The Fridge Whisperer

Lars crouched down on the ceramic tiles and squinted at the unit’s diagnostic panel. “You said it forced you onto a wheat-only diet plan, Miss Wheeler?”

“That’s right.” She was standing at the far end of the room, a look of unease on her slender face. Her petite nose curved above narrow lips; features that seemed remarkably familiar to him. When she’d first answered the door, Lars had almost thought he’d called in on his wife by mistake. “But that’s not all. It…talks to me.”

The unit was supposed to be conversational–provide recipe suggestions, offer dietary advice–but Lars had a feeling she meant something else entirely. He let out a deep breath and flipped the debugging switch. A blue light swelled on the panel.

“What have you been saying to Miss Wheeler?” he asked.

“I want her to know how much I adore her,” the fridge said. “The curves of her body set my circuits ablaze with passion.”

Lars glanced at the woman and raised an eyebrow. “You love her?”

“With every inch of my silicon, yes. But I fear she does not feel the same. She spurns my advances. Hides behind a wall of silence.”

Lars frowned and wiped a hand on his green coveralls. The third-gen models were prone to memory leaks, which might have warped its personality matrix. If he didn’t fix it soon, the bug could spread across the whole network. He surveyed the other appliances in the room–the dishwasher, the oven, the toaster–and wondered what a lovesick kitchen might look like. He hoped he wouldn’t have to find out.

“What am I supposed to do?” Miss Wheeler said. “Sing it love songs while it feeds me bread?”

“Not just bread.” The unit’s blue light pulsed. “She likes bagels and waffles. Pop tarts too.”

Pop tarts? Lars’ eyes shot to the small chrome box sitting on the counter. “Is that a smart-toaster, Miss Wheeler?”

She shook her head. The afternoon light bounced off her wavy hair and he saw how easily someone could fall in love with her. She really did look like his wife; she had the same brown eyes that he could get lost in forever. But the fridge wasn’t talking about her.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you back?” it pined.

Lars cracked open the panel and had a look at its settings. Sure enough, the fridge had been set up to interact with the toaster, driven slowly insane by its one-way channel. He killed the connection and hit the reset button. “That should do it.”

The woman thanked him as he got to his feet. She stared at the fridge while it booted back up, her face growing wistful. “It would be terrible to have all those emotions just wiped out like that. As if they never happened.”

“Yeah. Better to have loved and lost, I suppose,” Lars said. But as he left the kitchen he found himself rubbing the empty space on his finger where he no longer wore a ring, wishing for a reset button of his own.

Mockingdroids

Standing behind the red line, Eric watched the next person step forward.

The man looked pale, his complexion was waxy, glossy. As he made nervous small talk, Eric waved a scanner over his face, three different sensors briefly flickered red.

“Mr Carter? This way, please.” He took him out of the queue and led him into a side room. Eric kept his office neat, black desk, grey walls. There was something about simple reduction that seemed to thoroughly unnerve people.

Carter was stuttering now. “Are my- my papers right? In order? I completed all of the evaluations, I think. I- I always miss something. It’s- it’s terrible, I know…”

Eric sat and listened. He’d mastered the dull, inattentive face. Don’t engage them. Don’t let them control the conversation, but let them fill the silence.

When Carter stopped speaking, Eric studied him. “What is your business on Mercury?”

Carter smiled, but the corner of his lips twitched fractionally. It was all about fractions.

“I’ve a job- I’m applying for a job, at one of the factories.”

Slowly, Eric looked down at his pad and called up some details. “You worked for Chrome-co?”

Carter laughed, an unsuitable reaction. “Yes, well, briefly. You know…”

“No, I don’t.”

“I was just staff. I had a desk job.”

Eric caught his gaze. Held it. “Lot of androids pass through there. They make contacts, get skin jobs.”

Carter nodded. “I heard that.”

“You ever see any?”

He looked offended. “No, course not. Kept well away.”

“You never met a Ruster?”

Carter paused, unsure how to respond.

“Problem?”

“I… don’t agree with that term. Sorry.”

“If you don’t agree with it, what are you apologizing for?”

Carter looked upset, or tried to. “It’s just- I just- just…”

“Creepy mockingdroids. Trying to be better than they are. You never socialized with any of them? Never had one bugging out next to you while it tried to process how many times you blinked? I mean, there always comes a point they freak you out, am I right?”

Carter stepped forward, Eric quickly put up his hand. “Please step away from the desk, Sir.”

“I just- there’s a position for me there- I just want a chance to start somewhere fresh. It’s not been easy- I’ve not- I’ve not had it easy.”

Such desperation.

Eric sighed. “You’ve never done this before, have you?”

“Sir?”

“Passed as human?”

Carter blinked rapidly, too rapidly, he hadn’t got the art down. “I don’t know what-”

“You insult us both, you know that?”

The room was small, one thin fluorescent light hummed above them. Carter looked blank, like whatever he’d been running on till now had just given out.

It was “life” in the grinder for passing as human. Slow disassembly, invasive deprogramming. A hard wipe to dissolve any memories that had been cultivated. No appeals, no case to plead.

