Natalie Singletary grew up in and resides in eastern North Carolina. She recently self-published her first book, "The Diamond Trilogy," and is in the midst of pre-producing a film from the work. She also pursues a dance career, currently teaching hip hop at a local performing arts studio, Act! Dance! Sing! Performing Arts Training Center in Morehead City, NC.
The dripping faucet in the bathroom stirred Carmon awake, her hair matted to her cheek. She wanted to wipe it away, but her hands were tied behind her. The chair she was in was stuck to her back. Her gaze travelled down to her legs, also tied. She glanced around the dingy room and saw Wally in the corner in a similar position, still unconscious. The two beds separated them. There were footsteps out in the hall that faded into the distance.
“Wally.” She attempted to keep her voice down. “Wally.”
Wally coughed, jolting awake. “Where are we? Carmon?” He squinted. “What happened?” he asked.
Carmon shuffled her way toward Wally, the chair resisting against the carpet. “We’ve been kidnapped,” she said. About halfway across the room, her coat got caught under the chair leg and she fell over.
He cleared his throat. “How can I help?” he asked.
“Are you able to shuffle your way to me?”
Wally nodded and trekked his chair over to her. His sweat dripped onto her face. “Now what?”
“I’m going to roll onto my side and you’re going to fall over behind me so we can untie each other. Do you understand?”
“What happens if I accidently fall on top of you?”
Carmon narrowed her eyes. “My knee accidently goes into your crotch.”
Wally adjusted his chair and fell over following her instructions. “I was thinking more dinner and a movie anyway.” He untied her. “Unless, you want me to hold on to these ropes.”
Carmon rolled her eyes. “How are you making jokes right now? Or did you miss the part where we were kidnapped?” He released her ropes and without delay, she untied her legs, tossing the chair back into its original corner. She replaced her focus on freeing Wally.
“This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve spent most of my life in hiding due to my father’s reputation. Escaping from him has become somewhat of a game at this point,” said Wally. Carmon released his arms and he rubbed his wrists as she checked for exit points. He smirked, discarding the rest of his bonds and standing. “I imagine you can relate in your field of expertise.”
Before he could blink, Carmon was at his throat with a knife. “Who the hell are you and how do you know who I am?”
“You just got even more attractive,” he said, smirking. Carmon applied pressure to his throat. He put his hands up. “Alright, alright. I knew who you were the moment I saw you. Why do you think I asked you out?”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“I’ve had a crush on you since college, in a totally not creepy way. We both went to Penn State. Took Ancient Artifacts with Professor Stanley. I looked you up in my dad’s database. I’m curious on why you went to college in the first place to be honest. The heist in Egypt when you were only seventeen was a three-million-dollar job.”
Carmon rolled her eyes, returning her knife into its holster. “No. That’s completely creepy. And continuing my education is important to my superiors.” She crossed her arms. “Did you set this whole thing up?” she asked.
Wally slipped his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “Kind of.”
“Before or after I agreed to go on a date with you?”
“Before. I was so elated that you said yes, I spaced on calling it off.”
Her eyebrows elevated. “You’re a complete lunatic.”
“I wouldn’t say complete.”
Carmon closed the distance between them. He inhaled. “I would,” she said and nailed her fist into his stomach. Wally crumpled to the floor, gasping for air. “That’s for having me kidnapped.” She opened the door to the balcony.
Wally reached toward her. “We’re on.. the.. fifteenth… floor.”
Carmon smirked down at him, pulling out her grappling hook. “I think I’ll be alright.” She leaned down and kissed Wally on the cheek. “Let’s try that date thing again sometime.” She walked backwards onto the balcony and shot off her grappling hook above her. And then, she was gone.
Wally smiled. “I’m going to marry that woman someday.”
BACKWOODS SMARTPHONE KISS
The British Airways flight attendant, who worked several years ago as a substitute teacher, recognized me, served me biscuits, almonds, and black tea, and stopped to chat when I told her I was emigrating to Canada.
“My mother thought I was making a mistake moving to Northern Ontario, taking a job as a school principal in Beaverbrook. She urged me to stay home in London and accept the position as headmaster at a small private school for exceptional students in Chelsea.”
As I read work related documents, recent school board meeting minutes and the new course curriculum, I flew economy class from London to Toronto aboard a 777 jet, which the smiling flight attendant, with perfect, straight, shiny teeth and immaculate grooming, told me was on its maiden airline voyage across the Atlantic. From the airport terminal at Pearson International Airport, I hurried to franchise cafes and takeout kiosks, seeking the best cup of black tea I could find, before I passed through security gates and checkpoints, airport lounges, flight boarding, and passenger waiting areas. Meanwhile, habitually and repetitively opening and closing my foldable cellphone, I fielded concerned calls from my mother. Before I left, my mother tried to give me a refurbished Apple smartphone, but I didn’t want the fancy apps, the super clear video screen, the gadgetry, the video camera, and the wireless earbuds of a “fancy” iPhone. I didn’t even want a cellphone, period, but my work as an education administrator demanded I have a mobile phone for communications so I opted for the sparest, leanest, toughest, and least expensive form of technology available, a basic prepaid flip phone.
I explained to my mother, as I tried to control myself from getting exasperated at her declining memory and her tendency to repeat herself, in her advanced age, I cherished and appreciated life as a single man, as I also enjoyed travel and adventure, particularly if it involved my career as an educator. Single all my life, I was happy with my lifestyle choices and relationships, or lack thereof.
When I took a Porter Airlines regional turboprop flight to Thunder Bay, I found myself sitting a few rows aft from a tall, thin distinctive looking man, with a clean-shaven head, whom I later recognized as Eaglerock. He kept giving me this fierce and intimidating look, as he talked animatedly with a fellow passenger. I thought he looked Spanish or Portuguese, for some peculiar reason, possibly because I vacationed there during holidays breaks, as I overheard him saying he was also a school teacher, returning from the Pride Week parades and festivities in Toronto. Then I rode a bush plane through turbulent summer weather to Northwestern Ontario, across the aisle from the same individual, who glared at me as he read the Pride rainbow edition of NOW Magazine.
My landlady, with whom I had already spoken several times long distance from England, knew in advance I was new to the town of Beaverbrook. When she heard and saw in the living flesh I was indeed English, from London, England, and the new principal of the Lost Lake High School, she waived my damage deposit and even insisted on returning last month’s rent, which I offered in cash, without requesting a receipt. She even offered me the use of her Honda Civic, rusty, dented, with a cracked rear windshield, but she said hardly drove the car any longer.
Ms. Jones said she retired from teaching a decade ago, after a career that spanned three decades. When she insisted on knowing more about me, I explained I was born and raised in Knightsbridge, but didn’t mention my privileged and wealthy mother, daughter of the heir to a marine insurance agency. She worried aloud I was the most eccentric man she ever knew, and I was her only offspring, a fact of which she seemed sometimes ashamed at parties and dinners.
“You’re from Knightsbridge, as in the Knightsbridge of The Rolling Stones’ song “Play with Fire.”
“Yes, you know the lyrics.”
“I still have the original vinyl album. The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks was my favourite collection, but I’ve must have played the records forever. Would you like to hear?”
Before I could reply, she returned from her living room and a shelving unit, which held a bookcase, with hardcover and paperback books, record albums, compact discs, and a shiny vintage high-end stereo system. She proudly handed to me, encased and sheathed in a protective plastic covering, the double album The Rolling Stones Hot Rocks. She pulled out the first album, which contained “Play with Fire,” and was ready to play song on the vinyl LP on her turntable, but I warned I heard the album many times. I didn’t tell her I literally bumped into The Rolling Stones frontman whilst shopping for a Christmas present for my mother in Harrods department store, but, while Jagger laughed off the clumsy encounter, a member of his entourage took exception and pushed me away. She said she intended on keeping the album in her collection in mint condition and had even recorded copies of the album on cassette and then a blank compact disc. She said her mother bought her the album at the Hudson’s Bay Store on Front Street in the neighbouring town, Sioux Lookout, in 1972, along with a portable turntable, while she was waiting to catch a CN passenger train to the Lakehead. Her mother, who hated travel, visited her in Thunder Bay, where, after her first year of teacher’s college, she was a patient, suffering from depression, in the Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital. Jones said a nurse told her she held the record for having received the most electroconvulsive treatments in the psychiatric hospital.
The staff allowed her to listen to the album and the music helped lift the depression she suffered. She didn’t know if the depression lifted spontaneously as she repeatedly listened to the album or if it was a result of listening to the album, but, aside from being her favourite collection, the Rolling Stones held a special spot in her heart ever since. I didn’t want to make light of her past condition or personal history, but it seemed as if a moment of levity was required.
“Well, I guess we’re dating ourselves,” I said, adding with a chuckle The Rolling Stones’ Hots Rocks was actually not an original studio album but a greatest hits collection released in the early seventies.
“You don’t need to get pedantic; I know my pop music history,” Jones said.
After unpacking and settling down, I decided to take advantage of the scenery, and some of the more endearing aspects of the Canadian Shield landscape, including the scenic beaches, fringed by evergreen forests, and the fresh water in the boundless lakes and rivers. As I drove around the streets around the high school and downtown and along the highway, I saw the town of Beaverbrook and the neighboring town of Sioux Lookout in some respects resembled a reservation. I was beginning to wonder if I made a wise choice in accepting the position of principal of the high school. Jones joked I was hired because the high school was desperate for personnel.
That hot, humid Sunday afternoon I sauntered down to the beach. I wore my thong and sandals and the strongest sunblock I could buy in the drugstore downtown. The weather turned cloudy and humid, and thunderstorms billowed and towered, lurking on the horizon. The beach was beautiful, fringed with huge towering white pine trees.
My landlady recommended the spot on the lake, which she called MNR beach and was surrounded by tall, majestic white and red pine trees, near a forest fire fighting base, with a helicopter landing pad, a communications centre, warehouses, and dormitories. She said she last visited the beach decades ago, when she was a young woman, but among all the beaches, including vacation resorts in Mexico and Cuba, she visited this beach still ranked as one of her favourites. I thought I could understand why after I saw the scenery, a serene Canadian Shield lake, surrounded by countless miles of rocks and forests. Still, I was an avid reader and brought along Dicken’s Great Expectations.
As I sat on the beach towel, reading the novel, I thought the text was remarkably prolix, but reading in the age of the Internet, email, and instant messaging neutered one’s literary tastes and style. I supposed I could blame the Internet for becoming moribund intellectually, for affecting a breezy style in my writing and taste for prose.
I stretched out on the beach towel, applying suntan lotion. As I glanced up, I thought I saw Eaglerock, the geography teacher, whom I met at a professional development meeting held by the school board in the neighboring community of Sioux Lookout. That couldn’t be Mr. Eaglerock, I thought, when I saw him with a much younger person, but who else could the person be since this man, like Eaglerock, had a bald head and was remarkably tall and thin.
The young man with whom he was socializing or romanticizing couldn’t have been more than eighteen. Further complicating matters for me was the fact Eaglerock’s younger companion appeared indigenous, and I started to worry. Then I saw Eaglerock bend across the beach sand and a towel and plant a kiss firmly on his lips, as he held up his smartphone and captured the image for posterity.
Uh-oh. I had to pretend I didn’t see that exchange, that gesture, that overt sign of affection, or however I wished to describe what I construed as blurring beyond the bounds of indiscretion into moral corruption. I wasn’t certain I understood the kiss’ meaning or significance, or indeed if it was even a kiss, but one didn’t believe it was a kiss they were in denial. The kiss, moreover, was not a mere peck on the cheek but a romantic caress, the stuff of lovers, a full throated, prolonged kiss on the mouth, and apparently the man was bold enough to record his transgression on smartphone. It was none of my business, I mused momentarily, as I applied to apply sunblock and took a drink of sugar free cola from a can in the beer cooler.
When I saw an Ontario Provincial Police cruiser turn at the roadway to the beach the officer scowled. The officer stepped out of his cruiser and glanced down the beach, with his cold stare. I thought I recognized him as a part-time school board trustee, but, from behind the uniform, baseball cap, and sunglasses, he certainly didn’t appear to recognize me. Then he stepped back inside the black and white police cruiser and drove off. The teenager—at least I thought the young man was a teenager—quickly got up from his towel, and the geography teacher threw on capri pants and a T-shirt. They departed in a Mini Cooper convertible with the roof down, a car which almost made me feel like I was back in England. This was a more unusual and peculiar situation, I thought, but possibly to be expected in a small town in northwestern Ontario.
I continued to read, and swam far in the lake, admiring the warmth of the water, compared with the coolness I experienced when daring enough to swim at Brighton Beach. Then I toweled down and walked along the shore. Where Eaglerock lounged with his friend, I came across an open backpack filled with an unopened bottle of wine and an empty bottle of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. There was also a smartphone on the sand beside a driftwood, a tree stump, and a backpack.
I assumed the pair had consumed too much liquor, panicked when they saw the police officer, then left in a hurry, and forgot the empties, including a can of craft beer, and booze. I took the phone and the backpack to my beach towel and examined the bottle of wine inside the backpack. I enjoyed and appreciated the taste of the wine, a Bordello Meritage Blend, a wine made by The Dirty Laundry Vine yard in the Okanagan. There were even oxycodone painkillers in the backpack as well. I realized this medication might relieve the symptoms of kidney stones I was experiencing recently. Besides, I was open to psychological adventure with the passage of time and maturation. I took a painkiller and sampled the wine. I continued to read the Dickens, as the heat of the summer continued unabated into the August evening. Within an hour, I felt a buzz, mildly euphoric.
As the sun settled beneath the horizon of the lake and forests, and I had difficulty reading for lack of light, I thought that maybe the time had arrived for me to purchase an e-book reader, with a lit back screen, and I decided I better return home to my meddlesome and intrusive landlady. I packed the smartphone and the backpack and got in Ms. Jones’ Honda Civic. I drove into town from the gravel road to the beach and then along the highway and found myself trailed by an OPP cruiser.
I started to worry about the fact I consumed a fair of amount of alcoholic beverages, a whole bottle of wine. The police officer put on her siren and flashers. She pulled me over and asked if I had anything to drink. I said I earlier drank a few ounces of liquor. The police officer explained she wanted to give me a breathalyzer. I failed the portable breathalyzer, but the police officer decided to give me a break because she recognized me. I thanked the officer and drove promptly and directly home as directed. I was beginning to think coming to this town to act as a high school principal was a mistake.
I was even tempted to hand the backpack and smartphone over to the police officer, but I figured I knew the identity of the owner of the backpack. Besides, I didn’t want to complicate matters for anybody. I went home to the basement I rented and fell fast asleep on the couch. When I awoke in the morning, it was six am. I showered, shaved, and then went for coffee. Early in the morning, I walked into the empty high school and glanced at the group graduation portraits of the students and teachers hanging on the walls outside the administration and attendance monitor and guidance counsellor’s offices.
I even recognized the young man, Wesley, who had just graduated at the end of the spring semester. I noticed he was wearing traditional indigenous dress and was holding an eagle feather in his graduation portrait, which caused me trepidation and concern because it was my understanding to hold an eagle feather was a significant honour. Then I finished some paperwork, took my laptop beneath my arm, and decided I would resume my work at the coffeeshop. When I arrived back at home in the basement, I discovered my landlady in hysterics.
“You need to go to the authorities,” she insisted. “You need to go to the police. This man is a pervert.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just look at the pictures of this man on the cellphone. He’s kissing this boy.”
“Ms. Jones, what are you doing on that cellphone? I was going to return it to the owner.”
“And I knew it wasn’t yours because you told me you hate smartphones—”
“I said I don’t use or need smartphones, with their apps and videos and cameras. I didn’t say I hate smartphones.”
“But that’s how I knew it wasn’t your cellphone—you’ve an old-fashioned flip-phone, the kind that folds. That’s why I checked to see who owned it, and how do you check? You look at the pictures.”
“Ms. Jones, you need to respect people’s privacy and mind your own business.”
“You need to call the police.”
“Ms. Jones, I can handle this matter personally—and professionally. I will talk to Mr. Eaglerock and get this matter sorted through and figured out.”
“These pictures are horrible, simply unspeakable. Look at them,” Jones said, holding the smartphone screen towards me. “I don’t need to see the pictures, Ms. Jones. I’ll speak to Mr. Eaglerock about his smartphone, and see if I can obtain a satisfactory resolution.”
“No, you need to take action.”
“Then I’ll take action,” I said, trying to sound more committal, in a matter for which I had little conviction or certainty.
I began to think I made a mistake moving from England to take a job as a principal at a high school in Northwestern Ontario. Now I felt encompassed by a scandal with the potential to destroy my career; so I considered the most prudent move was to discreetly ignore my own observations. I took the backpack and the smartphone and returned to the beach where I originally found these personal belongings, which, I realized, in hindsight, I had no business disturbing, however positive and constructive my intentions.
I resumed reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I thought of tossing Mr. Eaglerock’s smartphone into the lake and tossing the backpack into the bushes, but my landlady insisted on punitive retribution, so I needed to alert him and reassure her I acted. She warned she even took photographs of the images with her own smartphone. How crazily redundant did these selfies and this smartphone picture taking get?
I read the novel until the sunset. Hot, sweaty, and humid, I decided to take a swim in the cool lake and then, shivering, drove home and took a warm shower. In the morning, I finally found my cellphone and called the geography teacher.
“Yes, Mr. Eaglerock, I’d like to have the opportunity to speak with you. Yes, I’m the new principal of Lost Lake High School.”
We agreed to meet at the Country Style Coffee & Donuts restaurant at nine pm. I took my thong, towel, beach towel, sunblock, and sugar free carbonated drinks into Ms. Jones’ Honda Civic and drove down to the beach. I finished Great Expectations after a swim. As the hot sunny day continued to burn my fair skin and bleach my blonde hair, I moved to the shade of tall red pines along the shoreline and decided to read Oliver Twist.
By the time the sun set beneath the horizon of pine, Douglas fir, and spruce trees and the winding lake, I realized that the foreboding time for what I anticipated as an edgy meeting with Eaglerock arrived. Having taken along the backpack and the smartphone, I drove through an evening summer drizzle to the café at the edge of town.
“Mr. Eaglerock, I have your smartphone.” I could see Eaglerock grow angry, as his muscles tensed and his face became suffused with redness at the mention of his mobile phone.
“Well, could I please have my phone returned?”
“You forgot your phone at the beach last Sunday. I should have left the cursed device stuck in the sand.”
“Yes, thank you for finding and returning my private property,” Mr. Eaglerock said. He turned on the smartphone, which Jones fully charged for her perusal, and immediately checked for e-mails and text messages.
“Mr. Eaglerock, you need to end this relationship with this young man.”
“If you’re talking about my friendship with Wesley, it’s none of your business. I’ve been a geography teacher at the Lost Lake High School for the past twenty-five years—since I was twenty-two. You can’t tell me with whom I can or cannot associate.”
“Mr. Eaglerock, the times have changed. A high school teacher, even off duty, is expected to conduct himself in a certain manner.”
“My friendships are my own personal and private business. I’ll not have a carpetbagger, who sounds like a hoity toity BBC announcer, tell me who I can have for friends.”
“Your friend is young.”
“My so-called friend is eighteen years old. I’ve known Wesley since he was a senior. He’s a disabled learner, but he’s determined and dogged—traits I’ve always admired: his perseverance and persistence. He was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but despite suffering that condition and attention deficit disorder, he managed to graduate with his Ontario Secondary School Diploma.”
“Yes, he’s still a student, and therein lies the complication, the source of concern.”
“Wesley just graduated from Lost Lake High, but he’s a mature student and plans to return come fall to obtain a few academic credits and raise his grade point average. He hopes to improve his odds for admission to a trades program in the college of his choice. He dreams of welding pipelines in the oil sands. You’re just starting your job as principal, so how do you even know he’s a student?”
I was uncertain I had the authority to inquire, but I was sufficiently concerned and bluffed. “I checked his students records online, as easy as the push of a button.”
“Are you even authorized to see his academic records?”
“At age eighteen I’d hardly say he’s mature. I looked at the figures for the demographics of the student body, and he’d hardly be the oldest student.”
“Sounds like you’re into profiling.”
“Mr. Eaglerock, I’ve been a high school teacher in the UK for twenty years. I worked for an investment bank for a decade before I switched careers. You can’t expect me to be naïve.”
“You sound like a prude, Mr. Woodbridge, and you need to be careful about the personal lives of your teachers. It might come back to bite you.”
“Are you trying to threaten me, Mr. Eaglerock?”
“Mr. Woodbridge, I’d like to remind you I’m First Nations, Anishinaabe. My mother is Ojibwe, from Lac Seul, and I never met my father, who, my grandfather informed me, was an American tourist outfitter who took advantage of her and got her drunk when she visited a bar in Sioux Lookout. I consider myself indigenous, Anishinaabe, not English, not hyphenated-Canadian, and, in fact, I am a band member of Lac Seul First Nation.”
“I don’t necessarily understand what that’s supposed to mean.”
“I don’t subscribe to the white man’s code of justice. Do I look like a white man to you?”
“Why aren’t you teaching at the reservation school?”
“Because the public high schools in Sioux Lookout and Beaverbrook were the first places to hire me after I graduated from teacher’s college.”
“Mr. Eaglerock, need I remind you have little moral authority on this issue? Whether legal or not, Ms. Jones snapped photos of the pictures on your own smartphone with her smartphone.”
Eaglerock’s hand trembled—I sensed from more anger than fear—spilling coffee on the table. He wiped the splash and small puddle of coffee with paper napkins.
“I don’t really like these smartphones, Mr. Eaglerock. I have a cellphone, not a smartphone—I use because it’s convenient but it bothers me at all hours. Now I’m very bothered. I haven’t looked myself at these pictures and I have no intention of looking because gentleman do not read other people’s mail, but Ms. Jones—”
“You mean Miss Electroshock, the eccentric retired home economics teacher. She told her ECT story so many times in her accounting class she was asked to stop.”
“I’d say her story’s inspirational; it sounds as if she overcame some real adversity in early life.”
“She even got reprimanded for playing The Rolling Stones in her accounting and business machines class. Apparently, a pair of Pentecostal parents were less than enamoured with her Rolling Stones songs.”
I raised my brow in consternation and looked around for a server for another coffee, but was reminded again Country Style Coffee & Donuts was a self-service restaurant. “With her liberal standards, unfortunately, Ms. Jones sounded sufficiently scandalized and shocked. She is an alarmist, but I suppose her opinions would hold weight with the average parent, teacher, or trustee who attends a school board meeting.”
Eaglerock pounded the table in exasperation.
“You must end your relationship with this young man immediately. Then you must consider what you will do with this smartphone. You must exercise careful and prudent judgement and do whatever you consider best for your students and yourself. I do not consider you a predator or a danger to students, but—”
Eaglerock punched edge of the table and his knuckle bled.
“Show some self-control, Mr. Eaglerock. Appearances and perceptions matter and the times have changed. These days even more is expected from our teachers, whom, I’ll be first to admit, are overworked and overburdened. I hope you understand my concerns.”
I sensed the antagonism Eaglerock exhibited earlier was diminishing as he seethed and sighed. “Mr. Eaglerock, you must understand it is not only your career at risk, but mine as well when it has barely started at LLHS in Northwestern Ontario. I moved all the way from England to take this job, but now I must deal with a potential scandal. I realize now I may have made a huge mistake—which may torpedo my career.”
Eaglerock quickly ordered a takeout coffee, drained the last of his cappuccino from the paper cup, and then stood up to toss his napkins in the wastebasket.
“I never meant anyone any harm or intended for anyone to lose their job.”
“You do appear to have been a bit reckless, and that may be the unintended consequences of your actions.”
“Usually, I’m careful, but I think I had a little too much to drink that afternoon. My mother passed a few months ago, so I’ve been using liquor as a coping mechanism.”
“Which reminds me.”
I reached beneath the chair and passed him the backpack. I mentioned nothing about how the alcoholic beverage discovered therein on that occasion complemented the oxycontin. I asked him to please sit down, but he insisted on standing, though he listened carefully and looked me directly in the eye for the first time.
“When I first graduated from the London School of Economics, I worked for a decade in London financial district in investments, the bond and stock markets. Those were go-go years: deregulation, privatization, the tech boom and bubble, the commodities boom, takeovers, mergers, profitable times for brokers and traders. There was plenty of money to be made for those willing to roll up their sleeves and work the phones and trading desks and computer terminals. I loved my job: I was a natural; the work felt like a perfect fit for my interests and aspirations. And, yes, did I say I loved my job? I was a trader, but I discovered traders could be greedy, ambitious, pushed the envelope, and went over the line. Some could be corrupt and took shortcuts or actions plainly unethical or immoral or downright illegal, in selfish disregard of the clients’ best interests. I decided to report them to my supervisors and the regulatory agencies. Even though I did the right thing, I was considered a whistleblower and a rat. I was denounced by my employers and fired on some trumped pretext, even though they agreed I had done the right thing and a good job, and they liked my work, and saved my firm plenty of money in losses and potential losses. But I committed the cardinal sin of exposing the weaknesses in the business, including in oversight. So I could never work for the company or in that industry again, when it was work I loved and which I thought suited me better than any other job. Please don’t put me in that position again—not in the field of education. I don’t like teaching and education as much as the investment business, which was the best job in my life, but it’s adequate, thank you very much.”
Earlier, Eaglerock appeared aggressive and confrontation in our discussion, at the start of our meeting, but that hostility appears to have dissipated and abated. He no longer appeared as hostile. “I think I understand.” He took the cellphone in his shaky hand. “Whatever you do be careful with that cellphone.”
“Yes. I understand.”
Eaglerock thanked me for returning his backpack and smartphone and left the coffeeshop; it was already past midnight. I returned home to my apartment in the basement of Ms. Jones’ house near the high school. While I stayed up very late reading in a reclining chair, my mother called from London, where it was morning. I explained to mother I thought that, at the very least, as I examined my socks for signs of wear and tear and neatly folded my khaki trousers and oxford shirt on my bed, I needed to find a new apartment, if I didn’t return to London anytime soon and take a job at that Chelsea private school, or even move to Toronto and accept a position from a friend who held dual citizenship and worked for Upper Canada College and offered me a teaching position at that prestigious boarding school. But I also thought I should consider resigning from Lost Lake High School.
“You moved all the way from England to take a job as a headmaster in the Canadian backwoods and now you want to quit?”
I told her there were four weeks left in the summer before the fall semester of the high school started. I thought this period of adjustment would provide me sufficient time to whether I should stay in Beaverbrook. Finally, I managed to calm my mother down before she suffered a myocardial infarction or a cerebral hemorrhage and managed to turn off and flip to a close the cellphone before the battery died in mid conversation. She worried I hung up the telephone on her in annoyance and she started calling back nonstop in a panic.
As the summer ended, when it was sunny and hot, I put in my hours at the principal’s office, reviewing policies and procedures manuals, directives and guidelines from the Ontario Ministry of Education, and revision to core course curriculums. Then I drove to the beach and continued to read Dickens on my beach towel and blanket stretched across the smooth sand of the shoreline. When it was cool or rainy, I did high school paperwork, examined prospective teachers’ resumes, sat in on a few interviews and meetings for a replacement for the guidance counsellor, large with her pregnancy, would be leaving shortly on maternity leave, faxed orders for office supplies, and supervised classroom moves. Then, after I found an excuse to leave the principal’s office, I went to the high school library and read back issues of the local community newspaper and newsmagazines.
In the evenings, I went to Country Style Coffee & Donuts and read the Chronicle of Higher Education newspaper and Canadian Teacher magazine read and composed school board memos and e-mails to administration staff, teachers, and even a few school board trustees and concerned parents.
One evening, when I went to the Country Style Coffee & Donuts, I heard some odd gossip and chatter in the background and heard Eaglerock’s name mentioned. Then I saw the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal, and my restless, wandering eyes, wary and weary of school business, caught a compelling headline in the section of the newspaper filled with regional news—news the local paper hadn’t reported because it came out once weekly and tended to gloss over bad news, or report bad news cursorily, or focused on banal, bland news, which advertisers, I guessed, preferred as layout borders for their wares, offerings, and services. Mr. Eaglerock had been found dead in his house. The police were investigating, and, although his death was not suspicious, they hadn’t ruled out foul play. When I returned in the evening, I left the newspaper on the kitchen table for Ms. Jones. When I woke in the morning, Ms. Jones greeted me.
“Have you heard the news?”
I grunted my assent as I toasted sliced bread.
She turned from washing dishes at the kitchen sink. “He did the right thing.”
“Why do you think so?”
“If the boy killed him, he did the right thing, too.”
“How do you know?”
“He was a pervert, and it looks as if he died the death of a pervert.”
