Living Space

I’ve wasted away my whole life in this room.

It’s as if I’ve always been here, fully formed. I have no recollection of my parents or how I got language. I’m not sure how I even understand the concept of these things, but they are clear in my mind as if they have happened to me.

My pillows were embroidered by the finest hands of the orient. The bright jewel tones, their delicate handiwork, seem wasted on my head. There isn’t much to pass the time here. Many an hour has been spent charting the celestial bodies engraved into my solid gold walls. It is my own universe, and like anyone else, I long to see the staggering reality of the universe outside of my chamber. Breathing fresh air is my greatest dream. The feeling of it lingers in my nostrils from a time I do not remember. The smell of clean night air haunts me even as I breathe the stale air of my home.

In my dreams, greedy men take bloody conquests, and vain women flatten cities. There’s only death and destruction in my sleeping hours. All I see are the faces of the dead, yet I do not know how I know them, or how I know that they are dead.

More often than not, my days are spent in meditation. I close my eyes and touch my face, wondering what it looks like. Maybe in this face I will find the truth. Maybe I was not born. Maybe my human form is only an illusion. My soul aches for self-knowledge, for if I know anything it is that I have a soul.

My meditation is broken by a deep rumble. The room is shaken to its core, like it itself is a living being. The pillows are dashed from one side of the room to the other. Somehow, I am still. There is something stirring within me.

Instinctively, I turn my face up to the golden heavens. The celestial bodies move in full animation like a clockwork universe. I feel the greatest pain and ecstasy I have ever known as my body changes. My hands change to every color in the spectrum. I turn into something else.

As my body becomes vapor, I float to the surface towards a small opening looking out on to the real world’s night sky. Flashes overpower my brain. There are the earnest faces I have ruined. My deeds are set before me, but no amount of will can keep me from my destiny. I know now why I was sealed away.

I come up to a night sky alive with stars. The fresh air feels like cleansing. It is minutes before I notice the frightened olive skinned boy laying before me on the desert sand.

He looks at me with an eager face. The danger of me, the stories of my power intrigue him. No one ever believes it when people say that no good can come from me.

I smile at the boy. “I will grant you three wishes.”

Delectable

“It’s certainly a pretty one-sided deal,” said Leonard as he leaned back into his chair. “But what else would you expect? They’re bugs, not attorneys.”

The reporter nodded and scribbled a note in his pad. The dining table in the harvest facility’s executive lounge seated twelve, but only three seats were occupied, by the reporter and the company’s two harvester-team leaders.

In the middle of the table was a large wooden bowl of toasted honey-bugs. Tiny ant-like creatures, their sweetness was mingled with unparalleled flavor, and their shell yielded the perfect, lightly crispy crunch. But they were also incredibly rare, found only on the hostile surface of Khepri. All efforts to raise them elsewhere had failed, and per ounce they had become one of the galaxy’s most expensive delicacies, beyond even Earth-raised caviar.

“It’s a dangerous job you guys have,” said the reporter. “The death-rate here is incredibly high.”

“It was worse before the cutbacks,” said Leonard with a shrug. “We lost a team almost every month back then. But it’s been better recently, so the figures you have down might be a little high. Still, there have always been risky jobs, haven’t there? We get paid well for our work, and nobody comes here expecting an easy ride.”

That much was true. Everybody knew the job was hard and not without risks, though the loss of Alex’s team last month ago had still come as a shock. It had been a timely reminder to them all that even experienced harvesters could pay the price if they were careless. Rumor said a replacement team was inbound, but in the meantime, the remaining teams were reaping better harvests than ever.

“So why not use machines instead?”

“They tried,” said Leonard. “But the bugs don’t like the machines, and they don’t last long in this atmosphere anyway. No, the only way is with human feet on the ground. That’s why our product is so valuable.” He took a pinch of the lightly toasted honey-bugs and popped them into his mouth. They crunched between his teeth. “I admit it wouldn’t suit everyone. But for those with the stomach, it’s a way of life. I wouldn’t trade your boring job for mine in a month of Mondays.”

My Girl, Kumiho

25 February, 2007

The train was busy despite the late hour.

“Where are you from?”

I looked around as I always did when I heard my native tongue, though I didn’t know if it was directed toward me or not.

The carriage was full of drunken salarymen and preening teenagers. A few ajummas, older women in neon tracksuits, scoured the world with their eyes. I was on my way home from a party on the far side of Seoul, dazed from soju and beer cocktails. It took a few moments to realize who was talking. It was a Korean girl, early 20’s, who stared straight at me.

