Nina disgusts me. I don’t tell her this though; it would crush her. She was beautiful: creamy smooth skin, ocean blue eyes, raven black hair, and a body to die for–a real hourglass figure.
But now every imperfection of hers is somehow magnified. The tiny divot in the center of her nose, which I found so cute before, is like a crater on the moon. Her eyes aren’t symmetrical either; one is actually quite bigger than the other. Her breasts are sagging, not at all upturned like they used to be. And there’s a thick layer of fat overflowing her hips that I never noticed till now, making her body more pear shaped than anything.
I am nothing to look at. Far from it. I’m a white-haired, gangly, ugly thing, so I am the last person in the world to criticize anything, but for some reason this is what I see when I look at her. When I look at everything, in fact.
The redheaded nurse is a freckled nightmare; the hospital bed sheets have a dozen disgusting stains on them, though Nina swears they’re perfectly clean; the overhead lights buzz and flicker terribly, which nobody seems to notice but me; and the yellow paint on the walls isn’t finished properly, enormous spots are missed down by the baseboards leaving the white drywall to shine through. It’s all so hideous I can barely stand it.
The procedure hasn’t worked as far as I can tell: I can’t do calculations any faster, my memory seems the same, and I am no closer to solving the same theories I was baffled with before. All that’s changed is I’ve somehow become hypersensitive to my surroundings, every little fault pops out as though it were under a microscope.
The thought has painfully crossed my mind maybe a dozen times now that something may have gone wrong. Did the monkeys’ heads hurt this much when I performed the procedure on them? They were rather ornery after, but was it this bad? And what about this propensity for seeing nothing but faults? Is that normal or a sign the formula is incompatible with the human brain?
I desperately want to get back to the lab. Every minuscule change taking place in my brain is of the utmost importance to track and record for posterity. But here I lie in frustration on this lumpy hospital bed, bored to tears and playing a memory card game on my iPad because I promised Nina I would stay till the doctors cleared me.
Something catches my eye. I look over the iPad at my bare feet and see two thin, curved sticks poking out from the top of my right foot, like my big toe grew antennas. I lie the tablet down on my chest and stare closer. They’re moving I notice, twitching in fact. I shift my foot a little and a huge wasp’s head connected to the antennas peaks out from behind my big toe. He’s the size of my foot. I can see his striped black and yellow abdomen sticking out from my behind heel. The sharp ends of his legs scrape across the soft skin of my foot’s arch, sending a shiver rippling through me. Frozen in shock, I stare at the thing.
Then I let out a shriek and a mad buzzing fills the air. He springs up and hovers over my stomach. He’s a monster, just over a foot tall and six inches wide. A long black stinger descends from the bottom of his swelled abdomen and drips amber fluid onto the bedspread.
He flies closer to my face, and I react and swat at him with my iPad. Catching him dead on, the screen shatters and his body blasts into the wall with a sticky, wet splat. Then he slides to the floor, leaving a thin red trail as he goes.
He angrily buzzes and rattles about beneath my bed. Not yet dead, but dying.
I scream for the nurse. My pulse thunders in my chest and I break out in a cold sweat. My God, I think, his mandibles were big enough to lop off my toe with a single bite. How is that possible?
Red bursts in, her wide eyes flare about. Her freckled face is a measles outbreak.
“What’s the matter?” she demands.
“Goddammit, there!” I say while pointing to the floor, completely amazed she hasn’t seen what’s right at her feet.
“What?” she says, staring at the ground and raising her hands in confusion. “I don’t see it. What is it?”
“You dumb ginger,” I say and roll to the side of the bed, so I can point directly at the thing. “There!”
It’s dead now. Curled up into a ball by the poorly painted cream baseboards.
“A giant wasp!” I exclaim. “Don’t you see it!?”
“Oh, of course.” She says. “We’ll take care of it right away.” And with that, she bustles out of the room.
My head has swelled during this insanity and it feels like my skull will split open from the pressure. The room swims a little and I lie back on my bed, breathing heavily.
Nuclear medicine, I think. Somehow that wasp got into the hospital’s nuclear imaging system, was infused with gamma rays, and grew gargantuan in the process. It’s so damn ridiculous when I think about it–it’s like something out of a comic book–but that’s the only explanation I can think of.
My doctor sweeps in through the door. The hairs of his toupee are blond push-broom bristles that are combed flat to one side, a pimple on his cheek has grown into the category of a cyst, one eye is a darker color than the other, and on and on the minutiae of his faults go.
“Grant,” he says. “How are you feeling?” He takes his pen light from the pocket of his terribly wrinkled doctor’s coat and shines it in my eyes.
“Goddammit,” I say, brushing his hands from my face. “Don’t you see it?” Again, I point at the thing.
He doesn’t follow my finger.
“Grant,” he says. “What year is it?”
And then I go a little ape.
“There!” I shout. “There you ignoramus!”
Finally, he follows my finger to the floor, but not a bit of surprise crosses his face.
All of a sudden, I feel water running in my head and a rush of darkness swallows me.
Blood drips from the razor-thin line I cut across my forehead. I dab at the incision, turning the toilet paper a deep red Rorschach.
My bruised over eyes are blue baboon lips. I can barely see between the slits. Unable to stand my visage, I turn from the bathroom mirror.
Little vignettes of the procedure play in my mind. The cold metal slab touching my back. The robotic arm with a silver scalpel slicing open my brow. The circular saw buzzing through my forehead. A sudden gush of hot fluid filling my skull as my formula was pumped in.
I reasoned that if man can use drugs to increase muscle mass, bone marrow, white blood cells, and lung capacity; thereby, increasing his strength and endurance, then cannot a drug be invented to grow the neural pathways of the brain and increase intelligence? Would not a brain with more neural pathways think faster, better, and remember more than one with less?
The monkeys I experimented on certainly showed that to be true. They went from drooling morons that eat their own feces to quiet, contemplative creatures that signed for food.
It was a breakthrough, one I desperately sought as I’d been suffering for far too long in the shadows of obscurity. I figured that with one more courageous push I could show the world that the same could be done for the human mind. It would be a quantum leap forward for mankind and would smash my name into history with such force that all would remember me long after I was gone.
