Again Elton stretched his fingers out over the far edge of his desk, and again they curled. Shy, in their own way.
Her voice hammered down.
“You impertinent little devil! What did I say?”
Elton blubbered, setting the boys in the class to snickering. He pressed his palms to the smooth oak top and pointed ten times at the chalkboard.
Miss Humphreys’ willow switch cracked down too fast to see. Elton leapt yelping to his feet and flapped his fingers in the air.
“Nose to the corner,” Miss Humphreys said. “For the rest of this Lord’s day.” She pointed with the switch, as if Elton and every other student didn’t already know which corner she meant.
Elton looked down at Royce with his slickened hair parted in a gentlemanly fashion. Royce shuffled in his desk and smiled softly.
“Please,” Elton stammered. “No. I—”
“Ah! So soon? Such moxie!”
Elton knelt by his desk and spread his fingers again but Mrs. Humphreys had seen enough. She grabbed him with a twist to the ear, adding in a pinch of her nails for good measure and, ignoring Elton’s squeals, deposited him at the front corner of the room next to the shelf of readers tattered and worn, behind the chipped enamel globe, far away from the heat of the pot-bellied stove.
“Kneel,” Miss Humphreys said, “if it suits you so. Pray for absolution. Think only of your shame.”
Elton mumbled from the corner but Miss Humphreys turned away.
“Now, where were we?” she asked.
A score of students focused upon their slates.
For the remainder of the morning, whenever Miss Humphreys was sure to be distracted, hesitant glances were cast at Elton’s back. His forehead stayed pressed to the corner. His arms hung slack at his sides.
During arithmetic facts and figures, he never turned around.
When Fabius Maximus targeted supply lines like a rabid Mescalero, Elton kept his shoulders stone-still.
Even when cinnamon-pigtailed Genevieve, whom it was rumored Elton favored, went up front to gather and pass out the readers, he didn’t offer the slightest twitch.
At recess the wind blew chill and steady through the dry grass and bottlebrush. The older children stole to the eastern side of the school.
“Can you see ‘em?” Genevieve asked.
“Shh.” Oliver, the tallest eighth grader, stood on his toes and peeked through the window. “He’s there.”
Oliver ducked down quickly. The other dozen students followed suit. “She’s heatin’ a coffee atop the stove.”
The group walked back to the school’s front porch. They pressed close to the peeling white woodwork, out of the wind’s reach.
Genevieve glared at Royce. “What’d you tell him?”
“Nothin’,” Royce said.
“You said somethin’ that got him scared.”
“Royce Kroupa, you ain’t ever goin’ to heaven!”
Royce chuckled. “You want to know too?”
“Tell us,” Oliver said. The crowd of kids were in like agreement.
“All right then.” Royce sniffed and squinted at October’s bare horizon. “I had a tutor for a spell.”
“Yeah,” Genevieve said. “Like you ain’t brought that up none.”
“Well, it’s true and he told me stuff, on account of he knows how teachers think. ‘Cause he sorta is one, follow?”
The group agreed.
“There’s reasons why they choose the corner, and not say, the stoop or the recitin’ bench.”
Royce looked slowly from eye to eye. No one interrupted.
“There’s somethin’ there,” he said.
“What are you on about?” Genevieve asked with blatant doubt.
“In olden times. Like the General Whatsit—”
“Maximus?” Oliver offered.
Royce snapped his fingers. “Maximus. Back then they done it too. That’s where the teachers learned it. They’d perch a kid in the corner with his nose up close where he can smell the woodwork, right?”
The group muttered. They’d all had a stint in the corner at one time or another.
“Well,” Royce said. “It’s a test, see? There’s something in the corner. In every corner.” His excitement continued to build. “And when it sees a young’un that’s unwanted, just a burden on the world, why sometimes, if it’s particu-airily hungry, it reaches out and snatches ‘em up!”
“From the corner,” Genevieve said slowly with her lids half-closed.
“You bet. It’s a paper man. It sidles out edgewise. Anything in the corner is its. You stand there long enough and you’re in a serious way.”
“Paper?” Oliver asked. “That ain’t worth frettin’.”