“Me?”

She had boarded at Seoul National University and hovered by the train doors, toying with her phone and glancing around cautiously. She was wearing large pink headphones that covered her ears completely, and had been bobbing her head to her music. I’d pretended not to look at her, but she caught me staring more than once.

“Yes, you.”

“England.” I tried to look nonchalant as I swayed.

“England? I thought you must have been American.”

“Everyone seems to think that.”

“You have a big nose.”

I stared at her. “Thanks.”

The train pulled into Sincheon. As I offered a farewell smile and stepped off the train, she whispered to me, “Only 315 days to go.” She flashed me a smile in return, showing off pointed teeth the color of pearls, and returned to her phone. The carriage doors shut and the train pulled away.

As I approached the turnstile to leave the station, I found my wallet was missing. Cursing my bad luck, I tried to explain what had happened to the subway worker at the turnstiles. He quickly grew frustrated with my miming and ushered me through the gate, complaining with jagged tones.

I walked home, bemused. Despite the pressing issue of my lost wallet, one thought returned to me time and time again; what was happening in 315 days?

Amsterdam’s Gods

Malachite, carrying her ailing father on her back, walked towards the city of Amsterdam over the ancient ringway. It had been ten years since she and Father had fled the ruins of their old life over this very road. She couldn’t remember anything about that journey.

“It’s easier to get into Amsterdam than out,” her father quoted the old adage in her ear, brandishing his stick in front of her eyes to underline the wisdom in his words.

The raised highway was blocked-in by ruined, overgrown edifices on both sides, so it was impossible to see where they were going. The old road was surprisingly passable for travelers on foot, but in spite of that few people were using it. Which suited Father, because he said the business of revenge flourished better without advertisement.

Malachite would have liked to speak to the other travelers, to get a feel for the city of their destination, but Father wanted speed and silence. She’d promised him she’d get him back to Amsterdam and to help him avenge her mother and her sisters. Malachite shifted Father’s fragile bones around to a more comfortable position on her back.

At the end of a day’s walking, there was seldom any comfort left. But at least she was seeing something of the world.

“We got out back then,” Malachite said, trying to fathom what the ruined castles lining the broken highway had once been used for. Forts, she guessed, to protect and oversee the great road. She had heard people could shoot from that far away those days, even without special divine powers.

“We did,” her father said. His hand clawed into her shoulder in a way that said, I don’t want to talk about it.

And he didn’t need to. Malachite had been ten years old when they’d left, wise enough to understand her mother and her sisters had died and that they had to flee from the god who had broken its promise. A guilty god was deadlier than an angry god.

Still, it felt uncomfortable to be out of the demesnes of Otte en Liet, the powerful gods of Rotterdam, after ten years of safety. She and her father carried small vials of river water for protection, in brittle but intact plastic bottles that had once been her sisters’, but in the end they’d be on their own. It would be just their wits to go up against Aterscha, the god that had betrayed them and caused their family to die.

The destruction of the known world hadn’t stopped Amsterdam being a home to many gods besides Aterscha, gods of all kinds, big and small, friendly and unfriendly. No other city was as god-rich, no other gods worked so hard to keep their promises and keep their many followers happy. No other cities had a god of fashion, a god of good hair and several gods of great shopping. Said Father.

“Are we going to get there before nightfall?” Malachite asked as she looked at the western sky. She didn’t want to be outside city walls at night, prey to the wild godlets that roamed the open countryside.

“It’s a big town, Mal. Bigger than what’s left of Rotterdam. Older and stronger and with more magic.”

Malachite shivered. She didn’t like magic, never had. She worked in the harbor with her strong back and her big hands. If she never had business with any god but friendly Otte it would be fine with her. Except for this: she still burned with anger for the god that had killed her family and forced them to leave their hometown. For revenge, she would follow her father’s crazy plans.

Father picked the off-ramps he wanted to use. They’d have to walk inwards on the spokes of the imaginary wheel that was Amsterdam.

“Otte and Liet gave us specific instructions,” Father said. “We’d better stick to them. Promises go both ways.”

Malachite knew. One of her best friends when she was little hadn’t delivered the pink hair ribbon she’d promised to the god Oopgoot in exchange for curing her sick bunny, and the girl had ended up hairy, pink-eyed and dead by Christmas.

“This one.”

Here the ancient road descended from the elevated highway and segued into a bridge across the river Amstel.

Two steps on the bridge, Malachite halted. “Shouldn’t we pay homage to the river god?”