I grip the sides of the white porcelain sink and watch the water stream from the tap and spiral noisily into the drain.
Have I gone mad? I wonder. That wasp thing was real, saw it with my own eyes, killed it with my own hands.
But then why can no one else see it? Not even Nina.
“How is everything going in there Mr. Hopsinger?” The nurse shouts through the bathroom door, knocking my train of thoughts off its clattering tracks.
“Give me a second!” I say.
The door latch clicks open and her measly face pokes in.
“Everything OK, Mr. Hopsinger?” she asks. Her blue scrubs have faded with the million washes they’ve been through, yet a bright green stain is on her shoulder. Couldn’t she see that when she put that on? If that were me, I would have thrown it away and worn something else. It’s awful to look at, like a hunk of booger melted on her shoulder. Deplorable.
“I’m fine!” I hiss.
I see Nina looking in over her shoulder. Her face is pinched with worry.
“I’m fine,” I say to the both of them. “Really, I’m fine.”
The nurse pushes the door open and bright light washes into the room, searing my eyes, making me squint.
“I haven’t finished,” I protest, but the floor shifts beneath my feet and I have to grab the walls for support. The nurse and Nina spring to my side and help me into the bed.
“When can I leave?” I say after Nina pulls the covers up to my neck, like I’m a child being tucked in for the night. “I must get back to my lab. It’s been two days already and that’s two days worth of valuable data I’ve already lost.”
“We haven’t got the test results from the spinal tap,” the nurse replies.
“It’s not meningitis you fools!” I shout. “It’s encephalization, purposeful encephalization.”
That registers nothing but a blank expression on her ugly face.
I turn to Nina and squeeze her hand pleadingly. “Please Nina let me go. There is nothing they can do for me. They don’t have the knowledge or the equipment. Let me go back to the lab. Please?”
“Grant,” she says and squeezes my hand back warmly. “Please stay Grant.”
More than anything in this world I love this woman and my resolve to leave this place melts at her touch.
“OK,” I sigh. “I’ll stay and suffer these fools for you.”
An unprofessional flash of fury crosses the nurse’s face, every freckle briefly flickers red. She didn’t like being called a fool, not one bit.
“Look hun,” I say to her. “Isn’t there a bed pan that needs changing somewhere?”
“Yes of course,” she says and leaves, closing the door to my room with a gentle slam.
“Grant!” Nina says sharply. “Do you have to be so cruel? She’s just trying to help.”
The rims of Nina’s eyes swell and redden. Wet, salty globules begin to trundle down her face. I can barely look her.
“Dammit Nina! This is nothing to cry over. How do you think Jonas Salk invented a vaccination for polio? He had to use it on himself because no one would volunteer to be a test subject. If he hadn’t, we’d be all crawling around with atrophied legs dragging behind us. Testing monkey brains can only take you so far. Can’t you see that? Can’t you understand that?”
I’ve worked myself up into a hell of a fervor. My whole body tingles and my breath comes in ragged gasps.
“No,” Nina says. “I don’t understand how you can risk your life for this.”
“That’s because you have no ambition! You have no drive! You don’t know what it’s like to be consumed by something, to feel something like this burning in your veins. To move forward into greatness, there must be sacrifices. My goal is no less than eliminating the ignorance of mankind. Everything else takes a back seat to that, including my safety.”
I have to stop because the room is spinning again and my breath is falling short. I lie back and look at my chest, rapidly swelling and deflating. I’m tired now. My eyes begin to droop uncontrollably and I drift off to the sound of her sobbing.
I welcome the night. It washes the faults away. When I look at the ceiling, I don’t see uneven, asymmetrical tiles with brackish stains–I just see a dark ceiling. And the walls aren’t covered with filth and painted poorly; they’re just dark walls.
Nina is right. Something has changed inside me. When I think of how I was before this, I remember being nicer, more even-tempered, happier too. Perhaps, the new pathways growing in my frontal lobe have affected my personality. I recall my studies about how lobotomy patients became listless and apathetic after their pathways were severed. What I’ve done is the very reverse of a lobotomy, so perhaps it’s pushed my personality in the other direction. Instead of listless, I’ve become active, animated, irritable.
A shadow splashes through the pool of moonlight on the wall, startling me. A bat, I think. But no, a bat couldn’t disturb that much light–something larger.
The window creaks at the foot of the bed and my body goes rigid with fright. I see two grey hands beneath the sill, slowly lifting it up.
I must be asleep and dreaming because we’re ten stories up, but the pounding in my head and heart tell me I’m awake and that this is real.
The window slides upwards and frigid night air pours through, quickly filling the room. Goosebumps ripple on my skin and a cold, icy lump sticks in my throat.
A head appears in the opening. Two milk-white eyes regard me from across the room. I can feel them, running over every inch of my body. A long arm reaches through the window and grabs the radiator below the sill. Whatever it is, it’s climbing in.
My body roils in revolt, tries to get free, yet the restraints hold me still.
He climbs in, stands at the foot of my bed, and smiles. His two eyes are clear moons and his teeth are shrunken corn kernels. He’s wearing a trench coat so rotted and frayed it’s like a lace cape. Open at the middle, I can see his thin, mummylike form beneath the coat. His skin is grey and is stretched so tight across his body that every bone, rib, and joint is visible. Even from this distance I can smell him: stale, wet earth; the smell of compost.
He smiles impossibly wide and my whole being runs cold.
“Nurse!” I scream. “Nurse! Help me! Nina! Somebody!”
I shriek and shriek, but not a soul comes.
He slinks up to the side of the bed and leans in. His breath is like gasoline fumes and my eyes water. He reaches out and taps my forehead with one of his long, pointed fingers.
My skull is so tender the tapping sends fireworks sizzling across my vision. I thrash my head from side to side to get away from his vicious claw.
He pulls his hand back and points to his huge milky eye. He’s trying to convey something, I realize, but I haven’t a goddamn clue what it is.