I didn’t know what to say to Ms. Jones, but I realized, while I possessed one less future potential problem with which to cope and further, I had new problems, such as finding a new geography teacher, willing to work on such short notice and to move to the north, where he or she might experience social isolation and hardship finding suitable housing or accommodation, a few weeks before the start of the fall semester and a new school year. Yes, the new geography teacher would require a place to live, and I wasn’t certain I could recommend Ms. Jones. I also sent e-mails to the vice-principal and guidance counsellors, exhorting them to refer anyone suffering or in distress to professional help, from the school nurse or hospital mental health counsellors and psychologists. I also urged them to render assistance to any students, or teachers in dealing with any potential crisis after Eaglerock’s untimely passing. Finally, I gasped and sighed and decided to stay in Beaverbrook but give Ms. Jones notice. In four weeks, I intended to move out of this house and into my own apartment. Ms. Jones could find a new tenant and live whatever life she preferred.
Mama would wet her pants if sees me like this. But I don’t really care about what she thinks anymore. All I care about is what Kingsley thinks. My life is a lot better now and even though Kingsley hits me whenever I do something wrong or embarrass him in front of his friends, most of the time, he is really sweet. Being away from that hell-hole that used to be my home until recently still seems like a dream. After my dad died, leaving my mum with nine children to take care of with the minuscule income she makes from her job as a maternity nurse, life kept going down hill for us. It’s not as though we were buoyant when my dad was alive. It just wasn’t this bad. At least the little money he made from his carpentry business supported the family somewhat. I bend my waist a little so that my ass looks a lot sexier to Kingsley and his friends.
“Kings I would really love me a piece of this ass”
“You better behave yourself or you’ll have to use the door. I’m not done with her yet”
I smile slyly at Kingsley and he repays me with the devilish smile I love so much. I know most people think I’m too young for him. But hey, I’m seventeen, done with high school and by next year, I would no longer be a minor. So, who cares if I am dating a drug dealer and fraudster eighteen years my senior? At least most of my mates in northern Nigeria are already married with kids for men old enough to be their fathers or even grand fathers.
I’ve been staying with Kingsley for eight months now. When I left my mothers shack, I carried just five cloths; my best clothes at that time. Right now, I have a closet filled with clothes. I had to dispose the rags I came with. I can’t believe I ever thought they were pretty. I wiggle my ass to the sound of the music playing from the dope sound system in Kingsley’s luxury sitting room. I admire the chandelier hanging from the ceiling and thank my stars for my good fortune. Before I met Kingsley, I never imagined that people really lived like this. We do not have a television in my house and the television at the viewing center where my brothers go to watch football matches is a joke when compared to Kingsley’s. Here, I get to watch a big flat screen that makes me feel like the actors are actually there with me in the sitting room. I smile at the imagery and head to the bar to get more drinks for everyone. I serve them, making sure that my busts are placed seductively for them to admire. Since Kingsley is my first boyfriend, I’m not sure other men allow their girlfriends flirt and display their goodies in front of their friends. I really can’t think about this right now. I don’t want to have a furrowed brow. I look up and offer Wale the sly smile I’ve perfected from weeks of practice.
After the boys leave, I clean up the mess they left in the parlor, set things back as they are supposed to be and head to my room, longing to have a cool bath and then, collapse on my bed for the sweet oblivion of sleep to envelop me. When I moved in here, I used to sleep in the same room with Kingsley but after about two weeks, he told me to move my things to one of his guest rooms. Though most people think I’m stupid, I am not stupid enough to be ignorant of the fact that Kings sleep with most of the girls that come to this house. Girls who eat the food I cook and serve. It’s okay, I know when he is done sowing his wild oats like they say, he will come back to me. Really! What man would want to settle with any of those useless whores who can’t even get her own drink? I climb the remaining steps to my room concentrating on how good the water would feel on my skin. When I walk into the room, every thought of bathing disappears because I am accosted by a slap that makes my stagger backward. My brain goes numb and I see red. I’m about to strike back at my attacker when my brain starts functioning again and I realize that I can’t strike him. It’s just like the relationship between a lord and his serfs. I know I must have done something to upset him and I try to review everything that happened today but I am interrupted by Kingsley’s stern outburst.
“What took you so long? I asked you a question and I expect you to provide an answer. What the hell have you been doing downstairs?”
Blinking repeatedly to prevent the embarrassing tears rioting for release, I take on the part I always play; the docile pacifier. “I’m so sorry. I was tidying things up downstairs. I would have come earlier if I knew you needed me”
“Oh so I’m supposed to tell you that I need you before you realize that my pleasure is your number one priority right?”
Sometimes, I wonder if he does not work himself into a fit over irrelevant things so that he would enjoy the pleasure of abusing me in whatever way he chooses. The make up sex that comes after arguments like this is always a horrible experience for me and I’m sure today would not be different. In fact, now that I think about it, it is rape as long as your partner is unwilling. And in times like this, I am always unwilling. I am pulled out of my reverie by a sharp pain in my gut that makes me throw up my dinner.
“Are you deaf? I told you to strip. See the mess you’ve created. Are you a baby? Just that little shove and look what happened. I need you to clean up this mess and be in my room in five minutes.”
The door bangs as he leaves and I shrink involuntarily. I quickly go to the bathroom to get a bucket and towel to clean up my puke. Immediately I’m done, I rush to the bathroom to shower because I know I’m part of the mess he referred to.
I slip into his room praying that he will be asleep. My prayer does not reach God because he is seated wide-awake on the sofa. Immediately he sights me, he stands and prowls towards me. I try to numb my mind towards the onslaught as he feasts on my mouth like a man who has not eaten in a while would attack his first meal. He carries me to the bed and I lie still trying to think of anything but the pain.
When I moved in with Kingsley, I promised myself to do everything to make him happy because I felt indebted to him for picking me from the squalor I was living in to this luxury. Right now, I feel like I have paid my debt and have nothing else to give. His dilated pupil is the only sign that it is over.
I don’t know how long I sit on the floor with my hands around my knees, rocking back and forth, staring at nothing. I know I’m supposed to feel something but I’m not sure what. I stare at Kingsley’s pocket knife. It is now covered in blood. I’m no longer sure what I was thinking when I stabbed him but I know I do not regret the act. I look at his still form sprawled across the matrass and wonder how I ever thought he loved and would marry me. I know he treated his other lovers better that he treated me so why? Well, at least I know where he keeps the key to his safe and if my memory serves me right, those guys I entertained downstairs earlier today came with a lot of money which Kingsley would have stored in his safe.
Spurred by a renewed purpose, I slip my hands into his breast pocket and retrieve the safe’s key. I empty one of his boxes and pack all the money from the safe in it. Later, I would think of what to do with the money but right now, I have to take as many valuables as possible. After emptying the safe, I move to his wrist watch shelf. When I’m done with his “babies,” I head to my room and fill a box with clothes. I don’t check to see if they match, I just shove in whatever cloth I lay my hands on. After that, I change into something that does not make me look like a whore.
I’m not sure what time it is but as I fit the boxes into the hood of the Mercedes I intend to dump as soon as I decide where I’m headed. I remember the first day I met Kingsley. Last year after my graduation from high school, I went to a club with some of my friends to celebrate. At that point, I was still innocent in every sense of the word. He was so different from the other guys I knew. His wealth fascinated me and when I went back home, a life I used to be comfortable and sometimes happy living suddenly felt like hell until I ran away from home without a backward glance. Even now when I do not have a destination in mind, I do not consider going back to that squalor. I know my mum won’t accept anything I give her so what’s the point?
I drive out of the compound feeling like I’ve aged a hundred years. Life for me would never be the same but when I look back at the choices I made, I realize that even though they were not the best, they just made me frigging rich.
A Road Trip With My Grandpa
“Got everything?” I ask as he stows a suitcase and small bag into the trunk of my car. He assures me that it’s everything he will need. “Okay then, Grandpa, let’s get going. We’ve got a lot of road to cover today.”
It’s 1976 and I am driving my eighty-seven-year old grandfather from his home in San Diego to visit his ninety-year old brother in Oklahoma City. We’ll leave California and travel through Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas panhandle, and on to Oklahoma.
We begin our journey after breakfast and plan to arrive in Prescott, Arizona, by dinner time. The desert is unexpectedly green due to the recent monsoon rains. Grandpa enjoys our trip from the moment of departure, and starts telling me about his life, stories I have not heard before.
“My brother, Bill, is a retired preacher,” he says, “but as a young boy and man he had a quick temper. He would fight for any reason, and he was good at it.” I have never met Grandpa’s brother, nor anyone else from this side of my father’s family.
“In 1911,” he continues, “I helped install an electric sign on top of a building in downtown L.A. It was a novelty of lighted advertising because it changed. One of the sign’s advertisements was ‘Half a million population by 1915’.”
He describes how he and a partner hauled hay from the Imperial Valley to Los Angeles. “We drove nonstop. We left four bales out in the middle on the top of the load
and threw in a mattress so one of us could sleep while the other drove. The round trip took twenty-four hours and was continuous, once for twenty-nine days.”
“I had to register for World War I,” he tells me, “but was exempted because I was a foreman in the shipyards.”
After the war, Grandpa bought two Army World War I surplus Packard trucks to go into business for himself hauling fuel. He would pick up hitchhikers, and sometimes was very sleepy when he stopped for them. One time he stopped and the hitchhiker asked, “Can my dog and friend come too?”
“Can either of you drive a truck?”
“Yeah! We both can.” So they drove while Grandpa slept and woke him up when they reached their destination.
Occasionally, he found cigarettes missing, but what set him dead against any more riders was when he loaned a hitchhiker his blankets and gear during the trip and found the entire lot gone when he stopped.
But hundreds of other men also bought surplus trucks to go into business for themselves, and he went bankrupt as did many others when the competition became so stiff there was no profit left and payments couldn't be met.
Then he told me stories about my father.
“I gave your dad a Model A,” he says. “I got the car for fifteen dollars from a friend after a fire burned the back seat. I cut out the burned part, gave the car to your dad, and he had an accident with the only man I knew in that end of town.” He explains that the accident was due to skidding on gravel when the brakes were applied and not enough weight remained on the rear wheels. The man didn't send a bill when he found out my dad's father was a friend.
Next he describes how, when he was about fifteen, my father shot him in a hunting accident. “Your dad was trying to unload the gun and was sitting down with it over his lap and it went off. The bullet went through a crack in the boards between the rooms and hit me in the hip while I was standing in the kitchen.”
In Prescott we pay sixteen dollars for our first night's lodging.
“I never paid more than two dollars and fifty cents for a room like this,” Grandpa says, looking back to more than thirty-eight years in the past. “I know things have changed, but they haven’t changed all that much. If a man makes five times what his granddad made, he pays five times more than his granddad did to live. If he's twice as
wealthy in terms of wages as his father, he's also paying twice as much for things as his father did." Grandpa blames unions for that, though he is a long-time union man himself, still pays his union dues, and uses union insurance benefits.
“I went out to Las Vegas in 1914 to work for the railroad,” he tells me as we travel east the next day. “The job paid extra because no one wanted to go to the desert, but I had tuberculosis and needed a warm dry climate for my health. There was nothing at all in Las Vegas, and the rail yards were where hotels are now. You could get acres of land for ten dollars back then.”
“No one plans to be rich,” he observes. “They’re just lucky. I could have purchased Las Vegas acres and also land on Signal Hill.” Signal Hill in Long Beach became one of the world’s most productive oil fields.
“We used to try and race our cars to the top of Signal Hill, and a good one could make it all the way in high gear,” he says. “I had a friend that was notoriously unlucky. He even failed when he tried to commit suicide. But, he bought some land on Signal
Hill, fenced it, farmed it, and the last time I saw it, there was a refinery on the place and he still owned it.”
“I remember walking through the streets of Calico,” he continues, “when it was a true ghost town, when not a soul was there, before Mr. Knott bought it for his berry farm and made a fortune by capitalizing on the past.”
“Well, will you look at that!” he exclaims when we stop for lunch in New Mexico. “Those Indians are buying alcohol!” Then he acknowledges that he knows a lot has
changed since he was last in the state. I find it hard to realize that Native Americans were prohibited from buying alcohol so recently as to be in my grandfather’s memory.
As we travel, Grandpa reminds me of a little boy, an ancient one to be sure, but still like a boy going to the fair. His eyes sparkle along the way and he never misses a
thing. He may be old, but he is still lively, interested, and interesting. Yet I notice he can't walk many steps before he starts to limp and has to rest.
"Circulation", he claims. "I get a Charley horse."
How often I hear "Son of a ....., boy has this changed. I don't recognize a thing!” Then he informs me that he hasn't been over fifty miles from home for twenty-two years nor this far away since 1938.
He knows as we drive towards the place of his youth and his brother that he is unlikely to find any surviving friends, and probably no relatives he has ever seen, yet he
is not depressed at the thought of being a sole survivor, just anxious to get on with the business of living. To what does he attribute his eighty-seven years?
"Nobody lives to be as old as I am," he says.
Somehow it makes me self-conscious when he is quick to open a door for me or insists on picking up the tab. When we stop at a motel for the night, he is also quick to explain that I am his granddaughter and that I am taking him to see his brother in Oklahoma City. From a habit of opening my own doors, I find myself starting to wait for doors to be opened for me, and amused when he explains our trip so that no one will mistake it for a May-December thing. A true gentleman, he always wears a hat, and takes it off as soon as he goes indoors.
Grandpa has four drinks every day for his ‘health and heart’, two before lunch and two before dinner. When we stop for lunch I have to open the car trunk so he can have his nips which are stowed in his small bag. Sometimes I feel funny standing there while he downs two quick swallows of Jack Daniels in front of a restaurant's big window, but his doctor approves of this practice. He does everything his doctor tells him to, and has lived with a bad heart for fifteen years.
“But I never use salt, and I gave up smoking my pipe. I have bacon and eggs only twice a week. I was raised on eggs, milk and pork. I didn't even like beef as a kid, but we all worked very hard.”
Grandpa used to live in Higgins, Texas, and it’s been sixty-eight years since he was last here. He is very disappointed to see his grandmother’s ranch in Higgins. An uncle died only a few months before we get there. An aunt he has never met lives alone in a house on the ranch, but all the grandeur is gone, and he feels the place is a wreck. The old home's bottom walls remain, built back into the bank near the creek. It’s roof and some of the other materials were used in the new house, a small cement type home. Gone are the swimming hole, orchard, milk house, walnut grove, neat corrals, barn, and grass fields. Houses have been built on nearby hills.
“I used to play in the buffalo wallows as a little boy,” he says, “not the fresh ones, but ones with grass growing in them. We would hide in them and yell to each other.”
He remembers his mother died at the farm when he was thirteen, and that the family was split after her death. “She was the second of nine girls and two boys,” he says. “Her remains were shipped to Kansas. My brother and I stayed at the farm until
our dad was settled in Colorado Springs and then we joined him there. I was eighteen when I left the farm.”
Grandpa is quiet for a while as we leave the Texas panhandle and cross into Oklahoma
As a young boy, Grandpa lived in Jefferson, Oklahoma.
“About three hundred Indians would camp outside of the town,” he recalls. “The guys in town would set a stick in the middle of the street with a penny wedged in top. Any Indian that could shoot out the penny, could keep it. They did it, and they kept it!.”
His ninety-year old brother, Bill, lives in the outskirts of Oklahoma City in a nice brick home provided by the church for his retirement. He drives his own car and has a seventy year old girlfriend. When he takes her home after a date, she waits for a reasonable amount of time and then phones to be sure he has made it home. She also calls every morning to be sure Bill has made it up that day.
The brothers have a lot of similarities. Both are very old and wear hearing aids. But, in spite of the aids, they can't seem to hear each other the first time one speaks and yell loudly to be heard the second time. They share a room at night, take their aids out at bedtime, and somehow understand each other’s normal voice the first time, every time. Both are thin and alert, have heart conditions, and occasionally flick their fingers in the same nervous way. They revel in recalling the events, places, times and dates while telling their stories, and figure out and piece together what each remembers separately.
The changes Grandpa has seen over his lifetime, and how well he remembers so many details amazes me.
Reminiscing about how their father joined in the great land rush when the government opened the Oklahoma strip to homesteaders in 1899, they tell me the following story about my great grandfather.
“Dad was always very interested in race horses, including breeding them, and he had a very fast mare. Everyone lined up at the border at high noon to wait for the starting gun. He and his mare got off to a very good start and he staked a claim near El Reno. The next morning he found another man on his newly claimed farm. The man offered him two hundred and fifty dollars for his land and, thinking he could easily find another claim, he took the money and raced on, but by then even the slower ones had found their land and he never found another claim. Now there are oil wells all around El Reno, site of Dad’s original land claim.”
It occurs to me that this is the third time my family has missed being part of an oil boom!
In another story, Grandpa describes how he did some covered wagon traveling in Kansas and Oklahoma. Once they were caught in quicksand and had to unhitch the team, move it to dry land, extend a rope to the hitch, and pull the wagon out. Another time they lived on a river bend, there was a flood, and the river rose and filled the bayou behind the house. A horse was hitched to a boat to pull them to safety.
During their story swapping, Bill observes: "It's a lot farther looking back than it ever was looking ahead."
I meet many members of my family for the first time during our stay in Oklahoma, and learn that a family reunion is still celebrated every year in Kansas. That’s where my great grandparents met; she was a school teacher and he was the police judge. They claim that those in the family with the name of Dalton are descendants of the infamous Dalton Gang, but no one knows for sure.
Long before the stories end, and well before I am ready to say goodbye to my newfound family members, it is time for us to end our visit. I will miss their still untold stories, but I know that Grandpa has many more in store for me, and I can’t wait to hear them! Maybe I’ll drive a little slower as we head west down the road back to California and home.
HERE THAN GONE
Anna Saarinen had always known she would die. It wasn’t something she incessantly thought about, but it was there, always at the back of her mind. For better or for worse, she also knew how and when. These days, everyone knew, that’s just how things were. One way or another, life had to come to an end. When the Exodus Project was introduced over a century ago, it capped life at 75. Death was still an inevitable fact of life, except now it was regulated. With only 75 years to live and a known deathday, life on Earth changed.
Much like breathing or drinking water, death was also a fundamental aspect of life itself – or at least that’s what the slogans from the Exodus Project had said. “The ultimate sacrifice” they preached, making the case that the collective was more important than the individual. It was pointless to advertise it, Anna thought, since getting the chip, or Exo as most called it, was mandatory, but the necessity to maintain order remained. Anna understood the logic behind Exo, but her morality constantly wrestled with her rational reasoning. A constant back and forth, a mental duel of two opposing forces. She believed, even if she accepted Exo as “necessary,” five years old was too young to get a chip implanted into a person’s spine. She remembered some clinical study stating that a child's bones were softer, allowing the chip to unobtrusively adhere to the spine as the bones grew. Absurd, she thought.
At one point or another in her life, she had fallen on both sides of the issue. Pro-Exo – it was necessary to regulate death and reduce the population in a world with finite resources. Anti-Exo – it was morally wrong to end someone’s life at 75 using a microchip to shut down the central nervous system. Back and forth she went, with her thoughts evolving as the years went by. At 74 years old, there wasn’t much point engaging in debates about Exo. Whether or not she agreed with it, she had accepted it, or at least come to terms with it. For Anna, her life in Finland was the only one she’d known. Her country had embraced the Exodus Project, hailing it as a “necessary and effective means towards global prosperity” when it was first introduced. Anna didn’t share the same sentiments.
Anna had led a good life, or at least she believed it to be. Deep down, like any person, she had thoughts about unfulfilled potential and wondered if the choices she made were the right ones. Had she said everything she’d wanted to? Did she love the people in her life as much as they deserved? Was having a daughter the right thing to do?
In the end, she thought, people aren’t much more than a memory in the minds of others. We live on through how we’re remembered. Anna always wondered how long the memory of her would remain after she’d gone. Would she always be remembered? Or would someone eventually say her name for the last time?
She mulled over these questions as she sat quietly in long white robes contrasting with the dark wooden deck that sprawled out across the beach and into the ocean. The cool air of the evening blew across her face and played with her grey hair that still had streaks of blonde in it from her youth. Anna’s blue eyes looked out across the Baltic Sea that seemed to move in a way she had once described as organized chaos. Laughter filled the air, and the faint light from the candle-lit torches provided just the right amount of light.
She began to tap her foot, bouncing her knee up and down in a constant movement to alleviate the anxiety that was building. No matter how many times people told her not to do it, old habits were hard to break.
“Is this how you’d imagined it?” asked her husband Matias, his hair still thick, but now white and softer than when they had met. She looked at his face with his strong jaw and the same sparkle in his eye that she fell for decades ago. She’d imagined this day many times, her deathday, when she would cease to exist. It was hard to answer his question. She’d fallen in love, married, had a child, traveled, and now, was any of that “meaningful”? The question ran through her mind, louder than the surrounding noise.
She thought of the many conversations she had had with Matias, asking him what the point of any of it was. They had talked for hours about the meaning of life, and how Exo had affected how humans viewed the hours, days, weeks, and months that constituted one’s life. She remembered a fierce debate they once had concerning the value of a long life compared to one of quality, and the discussions they’d had about enjoying their days together rather than simply “passing the time” until there was no more time to be had.
“No,” she said, “it’s better.” Matias placed his hand on hers as the waves continued to crash upon the beach. The sun was setting, and the sky transformed into an array of yellow, orange and red that reflected off the blue water. Anna looked out across the sea while she clasped her husband’s hand.
Had she lived a meaningful life? The question seemed to repeat itself in her mind. As a veterinarian, she’d seen life slip away right through her hands, but she’d also saved countless lives, bringing her joy and a sense of hope. She remembered her friend from university, Helga, had once asked her why she wanted to be a vet.
“Humans have a controlled lifespan, and animals don’t. I want to do everything I can to bring as much life to this world as possible. Because out of everything in this world, they’re the innocent ones, and they need someone to care for them,” Anna responded.
She’d also raised an inquisitive and independent daughter, Olivia, and created a life she felt was worth dying for. Once more she turned to Matias and said, “I’m genuinely happy.”
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you,” he said, squeezing her hand ever so slightly.
Coming to terms with her inevitable death had been something Anna struggled with throughout her life. Even now, in her old age, her rebellious spirit had contemplated if suicide would somehow be a more honorable death, to know she was making the choice instead of some system designed to create the perfect utopian society.
However, she had decided to let nature run its course. Nature, she thought, now included a high-tech chip implanted in her neck that would shut down her nervous system leading to her immediate death. No matter how much she disagreed with Exo, it still seemed better than taking her own life.
Now, here, surrounded by her friends and family, with the cool night air and the warm glow of the floating fire orbs on the perimeter of the deck, Anna felt whole.
“It’s only three months,” he had said. “I’ll be with you again before you know it.” Anna had always felt guilty about leaving her husband alone in the world, if only for the few months until Exo took his life as well. She wasn’t sure if life inherently had meaning, or if Exo had somehow forced her to seek meaning due to her inevitable death. If she had grown up in a Pre-Exo world, she might have died alone in bed one day, taking all the things she wished she had said or done to the grave with her. Now, with her life down to a few hours, she felt content with the life she’d led, knowing at this point it was futile to continue second-guessing all the choices she made.
Soft music and laughter filled the air as Anna stood with Matias by the deck rail that overlooked the sea. People were drinking wine, dancing, or sitting with each other sharing memories about those who had lived before them. For a time, Anna stood with her husband and silently took in her surroundings. She felt peaceful as if this were exactly where she was supposed to be.
She turned towards the party and clinked her glass of vodka with a fork to grab everyone’s attention.
“First, thank you, everyone, for being here this evening. Deathdays aren’t always easy to get through, but I’m honored that you’re here with me tonight. I’ve had a lifetime to ponder how Exo has impacted our lives. Like many of us, I resented it. I was angry. Which is why I found it difficult to reprimand my daughter for similar sentiments when she was younger.” The audience laughed, having experienced similar feelings about Exo at one time or another.
“Today, however, I’ve accepted my death. Whether natural or induced, my death was inevitable, as is all of ours. Knowing when I would die has been a blessing and a curse. It’s allowed me to be here, with all of you, and it’s allowed me to live the life I wanted. But it’s also taken away part of the mystery, the intrigue, and thrill of living. I love all of you so much. Don’t think of my death as a passing, but a new beginning. One day, we’ll all be gone, but it’s up to us, now, to leave an indelible mark on the world and those close to us. Seize life and live.”
The crowd raised their glasses in honor of Anna, and she raised hers as well.
Time seemed to stand still as the party carried on. Anna talked with her friends and laughed at the memories that others shared. It was as if her life were flashing before her eyes, somehow physically manifested in the room before her. Olivia was here, as were her friends and the gifts they had brought–scrapbooks, old photos, memorabilia from her younger days, and stories, which, for Anna, were the greatest gifts of all.
From behind, Olivia placed her hand on her mother’s shoulder and said, “It’s time.”
With the guests still chatting away, Anna made their way down the stairs onto the beach with her husband, daughter, and younger brother. It was almost midnight. Anna turned to face the three most important people in her life.
She stared at her daughter’s long brown hair that was beginning to show hints of gray and her green eyes before embracing Olivia in a hug, trying to hold back the tears. As Anna let go, she grabbed both of Olivia’s hands and said, “I’m so proud of you and who you’ve become. You’re everything a mother could want in a daughter. It’s been such a pleasure getting to know you and watching you turn into such a beautiful woman. But don’t miss me too much, you’ve got a long life to live.” She squeezed Olivia’s hands as a tear rolled down her daughter’s cheek.
Aleksi locked eyes with his sister and smiled. “You challenged my beliefs and made me a stronger person,” said Anna. “Growing up with you and being as close as we’ve been as adults has made me a better person. Thank you.” Anna grabbed her brother as the two siblings embraced in a hug. Aleksi, not one for emotions, moved to wipe a tear as Anna looked at Matias.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, once again intertwining his fingers with hers. Matias softly kissed her cheek, and as he pulled back, she placed her hand on his cheek.
“Be strong without me,” she said, staring into his eyes. “I’ll always be with you.”
“And I’ll always love you.” Matias turned to look at her, his blue eyes, still as sharp as when they first met, gleamed in appreciation. He put his hand over hers and smiled. No words needed to be said. Ever since they first met, they both knew this day would come, and through their shared life together, they had loved each other deeply and completely.
Anna walked along the beach until her feet touched the water and made her way towards a small white boat that seemed to hover over the surface of the water. Once inside, she turned towards her family on the beach and said, “In another life.” The boat automatically stirred to life and headed out to the sea, moving smoothly across the surface of the water. Anna looked back towards the beach and could make out the silhouettes of the three people she loved most in this world.
There was a smell in the cool air that reminded Anna of Fall, something she couldn’t quite describe. She remembered the heat of summer fading as the nights became cooler and the wind crept in. Her mind flashed to her first Fall semester at university. There was something so exciting about the New Year. Fresh faces were eager to meet like-minded individuals, old friends swapped stories from the summer, and everyone was back to working towards their goal of graduation. Fall brought hope. A new beginning. That was where her friendship with Helga had started.
“I’ll call you later mom, I promise!” Anna had said before the call disconnected.
“My mom’s the same way,” said Helga who was sprawled out on their couch, flicking her wrist to aimlessly scroll through the channels on the TV projection on the wall across from her. “Always wanting to chat.”
She stopped on a news report detailing the latest global population updates and their impact on the world.
“Norway has experienced a 10% decline in its population, on track with what experts predicted before the Exodus project was implemented.”
“How do we even know they’re telling the truth?” inquired Helga. “I mean, who is counting these bodies?”
Before Anna could reply, Helga added, “I don’t trust it,” looking skeptically at the news report. “There’s just something about the whole thing that doesn’t add up.”
“And what is that exactly?”
“It’s just like a feeling, I can’t prove it, but it feels like…”
“A conspiracy?” finished Anna.
“RIGHT!” yelled Helga. Anna laughed. They had been over this several times and with every conversation, Helga’s skepticism was matched with a lack of any hard evidence. Anna didn’t disagree with her roommate; she too felt something was off with the system. For her, it seemed too clean, too precise, too organized. There were protests when the program was first implemented, but besides those, the Exodus Project integrated into society without a hitch. Suddenly, people were dying, global problems were solved, and people around the world, with the flashing red light in the nape of their neck, seemed to carry on like normal. She’d read history books before: Nothing government related ever functioned this efficiently.
“There’s something they aren’t telling us, Anna. And I'm going to find out what it is,” said Helga, shifting her focus from the TV to the window of their apartment, as if the answer were waiting for her out there.
“Engineer student by day, conspiracy theorist by night, eh?”
“Just you wait. I’m going to blow this whole thing wide open!”
“You ready for class?” asked Anna, knowing the answer before she asked.
“Ethics is so boring, and such a waste of time,” she droned, in the way a child protests eating vegetables. Helga was studying mechanical engineering, but nowadays, all university students were required to take an ethics class as part of a new government policy.
“Yeah, why do we have to go again?” asked Anna.