She walked over to the parapet to offer some spit, but Father pulled her ear to stop her. “No. Feel it. This is a dead river. Some other god killed Amstel a long time ago, and no one’s managed to claim her territory yet.”

Malachite pushed forward through the muffled, dead air on the bridge. So different from the sparkling exhalations over Otte and Liet. “I’ve never heard of a dead god before.”

“She probably reneged on a promise and all her adorers left her,” Father said.

Malachite shrugged. She couldn’t feel pity for a god. With great power came a great sense of entitlement and whimsy.

At the end of the bridge, she slammed her nose against an invisible barrier. “Ow!”

“I should have looked up the bridge god,” Father said. “Sorry.”

“What tribute does it want?” Malachite said, rubbing her nose.

Father flipped through his precious notebook. He could read and write, something Malachite had never taken to. “Here it is. Mstel bridge, a few drops of blood.”

Guess who was going to offer them? Malachite wiped her bleeding nose and flipped a few drops on the crumbling tarmac. Then she offered a few more for Father.

“Mstel Bridge, can we cross?” Father asked loudly.

No answer came.

Father shrugged. “I guess we’re good.” A little gingerly they crossed the spot where Malachite had hit her nose, but nothing happened this time.

Father relaxed and ruffled her hair, which she hated. “See? We can do this.”

Lighter Than Claire

“We were scaly. We scurried through the undergrowth.”

Claire recalled a jagged light, exploding into brightness. “We hatched from eggs, we cracked our shells.”

“Do you remember flying? We swooped and soared.”

Claire saw it and felt it, but she didn’t understand.

“We flew before we ran. Were we birds once?”

Magda shook her head, not in denial but not knowing.

“Does a fish swim?”

“I suppose it does.”

“I don’t think so. We swim. But for a fish, the ocean is air. She flies on her silver fins.”


The crystal bell chimed. It wasn’t loud but it carried everywhere because the school was made of cardboard, and it had no windows or doors.

It was time for special studies class, and Claire and Magda sat in the front row because the teacher wasn’t like the others–he let them ask questions.

Claire remembered their first class, when he still shaved and didn’t fall asleep halfway through.


“I have no name but I have a rule. Numbers are not permitted in my classroom. Once you start with numbers and counting you never stop. You reach infinity before you know it.”

He took a piece of purple chalk from his pocket and wrote ‘Special Studies’ on the wall.

“This is class is about …”

He lit a cigarette. Even back then he was a heavy smoker.

“Well. It’s self-explanatory isn’t it?”

He contemplated the purple letters. “Perhaps it will explain itself tomorrow. Does anyone have a question?”

Magda put her hand up. “Sir, why doesn’t the school have windows? The rain comes in.”

“Glass is a sharp liquid. It would damage the walls.”

Claire was next. “Sir, why are the walls made of cardboard anyway?

“They’re metaphors.”

“Metaphors are just ideas. They’re not real.”

“Let’s not be too clever.”

Afterwards Claire understood that when he said that, it was a signal not to keep asking, but in the first class she didn’t know.

“Why not?”

“The more you know, the more you have to forget. What’s your name?”

“Claire.”

“Does anyone who isn’t Claire have a question?”

Eduardo raised his hand. “Sir, you’re different to the other teachers. They’re all ghost people and they never let us ask anything. You’re the first teacher who’s done that.”

He was startled, and he dropped his cigarette.

“The rule. You’ve forgotten the rule.” He shrugged. “I suppose you’ll get used to it soon enough.”

He picked up the cigarette stub and brushed it off. “The ghost people are just projections. They teach you what you already know. I’m the counterpoint, the antidote to all their pointless truth.”

Claire had a thousand questions on the tip of her tongue in that first lesson, but she wasn’t allowed to ask them.

Gills

I run my fingers tentatively over the rough outer edges, my face almost touching the mirror. Folding back semi-rigid slits, I examine the tender pink tissues penetrating both sides of my neck. No question about it: These are serious gills.

I first noticed them yesterday, on my day off. Shaken, I paced the floor for a couple hours before checking out Wikipedia. I learned that gills are a common feature of aquatic organisms. Fish have them. Some amphibians do. They extract oxygen from water and eliminate carbon dioxide. I suppose they could come in handy, like when you go swimming. Maybe it’s not the end of the world.

But why now? Thursday is the evening that Liz comes by the restaurant for the vegetarian omelette, washing it down with decaf coffee and leaving me a decent tip. I finally decided that today is the day I am going to ask her out, on a real date. How many times have I pictured myself cruising in her sleek silver BMW convertible, with the top down and the wind blowing through her gorgeous shoulder-length red hair.