A loud click of the lock makes him snap his head towards the door. Light spills into the room as the nurse pokes her head in; annoyance is plain on her ugly face.
He slinks along the walls in the shadows, stops near the window, and turns to give me one last look.
Hate is in those eyes, pure burning malevolence.
Then with a breath he’s gone.
With a stutter the little black Hyundai’s engine gave out. Gemma fought the wheel as the traveler dropped back over loose rock on the steep driveway. Gemma cursed. Why did her grandmother have to live all the way out here anyway? Without even a decent spotline or phone.
Gemma had been up here so many times with her father at the wheel. He’d never liked her driving, had told her never to attempt the hill on her own. But here she was. Instead of being able to say to him “Take that, you” it looked like he’d been right.
Gemma ratcheted on the brake and got out of the traveler.
To her right, across the dark ocean, gray-black clouds rose in rows like a set of gravestones. She saw a squawk of lightning, didn’t need to count the seconds. The storm would arrive before nightfall anyway. The normally rich blue, almost transparent sea became an oily deep green, like dying moss, under the storm front.
The stormy sea reminded her that it might have been an accident. There might not have been anyone else involved. She wanted to believe that, wanted to think it had all been innocent, but part of her hung on, imagining skullduggery. Was that the word?
The wind rolled in and from the trunk Gemma retrieved her sou’wester, the yellow fabric smelling of new polyethylene. The jacket’s inner was soft pelted fabric and it slipped on easily over her old tee-shirt.
Abandoning the uncooperative vehicle, Gemma started walking up the rocky drive.
This had better be worth it.
The thin plastic chip feels weightless in the palm of my hand–almost cheap. I clutch it tightly to keep it from blowing away in the light breeze outside the outlet store. It definitely wasn’t cheap. When Tess finds out about the payday loan I took out to pay for it, she’ll be hysterical. I can almost hear her:
Timothy Alan Dunway, you’ve ruined us! Absolutely ruined us! And for what? A piece of plastic?”
But she’ll be wrong. This chip will rescue us from ruin.
I walk down the street towards the high speed rail platform. As I wait for the train, I look down at the chip. But what if I’m wrong? After all, I’ve been wrong before. I was wrong about the house, wrong about the cars, wrong about the credit cards. I was wrong about the investment company that disappeared, taking with it what remained of our savings.
But this is different. This chip will make all those wrong decisions right. Instead of having to rely on my own intuitions, I’ll be able to rely on the chip. It’ll fix things.
The chip is the absolute cutting edge–the latest in tech sophistication. It implants right into your brain behind your ear, where your phone usually goes. Based on sensory inputs, it perpetually runs scenarios to determine which possible outcomes are most likely to be favorable. Every decision I make– caffeinated or decaf? Solar or nuclear? Should I wear that sweater? should I make that purchase?–I’ll have this chip in my brain, running millions of simulations, and determining, based on real data, which decisions have the highest probability of success.
It will fix everything.
The train rounds the corner and slows to a stop. I press the button for the door with one hand, the chip still held firmly in the other. I find a secluded seat and open my hand.
I frown. Why haven’t I put it in yet? This isn’t like those other decisions. This was a good decision! But I can’t quite bring myself to do it. Sure, it’s not technically on the market yet. And the guy at the shop acted a lot like those guys at the car lots. But that’s part of why this is so smart–I got cutting edge technology, and I got it at a fraction of the retail price!
My frown deepens. Well, at least what the retail price will be once it’s legal to sell.
The train starts pulling away from the station. I turn the chip over in my hands, and then turn it over again. I take a deep breath and hurriedly insert the chip into the flesh behind my left ear.
I sit there, staring blankly, trying to detect the difference, searching for some evidence of my new reasoning power. But there’s nothing. A minute passes, and my eyes flutter, blinking away the developing mist. I try to control my heart rate and breathing, but I can’t help it. I bury my face in my hands, and the tears come. I think of the money spent, the promises made, and gradually my anguish contorts into rage. I raise my face from my hands, eyes burning, and reach up behind my ear to rip out the sham chip.
And then I stop. That is not the correct course of action. There’s no warning bell, no flash of data, just a feeling. An intuition. A certainty that I’ve never felt before.
I put my hand back down. It works. I know it, deep within me, more confidently than I’ve known anything in my life. It really works. I grin, sheepishly at first, but then proudly–defiantly. And why not? I was right, wasn’t I? I was right! I start asking myself questions. Should I get off the train now and go celebrate? No, of course not, I’ve got to go home and tell Tess! Should I wait to tell her until tomorrow and make it a big surprise? No, better to tell her right away. Maybe I should have others on the train ask me questions, and see if I can answer correctly. I could bet them money. Should I go to a casino?
My thoughts are interrupted by the overhead speakers announcing that my stop is next. I’m still smiling. I stand and get ready to disembark. I reach for the orangutan bar.
I freeze. I reached for the what? The train slows. I look out the window as the talk show homogenizes. I shake my head again. What was that? The telekinesis canned headstone appurtenance blurs past the analgesia emus brain. Something curtain crying wrong with gullet brain phlebitis chip? Peppery larval train dessert stops usher thick door muslin opens inaugural walk vole down coltish steps. Can’t sporty think miserable doorbell stumble spyglass out despotism onto flashy train gastronomic tracks. Respite conductive lights storefront oncoming librarian train graduate oh–
I open my eyes and see the sky. I turn my head a little to the right and feel the chip, knocked loose, drop from behind my ear. I see my train. I see people from the train coming towards me. They speak to me, but I can’t hear them. I look down at my crumpled body. I look past it to the other train, looming above me. People are coming from it as well. I feel my organs struggling.
I was wrong. About the chip, about everything. I’m always wrong. I think about Tess. She’ll be hysterical. She’ll blame me for everything, for leaving her penniless, ruined. For leaving her widowed. She’ll be angry, and bitter. She’ll be lonely.
But at least she’ll be right.
When I first heard the legend that a sycamore tree stood at the eastern gates of heaven and rewarded those who lived within its shadow, I didn’t realize they meant my tree—the one on the hilltop at Two Rivers. I didn’t believe in the magic until I turned seven and dreamed I’d died.
