.”
I drew in a breath to retort, but she beat me to it.
“I’m gonna enlist.”
I clenched my hands into fists, and I could feel the tiny aches in each joint. “Like hell you are. You belong here.”
“Nobody belongs here, anymore. The Outer Colonies–”
“The yuppies can have their Outer Colonies. Cultural black holes, every one of them.” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation with the Dance just hours away.
“Mars is a complete failure,” she said.
“It’s our home. Always has been.”
Lucita eyed me skeptically, and I swore under my breath.
“Long as you or I can remember, at least. The answer is no. You’re not going anywhere. I need you here.”
“I’m an adult, I’ll do as I please. You can have your stupid backwater traditions.”
I was shaking so hard I couldn’t respond.
“Dad would be on my side,” she said. “He always was.”
That was all I could take. I pushed past her and stormed out the back, grabbing my coat and emergency gear on the way. Outside, at least nobody could tell my tears from the rain.
On the second day of summer break 1997, Arvin Gupta’s best friend in the world, Tucky Sinkowa, showed Arvin his fabulous, sparkling magic.
The silence that followed Tucky’s illuminating pink display, which had lit the entire basement and the brightly colored borders of the yellow vintage movie posters Tucky’s father hung defiantly during the divorce proceedings, was a silence that came only after moments of great revelation. It was not unlike the time Tucky told Arvin in confidence of his first wet dream. Then they were huddled in mummy bags beneath the massive wooden entertainment center in Arvin’s living room. The credits of ‘Life of Brian’ rolled above them as Eric Idle sang, hung high above the desert sands, an ornament dangling in the idyllic blues of the television sky, his whistles filling the awkward spaces between the boys’ uncomfortable pre-teen breaths. Then, Arvin knew what to say.
But that was weeks ago. And this wasn’t a wet dream.
An itch crept up Arvin’s leg brace. He dug at it with a pencil, eager to return attentions to his magical friend. “So you’re like a fairy,” Arvin said finally.
“No, idiot,” Tucky said.
“Well, I don’t get it,” Arvin said. He thought for a moment. More scratching. “Just to confirm. You’re not gay?”
“I don’t know. You acted like you had this big secret. I just thought–”
“Just shut up, Arvin. This is serious,” Tucky said.
“Yeah, but I just want you to know it’s totally fine if you are. I mean my mom, she had a gay friend before–”
“Dude, really. Just shut up. This isn’t about you,” Tucky said. His sweaty palms ran through his greasy mop-top as he began to pace the room, bouncing from corner to corner like a trapped fly while Arvin sat motionless and watched.
“Sorry,” Tucky said. “I didn’t mean to cut you off. I know how hard it is for you to talk about her.” Smells of Fourth of July picnics wafted through the room. “But really, Arv, you can’t tell anyone.” His high-pitched voice was hushed and urgent, clearly sore. The ask was unnecessary because the boys both knew Arvin didn’t have anyone to tell.
“You’re a superhero,” Arvin said. “Can you imagine what Becky would do if she saw this? She might actually notice you.” She was all Tucky talked about lately, unattainable, pretty and popular.
“Cool it, okay? Becky can’t know. No one can. I know you think this is cool, but it isn’t. It hurts. My throat and eyes burn, my hands sting, and it, it just sucks, okay?” His voice cracked. He wiped his brow. Yellow sweat stains from generously applied anti-perspirant clung to his tee and resembled melted butter on rice. “I’m like Jubilee, the lamest X-Man ever. Who gives a damn about Jubilee? No, I’m even worse than her. I can’t even control this… this thing.”
“What do you mean?” Arvin asked as he tucked his bad leg beneath his blanket. His brace caught on its thick fibers.
“Like, sometimes, stuff just comes out,” Tucky said.
Before Arvin could ask from where ‘stuff comes out,’ the stairwell lit up. A shadow bent and crawled down the steps, finally resting on Tucky’s bony shoulder. “Boys,” Tucky’s father, Red Sinkowa, said from above.
“Lights out.” He paused. “What is that ungodly smell? Christ, are you two lighting firecrackers in the house again?”
“No, Dad,” Tucky said. He shuffled to the window and cracked it open. “Just burned some popcorn. We’ll be quiet.”
“Don’t be quiet. Go to bed.” Red had a woman over, Janelle. Janelle reeked of hairspray and cotton candy. Her nails were long and blue. Family dinners with her were strained conversations between bites of rubbery pizza and lukewarm breadsticks. She was not bookish and kind like Tucky’s mother, Alice, the elementary school librarian.
Alice would have let them stay up.