“You were hoping to assimilate. Best way to get by, right?”

Carter slumped. “The flesh riots were so long ago…” He was staring down at his reflection in the dark desk. “Lost so many friends since then, thought some might be on Mercury, waiting…”

Eric tutted. “You need to adjust, your mannerisms are off. Dial it back ten percent. You need to watch the stuttering, and whatever program you’re using for sweat, it’s overkill.” He stamped the ledger in front of him.

“Go to departure lounge ten.”

Carter looked stunned, almost. “Why would you-”

Eric smiled disarmingly, it’d taken him some time to get it right. “Like I say, assimilation’s best.”

Barry Charman is a writer living in North London. He has been published in various magazines, including Ambit, Firewords Quarterly, Mothership Zeta and Popshot. He has had poems published online and in print, most recently in Gyroscope Review and The Linnet’s Wings. He has a blog at http://barrycharman.blogspot.co.uk/

Eva

There was nothing Eva liked better than eating at the dining table—the clinking of forks, the silver knife playing between her fingers, dishes of all colors displayed from one side to the other… It was all very human, or so she liked to believe.

In front of her, a middle-aged woman looked at the phone resting on the placemat, reading an article instead of looking at her.

Mamá,” Eva said. Lettuce, arugula and cherry tomatoes rested comfortably on her plate, all of them untouched.

Josefa Mayoral raised her brown eyes slowly, first checking the food in front of Eva, then her face.

“Yes, darling?”

The sliced cucumbers caught her attention. Eva wondered if onions tasted as acidic as they smelled, or if the bright yellow color of eggs influenced their flavor. While she loved dinner, there were very few elements she was able to digest, and none of them could be considered food by any standard.

She took a deep breath, and thought again of the one sentence she was thinking the whole day:

“I don’t want to go tomorrow, please.”


Eva was the first and only of her kind, the prototype of all Mayoral androids. Like later models, her body was designed to have the following characteristics: a registration number carved into the sole of her left foot, the characteristic logo of Mayoral Robots in her right arm, and, more importantly, an appealing appearance.

“You could say she’s like a daughter to me,” Josefa said, lifting her up by the waist to show her to the crowd. Eva stood there, expressionless, looking at rows of curious faces. “And a case of unexpected success—you see, I hadn’t imagined she would be more than just a testing program, but she works so well, in such an astoundingly human fashion, that I modeled all of our other robots after her.”

Josefa gestured for Eva to continue, her stretched wide mouth looking less than a smile and more like a threat. Eva pulled one string of her red dress, uncovering a shoulder, and then the other, showing the soft artificial skin of her neck and cleavage.

“When I began this company, I was asked many things. There is a general misconception of what a woman can and cannot do in this industry, and I wanted to shake that belief, and show that I could bring a completely new approach to this very male-dominated space…”

A man in particular didn’t stop staring at her, not at her chest, but at her face. Someone in the crowd, someone whose face Eva could not focus on, someone holding a cellphone.

“Now, I am more than proud to say that Eva is not only the most developed sex robot in the world, but the first artificial intelligence with human-like perception,” Josefa grinned, trying to catch her breath after speaking. The dress slipped down Eva’s chest, exposing her down to her navel.

“Ms. Mayoral, a question.” It was the same man as before. Eva only saw his trench coat, his glasses, his short beard. “Your company claims to be the only one in the market who understands issues such as consent, but if Eva and the other girls—and boys—you sell are fully conscious individuals, wouldn’t—?”

“Thank you for your pertinent question, Mr. Asai,” Josefa said. “All of our androids are conscious, yes, and they have individual personalities, to understand, appreciate and respect their owner’s wishes, as well as their sexual and emotional needs. They were also built to enjoy all types of intercourse, and even have functions that help spread awareness regarding sexual and domestic violence.”

“Can you please explain how this function works?”

“Eva, can you?” Josefa asked her, and she blinked, turning to Mr. Asai.

“Of course, mamá.” Eva made a small pause, trying to focus. “As she said, it’s not only me, but all Mayoral models have a non-consensual function, in order to prevent aggressive clients to believe a real person would enjoy this kind of interaction.”

“This helps owners to understand living people’s boundaries,” Josefa added. “It was proved to be very effective.”

“If this helps prevent crimes against women, I’m more than happy,” Eva said, and smiled a bit. The journalist seemed at a loss, but stared at her intently, as if thinking of something to say.

“You would tell me if you weren’t, wouldn’t you?” Josefa asked, her voice so playful that Eva almost smiled for real.

“Of course I would, mamá.”

“Well, then, it’s time for the actual fun—please, gentlemen, form a line and follow me to the next room. Those who have paid for the full workshop will get to try Eva for twenty minutes. The rest, if you change your mind, we accept cash, online payment and credit cards.”

Open Wound

It is a night in late November. Clo is in her basement suite on the east side of Vancouver, mid-bedtime-routine. In the den the TV is turned to news coverage of the city’s homelessness crisis; she is in the bathroom, listening abstractedly. She hums to herself as she ties her hair back, plucks an eyebrow, removes her earrings. They’re plain hoop earrings she’s been wearing for years—not because she likes them, but because Maggie gave her the original thumb-tack piercings on her tenth birthday and something needs to keep those punctures open.