I stepped outside into the morning shade of the three-hundred-year-old tree. Legend said that if the goddess allowed, anyone born within its shadow could be reborn there. But rebirth was the last thing on my mind, and I rubbed my chest, fresh from the death dream memory of car exhaust fumes, hot engine oil, and grease.
I ran to school because Games Day was the school’s big event of the year, and I was late. I kept to the edges of the oval, away from teachers and sports jocks.
Hugh Wintergreen ran past with a stupid grin plastered over his face. He tugged at my shirt. He said, “Catch me!” and headed toward the main gate.
I gave chase. I caught him and we ran onto the road, into the traffic, where he dared me to follow and play chicken.
I recognized the car and a feeling to stop tore at me. With the death dream fresh in my mind, I froze mid stride, and tried to grab Hugh.
He kept running and dodging cars until the car I’d seen screeched to a stop. Hugh disappeared underneath it.
I screamed and felt every one of his ribs snap.
The smell of hot rubber, car oil, and engine grease, tore at my nostrils. My stomach churned and I threw up into the gutter.
People came running.
Mariana Blackburn, a girl from my class, arrived first. She screamed. “Stu McBane pushed him.”
Her family didn’t approve of my single mum and her birthing clinic. I looked up, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, ready to deny I’d pushed Hugh, but I recognized her voice as the girl who yelled in my dream. The dream had come true, and I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been me who’d died.
The taxi driver was Hugh Stevens’ father, another boy in my class, and he vouched for me, but still, a seed of doubt grew from Mariana’s claim.
Games Day was cancelled, and I trudged home. Mum waited in the kitchen. She’d heard. Two Rivers was a small town.
She checked me over. “You’re fine.” She ruffled my hair. “Go and thank the goddess in the sycamore tree.”
I frowned. “Now?”
She put her hands on her hips.
I nodded and put my boots back on and stepped outside. The door slammed shut on its sprung hinges and I heard her again.
“Take a bag of compost with you and sprinkle it around the tree when you’re there.”
Mum ran a birthing clinic by the tree when the moon was full, and didn’t care what the rest of the town thought. I always thought her a bit crazy, but I loved her all the same.
She leaned forward, bringing herself closer to the edge of the cliff. She often wondered whether everyone could see the way she saw. Especially when she was on the rope with her head between her legs, or hanging from the trapeze, her heels underarm. She thought then, can they see these lights? These shapes on top of the spectators’ heads, their most secret secrets untangled against my tangled body, and these darknesses in their palms, and the birds in their mouths, can everyone see them?
She peeked over the edge. A steep fall, then jagged rocks. Then water.
These birds, crammed between their teeth, are they swallows?
The man pulled her back. “Be careful,” he said. “You’ll fall.”
She pursed her lips. “You shouldn’t say things like that to an acrobat. It’s bad luck.”
“Does Lady Bird care about such things? Born on the rope. Isn’t that what the ring master says every night?”
“You think you know so much about me, don’t you?” Her eyes fixed on the ocean, she caressed the wooden box that lay between them. She tapped the crudely carved spade on the lid. “But I know nothing about you.”
“You know everything. Why do you talk like that?”
“What’s in the box, then?”
A gush of wind ruffled his hair. The girl shuddered in her transparent costume.
“You could have at least changed before dragging us up here,” he said.
“What’s in the box?”
“Why is this so important?”
She looked around. A wasteland. Can everyone see this? she wondered. The beach beneath them almost beaten by the tide. The pleasure wheel fading in the distance, its lights dim and pale. And the circus tent, off-white specked with desolation.
“Why are you so scared?” He reached out, his fingers brushing her cheek. “You know my life before the circus means nothing.”
The girl pulled her leg over her shoulder, pushing his hand away. She peered at him behind her thigh. No secrets over your head, no lights. Who are you? Why are you hiding?
“You say that, and yet you hold onto that box,” she said.
“Let it go. It’s just a box.”
“Throw it in the sea then, why don’t you?”
“Can’t you leave me this one thing? Everything else is yours,” he said. It wasn’t a complaint. Merely a statement.
“Everything?” she asked. “Even your lions?”
“Yes, even them. Say the word and I’ll bring you their heads.”
She put her leg down and glared at him.
“I would never do something like that.” Her eyes softened. “Bring me their heads… Silly.”
He chuckled. “I always had a flare for the dramatic.”
“True.” She rested her forearms and chin at the edge of the cliff and thrust her pelvis towards her head. She then bent her knees and hung her feet over her face. She looked at him behind her soles. Nothing. How are you hiding? You are the only one who can. “What’s in the box?”
“Oh, come on. Milk. It’s just milk.”
“Yes, snake’s milk.”
She frowned. “Very funny.”
“All right,” he said. “A watch.”
She sat up and put her ear to the lid. “I can’t hear anything,” she said. “Be quiet.”
“I’m not making any noise. It’s the wind. The waves.”
“Hush them, then. What kind of a useless tamer are you?”
“Do you enjoy hurting me?”
“There is no watch in there. Tell the truth.”
“It’s dirt from my birthplace.”
“You were born on a ship.”
“You forget nothing.”
She remembered the first time he entered the circus tent, his lions on a leash, the box tucked under his arm. She was hanging upside down above the ring, yet she saw no shapes. No darknesses, no birds. Most people hide their secrets in their hearts, at the back of their heads, or under their tongues. Where are his? she had wondered. “Tell me.”
His face grew serious. He studied her small feet, dangling over the edge. “Fine,” he said, “I will. But you won’t ask for anything ever again.”
“It’s two pieces of paper. One holds my name.”
She laughed. “Your name? Aren’t you the Desert Lion?”
“Aren’t you Lady Bird?”
“All right. And the other?”
“You said you’d tell me.”
She stared at him counting three breaths, an old balancing habit; one, earth, two, sky, three, my body in between. “Show me,” she said with the fourth.
“You promised not to ask for anything else.”
“I lied. Will you open it?”
“Why are you doing this? You know I can’t refuse you anything.”
“That is why I do it.”