“To invigorate and expand the mind to create tomorrow’s future leaders,” said Helga, mimicking the address the president had given when he announced the policy.
“But if we don’t go, we don’t graduate.”
“Fine!” she yelled, jumping off the couch and entering her bedroom. A few minutes later, she emerged, compressed her computer into a size that would fit into her pocket and smiled at Anna, “Let’s go find out how to make the world a better place.”
The two made their way out of their apartment and walked towards campus. They had been living together for over a year now. Anna was thankful Helga was such a free spirit, but she often proved to be a distraction since her classes came so easily to her.
“Tell me again why you chose engineering?”
“Why anything at all? I don’t want to be here, but we both know that if I don’t get a degree, I don’t get access to a bank account my father told me is only for college graduates. So why engineering? Because a degree is a degree and besides, the engineering boys are cute.”
“But…” before Anna could finish her follow up question, Helga butted in.
“Do you think we'll talk about Exo again in class today?” asked Helga. “I bet we do. We always do. I’m not an ethic-tician, is that a word? You know what I mean, but I’m sure ethics applies to more areas of our life than just our chip, ya know?” Anna nodded in agreement but presented a counter-argument.
“But in the last decade, what has impacted our world more than the chip? And ethics is, in fact, a huge component of the policy…”
Helga cut her off, “Alright devil’s advocate, save it for class.”
“I just like seeing you get defensive about it; you’re usually so apathetic about everything else.”
The auditorium was filling up with students, many of whom had the same sentiments about the class as Helga.
“Five units say it’s about Exo,” said Helga without looking at Anna, referring to the universal currency the world had adopted decades ago.
“I don’t know, maybe today will be something different,” countered Anna
“Bet or no bet?”
Their professor walked in wearing one of his usual flashy colored bowties.
“Hello class and welcome to another exciting lecture of your mandatory ethics class,”
“Get ready for it,” whispered Helga.
“Today we’ll be looking at the global policy of Exo and whether it’s ethical to create a global policy that mandates predetermined death.”
Helga continued to stare at the professor with a smug look on her face. She held out her phone and Anna reluctantly tapped her wrist phone to hers, digitally transferring five units.
“You’d think you’d have learned by now,” said Helga, smiling.
“Along with things like the Geneva Convention and the establishment of basic human rights, there haven’t been too many universal policies that apply to everyone, no matter your race, ethnicity, gender, age, or political affiliation. The question before you today is simple: Is it ethical for a government to impose something that will have a direct effect on your life? In the case of Exo, your death.”
The usual discussions began with students presenting arguments on both sides of the issue.
“It’s necessary to preserve our species.”
“Education, religion, language, nationality, these are all basic rights, but life itself isn’t.”
“It’s unethical to kill someone who has not been sentenced to death by a court of law or during military combat.”
Anna listened to the students talk, but paid them little interest. This was a frequent topic of conversation ever since she was a little girl and rarely did anyone have anything interesting to say about it. It was bad; it was good – no matter what anyone said, nothing would change, at least, not anytime soon.
What was the point of ethics and morality anymore, thought Anna. Governments around the world had now decided they would play God and had implemented a global policy to kill people. Life was different, and so too were the laws and ethics that governed it. Anna believed the class to be a waste of time. She hadn’t expected to learn anything, nor contribute anything. Sometimes, it was just easier to go through the motions until it was over – something many people used to do with their lives before Exo. Now, there was this expectation to be bold, try new things and live life to the fullest. The catchphrases went on and on, but they all meant the same thing: Don’t waste your 75 years on Earth.
It seemed contradictory, Anna thought, to be in this class when she could be outside doing something she was actually interested in. “Think of your long-term goals” her father had said. He was right. She had her heart set on being a vet, and to get there, this class had to be passed. So, despite her feelings, she sat there, listening to the give and take between the professor and students, regurgitating information and statistics that had been argued about an infinite amount of times before.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Helga resizing her computer and placing it back in her pocket as she started to get up.
“What are you doing?” hissed Anna.
Before Helga could respond, the professor boomed, “And where do you think you’re going, young lady?”
Helga turned towards the bow-tied man and said, “I’ve got better things to do.”
The entire auditorium turned to look at Helga.
“Ethics is a mandatory class for all students.”
“You want to talk about ethics? Do you know what’s unethical? Forcing us to take this class when we’re the ones who pay tuition. How can you expect us to learn anything about ethics when the university is shoving it down our throats on our dime? And as far as Exo goes, it is what it is; there’s no point discussing whether or not it’s ethical. To answer your question, I’m going to go study something more productive.”
With that, she turned around, walked up the steps, but before she got to the door, the professor boomed, “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world,” he said.
Helga stopped, turned around, and looking directly at the professor said, “You know what? Fuck Albert Camus, fuck ethics, and fuck Exo.” The class was silent except for the sound of Helga’s boots on the concrete steps and the slamming of the door behind her. No one said a word, and, in that silence, Anna couldn’t help but smile.
The boat had stopped now, hovering over the waves below, and Anna was alone at sea. She stood up, her white clothes fluttering in the wind. Anna looked down at her titanium watch Aleksi had given her on her 50th birthday, only two minutes left of life.
Anna closed her eyes and thought back to when all of this started. She imagined the white room of the Exodus Clinic with the Exo technician saying “Here, just one small mark,” placing his finger on the back of the girl’s neck. “It will be over before you know it,” he said with no real feeling.
“Will it hurt?” asked Anna.
“No sweetie, in and out, no pain.” Katrina Saarinen squeezed her daughter’s hand, reassuring the five-year-old it would be a painless procedure. The girl nervously looked up at the Exo tech.
“When’s your birthday, Anna?” he asked.
On the glass screen in front of him, he entered the date then glanced at her mother and nodded before pressing a button. The screen went blank and then revealed the white Exodus logo, with the last few letters of “Exodus” seeming to fade into the wind.
From the back of the chair where Anna sat, a mechanical tentacle appeared and positioned itself behind her neck. With her eyes fixated on her mother, the metal serpent plunged into the fleshy area in Anna’s spine, implanting a chip the size of a small button and then withdrew itself, retreating into the wall.
In 70 years, that same chip would send a single electrical pulse throughout her body that would painlessly, but thoroughly, end her life. Scientists from around the world had come together to work on the Exodus project, working tirelessly to design a chip that would integrate but not interfere with a person’s nervous system until it was time. They called it “a beautiful obliteration – a nuclear bomb for the nervous system.” Others simply referred to it as Exo.
Anna reached back to touch the nape of her neck and discovered no blood but felt a mild tingling sensation.
“That feeling will go away in a few hours. Nothing to worry about. We’ve done this before.”
Still touching the back of her neck, Anna looked up at her mother and asked, “What is it?”
“It’s a chip, like the kind computers have, except this one is for people,” replied her mother, “It’s helped make our planet livable again.”
“Not to mention it’s the law,” the Exo technician added.
Anna turned around to look at the hole in the wall from which the metal serpent had come. She didn’t like something stabbing her, much less putting something permanent into her body.
The feeling in the back of her neck seemed to pulsate, letting her know something was inside her. A constant reminder of what society had now become and perhaps had needed. She squeezed her mother’s hand and looked up.
“Is it safe?”
“Of course! Honey, everyone in the world does this, and they’re just fine. I got mine a long time ago and have had no problems; sometimes I forget it’s even there.” Her mother had reassured her several times before the appointment, but Anna wasn’t convinced. As a child, she’d thought about the chip now and then, but never fully grasped its importance, or understood what its purpose was. Now, with just moments of life left, she finally appreciated the importance of that fateful day 70 years ago.
Looking down at the watch, there were only 30 seconds left. She moved towards to the side of the boat, took a breath, and dived into the water. Anna was alone, with nothing but the moon above shining down upon her. She felt the chill of the water throughout her body as she continued to sink, weighted by her clothes. Thoughts of her family played through her mind, and she looked up towards the night sky deep below the sea, the glow of the moon distant above the water. She closed her eyes, thinking that life was beautiful, but at this moment, so too was death. Just as she was beginning to feel the need for air, the chip in the back of her neck flashed blue, sending an electrical shock through her body, shutting down her nervous system, stopping her heart. She felt no pain and, in that instant, Anna Saarinen was gone.
Aleksi Saarinen was just 20 years old when he graduated top of his class from Finland’s most prestigious engineering school and found a job as a robotics designer with LEON, Europe’s leading producer of military and industrial-use robots. After winning Europe’s designer of the year award twice, he set off to form his own company, Trion, at 30.
Now, at 46, he couldn’t help wonder what there was left to accomplish. Most people expected, and at times pushed him to start a family, but there was something about the idea that never clicked with him. For Aleksi, there were two worlds, Pre-Exo, and Post-Exo. In both worlds, people still questioned the purpose of life and asked the ultimate question, “Why are we here?” but now, Post-Exo, things were more linear compared with what he’d read about the old world. Life, assuming one didn’t die from an accident or disease, which was rare these days, seemed so planned. The news the other day had said 98% of the population died from Exo on their 75th birthday, while 2% resulted from suicide and accidental deaths. He'd entertained the idea that it might be fun to be part of the 2%, but at the rate he was going, he'd be part of the majority in just 29 more years.
Aleksi looked out across the park as the warm wind played with his light brown hair. He thought of a question his sister Anna had asked him a few years ago, ‘would there ever come a time when people would be able to go to sleep at night without catching the faint flash of red light coming from their Exo?’ The Exodus Project had drastically reduced the population, and taken a strain off many of the world’s economies as elderly care was no longer necessary. But he always asked himself, ‘at what cost?’ Aleksi was vehemently against Exo, a firm believer in free will and the right to life. But like many others, he was in no place to do anything about it.
He turned to look left and caught sight of a large holographic sign that read, “Your chip, our future,” alongside a beautiful girl smiling. This was part of the government's marketing campaign that helped ease the worries and fears of the Exodus Project. Even though it was mandatory for every person in the world, advertisements like this assured people it was safe and necessary for the world to once again be prosperous and healthy.
A small vibration on his wrist seemed to break the stillness of the moment, signaling a phone call. He tilted his wrist and said, “Well hey there sis.”
“Aleksi, tell me you haven’t forgotten dinner tonight.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, especially since it’s at my place. 19:00 still ok?”
“We’ll see you then!”
“Oh, and Anna…”
“Happy birthday.” He waved his wrist again, and the call disconnected. His older sister was turning 50, which in his mind meant that two-thirds of her life were gone. 25 more years. The number mulled over inside his mind, imagining the possibilities of what one could accomplish in that amount of time. Life may be finite, he thought, but the possibilities of what one could do with it weren’t.
Walking up the illuminated path, Anna and Matias stared up at the building in front of them. The cool white stone with its clean lines and inlays of large glass windows reminded her of a modern-day igloo. Aleksi refused to call this his ‘home,' instead referring to it as a residence. Home, he had said, was where he grew up. A home was for a family, and since he didn't have one, he didn't live in one.
As they approached the door, a beam of light scanned their faces and opened the entrance, prompting them to step onto a white marble floor and take in the grand open area. A spiral staircase made of glass steps circled down towards Aleksi’s workshop while floating lights hovered close to the ceiling.
“You made it!” boomed Aleksi as he rounded a corner in a black V-neck sweater and light blue jeans that accented his gray hair and black-framed glasses. He was taller than both Matias and his sister, with a thin, athletic frame. He kissed his sister on the cheek and shook hands with Matias before inviting them into the living room.
“Dinner is almost done, shall we have a drink? Vodka for you, Anna, and Matias, a whiskey?” Without waiting for them to confirm, he gestured over to the bar where a robot poured the drinks.
Anna had been over to her brother’s place a few times before, but she was always in awe of the life Aleksi had created for himself.
“Remind me again how many robots you’ve got here,” inquired Matias,
“With a loose definition of the word ‘robot,' about 140, give or take.” The black robot hovered over to the trio sitting on the two couches and handed each guest their drink before slipping back to the bar where it once again continued to polish glasses.
“Here’s to two-thirds!” said Aleksi, raising his glass.
“I hate when you put it like that,” said Anna.
“Two-thirds of a life is no small feat. 50 years on Earth. And you’ve got 25 to go; 25 beautiful more years. Here’s to hoping they’re everything you want them to be.”
“I’ll cheers to that,” said Matias, smiling at Anna as raised his glass.
A voice echoed throughout the house stating, “Dinner is served.”
“Do you ever do anything around here yourself?” asked Anna.
“Only when the bots mess up. And they never do,” he said winking. They headed into the immense dining room which featured a handmade wooden table, the one Aleksi had sat at as a child. It was the only thing he’d wanted from his childhood home after his parents had passed. Around them, slim black robots were placing plates of food on the table as each person took a seat on one side of the square table.
“I can’t believe you still have this,” said Anna, touching the grain with her hand, remembering fondly the many meals she’d had with her parents.
“There are some things that technology can never replace,” said Aleksi quietly.
As dinner wore on and laughter filled the air as the three of them shared stories from their childhood, Matias asked a question that both he and Anna had never gotten around to asking.
“Aleksi, why is it you never had any children?”
He calmly responded, “I think it's because I didn't want to bring a child into this world, so full of control and order and routine. I couldn't bear taking my child to an Exo center and having them inject my kid with that chip. I couldn't do it. Besides, I threw myself into my work, and despite the flings I've had over the years, I didn't find anyone that captivated something in me the same way that, and don't laugh, the same way that robots did. Do I sometimes wish I had kids? Sure. Looking at Olivia, I always think about what my kids would have been like. Do I regret not having them? No.”
“But even before Exo, would you have had a kid?”
“Probably, hard to say, but without Exo, sure, it would be a viable option.”
“Do you think I’m a bad person for having a kid?” asked Anna, looking directly at her younger brother.
His green eyes looked back at her, “Of course not, Anna. I love Olivia, and you’re a great mother. I’m just saying that for me, and for the way I see this crazy world, having a kid just wasn’t on my ticket.” Life was too controlled, routine, and complicated, he thought. It was as if deep down, he didn’t want to bear the guilt of raising a child in a world where morality had seemed to be tossed aside.
The conversation soon turned to Exo and Anna was talking about her rebelliousness towards Exo when she was 16, commenting that Aleksi had always seemed so accepting of it.
Aleksi laughed, “I know most people go through a phase where they are angry about Exo, and maybe I was as well, but I never lashed out about it. I never argued or yelled, or said much about it. I realized that this was just part of life. For me, it was like being mad that I had a heart. I couldn't very well remove it, so I just accepted it.”
Aleksi thought for a moment about his life as a kid, and how angry his sister had felt towards the new policy, with her constant comments about the violation of having something put into her that controlled her fate. For her, the anger never really subsided, but she had learned to accept it. His feelings about the policy were the same, but he had quickly realized that being angry about something he couldn’t control was a waste of energy.
“I sympathize with them,” said Anna. “I remember feeling so, just so angry about Exo. And disgusted, as if there were some foreign entity inside me. No matter what I did, or how hard I tried to change my mind, I couldn't get over feeling so repulsed having this thing inside me.”
“But did you ever do anything about it?” asked Matias.
“No, just a lot of hot air. I yelled and protested, but never once thought about trying to take it out of me. I just felt like I had lost my sense of control, I just…” she shook her head, “I didn’t like the idea that my life had an expiration date.”
“Do you think Exo killed the idea of fate? Or was it fate for Exo to come along in the first place?” asked Aleksi.
“The philosophical chicken or the egg – going to need a second to think about that one,” said Matias while finishing off his whiskey.
“I don’t believe in fate,” said Aleksi. “We live our lives, make our choices, but thinking that every little detail was pre-planned and no matter what I do, I was supposed to end up exactly where I am? No way.”
“Are we better off because of Exo?” asked Anna.
“Depends on who you ask,” said Aleksi. “Earth isn’t the same place it used to be a decade ago, or even five decades ago. Our world is continually changing, and in the long run, we’re only here for a brief amount of time; we’re but a blink of the eye in the history of life.”
“Well, regardless of what happens, I suppose all we can do now is be thankful for what we have and who we are,” said Matias.
As dinner finished, the slim black robots returned to clear the dishes and brought out coffee and Rönttönen, an open-faced pie made of rye dough and filled with sweetened mashed potatoes and lingonberry.
Anna smiled, “This looks exactly like…”
“Mom’s,” finished her brother. “It’s her recipe that I programmed into the bots.”
“Remarkable,” said Matias through a mouthful of the sweet dessert.
As they talked and reminisced, Anna said, “It feels forever ago that we were at Grandma Tuula’s deathday.”
Aleksi remembered it like it was yesterday. His whole family had stood on the cliff overlooking the blue sea that crashed against the rocks below them. The brisk wind had whipped against their faces.
Anna’s uncle stood before the group of people dressed in all white.
“Today, we remember and celebrate the life of Tuula Saarinen. As a wildlife photojournalist, her memory will live on through her photos. She traveled the world, interacted with unique cultures, and brought to life the intimacy of animals in their natural habitats. Physically she is no longer with us, but she’ll live on through our memories of her.”
From the ground, Anna’s uncle picked up a silver jar, opened it, and held it over the edge of the cliff, releasing Tuula’s white ashes into the wind, drifting on the current and flying out across the blue sea. Tuula had been around the world, and now so too would her ashes, spreading from one end of the Earth to the other.
It was at that moment that Aleksi had thought about his deathday. He wondered who would attend, and what they would say about the life he had lived. Tuula had always been there for him, during birthdays, graduations, walking in the garden, and now, she was gone. The waves crashed on the cliffs below, their roar echoing up over the rocks. The wind blew, and Aleksi smiled, knowing no matter where he went in life, his grandmother would always be looking over him.
“One hell of a lady,” said Aleksi.
When the robots returned to clear the coffee cups and dessert trays, Matias excused himself to call and check in with work.
“Want to see the workshop?” he asked Anna.
“I thought you’d never ask!” The two made their way down the glass staircase, and Aleksi placed his hand against a glass door that opened after it recognized his DNA and fingerprints. The room was full of odd-shaped pieces of glass, fiber optic cables, and strange pieces of machinery that Anna had never seen before. Algorithms and indecipherable math problems were hastily written on glass boards and odd bits of metal and electronic components were strewn across the many tables that occupied the space.
As Aleksi watched his sister stare in awe at his workshop, he asked, “Do you remember when I was 6, you asked me what I thought the chip did?”
“Hmm, no, I don’t recall.”
“We were sitting at the table, while dad was cooking, and I told you that a friend of mine had told me that Exo could control our minds.”
Anna laughed, “Yes, I remember!”
“And do you remember what you told me? Anna was laughing uncontrollably.
Aleksi continued, “You told me that Exo would slowly grow, and in six months, a baby robot would be inside of me.”
“I’m so sorry,” Anna said between fits of laughter.
“I had nightmares for weeks!” said Aleksi. The two of them laughed together.
As the laughter subsided, and the two were once again silently looking around the cluttered workshop, Anna asked, “Do you think mom would be proud of us?”
“You know she was!” replied Aleksi immediately. “What makes you think she wasn’t?”
“I just, I just hope she would be.”
“I run one of the most successful robotics company in the world, and you heal hurt animals. In a world where everyone is concerned about searching for meaning, we give back. We positively contribute to society, what more could Mom have wanted?”
“You're right. It's just hard not to think back and wonder if there was more we should have done or something I could have done, but didn't.”
“You can't think like that. It will get you nowhere. But if at this age you are still searching for meaning, maybe take a trip. Go find yourself."
“I’ve been on plenty of trips recently,” said Anna, thinking back fondly of the many adventures her and Matias had had after Olivia had left for school.
“Spend more time with your family,” he joked, squeezing her arm.
“Maybe that’s the problem,” joked Anna. “Speaking of mom, do you remember the first time she told you about what Exo was?”
Aleksi closed his eyes. It was a day he’d never forget. He was seven year’s old, the same age Anna was when their mother had told her about Exo. Sitting in his bedroom, his mother sat facing with a look that suggested this wasn’t easy for her.
With a heavy sigh, she had explained that one of the most significant problems in society were the elderly.
“Like grandma” he had stated, a little more astutely than Katrina had expected.
“Yes,” she said slowly, “like grandma.”
“What does Exo do?” he asked, the same question he’d been asking since he left the Exo clinic two years ago.
“Well, it…” she had started, knowing there was no easy way to say it. “When a person turns 75 years old, the chip ends their life.”
Aleksi’s face showed no signs of emotion as the gears inside his head started to turn, processing what he’d just heard. He’d heard rumors about Exo at school but brushed them off as nothing more than stories that older boys liked to tell during lunch.
“Is it painful?”
“The Exo tech said it would be painless.”
“Why is it painless?”
“No, why do we need Exo?”
“There just isn’t enough, sweetheart. Not enough food, space, clean water, medicine, you name it. Older people have lived their lives. They’ve worked, loved, had families, traveled, and experienced life. But when they get older, they don’t contribute to society anymore, and are holding us back.”
“From progress. We spend billions of dollars a year on caring for the elderly, spend a huge amount of time focused on their well-being. If we took all that time and money and invested that in research, or education, or technology, our world, as you’ve seen now, can flourish.”
“Flourish?” he asked.
“It means to grow, to be great.”
“But it’s not right,” Aleksi stated, staring up at his mother.
Katrina hadn’t expected her son to take such a firm stance on Exo so immediately. “I agree with you. But it's the law, and we can't change it. Sometimes, even if we disagree with something, that's just the way it is.”
“75,” whispered Aleksi, no longer looking at his mother. The number seemed to dance in his mind as if that number now represented life itself. As he continued to think, he understood the logic behind Exo and its necessity, but it was still hard to accept that fate now had a number, and it was 75.
Katrina watched her son absorb the information and process it like he usually did. At times, she didn't think Aleksi was human with the way he saw life, so pragmatic and logical.
“Whatever you’re thinking,” she began, “just know I love you and that no matter what path you choose in life, always do what makes you happy.”
“I will,” he said, with the number 75 still consuming most of his thoughts.
“At the time, I wasn't sure what to say,” he said to Anna. “I had always suspected something ‘sinister’ about Exo, but when mom told me it would kill me, I thought about all the different things I could do in 75 years. I never viewed it as limiting, but thought about it more as a challenge, like what I could do with my 75 years that could positively impact humanity the most. Maybe I was just a weird kid, but that’s how I saw it.” Anna listened intently to her brother, ever the realist she thought.
“Anyway, since its birthday, it’s only fair that I give you this.” From one of the tables, he picked up a shiny black box and handed it to Anna. She opened it and inside was a glass watch with titanium bands. The glass hands ticked silently as the gear slowly moved ever so slightly.
“I know mechanical watches are considered an antique, but I’ve been working on restoring this one for a while now. You’d be surprised how hard it is to find watch parts these days.”
“It’s beautiful,” Anna whispered as she fastened it to her wrist.
Anna looked into Aleksi's green eyes and asked, “Did you ever think we’d be where we are now?”
“I knew you would,” said Aleksi. “I always knew you’d get married. You’re one of the best people I know, and I knew that some lucky guy would get your attention and you two would eventually get married.”
“You know how I feel about marriage. Life is an adventure, and I want to go out and explore as much as I can. Getting married, no offense would hold me down. I'm like a bird, I need –”
“Exactly. I want to get out there, meet people, travel, try new things, push the boundaries, challenge the norm, and go crazy. And I don't see myself being able to do that with a wife. Besides, if I got married, I'd have no time to spend with my robots. But again, that's no comment on you and your marriage.”
Anna looked at her brother and put her arm on his shoulder.
“Look around this room,” said Aleksi. “This is my life’s work. Ever since I was young, I knew I was meant to help other people, and through technology and my ideas, I'm making that a reality. But you help keep me grounded. No matter how much money I make, or things I achieve professionally, it's you who reminds me that family matters and in the end, it’s the relationships you have that will matter the most. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m proud to call you my big sister.”
Anna smiled and hugged her brother tight, wrapping her arms around him and whispering “I’m proud of you too, Aleksi.”
The sun was rising, and a flood of orange and yellow fell over Helsinki and the buildings as if a wave of paint had crashed into the city.
“Olivia, get your shoes on, we’re almost ready to go!” yelled Anna from the kitchen. She had just finished packing her daughter’s lunch and was determined not to be late for Olivia’s first day of school.
“Olivia!” she yelled again, rounding the corner of the kitchen and entering the living room. There, she found her five-year-old daughter and husband watching the news on the glass panel on the wall.
“Exodus, offering not only a solution for the world but a solution for you. We believe life is meant to be lived, enjoyed, and shared. There's a lot you can do with 75 years, and we hope you do something great.” The video of a family walking along the beach faded and tiny white script appeared on the screen.
Olivia Saarinen, you are required to receive your chip from Exodus today. Failure to comply will result in legal ramifications. State you understand.
The little girl looked over to her father who nodded and then turning back to the screen, Olivia said, “I understand.”
The message faded, and the TV show resumed. Anna hated how intrusive technology had gotten these days. Everything about a person was documented and stored, and Exodus had access to a vast majority of it, which was collected the moment a person was born. The government had deregulated privacy laws at least two decades ago, which had garnered a lot of protests, but there had been some benefits. AI systems could now access billions of people's medical records and worked to find patterns and variables of certain diseases, which led to improved medicine and raised the lifespan of every country on Earth to 75.
Anna had laughed when she first heard the news, commenting, “Great, now everyone can live long enough for Exodus to kill them.”
“What do I have to do?” asked Olivia, looking first at her father and then up at her mother.
“I’ll explain after school, sweetheart, but right now, we have to go!”
“It’s today, isn’t it?” asked Katrina after opening the door.
Anna hugged her mother and entered the house, unwrapping her scarf and placing it on the table before opening the fridge.
“How’d you know?”
“Mother's intuition,” she said, winking. And that I know my granddaughter's birthday.”
Anna aimlessly scanned around the fridge before closing it and then made her way to the floating cake pan that was hovering over the counter. She took off the lid revealing five pieces of cheesecake.
She swiped her hand underneath them and said, “I’ll never not be amazed at what we’ve been able to come up with.”
Anna cravingly looked down at the cake.
“Live a little,” her mother said while laughing.
“I don’t think I can do it,” she said, grabbing a floating piece of cake and placing it on a plate. “I understand the necessity for it, but it’s just so…”
“Feels cruel, right?” her mother interrupted.
“Yes, exactly!” said Anna, pointing the fork at her mother just before she took a bite of the creamy cheesecake.
“What’s the alternative? You know just as well as I do, and everyone else on this planet that Exo is mandatory. It has to be done.”
“How did you get through it? I mean, like how did you deal with it?”
Katrina sighed and stared at her daughter, “It was hard, but that's how things are. I didn't think of it as putting a time frame on your life; I realized that this is part of the world we live in.”
“That doesn’t make it any easier,” said Anna through a mouthful of cake.
“What’s Matias’s take on all this?”
“He doesn't like it any more than I do, but we both understand it has to be done.”
“I thought it would’ve eventually been phased out. I didn’t think Exo would have lasted as long as it did.”
“Why fix it if it isn’t broken,” replied Anna, quoting something her father used to say. “We have anti-gravity countertops but have yet to figure out a humane way to deal with overpopulation. We're still barbarians murdering people, but because it's done with a microchip, we're somehow a more ‘evolved' society.”
“While I agree with your sentiments, you know there’s no other choice. I'd offer to come, but speaking from experience, this is something you need to do by yourself,” said Katrina.
Anna flipped her wrist over and saw her digitally implanted watch flash the time. She placed the plate in the sink, wrapped her green scarf around her neck and then walked towards the large glass door.
The 50-year-old woman stood on the doorstep, watching as Anna sped down the street, knowing today would not be easy for her. She thought back to when Anna was growing up and knew she had done the best she could, believing Anna would do the same for Olivia.
“Will it hurt?” she asked, staring up at her mother. Anna smiled, her eyes wet from the tears forming, and softly replied, “No, sweetie, of course not,” repeating the words her mother had said to her 35 years ago.
Olivia was sitting on an all-white chair while her mother put her hair up into a bun, leaving her neck exposed. Within her, she still felt the rage against Exodus for what they had done to society but was now smart enough to bite her tongue, especially in front of her daughter.
She watched as the metal snake appeared out of the wall and made its way to Olivia’s neck where it paused before inserting the chip.
“Olivia Saarinen has officially received her Exo implant which will expire exactly 70 years from now,” the Exo technician said. “We need your daughter’s confirmation before you go.”
Olivia looked up at her mother as the Exo technician placed a glass tablet in front of her. Anna nodded, and Olivia put her hand on the screen which glowed light green, having accepted her handprint as confirmation she had received her Exo chip.
“Have a lovely 70 years,” the Exo technician said, smiling down at the young girl.
When Anna and Olivia entered Katrina’s house, Anna’s mother could sense that the procedure was more painful for Anna than it was for Olivia
“Want to get ice cream?” asked Katrina, trying to soothe the stress of the day. The young girl probably didn’t realize it was one of the most important days of her life. Olivia smiled and whispered, “But we never get ice cream.”