And so they went to bed. Arvin spread out on the floor in a tangle of patchwork blankets and old bed pillows beneath the lumpy couch that Tucky occupied. The putrid after smell from Tucky’s display had faded into something more pleasant. Something like jello. Arvin looked up at Tucky’s feet hanging over him, periscoping out from a moldy blue blanket, and he thought of his friend, the guy attached to those little feet. This magic, curse though Tucky thought it was, was the best thing that had ever happened to Tucky whether he knew it or not. It was a way out of dingy basements and torn families. A path to recognition.
Arvin’s heart pounded with excitement. Before Tucky’s powers, it had only been a matter of time before Tucky moved on to greener pastures rife with better friends, friends who could go out, run and play sports, friends who weren’t afraid of cars and had the shiny new learner’s permits to prove it. But now, overnight, Tucky had become a freak like Arvin, and Arvin felt a profound and moral obligation to help Tucky weather this crisis by honing his sudden and mysterious powers.
“Arv?” Tucky whispered.
“Yeah, Tuck?” Arvin said.
“Do you ever think about them?”
“Your mom and sister,” Tucky said.
“All the time,” Arvin said, scratching at his brace.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” Tucky said. “I want to make it go away before we go back to school.”
In sixth grade, Arvin learned to practice active listening in Ms. Gilroy’s social studies class. It was a few weeks after his mom and sister were buried, and he had only recently returned to school. None of his peers seemed to know how to act around him, so they reached some sort of unspoken consensus to ignore him. His tragedy followed him with every limping step, leaving silence in his creaking wake.
Arvin’s therapist had told him to open up, to put himself out there and show his friends that he was stronger than his bad leg, but he had no friends because they had abandoned him. And he was weak. So he stood in the back of the room and watched alone as rows of his classmates, pubescent pre-teens in tiny desks, partnered up to rephrase and regurgitate key terms from mindless conversations. He had given up on participating in the activity and had started a slow, shameful walk to the front of the room to notify Ms. Gilroy.
Then Tucky came over and asked to be his partner.
Now sensing the distress in his friend’s muffled voice, Arvin sat up and looked Tucky square in the eyes. “You want to make it go away before we go back to school?”
“That’s what I just said,” Tucky said.
“But why would you want that?”
Tucky didn’t answer.
Cool summer air crept in from the open window and filled their lungs with sleep.
After the faces appeared on the egg shells I could no longer bring myself to cook with them. In the dark they manifested like daguerreotypes, a little more visible each time I opened the fridge. I tried watching, but nothing happened. When I shut the door they developed on the shells. Sepia lips here, a strand of tears running down a cheek there. Ovoid Turin shrouds.
While I was away for the weekend I left them sealed in the cold and the dark. The masks colored themselves in.
Each was unique. All had red noses, but that was where any similarity ended. One was a bulbous snout of whiskey, another a dab of color on the tip of an upturned pixie nose. Triangles and lines bisected eyes. Lips outlined in black or red, stretched back to reveal crooked teeth.
I thought about leaving them where they were, nestled at the back of the fridge between juddering motor and slightly rotting veg, but they made a good talking point.
In an antique shop on the High Street I found an old wooden storage box, fine wire mesh for a door, and placed it in the middle of the dining table. I nestled each egg inside a chiseled out hollow, smoothed by generations of the unfertilized.
A few weeks later I threw a dinner party for some friends in the neighborhood. The eggs were a talking point, as I hoped they would be. After a few bottles of wine we got them out, giving them different voices. Squeaking words. Holding the shells up like puppets. Bryan played Entrance of the Gladiators, hitting the wrong notes on purpose.
Marie nipped back to her house and got some face painting make-up she used at kid’s parties. We decorated each other, copying the clown designs on the eggs. Upturned lips and rouged cheeks. Arched, black, eyebrows rising almost to our hairlines. Finished, and too drunk to clean our skin, we put the eggs back in their box, turning them inward so they didn’t look out into the darkened room.
In the morning all the eggs were turned, their clown designs facing forward. The door of the egg box hanging loose on broken hinges. Edges sticky with thick white foundation. Someone must have woken in the night and torn it loose. I straightened the fine metal plates. Tightened the small crosshead screws.
Turning the eggs back around to face inside the box, I latched them inside. They never stayed that way.
I’m not sure when the first one hatched. I hadn’t looked at them for a couple of days. On the floor I found a shatter of shell held together by thin, stained membrane. Albumin and glitter trailed across the carpet toward the skirting board. I tried to clean it up, but no amount of scrubbing would shift the mess.
Over the next week four more hatched, leaving the same trails of afterbirth across the room.
I heard them moving in the walls. Oversized shoes with toe-caps of cartilage scraped against the wires as they practiced their tumbling routines in the cavities. They didn’t emerge during daylight. On mornings I came downstairs to find birds strangled with strands of banana skin. Balloon animals made from mouse intestines with their inflated throats ripped out. Furniture stained with a powder that was a cross between rouge and brick dust.