“I’ll have nothing left.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Am I?” She put her weight on her palms and lifted her waist from the ridge.
“All right. All right. Sit straight.”
She obeyed. She sat cross-legged by the box and waited.
He fished for the small key hanging from the chain around his neck. He opened the box, pulled out two yellowed sheets and handed them over.
“Is that your name?” she asked.
“It doesn’t suit you.” She glanced at the second page, then looked at him.
He gazed at the horizon, silent.
“Was that all?” she asked.
He nodded again.
“Why keep it for so long, then?”
“I just wanted to have something that was mine,” he said. He retrieved the pages and put them back in the box. He locked it and tossed the key in the water. “Are you happy now?” he asked.
“Very.” She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. Is that a birdie between your teeth?
They sat side by side, shoulders touching. He stared at the sharp rocks underneath.
She suddenly turned to him as if she’d just remembered something.
“I’m working on a new number. Want to see?”
“It’s not perfect yet,” she said, and threw herself over the edge.
A swallow soared by, almost brushing his cheek.
Natalia Theodoridou is a UK-based media & theatre scholar. Originally from Greece, she has lived and studied in the USA, UK, and Indonesia for several years. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, among others. She is a 2014 Rhysling Award nominee. Her personal website is www.natalia-theodoridou.com.
Iracema didn’t sleep well, she tossed and turned, sweating and sore, and in the early hours she crept out of bed and dressed, wincing when she pulled her top over the bruises on her breasts.
He was on his back, a snoring drunken mouth with a wasp’s nest inside. They didn’t sting him, but they were going to chase her. She was certain of that.
She searched, but there were only a few coins. He’d flushed the rest at the bar the night before. She took her backpack out of its hiding place and left.
The magnetometer signals were strong. The ore body was close enough to the surface for open cut, a no-brainer, but Doctor Ana Fliess was puzzled. She’d read the report on the area west of Marimbondo from the year before, and there was no mention of it.
Still, there it was, and she’d have to do a full survey. She looked out across the low ridges, the scrub and baked red clay, and her geologist’s eyes saw contours and grid lines. She unloaded more equipment from the back of the truck, electromagnetic transmitters and receivers, and set to work.
Subway platforms always make me claustrophobic. Don’t know if it’s the being underground, the heat, or the people. Maybe all three.
Clint’s glaring at me. “Martin, stop it! You’re gonna pop a button.”
I look down, confused. My fingers have a mind of their own, twitching up and down my lapel. Damn starch. Years it’s been in my closet and this suit’s still stiff. Clint’s right, a lost button’s just one more thing to worry about. I push my hands into my pockets. Look up at Clint. He nods, approval. Patronizing.
“So Yolanda said you had to interview today, huh?” He knows this of course, just trying to make me talk. Get out of my own head. Probably not a bad idea.
I answer. “Just to keep up my disability.”
Again Clint nods, like he understands. He doesn’t. He’s one of the few of us not getting Federal Aid. Stop – Clint’s the only friend you’ve got. Quit being a dick. After all, the rules and regs of G.O.D. welfare aren’t his fault.
I need to talk. “I don’t know why these case workers insist on making us run this gauntlet of humiliation.” I let my eyes drift across the empty tracks, land on the graffitied-over station sign. I like the new name better – Blue Barrio. Better fit. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hired.”
“I did.” Clint’s voice is small. This is well-worn territory.
“Sort of.” I gesture toward his coveralls and I.D. badge. “But you’re a teacher, not a… Recycling Technician.” Glorified garbage man.
“And I’ll teach again.” As always Clint’s nothing but confident.
“You really believe they’ll open schools for us.” Not a question. Not any more. Clint’s a true believer–his face hardens. He believes, I don’t.
“Of course they will. Every day more kids are born with the Blues. They’re gonna need some schools, and soon. Special schools, just for us. Like the housing.” He nods across the tracks – toward the name of our state sanctioned ghetto. He’s right, of course. Got to keep the infected out of the general population. Schools, hospitals–a whole separate world is slowly materializing.
Trembling, Brettel touched the iron gate. It didn’t burn. She huffed. Foolish woman, why would it? She gripped a bar tightly and held onto the solidness of home.
Reaching through the bars, she raised the latch and pushed the gate open. Silently. Before it had made god-awful noises. Her breath caught. No. Oh, no. Holding the gate open, she studied the house before her.
She knew the sage bushes and willows that lined the path to the door. The swing hanging on the left side of the porch was an old friend. To the right stood the same rocking chairs that had stood there since time immemorial. Brettel smiled. This was home. This was where she belonged.
Someone had oiled the gate. In all these years, someone should have. It was a small change. Things would have. She had. But this was still home. Still where she belonged.
She hurried up the path, took a deep breath, and knocked. She’d been gone too long to just walk in.
An adolescent girl yanked the door open a few heartbeats later. She looked Brettel up and down, raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes?”
Who–? Brettel frowned and shook her head. It didn’t matter. “Is this still the carpenter’s residence?”
“He takes orders at his shop.” The girl pointed to adjacent building.
Brettel sighed with relief. “Is his wife home?”
The girl turned away and hollered, “Mom! Someone here for you.”
Leaving the door hanging open, she disappeared into the house.
Brettel heard footsteps and braced herself. An older woman, auburn hair streaked with grey, came around the corner and walked to the door. “Can I–?” Her brow furrowed momentarily. Her jaw dropped open. She whispered, “Brettel?”
Brettel bit her lip. “Mom?”
“Oh sweet lords! Brettel!” Her mother threw her arms around Brettel and pulled her into the house in a bone-crushing hug. Through eyes swimming with tears, Brettel saw the adolescent girl creep up to the parlor door. Brettel pulled back a little. Her mother let go and saw the direction of Brettel’s gaze.
“Delial, run to your father’s workshop. Tell him Brettel’s returned!”
The girl raised her eyebrows and disappeared back around the corner.
Brettel’s eyebrows shot up. That sulky almost grown girl was little Delial? Her sister who’d been in pigtails when Brettel left?
Their mother’s eyes raked across Brettel’s face. “Are you home? Are you home to stay?”
