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.
Alan Shepard’s teeth were falling out for the third time this week.
To Jess’s left, her trainee, Steven, tried not to retch as they watched Shepard tear loose another piece of dangling gristle from his mouth and drop it into the bathroom sink.
“Ah, okay,” Steven said, “I’m supposed to figure out what this means, right?” He rubbed his chin with his fingers and stared up at the stained ceiling of the hotel room. In the meantime, another of Shepard’s teeth bounced off the ceramic and circled the drain.
“I have no idea what this means.” Steven concluded. “It’s just gross.”
“Mr. Shepard recently lost a loved one,” Jess said. “He’s starting to realize that he’s getting older, and his own death is drawing closer. Being forced to confront his own mortality, and trying to ignore it during the day, is making these concerns manifest in his subconscious mind.”
“You can tell all that just from watching someone’s teeth falling out in a dream?”
“I can tell all that because I read it in his file. Just like you were supposed to.” Jess frowned. “We’re not here to figure out what the dream means. We have analysts for that. Our job is to just observe and record.”
Jess had been observing the dreams of company employees for years. Part of their worker efficiency program–finding psychological issues in workers at an early stage increased productivity overall, and was also an indicator of which workers could be sent off to “early retirement” when it came time for budget cuts.
The dreams were observed via an interface that translated brainwave patterns into 3D holographic images. Jess didn’t know how the machine worked. It was built back before the world went to shit, by people now long since dead. She did know that the machine was intended to aid in the treatment of mental patients, but that all changed when the private sector bought out the technology and decided to monetize it to make a better return on their investment.
Jess liked her job, by and large. The gruesome sights, the nightmares–none of it really bothered her. Sometimes the sex dreams were awkward. But sifting through people’s subconscious thoughts was easier than talking to them while they were awake. Her anti-social tendencies made her uniquely qualified to deal with the often disturbing imagery dwelling within the human mind. No matter what she saw, Jess never got too immersed. She always knew that it wasn’t real. And she recognized the most important fact–that people had very little control over all the thoughts and fears bouncing around inside their heads.
If anything, the truth was the exact opposite. All the fears, the neuroses, they controlled us.
Minutes passed, or they seemed to, and Mr. Shepard’s sink was now overflowing with blood and saliva-slick teeth. No matter how many came loose and fell out of his jaw, more sprouted from his gums, shiny and wet, to take their place.
Jess put a finger to her earpiece. “Have you got what you need yet?”
After several moments, an analyst’s voice answered back. “We’ve got what we need. You’re free to extract.”
“We can leave?” Steven asked, looking pale. “Thank God.”
Mr. Shepard, the grimy hotel room, they all faded away in a flash, leaving Jess and Steven standing in an empty white room.
Jess dismissed Steven and made her way to the control room. Or, as the analysts mockingly referred to it, “the place where dreams are made”.
The control room was a maze of monitors and cabinet sized computers made up of spinning reels and blinking lights. Jess was greeted by Dale, a thin, mousy looking man in a sweat stained white shirt. Dale was many things, but he wasn’t annoying, and for that, Jess tolerated his company.
“How’s the trainee working out?” Dale asked.
“Steven?” Jess asked. “He doesn’t have the stomach for the work, and I don’t have the time to babysit.”
“Shame.” Dale shook his head. “I know you could use the help. Have you seen how packed the schedule is for next week?”
Jess wasn’t listening. Her attention was on the setting sun, falling below the horizon line, being swallowed up by the ocean waves. Another day gone. In the past, cities were all lit up at night. Corporate towers glowed more fiercely than the brightest stars, neon signs cast waves of light out onto the streets. Now when night came the candle flames were snuffed, the lamps dimmed, and the whole world was gently swallowed up by the encroaching dark.
“Long day, huh?” Dale placed a hand on Jess’s shoulder. She tried her hardest not to recoil from his touch. “What’s on your mind?”
Jess sighed. “Just thinking about how a place can change you. There was a time when I wouldn’t go near a corporate city-state. I can’t tell you how many business towers I’ve set fire to. And now…”
Jess didn’t finish her sentence.
“If that’s true, how did you ever end up in a city like Eidum? And working for the Aeus family, no less?” Dale said.
“Rebel organizations, so-called ‘Eco-Terrorists.’ For all their admirable qualities, they don’t offer healthcare plans. I had to grow up sometime.” Jess turned to walk away.
“Wait!” Dale shouted after her. “What about Alan Shepard? The guy you just observed?”
Jess stopped walking but didn’t turn back around to face Dale. “Don’t bother waking him,” she said. “Upper management made up their mind before today’s observation session even started. We were just there to gather data to reinforce their decision. Existential crises aren’t good for workplace morale. Someone will be along to flush him in the morning.”
If Lily could’ve strangled Susannah, she would’ve. Unfortunately people were watching.
“You were looking at my boobs,” said Susannah. They were standing in the locker room. Three shorter girls circled Susannah like wolves. Susannah was naked apart from her lace panties, and she had Lily cornered.
“I already told you, I wasn’t,” said Lily. Actually, she kind of was. They were ridiculously huge. Also, Susannah was standing right in front of Lily, so there was nowhere else to look.
“Oh my God, why are you lying?” said Susannah. “It’s natural to be curious about the human body.” Susannah was both cunning and vain, a mixture that had become toxic when she hit puberty. Her weapon of choice was sarcasm. Susannah never, ever meant what she said. “I mean, it must be hard for you. Everybody knows you’re delayed.” Susannah let her voice linger on that last word as she looked at Lily’s training bra. It wasn’t even half filled.