“Naw, but it’s witchy and edge-sharp. Prunes the fingers of pilferin’ nibblers and takes the tongues of fibbers. Then, before you know what’s yours, it rumples you up like a pleat. Swallows you down then and there or fobs you in its pocket for later snackin’.”
“I oughta tell your pa,” Genevieve said. “Let him know how you spin lies and stories.”
Royce chuckled dryly.
Though Oliver also seemed unimpressed, the other students were quiet. The wind kicked up in a bluster, whipping hair and loose clothing about, yet Royce’s perfect part stayed in place.
“I’ll prove it’s so,” he said. “Watch.”
Miss Humphreys rang the class bell to end morning recess and the children hurried back inside. Elton still hadn’t moved from his place up front. Miss Humphreys gave him all the attention of a foot stool. While the next lesson was being prepared Royce raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr. Kroupa?” Miss Humphreys asked.
“I was a-wonderin’—”
“Wondering,” she corrected.
“Yes’m. In olden times, those codger Romans?”
Miss Humphreys blinked rapidly, perhaps a bit taken aback that anyone in the class wanted to know more, this student in particular.
“They had teachers and such back then?” Royce asked.
“They set up the how and why of schoolin’.”
“Well—” Miss Humphreys rubbed the bridge of her long nose. She pushed her glasses back high. “To some extent, yes. The Greeks and the Romans taught us the value of a learned society.”
“But,” Royce said, his tone dramatically falling, “they had dark ways.”
“And who told you that?”
“Genny, she did.”
Genevieve pressed her lips into a dour frown.
“Well,” Miss Humphreys said, “she would be correct.”
“She says they used to fodder their kids to the coyotes.”
“Wolves. That may be—”
“Like offal. If’n a kid wasn’t fit and kelter, they had ways. Weird rites and sacrificin’. Ain’t—isn’t that so?”
Miss Humphreys gave Genevieve a knowing look. “Yes, they were most unchristian, and we will speak no more of that.”
“Sinister,” Royce said.
“I said, no more.”
Royce let the issue drop but turned with nods and winks. The younger students fidgeted in their front row seats. Elton still hadn’t moved.
Mike Ironbark drove the shovel into the hard dry ground. He glanced at the year-old oak seedling in the pot nearby, and wondered how many years it would take for the tree to shade the farmhouse. “This is for you, Dad,” he said.
Dad had believed that everything is connected, and he died twelve months to the day. They had potted the acorn that night in his memory. Today they’d plant the seedling in the ground and celebrate his life again. Mike’s arms and shoulders ached from the compacted soil. He blamed the early onset of summer. He stood, straightened his tight back muscles and removed his worn wide-brimmed hat. He wiped the sweat off his brow and stared at the small rise of hills in the distance. They marked the edge of the farm and had already turned a deep shade of rusty-brown. In front of them, the heat shimmered above the expanse of wheat. How could it be so hot in the morning? “Curse this heat,” he said and looked around for his crowbar. He stared up at the cloudless, indigo-blue sky, proud of his successes on the land. This was Dad’s farm, his legacy.
He turned at the sound of the back screen door spring stretching. Anna, his wife, stood by the door of their farmhouse, a towel wrapped around her slender body and her long wet hair stuck to her. Mike couldn’t help but smile. She looked beautiful, and he was the luckiest man alive.
“Mike, there’s no water for Maisie Jane’s shower,” she said.
“Have you checked the tank?”
“Yes, it’s dry.”
Mike’s heart skipped a beat and he frowned. Out here, water was their livelihood. Without it everything would die, the crops, the animals… people. Showers were the least of his concern. But it was odd. The bore pump should have automatically filled the house tank overnight. The breaker had probably tripped; it had done that a few times of late. Salt or contaminants became lodged in the pipes that stretched deep underground, into Australia’s Great Artesian Basin.
“Have we got power in the house?”
“Okay, I’ll go check.”
“Daddy, Daddy.” The outside screen door opened wider. Their daughter, Maisie Jane, ran around Anna and made a beeline toward him. He smiled and squatted down. She threw herself into his arms, the spitting image of Anna, except she was tall and her eyes a deeper blue—something she’d inherited from him.