“If you’ll allow me–”
“Of course, of course.” Her gaze dropped lower and the frown returned between her eyes as she took in the well-cut dress of expensive linen and the finely tooled leather bag hanging at Brettel’s hip.
“Are you married?” she asked.
Brettel shook her head. Her mother paled and briefly closed her eyes. “You’ve become as a courtesan.”
Her mother waved a hand at her clothes.
“I’ll tell you both when Dad gets here, but I promise I’ve never sold my body for money. I had a job. My employer wished us to dress well and provided the clothes. The bag was a parting gift.”
Her mother still looked worried, but she closed the door and escorted Brettel to the kitchen. Her father burst in mere seconds later. “Brettel!”
His hug knocked breath from her lungs. As soon as he let her go, a young man pulled her into his arms. Brettel froze for a second and pulled away. He grinned. Oh, wow, how could she have not recognized him no matter how old her little brother had grown. “Garnan!”
Delial had returned as well, but she hung back. Arms crossed, she leaned against the wall.
“Where have you been all this time?” Garnan demanded.
Brettel looked at her parents. “You said if I wasn’t going to help out in Dad’s shop that I’d have to find work.”
Her parents exchanged a look full of pain and recrimination.
Brettel smiled sadly. “I’m sorry. I know I was an utter brat over the idea. For years I’ve wished I could do them over, and that wasn’t how you remembered me.”
“Ah, you were young,” her father said. He clasped her hand. “Only sixteen.”
“Sixteen is old enough to know when you’re acting like a brat.”
Delial frowned. So did Brettel. Delial couldn’t be that old yet.
“Anyway, I knew work was inevitable so I left that morning to attend the hiring fair.”
Her parents exchanged a look.
“Releigh had offered you work in her bakery,” her mother said.
“I remember, but I hated the idea. So I went to the hiring fair instead. There was a woman there, dressed much as I am today, looking for people to work at a huge estate. She said very little of the estate, only enough to give clue to its size and that it was on one of the islands, not here in Dwankey. When she offered me a seven-year position as an upstairs maid, I couldn’t say no. It sounded so elegant!
“A young man from a farmstead well north of us wanted work in the gardens, and a girl from the fishing huts took a position in the estate’s kitchens. We all followed the woman to the docks, where a beautiful white ship awaited us. It wasn’t any larger than the fishing vessels, but so dainty and well-kept.” Brettel shook her head.
“The woman ushered us aboard, but didn’t get on herself. She had served her time and finished her final task in hiring us and now could go home. She’d introduced herself at the fair as Trudy, now she told us she was related to the Millers.”
“Trudy Miller!” her mother shrieked. Her parents exchanged a stunned look. Garnan’s jaw dropped. Delial stepped away from the wall, her arms falling to her side and eyes wide.
“That woman claims she spent the seven–” Her mother’s eyes grew wide. “Seven years she was gone on the White Isle.”
Brettel nodded. “That’s where the white ship took us. We had to restrain the fishmonger’s girl from jumping over as we drew near and it became obvious the White Isle was our destination.”
“I remember,” Garnan said dreamily. “I remember the Isle was visible that day. My friends and I spent quite a bit of time that morning watching the glitter of the sun on the white towers, discussing what it might really be like. Did you see the Fae? Did you see magic?”
Brettel shuddered. “Yes to both. Luckily, I didn’t have much to do with either. I was just an upstairs maid. I made their beds and cleaned their rooms and avoided them as best I could. My life wasn’t much different than a maid at any grand estate, I have to believe.”
“But what of the Fae? Who is the lord there? What is he like?” Delial took a seat at the table. Her mouth hung open.
“He–His name–” The name hovered on the tip of her tongue, but dissolved before she could form it. His image stayed behind her eyes. Tawny hair, chilly gold eyes. The image blurred. Brettel shook her head. “I’m sorry. They said it would all fade the further we got from the White Isle. I don’t seem to remember much of them. ”
“You were there for seven years. You must remember!”
Brettel’s brow furrowed. “I remember cleaning. I remember my friends among the human staff. The boy who came from the farm fell in love with one of them. He chose to stay on permanently.”
“One of the Fae?” Delial’s eyes were huge.
“That’s so romantic!” Delial squealed. “What was she like? Is she beautiful beyond words? Will they marry?”
Startled, Brettel laughed. “No, I don’t think they marry. She was–she was beautiful. All raven blue locks and deep…dark eyes.” The image dissipated as Brettel tried to describe her. She shook her head. “I–I do recall she was beautiful.
“I served the seven years of my contract and came home. They did pay me well. I have money for the household.” Brettel started to dig through her bag.
Her father caught her arm and said, “Are you telling us that Trudy Miller knew exactly where you were all this time? She let our hearts break with worry for seven years and never did us the kindness of passing on your location?”
Brettel blushed. “She probably didn’t know whose child I was.”
“We asked all over town for months and months!” her mother exclaimed. “Had anyone seen you? Did anyone remember you leaving Dwankey on any of the carts from the fair? A couple of people have always insisted they saw you at the fair, but since no one could say and we never heard from you, we feared the worst.”
“I’m sorry. If I’d had any way of getting word to you, I would have. I didn’t understand when I accepted the contract where I was going. Not until we were halfway across the bay to the White Isle and even then I didn’t believe we were really going to the White Isle until we actually docked there. No one’s ever reached it before. How was I to know we’d stepped onto a Fae boat with Fae sailors?”
“But she knew,” her father said. “That bitch knew all along how distraught we were and that you were safe and–I’m going to kill her.”
“Dad, no.” Brettel shook her head and squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment. She didn’t want to say this, but knew she must. “It was her final duty to find new servants. Few choose to stay on beyond their seven years. The estate is immense. You would not believe from the glimpses we see from shore, how truly big the island and the estate is. They need servants.”
“What are you saying?” her mother asked.
“It is the final duty for departing servants. To find replacements.”
“Today was the hiring fair,” Garnan said. “Sol and Nerles were planning to look for better work.”
“Brettel?” Her father frowned. “Did you go first to the fair this morning?”
