Fiction

The Purifier

I was one of three foremen who ran the Purifier for the General Secretary before and during the upheaval. Those were dark days for all of us, and anyone who can sit in a rocking chair by the fire, warming his fingers and talking about those times, is lucky. Lucky to be alive, lucky to have his fingers still, lucky to have his tongue. But not everything about those times was evil. Like all times, in all places, I suppose, some bits of light make life worth living, grim as things might get.

The light for us, back before the Upheaval, was the Secretary’s Science and Projects Liaison. Now, I’ve been accused once or twice of being a bit of a dreamer. But understand, everything I have to say about the Liaison is pure truth. Heaven knows how a woman like that ended up with that position. She wasn’t dumb, exactly. In fact, as models go you’d consider her rather intelligent. She was in her mid twenties, and we all recognized her from various men’s interest magazines that were in circulation before the Secretary took full power and the presses were shut down. I guess that put her out of work. Maybe the Secretary hand-picked her for the job, maybe he felt guilty for putting her out of business. You’d think that picking a beautiful woman with no scientific background for Science and Projects Liaison would be a terrible mistake, but really what her job entailed was keeping us workers in line. And that was something she could do with a flick of the wrist and a bat of the eyelashes. She even was able to keep the women workers hard at work with barely any effort at all. It wasn’t just her beauty, she had an aura about her – call it charisma, or leadership, or maybe just confidence. Anyway, we saw her about once a month, which was more than most other facilities and projects could say. The Purifier was very important to the Secretary.

The Purifier was a marvel of human ingenuity and engineering. I wish, now in the twilight of my life, that I could claim I had helped to build or design it. But I didn’t. I just came on after it was finished, with my wrench and my hammer and the rest of my toolkit, and I made sure the other mechanics didn’t screw anything up. Not to say that this wasn’t hard work. A number of my men died or became too sick to work because of leaks in the reactor. The fact that I’m still alive, after all the years I spent at the Purifier, is a testament to something. Probably my great reservoir of dumb luck.

I never used to believe in luck until I got stuck in the elevator with the Liaison. The elevator was on the side of the Stack, which was a fifty story, eighty foot radius chimney stack. This was how the Purifier released the water back into the atmosphere. This was how we made the clouds. The Liaison and I were riding up to check on some repairs that were underway two thirds up the Stack. Most of the deaths were from people being knocked off by gusts of wind, so needless to say, being that high on the Stack, once you got out of the elevator, was dangerous. But the Liaison never shied away from danger. She was utterly fearless in fact.

99-Cent Dreams

After some deliberation, Libby decided to buy the ability to draw. “This one,” she said. “I’ve never been able to manage anything more than stick figures. This would be nice.”

Alfred Corrigan smiled at her. “Yes. Very good.” He coughed before continuing in his high, papery voice. “Let me remind you, however, that this only guarantees the ability to draw recognizable pictures, not the talents of a master artist. These are only–”

“–ninety-nine cent dreams,” she finished along with him. It was the name of the store, and he had given her the patter when she had first come in. Ninety-nine cents could only buy small dreams, not miracles.

“Precisely. That said, your satisfaction is guaranteed. You shouldn’t find yourself reverting to, ah, stick figures. One moment, please.” He shuffled through the door in the back. Libby kept her eyes on the catalog, not wanting to watch the way he moved. He was a young man, clean-cut and broad-shouldered, but his slow, fumbling movements reminded her of her grandfather; the way he’d limped toward her when she first entered the store had almost caused her to mumble an excuse and go outside again.

She flipped through the pages idly, glancing at the glossy stock pictures of laughing, photogenic couples and families. All items just 99¢! Make your partner a dog person! Item 13A. LIMITED TIME ONLY! Maintain weight over the holidays–LOSS NOT GUARANTEED. Item 13B. Have the baby sleep through the night once a week. Item 13C.

