Fiction

Everything For Beth

“How long?” I asked, though it was more a reflexive thing than conscious, a way to let quantum uncertainty rise to entanglement, a way to buy myself some time to process the worst news a mother can get.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about the Kitui virus, Gail,” Dr. Abraham said, “we know less about it after ten years than we did about HIV in its first decade.” She leaned across the arm of her chair and cradled my hand in hers. “We aren’t yet sure what triggers the onset of symptoms. It could be years before Beth shows even preliminary symptoms.”

“And when she does? How long then?” Outside, a crow squawked and was answered by its friends. What a racket. I hate those birds. Dirty, filthy, noisy, greedy. I snatched my hand back.

“Depending on how strong her immune system is, and how careful you are with her nutrition, anywhere from six to sixty months.” The doctor’s eyes searched my face. I could feel them on me, digging into my brain. Peeling back the layers of hair, skin, tissue, and bone until she could steal the thoughts right out of my head.

“Can I take her home now?”

A soft sigh. “We need to bring her temperature down a bit more and get her fully hydrated. It’s best if you leave her here overnight, and if she responds well you can take her home in the morning.”

I jumped up. “Thank you, Doctor.” I couldn’t look at her. “How long before my GP has all this?” My eyes burned with pending tears, and I needed to get away, to be alone. By the time she answered me, I had tapped my thumb pads against my middle fingers from the second knuckle all the way up to the pad, then all the way back down.

“It usually takes two business days for updates to reach practitioners, as long as they run updates every night.”

I remembered to aim a nod in her direction before I bolted. I didn’t quite make it to the emergency stairs before the dam burst, but at least I was able to hold onto the sobs. Beth, my darling little girl, just five years old. The door clicked shut behind me and I fell to my knees, the sobs ripping through me as if my lungs wanted to fly away, taking my heart with them. How could this happen? It was unfair in the extreme, she was just a little girl! It should be some bad guy who got sick and died in pain from an incurable illness. Good people deserved good things, and Beth was good. Good, dammit! I sobbed and raged, pounding my fists against the wall until I’d bloodied them. It was wrong, so very wrong, for a mother to bury a child. I could not let this happen.

I am Mary

This morning is not good, like yesterday. Mr. Jones is unwell. He hasn’t been well since we came here. I am sad about that. I am a wife, Mary, Mr. Jones’s wife. I used to call him ‘Bob’, but everyone here calls him ‘Mr. Jones’, so I do too.

Mr. Jones and I have been here for three months. We came here after hospital, when he had his stroke. Mr. Jones can’t do much for himself anymore, so I help him. I wash him, I feed him, I take him to the toilet, I change his clothes. Doing these things is good. It makes me feel good. I love Mr. Jones.

In the afternoon, Mr. Jones seems better. So I dress him in his suit, and he goes down to the lounge to meet the others. Of course he doesn’t go by himself. I wheel him down. And when he is there he can’t speak or talk to the others. But he looks smart in his suit, supported by the cushions, and I am proud of him. He looks at me sometimes. I am sure he loves me.

50 Mile Station

It was Brazil, he had to keep reminding himself. Variations of green and brown, and lakes, rivers, and far on the horizon, the indigo edge of the ocean pressed upon his eyes in sharp detail. He stared at it for hours at a time.

A red barrel slid past the window, smooth and big as a ship, blocking his view. Jerrel noted the numbers as they slowly slipped by: 7… 0… 5… 1… A. The 7 meant that it was from San Francisco, but he knew that already because it was red. Every barrel was at least half windowed, by law, unless it was a nuclear one. Black bags and plastic bottles were crushed against the windows that were smeared with black mold. This matched the stated contents of the manifest: trash. It traveled up the cord. A few seconds later it picked up speed and would be released when it reached geosynchronous orbit, in a few hours.

7051A content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

The ISS zoomed above him, Jerrel barely glanced at it. It was as ordinary as the hand of a clock, marking every hour and a half. Marking every time he would kiss the picture of his daughter. This started as a tool to help him cope with being alone, but now if he missed the kiss because he didn’t notice the ISS, he panicked. Only kissing the picture 20, 30, 40 times would calm him down again. This concerned him, but he couldn’t stop.

