“I adore your hair.” Olivia watched Grace smooth and spray. “Like that old actress you have tacked up by your desk.”
“Rita Hayworth.” Grace twisted her face left and right as she rummaged in her make-up bag for her most arresting lipstick.
They were in the ladies’ room in the library where they worked, in the old wing which was due for renovation soon. Grace felt at home in this part of the building, where milky light seeped through tiny, crusty panes and bathed marble columns which thrust the distant ceilings ever skyward. A chorus of hinges, floorboards and radiators accompanied her as she retouched her make-up, convinced that the fog in these wood-framed mirrors, chipped paint and all, added a romantic softness to her face not found in the Star Trek ones of the new wing.
“Oh!” Olivia pulled her cell phone from her bag after hearing it buzz. “It’s Jack! Remember him? That teacher who brought his class in the other day.”
Grace remembered. But she had not been as impressed by him as Olivia. “Yes.”
“Oh, I have to tell you all about him!”
They left the ladies’ room, and exited through the back door to the employees’ parking lot. Here, they lunched, surrounded by weeds cracking through pavement, garbage containers raided nightly by raccoons, and graffiti asserting the latest expletives. But the scent of freshly mowed grass wafted towards them from a quaint park beyond a chain link fence where trees swayed in the breeze and ducks quacked on a pond. Lunchtime joggers huffed past pensioners leading poodles, and chipmunks chased each other up and down tree trunks.
Grace was tall, slim and forty. She had always been pretty and she knew it. It was not vanity but a sense of responsibility that obliged her to care for and cultivate her image, like a flower garden, or a prized bonzai. She dieted rigorously, dyed her hair, polished her nails, was meticulous about her make-up, and paid a lot of attention to her clothes. She shopped in retro and vintage stores, or on-line, and often sewed her own dresses. She admired actresses from old films, and every so often, changed her appearance to look like one. Now she was emulating Rita Hayworth. Months before, she had dyed her hair blonde, and let it hide one eye, like Veronica Lake. Some of her colleagues thought she was a bit extravagant, while others thought she was downright crazy. But not Olivia.
Olivia was twenty-four and obese. She had just finished her degree in Library Science and was replacing Beth, off on a month’s sick leave for an operation on her foot.
The girl’s round face betrayed every hurt she had ever suffered. Her eyes were dewy and her full lips fell open in a surprised O, vulnerable and uncertain. She was pretty, and invested a lot of time in her appearance. As Grace’s mother would say, they were the two most dolled-up women in the library. Grace took Olivia under her wing.
They perched on the bottom steps of the fire escape next to a whirring fan. They made an odd pair and attracted the attention of the regulars in the park.
Olivia punched her message nervously into her phone, while Grace unpacked her lunch. Today it was spinach salad with feta cheese and walnuts and a dressing of olive oil with basil and balsamic vinegar. For dessert there was a fruit salad with lulo and Canary island mini-bananas, bathed in Greek yogurt, and a small bottle of Perrier to accompany it all. She expected Olivia would have her regular ham and cheese on white bread, a chocolate bar for dessert, and diet Coke to wash it all down with.
But excitement had stolen Olivia’s appetite. Grace waved back to one of the passing joggers, waiting for her friend to spill her news.
“Oh, I’m so nervous. You see …”
“Jack called you?”
Olivia turned, relieved, “Yes!”
Grace knew the girl craved that bit of encouragement. “And?”
“He … he said he was going to have an exhibition of his paintings. If I wanted to go.”
“Oh. So he paints, too?”
“Yes.” The girl turned to her out of breath. “And he has such interesting friends. Painters, writers, film makers. And of course all his colleagues from the school.”
Jack taught kindergarten in a progressive school in the neighborhood. All the ladies in the library thought it adorable that a young man would want to do a woman’s job. He brought his class of five year-olds for story-time evey week.
The last time the childrens’ librarian asked Olivia if she would read to the kids. She felt honoured and terrified. Afterwards, the attractive young teacher complimented her, and invited her to a poetry reading he was giving that night.
“After the poetry reading, there was a concert, then some actors put on a skit. Another friend of his is filming a short, and Jack is going to be in it! Oh, Grace! He is so cultured and talented! I just wonder … why is he interested in me?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Olivia. You are cultured and talented too. And pretty! Has he ...”
Olivia turned to her, “Has he what?”
“You know … kissed you, or anything?”
Olivia turned away, looking down at her unopened lunchbox. “Oh. No.”
Grace felt like she was talking to a girl of fourteen, not twenty-four. And even then, some fourteen year-olds …
“Do you like him?”
“Yes. Yes. But, I’m sure he doesn’t like me that way.”
“Well, don’t worry about it.” Grace consoled her, opening up her dessert bowl. “Maybe he’s just being a gentleman. At least you are meeting interesting people. By the way, I hate to rush you, but we only have ten minutes left and you haven’t even started your lunch.”
Olivia obediently unwrapped her sandwich, took a bite, and with her mouth still partly full, asked “Has … has anything like this ever happened to you? I mean, I know you told me you’re not married, but …”
Grace realized that Olivia considered her an old lady. Old lady her! Grace could remember being Olivia’s age like it was yesterday.
“Why, no I’m not married, but there’s still time! I’m not in any hurry. I guess I’m just too picky.
“After all, I’ve had boyfriends of all ages, races … and occupations”
She heard Olivia gasp, “Like what?”
“Well, there was this heavy metal guitarist …” Grace shuddered as she shoved her bowl away, “Anyway, and I have some pretty interesting possibilities. There is this poet I met on Facebook …”
“Oh, so you have a lot of experience. Of course. Being so beautiful. You see, I’ve never …”
Regret flooded Grace. She should have known, and now she had caused the girl to feel like even more of a freak.
“Well, not that much. Just enough to know what I don’t want. And, like I said, it’s good to take your time. Yikes! It’s twelve-thirty already. We’d better get going!”
When Grace got home at six o’clock, her mother was waiting for her. She lived in a low-rise apartment building her father had bought years ago as an investment, and for his older daughter to manage.
Three of the ten apartments were inhabited by her family; one by her widowed mother, which she kept like a mausoleum; one by her older sister and two kids, each from a former marriage, and one by Grace.
Her mother had a key and dropped in at all hours, almost as if they lived together. She often nagged about that “Why do you, an old maid, need an apartment all to yourself, when mine is big enough for both of us?” Thank God her father had taken her side before he died. One of the old tenants had moved into a home, and his place became available. Grace had tried her best to decorate it like Laura, one of her favorite movies from the forties.
“You look like a whore with that lipstick!”
“What is it mum? I’ve got dance class tonight. It’s Wednesday, remember?”
“Always running around with your classes. If it isn’t dancing, it’s singing, or yoga, or painting. When are you going to do something sensible with your life, like your sister?”
Teresa muttered these familiar lines like a mantra. Grace turned on a Benny Goodman record while she slipped into her hoopskirt dress. “Help zip me up, mum.”
Grace turned up the music and sang along as she whirled around in front of her dressing table. It was antique. Well, sort of. It had been discarded on the curb, and was just like those ones in the movies which beautiful actresses sat at on dainty stools, applying powder puffs to their faces and smiling at the framed photo of their amor. She leaned over the satin cover her mother had grudgingly hepled her make, and touched up her lipstick.
“Are you really going out like that? I haven’t seen anyone wear a hoopskirt since I was a girl …”
“Lalalalala…” Grace chanted a bit off-key, as she penciled in the eyebrows she shaved off daily.
“So, what was it you wanted, mum? I’ve got to run!”
“Madelaine needs you to look after Mark and Danny on Saturday. I’ve got rosary.”
“And their fathers?” Grace asked, satisfied with her face and slipping into a darling vintage cape she had found on-line.
“You know better than to ask that. Poor Madelaine has only had bad luck with men.”
“Why does she need a sitter?”
Teresa straightenend up, looking taller now in her housedress and apron, her gray hair twisted into a painful bun. She emphasized every word.
“She has a date.”
A few days later Grace was at the front desk when Jack shepherded in his little flock, along with a teaching assistant and another very tall black man. He sent the class off to the kids’ reading room with the assistant and approached the desk with the man. Grace smiled cordially as she did to everyone. “Hello, Mr. Tanner,” she said playfully. “Olivia is in the back. I’ll go get her.”
“No. It’s okay. I was hoping you could help me.” his wide smile baring whitened teeth. His eyes roamed up and down her and he stepped closer. Grace moved back. She wished she hadn’t worn this particular low-cut blouse today, but it was an almost perfect replica of one that Hayworth had worn in Gilda. “I love the way you dress. Retro.”
“Thank you,” she answered coolly, “They call it vintage, actually. How can I help you?” She was more than a decade older than him, and didn’t like his manner with her.
Jack got the message. Stepping back, he motioned to his companion, “This is my friend Kgabu, a fantastic drummer from South Africa. He’s been teaching my class how to play. I heard the library has some world music nights. Do you think they could hire him to play some time?”
“You’d have to speak to the head librarian. You’ll find her office at the end of the hall to the left.”
Jack thanked her politely, Kgabu nodded, and both men disappeared down the hall.
Two hours later Grace and Olivia were on the fire escape eating their lunches. The temperature was still rising and Grace opened her neckline a bit more, revealing the top of a lacy purple bra.
“How pretty!” Olivia commented, “and sexy.”
“Thanks, dear. I love fine lingerie.” Grace turned her face and neck up and stretched out her arms, basking in the gentle kiss of sunlight.
“Hullo!” called a jogger from the park. Grace smiled and waved back. There were more people approaching the fence and greeting them today than ever.
“Have you ever noticed that the more shops and boutiques there are, the worse people dress?” Grace observed. Most of the walkers in the park were wearing shorts or ripped jeans, trainers, tee shirts with writing on them, and baseball caps turned backwards.
Olivia giggled and nibbled at her cheese sandwich.
Grace told her about Jack’s visit. “I told him you were in the back room, but …”
“Oh, he was probably in a hurry trying to help out his friend. He has such different kinds of friends, you know.”
“What do you mean, different kinds?”
“Well, kind of exotic … for example there’s Kgabu. Then, there’s this guy in a wheel chair. He also has a blind friend, then there’s his Syrian refugee friend …”
“Syrian refugee? Wow, he’s right up-to-date!”
The sarcasm was lost on Olivia, and she continued enthusiastically, “Yes! And oh, he is involved in all sorts of NGOs and he teaches his pupils about the environment … and they love him so much. He says there is no such thing as a bad child.” Grace noticed her friend’s voice trail off.
“Oh? And has that been your experience, Olivia?”
Olivia frowned, visibly struggling with some memory.
“Hey, do you want to try my new invention? Couscous with cherry tomatoes, egglplant and soy sauce. Even my mother had to admit it was good.”
Olivia appreciated the change of subject.
“What would you think if I tried a new look? Elizabeth Taylor or maybe Grace Kelly? I was named after her, you know.”
Grace almost blushed at the blatant fib she had just told. But Olivia enjoyed these tall tales so much she couldn’t resist.
On Saturday Grace got to her sister’s apartment early to help her prepare for her big date, “Like my new look?” She had spent the afternoon dying her hair black and making herself up like Elizabeth Taylor.
“Oh Grace! You sure have talent for that. If I had a bit more time … with the boys and all …”
“No problem! Little Sis to the rescue! You just sit here and …” she grimaced at her refection. Her sister’s mirrors always seemed flecked and foggy. She had to squint to see herself. Madelaine looked more worn-out than ever. “Maybe we should have gone over to my place.”
“Yes, but with Danny … this way he can play on the computer without bugging us.”
Madelaine’s home was a chaos of blaring t.v.s, and children chasing each other. Shrieks of mom went unheeded because Madelaine, as super-intendant of the building, juggled calls at home, with household chores. Physically, she was a soft, tired version of Teresa, their mother, whose temper kept her fired up with energy.
Teresa was always there for Madelaine, but only if her church duties were not compromised. Grace helped out as well, but Teresa doubted her judgment and Madelaine just didn’t want to bother anybody.
Grace started brushing her sister’s hair, “I’ve brought a good classic to watch with the boys tonight. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with John Phillip Law and Caroline Munro. Enough of all this Harry Potter!”
Madelaine’s shoulders relaxed and she closed her eyes. “I’m so glad mum has rosary tonight. She always makes them do homework or clean or pray. They love it when their Auntie Grace babysits. Danny still talks about that night when you showed him how to dance the mambo.”
“He remembers that? But he was only three or four!”
“Four. When I was going out with Bill.” Madelaine’s voice saddened again.
“So, tell me, tell me! Who is this new man?”
Madelaine brightened, bit her lip and shrugged. “From the divorcees’ support group. He and his wife split up a year ago.”
This did not bode well. All the men Madelaine had dated since her divorce from Danny’s father were men she had met at the support group. Bad news every last one of them. What Grace didn’t understand was why Madelaine didn’t, to use her mother’s words, get a life. One of her own. Stop going from man to man, waiting to find the one who would put fire and purpose back into her life.
Grace had given up inviting her along to dance classes and choir nights. Teresa even gave up trying to drag her to church.
“Name?” she tried to sound interested.
“Nope. Say, how are things going with you and that professor you met in French class?”
“You are out of touch! That was ages ago!”
“Oh, sorry. Now I remember, a poet you met on Facebook.”
Grace started working on Madelaine’s make-up. “Turn your head just a smidge to the left. That’s it. Well, yes, great. We chat a lot, but he lives in Greece!”
The sisters giggled like teenagers.
“Don’t you meet anybody interesting at the library?”
“Don’t I? Just the other day I met a South African drummer … tall with ebony skin, and a teacher from the new progressive school, and of course we get writers and poets all the time …”
Madelaine sighed, “It must be nice being able to get out and meet interesting people. I’m stuck here all day in the building. My biggest excitement of the day is a burst water-pipe.” Madelaine sat up straighter. “I know mum hassles you about dressing up so much, but of course you have to, if you deal with such fascinating people!”
The doorbell rang.
“Mom!” Danny screamed from the living room. Madelaine tensed up “Oh, my goodness, it’s seven o’clock already, and I still have to get dressed. Could you get the door, Gracie, please?”
Grace struggled with the same pity she felt every time her sister caved for one of these low-lifes. Madealaine shared her mother’s values if not her temperament. A woman had to be married. To no matter whom. And when that one left you, off to look for the next one. As long as you were never alone.
Grace decided she wouldn’t even put on one of her charming acts for this one. The sooner he saw all the flaws, the better. And the sooner he revealed his. She whipped the door open. But on the other side of it stood the kind of man she had not expected. Luke was medium height, with wispy light brown hair, intelligent blue eyes and a square chiseled face, but it was his clothes that caught her eye. He was dressed in a brown suit and tie, and was in the act of removing a matching Borsalino hat.
Grace, in her new Liz Taylor look, was wearing a straight skirt, snug blue sweater, a rope of pearls, and a pair of patent leather pumps. They stared at each other in brief amazement before recovering themselves. It seemed like they had both stepped out of the same 1950’s film.
“Hello. I’m Luke Baxter.” He held out his hand, “You must be Madelaine’s sister.”
Luke Baxter! Even his name sounded vintage!
“Yes, please come in. Charmed to meet you. Let me take your hat.” This was going to be so much fun. Grace never thought she would see the day when she would offer to take someone’s hat. “I’m Grace.” She had been tempted to say Miss Walaski. “Won’t you sit down? Danny! Mark! Come and say hello to Mr. Baxter.”
The following week was a rainy one, but Grace didn’t want to have her lunch in the new wing with its glaring fluorescent lights, plastic tables and sheer glass walls so everyone in the library could see you fishing the sardines out of the can, so she showed Olivia a place in the old wing. It was an abandoned office on the creaky third floor where old books were stored. Double glass doors opened onto a narrow iron balcony which overlooked a churchyard.
“See? If we pull those two chairs over here,” she said, blowing the dust off them, “we can prop the glass doors open and sit inside, but still be able to listen to the rain and feel the breeze.”
Olivia smiled, perplexed and enchanted.
“Mmmm,” Grace breathed in deeply, “Smell the wet grass and old books.”
Olivia maneuvered her bulk around the cramped clutter. Grace was the first old person she knew to be so much fun.
“They’re having a rave this weekend.”
“One of those parties that go all night. It’s in this abandoned factory by the river that they converted into a cultural space. They have art exhibitions there, and all sorts of classes. Jack helps run it. Some musician friends of his will be jamming. Kgabu is playing the drums, and Jack says he is going to give the most unforgettable art exhibition ever! I hope the rain stops by then. He says it is so romantic by the river’s edge, with the moon …”
“Really? And he invited you as his date?”
“Not as his date, exactly. He never does. He just tells me about things and asks if I want to join them. He knows lots of other girls too. Really pretty ones. Friends from his university days.” Olivia remembered to take another bite of her sandwich. Today it was peanut butter.
“Strange that he doesn’t have a girlfriend. At his age, and with so many friends.”
“Maybe he does. But I’ve never seen him be really close with any of them. He never talks about those things. But … why would he keep inviting me? The truth is, I feel kind of awkward around his friends. They are all so cool and sophisticated.” She turned. “Hey, would you come to the rave with me? Jack really likes you, and there’ll be people of … all ages.”
“Thanks!” Grace chuckled, brushing some crumbs off her chest. A slight breeze had picked up. She fastened her top button and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. “I might have to babysit my nephews on Friday …”
“No problem! The rave’s on Saturday.”
The rain punished Grace’s umbrella so brutally that Friday night on her way home, that at first she didn’t hear the light toot-toot from the slow moving car beside her. She turned, wrestling the umbrella, trying not to drench her grey linen suit, the one the ladies at work called her “stewardess outfit”.
Grace was no expert in cars but she could tell a classic Cadillac from the 1940’s when she saw one. She squinted as the car stopped. The passenger door opened. “Grace!” a welcoming baritone called from inside, “I thought it might be you! Come on, let me take you home. I’m heading there myself.”
Luke had surprised her again. Grace felt both grateful and flustered. She had been walking for twenty minutes in the wet and wind, with the intention of fixing herself up before facing him again at her sister’s. Her hair was plastered to her face and she was sure her mascara had run.
“I’m glad I saw you.” He said warmly. “You could catch your death out there.”
“Yes,” Grace fumbled with her black leather purse, searching for her lipstick before dropping it on the floor of the car, “Oh …” she gasped, wriggling awkwardly to retrieve it.
He put his hand on hers, “Don’t worry about that now. I’ll get it later. You look lovely.”
She looked at him wide-eyed, then jerked her head mechanically to the little mirror above the visor. He was right. The face reflected there was tragic and beautiful.
A fluttery warmth enveloped her as he pulled his hand away and replaced it on the wheel.
“Who’s that sax player?”
“Gerry Mulligan and the Less Piano Quartet. One of my favourites.”
Grace tried to concentrate on the music, but guilt plagued her. She imagined her sister, frazzled and distraught, needing her assistance.
But when Madelaine opened the door, Grace was startled at the change in her. She was smiling, confident, clad in a simple but elegant blue dress, her hair done in an attractive twist, and her make-up sparse but effective. But what struck Grace the most was her new-found energy.
“Grace! Wonderful. Danny has been asking for you. I hope you brought more old classics from the library.”
Before Grace went to meet Olivia on Saturday, she stopped off at her mother’s to drop off some Tupperware she had borrowed. She had debated all afternoon about what to wear to the rave, but Olivia had assured her that Jack loved her “look”, and that she should not hold back. The result was spectacular.
She was wearing an authentic copy of an early Mary Quant, with white shoes, bag and floppy hat to match. She had bought some seamed stockings on-line; pantyhose being unfeminine and modern. Her lips were redder than ever, her face whiter and her eyebrows more arched.
“Are you going to a costume party?” Teresa snarled.
“No, mum. No costume party. Here are your bowls. Where do you want me to put them?”
“Or maybe it’s Halloween, but I thought Halloween was in October.”
“You’re right, mum. Halloween is in October.”
“And it can’t be mardi gras, because that’s in March, and Fasching is at New Year’s …..”
“Okay, mum. Here are the damn bowls! Good bye!” She scowled at the reflection from her mother’s mirror. It always made her look pale and frumpy, but today she even caught sight of a wrinkle! No mirrors love you like the ones at home.
The factory was just the kind of structure that resonated with Grace. It had cathedral windows, gabled roofs, and sinister ivy crept up the walls.
But the inside had been completely gutted and painted a blinding white. The windows were boarded up from the inside so the soft moonlight could not filter through and display their patterns on the walls.
The two friends roamed through the first gallery, peering at large canvasses splashed with colours and unrecognizable shapes, until they reached the far door, where a huddle of tall, slim girls eyed them.
