Fiction

Marching into Blue Climes

The wagon lurched and leaned up the crooked road to the dry bluffs. There, on ground of splintered shale and rust-colored lichen, where bull thistle twisted between the cracks of the earth, lay the disused home of Wallace Whitton’s father. Wallace, atop the wagon with reins in hand, smiled at his son and motioned to the firepit-gray ocean, where he hoped the boy might wish to play. He tried to seem sincere in his enthusiasm, but gained no like response. The boy stared ahead and drummed his thin fingers in an intricate rhythm upon the wagon’s rails.

When they stopped before the home, Wallace kept his watery smile in place. Their former guest house had been more expansive than this, and in far better repair. He hoped his son couldn’t read his disappointment, but the boy had seen so much. How could he know one truth and not grasp another?

The son touched at his fingertips. Each looked as if it had been dipped into a rhubarb pandowdy.

Wallace caught the boy’s hands and held them tight. “You mustn’t.”

The boy watched the sky, its clouds smeared over an expanse as pale as memory.

“Do you hear?” Wallace asked.

The boy answered that he did.

“Our things are inside. Go and see.”

The boy climbed down from the wagon and made his way into the house. The dismal structure was all that remained of the Whitton fortune, enduring only because it had lain outside the field of battle. If only they had all been so blessed. Viridis, the former Savannah vineyard, had been smashed, stolen, and eaten by Grant and his Hessians. While the rumble of their march faded to the south, Wallace Whitton had knelt amongst the ruins and, with his own cultured hands, dug through the cinders of his past, the cooling ashes of his family’s legacy, to grasp Nettie’s unanswering fingers.

As Wallace hefted their last load of belongings to the ground, a plinked melody of single keys struck by a single finger sounded from the house’s corner room. The boy had found it. Wallace headed inside to bandage his boy’s fingers before they stained the ivory.

These Old Hands

Frances heard a shriek as she approached the cottage door. Joseph hovered outside the threshold, twisting his cap in his hands. “She’s bad, Frances. Says she can’t take the pain.”

The old woman gave him a dismissive wave. “Ah, she’ll be fine, lad. It’s nature’s way.”

“What should I do?” He was barely more than a boy, less than a year married. His face, normally nut brown from working in the fields all day, had a grey cast to it.

Frances shouldered past him, Margaret right behind her. “Just stay out of the way, boy, and let us work. I’ve never lost a baby nor a mama yet, and I don’t intend today to be my first.”

Inside the cottage was dark, air thick with the smells of smoke, sweat, and urine. Frances could dimly make out Essie’s form writhing on the small bed against the far wall. “Margaret, get the window open and put on water to boil,” she said, rummaging in her bag of supplies. The packets of powders and herbs went on the cottage’s rickety table; Margaret would know without being told how to mix them.

Frances carried the birthing stool and linen to the bedside. “Now then, young Essie, let’s have a look at you.”

Essie’s round face glistened, her cornsilk hair flattened against her scalp. “Oh, Frances, it hurts something terrible. I think something’s wrong.”

Frances pushed back the blanket and peered between Essie’s legs, pressing one hand against the swollen belly. “Nonsense, girl. Your mother said the same thing when she birthed you, and you were no trouble at all. We’ve time yet.”

While Margaret boiled water and brewed the herbs, Frances got Essie out of bed and on her feet. At first she resisted, but Frances eventually got her to walk a circle around the small room. When Essie’s next labor pains struck, the old woman helped her sink into a squatting position on the low birthing stool. “Margaret, hold her up.”

Margaret set aside the cup of brewed herbs and moved to support Essie’s lower back. She was a thin, fragile-looking girl, but Frances knew she was far stronger than she seemed, and holding up Essie’s limp weight posed no challenge. Frances eased down onto one knee, wincing at the stiffness in her bad hip. Pushing up Essie’s skirt, she leaned down to check her again.

At first glance, it appeared to be the start of a normal crowning. The lips of the vulva were stretched over a round, smooth surface, one a little bigger than a balled-up fist. Then Frances frowned and took a closer look. It was the right size to be the baby’s head, true, but it was too dark, too shiny. Even if Essie had been bleeding, it wouldn’t have stained the scalp that deep, gleaming black.

When Frances leaned up, Margaret’s sharp brown eyes were watching her. Breech? she mouthed from behind Essie. The midwife shook her head.

“Essie, bite down on this, now. I’ve got to reach in.” She passed Margaret a leather strap and smeared her fingers with goose grease from a small jar.

Essie tensed and let out a groan when Frances slipped her fingers past the mass. Frances felt around the sides of the object, pulse quickening with each moment that passed. The shape her fingers traced was a smooth ovoid. No limbs, no face, no bones. In place of soft, yielding flesh was a slick carapace or shell, hard as stone under Frances’ fingers. As she explored, there was a flutter, some tapping from within, a pulse or a kick.

