TCL #29 – Fall 2018

I Am Mary

This morning is not good, like yesterday. Mr. Jones is unwell. He hasn’t been well since we came here. I am sad about that. I am a wife, Mary, Mr. Jones’s wife. I used to call him ‘Bob’, but everyone here calls him ‘Mr. Jones’, so I do too.

Mr. Jones and I have been here for three months. We came here after hospital, when he had his stroke. Mr. Jones can’t do much for himself anymore, so I help him. I wash him, I feed him, I take him to the toilet, I change his clothes. Doing these things is good. It makes me feel good. I love Mr. Jones.

In the afternoon, Mr. Jones seems better. So I dress him in his suit, and he goes down to the lounge to meet the others. Of course he doesn’t go by himself. I wheel him down. And when he is there he can’t speak or talk to the others. But he looks smart in his suit, supported by the cushions, and I am proud of him. He looks at me sometimes. I am sure he loves me.

There are only old men in this place, men like Mr. Jones who can’t look after themselves. The old women are in another place. I don’t know why they don’t have them together, just like outside. I said this to Matron once. But Matron just smiled, and said, “You’re a strange one, dear.”

There are the other wives, of course. Today, Samantha is standing next to me. Her husband is very old. “I like your dress,” I say to Samantha. The green goes with her blonde hair. “Thank you. I like yours, too,” she says, and she smiles. We usually say this to each other, and it is true. Our dresses don’t change.

At five o’clock there are visitors to the lounge. I like this time, there is so much to see and listen to. Men and women come in, even children. Some of them smile at me.

Mr. Jones has a daughter called Sue who visits every week. She says thank you to me. I like her. her hair goes behind one ear. Once she brought me a bracelet. I’m wearing it now. Sue is a wife, but she is a visitor-wife. She lives outside. Her husband never comes, though.

Sue talks to Mr. Jones – oh, the things she talks about! I didn’t know there were so many things in the world. She talks about cooking, food, her children, her boss, holidays, her husband, so many things! I could listen to her for hours. And I think Mr. Jones likes it too. I wish I could talk like Sue, it would help him.

Mr. Jones’s son Byron doesn’t visit often. When he comes, he doesn’t say much to his father but just looks around the room, at the wives, mostly. He looks at me too, in a not-good way. But I must be nice to him. He is Mr. Jones’s son.

The days are good here. It doesn’t take me long to recharge. Downloads come through smoothly, I have more capabilities now. But Mr. Jones is getting worse, and I am sad about that. What will happen to him? What will happen to me?

50 Mile Station

It was Brazil, he had to keep reminding himself. Variations of green and brown, and lakes, rivers, and far on the horizon, the indigo edge of the ocean pressed upon his eyes in sharp detail. He stared at it for hours at a time.

A red barrel slid past the window, smooth and big as a ship, blocking his view. Jerrel noted the numbers as they slowly slipped by: 7… 0… 5… 1… A. The 7 meant that it was from San Francisco, but he knew that already because it was red. Every barrel was at least half windowed, by law, unless it was a nuclear one. Black bags and plastic bottles were crushed against the windows that were smeared with black mold. This matched the stated contents of the manifest: trash. It traveled up the cord. A few seconds later it picked up speed and would be released when it reached geosynchronous orbit, in a few hours.

7051A content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

The ISS zoomed above him, Jerrel barely glanced at it. It was as ordinary as the hand of a clock, marking every hour and a half. Marking every time he would kiss the picture of his daughter. This started as a tool to help him cope with being alone, but now if he missed the kiss because he didn’t notice the ISS, he panicked. Only kissing the picture 20, 30, 40 times would calm him down again. This concerned him, but he couldn’t stop.

The barrels came about every hour. He was to visually inspect the contents and confirm that they matched the manifest. This one was a Dallas White. These were less rusty than the reds; their barrels were newer because they had not been allowed to use the Vator until about a year ago. 4… 3… 8… C… 3. Liquid, unspecified type. Dallas won the right to keep the exact content of their barrels private, after years of failed negotiations, during which thousands of citizens died from the nuclear waste in the water supply. Finally, the North American Elevator Corp decided they needed Dallas as a customer more than they needed to know what was in their barrels.