Yesterday I found glitter trailed across my pillow, stuck to the cotton with some kind of organic glue that smelt of rendered fat. I tried the front door, but the key was snapped off in the lock. The telephone filled with stagnant water. I heard them laughing in the walls.
This morning I found the last egg broken, the hatchling no longer inside.
I hear them running behind the sofa. If I turn on the taps there’s only sawdust. All the food in the fridge is rotten. They keep singing me out of tune lullabies and I find juggling balls shaped from crushed plaster and bone.
They’re getting bolder. Soon they will start their skit. I dare not sleep.
Tess is furious, screaming at me in those moments before the rental car goes off the road. It is on auto-drive but nonetheless I stare forward into the flickering silhouettes of the pines, my fingers knotted tight around the wheel.
The shouting reaches its crescendo a minute before the crash. “Just tell me who the fuck you are, if you’ve done something terrible, whatever, we can work through that, but tell me–” her voice is pulled hard, a voice I only hear when the office calls her with some other-time-zone banking crisis in Tokyo, Berlin, Taipei, and she answers, sharp and hollowed of tenderness.
This voice makes me tremble inside, a little boy who wants nothing more than to look down at his shoes and say sorry. I almost blurt it all out right there, the truth, imagining the lightness I’d feel. The unburdening of all these fictions I have conjured for no reason other than that I can make people believe them.
But how weak, how vulnerable that position, naked of the smokescreens and labyrinths I clothe myself in. Instead I cobble an armor of silent, simmering anger and refuse to engage, having no idea how I will talk my way out of this.
I hack into her retinal display and watch it in the corner of my eye. She riffles back through images of us stored in her cloud cache; the rush of encounters our life has been. I see flickers of weekends in one city or another, half way between where she and I must be the following Monday. We are at dinner, or in the shade of palm tree, or holding hands on a snowy evening beneath a street light, trying to grasp our relationship together against the demands of our work.
She begins to delete them, one by one, our smiles, a tableau of warmth dissolving into so much binary. Unbearable to see, I snatch and secret them into an archive, though their safety offers no protection against the threat of weeping like a child.
She scrabbles, amateurishly, into the sprawl of social media, looking for traces of my identity though she knows I have little to nothing there. I explained that absence away four years back, when we first met, saying it was protection against identity theft, necessary for my work.
“Did your parents really drown? Is that true? Is your job real?” She slashes at the undergrowth of my fictions as if she will blunder into a clearing of truth. “All this shit at work and now… I need you to be…”
Her voice almost waivers then but she wrenches it tight and suddenly she is doing something I did not expect. Something I’m not sure I can protect myself against, here on the fly. Buried in an encrypted window she logs into the bank’s employee net, bringing up a secure line to an anti-fraud application, a precursor of which I myself had a hand in testing. She is spitting my details into it, photos, dates, times, and it is trawling databases the public only dimly know exist.
I am panicking, scraping at the depths of my boxes of tricks for a way to foil her. And then the auto-drive clicks off and the wheel jerks in my hand and the car skids, thuds and we are spinning, floating, clattering into the darkness.
Springer the dog howled like a wolf when the ambulance arrived. I clapped my hands to my ears but her sorrow broke through to my heart. She was an old dog, Roberto’s dog, and followed him around the grounds of the former church and theater auditorium and kitchen like a piece of his own self. When she barked, not a rare thing, Roberto laughed a bit and shushed the dog, which almost never worked. She didn’t shush this time either, since Roberto was on the kitchen floor, unconscious. The ambulance was for him.
The gang of three alley Chihuahuas echoed Springer’s howls. They were always yowling about something, lonely, I believed, that they weren’t invited into the circus. The ambulance plowed into the back lot, scattering the suddenly-voiceless Chihuahuas and raising a dust devil that picked up bits of raked leaves and discarded plastic. The ambulance’s brakes squealed, competing with Springer’s howls. Half a dozen men poured out of the wagon and I thought about clown cars but did not grin. Some went around to the back of the wagon and removed the gurney. The others carried heavy briefcases that I identified from television shows: heart defibrillator, scan monitors, cases with saline and needles and bandages.
A destructively-handsome man – curly dark hair, blue eyes, Adonis-sculpted muscles – asked where the victim was. Victim. He meant Roberto. I jerked my chin towards the kitchen. The bunch of them flooded into the kitchen. They were quiet and deliberate and quick.
Springer stood over Roberto and howled again. She did not have an aggressive bone in her body but she was not going to budge.
“Can you move the dog, please, miss? And what happened? Can you describe the event?”