Maisie Jane still looked too pale and thin, but the doctors had said that her leukemia was in remission. He hoped so. “Sleep well, Mouse?” He ruffled her uncombed hair.
The six-year-old nodded. Maisie Jane looked around him, to the small hole in the ground, at his shovel, and the oak tree. “Grandpa’s tree,” she said.
His throat tightened, and he swallowed several times to work it away before speaking. They’d made many promises on Dad’s deathbed, but it had been at Maisie Jane’s insistence that they planted an acorn in his memory.
It didn’t seem a year ago that his father had leaned forward and put his paper-thin hand on Maisie Jane’s cheek. “Mouse,” he said. “You can tell your grandchildren it was Grandpa’s tree because he loved you so much.” She’d nodded. “And by the time the tree is well established, then you’ll have the Poseidon Stones I gave to your dad. Magic stones, like Poseidon, the god of water.”
Dad had chuckled and made one last joke before he passed shortly after, his hand on Maisie Jane’s arm.
Mike’s throat tightened again. Dad had always been bigger than life, and he hoped he’d be the same for Maisie Jane. His hands went to the chain around his neck, to where the three small emeralds were cocooned in silk and their separate hessian bags. Poseidon Stones. Even now they glowed hot as if they had lives of their own. They seemed to call him. Unfamiliar images formed at the edge of his vision, and—
“Don’t cry, Daddy.”
Mike pulled himself from his memories, forced the stone’s images aside; they could wait for another time. He wiped away the tears he’d been unaware of until Maisie Jane spoke and ruffled her hair again. He didn’t trust his voice not to be twisted with emotion and nodded.
“Maisie, come inside and let Daddy check the pump.”
Maisie Jane leaned closer. “Remember?”
He nodded again, and swallowed. “If I see any, I’ll let you know.”
“But don’t hurt them,” she said quickly and held up a tiny index finger in a determined way that reinforced the impression she was such an old soul. At times she seemed years older.
“I won’t.” He stood and watched the young girl run back inside. He smiled and shook his head. There was so much of his mum in her, it was uncanny. He regretted that Mum and Anna had never met, but Mum had passed years before from the cancer. Maisie’s obsession with dragonflies always amused him and especially Dad who had given Maisie Jane his wife’s anniversary gift of an intricate, gilded dragonfly. But Maisie Jane was right; they did tend to dart around near the small, bore pump shed in search of water. They might even be at the header tank, hovering over a broken pipe that fed the farmhouse.
Before I quit my job at Quality Vending earlier that morning, I was the master. I could sell snack machines to anyone. My waistline and my love for refined sugar were my arsenal. My passion for snack cakes translated into excitement during my pitch. My sincerity sold.
Until my sincerity turned to bitterness.
I still ate loads of snack cakes, but they didn’t do anything for me anymore. They’re just a habit. Like breathing. Like masturbation for the ever-shrinking satisfaction of release.
Repetition had worn me down. Eleven years doing the same thing every day will do that to you. When months started to feel like weeks, and weeks like days, I lost my connection to everything. Life was passing me by, but nothing was happening. Time moved faster than I did.
Now that it was over, I needed to retreat to a safe place to figure out what to do next. And that meant Grandma’s house. She used to host Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, and she’d throw you a killer birthday party if you called a few days in advance. The whole family used to come before we all grew up and moved away.
I drove around a curve in the driveway and a gap in the trees revealed my Grandma’s house.
My mother, the real estate agent, called it a lovely Queen Anne Victorian. Three levels with a wraparound porch, a gable roof, and two spire-topped turrets. All of it was still perfect. Grandma had her house painted the same blue-gray every five years, and she quickly repaired anything that broke.
There were two other cars in the parking lot. One was a van for her in-home medical staff. The other was a broken down Kia: dented and rusty. I didn’t recognize it
I got out of my car and several cellophane wrappers came with me. A gust of chilly fall wind blew them into the grove that surrounded the house, where they mixed with the fallen leaves.