“What is it? What’s wrong with him?” Essie’s voice came out shrill and garbled around the strip of leather.

Frances forced herself to meet Essie’s eyes. Poor girl, she thought. And it’s her first. “We can’t know till you’ve birthed,” she said, and could see that Essie was too scared to ask again.

The rest of the labor Frances handled like any other, instructing Margaret to rub Essie’s back when the pains came, applying salve to prevent tearing and blood loss. When the time came to push, Margaret moved to ready the linens. Frances watched her face, could see the shock pass over her features when she saw what was coming out. But then the girl steeled herself and looked away, busying herself with preparations. Frances took Essie’s hand in her own arthritic fingers, not allowing herself to wince no matter how hard the girl squeezed.

It came out smoothly, and Frances could see right away that Essie was in no danger. Margaret caught it as it slipped from between Essie’s legs, a perfectly even, black shape, like obsidian with the edges smoothed away. There was no cord, nothing attaching it to Essie’s body. Margaret’s hands trembled as they held it, her throat working as she swallowed convulsively.

“Why isn’t he crying?” Essie gasped. “Why isn’t he crying?”

She leaned forward and saw what she had delivered into the world, and the scream that ripped from her throat seemed to pierce Frances down to her bones.

Me and My Heart

I meet the man in a hotel outside of town. Room 304, just like he said. He’s there when I arrive, watching football on the television. “Shut the door,” he says, and I do.

He opens a briefcase and shows it to me: seven ounces of flesh suspended in liquid and plastic. “We good?” he says.

I reach into my purse and unfurl the bundle of money. Six hundred pounds, made up mostly of fives and tens, scraps of cash collected over the months, small enough to avoid drawing any attention.

We make the exchange, and the man walks towards the door.

“Wait.”

He stops.

“I don’t know how to do it.” I hesitate. “Can you help?”

“It’ll cost more.”

“How much?”

“Another two hundred.”

“I don’t have that much.”

He sighs. “How much you got?”

The forty pounds left in my purse is for groceries, but I can worry about that later. I hold it out to him.

He takes it, opens his briefcase, and finds a bottle of clear liquid with a syringe. “You got a knife? Needle and thread?”

“Yes.”

He passes me the bottle. “Use this before you begin. Rest’s up to you.”

#

When I get home, it’s ten o’clock. I should have an hour before my husband gets back. I work quickly, checking diagrams on the internet before injecting the liquid into my side, just above one of my bruises. I use a kitchen knife, sterilised in boiling water. It stings at first, but the injection takes most of the pain away. I slice and carve with the knife, using a mirror to guide my trembling fingers until I make the final cut. For a moment, my senses plummet and the room feels darker, smaller, like all the texture has been buffed off the edge of the world. I make the switch.

He could be home any minute. I stitch myself back together with needle and thread, and it’s only then that I realize I haven’t thought about what to do with my old heart. I bury it in the garden.


I wait for the thump of his footsteps on the staircase, the sound of him fumbling at his clothes and climbing into bed. The smell of his breath, stale alcohol and smoke, his fingers in my hair and on my body. But the door never opens.

In the morning I find him asleep on the sofa. There’s a beer can on the floor, and a pool of sticky liquid where the dregs have drained out. I clean it quickly before making breakfast, and when he wakes he’s in one of his good moods, so things are okay.

When he leaves for work, I examine the stitching. It’s already healed. The lines I drew with the knife have come back together, and my new heart beats underneath.

Things feel different now, like someone has turned the volume down by a couple of notches, like they’ve gone into the settings and fiddled with the contrast.

In the garden, a flower has grown on the spot where I buried my heart. There’s a single rose at its head, red like blood.


The rest of the week is okay. I keep to my normal routines, making sure the house is clean and dinner is on the table when he gets back from work. The days blur into each other, a steady grey.

One day he throws a plate at the wall. It takes ages to clean all the grease, but I know he doesn’t like his meat cooked that way so it’s my own fault, really. He apologises later.

In the evenings, while he sits on the sofa watching television, I bring him drinks but I keep the pace slow so he never goes beyond the dulling stage. He touches me in bed, but if there are any marks still left on my chest, his groping fingers don’t find them. On Friday he comes home with flowers and a bottle of my favourite wine. The weather is fine so we eat outside in the warm air. I try to enjoy the wine but it doesn’t taste of anything. While we sit there he says it reminds him of one of our earliest dates. I see the rose in the garden and I wonder.


On Saturday night he goes out with the guys. He kisses me when he leaves, but when he returns in the small hours he slams the door and I know it’s time. He swipes at me clumsily, but when he tries to grab my arm his sweaty fingers slip and I escape into the kitchen. I grab a knife with one hand, the cordless phone with the other. I tell him to leave.

He smiles stupidly and slurs his words. “Come on, baby, why all this?”