438C3 content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

It was hard to be vigilant, knowing that the barrels had already been checked three times further down the tube. Jerrel was not doing anything that a computer could not do, mostly. They used to not check at all, except on the loading dock, of course. Windows were required back then, but you could just pay the fine and send a solid barrel up no problem. That was before the Heist of ‘89, where five nuclear waste barrels came crashing back down to earth and it took countless billions to repair the elevator. So now, lots of checking. At the ten mile high station, every barrel was checked. At twenty they were checked again. Jerrel was at the third and last station, fifty miles up, and he was required to check twelve barrels in each 24 hour period.

A blue barrel came into view. New York. A nuclear one without windows. The counter embedded in the wall of the barrel showed high levels of radiation. Content confirmed.

Jerrel was doing a three week shift. The intention was that he would work for twelve hours and rest for twelve. There were five TVs permanently set to ‘ON’ for twelve hours per day to ensure this. Jerrel could neither change the channel nor the volume. Three were entertainment channels, one was the weather, the other was North American Elevator Corp’s station. At first he watched the NAEC station a lot. He was excited about his new job and wanted to learn all he could about the company. The station had a running ticker of barrel prices, speeds, trajectories and contents. Sometimes a person would talk about statistics like how many tons of nuclear waste and plastics had been removed from the Earth, or which city had removed the most waste per capita, or how NAEC’s performance compared with the other two elevators belonging to China (in Congo) and Australia (in Indonesia).

7051A trajectory 5.50:Delta:2300, according the computer. The magnetic satellite successfully deflected the barrel with opposing high field pulses to keep it away from the satellite rings, not to mention itself, and send it safely into dead, blank space.

Every night at ten p.m. he NAEC TV told him ‘Thank you and good night!’ and went black, but did not turn off like the other TVs did. Jerrel had tried to follow the designated routine for a while, but he could only sleep for two hours at a time. So after a few days of only two hours per night, he needed the freedom to nap. He cut the wires to four of the TVs. He didn’t touch the NAEC TV. The fact that it never turned off worried him.

The paycheck for this job was extraordinary. A year’s worth of salary down below, for three weeks of work. He had been on the waiting list for this job for two years, and now that he was here, he could not understand why it paid so much. It was true that he was not allowed to contact anyone on Earth by any means. There was not a keyboard in the entire station. It was hard being away from all human contact for three weeks, certainly, but not that hard. He was showing signs of being stressed, such as insomnia, losing weight and doing that kiss-the-picture thing, but it really wasn’t that bad.

The only people he could contact were the guys in the stations below, but that was only in case of emergency. He had access to top-secret company intelligence, and it needed to stay that way, is what they said, or else he would lose all salary. What that special intelligence possibly could be, Jerrel didn’t know. The contents and trajectories of all the barrels were broadcast to the world on the NAEC station.

438C3 trajectory 2.31:Alpha:2692. Another safe ejection.

Jerrel was heading to the rack for a nap when the turd alarm went off.

Those fucking SF barrels. The SF people mixed the exterior paint with repulsion mag powder to make them extra fast, was the thinking. What really happened was they all got stuck to each other and came up the pipe in long lines like a turd. This had never actually been a problem, though if there was too much constipation it could destabilize the Vator, so he was required to observe and report. So far, the long turds always broke up and found their random trajectories just like all the other barrels.

This turd was mostly trash. Flies buzzed around the windows, craving the light of his station. It was a short ride, only about ten hours from the bottom, so there was usually enough air for living things to breathe.

7… 5… 1… N… 6. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

7… R… 2… 0… 2. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

7… 3… 4… 6… P. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

He couldn’t see very far down the elevator, all the equipment was in the way, but the alarm said there were five more to go. Jerrel completed the report and went to take his overdue nap.

The Heat Death of Everything I Love

Before the old church doors, in the warm darkness of the vestibule, Sabine’s mother stooped down to look her daughter in the eyes.

“What you were is past.”

She swept aside the veil of the girl’s communion dress—a billowy thing like a crown of unspooled gauze—and blotted her tears out with a thumb. Shrill music crept in from the sanctuary, dissonant chords from a heat-warped organ.

“What you will be is yet to come.”

Smiling wide, she held her child’s face in calloused hands. Her daughter, her anxious little girl on the threshold. Sabine was frightened by a simple ritual; that was good—it meant she’d done her motherly duty, protected the child from those things to be truly feared.

For now, at least.

Somewhere high above the stone ceiling, the great chrome shape of the Teardrop hung silent in the sky. Soon the first Greys would appear at the marketplace in Croix-des-Bouqets, slender bodies towering above the crowds.