Grace overheard one of them whisper as they passed “That must be the fat girl Jack told us about. And her crazy friend. The one who dresses up like old actresses.” The others giggled and Grace prayed that the comment had not reached Olivia’s ears.
The courtyard swarmed with stunning young people, groomed in a strategically casual manner. Tanned, tattooed women with ironed hair; bearded men, both bald and bunned, all clutching a cell phone with one hand and a beer with the other.
Rock music blared unnoticed from a small stage.
Olivia’s eyes desperately searched the crowd for Jack.
Grace was talking to Kgabu and his friends when she realized Olivia had disappeared. She nudged her way through the thickening crowd and stumbled into an eerie corridor with shadowy archways and grotesque paintings menacing from the walls.
The shapes in these paintings were more recognizable than the ones in the front gallery, but also more disturbing; one depicted a decapitated body cradling its own head, another was of a nude man kissing a mangy dog.
Grace penetrated the corridor deeper into the factory. She had been drinking and had shared some of Kgabu’s joint, but she felt an odd pull, as if the building were sucking her into its belly. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the hum of a hundred voices led her down another hall and to another crowded courtyard, larger than the first. There, lost among the cliques, stood Olivia.
Everyone was facing an elevated platform on which Jack, sporting a striped top hat and jacket, waved at them. Megaphone raised to his mouth, he shouted, “Welcome to the Jack Tanner Freak Show!”
“Masterpiece number one!” Jack announced into the megaphone, and a searchlight danced along one of the walls and paused where a sheet was being removed from a painting. It was a caricature of Kgabu, made up as a blackface minstrel actor from the thirties, complete with chalk-whitened eyes, mouth and hands.
The crowd gasped and roared. The light bounced over it seeking the real Kgabu, the hungry spectators delighting in his ill-concealed hurt.
“Masterpiece number two!” Jack shouted with glee into the megaphone, louder now to drown out the rabble.
Jack’s paraplegic friend was the subject of the second portrait, writhing grotesquely in his wheelchair. Grace had to look away when the spotlight revealed the victim’s nervous smile.
Grace and Olivia exchanged terrified glances. Both Jack and the fickle crowd were working themselves into a frenzy, escalating with every exhibit.
“Masterpiece number three!”
This canvas displayed Jack’s blind friend waving his white cane around in the emptiness.
“Masterpiece number four!”
The Syrian refugee knelt, bowed before his hooded, axe-wielding executioner.
Grace tugged at Olivia’s hand, but Olivia, her face already an open wound, remained, hypnotized, welcoming her punishment.
“Masterpiece number five! Miss Olivia, beauty queen of our local library!”
The cloth rose, revealing an unmistakable Olivia, squatting in a transparent bikini, rolls of startled white flesh seeking cover.
Hoots and whistles hailed down on them, as the tireless light stalked its prey. Grace leapt forward to shield her friend.
“Masterpiece number six! Welcome Miss Elizabeth Taylor. This week anyway, hahaha!”
Grace’s pathetically dignified floppy hat crowned a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald MacDonald.
The cackling escalated. Spectators turned to point her out, as Grace finally managed to lead Olivia away, the girl’s face shiny with hot tears.
Grace was seething.
The day after the party, Grace told her mother and sister she had a headache and stayed in bed listening to records, finding it impossible to do anything other than worry about Olivia.
They had left the factory in a taxi the night before and Grace accompanied the girl to her residence.
Olivia insisted she was okay, but Grace knew better.
Grace reached for the gilt vintage phone that Madelaine had given her a few Christmases before. She dialed the girl’s number but there was no answer. Well, she would see her at work tomorrow, anyway. It would be Olivia’s last week.
But Olivia was not at work the next day, nor the next. She didn’t answer her phone, and when Grace went to her residence hall, her roommates said she had gone back to her hometown. Nobody remembered where that was.
The day after that was June first, and Beth, recovered, smiled back at her from the check-out desk.
Grace had lunch alone in the balcony window of the old wing, so she wouldn’t have to wave at joggers and smile at dog-walkers. She ate even less than usual, a few cherry tomatoes and an apple. She remembered Olivia and wondered, powerless, what she could do for her. Breathing in the dust of forgotten books, she listened to hammers knocking, plaster crumbling and the wail of drills, as workers tore the old wing down around her. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see herself in the glass door.
Because ever since the party, something strange had been happening. She continued to groom herself meticulously, both from force of habit, and so as not to alarm anyone, but now, except for the mirrors at home, she avoided her reflection. Every passing bus, every shop window, even the wading pool in the park, which had once all reflected confidence and elegance, now presented her with the image of the grotesque clown from the rave.
Could her mother and Jack be right? Was she a powdered and painted old Barbie doll forcing a fiction only she had believed in?
Her shoulders slumped. Who was she to try and help Olivia, if she herself was living in a fantasy world?
But she knew no other reality. Where could she start to create a new one? Whose example should she follow?
Were not everyone else’s realities also just their fictions, like religion for her mother, and husbands for her sister? Were they any happier for it? Would she be happier if she took on her mother’s or sister’s fictions? Or those of Jack’s friends? What did normal mean anyway? Sharing the same fiction as everyone else? Couldn’t they see that today’s normal was going to be tomorrow’s crazy, just like yesterday’s normal was today’s crazy?
She looked at the wooden chair Olivia had squeezed herself into that rainy day. Olivia’s fiction had exploded in her hopeful face. What new one would she invent to get through her reality?
Grace was preparing for her swing class, powdering her face in the only mirror that still loved her, when Teresa walked in the door.
“Gawking at yourself in the mirror as always!”
“What is it, mum? I’m going to dance class.”
“I babysat the boys last Saturday while you were out partying. Made them do some work for a change. You spoil them too much.”
Grace applied her lipstick, made a face at herself, and winked.
“Are you listening to me?” Teresa picked up one of the stiletto heels Grace was planning to wear, and threw it with unbelievable force at the offending mirror.
Grace gasped as the heel hit the glass and cracked it in two. She stared, fascinated at the resulting distortion of herself.
“There!” Teresa sounded satisfied, covering up her own surprise. “Now you won’t be distracted when your mother speaks.”
Grace sank down on her stool. “What is it mum?” she asked in a low voice. Contrary to her mother’s wishes, she couldn’t take her eyes off the mirror.
“Your sister and I have planned a family picnic for this Saturday. Looks like this Luke fellow is really working out. A fine man. I’ve never seen her so happy, and the boys love him.
“Okay, mum.” Grace murmured to the mirror. “I’ll be there.”
On Saturday morning Grace was in Madelaine’s apartment helping with the preparations. Luke had bought a lovely old-fashioned picnic basket big enough to hold a feast. There was cold smoked chicken, roast beef, four types of salad, bottles of beer and Perrier water, and homemade brownies for dessert.
Madelaine was ecstatic, Teresa was tolerable, and the boys were both helpful and polite.
“He’s here! He’s here!” Danny announced from the living room window. They each grabbed an armload of provisions and bumped awkwardly down the hall and stairs to the parking lot.
It was only the third time Grace had seen this man, but she marveled at the tonic effect he had on the whole family. She climbed in the backseat with her mother and Mark, while Madelaine and Luke occupied the front with little Danny between them. She caught a glimpse of them all smiling in the rear-view mirror.
After lunch by the lake, the boys insisted on a game of handball with Luke. The ladies watched him as he, still wearing his tie, tossed the ball to Mark. Where had this special man, who still addressed his future mother-in.-law respectfully as Mrs.Walaski, come from?
The boys soon tired of the game and, rolling up their pant legs, ran off to splash around at the water’s edge.
Teresa and Madelaine found a tap where they rinsed out the lunch dishes, and Grace decided to go for a walk. On the way in she had spied a bus stop and decided to check it out.
Today she had chosen not to dress up as a star, so she wore the simple suit dress, low pumps and tiny hat of a supporting actress, one who played the parts of aunts and sisters.
She was making her way, negotiating tree roots and dead leaves, when she heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see Luke approaching, his tie still askew from sport.
“May I join you?”
“Of course.” She felt that same fluttery warmth as that day in his car. “I thought I saw a bus stop near here. I might go back to town a bit earlier. I’m beat. Family life sure takes it out of you!”
He didn’t try to dissuade her and she was grateful for that.
“I’ll tell them.” he said.
They walked on. She prattled on about her nephews, how good they were in school, at sports and how Danny enjoyed the old movies she brought him. Luke listened quietly.
When they reached the stop, they paused, both of them avoiding the glass which reflected a handsome and well-matched couple. Some older ladies nodded their approval at them.
“And they are all so happy with you. Madelaine, mum, the boys …”
Luke was looking down at her.
“Yes, but you, Grace? What about your happiness?”
Grace noticed with relief that the bus was approaching. The old ladies gathered up their bags and baskets.
“Me?” she sniffed, avoiding his gaze. Her eyes were moist.
The bus sighed loudly and the door snapped open.
Luke stepped forward and grabbed her elbow. “Grace …”
The ladies boarded. Grace stepped back, whirled around, and hopped on the bottom step, laughing “I’ll be fine! I’ve got my dancing, and my yoga, and there’s this Greek poet who writes me verses on Facebook … then there’s this South African drummer … Oh!” she shrieked girlishly as the driver shut the door.
She blew him a kiss from the window and Luke tilted his hat in farewell.
As the bus pulled away from the curb, she opened her purse and pulled out her make-up mirror. She smiled at her reflection because, like the mirrors at home, this one still loved her.
Leah Porter sprung off the diving board and soared high above the pool. She tucked her body tight, spun two quick somersaults, and descended in a clean line. When she sliced the surface, she knew it was good—an almost flawless entry. Deep under, she pushed off the pale cement bottom and bubbled to the surface.
As Leah swam to the ladder, she flashed her best Hollywood smile—the one she’d learned from Esther Williams in Neptune’s Daughter—at Kevin Smithson, the aquatics director. She grabbed the aluminum ladder and planted her foot on the bottom rung. Alison, who’d followed Leah, had made a clumsy splash that still rocked the water around them.
Had Alison seen the red marks when Leah mounted the diving board in front of her? They were the smallest kind, etched with a needle where her right thigh disappeared into her pelvis.
“Hey,” Alison shouted, treading water. “Are you taking a pee?”
“Gross. No,” said Leah. “I’m getting out.” She flicked water in Alison’s face, giving herself a split second to grab her towel from the bench.
On the pool deck of the YMCA Aquatics Center, Leah wrapped herself in pink terrycloth as Kevin approached. He pulled from his pocket the coveted black and white striped Dolphin band. “You did it, kiddo,” he said, stretching the band so that it fit over Leah’s swim cap and around her neck.
Leah looked up at Kevin, shivering.
“The first girl to make Dolphin in over a year!” Kevin announced, louder than Leah would have liked. “You may be pint-sized for thirteen, but you’re powerful. Congrats.” He patted her on the back.
“Thanks. It feels good,” Leah said. She waited for it to feel good. She yanked off her swim cap, releasing a tangle of auburn curls just as she’d watched Esther Williams do in film after film.
The rest of the afterschool kids shuffled to the locker room in their flip-flops. Though Leah had been coming to the YMCA After School Program since she was eleven, not a single kid had even high-fived her for earning her Dolphin band. Leah dreaded the shower and the locker room. She stalled, arranging her goggles in their plastic case. At the water fountain, she rinsed out her neoprene cap.
“Get moving,” said Kevin. “You’ll be late for assembly.”
Outside, leafless black branches looked like cutouts against a darkening lavender sky. It was January, that hard part just after the holidays. At home, dead pine needles covered the floor beneath the Christmas tree her mother always took too long to haul to the curb. Her mother would be packing up at work and heading to the Y carpool line like everyone else’s parents.
Leah knew of others at school who harmed themselves. Honor students, theater geeks, even a cheerleader. Some snapped rubber bands against their wrists until thin red lines appeared. Some rubbed the backs of their hands with erasers until the skin burned and broke open. Others used shards of glass on their arms and legs. They recognized each other’s strategies: long sleeves even on the hottest days, stacks of bracelets to cover a wrist, Band-Aids worn for months at a time.
Swimmers’ suits exposed most everything. But Leah had chosen skin no one would ever ask to see. And she had mastered slipping off her clothes in the locker room. If you used the curtained changing stall, people wondered. Once, early on, a big-boned girl named Rita made sharp eye contact from behind her locker, signaling that she and Leah belonged to the same hushed network of self-harmers.
In the shower, Leah’s swimsuit clung to her flat tummy and small breasts. She went to her favorite locker where the baggy sweatshirt waited. A few rows down, the older girls obsessed over Kevin.
“Have you seen his calf muscles? Holy cow,” somebody said. “How is that even possible?
“He was cuter this summer when his hair was blonder,” said Alison.
“Yeah, whatever,” moaned Tina the ruling ninth grader. “He needs to lighten up.”
“No kidding,” said a girl in the bathroom stall. Leah recognized Cecily’s nasal voice. In sixth grade, Cecily had been Leah’s go-to after school friend. But in seventh grade, Cecily discovered sarcasm and lip-gloss. When she dubbed Leah boring, Cecily rose in popularity. “Kevin treats that stupid Y manual like it’s the Bible or something,” said Cecily, exiting the bathroom stall as she zipped up her jeans. “Those ranks are just a way to keep us busy while our parents work,” she said. “Kevin needs to stop pretending something amazing is going to happen when I become a new kind of fish.”
“You’re not a true believer?” asked Tina. Leah understood sarcasm. She just couldn’t produce it. “You’ve got to believe, sweetheart,” Tina said. “It’s like Transformers!” she shouted, running out around in her bra and underwear. She jumped up on the bench in the middle of the room. “Look at me! Tah dah! I’m a fucking Flying Fish,” she said as she leapt into the air, then landed with a thud.
Leah forced a chuckle.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Cussing was against the YMCA rules. Nobody had warned Leah that by the time you got to the top, your friends might be too cool to care. Leah wanted to be back with the elementary school kids who climbed their counselors like jungle gyms. She wanted to be a fifth grader, shamelessly going after each band: red for Minnow, green for Fish, blue for Flying Fish, black for Shark, and the final black and white striped one for Dolphin. The order soothed her.
Leah still owned the first manual she’d gotten when she was eleven. Most
kids lost theirs repeatedly. Leah’s was like a scrapbook of the years since her father had left, each page covered in counselors’ autographs, confirming her skills as she passed them off. From the beginning, Leah had excelled at swimming, so Kevin Smithson’s signatures outnumbered all the others. Leah had practiced her own intertwined K and S in imitation of his: the arms of the K cradling the smaller S.
If Kevin lived a life beyond the Y, Leah did not want to know about it. He seemed set apart from all the meanness. Blameless. And if, years later, Leah came back to visit the Aquatics Program, she expected to find Kevin still there, unchanged, unmarried, unpartnered.
The program was what Leah needed. She only half cared that the other kids looked past her. Counselors at the Y yelled, “Hustle up! Get in line!” But Leah took her time. She breathed in the smells of each hallway: the squeaky-clean Clorox scent of the lobby, the eggs and bacon wafting from the diner where men who rented rooms upstairs ate breakfast, the sweat of the stairwell leading to the adult gym, the chlorine that welcomed her to the Aquatics Center. She inhaled the mildew of wet towels in the lost and found bin. And she added to the list of philias her father had started years earlier. Topophilia, she wrote in the back of her manual, love of place.
The older girls in the locker room began arguing about a sixth grader who claimed to be “on the rag.”
“No, no, dearies,” said towheaded Lizzy in her best British accent, her goggles perched on the end of her nose, her index finger wagging at them. “Alison might be making it through leak week or flying the Japanese flag,” she lectured. “She might be getting a room at the Red Roof Inn, or visiting her Aunt Flow. But, ladies, Alison is most definitely not on the rag. How crude! How infantile!”
Leah produced a convincing enough laugh, thankful that nobody had ever asked about her period.
End-of-the-day assembly was, Leah knew, a form of babysitting. Most of the older kids complained about having to sit still on the floor watching movies that were safe for the youngest grade-schoolers. Leah didn’t care that everything had to be G-rated. Re-watching was the best kind of watching. Leah’s hair, still damp beneath her hoodie, was the color of Ariel’s and Wendy’s. So what if redheads’ pale, freckled skin never tanned? They could sing “I Want More,” they could get back their voices, they could learn to fly.
When the carpool counselor with her walkie-talkie called Leah’s surname, “Porter, to the pick-up line,” she slung her backpack over her shoulder and headed toward the lobby doors. A Y staff member opened the passenger side of her mother’s Camry. On the floorboard, fast food wrappers rustled. An empty Diet Coke crunched under her shoe. The car smelled of fries.
Leah’s mother was on her cell phone. “Alright,” she said. “I’ve got Leah now. Call you back later.”
Audrey Porter looked more of a mess than usual. Her hair stood at attention in random places, lifted by static. Her scarf, which had seemed nice enough that morning, was all tangled up in her safety belt. Though Leah had anticipated her mother’s delight when she told her about earning the Dolphin band, she no longer felt like sharing. Maybe at dinner, maybe over breakfast.
They pulled out of the parking lot and merged into traffic.
“How was your day, sweetie?”
“Solidly average,” said Leah. She fingered the black and white elastic Dolphin band inside her sweatshirt. She would not let her mother’s messy sadness seep into her swim life. She’d wash the band with Woolite to keep the white parts bright.
Leah’s father had left them when she was eleven.
He’d broken the news at bedtime, just as they were settling in to read A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Her father voiced each character, even when he was tired. And he had seemed tired more often lately. Specks of grey flecked his thick brown beard. The deepened creases in his forehead looked like scars.
Back then, Leah’s dad worked into the wee hours of the morning in his office above the garage. Her mother complained that her father’s side of the bed was never unmade. Each day before she left for school, Leah crept up the stairs to say good-bye. In a corner, her father sat with his coffee, designing miniature pools for koi. Around him lay sketches of rooftop gardens and walls of plants. From her mother’s sharp questioning, Leah had learned that the sketches were called renderings.
“What did you render last night, Paul?” her mother asked when he came down to the kitchen to refill his coffee.
Why the question stung, Leah did not understand. But its effect on him seemed cruel, a fault in her mother. He answered with elaborate artistic details. Leah’s mother showed no interest.
Leah was six when her dad explained to her that his designs were biophilic, that bio meant life and philic meant having to do with love.
“Ha!” she said, as if she’d just forced him to crown her king in a game of checkers. “Love life.”
“That’s about right,” her dad conceded. “Though I never thought of it that way. The bio part, the life part, is about science.”
“You’re not a scientist,” she said.
“True. But I rely on them, people like Lex. He’s a botanist, which means he knows all about plants. Our buildings are covered in plants that attract butterflies and birds,” he said, arranging his X-acto knives in their case. “People do better when there’s other life around.”
“I guess so,” said Leah. She imagined squirrels and mice scurrying through the hotels her father had created. But hadn’t he just said our buildings?
Lex had been at Leah’s birthday party when she turned five—and at every birthday since—mingling among the parents in the kitchen, the tallest Asian man she had ever seen.
“We’re working on an enclosed playground for a children’s hospital in Australia,” her dad told her one morning as he stacked foam mount on a small shelf. “Its walls will grow like a forest and the air will be filled with birdsongs. That’s biophilic design.”
“So there’ll be kangaroos and koalas? I want to go.”
“Well, it hasn’t been built yet. The animals won’t be big like kangaroos. We’re hoping for parrots and clownfish, the kind of things that will delight little kids who can’t get outside much. But without a lot of ruckus for the doctors and nurses.”
“I don’t like ruckus either.”
He paused, lifted Leah up, and sat her on his desk. “You, my beauty, are a logophile, a lover of words. And of course, a hydrophile.”
“A lover of hiding?”
“Nope, a lover of water. You shed your plastic water wings before you went to preschool. Took off towards that ladder at the deep end of the pool, fearless. Mom and I were ridiculously proud. But it was all you.”
“Yep, that’s me. A hydrophile. And I think you’re a Leah-phile.”
“You’re right about that.”
When it came to her dad, Leah was usually right. She had long felt as though she housed somewhere inside herself a map of her father, an ever-expanding guide to which she added details as she learned them—his childhood love of figs from a backyard tree, his fear of being stuck inside an elevator. He’d seemed knowable to her in a way that her mother never had.
So when eleven-year-old Leah cuddled up next to her dad one summer evening, eager to read with him, she could sense he was elsewhere. She rested her head on his shoulder, just far enough from his neatly trimmed beard not to feel the scratchies as he leafed through their worn copy of A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
“What chapter were we on?” he asked, too chipper.
“Come on, Dad. Chapter 4. You love Chapter 4.”
“Guess I’m distracted.”
