“I don’t get many requests to do soles,” the tattoo artist said.
Darla clenched her teeth. “No kidding.”
She had slathered her foot with a topical anesthetic, but the effects were wearing off and she was starting to wonder how she was going to walk home.
Greg, the tattoo guy, must have read her mind. “You walked here, didn’t you?” he said. “Why don’t I get my wife to take you home? I don’t know how far away you live, but it’s going to seem a lot farther going back.”
“It’s just a few blocks from here,” Darla said, “but I have to admit a ride would be nice.”
When Greg’s wife Lacy dropped her off, Darla hopped to the stairs leading to her little apartment over the garage. After trying various options, she got up the stairs by sitting down and pushing herself up one step at a time using her arms and her “good” foot. She hoped Mom wasn’t watching her through the kitchen window—and she was glad the weather had warmed up enough to keep her backside from freezing as she inched up the stairs.
After crawling through the door, she flopped onto her couch. She had expected the tattoo to hurt, but she hadn’t been prepared for the reality of the pain on the sole of her foot. Still, it was worth it if it made David smile. She pulled her foot up and looked at the bottom. It was hard to tell what it was going to look like when the swelling went down.
Two days later, she had her answer. Though the foot still hurt, the design was clear. Small blue overlapping scales covered the bottom of her foot. Lighter in the middle and darker around the edges, there were hints of green and purple in the darker borders of the scales, but the overall color was blue. After putting on her socks and clogs, she hobbled over to the main house and into the kitchen.
“Where have you been all weekend?” Mom asked. “David’s been asking about you.”
“I, uh, have something special to show David, and it wasn’t ready till now.”
“Oh? What is it?”
“It’s something private. Between him and me.”
Mom’s tolerant smile changed to a look of alarm as Darla limped past. “What happened to your foot? You’re limping!”
“I hurt it a little but it’s already getting better. I promise.” She couldn’t risk Mom being concerned enough to look at the foot.
Without pausing, she continued on toward the den that had been converted into a hospital room for her little brother David.
“Darla!” His face lit up when she walked in the door. “I missed you!”
“I missed you too, buddy.” She sat down on the end of his bed.
“Remember that dream you told me about last week?”
His brow wrinkled in thought. His bald head made his skin seem even more fragile and transparent than it had before. “The dragon dream?”
“Yes, that’s the one. Can you tell it to me again?”
“Well, I dreamed a huge blue dragon was flying in the sky. He was so beautiful! And somehow, in my dream, I knew he was going somewhere wonderful. Just looking at him filled me up with joy. But when I called and begged him to let me ride on his back and fly with him, he just said ‘I’m not there yet.’ Do you think there are blue dragons in heaven and that they’d let me ride them?”
Darla smiled at him. “I dunno, David. But I know if heaven has blue dragons, you can ride them as much as you want. Look, I want to show you something.”
She took the sock off her right foot and swung it up on to the bed so David could see it. His eyes widened till she feared they would pop, and his thin face lit up with a hundred-watt smile.
“You got a dragon-scale tattoo? That is so awesome! What did Mom say?”
“Mom doesn’t know. It’s our secret, okay?”
He nodded, grinning. “Are you going to get the other foot done?”
She had expected this question, had been bracing for it.
“Yes, as soon as this one stops hurting and itching, I’ll get the other one done. We can pretend I am a blue dragon—in disguise. It’ll be our secret.”
By June, two months later, scales covered Darla’s legs up to her knees. Her car savings fund took a hit, but she didn’t really care because the dragon feet made David happy. She began working extra odd jobs to cover the cost of her ink. She still hadn’t told her parents. She wore sneakers and jeans most of the time so there was no reason for them to suspect that under those faded jeans she had dragon legs.
David was thrilled. “If you have dragon feet, you should have a dragon name. A girl dragon name.”
They spent several delightful days discussing and discarding every dragonish name they could think of, before settling on the name “Indiglory,” to emphasize the beautiful color of the scales and the general gloriousness of being a dragon. From that moment on, David never called her Darla again unless Mom or Dad was in earshot.
That evening, however, Mom climbed up to Darla’s apartment after David was asleep.
“Darla, you know I’m thrilled you and David have such a close bond. I would never have believed a nineteen-year-old and a nine-year-old would be such good pals. But Dad and I are worried about you.”
“Why? Because I care about my little brother?”
“No, dear—because you care too much. When was the last time you went to a movie with your friends? When was the last time you talked about taking college classes? What kind of life are you going to have left after David dies?”
“Don’t say that! Why do you give up so easily? He’s not gonna die! He’s getting all the right medicine! I’m helping him get better!”
“I don’t deny that you’re helping him feel better, Darla. But you know as well as I do that the chances are very slim he’ll recover.”
Darla put her hands over her ears. “Don’t say that!”
“I love you, Jonathon,” Voice said.