Sabine’s dinner has gone cold.

So it was you. You killed our world.

“Not me, ch’atha—” Her husband extends a spindly arm, straightened at both joints to cross the length of the kitchen table.

She slaps it away. Turns in her seat to face the cupboards, the sink, the kitchen window—anything but him: Don’t call me dearest. Not in your language, not in mine.

Sabine rubs her forehead with a hand that comes away wet and clammy, fingers trembling. In her mind’s eye she pictures it: herself, her body, unraveling like the end of a frayed rope.

“I understand this must be difficult,” he says. Rehearsed. Sanctimonious. Typical Grey fashion. “You’ve lost a great—”

You have no idea what I’ve lost, she snaps. You can’t begin to fathom.


Forty-three, forty-four, forty-five… rows of tomato plants flew by the car window, all green blur and flashes of red earth where the furrows showed through. Almost too fast for Sabine to count.

“There used to be more than just tomatoes”—her mother said, laying out across the back seat—“Peppers, and leeks, and eggplants. Remember eggplants, sissy?”

Sabine’s aunt only grunted, hands on the steering wheel, eyes on the road.

Mother shrugged. “I always hated eggplants.” She let out a chuckle that became strained, gave way to a fit of coughing. Auntie clicked her tongue disapprovingly.

Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine… Sabine could only think of how old her mother looked, spasming under a light blanket, hair plastered to the car seat, mouth twisted by an unseen pain. Her skin strewn with pocks and blisters and jagged outgrowths.

It weighed heavy on Sabine’s mind, even at eleven years old: the idea of her mother as someone mortal, someone who would one day die.

She did her best to shut it out.

Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three… The coughing fit subsided and the grimace faded from Mother’s face. She forced a smile and craned her neck to appear, beatific, in the rear-view mirror.

“See, sissy? No harm done.” Her voice was hoarse.

Auntie grunted, unconvinced.

What happened? With the egg-plants.

“Well… the sun got too strong.”

“Same reason your mum got sick, Sabine” Auntie said sharply. “Same reason you suit up when you go outside.” She kept her wet red eyes fixed ahead, always ahead.

The clinic came into view, a squat blue building on the slopes of the Mountain where Greys would come and go, flitting up and down between the earth and the Teardrop like angels on a ladder. People said they worked miracles there.

But Mother’s miracle didn’t exist on this planet, only theirs.

The tall Grey doctor explained, Sabine only catching a few words between the thump-thump-thump in her eardrums: “to the lungs”… “don’t have the equipment”… “can ease the pain.” Her mother nodding solemnly; the color draining from Auntie’s face.

On the drive back home, Mother sleeping in the backseat with a dream-band around her forehead (“this will keep her comfortable”), Sabine squirmed, fidgeted in her seat because she didn’t know what else to do. Twisting, turning, opening, closing—she found a roadmap faded and folded in the glovebox. Had there been more to the world than the Town and the Road and the City and the Mountain?

What’s this?

“Put that away, honey,” Auntie said, small-voiced. “Just reminds you of all that’s lost.”


“But Ch’atha—”

What did I say about calling me that?

“It was a miscalculation made by the expedition planners; a side-effect of interstellar travel.”

You could have told me this sooner…should have…

“They knew that decelerating from the superluminal threshold would release energy; of course they did—the entirety of Drive Theory was based on this… bubble of contracted space-time, moving from star to star, picking up charged particles. They just didn’t anticipate how big the release would be… What it would do to the planet.”

On her feet now, she scrubs furiously at the remnants of that night’s dinner, dried tomato sauce on heavy plates. The kitchen window looks out on pitch night, glass reflecting the image of Sabine at the sink and her husband behind, compound eyes pleading. She does not meet his gaze.

Ch—” He stops short. “Sabine.”

How long had he carried this secret between them? Had he hoped she’d never ask?

“Sabine, what are you thinking?”

He doesn’t deserve to know.

The Voice from Beyond the Desert

The low whine of a single locust tittered through the midday heat before abruptly and percussively ending with a crunch of the Botanist’s sandal into the Mojave ground, kicking up a somber cloud of desert dust. The Botanist set down her pack and shaded her eyes with a hand to her forehead as she surveyed the horizon for her next subject. She spotted the spined and clubby hands of the yucca brevifolia waving hello to her from behind a nearby boulder.