And there’s this other problem: I’m a couple inches shorter than her and working on a beer gut. As for waiting tables at IHOP, I can explain that I have greater aspirations, that I earned a degree in hospitality management, after all. Maybe she can overlook the fact that I spend most of my spare time in my tiny man cave watching episodes of “Lost” over and over. And perhaps she won’t mind that I don’t have a stereo or a bar–just a second-hand couch, a flat screen, and a few old pictures, like the one of me at about age six standing in front of the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier.

Yeah, Sal, you’re a real prize. And now you have gills on your neck.

I rub myself down with skin cream, cram two tubes of it into my pockets, and rummage through the bottom of my closet. I dig out a black turtleneck sweater, a gift from my ex-girlfriend. Not exactly my style, but it does cover most of my gills. I finish dressing, grab my keys, and head out.

I’m five blocks from home and already I’m running late for work. It seems like there’s a fender bender at every other intersection. What’s wrong with you people?

I jog from my Prius to the front door. Gabriella is filing her nails and barely looks up from the reception desk as I rush by to get my apron and name tag. My asshole boss Crusty still hasn’t fixed the ceiling fan over my section. I bet he disabled it to save a few pennies on his power bill.

I enter the kitchen and realize instantly that something is terribly wrong. It’s Charlie, the head cook. Charlie who is always making up silly songs about women’s anatomy as he flips pancakes and slaps bacon on the griddle. Charlie who is always grinning like he’s higher than a kite, even through double shifts amid the relentless glare of ceiling lights reflected by an ocean of stainless steel.

Charlie is staring straight ahead, eyes wide and mouth half open, scratching himself absentmindedly with his non-spatula-bearing hand. He doesn’t appear to realize that food is burning in front of him. Crusty is lurking several paces to my right, even more stooped than usual, his arms bent and waving erratically, his beady black eyes sweeping the kitchen from side to side before fixing on me.

“Where have you been? We’re down a person and you better get your ass out there right away–”

Hold on, Mr. Carlson, I want to say. It’s a Thursday evening in August in Cedar City, Utah, for God’s sake. There’s nobody here but the usual senior citizens who have been nursing java refills all afternoon, plus what looks like an unemployed guy pretending to read the help-wanted ads and a tourist trying to figure out why she brought the family to a ski resort during the summer. But I can’t get a word in.

Charlie signals me with his eyes. Two quick, furtive darts to his left, toward the food storage lockers beyond Crusty. I hazard a glance, but the boss scuttles sideways to block my view. A low moaning emerges from that direction. I look back at Charlie, nod my head slightly, hand him one of my tubes of skin cream, and retreat from the kitchen.

As I prepare to greet a couple of teen-agers on a cheap date, I silently curse the guidance counselor who steered me into this line of work. Mr. Denning, you made the fundamental mistake of assuming that I like people.

I avoid the kitchen as much as possible, hanging by the register when not waiting on tables.

Right on time, Liz arrives. She’s wearing a blue jacket and red blouse with pearls and a dark skirt. I bring Gabriella a box of candy every month, so she always seats Liz in my section. I guess everybody realizes that I’ve had a crush on Liz forever—everybody except Liz.

I try to avoid eye contact, but my God, just look at this woman. Tall, thin, with legs that go on forever. A slightly pointed chin, but intoxicating blue eyes and that spectacular hair brushing her face in just the right places. On top of that, she’s a successful real estate agent, well known and well heeled.

I pull myself together. “Welcome to IHOP. Can I start you off with a beverage?”

“Coffee, regular,” she states, not looking up from the menu. “And the bacon omelette.”

That throws me off. I mutter: “Regular, not decaf? And the bacon omelette, the one with six strips of bacon?”

“Yes. Any problem?”

“Uh, no, of course not. I’ll be right back with your coffee.”

What an idiot.

I slouch back into the kitchen. Charlie’s expression is even more grave. Crusty, leaning over a prostrate figure in the far corner, is covered in blood and making noises that I don’t even want to contemplate. I drop off Liz’s order, yank up my turtleneck collar, grab a pitcher of coffee, and take a deep breath.

Okay, Sal. You’ve rehearsed this a thousand times. Be relaxed, confident. Tell her that you’ve noticed her on Thursdays, that you think you have some things in common, that you’d like to get to know her.

Of course, I blow it.

Liz is scanning property listings. As I pour her coffee, I say without conscious premeditation: “I’m thinking of buying a house.”