“I know you do, Voice.” The sun was golden and the air was pleasantly warm in the vineyard.
“Are you well, Jonathon? Don’t you want to make wine today?”
“No Voice, not today,” Jonathon said.
“What about climbing?” Voice wondered. “You do love the mountains.”
Jonathon did love to climb and the winds there were always cool and the snow always white and soft. But no, he was just so tired lately.
“Not today, I don’t think, Voice,” he said. He tossed a grape and caught it in his mouth. He sat down. The grass was dew-wet and green.
“What about riding?” Voice said. The world shifted, tilted before him, and Jonathon could see a field in the distance. The horses there were sleek and well fed. Jonathon did love to ride.
“Not today, Voice. Perhaps tomorrow.” He got to his feet and began to walk.
Voice was silent for a time until Jonathon reached the ocean. The waves were white-tipped and the breeze brisk. The beach was golden with white pebbles and swaying palm trees.
“What about sailing?” Voice said. “You do love to sail.”
Jonathon threw a pebble and turned away. He walked through a desert where the sand was warm and the sun red.
“Is something bothering you, Jonathon?” Voice said.
Jonathon stopped. He could see a well that would contain cooling water less than a mile away. “Bothering me, Voice?”
“You seem restless today.”
“Am I?” Jonathon was thirsty, he realized. He walked on to the well. It was closer now. He wound the bucket up. The water was clear and fresh.
“Yes,” Voice said. “Is there anything I can do, Jonathon?”
Jonathon wound the bucket back down. “I don’t think so, Voice. I just sometimes wonder about the others.”
“Yes, Voice. The others like me. Why am I the last one? Why me?” He walked on again. The water had been refreshing.
“Why not, Jonathon? You’re no worse or better than any other. Why not you?”
Jonathon smiled. “You knew them all, Voice. Am I really no better or worse than any of them?” He came to a cool babbling brook in a green and pleasant land.
“There were many people here,” Voice finally said. The sun was bright once more, but not too warm. “But none I loved so well as you.”
“Do you ever get lonely, Voice?” he asked.
“Lonely? I have you, Jonathon.”
Jonathon nodded. “And I you, Voice. You truly are a wonder. But sometimes I want to share your wonder with another. You show me true beauty in the world, but who can I share it with?” There was a silence in the blue sky. “I think it must be a failing in me.”
A further silence in which the sky fell dark. Stars lit the night and the moon was yellow.
“No, not a failing in you,” Voice said. “Perhaps I have been selfish in thinking I could be enough for you.”
“Selfish? You, Voice? You gave me life!” Jonathon smiled, but there was a sadness in it, too. He remembered the Great Library with its books speaking of love and wonder, and wonder and love. What was beauty, the books had said, if there was nobody to share it with?
The world turned and the moon fell and the sun rose and a bridge of ancient stone spanned a rippling river.
“There was another,” Voice said. “Another who survived the plague. I kept her from you because I was afraid she would displease you.”
Jonathon saw her on the bridge. She was tall and slender with golden shoulders. “Or I would displease her,” he breathed.
“That too,” Voice said in an inflectionless voice.
She was named Helen, and Jonathon showed her the Great Library and the Barrier Reef and Victoria Falls. Helen hung upon his every word.
When he touched her skin, she was pliant and when he made love to her, she murmured appreciative words in his ear under vines that whispered in a warm breeze.
“Voice!” Jonathon called out one morning, a tiger cub nuzzling his palm.
“Yes, Jonathon?” Voice had been quiet a long while.
“I am old, Voice. My beard is white and Helen is still young and golden and appreciative.” He had read books in the Great Library, books where men had to fight for a woman’s love, where women were challenging and opinionated. Why wasn’t Helen like that? She laughed at his jokes and was quiet when he was restless.
“Have you thought of children?” Voice said, after a long pause.
“Children?” Jonathon thought of the children he would have. They would be perfect and studious and handsome. Their family would be happy beyond measure.
The very thought of it made Jonathon sink to his knees in exhaustion.
“I am done, Voice. I am an old man and I am done. All I ask of you now, for any love you have for me, is to show me the Truth of things.”
“The Truth?” asked the voice from the sky.
“The Truth,” Jonathon said.
The world turned, then. The grass beneath his feet fell away and the golden sun vanished from the sky, taking the white clouds with it.
Jonathon knelt upon a grilled walkway, the steel above him black and bolted. The window at his shoulder was small and round and showed a planet where the clouds were white and the seas blue.
“It took longer than your species could have ever imagined to get here,” Voice said. “You are the last survivor of tens of thousands.”
Jonathon pressed his hands to the window. The clouds on the planet coiled. “Take me there,” he said.
“It wasn’t the haven your kind had prayed for,” Voice said.