I crossed the lot and went up the stairs, trailing my hand along the spindles of the whitewashed railing. I stopped at the wide oak door and rang the doorbell.
I waited a long time before I heard clomping footsteps coming closer to the door. Someone fiddled with the lock, swearing all the while, and finally pulled the door open.
Shit. It was my cousin Cassie. The owner of the crappy Kia.
Cassie frowned. It was one of her two facial expressions. The other was…let me think…oh yeah, bitch. Frown and bitch. They were all she had to work with. She was dressed in a mismatched sweat suit, the top was turquoise and the bottom was pink. Her blonde hair was brown at the roots, short, spiky and angry.
“You selling something?” Cassie asked. “Because we probably don’t want it.”
“No, Cassie. It’s me. Paul.”
Her frown tightened and her lips pulled back to reveal her artificially whitened teeth.
“Your cousin,” I said.
“What do you want?”
“To come in and see Grandma.”
“She’s in the bath.”
“I’m willing to wait.”
She put her hand on her hip. “Are you looking to stay for a while?”
“Just this afternoon, overnight at the max.”
Her frown relaxed to her face’s resting bitch setting. “Come on in then.”
Outside there is only death. Wren had learned these words almost twenty years ago, as part of a nursery rhyme. Hunkered down in the passenger seat of the crawler, waiting to set out on his first assignment, it was all he could think. He felt small within the bulky white suit, each breath coming heavy through the mask’s filter. Reentry would mean a quarantine lasting more than a week. So far, that at least had worked; there was no record of contamination within Hub.
When the last set of doors slid open and the crawler passed through, Wren only stared without a word. He blinked at the sun until his eyes stung and began to water. Wren turned, then, to gape at the clouds. They billowed upward, dwarfing those in the museum exhibits, putting to shame the clouds in his head. Below, level with the crawler, there was just a vast, green expanse of thickets that rose and stretched about Hub. It was beautiful. Wren had to keep reminding himself that it was fatal, too.
The landscape moved along in silence for almost two hours, without a word between Wren and the driver. They passed abandoned cars and structures punctured by vines, as they navigated around dormant warheads, deep craters, and crippled, grinning signs. In the distance, a dark building loomed over the ruins, still intact, like the last bottle in a sea of glass. With each moment it seemed to grow, until the crawler pulled off the fractured highway and rumbled to a stop at the structure’s entrance.
The forward canopy snapped open and the two men climbed out, letting themselves down over the tall wheels. Wren held back as the driver approached the doors and keyed in the entry code, sending a signal to Hub. It was the only communication left outside their dome–just that request lighting up on a display panel somewhere back home.
As they waited for the Hub technicians to verify entry, Wren felt the terror all around him, creeping through the pale film of his suit. It was like knocking on a door two hundred miles away. What if the filtration on their masks broke down while they waited, as it had for the old man? Wren glanced at the driver. He stared placidly ahead, carrying only a latched tablet. Glass and fabric–that was all that protected them from the air outside. How could he be so calm?
Wren almost dropped his case when the steel doors unfastened themselves, peeling back to allow entry to the decontamination chamber. They stepped inside, and the driver tapped the lock, sealing the entrance behind them. Wren could see nothing through the mist as it pooled around their bodies, wiping them clean.
Once the second set of doors pulled back, and they entered the lobby, Wren stood silent, surveying the building’s floor. Piles of random objects clogged the hallway, nearly meeting his waist where he stood.
“Your contract,” the driver said, his voice distorted through the mask. He unlatched the imprint tablet and handed it over.
“Take off your gloves. Press here, and here, to verify that you’ve arrived and been let in,” the driver continued, gesturing as he spoke.
Wren managed only a nod in response, pushing his thumb against the lines that displayed his name and the words “Delivered.” The driver grunted and turned, pressing the lock once again. Wren watched the doors as they swallowed the man. He waited, and listened as the crawler sputtered to life outside the building and trundled away. After a moment, he turned and fell to his knees. For the first time in his life, Wren was completely alone.
Alyss had almost given herself up for lost when she heard the footsteps.