“Your heart’s pounding.”
He smoothed the covers around Leah’s legs. “Honey. I need to tell you something.” Leah thought he might be sick, something awful that might make all of his hair fall out. “I got the job,” he said. “The one in Australia.”
Leah sat up, putting space between herself and her father. This was supposed to be good news. Why did he sound so apologetic?
“When did you find out?” she asked.
“A few days ago. I had to make sure I’d say yes before I told you.”
“Well, duh, of course you’d say yes. You wanted it. You said so. You worked like crazy to get it.”
“But it’s a long way away. And for a long time.”
“Yeah, well, you knew that from the beginning,” she said. “When do we leave?”
“Oh, sweetie,” her father murmured. “You’ll stay here with your mom.”
It took Leah a minute to feel the distance between your mom and plain old Mom, but as she did, her eyes began to sting. When her father gathered her into a hug, Leah felt the burden of her mother’s long sadness shift from her father’s body to her own.
It would take months for Leah to realize her father had been looking for a job that would take him away from home. It would be longer still before she could understand her father’s new life with Lex—their coupledom, her mom called it.
Lex and her father flew to Australia on an October school day as Leah sat in math class. That afternoon, she climbed the stairs to her father’s office over the garage. Maybe he had left her something, some sort of sign that he was still a Leah-phile, that he’d be coming back. She opened drawer after drawer. In one, she found tidy bundles of pencils held tight with green rubber bands; in another, a black zippered case that Leah recognized as her father’s old tools, long since replaced by sharper, fancier ones.
Over their first Skype conversation, her father explained, “We’ve already had the day you’re having now. We’re thirteen hours ahead of you. We’re finishing the day that you’re just starting. Look, I’ve already showered for bed.”
Leah didn’t want to look. She didn’t want to see her father in his pajamas. Didn’t he get it? Everything had changed: PJs once meant story time with her. Now PJs meant Lex. “That’s cool, Dad,” Leah said. “You’re settled in, and I’ve got all my work ahead of me.” At last, she had succeeded at sarcasm.
The first time Leah’s dad came back to the States at Christmas, they had dinner at a downtown restaurant not far from the Raleigh Y. Leah stared at the fancy menu, most of it unrecognizable things she probably wouldn’t like anyway. She did like French onion soup. And her father knew to order it for her sans fromage.
When the waiter left the three of them alone, Leah’s father raised his glass to propose a holiday toast. He mock-cleared his throat. “A benediction from the great Hamilton Wright Mabie,” he announced, smiling at Leah, who recognized the author of Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know. A copy of the book still sat on her nightstand. If any friend ever asked, Leah intended to tell her about the long-before- Disney fairy tales. She wanted to shock somebody else with the darkest ones: birds pecking out eyes, a mother who wants her beautiful daughter’s liver and lungs removed.
“Leave it to Mabie to give us such a gem,” Leah’s father declared, tipping over the poinsettia centerpiece as he lifted his wine glass. “‘Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.’”
“Cheers,” said Lex, clinking his wine glass against each of theirs.
“Merry Christmas,” said Leah’s dad.
“Cheers,” offered Leah as she raised her ice water. She saw that her father’s happiness had released the deep creases in his forehead and that the skin beneath his eyes shone pale and smooth.
Under the table, Leah pressed the softest part of her inner forearm up against a sharp edge. She pressed until she could no longer keep her face all pleasant seeming. Then she looked down at the red mark she had made and wondered how long it would last.
That January, Leah’s mom enrolled her in the Y-Youth Corps After School Program. Mrs. Porter had taken a full-time job at NC State’s Design Library, where she’d worked before Leah was born. Leah was pretty sure they didn’t need the money. Her dad sent checks that took care of things. Maybe her mother needed a place to remember who she had been before she’d become Mrs. Porter.
One warm late-March night, Leah sat on her bed with her window open and listened to her mother and their neighbor Anna Hargrove chatting on the deep front porch. The rocking chairs Leah’s father had made creaked on the floorboards beneath them. The women’s conversation grew louder as they popped the cork on another bottle of wine. Leah’s mother was crying, and Leah pictured her in those baggy clothes that hid a body whose shape Leah no longer knew.
“Wonder when he decided,” she said. “When we were little kids playing in the creek together? Or in seventh grade, when I put my head on his shoulder at that middle school dance? How about after prom? We’d made out in his parents’ car, and there didn’t seem to be any, you know, problem.”
“Who the hell knows,” said Anna.
Leah had never heard a swear word sound like comfort before.
“Maybe he’d reached some understanding when I stayed the weekend in his college dorm,” her mother said. “I mistook his restraint for tenderness.”
Leah knew what restraint meant. She’d heard enough in health class about middle school girls who had lacked it. Nobody said anything about the boys.
No kid on Earth wanted to think the how and when of her parents doing it. Leah should feel guilty for listening in. She heard the flapping windsock on the porch below, a breeze moving through its hollow insides.
“Paul thought at least he could make some of us happy—me, his parents and mine. But falling in love with Lex stunned him. It wasn’t just the sex he’d denied himself.”
“Such a martyr,” Anna said.
“Seriously. I asked him, what was all of this?’”
Her mother must have gestured at their house, maybe even pointed up towards Leah’s room, making Leah herself a question.
“In that ridiculously kind voice of his, he said, ‘Audrey, you and I both know it was its own kind of love.’”
Leah pulled her bedcovers around her. How had her mother been duped?
Whenever Leah had trouble making up her mind about something, her dad had urged her, “Go with your gut, baby. Go with your viscera.” He’d taught her that viscera was the tissue hat held stuff together inside you. “You’d better learn to pay attention when it’s talking to you,” he said each time Leah stalled. “People who don’t feel bad all over.” Had her dad been mean enough to say something like that to her mother?
Somewhere early on, Leah figured, her mother’s insides must have stopped talking to her, allowing her to imagine all kinds of things. Maybe, as she developed into the beautiful young woman Leah had seen in old photos, she came to believe that her flawless skin had the power of an ocean tide, strong enough to pull the boy she loved toward her.
But her mother’s skin did not have that power. The boy was just pretending. And she should have known it, should have felt the absence beneath all the excitement of their parents and friends. Her mother’s mistake was far scarier somehow than her father’s pretending.
A week after she’d listened to the porch conversation, Leah lay on her bed, aching. She would not be fooled or foolish. She needed to press hard on something, break it open, leave a mark.
As a toddler, Leah had yanked fur off her stuffed animals and gathered it into wads. Her parents called this “pulling fuzzies.” The rhythmic tugging and the repetitive rolling of the fur between her thumb and forefinger calmed Leah. She hoarded the fur in clear plastic jars lined up on her bookshelf.
Leah rolled over on her bed, opened her laptop, and searched cutting. Both the lure and the disgust had been there since she’d heard about it at school. A girl in her math class had been called to the nurse for harming herself. Descriptions of her bleeding arm traveled through the hallways and onto the playground.
The Eraser Challenge went viral sometime that winter. Students dared each other to rub their own forearms with an eraser while they recited the alphabet. You had to come up with a word that started with each letter A through Z, a simple task. But as the pain grew, it got harder to remember even the words you’d find in toddler’s books: W for wagon, X for xylophone, Y for yarn, Z for zebra.
In February, there was a special all-school meeting in the auditorium. “This is not a game,” said Principal Bowers. “Germs are passed through shared erasers. The burns can become infected and leave scars. Please, talk to a school counselor if you or a friend needs help. If you’re trying to keep a friend safe by staying silent, you need to know that telling a trustworthy adult is best for both of you. It’s not ratting your friend out if they don’t know how to help themselves. And some secrets are exhausting to carry around.”
Leah didn’t know Principal Bowers cared about anything other than rules and schedules. She’d almost started crying as he talked. She wanted to be safe. She wanted everyone to be safe. Who didn’t?
That afternoon Principal Bowers sent an email alert to parents. But at the end of the school day, many kids headed straight home to their computers where they could google every ugly detail.
The next day, two boys bragged in the cafeteria, showing off their burns. Leah did not touch the pimento cheese sandwich her mother had sealed in a zip-lock bag. She broke her Oreos into tiny pieces that she could suck on like mints.
Now, a month later, Leah lay on her bed listening to Anna Hargrove say goodnight as her mother clanked empty wine bottles into the recycling bin. Leah longed for sharp tools. When her mother came upstairs and got in the shower, Leah crept to the hall closed and rummaged through the sewing kit. Then she scoured the medicine cabinet in her own bathroom for Band-Aids and creams. In her room, she emptied the barrettes and hair ribbons from their box into her underwear drawer. She tucked her supplies neatly inside and slid the box under her bed. She would try to wait. Maybe the longing would pass.
During social studies, Leah thought about her tools. When no one was looking, she touched the soft space beneath her breastbone, midway up from her belly button, the place her father called the solar plexus. “A little bundle of ganglia and nerves,” he said. “Like a tiny brain for your viscera.” It would be hidden by her bathing suit, and the pediatrician never lifted her shirt up that far—not even when he felt for the breastbuds that arrived so late, not even when he noted aloud that she had fallen off the growth chart just when she should be “blossoming.” Mortifying.
At the YMCA, Leah envisioned the quiet of her bedroom. She watched the afternoon move too slowly on her sports watch. One the carpool line began to form, her heart raced. She did not care if her mother looked frumpy. She did not care if the car was a mess when a counselor opened the passenger.
As soon as her mom pulled into their driveway, Leah hurried up the stairs to her room. Her mother was in the kitchen, getting out pots and pans. She’d be measuring, stirring, listening to Public Radio.
Leah lit a match to sterilize the sharp end of the safety pin. She lay on her bed, lifted her shirt, and pressed the metal point down just hard enough to draw a small amount of bright red blood. Surface scratches. She made two. She needed another. And another. Scoring, she thought. Four parallel lines and a cross hatch, as she’d been taught for tallying wins in board games.
Under her lacy canopy, Leah checked the time on her bedside clock. She’d read that cutting was different for each person, that some kids felt high, some grew calm. She waited. Why wasn’t this as helpful as pulling fur from her stuffed animals? Had she done it wrong? Maybe she should rescue her stuffed bears from the attic and remove the last bits of their fur, the hardest part along the seams that she could never quite get when she was little. She rubbed her thumbs and forefingers against each other in the circular motion she’d used on her fuzzies.
Beyond the foot of her bed, the bookshelves her dad had built reached from floor to ceiling. There was her doll collection and, below the dolls, her picture books with their brightly colored spines. On the bottom shelf sat the two plastic jars brimming with the fuzzies that Leah would not let her mother discard. She got up and retrieved a handful. No one would know. She lay back and fondled them, just as she remembered doing as a toddler. “Self-soothing,” her mother had called it back then—as if it were an achievement.
Leah looked at the cabinet her father had designed for her very own TV, a gift he’d had delivered on her twelfth birthday, the first one he’d missed. Leah had managed to sound grateful over the phone, though she’d imagine he might fly home and surprise her. Instead of getting to hear her father read to her, Leah flipped through the channels with the remote control. She happened upon an Esther Williams Movie Marathon. Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid enchanted her. That night, Leah dreamed of 1940s ladies in modest swimsuits, of perfectly choreographed water ballets, of long legs and pointed toes emerging from the water.
On their weekly Skype call, Leah told her father about the movies she’d discovered. “Ah,” he said. “You have retrophilia. Love of things past.”
Leah found images of Esther Williams on the Web. Against her mother’s rules, she printed them in color, using up a whole expensive cartridge. She made a collage of the pictures and slid it beneath the plastic protector of her big three-ring binder. If she felt alone at school, Leah looked at Esther’s face, her ivory skin and full red lips, her pointy boobs and auburn hair. Leah loved the shot of Esther looping under water in a perfect backbend.
A classmate asked, “Is that your mom?”
Leah smiled. “No, she’s someone who was famous a long time ago. Probably old enough by now to be my grandmother, if she’s even still alive.”
Leah lay on her bed, thinking of Esther’s perfect skin. The first scratches she had made began to sting. Where was the calm? She tried to envision herself as a synchronized swimmer moving effortlessly through the water, a small part of a satisfying geometric shape.
Leah looked at her clock. Six and a half minutes of something—far less than she’d hoped for. She took the open safety pin to her skin once more, digging just a bit deeper across her upper abdomen. She grabbed her hand mirror and held it at an angle to watch herself bleed. She could be both her own guard and the danger from which she was being guarded. It was 6:50.
At 7:00, Leah’s mother called her down to dinner. Leah grabbed the Neosporin and Band-Aides from her box. On her bright red scratches, she rubbed the clear ointment and watched as it mixed with bits of blood that turned it pink. She taped a line of Band-Aids across the hash marks. “Be right there,” Leah yelled down the stairs. In the bathroom, she ran cold water over her hands.
Leah and her mother faced each other at the dinner table. They spoke with customary caution, as though the wrong words might split something necessary to their survival.
“You’re a little pale,” said Mrs. Porter. “Do you feel alright?”
“I’m fine,” Leah heard herself say as she speared a green bean with her fork. She was frightened to have answered so easily. She wished her mother would reach over and test her forehead for a fever. From the space Leah now occupied, her mother was like a museum statue protected by a red velvet rope.
For Leah’s fourteenth birthday, her mother bought her a shadow box. Inside, she had arranged Leah’s swim bands earned over nearly two years. It looked important, like the store display she’d admired: one neatly folded American flag, perfectly creased inside its triangular box. Over her desk hung each rank Leah had achieved the past two years: Rookie, Cadet, Corporal, Sarge, Lieutenant, and Captain. Her mother had arranged them in the shape of a diamond with the empty center spot awaiting Leah’s completion of Master—the only rank left for her at the Y.
Ten whole months had passed since Leah had earned her Dolphin band. All Leah had to do to achieve Master was learn to cartwheel on the low balance beam. But she’d lost her motivation. Leah wondered—but dared not ask—if, once she’d gotten her final certificate, once it was framed and filling in the center, her days at the Y would come to an end. Other eighth graders caught the bus directly home to empty houses; thirteen year olds did their homework and took care of themselves until their parents returned from work. Leah wished her mother understood that she could not be left alone, that the privacy of her bedroom terrified her. She was ashamed that she could be trusted—more ashamed even than she was of the cuts on her body.
Whenever Leah thought of entering their empty house, her mind drifted to the box under her bed, to the eraser, straight pins, and embroidery needles, to her book of matches, hydrogen peroxide, Neosporin, cotton balls, and Band-aides. She wondered if somewhere in the house still lay her father’s old drafting tools—that beautiful protractor with its perfect arc, his compass with two legs, one sharp end for holding a point and another with which to incise a circle, his set of X-acto knives in its zippered plastic case.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Leah’s alarm sounded for swim practice at 5:30 AM. Her feet hit the floor reflexively. She slipped her sweatshirt over her head, pulled on her leggings, and stepped into her fuzzy boots. The electric candles already set in the windows for Christmas cast a soft light in her bedroom. Though her mother said it was a fire hazard, Leah slept with the candles on. She hadn’t needed a nightlight when she was little, just a crack of the door to let hall light through. Now the door stayed shut.
In the kitchen, Leah grabbed a PowerBar and filled her water bottle. Just before 6:00 AM, her mother dropped her off at the Y, as she’d done each morning since Leah joined the AAU team that fall.
Leah faced a corner in the locker room and squirmed her way into the high-tech suit that helped her glide through the water without drag. Her legs were now shaved, and her fair skin looked foreign to her. She’d not really needed to remove the leg hair that was blonde enough to be invisible. Still, her mother had understood the social pressure to own a razor and shaving cream.
Nearby, Laura, an eighth grader who had actual boobs and Kaki, whose black hair completely filled the space between her legs, engaged in the same morning struggle of getting into their suits damp from the previous evening’s practice. Leah tried not to stare.
Poolside, Leah stuffed her ponytail into the Y swim cap and suctioned her goggles over her eyes. The 300-yard warm-up was her favorite part of each day. She could awaken gradually. She didn’t have to respond to a coach’s demands. All she had to do was find her rhythm in the water: pull, reach, pull, reach, pull, breathe. Today, she felt strong in her core as she rotated her body with each pull. When she got to the black T painted on the bottom of the pool, she took several hard strokes into her flip turn. Then she snapped a clean pike, made a solid hard push off the wall, and reached long for a streamlined position. She pumped her butterfly kick—1,2,3—then flutter kicked to the surface.
Once she’d completed the warm-up, Leah lifted her goggles to her forehead and stood with her lane mates at the shallow end. They studied the whiteboard for the rest of the workout and groaned about the laps ahead. But Leah had grown to love the math of each swim set, the patterns to discern, the yards to calculate, the intervals to make. One at a time, fastest swimmer to slowest, her lane began. In the middle of the pack, Leah practiced the art of circle swimming—never crowding the person in front of her or getting too far away from the person behind. She felt encased in her own glass tunnel. Her ears filled up with water, muffling all sound. She’d searched online to find the word she wanted to describe this feeling: autophilia, love of being alone.
She satisfied Kevin’s rule not to take a breath in or out of her flip turns. “Stop giving up all your momentum,” he’d shouted at last night’s practice.
During the morning sprint set, Leah heard him yell, “You’ve got this. You’ve got this.”
She did not have it at all. Even when she was swimming well, she was drowning.
That afternoon, the school bus dropped Leah off early at the Y. With half an hour to kill, she wandered back to the pool where she knew Kevin would be teaching mothers with their babies. Leah sat on the bench by the lifeguard stand and pretended to study her flash cards.
“Hey,” shouted Kevin from the far end of the pool. “You don’t need to sit on that lousy bench. You’ll get splashed. Come on over here. You can study at my desk.”
Leah popped up and hooked her backpack over her shoulder. She couldn’t suppress a smile.
For weeks, she’d been trying to stop hurting herself. She’d found loads of stuff online—more than she could read—and she’d tested out each thing that had helped another kid. First, she’d cut deep ridges into the underside of her desk, hoping that pressing down hard, breaking the grain of the wood would be enough. She’d tried dropping red food coloring into a glass of water and watching as it diluted to pink. An online forum had counseled her: “Envision your skin as the skin of someone you cherish.” The only person Leah could think of was Esther Williams. Pathetic. A Hollywood star no one her age even knew had existed.
Leah wanted to open her box of supplies in front of an adult who would understand. She made a sentence inside her head: “I use these.” But she couldn’t say it aloud, not even behind the closed door of her own room.
In the past few weeks, Leah had dreamed up dark possibilities, a way out that would unfold all on its own, a way that would not require her to speak up or to have a friend who would speak up for her. She would bring about an infection on purpose. She’d find another tool, something in the drawers of her father’s old office. Even if her mother noticed her riffling through her the cabinets, she could say she needed something for a school project. Her mother was just that easy to throw off, just that slow to catch on. Leah would not sterilize the point with her matches. She would not clean the marks it made with hydrogen peroxide or soothe them with Neosporin.
It would take several days, she’d heard from a girl at school who’d done it, for the puffiness to start, for the pus to gather, the red streaks to appear. Once the infection set in, she might even run a high fever that would send her to the school infirmary. The nurse in her crisp white dress and shoes would dial the library desk where Leah’s mother worked. The nurse’s voice, kind and sure like Kevin’s, would break the news, “Leah is ill. You need to come and collect her.” It was an expression that had fascinated Leah the few times she’d gotten sick at school: “Come and collect her.” How do you collect a person?
“I’ve got fifteen minutes till I start my aquatots class,” Kevin said as Leah approached his office. “You’re welcome to my cushy chair. And if you want a break from that stupid volleyball, I’ll text your counselor.” How had Kevin remembered her frustration with never getting to the ball in time to save it from hitting the ground? “I’ll just say I needed your help,” he said.
Leah had not felt so singled out, so cared for, since Kevin had placed the Dolphin band around her neck.
Kevin’s office, adjacent to the deep end with the diving boards, had a plate glass window that allowed him to keep an eye on things. “I’ve got to remove some lane markers. Make yourself comfortable,” he said, pulling his chair out from under his desk and pushing a few books aside to clear space for Leah.
When he walked away, Leah ran her hands over the fake leather seat. There was a warm scooped out place where he’d been sitting, and Leah settled herself inside of it. She watched through the window as Kevin unhooked the ropes on which the lane buoys floated. When he moved on to picking up kickboards from around the pool, she checked out one of the books lying open on his desk, Every Baby a Swimmer.
The photos inside seemed unreal. In one, a baby, maybe a year old at most, was all the way under the water, his eyes wide open, his mother’s hand guiding, possibly even pushing him through an underwater hoola hoop. The chapter she’d flipped to was called “Submarines All” and it described “submarine day,” when all the parents and babies go under together. Kevin had highlighted a whole section with a bright yellow marker. Leah’s eyes raced across the words: The baby is held close with his head pressed against your neck so that as you sink, the water does not rush up his nose, but flows in a swirl along your body. Leah was certain the water would go up the baby’s nose anyway.