In my chest, my heart is steady. “If you come near me, I’ll use this knife, and if you don’t leave, I’ll call the police. I mean it.”

“You’re feisty tonight, eh?”

I begin to dial the number.

He holds his hands up, smirking. “Okay, okay …”

When he’s out the door, I put it on the latch and speak through the gap. “I don’t want you to come back. Not ever. It’s over. I mean it.”

He laughs. “You can’t live without me, honey. You know that, and I know that. We love each other. We need each other.” He walks away. “I’ll see you soon,” he says.

When he’s out of view, I close the door.

He thinks it’s going to happen like all the other times. He’ll come back grovelling, tell me how much he loves me. That he’s sorry, that it will never happen again. And I’ll take him back.

He’s wrong.

This time the locksmith will be here in an hour. This time I’ll change my details at the bank. This time I’ll go to the courts, get one of those orders. And this time I won’t feel anything.

I Will Bring You Home

A thud of rock woke Sykeet, followed by a rattling of dislodged crystals against the woven walls of her hanging hut. There were no fire pots in her lower reach of the rookery. No light from the moons, either: a storm beat against the suspended village. Her wings twitched in the dark.

There was cursing, then a shriek of panic, “The fledglings!”

Sykeet darted from her hut like a harpoon, flying blind toward the crèche net. Her long wings beat the air, lifting her upward. Sleet hissed against rock, giving her only a minimal sense of location in the dark. More rocks thudded above. She heard the twangs of over-stretched ropes snapping.

She called shrilly to her daughter, “Kyree!”

There were voices in the dark: other mothers and the faint cries of fledglings. Then from above, a wild flapping of fabric and netting. She couldn’t see a thing.

The falling canopy hit her, a glancing blow that knocked loose feathers and sent her tumbling in the dark. She heard waves crashing against the rocky base of the spire below.

Sykeet caught air in her wings, regaining control. Still blind. The plummeting crèche net had fallen below her. She pulled her wings against her body and dove into what she hoped was open air.

“Kyree!” she called again.

The panicked brood, trapped in the net, screeched as they fell toward the sea.

Sykeet followed their cries. The net hadn’t snagged on the crystal-crusted spire. If she could catch it with the talons of her feet or wings, she might slow its fall.

But a gust from the storm blew her sideways, away from the screams. She beat air frantically, trying to get back.

There was a splash as net and brood plunged into the sea.

“Kyree!”

Cold sleet crusted her feathers, numbing muscles. Spray from the waves blew against her as she fought to stay above them, circling blindly and calling, trying to find her daughter.

Unable to see, she slammed into the spire. Pain shot through her. Dazed and disoriented, she grabbed hold, talons clutching crystals. Fragments cracked loose from the rock. She slipped closer to the waves. Sea spray filled her open beak as she turned toward the water. She choked and coughed.

Sykeet could only cling there, shivering from pain and cold, too numb to take flight. She listened for fledglings, hearing only the roar of wind. Waves pounded the rocky base below her. Her eyes stung from sleet and spray. When she tried to climb lower, more crystals broke off, nearly dropping her into the cold sea.

She folded her wings close against her to conserve heat, and pressed her head against the rock. The world had gone dark, taking the thing she cherished.

She shivered through the night, praying for some sign that her daughter had survived. She saw nothing, heard nothing.

But in the dark hours of early morning, she suddenly dreamt she was elsewhere. Sleet and spray still beat against her, but instead of the rocky spire, she felt she was pressed against something smooth. A net held her down.

Then the dream was gone, as quickly as it had come.

A Long Fall

Patricia gathered her savings and took the number 58 bus downtown.

She held the bag in her lap, watching the city pass by. Their neighborhood had gone from nice to terrible, from kids smoking under a streetlight to kids shooting each other over drugs. But she had never suggested they move, and neither had Samuel. The church needed them, and God knew, the neighborhood needed the church.

There was a car sitting in the driveway and it had been sitting there a long time. Her brother told her she should at least start it once a week, to keep it fresh, but Patricia had trouble finding the keys. And when she did, she saw the keyring, she saw the name on it.

Samuel.

He’d written it himself. One weekend the grandchildren were staying over and her granddaughter wrote her name on everything she thought was hers. Patricia had started to yell, until Samuel put a hand on her shoulder and asked for the pen.

“Good idea,” he said, winking at their granddaughter. He took the pen and wrote his name on the keyring. “That’s mine.” And he and his granddaughter had taken turns marking whatever they wanted, with the granddaughter’s wants far outnumbering Samuel’s.

He had his name on his toothbrush — he’d made sure to mark that, while their granddaughter had claimed Patricia’s toothbrush as her own. Samuel’s toothbrush stood in a holder beside Patricia’s. She hadn’t touched it since he fell.