After collecting samples and taking down notes and measurements, having scientific conversations with the Joshua Tree she had traveled here to study, she looked towards the dying light in the sky. The sun had gotten low as her conversations with the trees rambled away from her. She had meant to head back to camp hours ago; the Geologist would be waiting with dinner ready over the fire by sundown. The Botanist grabbed her pack and started making her way back in the direction of their shared research camp.

The walkie-talkie on her hip crackled with static air as the Botanist’s shadow loomed behind her, elongated and alien. The rocks and boulders and Joshua Trees of the Mojave were traced with golden yellow light against the yawning sky. The walk was long. As the sun died beneath its desert coffin and the stars started to show themselves, the Botanist clicked off her walkie-talkie. And breathed deep. Dry air. In, out. Sandpaper breaths. She looked upwards.


Back at their camp, the Geologist was stewing. Pacing. Idly scratching his stubble. Walking in an equilateral triangle around their campsite, over and over. Retracing, the same measurements. She should’ve been back by now. He wasn’t worried. He was angry. Feeling slighted, and left standing in the now cold sand, with just the rocks and the dust. He shoved one of those rocks with his foot within the interior of the triangle.

“Hello? Where are you?” he said, flatly, into the walkie-talkie.

“…”

Only static air. Sandpapery.


The viscous darkness continued to thicken as the Botanist edged closer to the camp through the cold desert. There was a part of her mind that tugged at her body like it was attached to a string; it slowed her pace. She continued her gaze upwards, to the now bright, bright stars. There was that gnawing feeling in her bones, it inched towards fear, but settled more into the canyon that echoes with lonesomeness. She thought of the Geologist. And then she didn’t. The walkie-talkie stayed dormant, purposefully off. She looked down for a beat, brows furrowed, but her subconscious brought her gaze back upwards. The lonesomeness slurred into longing. Cold wishes. She waved hello to the vacant stars.

She glimpsed a light in the distance, maybe less than a couple miles further southeast of their camp. It looked like… a streetlight? Shining in this desolate scape? How had she not noticed it before? Maybe she was seeing things, maybe the stars burned light ghosts in her eyes. Maybe she was hoping. But the coals of their campfire were defined now, surely a different light–closer, quiet and red, and the Geologist was probably asleep in their tent.

“Nice of you to join me,” a voice rattled from the darkness, settled on the triangle the Geologist had worked so hard to draw for them.

She jumped at his voice, breath caught, and then, “I’m sorry. I got carried away. It’s beautiful out there, you know.”

“It’s desert. Rocks and dust.”

“And the Joshua Trees. And the sky.”

He stood up from the ground shadow in which he was sitting. In which he held his vigil, cold and cross-armed.

“Goodnight.”

She sighed. She kicked some sand and a rock or two onto the dying firelight, and followed him into the tent.

Watchers

The car took him to therapy before work, never a good sign. He called in from the waiting room. Jann didn’t like it of course, but what could Rick do? If you wanted health care you followed the rules and that included emergency therapy. He just wished he’d known. Rick had skipped breakfast and now he was sitting there hungry. You didn’t dare ask the receptionist how much longer. They scrutinized you constantly and even a twitch meant something. He tried to look happy. That’s what they wanted to see.

The android behind the counter called his name. The bald face mimicked a human persona remarkably. “Andrea will take you back, Mr. Dalton.”

He followed the tall, platinum-haired woman in the pleated black dress to a therapy room. Once he settled into the waterlounger, she went after his tea. “Mint, hot?” she asked from the alcove.

He had this. Rick drank mint iced except in the morning, except during emergency therapy when he always asked for it cold. “If you don’t mind, I’d like iced.”

“Of course. Doctor has a note. You’re to take this.”

A small square section of the table rose. In the center dimple sat a little gel cap. He sighed as he picked it up. “Thank you.”

She was there with his beverage. “Doctor will be with you presently.”

“Thank you.” He watched her leave, careful to look away appropriately. He swallowed the gel cap, sipped, and glanced at the Monet. Studied the ballerinas a bit, because he was sure they knew he liked it. Then back to the tea.

The space behind the desk shimmered as Dr. Kim’s hologram appeared. “Hello, Rick.”

“Hello, Dr. Kim.”

Dr. Kim’s image flickered and then the sharp eyes were back. “Rick, we had a spike in your routine I wanted to discuss.”

