The Colored Lens
Michael Best, Michelle Kaseler, Steve DuBois, Douglas Kolacki, Suzan Palumbo, Matthew Harrison, Jonathan Pickering, Kaja Holzheimer, Jeff Bagato, Josh Pearce, Andrea Tang, and Judith Field
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- The Jade Star by Michael Best
- Like Brownies by Michelle Kaseler
- Been There, Done That by Steve DuBois
- The Off Switch by Douglas Kolacki
- Tessellated by Suzan Palumbo
- Doing Business by Matthew Harrison
- One Hundred Years and Five Minutes by Jonathan Pickering
- Tin-foil Moon by Kaja Holzheimer
- Elevator to the Sun by Jeff Bagato
- The Leftovers by Josh Pearce
- Technicolor in the Time of Nostalgia by Andrea Tang
- Claridge of the Klondike by Judith Field
The Jade Star
By Michael Best
A bright moon glistens in a velvet black sky. An unseen dog barks bloody murder as a Clean-Bot 2100 purrs its way through a wide and spotless street.
Around the street there are no cars, no signs of life except for a lone woman. She frantically runs ahead of the Clean-Bot as if she fears it will suck her up like trash.
The woman, her ginger hair swinging from side to side, reaches the end of the street where there is a tall water tower, at least fifty feet high. Painted on the tower’s side, in vibrant red and blue, is a big “Milton Brothers Studios.”
Frantically the woman climbs the first rung of the tower’s ladder then the second and the third.
At the top of the water tower there are no eyes on the ginger haired starlet, no studio cameras, no klieg lights, no adoring fans. There is only a clear view of the back lot with its twenty-three cavernous soundstages, dozens of cranes, trucks, fake palm trees, sword and sandal set backdrops, even a water tank that could hold the Titanic.
The Milton Brothers Studios, maker of the latest and greatest in filmed entertainment, is at rest for a few hours. Perhaps a security camera has caught her exit from her dressing room. More likely the guards are asleep on the job.
At the top, along a small guardrail, the ginger haired woman does not look out at the whole of Bollywood West, does not admire the view.
Instead, she fights, kicks, flails.
Someone, or something, a shape of shimmering light is next to her, pushing her, grabbing at her, tearing into her leg.
She loses her balance, falls over the guardrail. Her hands go out to her side, as if she is Esther Williams diving into a pool, ready to synchronize with a bevy of bathing beauties.
Only it’s not water below; it’s a concrete jungle.
By her ginger haired head, spilling over the black pavement, a pool of crimson blood forms like a seahorse drifting toward a distant ocean.
With an efficient silence the Clean-Bot 2100 rolls back and sucks up the blood around her head.
“Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful twenty-seven year old corpse,” said the calm voice into Nick Kane’s earpiece.
The voice was Grable. That’s what Nick Kane decided to nickname his ex-girlfriend. They never broke up, not formally. Didn’t have to given the fact that she died before Kane got a chance to grow tired of her faults, her transgressions or any of the annoying quirks that typically show themselves in the second year of any romance.
Grable was essentially dead. Only Grable didn’t have a body. Not anymore. She was in the cloud, backed up, restored, enhanced into an adaptive, cheerful, personalized AI consciousness, one that talked, laughed, collated, analyzed and assisted his investigations. All of this was done through Kane’s skin toned earpiece, a wireless marvel of simplicity and functionality.
Inside the hyperloop between New Vegas and Bollywood West, Kane had one eye on the large entertainment screen and one on the small screen on his wristwatch. There were three-dozen passengers packed around him in solitary soundproof berths like hens about to be plucked. A series of digital ads flickered on the large screen, offering hope, pleasure and a glimpse into the world outside.
“It’s such a Bollywood West thing to do,” said Grable.
“Die tragically?” asked Kane.
“Die tragically at the age of twenty-seven. Such luminaries and artists as Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin. Amy Winehouse, Dirk Masters, Jim Morrison, Indira Shavati and Anton Yelchin all died at that age. Sadly, the list goes on and on.”
“So, what do we know about the deceased?” asked Kane.
“Rita Wells, twenty-seven year old actress, plunged to her death from the Milton Brothers Studios water tower. Looks like a suicide. That’s what the company would like you to investigate.”
“You hacked her toxicology report yet?”
“Filled with a dose of jade star.”
“That’s nasty stuff.”
“Outlawed in thirty-six countries, wanted by the New Koreans, Thai-Nam and some other bad actors.”
Kane scrolled through a series of still images on his wristwatch. They were all of Rita Wells in various cinematic roles: race car driver, doctor, ninja warrior, even a red skinned alien. In each, her vibrant aqua eyes twinkled and her ginger hair blazed.
Grable continued. “Several actors on the studio lot have tested positive for jade star.”
“Great work, Grable.”
“Oh Nick, if I wasn’t dead—”
“—Grable, I don’t like when you use that word.”
“Sorry, Nick, but clinically, that’s what happened and the sooner you accept reality – “
“—I know, I know.”
“But come on, you have to admit our relationship is stronger than ever. Some might call our arrangement on the cutting edge. You’re a man. I’m a machine. Who cares? It’s progress, Nick, progress, with a big capital P. Besides, you’re a thousand miles from the ring, no longer on the run, no longer looking over your shoulder. You did your time. Free at least, and all of that jazz.”
“Hallelujah,” sang Kane.
“And Nick, even though my existence has changed, do you still love me?”
“I couldn’t live without you, Grable.”
“Aw, you’re sweeter than a Georgia peach.”
“You’re my eyes and ears, and my left and right brain, too.”
“You’re the best, Nick, the best,” said Grable. “If I could I’d kiss you right now—”
“—okay, okay, Grable. Settle down. Remember, you’re a V-C-R, not my girlfriend.”
“Oh Nick, a Virtual Consciousness Replication girl can dream, can’t she?”
Grable giggled. “No, ‘course not. I was just, you know, kidding.”
Kane sat back in his seat and tried to get comfortable, but the legroom in the hyperloop was nearly non-existent.
“You have any video on this case?” asked Kane.
“Sure. I pulled all available footage. I edited. Collated. Even added a maudlin film score.”
Kane shook his head, in awe of Grable’s efforts. “Jeesh, you could have kept it simple.”
“But why, Nick? I mean, we are headed to Bollywood West, and, well, I thought we should, you know, get into the cinematic virtual spirit of the place.”
“Okay, okay. Just run the footage.”
On his small wristwatch screen, murky and grainy security camera footage played. It was the night Rita Wells died from her fall atop the Milton Brothers Studios water tower.
“I see a scared woman, desperate for help.”
“But why is she scared?”
“Exactly. Why? And who?”
“Yeah, Grable, I wonder who or what is chasing her?”
“You talking in metaphors?”
“No Grable, I’m talking literally. Stop the footage right before she gets to the water tower ladder. Don’t you see it? What is that shape?”
On Kane’s screen, the image of Rita Wells’ perilous plunge rewound until she climbed back down the ladder. The image stopped. By her side, a shimmering outline was slightly visible.
“Not sure. Could be an invisible …well…an invisible something, about three feet in height or less. Since less than half a percent of the adult population is under three feet.”
“Any of them known to be invisible?”
“Just in the much beloved, though trope filled Tolkien universe of Lord of the Rings.”
“If we don’t have a suicide, then we most likely have a work place accident.”
With a sigh Grable added, “Or murder.”
When the hyperloop door opened, Kane got out and walked along a wide city street near a series of cavernous factory like soundstage buildings. In the distance a beige smog thickened above the hills, covering every letter but the large “B” in the white Bollywood West sign. A graffiti laden wall leading to a storage unit painted neon yellow read: Graffiti not accepted here. Please get a day job. The last sentence, however, was scrawled in a distinct orange. It read: I work the graveyard.
On the street corner, Kane passed a group of Salvation Army soldiers, their red bucket ringing in the air and their worried faces searching the throng of new recruits to Bollywood West. An old lady tried to hand Kane a “soul therapy card” as she muttered, “Oh child, go home, please. Just move along, so you can keep your soul. Get back to reality, back to the real you.” Kane didn’t take the card and walked at a determined pace.
He finally stopped at a gated entrance where a neon sign blinked Milton Brothers Studios. Along the main gate wall there were a series of four electric billboards. Each showed an upcoming movie. One caught his eye. It was for a movie called Holy Cow, a comic farce with Rita Wells, her ginger hair curled and luscious, surrounded by black and white dots. Her eyes, as big as cars, looked out on her past – one filled with fame, fortune, romance and tragedy.
Kane reached the main gate, guarded by a gruff, heavyset security guard.
“I’m here to see Jack Milton.”
“And you are?”
“Nick Kane. He’s expecting me.”
“Will you release your profile?”
Kane nodded and the security guard wanded his wristwatch. The wand chimed a pleasant beep and the guard smiled as he looked down at Kane’s legs.
“Would’ve never have known you’re one of those mixed bionics,” the guard said with a hint of surprise. “I knew a guy, used to be a Marine. He got a pair of those new fangled things when they got blown off in combat, got the enhancements…two of ‘em. Well buddy, he could jump twenty feet in the air. Tried to be a stunt guy at the studio. Didn’t quite work out, since he was afraid of heights. What about you?”
Kane looked through the gates, gazing a view of the water tower where Rita Wells plunged. “The legs work great.”
The guard looked down to Kane’s legs, almost squatting like a baseball catcher about to receive a wild knuckleball in the dirt. “So, how do they really work?”
Kane shrugged. “I guess I’m just a miracle of scientific advancement.”
The guard scanned the screen. “Well, everything looks to be in order. Enjoy your visit.”
In a spacious, oak paneled office, Kane sat across from Jack Milton, a middle aged slender man with sunken green eyes, a ski slope nose, wiry silver eyebrows and curly silver hair. The man had a silver and blue tie on, a white button down shirt and a purified water bottle in his left hand. His right hand swiped across the screen of his smart-phone. Milton slouched a little back into his chair, going through the motions of civility and interest. Behind Milton’s desk, on a series of three shelves, two-dozen silver and gold award statues lined the wall. Kane noticed a series of black and white photos of Milton with a series of stars, from a very old Tom Hanks to an ancient Salman Khan to a vivacious Rita Wells.
Milton sat back in his chair. “So, what would you like to know about Rita Wells that the press hasn’t shared for the last five years?”
“Anything about the last few days that indicated she would kill herself?”
“She was in and out of love with men like my dog pees on trees.”
“It’s nice to hear you held Rita Wells in high regard.”
Milton leaned forward, his eyes blazed with showmanship. “She was a star, a brilliant shining star. Men wanted to screw her, then take her home to mom. Women wanted to be her. Rita Wells lit up the damn screen like nobody else. Her next picture was going to be huge.”
“What’s that last film called?”
“It’s just been re-titled The End.”
“Frankly, Mister Kane, her death just added at least two hundred million dollars to the gross.”
“Sounds like a nice raise for you.”
“For me and the lowliest grip and the board of directors and even the parking attendants, in the short term, her death benefits all of us.”
“And what about the long term?”
“We all just lost a star, Mister Kane, one who would have made at least five maybe six more extremely profitable films over the next eight to ten years. And now, she’s gone and she can’t be replaced. In the long run, Mister Kane, I just lost a billion dollars. At least. You just don’t replace a star of her magnitude. Not overnight. Perhaps not ever.”
Kane nodded. “Understood.”
“Now, if we’re done here, I’d like to get back to—“
“—just a couple more questions.”
“Make ‘em quick. I’ve got meetings back to back to back.”
“Okay, okay. Do you know you have a jade star epidemic on this studio lot?”
Milton leaned forward. “What the hell is jade star?”
“Jade star comes in nine different variations—nightmare, tornado, tsunami, euphoria—you get the picture. It induces a type of hallucination, so real, so intense, that one dose of jade star haunts you forever. The Feds have been testing this drug on lab rats for two decades.”
“Because jade star, they believe, can implant a subliminal suggestion. Jade star has potential applications with assassins, spies. Scary stuff. In the lab, they’ve been able to implant a sort of hypnotic suggestion. A primary emotion. Say joy. Or terror. Murder.”
“Even suicide,” added Kane.
Milton cleared his throat. His shoulders tightened. “So, why in the hell do I care about some jade star drug? I run a studio, not a spy ring. Or a lab.”
“Because, sir, you hired another firm to investigate the infusion of jade star onto the studio lot.”
Milton sat back in his chair. A creak pierced the air. “That’s enough.”
“This was about five months ago. They came up with nothing, as I understand it.”
“Enough. Okay. Enough, Mister Kane. Rita Wells was far from perfect, but her death was a garden-variety tragedy. In fifteen minutes, people will move on to some other bloody mess.”
“Do you know of any reasons why she might have started taking jade star?”
Milton was silent as he pressed his shoulder blades together, cracked his neck.
“What people do with their bodies, what they ingest, who they screw, that’s their choice, their business, okay? But when it starts to impact their performance, well, that is where I draw the fucking line. Now, if you can find out who is supplying jade star onto my studio lot, then I will make sure you are compensated generously.”
“I’m just an investigator, sir, not a bounty hunter.”
“One hundred thousand dollars. No questions asked.”
Later in the day, after getting a tour of the water tower where Rita Wells plunged to her death, Kane sat at a park bench with his earpiece in his ear. His eyes rested on a row of three white and blue Star Wagon trailers parked in a straight line next to a soundstage.
“I recorded everything,” said Grable.
“Good,” said Kane.
“And the boss has already approved your secondary mission to find out who is supplying jade star to the men and women of this studio.”
“A hundred thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at.”
“I know, Nick, I know. Maybe I could get that upgrade to the Infintium 3000.”
“Would the upgrade make you smarter?”
“Sure,” answered Grable, “and sassier.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Along the wide back lot boulevard, a white and black Clean-Bot 2100, glided by the bench. Behind it, trailing like munchkins on the way to Emerald City, a row of little green men walked by on the way to a silver spaceship resting inside Soundstage 12.
“Oh look, little green men,” said Grable into Kane’s earpiece.
“They’re just actors in a suit.”
“I know Nick, I know, but they’re just so cute I could eat them up like thin mints.”
“So Grable, have you finished your data crunching?”
“Sure. Easy-peasy. Especially if you know how and where to look, and Rita Wells definitely had a digital footprint a mile wide.”
“So, Nick, here’s what I’ve done so far: I’ve cross referenced all available data, including the deceased’s GPS, social media and texts in the last six months. Her behavior, like most, was fairly repetitive. Constant. On a schedule. Making it predictable and statistically sound. Cell phone. GPS. Security cameras. Her last known interaction with a human being was with another actor, a guy named Barry Stetson. They had a conversation an hour before her death.”
“The name sounds familiar. Who is he?”
“He used to be huge in all of Milton’s explosive thrillers.”
“What was that big movie he was in?”
“All Quiet on the Eastern Katmandu Front.”
“Great movie. Marilyn Monroe, Bela Lugosi and a young virtually enhanced Tom Hanks. Tom falls in love with Marilyn, but then Tom gets captured by enemy forces led by the tyrannical Bela Lugosi.”
“I cried like a baby at the end,” said Grable. “What about you, Nick?”
“I never cry.”
“Not even when I passed away?”
Kane was silent.
“Nick, you’ve got to let yourself grieve.”
“I know, okay, Grable. Now let’s stick to the case.”
”Okay, I just – you know – get emotional. We had a good thing.”
“We still do. Now what’s this Barry Stetson guy look like?”
On Kane’s wristwatch screen an image appeared. It was of a handsome young man, handsome in every way except the jagged scar running from his nose to his ear.
“Here he is. Barry Stetson. Thirty-six years old. From Topeka, Kansas. Current address is 8 Monte Vista Place in the hills of Bollywood West.”
Kane asked, “What happened to his face?”
“A car accident.”
“How’d the accident happen?”
“One night, after a wrap party, Rita Wells was drunk. She drove Stetson home and wrapped her car around a telephone pole. She had barely a scratch. He came out looking like Freddy Krueger.”
“Any other facts?”
“A famous dog named Mobius also died in that accident. Mobius acted in thirty-two films, six with Rita Wells.”
As the little green men headed into the silver spaceship, Kane rose from the park bench. Coming to a screeching halt was a golf cart driven by a pale, though muscular young man. His head was shaven clean. He wore a burgundy tracksuit with gold chains around his neck. With one hand on the steering wheel and one on a silver energy drink, the young man smiled, looked over to Kane.
“Hey buddy, you Nick Kane?” asked the golf cart driver.
The driver thrust his hand out, firmly offered it to Kane. They shook. “I’m Sid Washburn. Mister Milton asked me to shuttle you around. Hop in.”
Kane got into the golf cart in the passenger seat next to Sid. The golf cart rumbled by a prop truck, some fake palm trees and an outdoor patio café where folks sipped lattes and ate scones and granola yogurt.
“You happen to be working the night of Rita Wells’ death?” asked Kane.
“No sir, I was at my night job.”
“The Lime Flamingo. I’m a bartender over there.”
“How often you work there?”
“Three nights a week. This whole thing is terrible. Rita was one of our biggest stars,” said Sid. “I guess she went a little cuckoo for cocoa puffs. Know what I mean?”
Sid reached for his energy drink, gulped it down then said, “I guess not many people can handle the fame, the money, the attention.”
“You know her well?”
“No. Not really. I’m just, you know, a stupid gopher and she was a superstar. I never even spoke to her.”
“Any idea why she might have killed herself?”
Sid Washburn placed the energy drink back in the cup holder. “I—well—I’d rather not speculate.”
“Go on. Speculate. That’s how mysteries are solved.”
“Well, you see, people have been talking.”
“Yes, it might have been the ghost of Mobius on Soundstage 19 that drove her to—well—to you know, come unhinged.”
“You really think you have a ghost at Soundstage 19?”
“Well—I—I don’t believe in ghosts, but…well…you know, these old buildings, you just never know what the hell happened. They make sounds. Everyone knows she was hearing a barking dog everywhere she went.”
“Even Barry Stetson?”
“What about Mister Stetson? What’s he got to do with this?”
“I’d like to speak to him about Rita. Can you set up a meeting with him?”
“Sure, sure, but Mister Stetson would never do anything to hurt Miss Wells. They had a close relationship.” Sid leaned forward. “Very close.”
Kane sat at a park bench in front of a large soundstage door. Walking toward him was a young man in an exact replica of a NASA white spacesuit, space helmet and all. The young man took the helmet off, revealing a jagged scar running along his cheek.
Barry Stetson pulled at the white collar around his neck, sweating. “Can we make this quick? I’d like to get out of this monkey suit.”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Where were you the night of Rita Wells’ death?”
“Gee, I guess I was right here at Soundstage Eleven, filming a scene for the world ending saga The End. It was supposed to be Rita’s last picture. Instead I’m watching Mandy Munroe try to fill her shoes,” said Stetson.
“Did you know Rita had a problem with jade star?”
“Yeah, I knew. She was a damn fool for taking that junk. She didn’t listen.”
“Do you know how or where she got the jade star?”
Barry Stetson looked down to the ground, fiddled with the white of his spacesuit collar. “Well, gosh, I – you know – I just don’t know. I never touched that stuff.”
“If you happen to find out, let me know.”
Barry Stetson nodded. “Sure, sure.”
“By the way, what did you talk about the night of her death?”
“Well, Rita, she wanted to get back together with me and—”
“—I told her I still had feelings for her, too.”
“What about your relationship with Lauren Frost?”
“We were done.”
“For how long?”
“Six weeks at least, probably more. Lauren, well, she has big dreams, small talent, and a wicked disposition when she’s mad, jealous or drunk.”
“Did Rita have any enemies?”
“Just about every actress in town. For five years, they’ve lost every damn good part to her.”
“Any reason you’d like her dead?”
Barry Stetson looked away, casting a glance to the klieg lights and the gaffers. He then lowered his eyes, grimacing at the memory. The scar on his cheek, jarring and deep in its complexity forced Kane to stare at it.
“I once loved her more than words.”
Barry Stetson puckered his lips for a breath, exhaled. “Gosh, I miss her like crazy.”
“What about your face?”
“What about it?”
“How did your injury to your face impact your life? Your career?”
“Honestly, Mr. Kane, I am working more now than I ever did before. The scars of life give us our character, and if there’s one thing an actor needs more of, it’s character. People see the scar and immediately I’m a villain or a disgruntled employee or a monster with a secret. So Mister Kane, I have nothing to hide.”
“Did you know Rita had two hefty life insurance policies?”
Stetson shook his head. “Nope. Rita and I had – well – a passionate relationship.”
“Turns out that if her death is an accident, then the studio is liable and must pay her beneficiary five million. If it’s suicide, then the studio collects ten million on its own insurance policy. Guess Milton likes to protect his assets.”
Stetson rubbed his face. “Do you know who the beneficiary is? If I may ask.”
“You’re the beneficiary, Mister Stetson.”
“You didn’t know you stand to collect five million dollars upon Rita’s death?”
“I—I—wow—I had no idea.”
By the enormous outdoor water tank, a film shoot was in progress against a panoramic background painting of a beach and sandy dunes. Out on the crashing waves, a forty-foot catamaran style yacht crashed and thrashed in the machine driven storm. Klieg lights shone down on a pristine catamaran sailboat, with its blue and white sails flapping in the machine driven wind. Gaffers and assistants to producers huddled around a video monitor.
Kane strolled down Main Street, nearing the shoot.
The wind machine, blowing a fierce storm into the water tank, blew his pants legs from side to side, revealing the sheen of his silver metal legs. A few gaffers noticed the silver, stopped what they were doing and whispered quietly. Kane was used to the stares, the whispering and kept on his way.
“You believe Barry Stetson?” asked Grable into Kane’s earpiece.
“I don’t know, Grable. I just don’t know yet. What about you?”
“Well Nick, it’s not actually whether I believe him, since believing is often a subjective endeavor, rather it’s actually whether the statistical odds support his statement.”
“And what do your odds say?”
“Based upon the company’s deep dive into life insurance beneficiary survey, housed in actuarial table number 88, there is a 7% chance Barry Stetson did not know he was a beneficiary of the life insurance policy. Barry Stetson’s reaction sounded authentic and reasonable, however, you know Nick, I am not a lie detector.”
“Maybe they’ll add that in version 4.0.”
“Lying is a hard thing to detect. In fact, Nick, it’s more art than science.”
“What else do your odds say?”
“Statistically speaking, Barry Stetson has the most compelling motive to want Rita Wells dead. I’ve run a few other statistical scenarios, but I do feel that we’re still missing some vital inputs.”
“Unless they really loved each other,” added Kane.
He scanned the horizon. Bobbing beside the catamaran sailboat was just a face, a beautiful one with beautiful ice white blonde hair, bobbing against the blue of an ocean. The white foam of a tidal wave bubbled around the monster. Below the neck, the body was a coarse and jagged explosion of blackish green leather skin.
“Cut!” yelled the red-faced director from behind the main camera.
The filming stopped. All the gaffers, grips, assistants and bystanders energized into a frenzy.
“Who is next on the suspect list?” asked Kane.
“Lauren Frost, another actress and Barry Stetson’s ex-girlfriend. She sent Rita Wells several text messages throughout that last day. Most were friendly, innocuous banter, some lightweight gossip.”
“Good work, Grable, good work.”
A few minutes later, inside the narrow rectangle of the Star Wagon trailer, Lauren Frost tossed her ice blonde hair into the air. Her face, however, was not attached to a visible body. It was as if the body of Lauren Frost had just gone missing. Just a cinematic magic trick, perhaps.
Kane sat in a seat by a cramped kitchen table attached to the sidewall of the trailer. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of Lauren Frost, the woman who apparently had no body. She noticed. Her eyes glared back at Kane.
“Sorry, ma’am, I don’t mean to stare.”
“Well…I just –”
“—the boobs are fake, you know.”
Kane shuffled his feet. “It’s just, well, Miss Frost, your body is invisible.”
Lauren Frost gazed downward at her chest. “Oh, sorry. I forgot I had this stupid suit still on. I’m the monster from the deep, haven’t you heard?”
“Right. Okay. But where’s your body?”
Lauren Frost laughed, a knowing shrill of money filled the air. “You must be new to filmmaking?”
“Yes ma’am. Guess you could call me a newbie from cowpoke flyover country.”
“Then pardoner, what can I help you with?”
“How do they do that?”
“Turn you invisible.”
“Oh, well, that’s just the latest and greatest in green screen suit technology. The suit reflects light. See, my…um…my so called character is half woman and half monster. They keep my glamorous face while my body, well it’s a blob of monstrosity. They say it’s going to be Godzilla meets Creature from the Black Lagoon. Or something ridiculous like that.”
“Are these suits made in various sizes?” asked Kane.
“I think so. The studio even put a camel in one of these things.”
“What about something smaller?”
“Sure, I don’t see why not. I imagine you could put just about anything in one of those suits. Customizing it isn’t very hard.”
“So, Miss Frost, where were you the night Rita died?”
“Easy. Dozens of witnesses saw me in this god awful, monstrous suit. Filming Monster from the Deep. Such a sad thing, her death, that is.”
“What did you think of all the success Rita had? Didn’t you lose out a few parts?”
“You get used to it.”
“Didn’t you lose the part in The End to Rita?”
“Sure, and then I lost it to Mandy Munroe.”
“That must suck for you.”
“Look, Mister Kane, Rita and I go way back. She was a good kid. You know, back in the day, we were even roommates for a few months. I’d give her my kidney to bring her back.”
“Miss Frost, do you think—”
“—Lauren, please call me Lauren— ”
“—Lauren, do you think Rita was having a breakdown of some kind?”
“I—well—I think her luck had run out.”
Lauren Frost walked to the back of the trailer, where there was a mirror. From a hook on the wall, she grabbed a lavender flowered robe and tossed it on. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think I have somewhere to be.”
“Sure, sure. Thanks again.”
Kane rose, starting for the door. “Oh, by the way, you ever try jade star?”
Lauren laughed. “Hell no.”
“Don’t you know it’ll kill you?”
As Kane headed out the trailer door, Sid Washburn approached carrying a dozen red roses.
Kane smiled. “Pretty roses.”
“Who are they for?”
“For Lauren. Sometimes she gets a dozen every day.”
After grabbing a curry filled burrito at the studio cantina, Kane approached the football sized Soundstage 19. There was no activity around the cavernous gray building. The sun had already started to set. Crews had already gone home. A Clean-Bot 2100 rolled on by.
“So, Nick, it’s been a long day. You ready for some rest?” asked Grable.
“Not yet. I’d still like to check out that ghost at Soundstage 19.”
Kane found a main entrance door to Soundstage 19, tried it and found it was locked.
“Checking the studio blueprint,” announced Grable into his earpiece. “Okay, got it. Just head north, then at the corner of the building turn right and look for the fire escape ladder.”
Kane followed her instructions. Hanging from the outer wall of Soundstage 19 there was a fire escape ladder, about fifteen feet up with no way to get the ladder down to the ground.
“Only one way up,” said Grable.
Kane sighed a bit. “Yeah.”
“Jump up, jump up, jump up,” sang Grable.
And so Kane jumped up fifteen feet, better than any human had been able to do before bionic enhancements. He was still a part of the 1%.
“Show off,” joked Grable.
“Look, no cracks from the peanut gallery.”
“Oh great, Nick, now I’m just the peanut gallery. That really, really hurt.”
“Look, Grable, I’m just using what God and the scientists gave me.”
Kane yanked the ladder downward, holding on for a wild ride to the ground. The ladder snapped to a stop three feet from the ground.
Kane climbed up the ladder, reaching the roof. From atop Soundstage 19, Kane could see the water tower where Rita Wells plunged to her death. He could also see outside the studio gates, deep into the hills of Bollywood West. A couple of streets away, a neon sign shone with lime green and pink.
“That’s the Lime Pig,” announced Grable, “where Sid Washburn works as a bartender.”
“Eight tenths of a mile.”
Kane saw a skylight, propped open at a slight angle.
“That’s your entry point,” announced Grable.
Kane went to it, lifted it open wider and crawled through the opening.
“Trust me. Catwalk is ten feet below.”
Kane climbed down through the roof. His feet plopped down onto a catwalk. He stood fifty feet above the sawdust floor of the soundstage below. It was a cavernous place with no lights on and shadows and cobwebs of cinematic history in every corner. He clicked his narrow penlight on, walking atop the narrow catwalk, along the row of lights aiming down to the stage.