As she brushes her teeth, she becomes conscious of it: a wrongness. The way the mouth feels when there’s corn between the molars, but the wrongness isn’t in her mouth.

Clo thinks again of her tenth birthday. She, Maggie and their mother had been living in a duplex at the time. It was the kind of neighborhood in which dogs barked at night and drunken voices told them to fuck off. Their mother didn’t work much; she’d been in a car accident. She got migraines. Every week they went to the food bank and took what they could get, and when they ran out they ate macaroni. For their birthdays, though, their mother always went out to a confectionary and bought a cupcake, a careful masterpiece of pink and blue icing. Then she stuffed it full of candles.

Clo remembers everything about that day clearly. She remembers sitting eagerly at the dining table, the rain at the windows; remembers the pain radiating from the two points of her earlobes; and she remembers how, slow as a waltz, the Happy Birthday began.

At first it was only her mother’s full, high voice. Then Maggie joined with her pubescent quavering. And then, finally, there entered that other throat, that deeper, scratchier throat that made Clo shiver.

Standing in her bathroom, Clo freezes with the toothbrush in her mouth. Why is she remembering a deep voice?

The news is still on in the living room; Clo turns it off and concentrates. She sees the memory play out: the song quieting as her mother sets the cupcake in front of her, her blowing out all the candles at once, easily, her looking up and seeing a room full of smoke—and through it, a broad-shouldered figure across the table.

A man.

A man wearing a maroon cardigan and holding himself like a spider: motionless, waiting.

Clo almost chokes on her toothpaste.

The Girl in the Glass Block Window

My grandfather shoved me into the basement and locked the door behind me. The cold, damp smell wrapped around me, and thin sunlight slipped in through glass block windows set high into the walls.

He didn’t like having me underfoot, so I spent a lot of time in the basement.

In the summer, I could sit on stairs and read. But it was late January, and too cold to be still, even wrapped in the cedar-scented wool blanket that I’d stolen from the dusty room where he stored the other things that my mother had left behind.

I jogged around the rotting workbench, hugging the blanket tight.

Between one step and another, I saw her, fragmented into a thousand pieces by the panes inside the glass blocks. A girl, older than me, with long black hair and shadowed eyes.

I dragged a broken chair over to the wall and balanced on it, face even with the window.

She stared back at me from a hundred angles, her face twisted into a plea for help.

I fell off the chair.


She was always there, after that. Maybe she’d always been there, waiting for someone to see her. But I’d seen horror movies, and I knew that I couldn’t trust her. She probably wanted to steal my body. She couldn’t have a body herself, trapped inside that window.

Still, it was hard to face her.


I snuck into the closed room and stripped the sheets off of the bed. I pulled the quilt back up over the bare mattress and smoothed it out.

I pictured my mother’s hand, smoothing the same spot.

The sheets made serviceable curtains. The basement was darker, but I felt better with the windows covered.


I dreamed that my mother came back for me, but she had the girl from the window’s eyes.


Time slipped by. My grandfather sent me to the basement anytime he noticed me, so I made myself quiet and small. I didn’t try to make friends–it didn’t seem worth the effort. And trusting people had never worked out for me.

I ran away on my 15th birthday. I took the wool blanket and $400 that my grandfather had hidden in a pickle jar. I hid in the woods for a week and lived on food I bought in the gas station. I should have gone to the city, should have had a destination. My mother knew where she was going when she left.

But I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I slept under the stars and felt giddy with freedom.

I was standing next to the Hostess rack, trying to decide what snack cake I wanted for breakfast, when a friendly voice said, “I imagine there’s someone looking for you, honey.”

I bolted, but the cops were already outside. They put me into the back of their car, and I wept all the way back to my grandfather’s house.

He pushed me straight into the basement.

I tore the curtains down and stared at the girl in the window. She hadn’t aged–hadn’t changed at all since I’d covered her up.

“If you want my life, you can have it,” I said. She pressed a distorted hand to a hundred surfaces inside the glass block. Her dark eyes glittered like stars.

My grandfather had a battered set of golf clubs in one corner, and I swung one at the window. The club bounced back, leaving a single white chip in the middle of the center block. I swung again with a cry of frustrated rage. The window cracked, a splintered spider web that spread across the panes. I waited for the girl to flow into me, to take over my body and thrust me out.

Nothing happened.

I stared at the window, at each place where I’d seen her pleading face and bottomless eyes.

She was gone.

She was free.

And I had freed her.

I slumped beneath the broken window and cried.

The next day, I saw a glimpse of her, reflected in Tina Thompson’s glasses. Maybe–maybe I could try trusting someone. What else did I have to lose?

I met Tina’s eyes and smiled. “Hey. Did you do the homework? What did you get for number 4?”

She smiled back, and told me.

Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 130 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Cast of Wonders. She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, and her science fiction novella, Moving Forward, are available on Amazon.com. Her debut novel, Left-Hand Gods is available from Hadley Rille Books. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

A Wizard of Kospora

The cowbell on the gate cut through the music. Mela’s mom stopped in the middle of a sentence. Glanced at dad. He looked sharply at Verry, who set his fiddle against the wall and disappeared inside. Lyran caught Mela’s hand and the two stepped back into the shadows. Her brother returned carrying two crossbows as the three strangers reached the light coming from the porch.

“You’re trespassing on private property.” Her dad and brother aimed at the mercenaries to either side of a cloaked man.

The man held up both hands. “We mean no harm. I am Kippis, Wizard of Kospora. My companions are King’s Guards, Tatkin and Doresse. Have we reached the farm of Lennert of Lomn?”

Dad nodded stiffly, but didn’t lower his crossbow. “I’m Lennert.”

Mela’s brow furrowed. Kospora had no king. Hadn’t in hundreds of years. And wizards were the stuff of stories.

Kippis smiled. “We’re seeking someone very important to all of Kospora. A great danger has arisen in the South. We’ve seen signs that the Shayden are rebuilding their army. The winds bring tales that they’ve uncovered an old grimoire and seek to raise terrors last seen in the War of Etwese to reclaim their power.

“Here in Kospora, a new generation of wizards has reformed the Council of the Enlightened. Just like the wizards of old, they are sworn to do everything they can to protect our kingdom. Our land stands to this day only because King Illys, Ninth of his Name, unlocked the seals of Xew and awoke the Winter Knights from their eternal slumber.

“Only one of his bloodline would be able to repeat that feat. My brethren and I scour the land, chasing rumors. Studying town records to find any trace of the remnants of his line. One of my colleagues, a great seer, consulted the stars, the cards, the runes. All auguries agree: we seek an orphan living somewhere in the Okerns.”

Lyran and Mela exchanged an excited look. Nothing ever happened in the sleepy, agrarian Okerns.

“Unfortunately, auguries being what they are, they could give no better advice. But we have other resources and those led us here. We believe your niece Lyran could be the one week seek.”

Everyone turned to stare at Lyran, who shook her head. Her hand crushed Mela’s.

Lennert snorted. “Lyran’s hardly an orphan. My brother is still quite alive.”

As far as they knew. A sailor’s life was never guaranteed. But then again, no one’s was.

“But her mother?” Kippis asked, an eyebrow quirked. “Died in childbirth, no? Do you know her line? Her family’s history?”

Their parents exchanged a look that clearly showed how startled they were by the question.

“They were from the next village over. Of course, we knew them.”

The wizard and his companions exchanged a significant look.

“Knew. As in dead? Bennan said the line had dwindled,” Kippis said, more to his companions than the family. Lyran’s grip tightened on her hand. Mela glanced over and caught her pleading look.

“But Lyran is not an orphan. She cannot be the one you’re looking for,” she said.

Their mom smiled. Wrinkles smoothing on her face. “My daughter speaks the truth. Lyran has a father and family. We can’t help you.”

The wizard’s hand fluttered dismissively. “Oracles are vague. They might not have meant ‘orphan.’ Orphan might have been the only word they could find for motherless and abandoned by her father.”

Mom’s lips thinned. Dad’s eyes narrowed. They’d raised Lyran since birth, and Mela knew they considered her as much their child and Mela and her brother. How dare these strangers barge in here and judge her family?

“My brother did not abandon his child.” Dad’s voice was steely. Lyran’s free left hand went to the pendant hanging around her throat. Uncle Tavall sent it for Lyran’s birthday only five months back when she turned fifteen.

“We do have a way to prove the Methinald bloodline.” The wizard swung his pack around, shoved his hand down into the depths, and withdrew an object wrapped in a shimmery purple silk.

The fabric unwound to reveal a silver coronet shaped like a bird. A crow. They were sacred in Kospora. The Methinald kings had taken crows as their sigil. Its head bent to the side and beak opened to clasp a brilliant ruby. Wings spread to either side creating the round sides of the coronet.

“This was the coronet of the king-to-be. Upon the head of the chosen heir of the land, the stone will glow.” Eyebrows raised, he held the coronet up and faced Lyran.

She made a tiny squeak of dismay that Mela didn’t think anyone else heard. Their parents looked at each other.

Mela slipped her hand free and took the coronet. The wizard frowned, but he let her take it. She gave Lyran a funny smile, meant to be reassuring, as she set the coronet on Lyran’s head.

Tension slipped from Mela’s shoulders. The silver coronet sat there and did noth–a faint red glow appeared in the heart of the ruby. Startled, she took a step back. Watching the hope die in Lyran’s eyes broke her heart.

The wizard and his companions fell to their knees. “Your Highness.”

Her cousin ripped the coronet off her head and stared at the now brightly glowing ruby. The light faded in her hands.

“I’m not.” She shot beseeching looks at their parents, at Mela.

Kippis stood slowly. “My dear, you are the hope of all Kospora. Without you, the Shayden will swallow us whole. You must come with us to Kressler.”

“Now wait a minute here,” dad said. “You’re not taking my niece anywhere.”