He felt a chill. How serious was it? Not reevaluation, please not that. They would pick him apart for a week. He remembered to interact: “I’m sorry if I let myself down.” Straight out of the therapeutic handbook.

“Two areas we need to cover—meds and diet.” Dr. Kim waited.

“My medications—Dr. Plummer gave me permission to-to use Diatholyn . . . Only when I need it.”

The hologram stared. “And your Reatox?”

“It makes me nauseous sometimes. You said you were going to see about trying something else.”

Amusement, like a snake eyeing a mouse, slid over the doctor’s face. “You do realize that willful withholding of prescribed medication is a crime, Rick.”

“Doctor—”

“Let’s move on. Diet.”

“I’m eating normally.”

“Breakfast? This morning?”

“No. I skipped it. I was running late and—” That was a verifiable lie and he had to retract. “I wasn’t actually late but I didn’t want to be late and so I was in a hurry. I have been trying to lose a pound or so.”

“A mini-diet, then?”

“Yes.”

“Then you weren’t planning on visiting the vending machine for a strawberry crunch before work, I suppose.”

He admitted, “I was.” No sense making this worse.

“Rick, according to what I have here, your predilection for snacks has increased your caloric intake well over six thousand calories in the past few weeks. This explains your gain of one-point-eight pounds. Okay. We’re finished.”

“What?”

“I’m recommending reevaluation.”

“Doctor, please.” Rick tried to control his voice but he was upset.

“Rick, you’ve displayed independent behavior and you have lied about it to your therapist.”

He wanted to scream back the truth. That the pills took away his spirit and replaced it with a lie. But that would only earn him a session under the laser. He remembered to respond. “I’ve been foolish and irresponsible, Dr. Kim.”

“Therapeutic medication is the foundation of our society. Try and remember that.”

“I will.”

“After reevaluation, I’m certain you’ll do fine.”

“Is that necessary? I promise—I’ll take whatever you prescribe from here on out.”

“I don’t know. There’s also your eating disorder. It’s just a mess, Rick.”

“No more breaking the rules, Dr. Kim, I promise.” Rick’s voice had a touch of huskiness; he almost believed it himself.

“Wait.” The hologram froze.

Wait? Now Rick was going nuts. The escort androids could burst in at any time. He sighed. He hated reevaluation.

Dr. Kim’s image reanimated. “Rick, I may be able to help you. If you’re willing to cooperate.”

“Certainly.”

“There’s someone from NSA. Wilson. Once I receive a confirmation from him that you’ve cooperated fully, I’ll consider this entire matter closed.”

“No reevaluation?”

“No. Just stick to your prescriptions, and your diet, and you’ll be fine.”

“Thank you.”

“We’re finished.”

Canvas Captured

Breezes of brilliant hues flowed from the Painter’s brushes to stroke the canvas with shadow and light. This evening, a summer night indefinite in time, she danced a mirror upon the canvas, sunset flashing through the paint-flecked gate as it flashed through the real gate outside.

Yet it was a broken mirror in one aspect: in the real world, the gate was locked and could not be opened by her. Her patron refused to release her, save when she needed inspiration, a new scene to paint. Then she went boarded up in a carriage and concealed from prying eyes. By these machinations, the Duke hoped to convince the City the paintings were his, but rumors of the Painter were enough to sustain the truth of her work. There was too much of her in the paintings, too much life, too much brilliance set free.

She had never painted the gate before, open or closed. Every one of the Duke’s tamed gardens and exotic curiosities had been depicted by her hand – but never the gate. It was the one pain in her heart, and it ached to look at the reminder of her captivity.

Even as she painted it, the gate changed in her mind. It became a thing of light and hope, beckoning, inviting… as if the world in canvas were as real as the world in flesh.

She sensed when the Duke entered the room and did not turn, rapt upon the tumult of tones. He would often watch her for a time, but never interrupted her.

The Painter finished smoothing the last daubed shadow and turned to face him. She did not need to stand back or study her work to know it was complete. The rich orange sun gleamed, bathing the path outside in promise.

The Duke’s eyes flashed with a moment’s wonder, but he dismissed it. “I wish you would do portraits,” he said. “That’s where the money and the fame is. The artist who captured my late wife works for the High King now.”

She thought of the cold, pale likeness hanging in the great hall, trapped more completely than she, and suppressed a shudder.

“I am done,” she said.

