The son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores, John Tavares was born and raised in Sioux Lookout, a town in Northwestern Ontario and the initial setting for Robertson Davies’ final novel The Cunning Man. He graduated from Humber College and Centennial College, where he studied journalism, as well as York University where he earned a BA Honours, Specialized, in English. He has written short fiction since he was a teenager, recently wrote a novel, and would like to broaden his horizons further into longer forms, although he is happy with his publications in a wide variety of American and Canadian magazines, online and in print. His interests are diverse, but he is particularly fascinated with American literature, including biography, history, and science, and enjoys creative photography.
Every morning George woke up with a sense of dread. He contemplated his life as a middle-aged man and loathed his loneliness. He thought he needed somebody like Maria for a wife, but he did not know how to proceed. Unlike restoring telephone service after a lightning and thunderstorm, courtship was not simple. Emerging from bachelorhood took more than patience.
The telephone company’s only employee in Beaverbrook, George was the operator, customer service representative, manager, sales clerk, and technician for the largest telecom in Canada. After working for four years in Beaverbrook, like previous telephone company employees in the small town, the company expected he wanted a transfer. The regional manager asked him to which market he’d like to move. George said he was more than happy to stay in the Northwestern Ontario community. The manager refused to believe he was content living in the small isolated town in the northern bush, even if it was considered a regional hub, a gateway to the north, because of the airport, highways, and railroad, and George tried to convince him he preferred not to move and another middle level executive of his intentions to stay. When George threatened to quit, the telephone company told him it was their practice in these smaller markets to move employees in these isolated niche markets to larger centers, like Thunder Bay.
George indicated he was happy to live and work in Beaverbrook; he owned his own three-bedroom house, which he dreamed of populating with a wife and children and could not have afforded as a single man in the city like Toronto, his hometown. Since Beaverbrook was a relatively remote town, in the middle of the wild and bush, he did plenty of hunting and fishing, another pursuit he loved and could not pursue in the city. He discovered a mysterious woman he wanted to know better, who he fantasized of making his wife. He nurtured a crush on a woman he believed he possessed a chance to make his wife and that dream encouraged him to stay in Beaverbrook. He found Maria beautiful, shapely, curvaceous, with long, dark flowing jet black hair, but she was modest and dressed plainly. Despite her aboriginal and Mediterranean heritage, she was also fair skinned, pale. Wayne expressed his loathing for her and said she did not get outdoors often.
George met the deliveryman for coffee almost every afternoon. He would have preferred different company, somebody better educated and less cynical and crusty, but the town was small. He could not afford to be fussy about friends. A deliveryman for the grocery store Maria’s father owned before he died, Wayne constantly reminded George the owner’s daughter, pretty and intelligent, was troubled. George grudgingly went for coffee with this former employee of Maria’s father with the understanding Wayne was a curmudgeon, so he didn’t lend his words much credence on his opinion of Maria or why such a beautiful woman could have been single for so long. She could be a lesbian for all they knew, but George believed she was single because she was misunderstood. Maria could not find her own place and niche and earn acceptance in the small town, although her father, an immigrant grocer, was beloved in Beaverbrook and considered a pillar of the community.
Maria woke to the noise of the white rat with pink eyes chewing through the potato chips crumbs haphazardly fallen at the foot of her wicker chair in the laundry room. She loved to read and fell asleep reading a history of the civil rights movement in the United States, in the handcrafted wicker chair in the laundry room. George visited the house to fix her telephone lines, which he occasionally sabotaged so he possessed an excuse to visit her house as he conducted checks and repairs.
While George repaired the equipment and wires, he chatted with Maria. When he asked her if she’d turn off the clothes dryer so they could talk, she said she found the tumbling and churning noises, the steady mechanical turning and churning of the laundry washing machine and dryer, soothing.
“What about the noise from air conditioning?”
The steady rhythm of the fan during the summer and the drone of block heater during the winter also brought her comfort, she replied.
Thinking this an unusual and peculiar trait, he imagined she felt lonely, but he sensed she cherished her solitude.
“Do you like to travel?”
Maria told George she was afraid of flying. She had only flown a few times in her life, including during a trip with her father to his home island in the Azores. In midflight, something odd happened, though: after she had finally calmed down, she found the steady drone of the jet engines oddly comforting.
By the end of the service trip, George ended up encouraging her to try a new modern touchtone telephone, with convenient buttons instead of the irritating rotary dial of the traditional telephone, whose constant use he found annoying and calloused his finger. Still, she insisted he install a new rotary telephone. At the end of his visit, he gave her his home telephone number and urged her to give him a call.