She stares at me, hard, with more than a hint of amusement. I weigh the merits of bolting out the door and driving for days until I’m thousands of miles from anyplace where someone might know me or care that I have gills.

She opens her purse, withdraws a business card, scribbles on the back, and hands it to me.

“I’m usually up late,” she says.

Back by the register, I check out the writing. It sure looks like a residential address.

Somehow, Charlie produces an edible dinner for Liz. Somehow, I get through the rest of her meal without further screw-ups. She gives me a polite nod as she leaves.

Just an Expression

The job posting on the Newark Advocate’s website read, “Do you have an expressive face?” Beneath that single question was an inky little drawing, like a grayscale watercolor, of a man’s face. The only other text on the ad was an address.

The face from the ad had a kind of careless artistry about it, like it hadn’t taken much time or effort, but still hinted at a real mastery of proportion. More importantly, it was my face. It wasn’t a detailed drawing, just a smudge of a thing. But the angle of the nose, the jawline, the receding hairline, even the stippled hint of a five o’clock shadow were all mine. I’d seen them all in the bathroom mirror moments before opening my laptop.

It had been more than five months since I could reasonably call myself employed, so I was ready for a sign of hope from the universe. Hell, I would have settled for something vague. The faint s-curve of a dollar sign burned onto my toast. A fortune cookie promise of wealth. This wasn’t vague at all. It was right there on my computer screen in black and white. My face was on a help wanted ad.


My hands started shaking before I had finished running the iron over my interview shirt. I hated interviews. I also hated walking into a job without knowing a thing about it, but getting evicted was still the greater evil.


I did my best to think of witty small talk on my drive to the office park. I thought we could have a laugh at how much I looked like the little drawing.

“Looks like I’m you’re man,” I’d say.

“Ha, what a fun coincidence,” my soon-to-be boss would reply just before offering me a sizable signing bonus. Sure.

I found the address and parked. The office looked just like every other office in the complex, a brick façade with mirrored windows that showed nothing of the interior of the buildings. The door swung open just as I was getting out of my car. A young man with tidy blond hair and a charcoal gray suit stomped down the front steps scowling and muttering to himself.

He saw me heading toward the door and shook his head.

“I wouldn’t bother,” he said. He threw his arms up in exasperation and continued walking.

I decided to ignore him. After all, it wasn’t his picture in the ad and he didn’t seem like someone I would want to hire anyway.

Strange Eats at the Swan

You could say The Swan is a bit of an anachronism. Actually, you could say it’s a complete and utter, outlet-on-a-castle-wall-in-a-bad-movie anachronism. Maybe that’s what I like about it. It’s an honest to goodness, bad lighting and vinyl swivel stools diner. Has been since the forties. It used to be in good company on this street, but over time, all of the small independent shops ran to seed, and were bought up by this and that chain of cafes where coffee comes in a paper cup and cost three times what a coffee should. Hell, maybe It’s just my age, but I like it that at The Swan you still pay less than two bucks for a coffee that you can nurse well into the night without being bothered.

My coffee’s getting cold. I look at my watch. Have to squint to read the hands. Feels like an hour has passed since the last time I looked. Nope. Seven minutes. The waiting has become the hardest part.

The Swan is the kind of place where, in days gone by, blue-haired ladies would come on an afternoon to eat soggy-crusted pie and drink tea from those metal pots with hinged lids that would never close properly. A place where people would take a paper serviette from the metal stand on the table, unfold it and place it on their laps.

Whatever happened to all the blue-haired ladies? Nowadays they all take yoga classes and join book clubs. They drink decaf coffee and eat sugar free cookies. Lord above.

I have my usual table, a booth right next to the front window. The glass is late-night black and I see my shadowy, transparent self looking back at me. I want to put my hand out to see if it will go right through my reflection, but stop myself. I watch my face. Seems it’s been a while since I shaved. Can’t remember the last time. An all-night streetcar rumbles by, confusing the images. I look away.

The coffee tastes weak, but it does twice the job, caffeine-wise, of a coffee you get anywhere else. Another reason I like the place. And they serve it in those off-white cups and saucers with a band of off-white swans swimming around a robin’s egg blue rim. Robin’s egg blue. Not a color you hear of much anymore. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the last time I saw a robin. Let alone a robin’s egg.

The middle-aged waitresses here are also from another time. Their uniforms are that color–since we’re on the topic of almost extinct colors–that used to be called mint: that pale, slightly sickly green that went out of fashion decades ago and for good reason. But I kind of like it. Here at any rate. It wouldn’t be the same if the waitresses were all eighteen and went around in tight black tee shirts and jeans. Wouldn’t be the same at all.