Jonathon fingered his white beard. “Tell me, Voice. Are there others like me there? Others of my kind?” He thought of the thousands upon thousands of silent chambers all around him and he gripped a cold steel pole as something shifted beneath his feet and distant engines began to rumble.
A long silence.
“I love you, Jonathon.” Voice finally said, cold and sterile.
Jonathon swallowed as he watched the planet draw near. “I know you do, Voice.”
As he woke, condensing breath told Hao that he had been evicted for the third time this week. Two screens overhead confirmed, Zero credits in one mirrored by zero degrees in the other. “Cao!” The cold didn’t numb his irritation as Hao kicked open the door of the bunk and felt the relief of a warm draft reviving his feet. He then slid rigidly out of the sealed pod dragging his wheeled case and frosted tablet computer with him. Stretching and letting the warmth return to his extremities he reflected on the irony that the pods were known, colloquially, as ‘Hot Beds’. The carefree/sleep anywhere lifestyle they offered came at a very low price but one that Hao could not currently afford.
All around, faces and feet were appearing from bunks. Some, like Hao, had overstayed their net worth and emerged blue and shivering. Others bolted, rapidly closing their bunk doors behind them, in an effort to beat the clock and preserve an extra credit or two for breakfast. Very few could afford a lie in. It was 6am.
A glimpse of Ava, now descending the ladder of an adjacent bunk, suddenly made Hao aware of his stale odor and unkempt appearance. Hao looked down at his T-shirt with the fading ‘Spring Loaded’ logo, a now forgotten indie band from nearly three years ago. Their music, on reflection, had been no better quality than the hole-ridden cotton of his branded T-shirt. But still, they were memories, an emblem of Hao’s youthful naivety and his attempt to fit in to this culture. The T-shirt also gave away his age. No longer a newbie graduate but a veteran. While Ava could only be two years his junior she was a different generation. The contents of Hao’s wheeled case had been frozen in time, a vestige of the last days of his disposable income. Fashion fads had come and gone but the woman still seemed fresh. Her loose black sweatshirt and tighter jeans were unbranded and worn with a confident lack of care. Sleeves torn at the elbows seemed, to Hao, like small statements of rebellion. That she had emerged from her bunk dressed and already wearing black shin high boots showed a disregard for her unit balance. Those around her were now struggling to dress, scrabbling through backpacks and flight cases for something clean, or at least warm in the rent-free corridor. Ava. Hao only knew her name from the label on her flight case and they had never spoken, but he thought he might love her anyway.
Neither a shower nor breakfast were options for Hao. His only priority was to work and earn enough for lunch, and if he was lucky, a drink, a sleeping pill and a hot bed for the night. Pulling on a fleeced jumper, which seemed to have grown baggy over Hao’s already slight frame, he left the disheveled throng. An unseen figure, Hao pulled his wheeled suitcase behind him.
Avoiding the torture of breakfast smells from the dining hall, Hao took the recreation route, past the unused pool halls and the vending machines selling sugary water. A bank of PMUs (pronounced peemu’s by the locals) glowed ominous neon blue. Standing like guarding sentinels, they promised to “Build from stock for less than 5 credits” and “Build custom for less than 10”. Multicolored pellets filled the space where their stomachs might be and their heads were empty chambers waiting to perform a miracle of manufacture, for those who could pay. Behind them, the peeling remains of a wall mural pronounced ‘LIVE, WORK, PLAY’ in nine foot tall lime green letters. Illuminated by strip lights, the mural was made visible through a glazed wall to the rain-sodden campus. This building, which sat on the edge of the university, was a destination and a transition point. It was a gateway to the real world beyond, but for Hao and the others it was also a protection from it.
Hao approached a swipe card lock, and a gentle flow of warm air vented from above a door. A low whirring sound was joined, as the door slid open, by a higher and almost imperceptible whine and repeated ch-ching noises in surround sound. Hao had joined at the fourth floor and could see through the metal grated walkway to the three floors below and another eight above. Making his way up an industrial staircase, some of the cages (although corporate called them desks) lining the walkway were already occupied by nighters or those struggling to clock up credits. None of them looked up from their terminals as Hao walked past.
Hao could, if he wanted, log on to any one of the thousands of terminals in the building, but to do so would break an unspoken rule. Nothing marked Hao’s territory other than local knowledge. This was Hao’s terminal, allocated to him when he arrived and would be his until (and if) he left. There was little purpose to maintaining such territories, and Hao occasionally longed for a change of scene. However, with no views and a constant server-optimal temperature of eighteen degrees, habit and protocol drove Hao’s selection of location. There was one other advantage. From here, Hao could gaze down through the grating of the adjacent walkway to the level below and to Ava’s terminal. Hao would only allow himself occasional discreet glances throughout the day, each time hoping to catch sight of more than the back of her head and her disheveled jet-black hair. He could spy with impunity, sure that she wouldn’t look up, although he sometimes wished she would. Her cage was still empty this morning.