Maria watched what she presumed was an albino rat chewing salty, greasy chip crumbs. When her father and his family physician sent her to visit the psychiatrist in Winnipeg, she thought her love of sour cream and onion potato chips a peculiar trait. The psychiatrist expected somebody who loved sour cream and onion potato chips and ate the snack food so often would be obese.
“You mean fat,” Maria said.
“I meant obese, overweight,” Doctor Hurl replied, making a note in her patient chart. “But you have a pleasing figure.”
That comment made Maria blush, and her cheeks reddened as perspiration broke out on her brow. She thought the visit of the white rat, or the albino rat, peculiar. Rats never visited her house or basement in the small town in Northwestern Ontario previously. She assumed most of them didn’t survive the severe subzero winters, with the ferocity of its cold. Winter was a time when she hibernated, instead of joining those, like George, who ice fished, skied cross-country, snowshoed, or drove snowmobiles, and drank beer and visited the crowded, rowdy bar in downtown Beaverbrook. She remembered the reaction of a college roommate to rats in the dorm room they shared, at The University of Toronto. The roommate stood on her desk and screamed in panic, but Maria reacted calmly in the presence of the unexpected intruder. So she was now with this intruder, an albino, which she thought a neighborhood teen might have released in her house as a prank.
She gently held out her soft smooth hand with potato chips from the supersized bag of sour cream and onion potato chip beside her chair. She even made a kissing noise with her puckering lips as she beckoned the rat over to her extended palm. The rat approached cautiously as it chewed on crumbs from the sour cream and onion flavored potato chips. She patted the rat repeatedly and gently stroked its restless head and back.
The telephone calls began innocuously. In the evening, she usually cooked a TV dinner in a microwave oven. (George believed she was the first resident of Beaverbrook to own a microwave oven; he only saw his first microwave oven a few months ago at a restaurant in Montreal, when he had to attend a training seminar at the company headquarters.) Then she slowly chewed her steaming processed food while she read the latest book club offering, a biography, history, or even a historical romance in a long civil war epic. Her routine was rigorous and methodical, but she found the monotony comforting, and her schedule never varied until the telephone rang. Maria allowed the telephone to ring exactly five times. Five noisy rings of the telephone—five rings of the rotary telephone was the amount of time she took, shuffling her feet in her slippers. She stepped upstairs from the laundry room to the kitchen, where the telephone nestled atop a gateleg table since she had been a child, but often the caller gave up after three or four rings, but not George.
George started making the telephone calls, hoping that she would complain, which would provide him the opportunity to interact with her. He hoped to persuade her to upgrade her telephone to a touch telephone and buy the newer caller identification devices. When he telephoned her in the early evening, he spoke no words and merely listened and he realized he risked being labeled a creep and a stalker, but his motives were pure and humane; he hoped she would open up. An only child, she had moved into the lakeside house on Lakeshore Street with her parents at the age of three. Her father passed away at the age of seventy-seven, after he and his wife lived in the house for past forty-two years. Her mother passed away at the age of seventy-nine, seven years later. She lived with her mother in the same house she inherited up until her mother’s death. Her mother died after she became mute, refusing to speak even Oji-Cree, and refused to eat, except tiny portions of bannock and pemmican, accompanied by sips of tea and drags on her hand rolled cigarettes, until one-by-one her organs failed.
Maria never worked outside the house, except for a few weeks during the summer after she graduated from high school when she worked as a cashier in her father’s grocery store, Comida, which turned out to be unnecessary, since, as her father put it, she was delicate and a lady. Her mother felt disappointed Maria had never been able to find a job and her father believed she was better off with a husband, but her parents expressed support for their daughter, reminding any clan member who cared to inquire, their daughter was of a shy, retiring nature. The psychiatrist she earlier saw at her parents’ orders diagnosed neurosis, phobias, and panic attacks, suffered since grade school. Since then she read books on psychiatry and abnormal psychology and researched mental illness and thought, if you were in the mood for dickering and were pedantic, you might add social phobia to the list.
After her father and then her mother died, she had no need to work, since she inherited the house, annuities, pensions, bonds, conservative blue chip stocks and even twenty years treasury bills. A devoutly religious man, her father started with a corner convenience store, Comida, which grew into a Railyardside Street grocery store, expanded into the town’s largest supermarket as his frugality, thrift, hard work, and sharp business sense put competitors, including another independent grocer, out of business. Her father had an unusual reputation in business for honesty and fairness, returning stock that “fell of the truck.” He personally accepted without question the return of sour milk, moldy cheese, stale bread, rotten produce, and packaged and processed food past the best before date. George expressed incredulity he did not charge check cashing fees or interest on credit.