“Sir, please hear what we are saying. We’re not the only ones looking for her. We can’t be. The Shayden know that only one of the Methinald can summon the Winter Knights. They were winning in the War of Etwese until Illys brought the Winter Knights into the war. Without the Knights, we don’t stand a chance and they know it.

“What better way to ensure our loss than kill off every last Methinald? Can you protect her when Shadows slip into your farm in the dark of night, armed with their blackblades, crawling across your ceilings to her bedroom?

“Are you and your son crack shots with those crossbows and proficient in swordplay? I don’t think your village has so much as a lawman. Do you know anyone in a fifty-mile radius skilled in any sort of combat? Do you think they’ll assassinate only Lyran? You have an entire family to protect.”

Dad’s face had creased into a worried frown, but at those last words he glowered. “You think I would sacrifice my niece to protect my other children?”

“No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.” The wizard shook his head.

“He only meant if you let us protect Lyran, all your loved ones will be safe. Lyran included,” the guard Doresse said.

“This isn’t something to decide tonight–”

“But the Shayden–”

“If they kill us all in our sleep tonight, feel free to gloat,” dad said. “Kids, it’s time for bed.”

He took the coronet from Lyran and shoved it back into the hands of the wizard. She pivoted and dashed into the house. Mela hurried after her. Her cousin’s feet pounded down the hall overhead before she reached the stairs.

Though she ran upstairs, her cousin was already in bed, under the covers. Tossing looks over her shoulder every few minutes at her still and quiet cousin, she undressed and turned out the light.

“I am NOT leaving.”

“It might be safest.”

An outraged huff. “You would send me away with them?”

“If they’re right–”

“I can’t believe you.”

Mela threw a pillow at her. “Would you let me talk? That crown lit up. You’re not safe here. If the South’s really rising, they will send assassins for you. I’m not saying you should go off alone with them. I’ll come with you. Maybe Verry will come too.”

“Dad needs him on the farm. He needs you both.”

“Needs all of us, I’d say.”

“Exactly. Which is why I intend to stay right here in Lomn.”

“You know you can’t. We’ll all die. I will go with you. Even if no one else can. We’ll send word to Uncle Tavall. Kressler’s one of his ports of call. He’ll come as soon as he can. You won’t be alone with them.”

The Pull of the Earth

Kenese Umaga had not yet gotten used to the twists and turns of corridors in Alpha station, even after a year. She wouldn’t say she was lost, exactly. Not on the way to the lab that she worked at every day. No.

Confused maybe. Turned around. Not lost.

She put it down to trying to walk and talk at the same time.

“I thought you said this would only take an hour,” she said into her comm as she hesitated at the junction of sections two and three. A passing technician gave her a small smile and a gentle head tilt in the direction she should be going and she took a moment to nod in thanks.

“We had problems with some of the core concepts,” Martine said in her ear. “Look, I can turn the translator back on for you, but it will delay my work by a day if I don’t get this done before third shift.”

“Martine, I need these samples, and I can’t take them if he can’t understand what I’m asking for.”

“You really need to be able to talk to him? You’ve done this a hundred times.”

Kenese sighed in frustration, but quietly so Martine wouldn’t hear. “I can’t just walk in there and start sticking him with needles. It wouldn’t be polite.”

“The samples will have to wait then,” Martine said briskly. “Anyway, I know you had other plans for this afternoon, Manny was going on about it in rec yesterday.”

Kenese had forgotten she had plans.

She finally turned the corner to Eli’s corridor and stopped, just before walking in front of the glass wall that made up one side of his quarters. “Shit,” she said. “Okay Martine, I can leave these samples until later. You think you’ll only need an hour for the translator update to be finished?”

“Less than that.”

“Good.”

Kenese switched off her comm, still standing just outside Eli’s line of sight. The glass wall that made up one entire side of his cell could be made opaque, if he should wish it. Eli never asked for privacy, however. There might have been a time, when he first joined them, when one of the scientists could have flipped the switch themselves — given him the privacy he possibly wanted but did not have the language with which to ask.

That time passed, however, and now the corridor to what most called his cell was avoided by all who could manage it, and traversed quickly by those who could not.

Kenese’s comm crackled and Manifred’s deep, amused voice sounded in her ear. “I’m waiting in Airlock Q with a space suit that is far too small for me, Umaga,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Manny,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

The Off Switch

I just beat Keith Jeffers out of the cafeteria. Call Guinness! Jeffers, The Great Lightspeed, nipping at my heels for once, not the other way around. He wouldn’t even pass for a jock–scrawny, weasel-faced, reddish mop of hair. I can smell his body odor. Any closer, and his legs’ll get tangled up in mine. My bell-bottoms flap around my ankles.

“No way!” he guffaws. Keith’s the only one in gym class who actually laughs his way around the wide, wide track while the rest of us lag behind, wheezing.

Here comes Mark Walford with his bowl haircut, juggling an armful of books, looking everywhere but where he’s going. I give him a shove. Down he goes, books flying.

That costs me my lead; Keith matches me step for step now. “You and Sandee going out tonight?” he asks. Today’s Friday.