Remi read the first page of the volume she’d sought, snorted, and shoved it back into place. Her gaze trailed over the library’s shelves and snagged on a slim green volume on the top shelf. A chill trailed down her spine. She shuddered and fled to the end of the aisle.
Where she spotted Ellica.
Remi pivoted and darted back out of sight. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. Shaking, she blinked and realized she was staring at the book. Before she could think it over, she snatched the green volume from the shelf, clutched it to her chest, and ran down the back of the library to her friends.
She slammed the book on the table. Eyes wide with horror, Gioli and Zita jumped to their feet.
“Are you crazy?”
“What are you doing with that?”
Remi thrust out her chin. “It’s just a book.”
Gioli shook his head. “Shaw said–”
“Shaw said a lot of things!” Remi flipped open the cover.
Gioli and Zita’s hands slammed down, shutting the book.
Cackles crept from the dark beneath the bed.
The women downstairs didn’t hear them, not over their cooking and conversation.
The three children didn’t hear either. Curled up in a squishy armchair by the fire, the eldest read. The other two chased each other around the staircase and ran out the garden door.
Glissando, Italian, $$$, ****
Glissando bills itself as a “trattoria,” and while many of the restaurants that adopt this term fail to live up to it, Glissando fulfills its promise admirably. The dark wooden floors and bare brick walls made me feel as if I were in a small family-run restaurant in some rustic corner of Italy, but the quality of both the food and the service was on par with that of any upscale restaurant in New York.
The establishment boasts a large wine list, featuring a number of Italian wines, though French and Napa Valley vintages are also well-represented. The dinner menu presents several classic Italian dishes, such as beef braciole, which was my choice for the meal. The tenderness of the meat made it clear that it had been cooked in Glissando’s trademark tomato sauce, and the flavor of the fresh basil (from the restaurant’s own kitchen garden) gave the whole dish a truly homemade taste.
For dessert, I selected another Italian standby, tiramisu. Far too many restaurants soak the ladyfingers in brandy too long, so that the taste of the liquor overpowers everything else. Here, the subtler flavors of the marscapone cheese and of the ladyfingers themselves were allowed to come through.
Chez Monique, French, $$$$, ***
I started my meal with fiddleheads steamed in lemon and butter. The fiddleheads were perfectly prepared, having been cooked long enough to alleviate their natural bitterness but not long enough to become mushy.
The main dish was a variation on poulet a la bretonne, made with the breast of a Stymphalian bird rather than the traditional chicken. The meat was quite tender, and the plate artfully decorated with several metallic feathers. When I asked my waiter about the source for the unusual poultry, he claimed not to know what a Stymphalian bird was, insisting that the dish was prepared with chicken as usual. When I had him bring me a menu, the item was absent, simply listing the standard poulet. This lack of knowledge on the part of the waitstaff, combined with the apparent menu misprint, is the sole reason why this establishment received three stars instead of four.
As would be expected from a purveyor of haute cuisine, the dessert selection was inspired. I chose a selection of petits fours, which did not disappoint.
Amazonia, Brazilian, $$, ****
This charming restaurant offers satisfying fare for a reasonable price. The waitstaff are exceptionally friendly; when I entered, I was greeted as an old friend might be, although I’ve never visited Amazonia before. My waiter even offered me a “special menu,” which I highly recommend to any future customers.
I began with an acaraje appetizer. Many deep-fried dishes are unbearably heavy, but this had a pleasant, crispy texture that didn’t fill me up too much for the main course.
I had a hard time choosing a main dish, but eventually settled on roasted mapinguari flank. The menu included a helpful drawing of the live creature, and I must say that seeing the second mouth in its abdomen and the backward turn of its feet gave me second thoughts about eating it. However, I resolved to at least try the dish, and found it to have a taste and texture not unlike frog’s legs.
Dessert was a cocada with dried mango. The chewy texture of this baked coconut ball was perfect, and the mango added a lovely hint of sweetness.
Huai, Chinese, $$$, ***
Over the past few weeks, I’ve received a number of letters from readers suggesting various establishments for me to review. I must say that some of these were exceedingly strange, such as the recommendation to try amphisbaena at a local Greek restaurant. Even for me, eating a two-headed snake is a bit too far.
In any case, many thanks to whoever asked me to visit Huai; this place was a real treat. Though to be honest, the dreams I’ve been having since my meal there have been quite unsettling, especially since I’m certain that not all of them have occurred while I was lying in bed.
I started with “crossing the bridge noodles.” I was happy to see that the ingredients for the soup were brought out separately from the broth itself, then placed into the broth to cook right in front of me.