A crowd grew as the four girls closed in around Lily.
“We’ve all been there,” said one of them.
“Trust me,” said the other.
“If you have any questions, sweetie, just let us know, okay?” said the third.
Crimson circles scalded Lily’s cheeks. “Leave me alone,” said Lily.
Susannah dug a finger in Lily’s underpants to look and let it snap back. “Holy shit, she’s smooth like a Barbie!”
Susannah was lying. But it didn’t matter. Everyone laughed. The sound of it ricocheted off the lockers.
That’s when Lily punched Susannah. Hard.
Susannah reeled backward and the four girls crumpled into a pile of screams.
Lily grabbed her clothes from her locker and crammed her legs into her pants. It wasn’t like she was going to be able to explain why she’d punched Susannah to the principal, so there was no point in hanging around to see what kind of punishment they were going to dole out. Lily’s hair was still wet when she slung her backpack over her shoulder and left the school.
The weather outside was overcast and hot, no different than most winter days in her small Ohio town. Most of the kids took the magnet home to avoid the swelter, but Lily liked walking. After the Great Warming, January was pretty much the only time she could do it anymore. They’d already had to move north twice. If the heat continued to rise, they’d have to do it again. At least they were part of the lucky few who had the money to do it. As she turned down the avenue, Lily eyed the dark clouds gathering overhead, promising a sandstorm.
The worst thing about all of it was that Susannah was right. Lily was delayed. She was almost fifteen, but her body had hardly even started developing. There was something, though — she couldn’t tell what — that made Lily think things were just about to change. For three days she’d felt weird. Not nauseous, exactly; it was more like a heaviness had taken over her limbs, then worked its way inward, settling squarely between her hips.
Lily was still steaming about Susannah when she noticed sunlight echoing from the surfaces around her, illuminating the street with a piercing yellow. She paused to look up.
It had just been cloudy a second ago. Now the sky was perfectly blue. When she reached up to shield her eyes, she saw something stirring in the sunlight — it was a dust of some sort, filtering down from the sky. Its descent was slow, but it fell straight down, pattering around her like a gentle rain. Her body seemed to cool as she watched it.
Lily opened her hand, trying to catch some of the dust so she could have a better look, but most of it slipped away. When she finally held still, it settled on her palm. Each speck seemed to glow from the inside, shimmering and twinkling as if she’d caught a handful of stars. She reached out a finger to touch them. Constellations appeared, then whole galaxies — her own private cosmos.
Then she noticed: these stars were moving — squirming and expanding, a universe in motion. Suddenly they began to gather into small, worm-like shapes. They were still moving, only now they were a thousand glittering maggots fighting for space. Lily’s hand began to tingle, then burn. With a flash, the worm-like shapes burrowed into her skin and disappeared. Clouds instantly folded over the sky, and it was overcast again.
For one minute, three minutes, maybe a hundred minutes, Lily stood motionless, trying to process what had just happened. For a second she even wondered if she’d imagined the whole thing. That’s when she felt it: the slow wet breaking between her thighs, the dam loose. A blood-stain bloomed in her jeans. Her first.
After that, whenever Lily got her period, she thought about the Day of Enlightenment. It was the day everything changed.
Brecaccio spent his whole life looking up at the cosmos. He tracked the movements of the planets and charted the arrangements of the stars.
A life spent with his face pressed against a telescope left him with one puckered eye, no wife to warm his bed, and no child to inherit his vast knowledge of the sky.
Brecaccio blinked his rheumy eyes and looked past his yellowed beard at the thick horns of his toenails sticking out from under the blankets. His feet framed a table. Soft bread and pale, crumbly cheese lay under the glass cover of a wooden tray. Beside the tray stood a bottle of mellow wine. Beyond that, dusty brass orreries lined the top shelf of a vast bookcase. Star maps and volumes written by Brecaccio himself were shoved haphazardly into the shelves.
Above it all, on a folding ladder he’d rested against the ceiling beams, stood Melchick. “Magistero, I don’t see anything.” Melchick’s Buerbec accent stumbled along the rhythms of the Flerosi language, hardening the consonants and thickening the vowels.
“What are you looking for, boy?” Brecaccio asked.
“I was told we have an infestation of pixies.”
“Magistera Ofelia will be excited about that.”
Melchick squealed and scurried down the ladder. His face was clad in lacy, gray spider webs. He peeled them away, and wiped them on the yellow robe that marked him as a second year student. “It’s time for me to go.” The metal fittings on the ladder squeaked as he folded it. “I need to study for my mineralogy examination. Do you have everything you need?”
“I think so.”
“Ring the bell when you get hungry,” Melchick said, pointing to the pull cord that hung near the headboard, “and I’ll come back to help you.”
“I can get out of bed by myself!”
Melchick picked up the ladder and clutched it under his arm. “Please, Magistero. I don’t want you to fall again.”
“That wasn’t my fault.”
“Were you alone?”
Brecaccio sucked his mustache into his toothless mouth. “Yes.”
“Then who else is to blame?”
Brecaccio waved a hand. “Fine, fine, you win. Congratulations. You can go now.”
Melchick bowed. “Good day, Magistero Brecaccio.”
“Hurry along now, boy.”
Melchick spun, his yellow robes swirling, and carried the ladder down the stairs. Brecaccio liked Melchick well enough, but the boy never knew when it was time to leave. He was a poor boy, from a poor country. Taking care of aging instructors helped pay his way.