Kane walked until he heard a sound of a barking dog coming from the rafters by a series of light riggings.
“You hear that?” asked Kane.
“Yeah. I also have a thermal signature moving in front of you.”
“Twenty feet away and traveling at eight miles per hour. It’s very small.”
Kane darted toward the sound.
“Electric pulse straight ahead. Accelerate. Accelerate. Turn right. Turn right. Bend and grab!”
Kane crawled on his knees along the catwalk high above the soundstage floor. It was as if he was searching for a rat or a snake, an invisible one. His hands flailed, stretched out straight in the darkness.
“Got something,” announced Kane.
“It—it-well—I don’t know. I can feel something.”
“Not sure yet.”
Whatever Kane had grabbed was invisible just like Lauren Frost’s body had been. With his fingernails, Kane scraped along the contour of the small object. Soon, the thing was no longer invisible, as the material wrapped around it slid off. It was the same material that had been on Lauren Frost, a shiny and shimmering layer of a suit used to make her mostly invisible.
“And here’s our ghost,” said Kane as he waved his hand in front of the drone. He held its four wheels off the catwalk. The wheels spun and a bark of a dog erupted in spurts from inside it.
“Motion sensors for movement and sound,” said Grable.
“Now, Nick, I’ve cross referenced the first report of the barking ghost and found that six weeks ago, Sid Washburn accessed the prop room where the invisible suits are kept under lock and key.”
“Sid the golf cart driver?”
“Yes. I’ve scraped his digital feed and security card log as best I can, and thankfully Sid left us a few breadcrumbs.”
“Sid studied drone operation for nearly two years while in the National Guard. He also has two virtual profiles. One is password encrypted hashtag of jdawg. Through this profile he receives messages about *Edaj. Spelled backwards, that’s jade star. Turns out the criminally inclined are not always sophisticated at coding programs.”
“What about the other profile?”
“That one is scarily obsessed with Lauren Frost, our monstrous suspect.”
“I contacted the jdawg profile.”
“Placed an order for ten *Edaj’s.”
“We just have to wait.”
In the morning, Kane waited on a sandy beach. Seagulls skulked around the sand. In the sky, brown pelicans dove into the blue ocean, searching for breakfast.
“Wonder if he’ll show,” said Grable.
“If he wants to make some money, he’ll show.”
A few moments later Kane heard the dull hum of something flying overhead. Not the pelicans. Rather it was a silver and white drone hovering fifty feet in the air. Hanging down was a mechanical arm. Attached to it was a jade colored plastic bag.
“I have visual,” announced Kane.
“And I have thermal. Operator is eight hundred yards away at the north end of the parking lot. To complete the transaction, I’m supposed to transfer five thousand to a masked electronic account.”
The drone lowered in the air and a jade colored plastic bag fell from the sky a few feet from Kane. He picked up the bag, admiring its contents: about ten jade green pills with a star stamped in the center.
At first, Kane walked toward the far end of the parking lot. Once he had visual of the drone operator, Kane sprinted. The operator fled on foot.
Kane accelerated, forcing his silver legs to become a blur of sheen and power.
Kane caught up to the man, passed him and then blocked his path. It was Sid Washburn.
As Sid tried to go right, Kane blocked his path. A white van was parked nearby with its windows open. The beach and ocean was to Kane’s left.
“Hey Sid, how’s it going?”
“Why are you chasing me?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Look, Sid, the police have been called. They’ll be here in two to three minutes.”
“Police? Man, I’m just out for a walk on the beach.”
“Just leave me alone, man.”
“Look Sid, you think you have an alibi for the night of Rita’s death.”
“Sure, sure man, like I told you before I was working at the Lime Pig.”
“Right. You were working eight tenths of a mile away. Did you know the drone you’re operating actually has a range of a mile?”
“And Sid, did you know your drone produces a distinct electronic signature?”
“So Sid, while you were working at the Lime Pig, you were able to harass Rita Wells to death with this remote control drone. You followed her. Annoyed her. Kept her up at night with the barking of your ghost drone. And you sold her jade star. But why?”
“Man, this is too much. You’re cuckoo for cocoa puffs.”
“No Sid. We’re just following the breadcrumbs you left. Like sending secret admirer red roses to Lauren Frost. It turns out you harassed Rita because you thought it would help Lauren Frost win the part in The End. How’d that work out?”
Sid puckered his lips and whistled.
Upon command two Dobermans bounded out of the open van window and charged right for Kane, tearing into his legs.
But Kane didn’t care. He let them bite away.
“What is wrong with you?” shouted Sid.
“There’s no pain in titanium,” said Kane.
In an amazing leap up, Kane jumped ten feet in the air, kicking the dogs off of his legs. The Dobermans squealed, whimpered.
In the distance, police sirens blared toward the beach parking lot. Sid tried to run, but again Kane caught up to him, knocked him to the sand of the beach.
Sid heaved. “Rita wasn’t supposed to die.”
Kane and Grable left Bollywood West the same way they entered: by way of the hyperloop station. As Kane sat back in his seat, Grable sighed.
“What’s wrong?” asked Kane.
“When will men like Sid Washburn ever learn?”
“I can’t believe he harassed Rita Wells to death. For what?” asked Grable.
“For Lauren Frost. He thought Rita’s demise would lead to Lauren’s rise.”
“I guess it’s true that the infatuated heart of a man always goes too far.”
“Let’s get out of this town.”
“Maybe we can ride the hyperloop north,” said Grable. “If we hurry, we can see sunrise at the Golden Gate Bridge. I know this great Italian place, great wine and even better gnocchi. Maybe we can rent one of those new hover cars. What do you say?”
Kane smiled. “That’d be great, Grable. Really great.”
By Michelle Kaseler
We’re lucky we had kids before the Antiglians brought us here. All creatures, save for the most beautiful, had been sterilized upon arrival.
They placed us with other human families in a small section of the sprawling interplanetary refuge. I haven’t seen any other Earth animals, but sometimes I swear an elephant’s trumpet rises above the mix of alien sounds. My wife, Maura, shrugs. It’s all white noise to me, Noah.
Our new home is a cookie-cutter four bedroom with all the creature comforts—except a roof. I’ve gotten used to alien faces hovering above when I eat, bathe, hell, even when I take a dump, but I couldn’t stand those columns of eyeballs watching me have sex. I can only do it completely under the covers. I miss seeing Maura’s body.
Jim slams a toy Ferrari into my foot and mutters, “Sorry, Dad.”
“Ooh!” Cindy says in that way kids have when they expect their siblings to get in trouble. She clutches a stuffed puppy that reminds me of Tuppins, who died just before we left Earth.
I rub my foot. “It’s okay, but why don’t you put the car away so we can work on long division?”
“No.” Jim scowls. “I’m never gonna need it.”
I’d said the same thing to my mom when I was his age. She told me that no one in our family had ever gotten a degree, that I could be the first.
I never expected to be the last.
Jim is already on the other side of the room, chasing Cindy with the car. She trips, sending the dog flying through the air, and a group of Antiglians point their quivering, anemone-tipped appendages at my daughter. I scoop her up to shield her from their view.
“Put me down, Dad!” She wriggles free. “I’m fine.”
A thump-plop-thump outside sends the kids rushing to the window. Our trough brims with roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and a pumpkin pie. It’s always seventy-two degrees in the habitat, but it must be November on Earth. Antiglians are obsessed with customs and calendars. This is our first Thanksgiving here.
Maura helps me set the table. “Everything smells wonderful, Noah. A delicious feast with no pots and pans to scrub. What could be better?”
She takes a bite of stuffing. “Mmm. Well, they can engineer my food until the day I die.”
Jim scoops massive heaps of everything on his plate. I serve little Cindy.
“This is so good, but I really hope we get pizza tomorrow,” Jim says between bites. “The pizza here is out of this world.”
Maura and Cindy laugh.
“Well, technically, it is in this world. It’s out of our world.”
Jim rolls his eyes. “Not mine. Everything here is better.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d backpacked through the Rockies. Eaten a peach fresh off the tree.” My voice catches. “You’ve never even seen the ocean.”
“Yeah?” Jim glares. “Well at least here I—”
“Boys! Quiet.” Maura almost never raises her voice.
“Sorry, Mom,” Jim mumbles.
She turns to me. “Do you have something to say, Noah?”
“I thought you wanted me to be quiet.”
Maura mutters something about stubborn, old mules, and I feel like an ass.
“Sorry.” I kiss her cheek.
“Scoundrel,” she says with a shake of her head.
“Who wants to play shuttle racer on the Holo after dinner?” I ask.
Jim grins. “You’re going down, Dad!”
He makes good on his threat. We all play until the sleeping signal flashes.
The kids scamper off to their bedrooms so they’ll be rested for the morning petting session: two hours in a pen while the Antiglians feed us treats that taste like brownies. Those who put on a show get the most.
I don’t dance.
Maura settles into bed while I toss and turn.
“Noah?” She yawns. “Did you skip your sleep aid?”
“Yeah. I feel like thinking.” I stare at the sky. With the artificial lights, it never gets dark enough in the enclosure to see the stars. A couple Antigilans skitter by above, tentacles entwined.
“Earth again? I don’t know why you romanticize the place. You had to wear a bulletproof vest to go outside and scrounge for food.”
I snuggle against her. “Don’t you remember when we used to sit on the dock, dip our toes into the water, and listen to the loons?”
“We were teenagers.” She turns to face me and takes my hands. “Don’t you remember the stench of the dead fish? The loons didn’t last much longer.” Her voice fades as her eyes close. “It’s Thanksgiving. We’re together, and I’m thankful…”
Restless, I head toward the family room. Everyone was allowed to bring one memento, and I chose my college degree. I need to hold it, to feel like a Bachelor of Mathematics, not some exotic novelty.
Halfway down the hall, I slip and land with a thud. That stupid Ferrari. I stifle a curse, hoping I hadn’t woken anyone up. Whimpers and soft footsteps grow closer. Damn.
“Daddy.” Sobbing, Cindy throws her arms around me.
“Shh, baby. It’s okay.”
“The noises.” She pulls back, eyes wide with fear. “Are the soldiers here?”
“No, sweetheart. They’re light years away. They can’t hurt us.”
I carry her back to her room, tuck her in, and place the dog in her arms. “You’re safe.” I stroke the silky wisps of her hair until her eyes flutter closed. “You’re safe.”
Last Thanksgiving, we shared a can of room-temperature soup. The hollows of Tuppins’ ribs danced like tiger stripes in the light of our only candle—spring blossom scent or something like that—so artificial it made me queasy. I hadn’t even seen a goddamn flower since before Cindy was born. She’ll be five soon.
They gave us a cake for Jim’s birthday. The kids’ faces were round and happy as we sang, their voices clear and strong. Back in my own room, I pull the covers up to my shoulders. Tomorrow, I’d teach Cindy to add. I could use pizza to explain fractions.
I turn back to Maura, sleeping sweet and peaceful, close my eyes, and remember her words.
We’re together, and I’m thankful.
I’ve always liked brownies.
Been There, Done That
By Steve DuBois
Please let me be your guinea pig.
I am volunteering for service as a test subject in your program. I recognize that this may be a problem, given that no one outside of your university is supposed to know your project exists, and especially given that I am a man with a criminal record. I am not a spy or saboteur; I know what you’re doing only because your theories are correct. The process you have envisioned will work, though imperfectly.
How do I know? Because I’ve been there, Dr. Rafsanjani. I’ve done that. Indeed, in a sense, my entire life, from the age of fifteen onwards, has been a byproduct of your experiment.
I was fifteen years old, sitting in John’s garage, watching him drive nails through a piece of particle board. John was perfect. Green eyes flecked with gold, thick, wavy black hair, and cheekbones you could cut glass with. But John’s romantic interests lay elsewhere, and with the opposite gender. So: best friends. I kept him close, if not as close as I’d have liked.
And John was perfect in the technical sense as well. At school, at work, at play, his every action was sure and capable. Even his carpentry was perfect: I watched him set each tenpenny nail precisely in its place, and then drive it through the quarter-inch of wood with a single, surgical tap of the hammer, leaving the head flush with the wood’s surface and the point extruded.
Even his attitude had been perfect, at one point. He’d been the consummate overachiever throughout middle school. And then, almost from the moment he’d seen her, at the start of our freshman year, he had devolved into a completely different person. He shunned sports and activities. He made no attempt to make new friends; our old social circle disintegrated. He was as kind to me as ever, but he had no apparent interest in or time for the rest of the world. Instead, I watched him while away the hours in his garage, hammering out strange, ugly objects, equally inartistic and non-functional. Such as today’s project. I’d dubbed it “Spiny Norman, the Roadkill Hedgehog,” which had earned me a laugh, and a fond grin that had almost stopped my heart.
“So,” I said to him, trying to strike another spark. “All-school assembly on Monday. Our big moment. Class of the year!” The high school John and I attended conducted a year-long competition between the four classes in which we earned points for various activities and accomplishments—class GPA, attendance, the canned food drive and so forth. The winning class got a day off in May. A victory for the seniors was usually a given. That year, the impossible had happened. We won it. We, the freshmen.
In August, the three hundred members of the freshman class had stumbled through the doors not knowing which way was up or even how to open our lockers. Then Dani Tannig had entered our lives, swooping in from some tiny private middle school, a tornado of positivity. By September, she was our class President. By November, we were a well-oiled machine, everybody’s unique talents identified and catalogued. We moved steadily up in the class rankings. With March came Spring Olympics, and when the duct tape fastening Emma Czerznowski to the gymnasium wall came undone and the senior tumbled to the floor, leaving only our own Ashley Jackson still attached, our section of the bleachers dissolved into pandemonium; we had done the impossible. I remembered jumping up and down like a meth-addicted kangaroo, and turning to John to celebrate—only to see him staring silently at Dani in the front row as the other class officers dogpiled on top of her. He had been an island of stillness amidst our storm of joy, with that sad little half-smile on his face. It was the expression he always seemed to wear when looking at Dani.
And John spent a lot of time looking at Dani.
“Never been done before,” I said to him, as he sat cross-legged on the cement, placing another nail. “We made history!”
“Yep,” he muttered. THUNK went the hammer.
I opened my mouth again to speak, but hesitated. I knew I ought to avoid the subject; it was too painful for me to think about. Yet I had to probe at it, the way your tongue prods at a sore tooth, or the way you pick at a scab. “Big moment for Daniiiii…” I drew my voice out suggestively. He paused for a moment, then glanced up at me. No resentment. Just that sad half-smile.
“Hey, don’t blame me,” I said. “You could be with her, if you’d only put yourself out there. Just…be the guy you were in middle school! Star quarterback, straight A’s. Guys wanted to be you, girls loved you. She’d love you, if you gave her the chance. Just…” My free hand flailed aimlessly at the air.
“Engage again. Be part of the world.” He finished my sentence for me, using exactly the words I’d been about to use. It’s scary, how often he does that, I thought. It’s part of the connection we share. It’s proof that we’re meant to be together.
I turned to him, and found those impossibly green eyes locked on mine. “Been there, Eddie,” he said tonelessly. “Done that.”
I shook my head. “Love sucks,” I said, my voice dripping with a fifteen-year-old’s profound wisdom.
But John was already face-down in his project again, picking out another nail. “Not so, buddy,” he replied. “One perfect love lasts a thousand lifetimes. Love comes to those who deserve it. And love is worth the wait.” He glanced up at me. “You deserve love, Eddie. And it will come for you, in time. I promise.”
I felt a shiver run up my spine. “But…” I stammered. “…how can you say that, and then act like this? You’re just gonna moon over her? You’re just gonna stew in a corner, like you have been all year?” I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. I was mad at him, angry that he was being less than himself, angry that he was cheating the world of the amazing person I knew him to be. “You’re gonna do nothing?”
He sat there, his face a blank slate. “I,” he responded, “am going to do nothing effectively.”
They screwed us, of course. The administration and teachers. All the world hates a freshman. Mr. Munsch, our chinless principal, used the all-school assembly to award an arbitrary number of points to four seniors—most notably Hank Porter, the Neanderthal star of the football and basketball teams, for his “contributions to the school”. This sparked a splash of applause from the back of the auditorium, where Porter’s parents lurked—perpetually present in the building, eager to swoop in and intervene with the administration whenever a coach’s attempts at discipline or a teacher’s academic standards threatened their son’s athletic future. In any case, Munsch’s points were precisely enough to put them over the top and replace us as Class of the Year.
Dani had leapt from her seat, white-faced with rage. But when she’d whirled on the podium to confront Munsch, one of the Vice Principals was instantly over beside her, with an iron grip on her upper arm, and she leaned in close and whispered something in Dani’s ear. Dani’s eyes went wide. And then that crease formed, right between them, in the center of her brow. Every freshman had seen it before. That crease meant she was locked in on something, and she wasn’t going to give up until she got what she wanted
Dani got the word out to the whole class: we were meeting after school, out on the hillside overlooking the football field. And when we did, we jabbered and squalled with the fury only outraged teenagers can feel. Dire threats were made. Proposals were proffered. Vandalism, walkouts, the usual ineffectual flailing. But we all knew that we didn’t have what it took to back up the threats. We were organized, thanks to Dani, and disciplined beyond what you’d have expected from kids our age. But we feared consequences. Nobody was gonna pull a stunt that was going to get them grounded or suspended.
Dani sat, patiently watching us blow off steam. John’s gaze was fixed on her heart-shaped face, her blonde pixie cut and soft brown eyes. I wanted to be jealous of her, to hate her for occupying his attention so thoroughly. But to hate her was impossible. We’d met in August, and it had taken her maybe two minutes to figure me out completely, including that secret bit of which my parents were still unaware. Before the day was out she had finagled a spot for me on the literary magazine staff and set me up on a date with Calvin Menzies, a sophomore who’d have been the perfect match for me had the world not contained John. She’d had no reason to help me, had nothing to gain except a world containing one additional happy, more fully realized person. That’s what she did. That’s who she was. Everyone loved her. I loved her. He loved her. I didn’t blame him.
About an hour into the rage-fest, she stood up. She still had that crease between her eyes, and woe betide the man in Dani’s way when that crease appeared. A hush descended. And she spoke: “I propose that we do nothing.”
There was a huge, collective groan, and Dani slowly smiled. “I propose that we do nothing effectively.” I remember looking up in surprise at the familiar phrase and turning to glance at John. And there he sat—saying nothing, but nodding, ever-so-slightly.
“When I was up on stage,” Dani continued, “Panegasser grabbed my arm, and she said, ‘Young lady, I know you think you know it all, but you’re fifteen years old. Now sit down and do what you’re told.’” Her smile widened slowly. “Well…if they don’t want us doing things freshmen shouldn’t do, if they don’t want us taking the initiative, let’s do what they tell us. Exactly what they tell us.”
And Dani gave us the details of her plan.
We did nothing.
Or, to be more precise: we did exactly what we were told, and nothing more. If called upon to answer a question, we answered it. If specifically told to perform a task, we did it.
But we abolished volunteerism. If a teacher asked the entire class a question, soliciting feedback, we sat staring. When handed dodge balls in the gym, we stood with them in our hands until told to throw them. Dismissed for lunch, we milled aimlessly in the cafeteria until told to sit down and eat.
We broke no rules, disobeyed no instructions. We did nothing for which we could be punished, and nothing for which we could be praised. We became, functionally, a computer program, waiting for input. Until Friday evening, when we hosted the state basketball playoffs.
On the following Saturday morning, I showed up at John’s house unannounced. On the way up the driveway, I noticed his garage door was half open, and spotted that collection of bizarre knickknacks he’d been building in his free time—some kind of telescoping baton, Spiny Norman, a huge metal spiderweb.
I figured he needed a hobby. I’d read online that disc golf was the sport of choice for slackers, layabouts, and nothing-doers. I’d hatched a plan for an impromptu trip to the local course, hoping to delight him, to surprise him. As I walked up to his porch, the front door opened—and there he stood, with a newly purchased bag of golf discs slung across his shoulder and a grin on his face.
We really do share the most astonishing connection, I thought.
An hour later, we stood on the concrete tee box overlooking the steep slope down towards the first “hole”—in actuality, a pole with a basket attached–and I told John about the previous evening’s basketball game. “So, most of the crowd’s cheering for Porter,” I said, “but in the freshman section of the stands, we know that Jerric’s the real star, even though he’s the only freshman on the team. I mean, some people say he might be good enough to play in the NBA one day.”
“He will,” John replied. He stepped up to the edge of the tee box, his eyes locked on the goal down below, about fifty yards away. He braced his legs, twisted his body inwards, disc cradled in his right wrist, sinews outlined against his tee shirt—a work of art, a marble statue of an athlete. I forgot to breathe. Then he uncoiled with explosive force and perfect control. The disc arced outwards to the right over the slope, then gradually began to slide back left, towards the target. It drifted downwards and nestled in the grass perhaps ten feet from the goal.
I gave him a long look. “You’ve done this before.”
He grinned back. “Been here. Done this.”
I stepped up to the tee, continuing my story. “So, halfway through the first quarter, we’re already down six. Porter’s doing his usual bull-in-a-china shop routine down low, and Jerric’s running the offense from the point just as smooth as you’d like, but there’s something missing.” I inhaled, disc in hand, then took a running hop-step towards the edge of the box. I reared back and grunted as I hurled the disc, which sailed off to the left and landed over by the tennis courts.
“Anyway,” I continued, as we ambled in the direction of my errant throw, “when you know what to look for, it’s easy to figure out what Jerric’s doing. He’s running the offense exactly as it’s written up in the playbook, Xs and Os—going exactly where the diagrams tell him to go, passing to exactly who the diagrams tell him to pass to. But that’s all he’s doing. He’s not playing that spontaneous, improvisational game of his that makes the fans cheer and makes the coach crazy. He’s playing Dani’s game. And it’s ruining everything. Because when Jerric improvises, everything around him changes. Everybody else on the team plays off of that. They become, like…I don’t know…”
“A jazz ensemble,” John piped in.
“Yeah! Yeah, I was just gonna say that. Like, the pattern breaks down, and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next. You can’t defend them.” I bent over to pick up my disc. “But with Jerric just being an X in a diagram…it’s all stale. Predictable.” I set my feet, reared back, and threw. Much too hard, much too late on the release; the disc soared off to the right and disappeared into the brush.
“And so Coach Boyle goes nuts, and pulls Jerric, and puts Ramirez in. And Ramirez…well, nobody will ever call HIM predictable. Or talented. So with us down fifteen in the third quarter, he tries one of those out-of-control drives to the hoop. And he collides with Porter, and Porter goes down—and you can see his knee bend the wrong way as he hits the floor.”
“And the whole place is silent as they stretcher him off.” I scrambled to my feet, my pants leg and right side covered in mud, and we headed down the hill after my disc. “Except for daddy dearest, of course.”
“Psychopath,” John mumbled.
“Yeah,” I said, as I high-stepped over a branch and into the bushes, where my disc was wedged. “Or close enough, anyway. He gets in Munsch’s face about how his son’s future is wrecked, how he’ll never get a scholarship now. And then he starts in on Dani, how she’s destroying the school, calling her every vile name you can think of. And finally they have to have security come and throw him out. So, yeah. We lost. And people aren’t happy.” We finally arrived at the bottom of the hill, and I bent to pick up the disc. “Nobody minds if we wreck the school academically. But mess with the sports teams? God help you then.”
I set my feet as best I could in the undergrowth, reached back, and exploded outwards. And for once, my release was perfect, the disc was level; I got my wrist into it, and the disc soared, high and straight and true, towards the post, as John let out a long, low whistle of appreciation.
Up and up, the disc climbed. Up the slope and up over the goal, and further still, onwards and upwards, back towards the tee box. It finally came to rest back where we had started, three strokes ago.
John grinned ruefully and put an arm around my shoulders, causing my heart to skip a beat. “Buddy,” he said, “I think it might be best to take a Mulligan on this one.”
It was the basketball game that made the difference. The following Monday, Munsch caved. The morning intercom announcement was all smiles and rainbows. In recognition of the outstanding achievements of the students throughout the year—especially our state basketball quarterfinalists!—the day off awarded to the Class Of The Year award winners would, just this once, be extended to all students in all grades, to be celebrated the following Monday.
The collective roar of joy from a thousand teenage throats must have been audible from space. And this time, we freshmen were heroes; the subject of high-fives and noogies of affection from hundreds of overjoyed juniors and sophomores. Even the seniors eyed us with grudging respect.
I was skipping down the hallway after fifth hour (not good for a gay kid’s image, but at that point I couldn’t have cared less) when I spotted John. He was staring at Jerric, marching down the hallway with Dani perched atop his broad shoulders and a proprietary grin on his face. She laughed, stooping occasionally from her perch to bump fists with passers-by below.
John watched, his expression unreadable.
Monday. Our day off. The weather was miserable; low, gray skies and one of those diarrhetic spring drizzles that you get in the Midwest. The seniors were off boozing somewhere, as seniors will. The freshmen were gathered in Connors Park, enjoying one another’s company. Tossing frisbees, shooting hoops, grilling burgers and hot dogs, all in defiance of the weather. The whole freshman class, save only John.
Over at the center of the amphitheater, underneath the concrete band shell used for outdoor concerts, Dani was holding court, delivering some sort of impromptu speech to a growing crowd. Freshmen, yes, but also sophomores and juniors, and a number of kids I didn’t know. Many of them were wearing letter jackets and paraphernalia from other area schools. I wandered over to join her ever-expanding circle of admirers. As I did so, I glanced up at the band shell. Somebody had erected a strange brace of some kind near the top, a latticework of steel wires. With a start, I realized I’d seen the net before—in John’s garage.
“…which is the problem, of course,” Dani’s face was cheerful, but had that little crease in the middle of her forehead and was jabbering rapid-fire at her audience in a style best described as a Perky Rant. “They think that just because we’re kids, that they don’t have to worry about our votes. Well, we don’t have votes, but we DO have things they want. Things they need. We just have recognize what those things are.”
I glanced over my shoulder, and there, in the distance, was John. He was crossing Murray Street, headed in our direction, and carrying a black Hefty bag full of God only knew what. He reached the curb, and then turned towards the intersection with Ramis street, marched off several carefully-measured paces. He reached into the sack and pulled out Spiny Norman. I watched him glance down at the street, then at a nearby storefront, then back down at the street, then place Norman points-up in a precise spot in the southbound lane.
Dani was still speaking. “…with a curfew, of course. They don’t want us cruising around on the streets after hours. They’d prefer not to have to deal with us.” A murmur of assent from her listeners. The summer curfew for teenagers: the hot-button issue in local politics. It had passed the city council by a narrow margin and was to take effect in three weeks. “They say we should be at home doing homework. In June.” That earned her a laugh, but I wasn’t listening. Because John was on the move again, headed right for us, his face stern and full of purpose. And I was suddenly afraid.
“Now, there are exceptions to the curfew, of course. Kids on their way to and from work. Because pretty much every business needs teenagers for summer employment; otherwise they’d have to pay minimum wage and health benefits to full time employees. They want us to serve as cheap labor; they just don’t want to see us wandering the town having a good time afterwards.” Another murmur of assent, louder this time. “What they really want is a world without teenagers. Well, what if we got organized, and gave it to them? What if, instead of giving them what they want, we give them nothing?” John was coming closer now. And I thought about him watching Dani being carried around on Jerric’s shoulders. And I thought about her being the center of attention, and about John standing off at a distance, outside of the glowing circle that surrounded her, unable to speak to her. For nine long months. And I saw John reach into the bag, and withdraw that telescoping steel baton I’d seen him working on, and felt an icy claw clutch at my heart, and I moved to intercept him–
–and I heard a voice beside me. “Well, that’s real nice, you little bitch. But what about my boy, eh?” Mr. Porter, Hank’s dad. Nothing of the helicopter parent remained, no trace of the amateur schoolroom lawyer; his collar was unbuttoned and tie askew, his breath reeked of alcohol, and his eyes were wild.
Dani turned to face him. “Oh, hello, Mr. Porter,” she said, still pleasant and unruffled. “Were you saying something about Hank?”
“That’s right. My Hank.” He sneered. “My son, who could have been a champion! Who could’ve had a college scholarship! And who they’re now telling me might never even walk without a limp again…” He reached into the front of his pants, and pulled out a sleek and deadly length of oiled black steel. “…just because some fifteen year old bitch decided she had a point to make.”