“Good. My cousin in the treasury has need of new adornment to -”

“I didn’t mean with this painting.” His eyes widened, for she had never interrupted him. Before he could react, she continued, “I meant with working for you. The paints run dry. I am done.” She felt her breath and her heart echo in her ears, a fearful thrum.

The Duke paused, his first reaction panic, and then fury. “You can’t. My reputation – our reputation -” He grabbed her arm. She recoiled; he tried to wrench her around, and instead lost his grip. She tumbled into the still-damp canvas.

She fell through… and kept falling through an expanse of green. She should have felt fear and instead felt like a bird with new wings, tumbling towards the skies. She landed with a gentle stop on a mossy path. The stones under her hand were indistinct blurs of grey and green, more suggestion than reality. She inhaled, delight and consternation both as she realized what had happened.

The Painter had become part of the painting.

It was not, she thought, such an impossible idea – obviously, considering it had happened, but there was power and possibility in the images she created. Why couldn’t there be life within them? She thought then of the Duke, who had hurled her here. She craned her head up and found the sky above a void the color of blank canvas. She had not painted it; it did not exist.

Could he see her within the painting? What if he smashed it? Fear riveted her to the spot; she lifted up her hands to shield her face, masking the brilliant color that surrounded her. Terror consumed her in a flash of fire… and then faded when her world remained, a soft, silent place with orange light that pierced through her fingers.

She remembered the gate and lowered her hands, breathing until her body quieted. It stood before her, beckoning into an endless sunset. Tranquility filled her as if poured like water, and to the surface rose the hope she had felt while painting. She walked into the light.

She blinked and found herself on a snow-swept hillside dotted with old-woman trees in white veils. The cold refreshed without chilling her; the wind tickled her skin and breathed winter’s secrets down her neck, as welcoming as an old friend. She turned her face up – oh, there was sky here, lavender fading into deep blue and inked with stars – and reveled.

She recognized the scene: it was another of her paintings, a much older composition from the year before her brother had sailed beyond the City. Her hands moved, tracing brushstrokes she almost remembered and lingering over the details. The scenery moved, subtly, breathing – the optical illusion of paint placed just so.

The Painter walked onwards and emerged under a summer waterfall, then into a field of flowers. It didn’t take long to realize all the paintings were hers, and though she felt the same wonder that had inspired her to craft them, the familiarity began to pale, and she missed the City. She tried to think of a way out… but she had always painted scenes from nature, not cityscapes with their limitless doors.

She knelt before a stream and parted the waters, painting a whirlpool with her hands. The landscape did not respond as her pigments did in the real world. She picked flowers and attempted to grind them up to make pigment of her own. They simply melted, more dream than substance. A slow dread formed in the base of her throat and spread through her body. What if she never found a path out of the paintings?

She was not sure how much time passed, but she never grew hungry or thirsty, and what little weariness she felt shifted with the landscape: the most dark and dreary of her compositions made her feel old and brittle, just as those of light and beauty gave her back years she had never realized were lost. As she wandered through the suspended scenes, she remembered a painting she had done years ago, her last before she entered the Duke’s service. It might be her way out.

Painting without Canvas

“It’s nice to see you,” I whisper, digging deep into Enzo’s broad shoulders.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “I got lost.” His voice is barely audible over the humming escalator and conversation bouncing between foyer walls.

“Aren’t you always lost?” I smile but it feels as if the joke brushed too close to reality. Maybe it has been a little too long since we last saw each other. I haven’t heard from Enzo since we went to the movies three weeks ago, but he called last night to ask if I would meet him at the Museum of Modern Art.

We slip from our hug and he holds me at arm’s length, one strong hand on each of my bony shoulders. His wide eyes are half hidden under overgrown brown hair, which curls on his forehead. I am staring back at him, looking at the swirls of purple and red and orange my fingertips left on the fabric of his sweater. My pasty fingerprints, made of the same material as watercolor pigments before they’ve been saturated with water, have left an imprint on Enzo’s shoulders as they always do when I hold him that hard. I pressed harder this time, thinking both the affection and the color will lighten whatever darkness Enzo feels, or maybe just wanting to leave a mark that will last the distance suddenly present between us.

He turns towards the escalator and I follow, using my right pointer finger to trace a rainbow heart on the outside of the metallic wall before turning to walk onto the first step. It’s something I leave for others to see without knowing where it came from and how it got there, like a random smiley face someone might scribble with a Sharpe.