The barrels came about every hour. He was to visually inspect the contents and confirm that they matched the manifest. This one was a Dallas White. These were less rusty than the reds; their barrels were newer because they had not been allowed to use the Vator until about a year ago. 4… 3… 8… C… 3. Liquid, unspecified type. Dallas won the right to keep the exact content of their barrels private, after years of failed negotiations, during which thousands of citizens died from the nuclear waste in the water supply. Finally, the North American Elevator Corp decided they needed Dallas as a customer more than they needed to know what was in their barrels.

The Heat-Death of Everything I Love

Before the old church doors, in the warm darkness of the vestibule, Sabine’s mother stooped down to look her daughter in the eyes.

“What you were is past.”

She swept aside the veil of the girl’s communion dress—a billowy thing like a crown of unspooled gauze—and blotted her tears out with a thumb. Shrill music crept in from the sanctuary, dissonant chords from a heat-warped organ.

“What you will be is yet to come.”

Smiling wide, she held her child’s face in calloused hands. Her daughter, her anxious little girl on the threshold. Sabine was frightened by a simple ritual; that was good—it meant she’d done her motherly duty, protected the child from those things to be truly feared.

For now, at least.

Somewhere high above the stone ceiling, the great chrome shape of the Teardrop hung silent in the sky. Soon the first Greys would appear at the marketplace in Croix-des-Bouqets, slender bodies towering above the crowds.


Sabine’s dinner has gone cold.

So it was you. You killed our world.

“Not me, ch’atha—” Her husband extends a spindly arm, straightened at both joints to cross the length of the kitchen table.

She slaps it away. Turns in her seat to face the cupboards, the sink, the kitchen window—anything but him: Don’t call me dearest. Not in your language, not in mine.

Sabine rubs her forehead with a hand that comes away wet and clammy, fingers trembling. In her mind’s eye she pictures it: herself, her body, unraveling like the end of a frayed rope.

“I understand this must be difficult,” he says. Rehearsed. Sanctimonious. Typical Grey fashion. “You’ve lost a great—”

You have no idea what I’ve lost, she snaps. You can’t begin to fathom.

Watchers

The car took him to therapy before work, never a good sign. He called in from the waiting room. Jann didn’t like it of course, but what could Rick do? If you wanted health care you followed the rules and that included emergency therapy. He just wished he’d known. Rick had skipped breakfast and now he was sitting there hungry. You didn’t dare ask the receptionist how much longer. They scrutinized you constantly and even a twitch meant something. He tried to look happy. That’s what they wanted to see.

The android behind the counter called his name. The bald face mimicked a human persona remarkably. “Andrea will take you back, Mr. Dalton.”

He followed the tall, platinum-haired woman in the pleated black dress to a therapy room. Once he settled into the waterlounger, she went after his tea. “Mint, hot?” she asked from the alcove.

He had this. Rick drank mint iced except in the morning, except during emergency therapy when he always asked for it cold. “If you don’t mind, I’d like iced.”

“Of course. Doctor has a note. You’re to take this.”

A small square section of the table rose. In the center dimple sat a little gel cap. He sighed as he picked it up. “Thank you.”

She was there with his beverage. “Doctor will be with you presently.”

“Thank you.” He watched her leave, careful to look away appropriately. He swallowed the gel cap, sipped, and glanced at the Monet. Studied the ballerinas a bit, because he was sure they knew he liked it. Then back to the tea.

The space behind the desk shimmered as Dr. Kim’s hologram appeared. “Hello, Rick.”

“Hello, Dr. Kim.”

Dr. Kim’s image flickered and then the sharp eyes were back. “Rick, we had a spike in your routine I wanted to discuss.”

Canvas Captured

Breezes of brilliant hues flowed from the Painter’s brushes to stroke the canvas with shadow and light. This evening, a summer night indefinite in time, she danced a mirror upon the canvas, sunset flashing through the paint-flecked gate as it flashed through the real gate outside.