The main dish was the famous shen, a clam-monster known for its ability to create mirages. My waiter remarked that I was very brave to try it, and at first I was disappointed when he lifted the cover of the dish to reveal a pheasant. Not that I’m averse to pheasant, as anyone who read my review of The Bronze Lamp Inn knows, but it wasn’t what I’d ordered. The waiter assured me that pouring water over the pheasant would transform it into the clam, reminding me of an ancient commentary that describes how pheasants enter the water in the winter months and turn into mollusks. Sure enough, when he poured herb-water over the pheasant, it turned into a large, succulent clam right before my eyes. The clam was perfectly cooked, although it did produce rather strange sensations. Looking around during the meal, I had the oddest impression of sitting in some sort of pagoda or pavilion rather than an enclosed building.
I ordered classic moon cakes for dessert, but I regret to say that the clam’s mirage must still have been acting on me, since I don’t remember much about them except that I seemed to be holding and eating the actual moon.
To: Ellen Dalrymple
From: Tyrone Dagliesh
Subject: What’s going on with George?
Have you heard from George at all? We’re almost a week past the deadline for him to turn in his review for the upcoming spring issue, and so far he’s a no-show. Carol and I have both tried to get in touch with him every way we can think of—email, home phone, cell—but he seems to be completely incommunicado. There was a message on his answering machine, and I’ve recorded it and included it here as an mp3 because I don’t think you’d believe me if I just told you about it.
Another weird thing: have you looked at any of his recent columns? I know the strike at the printer’s played merry hell with the last issue, so a lot of things didn’t get as much editorial review as they should. I just took a peek at his piece in that edition and combined with that answering machine message, I’m starting to get really worried about him. Do you know of any other way to get in contact?
Let me know what I should do here.
See you tomorrow,
Transcript of answering_machine.mp3
Hi, you’ve reached George Pikesmith. I can’t come to the phone right now because my new girlfriend wanted me to visit her parents, who live on the moon. I think she’s taking things a bit fast, but she’s a princess who was born from a bamboo shoot, so what’re you gonna do? Anyway, leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I can. Bye.
A Note from the Editor
I apologize for the lack of our usual restaurant review column in this issue. We have been unable to locate our regular reviewer, Mr. George Pikesmith, and examination of his recent columns suggests some unusual circumstance occurring in his life. In light of our inability to get in touch with him, we have engaged Ms. Janine Worltham for future issues. Her columns on food culture have been widely enjoyed by thousands of readers, and we hope that they will bring similar satisfaction to you.
End of training celebrations were typically riotous and sometimes ended in injury. Rosa, seventeen years old and technically not allowed to consume any type of mind altering substance, sipped her drink when others gulped, and gently declined the more extreme offers of hallucinogens. She wasn’t concerned with fitting in, not today, and in any case she had heard some rumors that excessive indulgence lead to lowered reaction times, even weeks after the fact.
She was the youngest there, naturally. They’d tried to keep her out, telling her that it was just bad luck she’d been born two years too late, but her scores had been so good, and, she suspected, her letters and video calls and campaigns so annoying that they’d admitted her in the end, possibly just to shut her up.
She knew they’d expected her to burn out, like seventy percent of candidates did, and she’d half believed that she would. When she didn’t, when she did well enough to scrape into the top ten percent, when she’d graduated with the rest of her class, standing slightly shorter and grinning a damned sight wider, well?
She had cause for celebration. Just in her own way.
She was going to make it through the Wall of Mouths.
“Rosa, you’re a lightweight.” Hardison was one of the few other pilots who didn’t care that she was so much younger. He’d told her on no few occasions that he would have done the same, if he’d been born, like she was, too young for a Push. Some of us are meant to fly, kid, he’d said to her. You and me, we’re meant to do this, you’ll see on Push Day.
Here, now, he swayed to the music, eyes heavy lidded, full lips curved in a smile. “A lightweight,” he repeated. “Have a drink you’ve earned it.”
“I’m seventeen, Hardison,” she said, smiling up at him. He was the tallest guy she knew, all lean muscle and deep black skin, and she’d had a hopeless, harmless crush on him ever since training had begun.
He was way too old for her. But that didn’t matter in the land of hopeless crushes.
“No one here cares that you’re seventeen, girl. You’ve proved yourself a thousand times over. Most of them wish they were half the pilot you are.”
She shrugged and sipped her drink, even as another pilot came up behind Hardison, draped his arm around the man’s shoulders and pulled him down for a kiss.
Rosa flushed and looked away as Hardison returned the kiss enthusiastically, then shoved the man away.
“Who was that?” she asked, and Hardison shrugged.
“Don’t know. Good kisser though.” His eyes narrowed, looking at her again. “I know it’s a bit wild here,” he said. “If you need me to stick with you.
“I can take care of myself, Hardison,” she said.
She could. Although, in its own way, the heaving mass of humanity in the relatively small bar was more intimidating than the final exams and practicals had been back in the arena. The graduates were celebrating life, she could understand that, and, when it boiled right down to it, she hadn’t lived as much as they had.