“Well hey, you only live once, right?”
Olivia mulled that statement over in her mind before saying, “Yes! Let’s get ice cream!”
Katrina winked at Anna as they headed out the door, jumped in the car, and sped off in pursuit of the creamy frozen treat, lost in the moment of something they both enjoyed.
Olivia with her mint chocolate chip and Katrina with her rocky road, the two sat outside on a bench in the warm evening air, enjoying the ice cream.
Olivia brushed a bit of brown hair out of her face and then asked, “Do you feel it too?”
Katrina understood the question and smiled, placing her hand on the back of her neck, “Yes, sometimes. But now, it’s more of an idea rather than a physical feeling.”
Olivia had felt the faint vibrations of the throbbing chip since she left the clinic a few days ago. The feeling had subsided a few hours after the procedure, but now and then it came back, reminding Olivia that something was a part of her.
“Will it ever go away?”
“I don’t think so,” smiled Katrina, her hair much grayer than it had been a few years ago. She looked down at Olivia and smiled, thinking how similar she had looked when she was that age.
“But ice cream is a good cure,” she said, winking.
Olivia looked up at Katrina with green ice cream around the corners of her mouth. She loved her grandmother and always felt like she understood her. Katrina appreciated moments like this. For her, at her age, it wasn’t so much about what she did, but more about who she did it with.
After a moment of silence, Olivia asked, “Why do we get it?”
Her mind had been whirring, searching for an answer. Maybe it could track her, she thought, just like a phone could. Or perhaps someone could control her. She shuddered at the thought but soon dismissed that idea as she had never seen her parents, who also had the chip, do anything that would lead her to believe they were being controlled. She scrunched up her face, as she watched the sleek, shiny cars fly by in the distance.
Katrina took a breath before responding, “The chip is something that everyone in the world has to make Earth a better place.”
The little girl scrunched her nose again and tilted her head to one side, not understanding. “Would you stop eating ice cream if it meant that everyone in the world was never hungry?”
She paused before declaring, “Yes, I would.”
“Ok. If you had been sitting on a train for a long time, and someone else had been standing the whole time, would you give up your seat for them?”
Olivia again took a second and then said, “Yes. It’s not fair that I get to sit and they have to stand.”
“I agree, and that’s what Exo does for us. It helps make things better for everyone,” she said, placing her hand on the little girl’s shoulder.
“So, it’s a good thing?”
She wanted to look into the girl’s bright blue eyes and tell her that she thought Exo was a necessary evil but instead looked at the innocent girl before her and said, “Yes.”
Katrina knew the feelings children went through after getting their implant. Confusion, apprehension, stress, curiosity, and it wasn’t her responsibility to convey to her granddaughter that the small piece of electrical equipment now fused to their spine would ultimately take both their lives. Olivia quietly ate her ice cream and watched the setting sun shine through the glass buildings that seemed to tower over the people. As a 5-year-old, Olivia was beginning to understand the world in which she lived, and Exo was just her introduction.
Helsinki was covered in snow as if a cold, white blanket had wrapped itself around the city and everything in it. Olivia glanced out the window of her bathroom and paused for a moment to watch the snowflakes flutter past. She turned back to the mirror, looked at herself, and took a deep breath. With her father’s straight razor in hand, and trying to locate the spot of the chip with her left, she bent her head forward and moved the razor to the nape of her neck. Once she had located the spot, or so she thought, she dug the cold steel of the razor into her neck and winced at the pain. Bent over the white porcelain sink, she watched as drops of crimson blood seemed to catapult themselves into the pristine sink, exploding on impact as if in slow motion. Pain surged through her body, but she pressed on. She moved the razor along the perimeter of the chip and again, paused to take a deep breath.
For a moment, she looked up into the mirror, seeing her blue eyes stare back at her. She was determined to get the chip out of her. Olivia had argued time and time again with her mother about Exo, ultimately deciding that if anything were to be done about it, she had to take matters into her own hands.
She thought about the conversation she had had with her friends a few days ago.
“I mean, we’re all going to die one day, right? Exo is just a better solution to death” said a boy sitting on the picnic bench across from Olivia.
“But that doesn’t mean we need to have parameters on it,” retorted another boy. “What if I were destined to live to 100, but that was cut short by 25 years because of Exo?”
“What were you destined to do? Annoy people for 85 more years?” The teenagers at the table laughed.
“I think it’s horrible,” added Olivia. “The government is killing people, and they have no right to do that. What if I killed the president because I decided we didn’t need him anymore? How is that any different from what the government is doing to us?” The group around the table agreed with her.
No one was in favor of the chip except Tom, who added, “And why do you think they came up with the Exodus Project in the first place?” The table was quiet.
Before anyone could answer, Tom, a tall, lanky boy who had dark hair that was just long enough to fall over his piercing blue eyes, continued, “It’s because the world can no longer support everyone. We overeat, consume too much water, and require heat in the winter and cold in the summer; multiplied by billions of people, it’s had an enormous effect on the world. Basically, we’re the problem.”
“You’re only saying that because your dad works for Exodus.”
“You think I'm biased because my dad works for Exodus? Don't forget that I too have a chip in my head – just like you; I'll also die at 75. Instead of complaining about it or fighting it, I accept it and believe I'm doing my part for humanity.”
“Your part?” laughed a girl, “By dying, you’re doing your part?”
“You guys just don’t get it,” said Tom, getting up from the table and walking back towards the school. Anna watched him go in silence. What he said made sense, but she didn’t agree with it.
“The government can’t just kill us, what gives them the right?” she said to the group.
“For sure,” said another student, “Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I can get rid of it. If that were the case, Mrs. Jones would have been gone a long time ago!”
Everyone laughed. For a second, Olivia caught herself staring up at the big blue sky, feeling the warmth of the sun on her face as the wind gently blew by. The noise of the group seemed so far away as if for her, time had stood still. She smiled as she looked up at the wispy white clouds above, contrasting but also blending in with the sky. She thought for a moment about how happy she was. She had her friends, a nice life, and she was young, plenty of time to live the life she wanted, but she wanted to live it on her terms. The noise of the group rang in her ears, and she caught a girl saying, “Olivia, Earth to Olivia!”
“Sorry, I was just…”
“Spacing out?” laughed a boy.
“Yeah,” she chuckled. She had been caught up in her thoughts, just as she was now, watching the blood slowly drip into the sink.
Suddenly, the wooden door of the bathroom opened and her mother stood at the entrance, locking eyes with her daughter and within just a few seconds, comprehended what was happening. Olivia's blood-covered hands were frozen above the back of her neck as she stared at her mother, both frozen in a moment of shock.
“Olivia, don’t move!” She lurched at her daughter and swiftly removed the straight razor from her daughter’s hand and grabbed a towel from the rack, firmly placing it over Olivia’s bleeding wound.
“But you don’t understand, mom!” shouted the young girl as her mother moved her towards the kitchen with the towel absorbing the flowing blood.
“Not a word,” commanded Anna as she removed the towel to take in the damage her daughter had caused. The cuts were deep, but luckily, she had avoided touching the chip. Any external contact with Exo’s membrane would cause it to activate, killing the person instantly. Attempting to tamper, deactivate, or remove the chip was an offense punishable by death. The skin around the chip was roughly cut as Olivia had attempted to cut blindly using only her fingers to guide her.
“You could have died!” said Anna pressing the wet towel against the open wound.
“Well Exo will make sure of that anyway!” she retorted.
“Is that what you want? Do you want to die right now? You have your whole life ahead of you, and you want to risk cutting out your chip for what? An extra decade of life?”
“I don’t want to not have that possibility,” said Olivia, quieter than before.
Her mother took her face in her hands and looked into her daughter’s bright blue eyes, “I was just like you once.”
“In time, you’ll learn to accept your reality, but in the meantime, this is not the solution.”
With Olivia now holding the towel against the back of her neck, Anna walked over to a cupboard and found a white cylindrical object about the size of a jump rope handle. She grabbed it and walked back over to Olivia, motioning for her to turn around. With her hands on the counter and her hair pulled into a bun, Anna removed the towel and aimed the white device directly at the wound. She pressed a button, and blue light shone on the cut skin, slowly healing the wound as if a slow-motion video of a shirt ripping was played in reverse. Olivia winced at the pain, but she grit her teeth, knowing the pain she felt now was nowhere near the pain she would feel when she saw the look on her father’s face upon hearing the news. With the wound healed, but still tender, Anna placed a large white Band-Aid over the area and instructed her daughter to leave it on for 24, and with luck, no scarring would be visible.
“I know you feel powerless, and at times, I feel the same way,” said Anna. “Feeling that way is perfectly normal. You think I’m happy about having a chip?”
Olivia nodded, understanding that her mother, and everyone else in the world, was in the same boat as her, but still angry at the fact she too was part of this system.
“But if you ever, and I mean ever, try to mess with your chip again, you’ll wish you were dead.” Olivia looked down at the floor, trying to balance her current feelings of disappointment and anger.
“And you know I have to tell your father.”
“He has a right to know.” The 15-year-old remained quiet. She knew there was nothing to say. She feared disappointing her father, a man she loved, respected, and revered. She knew he wouldn’t be mad, but she dreaded the look of disappointment that would inevitably appear on his face. She had thought of that before placing the blade to her neck, but her desire to remove her Exo was greater than her father's feelings. She had made her choice, and now she had to deal with the consequences.
“At least I went for it,” said Olivia, catching both her parents by surprise and breaking the silence.
Her father looked at her, puzzled, “Oh, and what do you mean?”
“I mean it’s stupid, Exo is stupid, so at least I was brave enough to try to do something about it. I’m just so sick of it. Everywhere I look, I’m reminded of how fleeting life is. Slogans on shop windows read, ‘Get it before you’re gone!’ ‘Seize the moment, it won’t last forever!’ and ‘Nike’s forever, life’s not.’ Walking down the street, I see the small area in the back of people’s necks, showing their Exo implant with the faint red light flashing every few seconds as if reminding me and everyone else that one day, we’re all going to die.”
Olivia hated the system despite the constant stream of benefits the news seemed to spit out about how great Exodus was. Traffic wasn’t as congested, hospitals were more efficient, and society seemed to be more humane. She remembered teachers telling stories of Pre-Exo people living fast-paced lives full of rampant crime. Now, according to statistics, things had seemed to slow down as people were focused more on appreciating the moment rather than constantly working and living day to day. She had seen movies and read stories about what life was like before Exo had come into being. She recalled her history teacher once say, “It was chaos, pure chaos.” Images of wars, rebellions, strikes, protests, and violence raced in her mind as she thought about the Exo campaign ads, and how “because of Exo we now live in a more peaceful and harmonious world.”
Olivia felt conflicted. She was angry; she didn't have a say in her death and even more upset that everyone just seemed to accept it.
“But you could have died!” interjected her mother.
“Well, I will die anyway, right?” retorted Olivia
“Your logic is sound,” began Matias in a quieter tone than the other two. “However, you're risking 64 years of life for what, an extra 25 assuming you live to be a hundred? What was the plan exactly? You know if you had cut the membrane and the chip detected any interference, it would have automatically triggered itself to shut down your nervous system.”
"There was so much blood, I couldn’t believe it,” said Anna softly. “Is it something we did? Are we bad parents?”
Tears flowed down Olivia’s cheeks. “I don’t want to die,” she whispered.
“Honey, that’s part of life,” said Anna, “But the important thing is that we make the most of our life while we have it, right? When you’re older, you’ll understand, but for now, please, please don’t mess with your chip again. Your father and I couldn’t bear to lose you. Having you was the first time in my life where someone else’s future became more important than my own and seeing you in that bathroom, it broke my heart.”
Olivia’s head was bowed, her eyes unable to look at anything except her knees.
"I'm not pleased about having my death regulated by the government either, but that's just how it is," said Matias. "Regardless, promise you won't try anything like that again," said Matias.
Olivia dragged her elbow across her face, wiping away the tears, still unable to look her mother in her eyes and said, “I promise I won’t mess with my chip again.”
“We’re not angry,” said her father.
“Just scared,” began Anna. “The thought of losing you, at this age, would kill me. I can't imagine a world without you in it, and I never want to see you hurt yourself again. You'll die one day, but not now, you're too young, and there's so much to do and see.”
As tears rolled down Anna's face, Olivia quietly got up from the couch and rushed over to her mother, hugging her as tears flowed down her face.
“I’m sorry,” said Olivia. “I’m so sorry.” Anna stroked her brown hair, thankful her daughter was still alive. She struggled to imagine that her cute, innocent daughter had felt so much anger she was willing to harm herself.
She thought of when Olivia was seven, standing on a beach in the Philippines holding a coconut, her tiny feet buried in the white sand. She remembered the look of surprise and curiosity that had spread across Olivia’s face when seeing the ocean for the first time.
“It’s just so big!” she had cried out with pleasure.
That same bright and curious girl was still there, yet somehow different. Older and more stubborn. Olivia shifted her gaze from her mom to her dad, guilty for how her actions had made him feel. She felt conflicted. Her guilt seemed to mix with her an inexplicable hate for Exo, a chip that had more control over her life than she did. In that moment, standing in front of her parents, she wondered if her anger would ever subside, or if it would always be in the back of her mind.
Her mother was talking, telling her that in the end, we must all accept our fate, but Olivia wasn’t listening. She was lost in thought. Thoughts about the life she had, and the life she wanted to live. Her hopes, dreams, and desires swirled around her mind. Anna recognized the look on her daughter’s face. She empathized with Olivia’s feelings, knowing there was nothing she could say that would alleviate the anger and fear she felt deep down.
“I just need some time alone,” said Olivia as she kissed her mother on the cheek and walked out of the room and out the front door. The sky was dark, but the city looked alive with lights and holograms reflecting off the tall glass buildings. Olivia’s mind continued to race, wondering what life would be like without the constant reminder of Exo. Free, she thought. She glanced up at the night sky and saw the infinite number of stars, each burning bright until one day, they would burn no more. Olivia thought about what she would do with her remaining 60 years until, on her fateful 75th birthday, she would be gone forever.
Jeremy Broyles earned his B.A. from Doane College, now University, in 2001, his M.A. from Northern Arizona University in 2008, and his M.F.A. from Wichita State University in 2011. His work has appeared in The MacGuffin, Santa Clara Review, and Pembroke Magazine amongst many others. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where in addition to reading and writing stories, he helps others to create their own in his role as a creative writing professor.
Resist Such Wickedness
Oceania was nearly complete. Australia, that island continent low in the Indian Ocean, muscled the stretched ribbon of New Zealand far to the southeast, leaving only the flinted arrowhead of Tasmania, like a chipped fang from a marsupial predator’s jaws, pointing its biting edge toward Antarctica. Leonard painted with measured strokes the ragged outline of the tiny nation into its place within the world, and the supple, precise hairs of the paintbrush, like evolution’s first pass at feathers, shaped the country from the south at Hobart to Launceston in the north in a hue of umber amidst the waxed yellow of the globe’s oceans. Like most of the countries he painted, Leonard had never been to Tasmania, but he liked it all the same. There was character carved into its saltwater borders and moxie in its slow-float flee from the landmass above. If ever there was an ambitious bit of land, Tasmania was it. Strange, then, that as Leonard shadowed the coastline for depth and the diamond of Tasmania filled its form in the wash of its more famous neighbor to the north he should be reminded of Virginia’s indiscretion now five years in the past. There was nothing significant about Oceania, a place he had painted many times over, that should have shaken loose such a memory, but here it was with him in the Tasman Sea all the same.
“That one looks to be almost done,” Virginia said from the mouth of Leonard’s studio—a repurposed garage, below and separate from the house proper, built into the junipered red rocks of Sedona.
“Just the finishing bits left,” Leonard said. “Because art is alive—”
“And the details pump the blood.” Virginia finished his mantra for him through a small smile shrunken by the familiarity of the words. Leonard himself found solace in predictable rhythms like currents carrying him from one day to the next, and in the patterned rules of life—governing those he loved and who loved him in return, and the bodies that were his for the touching as he offered his own—he was sated.
“That they do,” Leonard said.
“I’m meeting some friends for dinner,” Virginia said. His wife was now thirty-three years old, and the smooth bloom of her youth—like a yawning flower straining atop its stalk to follow the sun across the sky—had set into her skin something more permanent akin to the streaking striations of stone layered one atop the other as time compressed the Pliocene into the Pleistocene and, now, the Holocene, and those epochs themselves stood on the platforms of such geological grandfathers like the Cambrian, Permian, and Cretaceous. This was not to say Virginia had hardened or that her beauty had ebbed. Not in the least. Her shape, like bold Tasmania, held her place in the world with an undiminished quality even if the shine of her younger years was no longer as bright. “I’ll be home late tonight, so don’t feel obligated to wait for me.”
“Who will be joining you?” Leonard asked.
“The same people who always do,” she said. “My friends haven’t changed.”
“Your female friends I assume you mean.”
“Leonard, why does it feel as if you are trying to ask me if any men will be there tonight?”
“I believe you already know the answer to that.”
“I do,” Virginia said, “but I still want you to have to say it.”
“Very well,” Leonard said. “To draw the finest point, I ask because of your previous indiscretion.”
“Of course you do,” she said. She held her own body across her chest with folded arms while her lips pulled a taut line of her mouth. “I made a mistake, Leonard. One. And that was years ago. I don’t know how much longer I can apologize for it.”
“Please, Virginia. I don’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s just my girlfriends tonight,” she said, “but I imagine between the staff and other customers that at least a few men will be there. I suppose it falls to me to keep my legs closed for the duration. I promise to try, but keep your expectations low. After all, you know me and my history of indiscretions. Or, rather, indiscretion in the singular. Goodnight, Leonard.” She moved a few steps away from the garage as her arms at last let go and swung unencumbered to her sides, but she stopped just before disappearing around the corner. “That’s one of your better globes,” she said. “I like the yellow-brown color palette more than I expected to.”
“Thank you, Virginia,” Leonard said. She nodded her head once and was gone.
Leonard sharpened Tasmania’s tip because the details pumped the blood, and, without them, the world would not spin. A night with her girlfriends meant black tequila margaritas at Agave in west Sedona where the city sloped toward Oak Creek Canyon below, but the night was new and marked by the astral oranges of the setting Arizona sun still stoking the sky with an earthly light but an otherworldly energy that fired the alien shades of red burnt into the very stone of the city’s foundation. He had time. Leonard spun the world backwards against its rotation—carefully, though, so as not to spread the paint from its place before it set—and worked more color into Cape Horn until the distinct easterly twitch in the tail of South America pointed intrepid sailors back to home.
# # #
Across the sleepy four-lane highway opposite Agave, Leonard sat on a bench within one of the numerous Sedona retail plazas with musical though appropriated names like Oaxaca Pavilions or Medicine Man Marketplace. The crisp, pinpoint starlight, though still sturdy after millions of years of intergalactic travel, did little to light the words chipped into shape within the mortared signage colored the same blunted red of caliche clay that most all Sedona edifices shared, but he had it in his memory that this particular one went by Playa Plaza despite the hundreds of miles of desert giving way to palm trees and fault lines between here and the nearest ocean. That, however, was the exact fantastical whimsy that provided Sedona its impractical charms. There were trade-offs though.
Leonard hoped he blended into the backdrop by wearing his rattiest winter coat—a holdover from his days of January hikes when the trails were clear of tourist clusters clogging the paths that snaked their ways through the sharp air scented with sequoia. He wrapped his body with his arms and ducked as much of his face as would fit into the collar. He felt confident he could pass as the anonymous vagrant who had no better place to sleep away the night if he received nothing beyond a disinterested glance. A closer inspection, however, would give away his game; the late spring day had put into the dusty, pink ground enough carry-over heat that his bulging coat was unnecessary. Leonard, in fact, felt the tickle of sweat leaking from under his arms as he held himself in place. But he kept to his plan all the same, trusting that this space would provide all the camouflage he would need. Sedona was, first and foremost, a city of beauty. And the beautiful—that inspired by the natural surroundings, built into the architecture, and worshipped by the people—was nothing short of sacred, making that of the unbeautiful sacrilegious. In instances when such offenses could not be mandated away, they were ignored with a collective conscientiousness that rendered offenders invisible, perhaps nonexistent. The homeless, for example, were not shunned so much as they went unacknowledged. Ghosts from the deepest Southwestern folklore denied the power to haunt. Leonard sat motionless on the stone-slab bench arranged around a drained fountain of stacked spheres marbled like slate grey limestone, and he waited to learn who would walk out of Agave with his wife tonight.
Her indiscretion, the only one as far as Leonard knew, had redefined the parameters of their marriage. At the time, Virginia was a week away from opening her specialty tea, spice, and locally-sourced organic food stuffs and clothing shop within a modest retail co-op, called Western Willow Shoppes, that leased to purveyors who included a portion of their goods, a minimum of one-third, from local artists, farmers, weavers, craftsmen, wood workers, jewelry makers, potters, glass blowers, and clothing designers hailing from the central region of the state that included Flagstaff, Sedona, Cottonwood, Jerome, Prescott Valley, and Prescott. At the time, Leonard had a showing at his gallery for his run of work inspired by the gruesome side of the state’s mythic wonders—collage paintings done in acrylic depicting the hundreds of people who had tumbled down the walls of the Grand Canyon leaving pieces of their pulped selves behind as they fell, and abstract splash art, the violence of the creative process apparent in the bursting splatter patterns smashed into the canvas, as an effigy for the bodies of sunbaked bones that had been swallowed by flash flood sinkholes while searching for the Lost Dutchman’s gold only to end up part of the land itself. The turnout had been disappointing. Maybe his subject material had been too macabre, or maybe the swamping monsoon from the west with its godly grey clouds piled like frozen, deep space asteroids had been threat enough to keep potential patrons at home. Regardless of the cause, Leonard had closed the gallery two hours early of the original ten o’clock cutoff and drove through the fat rain popping like meteorites against his windshield to see if Virginia could use some help at her shop.
He made the short dash from his car to the front door and plunged his right shoe into a deceptive, deep puddle that soaked his sock and seeped into his skin now squishing with every subsequent step. The shop’s space was taking shape, and there were even small table displays stocked with product. Virginia had built a map defining the latitude and longitude of her retail world. The rain quickened, and the staccato drumbeat reverberated through the building itself, but carrying through the discord of the violent Arizona storm came the sounds of breathy exertions which Leonard followed to the back office. There he found Virginia lying on her back while gripping the edge of her desk to provide resistance to the movements of this other man around whom her legs were wrapped and anchored at his waist with ankles crossed like a bow low on her lover’s back, and together they moved with a choreographed cadence at odds with the countless hammerfalls of the blistering rain.
“Virginia?” Leonard said into the room.
The two of them, his wife and her lover, came apart in a scramble of sweat-slicked skin, and Leonard felt a strange shame at the gracelessness of their separation juxtaposed with the artistry of their coupling from mere moments ago. Now they were flushed with embarrassment as they rearranged bunched clothing to hide the souring guilt of their nakedness, and the fluidity of their lovemaking had been replaced by start-and-stop clumsiness like marionettes made to move by a talentless puppeteer.
“Leonard, what are you doing here?” she asked him, and her voice had gone pitchy and thin as if her throat was squeezing closed under the pressure of a gripping hand—any tighter and her voice would be no voice at all but a shriek like piano wires trembling from the tension of a new tune.
The two of them, his wife and her lover, stood shoulder to shoulder like chastised children. Leonard had never seen this man before and had no name for him. Virginia wiped away tears with too much insistence, and her already inflamed cheeks deepened in red from her own careless touch. Why she cried Leonard could not be sure; he wanted to believe it was from knowing she had betrayed the person she had promised to love, both emotionally and physically, without condition and to the exclusion of all others. There was a chance, however, she cried as a reaction to the undeniable sadness of the scene. Leonard himself acknowledged how pitiful the three of them had become since he’d walked into the office. The cuckold, the faithless wife, and the nameless lover—together in the close air of a claustrophobic space sharing the most shameful part of a revealed secret. It was all so shabby. So kitsch. Leonard wondered if the better choice had been to turn right back into the rain the moment he’d heard them.
“I finished earlier than expected at the gallery and came to see if you needed help with the shop,” Leonard said. “Please forgive me for asking the most obvious of questions, but what are you doing here, Virginia?” Her silent slip of tears became sobs that bent her in the middle until she sat back into the edge of her desk for support. Her right arm cradled her stomach under the shuddering that began in that center space beneath her forearm before shaking through the rest of her body upwards into her sloped shoulders and the left hand covering her face as best it could—the thick run of mucus and phlegm bubbling and sucking at turns timed with rattling exhalations and heavy, heaving inhalations. She pealed like electronic bells of alternative spirituality churches dotted along the edge of the city where the Martian red relented to the green-brown of terrestrial desert, and all the while the white noise of the rain kept time in its asynchronous way.
“I think I’d better go,” the man said, braving a glance first to his right at Virginia then up to Leonard. With his hands jammed into the safety of his pockets and his stare again fixed to the floor, the man—still shirtless—slipped past Leonard without making any physical contact and exited. Until then, Leonard hadn’t realized how young he was.
Leonard sat on a bench in Playa Plaza remembering that night with the same undiminished clarity now as all those years ago. He remembered the initial indignity that felt like a current poured into his teeth until his mouth tasted like copper. He remembered the drive home with Virginia—silent except for the swish and clunk of the metronome wipers clearing away the vestiges of the swooning monsoon. But most of all he remembered the days that followed and the woman his wife became. Dutiful. Faithful. Predictable. Leonard thought back to the night of her indiscretion and, as he always did, smiled at his fondness for the memory. Despite its unseemly beginning, that night had given him the wife he’d always wanted. Now he wanted that wife back.
A knotted group of women energized by alcohol and comradery burst from Agave like an orchestral swell carrying their crescendo voices across the highway and over to Leonard and his plaza. The ringing notes of unfiltered laughter punctuated the overlapping, garbled speech of half a dozen women he could not differentiate nor name. But as they moved away from the front doors, a figure in the shape of Virginia lingered for a moment until she had space from the merry mob splitting off like strings on an instrument to their respective vehicles to return to their unique yet indistinguishable lives somewhere in the quiet cracks of this rocky, red city. Virginia lingered, but she did not do so alone. She spoke with someone else; her quiet words lost to Leonard in the space between them. In response, a hand raised and touched her face. A hand belonging to a man.
# # #
Alcohol, no matter the type, made Virginia sleep the sleep of the dead, so Leonard knew he could take his time the following morning. He split and toasted a bagel—one half smeared with butter and the other half with cream cheese. He poured a glass of water, no ice cubes, and set it along with the bagel at Virginia’s place at the dining room table. Several minutes later, she shuffled to her seat while compressed under the weight of the hangover Leonard knew she carried.
“You made me breakfast,” she said as she sat down.
“I figured you could use some food and water. Tequila can only take you so far.”
“And the place it always takes you to is regret.” She swallowed three-quarters of her water in a single tilt. “Where were you last night? You weren’t here when I got home.”
“Playa Plaza,” Leonard said.
“What’s Playa Plaza?” Virginia asked.
“In truth, I do not know. But what it is, is far less material than where it is.”
“Is that so?” Virginia said, shoving the plate away from her and leaning back into her chair. She folded her right leg over her left and held her knee with both hands in a grip made of interlaced fingers. “And where is Playa Plaza?”
“Across the highway from Agave,” Leonard said. He pushed the plate back into place closer to his wife. “Remind me who joined you last night.”
“I don’t believe you need any such reminder, Leonard. It seems you saw for yourself.”
“That I did.”
“Go on then.”
“I want to know who he is,” Leonard said.
“How do you know Sack?”
“He works part-time for me at the shop.”
“Do you believe it prudent to socialize with him given your history?”
“There it is again,” Virginia said. “My history.” She released her knee to reach the buttered half of the bagel Leonard had made, and she took a careful bite by peeling her lips away from her teeth—she’d stated more than once how she enjoyed the nuttiness of good butter but despised the greasy unctuousness left behind on the skin it touched. “Should we talk about my history, Leonard?” she asked after swallowing and then wiping the corners of her mouth with the napkin Leonard had set out for her. “We’ve never done so in any meaningful way. And when I say ‘my history’ I of course mean ‘our history.’ It’s something we share.”
“We have spoken, Virginia. We moved forward once before just as we must now.”
“Leonard, you walked in on me mid-throes with a lover I’d taken outside of our marriage, and not once have you ever asked me who he was.”
“He never mattered,” Leonard said. “We do. You and me.”
“Then why are you interrogating me about Sack now? Does he matter as much as the two of us?” Virginia asked.
“We are married, Virginia. I am your husband.”
“And I’m your beautiful bride corpse. Isn’t that what you love about me the most? My stillness. It’s okay to admit it, Leonard. Keeping it secret does not make it any less real.” Virginia finished the water in her glass with a final emptying gulp and placed it back down upon the table.