That picture was of a sleeping baby, his little mouth relaxed into a faint pout. Libby bit her lip–she’d been doing a lot of that in the past month, and it was starting to taste chapped and bloody–and rested her fingertips on the baby’s face. In the back of her mind, she could hear Sasha screaming, “If you want kids so fucking much, find a man! I’m not your goddamn brood mare!”, could hear the glass bowl shattering against the wall behind her head. Sasha had apologized in tears the next day, of course, and Libby had forgiven her, of course, and they had made desperate love and promised that they would never fight again, just as they always did. But that time it had been true, because now Sasha was gone.

She had to turn the page. Blindly, she flipped to the tab in the back. FREE SAMPLES!

“Here you go.” Corrigan’s dry voice made Libby jump. She turned and saw him holding a cobalt blue bottle about the size of her little finger. “Stir this into a beverage and drink it just before going to bed. I’ve found the flavor complements an English tea wonderfully.”

“Great. Thanks.” She gestured at the page of samples. “What are these?”

Corrigan peered over her shoulder, and she saw his eyes go bright. The eyes were old, too, she thought; it wasn’t just his gait. There was a tired, stretched look around the edges, and she hadn’t even noticed until that eager brightness took it away. “Ah. These are from my new supply. Ninety-nine cent dreams fill a necessary niche, but my current stock is rather, ah, modest. I’m hoping to expand. I haven’t dealt in larger dreams in a long, long time.”

“Can I look?”

“Of course.”

She turned the page. This was more what she had expected when Corrigan had explained to her that he didn’t run a fancifully named dollar store, but a shop dealing in dreams themselves. Regain sight for the blind! Item 47A. Recover a missing heirloom! Item 47B.

She turned the page again, and her heart swelled to a huge size in her chest. She couldn’t move. All she could do was stare at the page, hands trembling. It was a generic photo of a man and a woman embracing in front of a sunset. Bring back the affections of a lost love! Item 47C.

Sasha. She could bring Sasha back. Oh, God, if this place was for real. . . . She imagined the faint, spicy smell of Sasha’s shampoo, the way she hummed in the back of her throat when she was falling asleep, the rich alto of her voice as she sang along with Libby’s cello. All the times in the past month with she’d felt frightened and she’d known that having Sasha near her would make her brave, because without Sasha she was just a timid little mouse. All the times she’d seen bridal magazines or women with strollers and thought, That’s not for me, that’ll never be for me; it’s what drove Sasha away, but she’s the only one I’d ever want to have any of it with.

It could have been a thousand dollars and she would have taken it. But a free sample…

“Ms. Morell? Did you find something of interest?”

Libby had almost forgotten that Corrigan was there. She looked up and saw him smiling benignly. “This.” She pointed to the picture. “This is free?”

He glanced down. “An excellent choice. A simple modification of Item 7D, stop your lover’s passing attraction to another. It should run wonderfully.”

“Great. I’d like to buy it also, please.”

Corrigan twiddled his tie between two fingers. “I should warn you, Ms. Morell, that the word ‘free’ is misleading. There’s no monetary cost for these dreams, but . . . well, I have to get my supplies from somewhere, especially if I want to upgrade. It’s a trade. A dream for a dream.”

“So you’d stab out my eyes so a blind person can see?” It would almost be worth it.

“No. A dream, Ms. Morell. You don’t dream of sight. You take it for granted. I’d want a dream from you.”

Libby bit her lip, tasting blood again. Sasha… “Let me–let me try this one and come back if it works.”

“Of course you may. And it will work, I assure you. I sell no monkey’s paws.” He punched a few numbers into the chunky gray cash register, and it thought for several seconds before displaying “$1.05” on its screen. “Tax, you understand.”

“Right.” Libby fished through her purse and placed the money on the counter.

Corrigan smiled blandly, a smile that didn’t touch his old, old eyes, and handed her a receipt. “Thank you, Ms. Morell. Enjoy your dream.”