And then there was stillness, and silence. Porter raised the pistol in both hands and pointed it at Dani, who was staring, paralyzed, twenty feet away.
There was a clicking sound, a blur in my peripheral vision, a shining arc of steel and a resounding crack of metal against metal. Porter’s gun was knocked upwards into the air; it went off with a BANG, the bullet shooting skywards. It impacted the band shell with a crack, dislodging a huge chunk of concrete, which plummeted earthwards only to be arrested by the steel net. I turned to my right just as John, his eyes ablaze, brought his telescoping steel baton back down, then across in a backhand slash into Mr. Porter’s face. There was a sickening crunch, and Mr. Porter was flat on his back in the mud, bleeding from the mouth.
The stillness ended, and screaming chaos filled the void, kids running in every direction, sliding in the muck. Through the intensifying rain, I could see Dani, one kid among dozens, scrambling away in a blind panic towards Murray Street. As she stepped off the curb, a speeding black Honda Civic rounded the corner from Ramis Street, headed straight for her. Then it ran directly over the nail-studded plywood, blowing out the driver’s-side tire. The car hopped the curb and skidded to a stop on the grass of the park.
Dani stood in the middle of the street, looking back at the chaos in the park. Two minutes ago she had been the belle of the ball. Now she was dazed, disoriented. And she was staring at John, who had come racing after her, and who was staring back with a manic intensity. And the impossible happened: John actually spoke to her.
“Dani. Dani, please. I need you to come with me.” And in that moment, he was back. The old John, the John I’d longed for—decisive, vigorous, in control.
“Do I…do I know you?” Her brow furrowed. “I don’t know you, and I know everybody…”
John swallowed and shook his head. “I’ve…had to keep a low profile.” His eyes pleaded. “Look, I don’t…Dani, there’s no time. You’re in danger. I can’t explain, but you HAVE to come with me.”
But now there was a green Chevy coming, this time in the northbound lane, the breaks squealing, the tires hydroplaning on the slick road. And John couldn’t possibly have seen it; he had his back turned. But nonetheless, at the last moment, he somehow launched himself forwards in a desperate dive, knocking Dani backwards, out of the street and onto the sidewalk beyond. Then, a blur of metal, sweeping John away. And I heard myself scream.
Dani scrambled back to her feet, her face horrified, clutching at her open mouth with skinned and bleeding palms. John, stretched prone in the road, right leg bent at a sickening angle, lifted up his head to meet her gaze.
And the world turned white, and there was a crack like the splitting of reality itself.
And all I knew was the sensation of rain on my skin and the smell of ozone. And when the dancing images on my retina faded, I spied my two friends, yards apart on the pavement, flat on their backs, each staring sightless up at the grey sky, rivulets of water running down their faces.
The ambulances came. One raced for the hospital, sirens blaring, and the other departed in silence for the morgue.
Tuesday. Visiting hours.
I stared down at John in the hospital bed. His leg, encased in plaster, was elevated above him; an IV line ran from the drip by the headboard to his left forearm. He stared at the ceiling, saying nothing.
I’d cried my eyes out in the waiting room the night before. Now I sat beside him, sharing his silence and his pain, for several long minutes. At length, he turned his head towards me, and his eyes, clouded with painkillers, met mine.
“There’s no point in dragging it out,” he said. “You’ll just keep standing there. For five minutes. For thirty minutes. For two hours. Loyal and patient, in perfect silence, waiting for me to speak.” He licked his lips. “I’ve seen you do it.” Paused. “There’s no one like you, Eddie. You’d wait forever, if you had to. And that’s what keeps me going. Every time around. It’s your example. Your patience. Every time around, I tell myself—look at Eddie. Be a little more like Eddie. Eddie wouldn’t ever give up on a friend.”
He swallowed. Stared at me. When he resumed speaking, his tone had changed. It had the feeling of lines in a carefully rehearsed play. Perhaps over-rehearsed; perhaps a play whose run had outlasted its entertainment value.
“Once, thousands of years ago,” he began, “a boy met the perfect girl. She was brilliant, beautiful, magnetic. She had an idea that would change the world. He fell in love with her. To his amazement, she fell in love with him as well. They spent one magical year together. Then, at the end of that year, she was murdered in front of his eyes, while he stood there doing nothing.
“The boy grew up to be a man. He adopted her idea as his own. He resolved himself to prove worthy of her memory, to fight injustice, to help the voiceless assemble and organize in their own defense. The man studied law. He became a labor lawyer. Working with her idea, he became a very effective one. He organized groups of workers whom it had never been thought could be organized, won rights for them that had never been imagined. Migrant workers. Professional wrestlers. And, most notably, adjunct faculty at major universities.
“One day, in his old age, the man was approached by a brilliant scientist, a physicist named Hashemi Rafsanjani. Dr. Rafsanjani had once been one of those adjunct faculty members he’d saved from a life of poverty. And now, decades later, Dr. Rafsanjani had made a ground-breaking discovery. He had uncovered the secret of time travel. It turned out that matter could not be moved backwards through time, but energy could—including the electrical impulses in a brain that, collectively, constitute a human mind. But there was no recall button; it was a one-way trip. And that being so, no member of Rafsanjani’s project was willing to be the pioneer—to do so would have meant giving up career, family, everything. They needed a different kind of person, one with less to lose.
“In gratitude for all the man had done, Dr. Rafsanjani offered him a gift—the chance to be the world’s first time traveler. He offered the man a chance to travel back, his consciousness intact, to his own youth, to have a chance to relive his life from any moment he chose. The man chose August 12 of his freshman year of high school, some fifty years before. The day he’d met that special girl. And he and Dr. Rafsanjani worked out a neural trigger that would send the man’s consciousness back in time. A neurocircuit was to be implanted in his cerebral cortex; at the moment of his death, the man’s consciousness would be sent back across the decades to that day in August, where he’d have his second chance.
“An unprecedented surgery was performed, the man’s brain reprogrammed with the new instructions. He recovered for several weeks. He thanked Dr. Rafsanjani for his gift. Then he went straight home and drank poison. He awoke as a fifteen-year-old boy, determined to save the girl he’d loved.
“And he tried. Lord, how he tried. He planned for the day of her death. But he didn’t save her. When that day in May came, she wasn’t killed by her original assassin. Instead, she was killed by a plummeting chunk of concrete.
“So the man—a boy again—jumped off of a tall building, having failed in his second chance. And it was at this point that he discovered that Dr. Rafsanjani had made an error. You see, the trigger for the man’s trip back in time—his death—was imprinted electronically upon his consciousness, as was his destination date. So, when he hit the pavement below, he woke up again, eight months younger, on August 12.
“And so, he went around again. And again. Every time, trying new strategies. Anticipating different threats. And it never made a difference. Every time, Eddie…every time they reached that day in May, the girl died.”
I looked down at John. I looked into those green eyes, and I saw. The clouds in them were not caused by his medication. His face was young, but his eyes were old. Older, and more full of pain, than any eyes I’d ever seen.
“I don’t need to ask if you believe me,” he said. “I know for a fact that you do. We’ve had this conversation before. Many times.”
I could barely make my lips part. When I finally did, I asked him, “But…why choose to do nothing?”
“Because that’s the only way out, Eddie. If I interact with her, her behavior changes. The threats reconfigure around her, become unpredictable. And when that happens, I can’t prepare.” He stared up at the ceiling. “Believe me, Eddie, I have tried everything. I have run against her for class president. I’ve sabotaged our efforts to win the class competition. I’ve tried to talk her out of fighting Munsch’s plan. I’ve murdered Munsch and Panegasser before the assembly. I’ve burned Connors Park to the ground on Sunday night. None of it makes a difference, except to change the specific way she dies.” He turned his eyes back to me. “But if I don’t interact with her, Eddie…then the threats line up the same way. Predictably. I can plan for them. I can do nothing effectively.”
He swallowed. “Granted, it always seems like there’s another threat lurking behind the ones I solve. They keep piling up on me, and the first time I miss one, she dies. The lightning bolt—that was new. This is the furthest I’ve ever gotten.” He licked his lips. “Gotta make a lightning rod. I’ll need a bigger garbage bag the next time around.”
I shook my head. “John…look, obviously, I don’t know. But the way you’re explaining it…it doesn’t sounds like there’s anything you can do. It sounds like destiny. Like she’s supposed to die.”
He rounded on me, those ancient eyes flashing anger, and I recoiled for a moment. Seeing this, he closed his eyelids and spoke softly. “Eddie, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that. It’s just…” He reaches into the air above the bed, clutching at something invisible, then lets his hands fall limply back to his sides. “…it’s just that, you know, maybe you’re right. Maybe the big events in our lives are fixed. Maybe nothing we do matters.”
“So, if that turns out to be true,” I asked, my voice soft, “what will you do?”
“I’ve been without her for hundreds of…years, cycles, whatever you want to call them. Playing the do-nothing game. If I ever decide that it’s hopeless…well, then I will go back to her. I will spend that one magic year with her. And then I will spend that year with her again. And again, and again. Forever. Eternity with the girl I love.” He offered me a soft smile. “Pretty close to heaven, don’t you think?”
“But John,” I said, “you have a whole life in front of you before the cycle starts again.”
He smiled sadly up at me. “Not exactly.” And his eyes drifted to the bedside table, where a syringe lay, empty, the plunger depressed. I picked it up and saw a bead of liquid still hovering at its tip.
“Morphine,” he explains. “A bad mix for my painkillers. They leave the storage closet unattended from 10:43 to 10:49 on Sunday night. Every time. I stashed it under the mattress. They always bring me to the same room.” He smiled. “You took your Mulligan back at the golf course. Now I’m taking mine.”
I grabbed at the call button, hoping to summon a nurse, but his hand intercepted mine and grabbed my wrist. Even flat on his back in traction, he was far stronger than I. “Please don’t,” he said, calmly, as I struggled to free myself. “If you do, they move me to the psych ward and put me on suicide watch. I spend six weeks talking the doctors around, saying how much better I feel. Then, the day I’m released, I do it anyway, with a razor blade, in my bathroom at home. And that leaves my parents to find the body. This way’s better.”
My struggles subsided, my shoulders slumped. “Thank you. I injected it into the IV bag, which is on a slow drip. We’ve got time to talk.”
A cold knot swelled up in my throat, and then the tears came. “John,” I blubbered, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Go ahead, Eddie. It’s nothing I haven’t heard you say a thousand times before. But you’ve earned the right to say it.”
“I love you,” I whispered, between blubbering sobs.
He still had my wrist in his hand. He shifted his grip, placed my hand between his. “I know you do, Eddie. I know.” And maybe those ancient green eyes were just a little brighter for a moment. “And I can’t love you back, not in that way. I’m sorry. I’m in love with someone else, and I always will be. But you need to know this: love is coming for you, Eddie. I met him, you see. That first time around, the time I lived out my whole life. He’s wonderful. He’s worthy of you. And as great as each of you are alone, you’re even better together.” And his smile was so wide, and so genuine, that I couldn’t help but feel my spirits lift, if only a little. “We had dinner, you know? Often, down that first timeline. You, and he, and I. We took vacations together, saw the world. All throughout our lives. Until the three of us were old, old men. And it was wonderful. But all that time, and all those years from then to now—I wished for more, Eddie. I dreamed about what it would be like for it to be four of us, living out our lives together. Would you like that, Eddie?”
And it wasn’t what I’d wanted. But I heard myself say, “Yes, I’d like that, John,” and I realized that somehow, it was true. I loved him, and above all else, I desired his happiness.
And his eyes were ancient again, but his smile was broad and bright, a thing eternally young. “Every time around, Eddie,” he said. “Even knowing what’s coming. Even knowing I’m likely to fail. Every time around, it’s you, Eddie. Keeping me sane. Keeping this endless cycle from turning into hell.” His words were beginning to slur; the drugs were kicking in. “Even when I know what you’re going to do, what you’re gonna say…it never gets old, Eddie. Not to me.” Through my tears and against my will, I found myself smiling back.
He shuddered, winced. “Ah.” he said. “Here it comes. I know this feeling. Been here. Done this.”
“You truly do love her.”
He nodded slightly.
“Go get her.”
He smiled. His grip slackened. The age lifted from his eyes, leaving the irises half a shade paler.
That’s how the doctor found us, an hour later, when they re-entered the room. My right hand between his.
And in my left hand, the empty syringe.
The rest of it, Dr. Rafsanjani, you can discover through a simple internet search for my name.
I was, very briefly and very horribly, a celebrity. The psycho fag teenager who killed his best friend, on whom he had a gay crush. I became the subject of every homophobic rant by every deranged right-wing lunatic in America. They tried me as an adult. They convicted me. And I spent thirty years in prison. Doing nothing.
And I assume that at some point in those thirty years, I was supposed to meet the man with whom John claimed I was destined to fall in love. I have no idea who he was, or what became of him. I suspect I never will. And I am content with that. I believe, as John did, that one perfect love lasts a thousand lifetimes. I’ve had mine.
But here’s the kicker, Doctor Rafsanjani. What happened to me after John died wasn’t a curse. It was a blessing. Because it told me what I needed to know.
In John’s original timeline, I grew old in freedom and found love. In this timeline, I didn’t. The discovery of that syringe in my hand changed my life. And if the events of my life and death aren’t fixed, then nobody’s are—including Dani’s.
It’s not hopeless, Doctor Rafsanjani. Somewhere, amidst all those traps that await Dani on that fateful day, there’s a way out. And John, cycling back over that single year in his life, over and over again, has to be made aware of that, lest he give up the fight.
Doctor Rafsanjani, please make me your guinea pig.
Please give me the surgery you gave John in that other timeline. Put the neurotransmitter, with its fatal flaw, in my head. Send me back to August 12. Send me back to John, to travel that endless loop with him. To warn him. To prepare him. To keep him company. To be the one unpredictable element in his universe, the one thing that can break the pattern. To be there. To do that.
Please let me spend that one magic year—and someday, all the years that follow—with John. And with Dani. And perhaps even with that other man. The one I’ve yet to meet.
Eternity, with the people I love. Pretty close to heaven, don’t you think?
The Off Switch
By Douglas Kolacki
I just beat Keith Jeffers out of the cafeteria. Call Guinness! Jeffers, The Great Lightspeed, nipping at my heels for once, not the other way around. He wouldn’t even pass for a jock–scrawny, weasel-faced, reddish mop of hair. I can smell his body odor. Any closer, and his legs’ll get tangled up in mine. My bell-bottoms flap around my ankles.
“No way!” he guffaws. Keith’s the only one in gym class who actually laughs his way around the wide, wide track while the rest of us lag behind, wheezing.
Here comes Mark Walford with his bowl haircut, juggling an armful of books, looking everywhere but where he’s going. I give him a shove. Down he goes, books flying.
That costs me my lead; Keith matches me step for step now. “You and Sandee going out tonight?” he asks. Today’s Friday.
“Tomorrow.” He knows I never miss Chico and the Man. We slow to a walk, knowing what’s up ahead. By the time we reach the first floor, we’re practically crawling.
“Metal,” I growl, “shop.”
Where the teacher is paddle-happy, especially if you’re late. But they can’t crook their little fingers and make me show up whenever they want! I know my Constitutional rights as an American citizen.
All right, no paddling–substitute teacher today. Final bell, released for the day: I lose Keith in the mob of erupting, laughing, spitball-shooting classmates. Home to dinner. After Stepmom–mom to me, really–serves up potato stroganoff Hamburger Helper transformed into something you couldn’t match in any fancy restaurant, and I help her with the dishes and haul out the garbage, I move our phone from the kitchen counter to the kitchen table, tip back in my chair until I touch the wall, and spin Sandee’s number.
“Have you heard?” she asks.
“Mark Walford. He said he’s going to kill himself.”
Mark Walford. Round moon-face, taller than Keith but shorter than me–not many people tower over me–overweight enough for Keith to yell “Hey Meatball!,” sheepish enough for Joe Teal to tag him “Dork,” and enough into all those radiation-spawned city-stomping monsters for me to call him “Godzilla.”
Actually, before that, I called him Wallflower. Somewhere along the line, I changed it. It was me who dubbed Keith The Great Lightspeed, and that caught on, but I guess lightning doesn’t strike twice. Meatball was what everyone called Mark, including me, though I still kind of hope they’ll start using Godzilla.
Sandee’s in Walford’s Third Bell English class, and she saw it all. Mark raised his hand, and when called on, stood up and made his announcement.
“What did Mrs. Olson do?” I asked.
“She just asked him to sit down. Had him stay after class for a talk.”
“Do you know how he said he’d do it?”
She waits. Finally I ask, “How?”
“He thinks that somewhere on the human body, there’s something like an off switch. Press it, trip it, and that’s it. No pain, no mess. You’re just dead.”
Mark Walford and I go back to Fifth Grade. I first met him when he stopped me in the hall–why me, I don’t know–and showed me a book from the school library. History of the French Revolution or something like that. Lot of pictures of the guillotine, or is that just my memory? He opened it to the title page, pointed to a note scratched across the bottom.
TURN TO PAGE 37
I looked up at him, trying to place his name–I’d seen him around. “Why?”
“Just do it!” He giggled, nodded, his face squeezed up like Mr. Magoo’s.
All right. I took the thing out of his hands, did as he said, and found another note.
NOW GO TO PAGE 80
“Here, borrow it.” He shoved it into my hands, and before I could ask if he’d properly checked it out, he’d waddled away.
I took his book home. And flipped to page eighty, where I was advised to
TURN TO PAGE 207
And so on. After spending a whole evening sitting on my bed with the book open beside me, flipping back and forth per the blamed notes, I reached the last page. And read:
IF YOU FOLLOWED THE INSTRUCTIONS AT THE BOTTOMS OF THE PAGES, YOU WERE A DUMB-ASS TO DO IT. HA HA. YOU SUCKER. HOPE YOU HAD FUN TURNING PAGES, DUMB-ASS!
The next day I found the waddling smirker I now knew was Mark Walford, and handed his book back. “Ha ha,” I said.
“Oh!” He gave a start. “Not me! No, I didn’t write those! Just thought you’d get a kick out of it.”
I snorted, and walked off.
He’s always been goofy like that. I didn’t hate him right away, not after the book thing. One day I saw him like I saw everyone, more or less; the next I was calling him Wallflower and Godzilla. Never really noticed the change, and I didn’t feel any different afterwards than before. People hated him, and so did I. That was about it.
My “debut” happened about two or three months after I met him, in class with a substitute teacher. The teacher, a skinny nervous type always adjusting her clothes, had us write one-page stories and stand up in class to read them.
I called mine “The Day I Kicked Walford’s Butt.”
Actually I never even talked to him, much less touched him, and everyone knew it. But I stood up, paper in both hands, and practically shouted it out. My audience howled, cheered, and one guy pounded on his desk laughing. The substitute teacher just listened with a clouded look on her face, and Mark sat with folded arms. Neither of them said anything, then or afterwards. I never expected them to.
When I finished I dropped back into my chair, flushed with victory. I knew then the feeling of being carried off the field on everyone’s shoulders after hitting the winning home run; of slaying the evil supervillain and saving the world; of starring in a smash-hit movie, flashbulbs popping, people clapping me on the back and asking for autographs.
Northland High, my daytime home since last year, sleeps in one of the grassy suburbs all over the north end of town. I can walk to it from our townhouse, like I could walk to Walden Middle School in the years before Sandee. It’s a big granite and glass shoebox on the outside, but inside it fades back into the 1920’s, the lockers worn and dented, the wooden desks built for kindergarteners–it’s always a challenge for me to wriggle into them–the desktops etched with graffiti and notes since before we were born. One desk in the library has V.E. DAY! MAY 8 1945 cut into it. The windows by the stairs run from first to second floor, and on clear mornings you get dazzled by the sun.
Word of Mark’s stunt gets around as fast as you’d expect. Monday, at lunch, I have my hands full trying to protect Sandee from getting mobbed by Keith, Dave, and just about everyone else who’s not trapped in a class.
“Is it true?”
“Did he really…”
“Boys!” Sandee doesn’t look up from her meatloaf. “Pipe down.”
Pipe down they do. My willowy Sandee, whose sunny hair hangs level with her chin, could stop an auctioneer in his verbal tracks. Pretty as a pinup, but watch out for her voice when she raises it.
She sips milk through a straw from her half-pint carton. She always finishes it in three or four sips, removing the straw the instant she’s slurping on air. “Yes, he really did say he’s gonna kill himself.”
“Turn himself off,” Keith guesses. “Not shooting himself or anything. He’s just gonna push some button–”
“His belly button!” I say.
Sandee spoons up her mashed potatoes. After elegantly swallowing, she brushes a soft strand from her face and says, “He went to the library on Saturday and checked out every anatomy book they have. Anything medical.”
The guys are all over her in an instant. “How do you know this?” “Where’d you hear it?”
“I asked him.”
She asked him.
Sandee’s that kind of person. She won’t let her folks put out regular mousetraps; it’s gotta be the kind that lures the rodents in and locks them inside. Then she takes them to a field across the street and lets them go. Since we first met in Northland’s lobby and I accidentally knocked her down, she’d never really mentioned Walford…but I’m so used to everyone hating him, I’m caught off guard to find someone who doesn’t.
“He’s a clown,” I remind her. “Looking for attention.”
“He said,” she continues, “that the preferred way, for people who don’t want to leave a mess behind, is overdosing on sleeping pills. Either that, or monoxiding yourself in your car. He said he doesn’t want to go out like Hemingway–”
The others have gone silent; only the undercurrent of a hundred lunch conversations are heard. “Could we get off this?”
I always sense, somehow, the exact moment she gets up. I always get up with her, and we do it now, jumping to our feet as if we’d counted to three.
“How do you do that,” Keith mumbles. He knows full well the answer: We don’t know. We just know, somehow. We’ve told him that a hundred times.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday pass; then Sandee tells me, “He’s still talking about it.”
Again I’m caught off guard. I’d forgotten it in the everyday routines, the after-school cones at Dairy Queen, Sandee bringing her Queen and Bad Company albums over to my house to play them over my big speakers, English homework I can do in my sleep, Algebra homework I hate and have to get Dad to help me with.
“He’s still talking about it,” I repeat dumbly. “Are you encouraging him?”
She gives me her cute little flutter-eyed shrug, biting her lip. “He needs someone to talk to.”
I stop. She stops, and we face each other in the hall while everyone else swirls and eddies around us.
“Don’t get mad.” She brushes a hair from her face.
“I’m not mad.” I sigh. “But do you see what he’s doing? You’re giving him what he wants. He’s gonna follow you everywhere now.”
“You’re probably right. But…”
“He’s going into more detail–”
“For crying out loud!” Had I been with the guys, I’d have put it another way, but you don’t use words like that around Sandee.
“He just talks so seriously about it.”
I try to fathom this. Mark Walford, who scribbles pictures of Tokyo monsters in art class with purple and yellow crayons, giggling over them while everyone stares, whose nervous goofball grin never leaves his face.
“He said,” Sandee goes on, “he’s been reading through those library books. Claims he’s got books stacked almost to the ceiling. What he’s looking for is probably in the head. That would make sense, right? That’s where it all happens. Of course, you’ve got the skull protecting everything…”
Suddenly I wonder if Walford’s ever seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on TV. Was it Boris Karloff playing that creepy guy? Backing Danny Kaye into a corner: “Did you know that an icicle inserted in the brain melts slowly and leaves no trace?”
After noon I change the concrete jungle of the school for the scented wonderland of Sandee’s room. She’s the only girl I know who takes her scents seriously; she studies the subject like I study Friday night sitcoms, and when she made the big announcement that she had decided on a career in perfuming, I barely even noticed. Her dad gave her a gentle reminder that “we already know that, dear.”
Her family line comes down from the Massachusetts Puritans–her dad’s side, that is–and mother’s side from cabaret France. Damn it all, it’s dad who’s in charge. His daughter’s bedroom door is to be wide open when “that boy” comes to visit. (I can’t wait till I make the rules.) We abide the rule; we don’t complain.
“Jon.” Sandee reaches under her bed.
I flop down on that bed; it’s an old canopied model with the canopy removed, littered with all her stuffed bears and unicorns. “I’ve already guessed. Let’s see it.”
She tosses it onto one of her three pillows: a book with an exploded view of a head and the word ANATOMY in its title. The writer is someone or other M.D. Ph.D.
I yawn. “You just can’t get your mind off that guy.”
This whole thing has an altogether different meaning than if I was talking about the star linebacker or the student council president. In this case, I’m only stating a plain fact.
“Snuggle with me.” She falls down beside me, the book between us.
The door is open…a little. Dad never told us exactly how wide open it had to be. If he doesn’t approve, he’ll holler. We kick up our feet, side by side on our bellies, and Sandee opens the book.
The pages include clear films that superimpose different red, blue and purple systems over an outline of a body.
Circulatory system: Actually three independent systems working together: the heart(cardiovascular), lungs(pulmonary), and the arteries and veins and such(systemic). The average adult has five to six quarts of blood. It takes a blood cell about twenty seconds to circulate through the whole system.
So cut your wrists. Someone told me once, I forget who, that you should slit them lengthwise, not across. Not sure why.
“Not your throat,” Sandee is saying. “It’s actually, like, really hard to cut your own throat.”
“Six quarts. How much has to run out before you die?”
“Don’t know.” She turns the page.
I read on. The pulmonary circulatory system sends oxygen-depleted blood away from the heart, through the pulmonary artery to the lungs…
Well old Walford would like the sound of that “oxygen-deprived,” wouldn’t he? Tried and true ways to do that, like, say, hanging yourself…
Respiratory system. A lack of oxygen is called hypoxia. Anoxia is when you’re all out. Brain cells last four to six minutes without oxygen…
“I wouldn’t recommend hanging myself,” I hear myself say. Pages and clear transparencies fly under Sandy’s fingers, lots of rustling.
“So did you find it here?” I flick one of her stray hairs away from her eye–I do that almost every day, and it’s come to be automatic. She doesn’t even notice.
“Mark’s magic button.”
Seeing all this stuff in the book reassures me, somehow. Laid out plain, the whole network of expertly-rigged arteries and veins and capillaries, the nerve endings and the array of tightly-packed organs all coordinated together, makes it clear pretty quick: there isn’t any way to just shut it all off at once, except by sitting on a bomb, maybe, but that’s not what old Wallflower’s talking about. It’d be like trying to stop a whole city at once, all the businesses, the transportation, the utilities. I feel like I’ve been taken. That dope! Was he ever really serious?
“Oh,” Sandee says, “that.”
“‘Oh, that?’ He hasn’t brought it up?”
“How would I know?”
“He talks to you.”
“Not that much. I gave him the number to the crisis hotline.”
“Nice of you.”
“Better safe than sorry, Jon.”
“I guess so.”
“You know, sometimes couples make a pact to meet in the afterlife. We’d fill up the bathtub–”
“We?” I squint.
“And cut our wrists–”
She holds my gaze. “That, dear, is the kind of thing Mark is thinking about.”
“That’s his problem. Or would be, if he was really serious. He gave himself away with all this talk about magic buttons. If he hadn’t, he might have had me worried.”
She rests her chin on her folded hands, chewing her lower lip.
I go on. “You’re seeing him like you see Mimi and Karl.” Her pet cats. Strays, till my angel found them and took them in. Something occurs to me. “You know, they probably eat the mice you used to catch in those cages–”
“Jon!” Her eyes pierce. I always cringe a little when she does that. Sandee has the damndest knack for making me feel like a paddled four-year-old. I blubber out an apology I know I’ll regret later.
“But Sandee, what’s gotten into you?” I raise myself up on my elbow, facing her. “You sound morbid.”
“If things ever go south for us,” she twirls the stray hair with a finger, “you wouldn’t want to make a pact? Relax, dear. I’m kidding.”
I get up off the bed. “This isn’t funny anymore.”
“Dear.” She pouts.
“How about we close the door and count how many seconds go by before Dad starts yelling?”
I start to slam the door, catch myself at the last second, click it shut softly. Then I attack my girl. She giggles, I playfully snarl, we wrestle, we get farther than I thought but not far enough when her father pounds on the door.
Sandee bounces off the bed and opens the door, smiling sweetly through tousled hair. “We’re just studying, Dad.”