The bus bounced. It was cheaper than driving. Faster too, if you were headed downtown. Her brother had warned her of the people who rode the bus. People only take public transportation in big cities, he’d told her, and Norfolk isn’t a big city. That’s what he’d said. She knew what he meant: the law-abiding only take the bus in places like New York, and Norfolk is no New York. It’s Norfolk, a city on life support by the grace of the military bases every which way you turn.

Her brother was full of opinions. Especially about this. The bus chimed. It slowed.

She got her bag ready.

Stars

Maria can feel his voice, the vibration of it, but she cannot hear him over the ringing in her own ears. The ringing is loud, and she isn’t going to try to hear over it because she knows it would be impossible, like trying to see over the top of the horizon.

Her head is on his chest. She feels the hum of his voice through her jawbone, resonant and comforting even though his words are almost certainly panicked. He is probably asking if she is okay, if she is hurt, if she was hit. His hands travel over her body, and it is a deeply intimate moment, even if he does not linger. Even if he is checking, rather than caressing. He is feeling for brokenness, for bones that are in the wrong order, for blood.

Maria could not say if he will find any. She cannot feel any pain, but she is certain that she will, later. She is horizontal, where a moment ago she was vertical, and she is trapped between some unbelievably heavy thing and this man’s body. She must have landed on top of him. The heavy thing pins her there, on top of him, from just below the ribs down. If this was a romantic comedy, they would both be totally uninjured, and they would laugh, and this would be the start of their story-but it isn’t a romantic comedy, and she cannot feel her legs, so “uninjured” is probably not in the cards. All of these thoughts reach her as if from a great distance-satellites blinking in morse code against a dark sky.

Maria remembers floating on the lake, back before her marriage fell apart, her husband on the dock with his feet dangling in the water. She’d floated and looked up at the night sky and tried to find Mars among the lights up there, but she did not know where to look. Everyone had always told her that Mars was the bright red one, but when she looked at the vast array of stars above her, none of them looked red, and all of them looked bright.

The man beneath her is panicking now, shaking her by the shoulders. He probably thinks that there is a corpse on top of him. He must be scared. She lifts her hand and sets it on his chest, next to her face. She pats him, like a mother comforting a crying child, and he stops shaking her. His chest and stomach quake and she thinks he must be crying, now. What feeble comfort she gave him.

The man puts his arms around her. She still cannot hear his words, but the vibrations resonating in his chest have a rhythm. He is repeating something. A name? A prayer? She cannot look up to see if he is still crying.

There is a tickle in Maria’s throat, and she coughs to clear it-but then she can’t stop coughing. She tastes blood and wonders if she knocked out a tooth when she fell. She keeps coughing and the coughing is warm now, liquid, and the man is clutching at her and the ringing is fading from her ears and the words ‘no, no, no’ are drifting to her.

There is blood on the man’s shirt, in front of her face. She coughs and then there is more blood on his shirt.

She had loved floating on the lake at night. When she and her husband-ex-husband-went to the lake, trying to see if a vacation would fix all of the problems that they had at home, she had floated every night. He hated it, thought it was somehow dangerous, as if the water was nocturnal. As if it would come alive at night and swallow her up. They fought about it. She felt bad, at the time, selfish, like it was just a silly thing for her to want to float on the lake and she should have given in to his objections. But now she realizes that it was the most important thing, and that she had been right to fight for it. Because if he wouldn’t let her lie on her back in the water and look up at the stars and count the ones that fell-then what was he for?

The man is talking again. His words are faint, through the ringing, but she can still feel them in his chest. He must have a deep voice, to be so resonant like this. His words have the familiar cadence of the Lord ’s Prayer.

Maria strokes one of the buttons on his shirt with her thumb, smearing some of the blood off of it. It is pearlescent, a snap button, and the surface of it is so smooth that she almost loses herself in it. It is like liquid. It is like snow. Where are these thoughts coming from? How is a button like snow? But it is, it is just like the powdery snow that she used to play in as a child. You could fall into it. Maria did, once, she fell into a snowdrift and her father had to pull her out by the hood of her jacket. She had not felt cold while she was in the snowdrift. It had blanketed her with quiet, and it was not until she was pulled out of it that she felt cold, deep cold, wrapping around her bones and staying there long after she was dry.

Someone is yelling. There is a flashlight beam playing across Maria and the man where they lie, and it hurts her eyes. She closes them against the light, and it feels good to have them closed. She decides that she will keep them that way. The man’s voice has stopped. His hands are on her head, stroking her hair. His breathing is shaky; she thinks he must still be crying. She tries to pat him on the chest again, but her hands don’t move when she asks them to.

She realizes that her fingers are very cold.

With her eyes closed, Maria feels like she is floating on the lake again. Not going anywhere-the lake was always so still-but weightless, buoyed by water that was still just a little sun-warm. Her husband, with his feet in the water, huffy and unwilling to speak to her, insisting that he needed to be there “just in case”. A case study of their marriage: him, miserable but clinging to the idea that she needed him. Her, doing what she wanted and leaving him on dry land.