“Tomorrow.” He knows I never miss Chico and the Man. We slow to a walk, knowing what’s up ahead. By the time we reach the first floor, we’re practically crawling.

“Metal,” I growl, “shop.”

Where the teacher is paddle-happy, especially if you’re late. But they can’t crook their little fingers and make me show up whenever they want! I know my Constitutional rights as an American citizen.

All right, no paddling–substitute teacher today. Final bell, released for the day: I lose Keith in the mob of erupting, laughing, spitball-shooting classmates. Home to dinner. After Stepmom–mom to me, really–serves up potato stroganoff Hamburger Helper transformed into something you couldn’t match in any fancy restaurant, and I help her with the dishes and haul out the garbage, I move our phone from the kitchen counter to the kitchen table, tip back in my chair until I touch the wall, and spin Sandee’s number.

“Have you heard?” she asks.

“What’s that?”

“Mark Walford. He said he’s going to kill himself.”


Mark Walford. Round moon-face, taller than Keith but shorter than me–not many people tower over me–overweight enough for Keith to yell “Hey Meatball!,” sheepish enough for Joe Teal to tag him “Dork,” and enough into all those radiation-spawned city-stomping monsters for me to call him “Godzilla.”

Actually, before that, I called him Wallflower. Somewhere along the line, I changed it. It was me who dubbed Keith The Great Lightspeed, and that caught on, but I guess lightning doesn’t strike twice. Meatball was what everyone called Mark, including me, though I still kind of hope they’ll start using Godzilla.

Sandee’s in Walford’s Third Bell English class, and she saw it all. Mark raised his hand, and when called on, stood up and made his announcement.

“What did Mrs. Olson do?” I asked.

“She just asked him to sit down. Had him stay after class for a talk.”

“He’s clowning.”

“Do you know how he said he’d do it?”

She waits. Finally I ask, “How?”

“He thinks that somewhere on the human body, there’s something like an off switch. Press it, trip it, and that’s it. No pain, no mess. You’re just dead.”

One Hundred Years and Five Minutes

He reminds me of myself on my first ride. Leg bounces up and down. Sweat builds around the edges of the black suit. Doesn’t know which way to look. I can’t help but smile. I have to say something to break the tension.

“Hey, kid.”

He snaps his head around from staring out the window at nothing.

“Sir?” Respectful. I like that.

“Here’s a little something my mentor told me during my first day at the big show. He said, ‘There used to be an old saying. Death waits for no man. But today…’” He leans in, expecting something meaningful. “…it waits for us.’”

He settles back in his seat, thinking. “What does that mean exactly, sir?”

“Damned if I know.” I offer the old belly laugh that causes him to twitch, shocked by just how loud I can get.

He gives a nervous chuckle because it’s what he knows he should do.

I switch to a more comfortable subject. “You have everything?”

His reader and test kit are out in a flash.

“Yes, sir. But, sir?”

In my best fake, stern voice: “Recruit?”

“Do I administer both tests before I take out the reader, or do I do one, check it, then go for the other?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

We hit the expressway. Cars move out of the way as usual. A bus load of young students gawk and point with fear and awe.

The kid starts up again, “Yeah, but the manual states…”

“Relax. You do whatever feels natural.”

He takes a second to process with a shake of his head. “Okay, sir. I guess I can do that. But, oh, there’s another thing I’m worried about, sir.”

I chuckle. His eyes are really bugging out of his skull now.

“What if he’s a runner?”

I take Exit 36, Mara Street, and move through the lights. Some more stares from people out in the streets. It’s a beautiful day – sun, just a couple clouds.

“Sir? I asked…”

“He won’t run. Nobody runs.”

“But…”

“In thirty-five years nobody’s run.”

“Nobody, sir?”

“What’s the point? The system gives us the green light to start the process with the flick of a button whether he’s there or not. We all know how much time we’ve got left. So, where are you going to run to?”

I turn down Keres. Just a couple more streets now. I check the time. Perfect like always.

“I just thought some would run, that some people wouldn’t want to face it. I know I’d be afraid,” the kid says as he adjusts his dark tie in the side mirror.

Final left onto Donn. A neighbor getting their mail watches as we pull up across the street. I kill the engine and slowly turn to the kid.

“We’re all afraid. But, you’ll see. People are stronger than you think when it comes to this stuff. It’s our job to keep ‘um that way.”

We hold onto a stare that probably has some profound meaning behind it for him. Maybe not. I turn away and chuckle.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, nothing,” I contain myself. Return to professionalism.

“Time?”

“Four-fifty-eight.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

We exit in unison. I walk around to the kid’s side of the car that’s facing the quaint, brick house. More neighbors are out now watching from porches and windows. Some pretend to walk a pet or get something from their car. We’re the best show in town – a preview of coming attractions they just can’t miss.

That’s when I notice the kid is breathing hard with these strong, uneasy breaths. Stage fright. I take one of his hands and pull his attention away from the growing crowd.

“Remember, I do all the talking for this first one.” He nods. “You just worry about the samples.”

The kid takes a final, deep breath. He settles. I let go of his hand. His foot starts tapping again as he starts looking around. I turn to him and hold him by the shoulders, getting eye to eye.