On a yellow legal pad, Leah spotted notes in Kevin’s neat handwriting: Read the Intro to The Baby Swim Book, the passage about Polynesian women from Melville’s Typee. Leah saw a bookmark sticking out of the second book and flipped it open to a page where two dark-skinned, bare-breasted women with enormous nipples sat in the water holding their babies, their faces mostly hidden by floppy round hats.
Kevin had seen this picture of the women with their saggy boobs? And this book with topless pictures sat right here on his desk at the Y, next to the boxes of swim bands and the rosters of afterschool kids? This, Leah reassured herself, was a different kind of topless.
Beneath the photos of the dark-skinned women a long caption appeared in tiny print. Leah had to bring her face down to the page to read it. More than a century ago in his novel Typee, Herman Melville described with amazement the sight of a Polynesian mother teaching her newborn to swim: “No wonder that the South Sea Islanders are so amphibious a race, when they are thus launched into the water as soon as they see the light.”
Leah pressed a hand against her own chest. She closed the book. Could a baby really be hatched at the bottom of a pool of water and rise to the surface to find its mother? Could coming into the world ever be so easy? Leah imagined a race of amphibious people, toddlers who never wore water wings, middle schoolers who did not have to pass off ranks at the Aquatics Center, people who were born Flying Fish or Dolphins, people who swallowed water but did not drown.
Kevin popped his head in the office. “You okay in here?”
Leah lifted her face and felt her cheeks grow warm. “I’m checking out your baby swim books,” she said.
“Oh, those. Pretty amazing, huh?” Kevin stacked the books and notes to carry out to his class.
“I guess.” She hesitated. “More scary than amazing.”
“Till you see it work,” Kevin said. “You’ll just have to stay tuned. This particular class is new. But in a few weeks, they’ll all be going under.”
Out on the pool deck, mothers in their modest suits perched on a blue sponge kickboards, their babies in their laps.
“Hang around. They won’t even notice you’re in here,” Kevin said.
A few minutes later, Kevin began to teach, and the mothers stared at him. When he described the physical affection babies get in the water, the eye contact, the sense of being securely held, he no longer sounded like the guy who blew the whistle and yelled, Clear the pool Buddy check. As he read about the Polynesian women in the water, those words felt like a soothing song Leah wanted to believe: the delighted mother reaching out her hands, swooping her baby from the water before it could choke.
Leah stood at the plate glass window watching the mothers lower themselves into the water. The toned bodies of aerobics instructors, the flabby tummies and thighs of non-athletes, the beautiful breasts with deep cleavages, the saggy breasts with foldy skin, fashionable swimsuits pretty enough for water ballet, maternity suits stretched and faded and filling up with pockets of water. It did not matter. Leah would have taken any one of these women, or let them take her.
In a little pack, the ladies advanced down the pool’s slope, cooing to their trusting infants as Kevin instructed them. They walked through the shallow-end—first thigh deep, then waist deep, then chest deep—each baby nestled creature-like against its mother’s chest. At the five-foot mark, Kevin said, “Now bob up and down. Feel your shoulders get wet, but keep all heads above water. Your babies will discover safety. Each time you go down with them, you come back up together.”
Leah stood, transfixed, feeling her own smallness.
On website after website, she had read the direction: Tell someone. Leah had practiced aloud, “Please, stop me,” hoping those words would make other words come.
Out in the pool, the babies burrowed into their mothers’ bosoms.
Leah put her hand on her throat and spoke just above a whisper. Lover of water. Lover of place. She felt the vibrations in her voice box.
Kevin would be finished soon and would come to her. Leah would give up her seat at his desk and claim the smaller chair nearby. He would settle in, surrounded by all the baby swim books. Leah would claim the smaller chair nearby. She could stay all afternoon if she needed to, ignoring routines, waiting for her words to come. She wouldn’t leave until the carpool line had formed, until Kevin knew and could deliver her to her mother.
Danger at Deer’s Leap
Her two-coloured scarf flapping against her fawn shirt, Paula Davies took the stony path leading out of Deer’s Leap. The other parents had delivered their children to the campsite without any hassle. Why had she agreed to Mr Brown’s special arrangement?
His text message had asked her to be at the entrance at two o’clock. On reaching the road, she looked in both directions. It was deserted.
As she waited, she noticed that the tan line, where her wedding ring had once been, had disappeared. From the woods behind her, the raspy echo of a birdcall sounded like a disgruntled duchess.
A check of her watch showed Brown was late, just as a black limousine came into view and came to a halt close to her.
Dressed in his uniform, Jeff Brown jumped out, dragging a backpack.
“Hi, Jeff. All set?” she asked.
The other door opened, and Jeff’s father emerged.
“Good afternoon, Miss Davies. I hope you haven’t been waiting too long. My secretary does tend to overload my diary. You’ll find my Jeffrey has every item on your extensive list of requirements. I shall expect to see it all returned intact,” he declared.
“I’ll do my best, Mr Brown!” Paula replied with forced cheerfulness.
“Glad to hear it. Now Jeffrey, by all means enjoy yourself, but I expect you to earn at least two new badges!”
With that, Brown jumped back into his limo, which headed in the general direction of the City of London.
Bright and early the next morning, Paula was checking the control points on an orienteering course. Focused on her task, she was unaware of a pair of eyes tracking her every move.
Returning to camp, Paula found Bev, one of the other leaders, ten feet from the path, taking photographs of a flowering plant.
“Isn’t this beautiful, Paula? I think it’s an orchid.”
Before Paula could speak, they were interrupted by a gruff voice.
“I’ve got eggs to sell. Who’s in charge?” said a red-faced woman, with a wicker shopping basket over her arm.
“That would be me, Paula Davies. The head cook orders his stock in advance, but there’s no harm in asking if he needs more eggs. He’s down in the kitchen now.”
The woman marched off without replying.
“Did you see her dark green eyes?” shuddered Bev.
“Yeah, scary!” said Paula.
In the afternoon, rain delayed the start of the orienteering. Paula and Bev took up position at the main control point, ready to collect equipment from the cubs as they completed the course.
After two hours, Bev said, “That’s strange. Jeff Brown isn’t back yet. He’s usually in the top three for everything.”
Paula felt uneasy.
Two boys returned together. One ran up to her, keen to report.
“We tried to rescue Jeff, but we couldn’t save him!”
“Slow down, John. What do you mean?” asked Paula.
“It was muddy, round by that big barn. Jeff slipped down a bank into some gorse bushes. I tried to reach him, but it was slippery. I tied my scarf to a log where he fell. Have I let down the pack?”
“No, of course you haven’t, that was good thinking, John. Bev, you stay here in case Jeff comes back. I’ll go and search for him. Can you phone the others? I might need a rope.”
Paula ran fast, thanks to regular spinning classes.
Pools of rainwater along the path made crossing it without getting wet virtually impossible. She picked up John’s scarf. The grass on the bank was flat and worn, as though a rope had been dragged across it. There was no sign of Jeff.
Something further along caught her eye - a white handkerchief stuffed into a hole.
A marker. Clever boy, she thought.
When she reached the barn, on the campsite’s perimeter, another patch of mud bore the imprint of a boy’s sneakers and an adult’s boots. Lying on the ground was a plastic compass, glinting in the sun.
Paula skirted the trees and approached the side of the barn. Her heart thumping, she found holes in the timbers and peered inside. Jeff was tied to a chair, with the egg-woman standing over him.
Paula’s mind raced, searching for a way to lure the woman out into the open. As loudly as she could, she made a series of bird calls and ran around to the entrance.
The egg-woman emerged, brandishing a pitchfork.
“What are you doing with one of my cubs?” demanded Paula.
“So, it’s Miss High and Mighty,” the woman hissed like a feral cat. “I don’t care about the boy, it’s you I want. No one touches my man.”
She lunged at Paula, who sprang to one side.
“Who is your man?” asked Paula.
“Don’t be funny with me! You know who!”
Paula searched her memory. “If you mean Gary, it was all a mistake.”
“My neighbour saw you leaving The Rampant Horse together. I’ve been waiting for you to come back. I knew you’d have to act the hero. I’m gonna make you pay!”
With a twisted smile, the egg-woman edged forward.
Suddenly, they heard what sounded like a cowgirl’s “yee-haw”.
A lasso fell around the egg-woman’s upper body and dragged her to the ground.
Bev sat down heavily on her back.
“I can’t breathe. Get off me,” moaned the woman.
“Not a chance!” shouted Bev.
Paula phoned the police, then ran into the barn.
“I knew it was you! You still can’t do an owl call!” said Jeff.
His cheeky remark made Paula laugh. She untied the knots holding him to the chair.
Three days later, thanks to a business-like call from his secretary, Paula was sitting in Mr Brown’s office.
“At our last camp, I found Gary and his car stuck in the middle of a ford. I gave him a push-start and afterwards he took me for a drink. When he let slip he was married, I left the pub at once. The police said his wife has a history of anti-social behaviour. Still, I brought this on myself and what’s worse, on Jeff. I know what you’re going to say. He was under my protection, so it’s unforgiveable. I don’t even know if I can forgive myself. I suppose you want to drag my name through the dirt and hit me with a lifetime ban?” Paula rambled.
“If I may be allowed to speak, Miss Davies. There’s only one criminal I want to see in court and it’s not you. You must have noticed that Jeffrey likes you. Even more so now. You’ve really boosted his confidence since his mother died. And I don’t underestimate your bravery,” he soothed.
“I only did what any decent leader would do, but thanks. Incidentally, Jeff will be seeing more of me soon. I’ll be covering for one of his teachers, who’s had a heart operation,” Paula replied, relaxing a little.
“Excellent, I look forward to seeing you at a future parent-teacher meeting. There’s just one thing I find unacceptable.”
“This year, you’ve cancelled two cub meetings. A leak in the scout hut roof, wasn’t it?”
Paula blinked and nodded, like it was a constant worry.
Brown fumbled for a pen and wallet in a desk drawer.
“These days, I get nostalgic when I write a cheque. How much do you need?” he said, as if it was nothing.
Paula restrained a desire to jump for joy, knowing her thoughts must be written all over her face.
#The National Sex Consensus Board (Part One)
The slow moving river sparkles here and there in the moonlight. Two men sit at a wooden slated table, staring out beyond the water into darkness, listening to the chorus of a hot summer night. Behind them, the house, flanked by an immaculate cut lawn. They drink whiskey watered down with copious amounts of soda.
‘I’m telling you, we’re not decent.’
‘Speak for yourself, not for me.’
‘If we were, you wouldn’t need a front door lock, that terrible car alarm that shrills half the night scaring wildlife, or that rude light and camera peering over your manicured lawn.’
‘That’s not me being indecent...dam, I mean not-decent, it’s all the others, anyway it’s not manicured...’
They both laugh.
‘Remember that girl?’
‘Can’t you just drop it - she slapped me round the face, so what?’
‘Guess you’re not so decent after all.’
’You know, hot summer night, few drinks, seemed right.’
‘For you, soon fell apart when you grabbed her ass and kissed her lips hard. Look at the trouble it got you in.’
‘Lost me my job, ended up at the station half the night. God it was embarrassing, had to say sorry a thousand times, beg forgiveness, blame it on the drink...and then move house. I just wanted her. Is that so indecent?
‘It is now.’
‘Trouble is, we don’t have rules, real rules on the correct way to date.’
‘We need laws to stop this indecency, otherwise I’ll be forever moving house.’
They burst out laughing, pour another drink and raise a toast.
‘Let’s take the boat into the swamp, might see fish spawning under moonlight. Grab the whiskey.’
At the end of the lawn, where the ground gently falls away to the water’s edge, lies a wooden canoe. Moments later they are paddling through small vegetated channels under the canopy of tall trees. Here and there, moonlight cuts a beam and shimmers in the gentle ripples. The noise of insects, birds and frogs drowns the whispers.
‘What was that?’
‘Just saying that it’s me and you who need to write the rules...for our own protection.’
‘If it becomes law, we’ll never have sex again!’
They laugh some more, passing the bottle between them.
‘It will have to start with an interview – both interested parties.’
‘How will they meet?’
‘Not sure, something online, like a government app.’
‘Then a blood and genetic test to make sure you don’t have plague or related to Frankenstein.’
‘Do you think anyone will go through this twice? Imagine the stamina you’d need!’
‘Of course it will cost, after which a date can be had.’
‘A controlled meeting, maybe a drink or two, no more. Would there be a handler to make sure the rules are being followed?’
‘Probably, then the next phase could be initiated after a feedback session.’
‘Consent to go ahead.’
‘Yeah, but no touching yet, that would come after a few more reviews.’
‘So when do we get to have sex in all this?’
‘Not sure, they’d have to be a meeting, a panel of experts, could take months.’
‘Oh, you mean: The National Sex Consensus Board.’
‘Hey, that’s brilliant.’
‘Who would go through with it? Who would actually ever end up having sex?’
‘You know, these kids with all their apps, no real life, end up having sex through mobiles.’
‘OK, here we are – see any fish?’
‘No, they didn’t pass the test. Maybe next year.’
#The National Sex Consensus Board (Part Two)
Dan W Luedke, MD is a 74 year old retired medical oncologist, now working as a part-time hospice medical director. He has numerous professional publications, but LIBIDO SUNSET is his first work of fiction. It is part of an anthology entitled THE LONGER JOURNEY HOME, which deals with issues of aging and the dying process. He lives in St Louis, Missouri with Dr. Susan Luedke, his wife of 47 years. The two of them are frequent flyers trying to share in the lives of their two children and four grandchildren, who live on opposite coasts.
There is hope!
“We don’t have to give up our sex life!”
A penile implant can offer support for an erection. Whenever and wherever desired.
AMS Men’s Health (Boston Scientific Corporation Men’s
Of course I will tell you my opinion, Socrates. I was once with Sophocles the poet when someone asked him, “How do you feel about sex, Sophocles? Are you still capable of having sex with a woman?”
He replied, “Be quiet, man! To my great delight, I have broken forever of that, like a
slave who has got away from a rabid and savage master.”
Republic (Oxford World Classics) Plato, a new translation by Robin Waterfield, 1993
Guerlain Shalimar drifted on the air, gently wafted by the overhead fan. Bolero played quietly in the background, moving ever closer to climax. Candlelight flickered, projecting shadows of the naked bodies on the wall. This was a night made for love.
“I’m sorry, Helen. It’s just not going to happen. The Big Dipper’s not up to it—and no pun intended.” Paul Hudson rolled off his wife of fifty-two years and stared at the ceiling in disgust.
“Maybe I’m the problem, honey. Baby shoulders and menopause have left the Jewel Box less than exciting. You need to trade this old broad in for a younger model.”
“I don’t want a younger model. I want you.”
She snuggled up to him, and whispered, “Come on, lover, this is play time . . . you know: fun. It’s not a test. No pass/fail.”
Paul pulled away and sat on the edge of the bed. “You work hard all your life so you can retire and, well, have time to play without worrying about the kids coming in or the phone ringing. Then the time comes, and look what happens. What was it George Burns said? ‘Sex at age ninety is like trying to shoot pool with a rope.’ I’m sure as hell not ninety, and I want my cue stick back.”
“You could try Viagra again—”
“And get another whopping headache? No, thanks. You want sex, and now I have the headache. Who says the gods don’t have a sense of humor?”
“Maybe you should explore other options. You got a mailer about a men’s meeting some time this week, I think. I put it on your desk a few days ago.”
“Yeah, I saw that and tossed it into the wastebasket. It’s about bladder incontinence and erectile dysfunction. I don’t leak, thank God.”
“But the ED is you, sweetie. Maybe the Big Dipper could use some coaching.”
Paul sighed and got up to void. He muttered, “I never thought I’d outlive the Big D.” As he washed his hands, he studied his reflection in the mirror. “Six-two and one ninety’s not bad for a septuagenarian,” he thought. “Granted, the pecs droop a little, but I don’t need a man bra.
The abs of steel are now aluminum, but I don’t have a Milwaukee front. Looking good but performing badly.”
His thoughts were interrupted by Helen’s sultry voice. “Hey, big boy, stop beating
yourself up and come back to bed. Playtime’s not over. If we can’t cannube, we can still cuddle.
That’s always been my favorite time together.”
Paul crawled back into bed. They both lay naked as they spooned. Helen shivered. “Grab the blanket. I’m freezing.”
Paul obliged and eyed her body as he covered her. Living with gravity for seventy years was a drag, but when she stood, her breasts didn’t cover her navel, which in turn, didn’t cover her damo. All things considered, she was still a hot chick. He ogled her. “Yup, let’s cuddle. You still have the best boobs in town.”
As usual, Paul was up several times that night. “Okay,” he muttered, “so, I don’t pee like a racehorse, but a seventy-two year old prostate would slow anyone down.” He wistfully recalled the advice he’d given to his son at their first major league baseball game: “When you go to the men’s room, you pick the youngest, not the shortest line to the urinal.’ Hmph! Now I could be a line of my own.” He grumbled as he waited not so patiently for the urine to flow.
Paul got up early with Helen the next day. He poured coffee and brought her a cup as she finished dressing. “I see you’re wearing eye shadow. You got a new beau?”
“Of course not! I’m giving the Grand Rounds lecture at the Health Center today. I’m
nervous, and a little war paint gives me confidence.”
“Whatever works, hon, but you’ll do a great job anyway. You always do. I’ll think of
something special for dinner tonight.”
“Don’t make a big fuss about it. You know me. I’m always trying to diet. I shouldn’t be late. Thanks for the coffee. I’ll put it into a to-go cup. I need to do some charts before show time.” She gave him a kiss and was on her way.
Paul sat down at the computer to read his email. He glanced down at the wastebasket, and saw the flyer from the urology group.
Free Men’s Health Seminar:
Treatment Options For Erectile Dysfunction And Urinary Incontinence
• ED is a condition that affects as many as 50% of men over the age of 40.
• You may be interested in attending our FREE upcoming educational
seminar . . .
He stopped reading but copied the number to call. “Fifty percent,” he mumbled. “I had no idea we were a eunuchoid army.”
Later that day, he made a reservation to attend the seminar the next evening.
Strategies For Making The Bad Years Better
Helen Hudson, MD
Chairman, Department of Obstetrics And Gynecology
The sign announcing Helen’s lecture stood in the corner as she delivered her PowerPoint presentation. She scanned the room as she talked to the fifty doctors and nurses in the audience.
She noticed a familiar face: Linda Altus, a psychiatrist who had done an elective with her a long time ago. They became friends and kept in touch over the years through cards and letters and later email and the occasional luncheon date. It had been awhile since they’d seen each other.
Helen concluded her presentation with, “The astronomer, Arthur Eddington, observed that time is an arrow which flies unidirectional. I might add from personal experience that it flies ever faster as we age, and before we know it we have gone from menarche to menopause.
“As menopausal symptoms wax and wane, and gravity takes its toll on our girlish figures, one, and only one structure becomes less wrinkled. Which structure might that be? You guessed it: the vagina. The wrinkles of the young woman’s birth canal accommodate a variety of structural sizes, including the heads of our babies. Nature’s nasty irony is that the face wrinkles more with each passing year, ostensibly making us less attractive. The vagina, on the other hand, loses its wrinkles, making it less accommodating, particularly to objects smaller than a baby’s head.
“Thank you for your attention. Are there any questions?”
Linda raised her hand, a smile crossing her face. “That was a wonderful presentation, Professor Hudson. My question is, may I have coffee with you after you’ve finished the discussion?”
“ I’d love to, Dr. Altus. Meet me in the cafeteria.”
A couple of annoying, “Is it not true . . .” questions and a round of applause later, Helen was off to the cafeteria where she was soon joined by her old friend.
“It’s been too long, Linda. Why didn’t you tell me you were in town?”
“It was a spur of the moment trip,” Linda replied. “My sister, Julia, had emergency
surgery and I wanted to be at her side. Besides, home has gotten to be . . . what shall I say . . . more than a little uncomfortable?”
“Now that’s cryptic. Is Jason okay?”
“I caught him in an affair with a young woman in his office. I hit menopause, and he hits on young skirts.” She dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex and looked directly at Helen. “I was hoping to have some time with you today. I always come away from our talks feeling better.”
“Let’s slow up a bit,” Helen said. “You have this old brain whirling! First, is Julia okay?”
“It was just an appendectomy. She’ll be okay in no time.”
“And how are Mandy and Clay doing?”
“They’re fine. Busy with college. I decided not to tell them about their father’s infidelity.