He’s a smallish guy, testosterone-impaired and inches below my height, hair turning aluminum. Yet somehow, when he gets in your face, he magnifies in your mind’s eye till he’s Goliath. “Sandee…”
Great. we’re in for another one of his speeches. Makes no difference; I’m remembering the last couple of minutes with an increasing sense of disbelief. Nausea wells up in my stomach.
“Sorry, sir.” I slink around him. “I need to go.”
Sandee calls after me. I don’t answer.
By the time I arrive home, I feel sick.
The next one to get in my face is Keith. He pounces on me the next morning outside school, like he’s been waiting for me. Dave hovers behind him.
“Sandee’s talking to Walford?” Keith wants to know. His face is lit up, like someone’s telling him he’s won a million. “Is that true?”
“Not now.” I stride past and through the door.
“What the hell, man!” He follows me. “He’s trying to steal your girl. He’s stealing your girrr-lll!” Practically dancing now. He only dances like that when something’s really got him started.
I know what he’s doing, of course. I’ve seen it before. Fights don’t happen that often here, but when they do, it usually turns out that Keith stirred them up. He never gets his own hands dirty–he’s too smart for that–but when he sees a chance he starts in, jeering, howling, egging people on until next thing you know, fisticuffs have broken out and Keith is at the front of the crowd, cheering the loudest.
“Cool it,” I tell him.
But he’s running off down the hall now, pinball-like, ricocheting off the lockers and walls in a crazy zig-zag, shouting Mark’s name, Sandee’s name, my name, a good dozen times before the noise fades.
By afternoon it’s all over the school. It’s multiplied, grown like a cancer at high speed. By Sixth Bell I’ve forgotten all about the weekend, about Chico and the Man, even about what Sandee and I will do this weekend, everything but that the seventh guy now has stopped me in the hall and pushed his face at me, wanting to know if Mark Walford, who last week was talking suicide, has now been reborn as Don Juan.
“Is it really true?”
“You gonna let him get away with that?”
By noon I’ve sworn myself hoarse that it was just Keith blowing everything out of proportion. Now I keep walking and try to ignore the laughter. One guy even makes kissing sounds; I almost hit him.
They know good and well, of course, that it’s all bullcrap. But one thing’s true: Sandee is talking with him. Seeking him out, even, to talk with him. I understand this because I know Sandee; she would do it for anyone, and had done it for a lot of people, guys and girls both.
But Mark Walford is different. He’s the school leper. If he hooked up with a female more like himself, a dumpy wallflower like Melody White or bag-lady Sam Sablinsky, we’d all nod and think, “Right on schedule,” and let fly with the jokes. A girl in Sandee’s league upsets that status-quo. I’m being dragged into it, hearing it all day long, and it’s only November.
I have to nip this in the bud now.
I’ve never actually “called someone out.” Never even seen it happen–just the occasional story about someone getting ganged up on after school, and those are few and far between. How do you really fight, anyway? Fistfights, real brawls, are something new. It’s not like I go out and look for them. I don’t worry about Walford hurting me; he could no more do that than a lamb.
Maybe I don’t really have to fight. Just pushing him down and yelling at him should do it.
–No, maybe I should leave a mark. Black eye. Bloody nose. That should be easy enough, just hit him hard there a couple of times.
–But what if he cries? Would that do it, or should I still leave a mark on him?
–A mark. Leave a mark that’ll stay a while, keep everyone reminded.
–Think, think…the time’ll be here before I know it. Normally school drags, but today it’s flying by. Class after class passes, bell after bell, I gotta make up my mind, man.
After metal shop I see Walford at his locker. I breeze up to him, weaving through the flow of chattering students. His face is as I expected. Twice I’ve seen guys get mad at him for some reason, and he always folds up, eyes panicking, talking in a trembly voice.
“Hey Godzilla.” I’m toe to toe with him. “Anyone ever tell you, you talk too much?”
“You mean Sandee?”
“No, I mean the Fonz. You getting ideas about my girl?”
“I only talked to her!” he wails, indignant as a six-year-old.
Two…four…a dozen or so students watch us. Dave is one, Keith another, hanging back, smirking to split his damned mug in two.
“Outside! After school!” I smack my fist into my palm and stalk off.
I feel lightheaded, a little nauseous, like this is some kind of weird dream. Two minutes, I tell myself; two minutes and life can go on. Then I’ll have a long talk with my steady about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I still haven’t decided: black eye, or bloody nose? It would be my first try at either. Maybe this’ll take longer than I hope.
The last dismissal bell sounds when I decide. Tears–that’s it. On the first day of sixth grade, some guy got thrown against a locker and cried, and he heard about it all year long. No one let him forget it. So I’ll shove Walford to the ground, hard, and if that doesn’t do it I’ll kick him, or hit him in the face or something until he does. Then everyone will be so busy going on about it that they’ll forget everything else.
Sandee’s waiting outside the classroom door, her face like Mark’s a few minutes ago. Somehow she managed to be there right when the bell sounded. The echo of that rapid-fire ring is still fading away when she sees me and practically drops her books to grab me.
“Jon. Did you really…?”
“He could really be suicidal!”
“He’s looking for attention, remember?”
“We don’t know that. If he’s–”
“He’s not. That fantasy of his, remember? His ‘switch?’ He wouldn’t have gone on about that if he was really serious. Am I right? And if you hadn’t given him every encouragement in the world, I wouldn’t have to do this.”
I push past her; she scrambles to catch up. “Call it off, all right? For me?”
“Can’t.” I reach the bank of glass doors, shove one open, hard, as if warming up for the violence. “The whole school’s out there waiting.”
And they are.
It’s not the whole school, but it’s enough. Others are flocking away down the street, or climbing into their parents’ cars. Sandee is one of those: her dad insists on dropping her off and picking her up every day. But The Event has drawn enough of a crowd to put my worries to rest.
Now I just have to get on with it.
Out on the grass between the building and the parking lot, Mark is waiting. Everyone gives him a wide berth, as if the earth is about to crack open and swallow him.
The weather’s blustery, cold even for early November, and it occurs to me we haven’t seen the sun in days. The wind kicks up, and the flag fasteners make a steady clanging against the pole. Walford has his hands in his pockets, face white.
I should stride up to him, back straight and head high, like Napoleon walking through a city he just conquered. But it’s taking all my strength not to shake.
“Go,” somebody yells. “Come on!” shouts someone else.
Walford (Wallflower! Godzilla!) meets my eyes. He couldn’t be more scared if I was the bogeyman.
He opens his mouth. “Jon–”
I shove him down with both hands, stand over him with fists clenched. “DON’T YOU EVER TALK TO MY GIRL, PUNK! EVER! YOU GOT THAT?”
He lies in a heap. Doesn’t try to sit up. He doesn’t want to encourage me, or any of the others crowded around us who are screaming their heads off. His lips are tight, face squeezing up–tears? Yes, they’re brimming. Thank God, he’s cooperating.
“Whatsa matter, little baby?” I scream out my relief, screaming to be heard over everyone’s jeers, and gloats, and cries of “Fight! Fight!” “Wuss!” “Ha ha!” Everyone’s looking to get their licks in, at least with words.
He bursts into tears, all at once, wetting his whole face in a second. He sobs, shoulders heaving, covering his face with both hands. It’s over. I want to pump his hand and thank him.
I almost jump out of my skin. Keith’s crouching beside me.
“What are you waiting for?” He shouts, jumps. “Bash his head!”
“Bash his head!” someone else joins in.
I kick Walford in the ribs. He cringes and curls up like a fetus, trembling. Faint sobs float up to my ears.
Then inspiration strikes. “Nah.” I wave Keith off. “Ain’t worth my time.”
I start off, careful not to hurry, wanting nothing but to get out of there and back to normal life. With every step, I breathe easier.
“Well hell!” Keith says, somewhere behind me. “He’s worth mine all right–”
I don’t look back.
Most of my dinner stays uneaten, only picked at. Ruthie, my stepmother, wraps my plate in aluminum foil and puts it in the oven for me.
We’ve all given Mark Walford the standard “picking-on” treatment: teasing, taunting, knocking his books from his hands, pushing him down. But this was the first time I’d ever actually kicked him. We’d always threatened to “beat his ass,” but it was just threats, things we said but didn’t really think about, like his own death threats on himself.
“Sandee called,” Ruthie says brightly. She caught Dad on the rebound after the family wars that blew my parents apart. I was three at the time, and remember none of it. Birth Mother is back in California, raising my older brother while Dad and the wonderful woman I think of as my mother helps Dad oversee my growth here.
I wait until Dad and Stepmom are nestled in front of the TV, then put the phone on the kitchen table, collapse into my chair and dial Sandee’s number.
She answers on the second ring. “Jon?”
“Did you really kick him?”
“Once. Keith was yelling, and…Sandee, he’s not going to kill himself over this, all right?”
“How do you know?”
“None of this would have happened if you hadn’t–”
“How do you know, Jon?”
Oh, sheesh. How many times do I have to explain this? “Did you call him again?”
“I had to look up his number. Lucky for you it was listed.” Sandee’s own number isn’t. Neither is ours.
“What’d the Wallflower say?”
“Sandee, look. I’m trying to help you lighten up. He’s got you all tied up in knots. He probably did this whole thing just so you’d feel sorry for him.”
“He didn’t say anything.” Her voice could freeze the phone and my hand holding it. “He was crying.”
I snort. “Pretending?”
“No, Jon, not pretending! He said you kicked him, you kicked him when he was on the ground, and Keith…” She pauses, maybe waiting for me to fill in the details. When I don’t, she goes on. “I waited, Jon, I must have waited five minutes just for him to stop sobbing enough so he could talk. And when he did, he said he’s had it, he can’t take it anymore, can’t take the pain inside him, he shouldn’t have bothered with all the reading and looking things up–”
“–he should have just cut his wrists. Your blood runs out and it’s over.”
“Sandee.” I’m shouting now; Dad’s going to come in and ask what’s up. Sandee and I don’t fight very often, and we’ve never done it over the phone. “Will you cut that out?”
Then I realize what I said, and I think of adding “No pun intended,” but decide I’d best keep my mouth shut.
“I gotta go, all right?” I hang up the phone.
Mark doesn’t return to school the next day.
As for me, I get a reception like when I stood up in Fourth Grade with the paper in my hand and trumpeted out my story. The guys that taunted me yesterday now pump my hand and slap me on the back.
Others seem to avoid me, looking at me a little too long as I pass in the hallways. Never mind. It’s over. Walford will come back, everything will go back to the way it was and it’ll be over.
Sandee calls me after dinner. “He won’t come to the phone,” she says right away.
“He won’t.” The TV news floats in from the living room; I don’t really notice. All sights and sounds seem filtered through a fog of anxiety that, much as I deny it, keeps turning itself up.
Fantasy or not, would he really do such a thing?
What if I pushed him over the edge?
That’s just what he wants you to think! He’s getting back at you! And it’s just the way he’d do it. Isn’t it?
“So,” I tell Sandee, “he’s still with us. His mom hasn’t walked into his room to find he’s overdosed on sleeping pills or anything–”
“You were talking this kind of talk yourself, girl.” So how does it feel to be the one hearing it, instead of creeping me out with it? Huh?
Next day, still no Mark. Keith, at lunch with me and Sandee, speculates aloud if he didn’t go ahead and rid the world of himself. I listen in silence.
Sandee says, “He’s just taking a few days off–”
“He’s recuperating,” I quip.
“Ha!” Keith snorts, and then thankfully clams up.
Sandee and I jump up at the same instant, just like always, and shove our empty trays at the dishwasher on the way out.
“He called me last night,” she says.
–Keith following us? I glance over my shoulder, but no need; Sandee made sure we were out of his hearing, or she wouldn’t have brought it up.
“You know what he said?” She keeps her eyes fixed ahead.
“He’s still searching for his off-switch. He’s giving it all his time now, day and night, he says. He tells his Mom he’s got a fever and can’t go to school, and she believes him.”
“He’ll get over it, Sandee. I guarantee he’ll be okay again by Monday.” Today is Friday, and I remember my show is on tonight.
We stop at her locker. She spins the combination and pops open her lock. “Don’t you get it, Jon?”
“Would you at least look at me?”
The side of her head, hair swept behind her ear, the graceful curve of her nose and high cheekbones, reminds me of that picture in her book: her brain, her optic nerves, all the delicate machinery of her cortexes right inside, and only a thin sheath of skull guarding it from the whole crazy world.
She faces me now, hugging her books. She always carries two books at a time, never more, never less. Or holding them up like a shield? I’m not sure. “He’s going to realize that much faster, there’s nothing to it. No such ‘switch.’ And what do you think he’ll do then? He’ll start thinking of the veins just waiting to be opened, or the breathing waiting to be stopped, or all the million poisons that could end the nightmare that you and Keith and everyone have made of his life. You say everything’s gonna be okay by Monday? Jon!” She’s practically shouting now. She’s magnifying, growing bigger like her dad, and I’m feeling smaller and smaller. In reality I stand three inches taller than Sandee, but now it’s like she’s towering over me. “He won’t even be alive anymore come Monday! Do you understand that?”
She walks off; I don’t dare try to follow.
She vanishes into the hallway crowd, and now I see Mark Walford, he’s growing bigger and bigger, his face frozen into the panic of the instant before I pushed him down and screamed at him. I walk toward him; he floats back away from me. I follow, not noticing the students I pass, until I come to the fire alarm Keith and I got him to pull one day. We were disappointed when Mark didn’t get caught like he was supposed to. Don’t know how he escaped that; there’s something on the handle that sticks to your fingers, and the school staff lines everyone up in the gym and makes us hold out our hands and shines this ultra-violet light on them, that exposes the culprit.
Then I jump. I’m not imagining it. It’s really him.
“Mark?” I call out.
The hallways are clearing, everyone’s due at Sixth Bell, but instead of going upstairs to Social Studies I follow Mark into his classroom.
Everyone sits down until only the two of us are standing. Now he notices me. His face tells all.
“Mark?” I don’t know what else to say.
He walks to the front of the room and faces the class.
Mr. Hopping, the oldest teacher in school and probably in the state, watches from his desk, blinking behind thick glasses. “Mr. Walford?”
Mark looks at nothing but me. I want to squirm.
“From now on, things will be different.” His voice is low and unwavering. “I’m going to call this the ‘Jon Way.'”
And he touches his left side, pressing in quickly and hard. He does the same with his right wrist and upper right leg. His face twists, he squeezes his eyes shut, he shudders and lets out a gasp. The class cries out. Blood trickles from Mark’s left ear, and then, all at once, it bursts out his mouth. The kid sitting nearest to him gets spattered. The girls scream. Mr. Hopping is on his feet, but Mark collapses. He lies in a heap, blood still dribbling, eyes open but no longer seeing.
Mr. Hopping bends over Mark. His face is white. “Call the nurse,” he says in a choked voice.
I stand and stare and can’t move.
By Suzan Palumbo
Mom was a jigsaw puzzle. I don’t mean a mystery or a riddle or that you couldn’t discern the meaning behind her rare smile. Her skin was grooved into interlocking, thin, wood-like pieces and tessellated over a green felt dermis.
She liked to read on the couch on Sunday afternoons while I assembled moon bases with Legos on the coffee table. Once, I climbed up next to her to show her the rover I’d built and banged my head against her arm, knocking the book from her hands and a tile from her forearm onto the floor. I scrabbled onto the carpet and handed her the chestnut piece. She laughed and slipped it back onto her underlayment. “See,” she said, “all better.”
Dad would come home from the local dive smelling like rum with a dash of cigarette ash. He’d crush mom’s hand while he slurred about his boss keeping him down; how he never got a fair shake. The tabs on the pieces of mom’s fingers became worn and delaminated, lifting like hang nails from each time she’d extracted herself from him and escaped to her bedroom.
One night, she pulled away too quickly. He jerked her towards him, grabbed the back of her neck and slammed her down onto her knees. Pieces of her sheared off under his grip and scattered across the floor, exposing islands of her deep, green felt. I stepped forward, trembling, wanting to scoop them up but the defiant crease of her mouth kept me from crying out for him to stop. Dad let go and kicked the scraps of her across the room before weaving into her bedroom and passing out on the bed.
Mom picked up her tiles and put them into a box with the money she’d been hiding under a floor vent cover. We left the next morning to stay with her mother. Dad showed up, later, begging for us to return. When Grandma’s door remained closed, he raged.
“Who the fuck do you think is going to want you, bitch?”
Grandma covered my ears while mom phoned the police. I bawled when they took Dad away. With Grandma’s help, we moved to Toronto and mom found a job at the local public school.
We settled in and over the months and years she took each tile Dad had knocked loose, five pieces from her knees, another from her left arm, seven from behind her neck and smoothed them back into place. She was whole again, except for the pieces above her heart. They wouldn’t lie flush like before, no matter how hard she forced them down.
By the time I entered high school, S-shaped fault lines had breached the surface of my stomach and worked their way up my chest and down my arms – compartmentalizing my skin with each new experience I had or book I read. I hid them under long-sleeved shirts.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Anjalee.” Mom said one morning at breakfast. I stared at my cereal and didn’t answer. “It doesn’t mean we’re weak.”
At night I traced the new channels between the pieces and wished they’d vanish in the wake of my fingers. “Who’s going to want you?” I’d mouth to the dark.
Mom was there, two years later, when I came out of my room ready for junior prom wearing a black dress that revealed my scribed arms. We conceded, after an hour of waiting, that I’d been stood up. My chest hung concave and loose, on the brink of crumbling inwards with each shuddering breath.
“It’s okay,” she whispered into my hair as she held me on the couch, “Cry tonight. Tomorrow, you’ll put yourself back together.”
Our tiles became more intricate, more difficult to keep in place. Mom went back to school and became a reading recovery specialist; I, an Engineer. And whenever there were breakups, financial hardships, even the dissolution of my own marriage, we’d spend months, bent over the kitchen table repairing ourselves – re-adhering each piece with flour based glues, sealing our surfaces with beeswax or coconut oil.
Mom’s older now. I visit her twice a week with Vikas, my little boy. She calls out to us when I open the door and we usually find her seated in front of the television with a box of her tiles that have come loose.
Today, she let Vikas play with them. He holds them up in his tiny hands, a tile from mom’s fingertip, a piece from just below her nose. She recounts the memories they carry – the light weft of my grandmother’s bright saris, the sweet sawdust scent of me as a newborn. Vikas scrunches his eyebrows as he tries to fit these incongruous pieces together.
“Soon he’ll have his own fragments to reckon with,” Mom says with a rueful smile. I help her replace her tiles. The pieces don’t fit as snugly as they used to; the verdant felt between her seams is visible.
“The day will come when they all fall off,” she says as we walk to the front door.
I kiss her head. “Don’t worry. I’ll pick them up for you.”
She puts her hand on her chest where the tiles still bow upward. “You can’t keep me whole, Anjalee.”
I hug her goodbye then Vikas gives her a kiss. She waves as I help him into the car but her hand clips the porch railing. A piece of her wrist dislodges and sails into a potted geranium. She eases onto her knees to look for it, the shallow dent of worry on her brow.
Before I can run up the front steps, she pulls the tile from the dirt and holds it up, a weak smile curving her lips.
“Will Grandma be okay?” Vikas asks when I return to the car. I look at his still un-etched skin. The corners of my lips slip downward.
“I hope so Vikas, I hope so.”
By Matthew Harrison
The lift was crowded, and Bertrand felt sorry for the tramp squeezing his way from passenger to passenger with his dirty hat. The fellow looked more deserving than some he could name. But it was money; Bertrand looked away, hoping the tramp wouldn’t get to him. Then the lift stopped with a, ding!, everyone else got out, and the tramp confronted him squarely. “Any change, gov’nor?”
Bertrand dug into his pocket and handed over a pound coin with as good grace as he could muster. And as he stepped out into the twelfth floor lobby of Brascobank, heading for Operations, he heard a wheezed, “Thank you”.
There were no more thank-yous that morning. None from the Chief Executive’s hustlers shaking their collection boxes (one pound each), nor from Sandra with her biscuits at reception (fifty pee), nor from Bill the security guard with his sandwiches (two pounds each). Bernard didn’t fancy the sandwiches, and he dropped one into the hat of Big John, who sat in the corridor leading to Operations, huge limbs tucked up under his chin, and at least gave a grateful nod.
Bertrand tried to give the other sandwich to his boss Irene in exchange for one of her cakes (‘Freshly-baked – Family to support!’), but it was returned with a firm smile, and he had to dig into his pocket (another pound – and the cake was gooey!). The sandwich was no more use with Cindy when she accosted him, scantily-clad, in the corridor. And Bertrand didn’t even try it with Sam and Chaz from Accounts – who, like Scylla and Charybdis, threatened passers-by from either side of the narrow aisle.
“Come on guys, I’ve got deals to process,” Bertrand appealed.
It was no use. “We’re here to help,” Sam said, manoeuvring between Bertrand and his cubicle.
“We protect you,” said Chaz. “And we make sure your deals get booked,” he added with a wink.
There was nothing for it: Bertrand fished out another pound.
“Ta!” said Sam, closing his palm on the coin. “And one more.” He held out his other hand.
Bertrand grimaced, tried his pocket again, but found only a fifty pence piece. This time Sam closed his fist, so the coin bounced off his knuckles onto the floor.
“Not getting cheap, are we?” Chaz came up menacingly.
Exasperated, Bertrand pulled a fiver from his wallet and asked for change.
“That’ll do nicely,” Chaz said, snatching the banknote. “Pleasure to do business with you.” And he and his mate lumbered off down the aisle to shake down someone else.
Bertrand stood fuming as he looked after the departing pair. If he were five years younger…. But discretion – and the hope that he could now get on with his work – took the better part of valour: he stayed by his cubicle. Yet it hurt. Sixteen quid down just getting to his desk – and the whole day still ahead. It made working a marginal proposition, as his wife would say.
Bertrand switched on his PC, and as he sat down, Brasco’s motto, ‘Let’s do business!’, whirled across the screen. He felt something on the seat; he looked down, and it was the sandwich, rather squashed in its clingfilm wrap. He might as well give that to Big John too, along with Irene’s cake.
Then Irene came by and asked for sponsorship for her daughter’s school fees.
Bertrand groaned. “Aren’t you supposed to…” (how to put it to his own boss?) “…to give me something in return? Like a business thing?” Brasco was trying to encourage entrepreneurialism, but this was just extortion.
“If you want to make an issue of it…,” Irene said, fingering her jewellery.
Well! Bertrand, on the brink, considered doing just that. But he needed the job, and the whistle-blower programme was hardly secure (and you had to pay there too). No, he had to swallow it. Taking out his wallet, he asked the going rate.
“Whatever you like. It’s voluntary, and much appreciated,” Irene murmured, fixing him with a steady gaze.
Bertrand found a fiver, and to his relief that was enough. With a little sniff his boss took herself off, skirt swishing down the aisle.
Smarting under this latest blow, Bertrand didn’t even see Internal Audit. Only a discreet cough alerted him to yet another caller on his finances. He didn’t have to pretend when he said he was cleaned out, and so Internal Audit took himself off whistling, with a promise to be back the following day.
What a start to the morning! Bertrand struggled to get into his work. As lunchtime approached, his eye fell on the squashed sandwich and the cake which still lay sadly on his desk. And he had an idea.
Big John eyed Irene’s cake morosely; he took a bite and then, shrugging, another bite. He was sitting next to Bertrand on a bench in the local park. “I’m not sure I can do it,” he mumbled though the cake, flapping a hand at the sparrows which were quarrelling over the crumbs.
“Of course you can!” Bertrand patted the broad shoulders. “You don’t like them, do you? Think of Chaz and Sam,” (he had seen them step over Big John without giving him anything) “it’s a chance to get your own back.”
Big John did begin to look more resolute.
“That’s my man!” Bertrand encouraged him. “I’ll give you a fiver a day to protect me – and on top of that, you keep half of anything you make.” He didn’t have very high hopes, but anything was worth a try.
Bertrand’s wife Joan, when he saw her that evening, was in full agreement. “We’ve got to do something. I got stung at the school gate for a contribution to the teachers’ pension fund. And what are the teachers doing? Jason” (this was their son) “was learning to play Extortion with his friends this afternoon. They shouldn’t have to learn that by themselves.”
Her husband said that the education system left a lot to be desired.
The following morning Big John, looking even taller shaved and in a proper suit, was waiting at Brasco’s entrance. Bertrand was impressed – although he did feel a twinge when his new assistant bundled the tramp out of the lift. But he had no qualms when the CE’s henchmen got the same treatment, nor when they marched past an open-mouthed Sandra at reception, nor when Bill stepped aside for them in the corridor. There, however, stood Sam and Chaz, folded arms.
“Thought I paid you guys off yesterday,” Bertrand said.
“Today is another day,” Chaz leered, palm held out. “And extra for your assistant.” He glanced scornfully at Big John.
Whomp! Years of being spurned and stepped over obviously boiled up in Big John; he put his head down and charged. Sam, who caught the main impact, was carried fully two cubicles up the aisle, while Chaz clung gasping to the partition. Big John was gearing up for another charge when Bertrand held him back. So the giant consoled himself by picking Chaz up by the lapels and demanding, “a fiver for the gov’nor”.
Chaz coughed up, as did Sam after similar encouragement. The pair limped off, and Big John proudly presented the two five pound notes to his boss.
Cautious at this unexpected success, Bertrand considered the two notes. Was this really sustainable? On impulse he folded them, and slipped them into his assistant’s breast pocket. “That’s today’s pay,” he said, “and a bonus for you on top. Keep up the good work!” And the smile that beamed from Big John’s face then made it all worthwhile.
The only fly in the ointment, Bertrand reflected as they reached his cubicle, was his boss. What would Irene make of it?
The morning was quiet. Word had obviously spread, and anyone had only to see Big John patrolling the aisle to guess what was up. Perhaps the slowest to cotton on was Internal Audit who, arriving by chance when Big John was at one end of the aisle, actually reached Bertrand’s cubicle. A quick shake-down on the giant’s return produced the statutory fiver, and he had to promise a clean audit opinion into the bargain. No one came by to sell their cakes or sandwiches or sexual services, the drug dealers stayed away, and Bertrand got his work done in record time.
By the day’s end, he was beginning to think that it was almost too quiet, when he saw a white flag waving from the bend in the corridor. Big John went to investigate, and brought back a nervous Cindy, now formally dressed and tiny beside her captor. “Irene would like to talk to you, Bertrand,” she said, flashing an anxious smile at Big John. The giant inclined his head.
The following morning, Bertrand found himself seated on Irene’s sofa, drinking tea brought by Cindy, while Big John stood solidly beside him.
Irene was all warmth. “What marvellous entrepreneurial spirit, in the best traditions of Brasco!” She glanced admiringly at Big John, who folded his arms complacently and who, Bertrand was beginning to realise, did have a weak spot when it came to the ladies. “And, if you don’t mind my asking, how much have you made?”
Bertrand told her. In fact, apart from Chaz and Sam’s contributions and Internal Audit’s, there had been only one further receipt – a fiver from the Head of Institutional Sales who came through by mistake but got shaken down just the same. Bertrand wondered if Irene would want a share. She was, he saw, even more smartly dressed than the previous day – that chain was surely solid gold, and weren’t those diamonds?
Yet Irene’s focus was elsewhere. “What I want to ask is, what are your plans? Where do you go from here?”
Bernard shrugged. Wasn’t it enough to be able to work in peace?
“Oh, but you can’t stop!” Irene exclaimed. “You’re on to a winner, you can’t give up now. How are you going to feed him?” She glanced at Big John.
“And another thing,” she lowered her voice, “they won’t cooperate with you. Legal, HR, even Accounts – have you heard from them?”
Bertrand hadn’t. It had been too quiet.
Irene leant forward so that he could see that even her glasses had gold frames. “You’ve got a tiger by the tail, you can’t let go. The only thing is to ride it. And I can help.”
“You can?” Bertrand blinked. Help was the last thing he expected from his boss.
“Help you expand,” Irene explained. “It’s expand or die!”
This was too dramatic for Bertrand. He wanted time to think about it, but time, according to Irene, was the one thing he didn’t have. “I need to know whether you are with me or against me,” she said. “I need to know now.”