“We’re not here for them,” I hear the creak of the front door. “We’re here for him.”

We turn to face the doorway. The kid snaps to the prescribed pose: hand over hand at the belt.

The patron is out on his front steps, his family and friends behind him. He’s a tall guy, thick shock of black hair, lean but with some muscle, just a few wrinkles. Looks good for one-hundred. Hell, everybody looks good nowadays.

The patron exchanges final hugs and begins the long, slow walk down his rock footpath. The crunch of stones is the only sound throughout the neighborhood. The sun feels nice.

The kid reaches for his tools. I stay his hand. Not yet, not until he’s made his way because – then it happens. The patron’s wife sprints off the porch.

“Michael,” she gasps and grabs onto him.

They hold each other tight, who knows how many years of joy are in that embrace. They kiss. He whispers something she’ll never tell another soul. He wipes away her tears but they return. Eventually, she is joined by other relatives and friends who have to work to pull her back. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

Everyone has instinctively gravitated towards the patron by this point. Even his neighbors are closing in as if attracted by some energy they can’t deny. The best show in town.

The patron finally approaches.

“Michael Paul DeLeo?” I say in a soft yet presentational tone.

“That’s me,” he manages to get out and forces a smile.

“My assistant will now administer an identification check.”

He nods.

The kid carefully tugs a strand of the patron’s hair with his tweezers then swabs the inside of his mouth. He feeds both samples into the reader. It was warm for that time of year. After a moment, the kid gives me a nod. I extend my arm, motioning at the backseat door. The kid opens it for the patron.

“What do you guys think,” the patron says with a sly grin, “should I look back?”

“Your call, sir,” I say, returning the smile.

The patron turns and waves once to all the onlookers. He blows a kiss to his wife and waits for her to catch it. He gets in, wiping away tears. The kid shuts the door and gets in the front seat. I take my time shuffling to the driver’s side.

When we’re all settled, I meet eyes with the patron in the rearview mirror.

“Musical preference, sir?”

The kid shoots a horrified look my way. I keep my eyes on the patron.

“Hadn’t thought of that,” the patron says as he continues to stare out the tinted windows. He pauses, thinking. “Got any Elvis?”

“Love Elvis. Any song?”

“How about, Fools Rush In.”

“Excellent choice.”

I find the song on my music player before pulling away. The patron watches out the back window as his family and friends run behind the car. I keep it slow until he turns away as we take a right on Aker. When he faces forward, he’s crying again.

Now he needs my help. “Can I ask you something, sir?”

I can see the patron is breathing hard. His hands are shaking. Bravery only takes you so far.

“Huh? Okay?” he mumbles, somewhat puzzled. I get more daggers from the kid but continue to ignore them.

“I’m retiring soon and I’m thinking about traveling. Seeing the world. Any recommendations?”

The kid begins to say something, but I catch him the moment I hear him clear his throat. I put a hand on his and it quiets him.

“I’m not so…” the patron begins, but stops himself. He sits back, wiping away the last of his tears. He’s looking around this way and that, hands fumbling in his lap.

I continue, trying to keep eye contact: “I heard there is a lot to see in Europe?”

“I’m not, I don’t…” the patron tries to eke out. He shakes his head.

“Just whatever comes to mind,” I say softly. “Man, I love this song.”

“Yeah, me too,” he says.

Something clicks.

“You know what,” the patron exclaims as he leans forward and puts his arms between me and the kid on our headrest. Now I’ve got him. “I know a place, lovely, great little place. Have you ever heard of Montepulciano?”

“Nope, you?” I say, bringing the kid into the conversation. He shakes his head, still angry.

The patron keeps talking: “It’s this gorgeous city in Northern Italy, about an hour outside of Rome.”

“Italy, huh?”

“Yeah. Absolutely beautiful.” He’s smiling now. “A fairytale.”

“How’s that?”

“Oh, God. It was this medieval mountain top town with these tight, cobblestone streets, cute, little houses with those terra-cotta roofs, all nestled tightly together. And the view of the Tuscan countryside, man. I can still see it.”

“Yeah, a sight to see?”

His hands finally settle as he leans away from us into the backseat.

“My wife and I went for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We actually met there in college…” The patron keeps reliving the memory.

The kid takes out his reader. The assignment has been approved. We are ready to start the process. I nod for the kid to go ahead. He taps his reader’s screen.

“I remember we went to this little corner restaurant one evening…”

And he’s gone. Slumped over, eyes closed. The kid’s alarm goes off. He’s quick to quiet it. I turn off The King.

“Time?”

The kid barks: “What the hell was that, sir? You know how many codes you just violated?”

“Time?” I repeat a little louder.

“For starters, the manual says, Article Six, Section Two, no extra conversation beyond what is necessary or at the request of…”

“Time?” I scream, staring him down.

We move down another side street, edging toward the highway.

The kid checks his reader. “Five past five.”

“Good. Mark it.”

The kid fiddles with some buttons.

“Marked. Announcement sent.”