Jason and I are trying to work things out.”
“Are you getting help?”
“We’re going to couples therapy. I feel like a failure not being able to handle our marital problems, but every time I think of Jason, I see him with that little bitch,” Linda said.
“He acts like a kid caught with his hand in a cookie jar. He’s apologetic to the point of being solicitous.”
”Well, I think you’re courageous trying to work things out; I’m not sure I could do the same.”
“I still love him,” Linda said, “but it’s going to be a long time before I can forgive him, much less trust him out of my sight. But enough of my problems. How are the kids and grandkids?”
“They’re fine,” Helen answered. “And so busy with their lives. Andy and Kathy are still on the West Coast with their babies. Eric and Alice are still in Florida with theirs. We log more miles than an airline pilot trying to remain a part of their lives. I rue the day I told them to go where they want to go and be what they want to be. I should have added, ‘but leave the grandchildren behind with Paul and me.’”
“Speaking of Paul, how’s he doing? You emailed me about his retirement. I didn’t think he’d go out to pasture with a smile on his face.”
“He’s not a happy camper with any issues of old age. He lost a lot of his identity with retirement from teaching. Trying to be a long-distance grandparent further chips away at who he is as well. Then, of course, he’s slowing down physically, which really irks him.”
“I don’t mean to get too personal, Helen, but are you alluding to ED?”
“Yes, I am. Paul has become less interested in sex lately. He has always prided himself in being a swordsman first class. But as his interest has waned, so has his ability to attain and maintain an erection. I’ve tried to protect him by denigrating my aging body as the reason for his ED. That excuse is no longer viable, and we’re now forced to confront the reality of his impotence.”
“I’m sure the other elements of aging are playing a role, and perhaps ED is his metaphor for aging.”
“That’s an interesting thought. This wife’s perspective is that aging for my man is a toxic cocktail. More noxious ingredients can be added, but that cocktail can never be unmade, and its bitterness grows over time.” Helen stared intently into her coffee cup. “I feel helpless . . .”
Linda smiled and said, “Let’s wash those men right out of our hair and send them on their way.”
Helen looked confused. “What are you talking about, Linda?”
“South Pacific, Rogers and Hammerstein, 1949. And I’m saying let’s talk about
something pleasant, like the glittery tennis bracelet you have on. It looks new to me.”
“Aha, you think I didn’t notice the Rolex you’re sporting?” Helen smirked.
Conversation melted into laughter, as Helen pseudo-seriously explained, “ My dear, one must accept the gifts of guilt given to us by the weaker sex.”
Paul opened the man door of the garage to a frazzled Helen. “Sorry I forgot my key.
Sorry I’m running late, I mean really late, or really sorry I’m really late . . .
“Whatever works, hon. I accept your apology, but I can’t speak for the beef. It’s gone through several iterations this evening: steak tartare, beef wellington, and now steak puff.”
Helen put her briefcase on the counter and took off her coat. “What’s steak puff?”
“Puff,” Paul said as he placed his hand, palm up, under his chin, pursed his lips and blew, as if blowing the ashes away. “Never mind. That was pretty bad food humor. However, the steak is now shoe leather. I’m left with two kinda-okay-backups: peanut butter and tuna fish. I think you’ll prefer the tuna; it has the tastier collection of preservatives.”
“Oh, you’re incorrigible,” she said, giving him a big kiss on the nose. “Maybe that’s why I love you. Or come to think of it, maybe that’s why I nearly left you for the gardener.”
Paul laughed. “I thought it was the milkman. Anyway, let me get you a glass of wine while you tell me about your day, starting with the lecture. How’d it go?”
“I think okay. But that was just the beginning. You’ll never guess who was in the
“Oh, he’s been dead for years, silly. Linda Altus was there, front row. We caught up
afterwards over coffee.”
“How’s Jason doing? The last time we spoke of him he was starting his own business.”
“Linda found out he was having an affair. He wants forgiveness, and Linda is trying to put it behind her but with little success. I’m not sure, but that dalliance may have been a marriage-breaker.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What’s there to mean? I merely made the statement that Jason’s infidelity may destroy their marriage.”
“So, because he can get it up for any willing skirt, he has some magical power to control their marriage, which infers that because I can’t get it up, I can’t control a damned thing?”
“Oh, come on Paul, that’s not what I said, or inferred. You know I’ve never thought of the Big Dipper as a steering wheel. He doesn’t control the direction of our marriage, any more than does the Jewel Box. I know you’re hurting, but let’s not destroy the good that remains because of something that we’ve lost. Besides, it may be a temporary problem.” Helen put her arms around him. “Isn’t that men’s symposium coming up soon?”
“Yeah, it’s tomorrow evening. I registered today.”
“Good. So let’s go early and get a good seat. We don’t want to miss anything.”
“I couldn’t stand the humiliation.”
“I don’t understand. You . . . uh, we . . . have a problem. We’ve always confronted our
“This is different. Let me go alone. Besides, I may chicken out at the last minute.”
“Why would you do that?”
“For starters, what if I knew someone at the meeting?”
“Then you’d have someone to sit with.”
Paul shook his head. “You really don’t understand, do you? So, why don’t I go alone to
the meeting? We can talk about it when I get home. Meanwhile, I’ll go to the kitchen and try to resurrect dinner. That will also give you some alone time.”
Helen, now totally confused, went to the bedroom to lay out clothes for tomorrow. She thought about explaining to him why she’d been so terribly late but then thought better of it. He was grumpy enough; there was no use aggravating him further.
Paul held his breath as he scouted out the seminar room. When he didn’t see any familiar faces, he let out his breath and slid comfortably into a seat in the back row. He was surprised only a couple dozen men were present, despite the seeming epidemic of ED. Elevator rules applied. All were busy studying the ceiling tile, the floor, or their cell phone. No one made eye contact, except for a heavyset man sitting in the front row next to the only woman in the room.
The man turned around in his chair and surveyed the downcast men before him. Paul tried to place the look on his face and smiled when the word “cocky” came to mind. The smile morphed into a quiet chuckle as he thought of the rich trove of material that nighttime cable TV hosts were missing out on.
The urologist speaker was running late. The man in the front row appeared to sense a growing restlessness in the assembled group and stood up and strode to the lectern.
“Welcome to the Men’s Health Symposium. My name is Michael Atwell. My friends call me Big Mike. Since we’re all friends here this evening, I’m Big Mike. Doc Hester has been delayed, no doubt saving lives—at least important parts of lives, if you get my drift,” he said with a lascivious wink. A strained, collective chuckle arose from the assemblage.
Big Mike continued, unfazed by the audience reaction. “The doc was supposed to give his talk about ED and its cures, followed by testimonials from me and Sally, my bride of thirty years. Raise your hand, Sally, so everyone knows who you are. Just kidding, baby doll. You stand out in this room like a petunia in an onion patch—if you get my drift.”
Again, the strained chuckle from an uncomfortable audience, with the tone-deaf Big Mike continuing after a brief pause to laugh at his own joke. “So, we are going to reverse the order, and I’ll go first. Two years ago, I was like you guys: down and out—if you get my drift.
How I got that way is not important; that I did something about it is.
“Oh, I tried pills, both the kind you swallow and the ones you stick into your urethra. I tried the suction machine as well. I even went so far as to inject medicine into Little Mike. Ouch, ouch, and more ouch! None of it did the job for me. There was just no room for spontaneity, and you gotta set your stopwatch or you miss the ball game—if you get my drift. In desperation, I turned to Doc Hester for help. He changed my life. After installing the pump, I now have sex where and when I want, not when the clock says, ‘Go.’ Like, I can walk into a room full of ladies and know I can please every one of them, sequentially, or all at one time.” He turned to Sally.
“Just kidding, baby doll.” Sally squirmed in her chair, and looked as if she really wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else but there.
Big Mike went on, unabated. “That’s my story, guys. Can I answer any questions?”
A man in the second row spoke up. “Didn’t it hurt? I know they put you under while they do the surgery, but I mean afterward?”
Big Mike cupped Little Mike through his pants. “Damned right it hurt! Roto-rooting out blood vessels, and then replacing them with inflatable tubes and a pump. You bet it hurt, but three months later it’s all worthwhile.”
Paul gave an inaudible groan, and cursed under his breath. “Where in hell did they get this idiot?” He thought of leaving but hesitated, waiting to see if it could possibly get worse.
“Doc Hester will describe the surgery in more detail when he gets here,” Big Mike said.
“Meanwhile, I’d like to bring Sally to the podium to give a wife’s perspective of ED and the results of my surgery.”
Sally gave Big Mike a peck on the cheek and then took her place behind the lectern. Her head barely cleared the top. She looked at her audience and cleared her throat. She seemed to gain confidence, and in a commanding voice said, “First and foremost, ED is a couple’s disease. What affects one partner can’t help but affect the other. When Mike developed his problem, I had gone through my menopause. The roaring hormones of youth were but flickering coals.” She
paused briefly and smiled. “We didn’t talk much about our sex life. Like most other couples, it was no longer the focal point of our relationship—at least not for me. Then there was that first time when nothing happened.” She turned to Big Mike and said pointedly, “If you get my drift.”
Turning back to the audience, she said, “Then there was the next time, and the time after that. We began to drift apart. I felt like a failure as a wife and lover. Mike was angry and frustrated. He started drinking more, and our relationship suffered. I love Mike, and so I talked with a counselor. I knew we couldn’t go as a couple; he’d never agree to that. So, I went alone.
The counselor pointed out to me what is now obvious: an erection was critical to Mike’s manhood. In a way, Little Mike was more important to our sex life than I was. She gave me Dr. Hester’s card, which I put on Mike’s pillow. The rest, as they say, is history.
“The first six weeks after surgery were tough on Mike. He had a lot of pain and swelling.
Things gradually improved for him. So, here we are. Mike’s now loving and happier. Oh, we still have our problems, but Little Mike is no longer one of them, at least not in the way he was before.” She glanced at the front door of the room, where a young man in green scrubs entered.
“Here is the man of the hour, Dr. Hester. Before I yield the floor to him, I would like to leave you with these words: ED is a couple’s disease. Please make your decision to treat ED a couple’s decision. Consider the needs of your partner, as well as your own. There may be a way to meet in the middle.” She turned once more to Mike. “If you get my drift.”
“So that’s when I left the seminar, hon. There was nothing there for me. I love you loads and loads, but not enough to mutilate the Big Dipper.”
“Hold on a minute, Paul. Who’s doing what for whom? I never asked you to do anything about the ED problem, much less ravage the Big Dipper. Getting an erection seemed to be a big deal for you. So, I was trying to help you get what you needed to enjoy our marital relationship.”
“But I thought—”
“Thought what, Paul? That I needed penile penetration to have a meaningful relationship with my husband? That’s a big NO. However, if you need an erection to get gratification in our relationship, then it becomes important for me as well.”
“It’s always been a part of our sex life. I assumed it always would.” Paul shook his head in frustration. “Just like work: I thought I would drop dead one day after the dismissal bell rang.
So much change and so little time to change with it.” He turned to Helen. “So, hon, what’s next?”
“I’m not going anywhere. I love you and want us to continue sleeping together, if only for a good night’s rest. Speaking of which, I’m tired. Let’s find some sugar plums to dance in our heads.” “What’s a sugar plum?”
“I don’t have a clue, but with the first word . . . sugar . . . it can’t be on my diet.”
“Does the Sandman count calories? I thought he had enough to do counting sheep.”
“Let it go . . .”
In the morning, Helen greeted Paul in the kitchen. “Good morning, sweetie. Sorry I woke you so early. I nearly forgot the staff meeting. So, why don’t you just go back to bed? Sleeping in is what retirement is all about.”
“I’ve got some chores to do before bowling with Walter,” Paul said. “I poured you a to- go cup of coffee. It’s on the counter.”
“Thanks. I may be a little late tonight. I hope you and Walter have fun. Tell him hi for me and regards to Sadie.”
“Will do, but I thought you were going to cut back, as in moving toward retirement?”
“I know. I’m trying. It’s just . . .”
“You can’t cut back. You’re a workaholic.”
“Well, I don’t see it that way. I still enjoy work, and want to contribute as long as I can. I’ve told them to let me know if I start showing signs of dementia,” Helen chortled.
“That’s your opinion. I think it’s an excuse to cling to the past and not grab the future.”
“And you should talk, my dear husband, who went out the working door to retirement kicking and screaming all the way.”
“I’m adopting a new philosophy—adventures on the open road.”
“I thought you were over that RV thing. God, I can’t imagine anything worse.”
“Maybe we can compromise. You give up work, and I give up the retirement RV?”
“How about I keep working, and you can save the RV and open road for your next wife?”
“Sounds like a plan to me. I’ll talk to her about it this afternoon.”
“I’m just kidding, hon. You know there’s no one else for me, RV or no RV.”
Helen glanced at the clock. “Whoops! I’m running late. Thanks for the coffee. I’ll text you later about my ETA.”
The bowling alley was circa 1960s, except pin boys had been replaced by automation.
Flanking the twelve lanes was a bar serving drinks and greasy fried foods. Next to the bar were a few resurrected pin ball machines, still priced a quarter to play. Most of the lanes were occupied by teams of old geezers spending a few morning hours pretending they were young again. This illusion was maintained by the absence of youth, excluded by the reality of work and school. Old times became this time, which suited the two septuagenarians on lane twelve.
“That is one nasty split, Paul. Which side you gonna attack it from?” Walter asked.
“I think I’ll go left to right.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
The ball rolled gracefully down the lane, curving, not so gracefully into the gutter.
“Your head’s not in the game today. What’s wrong?” Walter asked Paul.
“Do you miss work, Walter?”
“No, not really. Why do you ask?”
“Helen was up, dressed, and off to work early this morning. After she left, I felt a sense of purposelessness.”
“Do you think work’s a cure for that?” Walter asked.
“You know, I used to fall asleep in college English but managed to retain a quote from W. Somerset Maugham: ‘In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn thy daily bread: it was not a curse upon mankind but the balm which reconciled him to existence.’”
“Wow! That’s heavy shit,” Walter said. “As I recall, Maugham was nominated for the
most boring writer of the semester and missed winning by a single vote. Aha, my friend! It must have been you who cost him the prize.”
“Seriously, Walter, work was a part of my life for so long it’s hard to just up and walk
away. In fact, I’d like to update Maugham: work is life’s duct tape. It holds everything together.
Right now I feel like my life is coming apart.”
Walter looked at his friend. “I guess forced retirement hit you harder than it did me. I don’t let the ‘forced’ part bother me anymore. The school board needed to save the taxpayers their precious dollars. Experienced teachers are more expensive, and so they cashed us out first.
That’s the way I see it.”
“You are a kind and forgiving man,” said Paul. “On the other hand, malice lurks within my heart. I blame the union for my pink slip. A few old members retired voluntarily. I had no quarrel with them. They earned their pensions. However, they left a power vacuum in union leadership that was filled by Gen-Xs and Millennials. The remaining older members, including the two of us, were just bargaining chips to get what they wanted: more money for themselves.
18 They allowed the school board to demand age-related mandatory retirement. Our replacements came in at far lower salaries and higher class size. It was win-win, unless you were a student or senior teacher.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, Paul, but I just can’t let it eat me up inside. I like to
remember the coaching. You and I fielded some pretty good basketball teams over the years: ten state finalists and nine state champs.”
“We shoulda had number ten, but that ref robbed us. We didn’t foul their guard. It was just incidental contact,” Paul said.
“I never did hear what you said to him,” Walter said, “but it must have been an earful. He turned beet red and called the technical foul.”
“It didn’t matter. The game was lost, but it sure made me feel better.”
“Yup, but that’s all in the past. We gotta move on.”
“I can do that with basketball, but quite honestly, I miss the classroom more. I just love to teach.”
“Have you thought about being a mentor?”
“I’m less than two years into retirement. It’s still too painful for that. Bowling each week with you is good, but right now nothing can fill the hole in my life left by retirement. I know we mostly small talk each week, but seriously, Walter, how are you dealing with retirement?”
“Me? I mostly don’t worry about it. I’m just thankful to be here.”
“I know you went through prostate cancer. That must have been awful.”
“Prostate cancer doesn’t like black men. So I needed surgery and radiation therapy. Then, I took hormones for a while. That’s over now, and I thank God every day that I’m still alive.”
“What about Sadie?”
“She was worried sick, but she hung in there. If you mean the sex part, I’ve got terminal ED, but the worst for her was when I was on the hormones. My bra size was only one down from hers.”
Both men broke into laughter. “I’m impressed you can be so open about such personal stuff,” said Paul.
“Well, I don’t advertise it. You and I have been up and down the court together for many years, and I feel I can call you a trusted friend. Besides, I got nothing that needs hiding. We all age and we all degrade. My dipstick just happened to be my first organ to fail. Sadie and I cope with it, and that’s the important thing. I just can’t let that little rascal in my pants run my life.”
He paused a moment, searching for the right words. Then he grinned and said, “I figure God let me live for a reason. If I let myself be miserable because it wasn’t the life I chose, I’d be thumbing my nose at God.”
Both men went silent. Paul searched the cracks in the floor for words. Walter placed a hand on his shoulder, letting him know he was in a safe place.
Cheering from two lanes over broke the bubble of intimacy. Walter, seeing Paul
struggling, picked up his bowling ball and announced, “It’s time for your bowling lesson. Those pins you see standing tall will be gone in a moment.” The ball rolled and pins scattered, leaving the “teacher” with an awful split.
Paul burst out laughing. “Hey, teach, can I go to the boy’s room before I wet my pants?”
Walter grumbled something about teachers getting no respect but did so with a smile on his face.
Paul felt a release. “Speaking of degrading parts, I’ve been having trouble down there myself,” he said. “So, I went to a Men’s Health Seminar. That’s code for ED. I found nothing they offered was acceptable. I’m still searching for a cure. Is that so wrong, Walter?”
“Not from where I stand. If you do find it, let me know. While you’re at it, find the cure for aging. Then both of us will get stiff as a twig.”
Paul chuckled and put away his bowling ball. “Let’s stop this nonsense before one of those pins gets hurt. The sarsaparilla is on me.”
“Sounds good,” Walter said. “You know, I think this is the last place in town where you can get that stuff. By the way, there was something I was going to tell you, but it slipped my mind.”
“Uh-oh, a senior moment. Don’t call me when you remember what it is at three tomorrow morning” Paul said.
“Hey, now I remember. I read a short news clip online yesterday. It was about what’s-his- name, the med school dean—”
“You mean J.S. Stewart.”
“Yeah, that’s him. It caught my eye because he announced a new something-or-other, and your Helen is supposed to head it. I thought she was cutting back, and somewhere down the line, join you in retirement. Here, let me show you. I got it here on my cell.” He found what he was looking for and handed the phone to Paul.
“Task Force for Change. J. S. Stewart, the controversial dean of State’s School of
Medicine, appointed Helen Hudson, Chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, to head the new committee. Her mandate from the Dean is to ‘. . . bring our beloved medical center from the ranks of the better to that of the very best.’ No details were provided.”
Paul returned the cell, shaking his head. “The husband is always the last to know. This is so contrary to our plans for her to cut back. Why didn’t she tell me? Better yet, why didn’t I have some input into her decision to do this?”
“Well, Paul . . .”
“It’s okay, Walter. I’m not asking for answers. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out the
questions. Let’s grab an early lunch. My treat. I’m not interested in greasy bar food. I hope you’re not either.”
Lunch was spent in light conversation and old-man humor about the one that got away.
Walter sipped his coffee-to-go and smiled at Paul. “You, my friend, are fighting a lot of battles.
May I suggest you select those worth fighting and include at least one you have a chance to win?”
They parted with high fives and a man hug. An old friendship had been strengthened.
Paul stopped at the grocery store on his way home. “No burnt dinner tonight,” he thought.
“Chicken thighs can go forever in the slow cooker. Fool me twice is not an option.”
Paul continued to brood about Helen’s violation of their agreement. Seven o’clock rolled around and no Helen. She was late again, which only fueled his anger. Seven-thirty came and went before he received a text from her stating “ETA forty-five minutes.” He decided to make himself a drink, settle into his favorite chair, and read the newspaper. Paul was beginning to feel the calming effects of the combination when Helen came in the door.
“Sorry I’m late again, sweetie. Let me get out of my work clothes. Then we need to talk.”
“You bet we do,” Paul responded.
“Oh, you have an adult beverage. Would you get me a glass of wine?” she asked as she headed towards the bedroom.
“Will do. You know, while waiting for you, I invented the Senior Cocktail.”
“I’m afraid to ask what’s in it,” Helen called from the bedroom,
“It’s a jigger of scotch, a capful of Miralax, and four ounces of water.”