She realizes that she must have drifted off, because she is immersed in the memory of the lake. Oh, she thinks, I am dreaming now. Because she is not just reminiscing anymore-she is there. She is looking up at the sea of stars.

She decides to enjoy the dream, and lets her head fall back into the water so that it covers her ears. Faint rumblings reach her from somewhere, and she thinks, when I wake back up, that man will be talking again. Maria has never had a lucid dream before, but if this is one, it is very nice-being able to enjoy herself while knowing that it is a dream.

The Day Before Tomorrow

The flight attendant’s voice was squeaky and earnest. I didn’t want to hear which exit was closest to me, or how I was supposed to proceed in the event of an emergency.

I unlocked my seatbelt in defiance of caution well before we leveled off at 38,000 feet. I passed the rear galley, a hotbed of non-nutritional activity. If the plane didn’t crash, certainly the food would kill us all.

Finally, I came to the passengers at the rear of the plane, the most disheveled humanity on earth. The refuge of last-minute thinkers and great procrastinators…

I opened the bathroom door and slid the lock shut. I stood there in the temporary safety of my confinement and unzipped my pants, one hand holding onto the plastic handle overhead. A warm yellow stream hissed into the toilet as a fan-jet engine, so large a grown man could stand in its intake, whirred along not five meters away.

I glared at myself in the small mirror over the sink. I stood straight up, trying to reverse years of sloth and neglect and bent my forty-one year-old frame back into the shape of my fondest memory. I pulled back my shoulders and tucked in my hardly noticeable gut. Nothing worked. I was who I was. Nothing more, and nothing less.

My younger brother, David, was in a hospital in Tampa. He had suffered with diabetes for many years and the day after tomorrow was going to lose his left foot. His two children were in grade school and wouldn’t understand what had happened to make their father such a different man.

This was his greatest fear. Not fear for himself, but for how his children might see him as something less than he was. I was neither married nor had ever experienced the joy and torment of parenthood. I hoped 1986—already problematic for Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier who fled to France and President Ferdinand Marcos who fled the Philippines Major and for most of Western Europe after the nuclear accident at Soviet Union’s Chernobyl—would be a better year for me than it was turning out to be for David.

I opened the bathroom door to a line of impatient travelers stretching back to the galley. I passed what was once a sea of meaningless faces and was now the backs of bobbing, canted heads. Different shapes and sizes with hair in every color; some with long, dreamy swept-back locks, while others, mostly men who drew from the wrong side of the gene pool, sporting bald spots and endless tracts of barren flesh.

David had a thick head of curly blonde hair. He knew how this one characteristic had affected his relationship with women. Teresa loved to run her fingers through it, tug at it when they had sex. Or so I had been told.

Teresa was a wonderful mother to Becky and Danny. She loved David with a sense of devotion I had always thought I would see in the eyes of the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

Two men turned and looked up as I passed. Both men were heavy, fleshy, unshaven Eastern European types in their late forties and dressed in poorly tailored suits—large and precipitous bodies making a considerable effort at being inconspicuous in seats meant for lesser forms.

They were sitting behind a very pretty blue-eyed, blonde woman who thankfully was wearing a skin-tight white tank top. My fantasies made the most of the moment.

The woman sitting next to me continued reading a recent bestseller about an attorney who conquered impossible odds to press on pleading for some pathetic indigent who had been injured by a large faceless multinational conglomerate.

I, on the other hand, had brought little else with me but my fears, probably like many of my fellow travelers: making their journey through life with no guarantee of success, and more than enough evidence of the possibility of catastrophic failure ahead.

Past the dowager in the window seat billowy white puffs passed by only to re-form, as we all would, sometime later into a new life and life form.

“Are you frightened?” she asked.

If Bernoulli could only have grasped the magnitude of his gift to humanity by postulating the concept of laminar lift, would he have believed such a metal monster possible? “Just thinking about what keeps us up.”

She glanced out the window as though I had just discovered an ominous cosmic relevancy. “Why would you want to know that?”

“Because it’s a constant fascination to me.” I found myself enjoying terrorizing this poor creature. She’d probably babble on to her friends at their canasta party next week about how she was unfortunate enough to sit next to a lunatic who made her trip a disaster. “I mean, look around you. Don’t you think it’s unusual for us to even be up here where birds don’t fly?”

“Oh, I….”

“You’re not fascinated by the fact that we’re moving along up here against reason and rationale? A million pounds of people and metal, fuel and baggage shooting along at 600 miles an hour?”

She set the book in her lap. “Here,” she said, taking a complementary magazine from the pouch in front of her, “maybe you would enjoy something to read.”

“I’d enjoy being back in New York or, at the very least, on the ground.”

“You know we’re perfectly safe up here. I’ve read you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than having a flying accident.”

“I’ve already been struck by lightning.” Of course, it wasn’t true, but it did make her stiffen up a bit. “I don’t need any more excitement in my life.”