Bertrand heard Big John shift his feet. He knew he had no choice.
Irene’s first idea was a raid on Accounts. “Follow through while the enemy is in retreat,” she said. “Pursue and destroy!”
“Destroy?” Bertrand gulped. This was really taking him out of his comfort zone.
“Destroy,” Irene said firmly.
So destroy it was, although how much destroying Cindy would be able to do in her high heels was the question that came to Bertrand’s mind as he stumped along behind her and Big John on the way to Accounts.
In the event, Cindy proved her worth. She engaged Sam in conversation while Big John came up silently from behind and downed him with a lever-arch file. “Should have digitised your records, shouldn’t you?” Cindy said, prodding the inert figure with her toe.
Chaz, cowering in his office, was dragged out before his astonished staff. Big John hauled him off down the corridor and bundled him into the rubbish chute, where he was shortly followed by Sam. Bertrand’s assistant then glared at the rest of the department, but there were no more takers. So he went round collecting a fiver from each of them, which yielded a handy hundred-and-fifty quid (“I had no idea Accounts was so large,” Bertrand remarked to Cindy) – and then went round again for good measure. A search revealed considerably more stashed away in various cubicles. And that was before they ransacked Chaz’s office. Altogether, it was a real sackful of cash that Big John swung onto Chaz’s table. Cindy counted out three thousand pounds in notes and coins.
Bertrand split the haul four ways, taking his own share and Irene’s. Leaving Cindy in charge of Accounts, he and Big John strolled back to their boss.
Irene was pleased at the afternoon’s work, although she queried the seven hundred and fifty pounds that Bertrand produced as her share. But Bertrand was firm. The staff had done the work and deserved their reward. And there was still the ongoing flow of earnings from Accounts to come. Mollified, Irene let them off for the rest of the day.
Outside her office, Big John turned to his boss. “I like working with you,” he grinned.
After that excitement, the corridors of Brascobank settled into a certain routine. The Accounts staff, firmly under Cindy’s control, paid up their daily fiver without a murmur. The staff in the neighbouring departments on the twelfth floor paid daily tribute as well, on Bertrand’s insistence at a ‘friendship’ rate of one pound. He also insisted, against Big John’s protestations, that they engage an assistant – and Bill the security guard was found to be the ideal candidate (“He can make you sandwiches”). So each morning, the two large men did the rounds of their floor together.
Meanwhile, Cindy had been working hard. She introduced a booking fee (flat rate) for every entry into the accounting records, and a service fee (ad valorem) for every payment. There were objections from some departments, but when Big John and Bill went round to explain, the objections were somehow smoothed away – although Bertrand, whose office was next to the rubbish chute, realised it was not as easy as it looked, and made sure that the hardworking pair were properly rewarded. He himself was getting his share of the various tributes. There didn’t seem to be anything coming in from Cindy’s side, presumably Irene was looking after that, but he wasn’t concerned about the money, he was just glad to be able to work in peace.
And so it went on. Irene fidgeted, demanding this and that, but Bertrand managed to dissuade her from further adventures. That is, until Big John stopped outside his cubicle one day.
“I feel I should be doing something more,” his assistant mused, rubbing his chin with a gigantic fist. “Don’t feel I’m pulling my weight, like.”
“But you’re doing very well,” Bertrand protested. “You’re making good money, you’re Director of Security,” (at his insistence, Irene had leant on HR) “you’re keeping the peace. What more could you want?”
“Peace?” Big John raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Those buggers on the fifteenth floor,” (this was the senior management) “I don’t trust ’em.”
With a sinking heart, Bertrand realised he had a point. He thanked his assistant, and went straight to Irene.
“Absolutely!” Irene’s spectacles glinted. “Just ask yourself, if it were your company, would you let a couple of upstarts in Operations carve out an empire?”
Bertrand murmured something about entrepreneurial culture.
“Entrepreneurial my foot! That’s about us making money for them, not the other way around. Do you realise that Cindy’s Accounts team charged the Chief Executive’s Office ten thousand for a loan repayment yesterday?”
Bertrand hadn’t realised. “I didn’t even know Cindy–”
“Yes, well, anyway,” Irene hurried on. “What are we going to do about it? That’s the question.”
Bertrand could see where this was going. “I’m not sure we can do another raid,” he said nervously. They had some pretty big people up on the fifteenth floor, not to mention guns. He didn’t want his staff getting hurt. And could they even get in? “There’s heavy-duty kit up there. Steel grills, concrete bunkers, you name it.”
“I wasn’t thinking of a raid,” Irene said softly. She made a phone call. And a few moments later in walked the petite figure of Cindy.
Big John, when Bertrand explained his role to him, was ecstatic. “I knew it, I knew it!” he cried, almost crushing Bertrand in a delighted hug. “I knew you’d come up with something. Action at last!”
He was less pleased when told that he would have to contribute his earnings. But Irene was adamant. “Everything has to go into the pot,” she insisted, “we have to make a clean sweep.” And she herself threw in the ten thousand Cindy had got from the CE Office. Bertrand followed with his own more modest accumulation, whereupon Big John heaved a sigh and threw in his (“Easy come, easy go”). Bill, who had only just started making real money, was the most upset of all. “I’ve got commitments,” he confided through tears. Bertrand promised to make him whole again if they came through the venture in one piece.
The essence of Irene’s plan was unconditional surrender. “We can’t beat them, so we’ll join them,” she explained to their core group. “We give them everything we’ve taken, as if it had all been done on their behalf.”
Wondering if the senior management would fall for it, Bertrand helped with the preparations.
When all had been done, they filed into the fifteenth floor lobby, heads down, looking contrite. There was a sticky moment when Big John wheeled in the trolley with its sack of money: the Chief Financial Officer almost pushed him aside in his haste to get at the loot. But Big John kept his cool, delivering the sack safely to the strong room under the guardianship of the CE’s Personal Assistant Macy. After a dressing-down by the CE in front of the assembled cronies and toughs of the C-suite, Irene and her colleagues were allowed to file out and return to the relative safety of the twelfth floor.
That evening, Bertrand led Big John and a puzzled Bill via the fire escape back up to the fifteenth floor. There they were greeted by a determined-looking Cindy – who rose several notches in Bertrand’s estimation. “What the…?” Bill exclaimed, but was hushed by his colleagues with the promise of an explanation later. Cindy led them through the security doors, past the discarded money sack (in which she had hidden) and the trussed and gagged Macy, into the CE’s antechamber.
“That you, Macy?” the CE called through the door.
“I’m just bringing in the papers,” Cindy squeaked, in a passable imitation of Macy’s voice.
Then they rushed him.
With Bill stationed at the outer door, Big John had a brief interview with the CE – as a result of which the latter gave up the strong room keys and expressed no further interest in running the company. That just left the CFO, Bertrand recalled anxiously.
“Been done!” said Bill, dusting down his jacket as he entered the room, and earning an appreciative clap on the back from Big John. And when they went to look, it had.
They called Irene. But not before they had opened the strong room door and separated the money there into four piles – all the while broadcasting the spectacle by video streamed to the enterprise intranet. By the time Irene arrived, a crowd of staff were gawping at the cash, and more were arriving by the minute.
“…This pile is for the Rescue Team,” Bertrand was announcing to the crowd, “and this one for the incoming CE.”
There were mutterings from the audience. Someone shouted, “Is that fair?”
“…And this pile is for the staff,” Bertrand continued. The mutterings turned to a roar, and the staff surged forward, to be held back by Big John.
“What about the last pile?” someone else called.
“That is for the staff pension fund,” said Bertrand.
The staff thundered their applause.
Irene arrived just in time to receive her share of the applause – and of course her pile as incoming CE. When she realised what had been done with the rest of the money, she was furious. But even she was mollified when she counted her share. The former CE had been in post a long time, and had gouged such an enormous sum from the company and its staff and suppliers that even a quarter of it was a fortune. And when they scoured the rest of the C-suite, they found enough tucked away there to make a fifth pile. This Irene did keep to herself, but when the year end came she was a little more generous with the bonus pool (of which she received a large share) than she otherwise would have been.
Bertrand retired from Brasco, as did Big John (Bill becoming Director of Security), and the two men became good friends. They were chatting over a beer at the barbecue held in honour of Jason’s ninth birthday. Big John watched benevolently as the boys rushed to and fro, beating one another up and shouting at the girls. Then Jason himself ran up, pointed a toy gun at Big John, and demanded five pounds. The giant threw his hands up in mock alarm, then reached for his wallet.
“Brought him up well!” he chuckled to Bertrand.
Joan, coming by just in time to witness the transaction, gave a little clap. “Just like his father!”
But Bertrand wasn’t listening. He had been thinking about it all and now, suddenly, he had it. He turned to Big John. “You know what the secret of success is?”
Big John had a pretty good idea, but he wanted his friend to say it. “Go on.”
“It’s leaving something on the table,” Bertrand said. And at his insistence, Jason reluctantly gave the fiver back to Big John.
One Hundred Years and Five Minutes
By Jonathan Pickering
He reminds me of myself on my first ride. Leg bounces up and down. Sweat builds around the edges of the black suit. Doesn’t know which way to look. I can’t help but smile. I have to say something to break the tension.
He snaps his head around from staring out the window at nothing.
“Sir?” Respectful. I like that.
“Here’s a little something my mentor told me during my first day at the big show. He said, ‘There used to be an old saying. Death waits for no man. But today…’” He leans in, expecting something meaningful. “…it waits for us.’”
He settles back in his seat, thinking. “What does that mean exactly, sir?”
“Damned if I know.” I offer the old belly laugh that causes him to twitch, shocked by just how loud I can get.
He gives a nervous chuckle because it’s what he knows he should do.
I switch to a more comfortable subject. “You have everything?”
His reader and test kit are out in a flash.
“Yes, sir. But, sir?”
In my best fake, stern voice: “Recruit?”
“Do I administer both tests before I take out the reader, or do I do one, check it, then go for the other?”
We hit the expressway. Cars move out of the way as usual. A bus load of young students gawk and point with fear and awe.
The kid starts up again, “Yeah, but the manual states…”
“Relax. You do whatever feels natural.”
He takes a second to process with a shake of his head. “Okay, sir. I guess I can do that. But, oh, there’s another thing I’m worried about, sir.”
I chuckle. His eyes are really bugging out of his skull now.
“What if he’s a runner?”
I take Exit 36, Mara Street, and move through the lights. Some more stares from people out in the streets. It’s a beautiful day – sun, just a couple clouds.
“Sir? I asked…”
“He won’t run. Nobody runs.”
“In thirty-five years nobody’s run.”
“What’s the point? The system gives us the green light to start the process with the flick of a button whether he’s there or not. We all know how much time we’ve got left. So, where are you going to run to?”
I turn down Keres. Just a couple more streets now. I check the time. Perfect like always.
“I just thought some would run, that some people wouldn’t want to face it. I know I’d be afraid,” the kid says as he adjusts his dark tie in the side mirror.
Final left onto Donn. A neighbor getting their mail watches as we pull up across the street. I kill the engine and slowly turn to the kid.
“We’re all afraid. But, you’ll see. People are stronger than you think when it comes to this stuff. It’s our job to keep ‘um that way.”
We hold onto a stare that probably has some profound meaning behind it for him. Maybe not. I turn away and chuckle.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, nothing,” I contain myself. Return to professionalism.
“Okay, let’s go.”
We exit in unison. I walk around to the kid’s side of the car that’s facing the quaint, brick house. More neighbors are out now watching from porches and windows. Some pretend to walk a pet or get something from their car. We’re the best show in town – a preview of coming attractions they just can’t miss.
That’s when I notice the kid is breathing hard with these strong, uneasy breaths. Stage fright. I take one of his hands and pull his attention away from the growing crowd.
“Remember, I do all the talking for this first one.” He nods. “You just worry about the samples.”
The kid takes a final, deep breath. He settles. I let go of his hand. His foot starts tapping again as he starts looking around. I turn to him and hold him by the shoulders, getting eye to eye.
“We’re not here for them,” I hear the creak of the front door. “We’re here for him.”
We turn to face the doorway. The kid snaps to the prescribed pose: hand over hand at the belt.
The patron is out on his front steps, his family and friends behind him. He’s a tall guy, thick shock of black hair, lean but with some muscle, just a few wrinkles. Looks good for one-hundred. Hell, everybody looks good nowadays.
The patron exchanges final hugs and begins the long, slow walk down his rock footpath. The crunch of stones is the only sound throughout the neighborhood. The sun feels nice.
The kid reaches for his tools. I stay his hand. Not yet, not until he’s made his way because – then it happens. The patron’s wife sprints off the porch.
“Michael,” she gasps and grabs onto him.
They hold each other tight, who knows how many years of joy are in that embrace. They kiss. He whispers something she’ll never tell another soul. He wipes away her tears but they return. Eventually, she is joined by other relatives and friends who have to work to pull her back. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
Everyone has instinctively gravitated towards the patron by this point. Even his neighbors are closing in as if attracted by some energy they can’t deny. The best show in town.
The patron finally approaches.
“Michael Paul DeLeo?” I say in a soft yet presentational tone.
“That’s me,” he manages to get out and forces a smile.
“My assistant will now administer an identification check.”
The kid carefully tugs a strand of the patron’s hair with his tweezers then swabs the inside of his mouth. He feeds both samples into the reader. It was warm for that time of year. After a moment, the kid gives me a nod. I extend my arm, motioning at the backseat door. The kid opens it for the patron.
“What do you guys think,” the patron says with a sly grin, “should I look back?”
“Your call, sir,” I say, returning the smile.
The patron turns and waves once to all the onlookers. He blows a kiss to his wife and waits for her to catch it. He gets in, wiping away tears. The kid shuts the door and gets in the front seat. I take my time shuffling to the driver’s side.
When we’re all settled, I meet eyes with the patron in the rearview mirror.
“Musical preference, sir?”
The kid shoots a horrified look my way. I keep my eyes on the patron.
“Hadn’t thought of that,” the patron says as he continues to stare out the tinted windows. He pauses, thinking. “Got any Elvis?”
“Love Elvis. Any song?”
“How about, Fools Rush In.”
I find the song on my music player before pulling away. The patron watches out the back window as his family and friends run behind the car. I keep it slow until he turns away as we take a right on Aker. When he faces forward, he’s crying again.
Now he needs my help. “Can I ask you something, sir?”
I can see the patron is breathing hard. His hands are shaking. Bravery only takes you so far.
“Huh? Okay?” he mumbles, somewhat puzzled. I get more daggers from the kid but continue to ignore them.
“I’m retiring soon and I’m thinking about traveling. Seeing the world. Any recommendations?”
The kid begins to say something, but I catch him the moment I hear him clear his throat. I put a hand on his and it quiets him.
“I’m not so…” the patron begins, but stops himself. He sits back, wiping away the last of his tears. He’s looking around this way and that, hands fumbling in his lap.
I continue, trying to keep eye contact: “I heard there is a lot to see in Europe?”
“I’m not, I don’t…” the patron tries to eke out. He shakes his head.
“Just whatever comes to mind,” I say softly. “Man, I love this song.”
“Yeah, me too,” he says.
“You know what,” the patron exclaims as he leans forward and puts his arms between me and the kid on our headrest. Now I’ve got him. “I know a place, lovely, great little place. Have you ever heard of Montepulciano?”
“Nope, you?” I say, bringing the kid into the conversation. He shakes his head, still angry.
The patron keeps talking: “It’s this gorgeous city in Northern Italy, about an hour outside of Rome.”
“Yeah. Absolutely beautiful.” He’s smiling now. “A fairytale.”
“Oh, God. It was this medieval mountain top town with these tight, cobblestone streets, cute, little houses with those terra-cotta roofs, all nestled tightly together. And the view of the Tuscan countryside, man. I can still see it.”
“Yeah, a sight to see?”
His hands finally settle as he leans away from us into the backseat.
“My wife and I went for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We actually met there in college…” The patron keeps reliving the memory.
The kid takes out his reader. The assignment has been approved. We are ready to start the process. I nod for the kid to go ahead. He taps his reader’s screen.
“I remember we went to this little corner restaurant one evening…”
And he’s gone. Slumped over, eyes closed. The kid’s alarm goes off. He’s quick to quiet it. I turn off The King.
The kid barks: “What the hell was that, sir? You know how many codes you just violated?”
“Time?” I repeat a little louder.
“For starters, the manual says, Article Six, Section Two, no extra conversation beyond what is necessary or at the request of…”
“Time?” I scream, staring him down.
We move down another side street, edging toward the highway.
The kid checks his reader. “Five past five.”
“Good. Mark it.”
The kid fiddles with some buttons.
“Marked. Announcement sent.”
There’s a silent moment of tension between us I know it’s my duty to break. “Let me ask you something. Why did you want this job?”
Without thinking he responds: “Because it’s important. It’s noble. We all deserve this and it has to be done.”
“You’re right,” I say, grinning. I swear he’s my clone. “But you’ve still got a lot to learn.”
He looks in the rearview at the patron. He starts readjusting his tie again, pretending he’s not looking, but he can’t take his eyes off him. We are all only so brave. I rub his shoulder.
“It’s okay, kid. The first one is tough.”
He takes his time with the words. “Jesus, he’s really dead, isn’t he?”
We storm up the highway, the engine revving up to speed. Beautiful day to be driving.
“Take a good long look, kid.” I gun it into the fast lane. “And think about what you want your last five minutes to be like.”
By Kaja Holzheimer
Albert sat in his deck chair and watched the small green dot approach his nephew’s house by the banks of the river. The lights had gone out earlier that evening and now the wind was up, the dry air pregnant with static electricity. His nephew’s kids were scrubbing their feet against the acrylic doormat and zapping each other, screaming their delight.
The sounds cut off.
Trembling slightly, Albert reached up to check his tin-foil hat. Still there. He stood and turned to the chairs where his family should be. Gone. They were all gone.
“You,” he said, pointing to the empty seats, “you didn’t get ready. Ha-haa. I told you… I told you, but you didn’t, did you?”
The hats he’d made them lay scattered across the table, rocking gently in the candle-scented breeze. Untouched, like always. His gaze moved through the foil shapes, past the half empty wine glasses, over a cling wrapped salad and all the way to the silver top-knob of the pepper-grinder out at the far corner of the table. A white napkin fluttered against it. Waves on the sea against a lonely lighthouse.
“Haa.” Emptiness hollowed his chest and his arm dropped to his side. “So what now, what now? I’m all alone again, aren’t I?”
He clutched himself tight and gnawed at his knuckles. He was used to being lonely, but it was so much worse when he was on his own.
His eyes darted to a movement under the table–a piece of squirming blue. Sally, in her new blue dress.
The plastic tablecloth bunched together as little fingers tried to pull it to the ground.
“Sally? What’re you doing?”
“Jason keeps trying to zap me,” she said, voice sinking to a groan.
Albert eyed the electrifying carpet mat with distrust, but it lay dormant without a child to goad it.
“Well, he’s stopped now,” he said. He listened to the evening again. No neighborhood voices, no doors banging, no cars driving by. “It’s all stopped.”
He walked over and poked the carpet mat with his toe. No response.
“Um. It’s okay–you can come out, if you like.”
Sally’s head appeared between the large wooden chairs, blonde hair rumpled and askew under her tin-foil pirate hat. She dragged herself upright, pulling at her frock to unravel the twists spiraling around her torso. Albert watched her, his mouth twitching in and out of a smile. He liked Sally. She liked his hats.
“So where’s Mum and Dad?” she asked.
“Umm,” he said, voice lifting a little. “Ba. Bar-be- No! Next door.” He pointed, keeping his eyes on her. “Jim and Lorraine’s.”
“Oh.” She glanced at the tall fence between her and the neighbors’ place and chewed her lip. “Okay, I guess. But when–?”
“Ummmm.” His voice rose a bit more, along with his pulse. He wasn’t ready for questions–the answers might scare her and then she’d just leave.
But she sighed and took his fingers, her palm small and warm against his rough old hand. His murmur faded away and his eyebrows inched up, like hopeful, hairy caterpillars.
“It’s okay,” she said, patting his hand, “we know where they are. We can get them if we need them.”
The shaggy caterpillars shot skyward and a wordless mutter sputtered through Albert. His body shook and his voice rose higher and higher, like a humming kettle. The edges of his world curled in.
Sally squeezed his hand tight and dug her little fingernails hard into his palm. She stuck out her tongue, waggled it, and went cross-eyed.
“Ha,” said Albert, and his screwed tight muscles collapsed. “Ha-ha! Sally, you’re funny.”
She clutched his hand in both of her own and grinned.
“Come on,” she said, pulling him towards the edge of the deck. “I don’t want to go back inside. Jason was being mean. Tell me a story.”
Albert followed, distracted now by a slight buzzing over his left ear–no, his right. No. It was over his whole head. He looked at Sally who’d walked on ahead. Her hat was dancing with sinuous squiggles of blue light.
“Okay, okay, okay,” he said to himself. “This is it. This is really real.”
“It’s real?” she said. “I don’t need a real story, you know.” She stepped up to the edge of the deck and stood tall, to make an announcement. “I think you make up quite good ones.” She waved her hand for emphasis. The queen.
Albert huffed out a laugh. This was a good sign. A good one. An opportunity, even.
She plunked herself down at the top of the stairs, which led into the further darkness of the yard. The glow of the candles didn’t reach very far out here.
“Oh I like those made-up stories too,” said Albert as he sat next to her, “but this is real.”
“Hey!” she said looking at him, face round with a smile. “Hey, how’d you do that? Uncle Albert? Your hat’s all full of lightning. It’s all blue and sparkly.”
“Yours too,” he said, eyes wide and true, caterpillar eyebrows half-mast and happy.
“Is it?” She reached to take it off.
“Oh no, no, no. You can’t take it off. No, no… Ummm… It breaks the transmission. Or something. Ummm. How about we just sit here and, sort of sparkle-warkle at each other? Hmm?”
He grinned at her. She nodded.
“Lovely,” he said, leaning a bit sideways, the better to see her. “Two peas in a pod. Two peas. The only two… Umm.”
A black shape stretched under the silent bug zapper. Nero, the cat.
“Ahhh. Ah-hah! Hold on, hold on.”
Albert raced over before Nero could leave the apparent safety of the zapper. The cat butted his leg heftily, purring like a hero. Albert tweaked a piece of foil from his pocket and bent down to tuck it around Nero’s collar. Then he leant back, finger on his lips, and studied the effect.
“Well, okay. It’s not on your head, Nero lad, but okay, it’ll do. That’ll keep you safe. Hmmm.”
He picked up the big floppy cat and carried him back to Sally.
“Here he is, Sal. Nero–safe and sound.”
“Okay,” she said, accepting the placid purring weight into her lap, “so now we’ve got him can I have a story?” A fluffy head bashed into her chin. “Ow. Nero!”
“Hmmm. Righto. A story.”
Albert took two steps down the staircase and sat next to her. He rested his chin on his hand, his elbow on his knee and gazed out over the Brisbane River lapping lazily at the bottom of the garden. The mighty river. Well, mighty it must have been once, before it grew all old and fat and curly. He held his mouth wide and tapped an irregular rhythm on his front teeth with two fingers. The story he told would keep her here or not. He had to give her the truth but not scare her.
“Alright. So. Once upon a time… Actually, maybe I could work out when. It was before you or I or any of us were here–”
“Okay,” said Sally, “so then, once upon a time…”
“Yes, okay, I suppose. So. Once upon a time, when the earth was just a land of boiling mud, a little spark of glittering light fell to the ground. Hmmm.”
“Really? Where abouts?”
“Um. Just over here. Where the Graceville Cricket Club is. That used to be a swamp.”
“Ah well, swamps are okay. They’re good for losing things in. Like a little ball of light. It fell into the swamp and sank to the bottom.”
“Did it go out?”
“Er, no, it didn’t as it happens. But just listen to the story, hmmm?”
She sat mute and stared wistfully at him. He waited a moment.
“Righto. So it plopped on into the swamp with a little splash and slid to the bottom–which wasn’t very far down because it was a swamp–and there it sat and waited. It was a homing device-”
“Yep, for aliens.”
Sally sighed. “You know you’re not supposed to tell me the alien stories. They get Mum all riled up.”
“Wellll,” said Albert, scrabbling up a thought before going on in a rush, “Mum’s not here and this is important tonight.”
“O-kaaaay.” She pushed her face against Nero’s flank and her voice came out small. “But will it give me nightmares?”
“Um, no. This isn’t a nightmare story.” Albert peeked into her eyes. “Really.”
She sighed again. “Okay, I guess. But you know I’m telling Mum if I get scared.”
“Alright,” said Albert, “that’s alright. That’s alright tonight.”
“Okay. So. This homing device. Well, they left it here so they could easily come back and, you know, check on the place. Check on who lives around here every now and then. They started out just seeing microbes and wallabies and stuff. But there’ve been people here for forty thousand years, so now they look at all of us too. Like doing a survey of intelligent life.”
“Right. And every now and then they do come back. The last time was 1984.”
“That’s before I was born.”
“Yep, that’s right, but I was here.”
Albert stared off into the darkness, watching the moon glisten on the river, its shining silver path to them broken in the lapping water. He remembered the last time, how beautiful it was and how lonely. How the colors of the world had grown so sharp, as if they’d been painted on. And it was starting again.
“So,” he said, shaking his head to clear it, “the aliens come back and they… they check how much cleverer we’ve all become. They give everyone a test so they can see what we’ve learned.”
“That sounds boring.” But she stiffened, eyes growing large. “Is that where Mum and Dad are now?”
“Ahhhh. Ah, yep,” said Albert. “They’ve taken everyone who’s clever to umm, a classroom in the sky to, um, do a test.” His heart ratcheted up. Where had he gone wrong?
“Hold on. So why aren’t we there? I’m clever!”
“Oh! Oops! Well yes, we’re both clever. It’s just that we were wearing our hats when they came to get us. They don’t take people in hats. Tin-foil hats. Come to think of it, I’ve no idea why they didn’t take Nero–he wasn’t wearing tin-foil…” Albert’s voice trailed off. He peered at the docile cat, whose purrs rumbled like marbles in a bag. The cat stared back, bug-eyed and vacant.
“But it’s okay, he’s got his tin-foil on now. He gets to stay with us.” Albert’s eyes softened as he stroked Nero’s silky black fur.
But now Sally’s breath was different–shallow and fast. Albert looked up. She stared back at him. Her voice, when it came, picked up speed and altitude.
“So, um, Uncle Albert? When do we get to go do the test? When do we see Mum and Dad? Uncle Albert? When?”
“Oh! It’s okay, we want to stay here. Definitely. Absolutely. Mum and Dad will come back, but we want to stay here and see, um, the magic while they’re gone. Sally! It’s like another land when they’re all away. See? Look down there–look at the edge of the water.”
Sally looked. The broken pieces of moonlight had hardened into silvery stepping-stones, bobbing gamely in the river, glinting in large, flat gleams and pinging off each other whenever the curling water tickled them together.
“Oh!” she said.
Albert clasped his hands under his chin and gazed at the scene. Then he glanced up behind them.
“And look there–look at the candles on the deck.”
The flames had transformed into glowing ribbons of gauze; sparkling organza, rippling light far into the night in a slow arching dance. Sally’s face shone with wonder, her joy visible and bright, about an inch beyond her skin. Albert giggled, his laughter going off like a sparkler, in fizzing stars.
“Oh, Sal. You should see your smile–it’s beaming light at me. You’re glowing like the night-light in the hall.”
She giggled back, showering Nero in sparkles of her own. The cat’s eyes grew round and his ears pricked up. He snapped at the sparks, ready to play. They laughed aloud and bright bubbles drifted out over the stairs, hardening one by one until they fell and clattered off into the darkness. Nero stalked after them, fascinated but wary.
“C’mon,” said Sally, pulling herself up by the stair rails, “can we follow him down? Let’s look in the garden.”
But two steps down she stopped, smile fallen. “Mum and Dad–you said they were next door. And everyone else? When do they come home? How long are we going to be all alone for?”
Her hand fluttered towards her hat, which was starting to fall over one eye. Albert’s breath caught. He batted her fingers away and adjusted the headpiece for her.
“Okay, okay. It’s okay. Let’s walk toward the moon-stones on the water. You’ve got to listen to the rest of the story.” His smile became earnest. “It’s important, Sal. Real important.”