“That sounds dreadful.”
“Actually, it’s not too bad,” Paul said with a little laugh. “It relaxes the mind, and
stimulates the bowels; both ends benefit. What could be better?”
Helen emerged from the bedroom in loose slacks and a sweatshirt. “I prefer Chardonnay.
Thank you for getting it. Now we have to talk about me.”
“I know about the task force,” Paul said.
Helen wasn’t completely surprised. She knew there had been a press release and figured it was just a matter of time before Paul saw it. “But you don’t know the why behind it,” she said.
“I couldn’t discuss it with you the last two nights because you were too much into yourself and the Big Dipper. Now, before you get all mad and blustery, hear me out.”
Nonplussed, Paul could only squeak out, “What can I say?”
“Maybe nothing, but I know that’s not likely. Anyway, you know there’s a movement afoot to replace Stewart.”
Ignoring the jab, Paul said, “As you’ve so often said, Just Stupid has to go.”
“It turns out J.S. is an astute politician. Remember Sonia Mackenzie, the Medicine
Department Chairman? She’s organized a coalition that includes the chairmen of all the basic science departments. They want major revisions in the Med School’s core curriculum. Stewart wants a flashy new heart hospital.”
“That’s no surprise. He’s a cardiovascular surgeon.”
“He’s gathered support from the surgical departments.”
“Oh, that’s a classic thinkers versus the doers.”
“That’s right, and ob-gyn lies in the middle. He knows I’m with Sonia and would be a tiebreaker if things come to a vote.”
“So, what’s with the task force?”
“The Medical Center needs direction, and it can either strengthen the School of Medicine or build the new hospital. It can’t do both. So, Stewart commissions this faculty task force to chart a path to glory for the center. He makes a dramatic announcement and appoints me chairman of the task force, a position I can’t refuse. He then quietly names half the committee ‘Doers’ and the other half ‘Thinkers.’ That assures a stalemate. I’m late tonight because they couldn’t decide who would sit on my right.”
“So, where does that leave you?”
Helen sighed. “Well, the task force will muddle along for a while, accomplishing zilch. Stewart will then declare the faculty a total failure at providing leadership and direction. I will be forced to resign as department chairman. Stewart will appoint a ‘Doer’ ally to head Obstetrics and Gynecology, assuring a majority faculty vote for his pet project. He can then present his heart hospital to the medical center president and the board of trustees without effective opposition. I’m tenured. That means he can remove me as department chairman, but he can’t fire me. I’ll continue my gynecology practice, take fewer new patients, and fade into the sunset. So, my adoring husband, I’ll be here with open arms, open legs, or both—whatever you need. By the way, my mouth remains closed. I have limits.”
Paul just stared at his wife. The anger was sucked out of him, leaving an emotional
vacuum. He desperately tried to feel something he could express. “I don’t know what to say, hon, except, I guess I’m sorry for doubting you.”
“Apology accepted,” Helen said. Then, eager to change the subject, she said, “The crock pot smells good, and I’m starving. Let’s eat.”
Paul sat at the table picking at his dinner. Helen ate with gusto. “Chicken dinner was a good idea. It’s delicious. Thank you, sweetie.”
Paul mumbled something, and continued picking.
When she finished eating, Helen pushed her plate aside and looked at Paul. “Linda Altus and I have been talking. We’re concerned about our men. She thinks maybe ED is your metaphor for growing old . . .”
“Good Lord, you mean you told her?”
“Yes, I did. I’m not ashamed for you. We both want to help. I think ED is more than a metaphor for you. I think it’s a tangible part of aging that you can actually address. You can bluster about retirement. You can fret about growing old alone. You can fear death. But you can actually do something about ED, and there is an array of products and surgical procedures out there to partner with—”
“My wife and her psychologist friend have suddenly become authorities on the aging male?” “Well, I’m getting a lot of experience with you.”
Paul chuckled but said nothing.
“Seriously, Paul,” Helen said, “I’ve studied menopause all of my adult life. Are you and I so very different? We’ve gained a few pounds and more than a few wrinkles. We sag because our muscle mass has dwindled. I went through a definable process called menopause. I’ve slowed down sexually. That’s perfectly acceptable in polite society; in fact, it’s expected. Through all of this, I am still called a woman. You slow down sexually, and you are no longer a man. Does that make any sense at all?”
“You know, Walter said something today that stuck with me,” Paul said. “He said to
select only battles worth fighting and include at least one I could win. I guess I chose ED. Frankly, after hearing out Big Mike and Walter, I’m not sure what winning is.”
“Does sex have to be a contest? If so, then there must be a loser. If you win, then by
default, I become the loser in our sex life.”
“Oh, my God, hon, you’re not a loser. I love you with all my heart. In the end, the Big
Dipper and I want to pleasure you—to make you happy with your man.”
“Then let’s stop thinking of sex as a contest to be won or lost. I want to think of sex as adult play.”
“I can support that. I’d like to go to the dance with you and maybe take you home
afterward and play one of those adult games.”
“Then cool your jets, big boy. I love the Big Dipper, because he comes with you. If he leaves the dance early, I’ll still go home with you.”
“You’re still a hottie, hon. Maybe you should break out the Shalimar.”
“Do you know how expensive it is?”
“You’re worth every penny.”
“Maybe tonight we should just cuddle. I fear performance anxiety,” Helen said.
“Okay, but maybe I take just half a Viagra and see what happens?”
“And get half a headache? Are you sure it’s worth it?”
“It’s worth a try. Besides, your talking about sex turns me on,” Paul said.
“You’re a dirty old man.”
“I’m trying to be.”
“Okay, but don’t make it a contest.”
“So, let’s just cuddle and see how it goes.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“I’ll get the lights.”
“I’ll get the Shalimar.”
John F. Zurn has earned an M.A. in English from Western Illinois University and spent much of his career as a school teacher. In addition, John has worked at several developmental training centers, where he taught employment readiness skills to mentally challenged teenagers and adults. Now retired, he continues to write and publish poems and stories. As one of seven children, his experiences growing up continue to help inspire his art and influence his life.
THE PILGRIM CENTER
The longevity of the body, however, was different. The inhabitants’ physical bodies were still strangely subject to a more rapid decline even though the process of decrepitude appeared to slow down considerably. Although the physical brains of the citizenry were more resilient and could remain capable of functioning effectively for centuries, their bodies were not. This strange enigma in which the body declined while the brain flourished remained a mystery for many years. The government attempted to explain this distinction in basic scientific language, and the people mostly accepted their explanations.
In addition, since everyone lived much longer, the government unceasingly drafted five year plans to help allocate the nation’s natural resources that were rapidly becoming depleted. However, the greatly desired longevity rate created an environment of good will toward the authorities, so these five year plans met with great support and apparent loyalty. Nonetheless, anyone who suspiciously questioned the wisdom of the state and their plans could be labeled as a traitor and required to undergo reeducation and punishment.
The Conrad’s were one family that felt conflicted about the government position, especially Grandfather Conrad. Sadly, he, like many others, didn’t wish to live an exceedingly long life, because he now remained restricted to a three wheeled conveyance chair. With little mobility, the old man firmly believed life and death shouldn’t concern the state and its almighty science. “I’m old,” Grandfather Conrad complained at dinner one night. “My body doesn’t work, and I ache all the time. I don’t care if the government can keep my brain alive indefinitely. My arms and legs are slowly withering away and soon they will be completely useless.
“But Grandfather,” Tommy’s inquisitive grandson interrupted. “It’s against the law to talk like that. Even suggesting ending your own life is a crime.”
“I don’t care,” Grandfather asserted. “I’ve seen all I’ve wanted to see and done everything I’ve wanted to do.”
Finally, Mrs. Conrad, grandfather’s daughter-in-law, a tall nervous woman, spoke up, “That’s enough, dad. You’re living with us now and that’s the end of it. Nobody’s dying. Don’t you realize that if you deliberately die, all the rest of us left behind will be punished? Even if you omit us from your plans, the government will still blame us. We could lose everything.”
“All right,” Mr. Conrad interjected trying to support his wife. “Let’s finish our dinner and visit the park like we agreed. But Dad, please don’t say anything that could get us all into trouble.”
The Conrad family had good reason to worry about grandfather Conrad’s behavior at the park. The government believed that their scientific achievement regarding prolonged existence had eclipsed all others, yet Grandfather Conrad hadn’t felt obligated to praise and promote this longevity policy that stressed the preservation of all human life.
This skepticism had been intensifying over the years as Grandfather’s body continued to decline in ways he couldn’t control. He couldn’t even raise his arms or lift his legs. Worst still, he remained completely dependent on his family for virtually everything he needed including food, medicine and transportation. Without any physical activities to strengthen his body and connect with his friends, he slowly gained weight and became bitter.
Even the way in which old people were identified became a source of frustration and humiliation for Grandfather Conrad. Seniors, labeled as “pilgrims” were lumped into one senior societal group. Since these “pilgrims” needed conveyances to travel anywhere, young citizens called “transportation facilitators” were needed to assist them. This feeling of embarrassment and lack of independence felt especially difficult for Grandfather who had always been active and independent. Now his only defense weapon against his world involved satire and outright hostility.
Yet the most despicable thing Grandfather Conrad was required to endure involved wearing a floppy blue hat and matching uniform with his name in large bold letters printed on his front pockets. Seeing himself as part of a recognizable and pathetic underclass reinforced the label that he had recognized long ago. This whole image of being useless had only increased his desire to escape all the dependency and unwanted pity.
Back at the dinner table, Grandfather Conrad continued with his litany of complaints. “How am I supposed to live when I can hardly move? What good is my brain, if there is nothing I can do with it but think?”
Tommy’s father tried to help, “Dad, you have all your data processing programs and holograph displays. Besides, you need to stop thinking of yourself. Why do you think you’re so special? All the pilgrims have to rely on their brains. All of us will eventually need help.”
Mrs. Conrad felt as if nobody was listening to her. “Grandfather, stop complaining. Do you remember when we took you in? Well, it wasn’t a choice. The state didn’t even ask us. They simply ordered us to take care of you.”
Grandfather took the hint at last. “Fine! I’ll be quiet! You won’t hear from me for the rest of the day!”
The family silently finished dinner and then Mr. and Mrs. Conrad walked toward the park, while Tommy helped his grandfather maneuver his contrivance. After they had all arrived, Tommy saw his friends from school playing soccer, but when he gazed at his downhearted Grandfather, Tommy decided to stay with him. At that moment Tommy didn’t apprehend that his feelings for his grandfather were more than just pity.
In fact, Tommy himself had been entertaining some doubts about the government’s authority. He especially disliked the regimentation at school and at home. He also felt suspicious about the extended life idea for all citizens. It seemed as if everyone was required to act in the same way. Being respectful and supportive especially when it involved discussing issues about death, seemed naïve and evasive. Wasn’t it true that prisoners could be put to death with molulor pills if they proved to be too wicked? Wasn’t it also true that these executions were not actually permissible because of the longevity laws? Tommy suspected the government’s longevity conviction with its citizens controlled by punishment and death might be meant to instill fear and facilitate control.
All these ideas contributed to Tommy’s growing resolve to help his grandfather. Tommy turned to him at the park and asked, “Grandfather, if you could end your life, how would you do it?”
“I wouldn’t do anything,” his grandfather asserted. “I’d simply stop taking all the pills and vitamins, that’s all.”
“Mom wouldn’t let you do that,” Tommy responded smilingly.
“Then I’d use my intelligence,” Grandfather answered. “Citizens can’t make me take pills if they can’t find me.”
Tommy suddenly came up with an idea to assist Grandfather Conrad. He realized he could kidnap his grandfather and hide him somewhere outside the park boundaries. He looked around to see if anyone was watching, then he walked through the park with his grandfather until his parents disappeared. As the view of the park slowly faded, they continued moving as quickly as possible trying to avoid making any noise. Before long, Tommy and Grandfather Conrad had discovered an unlocked door that led to a vacant factory basement. There they took refuge.
It wasn’t long before Mr. and Mrs. Conrad noticed that their pilgrim was missing. Initially, they thought to ask the civil authorities to help them, but then they realized that the couple could be given a scolding, or worse, for losing track of the old man. If they didn’t tell anyone, however, and they looked for grandfather themselves, it would be worse if they couldn’t locate him. By reporting a missing pilgrim after they had thoroughly hunted for him, the government officials may become even more angry, because they waited so long to report the incident. However, they did feel somewhat reassured because their son, Tommy, was missing as well. They felt certain he would help Grandfather Conrad.
“Do you think Tommy took Grandfather somewhere?” Tommy’s mother asked.
“Of course he did,” Mr. Conrad said impatiently. “Who else would wheel him anywhere?”
“One thing is certain,” Mrs. Conrad complained. “We need to find them, so grandfather can take his medicine.”
Meanwhile, Grandfather Conrad and his grandson slowly comprehended the urgency of their situation. “I don’t think I thought this kidnapping idea all the way through,” Tommy apologized. “We can’t just leave on our own like this.”
But Grandfather Conrad felt more at ease. “Don’t worry, Tommy. I’m not going to ask my grandson to get arrested for me. If you simply leave me here, nobody will know what happened.”
“I’ll know!” Tommy objected. “I want you to be happy, grandfather, and I’m not leaving you!”
Grandfather Conrad at last apprehended the danger of their situation and all the innocent people involved. “Tommy, take me back. We’ll say I wanted to investigate the new streets of the city.”
“No,” Tommy pleaded. “You’re very unhappy, and you’ll either run away or end your life.’
“All right. All right,” Grandfather Conrad relented. “I’ll go with you and even enroll in counseling. Now, let’s find your parents before the government ghouls discover we’re missing.”
Having persuaded his grandfather to cooperate, Tommy quickly pushed him back to the park where Mr. and Mrs. Conrad were searching for them.
By then, Mrs. Conrad couldn’t conceal her disappointment, “Grandfather I cannot take responsibility for you any longer. Your political comments and sarcastic outbursts together with your disappearance today have left us all nervous and frightened. We need to resettle you with another family.”
Before his daughter-in-law could continue her condemnation, Grandfather Conrad interrupted her. “I know and I agree. I’ve been a very selfish and resentful person, but Tommy and I talked things over. I’m going to see a government counselor at the Pilgrim Center and get some help. Tommy even agreed to take me.”
“Thank goodness!” Mr. Conrad sighed with relief. “Now maybe we can have some peace around here. Are you sure, Tommy, that you’re willing to be grandfather’s transportation facilitator every day, maybe for months?”
“Yes,” Tommy agreed enthusiastically. “I’ve never been to Pilgrim Center. It could be very interesting!”
Early the very next morning, Grandfather Conrad and Tommy arrived at the Pilgrim Center just as it was opening. They both expected that Grandfather Conrad would be welcomed with respect and enthusiasm, however, the administrator at the desk seemed aloof and even unkind. “What do you want?” The surly man wanted to know.
At this point, Grandfather Conrad looked ready to leave, but Tommy intervened. “We are here to enroll in one of your tutorial classes with an individual group facilitator.”
“Not possible,” the man retorted. “We only allow groups and group facilitators here.”
“Fine,” Grandfather Conrad answered evenly, remembering his promise to Tommy. “So what kind of groups do you have?”
“We have two groups, one for whiners like you, and another more advanced class for pilgrims who want to know the truth.”
“I’m no whiner,” Grandfather Conrad snapped. “I want to be in the advanced group.”
The administrator appeared to consider the situation carefully, and then with a glint in his eye replied, “All right. You can join the advanced group. However, if you start complaining, we’ll demote you to the lower one.”
Since Grandfather Conrad didn’t like the administrator, he hadn’t noticed the administrator’s sudden warm expression. He still felt suspicious about the class itself, but he also especially felt curious about “the truth” and what it could mean. Nevertheless, with his promise to Tommy weighing on his mind, Grandfather Conrad signed up for the advanced group.
When Tommy attempted to stay behind with his grandfather, his grandfather softly whispered, “Tommy, go home now, and pick me up this afternoon. I’ll be fine.”
Almost immediately, Tommy left the Pilgrim Center and walked toward his school leaving Grandfather Conrad alone. Before long, however, several other pilgrims approached Grandfather Conrad and guided him to the advanced group room. After everyone introduced themselves, they all sat down.
When everyone was in his place, Grandfather Conrad felt surprised to observe so many other pilgrims in the room. In fact, when he was invited to describe his reasons for entering the group, he realized that many others seemed to be in the same predicament as he was. When he noticed the other pilgrims weren’t complaining when they shared, he dropped his sarcastic remarks almost before he began making them.
Finally, one of the facilitators interrupted the whole class. “No more discussion about your problems at home and difficulties with the government. All of you need to comprehend the truth about our nation. Now listen carefully, and learn everything you can today, and please remember this knowledge must be kept absolutely secret. If you report this information to anybody else, you could be punished severely.”
Everyone agreed to remain silent about what they were going to learn even though they didn’t know anything about it. Grandfather Conrad spoke seriously when he replied, “I understand. Now what do you think we should know?”
The group facilitator shifted toward the front wall and switched on a huge 3D projector. As the holograph began to project images on the wall, there appeared a brutal portrayal of the history of the nation. To the astonishment of the group, millions of soldiers could be seen battling on opposing sides. During this long-drawn-out war, individual soldiers fell, yet every time they were injured; they would get up almost immediately, and return to the battle. This miraculous behavior repeated itself everywhere on the battlefield, and it appeared that the war would never end.
In a later segment of the same holograph, citizens and political leaders could be seen robbing, assaulting, and even murdering what appeared to be innocent neighbors. These criminals seemed to be fearless and merciless as well. This scene projected on the 3D film also appeared to cover long periods of time.
When the thirty minute presentation ended, Grandfather Conrad and the rest of the pilgrims looked stunned and disbelieving. However, no one in the group could be exactly sure about what they’d just seen, so the facilitator tried to explain. “What you have just witnessed is the chronicle of our race.”
The pilgrims then attempted to interrupt, but the facilitator raised his hand and continued, “Many centuries ago our nation achieved both physical and mental extended longevity. The research hadn’t failed as you have probably heard from the government. Instead, the ability to maintain our bodies indefinitely, led to the complete abandonment of humility and compassion. For example, since citizens could live almost forever, they had no moral compass and accepted no consequences for their actions. While believing themselves to be almost immortal, they also assumed they were more entitled than all others. Their arrogance assumed that no opposing army could conquer them, so wars became inevitable. In this way, prolonged longevity led only to chaos and violence.”
“Worse yet, after a while the lives of individuals became tedious and dishonest, so they eventually began to delight in evil, hoping to find purpose and exhilaration by hurting and dominating others. So as you can see, the notion of prolonged longevity became warped because it created much hardship and moral decline.
So the government’s present explanation about prolonged existence is based on a lie that the scientists fabricated. They could still create prolonged life, but they decided not to continue the effort. Instead, the researchers agreed that physical longevity shouldn’t be sustained and allowed the concept of an extended life of the brain as a substitute. In this way, it is hoped that citizens will develop their minds in more compassionate and productive ways instead of misusing physical longevity as others have done in the distant past. You pilgrims are all trapped in your three wheeled conveyances because our ancestors couldn’t be trusted. Nevertheless, your limitations do allow you to develop your consciousness while avoiding the temptation of physical perfection.”
After the facilitator finished speaking, the pilgrims remained silent and looked embarrassed. Grandfather Conrad finally found the words to explain how they were all feeling. Although his remarks were naïve, they did resonate with the others. “The government hasn’t been out to simply control us; they need to protect all of society. Perhaps our complaints are nobody’s fault but are based mostly on the simple inevitability of old age.”
Back at home, Mr. and Mrs. Conrad observed a positive change in Grandfather and decided to allow him to go to the Pilgrim Center as much as he wished. They felt so happy that Grandfather had found some kind of peace concerning his circumstances, and they felt grateful.
A couple of weeks later at the Pilgrim Center, Grandfather Conrad decided to reveal his great secret to Tommy. Since Tommy had been the most concerned about him, Grandfather felt it important to explain his improved attitude. Just before Tommy dropped him off, they stopped at a bench in the park, and Tommy sat down.
“Tommy,” Grandfather Conrad began. “The history of our civilization is not what you think it is. It’s a great secret, but I still want you to know about it.”
Tommy was both serious and whimsical. “Okay, Grandfather. Just as long as you don’t complain about your health!”
“I won’t,” Grandfather Conrad replied with a smile. “I’ve learned my lesson.”