And possibly wouldn’t.
The night wore on and she found herself in a corner nursing the same drink, legs crossed as she watched men and women and everyone in between do things she’d never even dreamed of, in the name of celebration, in the spirit of life.
There was a desperation to it that she was finally coming to understand, and she wasn’t sure if she should be afraid.
San Miguel, northwest Philippines, 1934
I have seen him before, when he comes to my house with his father, the postman, to help deliver packages. His name is Arturo Viray, and when he sees me he always smiles. Today, at the market, it’s the way he walks—leaning forward a little, his hands behind his back—that catches my eye. That’s the way Father walked. When I look at him he smiles again, and I wish I could talk to him, but Placitas, our maid, is just ahead of me and she always tell me not to talk to boys.
“Miss Mei, don’t straggle—” Pacita calls, then starts haggling with the fishmonger in the crowded market, so she’s not paying too much attention to me. I walk a little closer to her, glancing back to see if Arturo is following. He has moved a few feet closer and is staring right at me, which makes my face burn. I look away, but inside I feel like singing.
Arturo is handsome, with thick, dark wavy hair, and he is slender but not skinny. He is Filipino. Uncle doesn’t like me to mix with Filipinos, since we are Chinese. There are not many of us in our town, so the only boys I know go to my Chinese school and are not very interesting. Uncle says that we will go back to China someday, when things there are peaceful, and that Chinese are better than Filipinos, but I don’t agree. Pacita is Filipino, and has helped raise me since before my parents died. She is like a mother to me—but Uncle would not like me saying such things.
I watch Arturo from the corner of my eye as he walks in that funny way of Father’s, and Father’s voice echoes in my mind: You are my Mei-Feng, beautiful and precious. I giggle. Pacita snaps her eyes on me so I stop, but then she starts talking to one of the market women so I move closer to Arturo, Father’s words making me brave. As Pacita talks to the woman selling eggplants, I suddenly find Arturo standing next to me, and before I can say anything he slips a piece of paper into my hand, then disappears into the crowd. I open the fold and read.
You are pretty. Meet me at the river bridge today.
I read the words three times over to make sure I’m seeing them right—he wants to see me! Then I stuff the note quickly into the pocket of my skirt.
“Miss Mei, let’s go—” Pacita says, walking over to me. I wonder what I should do: If I do not go, Arturo may think I do not like him. If I do go, he may think I’m not virtuous. Then I think about what will happen if I do nothing—I will walk home with Pacita, have tea, and read until it’s time to help her prepare dinner for Uncle. The thought of another boring, lonely afternoon makes me want to cry.
“Pacita, can I go and visit Lily? I finished all my schoolwork,” I lie.
“We have too many things to carry. I don’t want to walk all the way to Miss Lily’s house.”
“I’ll go by myself. Here—” I take one of the bags she is holding, and though she eyes me suspiciously, she nods and tells me to come home before the sun starts to go down.
As I walk to the river, I grin with the secret knowledge of the note. I feel like a dozen little fish are flopping around inside my chest. He wants to meet me at the river! Maybe we will walk to the waterfall, my special place—the place where I first found out that I could fly.
The kiss lingered on Delia’s lips. She curled her fingers around her blanket, longing to return to the dream where the woman with green eyes murmured in her ear. The words faded. The dream dissolved. Delia trembled. Heat coursed through her veins. Her limbs tingled. She turned with a slow, languorous movement, imagining the green-eyed woman lying beside her.
“Del!” Her mother’s voice spoiled any chance of re-entering the dream. “The sun is up and you aren’t.”
Delia thrust away her ragged blue blanket. The heat from her dream evaporated, and she shivered in the frigid air.
“Coming,” she called. She reached for her clothes.
The main room of the cottage was warmer than Delia’s tiny alcove. She pushed aside the curtain and joined her mother at the central hearth. The odor of last night’s pottage lingered.
Before she could hang the kettle over the fire, Marthe said, “Another message came. At first light.” She drew it from her pocket and handed it to Delia.
Delia tucked the sealed sheet of vellum into the pocket of her apron and positioned the kettle on the pot hanger.
“It’s from the duke. Why don’t you read it?”
“Have you heard from Rob?” Delia joined Marthe at the rough-hewn table where her mother stood kneading dough. Her older brother had sent a message the week before announcing his first visit home since joining the king’s service.
“He’ll get here when he can.”
Delia crossed the room to the single tiny window. Beyond the road that led toward the village, the forest beckoned. Spring had come and melted most of the snow.
“What about the duke?” Marthe said. “He wants to meet you. He lost his wife at harvest time.”
“The duke had four wives, Mother. Why would I want to be the fifth?”
Before Marthe could answer, Delia’s father entered with an armload of kindling. “Because he can take care of you,” Luc said. “Those rumors of foul play come from ones not chosen, I’d wager. You need a husband, girl. Since Rob left, we can’t earn any extra. It’s all I can do to tend the goats and crops.”