The Death Of More

THE PRISONER

Shadows danced around the sparsely furnished cell as his candle guttered in a draft. It was a large room, and thankfully above the worst stink and grime of the lower tower, but a cell nonetheless. The tattered, threadbare robe he had worn for the past fourteen months fluttered about his legs as he shuffled across to the bed.

He lowered himself down onto the straw pallet pushed up against the wall. For most of his life he had lived in palatial homes, and slept on massive four-poster beds with feather mattresses swathed in silk sheets. Servants lit fires to drive away the slightest chill, and the kitchen was always ready to accommodate him. My goodness, he thought, how things have changed. At least it was summertime, and the brutal heat of the day had surrendered to a warm, humid night.

This cell had been the abode of some of the most famous and wealthy prisoners ever to find themselves confined in the tower. The conditions of their stays largely depended upon their ability to curry favor or mercy from the Crown. Many were allowed to furnish the cell as if it were their own home. The most privileged prisoners could walk about the tower grounds, and even host guests with dinners of roasted capons, puddings and wines. Thomas had no illusions about his standing with the King. He had been allowed only the most rudimentary comforts, those which his family could beg, buy or smuggle in to him. A short, three-legged stool, a chest for his small possessions and provisions, and the straw mattress for which he was immensely thankful; it was the only soft thing in the stone chamber.

In the end though, we are all prisoners here, he mused. Fine furnishings did nothing to change that, evidenced by the hundreds of scratched pleadings in the stone walls. They were perhaps the only lasting memorials to the poor souls who had languished out their last days here. Thomas had read them all. Some were simple protestations of innocence, some were whimsical poetry, and still others were fervent pleas for succor or salvation. The sheer desperation of the etchings was enough to destroy the morale of any man. He was not just any man though; Sir Thomas More was a knight of the realm, and until his conviction of high treason, had held the post of Lord Chancellor. One of the most powerful men in England and a favorite of the King himself, and yet now he was sleeping on straw in the Tower of London. That was not the worst of it though. Today was July 5th, the year of our Lord one-thousand-five-hundred-and-thirty-five. On the morrow, he would lose his head.

The Homeless Man of Greater Zimbabwe

The fish were made of silver. So were the terns. The fish swam in the clear blue sky, leaving little ripples as they weaved a course through the heavens. Beside the school of fish, the gleaming birds flapped in formation. All of them moved with singular purpose to a silver half moon that was bright despite the day, a moon that matched the creatures’ ethereal gleam.

Smack! The fish, the terns, the moon, it all unraveled.

Mums was in the shop, rubbing the back of his woolly head, his daydream supplanted by dull pain. Fat Man was giving him that stern look, pointing at him with a long ebony finger.

“You’ll be sixteen in a week, a man by any nation’s measure. You must stop these flights of fancy; those things are for boys and liars.”

Stupid Fat Man, Mums thought. He nodded.

“Keep your eyes about the shop. If someone as much as steals a sausage, you’ll find food missing from your plate tonight.”

There was no one even in the shop. He could argue that but it would likely earn him another smack to the head and a stern lecture about due diligence. So he nodded again.

This was the worst time for diligence and the best time for his mind to wander. It was right after midday, so very few shoppers came into the store looking for dinner meats until later.

Fat Man’s shop was a typical zimba, larger than most but still built of the mortarless granite stones that gave the city of Dzimba-dza-mabwe its name. And while Fat Man had painted the granite walls and ceiling of his zimba with festive blues, yellows and greens “to pull the customer’s eye,” as he put it, it did little to make Mums feel festive. He was not a customer; and any joy he had once gotten from the design was long gone after spending most of his childhood in here looking after rows of various meats.

Mums put his elbows on the counter and propped his face into his brown fists, getting comfortable while he watched over the gazelle steaks that were advertised on sale.

“No no no, boy,” Fat Man said. “That’s how I found you when you earned that smack. Now earn your board and daily bread. Check the temperatures.”

Mums grumbled but did as he was told.