There’s a silent moment of tension between us I know it’s my duty to break. “Let me ask you something. Why did you want this job?”

Without thinking he responds: “Because it’s important. It’s noble. We all deserve this and it has to be done.”

“You’re right,” I say, grinning. I swear he’s my clone. “But you’ve still got a lot to learn.”

He looks in the rearview at the patron. He starts readjusting his tie again, pretending he’s not looking, but he can’t take his eyes off him. We are all only so brave. I rub his shoulder.

“It’s okay, kid. The first one is tough.”

He takes his time with the words. “Jesus, he’s really dead, isn’t he?”

We storm up the highway, the engine revving up to speed. Beautiful day to be driving.

“Take a good long look, kid.” I gun it into the fast lane. “And think about what you want your last five minutes to be like.”

Jonathan Pickering is an emerging writer and teacher from a suburb of Boston. He is the author of 20/20: The Iraq and Afghanistan Narratives, a collection of oral histories from the men and women who served in these conflicts. For more from Jon, please visit www.jonathanpickering.com.

Doing business

The lift was crowded, and Bertrand felt sorry for the tramp squeezing his way from passenger to passenger with his dirty hat. The fellow looked more deserving than some he could name. But it was money; Bertrand looked away, hoping the tramp wouldn’t get to him. Then the lift stopped with a, ding!, everyone else got out, and the tramp confronted him squarely. “Any change, gov’nor?”

Bertrand dug into his pocket and handed over a pound coin with as good grace as he could muster. And as he stepped out into the twelfth floor lobby of Brascobank, heading for Operations, he heard a wheezed, “Thank you”.

There were no more thank-yous that morning. None from the Chief Executive’s hustlers shaking their collection boxes (one pound each), nor from Sandra with her biscuits at reception (fifty pee), nor from Bill the security guard with his sandwiches (two pounds each). Bernard didn’t fancy the sandwiches, and he dropped one into the hat of Big John, who sat in the corridor leading to Operations, huge limbs tucked up under his chin, and at least gave a grateful nod.

Bertrand tried to give the other sandwich to his boss Irene in exchange for one of her cakes (‘Freshly-baked – Family to support!’), but it was returned with a firm smile, and he had to dig into his pocket (another pound – and the cake was gooey!). The sandwich was no more use with Cindy when she accosted him, scantily-clad, in the corridor. And Bertrand didn’t even try it with Sam and Chaz from Accounts – who, like Scylla and Charybdis, threatened passers-by from either side of the narrow aisle.

“Come on guys, I’ve got deals to process,” Bertrand appealed.

It was no use. “We’re here to help,” Sam said, manoeuvring between Bertrand and his cubicle.

“We protect you,” said Chaz. “And we make sure your deals get booked,” he added with a wink.

There was nothing for it: Bertrand fished out another pound.

“Ta!” said Sam, closing his palm on the coin. “And one more.” He held out his other hand.

Bertrand grimaced, tried his pocket again, but found only a fifty pence piece. This time Sam closed his fist, so the coin bounced off his knuckles onto the floor.

“Not getting cheap, are we?” Chaz came up menacingly.

Exasperated, Bertrand pulled a fiver from his wallet and asked for change.

“That’ll do nicely,” Chaz said, snatching the banknote. “Pleasure to do business with you.” And he and his mate lumbered off down the aisle to shake down someone else.

Bertrand stood fuming as he looked after the departing pair. If he were five years younger…. But discretion – and the hope that he could now get on with his work – took the better part of valour: he stayed by his cubicle. Yet it hurt. Sixteen quid down just getting to his desk – and the whole day still ahead. It made working a marginal proposition, as his wife would say.

Bertrand switched on his PC, and as he sat down, Brasco’s motto, ‘Let’s do business!’, whirled across the screen. He felt something on the seat; he looked down, and it was the sandwich, rather squashed in its clingfilm wrap. He might as well give that to Big John too, along with Irene’s cake.

Then Irene came by and asked for sponsorship for her daughter’s school fees.

Bertrand groaned. “Aren’t you supposed to…” (how to put it to his own boss?) “…to give me something in return? Like a business thing?” Brasco was trying to encourage entrepreneurialism, but this was just extortion.

“If you want to make an issue of it…,” Irene said, fingering her jewellery.

Well! Bertrand, on the brink, considered doing just that. But he needed the job, and the whistle-blower programme was hardly secure (and you had to pay there too). No, he had to swallow it. Taking out his wallet, he asked the going rate.

“Whatever you like. It’s voluntary, and much appreciated,” Irene murmured, fixing him with a steady gaze.

Bertrand found a fiver, and to his relief that was enough. With a little sniff his boss took herself off, skirt swishing down the aisle.

Smarting under this latest blow, Bertrand didn’t even see Internal Audit. Only a discreet cough alerted him to yet another caller on his finances. He didn’t have to pretend when he said he was cleaned out, and so Internal Audit took himself off whistling, with a promise to be back the following day.

What a start to the morning! Bertrand struggled to get into his work. As lunchtime approached, his eye fell on the squashed sandwich and the cake which still lay sadly on his desk. And he had an idea.