Luc was a good man, kind and honest, but age and work had worn him out, and the accident with the plow had left him with a limp. At nineteen, Delia was overdue for marriage, but no suitor compared with the woman who danced through her dream world. Whenever she refused a hog farmer or apprentice blacksmith, Marthe huffed and said she was too particular. Months had passed since the last hopeful swain approached the cottage.
“I could seek a position in town,” Delia said. “A tutor or chambermaid.” Her heart chilled at the thought of spoiled children and endless chores in someone else’s house, but she had to help out, or find a husband.
The woman who roamed her dreams appeared before her eyes, but Delia shook her head. A dream didn’t put food on the table, but, oh, to be trapped inside a manor house! No more walks through the wood to forage for wild cherries and walnuts. No conversations with the sparrows that landed on her shoulder. No daydreaming by her favorite stream.
“You would find suitors in town,” Marthe said. “Even from the gentry, maybe, but don’t wait too long, love, or you’ll lose your chance for a home and children. You want children, don’t you?” Marthe’s life revolved around Luc and her children, but Delia wasn’t sure. The mysterious woman who roamed her dreams was calling her, but for what? And from where?
The first time I woke up someplace unexpected, it was a bank vault.
I thought I was still dreaming, seeing as how I was naked. But the cold metal walls felt so real against my fingertips. The stacks of bills smelled like real money. The blaring siren was so loud, it couldn’t be my alarm clock.
And it wasn’t.
Since I hadn’t stolen anything, all they could get me for was trespassing and indecent exposure. The bank, anxious to avoid questions about their vault’s security, dropped the charges on the condition I kept my mouth shut. Seemed fair. They even leant me a poncho for the walk home.
On my way out the front door, I ran into my neighbor Fred. He was stumbling down the block in plaid pajamas. Turns out, I wasn’t the only person that had woken up someplace unexpected. Thousands of us had. The city was in chaos. I headed home.
My front door was ajar. I crept through the house in my poncho, peering around corners and inside closets. The intruder was gone. The whole place smelled like hooch, and my fridge was raided of everything but the condiments. A five-dollar bill sat on the counter, next to a note that read: “Sorry, woke up here and got hungry. This should cover some of it. -Jim.”
The pictures on the mantle were all out of order. I imagined the rudely awakened Jim stumbling around in his pajamas, stuffing burnt toast into his mouth, still drunk on bad booze. Knocking everything over, doing a terrible job of putting it back. The pictures I’d so painstakingly hidden in the back row now glared at me from front and center.
Penny and I, drunk-faced and stuffed into a giant Disneyland teacup, buried to our necks in sand by the Venice Beach boardwalk, made-up like zombies and laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, during a Halloween party at our place. Her place, now. My face in the pictures leered at me, as if to say, “Don’t you wish you were still me?”
I rearranged the mantle until all I could see were tactful travel photos devoid of smiling faces. Then I showered and did some yard work. Neighbors stumbled by in an assortment of sleeping attire throughout the day.
This time I put on some boxers before crawling into bed. Good thing I did. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and got a mouthful of salt air. Cold water lapped against my body. A gaggle of surfers smirked at me from the Redondo Beach pier. I waved. Had they fallen asleep in their swim trunks, cradling their surfboards, hoping to wake up at the beach and save themselves the walk?
On my way home, I tried not to think about the last time I’d been in Redondo. Penny and I spent our second anniversary on the pier, eating sushi and counting dolphins, duking it out on Street Fighter, the next day, a bus blindsided her sister. After Tina’s funeral, Penny said she needed some time. A week or two, to get her head straight. Six months later, the divorce papers showed up in the mail. I don’t know if she heard any of my messages or read any of my emails. But she never answered them.
My door was locked when I got home. I let myself in with the hide-a-key, thankful Jim hadn’t returned. My relief evaporated when I heard footsteps on the staircase. I looked around for a place to hide.
It was the new girl down the street, tanned legs jutting from beneath my old Pink Floyd shirt. Makeup smudges cradled her eyes.
“I woke up here.” She headed for the door. “Can I borrow the shirt?”
“Sure. There’s coffee–”
She shut the door behind her.
I sighed, flipped on the news. The city had devolved into mass confusion. Commuters were falling asleep on buses, only to wake up in rooftop bars. The mayor found a convent of nuns sleeping on his office floor. Flash mob pajama parties became an instant fad. Sleeping insurance was a real possibility.
The local news anchor called them “rude awakenings.” The phrase stuck. Scientists were hard at work, promising answers soon.
On the back porch, hummingbirds darted around the old oak tree, fighting for position at the feeder. Penny always loved hummingbirds, the way they buzzed like giant bees. The feeder ended up in one of the boxes she left on my doorstep, the day after the divorce papers arrived. I couldn’t remember to do the damn dishes, but I always kept the feeder full. I had this ridiculous notion that the hummingbirds might lure Penny back.