Christina Keller lives and works in the Washington, DC area. Her work has appeared in 4StarStories and the anthologies Magical and Dear Robot. She is currently working on a novel. For more information please visit her website -- christinamkeller.com
The Universe Takes Care of Itself
The first witnesses to the earth's destruction stood in front of their homes on the moon. The last life forms to call themselves human, the people of the moon, in those final moments, tracked, in a respectful envelope of awe, the large meteor hitting the planet. They considered it a solemn occasion, a day of remembrance they would honor once a year for their now dead home planet. Over time, everyone had a story about the day the earth died. Who you were with and where you saw the meteor hit became family stories passed down throughout the years. According to the absurd folklore that would develop years later, some people swore the force of the impact caused their own windows to rattle.
In the past, debate within the million people population focused on what to do with the earth. Some wanted to re-terraform it, make it habitable, while others wanted to keep it the universal trash dump it came to be. Once everyone realized the meteor would take care of the earth, the subject was dropped. The universe takes care of itself, the people repeated. They watched, on the appointed day, as the large debris cloud plumed into the air surrounding the planet. The oceans, a sick green from years of indiscriminate pollution, evaporated minutes after impact. Land masses crumpled and disappeared. The planet looked as if it was encased in a large shell of gray. Many citizens would report later it felt like watching something being born. A new age is upon us. Scientists measured. Preachers sermonized. All bore witness to the new age.
The news was recorded, processed, and then passed to Mars.
Mars received the transmission eighteen minutes later. Broadcast on the evening news, most Martians noted and then discarded the information. That use did they have for a long dead planet? Almost none of the ten million had ever been there. Only the rich, who had their own space crafts, traveled off planet. Even so, the idea of going to earth was unappealing. Why would anyone want to vacation there?
Only one lone nation, Aries, still held a fascination with Earth. A few years before the meteor hit, the country tried to raise funds for a scientific voyage. They didn't get much support from other nations. Many remembered the failed expedition a hundred years earlier. A team of ecologists and holy believers convinced themselves that they should return to earth to save it. They made the trip, only to miscalculated the toxicity of the atmosphere. It ate through the hull of the ship in thirty minutes and killed everyone aboard. After this disaster, funding dried up for earth explorations. Why should we spend money to go to earth when so many other problems warranted our attention? Aries attempted to raise money every year with a series of charitable events, but they never saw much of a turn out. Other countries called them foolish and chided them for wasting their talents on such silly concerns. Aries needed to stop dreaming and be practical.
The meteor hit extinguished the last bit of interest in earth. The planet was now uninhabitable and would remain so for thousands of years. The people of Aries refocused their attention on preventing Mars from becoming another Earth. They adopted new strategies for smart population growth. They focused on innovative farming which cut down on pollution and depleting the planets resources. Many swore that they would remember the earth as a warning, but after a few generations citizens retold the story of earth as folklore instead of history. The images of the now gray, white, and black earth became surreal paintings in museums. Writers used the earth as a backdrop for epic science fiction stories, or the occasional odd horror story. Nostalgia held the earth as common knowledge, but no one dreamed of the planet.
Ten years after the meteor hit the earth, the signal reached the planet Magellan. Hundreds of years earlier, Magellan had been colonized because of the rich mineral deposits beneath the surface. The planet promised wealth to those that stayed and worked the land. The constant farming and mining upset the natural balance in the ecosystem causing unpredictable weather and earthquakes. The planet's hostile environment took its toll on their human bodies. For those who stayed, their later generations grew taller and broader. Their eyes grew a thin red film cover to protect them from the dry arid climate. The planets double suns baked the planet into hues of red, yellow, and brown. The only lush vegetation grew in the southern continent. People mined all over the world, but the rich lived in the south. Visitors from neighboring planets always marveled at how industrious, yet rural they planet seemed.
As the signal broadcasted out over Magellan, Mr. Baker, who owned a small farm in the north continent, entered his kitchen. His wife waved at him and turned on the monitor. Mr. Baker slumped into a chair at the table and stared at the flashing images. His day had been spent fixing a series of holes in his barn on the south end of his property. Mr. Baker wanted to patch them up in order to save his mining equipment. He saved his tools, but a long morning and afternoon of climbing and patching exhausted him. He rested his head on his hand and calculated how much money he lost fixing the barn instead of mining his fields.
Without saying a word, his wife walked up behind him and slid a plate of bright red berries and a glass of water in front of him. He looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back and sat down across from him. He picked at the fruit, turning his attention to the images of the earth now flashing across the monitor. He watched as the planet took the impact of the meteor and then slowly changed into a place of utter lifelessness. He looked down at his plate and realized the earth now resembled a piece of moldy fruit. It was round and gray, ready to crumble as soon as someone held it too tight.
He sighed and popped a berry in his mouth. “I guess it's true,” he said. “You can never go home.”
Mrs. Baker snorted and turned toward the monitor.“Who would want to go there anyway? Nothing lived there. Good riddance to that place.” She pushed her long black hair from her face and shook her head. “It won't do any good to mourn the death of that planet now.”
He nodded. She made sense. “I finished the barn,” he said eating another berry. “It should hold for the rest of the spring.”
“Good, I was beginning to think I should send Kierin out to help,” she said.
“No, the kid needs to play once in a while. He'll be working soon enough.”
At the mention of his name, the Baker's son raced into the room. Although still young, they could tell he would be strong. Kierin ate constantly, a good omen they both thought. Their other children had been frail and sickly, not making it past the age of three. Kierin was almost eight.
Mr. Baker reached out and pulled his son towards him. He pointed at the monitor, but his son didn't have much interest in the broadcast. Instead he grabbed a handful of berries off his father's plate and shoved them into his mouth. A stream of bright red juice oozed over his chin.
Through the food in his mouth, Kierin asked, “Can I go outside and play?”
“Okay,” Mr. Baker said.
Mrs. Baker shouted as he scrambled out the back door,“Not too far! Stay in the main yard.” She frowned as she watched him leave.
Mr. Baker reached for her hand. “Don't worry. No weather patterns are predicted for today. He'll be fine for a few hours before the suns set.”
She turned back to the monitor. The program continued to drone on about the history of the earth, but Mr. Baker only half listened. He thought about the other chores that needed to be done by the end of the day. Equipment needed to be cleaned for tomorrow's work and the bills needed to be paid for the quarter.
His wife groaned and jerked her finger towards the screen. The ruler of the southern continent was now on the screen. Dressed in an elegant suit, with his white hair swept back into a ponytail, he spoke about the toll the earthquakes took on his lands and people. His red eyes projected concern and he spoke in a soft controlled voice. The camera then focused on the ruler of the northern continent. His hair was white as well, but clipped short and he wore an simple worker's shirt and pants. He argued that the south held most of the resources. If most of the southern businesses moved to a neighboring planet, what would happen to the rest of the population? Back and forth they argued on the screen.
“They'll go on like this forever,” Mr. Baker muttered under his breath. Politics made his head hurt. Why couldn't they just find a good compromise? He listened for a few more seconds and then switched off the monitor. He had enough for one day.
Mrs. Baker got up and cleared the dishes. She dropped them into the sink when a low rumble came from the ground. They both looked at each other and then shifted their gaze when the shelving doors opened and the dishes began to slide out and crash on the floor. Unsteady as their house moved in violent jerks back and forth, Mr. Baker jumped from his chair at the table and grabbed his wife's hand.
“Outside!” he said.
They both rushed through the back door into their yard. Turning and with the suns beating down on them, they watched their house as it swayed back and forth. One upstairs window shattered and some siding on the house shook loose and fell to the parched, yellow grass below, but the house held up. After a few seconds the tremors stopped. Both exhaled. Mrs. Baker turned from the house and called to her son. He didn't answer her.
Mr. Baker cupped his mouth in his hands and bellowed his son's name. “Kierin! It's okay. The earthquake is over. Time to come home.” He hoped he sounded cheerful.
When he still didn't come forward, Mrs. Baker ran around to the front of their house. “Where are you honey? Answer Mama now.”
Mr. Baker followed and sudden prayer repeating in his mind. Let him be okay. Let him be okay.
Kierin didn't answer, but they saw him crouched in the corner of the yard some twenty feet from them. He was on his knees and bent over, holding his stomach. She pointed at their son and they both hurried over, thinking he was injured, but they were wrong. The boy wasn't hurt. As they got closer, they saw he held something tight to his chest, something small and furry. Mr. Baker peered closer and saw that is was some kind of small rodent. It was covered in beige fur and had small black beady eyes, with a tiny black nose and long black whiskers. It squeaked a quiet terrified wail. The boy looked up at his parents, with damp red eyes.
“The quake scared him. I didn't want him to be alone, in case the world swallowed him up.”
Relieved, both parents hugged their son and told him that his new pet would have to be his responsibility. He would have to feed it, wash it, and for god's sake, don't hug it too tight. The poor thing needed to breathe.
Twenty-five years after the meteor hit Earth, the signal arrived on the planet of Prometheus, one of the outermost planets human beings had colonized. The planet's government dutifully transmitted the imagery and notes, but for one young girl, Helene, the news bored her. Instead of watching, she went into the forest next to her home. She liked to take quiet walks just after the sundown to relax, taking a few hours for herself. In the early evening, she stretched out her arms and unfurled her wings. They had only just grown in, a signal that her womanhood had begun. They still felt alien to her, these delicate, see-through appendages that beat at a rapid rate. But the sensation of floating high in the air freed her in a way she loved. Tonight the whole nebulous lit itself up. One of Prometheus's moons, Pisces, was particularly bright. It hovered in the southern part of the sky, a bright blue orb, with only small patches of land. The place was about eighty-five percent water and, although Helene had never been there, she dreamed of floating in the warm oceans and gazing back at her home planet one day.
Near the very top of a tree, Helene rested on one of the branches. She recently made friends with a young man who lived on Pisces. They exchanged electronic messages over the common site and, even though they were different species, bonded over poetry and star gazing. Olivander was part fish and could breathe underwater for days on end. His species, like hers, had mixed with the indigenous population on their planet and adapted over the generations. She smiled when she thought of his picture, a playful, handsome face with iridescent hair and a long green muscular tail. He wrote her a poem about her new wings calling them “silver strands that pulled her towards adventure.” He had such a gift for words. She told him one day he would have to recite his poems to her in the flesh. She blushed. That was such a bold thing to write. But if she kissed him, would he taste like the ocean? She imagined him whispering in her ear to fly, fly away to a secret spot only he knew about. They would be on some distant shore of his planet on the soft warm sand inhaling the scent of each others unique bodies.
The night moved on and Pisces soon set out of her view. She knew that soon she would have to leave the trees and go back home. Chores needed to be done and homework awaited her, but the night could have her for a few more minutes. She turned her gaze to other far distant stars. Off in the night, they twinkled calling to her. She remembered a news blip from the other day. In it, scientists had said they would soon be able to solve the mystery of faster space travel, so one could move from planet to planet without cryo-sleep. A new age is upon us, people repeated. Helene hoped so.
Srijani Ganguly has just finished an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Limerick in Ireland. She has six years of experience as a journalist in India, and BA Geography and MA English degrees as well. Her stories have appeared in Five:2:One, The Ogham Stone, The Roadrunner Review, The Drabble and Didcot Writers till date.
Just A Little Push
Most of the time, he looks outside and admires the world. But there are other days, when he sets his sights within. He could be waiting for a train to arrive, or even boarding one, when the thought comes to him—that he might play a little game with his co-passengers. This year it happens the moment he decides the destination; there’s something about Canterbury that excites him, makes him gleeful.
He’s at London Victoria now, sitting on a bench and reading Waiting for Godot. Another second, and he places the book face down by his side and checks his watch. Ten more minutes to go. People pass him by and he looks at all of them. Some of them glance at him, and recoil immediately. It’s the hair that they notice first. He has long white hair, parted in the middle, that hangs till his shoulders. It’s are too white, almost luminescent. His pitch black jacket and shirt, grey trousers and black shoes cover most of his body, but his hands are still out there in the open. They are elegant, long and thin and practically bones. He wears a golden ring on one of them. It’s slightly loose, and he often takes it off to throw it in the air and catch it in the centre of his palm. He admires its shine for a second and then closes his fingers over it.
He does so now, inadvertently catching the attention of a passerby who makes the mistake of looking at the owner of the ring as well. The unlucky commuter feels a jolt deep within him when he does so, when he looks at the pale face of the man, his blood red lips, aquiline nose, cloudy grey eyes and, since he is smiling, his sharp white teeth.
Rattled, the passerby quickens his gait and accidentally bumps into a woman and her daughter. He apologises, hurriedly, and walks out of the station. And the woman, who wore the brunt of the collision, rights her dress while the girl looks around. It only takes her a few seconds to settle her eyes on the man. She looks at him unafraid, even when he smiles. So he lifts his right hand in the air and gives her a small wave. She doesn’t return the gesture, but she doesn’t cower away either. The next instant, her mother takes her left hand and drags her to the restroom.
The man checks his watch again. Any moment, the train will stumble into the station. He picks up the book and closes it, placing it under his right arm, and walks towards the edge of the platform. He wants to be the first one inside the coach.
He almost is, but someone pushes him when the Southeastern arrives, and he loses his balance for a few seconds. He sighs and steps into the coach, and rejoices in finding that no one is sitting in his favourite seat. It’s the one at the back, it’s always the one at the back.
A few minutes go by and he decides to look at his co-passengers. On his right, across the aisle, is a young soldier. He is wearing his fatigues, and is leaning his head on the seat. His eyes are closed. In front of him, facing the man, sits a middle-aged doctor. He is talking to a nun, a frail old woman, and it seems that they know each other. “Dr. Roy,” she’s asking, sitting in the seat next to him, by the window. “Would you like a biscuit?”
The man smiles to himself, and closes his eyes to begin the game but then a commotion catches his attention. It’s that same little girl from before. She has boarded this coach as well, and now her mother is placing their bags on the luggage carrier above his head. And now they are sitting down right in front of him, the girl by the window and the woman by the aisle. They got in just in time, it seems, for the train starts to move shortly after they sit down. The woman barely notices him and the girl glances at him once, and then looks out the window.
The man has never had a child, but there is something about the little girl, who is barely ten, that makes him protective of her. No, he won’t call it protective. It’s not a paternal feeling that he has for the girl, he is merely curious about the woman she might turn out to be. And so he decides that he’ll come to her last.
He catches her eye again, just as the woman takes out a drawing pad and a set of crayons, and hands it to the girl. “Here,” she says, “why don’t you draw what you see outside?” The woman then smiles at him, or tries to smile. She slightly recoils upon seeing who she’s sitting in front of, but she knows that she can’t shift to another seat or another coach now. She doesn’t want to appear rude.
The man can see all these thoughts go through her head and almost interferes then and there, but then he stops himself, tells himself to be patient. First, he thinks, as he looks to his right at the sleeping form of the soldier, he needs to see what this one is up to.
He is inside an old dilapidated house. It’s dark and he can’t hear a single sound, not even distant gunfire. And then he feels a presence behind him. A hand pushes him forward, “Go on,” someone says behind him. It’s Tim. “Go on, we don’t have much time.”
He enters a room where light is filtering in through haphazardly boarded windows. He can see a bed in the middle of the room and a closet on its right, next to the windows. Tim follows him into the room, goes directly to the closet and opens it wide. He begins to throw out every item of clothing he encounters, while he himself closes in on the windows. His hands pull apart a section of the boarded windows, and his eyes try to look out. He can make out more people outside. They are all positioned at different points - one behind a broken pillar, another behind a tree and a third crouched low behind an old car.
“Aha!” says Tim. “Found it!”
There’s a USB drive in his hands. He is about to speak when the world outside erupts in gunfire. They both duck, but it’s too late for Tim. A lone bullet seems to have flown through the gap in the window and lodged itself in his abdomen. He can feel his own lips moving, the words pouring out: “You’ll be alright, Tim. It’s just one bullet, and it can be taken out, we’ll get out of this mess.”
Someone from the outside runs inside then. She’s bleeding from his right arm. It’s Tina. “The bullet went through,” she says, jerking her head towards her own wound. And the two of them carry Tim outside, to a helicopter that seems to be waiting for them. He feels queasy when the helicopter lifts into the air, and wonders how it must feel to Tim, who is bleeding out from his gut. ‘
Tim's breathing is slowing down, coming in gasps of pain, and he is trying to think of something to say, anything that might help. But all he says in the end is, “I know”. He keeps repeating it till it becomes a chant, and by the time the helicopter reaches the camp, the chant has devolved into a long-drawn “No”.
Tim is hardly in there, but still they carry him to the medical tent. The doctor takes one look at the injury and purses his lips. “Will he be fine?” he asks, and the doctor looks him in the eye and lies. “Of course... Why don’t you lie down for a while? I’ll let you know when the surgery’s over.”
It's a new day when he wakes up, the sun is hardly awake and the camp is still sleepy, when he walks into the medical tent. The doctor's sitting on a bed with his face in his hands. Tim is nowhere to be seen.
"Will it get easier?" he asks, startling the doctor.
"No. No, it won't. It's only the beginning, I'm sorry to say."
A month later, it’s a young boy. A local, not more than five, and his arm is completely blown off. A woman is trying to fix him, even though her knowledge of the medical science is limited to basic first aid. She is tying her scarf around the stump protruding out of his elbow, she is crying but her eyes are wide and alert. She is looking at him. “Help me,” she is saying. “Please.” And soon he is picking up the child and running towards the hospital.
He doesn’t ask the doctor anything this time. He’s learned by now, but the woman is new. “How is he?” “Will he survive?” “What do you think?” She keeps asking him. “I don’t know,” he keeps repeating. Because really, what can he say?
And then he’s with her inside the army camp. She’s a journalist. But he thinks she’s much more. There’s something she’s not telling him. But that’s alright, there are a lot of things he’s not telling her. Nothing at all about the boy, for instance.
“You’ve been assigned to me,” she tells him later. “I need to travel to an abandoned village.” And he feels an anchor sinking in his stomach, rooting him into that spot with the realisation that one day she’s going to die right in front of him.
More death followed, some deserved but most of them unannounced and unfair. He's tried to cope with it, he really has but every day has been a struggle. So much so that at one point he thought he wouldn’t even get out of bed. But only a few days after that, he was discharged on medical grounds. People thought he was getting suicidal.
He didn't know if that was the truth. And he didn’t know what he had been doing in Iraq. What any of them had been doing there.
He was out now. But how many more were being sent there, getting stuck there? How many more were going to die?
“You could easily end this,” a voice suddenly speaks inside him just then. “Just go to a bridge, any bridge, and close your eyes when you’re at the edge. Sway a bit, move yourself with the swing of the wind, and let yourself fall into its lap. It will be the most freeing experience of your life. It’ll be so easy.”
So easy, the soldiers softly says out aloud, catching the doctor’s attention. But before he can begin to wonder what the soldier is dreaming about, the nun faces him and asks, “How are you, Dr. Roy?”.
How is he? He can’t say, he has no idea. And he hates it, absolutely hates it when someone asked him that question. Such an impersonal question masked as polite small-talk. How do you answer such a question? ‘Oh, I’m completely fine. It’s just that I no longer care for myself or my patients. I feel no relief when a patient survives and I feel no remorse when they die. I have no idea what I’m doing with my life, and the smile on your face is annoying me to no end. If I had propofol or any sort of anesthetic with me right now, I would douse my tie in it and smother you to sleep.’
He wouldn't call himself sad, but the fact was that he was unhappy. A simple joy brought no smile to his face, a piece of good news didn't register in his mind. People have started noticing too. Commenting that he looks depressed. Asking him if he's happy. And he tells them that he's fine, that he is fine.
But really, when was the last time he was happy? Truly happy. Was it the day of his son’s wedding? Probably. There is photographic evidence of it, too. Every photo from the wedding has him smiling or laughing, and even in that one picture where his back is to the camera, his arms are gesticulating in the air and the guest in front of him is smiling. But then, a month later, the feeling disappeared. And it was stronger this time. Perhaps it was to do with the realisation that he had nothing to look forward to anymore. Whatever it was, it was back again.
This uneasiness, this feeling that he had no purpose in life had always haunted him. Even when he was helping someone, saving their lives, that feeling stuck to the back of his mind. He couldn’t explain it himself and so he never tried explaining it to someone else. They would think him to be mad. “A doctor who thinks he has no purpose in life?,” they would say and stare at him in disbelief. "But your job is to help people, even save them from death. There is no higher calling in life than that!"
Well, that was bullshit.
For a while he entertained the thought of visiting a therapist, of seeking out another medical professional's help. Perhaps they would be able to understand him. But he always stopped himself from doing so. “The patients might find out” was his excuse to chicken out, but deep down he knew the real reason was that he didn’t want to be fixed. A twisted part of him reasoned that having no purpose was perhaps his purpose in life.