“Alright. I’ll listen.”
They continued down the stairs which, eager to help, offered each new piece of themselves with a flourish. But the grass was a different matter, detonating itself back from their feet in alarm.
“Okay, Sally. So. Here’s what’s what. The aliens, well, it’s like they just take the ordinary out of the world for a little bit. And once all the ordinary people with their ordinary thoughts have gone for a while, then the real world is ready to reveal herself. And she’s fun, Sal, she’s playful and the people, they do come back, and then everything’s normal again.”
“But how long does it take them to get here? Don’t they know they’ve been away?”
“Well, no. See, when they get back, we’ll all start again. You’ll be under the table hiding from Jason and I’ll be sitting in a chair on the deck. We’ll be back exactly the way we were.”
Sally stopped and turned. She looked at her shocked-grass footprints.
Albert sighed. “Hmm, yes. It gets a bit insulted when people walk on it.” He lifted his head and scratched at his stubble, fingers rasping. “It’s just too polite to say that to the ordinaries.”
“So you mean this isn’t even real?”
“Oh, yes, Sal! Yes, yes, yes this is real. This is the realest real of the world you’ll ever see.”
“But how do you know?”
“Sal, how can you not? Look. Here comes the path of the moon.”
The pontoons of silvery moonlight were spreading from the river’s edge, cobbling up through the grass as solidified puddles of metal.
“Come on, Sal. The moon is perfectly safe. It’s beautiful up close, and not made of cheese after all. It ping-poings its gentle way through the stars, but you can’t hear it from down here…” Albert broke off for a moment, just to look. “There’s no cow either.”
“But the aliens… Do they know? Do they know what happens to the world?”
“Uncle Albert. What if they take the other people away so they can watch us?”
“But they can’t. We’ve got our tin-foil, Sal.”
Her eyes widened with quick fear.
“Sally. Sal. You can go back, you know. If you want. You can. But you’ll forget all this. You won’t remember, and unless you keep wearing your tin-foil everyday, you might never see it again. Sal. All you have to do is take the tin-foil off. Drop it to the ground. Just let go of it and you’ll forget. You’ll wake up with the rest of them, oblivious. Or babbling of aliens, but only a few do that. The partially awake. But Sal, why don’t you stay here with me? Sal! There’s so much to see, and when we come back we’ll remember it all. Oh Sally, come and share it with me.”
Albert’s caterpillar-shaped eyebrows pulled their plaintive tips together high on his forehead before he dropped his gaze and scuffed his way through the exploding grass to the hardened puddles of moon. He looked back to her again and held out his hand, forlorn. “Oh Sal, won’t you come too?”
Her hand rose toward her tin-foil hat, and in that moment Nero streaked by on his way to the river, cat-madness upon him. His motion turned Albert’s head, then his body and then his lurching knees as he gave chase. She stood and watched blank-eyed as they reached the water. Nero dipped his curious paw into the sparkling river, then flicked it to get the wetness off. The droplets left him as tiny plopping fish and swirling dragonflies. The cat was astounded, not knowing what to chase first.
Albert stood on the first pontoon to the moon, hands on his knees, laughing out loud. The moonbeam’s voice pinged darker and deeper under his weight. He turned the searchlight of his joy onto her and lifted up his creased old hand.
“Come on, Sal. There’s nothing else to know.” He shrugged, his arms spread wide. “In the end it’s just the two of us, wearing our tin-foil hats by the light of the moon.”
Sally looked at him. Then her giggle sparked inside her and her face glowed bright with her slow-spreading smile. And in a flurry of glittering laughter, she jammed her hat on tight and chased after Albert. Without another ordinary thought.
Nero watched them go, his black fur silvered tin-foil by the moon.
Albert sat in his deck chair surrounded by the laughter and chatter of his family. The tablecloth bulged in front of him and Sally crawled out. She gazed at him and patted her tin-foil hat, her mouth in an ‘O’.
“Oh, Uncle Albert,” she said, “your eyes are still all twinkly.”
A cat-shaped weight pressed against his legs then jumped up to sit on his lap.
“And so are Nero’s,” he said, as the cat purred up at them both.
“Nero,” she breathed, reaching forward to scratch his ears.
Nero smooched her hand with his face. Then his pupils widened and his head darted forward to look into the dusk. Their eyes followed his stare to a receding green light.
“Well, that’s that then,” said Albert. “There they go.”
“Oh,” said Sally, fitting her little hand inside one of Albert’s own, “but they’ll come back, won’t they?”
He glanced at her, smile twitching at how snugly she’d pushed her hat onto her head. “Yep, for sure,” he said. “They’ll be back, and we’ll be ready again.”
He squeezed Sally’s hand and stroked Nero’s fur as together they watched the little green dot step out over the horizon and disappear.
Elevator to the Sun
By Jeff Bagato
Tomner lay in his cocoon of bedding, strapped vertically to the wall. His eyes had opened on a blob of moisture floating a few feet above his head. Something had energized it with a contradicting force, as it flowed and twisted around several loci. A liquid arm would extend on one side and then another, pulling in opposite directions before collapsing into their respective valleys, only to spit out more arms in hydra-like fashion. A rumble spread through the hull of the tugboat, the kind of vibration that could only be caused by firing the afterburners. Jerla must have activated them. It was a waste of fuel, very unlike her.
He scratched at his left thigh, working his fingernails down toward the amputation line. His prosthesis hung on the rack beside him, which compounded his sense of indecision. He had not yet committed to getting up, facing the day, until the leg was clamped on and powered up. Then he could do anything: run across a gymnasium, jump to pick an apple from a tree, ride a moon bike up a sim-mountain. Always riding. He would never get off, never let up…if he had a moon bike, and a sim-gym membership, and a day off. If he could afford a day off.
A doorbell sounded, followed by the words, “Mail call,” spoken in a tin-plated recording. Tomner felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.
“San Deep, please protect me and make me strong,” he recited, making the sign of the bull with his fist. “Against evil forces that do me wrong.”
After a few moments, a different computerized voice addressed him. “We received another message from the Better Body Corporation, Tomner. The bill is three months overdue, and they want back payment on your leg.” The message was made more grating by the erratic tone, as if the device was trying to enunciate each letter in the words separately. “This is their final notice. If we don’t pay, they will deactivate it.”
Tomner always felt irritable upon waking, but this information compounded his foul mood. “Dungeon fat! How can I get the money to pay their bills if they turn off my leg?”
In the corner, several large dragon trees grew in pots; their thin trunks crowding together at soil level, they rose to spread out three feet or more, giving their spearhead-shaped leaves room to capture as much light as possible. Now the foliage on one of the plants in the center vibrated as if it had become irritated, too. A pair of delicate hands gripped vertical branches and pushed them aside to make way for a small face, its fur splotched with white and gray, whiskers twitching on the pointed nose. Jerla belonged to the species rattus norvegicus, although she referred to this group as couches.
A blue helmet conformed to the shape of her skull. Delicate wires extended underneath this carapace, making surgically precise connections to the neurons controlling language cognition. With the device intact, Jerla could form her words in the electro-chemical signals of the synapses; the helmet amplified these sparks and projected them to the computer, where software converted them to oral speech, into a language understood by her companion.
It always seemed remarkable, Tomner thought, how articulate the creature could be, how intelligent, how commanding, given the vagaries of electrical linkage and software applications. Somewhere along their evolutionary line, rodentia had craved such a device to make known their perspicacity, their distinctiveness, their taste. For if anything, his companion had a refined sense of the quality of food—and beyond this, of any material good, including salvage. She made an ideal partner in an operation such as theirs.
“It is a Catch-22,” Jerla said. “That is what it is called. This indicates an ironic situation…”
“I know what that is. It bunches.”
“The deadline is in two weeks.”
“What? That’s impossible! I might as well drive straight into the sun with this load.”
“Jump into the sun yourself. Leave me to pilot the boat back to Luna.”
“You’ll starve without me around.”
Jerla gave this jibe an abrupt sniff, letting silence hang in the air for a moment. Then she spoke. “Why do you give up so soon? A couche never gives up.”
“Look where that’s gotten you.”
The rodent swayed in the branches of the tree, shaking its leaves. “Do you mock me?”
“Sorry. I’m just bunched. What a situation.”
“That’s the life of a freelancer for you.”
Tomner had no answer to that. “I guess I better go out and have a look at the junk while I still can. Maybe something we can salvage.” He opened a cramped metal locker, taking out pieces of a pressure suit at random and putting them on. Boots, tunic, gloves, overalls, cowl: each zip-sealed together as he went, forming a solid barrier against raw space, against the cold vacuum and radiation.
“Something small, and not smelly,” Jerla reminded him.
“I won’t know if it’s smelly when I’m out there, will I?”
“Why do you always manage to choose something smelly?”
“Maybe because your nose is too good.”
“Just choose wisely. Communicate with me before you bring it in.”
“You are mocking again. I might have to dock your pay.”
“That’s all I need.” He raised the helmet over his head, pausing to ask, “Anything else?”
Tomner zip-sealed the helmet to the cowl, completing the costume. Then he stamped to the airlock in the heavy mag-boots. He waved once and stepped through the door into a low, narrow chamber painted a grotesque yellow, since darkened with sooty smears; dull, weathered metal poked out in gray patches where the color had chipped away. In a moment, the chamber had sealed and depressurized; a panel light flashed in anticipation of the opening: “Brace for suction.”
“Brace for suction,” Tomner spoke the phrase aloud. “You tease.”
The portal dialed open, shutter blades fading into the wall, and his body flexed outward against the restraining straps.
After the initial depressurization, he flexed his mechanical foot against the wall to float out the door and eased himself down the port side of the tugboat by hand holds and magnetic boots. About twelve feet down, he reached the junction where their pilot boat clamped to the trash container, nothing more than a simple rectangular frame made of metal pipe covered with wire mesh. The cargo box reached down another 50 feet below the junction point, and it stretched fore and aft twice that length in each direction, every square foot of it stuffed with waste from Earth, two space stations, and Earth’s orbit. The tugboat rode the container like a bug might cling to an elevator, and very nearly just as helpless.
Having reached the level of the cargo, Tomner attached the tether from his suit’s pulley to a swiveling metal ring on the tug.
“Bless me, San Deep, with an effortless shift, and grace my unworthy self with your gifts.”
“The prayer doesn’t help, you know.”
Tomner ignored her. “Forgive her, San Deep, her disbelief is not disrespect.”
“Yes it is.” She had no respect for his faith in the cargo god whose name appeared in huge letters on a sign at the sanitation depot. The humans’ ignorance of their own language always appalled her.
“Don’t jinx it, Jerla. I need this salvage too bad.”
“Sorry. Just be careful.”
Now he rappelled down the side of the mesh container, investigating the contents as carefully as he could under the helmet’s dim, shaking spotlight. Barrels of nuclear waste comprised a good portion of the contents. Orbital debris, such as expired satellites and rocket engines, was also classified as hazardous; all of these materials had been isolated at the far ends of the container. His suit screened out some radiation, but Tomner avoided those areas to limit his exposure. Although the company discouraged salvaging, it couldn’t prevent it once a tug was out in space, and the windfall provided extra profit and supplies which kept the freelance pilot boats in business.
On this trip, much stuff seemed to have been enclosed in nondescript corrugated cardboard or black plastic. He reached in with a knife to slit the bags, pulling the material aside to scan the contents. He saw junk and more junk: broken metal and ceramic, dead hard drives, dysfunctional machines beyond repair, plastic sacks that once held nutritional liquids, like vitamins, edible semisolids, juice, and alcohol. Covering a span about the width of his outstretched arms, Tomner made it to the vertical end of the container without success. He recalled the tether with the push of a button, kneeling to reattach it at the new edge, then started along the bottom.
The young man lost track of the distance he had traveled to the fore, but the search had become tedious an hour or two ago. Then a square corner reflected his headlamp. Ninety degree angles were unusual in salvage work. This one had a nice tight covering of black plastic and had been pushed up against the mesh. Tomner measured it visually—roughly three by two feet, possibly three feet deep as well. His knife sliced the plastic, and he saw writing on the white carton beneath; he struggled for a moment, but the letters were familiar to him: C-H-E-E-S-E, then C-R-A-C-K…Unopened cartons of cheese crackers!
“Good eatin’!” he whooped.
“What have you got, Tomner?” Jerla asked.
“You won’t believe this, Captain. I think San Deep sent you a personal message. It’s cheese crackers. A whole flat of ‘em! Fresh air, sister! I know this brand, too. They just changed the packaging, and this is the old design. And guess what? They still have a year of shelf life!” Now he pieced out the rest of the writing to impress her. “Track the flavors here. C-H-E-D…Cheddar. Uh, Parm. Ess. Ann. Parmesan. This one’s white cheddar. Yeah! And bll-you? What’s that? And here’s nack-ohs. I see, gotta be nacho. Just brand new!”
“Great score, boy! Can you cut ‘em out?”
“Should be easy. They’re right by the mesh. San Deep couldn’t make it easier.”
“Can you bring ‘em in by yourself?”
“I got this, captain! Can’t wait to get my snack on!”
“No, if they’re minty like that, we’ve got to save them for sale.”
“Aww! No fair!”
“Just bring them up safely now, boy.”
His wire cutters clipped out one side and then another. On the third side, his light hit a little round radio marker. Just like they were supposed to find this salvage. Even San Deep wouldn’t be so obvious. Tomner puzzled on it for a moment. He even checked his catalog, but the cargo wasn’t on his list of previous finds.
He shrugged. No matter. Cargo was cargo. He finished clipping the wire and wrestled the container loose. It came out smooth, too smooth, like they were being tempted and tested.
He wrapped the flat in tape and got a tether on the package, which allowed it to float a safe distance from his belt. He’d anchor them up top and retrieve them on the way back.
After three more hours, he had covered the length of the boat and no more. Now halfway down the starboard side, below the tug’s rear rockets, his light flashed over an arc of rubber, catching his eye. He focused the beam on a distinctive knobby surface—tread pattern, width, the meatiness of the object, told him it had to be one thing only: the front tire of a moon bike.
“San Deep be praised!”
“What do you see, Tomner?” Jerla asked. Her voice had a sweetness to it, a gentleness, that would have seemed unusual if his mind wasn’t so focused on his discovery.
“A moon bike! Its tire, at least.”
Two photographs flashed on her computer screen, depicting the tire from different angles.
“It must be flat.”
“It looks inflated to me.”
“What could you do with a single tire, assuming you could retrieve it? Which looks impossible.”
He studied the junk pile. “I couldn’t get it from here,” he admitted. “Not with a little hole. It’s too impacted.”
“Better forget about it.” For once, Jerla sounded kind.
“Yeah.” Just in case, he tagged it with a homing marker and cataloged it. “Anyway, I’m coming back now. Too tired to go on. Bringing back a few things. And your crackers.”
“Good. Be careful. We’ll have a snack when you get home.”
Earth sent its garbage, particularly its toxic waste, up the space elevator to a platform in low geostationary orbit. From that point of weightlessness, the stuff could easily be pushed further out into space, specifically to the San Deep station, where it had to be loaded into the massive junk crates.
Jerla and Tomner had been waiting in the tugboat queue for a week, watching boat after boat ahead of them link to full junks and pilot them away. Boredom had set in, and they were bickering. When the doorbell chimed, they both jumped to the microphone controls. She found the one in her tree before he found his on the cluttered desk.
“Bandicoot’s Wedge, here. Captain Jerla speaking.”
“Move in for your cargo, girl.” Jerla’s friend Didai spoke; a fellow couche, she held a supervisory position with the Sanitation Department. “Make it quick.”
“Let’s get it, Tomner!” Even through the electronic interface she sounded perky; a crate had never before made her so animated.
He fired rockets in turn to manipulate their tug into position over the gigantic crate: forward, sidereal left, sidereal right, left, left, forward.
Cameras under the boat showed spraypainted markings the garbagemen had left to delineate the halfway point of the junk. Once positioned over this center line, he flickered the button to fire the downward rocket…gentle, gentle, gentle…then a quick blast of the upward jet to slow the boat on its downward trajectory.
Like a butterfly landing on a flower, the tugboat touched the cargo without jarring it or the dock it was berthed to. Tomner prided himself on his piloting skills, one of the few things he actually felt confident doing.
“Nice work, boy” Jerla breathed.
“Thanks, boss.” He grinned. “That’s what I’m paid for!”
Tomner pressed the control that locked the clamps under the tugboat to secure the junk crate.
As captain, Jerla contacted the control tower. “We’re pregnant, Didai! Tell me when.”
“Gotcha, Jerly girl. You are clear for sailing.”
“Go ahead, Tomner.”
He pulsed the afterburners and two sidereal stabilizers to break the inertia of the boat and its massive cargo. In a world without up or down or sideways, gradual motion maintained control, but it was slow going. The boat began sliding out of the docking arms, dragging its load, easing past the guide lights one at a time in an even, slug-like motion. Once the tug had floated free of the depot, he turned it, aiming the rockets away from the facility. Tomner toggled the directional jets to keep them in one general area, until the traffic controller flashed them a green light.
Jerla gave the command, and Tomner pressed the launch button. After a short burst of fire, they would just coast across the inner planetary orbits. Eventually, Old Sol would grab the massive package, reeling it in, sucking it down his gravity well. From that point, the tug existed to ensure the cargo crate didn’t drift away or fall apart, but it was largely a helpless passenger coasting on the biggest freight elevator known to Earth.
The Wedge had crawled past Venus and was approaching Mercury. Down here, the doldrums set in with the radiation and the brightness, as the overwhelming vision of the sun roaring and spitting dominated the forward horizon like an angry mouth. Tomner usually could not tear his eyes away from the burn, and Jerla would have to force him to wear sunshields on his eyes; his mind would find pleasure in the blankness, the total erasure of thought and self. On this trip, the threat of losing his leg a second time pressed on him with a force greater than the sun’s mass. He sat on the floor, sun shades resting on his nose, staring at the wall. True, the observation port was over there, but he didn’t notice it. Instead of wrestling with the sun, he wrestled with the clock, waiting for the broadcast of doom. Under normal circumstances, he would remove the leg during downtime, power it off; but today, he left it strapped on and powered up, flexing, testing, admiring it. The digital readout counted away his last moments with this marvel of engineering: three hours, two hours, one hour, thirty minutes, twenty-nine minutes, twenty-eight, twenty-seven…
‘Why would you flip a man’s leg if it meant he couldn’t work to pay back the loan?” Tomner muttered to himself. “What kind of business model is that? They seem to think a leg is a luxury. Maybe that’s true; maybe I can live without it; maybe I don’t need two legs in zero gravity. Maybe we can hire somebody to do the grunt work, and I can settle into a supervisory role. I’m part owner of the Wedge, after all.’
The clock alarm sounded. His time was up, the end of the leg. Who knew when he could pay it back now, if ever.
But nothing happened.
“Oh, fadsnort! That was just the broadcast time. I forgot about the delay.”
“What are you talking about?” Jerla asked.
“My deadline. I forgot the broadcast delay. Gotta calculate it now.”
“From our current position, there’s a four point four minute time lapse from Earth to Mercury.”
“Oh, yeah?” Four more minutes with his leg. Was that better or worse than having it flipped off already? He reached out and reset the alarm, then settled back to staring. The sun glared at him through the portal. Maybe he would dump the leg with the rest of the trash. That would show them!
Now the sun ate his mind. Old Sol roared, he laughed, he gurned and mocked and snarled. Giant arms of flame reached out, beckoning Tomner to throw down the leg, to throw down his life. To ride the elevator of cargo straight down the gravity well and into purifying, forgiving, everlasting fire. If Jerla wanted the boat to return to the greedbags and their striving, pushing way of life, that was fine with him. He would just walk out that door and attach his tether to the crate, lock fingers in the mesh, and hang on for dear, sweet oblivion.
The alarm sounded a second time. Tomner stared at the clock in disbelief, then at his leg. The power light still glowed on his hip. He flexed the toes, the ankle, the calf, the knee. Everything worked. He stretched it again and again, as if waves of muscular contractions were washing over the appendage. In a way, it wasn’t fair. If you’re going to turn off a man’s leg, just do it and be done with it. Get the time right! Don’t keep me waiting!
He felt hot tears burn in his eyes as frustration overwhelmed him, flooding his mind with hope and anger and fear and grief. Mostly grief. He was always a victim of some outside force. This corporation or that corporation, then the union, then the government. The thin shell of the Wedge fighting radiation and heat and gravity, very much like this thin shell of a man fighting against forces as merciless as nature.
The leg kept moving. He stood, bending his knees, rising on his toes. He took one step and another, began pacing up and down the cabin, the magnets in his prosthetic foot and shoe clicking on the metal floor.
“What are you doing, Tomner?” Jerla called in electric tones. “You’re making so much noise!”
“They won’t turn off the leg! It’s typical, isn’t it? Tell a man they’ll do something and then leave him hanging!”
“Why are you so upset? Your leg is still on. The signal must have gotten blocked by radiation interference. This far down the well, the sun sends out all kinds of wave energy in every spectrum and frequency.”
“So that’s what Old Sol was trying to tell me!”
“What was the sun trying to tell you? Have you been staring out the portal again? I hope you were wearing your goggles!”
“Shuffle the goggles! Of course I was wearing them. You always miss the point.”
“The point is that the signal came, got garbled, and missed you and your leg. It’s over.”
“Are you serious? They may have missed this time, but they’ll try again, as soon as we’re in local space!”
“I doubt it. They think they turned it off. The signal was sent and logged, and your account frozen.”
“Do I still have to pay?”
“If we do, it will probably just reopen your account. Then they’ll observe that your leg is still operational.”
“Retrograde fire!” Tomner stepped around the cabin in a lopsided jig, bowing and clapping. “San Deep be praised! See, Jerla, it’s not just mumbo jumbo! I’ve been praying like gravity, and San Deep delivered the cargo!”
“Perhaps,” Jerla groaned. “Something like that.”
Tomner laughed. “You can’t admit it. But one day I’ll convince you. Then you’ll allow me to make a real altar in here, finally. That’s when the big magic will happen. No drift about that.”
Low, flat electronic static blurted out of Jerla’s speaker, the sound of a sigh. Her tree rustled as she shifted in her nest. “I’m going back to sleep. If you start sungazing again, be sure to wear your glasses.”
Tomner looked toward the sun, but his thoughts focused on San Deep, the great diety of cargo and salvage, revered by garbagemen for generations. Never before had he received such powerful evidence of the god’s existence and influence. The incident was a true miracle, and he now stared at his leg in awe. Like he was walking on a sacred relic, like it had been imbued with special strength and ability. He visualized himself running up the mountains of the moon, jumping as high as any tree in the arboretum, pushing massive junk loads with the slightest motion of his toes. The moon bike rolled into his thoughts now on two wheels, riderless but waiting to carry one who was worthy. Down below, in the crate, his bike waited, another gift of the great San Deep. Another miracle! Truly he was blessed.
Opening the door to his locker, fluorescent light sparkled on the small altar he had assembled there. Tomner folded his hands under his chin and bowed three times. In a reverent whisper he recited:
“Master San Deep, great, awesome, kind and true,
your blessing honors me and makes me new;
standing in your light I will never fear
the dark of the universe when it’s near.”
Tomner chanted for such a long time his mouth felt dry when he finally sat down again. Sipping on sweetened water, a vision of the bike came to him, sent by the god himself. There he was, cutting a large square of mesh at the side of the container. As if on its own magical power, the bike pushed its way out, scattering junk to the solar wind. The machine paused in space, waiting for its new master to mount. And then in his vision, his face radiant, sweetwater drooling from his slack lips, Tomner floated onto the wide seat and began to pedal through the aether on San Deep’s chosen path, rolling to the Free Store in the sky.
Seven years ago, give or take a few months, Tomner lost his left leg in an industrial accident. He worked directly for the JunkTech Company, on contract to the Sanitation Department. For the first six hour shift of the day, his crew built crates from pipe sections and hardware cloth, tethering them to the loading platform to float until needed. They got a two hour break for a meal, siesta and oxy-tank refill. Then it was another six hours in free space, loading junk into the crates. The objects they manipulated may not have had weight, but by the end of each day, their mass had exhausted his muscles, even though the crew could use aero-flits to push barrels of toxic waste and other large materials around. Sometimes, those materials took on spin, energized by some equal and opposite force, that sent them wandering as if they had minds of their own. Then the garbagemen chased them down with their suit-jets; that was the quickest way to overtake, tackle, stop, reverse, and return the stray item.
That day, it happened to be a deactivated satellite, one of those clunky, prickly things leftover from the twentieth-century, its discs and plates and arms cracked and sagging, gold foil peeling, barrel-shaped hull pitted and degraded and imbedded with space dust. The monstrosity had flipped off the aero-cart, almost as if one of its own jets had found a shred of residual power and fired at random. Five garbagemen went after it, Tomner one of the first, and it took their combined strength to wrestle the thing under control; all their jets were needed to shift the mass toward the crate.
Tomner had gotten on the opposite side to help brake the satellite after they pushed it past the mesh wall. The flow was smooth, without any yaw or roll, and he was just whispering thanks for that to San Deep, when a jet on one side of his suit sputtered—possibly clogged, possibly an electrical fault—causing his body to slip under and around the metal barrel. His fellows couldn’t have known about the jet failure, couldn’t have known that the junk wouldn’t brake as intended.
Using his hands, Tomner gripped the satellite and flipped himself around, scrambling to get free as it closed on him. In one way he was fortunate: his head, then his torso got clear of the wreckage. But his left leg had not cleared, and the lower jaw of the metal monster bit his thigh against the upper jaw of a rocket exhaust manifold.
Silence at first, no pain, no fear. He imagined he must have escaped the trap. When he couldn’t move forward, outward, despite pushing the jets to maximum power, he knew something had gone wrong. Like a clumsy, stupid, slow rabbit, he had gotten caught. Shame hit before the pain, but when the sharp, hot bite rushed up from below his waist, it struck like a meteor smashing into a minor moon, jarring his mind, jarring his body, jarring his sense of self completely outside the physical envelope and tearing him away from reality. Whether he screamed, or cried; whether he begged for help or life, he could not say. To save him from his own burning, collapsing body, his mind turned off, shutting out the universe for a time unknown.
Tomner woke in a white bed in a white room. His mind seemed white, and fuzzy, and strange. His body had been draped in a white smock. A white liquid—no, it was actually clear—flowed down a tube into his arm. Sheets of white paper lay in a neat stack on the bedside table.
He picked up the documents; his eyes blurred on the black type glaring from the pure whiteness. But he made out numbers and names, tables stacked with columns of data; as the symbols tumbled down into little hatch marked shadows at the bottom of the page, his fingers released the white paper to the floor.
Later, a delegation came to visit, wearing solemn faces and gray suits, two men and a woman: a union representative, a hospital financial aid, and an insurance adjuster. Together they went over the paperwork, each bearing a different facet of the bad news. His doctors had told him about the amputation. They had recommended a state-of-the-art prosthesis: powered, computerized, better than flesh and bone. The suits shoveled reality over his head, buried him in figures, contracts, coverage rules. Basically, his insurance, as provided by the union, covered the amputation and aftercare, but not a mechanical replacement of the caliber his doctors had suggested. The union’s attorneys had arranged a settlement from the company, which they characterized as generous. In reality, it gave him enough to make a down payment on the new leg, with some leftover to invest in a business that would help him pay off the rest.
Another afternoon, Tomner awoke in a thick haze of painkillers from fevered dreams. A set of ravening tungsten steel jaws snarled and snapped at him, eating his body piece by desiccated, splintering piece, as if he had been carved from a log of driftwood. Another suit stood at the foot of his bed, mouthing words that came at him like houseflies, buzzing in and out, darting and refusing to stay still. An introduction, a business proposal, a chance to start again, to pay off his gleaming miracle of a leg.
A small creature stood on its hind legs, sniffing at him from the vantage point of a kind of pedestal. He met Jerla for the first time. She wore the blue helmet and spoke to him in her tinny voice, like a cartoon rat.
Tugboat, salvage, partners, the elevator to the sun. These few words penetrated the fog as if beamed by a lighthouse. He grasped at the lifeline, signed a contract, bought a share, they said, in her business. From then on, he was no longer a garbageman; he worked on the other side of the cargo crate, as a tugboat pilot, guiding trash barges to solar incineration, drawing secret salvage in double armfuls as fast as San Deep could deliver.