A Portuguese immigrant, a member of the first wave of immigrants to land in Canada from the Azores, he came to Northwestern Ontario to work for the railroad. He learned to speak English from Beaverbrook residents and Oji-Cree from the indigenous residents of nearby reservations and especially from his wife, Maria’s mother. Even in his private life and affairs, he practiced what he preached in his personal and business ethical principles. Likewise, he stayed true to his own homespun economic philosophy of thrift, economy, and conservative investment, saving money earned from investments and business profits. Her father was also the only non-native man she knew who actually spoke the Oji-Cree language, which helped him in business with residents from the reserves and band councils.
In fact, they usually preferred business with him, an immigrant, one of the first Portuguese Canadians to arrive from the Acores in the nineteen-fifties. George learned more about her parents and their contribution to the community from speaking to Wayne, the grocery deliverymen for Comida and after reading an article she wrote for a local history. After the head of the local library called and badgered her to write a family history in the town, she made this literary contribution to the volume, which she also urged her to buy. She slammed shut the set of encyclopedias and the local history, a heavy hardcover books she mounted atop a paperback book whose dog-eared pages she wished to flatten. The albino rat continued to visit her, rustling its feet, scratching the linoleum with it tiny claws. She continued to pet and kiss the rat and to feed it crunched and crumpled sour cream and onion potato chips. Telephone calls continued to interrupt her routine.
Maria became so intrigued with the albino rat she ordered an extension telephone installed in the laundry room. She began to spend most of her time in the laundry room, beside the oil furnace and woodstove, since she always encountered the albino rat amidst the laundry baskets and washing machine and the dryer.
Every afternoon he called. She assumed the person who dialed her number was a man, but she could not put a name to the interlocutor. She would pick up the telephone, say hello once, and listen carefully and patiently—for the slightest noise or sound, heavy breathing, any kind of background or ambient sound. She said hello again and a third time and then listened to the silence, the static and cackling. She emitted a loud, bolder, more assertive hello, but she could hear nothing but the noise of a live telephone connection. George, hoping she would eventually initiate a conversation, made no loud noises, no heavy breathing wheezed. He left on no television or radio broadcast. Then the line went dead with a click, after George hung up the telephone. In the background, an uncanny silence pervaded the occasional cackle and static on the telephone and then the line went dead.
The rat continued to visit her at night. She even offered it her favorite potato chips and a sip of coffee, which the rat drank as she patted its white coat with her fingers. For weeks, the calls continued in the early evening, interrupting Maria as she read her way through several historical, romance, crime, and detective novels. At times, later at night, when she began to feel lonely, she thought about the caller and his potential intentions. For the most part, she felt unafraid, and even smitten—in love, perhaps. She envisioned, imagined, the caller was a gentleman, whose manner over the telephone betrayed his lack of knowledge of formal English. Like her father, she believed, he was a blue-collar man, dark, handsome, of Mediterranean European ancestry. She imagined he was a carpenter or a mason, with a gentle voice and immaculate manners learned at the hand of a strict Catholic mother. Despite what she considered her less than endearing physical attributes, her pale skin, and her shy and retiring quality, and her love of plain food and salty snacks, including sour cream and onion potato chips, she understood he was a man who would love her. He could accept her personality, just as she would accept what she perceived was his muteness, inability to speak articulate English, a language her parents never mastered since her father was fluent in Portuguese and Oji-Cree, and the mother tongue of his wife was Oji-Cree. In fact, after he suffered a stroke, her father only spoke Portuguese, which forced his retirement from business and the sale of his grocery store Comida. Her mother shied away from English and usually only spoke Oji-Cree with her father, friends, and family. Her lover could accept her foibles and she would embrace him. He would tolerate her at her worst, just as she might teach him English as a second language.
He would accept her regimented life, her love and passion for routine and reading, her reluctance to leave the house, except only when most absolutely necessary. She received her clothes in mail and courier parcels. Her imported food was delivered by Wayne, who clerked at the grocery store father once owned. She usually only ventured from the house after she swallowed a diazepam, which she chased down with a glass of sherry.
Meanwhile, George called her every day, in the early evening. He hoped she would complain and then he would urge her to install a modern touch-tone telephone with a caller ID box. After a ferocious lightning storm, phone service and electricity was interrupted for nearly two days. Caught up in service calls and trips to restore telephone service, he stopped calling, but she continued to await the telephone calls.