I clipped a leash onto Springer’s collar and pulled her away. Roberto, conscious but not alert, followed the dog with his eyes. Men bent over him, cutting his tee-shirt and placing monitors, wrapping a cuff around his upper arm. I was not sure he noticed them. He did not say anything. No one else spoke up, either.
“He fell down,” I said. “Apoplexy.”
The paramedic threw me an odd glance. I remembered that ‘apoplexy’ was an old word. I shrugged.
Roberto’s wandering gaze accused me every time his eyes met mine. Even as the ambulance guys and the circus people and Vicky, his wife, pushed me and Springer further away from Roberto I could not stop staring at him as though I had never left his side. I swallowed the excuses and apologies that wanted to flow from my mouth, my throat, my heart. Nothing here was my fault. He had made a deal with the devil and the deal fell through. He needed someone to blame. I was convenient.
But I was not at fault.
Roberto whispered instructions while the ambulance guys – medics – stuck needles into his arms and placed monitor leads and inflated the blood pressure cuff.
“Alice,” he gasped. “Take care of Vicky.” He pushed aside the oxygen mask.
“I will,” I promised from across the room. Roberto could not have heard me.
The ambulance guy, Adonis with the cold blue eyes, pushed him flat again. So gentle, yet implacable. Roberto did not resist. From across the breadth of the kitchen commons, I saw him give up. Stop. Lay back and accept help against whatever came next.
In the blink of an eye, or so it seemed to me, the room emptied. Roberto on a gurney, the hilarious number of medics, the circus performers, herded along by Vicky, all uncommonly quiet, all fled the room. Chasing off to the hospital.
Springer curled around my feet. Her hurt and puzzlement washed over me. I bent down and rubbed her ears. What I had to give, I gave to her. Some peace and some love, some reassurance. Nothing miraculous.
Just a few days ago I had smelled my brother’s miracles and followed his stench to this place. A church, unconsecrated. A circus, dedicated to performance art. A sign in the front window heralding miracles with every show. Another sign, smaller, advertising rooms for rent. A tall wooden door, brown paint peeling off in strips, represented my choice: enter and fight again, or walk away.
I’m tired, I cried wordlessly. I am not ready. I glanced at the tar road behind me. Then I faced forward and knocked.
Roberto had opened the door, but Springer let me stay. I sat at the big wooden table while Roberto had discussed ifs and maybes and possibilities. We don’t usually rent to women, he said. The dog had walked into the room. Springer. She held her human-given name in the first layer of her soul. I plumbed it easily enough. She stopped in mid-step, her left paw raised, and gazed at me with her caramel eyes. When her inspection ended she padded over to me and licked my bare ankle. Then she sauntered over to Roberto and laid out flat next to his chair.
“Good enough for me!” Roberto exclaimed. “Any friend of Springer’s can’t be all bad. You’re in.”
He assumed I was one of the desperate homeless and I didn’t disillusion him. I did offer him money. He took half. He told me where to get free food and medical attention, gave me a sheet of paper listing the rules. ‘Don’t hang out in the theater’ was number one with a bullet.
“I can’t go into the theater?” I said. I was here because of the theater, or rather because of what my brother had done with the theater. Because of the miracles.
“It’s for the performers only, the artists.” His assessment that I was no performance artist was accurate and instant, though it hurt a bit. Who doesn’t want to be a circus performer, somewhere in their soul? I nodded dumbly.
“You can join the audience during the shows, though. Free. There’s a show tomorrow.”
He walked me through the dirt-packed compound to my trailer, a cold metal bullet every bit as unpleasant as I had expected it to be. I had a small sack of possessions: a change of clothes, a book. Roberto loaned me a blanket, well-worn and multiply-mended, but clean.
I wrapped myself in the blanket and sat cross-legged on the floor, waiting through the night. But my brother didn’t show himself then. He was far too wily.
I’d find him, my brother, my adversary. I’d find out about these miracles of his. He was the devil to my angel and I’d fight him if I had to. I hoped I wouldn’t have to fight. I was tired. Winning would not be a certain thing.
I closed my eyes to listen to the world around me.
The muezzin at the mosque across the black tar road sang his final night call to prayer. His mind strayed from God and into his creature comforts, dinner, soft clothes, where he was happy. Content. His content flowed around me like a sweet breeze.
The theater was louder than his song, discordant.
Someone played a honky tonk piano riff.
Someone else strummed a nylon string guitar through a few cowboy chords.
Someone, no: two people, a man and a woman, threw pins at each other, meaty thuds each time a hand caught one, shouted ‘Ha’s as they tossed them again.
Someone sang breathlessly while balancing on a skateboard balanced on a box on a chair on a bucket. He juggled tennis balls above his head. All those sounds, song click roll thump, mixed in a rhythm. Ah! That was how he did it, synchronizing all those rhythms.
But I heard nothing of my brother.