Carefree, happy days spread before him, but also days of boredom and bickering with this little pipsqueak that called herself “captain” and took all the decisions. It didn’t matter. For the first time in his life, Tomner felt like a free man.
The navigational computer on Bandicoot’s Wedge warned them when they had reached the drop zone, down the well past Mercury. A sweet spot just out of Old Sol’s gravitational reach, it also kept them outside the fiercest radiation.
“If you want to check that bike,” Jerla said, “now’s the time to do it.”
“You don’t gamble with luck!” Tomner squealed. His enthusiasm always amused her, and she smiled in a way he couldn’t interpret. He sealed up his suit, took up his tools, and made for the airlock.
“I hope it’s more than a tire, Tomner,” Jerla said, and for the first time, the man wondered about the kindness in her voice.
“San Deep wouldn’t play me up like that! No, ma’am. I’m sure it’s a full moon bike, especially now that he gave me back my leg for real.”
Jerla almost sighed again, but she constrained herself. Tomner closed the portal, and the depressurization signal sounded a moment later.
Outside, looking upon the vastness of open space, Tomner felt his power and energy and hope spread out to infinity. His god had embraced him; now nothing could go wrong. Tethered to the tugboat, the man activated the electronic positioning device and located the bike’s marker on the screen. Old Sol pressed on him, reminding him of the time limit. Now he clambered down the crate, careful not to snag his gloves, his boots, his line. His helmet light found the beacon, and then that distinctive rubber arc. Clippers out, he snipped away the top section of the mesh about three feet to each side of the tire. Then he went down the same distance along the verticals to the left and right of that central point. A six foot square was a standard cut for removing a good sized piece of salvage like the bike or the cracker flat. While folding down the mesh along the bottom edge, he inspected the contents, looking for that keystone piece of junk that might free the rest. Nothing presented itself, so he grabbed the first item he saw, just an old air blower. This he pushed away from the crate, where it drifted out into the gravity well. He didn’t watch it fall.
One piece followed another, but no single piece broke the inertia of the others. He tried jostling the junk, hoping to energize it in a way that would set it all tumbling through the hole. It looked like he would have to proceed one at a time until he reached the treasure, his goal, his bike.
“Newton’s Law!” Tomner swore, using the garbageman’s curse to refresh himself. Time was running out; soon they’d have to dump the crate, jump off the elevator, and fight their way back up the well to base.
And then it broke loose. He had been pulling stuff out so quickly, flinging it behind him to clear it away, that he couldn’t be sure which one had been the key. No matter, now it came tumbling, the pieces jostling each other and passing energy along the line in an avalanche of material. The junk poured out in such a rush it knocked the man aside and threatened to hold him in its fall to incineration. Flailing and somersaulting, out of control, Tomner fell away from the boat. The tether caught and held him in an undertow of garbage and scrap, and then something severed the cable.
Now he flew free, in a highly unstable spin that pushed his mind into a blur of vertigo backed by the burning orb of the sun wheeling below, with shadows of junk swarming before it. As cargo jostled and rammed him, he fired his suit jets to slow the yawing and rolling and pitching of his body. He stabilized for a moment, and in that few seconds, he saw the moon bike tumble through the opening, flipping in space. Together, man and bike shared the bewildering scrum and acrobatics of the cascade, two more pieces of junk in a wave of unwanted material pouring from the garbage barge.
Tomner remembered Jerla’s words, her criticism that he gave up too soon. Not this time. Experimenting with his jets, he managed to get himself moving in one direction and then reorient. He located the bike in the river of materials pouring down the well and went after it. Grabbing hold of the frame, he began to flip with it, then stabilized himself again.
This was his moment. Pulling himself onto the seat, gripping the handle bars, his boots found the pedals, got them rotating. With loose, flowing cargo bouncing around them, man and bike floated together in open space.
“Jerla! Captain! I’ve got it! I got the bike!”
“Be careful, boy! You’re falling too far!”
Old Sol rose up from below, a giant flaming maw that shrieked and groaned, reaching for its prey with enormous, arcing arms of pure fire. That mouth, that monster did not just eat its victims, it annihilated them, it decimated them; they burned in a way that nothing could burn anywhere else but in a sun.
The jets breathed out, sending streams of pressurized air to bat aside the arms of the sun, and in slow motion the man began to move, carrying his bike along. Tomner pedaled faster, as if this effort added to the force of the jets, as if he could ride out of danger on this magical steed, this blessed gift from the great San Deep. The bike or the jets or both carried him away from the sun, away from the stream of junk cargo falling into the jaws of burning, collapsing, fusing gas, and back toward the safety of his home.
“Jerla! Drop the crate!” Tomner screamed. “Drop the crate! Old Sol wants bones to crack, but he can’t have mine!” And he laughed and laughed as he pedaled up the well toward the tug.
Jerla watched Tomner on the video monitor, the sharp light in her round black eyes softening. It had taken extra fuel costs to rush the boat this close to the sun, to conceal his leg in radio interference when the flip signal came. While he had ignored the bills for his prosthesis, she had marked the dates on the calendar. Neither of them had the money to pay off that leg, so this was the only way to clear the bill.
She had spent all her savings on the down payment for the medical device; Didai said she was too soft-hearted. In a clandestine arrangement with the adoption agency, she had put up a “disability settlement” that convinced Tomner to sign the contract. While he thought he was using his own money to join her crew, the money had gone to New Body. The sanitation company had provided nothing, took no responsibility for the employee or his accident, and had terminated his contract once he was disabled. The union insurance had paid his basic care, and nothing more. Without income or profession, the man became a ward of the state, eligible for adoption. Tomner didn’t know, he couldn’t know—it was forbidden for him to know—his true socioeconomic status.
As soon as she had acquired a companion to assist with the salvage work, the market had dwindled; rules had tightened for claiming and trading the windfalls from junk cargo. Without the work, keeping an adult male human entertained and busy had gotten more difficult. It seemed too good to be true when Didai saw that a moon bike had been dumped in the junk pile; she had alerted Jerla and arranged to have it inserted in their cargo container. One couche will groom another couche, but not without a price. Jerla owed her friend some serious cargo—the containers of cheese crackers were part of the smuggling deal.
Sometimes you have to indulge a pet, Jerla thought to herself, with a sense of proud satisfaction as she watched his capering. ‘He looks so happy out there on the bike.’
Maybe one day she would be able to buy him the sim-gym membership he dreamed of, so he’d have some actual moon rocks to ride it on. The human’s space jaunt was cute to watch. But a real ride, on real terrain—with his strong, agile body exposed, hair blowing in the wind, eagerness shining on his face, in his eyes—that would be adorable.
By Josh Pearce
“There’s more of them suicides on the TV,” Nancy hollers at me from the other room. I am in the kitchen, trying to make a sandwich. The news is on. “The cheerleading squad from Central High all offed themselves last night, together. Tied plastic bags over their heads and laid down like they were going to sleep at a slumber party. Found them all holding hands.” There’s only the faintest taste of glee in her words.
Oh, no, I think, not the Central High girls. I usually see them walking to school as I drive to work, a daily bright spot. “Did they say why?”
“You know darn well why. It was that case zero girl, the one from the next county over. Everyone wants to be like her. The phony girl.”
“Persephone,” I correct her. “It’s Greek.” Persephone was the young lady who’d killed herself without warning, without apparent reason, a month ago. She was beautiful, much loved, had great parents, and no boyfriend troubles. No angst, good job. Her note had said only, “The world is ugly. I have heard the Lord calling me home.”
I work for the city, riding a mower all around the park grass. Been noticing more and more that the rose gardens are withered up and that the lawn is mostly now just weeds. Wasn’t like that last week. Also been noticing that the schools are quieter, the bright optimism of youth evaporating away. There are fewer people around in general, and the faces that remain are hard and suspicious. Nancy’s always in front of the TV when I get home, just in time for the evening news. The weather is still forecasting gloomy overcast.
Nancy is crying. “Who was it today?” I ask.
She shakes her head and can hardly talk through the sniffles. “Just horrible. All the hospitals are flooded with cases of sudden infant death. Hundreds of babies. Thousands!”
That is bad. All the tiny bodies they’re showing are adorable, none of those infants that look like wrinkled old men. I switch the channel away to find something that will distract her. Options are dwindling. I stop on a preacher show, with the close-up of a man holding the Good Book. “How ’bout this guy? You love this show.”
The preacher is saying, “Don’t copycat the sell-outs of this world like some blind idiot. The true God has a better design for you, a heavenly body that knows no jealousy or vanity. When he comes, you will be transformed by his presence!”
By the end of the school year, most of the athletes are gone, taking away their statuesque forms. The leaves fall off without changing color and never grow back. Nancy and I pay what few respects we have. Baby season is over, and the ones that remain are ugly as raisins. A plastic-surgery clinic opens up in one of the many abandoned storefronts downtown and does brisk business. Several more surgeons open their own practices, to capitalize on the new market, and the visual quality of life briefly improves, though the glossy sheen on the new faces never pushes all the way through the uncanny valley.
Nancy wants to make an appointment, but I tell her that we can’t afford it. Make-up is at a premium, also. “But this is the Rapture!” she begs, as I shut her in our room. “And we’re slowly being left behind!” She looks into my eyes and accuses, “You don’t think I’m beautiful anymore, do you?”
I’m at a very careful decision here. “I love you very much, no matter what,” I say, closing the door on her. I’ve removed her mirror, just to be safe. Also her belts, scarves, and shoelaces.
Something has changed in the air. Centuries-old sculptures have their faces scrubbed away by sudden, overnight aging. The oils in masterpiece paintings start to flake away, and desperate curators squirrel the works away in nitrogen-filled rooms to be surgically removed from their frames for emergency reconstruction. We never hear if they make it or not.
There are a disturbing amount of reports about young children playing in traffic. A lot of television these days is just old news and reruns. The B-list celebrities, finally catching on, are drinking the craft-services-table Kool-Aid, loudly proclaiming that they, too, have heard the call and are going to join their Hollywood brethren in the sky, but they aren’t fooling any of us. Their bodies rot quickly and choke the cities with their stench; unlike the others, whose corpses never decompose and smell like spring. Honestly, nobody wants to go to an ugly person’s funeral. By the end of the first year, there’s nothing really to watch on the television.
Prescott, the schoolteacher from down the street, comes knocking on my door one day. “How’s Nancy?” he asks, polite, casual.
“Well as can be,” I say. I haven’t let her out, but I bring her cereal and soup every day, stuff she can eat with a plastic spoon. She’s dropped a lot of weight, looks better than she has since her freshman year, but she doesn’t seem to much notice. Just sits on the bed all day, which is about all she has energy for, and accuses me of being the antichrist, bent on halting the rapture of the saints. The help hotlines and support groups that I started are growing and spreading across the state.
He isn’t looking me in the face. People usually don’t. I’ve got no illusions. “Thing is, I been doing some reading, figuring what all this weirdness is.” He looks up at the sky which is, as usual, hazy with dust and smoke. “Back in the olden days, folks used to have to sacrifice to the gods for good weather and good crops. Fuel to keep the sun shining and all.”
“Well you gotta admit we ain’t seen a sunrise nor sunset in a long time. I think what’s going on is all the best specimens are sacrificing themselves to save the rest of us. We, as a society, gotta give up our youngest and best-looking to appease the gods.”
“Then why isn’t it working?” I can see he’s got his Glock high on his hip.
“It’s got to be a complete surrender to God, you know, like the preacher on TV always says. So, thing is, I know most city folk wouldn’t admit, but your wife is probably attractive to some men….”
“Hold on now a second, Prescott. Let’s not kid ourselves here. We both know Nancy isn’t no beauty queen. We all know that.”
“Mebbe not. But she’s definitely the last thing we got to one around these parts, and if she’s the only thing holding the rest of us back, well, then, you gotta let her go.”
I don’t let go. I hold on to the kitchen knife real good and I lay Prescott out in my yard to see how quickly he returns to the Earth. Everyone else gets the message. From then on they keep a respectful distance and come to get me when something notable happens in town. “Gotta come see this,” the sheriff tells me some time after, as I’m riding the mower around City Hall Park.
“What is it?”
“Stranger came to town,” she says, “and he’s the best-looking thing I’ve seen in a long while.”
No one’s been coming to our town since about the time little Miss Persephone started this whole thing off, so I shut off the mower and follow her down to Burt’s Cafe, where there’s a crowd. The new fellow is sitting in a booth, looking half-starved, eating a piece of pie while everyone watches. The sheriff is right. He is handsome.
“Hello, friend,” I say. “Whereabouts are you from?”
“East coast,” he says, swallows some coffee. “Name is Eric.”
“You’re pretty far from home, Eric. What brings you all the way out here?”
“I’ve been traveling ever since this all started, across the country, bringing a message. Now I bring it to you.”
Everyone is listening carefully. “What message?” the sheriff asks.
He lifts his hands to show off the scars on his wrist. “I heard the call very early on. I heard and obeyed, a voice that promised to take me to a land of beauty. But instead I found myself rising from the middle of a frozen lake, dripping wet, shivering with cold. The lake was black, and rimmed with frost or salt. The sky was black and without stars. This, I thought to myself, was not the land I had been promised. I saw that I was surrounded by other people–also cold and wet as corpses–who were moving as a group to the far-off shore of the lake, and so I went with them.
“We were being drawn, together, to the presence of the Lord, for he awaited us at the shore. How can I possibly describe him to you if you have not seen the face of God? His cosmic body was hidden behind the horizon, for he is large enough to conform to the curvature of the Earth, or whichever planet it is where he dwells. His face filled our vision from ground to sky. His eyes were white, without pupils, and reflected the unseen sun like two moons. His mouth was open, wide enough to swallow cities, his tongue laid out like a highway for us. His breath was warm and smelled like honey, so of course we were eager to move toward it, to get out of the painful cold.
“I saw that his tongue was soft and thick like dark velvet. One-by-one the chosen marched up and fell backwards onto it, and were borne upward by the cilia motion of the Lord’s tastebuds, which were each as large as sea anemones. The tongue crawled each person up to the back of the Lord’s throat, which was a well of utter blackness, beyond which no one could see. I observed all of this scene and knew that this powerful being was The Blind Hunger at the End of All Days. I stopped walking and the mass of people swirled around me like a tide. The Hungry God has developed a taste for the most perfect of us because they taste sweet to him. I stood perfectly still, though my whole body ached to walk forward into his mouth, until I was returned to my home on Earth, sent back as a witness to tell all of mankind what awaits. When I came back, nothing was beautiful and everything hurt. There were no butterflies, only moths.”
“Did they keep you in the hospital long?” I ask, with my arms folded over my chest.
Eric nods. “First they had to sew up my veins, and then the doctors wanted to keep me under observation. But eventually they had too many other chosen ones to deal with, so they let me go.”
I point Prescott’s pistol at him and shoot Eric right in the chest. There is a fair amount of screaming, someone fighting to wrest the gun from me, and in the chaos I am piecing together a series of arguments in my defense to use when things calm down.
He’s a threat, I think, could have the pick of any woman on the planet. That threatens our family values.
If he likes that other world so much better than this one, then it’s a mercy to send him back there. Looks like people who are going to inherit this wind-blasted Earth are the ones who can stomach it in the long run.
He’s a disturbed person, encouraging others to commit suicide. We already don’t have enough of a population to fight fires or keep our fields from going fallow. Every person he gets to follow him is one less able body that this town can really use.
The sheriff has her Smith and Wesson out, but seems reluctant to do anything with it. Eric opens his eyes, sucking chest wound bubbling through his shirt, and looks straight at me. “There are other gods,” he says, “who have different tastes. And they’ll be hungry soon.” His smile, his blood, everything is out of place with its surroundings. That bright red stain is the most vibrant thing any of us has seen in months. I suppose that we’ll have to adjust to different standards of beauty once the last of the sweets have gone–find attraction and comfort in the slightly misshapen bodies of our spouses, the crooked and discolored grins of our neighbors. We’ll take for our pets the balding, cancerous stray dogs or try to tame raccoons and possums with questionable temperaments. The delicate symmetry of an infant’s skull when all of the flesh has been boiled off is surprisingly pleasing to the eye, and I hope that the Lord finds it as much a joy to behold as we do.
The trees right outside Burt’s are where we’ve left the suicides hanging from the nooses they tied. After all these months, they still just look asleep, calm, peaceful, and fill the town with a pleasant background smell.
Technicolor in the Time of Nostalgia
By Andrea Tang
Everything began with a crazy lady who landed her spaceship on Sam’s roof deck early one morning and said, “Oh, thank god. I was starting to think I’d never find the girl to fix this broken timeline.” Adjusting the neck of her blue silk cheongsam, she peered over her copper-wire spectacles at Sam. “You are Sam Wang, correct?”
“That depends,” said Sam, who’d been unpinning the laundry, and was now going to be late to work, thanks to this weird spaceship lady. “Are you here to steal my identity and/or murder me?”
“Of course not,” snapped the spaceship lady. “I’m Mei-Li. I’m here to–”
“– fix the broken timeline, yes, you already said.” Sam tossed a mostly-dry sundress over one shoulder, pausing to scratch at the scar on her ear, where she’d once caught the wrong end of a whip. “I don’t know that you’ll have much luck, Mei-Li. The timeline broke a long time ago.”
“Feh,” scoffed Mei-Li. “Am I a time traveler or aren’t I?”
“I’m guessing you mean that rhetorically.” Time travel explained the spaceship, at least. It was a pretty thing, pale and glowing, humming with faint blue light that lit up the grimy tiles of the roof deck. The colors on all Mei-Li’s trappings–the spaceship, the spectacles, the cheongsam–more than anything, were what tipped Sam off.
“One of the very last,” said Mei-Li.
“By which you mean one of two,” said Sam, folding the dress.
“You see why I have a need for you, then.”
“I did anticipate that the only other time traveler left in the universe might be an asshole,” observed Mei-Li, wrinkling her nose. “Fine, then. You clearly aren’t the sort who jumps at the chance to make history. What do you want instead?”
“To get to work less than ten minutes late, so as to avoid another whipping.”
Mei-Li blinked several times behind her spectacles. “That sentence right there,” she said, “is everything broken about this timeline.”
“The Hands of Grey care very much about efficiency. Everything else is a distraction from orderliness. The whips are a means to an end, to prevent senseless deviations.”
“My word, you just had to make it worse, didn’t you? What was the last whipping for?”
“Traces of unauthorized dye in my frock.”
“And before that?”
“Singing under my breath at work.”
Sam shrugged. “A silly song in an old language my mother taught me.” Even now, the half-forgotten strains of music ached beneath the phantom sting of the whip on her shoulders. “I should have known better, really.”
“This is no way to live.”
Sam knotted a hand around the comforting grey linen of the drying sundress, the blue properly bled from the fabric now, on its third washing. “You can get used to anything. It’s how human brains are wired.”
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” retorted Mei-Li, scowling ferociously at the formerly-blue frock. “Look, how’s this? Let’s just go back to the Walled City–”
“The Walled City!”
“Relax, I mean the summer before the city fell. I don’t expect you to battle the Hands of Grey. I just want you to meet someone.”
Sam hugged her elbows. “What about work?”
“I’ll compensate you for the day, how’s that? And, bonus, I’ll get you back here say, twenty-five minutes before we met, so you can finish folding the laundry and make it to your work with five minutes to spare. No worries about whips to be had. A good deal, isn’t it?”
It was a good deal. Sam, gnawing at her lip, considered that. “I stopped flying time travelers’ spaceships as a child. I’m not sure I remember how.”
“Silly girl,” cried Mei-Li, seizing Sam’s elbow. “Who do you think is going to be in the pilot’s seat of my own ship?”
Without quite deciding to, Sam tumbled after Mei-Li aboard the time-traveling spaceship, dragged into its blue-glowing depths. The sundress remained behind, half-folded upon the grey and grimy roof.
The spaceship spits Sam out on the stoop of a pub, painted a garish, cheerful shade of red, which sets off alarm bells inside Sam’s head, drowned out by a cheesy rock ballad as soon as the pub doors crash open. Color assaults Sam’s eyes like a tidal wave when she stumbles inside: a black girl in a violently purple wig, arm-in-arm with a tall, bleach-blonde drink of water; a couple Asian boys, one in turquoise, the other in a burgundy-checkered shirt, playing pool across from the bar; some person of indeterminate gender but the greenest, most mermaid-worthy hair, and the darkest skin Sam’s ever seen, sipping something orange enough to be highlighter ink.
It’s a Walled City when walls were still decorative. It’s a city Sam’s dreamed of, but never known. Sam holds her hands before her eyes; her skin looks like painted gold. She whirls, blinking rapidly, half-expecting, half-fearing the grey of her rooftop, and instead, spills someone’s wine all over his sky-blue Henley.
“Oh!” Sam can’t quite hear her own cry of dismay over the jukebox tune’s guitar riff. “Pardon me.”
The owner of the sky-blue shirt, now wine-red, sets aside his glass to inspect the ruined Henley with careful, copper-tanned fingers. His eyebrows curve toward her. “Pardon granted.” Amusement shades his features, red on copper spilled over high cheekbones when he smiles. In another time, she thinks she’d call him nondescript: average height, average shape, forgettably handsome in the way of young men who haunted ironically trendy pubs before the Hands of Grey. But in the time-that-is-right-now, she’s stuck on the colors of him, the way they sigh and blend as he moves, the whisper of ruined sky-blue over his shoulders in a frisson specific to this moment. His hair, curling over his forehead, is lighter than his eyes, and looks bronze beneath the pub lights. Sam can’t stop staring.
“I’m Max,” says this boy-made-of-colors, in this room-made-of-colors. He pitches his voice a bit, to drown out the jukebox wail, but his name catches on Sam’s ear.
“I’m Sam,” she hears herself say.
“Really.” Flecks of gold buried in dark eyes. He shakes his head, face split in two by a sudden, curious grin. “I could swear I knew someone with your eyes, once. Different name, same eyes.”
The line, which should come out cheesy, sounds so casually earnest that Sam finds herself grinning back. “Another time, another place, I guess. Come on.” Moved by inexplicable inspiration, she tucks her fingers under the crook of that sky-blue shirt. “Let’s go drink some of that weird orange shit.”
“I told you, didn’t I?”
Back on the spaceship, Mei-Li puckered red-painted lips at Sam. The expression reminded Sam a bit of her mother, when Mama used to tease, when Sam was little, before color bled from the world. “I told you,” Mei-Li repeated. “You’d know Max when you saw him.”
Sam’s heartbeat, enhanced by three shots of that orange drink, pounded against her eardrums. “Why him?” Even now, her own voice sounded distant, tinny.
Mei-Li’s eyes, lidded behind her spectacles, flicked sideways. Sam wasn’t sure how old the other time traveler was, but she looked older than Sam, the sleek black dye of Mei-Li’s hair rooted in grey, the brackets around her mouth faint but clearly permanent.
“Max is the lynchpin,” said Mei-Li. “His actions shape the timeline. You pull him the right way, and others will follow.” Her gaze lifted over the copper-wire frames. “You’re in his orbit now. You’ll see.”
Max is insufferable. Sam figures this much out pretty quickly. He doesn’t even have to try. His existence articulates color in beats of inhale and exhale, eruption of speech, and the course charted from every pair of eyes in the room toward his when his mouth parts. Something about him, life blended into pigment, demands your attention, inescapable as gravity.
“We know they’re coming,” he tells Sam, lean arm etched in light brown, slung around her, rainbows dancing through the merry slosh of their clinked glasses. “The Hands of Grey. We’ll be ready.”
A shiver runs down Sam’s spine, the ever-constant reminder that this world of color and noise is his present day, not hers. “And what will we do?”
“What we always do.” Gold, bright flecks in brown irises, shots of light through the dark. Somber eyes, bright smile. “We hold the Wall.”
A roar of agreement from his friends in the pub. From their friends. Sam blinks at the realization that she’s in this now, one of the many in their technicolor number, part of a whole.
You’re in his orbit now.
“And if the Wall falls?” Sam slurs her words, tries to sound drunk, hypothetical. If, not when.
“Then we fall with it,” says Max. “We fall, until others can rise again.”
Such finality, for an if, not a when. Sam tells him so, and Max rolls his eyes, calls her a cynic. She kicks his ankle. He knocks their shoulders together. Laughter. He’s more and more familiar to her, these days. No one ever tells time travelers what to do with this particular brand of inevitability. It’s not like there’s a handbook to begin with, a how-to for jumping your little blue spaceship across seconds and centuries. That much, you figure out by the years collected beneath your belt.
But this is something else: warmth in the crook of someone’s arm, the color of their crinkle-cornered eyes. It’s not a romance, exactly; Sam has never known how to fall for someone that way, how to want that particular curve of another body against yours, as so many others do. But here, still, is the subtle sneaking of another human being into your guarded heart, and that is worse, in some ways, than romance. Far worse than falling in love is meeting someone who might well be your first and greatest friend.
“Beauty’s song!” cries Max, head thrown back to the beat of a shifting jukebox melody.
Sam knows that song. She can’t place where from, but she knows it, and freezes, her hands closing around his. “What?”
“Beauty!” He’s mad, the gold in his dark eyes dancing with the rest of him. “Name of someone I met a million years ago, who sang this song.”
Something curdles behind Sam’s bones, a flicker of what’s half-forgotten. “You remember every random stranger who ever sang a song for you?” she yells over the crescendo.
“Nope!” he yells back. “Just the colorful ones!”
The songs, wonders Sam, or the strangers?
“Good question,” said Mei-Li, when Sam asked. “Next question.”
“No.” The word tasted strange and terrifying on Sam’s tongue. Some corner of her brain braced for the sting of a whip on her shoulders, or upside her head, or across an ear. None came.
Instead, Mei-Li’s hands paused on the spaceship’s dash. “Excuse me?”
Sam eyed the way the other time traveler’s fingers trembled. “No,” she repeated. The word tasted better now. “Not this time. What did he mean? Who was Beauty?”
“Why do you care?”
“I can’t remember!” snapped Sam. She rubbed her eyes, exhausted from drinking in color day in and day out, after more than half a lifetime’s world of grey. “I can’t explain what I’ve forgotten. But I’ve forgotten something important, Mei-Li. I know it.”
Mei-Li’s eyes went cold behind the spectacles. “If you can’t remember, then it’s not your right to know, now is it?”
Sam narrowed blurred eyes at the other time traveler. “We’ll see about that.”
Mei-Li’s hands fluttered upward, but Sam jerked past her and stabbed at the spaceship’s dash, muscle memory moving her fingers across the controls. Sam hadn’t flown a ship across time since the Walled City fell to the Hands of Grey, but some knowledge cannot be unburied from a time traveler’s bones.
“What are you doing?” shrieked Mei-Li, practically clawing at Sam’s shoulder.
“Remembering,” said Sam.
Headstones. When Sam stumbles out the spaceship this time, all she sees are headstones, endless rows of grey.
“You jumped forward,” croaks Mei-Li at her back. The other time traveler follows her through the dying grass, still clutching Sam’s shoulder. “Instead of backward.”
Sam understands all at once. “The Walled City stood here once.” She glances toward the colorless horizon, almost indistinguishable from the sprawling graveyard. “My apartment roof. My work. It’s all gone.”
“The Hands of Grey,” says Mei-Li. Even the colors of her spectacles and cheongsam look washed out on the backdrop of this future’s palate. “They knew how to conquer, and how to sow fear, but they never knew how to make people want to live. People aren’t automatons. Sooner or later?” She shrugs. “Without hope, they wither.”
“Without hope?” Sam sinks downward, knees knocking against a nameless headstone. “What about Max? The people at the pub? They were going to hold the Wall. They tried their best. Doesn’t anyone remember them?”
“Why should we?” Mei-Li’s voice is harsh. “They still died, just like everyone else.”
Sam’s fingers stroke the headstone, the grey cold beneath her skin. “The broken timeline.”
“I have watched the Walled City live through its final summer at least a dozen times,” says Mei-Li. “And every summer, over and over again, Max dies. The Wall falls. And the Hands of Grey lead us here. I thought, perhaps this time…” The implication trails off into nothing.
Slowly, Sam faces the other time traveler. “How did you know him? In the first timeline to break. The one where you first met. How did it happen?”