Yet it was a broken mirror in one aspect: in the real world, the gate was locked and could not be opened by her. Her patron refused to release her, save when she needed inspiration, a new scene to paint. Then she went boarded up in a carriage and concealed from prying eyes. By these machinations, the Duke hoped to convince the City the paintings were his, but rumors of the Painter were enough to sustain the truth of her work. There was too much of her in the paintings, too much life, too much brilliance set free.

She had never painted the gate before, open or closed. Every one of the Duke’s tamed gardens and exotic curiosities had been depicted by her hand – but never the gate. It was the one pain in her heart, and it ached to look at the reminder of her captivity.

Even as she painted it, the gate changed in her mind. It became a thing of light and hope, beckoning, inviting… as if the world in canvas were as real as the world in flesh.

She sensed when the Duke entered the room and did not turn, rapt upon the tumult of tones. He would often watch her for a time, but never interrupted her.

The Painter finished smoothing the last daubed shadow and turned to face him. She did not need to stand back or study her work to know it was complete. The rich orange sun gleamed, bathing the path outside in promise.

The Duke’s eyes flashed with a moment’s wonder, but he dismissed it. “I wish you would do portraits,” he said. “That’s where the money and the fame is. The artist who captured my late wife works for the High King now.”

The Voice from Beyond the Desert

The low whine of a single locust tittered through the midday heat before abruptly and percussively ending with a crunch of the Botanist’s sandal into the Mojave ground, kicking up a somber cloud of desert dust. The Botanist set down her pack and shaded her eyes with a hand to her forehead as she surveyed the horizon for her next subject. She spotted the spined and clubby hands of the yucca brevifolia waving hello to her from behind a nearby boulder.

After collecting samples and taking down notes and measurements, having scientific conversations with the Joshua Tree she had traveled here to study, she looked towards the dying light in the sky. The sun had gotten low as her conversations with the trees rambled away from her. She had meant to head back to camp hours ago; the Geologist would be waiting with dinner ready over the fire by sundown. The Botanist grabbed her pack and started making her way back in the direction of their shared research camp.

The walkie-talkie on her hip crackled with static air as the Botanist’s shadow loomed behind her, elongated and alien. The rocks and boulders and Joshua Trees of the Mojave were traced with golden yellow light against the yawning sky. The walk was long. As the sun died beneath its desert coffin and the stars started to show themselves, the Botanist clicked off her walkie-talkie. And breathed deep. Dry air. In, out. Sandpaper breaths. She looked upwards.

Painting without Canvas

“It’s nice to see you,” I whisper, digging deep into Enzo’s broad shoulders.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “I got lost.” His voice is barely audible over the humming escalator and conversation bouncing between foyer walls.

“Aren’t you always lost?” I smile but it feels as if the joke brushed too close to reality. Maybe it has been a little too long since we last saw each other. I haven’t heard from Enzo since we went to the movies three weeks ago, but he called last night to ask if I would meet him at the Museum of Modern Art.

We slip from our hug and he holds me at arm’s length, one strong hand on each of my bony shoulders. His wide eyes are half hidden under overgrown brown hair, which curls on his forehead. I am staring back at him, looking at the swirls of purple and red and orange my fingertips left on the fabric of his sweater. My pasty fingerprints, made of the same material as watercolor pigments before they’ve been saturated with water, have left an imprint on Enzo’s shoulders as they always do when I hold him that hard. I pressed harder this time, thinking both the affection and the color will lighten whatever darkness Enzo feels, or maybe just wanting to leave a mark that will last the distance suddenly present between us.

He turns towards the escalator and I follow, using my right pointer finger to trace a rainbow heart on the outside of the metallic wall before turning to walk onto the first step. It’s something I leave for others to see without knowing where it came from and how it got there, like a random smiley face someone might scribble with a Sharpe.
On the step in front of us, an older man and woman with interlocked arms are smiling in amusement, exchanging few words. They’re watching the young woman in front of them, who is focusing through wide glasses with translucent frames on her son. Trying to keep him still as she holds a tissue to his nose and asks him to blow.