The little woman returned to her potboiler. I had turned my attention to my brother and his ever-deepening financial plight when I noticed one of the hostesses straighten out her stockings outside the forward galley.

She paid particular attention to the razor sharp line of her seam that stretched up the back of her calf into her thigh and beyond. Just as she dropped her skirt back down over her knees, she glanced up and caught my eye.

“Great legs,” I whispered, again attracting the attention of the dowager princess.

“Were you talking to me, sir?”

“Great light out there,” I said nodding to the setting sun, which was streaming in through her window. She looked back at me disapprovingly, as though she had caught a schoolboy with his hand where it shouldn’t have been. I’m familiar with that look too.

Peregrinus Sapiens

“Okay, listen up, cockroaches!” The sergeant’s voice echoed in the docking bay. We had just trooped off the shuttle and it was still hissing behind us as it cooled down. The heat of it at our backs felt good in the chill of the tanker, prepped to enter outer orbit where the temperature would drop even further.

There were five of us, mainly reserves who’d never seen combat. I had seen combat. So had Hen beside me. They usually stuck the shocks with the reserves because war wasn’t like it used to be, they said. I gripped my left wrist, trying to steady it. There was still pain there where the scar was. That’s where they usually hit you, slicing at the wrist. Then you either bled out or you lost a hand. Either way you were out of combat. Or, if you got lucky, you were in the reserves. I got lucky, I guess.

“Gonna outlive the apocalypse,” Hen said beside me in a low pitched whisper. I laughed. It was an old joke and a tired laugh.

“It’s a standard drill,” the sergeant said, shooting us the stink-eye, but men like him, they played gentle around shocks. We were heroes, if you hadn’t heard. “Chammies in the northeast quadrant, arms-locker inaccessible. Standard issue guns,” he pointed to a crate beside him, “with half-charge.”

One of the reserves cursed under his breath. The sergeant got in his face and just stared at him a moment. Corks was a thin kid, with just a wisp of a pubescent mustache on his face. He got red from the neck of his uniform up to his hair with the sergeant up close.

“You say something, private?”

“No, sir!”

“I don’t think you heard me right. I said, did you say something, private?”

“Yes, sir.” But his voice faltered.

“You think this is some sorta game? This may be orbit today, but tomorrow you get called up to the rings, you got chammies jumpin a civvy ship, and you’re just pissing yourself, because your gun’s half-charged and you think you’re gonna die!”

Corks didn’t answer. There wasn’t really any right answer to something like that.

“Get your gun, private,” the sergeant ordered through gritted teeth.

The guns were standard issue, like the sergeant had said, which meant they were pretty weak to start with. You can say a war is on all you want, but unless the regents saw some money in it, it was the civvy ships who paid for the top guns so their guards, even if badly trained, had weapons to make up for that bad training. These guns, they had one trigger which was like to overheat as not, and one setting. Charge runs out fast on a gun like that. Starting with half-charge, you may as well not have a gun at all if you’re up against chammies.

“The point,” the sergeant drawled, his eye fixed on Corks who was trying to settle into a standard stance, “is that you know how to hand-to-hand with bastards like these if the need should ever arise.”

He scanned the rest of us, not quite looking Hen and me in the face. There was a chance he’d never seen combat himself. That would be my guess. Because it seemed sometimes, you know, that those who’d never fought often talked the loudest.

Along Dominion Road

A blue street sign saying Mandela Avenue is barely visible through the mud-splattered bus window. Where’s Mandela Avenue? That’s not on your regular route to work. But then you remember, you’re not on the bus to work. You’re coming home from the field hospital, by yourself, because the fugue took Sierra, your stepmom, on the first pass, and your Dad’s still in the hospital in the final stages of the pneumonia called prescience that that claims so many survivors of the fever. He begged you to “Go home, while you still have one.”

Clarity is one of the last symptoms of prescience and this morning your dad was almost preternaturally wiser than you can remember him ever being. After days in a babbling sweat – reliving all the mistakes and miscalculations he had made growing up and all his failures as a parent, he’d lapsed into full blown remorse.

You’d heard all these apologies before: the “I’m-sorry-I-wasn’t-there-to-help-you-through-your-teens” spiel; the “I-only-survived-my-own-teens-by-chance” rationale; the “If-I-had-lived-with-your-Mom-any-longer-I-would-have-killed-her” defense. But this time was more poignant because you could tell from the look in his eyes that he finally did understand how you felt about it all. And you knew how sorry he really was. If you still cared the way you once did, it would have broken your heart when he said “It was always my hope that you’d come and live with me. You know I’m not lying.” And you have always known. And it means nothing. Sorry, Dad.

You held the water bottle to his lips with shaking hands one last time. He never noticed, which was a relief of sorts, because he also never noticed when you left him in an army tent in the field behind Central Elementary – still in the grips of the unforgiving truth.