On the step in front of us, an older man and woman with interlocked arms are smiling in amusement, exchanging few words. They’re watching the young woman in front of them, who is focusing through wide glasses with translucent frames on her son. Trying to keep him still as she holds a tissue to his nose and asks him to blow.

This trip feels different than any of the others I have made to the Museum of Modern Art. I’m aware of the people around me, the sounds and words filling these white corridors with life, as if I’ve just pulled off a pair of sunglasses. My usual rush to get on and off the escalator is not controlling my movements. That drive to get to the art as fast as possible is muffled by fear of what I might discover about myself, about Enzo, or about our relationship. I focus on the moving escalator railing – thin and thick hands, young hands, older and frailer hands, all of them careless. My hands, which appear like all of the others, are a work of art in itself; my fingertips swirl teal, orange, and purple. Stepping off, we move into the first gallery.

“Do you remember this one?” I say.

We are standing in front of Monet’s Agapanthus, the grassy yellows and greens swaying with brighter blues in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish between the colors. Yet I feel these colors as if they’re completely separate from one another.

Enzo and I had written about this painting in an art history class at Manhattan Marymount, where we met nearly one year ago. The professor split the class into groups of partners for weekly writing assignments due each Thursday, and this was one of our favorites. Throughout the fall semester, we combed over dozens of paintings and dissected each stroke of color every Wednesday night.

A minute passes without a word and I turn my head slightly to see what part of the painting has him so preoccupied. I notice he isn’t looking at this painting or any of the others, but is fixated on his cardigan, pulling it flat with his left hand and trying to rub out the dull colors from my fingertips with his right. He huffs over the marks, which settle deeper into the sweater as he rubs.

I’m thinking about a time in high school when I felt the same way about my abnormality. When I was a freshman, I sat in front of a girl named Veronika in earth science. She would comment on the layers of rock in the cross section only for a few minutes before giving up and offering a merciless impersonation of the teacher: “Stop leaving pink erasure pieces all over the desk!” Because it was my first year, I hadn’t talked too much, uneasy with the attention my skin automatically drew and unsure if others would see my flamboyance as I did – beautiful. But I felt as if I could talk to Veronika because her outgoing personality and quirky humor drew attention away from me.

Looking at the Monet and listening to the soft scuffs of Enzo rubbing his shirt, I feel as if I’m back in that moment when everything changed. While Ms. Pierson was lecturing about pyroclastic flows, I turned to Veronika and began to mimic our teacher. “The rocks pummel down mountains with speeds upwards of one-hundred miles an hour!” I whispered, raising my voice a few octaves in pitch. But then Ms. Pierson stopped talking.

“Jett, will you stop flirting with Veronika?” The silence was heavy. “Move your seat, now.”

Silt and Shale

My life’s always been a slate sunset, but it really hit a shit river one cold evening on Pier Thirty-three, Brynn Bay.

Sita and I had nabbed a keg of spikeberry wine and taken it to the pier, where we dangled our legs while we drank it down and hallucinated all night. The sea crashed against the pillars and made the world quake and Sita, prone, moaned and clenched the wood slats ’til her fingers went white. I stood tall at the end of the pier and the sea roared and swayed me back and forth and side to side, but never could topple me. I laughed to the black sky, I raised my fists high and bellowed at the night and called for lightning to incinerate me and scatter my ashes into the bay, but heaven never took to my taunts, so I laughed ’til I cried, I cried ’til I laughed, I laughed ’til I rasped, I rasped ’til I cried again. Sita clutched my legs and threw up all over my boots, then my tummy twisted and I found myself keeled over too. The wine hurtled out our bellies and splattered into the bay.

Sita pressed her face against my ankles. “What’s happening, Kaani?”

“It’s just the wine.”

We laid quiet for a long time as we waited for sobriety’s return, while Brynn Bay hammered the pier.

They found us. I think. It may have been a spikeberry vision. Two men stormed Pier Thirty-three, their only weapons biceps thick as tree trunks, their skin even darker than mine, so in the night, they seemed headless, angry eyes over burly bodies. They trapped us against all of Brynn Bay, a thousand gallons of chilled saltwater, and I had nothing but a flax gown and a oak keg of wine and Sita at my side.

I rolled the keg to the edge of the pier and clutched the bung. “Come closer, and Brynn Bay’s getting drunk on all your precious wine.”