Mei-Li’s red-painted mouth twists. “Do you still want to remember?”
The spaceship jumps backwards. This time, Sam disembarks alone into a younger world, color garish on her gaze. She throws up a hand to shield her eyes and–
“Who are you?”
Sam looks down, and inhales, like glass sliding under skin. Golden flecks wink at her from the doe-dark eyes of the little boy at her waist. “Who are you?” repeats the child Max was, the boy-of-colors who will fight, the boy-of-colors who will die.
When her knees bend, Sam’s brain latches onto a speck of memory, something saved and shelved in years that exist on another plane of time. You can’t help but remember, sometimes, looking a child eye-to-eye, hands held small in your whip-scarred palms, that you were once so small yourself.
Before the Hands of Grey, in a world of colorful plurality, people spoke other languages. Before the Hands of Grey, Sam had a childhood, a mother who teased her daughter in two tongues, a woman with red lipstick who called after Sam in a forbidden, foreign, technicolor language, laughing, “my child, my precious one, my little beauty.”
Wo de xiao Mei-Li.
“I’m Beauty,” Sam tells the boy she’ll know as Max. Air hitches, expands inside her chest, glass-edged. “You can call me Beauty. If you’d like, I’ll sing you a very silly song.”
“How many versions of us are out there?” Sam asked Mei-Li, the spaceship shuddering blue around them.
“Just you,” said Mei-Li.
A beat, pregnant with all the things they’ll never say. “Somewhere between the sixth and seventh summers the Walled City fell, I thought it might be better, somewhere, some-when, if Max and I–”
Sam understood. “If he and I never met at all.”
Her elder self, this time-worn time traveler with the age-bracketed red mouth, leaned her head against the spaceship wall, replete with the history inside her bones. “Some mistakes, even time can’t correct.”
Time travelers operate by rules, just like everyone else. Certain cornerstones of history can’t be unmade. You’re not supposed to tell people their futures. All time-travelers know this. But when the only two time-travelers left in the universe are halves of one, does “supposed to” really matter anymore?
The cycles of the universe spin, heedless. The Hands of Grey march across the world, bleeding color from its inhabitants, until all that remains is a final city, colors contained within its walls, one last holdout. The Walled City, with its red-stooped pubs, its boys in blue Henleys, still blasts rock music from jukeboxes, and speaks of songs sung by way of girls who call themselves beauty in foreign tongues.
The Walled City breathes its final summer, bright-edged with sun, color and color and color.
Mei-Li met Max, once upon another timeline. She stole away aboard her spaceship a dozen times more, trying to unmake the summer of her best friend’s death. But never once did Mei-Li tell him his fate.
But Sam, who grew up in a world of grey after Max–after Max, not before; the befores and afters here are key–isn’t Mei-Li.
“You’ll die if you stay,” she whispers one night, back-to-back with him on the stoop of the pub. “You all will.”
The forbidden words hang in the thick summer air between them, like a secret spoken to the stars. Then Max says, “I know.”
Sam’s spine spasms along his. “You knew?”
“The Walled City was never going to hold out forever.” Even without seeing his face, she knows the shape of his smile in the curl of his words. “But time moves in cycles. And it’ll bend toward color again, one day. What’s important is to be where we can, standing together.”
“I don’t want–”
“– to die?”
To watch you die.
“They’ll forget you,” says Sam. “Time will forget you.”
His head shifts toward her, whisper of skin, eyelashes brushed against her cheek. “Will you?”
Sam curls her shoulders against his, memorizing warmth and muscle, pulse of the heart sustaining this temporary burst of life. Here is the time traveler’s curse: the moments of nothing that ever lasts. Not even your best friend twelve times over.
“I have to go,” says Sam.
Mei-Li’s crimson-lacquered nails scraped over Sam’s skin, when she squeezed their hands together. “It’ll be all right,” said Mei-Li. “We’ve tried so many times. There’s more of time and space to see than one doomed little pub in one doomed little city.” She squeezed tighter, the pressure strange and comforting when she added, a bit dryly, “Or did you want to finish folding your laundry?”
“No. Take me away. Anywhere but here.”
“Are you certain? Twenty-five minutes before we met, that was the deal we made–”
“Later,” said Sam. There is always later, for time travelers.
Mei-Li’s eyes closed. She really was terribly old. Sam wondered how she could ever have guessed otherwise. “As you wish.”
History, once and future, is a great and terrible spectacle. Color ebbs and flows, yet always returns to the world, rosy glitters of dawn on blue river water and purple dusk deepening behind mountain ranges, a rotation of light and shadow that chase generations across this quick-spinning globe.
The bird’s eye view from Mei-Li’s little blue ship grants Sam a remarkable view. You don’t appreciate it, really, the peculiar little miracles of mortal life, until they’re stretched out before you, wiggling, winking in and out of existence like fireflies at summertime. And yet they live on, gathered as many, gathered as one. Spines curved toward each other, clinging to their foolish, endless joy in the temporary, skin on skin.
Someone else’s pulse beats to life in Sam’s memory like a cheesy rock beat. Sam closes her eyes. “Okay,” she tells Mei-Li, her face turned toward the spin of the world below, the magnificent sprawl of time. “I’m ready to go home.”
“For your laundry?”
Sam smiles without opening her eyes. “Not quite.”
The world tilted.
Mei-Li knew what Sam meant. But then, perhaps she’d always known.
Max’s doomed little pub in its doomed little city sits at the farthest edge of the Wall, the red of its stoop a beacon in the face of encroaching grey, as the drums of invasion beat toward that little burst of scarlet. Sam lands on the stoop in a heap, gasping, shouldering her way through the pub’s doors. She runs blind until she spots what she’s looking for.
A boy watercolored in blue and copper like a painting leans over the open window, half-backlit by looming grey. Shadows stretch toward him, but he’s serene, gold burning behind the brown of his eyes.
Sam’s so tired, and the scars on her hands and ears ache. Still, she cups her worn-down palms around her mouth, and bellows louder than the Hands of Grey would ever allow, “Max!”
And there, he’s looking at her now, eyes gone bright on the girl stumbling toward him, her hands outstretched, gold-washed skin bleeding out color as she wades through shadow toward light.
“You came back,” says Max.
Color’s beginning to fade from him too, washing out the soft blue lapels of his Henley, erasing the red wine stain. Pallor sets into his face, but his hands, when his fingers curl around hers, are copper-painted still, twining with gold.
“Someone who loved me called me beauty once,” Sam tells him. “It was the first time I understood what it meant, for language to carry color. Will you hold the Wall, Max?”
He smiles, fierce as the curve of his hands through hers, fierce as skin on skin. “For as long as I–for as long as we can.”
The smile remains, even as the final drop of pigment drains from them both, Sam’s eyes open and defiant the entire time, refusing to dip the last of technicolor into darkness a moment too soon.
A time traveler’s secret: time forgets us all.
The people whose fingers we hold, though, multiplied through the too-rapid spin of the world, those tiny, temporary miracles made real between our skin, frisson specific to me and you: this, even time cannot erase.
The woman in the sundress is terribly old. You can tell by the strange pigment to the fabric: something formerly colorless, dyed a ridiculous electric blue that doesn’t suit the cut at all. She’s a refugee, probably, from the old days when the Hands of Grey held the Walled City, reigning supreme over practically the entire world. It would explain the desperate, garish splatter of color in her clothes. Tacky, maybe, but understandable, all things considered.
Still, the woman doesn’t seem to care when you scoff at her. She doesn’t seem to care for much at all, in fact, her hair a wild mess of black-dyed strands and shining silver, her wrinkled face nut-brown. Still, she smiles like a secret, mouth a slash of red, which she angles–along with her unflinching, spectacled gaze–toward the statue.
It’s two figures, made abstract by the hodgepodge mix of copper and gold and bronze that comprise their entwined limbs. No particular features render their faces recognizable, and so the statue remains anonymous: simply two people caught in an embrace, frozen in time by metallically-cast color, practically blinding beneath the summer sun. It’s a relic from the days when people first woke from the grasp of the Hands of Grey, when they remembered that people used to live and die for reasons beyond the colorless crack of a whip.
The woman smiles that red-painted smile at the statue’s embrace. You’d almost think she recognized those desperately twined figures, understood what moved them toward each other for this one fragment of a moment.
Then the woman, too, walks on, her dress blinking blue in a sea of color, as she makes her way toward a blue-glowing spaceship, waiting still on the peripheries of the city.
Claridge of the Klondike
By Judith Field
The Solicitor took Father’s will from the hand of an automaton standing next to the desk. He waved the machine away and began reading. “To Euphemia Thorniwork, my Pheemie, my only daughter, I leave whatever money is in my bank account. She is of age, therefore she may receive the bequest without delay. It will contribute towards funding her intended mathematical study. Great things await her.”
Only Father had called me Pheemie. Tears pooled in my eyes at the sound of it spoken in another man’s voice.
The solicitor continued, “I have faith that she will devise a way of paying for the remainder. I also leave her one of my inventions that may facilitate the matter.” He looked up and removed his pince-nez. “That is all. Despite my urging, your father included no indication as to what that is.”
The following day, I tried to poach an egg for lunch. It appeared that, contrary to all Father had taught me about chemistry, it is possible to burn water. As I scraped the cinders into the bin, I was interrupted by a knock on the front door.
A figure stood outside, the shape and size of a man but constructed of bronze. It was dressed like a country gentleman, with a black band tied around the upper right arm. The face, with a slit for the mouth to enable the voice to project, was smooth. Engraved curlicues above its eyes imitated eyebrows. According to the copperplate letters engraved on its forehead in Father’s handwriting, its name was Claridge. Its green glass eyes fixed mine. “My master – your late father – required that I reside with you as your adviser.”
I took a step back. “Adviser? How can an automaton get me to Oxford University?”
“I have faith that we will devise a way of achieving it.”
My first instinct was to turn the thing away. I hesitated and the bronze man stuck its foot in the path of the door as I made to close it.
“My master created me to learn and grow from my surroundings.”
“I must consider this.”
“He also taught me to cook.”
“Can you poach an egg?”
“It is elementary.”
“Then come inside.” I shut the door behind it. “Where is your key?” I could not see the winding port situated in the head that all automatons required.
“I am powered by a form of battery.” It raised its shirt, revealing a glass panel in its abdomen, fitted with a small brass tap. Inside, two polished metal plates hung in clear liquid. It explained that its brain was a wax cylinder inside its head. “That is where my programming, which tells me how to see the world and how to react, is stored. All my knowledge, my learned behavior and my skills, are etched into logical circuits in the cylinder, ready to be accessed.”
I heard Father’s voice in my mind: “Pheemie! The beauty of numbers, the magic of the sphere!”
“Did my Father scratch science and mathematics into your cylinder?”
It was fortunate that no others would observe my engaging in chit chat with an automaton. Our neighbors were keen observers of social propriety.
It nodded. “After my master taught me literacy, he made me commit his library to memory.”
“All of it?”
“Yes. Of course, it includes many mathematical texts, but my preference is for chemistry. It is easiest to process.”
“I feel that his library connects me to him,” I blurted. “I know it is not in your programming to feel. I am sorry if I… the fact of the matter is that I am still…”
“A period of grieving is within logical parameters. I have computed that his passing was a loss to the world of science, and to you.”
While one could not hold discussions with machines, it might provide a useful method of retrieving information from the library. “You may stay.”
One afternoon two weeks later, Aunt Ada called without invitation, interrupting a discussion Claridge and I were having about the chemistry of raising agents in food. I had corrected him even though I knew he was right. After all, I was now his mistress. He served Earl Grey tea, with the Chelsea buns that he had made to illustrate a point about yeast.
I felt warmth in his metal hand as I took my cup from him. “Thank you. It is delicious,” I said. “You must have one yourself.” Ridiculous.
He took a pace backwards and stood motionless, arms by his side.
Aunt Ada bit a chunk out of a bun, then took a sip of tea. Her lips pursed into a non-mathematical shape as she put her cup down. “This always did taste like something one ought to dab behind one’s ears, not drink.”
“It was Father’s favorite.”
“On that, my poor brother and I disagreed. Also, while he may have considered it right for a young lady to live alone, I am now your next of kin and, I also disagree with that.”
It was not proper to discuss such matters in front of servants or automatons. I opened my mouth to ask Claridge to afford us some privacy but before I could speak, Aunt Ada continued, with no more apparent regard for his presence than she would have for a hatstand.
“I have concerns about your loneliness. I have made a decision about your future.”
“I have Claridge.”
“An inanimate object. You would do better to get yourself a lapdog.” She helped herself to another bun.
“The dog that is master of chemistry and mathematics would be a rare creature. And I doubt it could cook. You seem to approve of Claridge’s output – that is the third you have taken.”
“Such impertinence does you no credit,” she spluttered, through a mouthful of bun, “but you bring me to my next point. In particular, it is ill-advised for you to spend so much time in the company of automata. The mechanical influence is taxing to a young woman’s brain. I see the start of it – thanking a soul-less machine! Would you thank the kettle for boiling the water?”
“No, but I would thank Claridge for heating the kettle. Father taught me to be polite to servants.”
She rolled her eyes. “My poor brother’s teaching. Mathematics! Of What practical use is it? Far better that he should have taught you elocution, and deportment.”
“I am determined to make my life studying mathematics, for its own sake.”
Aunt Ada folded her arms. “Your legacy will not last longer than a few weeks.”
“I will teach, to support myself.”
Her nostrils flared. “You do not listen.” She banged her hand down on the table. The cups jumped and tea spilled out. Claridge moved forward and dabbed at the mess with a cloth.
Aunt Ada flapped a hand at him. “Leave us. I am sure that there are matters to be attended to in the kitchen. I cannot abide such fussing.” He left the room, closing the door behind him.
She leaned across the table towards me. “I have made allowances for your state of mind, since you are in mourning. As, of course, am I.” She produced a handkerchief from the sleeve of her black silk dress and gave the corner of one eye a dainty dab, as though she had just remembered the fact. “I think only of your welfare. It is time for you to forget playing the bluestocking. Mr. Milton the druggist has enquired after you, again. I think he will ask you to walk out with him. Now, what say you?”
My stomach turned at the thought of keeping company with sweaty-faced Reginald Milton, of his hot, fishy breath. But unless I could fund my continuing academic career, penury would force me to make a match, with him or someone like him.
“You seem unimpressed. You may be right. Some might consider a druggist to be a tradesman. But you need not remain a spinster all your life. I will effect some other introductions.” She retrieved a copy of the London Daily Post from her bag. “You will find accounts in the society pages of the sort of gatherings you should attend. I will contrive to obtain invitations for you.” She handed me the newspaper.
As Claridge was seeing her out, she paused. “Ensure that you do not speak of mathematics to young men. They do not like their wife to be more intelligent than they.”
He shut the door after her.
“It is beyond belief that she is Father’s sister,” I said, even though it was not right to deride a human in front of an automaton. “She is as unlike him as it is possible to be.”
“It would be inappropriate for me to voice an opinion on your aunt’s personality. However, the evidence would appear to suggest that you are correct.”
I felt my hands shake. I spoke again, my mouth dry. “Is it really so improper to be fascinated by numbers? To wish to immerse myself in their world?”
“It would be a waste of a mind such as yours to do otherwise.”
“I wish that you had told her that.”
“She would not have listened. ‘Would you ask the advice of a teapot?’”
Our exchanges were becoming something approaching conversation. I had conflicting feelings about this, but Aunt Ada would have been appalled. I told him of her plans. “I have no wish to spend the rest of my life shackled to such a man as she will find, or to spend my life scratching an existence as a penniless spinster. But what choice do I have? I cannot afford to study. “
“Then, what I have to tell you is timeous. I have heard something that is most interesting.” He picked up the Post and scanned the front page. “Yes, it is reported here. ‘Second Gold Rush. People flocking to the Klondike. Riches for the taking.’ We will go there, you and I. Make our fortune. Status. Comfort. Tuition fees.”
“Claridge, you are presumptuous,” I said. “I may extend you courtesy, but that does not mean that you may assume some misguided parity between us.”
“I understand, and extend my apologies.”
I paused. “Please continue. About the news item. How could we mine gold?”
Green light glowed behind his eyes. “We need not struggle to the goldfields. The ones who make the most money are those who supply the miners with their needs. Consider how much more they could extract after blasting their way through the permafrost. We will make and sell explosives.”
“Claridge, the very idea! We will blow ourselves to high heaven.”
“I have the knowledge. And here is a notion that has just occurred to me: one must speculate, to accumulate.”
A future breeding cannon fodder for the Empire loomed in my mind. I used my last five pounds to pay for chemicals, apparatus, and outward airship fares.
With much sweating and puffing, the carter’s men heaved our equipment onto the back of the wagon. The leader took off his bowler hat and fanned his face with it. He shoved a scrap of crumpled paper and a pencil stub into my hand. “Sign here.”
I did so. “We will meet you at the airfield.” I gave them the few coins I had in my reticule and shut the door behind us.
Claridge strode down the street to the tram stop. As I scuttled along after him, I paused and flinched. Supposing we should meet Aunt Ada coming towards us? As we turned the corner, the tram clattered towards the stop. The driver pulled the two horses to a standstill and we stepped on. I pictured Aunt Ada, a faceless young man in tow, knocking on our front door and I heard the sound echoing in the empty house.
“Goodbye, Miss Ada,” Claridge said, as I took my seat. He turned to me. “You may exhale, Euphemia.”
As the airship could not rise high enough to cross the Alaskan coastal mountains, it would take us no farther than Skagway, Alaska. This was the start of the White Pass Trail leading to the headwaters of the Yukon River. Claridge was certain that there would be as much commerce from the miners starting on the trail as there would be from those reaching its end.
I was obliged to stow him in the hold, as though he were no more than animated baggage. The attendant directed me to a space between a man-sized automaton, dressed in prospector’s clothes, “Inverarity 10.0.1” engraved on the forehead, and a female with white hair, dressed in black: “Grandmama 2.1”. A child-sized automaton, dressed in a sailor suit, farther along the row, clicked and whirred as cogs turned ever more slowly and mechanisms ran down. The attendant clamped Claridge’s feet to the floor. We left the hold and he showed me to my seat.
“All alone. You travellin’ for business? Nobody would come here for pleasure.”
“I seek to make my fortune, at the start of the White Pass Trail.”
He frowned. A shadow flitted across my mind. “Should I have chosen the Chilkoot Trail?”
He shrugged. “Makes no difference. One’s hell. The other’s damnation.”
He left. I crept back to the bowels of the airship. Row after row of metallic faces stared into nothing, their clockwork motors unwound, their bodies frozen in the positions they had last adopted. I found Claridge.
“I fear you will find the journey tedious, on your own,” I said. “Not even the chance of conversation with your fellows.”
“I will use the time to compute the quantities of components and the processes required to make the fulminate of mercury detonator and the guncotton. We will be ready to begin production as soon as we arrive.”
I mounted a stairway and returned to my seat. Restraining cables fell away from the airship and it lifted. With the hiss of steam and the roar of motors, our flight to Canada had begun.
The cold of evening filled the air as we stepped out of the airship. The mud, set into solid ridges, dug into my feet through the soles of my boots as I picked my way along, trying to find our store. Claridge trudged along next to me pushing a handcart carrying as much of our equipment as it could accommodate.
“The agent told me it was next to a draper,” I said. “Perhaps we can buy extra cotton wool there, if ours sells out.”
“When it sells out. You should always retain a positive attitude.”
Father would have said the same. I felt my throat tighten. We reached the end of the block. “Surely, this cannot be right,” I said. Tufts of grass poked through the clods of mud thrown up against the door. Claridge dropped the handle of the cart and looked at the document the agent had given us. “I fear that it is.”
The half-rotten wooden step shifted under my foot. Claridge pushed the door and it creaked open, scraping across the floorboards. The odor of damp wood, mold and musty earth filled my head as I stepped inside. Shelves lined the walls. The filthy window glass let through just enough light for me to avoid falling over a rickety table. A wooden bench stood to one side. I looked at the empty stove and shivered.
Claridge flung the window open. “It will suffice. We can put the carboys on these shelves.” He leaned on the table. “This will take the weight of the apparatus. I fear you must put your bedding on the floor.” He brought in the bolts of cotton wool, the massive glass carboys filled with acid and the jar of mercury. “I will retrieve the remainder of our cargo from the airfield and see about firewood and a padlock for the door.”
I handed him some coins. He headed down the steps. I ran after him and grabbed his arm. “Those were our last few cents,” I said. “It is hopeless.”
He turned back. “Nonsense. Your father commended you to me for your determination, many times. What would he have said if you gave up without trying?”
“Claridge, stop,” I snapped. “Father is never far from my mind. But we must return to London.”
“I will return to London – once we have made our fortune. But when you leave here, it will be for Huxley College, Oxford.”
“Your faith is misplaced. Did you not hear the agent say that prospectors must carry a year’s supplies? They will not want to add ours to their burden.”
“I heard him well. And I know equally that we will achieve our aims. I saw no other stores selling explosives. I have already computed how much we can produce, and how much a miner will need. While I am out, calculate how much we can charge per grain of each of our products.”
There was comfort in numbers. My jaw unclenched and I felt my heart rate slow. “I will. But we must charge a fair price.”
“I would expect nothing less of you.” He trudged away down the muddy street.
I opened my valise, took out my leather apron and brass goggles, put them on and started weighing and measuring.
Towards the end of September, the days grew colder and the evenings came earlier. We had been in Skagway for one month. The sky hung grey, frowning, over the town. It would not be long until the first snow fell. Prospectors were coming back with microscopic amounts of gold dust. I looked out into the empty street.
“The rush is over,” I said. “We must leave, before winter hits in earnest.”
Claridge’s voice softened. “I have dragged you half across the world for no more than a game of chance. I truly believed that, in a few weeks, we would make our fortune.”
“Do not distress yourself. At least you removed me from Aunt Ada’s matchmaking.”
“Things may come good. It is just that I have not yet worked out how. It is like completing a jigsaw puzzle without the picture. And where some pieces are upside down”
I shrugged. “They might be worse. We have fifty grains of gold dust. That will cover what I paid for the fares. We have made no profit, but also no loss.”
Claridge stayed behind to begin packing up what remained of our stock. Perhaps we would get a few pence, on sale or return, from the chemical supplier in London. I walked through a veil of fog to the airfield. The ticket office was open, but flights were delayed until the sky cleared. I reserved places on the next one out, the following morning.
“Three grains of gold’s the fare for an automaton,” the clerk said. He weighed it out and handed the bag back.
A man standing on the other side of the hall called to me. “Ma’am? Some of us are starting a friendly poker game. Just to pass the time. Care to join us?”
It would be something new, something not considered suitable for ladies back at home. It would not take long to learn. How prescient of Claridge to speak of a game of chance.
“Yes,” I said, “but I cannot play. Will you teach me?”
“With pleasure.” He shook my hand. “Jake, to my friends. I can see that’s what you and I are going to be.”
Huge stoves, crammed full with wood, stood at each end of the saloon. The windows were closed and lamps flared against the white-washed walls. Two men, sitting at a round wooden table, looked up as we approached. “Boys, this is our new British lady friend,” Jake said. “Meet Dan.” He nodded to the man with a whisky bottle on the table in front of him. “And Bob.” A man with a cigar clamped between his teeth stood up and gave a slight bow.
“I am Miss Thorniwork.”
“You’re a long way from home,” Bob said. “All alone, without your bronze buddy.”
Jake shook his head.
I took my seat.
“This is called Seven-Card Stud,” Jake said. “We’ll use matchsticks, until you get the reckoning of it.”
This was a game that I could win. Apart from the random fall of the cards, mathematics was involved. There would be a good chance of getting dealt the cards I needed, providing nobody else held them. I must make the others call with worse hands than mine and fold better hands than mine.
Dan won. Bob won. I made each mistake only once. It was all controlled by probability and odds, and remembering which cards had been played. I won a hand. And another.
“You’re a natural, Miss T,” Jake said. “Now, how about we make things more interesting?” He tipped a heap of gold nuggets onto the table. The other two men did the same. There was more gold glowing in the lamp light than I had seen in my entire time in Skagway. “Now you,” Jake said.
I put my bag of gold dust on the table. “I believe it is my turn to deal.”
As I won the last gold nugget, the saloon door burst open. The floor shook as Claridge pounded across the room. “Where have you been? I have long finished packing. I have been looking everywhere.”
I stood up. “My apologies, Claridge. I did not see the time.”
Daniel sneered. “Tell this uppity gadget to get lost. We’re gonna play a while longer.”
I shook my head and swept the nuggets into my reticule. “He, and I, are leaving. It has been a pleasure, but I know enough to quit while I am ahead.” I swept out into the street, Claridge behind me.
I skipped and danced along, like a child. “There, Aunt Ada!” I shouted into the fog. “Do you see the practical use of mathematics? I have enough to support my studies for years. I shall be the first female professor of mathematics at Huxley College.” I stopped as we reached our doorway and took Claridge’s hand, warm in the freezing air. “Poker is simply a matter of what cards they think I have. And what they think I think they have.”
“And what they think you think they think you have, I suppose,” Claridge said. “It is unseemly to shout and dance in the street. But I feel that, under the circumstances, it was right to give you your head.” We stepped inside the store. Claridge raised a floorboard, I put the reticule underneath it and he nailed it shut again.
On the following morning, the fog lifted. We would have to make several trips with the handcart to transport all our belongings “We will take the gold last,” Claridge said. “The less it is in plain sight, the better. Go and book in. I will follow in a short while, with the cart. I wish to conduct one final experiment with the nitric and muriatic acids.”
As I left the ticket office, Claridge dragged himself towards me, pushing the half-loaded handcart. “It was…heavy. I must make yet another return trip for the glassware.” His voice crackled and, although had he had no need for air, he appeared to be gasping.
The ground crew hauled at cables, walking the airship, attached to a movable mooring mast, out into the field. I gestured to a porter “Please place the contents of this cart in the hold.”
Claridge stood while the man followed my instructions. “I regret that I cannot help,” he said.
I pushed the cart back to the store. Claridge limped behind me, with a ratcheting sound of wood creaking against metal. As I mounted the steps, the door swung open. Smashed glass covered the floor like crystals of ice. There was a gap where someone had ripped up the boards. The gold was gone.
My lungs seized mid-breath. I sank to my knees. “All is lost.”
“It is not. They have left one empty carboy intact.”
“What use is that? They have taken the gold. We cannot start again.”
Claridge bent over me, gears whining, and touched my shoulder. I felt a tremor in his hand. “The gold is still here.” He stood up and raised his shirt. Amber fluid filled his battery. The once-shining metal electrodes were dull and pitted, releasing streams of bubbles. “It is a mixture of nitric and muriatic acids. The alchemists called it aqua regia. Royal water. Because it will dissolve gold. And… here is ours.”
He nodded. “Drain the aqua regia into the intact carboy. Do not let it touch your skin.”
I did as he instructed.
“Take it, and get onto the airship. Recover the gold, once you are home. The method may be found in ‘Textbook of Chemistry’. Third shelf, fourth from the left. Page 645.”
“Aqua regia dissolves other metals, besides gold. Your electrodes. We must replace them.”
“There are no replacements. My components are unique. You must lift the carboy onto the cart. Hurry, the airship will not wait.”
“There will be more flights. There must be a way to repair you.”
“No. My systems are no longer viable. Even if we obtained the components, your father left no instructions. Those men departed empty handed. You must go, before they return.” He blinked, his eyelids rattling. “You are crying, but do not be distressed.” The light behind his eyes dimmed. “I am only a machine.”
“No, you are more. You are not Claridge 1.0. You are the only Claridge. You feel pain. Emotions. Desires. Curiosity. You have a mind. You live.”
His internal mechanisms clicked as they switched off.
“It is only my programming, replicating how pain might be perceived.”
“Not so. I will not believe it.” I clutched his hand. Cold, like the bronze from which it was made.
“And I cannot believe otherwise. For if it is true, and I do have a soul, will it not wander for all eternity in that place of darkness, cut off from life?”
“Claridge. My brother. You told me you were not programmed for feeling, but to process. Did Father also program you to lay down your life for me?”
“No. Pheemie,” he whispered. “But. Using my logical circuits. I know it is what he would have wanted.”