Time to go home.

Its fugue house status will keep squatters out, you know, but thieves or soldiers or bureaucrats will ultimately find a way past all your locks and security systems to take everything you consider your own. And they’d go into your house with their hazmat suits and gas masks and surgical masks and cat burglar clothes and they’d steal all your valuables – the markers of your life right down to your photos and your books and video games. And since it is a fugue house, they might even burn it down when they’re done.

So you’re jouncing down the potholed street, going home – if you can remember the way. The fugue still has its emotional hooks in you, so it can be hard to focus.

The LED display behind the driver says Kiwanas Place, which is no more familiar to you than Mandela Avenue. To top it all off, the recorded voice says, “Next stop, Tyrell Road.”

What the fuck bus are you on? In fact, what city are you in? You thought the Dominion bus went straight to Mount Newcombe. But as you look out the window into an unfamiliar parkette, you decide to check with the driver. After an awkward aisle dance with a big Tamil guy in an afro, you squeeze past a pram, a thick-whiskered-man in a long billed baseball cap and a trio of new-to-the-workforce Asian girls in primary colored suits. And when you’re almost at the front of the bus, an old man reaches out from the bench seats and grabs your arm as you go past. You look down, surprised to see your grade 12 English teacher.

“Kasey?” he says, shaking your hand. “It’s been what? Three years? What have you been doing?”

“Mr. Olthius. Hi.”

“It’s Dean,” he reminds you and you smile at the memory of him insisting you call him by his first name back in school – the first of your high school teachers to do that. His formerly ruddy cheeks have become pale and veiny. The loose skin on his neck suggests that he has lost weight.

“Are you still painting?” he asks. You’re as impressed and amazed he remembers you paint as you are embarrassed you haven’t been doing any.

“I’m sorry, Dean,” you say. “I was just going to ask the bus driver what bus we’re on. This is the 34A, right?”

Dean shakes his head. “34E.” He snickers and nods. “I feel lost like that alla time. It’ll be alright. The bus turned off of Dominion at Milestone Mall. That was a few stops back. Long walk, but maybe better than staying on the bus until it comes full circle?” He squeezes past you. “Anyway, this is my stop.”
You are not feeling up to a long walk. As the door opens, you ask the driver, “How long does it take to do the whole circuit?”

“Forty minutes back to the subway,” With his round Hispanic face and thin white mustache, he reminds you of your Uncle Fred. He tears off a transfer. “But the bus coming the other way should be here any time. It will only take you five minutes to get back from here.”

For the first time, you notice a shopping bag on the floor where Dean was sitting – a shiny red bag with cord handles. You peek inside as you lift it up. The contents include a computer tablet and a couple paperback books. On closer inspection you see that it’s a story anthology with Dean listed on the cover as one of the contributors.

“Are you getting out, the bus driver urges.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Clutching the bag to your chest you step out, foot hitting the sidewalk, just as Dean turns a corner onto a side street. You run to catch up, but by the time you get there, he’s gone.

“Dean,” you shout, but no-one responds.

You look at the transfer thinking I have ten minutes and then you follow him.

He goes into a shop at the end of the block.

You follow.

The shops along this street are Tudor styled and brightly trimmed – quaint and twee compared to the fast food joints and boarded up tavern on the main street. There’s a confectioner, a bookstore, a men’s clothing store and a barber shop with an old candy cane style barber pole. At the end of the block is a store with a hand painted sign saying Memorabilia. You see Dean through the window and go inside. A little bell jangles as you enter.

“Glad I caught you,” you say to Dean.

“I’m sorry?” he replies. “Who are you?”

“You forgot your bag on the bus.”

He says, “That’s not my bag.”

You aren’t sure how to respond, so you stand there for a couple beats before remembering the contents. The book with his name on it. You pull it out.
“Isn’t this you?”

“Well, I’ll be damned. Where did you get this? I have one in the store just like it.”

“That’s what I’m telling you. This is yours.”

“Why did you bring this to me? Are you rubbing it in?”

“What?”

“That I survived and nobody else did? That I’m completely fucking alone.”

“I’m standing right in front of you. You recognized me on the bus a few minutes ago. You even remember that I used to paint.”

“Used to? Oh,” he smiles apologetically. “You should start again. I’m sure paint supplies are cheap these days. It’s Dean, right?”

This is getting complicated you think, wondering if you should even bother correcting him. But you do. “I’m Kasey. You’re Dean.”

He laughs out loud and for an instant you’re certain he’s just jerking you around. But the look in his eyes says otherwise. “Sounds like the punch line to a joke, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” you say because you can’t think of anything else to say. It’s time to extract yourself from this awkward situation. “Well it was nice seeing you.”
“Thank you for going to all this trouble, young man. You people don’t usually follow me all the way here.”

You back away smiling. “All the best, really. And congratulations on being published in that book.”