The Nightmare Eater

The dim overhead light intensifies the shadows beneath my eyes until they become like bruises. Little pockets of darkness I carry my nightmares in.

I want to sleep, but I cannot. The few hours a night when my eyes are closed bring me visions of Japan and my last days there. The face of my patron twisted in pain haunts me. The feeling of his blood seeping over my fingers will not leave.

I yearn for rest—for peace.

The war between my country and the United States is over. The war inside me rages on.


Storm of Change by Karim Heatherington

There are two men at table three, with dates. They are the only customers in the Good Luck Bar, and I am the only waitress. The girls look at me with narrowed eyes, suspicious. The men have the cocky bearing of sailors, but only one of them seems to undress me as I set down their beers.

“Hey there, Miss Saigon,” the one with the roving eyes says. “My buddy here just got back from the far East. Hey, Jerry, how do you say hello in Nip-speak? Coneychee? That right?”

“You sound like an idiot,” Jerry says.

Baka no hito.

“Konnichiwa,” I say. The first man guffaws, slaps his thigh. His other arm slips around the girl’s shoulders.

“Did you hear that? Say something nice for my girl.” He looks at the girl. “How about it, honey? What do you want her to say?”

“Come on, Pete,” Jerry says, fingering his bottle. “My beers getting warm and my foods getting cold.”

“I’m a paying customer,” Pete says. “Go on, hon. Tell her what to say.”

The girl chews on her lip, leaving flecks of red lipstick on her teeth. “Tell me how pretty I am.”

Pete pulls her closer, laughing. “That’s my babe. Always fishing for compliments.”

“Uma ni niteimasu. Kamiga kusso mitai ni kusai desu.” Sugar drips from my words as I describe the girl’s horsey features and dung scented hair. She giggles. Jerry covers his mouth to hide his own laughter, and my stomach twists. He understood me.

His eyes catch mine; his smile softens and then turns dark. I turn away and hurry back to the bar, feeling exposed.

I tuck my tips into my bra: two dollars and ten cents—half my weekly rent. It still feels strange, paying for my own living. In Japan, when I was young, the geisha house took care of me. Then, my patron—but I do not think of him.

George grunts a goodbye as I walk out of the bar and into the cool night air. I pause for a moment to take a deep breath. Car exhaust, cigarette smoke; it is nothing like home. My heels click on the pavement as I walk.

The cigarette smoke comes from a man leaning against the wall, a few feet from the bar entrance. My heels click faster; my heart begins to flutter. His cigarette glows red as I approach.

“Hey,” he says.

“Bar is still open.” I say, not stopping.

“I’m not looking for the bar.” His fingers brush my sweater. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

I turn, and recognize him: Jerry, without his friend or his girl. My heart flutters again, but not in fear.

I realize I’d been hoping to find him, too. He drops his hand away from me, and I follow him down the street.

The Songs of Eridani – Part 2

Read The Songs of Eridani – Part 1 by clicking here.

Chapter 8

We pushed into the jungle above S’uval the next morning, my mind focusing on that special inner spot that had always centered me: I’m nothing but a man who tracks other men for pay; that is what I am, it’s what I do, and nothing else. I seek men who don’t want to be found–whether for reasons of crime, sin, personal disgrace, or some sort of queer, unknown psychological imbalance. Men who have slipped off the net, and have to be netted again so as to answer to others. That is all I am, that is all I need to be.

And I’d dealt with all those types, all those reasons. Yet never had I engaged in a commission as flaky or as suspicious as the one I now pursued. And why did I accept it? I certainly didn’t need the money,
not at this point in my career. For all I cared, Dr. Kline could have fallen down a rat-hole and been eaten by Eridani maggot-analogs.

And yet, I pictured those maggots as wearing the faces of the Directors of the Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption. There was something else going on here, and I was determined to wrench it to the surface.

I removed my field cap and swiped the sweat off my scalp with my hand, turned and waited for Laura and Pete to catch up.