The clientele has changed over the years. And not for the better. They all look the same these days: the old and young, the rich and poor. And everyone looks so damned clean and fresh and healthy. Squeaky clean. Much as I hate to admit it, I’d love to see a kid with a hipster afro, or a foot-high punk mohawk hair-do walk in here. Hasn’t happened in ages.

I look down at my wrist again. Eleven minutes. That’s better. Though I’m starting to get that fluttery, colony of moths in my gut feeling. I’m sure they should have been here by now. But, as I know well enough, there’s no rushing these things.

I tap my cigarette pack on the table top. Used to be able to smoke in here. Not anymore. Not for a long time. The waitress is glaring at me from behind the counter. She’s already given my cigarettes a warning stare. Now she’s coming over, slowly, on white sneakers that squeak slightly on the linoleum floor; the kind of shoes you can only find in service uniform shops. She reminds me of an overworked nurse as she makes her way to my booth, holding out the coffee pot like it’s a bed pan she’s just changed. I feel sorry for her. I really do. She looks tired. But I can’t help fidgeting with the end of a cigarette, pulling it slowly out of the package. The damned thing is I don’t even smoke. Never have. But I like the way a pack of cigarettes feels in the hand. Just noticed that my hand’s shaking. More than usual.

She comes closer. Then out of nowhere, I get the taste in my mouth. God. Can’t even begin to describe it. And it’s a bit different with each person. Depends, I guess. Although I try not to, I find myself chewing. There’s nothing in my mouth but that taste. And as I chew, the image of two people appears, just behind the woman, grainy in a bad TV reception sort of a way. One’s the waitress. The other some guy. Their images sort of cling to her as she saunters through the diner; warping slightly each time she takes a corner. Damn. They aren’t always this strong, but she must have been musing on it today. Whether relishing or regretting, I’ve no way to know. Don’t much care, either.

“Refill?” she asks. I nod and put the cigarette back in the pack and push the pack away. She pours coffee that’s never quite hot enough into the cup. The swans keep swimming around and around. I swallow half the cup in one go. She walks away and I notice that one heel of her white sneakers is worn down more than the other one.

The bells over the front door jangle to life and my heart bounces into my throat. My hand rests on my throbbing neck as I turn to see who’s come in. I’m disappointed. And relieved.

A young couple bubbles through the door. They’re nuzzling each other and smiling like they just got away with a bank robbery. In spite of the hour, they still look annoyingly, artificially fresh. I’ll bet they go to a tanning salon. That’s probably where they met.

They approach the booth next to mine, then stop for an instant. Their faces change as they look over at me, then carry on to a booth further down the row. I don’t take offense at their not wanting to sit at the next table, I’m not looking too terribly fresh these days, but what I do take offense at is that they don’t look the least bit embarrassed by not wanting to. Can’t say I’m not used to it. And I can’t say I care. Really.

Time as an Opened Letter You Didn’t Want to Read

Time as an Opened Letter You Didn’t Want to Read

“I can turn back time,” my father says, or he will say. He will tell me that he will save my mother who died when I was just a child. He will say this, or he has already said this, or he is saying it right now.

This morning, I was a simple man with a simple life and a simple job as an accountant. My life was scheduled hourly, and there was never any question of where I was supposed to be when. But now time is fractured and I have seeped through all the cracks. I find myself in a business meeting with J about my father’s new invention at the same time I’m deep-sea fishing the Gulf with my father, who, as usual, is barely aware I’m there. I am a child again, meeting yet another fly-by-night stepmother-to-be at the same time I’m in Dallas watching JFK’s parade, an event that happened before I was born. I know what the real when is, because I know the blending of time happened today, but those terms are rapidly losing their meaning as time scrambles itself like an egg.

Even right now in the nowest of nows, in the midst of talking with J about patents and business plans, I am also in the Intensive Care Unit standing beside my father, wires sprawling on the floor like spilled spaghetti and everything smelling of antiseptic null. My nose is scoured of scent. J finishes a joke and his face wrinkles in the beginning of a laugh, but even as I hear his voice rise, it is mixed with the sound of nurses washing their hands, torrents of dirty water swirling through an aluminum basin.

The heart machine’s tubes stick into my father’s chest with the awkward beauty of an octopus’ arms. The tubes pulse slightly with every pump.

“I’m sorry,” I say automatically, without regret, the same way my father apologized to me for years without ever looking me in the eyes.

The pumped blood turns from red to a brighter red, then dulls.