And yet, not everything in his life was dreary. There was a place he visited often, when life tried to suffocate him. He'd sit in his chair inside his office, or close his eyes in his bed, and he'd be there.
It would always start with him sitting down in his car, driving out of the garage and never looking at the rear-view mirror. He would drive for hours in a few seconds and reach his destination. There would be no one in the vicinity, only a telephone booth and a small shop 10 km away. He'd have a small house, with one room filled with books and perhaps a few films (that would require a projector too) in the bottom-most shelf.
He'd spend his days outside, in the nature, depending on where he would live, perhaps go out to the river or the forest or the pastures. He'd lie down on the ground, close his eyes, feel the sunlight against his eyelids, feel the warmth, and tip his hat over his face. For hours he would stay like that, and perhaps, seeing him so still, a squirrel would come over and sleep on his chest or a bird would perch on top of his hat.
With dusk he would head back inside, cook some food, and sit inside the library. Maybe he'd watch an old film, forgotten but still loved, or he would read a book. And after finishing dinner, he would yawn, sleepy yet happy, and head towards his bedroom. A soft bed with softer blankets, a familiar pillow, and he would sleep a dreamless sleep.
Would he miss his family? Sure, he would. But nothing in life comes without a little sacrifice. And he'd call them every week, ask about their lives and tell them about his. Would it be a betrayal? In part, yes. It was entirely selfish to leave his family like that, leave his practice and all those patients.
It could never be possible, this fantasy. So he dips into it from time to time, on his lowest of lows, and it brings him peace.
He is standing in the shallows of a river, fishing, when a voice enters his mind. "Make this a reality. Go on a vacation, just you and no one else. Do it. Take a week off, and head to the mountains."
Could he do that? Leave his life behind for a few days? What if-
“Dr. Roy?,” a gentle voice interrupts his thoughts. Oh, the nun. He doesn't know if it's a curse or his good fortune that he came across a patient at the railway station. Most likely, it's the former.
He smiles and then feigns a yawn before he answers, “Sorry, I'm really tired. Do you mind if I take a nap?”
The doctor really does look really tired. And she wonders if he’s having trouble sleeping. She has that too. Especially now that she is nearing the end of her life. All her regrets and the piled-up guilt come to her at night.
The one incident that keeps coming back to her is half a dream and half a memory. There isn’t anyone else here. Just the waves and the sand. It’s a very old memory, of her as a child. After a while she begins to walk towards the sea. A shape begins to come into focus in front of her and she starts to run, or tries to, in the water. It’s another girl, close to her age, and she is drowning. She has no idea how to swim.
But then she slows down. She can easily reach out and help out the drowning girl, but she doesn’t. She stands in their in the waves and watches her swallow water and struggle to breathe. ‘Hel-l,’ the girl tries to say. ‘Nanc-,’ she attempts. ‘Pleassssse!’ But she doesn't move.
She can’t explain it later. She can’t explain it even now. What stopped her then. And then what made her, at the last moment, run towards the shore shouting and asking for help. The girl thanks her profusely at the hospital. “You saved my life, Nancy,” she says. “Thank you.” But all she can do is nod and smile, too afraid to open her mouth and allow the truth to drop out.
The truth was that it wasn’t the first time she had done something like this. Another time, it was her own brother, and she had just stood and waited for him to fall from his horse. Then it was her cousin, who she had pushed out on the road to see if a car would hit her. No car came along, so she was lucky. But it proved, all these incidents proves, that there was something wrong with her. There was a desire deep in her to see others suffer.
And on that day, on the beach, she could feel that urge the strongest. She wanted to stand and see another person die. But she overcame that desire, she was lucky. Luckier even than the drowning girl.
That very day, before she went to the hospital, she made a visit to her local church and decided what must be done. She couldn’t share her thoughts with anyone, they wouldn’t understand, so she had to take into her own hands, to correct her course.
She looks at her hands now. Old and wrinkled, but certainly not bloody. That’s a consolation at least. The dreams are something she’ll just have to live with, however much of a life is left in her.
It's not like she hasn't atoned for her mistakes. She has helped several people, receiving no thanks in return many times. Often she has walked for miles to provide assistance to a church in ruins, old and dying. She has stayed back at such places, worked with them for months to strengthen the foundation. These things have surely made up for her past. Surely.
But then why does she keep dreaming of the drowning?
At first she used the memory to propel herself herself, to do better and be better. But as her life went on and she withered into an old woman, she wondered if it was less of a lesson and more of a punishment. Was she being tortured for having entertained sinful thoughts?
Even when awake she was afraid. She never once ventured out into the sea, never once since that day. It didn't matter if she was far away from home, if she saw the sea, she trembled and ventured into the depths of the land, far away from the shores. She told everyone she was seasick, she was afraid of the waves, the sand burned her soles, but never the truth: "I'm afraid of who I was when I last went to a beach."
What if she hadn't done anything?, she thinks. What if she had just stood there, watching a life disappear into the waves. How would her life have turned out? Would she have continued to passively watch on as death took its share from the Earth? Would she have ended up in this life anyway?
She doesn't know, and that scares her. She thinks of praying to the Lord, yet again, and ask for his guidance. And then a miracle! Finally! Finally, she hears His voice. For the first time.
“Go to the sea,” he tells her. “What you seek, you shall find by the shores of memory.”
Tears begin to form in her eyes, unbidden, and she excuses herself. She gets up from her seat and walks towards the washroom. On the way, she meets the eye of the woman sitting with her daughter, and she sees pain reflected in her eyes, too.
The poor old nun, she thinks. What ails her? Is it a priest? Must be a priest. A pedophile. Oh she hates them, all of them. Men. They just can’t leave people alone.
She has been on edge the entire morning. First, someone bumped into her at the station, then she narrowly missed boarding the train, and now there was a soldier in the coach with her. And she was 100 percent sure he had been hired by her husband to follow her.
A month ago, she had realised that someone was tailing her in Bath. She went to the supermarket, he was there. In the cafe, he was sitting in the corner. When she got out of her local bank a few days ago, she spotted him near the corner. The next day, she placed a small knife in her bag and went outside to run some errands. Her daughter, as was the routine, stayed with her parents.
When she spotted him near the cafe, she walked over to him and slapped him hard. There were people all around her, and some even turned their heads in their direction. “Stop following me!,” she told him, gritting her teeth. She took out her knife then, and placed its pointed end into his stomach. “Do you understand?,” she asked him. He nodded and then stepped away from her.
When her adrenaline wore off, she found herself shaking in the cafe. A waitress came over and asked her if she was okay and placed a cup of green tea in front of her. She thanked the waitress, drank the tea and went home.
The first thing she did when her father opened the door was hug him tight, and then she looked for her daughter. She was out in the balcony. She picked her up from the chair, held her in her arms and cried. She cried for minutes. And her parents came over to watch from the doorway. "Are you alright?" they asked her, and she tried to tell them, through her tears and her daughter's hair, that no, she wasn't. And that the time had come for her to leave.
She had taken the decision in the cafe, trembling over her tea, that she had to go elsewhere. Anywhere. Just to be rid of her husband. She traveled to London first, hoping to lose whoever was following in the large crowds. On her second day in the city, she walked over to the train station with her daughter without any specific destination in mind. Canterbury stuck out to her so she bought two tickets. She hoped that she would be safe from her husband’s eyes here. But it looked like she was wrong.
She hadn’t noticed the soldier at first. But had slowly realised there was something off about him. His body language was all wrong. Even though he kept his eyes closed, and appeared to be sleeping, she can't help but wonder if it is just an act. What if he is waiting for her guard to be down?
She glances at her daughter then, to check if she was alright, and sees that she is busy drawing in a notebook. Her thoughts go back to the soldier. She wonders how she could stop him. Would the man and the nun try to stop her? Would the creepy man in front of her catch her hand and pull her away from the soldier, stopping her from harming him? Would the soldier himself defend himself? He probably would. Of course, he would. And he was a soldier. He was trained for a violent confrontation!
But then again, it's not like she is unprepared. She still has that knife from before; she didn’t feel safe if she didn’t travel without it anymore. She places her hand inside her purse and grips the knife’s handle, imagining the many ways she could stab the man in a hurry. His neck would be the most damaging, for sure. If she cut him well, sliced open his carotid artery, he would be dead within minutes. If that wasn’t possible, then she would aim for his thigh or his stomach—those would be the most vulnerable, she reasoned. But could she kill someone? Did she have it in her?
“Yes, you do,” a voice tells her. “Go with your instincts. You must do everything required to keep your child and yourself safe.”
Won’t they take me away from her? If I kill someone?
“Go to the King’s Bridge tomorrow. All will become clear to you there.”
She looks at her daughter again, and this time she looks back. She has his eyes. It scares her a little sometimes, to see that cold dark stare reflected in someone so pure. But she pushes those thoughts to the back of her mind. I hope you never have to go through this again. I hope you have a good life, she wishes, carding her hand through her soft hair.
Red or blue? What colour should the man’s hair be?
If the shirt is green, will blue hair go with it?
Oh, but where’s the blue crayon? Did I lose it somewhere? I'll make Mum buy me another set of crayons when the train stops. I hope she doesn't start crying. She does that a lot these days. Maybe she misses Dad. She does take his name a lot, when she is talking to Grandma and Grandpa. Maybe she really misses him. Like I miss him.
Maybe this drawing will remind Mum of him. But where's the blue crayon? Fine, hair’s gonna be red then. But will the shirt be green? Will that go with the blue?
“Try yellow,” comes a voice out of nowhere. “It’ll look good.”
She tries, dragging the yellow crayon across the paper, and is delighted. The voice was right!
The man is not always this successful. But he tries, to push people towards their deepest desires. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. And he knows what he does isn’t morally right; many times his guidance leads to death. But all he is doing, truly, is helping people move towards their destiny. Just a little push.
He likes to think of himself as the engine that leads these people towards their destination. Each station, each stop, a subtraction and addition of friends, ideas and decisions. Some trains are practically empty, and they hardly stop in their rush. But those sort are boring. Then there are ones that are bustling with energy and even a bit of chaos. Those are the best, those are the ones he loves the most.
Palmer Emmanuel is an emerging writer From Nigeria. He Started his Writing career at age 16 and since then, he had been working tirelessly to improve in the Craft. he has won several Flash Fiction contests and his writing style and diction has been well spoken of by Editors locally and international.
There was a land
He muttered silent prayers to the gods of the land. He knew Nneka never believed in the gods of their land. When she joined the missionaries to serve, what Nneka referred to as the true God, she stopped believing in the gods of their land. She didn’t partake in any festivals anymore. When Obiora was making sacrifices to his chi, Nneka didn’t join him. And when Nneka was praying to the true God Obiora left the hut.
“My wife is going mad” Obiora once said to Ike his friend while they discussed over palm wine “she talks to herself and says she is praying to her God” they both laughed in mockery.
“That is not even all o… she would talk in strange language, like… kokokoko masabatashagaba likabo papapa samataba… what is the meaning of that one?” Obiora laughed and spilled his palm wine.
“Maybe she takes some shots from your palm wine before talking to her God” mocked Ike.
“maybe… but don’t you think that is how they talk to their God, their God seems to be very Mysterious” Obiora added.
Nevertheless, Obiora’s love for his wife did not diminish in anyway. Obiora allowed freedom of serving any God of your choice, even though everyone said he was not man enough to correct Nneka’s misbehaviors.
Obiora thought the gods would be merciful enough to spare her, despite the fact that she didn’t believe in them again, at least he had been very faithful in his worship to them. So he prayed that the gods of his fathers would spare Nneka and her baby for his sake.
He had married Nneka four years ago, as the chief warrior of the land, Nneka with all her beauty and elegances was the very best for him. When Nneka didn’t produce any child for four years, his shame began. They told him to sit down when he tried to speak during counsel meetings.
“This meeting is for men, not for boys” said Okeke one of the chiefs. Obiora had angrily left the gathering that day. As he walked away, he heard a roaring of laughter behind him. His mother had brought several women for him during this peroid of Nneka’s childlessness, but Obiora had chased them away with a stick.
“what is wrong with you my Son” Adora, Obiora’s mother had cried “don’t you want to have a child”. She stood in front of Obiora. “eh? Don’t you want a child” she grabbed Obiora’s wrapper “if you don’t want a child I want a grandchild”.
Obiora maintained a long silent and listened as his mother said all kinds of things against him and Nneka. In fact she said Obiora’s plan was to allow her die without seeing her grandchildren. When Obiora was fed up, he forcefully removed her mother’s hand from his wrapper and went into his hut.
It was at midnight Obiora heard the cry of a baby, he fell on his knees and muttered praises to the gods of the land. He could here the voices of the women inside the hut shouting for joy. However this joyful moment didn’t seem to last. Nneka soon began to scream again, the faint voices of the women urging her to push reached his ears. In a short while another baby cried. Obiora’s heart stopped. He had been on his kneels showering praises on the gods only in the midst of those praises to asked them a question.
“why? The gods of our fathers” he shouted “why?” he was in great pain and grief.
The women began to leave the hut, talking to one another in low tunes and spiting, and rolling their hands around their necks and clicking their fingers.
“The gods forbid…abomination” one of the women spat as she left the compound.
Such news as this didn’t waste time before it reaches the ears of everyone in the land. The whole land had been informed of Nneka’s misfortune.
Later that afternoon while Obiora sat by his hut with a bottle of snuff and an hand fan held under his right armpit. He watched the messagers from the priest as they walked into his compound.
“Good morning chief Obiora.” Maduka bowed and greeted.
“The morning is Good.” Obiora's voice was deep and his words poured out from his mouth slowly. He took a snuff and turned to the messagers.
“How might I be of help to you?” he asked as if he did not know why they had come.
“We have come to take the babies” said Maduka.
“They are with their mother inside the hut”
The two messagers stared at each other and Maduka nodded that they should proceed. they proceeded to the hut and lowered themselves as the went through the threshold. Nneka was prepared, even for the worst. The babies were carefully wrapped and placed on the mud bed. She guard them, her waist tied with an head-tie. She was ready for a fight.
The two messagers stared at her and looked at each other. Then Maduka said.
“Madam we came for the babies, don’t waste our time with drama… hand them over”
“Never!” shouted Nneka.
Maduka moved an inch. Nneka drew out a knife from her wrapper”
“you know this children must be cast away into the evil forest” Maduka said and took some steps backward “you know our customs. don’t you?”
“that is your business, as for me, my custom is what my God tells me… I will never hand them over to you” Nneka was Adamant.
“You must… this children are cursed” Maduka said and made to advanced. Nneka raised the knife for him to see, and he withdrew.
“my children are not cursed… they are a gift from God and blessing unto my life”
“Shut up this woman!” Maduka was getting irritated by Nneka mentioning a God that they didn’t know anything about.
“I will not allow your god to take what my God as giving to me… all your god knows is to demand for blood, so so blood, abeg” she hissed.
It was at this moment Obiora lowered himself into the hut. The messagers bowed in respect.
“your wife has refuse to give them to us” Maduka said staring at Obiora to see how he would react.
When Okika’s Third wife, gave birth to a twin two years ago, Maduka the chief messager of the chief priest had come to take the baby as he always does, but Nkiruka had refused. Okika had beaten her up for that. Now the messagers stood and watched the outcome of Nneka’s refuser.
Obiora stared at Nneka and then stared at the messagers and told them to come another time. When they had left, Obiora sat on the mud bed and said. “Nneka sit down.”
Nneka was still staring at the door post, as if the messagers were still there. she sat down.
“Nneka. We have to cast those babies to the Evil forest…we cannot keep them. You know what our custom demands”
“This children are gift from God.” Nneka said.
“listen woman!” Obiora raised his voice.“I don’t know the God you are talking about, but the gods of this land forbid twins”
“I can’t watch my children thrown into the forest to die… I can’t, God forbid bad thing…nor be me, I nor go try am”
“What is your problem Nneka eh? What is it. Would you rather have children who will bring nothing but misfortune to this family and to this land” Obiora said softly.
“This children are blessings, that is what I know” Nneka said and turned to carry one of the babies crying, she smiled as she played with the child. “see them, fine boys”
“how is this a blessing” asked Obiora.
“all my God knows how to do his to bless, he gave me two instead of one, for those years that I have lost…can’t you see Obiora” Nneka was excited.
“don’t your God know that in this our land, twins are forbidden” Obiora asked watching Nneka playing with the baby.
“what concerns my God and your gods, eh? Sister Philomena used to say it” Nneka did as though she was trying to remember something. “she used to say eh? The earth is the lord and the eh… and the oh o, and the everything belongs to our God… it sounds like that.” Nneka said, still very excited. She didn’t seems to understand the reason for her joy. The realities seems to have left her memory, at least for the time being.
“ta! How can your God have everything, ta! It cannot work” Objected Obiora.
“he has o… including this land” Nneka said.
“Nneka I have heard enough… thank you… the realities still remains that the traditions and customs of the land is what I grew up to know and practice…Nneka have I not tried for you, I allowed you to serve this your God and your Jesus without troubling you, only just this one thing I am asking you eh!”
Obiora Paused and looked at the children. He nodded his head. He had wished he had a way around it, he had wished he could save their life. He had mourned and wept. he could never go against the customs of the land his father had been the head chief until his death and he had been raised up as a devoted man of the tradition and customs.
“The chiefs had warned me against keeping the babies. Till the babies her disposed and the sacrifice to cleanse the land is done, I will no longer be the chief warrior. they had also threatened to banish us from this land, if the babies are not thrown into the forest in three days”
Obiora allowed a paused for a moment and concluded “Please… I beg you… when they come again, give them the babies.. na beg I dey beg, Abeg”
Nneka knew nothing she would say would convince Obiora to keep the babies. She kept quite and soon began to sob.
When the News got to Pastor Benedict that Nneka, Sister Agnes as she was called by the Christians, had given birth and that she had giving birth to a twin, he took Sister Philomena to the woman who had first brought Nneka to the church to pay her a visit that evening.
When they reached the threshold of Sister Agnes’s hut, they heard her sobbing bitterly. Pastor Benedict and Sister Philomena stared at each other and hurried into the hut.
“what is it daughter? why are you crying this way”asked Pastor benedict.
Nneka tried to speak but could not find her words. When she finally found them she said as she sobbed and wiped her face with the back of her hand.
“Pastor, anytime from now they will come and take this babies to the evil forest”
“God forbid!” shouted Sister Philomena.
“It will not happen” said Pastor Benedict.
“You will bring them to the church and nurse them there… will would give you a hut.”
Nneka didn’t seems to feel any relief, she kept on sobbing.
“what about my husband, Obiora?” she asked.
Pastor Benedict was quiet for a while, then he spoke. “Obiora, your husband has to make his choice Nneka. you have made yours, your have decided to keep this babies. Isn’t it?”
Maduka came to Obiora’s compound very early in the morning, this time he came with four extra men. They greeted Obiora who sat on the usual bench he always sat on with his snuff and his hand fan. He motioned for them to go ahead. The four men surrounded the hut while Maduka entered the hut. He came out in a very short moment and wore a disappointed look, he was looking around the compound and the others were wondering.
“what is it?” Obiora asked, who had carefully studied Maduka’s expressions as he wondered about the compound.
“I can’t find her” said Maduka.
“who? Nneka?” Obiora sprang up from the bench. “she was in this morning” he ran into the hut.
A thorough search was made throughout that day. Obiora had mobilized some of his warriors to go around the land searching for Nneka. By the end of the day she was no where to be found.
In the evening the chief priest came in to Obiora’s compound, with the Chiefs of the land. Obiora’s compound bore an unusual quietness, the rustling sound of the leaves and the trees in the compound was loud and clear in the quiet state of the compound, the sound of the dried leafs on the ground made irritating noise as the wind swept across the compound. The unusual bench Obiora sat on rested against the mud wall, his snuff bottle and his hand fan lay on the ground.
“Search the whole place” commanded the Chief Priest. The warriors divided themselves and began to search the compound. The elders were all present, they were eagerly waiting for the warriors to bring out Obiora wherever he was hiding, they had come to officially banish him from the land until he produced the twins and they are thrown into the forest and the land is cleansed. When the warriors returned to the Chief Priest and the Chiefs, they wore disappointment over their faces.
“My elders, the eyes of the gods… you have to follow us” said Maduka who had been among the warriors.
“What is it?” asked the elders worriedly, they followed the warriors to the back of Obiora’s Obi down into a bush path until they stopped In front of an Udala tree.
Obiora was dangling around, with a rope fastened to his neck and his tongue out of his mouth.
AMIRAH AL WASSIF
DANA WYNNE LINDQUIST
DAN W LUEDKE
JOHN F. ZURN