"Hold up a minute, T’aylang! You hanging in there, Pete?"

Pete was panting, trying to catch his breath in the steamy air. "Is the . . . pope . . . a bear?"

"Time for a break, folks," I said.

I was suddenly aware of T’aylang by my side, studying Pete. "This man is not well-adapted to the environment or to the task at hand," he said. "Will we be required to carry him for the balance of the journey?"

"No, just give us a few minutes to rest here, Big Guy. Pete’ll be all right."

I looked sternly at Pete when I said that, hoping to drive that veiled admonition into him.

The Eridani raised his head to an erect vertical position. "This is not a safe place to stop. We are traversing a pyloc’s game trail. Similar to what you refer to in your language as a ‘big cat.’"

"So, are you seeing any?" I unclipped the holster of my firearm.

T’aylang pointed to one of the porters and barked a short command. The other Eridani began to sing, a strange polyphonous song whose ultrasonic overtones made me wince in pain.

"We will persuade any nearby ones to take an afternoon nap. But only a short one. It would be best if your colleague gets his breath back soon, so that we may continue on our way."

Pete gasped and nodded, apparently agreeing in principle with T’aylang.

The Songs of Eridani – Part 1

Chapter 1

Things grew large on epsilon Eridani III, but it was the smallest of creatures that brought us down. We were barely two days into the unexplored jungle that lay to the north of S’uval, the riverside port
village that marked the farthest reach of human colonization on the planet.

I lay prostrate and sweating on the bedroll inside my tent,
hallucinating in the throes of my fever. I was dimly aware of T’aylang,
our native guide, bending over me; his massive, cylindrical head filled
my blurry vision. In my delirium, the rainbow of colors refracting off
his eye-hoop mutated into a medieval painting, one that depicted a
terrifying, insane vision of damned souls in hell.

“I’m dying,” I said weakly.

“Death without redemption is a terrible thing to contemplate, Mr.
Bishop,” T’aylang replied.

“The databulb. Make sure it gets to Kline.” I struggled to withdraw
the bulb from underneath my sweat-drenched shirt, where it hung on a
lanyard around my neck. Somehow it seemed imperative that I not take it
into hell with me. Perhaps my own redemption depended on it.

T’aylang reached down and stilled my fumbling hand. “Best to take
it to him yourself. You will survive, as will your colleagues. Eridani
insinuates herself into your flesh as we speak. She is harsh, but not
always deadly. It is only the first step of your true journey.”

You’ve Got To Tell Your Own Tale

I only remember bits and pieces of my first night at Whitestone Wall, looking over into Lios Iridion. The crinkling fires. Tussocks of grass and hard earth underfoot. Hot dogs from a briny tin: plump and pale marshmallows on sticks. My father lifted me up to look over, and I braced myself by putting my feet against the blanched stones of the ancient wall.

On the other side it wasn’t night.

On the other side it’s never night.

Other men from the town had brought their sons, too. They sat in communal circles on foldout chairs around their own campfires, or stood at the wall themselves, holding up their boys: each and every one of them hopeful that his son was special somehow; each and every one of them hopeful that, tonight, there might be a sign.

On our side the night was a glassy black, the tree-lined ridge between us and town obscuring the stars. The shafts of many-coloured light that make up Lios Iridion took up the whole of the other horizon, tinting all faces with garish hues.

My father put his lips to my ear:

“I think I see something in there!” He whispered, his moustache scratching against my earlobe. Then, after glancing along the lines of arrayed men and boys either side of us:

“Shhhh… ”

Martha in the Manuscript

Saugerties is a pleasant place; beyond the coffee shops and fruit markets are rows of tall, colorful houses lined along endless concave streets like stretches of rainbows. But it also has the river—the same river. So even though I’m sitting on a bench that’s more than a hundred miles away from the city, except for the lighthouse, the water across from me is no different.