“That’s the Gutterking’s wine. You dump it in the bay, you’ll never pay off that debt. You could spend your life spreading your legs for every man in the city and you’d never make enough. That wine’s worth your life, fifty times over.”

“Fifty of yours too.” I grinned so wide it hurt my jaw. “What will the Gutterking do to you if Brynn Bay drinks up?”

I couldn’t see it, but I sensed their scowls, I sensed the air stiffen and crackle with their violent intent. They advanced. I yanked the bung out and let a gulp of red spikeberry wine splash into Brynn Bay before I jammed it back in. “That’s one life! Back up!”

They did. The tide crashed against the pier and the world swam and intricate patterns glittered on the sea foam. The men muttered as they pondered a new plan. I held my hostage close, the oak cold against my fingers. Sita wiped her mouth and stood beside me.

The men noticed her, and a light gleamed in their eyes. “She’d make a fortune posted in Sava District. A lot more than the ugly one.”

I hissed. Of course Sita would. I pulled her behind me.

The men opened their stances, their fists became open palms, their faces became amicable. “You want a future, miss? You could make more money than you’ve ever dreamed of. I’m Nurul. This is Tcha. What’s your name, miss?”

Sita held my hand and trembled.

“Forget the wine. Come with us and your theft’s forgiven. Don’t you want a future?”

Sita and I backed up against the end of Pier Thirty-three. Night tightened around us. The sun had set long ago and dreamed of never rising again. Up and down the edge of Brynn Bay, the other piers held the odd fisher or midnight wanderer, and mud shacks lined the coastline and brimmed with sleeping souls. I could yell, I could cry out, and people would run to our aid, but Sita and I were the thieves here, the evidence in my shaking hands. Down that thread, a jail cell beckoned, a cell guarded by the Watchguild, and those men were the last men you’d ever want to see if you were a woman.

Nurul took a baby step closer. “The Gutterking pays all his girls a fine advance, twelve silver fingers. That’s two full hands before you service a single client! No more petty theft to get by. That’s a life of leisure. That’s a future anyone would want. Don’t you want that future?”

Sita touched the keg bung. “Would you wish that future upon your mother?” She tore the bung out and the wine gurgled into Brynn Bay. She kicked the keg and it crashed into the water.

The men cried out and lunged at us. I shoved Sita off the pier, then I dove after. Brynn Bay ate us, its maw ice. My skin screamed but my mind didn’t flinch, the pain a welcome shock that reminded me I was alive, reminded me that the thread with Nurul had unraveled. Colors shimmered far beneath us, a blurry sunrise in the depths. I swam. I cut across the bay, Sita in my wake. I hit another pier and Brynn Bay spat us out. We scrabbled up the rough, barnacle-strewn side, then we panted and shivered on that pier ’til a fisherman spat a chaw of sunleaf at us and cursed us for scaring the fish. We stumbled away. On Pier Thirty-three, Nurul scooped the keg out of the water, but from his distraught wail, he’d lost a lot of money, the Gutterking’s money. He and Tcha raced after us.

We ran. We dove ‘tween the mud shacks ’til they gave way to tall, wood and steel building faces with eyes that gleamed torchlight yellow and brick chimneys that belched black smoke. We climbed one. Our fingers were slippery and our minds were fuzzy, but we’d scaled those chimneys a thousand times before, every time the shopkeeps or hawkers caught our fingers in their purses or stockrooms, so Sita and I reached the roof quick. Nurul and Tcha arrived too late. The roofs by the bay jammed into a maze untraceable to anyone on the ground.

Nurul waved the empty keg high and seawater dribbled out the bung hole. His voice was a ghost ship. “This debt ain’t something you walk away from.”

Sita spat but missed his face.

“I almost pity you. Your futures are wilting fast.”

I found a loose slate shingle and cracked it off and hurled it at Nurul, but he blocked it with the keg. I bared my teeth. “Never had a future anyways.”

“You can run today. Tomorrow too. But the Gutterking will find you.”

I belted out a laugh. “We’re two thieves with not a finger of silver. We’re nothing to him.”

“You’re nothing. But she is something.” Nurul grinned at Sita. “With a face like that, she’ll make ten times his best girl. She might even service the pale princes of the Tomb Keep. She’s a damned diamond, and the Gutterking’d be a fool not to snatch her up.”

Sita shriveled next to me. I didn’t feel her heartbeat but I knew it jittered with fear and rage and bitterness as mine did. She clutched my hand and whispered, “Let’s go.”