This trip feels different than any of the others I have made to the Museum of Modern Art. I’m aware of the people around me, the sounds and words filling these white corridors with life, as if I’ve just pulled off a pair of sunglasses. My usual rush to get on and off the escalator is not controlling my movements. That drive to get to the art as fast as possible is muffled by fear of what I might discover about myself, about Enzo, or about our relationship. I focus on the moving escalator railing – thin and thick hands, young hands, older and frailer hands, all of them careless. My hands, which appear like all of the others, are a work of art in itself; my fingertips swirl teal, orange, and purple. Stepping off, we move into the first gallery.

“Do you remember this one?” I say.

Silt and Shale

My life’s always been a slate sunset, but it really hit a shit river one cold evening on Pier Thirty-three, Brynn Bay.

Sita and I had nabbed a keg of spikeberry wine and taken it to the pier, where we dangled our legs while we drank it down and hallucinated all night. The sea crashed against the pillars and made the world quake and Sita, prone, moaned and clenched the wood slats ’til her fingers went white. I stood tall at the end of the pier and the sea roared and swayed me back and forth and side to side, but never could topple me. I laughed to the black sky, I raised my fists high and bellowed at the night and called for lightning to incinerate me and scatter my ashes into the bay, but heaven never took to my taunts, so I laughed ’til I cried, I cried ’til I laughed, I laughed ’til I rasped, I rasped ’til I cried again. Sita clutched my legs and threw up all over my boots, then my tummy twisted and I found myself keeled over too. The wine hurtled out our bellies and splattered into the bay.

Sita pressed her face against my ankles. “What’s happening, Kaani?”

“It’s just the wine.”

We laid quiet for a long time as we waited for sobriety’s return, while Brynn Bay hammered the pier.

They found us. I think. It may have been a spikeberry vision. Two men stormed Pier Thirty-three, their only weapons biceps thick as tree trunks, their skin even darker than mine, so in the night, they seemed headless, angry eyes over burly bodies. They trapped us against all of Brynn Bay, a thousand gallons of chilled saltwater, and I had nothing but a flax gown and a oak keg of wine and Sita at my side.

I rolled the keg to the edge of the pier and clutched the bung. “Come closer, and Brynn Bay’s getting drunk on all your precious wine.”

“That’s the Gutterking’s wine. You dump it in the bay, you’ll never pay off that debt. You could spend your life spreading your legs for every man in the city and you’d never make enough. That wine’s worth your life, fifty times over.”

“Fifty of yours too.” I grinned so wide it hurt my jaw. “What will the Gutterking do to you if Brynn Bay drinks up?”

I couldn’t see it, but I sensed their scowls, I sensed the air stiffen and crackle with their violent intent. They advanced. I yanked the bung out and let a gulp of red spikeberry wine splash into Brynn Bay before I jammed it back in. “That’s one life! Back up!”

They did. The tide crashed against the pier and the world swam and intricate patterns glittered on the sea foam. The men muttered as they pondered a new plan. I held my hostage close, the oak cold against my fingers. Sita wiped her mouth and stood beside me.

The men noticed her, and a light gleamed in their eyes. “She’d make a fortune posted in Sava District. A lot more than the ugly one.”

I hissed. Of course Sita would. I pulled her behind me.

Cephi

The drone hovered outside the window of the high-rise, gazing at the occupants of the 36th floor. A man in a white shirt and striped tie was eating a sandwich at his desk, oblivious to its presence.

Four hundred and thirty-two feet below, Jerry Donovan held his finger above the remote’s trigger and regarded the man in the video feed. He did not know him; he never knew any of them.

Just then, the man stopped his chewing, and turned his head to the window, a piece of arugula dangling from his lips. He locked eyes with the camera.

Jerry pulled the trigger.

A jet of water and soap suds speckled the one-inch pane of glass between them and dribbled down into the window seam. Jerry fingered the joystick forward until the two-foot long squeegee made contact with the window. The drone dragged the squeegee downward, wiping away the soap and the residue of city smog.