Brettel nodded. “I had that duty, yes.”
“Who? Who did you send off to them?” her father demanded. Brettel shook her head.
“No, you can’t do this, Brettel,” her mother said. “You must tell their families. You cannot allow another family to go through the grief we’ve suffered. Who did you send to them?”
“I can’t remember.”
Even at a distance in the hazy daylight, Sylvana could see Captain Ruggero Barsetti frowning at her as she walked down the dock carrying her diving suit. It was easy to read his thoughts: Her belly was growing, and it wasn’t seemly for her to be working so hard.
“What are you doing here, little one?” he said gruffly. It wasn’t his usual custom to be tender.
“I’m going out to Gate 38. Giorgio reported that something was causing it to snag. He could see it on his sonar on the big boat, but he didn’t have a diver. If it turns out to be a building, we are going to have our work cut out for us. Another big incursion is coming.”
“I appreciate your dedication, but I am aware of the gate problem,” the Captain retorted. “We are working on it. You should just go on home and take it easy until the baby arrives.”
Sylvana looked down at her calloused hands. “You know I can’t do that, cugino,” she said to her older cousin. “If I quit my job, I’ll never get back on. I’ll soon have another mouth to feed now, you know.”
“You’re a member of the clan. We’ll take care of you,” Ruggero said. He added, “Have you thought of joining the farming initiative after the baby comes?”
“And what will we use for fresh acqua? The only measurable rainfall is out over the sea. No, I don’t think the farming is going to happen soon.”
The Amborgettis were building freshwater collection platforms several miles offshore, but it was a risky venture in her view. The storms could be ferocious, and it was still too dangerous to subsist out on the exposed ocean. She’d stick with diving salvage from old buildings.
Sylvana felt a little guilty about playing the baby card, but she was the chief diver for the Barsetti clan. Maybe someday she could take it easy if the new farming project got off the ground. Or on the ground. There would be plenty of easy work then dusting off solar panels, to funnel back energy and provide additional light for the crops. But for now she had to keep her independence with Franco gone.
Sylvana and her relatives lived, barely, in one of the few coastal cities on Earth to survive the Gemini, the twin extinctions. The first disaster was widespread starvation initiated by runaway global warming. People moved from drought-stricken areas to the continental shores, only to fall victim to flooding and tsunamis. Then, as if humanity were not facing trials enough, an untracked extra-solar system ice ball struck Mexico in nearly the same spot as an asteroid had 66 million years ago. Any species unable to live on sludge, worms, and detritus had a difficult time in the aftermath.
Fortunately, humans are omnivores, and Sylvana’s scavenger ancestors had been fairly clever about turning dead plant and animal material into foodstuffs for people. Also luckily, there were a lot fewer people who needed to be fed. Those living in what remained of southern Europe clustered around Tristezza, or Trieste, as the Italians used to call it half a millennium ago. Now the name simply meant “sadness.”
Since the Gemini, Tristezza had watched its sister city across the Adriatic slowly succumb to the rising sea levels. Venezia had battled encroaching waters from the surrounding blue Adriatic Sea for centuries, and spent multiple fortunes hiring Dutch engineers to remove river silt and hold back the tides that threatened to overwhelm its lagoons. Venezia’s MOSE, with its series of gigantic steel sluice gates anchored below the surface, was a wonder of the world. When high tides threatened, the gates would float to the surface to protect the city. But after the Gemini, Venezia’s population dwindled, and, sensing a bargain, Tristezza negotiated to buy, dismantle, and move Venice’s gates to its own waterfront. Then the ocean erased any other signs of the great city.
Sylvana’s clan all worked to preserve the coastline and maintain the gates of Tristezza. Another clan, the Amborgettis, was responsible for running the pumps that constantly filtered the Adriatic waters for food and potable acqua. Although the climate had cooled considerably, the Adriatic Sea’s low salinity and moderate temperatures provided a climatic refuge for the remaining human population.
Sylvana’s scientist husband, Franco, had spent most of his life aboard sailing ships that Tristezza sent out each year, traveling around the boot of Italy and up the Ligurian Sea, looking for pockets of surviving species that might be suitable for refilling ecological niches or providing sustenance for humans. Franco had died five months earlier when his ship Santo Antonio tragically sank on the rugged Cinque Terre coast. Everyone thought it must have been in one of the aftershocks that continued to radiate across the ocean bed. Icelandic volcanoes regularly spewed ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, cooling and darkening the hemisphere.
The argument over for the moment, Sylvana donned her suit, while the captain waved to Giorgio to bring the rowboat closer to the dock. The Barsettis owned 16 boats of varying sizes, all created from digital models and constructed of liquid plastic.
Giorgio rowed with one of the plastic oars and nosed the boat up, holding it steady so that Sylvana could step in.
Sylvana flashed a smile and clambered aboard. She sat near the prow to monitor the echo locator, perching her helmet in her lap. To save fuel, Giorgio made the two-mile row out to the gates. Sylvana silently counted his strokes to estimate when they were close to the 38th sluice. The sea was a touch choppy today, making it a bumpy ride.
As the water slapped against the sides of the boat, she unsnapped a long telescoping pole from the interior wall and unfolded it over the water. Giorgio rowed in a tightening circle, while Sylvana poked into the murky water. The tide was not yet officially an incursion, so it should be low enough that she could find the gate without having to try to inflate it with compressed air.
Ah, luck was with her. Her pole hit something solid.
“Let’s stop here, Giorgio,” she said. Her red-bearded oarsman tossed over a heavy anchor, which would slow them down, although the rope wasn’t always long enough to reach the sea bottom. The rope would be her lifeline if she was unable to see the surface, which was most of the time.
Sylvana tucked in her long braid, as Giorgio helped her don the helmet and twist the air hose onto the valve. She slipped into the chilly water and began descending the anchor rope. As the surface closed over her, she could see only a bit of pale sun overhead. It was a short journey to the obstruction they had located. She could barely make it out with her torch, but it appeared to be part of an old wooden dock from the original Trieste marina that had slipped under water about 80 years ago. It should have floated out to sea, but part of it was stuck about 50 feet below the surface, maybe on one of the gate pylons. Chunks of plastic and other trash were accumulating on the obstruction. She pried a piece loose and tucked it into her catch bag.