“Remember the advice of Dr. Brainard,” Leonard said, and his mouth tasted of copper again. The conversation had not made her pliant as he had anticipated. Leonard thought that when faced with the discovery of her lie she would return to him repentant. But today there came no pleading for forgiveness passed along with promises of penance and pledges of love. She was hardening like glass at each of his words, and he could not tighten his hold further for fear of shattering her into sparkling, spectacular shards. He had caught her in a lie, but that did not seem to matter to her. Perhaps, then, the lie itself was not big enough. “Our walks in this world, even the smallest ones, are beset by temptation. We must resist such wickedness,” he said.
“Indeed,” Virginia said while nodding her head. “Sage advice from Dr. Brainard. Though I must admit I found it odd you chose him as our therapist. Remember his office was in a refurbished theater that also included a tarot card reader? And you recall the name of his practice, don’t you?” Leonard knew she waited on his answer, but he did not want to offer it. “Christian Centered Counseling. A strange place for a pair of atheists such as ourselves, wouldn’t you agree? But I played along. I was happy to go, in fact. I was disgusted with myself and wanted to show you I could change. But you? You seemed unfazed which I figured to be a coping mechanism of some kind. Whatever it was, it made me hate myself more.”
“We were married then as we are now,” Leonard said. “And what was true between us from that day until this has not changed.”
“You may be right,” she said. “I’ve given a great deal of thought to that truth. I think I misinterpreted your quiet contemplation and even temperament as signs of your unshakable fidelity when all along it was actually a quiet jackboot stepping on my throat. You’ve never raised your voice to me, Leonard. You’ve never screamed or cried. You’re immovable, and I think you may well be the cruelest person I’ve ever known. You don’t care about me. You care about having me.”
She rose from the table and held a hand to her head; the sudden stand must have flared the headache thumping away behind her eyes like vibrating cicadas that buzzed in the background of the Arizona high desert nights. It took a moment for her to steady herself before she moved with considered steps back toward the bedroom, and the gentle click of the closing door was all the more closure to the conversation Leonard received.
# # #
In the end, Virginia named her shop Leaves and Rivers. She said she’d wanted to invoke a sense of movement like the point in a journey somewhere near the middle when the initial excitement of setting off had faded but the thrill of arriving was not yet real—the eddies in the water, she’d said, that indicated progress best captured the journey’s memory. Everyone wanted to memorialize first steps—the bottle broken against the bow—and celebrate the last, but without the in-between neither the beginning nor the ending could exist.
“Pardon me,” Leonard said to the employee tidying up a small table of jars containing prickly pear jam stacked in a low pyramid. “I presume you are Sack.”
“That’s me,” this stranger said. He had a young face, but it was far too hollowed to be cherubic. Only the silver painted into his hair at either temple, as if stabbed into place with a single thrust of a bushy brush first to the left then to the right, gave him the credence of manhood. He was slight and stretched; he was barely there at all.
“I saw you went to dinner with my wife, Virginia, a few days back.”
“Oh, you’re Leonard,” Sack said. His smile seemed the product of anxiety as it appeared across his childish, haunted face. “Virginia has told me a lot about you. Strange that we haven’t met before now.”
“Do you want her?”
“Excuse me?” Sack’s eyes rippled like a dropped stone in standing water, but his smile grew more ghoulish as it widened.
“My wife, Virginia. Do you want her? Before yesterday, she had never even so much as mentioned you to me. As you pointed out, we have never been introduced. I do not believe any of this to be coincidence. And after dinner outside of the restaurant, you touched her.”
“I swear to you, Leonard, I didn’t.”
“You lifted your hand to her face and touched her. I saw this for myself.”
“Okay, Leonard, please. I would never do anything inappropriate. Virginia is my boss and your wife. I know my place.”
Leonard had thought a direct question would serve best, but now he realized his mistake. It was too bracing. Sack’s teeth chattered through the hurried words spilling from his phantom face in his uncomfortable effort to protest too much. How garish it was.
“Sack, please pay attention,” Leonard said. “I am going home to retrieve a globe. I will then drive to my gallery where I will spend several hours arranging the new display. As is my custom, I will then commemorate the occasion with good scotch at one of several local establishments. At the earliest, I will return home at two o’clock in the morning. My wife will be home alone during this entire time. Do you understand?”
“I’m not sure,” Sack said. The misery in his words turned his mouth a dulled shade of yellow. “It sounds like you want me to sleep with your wife.”
“What I want,” Leonard said, and he let his voice carry through Leaves and Rivers, “is for my wife to be happy. I will see it so because that is what a good husband does.”
Leonard left the shop and the sharp elliptical orbit of a man that, for reasons he could not understand, his wife fancied. It was of no matter though. In a few short hours, this nonsense would be done and his wife would again be his, and this wraith with the ridiculous name could fade away like so much cloud under a withering summer sun.
# # #
It was just past eleven o’clock at night, and the high desert had gone still save for the scurrying of nocturnal ground animals and the occasional cracking caw of the predatory birds above coming to earth, leading with talons outstretched. Leonard waited outside his studio garage and hazarded a glance toward his house where, moments ago, the living room lights had gone dark; he imagined Sack and Virginia had retired to the privacy of the bedroom. Still, they needed more time. He did not mind the waiting. And though he found the steps of this process somewhat tedious, his patience would pay off with a wife he could again call his own.
Leonard found globes mesmerizing and wondrous. It was the perspective. A globe allowed anyone to look on with omnipotent eyes. An entire world and all its places spun along its tilted axis by a single hand or held in position under a single gaze. From pole to pole and along the bisecting equator, the planet in total taken from its cold orbit and housed in a gallery. An office. A home. And if a single, significant explosion had created all the matter that ever was and ever would be and scattered the pieces through all of space, then how elegant that in all the surging, ricocheting chaos enough had landed here, in this place and at this time, to create a small likeness of that marbled white and blue world that housed the totality of humanity and all their fidelity and loyalty and love.
Leonard figured he had given them sufficient time, and he, quiet as a secret, entered his own house. He crept through the living room atop soft footfalls that he willed into silence. Outside the bedroom where a fragile yellow light smoked out from under the closed door, Leonard sat down so he could hear his wife and her lover within. Leonard had learned from the last time, and he would not repeat the mistake of interrupting. He rested the back of his head to the wall and listened.
Soon enough they would be done, and then Leonard could walk in and find his wife with another man again. There would be the shame and the embarrassment, but Leonard would console and forgive. And then he would have her back, and together they would be man and wife again just as it should always be.
It was odd, though, Leonard had to admit. There was something new from Virginia escaping out from under the door. A sound. Nothing so crass as a moan but not so subtle as a sigh either. Leonard could not explain it away. He tried dismissing it as a fault in his hearing. Ears, after all, could play the same tricks as the eyes. Such explanation, however, failed to provide him any comfort. He could not name what he heard from his wife, but whatever else it might have been, he knew it was not indiscretion.
A Mate That’s Deep in Love
First Mate Desiree Atarashii first noticed the creature as it crossed the ramp to the rust-brown spheric wormer, Lemuria. She deduced from the slender shape and mass of fibrous hair that it was a woman. But the white unitard, clinging tightly, meant to accentuate groin and chest (rouse the smirking boys and girls¾do you think she/he’ll play?), emphasized a featureless columnar shape. Difficult to stare for long¾jagged bright green patterns migrated across the clothing. Another lustrous sign of estrous, pathetic on that meager figure¾like a little girl in her mother’s low-cut simuleather dress.
Desiree covered her eyes with her hand—an instant of dark against the turquoise methane-ammonia sky, glaring and spiraling, busily torturing her from beyond the pellucid walls of the Veladare spaceport. Too many skies and suns and horizons¾and did we really need all these bloody colours? This skull-piercing was the epilogue to last night’s group sex / drug ritual at the Hedonia Club, built within the mountainous husk of a nnmutig beast, whose walls gave forth synchronous sensations of roughness and smoothness, scents of oranges and excrement. The livid quivering forms moaning in charcoal shadow were egg-shaped, tentacled, skeletal, bipedal (of course). Remember, my girl, that we’re humans¾our shamelessness is well renowned, a weatherworn mate had told her at one of the Ancient Mariner Taverns one evening. You think we lack self-awareness? Hardly. Blobs of jelly housed in bone feed us to ourselves and keep the other predators out. Call it simply a need to be noticed. For are we not idealists, as Bishop Berkeley taught: to be seen is to be?
“What is that?” she asked Gerdun, Second Mate, whose branched body had the appearance of pumice and whose raspy exhalations through various pores constituted laughter.
“One of the mendacii. Agamic humanoid species.”
“Agamic?” Though the extracortical layer in her brain facilitated translation, there was occasional semantic dissonance
“Asexual.” Gerdun emitted suspirations of mirth, blithely waving one of his many limbs. “I didn’t expect you’d be familiar with such a malady, First Mate.”
“I’m ‘familiar’ with a few things beyond sex, my friend.”
“You’ve misjudged me, ma’am. I revere your intelligence as I admire your passion.”
“Hmph! ῾Passion,’” she repeated. “In terran, it means ῾enduring inflicted pain.’”
The oblong screen in the observation compartment displayed the passengers’ lounge: multileveled, with numerous sets of wide shallow steps leading to plush blue platforms, as in a 3VAK musical. Passengers and crew were disseminated in coveys throughout the room for the first of many parties that would divert them for the next three days. Gravity had on occasion caused a few setbacks for ships shrinking to particular size for higher-dimensional travel. The Huey had dissolved with fifteen hundred people aboard when its ingredients decohered and veered to a binary system. A one in twenty-five billion chance, said the actuaries, of a repetition. But wrongful-death litigation from the passengers’ estates had lasted twenty-five years, so policy ordained that the wormer begin each trip by strolling at just under light speed in a negative-energy-warp bubble until it was at least two light-days from any solar mass. Then it could start slashing into space and time.
“I hate this bloody lag time,” Desiree said to Eos.
“Eeyeh!” Eos exclaimed¾a term which in terran would have been rendered as “Ah!” or “Oh!”—expressions of pleasurable recognition or distress. “At last! You know I am not easy with a voyage until you complain.”
“I’m sorry if it annoys you.”
“Not at all, my dear one. Were you not listening? It comforts me.”
Eos’s flattened concave head was nearly as wide as his shoulders, and his downy orange skin and rotund body were mostly veiled by a satiny red robe. The row of tiny tenebrous eyes scanned the passengers, but only out of bemused perusal. He was neither beautiful nor prurient, but so attentive and condolent as to be sublimely attractive. As ship’s Suitor125 (qualified to commune with over 200,000 species), his job was to comfort, and within a day or less, passengers would be maneuvering for his counsel, interrupting his every meal or cycle of rest. Now, at least, Desiree could possess unreservedly his companionship.
At this moment she was relaxed and grateful. She shifted slightly on the ledge of white plasmaprene that warmed and conformed to her body. She most often restlessly awaited the moment that the wormhole could be cut and passengers and crew submerged in Level 8 consciousness until the ship reached the playgrounds on Gethi-Minus.
When, she asked Eos, had Level Five consciousness become so insufferable? It was undemanding, even carefree. There were reiterative equipment checks, questions to answer, apprehensions to mollify. She chatted up the tourists in the translucent corridors while, within her cortical sheaths, neuronal metalogic gates chattered isochronally with the array of redundant optical overminds, neural guidance modes, quasivital systems, and e-plasmotors behind the walls. The machines were designated en masse as a male “Captain.”
“The absence of trauma, my dear one,” Eos replied, “is not equivalent to serenity. Prophets of every civilization have taught that existence is entwined with suffering. From my homeland on Yawarakaii comes the well-worn verse: ῾Behold this life! Ennui / Spliced with catastrophe.’ . . . I’ve heard, though, that terrans go to bed happy, and wake up the same. Or perhaps they once did.”
“I’m not especially concerned,” she replied, “with the emotional state of terrans.” She had descended from the petulant residue of emigrants from Earth. “It’s just that even at Level Two there’s no relief.”
She could never specifically remember her dreams but arose from the liquid suspension chamber with sore eyes, a dry mouth, and an obscure but oppressive dread. “I choose sexual partners as some kind of preventative,” she said. “I keep hoping to store up memories to replay¾fend off darker images.”
“What of last evening’s debauch at the Hedonia?”
“Nothing there to keep.” Oh, what a merry, frenzied, intermingled mass, so earnestly convulsing. She’d been too comatose to climax, or feel.
Mennemis, the OD, entered the compartment. He possessed curly hair, thick lips, and bright teeth. “Atarashii,” he began, his head characteristically pitched sideward when he spoke to her. “Captain says we’re off on our BPS.” BPS matched biopsychosexual factors of passengers to crew for symmetric distribution. The implication was, of course, that she should serve the relational needs of the leftovers. “He’s hoping you can help him out.”
“I might if I find someone interesting. I usually do.”
“Captain has a list¾”
She held out her hand, open-palmed. “As I said, I might choose one. I’m all for ῾helping out.’ I’ll stand extra watches, I’ll clean their rooms¾but I won’t make the rounds in them.”
Mennemis compressed his lips and shook his head. “Captain’s really in a bad¾”
“Please don’t do that.”
“Do what?” he asked, his eyes widening in feigned bewilderment
“The roundabout: letting the Captain down equals not doing my job equals negative ratings in my file and little black marks chasing me across my career. He knows that whatever I do is a favor. He can’t order me, he can’t threaten me, and if he tries to treat me like a Second Mate or less, I still won’t do it, and we can take it up with the Board when we get back.”
At the mention of “Second Mate,” Mennemis winced, offended by the indeliberate denigration of his rank. He restored himself by contemplating her breasts. “Okay,” he said, a singsong Cassandra, “but Captain’s gonna be really, really¾”
“Yes—and we’re really, really sorry about that,” she said.
“Eeyeh,” Eos quietly moaned, after Mennemis had departed. “You have affronted our Officer on Deck.” The lipless line of his mouth formed a grin.
She shook her head and made a scraping sound in her throat, as bitterness attenuated to mirth. “I rather think it was my ῾front’ that suffered the indignity if you noticed.” She wore the clinging gray one-piece uniform that was required, but she’d had it altered to add more thickness and diminished constriction around the torso, to resist the salacious hypocrisy of a fashion that revealed what it would conceal. As First Mate, she was entitled to refuse all propositions. But she had assumed that right even as a grunt, despite warning letters, pay deductions, and “advice” from her betters. Even Lieutenant Vaterlich had been compelled by senior officers to counsel her, though he smirked as he did so, speaking aloud as if for the benefit of an audience, his crescent-shaped eyes darkly glittering. “You can never truly be a ῾mate,’ Atarashii, so long as you deny its . . . its denotative . . . imperative.” So nicely phrased! Vaterlich was a wordsmith.
“I had so wanted, sir,” she’d responded soberly, “to offer my chastity to the Lord.”
Vaterlich burst out laughing and transformed it into a choking cough. He pressed his fist to his mouth and waved at her¾a palliative dismissal. He was the rare superior who never betrayed an insinuative tone¾delineating sex as company policy and, accordingly, an executive dividend. Because of him she’d not only escaped sanction but had been promoted from Third to Second to First Mate.
“I’m surprised you didn't suggest that as Second Mate he should do a turn as lady of the evening,” Eos said.
“Nobody should be at the mercy of that damned BPS. Anyway, he’d just get indignant and remind me he’s entitled to be as principled as I, being a ῾warrior’ too.”
“True enough, by some definitions.”
When the company realized they could inlay combat tactics and fighting techniques in the cortex, they gleefully calculated how much they’d save by not having to pay for warriors. But flabby VPs discovered, after being artificially inseminated with bushido, the way of the warrior, that reflexive fighting postures caused painful injuries in bodies lacking grace and endurance; and that the art of war could be subverted into rage and delirium carrying one to impetuous death. The economizing practice of overstimulating amateurs was abandoned, but there remained those like Mennemis, convinced a warrior needed naught but conductive polymers.
Now she scanned the scaly, lubricious, iridescent mass of creatures in the lounge for a candidate, even as a great numbing weariness descended upon her. There were humans, of course, prime cuts¾lean and muscular and pulchritudinous, as she was. But she’d dyed her short hair bright yellow, accentuating her olive skin, distinguishing herself. Protoplasmic surgery made homeliness a matter of choice. But other species were confused—and cross-cultural commerce impaired—by an uncommon human, so prettiness was prescribed.
There was a tall green-furred Derogian with a smooth, white face, like a mask. A possibility. Or the¾
A vexation at the back of her head: PROBLEM. Random passenger scans showed that passenger 14TßŸ@iyakweli was deceased.
“While you’re gone, I’ll choose one for you,” Eos said to her when she explained what had been discovered.
“I trust you,” she said, and Eos, glancing at her with his multiple eyes, winced rather than smiled, sensing the emotion around the commonplace phrase, and pressed one of his stubble-fingered hands over hers. A fevered current overcame her.
“False identity, Gerd?” Desiree asked as she entered the lounge, knowing the joke he would make of it.
Gerdun tilted his dendritic body a few degrees toward her. “Perhaps only delayed mortification, First Mate. A passenger needs to be advised of her/his/its death.”
“I imagined that being able to think at the speed of light, the Captain might have become aware of this a bit sooner.”
“Indeed. But it is imperative that the passenger be counseled, or consoled. You are best suited to do so, having a courteous and ‛curtsyous’ manner.”
“You are cruel, Gerd, which I’m obliged to admire.”
Gerdun emitted myriad tonal breaths of amusement.
The passenger, Iya Kweli, was the mendacia she’d noticed boarding the ship. She was categorized in the manifest as “female.” Desiree searched the crowd, wariness causing stresses to form along her body. The massive wall screens issued low-toned harmonies and displayed brightly colored statistics.
“You are the First Mate, are you not?”
Iya Kwelli stood beside her.
“Yes, I am.”
“There is some difficulty, and I was told to speak to you about it.”
Iya Kwelli was petite, and Desiree could see now that the bountiful brunette hair concealed an elongated head. Her eye sockets were narrow and slanted like accent marks, but the eyes placidly signified ataraxia. The animated emerald patterns on her clothing made Desiree remember renderings of neon signs on ancient terran ruins, such as BOB’S BAR & GRILL, enticing nothingness in the night.
She realized Iya Kwelli was awaiting a reply.
“I’m sorry¾you were saying?”
“You were to look at this?” She held out her arm and pulled up the sleeve of her unitard. With her forefinger, Desiree grazed the mark just beneath the pale skin: 21X21. Her “ticket” for the voyage.
“Security scans of the subdural mark, uh, suggest that you are—departed.”
“Yes.” Her lips, a primrose ellipse against her pallid face, were slightly upturned¾in patience or indifference. “We are often accused of being dead, because terran physicians, encountering us amid lingkaran, the ceremony we undergo at¾what would approximate the age of puberty in human cultures¾diagnose us as deceased. Such ignorance is understandable.”
“And shocking,” she muttered wryly.
“Don't let it trouble you. Policy calls for cellular analysis. Though not painful, it’s lengthy and uncomfortable, and I¾”
She felt the mendacia’s hand on her arm. It was a hand small and fine; a hand that bestowed radiant warmth and comforting certitude.
“I submit myself to you,” Iya Kwelli said.
That febrile rush again, as she’d experienced in revealing her feelings for Eos. But those emotions were the product of many years and voyages together. And to be evoked again, so effortlessly? Perhaps the excess of drugs last night had made her vulnerable, or there was some catamenial sensitivity. Could she be ovulating? She said, feebly, “Your¾cooperation is appreciated.”
Desiree’s unvoiced report to the Captain declared that the cellular test was contraindicated. Why? the Captain prodded. Possible compromise to cultural ethos, she replied, having learned from Gerdun that mendacii tended to resist clinical “sightseeing” as a violation of bodily integrity. In the absence of evidence of crime or health hazard, obliging her to be tested could result in an “incident”¾ i.e., twenty-five years of litigation. Though the Captain was rarely uneasy, his silence betokened hesitant acquiescence.
“There is no need for verification,” she told Iya. “Though we’re brutish, we’re bashful about treading on taboos.” She felt the unaccustomed tug of a smile on her face.
“You know, then, of our customs?” Iya wondered, stepping nearer.
“Minimally, Iya Kweli. The extra cortical sheaths we carry can stow enough information, usually, to prevent egregious cultural blunders.”
“Oh, ῾Iya,’ surely. And one could not imagine you making a blunder, First Mate.” Again, Iya laid her hand on Desiree’s arm.
“Please call me ‘Desiree,’” she answered, though she had determined to thwart the familiarity of sharing forenames. “Well, I must return¾”
“Excuse me, Desiree,” Iya said, “but I have learned of a virtual pastime often practiced by travelers. Something about ῾hell’?”
“The Ten Hells,” Desiree said. “It’s been superseded by MindFuse. But the Lemuria, like most wormers, is out of season with interstellar marketing.”
“I would like to play it. It requires at least two, not true?”
“Uh, yes. One should be experienced¾serious errors can result in some pain¾and the mentor should be relatively sober. . . .”
Iya’s stare had silenced her.
“I—uh—I might have some time tomorrow to—introduce you to the game.”
“I would be grateful.” Iya bowed her head.
“Eeyeh, how wondrous!” exclaimed Eos as she reentered the lounge. “She was my choice for you.”
“I think you need to skim mendacian biology,” she replied, laughing, “if they put any useful reference data in those SANEs of yours.” She occasionally teased him about how Yawarakaian physiology mandated the use of a nanochip complex called “Synthetic Ancillary Neuronal Enhancements,” or SANEs, in lieu of homegrown gray (or blue or pink or transparent) brain matter.
But Eos did not reply¾only stared at her with his minuscule eyes. She felt a brief, rapid flourish of anxiety, like insects’ wings.
Desiree had the microlinkage already planted in her cortical sheath, but Iya had to don a metaplastic skullcap. They lay on cushioned couches, embedded with sensors, in one of the viewing cubicles. The Ten Hells were actually eight, the first an iron-walled waiting area crammed with the condemned―or, rather, “condamned.” The challenge was in bullying through the mob to the bloated purple judge that sent them off to the hells. The tenth was a garden in which a white judge announced that they had completed their penance and were due for rebirth. Between the points of quest and denouement were eight Gehennas in a downward spire. As these were nonmaterial worlds, players were projected into them naked¾fortunately a stylized nakedness that approximated their bodily forms without such blatancies as nipples or genitalia. Desiree disliked any uncontrolled exposure of her person—even a simulated one—and avoided this pastime, except at a passenger’s request.
Despite her discomfort, she was inspired by Iya’s exuberance and grace in this amalgam of Buddhist, Taoist and Chinese myths. In the Hell of the Upside-Down Sinners, Iya swam unerringly through their groping arms and clawed fingers toward the escape hatch (striated to mimic passing tigerfish). Desiree admired the forceful crisscrossed movements of her threadlike prepubescent body. In the Screaming Hell, which was also the Hell of Being Flayed Alive, they dodged among the gory tendinous forms of peeled sinners, and Iya mimicked and exceeded their screams, like Montresor, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” mocking Fortunato as he walled him in the catacombs. For the Great Burning Heat Hell, they were placed in a great wooden cauldron amid feculent souls awaiting boiling oil to engulf them from above. Iya was smiling. . . .
The Hells were dissolved by the force of the irritant in Desiree’s head. She rose from her couch and saw that Iya too had emerged from the trance. A party of speculators had been reported missing on the Garden Planet.
“What exactly is a ῾Garden Planet’?” Œssyrachin asked Desiree as she strolled toward the ovate dropship. Œssyrachin was a querulous Isu'rsan. The armless body was braced by a tripod harness of bone, arrayed with flexive skeletal pincers. His proboscis and drooping lips lent him haughtiness. “And why do we have to make a visit?”
“One: I don’t know,” Desiree replied. “Two: we’re the closest ship, not in a wormhole, not a military or emergency vessel.”
“In other words,” Œssyrachin groused, “we don’t have a good excuse.”
“You know it’s part of the contract when you trade this far out from Galactic Center. Brave new worlds and all that. And there’s no law enforcement on the planet¾no sentient beings either, as far as we can tell.”
“Oh, really? Then who put a garden there, jakhannab?” It was an idiom; obscene in relation to Isu'rsan sexual mores and practices, and so convoluted that it was wiser to render it as “lady.” “We’ve already gone three light-days out of our way for this.”
“You mean I’ve been out for three days?” She felt panic at the irretrievable loss of time.
“There was no need to disturb your neurochemical romp with Iya Kwelli,” Gerdun interjected. “The Third Mates did their job of cajoling the passengers into their coffins. They’re not aware that anything’s amiss.”
“Not until they get to Gethi-Minus,” Desiree said, “and realize their two-week vacations have shrunk to eight days.”
The scans showed that the garden enveloped the entire planet. Not even the Captain could ascertain how it had gotten there.
Eos and Iya entered the dropship bay. Desiree scrutinized them. Eos blurted, “If the speculators have somehow offended the inhabitants¾”
“Somehow? When aren’t they offensive?” grumbled Œssyrachin.
“¾I am directed to assist in negotiations.”
“Yes, Eos,” Desiree said, glancing at Iya. “But passengers are not to be endangered¾”
“We mendacii are adept at mollifying stress,” Iya said. “I might be useful. Also, I volunteered with the understanding I would waive all rights to seek compensation in the event of injury.”
“We don’t know what to expect,” Desiree argued. “It could be¾”
Iya smiled at her. “I’m not afraid.”
“First Mate, you amaze me!” cried Gerdun. “Have you become an elder sister?”
She noticed Mennemis had turned up and was grinning at her, flaunting his translucent teeth. Dammit! Naturally, they’d foist him off as a helper.
Eos said, “She does have the right to join us, First Mate¾the dangers having been explained to her. And she could as well be extremely useful.” Eos was being brusque (for him), to protect her. He touched her elbow, and they stepped away.
“You’re troubled,” he said softly, “and not merely about potential liability.”
She considered protests or feigned ignorance, but pretense was unavailing against Eos. “I’m more than ‘troubled.’ I’m terrified of becoming enamored of an asexual being.”
“As you are with me.”
“Well, of course, with us there’s love, but ours is a spiritually¾” She stopped, realizing what he meant. “No. You can’t compare them. This”¾she gestured insistently toward the group waiting at the dropship¾“is daraku. Impure. Somehow emotional . . . maternal, lascivious . . .”
“Still, a kind of love.”
She released a blustering exhalation. “As if we knew what ῾love’¾”
He moved nearer to her, murmuring, as if fearful of embarrassing her:
“Call it not affection
that makes of matter composition.
Passion strengthless to augment
aught of leaf or fruit.
Lust¾once piquant, now unsavored¾spurned
when sentient our senses turn.
This is love, peerless, transcendent,
“Sounds Shakespearean. I’m sorry. I’m being ethnocentric—or homocentric. Some Yawarakaian poet?”
Eos nodded, his compound eyes downcast. “Myself,” he said.
“A linguist, a consoler, a bodhisattva, and a poet,” she observed. “I am a proton, clinging to your boot.”
Eos held up his hand. “Self-abasement, First Mate, is prohibited during working hours.”
She held one of his pleated orange hands between hers. “Thank you.” She sighed. “Let’s go, then.”
There was momentary vertigo, and the dropship had landed. They found clear green sky above a plain of tidy reddish grass, triangular bushes, trees in the lollipop shape envisioned in prehistoric crayon drawings. A saffron sun above an oxygonal mountain.
“No different than the scans,” said Œssyrachin. “Those speculators didn’t ‘lose’ contact. They got hyped on dawaa or some such and bounced off the atmosphere into a wormhole. It was probably thwarted creditor-assassins that broadcast the distress.”
Desiree ordered a defensive sweep, twenty-degree intervals, full ready.
“Nothing,” Eos said, after a few minutes. “Trees, haystacks, lily pads in the pond. Your spacious skies and waves of grain, eh?”
“Not mine,” Desiree murmured, looking about. “No groundskeeper, no gardener, no simpering natives. Anything, Gerd?”
The innumerable receptors in Gerdun’s body perceived everything from façade to fundamental force. When electrons changed energy levels and spilled out stylish light, when particles danced in atomic nuclei, he construed patterns. He was known to perceive aberrations eluding even wave/particle sensors, and outclassed sentinel devices.
“Nothing more fun than plant life, First Mate,” Gerdun answered, turning slowly. “Wait, here’s something higher.” He nodded toward the insect crawling in a zigzag beneath them. Its rapidly blinking eyes and clustered legs made it almost endearing.
Eos bent closer to look, mewling his appreciation. “Eeyeh! A lovely thing! I believe it’s a smäär!”
The attack came like a hand curling into a fist. Bark unrolled from trees as flattened, razor-edged insects; lily pads became massive snakes with ruffled collars; furred bundles from underground burrows skimmed the ground toward them baring multitudinous teeth; poisonous lichen blazed a purple trail over the placid grounds. Their diets had likely been coordinated so as to consume their prey down to the chemicals in its waste.