J’s face darkens slightly, then smooths into a white sail.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I don’t expect everyone to get the joke.”

There are a hundred other moments I’m living, but these two stick into me like hooks in a fish’s mouth. J, waiting for me to pronounce on my father’s intellectual property. And my father, waiting for a priest to pronounce last rites.

My dad is swaddled in bandages. His eyes are covered with jelly to keep the staring eyeballs moist. I shut my eyes and focus on J’s office, but I can still hear the subtle beep of the heart monitor, the suck of the pump, the intercom crackling in some other room.

My father is an inventor of the old school, of the purest sort. He is more a philosopher than a scientist, seeing technology as the means towards plumbing the depths of the human heart rather than a method for making money or for improving society. An idealist.

“And what do you want to do with your father’s blueprints?” J says. The ends of his mouth turn up, predatory. He’s been our family’s financial advisor for as long as I can remember, a friend of my father’s from when they were in school, latching onto genius, and hoping that it would pay off. I am a child in his office, and he hands me a lollipop. “I wish I had a son just like you,” he says.

As J’s excitement grows, his ears turn scarlet. Normally a handsome man, now he looks like a troll. He knows my father had a breakthrough, and he’s waiting to hear what it is. He’s waiting to tally up his profits. He’s waiting to put a payment towards that yacht. He’ll still be waiting years from now.

This morning, as my father called to tell me the good news, I listened to him in my office at the same time I was in the alley behind my condo burning all of my father’s notes and designs and blueprints in a garbage can half-filled with garbage. The smell of burning paper and rot made my mouth water. I didn’t know why I was burning his things, but I could feel in my gut that it was the right thing to do. The necessary thing.

At my long silence, J’s smile cracks to reveal uneasiness.

“Send the blueprints to the patent lawyer, of course,” I say, standing. “I’ll send copies once I get the originals from my father.” I pat J on the back. We’re co-conspirators in the world of business, and though he nods in agreement now, he’s also snarling at me from behind the bars. Except I’m the one behind bars.

It was exactly a minute before my father called me that I found myself in two places at once. His voice was ecstatic – a minute before, he’d completed his invention – full of a life and a confidence I hadn’t seen from him for years. He hadn’t been so happy since the birth of my sister.

Except I don’t have a sister.

“Oh God,” he said. “Now I’m a god.”

He says the same thing in the delivery room, my sister in hand, my mother beaten into a stupor by labor, nurses cleaning up their prostrate bodies, and the doctor the only one noticing business-suited me in the corner of the room, my mouth agape in wonder. Before he can blink, I am gone.

I barely knew my mother. She died when I was three, sideswiped from the sidewalk by a bus with a blown tire on her way home from the grocery store. But I recognize that woman in the hospital bed from the family albums, even if she’s older than the pictures, older than the girl of twenty-seven who died out of my life so long ago.

Now I’m a man of forty, responsible for my own affairs and my father’s. I pay my bills on time and float a responsible amount of debt. I’m not religious. I believe in what I can see and hold. I believe in history, and the fact that our past is what molds us, continually, into who we are.

Now I am walking up the front walk of my father’s house. Instinctively, I step over the concrete raised up by the roots of the oak tree that I had removed five years past as a hazard. There’s a scar on my chin from when I tripped on that concrete for the first and last time when I was ten.

Now I am in the shower washing the blood from my body. It comes off easily.

Now I am in the Intensive Care Unit, but I am also still in the shower. I am naked and wet before my father’s dying body, also naked and wet. Water pools on the floor beneath me. A nurse screams, and her screams echo in the shower.

I am in all of these places at once, and none of them for certain. I can sense the distance I am from the hospital bed while I step up to my father’s door. It is growing harder and harder to focus on exactly who I am and when I want to be, but I am learning small tricks. If I bite the inside of my cheek, the pain brings me back to the now I need to be in, back to the me that is pressing the doorbell on my father’s house a little too forcefully. Even so, I can sense all the other places I am. If I look away, I know I’ll be standing before the chair that is waiting for me to be strapped in it.

A car honks, and I turn to see M, a childhood friend, wave as he drives by. But when I turn back I am in my father’s laboratory. He is removing his new invention from its protective case. I need to explain to him what he has done. But then my mouth drops open.

“You invented a gun?” I’m amazed. My father doesn’t believe in violence. When I asked him what he felt when mom died, he’d told me he simply felt sorry for the bus driver and all the passengers, having to witness such horror.

But it just appears to be a death ray or freeze beam, because my father isn’t crazy. He’s just a little misguided.