She tugged on one of the timbers, but it didn’t budge. She would have to surface and get more rope. And more help. Maybe with two or three boats they could dislodge it and pull it inland. Wood was a valuable commodity, even if waterlogged.
Sylvana’s efforts to move the dock kicked up a dark green slow-motion cloud, probably dead algae that would have been useful as food, except that now she couldn’t see anything. She swam around for a while without finding the boat. She reminded herself not to panic and hyperventilate. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard Giorgio pounding on the rowboat hull. She swam in what she hoped was the right direction and with relief grabbed the anchor rope.
Giorgio pulled her in, and said, “What took so long? What did you find?”
Exhausted, Sylvana began shedding her suit. She noticed that Giorgio stared a little, and was a little embarrassed that he probably was looking at her expanding stomach. She started to tell him about the submerged find, but suddenly she felt queasy, and spots swam before her eyes. She sank toward unconsciousness, and the last thing she remembered was Giorgio shouting soundlessly as he struggled to pull up the anchor.
We had nothing but peace at the Lion’s Paw for as long as I can remember. Ted Parros was a connected fellow, and he looked the part, with matted white hair and a face that rarely smiled. He used to frequent the place, now and then doing business deals in the back poker room, and he didn’t want some punk causing a fuss and drawing any unwanted attention.
He never had to get physical with anyone, but he made damn sure that any troublemaker knew who he was. All it took was a sharp glance, or a tap on the shoulder.
Kenny Heachem was the exact type of guy Ted didn’t want around. He was a bit of a rowdy fellow, but not the loudmouth drunk type that I’ve seen over the years. On occasion, Kenny would wander into my establishment buying rounds of drinks and throwing money all over the bar. He’d place bets with strangers, which wasn’t abnormal at the Lion’s Paw, but he’d want people to put down their earnings for the week, and such a thing rattles the room with all kinds of commotion.
From what I knew at the time, aside from the bets at the Lion’s Paw, Kenny wasn’t involved in any illegal activities. But there was something peculiar about Kenny. He was a large, soft looking man, and he had a shuffle when he walked. The peanut shells on the floor would collect around the tips of his shoes. And whenever I served him drinks he’d give me a long look as if he was waiting for me to say a little more to him. I never let it bother me though. He was a generous tipper, polite enough, and I’d be fine with twenty more customers just like him.
I knew for sure that Ted didn’t care for Kenny. He was quite vocal, once saying, “That piece of shit makes any more noise I’m going to find a way to sew his mouth to his barstool.” Ted said it loud enough so that Kenny would hear it, but Kenny just turned around and looked back at Ted with a laugh.
And there was also that night in the spring, when Kenny sat at the bar drinking some scotch, watching baseball on the television monitors over the bar. A young patron, likely from the college just up the road, sat in the only empty seat in the house, which to his luck happened to be right next to Kenny.
“Do you care for baseball?” asked Kenny.
“I don’t mind it,” said the college kid. “I used to play in high school. I follow it enough I suppose.”
“What do you know about this game, Yankees and Indians?”
“I know the Yankees are going to win. They have Tamada pitching.”
“But the Orioles have this new kid dealing. Pichardo.”
The college kid shrugged. “I don’t know much about him, but his triple-A numbers don’t look all that impressive. They called him up because Crangle got hurt.”
“Well I’m a bit of a believer in this Pichardo. I’ll even bet you on it. Yankees are big favorites, but I’ll give you even odds.”
The kid tipped his head from side to side. “I don’t have all that much to bet you. Maybe a twenty.”
“A twenty? But you think the Yankees are a lock.”
“I do. It’s just all I have really.”
”You can’t dip into your college fund a little?” Kenny said, and he gave the kid a playful nudge on the shoulder.
“No, sir. I can give a call to my father. He likes playing the ponies, and he loves baseball. He might be willing to put up some money.”
“Well, sure. Go on and give him a call.”
“Like hell,” said Ted as he walked up to the bar between the two of them. He pointed a finger close to Kenny’s face. “You can go ahead and bet the kid twenty, but like hell you’re going to let the kid go on and tell his dad about it. His dad could be chief of police for all I know.”
“He isn’t,” said the college kid. “He’s a factory worker.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ted keeping his focus on Kenny. “Don’t do it, and I’m not going to tell you again.”
Kenny nodded, but as Ted walked away he shrugged his shoulders and turned to the kid. “I’m fine with keeping it a small bet. I’ll even sweeten the deal. I bet you Pichardo throws a no hitter against these Yankees.”
The kid nodded with a smile as he put his twenty on the bar. Kenny put his twenty on top of it, ordered a beer for the kid, and a whiskey for himself.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the game. The bar started to fill with more people, coming in from the concert around the corner that just ended, and damned if my hired hand, Jen, didn’t call in sick to have me all by myself for serving the customers.
I really only noticed the change to the atmosphere when someone shut off the jukebox in the corner, and when all the bikers stopped playing pool to look up at the TVs.
“This bet still going?” I asked.
“Sure as hell,” said Kenny. “Bottom of six.”
“They’re swinging at bad pitches,” said the college kid.
The ballgame continued, and as it did, the bar got real quiet.
“Last hurrah for the Yanks,” said Kenny.
With two out, and two strikes, the Yankee shortstop ground his cleats into the dirt of the batter’s box. Pichardo dealt a perfect curve that arched through the strike zone, and down and away from the batter. The shortstop swung a big hack over top of the ball to end the game.
The silence and tension inside the Lion’s Paw broke and the room erupted with cheers. Everyone but the college kid celebrated with drinks. Kenny picked the two twenties off the bar, and the kid laughed, shook Kenny’s hand, and walked outside for a cab.
That’s when I saw Ted lean in and say something into Kenny’s ear. I couldn’t hear what, but Ted asked me to come to the back room after he returned from taking a piss.
When he left the washroom, I headed to the back poker room. “You stand guard outside the door,” said Ted.