She sat up among her blankets, listening. Yes, there–the rapid click-clack of heels on cobblestones. Someone doubtless in a hurry to get home and shut out the bitter winter evening. Someone fortunate enough to have a home at all.
Alyss fumbled for the battered top hat that lay, bottom-up, before her. Little good it had done. The streets had been unusually quiet all day, and those pedestrians who had ventured out, stingy. Alyss wished she could say that were unusual.
But perhaps this one would be different. She needed this one to be different.
Alyss peered along the alleyway. The glow of a nearby street lamp revealed that the person approaching was a woman, all bundled up in a coat and bonnet. Her nose was wrinkled against the stink of the gutter, and she held her skirts clear of the ground with gloved hands. Not a regular visitor to the Warren then, but not too fine either. Alyss felt a twinge of hope. This was the type who might take pity.
She held out her hat as the woman came closer. “Spare a prayer, miss? Spare a prayer.” Her voice emerged as a cracked whisper, hoarse with disuse and the cold.
The woman started at the words, emerging as they did from the shadows beside a brimming dustbin. Her eyes flickered towards their source, but when she spied Alyss she hastily averted her gaze. Alyss’s hope–meagre in the first place–receded. But she couldn’t afford to give up so easily.
“Spare a prayer for an unlucky god, miss?” she tried again. “Come on, miss. I’m down on me luck. Spare a little prayer.”
Yet the woman only click-clacked onwards, allowing Alyss to glimpse her shoes beneath the hem of her skirt. Patent leather, they were; well made, with smart little heels. Alyss looked sadly at her own boots–cast-offs from a laborer’s child, soles flapping at the toes, laces missing, threads frayed.
Hunger growled in her belly, warning her that it knew how weak she was, that the moment was coming when it would finally pounce.
She wouldn’t have many more chances.
Alyss made one final attempt. Bracing herself against the chill, she let her blankets fall away, exposing her skinny ankles, her tattered skirts–and her wings. Poking out of her jacket, the once-proud pinions dangled down her back, inert and useless.
“Please, miss. Please, one little prayer. I ain’t asking for a litany, just a tiny prayer will do. I’ve fallen on hard times, miss. I’ve no disciples left. Please. One prayer. Spare one little prayer.”
She waited, trembling with cold and anxiety. She didn’t know whether her piteous display would persuade her audience, for her cry was the cry of half the gods in the city. Abandoned deities lurked on every street, hunkered down in doorways and under bridges, thin and wretched, cradling hunger in their bellies just as Alyss did. With so many begging for succor, the populace had grown accustomed–and hardened–to their pleading.
Like as not this lady would be the same, hurrying off into the deepening night in her expensive shoes and never thinking again of the starving god she’d passed on her way. But just as Alyss began to draw her blankets back around herself, the woman’s stride faltered, and she walked back a few steps to look down at the shivering supplicant. Alyss returned her gaze, beseeching, hardly daring to believe her luck.
The lady’s lips were chapped, her eyes sombre, and Alyss realized that she didn’t look so very proud after all. She wondered what the woman thought of her, a child-sized godling with a pale, pinched face and drifting white hair, almost drowned in her oversized garb. Alyss was no beauty, she knew that much. She had been formed of garbage–knuckles made of bottle-corks, wings of sackcloth, features molded from rain-pulped newspaper–and it showed. Although Wakening had smoothed away her seams and transformed her motley parts to flesh, her ignoble origins were still apparent. Alyss’ body was awkward and crooked, her limbs more knobby than a grandfather oak. Newsprint peeked through the skin of her cheeks.
She tried to smile, but found she was so frozen and miserable that she couldn’t force it out. Yet the sight of her must have stirred the woman to sympathy, for she bowed her head and mumbled a few words–some generic wish for health or happiness. A wisp of prayer slid from between her lips, curling in the frigid air. She plucked it from her mouth and dropped it into Alyss’ waiting hat.
“Thank you, miss. Oh, thank you. Bless you, bless you.” Alyss wasn’t in a position to bless anyone, but she reckoned it was the thought that counted.
The woman ignored her thanks. She only leant down and said, quickly, “I’d get indoors if I were you.” Then she turned and click-clacked into the night.
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.