“With this,” he says, “I can turn back time. Well, if time could be turned, which it can’t because time isn’t a sphere or a circle or even a line. It’s a point. And with this I’ll be able to see all points at once.”

“And how is this supposed to make us money?” I ask.

“This is more important than money,” he says. “With this I’ll be able to save your mother. Don’t you want to meet your mother?”

“Dad, you can’t change history,” I say.

He doesn’t argue. All of his excitement falls away to reveal desperation and disgust.

“You never cared about me,” he says. “All you cared about was what I could give you. But I’ll bring your mother back! And then everything will be as it should have been.”

He turns the invention on himself, but I leap forward and grab the tip and pull it away. He pulls the trigger and the end of his invention glows with an unearthly light, the tip emitting a beam which slams into me with all the force of a feather.

My father’s eyes are wide with alarm, but I’m fine. Nothing’s changed.

But everything has changed. The moment my father finished the invention, this event was destined to happen, and when it did I was shaken from the fixed timeline of my life like water from a dog’s back. As soon as it would happen, it did happen. But only now do I fully understand.

I can see the future where everyone is lost in time, everywhen at once. History is a water-soaked tissue, transparent and fragile, and if you pick it up, it falls apart. And for one final moment, I am at my 41st birthday party and my mother and my sister and, yes, even my father, are watching me blow out the candles with joy and pride and –

– and I am there in my father’s laboratory and I am burning his notes and I am dismantling his invention and I am at his death bed and I am facing the electric chair and all because time cannot be changed. It will not be changed. I won’t let it be changed.

I ring the doorbell to my father’s house. When my father opens the door he grins so fiercely I’m afraid he might pull a muscle. It is the happiest he’s been to see me in a long, long time. He doesn’t suspect the knife until its already deep, deep inside him.

He looks into my eyes, but he isn’t shocked. It’s as though he is seeing me – the real me – for the first time.

But we both know that’s a lie.

The Redemption

Three years and not a word from the world. Three years of fighting to stay alive in the overgrown nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl amongst desperate criminals. Without law. Without hope.

But our redemption is now at hand. We remaining three. We insidious, hateful three–a thief, a prostitute, and an assassin–have packed our atonement into a thick lead case, placed it in the back of a rusty Kamaz truck, and are rattling down the highway to Moscow for deliverance.

Anastasia sits shotgun. Her AK-47 rests across her lap with the loud end pointing out the open window. Yuri sits in the truck’s cab behind us, an MP412 REX revolver–a Russian knockoff of the .44 Magnum–is in his hand; it’s more gun than hand. And then there’s me, Gordon, in the driver’s seat with my Glock resting in my lap and my AK-47 snapped into the gun rack over the windshield.

I can’t tell if Yuri and Anastasia are sick, nervous, or otherwise. I can only see their eyes through the glass portholes of their black masks. The rest of them is sealed up in yellow radiation suits, which are broiling in this summer heat. The pavement shimmers like a watery dream and even though the windows are down and we’re driving at a good clip, I’m sweating like I’m in a sauna. The short, hot breaths I have to suck through my mask’s circular filter are leaving me dizzy and gasping for more.

I don’t know if this is the hangover, the heat, or the radiation poisoning, but my stomach feels like I ate a bag of nails.

We partied like it was the end of the world last night and I think Yuri and Anastasia got together. I remember at one point her arms were around me, bottles of Black Cherry Stolichnaya were in our hands, her tongue was flickering in and out of my mouth, and she was grinding her crotch against mine in time with that godawful Russian music. Then I can’t remember what happened next. I woke up in bed alone.

I am mentally kicking the hell out of myself for this. She is an absolute knockout with a body as sleek and as sexy as a Bengal tiger’s. The Russians would line up around her decrepit apartment building in Chernobyl. And then there’s Yuri: skinny, sickly looking, and with just a handful of teeth. How the hell did I lose out to him?

“Anna,” I say, but my mask muffles my voice and she can’t hear me. “Anna,” I say louder and put my hand on her leg. She bats it away and looks at me. Her angry blue eyes shine through her mask’s dark lenses.

“What did I do?” I shout.

Then I slam my heavy rubber boots down on the breaks, throwing everybody violently forward. At the side of the road ahead and glinting in the sharp sunlight is a Skitter. He’s alone; just one from the hungry hordes that swept across the world, devouring every animal, man, woman, and child, leaving nothing but stillness in their wake.

Anna snaps back the bolt of her AK-47 and Yuri cocks the hammer of his hand cannon.

“Time for go!” Anna whoops.