The man in the striped tie began to chew again, watching the drone’s progress with distracted disinterest.

Jerry shifted on his makeshift stool on the sidewalk and gazed about at the throng of pedestrians moving around him. Like his drone, the people who looked at him barely seemed to register his existence.

At times, he missed being up there, suspended by a few ropes hundreds of feet above the sidewalk. He thought the advent of window-washing drones would put him out of the job, but they still needed operators. Whether it was safer to cling to a high-rise or sit on a crowded Los Angeles sidewalk, had yet to be determined. It had not stopped his boss from taking away his hazard pay. Fortunately, the city was due to expand, to push out into the Santa Monica bay. The sooner it did the better, in his opinion. The sidewalks were getting too crowded.

When his drone arrived at the thirty-fifth floor, all of his bitter musings evaporated.

Jerry sat straighter and maneuvered his drone to the next window. A small, rare smile tugged at his lips.

Along the length of the room sat five equally spaced desks, each occupied by a person staring at a computer monitor. Closest to him was a woman with large, dark-framed glasses and brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a white blouse beneath a slender dark gray business suit.

Jerry did not know her name, but he gazed in on her for a few minutes every week. Unlike other windows, he always took his time with this one.

It would have felt creepy, stalker-ish even, but she never failed to give him a smile and a wave. Today was no different, and her face brightened when she caught sight of the shadow of his drone on the carpeted floor.

Jerry dutifully sprayed the window with the cleaner.

The joystick was slippery with sweat, and he took a moment to wipe his palms dry on his pant legs.

Then he went for it.

The camera view pitched and yawed with the motions of the drone, and he unconsciously leaned from side to side, squinting into the camera feed. A moment later, spelled out in relief among the soapsuds, was the word “Hi.”

Through a clean part of the glass, he could see her smile broaden, and a hint of amusement in her eyes.

Then she broke her gaze to look at the office door. A tall man with immaculately styled brown hair entered the room. A face red with fury highlighted his scowl.

The man spoke, but the words were inaudible to Jerry. The woman stood, a white-knuckled hand grabbing the edge of her desk. Her face remained stoic, even as the man slammed a piece of paper down in front of her.

Mouth agape, Jerry stared into the feed as the man continued to shout, drawing the attention of everyone in the office. The man stuck out his hand, a single finger pointing to the door. Jerry didn’t have to hear him to known what he’d said.

You’re fired.

Jaw clenched, the woman watched him leave and then sat down in her chair, staring at the piece of paper. Blood drained from her face.

Jerry loosened his grip on the remote when its sturdy plastic creaked in protest.

A moment later, determination crept over the woman’s features, and she looked up, straight at his drone.

Startled, Jerry set the drone to cleaning the rest of the window.

The woman stood, folding the piece of paper and pocketing it, and then approached the window. Jerry brought the drone to eye level. She stepped right up to the window, pressed her hand to the glass, and looked down.

Jerry frowned and then his eyes widened. He looked up from his stool to locate his drone suspended next to the 35th floor of the building across the street. He could just make her out beyond the hazy sky reflected by the window.

Throat constricting, he looked back at his video feed to see a sparkle in her eyes and a smirk curling one corner of her lips. She’d seen him. She turned around and walked straight for the door on the far side of the room.

Jerry gulped and hurriedly finished with the window.

Now was a good time to take his lunch break, he decided.

He yanked back on the joystick and steered the drone across the street and down to where he stood on the sidewalk. Its buzz grew louder as it drew nearer, causing even the most distracted pedestrian to look up.

He cordoned off a five-foot-by-five-foot landing site on the street with four collapsible traffic cones, much to the annoyance of the driver waiting to claim the charging station he now blocked.

Jerry set to work with practiced efficiency, detaching the propellers, battery pack, and washer-fluid receptacle and storing each inside the large wheeled case that had served as his stool.

Just as he was loading the frame and controller in the case, the hard clicking of approaching footsteps lifted above the general bustling of the crowd. A pair of small black shoes appeared in his periphery.

Swallowing, Jerry stood from his crouch and turned to face the owner of the shoes.