You nod at the book he’s holding and then you see what he has in the other hand – an old magazine that’s in truly pristine condition. National Lampoon. You’ve heard of it from those old movies but didn’t realize it was once an actual magazine. And on the racks all around it are displays of other magazines, with names like Look and Argosy and True Detective. As you gaze around the store, you realize what a wonderful vintage atmosphere they’ve created in here – it’s like a museum display from the 1970s. You’ll need to remember how you got here, so you can bring some friends. Sweeny would freak out about those old comic books.

Dean has wandered deeper into the store without a goodbye. Catching glimpses of him down each aisle, you call out but he does not stop or turn around. Back out on the street you start walking back up the hill thinking, I’ve almost certainly missed that bus.

There’s a record store with albums you remember from Dad’s collection–Blue Cheer, 13th Floor Elevators, Obsidian Planet, Amon Duul. Really old stuff.
And right near the top of the hill, there’s the store with the My Little Pony and the He-Man toys.

In a shop window at the top of the hill you see two Pokemon cards that must have come out after you stopped collecting them. It makes you smile. You emerge from the row of retro shops just as the 94E pulls up. And you root in your pocket for a token, transferring your bag from one hand to the other. You stop and stare at the red shopping bag, thinking, didn’t I give that back?

“You alright?” asks the bus driver. The way he lifts an eyebrow as if to ask if you’re coming on board reminds you of an uncle you haven’t seen in years. Uncle Fred.

“I meant to get on the 94A.” you say.

You step up and the bus doors close behind you.

“Sorry,” says the bus driver. “You missed that bus years ago. But you can ride with me wherever you want.”

You take a seat across from the bus driver and rub your face. Something feels wrong. You lift your head to say something and see someone you know coming up the aisle from the back of the bus and you grab their arm. “Kasey?”

The Body Collectors

Thousands of dead, kitted out in titanium battlesuits, rattle off our hull.

THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! Like we’re driving through an asteroid cluster. THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!

I’ve gathered us in the bow of our ship near sickbay where the walls are the thinnest, so this crew–this greeny crew–can hear each and every one of those dead bodies drumming against us.

“That sound!” I say (shout more like). “Is the sound of credits plunking against our hull.”

I pause then, like the good captain I’m forced to be, and look them over. The ship’s power cycles are down to preserve energy, so their alien faces float disembodied-like in the gloom of the corridor.

I don’t know their names, just their morphology. There’s a Catargan’sia, face pulled long like an equine’s and bristling with fur; three bright jade eyes are set triangularly in the center of its forehead. A Starkinger, round white face with two huge coal eyes that, given the weak light, look like black holes in the center of its moony mug. A Pummleton, a blank, pumpkin-like face with vertical furrows that are filled with tiny gray vellus hairs. And a Labgraderon, a balloon of fat gray flesh with small red eyes that circle its head like a beaded halo.

They are the motliest of crew, from every backwater planet in the universe, suckered together here by a common cause: somehow, like me, they all owe Rex.

“All you need to do to get those credits,” I shout and then pause for effect. “Is to reach out and take them!”

I watch their reactions. Teeth bristle on the Catargansia’s long face, the Starkinger glows purple, the Pummleton’s vellus hairs flurry, and the Labgraderon’s gray balloon head swells. They are pleased.

The Pathosian, my second in command and Rex’s official plant, materializes out of the hallway gloom.

His legs, arms, and body are like cooked strips of lasagna that waver and wobble limply. He’s a morphological feat, not a bone in his body though he stands perfectly upright, orthostatically. With each step, his fluid like carapace hardens to keep his legs straight and his body upright, then softens to bend at the knee and step forward; it’s a fascinating dance between the conscious mind and his autonomous nervous system. He looks like he’s swimming through the air. It’s beautiful.

I’d love to get him on one of our autopsy tables and crack him open. Not just because I hate him, but because his structures are like nothing I’ve seen or studied back on Earth. Despite what I’ve done, that part of me, the scientist, is still there, still amazed by the morphological wonders of the universe.

His voice is like wet macaroni being stirred, which the adapter stapled into my auditory nerve translates to: “Jack, are you done with the pep talk? Now can we get to work?”

In his decentralized brain, the motivation for whyever we’re here should be good enough and pep talks are just a waste of time.

“Do you need a pep?” he asks. “A reminder of your son?”

After splitting him open, I’d jab a couple of fat needles into him and pump him full of radiocontrast, maybe a radium-phosphor mix, that would light his arteries up like a Solstice Tree. Then I’d like to mount him, take him back to Earth and hang him in the hallway at the Astrobiology section in the University of Antwerp, my old alma matter, so everyone walking by can gawk and learn.

But telling him off accomplishes nothing and jeopardizes the thin thread my son’s life hangs by, so I simply ignore him and press on.

“Gentlemen!” I say. “Let’s get out there and bag those bodies.”