“How did they do that, First Mate?” Gerdun asked in bewildered listlessness. “How did they stay dormant, down past the molecular level?”
The others were immobile, watching the creatures charging. As on Chorion: the Yendid were so swift and savage, no one believed it was happening.
“All right!” she shouted. “Close it up! Quickly now!”
A series of concentric shields made of laser lattices and carbon nanotubes emanated from the center of the compound. Behind them, the team formed a rhombic pattern enclosing the encampment and commenced firing spinners in all directions (so named because they caused particular pairs to speed hemispherically and collide). Gerdun and Mennemis had already sprayed “Aunt Maggie” (antimatter fluids) beyond the perimeter. Beasties on the outskirts exploded or collided with the shields. Those that could penetrate the shields sizzled under the withering touch of the spinners. All of the aggressors perished in surges of blood, dust, and light.
Meanwhile, the smäär scurried up Eos’s leg and secreted a fluid allowing it to slip through his ear canal. Its brushlike legs cut a devious path through his brain. Eos fell on the trim grass, uttering guttural moans and sliding on his back, trying to escape the gnawing in his head.
Desiree crouched over Eos waving her spinner, searching hopelessly for a clear shot at an immersed enemy. The SANE in his head did not protect, like her cortical sheath, against earwigs, shattering sonics or infiltrating voices. The smäär slipped out, and Œssyrachin used his acidic spit to make it writhe and decay in a patch of grey.
“You’re supposed to keep specimens like that for testing,” Mennemis said.
“I like watching the little rovno die,” Œssyrachin replied.
Desiree knelt by Eos. His massive chest was rising and falling rapidly beneath the light blue coveralls. Purplish blood filled his mouth and flowed down the perianth of flesh below his chin.
“We’ll move to the dropship and set the moly-assemblers into you¾you’ll be fine,” she said to him. “Gerd¾”
Eos held up his right hand. It was coated with grime. “No need, First May— The little critter’s shredded―my thinking cap.”
He clenched her forearm and murmured an invocation that she did not recognize, and only fragments could be discerned:
“. . . Zomán . . . Dihr . . . Surmand . . . Fihr . . .”
She used her sleeve to wipe away some of the blood. He watched her with his many eyes, moving his lipless mouth. “Nesút . . . Mekekút. . . Jebarot . . . Luhaúkt . . . Inact . . . Hehnackt . . .” He arched his back, groaning mournfully.
“Shouldn’t we take him to the ship, First Mate?” Gerdun asked.
“He’s dying,” she answered. “Moving him will just hurt him.”
“Are you sure it’s hope¾” Œssyrachin started to ask.
“I’m nothing,” she said. “He knows.”
Eos’s words were interspersed with breathless bracing against pain as if that too was part of the chant. A human brain had no pain receptors, but the Yawarakaians suffered there and everywhere.
“Jesus! Why don’t you give him something to shut him up?” Mennemis asked.
“He wouldn’t want to be unconscious now,” said Desiree. “It’s important that he be alert for this.”
“For what? Crying and wailing like¾”
“It’s not about pain,” Iya interjected, standing between them. Though she did not raise her voice, her words were clear and distinct. “When Yawarakaians are dying, they call upon the attributes of the Collective Spirit to prepare themselves.” Desiree noticed that the inconstant color of her uniform had resolved into an untroubled green.
“Well, I’m not listening to this,” Mennemis said. “I’m going back¾”
“You will listen to it, Second Mate. Out of respect,” Desiree commanded.
“You can’t¾” She watched, peripherally, Mennemis glance at her and desist.
The jacksuited heterogeneous crew moved about, nudging dead animals with their feet in the ancient fashion, gathering specimens with electrostatic tongs, recording the scene. They knew the work, though some had never been through battle, and none had ever encountered an ecosystem like this.
Mennemis breathed in exasperated puffs and shifted about, his boots making gruff grindings in the soil. Eos stared at her as he prayed. Her face would be his last image of life. Eyes, look your last! Romeo had cried. Arms take your last embrace! and, lips, O you / The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss / A dateless bargain to engrossing death.
She’d learned ten methods of blowdart evasion but had still managed to get shot. She lay paralyzed on the ground of Chorion while soldiers of the Yendid clan loped toward them
across a plain beset with sharp stone ridges like ossified waves, among soldiers in motionless maculate postures of death. Eos had knelt beside her, as she was kneeling beside him now. He, too, carried a poisonous needle in his flesh, though she wasn’t cognizant of it then. He rose and accosted the Yendid.
He was short and squat, as they were tall and lean. Their rounded maxillae and mandibles made her think of terran primates she’d viewed in holos. So simple and sincere they are—incapable of deceit or brutality, the Ambassador and his peacekeeping force had repeated, immobilized by denial, even as the Yendid slaughtered them.
The Yendid stopped and stared at Eos impassively. They were likely to skewer him just as impassively and finish her.
“Soldiers of Yendid,” Eos declared in the Yendidan dialect, “I stand before you, ready for death. Yet I testify, before the Almighty One, to Whom all things testify, that surely, He shall loose His angry angels upon any that harm this sanctified one”—he gestured toward Desiree—“born beyond shadows . . .”
Eos kept on in this manner, taking phrases from random scriptures, even placing the point of a spear to his middle, until the Yendid, either charmed or bored, withdrew.
Mennemis drew his spinner. “I can’t watch this. For God’s sakes, he’ll be better off¾”
Desiree leapt up from the Noh position and kicked his gun hand with the flat of her foot, delivering a punch to his throat with a bit of superfluous force. He could not control his movements enough to block her. He reeled, wheezing and gagging in the dirt. Gerdun administered a compression hypo to restore him, though he’d be paralyzed for a spell.
She regretted she had left Eos for even a moment. He gazed at her, and beyond her, and said, “The mountain moved.”
He breathed out, and the stillness held him.
The horripilating rush of grief overcame her, and she pressed her face against Eos’s chest, against satiny coveralls and viscid blood, breathing in his scent, of forests and streams over stones. The universe ended and began.
“The mountain moved,” Gerdun repeated.
She numbly stood. “I heard. I don’t know what that means.”
“No, Desiree,” Gerdun repeated, “the mountain moved.” The use of her first name alarmed her. She looked behind him at the green horizon.
Not only the mountain but also the sun was closing in.
In one moment, they were immobile. In the next, the mountain was a colossal, striding, human female, her reddish-brown skin incised in furrows—much like a self-mutilated worthy one would encounter in a Painful Pleasures Club—the sun her cycloptic eye. Then sun and mountain rejoined the landscape.
They poured droning antimatter pulses into her. Her particles, counter-spun, should have scattered convulsively, but the mountain-woman succession went merrily along. They aimed for the eye, but she instantly turned her head just so, as if foreknowing each shot.
“You think the shields will protect us?” she asked.
“Against that?” Œssyrachin answered. “They won’t break if that's what you mean. But we could get impacted in the ground until the air gave out.”
The green sky swirled in marbled vortices. The mountain represents Gaia, the planetary force, the Captain informed her. Atmospheric density has increased by not less than one million percent. There is no feasible escape route. Nothing can pass through possessing an absolute specific gravity greater than--
Yes. Yes. I quite understand, she interrupted. She related to the crew the Captain’s assessment.
“She’s making sure we don’t get rescued,” Gerdun declared.
Gaia remained immovable now, a few hundred metres away.
“Can we run?” Desiree asked. “Fly low?”
“If we try, she’ll bring the atmosphere down on us,” Œssyrachin opined, “or grow a thousandfold and squash the ship.”
“She’s hesitating,” Gerdun observed. “As if she’s reconnoitering us.”
“No,” said Desiree, “she’s waiting for us to do a certain thing, but we don’t know what. Is there a way we can―?”
All at once Gaia’s power looped underground and into Desiree. Utter euphoria bloomed within her, while pointed rods skewered every muscle and bone. The way of things, she repeated. The way of all things. The way. The thrumming and eddying of pleasure and pain made her gasp and stumble backwards.
“Are you well, First Mate?” Gerdun asked. Œssyrachin took a step toward her and Iya watched, briefly agonized. Desiree bent forward and gripped her thighs, taking deep and urgent breaths.
At length, she answered, “Well.” A vessel forever empty can contain an infinity of things. She realized what to do.
“I’m going to the dropship,” she said.
It lay wrapped in blue cloth behind a sliding panel. She’d kept it with her furtively on every wormer or dropship, in every permaplast, clammy overnight hotel. It had a round simulated-ivory handle covered in crosshatched pseudoleather. A wooden scabbard etched with demons’ faces. A curved, gold-plated titanium alloy blade, sliding out, hissing as it manifested itself. The katana was the soul of the samurai. A sword, rightly used, quells the barbarous while lying in its sheath, the ancient texts maintained. She had purchased it from an expatriate merchant on a tourist satellite orbiting the twin stars of Eng and Chang. Even in the seventeenth century, swords were made on a production line, the secrets of the authentic sword-smithery having been lost. Now they were fabricated by molecular alignment. And it was two-edged, in violation of tradition. Absurd to wave this about when Gaia resisted long-distance antimatter weapons. But it was said that when such a sword was plunged into a stream, flower petals would swerve to avoid touching it.
She also grabbed a spinner and grav-repulsor harness as she left.
Mennemis, sitting on an inflated pedestal and massaging his neck, started laughing when she came near them. “She’s brought her toy,” he said raspily.
“And you are a toy warrior,” Œssyrachin spat, watching crew members lower Eos into a plasmaprene coffin.
“Don’t think this won’t go to the Board,” Mennemis said. “I had legal authority for euthanasia under the circ¾”
“Take this to the Board,” Œssyrachin said with cheerful venom, unholstering his hunting knife with one of his pincers. Gerdun restrained him while Mennemis cowered on the tiny stool.
“Oolybatsii, darling,” Desiree said. The universal enticement, a request to smile¾that she’d heard from prostitutes in Isu'rsan ports¾so startled Œssyrachin that he grinned and desisted, while several nearby crewmembers, jitteringly studying the mountain, burst out laughing. She laughed too—until she glimpsed Eos’s form through the semiopaque casket. On the ground, but never below it. His body would be reverently reduced to particles.
Gaia was still stationary. Desiree strapped on the harness. It was like an oversize thong with suspenders, the pleated black tubes enveloping her from pelvis to crown. She’d fastened the sword and spinner to her belt. The spinner was L-shaped, weighty, like the ancient forty-fives, modified to supply a point-seven increase in payload¾a compromise to reduce the skepticism of the crew. “If I can get between those eyelids, maybe I can stop it.”
“Like Remoheyll,” Gerdun said, “who kills a giant Ballena by stuffing poison plants in its breathing hole.”
“Sure,” she said, tightening straps. “More apropos here might be the terran legend of Odysseus putting out the eye of Polyphemus. Anyway, she seems pretty enamored of the classics.” Desiree glanced at Iya, who remained so consummately tranquil. Would she be so if Desiree died?
Stop! Errant thoughts could distract her at the imperative moment. The ten thousand incidentals would flow, but she must be receptive yet centered; active, yet revealing nothing of herself; concentrated through mushin: the non-abiding mind.
“You can’t be doing this alone,” Œssyrachin protested.
“I have―certitude,” she said.
She ascended silently but felt the vibrations within the tubes. Fearsome algid air pressed upon her.
Now Gaia was revived. Desiree contemplated her immensity, her striated hide. Her head had somewhat the shape of a tulip, with star-pointed hair.
Gaia made no attempt to grab her. I’m too far away and too skittish, like an irritating insect. She wants to be certain of snaring me.
The harness wavered, tilted. The encampment was a diorama below her. She flew upward, transversely, toward the concave skull. Ignoring the hands, as if I’m not bright enough to notice them. Precipitously, Gaia reached for her. She spun the repulsor and rolled off Gaia’s fingertips. But Gaia slapped her away.
Flung, upended, she felt her brain lurching in her head. Contrecoup¾where the brain injuries begin. But I’ll be dead soon enough. She righted herself and sped toward the luminous disk of Gaia’s eye. She unsheathed the sword and lifted it along the line of her body, then chopped the tubing above and before her. She’d seen paintings of a samurai halving an enemy’s head through the helmet with a downward stroke.
Desiree pressed buttons, retracting bolts. She surged forward unyieldingly to precipitate a careless response.
As Gaia’s hands converged on her, Desiree released the electromag interlock, and the harness crumbled. Desiree vaulted and rolled, choking in a malevolent gust. She tripped the spikes in her boots and alighted diagonally on Gaia’s nasal bridge. The eye was closed, but she sliced away a portion of the nictitating membrane and thrust her sword into the bright translucent tissue. She forced the hilt and her right arm through. Neuromuscular numbness possessed her, and she stumbled. She’d lost the sword, lost the--
She clung to Gaia’s forehead with her left arm and the blunt remainder of the other.
Though Gaia’s consciousness was disrupted but for an instant, her vivacity had been mortally wounded. She tumbled backward languorously. Thousands of metres below were scraps of land and skins of sea.
Why did you do this? Gaia asked as they tilted against the wind.
You killed my friend, Desiree answered.
Why did you do this? Gaia demanded.
For Iya, she replied. The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service, there resides . . .
The green sky was sliding up. She was “lying” in a gurney amid the vibrations of the positronic field that sustained her. The stub of her arm was wrapped in thermoplastic layers.
Iya appeared, was gone, and returned, a bobbing apparition. Desiree felt as if she were in a canyon. She thought of Eos in his case.
Desiree flailed, and the gurney halted. Gerdun stepped up, waving his myriad limbs. “Relax, First Mate. We’re a few metres from the dropship¾”
She lifted her legs over the gurney’s verge. “Just let me walk there. I can stand.” He has so many branches, and I had only two, but it's mine that gets carved up. They were in the shadow of a great wheel of soil and stone¾the base of the mountain that rested horizontally across the land, adamantly misplaced, a toppled statue. The mountain should have crashed through the planetary crust, but Gaia, she realized, had dispossessed herself from it and gently eased its fall. Thus had Desiree survived.
“Ne nivay, darling,” Œssyrachin said. “You've proved yourself¾as if we needed proof. Relax and savor the victory.”
Upright, she felt throbbing dizziness erupt through her. Her legs were jerry-built as she unsteadily studied Iya. “I killed her.” She swallowed. “I killed Gaia just to know¾”
“Know?” Iya asked.
“You would be safe. You were safe.”
Iya stepped closer, frowning disconcertedly. “Oh! You were thinking of¾”
“I protected you. My duty—” Her emotions confounded her speech. “I want to protect you. I love you.”
Iya embraced her, gently pressing the side of Desiree’s head to—what would have been her breasts. The frail body warmed and excited her even amidst the pain.
“Do you know what you love? What everyone loves?” Iya stepped back slightly to fix upon Desiree’s eyes. “The Beauty of God reflected in the soul.”
Desiree beheld her bandaged foreshortened arm. See the Beauty.
“So are we all attracted to one another, in love,” Iya declared.
“No,” Desiree said, amid a tremulous sickening rush. “There is also—I want you to yearn for me.”
“The soul needs transcendence,” Iya insisted, “but we stifle it with craving, a momentary potency.”
Desiree slumped onto the resilient rim. “So, you mendacii . . . disregard the body.”
“Mendacii are not identical. Some are hermaphroditic. There are planetary cultures in which the mendacii serve as third spouses in marriages. Among the amginee, for example, a mendacia conceives after intercourse with a male amgin, and then passes the fertilized ovum through her male organs to a female amgin.”
Gerdun and Œssyrachin lurked respectfully in attendance. A few metres ahead was the yellow dropship, shaped like a gourd. A newly manifested sun blistered the horizon, a range of purplish mountains shuddered, the green sky thrashed circuitously, all boding Gaia’s vengeance. The planet’s bursting a bit, but please continue your lecture.
“So,” Iya was saying, “the mendacii are very―”
“Sorry. Sorry to intrude,” Desiree said, holding up her right hand―then realizing she had no right hand―“but I wanted to ask, just to be certain. You’re not . . . sensual?”
“It is not my nature.”
“Examine your feelings. You feel an attraction, but to what? What is the goal of your desire?”
Desiree lay back into the suspension field. “My name. A pun.” She chuckled. “My goal is a roundabout to me.”
Desiree bided for sleep in her viscid chamber, dressed in a soft, blue nightshirt, swathed arm resting on her belly. She hoped the arm would be grown again from cells in the dog-end. She detested this time when every scene would be replayed. She would writhe, stretch, sigh, grunt and groan in shame or anger invoked by comments she had made, occasions when she should have spoken, clever replies she had not opportunely conjured. Now all the minor cruelties and impatient gestures were revisiting her; images of needy people she had avoided. Everything abrupt or inconsiderate that she had said or done to Eos agonized her.
And then there was the maudlin display before Iya Kweli and the crew. “I want to protect you!” “I love you!” She dreaded the remarks that would be made, especially by Mennemis, after debarkation and stand-down. And, she thought, for years to come. Had she forever lost their respect by falling for an asexual creature? An azoiphiliac, they’d call her, lover of lifeless matter, with a pathetic unidirectional longing for holograms, literary characters, a voice, a scent.
During survival training on Ubódstvœn, you wore long underwear and thermal socks in 12 ºC and dashed across implacable whiteness. There were faults, traps, holes, but you sprinted at full speed and scanned the ground. Hesitate, panic, and you failed. She plunged into a glacier crevasse. Abrasive implosion, stinging ears, blue shadows on white. The only chance for warmth was catching an ogie£, whose blood was a stimulant. But though her reflexes were quick, her hands were numb, and the bulb-eyed, bulb-bottomed little rovno cavorted away as her raw fingers scraped frozen snow. Soon metallic cold embodied her (her essence was ice; she was a stalagmite amid crystal formations). Before the lapse of consciousness, she remembered the story of Christ, in his tomb, waiting to arise from the dead. . . .
She realized that it was she who was arising into the rescue ship.
“No one’s supposed to catch the ogie£,” Captain Vaterlich had said, smiling at her as she stood at 75º in an alignment litter, wrapped in thermoplastic layers and an antibody mask. “You must be taken to the moment when all training falls away, when the abyss opens. It’s essential in war that death be no longer an unknown. It’s one of the okugi that can’t be learned otherwise.”
“I don’t want to learn any more okugi.” She could scarcely move her lips in the narrow space the antibody mask allowed.
“Hidden methods are the essence of ῾war,’ and you are a warrior.”
“I thought the essence of war was propagation. Winners make more babies.”
Vaterlich chuckled. “I suppose that’s true.”
“Why is it so difficult?”
“Why does it take so much effort to think under pressure, keep your skills sharp, stay brave, disciplined . . . good? Why weren’t we made to do these things easily?”
He had pressed his hand against the edge of the litter, close to her head, abruptly surrendering the tension in his body, slouching. “Desiree—” He stopped, straightened, rubbed his right forefinger back and forth across his blond mustache and sighed.
“I won’t give you a lot of pseudo-Taoist babble,” he said, “about ‘what’s meant to be,’ but . . . Why didn’t the universe grow cohesively, like a tree; or why wasn’t it created all at once, like a light turned on? Why begin with a single point and explode into bits—if that’s really what happened? And yet, to spite its chaotic destiny, the bits cohered to form planets and galaxies and us. This is what I see, beneath every surface. Nothing but frantic particles. But the particles are struggling to keep rock or woman or raindrop whole.”
The fat man ordered her to remove her shorts and top and leggings in the floodlit concrete room. He glanced at the wall, and she understood that they were watching. At first, she decided to refuse outright. Then she chuckled as she sat on the smooth stone bench, and crossed her legs. In the historical holograms, they always started by kicking off their shoes, then sensuously pulling stockings down their legs, twirling them around their heads, throwing them at the men. The tease: prolonged disrobing that was meant to arouse the audience with the gradual revelation of the undiscovered essence.
She bent the ankle of her left foot back and forth until the foot came free. She did the same with her right. The lower legs snapped off like sectional pieces of plastic. She tossed them away and batted her eyes at the unseen audience. Poising, she held her disjoined thighs over her head and kissed the air. Here is what you long for. She could hear the hoarse protests of the men behind the walls.
The disconnected body upheld itself like a habit, so that she could, quickly and angrily, rip fabric and cast off arm, breast, abdomen, hip. The voyeurs raged and cried. . . .
In the passenger’s lounge among empty platforms, a woman approached her. Her white silken bodysuit revealed a lithe, muscular body. She had long, luxuriant hair and ovate eyes, cosmeticized. On any voyage, Desiree would have noticed and soon approached such an alluring tourist. Desiree had learned to challenge and entice¾with the emotional pheromones of empathic voice and sensual resolute gesture, the maneuvered nearness of bodies, intimations of erotic delights. And this beauty would have chosen no man, no one else.
But a great weariness overcame her. She could not glance up, but contemplated the blue, luxuriant floor, sensing the shape of the woman in amber light.
To say she wished to be a man was common nonsense. Are you glad, then, to be a woman? She would contemptuously agree, mindful of the implication in the question, that she was content to be fancied and defiled. Woman, man, or stone. She would be all. She would be nothing.
A year later, Mennemis had succeeded in getting her disciplined―a demotion to Third Mate. She resigned immediately. Then she went “home”¾to Rukutan. She stood on the corrugated stairway leading down to the mine’s living unit. Above was the transparent dome disclosing dense yellow clouds that dispensed sulfuric rain on the blighted brown soil.
Planetary miners sifted the air and the soil for titanium, uranium, iron, and neon. And gathered sulfuric acid as well. But her father always had contempt for his space and time. “This place is filth,” he said of Rukutan. “Sunura, now. It rains diamonds on Sunura.” Indeed, lightning storms in its methane atmosphere made carbon soot harden into graphite and then diamond as it fell. But it was because of their abundance on planets like Sunura that diamonds had been gradually rendered worthless. Still, terran progeny adhered to ancestral delusions about the innate sanctity of such elements.
She felt, below her, the strata of metal floors, machines, and bestials within this barrel sunk into the world.
She still had no right arm. In its place was a silver cybernetic limb with three pincers for fingers, linked by cables to the stump. The arm could not be regrown because the toxic fluids in Gaia’s eye had prevented cellular regeneration.
She descended helically toward light. Her parents were eating at a white plastic table in a room cluttered with bulky soiled equipment. Dull greenish light blurred shadows, movements, sounds.
“Finished approving the place?” her father asked. They were looking up at her as they chewed. They were pale and emaciated, with broad, glossy foreheads.
She released a humorless aspiration. “It’s not for me to¾”
“You’ll get used to it,” her mother said. “You did before.”
“I won't be here that long.”
“Really? I’m sorry! Where’re you expecting to go?” Her father smiled widely. Fujukaina egao. He had the lucent, bloodshot eyes of a man dominated by work, drugs, and anger.
“Anywhere. I’ve got skills¾”
“They revoked your work permit, remember, Joóo-san?”
Miners’ children had three years of “technical” training: rudimentary reading, math, electronics, and chemistry at the Kóozan Institute. Her predecessors had graduated scornfully: So what if this shit-hole company paid for my education? I’m made for better than this. But they returned to the mining station. Intragalactic networking was a lie.
But there was an alternative for women: indentured servitude. Sailing by day and sex by night. Even as a child she’d understood that freedom was a fantasy. She could be a miner or a mariner―and prostitute. One company or another would own her.
When she was twelve, recruiters for Peregrinus Caelitime Industries visited the school. She’d expressed her eagerness for shipping trash through wormholes. Parental permission was required, naturally. Of course! She’d told the recruiter. A child needs to feel she has her Mom and Dad’s support. They’ll be grief-stricken, but . . . She’d managed to ineptly counterfeit their brain-wave patterns on the approval chip with an outmoded neural scanner. He had only to transmit a request for verification to her parents to divulge the fraud, but he was distracted by Desiree’s friend, Le-Dah, who was twelve also but had long red hair and proud breasts. Desiree had cultivated her to be a shill.
Le-Dah stayed with mining, but Desiree had been raised and trained to be a “wormer” and a warrior. There followed two years of hefting crates of equipment and overseeing the anthroid laborers by day and returning to her bunk at night, her muscles aching, to spend hours on her back, enduring the weight of crewmen’s bodies, the flabby bulges of their flesh and brutal thrustings, their sour, acrid stench. And the implanted contraceptive mechanism intensified menstrual cramps into stealthy agony.
She’d bought her way out of her contract and signed up with what they called the Tramp Corps. But she had renounced her tricks for ever and all.
Now, because of her conviction (without trial) for the “attempted murder” of Mennemis, she could not apply for a work permit for five years.
Children squatted on the floor among the coils of cable and great cylindric laser-cutters, the smooth-bladed “plugs” and “feathers” that she’d always imagined as silverware for giants. “Who’re the kids?”
“Mom’s a surrogate now,” her father answered.
“But sometimes we’ll get a kekkán no áru the parents don’t want,” her mother explained. “So here they are.”
“We get to keep the money, o’ course.” Her father grinned.
The children didn’t appear to be faulty, except for the scabs of dirt on their faces, arms, and legs. They were alert, vigorously agile, shoving, squealing, preoccupied. Their skin had a pale seamed look, as of powder concealing wrinkles. Their eyes were close-set and circular, as on animated idols. She had looked like this.
“You’ll stay here,” her father declared. The room had the shape of a left triangle¾the corroded ceiling arching ever lower to the left corner where the bed was tucked. The same or similar bed to the one on which she’d slept: a wooden frame and a fluid-filled elastic mattress. Scattered over the mattress were sharply pointed colored pens and coarse gray paper like the ones she had used as a child. The sheets of paper were blank. She might have been comforted by her old drawings and poems. Within the mattress were chemicals that ostensibly simulated restful waters. They were cutaneous narcotics inducing comatose sleep and nurturing insensitivity.
“Okay,” she said, settling on the sharp edge of the frame. She felt empty, dried, gouged, like an arroyo. The pincers of her right arm made scraping sounds as she flexed them. I won’t be alive in five years. If she wasn’t a First Mate, where could she go? Change her identity? Caelitime companies had her cellular scans. She was “marked,” like a card-counter among the casinos. She could probably begin again in indentured servitude to some illicit enterprise. She was sliding into sunyata―emptiness.
“And,” her father said, “you’ve a visitor. You remember your cousin, Phedo?”
He had flagrant eyebrows, and thick blond hair combed back in a crest. “Hi, Des,” he said, his voice mollifying and malignant. His slit eyes studied her. He was tall and muscular, promenading in pants of sienna pseudoleather, open-necked pseudosilk shirt displaying the tattoo on his chest, a serpent that became a woman in varying light. Slinking to her bed at night and touching her, pleasure and shame searing her.
But she’d been three years old, then, and he’d been sixteen. After thirty years he still looked to be in his twenties. Nanometric repair, perhaps.
“Phedo’s in charge of security,” her mother said, leaning into the room beside her husband. “He needs to ask some questions, in private.”
“We’ll leave you to your work,” her father said. He started to close the door.
“You can leave the d—” It slammed, hollowly. She heard their sliding tread. They were giggling.
From the two dim yellow lights in the wall behind him, she could discern his pockmarked cheeks. Odd that he hadn’t gotten laser resurfacing.
“Remember me?” he asked her.
“Not you. What you did.”
He shrugged. “What I’m gonna do now is help you through your rehabilitation, ningyoo.” He slid closer. “You’ll become a righteous woman. Saved and purified.”
She smiled. Let him come near, and she would teach him—how warriors treated the predator. But she looked down at her tiny delicate feet. She was only three years old.
“I think I better inspect you first, for weapons and needle marks and such. I’ll need to take off that pretty nightgown.”
She was crouching, balancing on the mattress. It barely sank beneath her, but its surface was gluey. He weighed five times what she did, but mass could not be determinative. Otherwise, the training was of little use. What training? She tried to remember some of it, any of it. Did she have a three-year-old memory too? Wait. Her right arm had reformed. Numbly, she glanced at her two frail opalescent arms. She clutched a colored pen in each hand.
He was closing in, his glimmering eyes attesting to his appetite. “Come on, baby doll.” He reached out, murmuring. “After a while, you’ll start to like it.”
She bounced up and jammed the pens into his underarms. At his reflexive cringing response, she front-kicked his groin. The smallness of her foot allowed her to locate precisely the soft objective. He lurched back and slammed his head against the slanted wall. He palmed his groin and screamed, just an octave too high for a manly bellow.
She ran toward the door but halted as it was flung open. “Goddamit!” her father shouted. He and some hardmen came at her, arms extended like curling tongs. She’d have no defense or defenders. Not at three, not at thirty-three. She turned left, to the rust-red wall. An escape of a sort. She sped toward it, hoping primal inhibition wouldn’t slow her down. I can’t break through, she thought, but let me convince myself I can. At least I can choose my own death.
A sudden hammer-blow and she no longer seemed to breathe, rebounding from the rigid raspy surface, shedding fragments of skull and teeth.