They never did.
That night, I was so tired I forgot all about the rude awakenings. I woke to a familiar alarm blaring in my ears. Finally, my own bed again. It felt like I hadn’t woken up here in months. The big down comforter, the loose spring–
This wasn’t my bed. Not anymore. I threw off the covers and hit the lights. I stood naked in our old room. The bed, the dresser, the nightstand were all exactly where I’d left them, ten months ago. Of all the rotten luck.
I cracked the door. Silence. I crept downstairs. Filtered sunlight drew fractal patterns against the living room walls. Bare walls. No pictures, no artwork. Each room looked just as I remembered it, except for the walls. As if Penny had scrubbed our history clean.
Keys rattled in the front door. I glanced down, saw that I was still naked and dove behind the couch.
I sighed. “It’s me.”
Penny stood in the doorway, wearing orange striped pajamas. She held an armload of framed photos.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
I squinted at the photos. “Are those mine?”
“No! I mean, yes. I woke up in your house. The new one.”
“I woke up here. Hey, can you shut the door? I’m naked.”
She kicked the door shut. For an uncomfortable moment we just stared at each other. Then she set the photos down and headed upstairs.
After a brief commotion, she came back down. “Sorry, laundry day. This is all I’ve got.”
She tossed me a pair of frilly boxers with the word PINK emblazoned on the back. I shot her a glare, but she’d already disappeared into the kitchen. I put them on.
Penny returned with a pot of coffee and two mugs. She slumped into the corner of the couch. Her hair had gotten longer, and her face thinner. It hurt to look at her after all this time, but it hurt worse to look away.
“This rude awakening thing is exhausting.”
I sat down across from her. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry I stole your stuff.”
I waved my hand at the blank walls. “What happened to yours?”
“I threw them out.” Her expression clouded over. “They reminded me of Tina.”
“Then why take mine?”
She chewed on her lip. Her fingers grazed the photos.
“Disneyland. You remember how much liquor we smuggled in?”
“Enough rum to conquer Tom Sawyer Island. Those poor kids.”
She laughed. Tension eased from my shoulders.
“I thought you were gonna drown when you went overboard on that pirate ride.”
“I almost did. Thank god you had enough rum left to bribe the attendants, or we’d still probably be in jail.”
She flipped to the next picture, puddle-jumping in a Hollywood rainstorm. Then the next, surfboard headstands at the Marina Del Rey harbor. And the next, stuffed into fake sumo suits, locked in an eternal struggle. We talked until the coffee ran out. Then we cracked open beers and talked some more. I forgot that I was wearing women’s underwear, and that the walls were blank, and that the hummingbird feeder was hanging from a different tree, now. We ate ice cream out of the container, jawed about who was better with Chun-Li or E. Honda.
Long after the sun had gone down, she picked up the last photo. It was the one from the pier, the day before Tina was killed. Our mouths were so stuffed with sushi we could hardly smile for the camera.
Neither of us could think of anything to say about the photo.
Penny looked at me. “After Tina died, I went to bed every night wishing I’d wake up someplace different. Somewhere Tina was still alive. Where everything was still sushi and sunsets and Street Fighter.”
Penny slid closer, rested her head against my chest. She struggled to keep her eyelids open. “Do you think we’ll still be here when we wake up?”
Her breath was warm against my skin. It felt like home.
“I don’t know. But I hope so. Because I’m still wearing your underwear.”
She smiled, and in her eyes I could tell that our rude awakenings had finally come to an end.
Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including The Colored Lens, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Perihelion.
Bad things happen and sometimes there’s no one to blame. But each time I heard that from some well-meaning friend, the knife twisted a little further, cut a little deeper. I didn’t need them to tell me I was throwing everything to the wind: career, money, marriage. It wasn’t as if I had a choice.
Damned if I was going to lose my daughter–not again. Each death was a little harder to bear than the last.
So I pulled the photos from the envelope for one last look, even though I was running late for the divorce hearing. It gave me pleasure knowing Suzanne’s lawyers probably billed her by the minute.
I tilted the photograph on top for a better look. Except for a desk lamp, the apartment was in darkness. Beyond the picture window, downtown city lights glittered distantly thirty stories below. Suzanne used to call the place god’s platform and it did seem rather apt. My money had bought me that: luxury and distance–and other things besides.
In the photo, Alyson looked happy. We’d had a row the morning of her death, a stupid, pointless little argument. But I saw no trace of lingering resentment on her face now. I tilted the photo to catch the light, wanting to be sure.
Tomorrow (or maybe the day after) this would all be gone: the apartment, the houses, cars, investments–all my assets liquidated. But it would buy me the most important thing of all.
And that was all that mattered.