The lighthouse is tall with a rounded black terrace and a point on top. I watch the people linger around it. Some are inside, their backs against the windows. Others walk across a wooden dock. No one steps onto the terrace.

The bench also has me in perfect firing range of a breeze that I imagine tumbling down the mountain like little rocks, blowing against the lighthouse so the chimes hanging on the wooden dock whistle along with the rippling water. It hits often, not like the breeze in the city, which only found me between the spread of buildings.

Suddenly there’s a sound to my left. I turn and see something else that usually doesn’t find me: a tall, attractive woman, brown hair splitting at her forehead. I don’t think she’ll stop, but she does.

“You got a smoke?”

I dig my hand into my pocket, nod, and move over so she can sit.

“I gotta run,” she says, and looks at the space I made. “But I could really use a smoke.”

“Don’t you have a minute?”

She considers me carefully. “You’re new in town, right?”

I nod.

“You’re not crazy are you?”

“Depends.”

She takes the cigarette and sits, leaning in for me to light it. She smells like wine. “Depends?” she repeats, “what’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s not Tuesday,” I say. “So you’re in luck. I’m only crazy on Tuesday.”

She takes a drag of the cigarette. “That so? All right then, crazy man, what’s a guy like you doing out here alone?”

“I’d tell you, but I don’t want to give the secret away.”

“Makes sense,” she says. “Crazy people keep secrets.”

“How about this,” I begin. I realize I’m still holding the lighter so I put it away. “You tell me why you’re in such a rush, and then I’ll tell you something about me.”

She looks at her watch. I think about what I should start with. “It sounds like a fair deal, and I’d like to, but I really don’t have the time right now.”

“Probably because you’ve got secrets too.”

She seems taller the second time she stands. I want to stand too, to see if I’m taller than she is, but I decide to stay sitting. “I’ll leave that up to you, crazy man,” she says. “Thanks for the smoke. I’m sure I’ll see you again.”

Considering five minutes ago I was thinking of leaving, I’m satisfied being quiet and watching her body shrink into the distance. I take a deep breath and turn to the river. I knew there was something about this place—that proved it. A boat stops at the lighthouse. It’s the fourth of the day. Then I see someone looking at me from the terrace. I know who it is, but I can’t believe it. I stand to get a better view, but she turns and walks back into the building, and I know I won’t be able to see her again.

The Bringing Moon

Margot fiddled with the eyepieces of the binoculars. If she squinted, she could see the moon, round and white and far away in the darkening sky. She turned the knob backwards, and the moon grew until it filled the lenses. She imagined astronauts in puffy white spacesuits and bubble helmets, driving a flagpole with the United States flag into the spotted moon rock. There had been pictures like that in her history book.

“The moon doesn’t have a face, Lilly.”

“Over here.” Her sister Lilly’s hand blurred through the lens, guiding Margot’s head to the left. “Do you see it now?”

A bright yellow spot appeared in Margot’s vision. She blinked several times until her eyes focused on a grinning face, thick red lips smiling over a wide mouth of white teeth. A black line curved upwards in a swirling motion for its nose, with two crooked angles fixed for eyebrows. She turned the adjusting knob, moving the face farther away until it took the shape of a large yellow blimp floating above the stadium.

“Arturo’s Tacos,” she read. “That’s tacos. Not the moon’s face.” She set the binoculars down on the table.

“Then who brought me the bike?” Lilly puckered her lips and pressed Berry Blast lip gloss kisses on the glass.

“You don’t have a bike.”

“I asked the moon for a bike like Sarah’s, and when I woke up this morning, it’d brought me one with pink streamers. Go look.”

Margot jumped up and ran down the hallway, making sure to tiptoe when she passed Momma’s door. She pulled on her snowboots and threw open the front door of the trailer to see a small pink bike leaning against the railing. Pink and gold streamers flowed from the bike’s handlebars, and lightning bolts curved along the middle and front bars.

“Isn’t it pretty?” Lilly’s teeth chattered together.