—Then the metal softened on contact, and she burst through the wall. Her skin was seared by the sulfuric rain, her lungs cringing in the virulence of Rukutan’s atmosphere. But she was underground, far underground!
—Then the wall became a shivering curtain, revealing a room with colored shadows.
—Mitotically the moment had divided into four cells of existence, in which she was being fondled abrasively, colliding with the wall, suffocating on the planet’s surface, stumbling into the room. She observed herself from a fifth cell, which was vibrant but hollow.
Everything dissolved into the room. Thick red carpet with intricate designs. White walls edged with blue. To her left, sunlight passing through a floral-patterned window of stained glass. To her right, a golden pitcher and washbowl on a stand. Across the room was a long red couch covered in white cloth.
For an instant, a man was sitting there.
Again, she was raped by Phedo, crushed by the wall, choked by the atmosphere, watching from the empty cell, watching herself watching.
Then the solitary room again. The man could have been a hologram or a photograph, so briefly did he appear. But she remembered his long robe and tall felt headdress, secured by a turban. A holy man? A shaman? He had a round face, luxuriant black mustache, beard, and hair. His eyes were crystalline, heavy-lidded beneath black eyebrows, set amidst deep lines. But she knew that though he was physically a man he was not bounded by human characteristics. Though he had not spoken, words had been conveyed to her. She regretted she had not heard his voice. She regretted she could not reply, or approach him. But perhaps she could not have borne to hear him, could not have endured his gaze or his nearness. She wanted to embrace him, and yet she was afflicted with anxiety even to imagine it. How could she be brazen and familiar with God? But he was not God. With Eos, she had debated whether God should be considered as “he” or “she” or “it.” “None of these,” Eos had argued. “God, if God, cannot be classified or subdivided.”
What she had beheld was one in his own category of existence, not God but nevertheless divine. He had assured her she was not to grieve over what God had willed for her on this material plane. She would enjoy blissful days on worlds of spiritual glory. She would assuredly attain blessings, delight, and grace, in this present life and hereafter. . . .
Outside Lemuria she lingered, watching the surging multicolored ocean below the plateau on which the spaceport rested. Gethi-Minus consisted of meager lands circling about an immeasurable sea. There was a vigorous immigrant influx, inspired by tattled tales of undersea societies accorded perverse reverence: rumors of slavery, infant sacrifices, and eternal wars in submarine empires. Many tourists stayed at the faux-emerald city where they delighted in the random killing, raping, torturing, and humiliation of peasant prisoners. Rates were astounding, reservations taken decades in advance. She watched the slender swaying shapes of plankton and seaweed, their deep reds and blues tingeing the waters. There was a constant breeze of brine and damp that made her feel as if she were drifting.
She’d delayed climbing out of the sleep chamber. She should have been present near the hatch of the wormer to smile and bid the passengers a pleasant stay or good life or safe journey. But she’d wanted to avoid Iya Kweli.
Was it shame? Perhaps. For three days she had shunned the intoxication stations, the combat pits, gambling grottos, pleasure houses, even the self-stimulation devices in her hotel room. She tried to recall the divine personage, prophet or manifestation and what he’d told her. Grieve not on this . . . this material plane, he had instructed. There would assuredly be . . . something, something, and grace, in this . . . the present life and hereafter.
Dammit! She pressed her head and back against the granitelike outcrop behind her. She rubbed her temples. Was enlightenment supposed to leave a hangover? Flouncing through star systems and broaching planetary cultures, she’d soon recognized that there were too many prophets, saints, and messiahs; too many shriveled, revered dispensaries of insight. Now she’d had her portion of transcendence, and it was not a vision but a bloodletting. She breathed out exhilaration and despair. The satiety of food, the jolly blur of intoxication, the pulsing ecstasy of orgasm—all were no more to her now than fulgurating convulsions of the mind as it nestled into obliteration.
She had treasured the spirit of the warrior’s way, despite the deprivation and injury it demanded because it made her feel exalted and secure, because it convinced her that she was—yes! Unique, and everlasting. The esoteric religious literature told of ritual acts for the development of the body, speech, and soul, all with the goal of creating an “adamantine essence.” That was what she had yearned for—to be diamond. But now that warrior spirit, that angelic counselor, shunned her. Even the potency she had drawn from Gaia had forsaken her. She was unmoored and alone, and she mourned. “Oh God!” she said, calling out to the One she had always reviled.
She didn’t notice someone near until she spoke. “Hello, Desiree.”
Desiree looked up at the young woman in the white bodysuit that disclosed the tautness and rounded prominence of muscle and flesh. She had torturous black hair, and round eyes encircled with silver. She stood very near, sweet-scented, smiling. The same one Desiree had encountered in her catatonic dreaming.
“Hello,” Desiree responded, reflexively retreating a few centimeters. “I¾can I help you?”
“I’m Iya Kweli.”
“Well, ῾Iya Kweli’ is deceased, as you discovered. She’d been scheduled for this wormer but got herself killed en route to the spaceport. Something about a faulty solar shield on the shuttle. I had a¾a friend obtain her subdural ῾ticket.’”
“Then you were never a¾”
“A mendacia?” She laughed. “Hardly. My name is¾well, we’re comfortable with ῾Iya’ aren’t we? My father is a Protector-Contractor of a system near galactic center. I had an affair with Gem-yi, one of his Strategists¾forbidden, of course, extending a toe below my caste. Daddy was advised of this and sent him on a mission to the outlands. I was defiant, I was bored, and¾well, I really did care for him. So, I followed after. Of course, I didn’t want to be caught by my father’s goons.”
“But why the mendacian disguise? You could have done some metaplasmic¾”
“Body sculpting wouldn’t help. You know they can track cell signatures. But complete transmutation isn’t that difficult, really. It’s a matter of reordering particles. They inject nanosurveyors, you see, then coordinate data with an electromemory of aleph-null bytes or above.”
“I knew they could regenerate a limb,” Desiree said, raising her restored right arm, “but to regrow the entire¾”
“It’s terribly expensive,” Iya said in an elegant drawl. “Or it will be when it goes on the market. My uncle couldn’t afford to do it outside the grants, and he owns the patent! He warned me it wasn’t infallible¾yet. But I was determined. He owes my father no allegiance, and he was delighted at the chance to test the equipment on a normal. Usually, they have to take convicts or beggars. The counterpart device¾for reconstruction¾was smuggled onto the Lemuria.”
It was implausible that a contraption could be “smuggled” on the ship without the Captain’s cognition. But even the Captain could be corrupted. And she was too exhausted for skepticism.
“The choice was perfect,” Iya was saying. “My father would never envision me in a mendacian body¾too offensive to my vanity, of course.”
“How did you know so much of the mendacian culture?”
“I have polymer implants, like your Second Mate Mennemis. Plus conk drugs that put in appropriate reflexes and gestures.”
“And what you said about, about loving the Beauty of God in the soul, and the soul craving transcendence. Do you believe in it?”
She pressed her lips in a frown and tilted her head to the right concessively. “Sure. They’re wonderful ideas. . . . But there’s something more interesting to consider.” She lightly stroked Desiree’s arm, then glanced up at her in a look both leering and contemplative. “The moment I saw you, I wanted you. I nearly forgot about my appearance and dragged you to my room. Now you see me as I really am”¾she lifted her arms away from her exemplary body¾“and I’m sure it pleases you.”
“Oh, I’ll keep looking for him of course. But this is an adventure, after all. Besides, what will you do otherwise, until your ῾ship sails,’ as they used to say?”
Sailing. Yes. A notion that had been dropped into the spécial psyche. A yearning for that shimmering expanse. How sad that Iya regarded hasty sex as “adventure,” or that one could be so capricious and casual while seeking after love.
“I’m sorry,” Desiree said, “but I really liked Iya Kweli, the mendacia. I regret to say I really don’t care for you¾as a person. Nothing personal.” She smiled.
Iya’s face tensed, and she blinked rapidly. “Fine, then. I just thought I’d do a poor old sappho like you a favor.” Sappho? Desiree chuckled. Suggesting one’s Eros was at all restricted was as cruel as accusations of impotence or frigidity.
“And I really appreciate it,” Desiree replied, the good humor exceeding the sarcasm, which surprised her. “I wish you a happy life, Iya,” she called out as Iya strode away.
She wondered at her new-found asceticism. Was it divinely inspired? But why would the Creator reach through the multicosmoses to the infinitesimal Desiree? Why now?
When she was five, she could see the multiple processions of planets beyond the daylight―the etheric gleaming, iridescent rings, stripes, and spangles. At night she saw not stars but suns, copper suns, and blue cloth suns and porthole suns; and comets like the fiery hearts of angels. She was immersed in the trueness and symmetry of things. But that was too soon usurped by wretched awareness. She began commuting through the heavens, garroted by obligations, plotting relationships, fearing sleep, until wanting could be cured by resolutely alternating the stimulation and deadening of nerves. When the nerve endings refused to respond there would be taedium vitae, a “weariness of life,” as today, when she did not, or could not, cherish the opulently authentic Iya Kweli. Now arousal and oblivion were one to her, as were the pride of failure and shame of success, the indulgence of poverty and the austerity of wealth, the self-doubt of the physician and the butcher’s righteousness.
The Earth, so Eos had said, was ultimately civilized by religion. War and poverty and injustice had ceased, families and governments united¾routine utopian scenario. But Eos had also told her: Terrans go to bed happy, and wake up the same. She’d never been happy on either occasion.
The person she’d envisioned in that room might have brought about this paradisal transformation. Unfortunately, she’d never get to Earth. No wormers traveled there.
But she could be watchful. She could test the hypothesis that being attuned to intimations would attract rumors, writings, or adherents.
And if she happened on any of these—then? Many times, she had affirmed that existence was mundane and meaningless, but within this conviction was a particle of trust that could be taken unawares and vitalized. “Trying on the gown” was the common term to describe the seeker’s method. Though, of course, one might do so for a drug club or sex cult or congregation of suicidal flagellants. But she could try on the devotee’s gown with the confidence that she could as easily remove it. But truly, truly, she would burn everything away, all of herself, to feel, for an instant, infinite joy.
The breeze off the worldwide pond was quickening, and the smell of water had intensified. Desiree waited. Soon there would be rain.
Note: The title and basic plot of this story are derived from “A Maid That’s Deep in Love,” performed by Pentangle and released on the album Cruel Sister (1970).
Ryan Lamb is 26 years old. He is formerly unpublished. He enjoys books by many different authors including Isaac Asimov, Yukio Mishima, Cormac McCarthy, and many others.
He often thinks that he would remove his little finger and perhaps both of them if it meant that he never again had to experience winter. He loathes the constant downpour, the weeks upon weeks without a glimpse of blue sky and the icy wind that bites at his face and makes his eyes water. It is through this wind that John Taylor trudges along the cracked and weed-ridden pavement that begins at one end of Siren Street and lead away from work and toward the bottle shop. He passes several people on his way, one of which, a man of about forty with a long and greying beard and only a few visible teeth, steps into his path as he approaches.
‘Excuse me, Mate, do you have a dollar?’ He says in a raspy voice.
John steps around the vagrant and keeps walking, leaving the man swaying on the spot, dazed and barely there. He can see the bottle shop now. He begins to walk faster and reaches for the bottoms of his jacket pockets, eager for even a few minutes respite from the wind’s bite. The metal doors slide open at his approach. He steps inside the shop. It is warmer in here than outside but still cold and so quiet that John supposes he might be in a bottle shop on a deserted moon colony. He looks down the aisle at the fridges where the beer is kept. He knows he shouldn’t be here. But he is past feeling guilt. He will allow himself any small pleasure he can afford. He walks over to the beer fridges and opens the door where the Smith’s is kept. Through the glass he looks at the green tacky label stuck to the bottles. Could they not have spared ten minutes to draw up some picture to decorate the swill? He wonders what is worse; that beer so bitter and flat and full of nasty chemicals, pissed out by lifeless machines, can be deemed fit for human consumption, or that people like himself are desperate enough to drink it. He opens the fridge and takes out a six pack briefly looking at the Tiger Beer in the next fridge over. How long has it been, he wonders, since he could afford Tiger? The silence is broken by a man’s voice, warm and upbeat. ‘This premises is property of the NLH Group. This premises is monitored by CCTV and facial recognition technology. Any theft or vandalism will be reported to the authorities. Violators will be prosecuted. Thanks and enjoy your day’
He closes the fridge and walks over to the checkout. He scans the beer and places his bank card on the reader. He takes the beer and heads for the door, bracing himself for the harsh elements beyond it.
At the bus stop he waits, at first sitting on the old and graffitied shelter bench and then pacing backward and forward along the footpath, rubbing his hands together and breathing on them. He looks back every minute or two to make sure his six pack is still on the bench where he left it. When the bus arrives he picks up his beer, pulls his beanie from his head and stands before the camera mounted next to the door. A woman’s voice, authoritative, detached, instructs him.
‘Please remove all hats, glasses and scarves. Please look directly into the camera. Please do not move until you see the red light.’
He stands in front of the camera, looking into the lens and waits until the red light appears next to it and puts his beanie back on. He presses his bank card onto the reader below the camera. The doors open and he steps onto the empty bus.
As he makes his way to a seat at the back he hears the woman’s voice once again.
‘This bus is property of the Australian Transit Enterprise. This bus is monitored by CCTV and facial recognition technology. Vandalism of this bus is illegal and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent.’ He sits at the very rear of the bus next to a window. The window has had some words drawn on it with a thick black marker. He slides over to the next seat and reads the words ‘I’M A HUMAN TO’ scrawled on the glass pane. The words have been struck through with a large scratch, probably from a knife or a screw driver. He looks up at the camera above the seats two rows in front of him and wonders who wrote this message and where they might be now.
It is dark when he gets off at his stop and begins the walk home, cutting through the park as always. As he makes his way he pulls one of the beers from the six pack and opens it. Glancing around he tries to remember the last time that he saw a police officer in his neighbourhood. He sees nobody as he plods along the gravel path, past the rotting picnic tables and barbecues and the overgrown flora. It is not until he is almost past the playground that a voice addresses him from the dark.
‘Yo.’ the voice, female and adolescent, calls and he stops and turns and sees the silhouette of something human perched at the top of the slide.
‘You need anythin’, Mate?’ Mate: the word is awkward as it comes out of her mouth, as though she is trying it on.
‘Huh?’ he says approaching the playground, his feet now in the white sand.
‘I said you need anythin? Anything I can help ya with?’
He squints through the dark at the girl, dressed in a pair of jeans and a thick track jacket. She looks younger than his daughter. He thinks that at a stretch she is fifteen but that nothing about her yet resembles a woman.
‘Nah.’ he says. ‘I’m alright.’
‘Cool.’ she replies pulling her phone from her pocket and looking at the screen. She looks younger still in the pale blue light of her phone screen. He turns toward home and carries on.
He exits the park and steps out onto the street. It begins to rain. The drops make his skin crawl as they hit his face, neck and hands. He walks faster still. Throughout the streets few houses are lighted and the few street lamps that have not been broken with rocks give off a dull yellow light.
He arrives at his house and walks past the rusted mailbox and up the driveway. He drinks down the last of his beer and drops the empty bottle in the bin on the way to the door. He holds his keys up to his face and squints as he searches for the one that opens the deadbolt. Inside the hallway is dark and only the light from the living room guides him. The heating is off too. He feels a sudden anger at having to come home from work to an unheated house but stifles it, supposing that he is the only one within reach who can be blamed. He takes of his mock-leather shoes and walks down the hallway through the living room where his wife sits huddled under a thick blanket reading a paperback.
‘Hey.’ He says as he passes through into the kitchen.
He thinks that she has learned not to talk to him, or at least not to try and engage him in any real conversation, when he gets home from work. He knows that it is him who has caused this distance between them. Often he must remind himself that his family is all he has left. He opens the refrigerator and places the remaining beers inside before sliding one out of the soggy packaging. His eyes shift to a small container with a green lid. He pulls the container out and opens the lid. Chilli con carne; the kind that comes in a can. Small kindnesses like these are typical of her. Working out the grocery budget so that she can afford his favourite food. Probably going without something herself. So why, he wonders, is she a magnet for his frustration? He knows a lesser woman would have let them fall to pieces long ago. He puts the container in the microwave and then reaches around the back of the unit and flicks the power on at the wall. He sets the microwave timer to cook and leans against the counter sipping his beer.
‘That the same book you were reading last night?’
‘Yeah.’ She says without looking up.
‘Is it good?’
The microwave beeps and he opens the door. He takes the container out with one hand, switching off the power with the other. He takes a fork from the drawer and sits in the armchair adjacent to the couch where she sits with her feet on the coffee table.
She looks up at him as he drops into the chair. ‘You okay?’ She asks raising her eyebrows.
‘Yeah. Thanks for getting chilli.’ He leans over and squeezes her knee gently.
She smiles at him, scratching at the back of his hand before looking back down at her book. The door to the hallway slides open and their daughter walks in. She is wearing flannel pyjamas. Her school uniform is folded over her left arm.
‘Hey, Chicka.’ He says to her as she walks across the living room and into the kitchen. ‘Shouldn’t you be in bed?’
‘My uniform only just dried. I need’a iron it.’ she says as she opens one of the kitchen cupboards below the stove and pulls out a small saucepan.
‘I could’ve done that for you.’ Tony says without looking away from her book.‘It’s okay. I don’t mind.’
He watches as she puts the saucepan on the stove, turns it on high and then walks over to the ironing board that leans against the wall next to the television.
‘How was work?’ she asks taking it and leaning its surface against her body as she works to unfold the stand.
‘Yeah, fine thanks. Bit busy. How was school?’
He wakes at ten. He has no shift today. He is free of obligation, free of purpose. For the rest of the morning he helps Tony in the Garden. They harvest broad beans and peas and pull carrots from the ground. They plant an apple tree which they bought from the market for twenty dollars. They are sure it will wilt and die like the last one but still they plant it and hope. The house is old and the back yard large. Where there was once a swing set, a patio and an above-ground swimming pool there is now soil and plants.
‘One good thing about having to grow our own food is we eat a lot more veggies, I guess.’ Tony says as she twists a carrot from the earth, brushing the dirt from it with her gloved hand.
‘Yeah I guess so.’ The same reply he gives each time she says this. He tries to pull a carrot from the ground but only succeeds in breaking the stork from it. ‘Fuck’s sake.’
She gets to her feet and steps with care through the soil and over to where he sits. She takes off her glove and rubs her hand on his back. ‘Why don’t you go inside and relax?’
‘I know. But I’ve got things out here. You just enjoy your day off.’
‘Are you sure?’
He kicks off his dirt stained sneakers at the door and goes inside and lays on the couch. Tony’s book is on the coffee table. He picks it up and looks at the cover. Some romance novel by an author he’s never heard of. He used to feel some insecurity when she’d read these novels but now he doesn’t begrudge her a little escape from their impoverished life. How long has it been since he’s risen to the challenge? A grey aura of impotence has fallen over him and he hasn’t the fight to banish it. He puts the book down and lays his head on one of the couch cushions. There are three soft knocks on the front door. He ignores them, deciding it can only be the freeloading neighbours from down the road wanting a cap full of washing powder or some glad wrap. There is another knock, then another. Frustrated, he gets to his feet, walks up the hallway and opens the door. He is greeted by a man of about his height; handsome, clean-shaven and with cropped hair. He wears a flannel shirt, a faded brown suede jacket, faded jeans and riding boots. He holds an akubra down by his side. John thinks he looks like the kind of guy who has a degree, a beautiful wife and a nice four wheel drive. The kind of guy who runs in charity marathons and goes skiing in Japan or on Safari in Africa. The kind of guy who is virile and gives his wife orgasms every time they go to bed. Who never loses his temper with his children and always dispenses good, sound advice.
‘Good morning, you must be John.’ the man says, extending his hand.
He looks down at the man’s hand before taking it.
‘I’m Eric Bradbury. I’m a representative of the Bussle Heights Community.’
‘Ah, I see.’ He hears the back door slide open and then closed followed by his wife’s hurried footsteps. He turns to see her behind him.
‘Hello! Hi!’ She says, pulling the dirty gardening glove from her right hand and extending it to shake Eric’s. ‘I’m sorry,’ She says. ‘I was in the garden and I lost track of time.’
‘A green thumb?’ Eric asks with a smile. ‘That’s good to hear.’
‘Listen,’ John says. ‘I think this a mistake. I’m sorry Eric but me and Tony’ve discussed this at length. Great length.’ He says, looking his wife in the face. ‘I appreciate it I do-.’
‘For God’s sake, John, just give the man a chance to explain things.’
‘It’ll only take a minute.’ Eric says, raising hands, palms outward as if to show that he isn’t holding a weapon.
‘Please, John.’ She says, taking his hand in hers. ‘Please, I’m begging.’
He glances for a moment at his wife and sees the pleading in her face. ‘Alright. I guess you’d better come in, Mate.’
John and Eric sit opposite each other at the dining table while Tony stands in the kitchen spooning coffee into three mugs and filling them with water.
‘It’s instant I’m afraid.’ She says as she places the cups on the table and sits down next to John. ‘The cheapest of the cheap. I can’t offer you milk either.’
‘Absolutely fine.’ Eric says, picking up the cup and blowing at the steam. ‘We’re actually working on getting a few coffee plants going at the community.’
‘Oh my God. When was the last time we had fresh coffee?’ She asks John who looks at her and raises his eyebrows half-heartedly. ‘How many people do you have living there now?’
‘About seventy-five if you can believe it. We’re growing fast but we still have room for more for the time being.’
‘That’s right.’ John says. ‘The pitch. Go on.’
‘Right, I guess it is sort of a pitch. Well you’ve seen the website, and I’m sure Tony’s told you a lot about us as well. We’re just a small self-sustaining community founded with the goal of giving people who have been displaced by the turn the economy has taken, the former middle class I guess, a place to go. We grow our own food, generate our own electricity, we’ve even begun teaching the children on the grounds rather than having them attend the public schools.’
‘Almost sounds a little cultish.’
‘I can certainly see how you’d think that John, but there’s absolutely no religion involved in the running of the community. All members are free to undertake whatever religious practices they like, provided they aren’t harmful to others or the community, but we’re in no way religious as a group. We’re just people.’
‘And what are our obligations? If we join?’
‘The only thing we ask is that you complete the daily workload delegated to you. That may be working in the gardens, in waste management, with the livestock, or just general upkeep of the place. You’ll also need to agree to a pretty thorough background check as well. It’s important to us that no member of our community has any previous trouble with the law. I know it’s pretty stringent, but the safety of our residents is our first priority.’
‘Of course.’ Tony says. She begins rapping her fingers against the table.
‘But aside from that you’d have as much freedom as you have now. You’d have your own living quarters with electricity and you’d be free to come and go as you please.’
Tony looks at John. He returns her gaze and then looks down into his coffee cup.
‘Our son.’ She says, looking back at Eric.
‘Ah, yes.’ Eric replies.
‘She’s filled ya in already then?’ John says.
‘Tony gave me a few details, yes.’
‘So what about him?’
‘That’s where things get tricky. Where you both have a decision to make. As I said there’s a very clear policy about admitting members with criminal records. Your son’s sentence is nearly over, correct?’
‘He’ll be out in a few months.’ John says without looking up.
‘Well I can’t say the rules are likely to change by the time he gets out. I can’t say for certain that they won’t at some point. But I doubt it.’
‘No.’ Tony says, ‘Probably not.’
‘But as I’ve said, as a member you’re free to come and go, to associate with whoever you please.’
‘But we could never take him home with us.’ John says. ‘We’d be cutting him loose in a world where he has even less of a chance than everyone else. What could we possibly expect him to do?’
‘I know, John. You’re right.’ Tony says. ‘But what about Melissa? What other chance are we gonna get to give her a comfortable life?’
‘We can’t just abandon our son.’
‘Maybe we can sort something out. Find a place for him. Pay his rent with our basic income.’
John slams his hand down on the table. ‘We can’t-’ He says before cutting himself off. ‘We’ve been over this.’
‘Okay. It’s okay.’ Tony says, rubbing his shoulder and flashing Eric a look of apology.
‘I just don’t see it, Tony.’
John walks Eric to the door while Tony clears the table.
‘Thanks for comin today, Eric. Sorry to waste your time.’
‘That’s okay, John. A decision like this isn’t easy. Not much is these days.’
John opens the door and Eric steps out onto the porch.
‘All I can say to you, John, is that this offer isn’t forever. I understand your position with your son. But what about Melissa? What about Tony?’
‘Right. Thanks anyway. Have a good one.’
‘And you, John. All the best. We’re at thirty-one Stake Hill Road if you ever just wanna have a look.’
They shake hands and Eric turns and begins to walk down the driveway. John watches him go.
‘Why us?’ He asks and Eric stops and turns to face him. ‘By the sounds of it a lot’a people wanna join.’
‘Tony’s a nurse.’ He says. ‘We don’t have one yet.’
‘And what about me?’
‘I’m sure we can find something for you. You seem like a useful guy.’
He wakes at ten to his alarm blaring beside him. He presses the snooze button twice before sliding his feet out of bed. He stands in his flannel pyjamas, thermals underneath, shuts his eyes and listens to the light rain outside. He runs a hands over his stubbled face. He turns his head to Tony who still lays in deep sleep. He has a short, lukewarm shower, making sure as usual not to turn the taps on all the way. He gets out and dries himself and then begins to shave. He leans close to the mirror as he shaves, careful not to miss a small patch of hair or to cut himself. Afterwards he applies aftershave and heavy duty deodorant and brushes his teeth and gargles mouthwash. How cruel it is, he thinks, that he was once paid over eighty-thousand dollars a year for a job that didn’t even require him to shower before coming in. Now he makes less than a quarter of that money for a job which requires him to so thoroughly groom himself. He takes his uniform from the ironing board and puts on the trousers, the black button up shirt and the thick dress socks. He then walks into the living room and puts on his cheap, black, faux-leather shoes. As he walks up the hallway toward the front door he feels the soul of one shoe curl back as it catches on the wood floor. He lifts his leg and examines the bottom of the shoe, grabbing hold of the loose rubber and peeling it back to see his sock. He looks out the window next to the front door to see that the rain has picked up. He heads back through the living room to the kitchen, opens the bottom drawer and rifles through it. All he finds is a roll of thick, grey electrical tape. He takes it into the living room and sits down on the couch. It takes him two or three minutes and the rest of the roll of tape to feel fully satisfied that no water will find its way inside his shoe. He drops the empty roll on the coffee table and hurries out the door.
The bus is empty again. He sits in the middle this time where the screens are mounted to the backs of the chairs. He flicks through channels. He passes a few sitcoms and a cooking show featuring an attractive woman in her thirties and some more mindless programming until he reaches the news channel. Every so often he finds himself checking up on what’s happening in the world, subconsciously hoping, he suspects for something big. Nuclear war, invasion, natural disaster, anything to bring on a change in the status quo. Instead he finds a story about a new highway he’ll never travel and how it will supposedly save freight companies a small fortune in fuel costs. He loses interest in the news. He leans his head against the window and shuts his eyes. When he opens them he notes the bus’s registration number displayed above the door. He is on the same bus which took him home from work the day before last. He turns in his seat to search for the message scratched into the glass pain on the bus’s right side. He doesn’t see it. The glass has been removed and replaced. He must have only missed the vandal by an hour or two. The sound from the television catches his focus again. Two words draw him in: Brutal attack. The anchor speaks of a group of men who assaulted a well-known CEO as he was leaving a restaurant in Perth’s northern suburbs last night. Two men have been arrested in connection and are believed to be tied to a radical political group. Two more are wanted for questioning by Authorities. A mugshot of each is displayed side-by-side on the screen. They are ugly and rough looking.
He steps from the bus onto the street. His walk becomes a jog and his jog a run. As he pounds the damp pavements he feels a wet sensation on his foot. He looks down to see the tape has come loose from his shoe. Ignoring it, he continues along the dilapidated footpath, past the buildings, their fittings rotten, stolen or vandalised. As he crosses Read Street onto Siren, feeling the rain soak through his pants, he breaks into a sprint, now running along newly replaced pavements he passes the barber shop, the tapas restaurant and the health food store before arriving at the bistro. He hurries around the side of the building and enters through the back door. In the staff room he removes his jacket and beanie. His legs ache and he is panting and his skin is awash with a mix of rainwater and sweat. He takes his comb out of his jacket pocket and shoves the rest of his belongings in one of the empty lockers. Standing in front of the sink, he looks into the mirrors and brushes his soggy hair down flat. Hard soles clap against the vinyl floor, getting louder as they approach.
‘Sorry, Kim. The bus was late.’ A stupid excuse.
‘The buses aren’t late.’
‘I know.’ He says turning from the mirror and placing the comb in the locker. ‘Won’t happen again.’
‘What’s that?’ She asks looking down at his feet.
He looks down to see his shoe burst open at the end once again, the soggy tape now hanging off to the side. ‘Shit. I’m sorry.’
‘Just find something to fix it up and get out there, alright?’
The restaurant in busy today with twenty tables filled. His sock is still wet through and his shoe re-bandaged. He stands before a table, order tablet in his hand. Two men sit opposite each other at the table. One is fat and middle-aged with dark hair, thinning on the top. He wears a black suit and a pale green shirt with a paisley tie. The other is younger, blonde and appears in good shape. He also wears a suit although it appears far more stylish than the fatter man’s, apparently tailored to his body with an elegant tie and matching pocket square.
‘Steak,’ The fat man says. ‘medium rare. Not rare. And if it’s overcooked I’ll throw it at you.’ He says, pointing a finger at John. ‘Chivas and soda with two limes.’
‘Not a problem Sir’ He says, punching in the order. ‘and for-’ He is cut off by the younger man.
‘I don’t like any of this.’ He says to the fat man. ‘Just get the chef to make me a Greek salad. No feta.’
‘That isn’t on the menu Sir but I’ll see what I can-’
‘Just tell him to make it. It’s a Greek salad it’s easy.’
‘And to drink sir?’
‘Nothing for me.’ He says to the fat man. ‘Gemma made me buy a couples’ membership to X-Fit. If I’m paying ten grand a year for the gym I wanna be in fucken shape.’
The fat man only laughs.
‘Will that be all gentleman?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ The fat man says waving him away.
‘No worries.’ He turns and heads toward the kitchen.
‘No worries.’ he hears the fat man say from behind him, his mocking tone thinly veiled.
The truth is that John Taylor was once able to afford lunch in a place like this. Certainly not every day, maybe not even every week but he and his wife and children had enjoyed moderate comfort only a few years ago. Now he waits on the elite, the only ones who can still afford a degree of luxury. He takes orders for ten hours a week in a desperate effort to supplement the pittance that is the Basic Minimum Income. And he’s one of the lucky ones, jobs like this are few. And why shouldn’t they be? There are machines that can take orders and run plates and even cook excellent meals. Machines that run without fault or delay, that aren’t late for their shifts, that don’t drop plates or spit in people’s soup if they don’t like their attitude. So why is he here? Because the people who run this world like to take a look at the poor every once in a while. To remind themselves that they are still here, scurrying like roaches to survive. To see them dance for barely enough money to keep the lights on and the children fed.
The afternoon goes slowly. It’s during a lull in business around three pm that he takes his fifteen-minute break. He walks into the staff room and sits down in one of the plastic chairs tucked in at the table, lays his head on the table and closes his eyes.
‘Fucking sick’a those rich cunts.’ a voice says. John looks up to see Jeff, another waiter, walking over to a locker and pulling out his jacket and a packet of cigarettes.
‘Yeah.’ He replies staring into space. ‘Fuckin joke.’
‘Well, at least their wives are all fuckin their pool cleaners. Or so the movies tell me.’
John manages a dull chuckle.
‘Alright,’ Jeff says putting on his jacket and taking one of the cigarettes out of the packet. ‘I’m goin for a smoke.’ He turns and heads for the back door.
‘Hey.’ John says standing up. ‘Can I have one’a those.’
Jeff stops and turns around. He looks at John and then down at the cigarette packet. He opens the lid and looks in. ‘Sure. Why not?’ He takes a cigarette out of the packet and hands it to him. The two head out the back door and around past the front of the restaurant and across the street to where a bench sits covered by a pergola. The rain has let up but dark clouds still block out any trace of blue sky. Jeff lights his cigarette then hands the lighter to John. They sit for a while, smoking in silence.
‘Did you see on the news about that CEO?’ John asks.
‘I don’t watch the news.’
‘Neither do I, normally. But there was this bit about a CEO gettin beaten almost to death, by some political group they reckon.’
‘STM. Seize the Means. That’s the group. They’re some radical group tryin’a stir up a rebellion.’
‘The means of production?’
‘Yup. They’re a bunch’a nuts. Ex-bikies and violent criminals. They reckon they’re gonna stage a revolution, take the means of production and redistribute wealth. All they do is beat the shit outta the occasional person or blow up a car here and there.’
‘How many of em are there?’
‘I dunno. I can’t imagine very many. Would you be willin’a spend the rest of your life in jail for participating in a coup?’
‘Probably not. But it’d be nice if they did it for us, right?’
‘Course it would. It’ll all fizzle out pretty quick though. As soon as they figure out who’s behind it the cops’ll be all over em. They’ll either have to run or go to prison.’
‘Well we can dream.’
‘Hey at least they’re tryin to do somethin I guess. We’re just sittin here hopin Walton hasn’t completely forgotten about us.’
‘Walton? He hasn’t been Prime Minister for two years.’
‘Oh. Who is then?’
‘I-’ John’s forehead creases in thought. ‘I don’t know actually.’
‘Makes no difference really.’
The quiet is interrupted by two men coming up the street toward them on the same side. The men are dressed well and walk with drunk joviality. They laugh with vigor at some inside joke as they approach. As they get closer he can tell that the two men are in their early thirties. They are handsome. Each wears a large gold watch on his wrist. There is nothing said as they approach, the men in their finery, Jeff and John in their dress pants and cheap shoes and service shirts with restaurant logo embroidered into the breast.
‘Smile boys!’ One of the men blurts out eventually. The other throws his head back and laughs and then both are cackling wildly.
‘Smile! It’s a beautiful day!’ The men continue and are soon out of sight and finally out of earshot.
There is a break in the rain as he gets off of the bus. He begins on his normal route, a beer open in his hand, the rest of the pack tucked under his arm. He thinks that if for whatever reason a bronze statue of him was ever erected, it would be blasphemy not to include the essential stubby in the hand along with the rest kept on his person. It is not until he reaches the park that he thinks of the girl sat at the top of the slide and sure enough when he arrives at the playground she is there.
‘Hello, Mate.’ she says.
‘Hi.’ he says slowing his pace and then stopping and turning toward her.
‘You change your mind?’ she asks.
‘No.’ he says approaching the slide. ‘How old are you?’
‘Why? Are you a pedo?’
‘What? No!’ he says with the panicked vehemence of any adult being accused of a desire for the under-aged.
‘I have a daughter your age. Maybe older.’
‘Good for you, Mate.’
‘I have a son too. He’s in jail.’
‘Look, Mate,’ she says leaning forward, ‘if you don’t want any shit then we’ve got no business talkin to each other. So fuck off.’
‘Alright.’ he says taking a step back. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Yeah, fuck off!’ she shouts at his back as he walks away. ‘And don’t come through my park again! I know some nasty fuckin people!’
The bus ride home from the prison is four hours long. He sits, two hours into it. The clouds have parted and the sun is visible. The day almost seems bright. Despite this his jacket and pants are soaked and he shivers as drops of rain fall and explode against the windows in silence like useless kamikazes. A few people get on and off on the way back to the city. An old woman wearing shabby clothes and carrying a canvas bag tries to get on at one point but the doors do not open when she looks into the camera. He hears her curse at the bus, sees her spit at the camera as they take off. They are still over an hour out when a sign catches his eye. It reads ‘Bussle Heights 5.’He reaches up and presses the button for the next stop. He gets off, tapping his card on the reader and almost turning to thank a driver absent many years. He stands in the cool air for a moment and feels the invisible drops of rain on his face. He begins to walk back toward the sign. The road is silent and there is thick bush and tall trees on either side of him. After a few minutes he reaches the sign and turns left down the road. He is forty-five minutes in his reaching Bussle Heights. The town centre is quiet, the buildings as old as any he has seen.
‘What the hell are you thinkin?’ He asks himself.
Not far from the centre of town he come to a service station. The ground surrounding the station is covered in litter and sand and dead leaves. There are two rusted pumps and empty spaces where two more have been removed and the ground where they once stood is discoloured from the rest. One of the windows is boarded up with a panel of balsa. There is a man at one of the pumps. He appears to be in his late twenties. His skin is red has been gnarled and ravaged by the sun. He is wearing a hoody and track-pants and there is a paper cup in his hand. A small and rusted jerry can lays at his feet. He hold his bankcard up the reader and pours what can only be a few dollars of petrol into the can. As John passes him the man pours some of the petrol into his cup. Slowly and carefully he brings it up to his nose and inhales deeply, eyeing John with a hostile scowl as he does. John looks away and continues inside. The station is old, almost seventy years he thinks, and although it has been bought out by the NLH Group and fitted with an automatic teller he can only see one camera fitted above the counter. This service station is so out of the way of anything, he figures, that it is hardly worth the cost and effort of protecting it seriously. He makes his way through the aisles, past the overpriced non-perishables, the coolants and motor oils and headlight globes until he reaches a small shelf with a few roadmaps on it. He was hardly expecting to find anything like this here. All self-driving cars are fitted with GPS. But out here in the country, where there is not such a large police presence, some people still drive their old utes and hatchbacks short distances. He looks up at the camera. It looks down at him. He picks up one of the maps and sits down on the floor, out of view of the camera. He can count on one hand the amount of times he’s used a roadmap in the last ten years. These days the buses take him to and from work and he does not need a map to find a bottle shop. He looks through the index to find the pages related to stake hill road. He then rips them out of the book, folds them up and shoves them in his jacket pocket. He stands up and places the roadmap back on the shelf at the bottom of the pile and heads out the door. The young man is gone by the time he makes his exit, off to nowhere in particular John supposes.
Stake Hill Road is only a thirty minute walk from the centre of town. The route is straight though he more than once begins to worry that he has somehow diverged from it. In the midst of one of these short bouts of panic he comes across a rusted old mailbox, standing at an almost forty-five degree angle with the number 31 on it. Why is he here? He wonders. What does he have to gain from coming to this place? He feels as though he’s test driving a life he knows he can never afford. He considers turning around but his curiosity and an ember of blind optimism which he thought long doused, push him up the dirt driveway and through the gate.
He walks up the dirt road that leads to the community, a good half a kilometre or so, he estimates. On either side of him there are gum and banksia trees and small bushes and the ground is littered with brown and withering gum leaves. Eventually he sees the top of a large shed peeking out over some trees on his right. As he gets closer he sees a man leaning back in a camp chair under a portable gazebo. His feet rested on an old trestle table in front of him. The man is chubby, wears a slouch hat, jeans and a button up fishing shirt with a thick jacket over the top. He has a week’s worth of black stubble on his face with flecks of grey throughout. He watches John as he approaches, not moving or saying anything. John stops a few metres from the table.
‘How can I help you, Mate?’ The man says without moving, suspicion in his voice.
‘My name’s John Taylor. Eric told me to come by.
‘We’ve got a couple’a Erics here.’
‘Doctor Eric aye?’ The man takes his feet down and leans forward in his chair.
‘Yeah. I guess so.’ he says, trying to hide the surprise in his voice.
‘And what’d he send you for?’
‘Just to check the place out I guess.’
‘Uh-huh. Alright,’ The man says standing up. ‘You can go through. You gotta wear one’a these though.’ He says reaching into a pocket of the camp chair and pulling out a yellow piece of laminated paper tangled in string.
‘Smart cookie.’ He says and throws the pass to John.
John’s legs bend as he fumbles to catch it. He untangles the string and puts it around his neck.
‘Just keep following the path.’ The man says. ‘The first building you’ll see is the reception. They’ll help you out there.’
‘Okay.’ John takes a few steps and then stops and turns to the man. ‘What’s your name?’
He continues down the trail. A few minutes pass before he begins to hear the sounds of people off in the distance, children playing. A building comes into view, a small demountable no bigger than the shed in his backyard. He reaches the building and knocks on the fly screen door. Through it he sees a small, round woman appear. She looks at him through the door but does not open it.
‘Hello.’ she says, looking up at him.
‘Hi. My name’s John Taylor. I’m here to see Eric Bradbury.’
‘Okay, and is he expecting you?’
‘No. Not today.’
‘Okay, well he might be busy but I’ll see if I can get him on the radio. Wait here please.’ The woman disappears into the room and he hears her speak into the radio.
‘Reception to Dr Eric. Reception to Dr Eric.’
There is silence and then the crackling of static and a distorted voice which he cannot understand. ‘Okay.’ the woman says in response. ‘Thank you, I’ll tell him.’
The woman appears once again behind the screen door. This time she clicks the latch on the handle and opens the it. ‘He’s on the other side of the property. He’ll be about ten minutes.’
‘Okay.’ he says. ‘Thank you.’
‘Would you like a cup’a tea or coffee? Or some water? I can put it in a takeaway cup.’
‘No thank you. That’s kind of you though.’
‘Okay well come and sit inside while you wait for the doctor.’ She pushes the door open and makes way for him. He walks inside and she gestures to an old leather couch that sits against the wall to his left. He sits hunched forward, his hands together. The room looks bigger from the inside. Grey linoleum lines the floor and the cream coloured walls are decorated with old knick knacks and drawings and paintings by young children. There is an ancient Ikea desk on the other side of the room and an old office chair, its fabric beginning to tear at the seams. On the desk there are papers and stationary and an old laptop.
‘What do you do here?’ he asks.
‘Mainly just the office work. Paying the bills and getting any permits we need.’
‘Do you have much trouble?’
‘Not really. I think they’re happy to have us out here. We’re not really depriving them of anything by being out here. And it doesn’t cost them anything more than our basic minimum income.’
‘I see. And are you happy here?’
‘It took a lot of adjusting, and it was a while before I was convinced. But yes, my family and I are very happy here.’
He nods and then leans back in his seat. The woman sits down at the old desk and begins shuffling papers around. There is a knock on the door and Eric enters. He is wearing a rain jacket with the hood pulled down and there is something in his hand. Two small brown paper bags. He is smiling.
‘Room-Service.’ He says.
The woman spins around in her chair and stands up. ‘Hello, you.’ She says smiling.
‘Hello, Sue. How are you?’
‘Lovely thank you, Doctor. You didn’t bring me a muffin did you?’
‘I did. They just had’em cooling as I passed the kitchen.’
‘You’re terrible.’ she says as they meet in the middle and he hands her one of the bags. She turns to look at John. ‘Bribes’ll get you anywhere here.’ She says holding up the bag.
‘How are you, John?’ Eric says, walking over, his hand extended.
John stands up and shakes his hand. ‘Not too bad thanks. Been visiting my son over at Melbrook.’
‘How is he?’
‘He’s alright. Keepin busy. Just trying to make the best of it I guess.’
‘Well that’s good to hear.’ he holds the remaining paper bag up. ‘This is for you.’
‘Oh, thanks.’ John says taking it. The bag is see-through with grease and it feels warm against his numb hands.
‘Got some wonderful cooks here. Sue’s daughter’s one of our master chefs in training.’
‘Well anyway you came here to see the place I’m guessing?’
‘Yeah. I guess so.’
‘Great. I’ll give you the tour.’ he says turning and opening the door. ‘I’ll see ya later, Sue.’
‘See ya, Doc. Nice to meet you, John.’
‘And you.’ He says, following Eric.
They walk a short way down the trail and then they are approaching the community. On either side of the trail there are demountable homes. Some, he thinks, are just single rooms while others look to have as many as four in them. They pass a small grassed area with a barbecue pit and a gazebo and a block of toilets and showers.
‘I didn’t expect to see you again.’ Eric says as they walk.
‘I didn’t think I’d come. I was just passing on the way back from the prison.’
‘Well maybe seeing the place will help you make up your mind.’
‘I think my mind’s pretty well made up.’
‘Then what are you doing here?’
‘Maybe I’m hoping there’s something I’m missing. Some way this can all work out.’
They continue walking. He is in awe of what he sees. A playground, a pen with five fat pigs in it, fruit trees, and too many demountable houses to count, all arranged throughout the grounds in small rows as though in a street. Eventually they arrive at a gate. Through the gate they continue until they come across an enormous where carrots poke out of the ground. Further along he sees corn and what he thinks are snow-peas. Acres upon acres of crops.
‘Jesus.’ he says as they stop walking.
‘We have to eat something.’ Eric says leaning on the fence which surrounds the crop.
‘It’s enormous. I knew it’d be big but I never could’a imagined this. How the hell did you afford this.’
‘Would you believe it was donated?’
‘Neither did I. But it was.’
‘I don’t know. None of us do. Remaining anonymous was part’a the deal.’
‘But why would they?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s a tax write off. Or maybe even some of the one percent have a conscience. Whatever the reason is, we’re very grateful.’
‘And the land tax?’
‘All members pay a small amount of their Basic Wage to help cover the costs. But they don’t need money here, as long as people work they get fed.’
‘Do you really think this is the only answer? Living like this? Isn’t there another way?’
‘This is the only way, John.’ Eric says, gesturing back towards the community. ‘There’s nothing else out there for these people.’
‘But what about you? You never told me you were a doctor. Surely there’s something you could do.’
‘There’s nothing, John. Can’t ya see that you and me are the same? Yes our careers were different, but I’m willing to bet that our stories are almost identical. Stop me if I’m wrong; you bought into the dream: house, nice car, family. You had a job, you worked hard. You didn’t wanna be filthy rich and you didn’t wanna change the world. You just wanted to be comfortable, and you were. But technology caught up with you. Some gear head figured out that your job could be done by a machine, much more efficiently as well. So they let you go. And like that, everything you’d worked so hard for was gone or had at least become totally unstable. Yeah you have the basic minimum wage, but that’s barely enough for groceries, let alone bills and public transport to get to your unskilled job where you earn fifteen dollars an hour ten hours a week. They have these machines, John, that can diagnose illness much more precisely than I could ever’ve hoped to, and much faster too. And that’s a good thing. But what it means is; that I’m obsolete. We’re obsolete, John. The people who run this world don’t want or need us and there’s no place in it for us except under their feet. You, me, and the rest of these people have nowhere else to go. I know you’re being ripped in two, but you have to think of Tony and Melissa, of yourself. Your son made his bed, maybe you need to let him lie in it.’
John looks away from Eric. ‘I can’t. I can’t leave my boy out there.’
Eric looks down at his feet and nods. ‘I admire you, John. But I can’t help you.’
It’s past nine by the time he reaches Rockingham. The bus barrels into the suburb with cold and inhuman speed. As he lays crumpled in his seat he thinks of his son and his wife and daughter and wonders what their future might possibly be. He is vaguely aware of the rambling voice emitting from a tv screen at the back end of the bus, left on by a passenger who has since reached their destination. Some small and impotent act of defiance. He snaps upright as the words Seize the Means flash amongst the droning. He stands, steadying himself on the back of his seat and the one across the aisle, and makes his way toward the noise. He sits in front of the screen playing the news channel. There is footage of a house, trashed and abandoned. Police in riot gear stand idly in the front yard, their weapons held limp in front of them. The reporter details a raid coordinated in hopes of catching people involved in the Seize the Means political group. The inhabitants of the house, however, have moved on. He leans back in his seat and switches off the screen.
He struggles to see through the black night as he makes his way toward the park. Stopping as he reaches the path which leads through it he remembers the girl on the slide and her warning. Drinking down the rest of his beer and tossing the bottle into as bush he takes of down the path, he decides that on the list of people whom he’ll let push him around, a prepubescent drug dealer is not among them. He is not used to walking through the park this late at night and he arrives at the playground much sooner than he realises. He feels relief at the absence of the girl’s silhouette from the space at the top of the slide. Continuing past the playground he freezes as he hears a cough in the distance before him. Composing himself and moving forward he is able to recognise the young girl as she sits cross-legged on the bench.
‘Hi.’ he says as he passes her.
‘Fuck off.’ is the shaky and timid reply.
He stops and turns back toward her. ‘Are you okay?’
‘I said fuck off.’ her frail voice whimpers.
For the first time he remembers the torchlight on his phone. He sits his beers on the path, pulls his phone out and shines its light on the girl. She turns her face away from the light and holds up a shaking hand.
‘What the fuck’re you doin?’ she moans. ‘Fuck off or I’ll get you bashed!’ She turns her head toward him for a moment and he sees the masses of dark on her cheek and beneath one eye, the red splits in her swollen lips and her smashed nose.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Just fuck off.’
He takes a step toward her. ‘I can call someone. I can get you h-’
‘Just fuck off, ya fuckin pedo! You tryna come on to a fuckin thirteen year old girl? Fuck off!’
‘Fine.’ he says turning, forgetting his beers on the path. He continues in haste through the park and she doesn’t call after him and he doesn’t look back.
He wakes early in the morning. His wife is not beside him. He can hear somebody in the kitchen. He gets out of bed and puts on his dressing gown and steps into the hallway. His daughter is in the kitchen. She does not see him as he sits at the breakfast nook. She has earbuds in. She stands at the kitchen counter, in her school uniform, buttering toast. She places the lid on the butter, picks up the container and turns toward the fridge. She pauses as she sees him, smiles and takes out her earbuds. He hears the low buzz of her music coming from the dangling ear pieces.
‘Good morning.’ he says.
‘Did I wake you up coming in last night?’
‘Nope. I was still up.’
‘You sleep in?’
‘Yup. Just a bit.’
‘Don’t be late.’
‘I won’t.’ She says, slinging the straps of her backpack over her shoulders and picking up her piece of toast. She walks around the counter to the breakfast nook and hugs him tight. ‘Love me?.’ She says.
‘I do.’ he says gently gripping one of the arms which embrace him. ‘And I’m proud’a you.’ He fakes a yawn to hide the fact that his eyes are filling with tears. ‘Love me?’
‘Yes. And I’m proud’a you too.’ She lets him go and smiles at him and then she is gone.
He hears her call out a goodbye to her mother in the backyard and then the sound of the gate opening and closing. He wipes his eyes. He stands and walks over to the small table that sits against the wall in the living room. He opens the draw and rifles around the papers and stationary inside until he finds the small card with Eric’s number printed on it. He goes back to his bedroom and takes his phone and dials the number. It rings three times before he hears Eric’s voice.
‘Hi, John. What’s up?’
‘Take them.’ he says.
There is quiet on the other end of the line and then Eric’s voice ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. I’m sure. You can help them. I can’t.’
He walks out the sliding door and into the backyard. He holds a mug of tea in his hand. The steam billows out of it in the frosty morning. The ground is cold against his bare feet. He watches Tony, her back to him, picking beans from one of the many storks and dropping them into a bucket. She has managed to keep all of herself despite it all, he thinks, and he feels that he’s never been more proud of her. He walks across the soil toward her.
She hears him coming and turns around. ‘Good morning, Stop-out. Why were you so late getting back last night?’
He looks away from her face, holds the mug out to her.
‘Thank you.’ she says as she pulls off her gloves, takes it and blows on it.
He hugs her, pulls her head into his chest. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
‘You’ve kept us going. This whole time it’s been you.’
‘Hey, hey.’ she breaks free from his hold and puts the mug down on the ground. It tips over and the tea spills into the dirt. She places her hands on his shoulders and looks up at him. ‘What’s goin on?’
He looks at the ground. ‘You have to go.’
‘You have to go. To the place. The community. You and Mel have to go.’ His eyes are wet.
‘No. No John, no. You come with us. Or we don’t go at all.’ She tries to hug him but he holds her wrists out in front of him.
‘Tony,’ he looks at her now. ‘You and Mel have to go. You go and get settled. That’s your job. I’ll stay here and wait for our boy. And when things change, when they’re different, for our son, we’ll come. But I’ll stay here, for now. That’s my job.’
Her eyes are wet now and he sees pain in her face. She sobs, her head against his chest. He holds her tight.
‘It’ll be okay.’ he tells her. ‘It’ll all be okay.’
Ranee McCombs currently seeks an education at Full Sail University. Aspiring to attain a bachelor's degree in Creative Writing for Entertainment of the Fine Arts. Currently, self-employed McCombs is an entrepreneur, she dabbles in content creation, affiliate sponsorship and web content creation. These led her to Full Sail University. Having practiced perfecting her writing since 7 years old, starting from poems and bleeding into novels and sagas. She graduated with her GED at the age of 17. Ranee McCombs is now 23 years old with two young children. Her son Jeremy is 23 months old and her daughter Ariya is 4 years old.
Joey pumped his arms in excitement and jumped around like a kid. “Man, we got away scot-free.” A huge grin across his face, crooked teeth accompanied a crooked nose.
“Joey, stop talking loud and reckless. We’re away when we’ve got our money and we’re far away from here. Let’s load these up and go.”
Joey snorted, and side eyed Travis who’s halfway across the street. “Hey, while you’re over there talking trash why don’t you get our benefactor,” Joey air quoted with his fingers, “on the line.”
A high-pitched ring pierced the air, the wailing alarm startled the men. Joey fumbled his mailing tube, they clattered and rolled across the gravel.
“Joey, get the art let’s go!” Travis whisper-shouted at Joey who’s chasing his tube down in the middle of the road. The alarm wasn’t loud enough to disguise the unmistakable sound of police sirens in the distance. Travis swore, fumbling in his pocket for his keys and ran toward the trunk. Hurriedly pressing the trunk release on the keys, he threw the mail tube in and swiveled to see what Joey was doing. Joey ran the last couple of feet and tossed his tube in with the other. Travis slammed the trunk down and ran to the driver’s side. He slid behind the wheel, impatiently waiting for Joey. As soon as he shut the door, Travis swerved out of his parking space and down the road.
“Hey, Joey, get Mr. Shumer on the phone. Tell him, we’re on our way,” said Travis.
“Yea ok, whatever you-” the sound of screeching tires and police sirens, stopped Joey mid-sentence. Joey anxious, scanned the rear-view mirror, looking for the cop car. Red and blue lights illuminate the inky dark-blue night and jumped around on the ground and surrounding cars. The police car lurched around the corner, screeching brakes and a bullhorn blared behind them.
“This is the police, pull over now! We will have you surrounded,” said an officer out of his window.
“Okay, we’ll deal with this instead. HANG UP, Joey. Go to the GPS map a route for our back up get-away car. We need to lose these coppers,” said Travis. A swift right down a narrow alley, jostled Joey head first into the dashboard. Joey groaned, cupping his hands around his head.
Travis swore. “See this, is why I always ‘nag’ you about your seat belt. What if you broke your neck, or what if you were knocked out, then I have to navigate and lose the police. GET IT TOGETHER.”
Joey gave him a look that would burn through steel. Rubbing his forehead one more time sullen, pulled his belt around clicking it in before pulling up the GPS. “Alright make a left at Maple Dr. straight ahead.” Joey peered into the rear windshield the cop car had gotten further and further away. “If I can still see him, he can still see us, hurry up and lose him already,” said Joey whining.
Travis eyed the rear-view, Joey’s right, he needed to lose them quick. It’s not quite Maple Dr. but it would have to do. Travis made a sudden left, and almost hit a town car that went in the other direction. He checked the rear view no cop, but it wouldn’t have taken long for the cop after only one turn. Travis made a sharp right, earning a melee of sharp horns and yelling. “Alright, where to now?”
“A left at the next light, then an immediate right.”
“Okay, I think after that we should be good as long as we get to the next car before that cop catches up.”
“Yeah, good thing you wanted to stash the car near-by.”
“Yeah, you mean good thing I didn’t listen to you.” Travis swerved left through a red light. Cars approaching in the intersection skid to a halt, and barely stopped in time. Travis came to a two-way intersection, “This must be the right, and I see the car, go ahead and call Shumer now and let him know we’re on our way,” said Travis.
Joey exited navigation, dialing the contact, then waited for Shumer on the other end. The line went to voicemail. “Hey, you know who it is, we got, uh you know, and we’re ready to make the drop. Call us back, we need to do this tonight.” Joey hung up, looking at Travis out the side of his eyes, head down, waiting for the impending explosion.
“Son of a WH-” said Travis. The screeching halt of brakes and tires censored the rest of his words. Parked haphazardly next to a black sedan, non-descript, fast and safe. Travis slammed the door shut, making his way to the trunk, with the intention of grabbing the art. “Hey Joey, do something useful and get the trunk open.”
Joey shook his head in the front seat, and swore under his breath, Travis was the most agitating partner. It would all be over soon, and they would go their separate ways. Joey reached into the glove compartment and got the keys. Reaching for his phone while opening the trunk, Joey tried to get Shumer on the line one more time. Shumer answered on the second ring.
“Yeah, I got your message, I’m on my way, where are you?” asked Shumer.
“We’re still too close to the heat, lets meet at the halfway point we set up before, we’ll be there in twenty.”
Travis walked up snatched the phone and said, “You better have our stuff.”
They got in the car and pulled off. The ride was short, they pulled into the empty abandoned warehouse lot, parking next to Shumer. Joey got the art and Travis met Shumer and counted their money. Shumer inspected the art smiled and said, “Here is the money, and your passports. Have a nice life boys.”
ALEX DE CRUZ
BLAED A. WOODLEY
ELISE DANIELLE IRWIN
FLO W RYDER
IZOTZ ZUBIZARRETA INTXAUSTI
LEWIS BRETT SMILER
M. Y. DOUGLAS