George again offered to install a brand new cordless touchtone telephone, in bold bright red. He liked the telephone so much he wanted to keep it for himself, but the vivid color was wrong for him. He was so insistent he thought she ordered the telephone merely to placate him. When he brought the telephone over, she thanked him and took the cordless telephone in its shipping package. She said she would keep the telephone in the original packaging and have the red telephone installed at some point in the future. George shrugged and again offered her his telephone number. He encouraged her to call him, but he did not hear from her.
The white rat continued to visit her in the laundry room where George installed an ordinary rotary telephone he considered a piece of junk, which she leased for a pricey rate from the telephone company. After she conducted her research, she realized this was no ordinary house rat. The mysterious visitor to the laundry room was potentially an albino or laboratory rat, with pink eyes and a white coat, but where the creature originated was a mystery.
Maria kept in her home library a book on exotic pets, which remained on her bookshelf and informed her she should not feed rats potato chips, but, better yet, bread soaked in milk. So Maria ripped up slices and soaked pieces of white processed bread, soft, squishy hot dog and hamburger buns, from the shelves of Comida, in partially skimmed milk. The rat refused to eat the white bread, so she continued to feed it her favorite sour cream and onion potato chips, which the rat consumed voraciously.
When she did not receive any more anonymous calls, she felt disappointed and wondered what became of her gentleman suitor. She continued to await his calls. As days and then weeks passed, she wallowed in sadness and then panicked and became distraught. In fact, she found it difficult to concentrate on her reading, the passion and love of her life.
From the Toronto telephone directory her father kept from twenty years ago, when he attended business seminars and meetings in the city, she compiled lists of surnames, entries with Spanish, French, Italian, and Greek sounding names, and their corresponding telephone numbers. Her father used the telephone directory to contact importers of ethnic foods for special orders from Beaverbrook’s immigrant population, Italian, Ukrainian, German, and French customers who ordered foreign made cheeses and sausages and salted and cured fish and meats. The list of names was long, made in legible fine print. On the average day, she filled close to a ruled sheet with names and numbers.
Then she took several days to call each name and number on her telephone. Each time she called, she asked the person who answered if there was not a gentleman who wished to speak with Maria. Sometimes she found herself engaged in long telephone conservations with different people. By turn, they found her fascinating, nervous, lonely, smart, and articulate, albeit a few respondents who grudgingly answered the phone concluded she was mentally ill.
After several months of her phone calls, a police officer came to her house, knocking loudly and insistently on her front door. He looked grim, intimidating the lakeshore neighbors with his glare as he pounded the door and directed the utility van into the driveway. When she answered the door, he showed her a search warrant and an arrest warrant for mental health reasons. He introduced an owlish man in scrubs who accompanied him, a nurse from the psychiatric ward of Lake of the Woods Hospital. A telephone technician, whom the police service borrowed from the telephone company’s Kenora office, also came to the house. Her telephone was disconnected, seized, taken away by the technician, and tossed into the rear of his cluttered utility van. The police officer, who worked for the provincial force, had been trained with the big city Southern Ontario police service in social work and mental health counseling, a job, he told Maria as she began to sob, he left due to burn out. He advised her to keep an appointment with her family physician and psychiatrist, or face possible arrest.
The next day, she sat in the laundry room, reflective, pondering. She burned the sheets of names she had called for the last several months, in the woodstove. Eventually, Wayne the Comida deliveryman dropped by her house, asking why she had not called or answered her phone for the past several weeks. She said a malicious rat, chewing through her telephone line, interrupted her phone service. She drew up a list of groceries, which surprised him with a request for rat poison. In the afternoon, Wayne bought her groceries, including a large cardboard box containing twelve supersized bags of sour cream and onion potato chips, straight from the distribution warehouse of the snack food factory. Then he showed her a specially marked container of rat poison with a skull and crossbones warning symbol. He cautioned her about rodenticide’s dangers, and advised her in its proper usage. If she forgot, she could always read the label for instructions.
She asked the grocery deliveryman to leave the groceries in the veranda. She left rat poison with the crumbs from the sour cream and onion potato chips for the albino rat. Several days later, when she discovered her favorite rat dead beside the stack of Encyclopedia Britannica and the local history volume on her laundry room, she broke into tears and sobs.
In a few weeks, the deliveryman discovered the groceries accumulating in the veranda outside the front door to the house. Wayne helped himself to her heirloom jewelry and cash in her bedroom and living room. Afterwards he even began to help himself to the groceries that had not perished. The food that perished or was no longer fresh he threw into the garbage.
Later, George received documents shipped by courier to the business office of the telephone company. When he opened the officious looking legal size envelope, he found court approval to reconnect her phone service. Court approval to reinstall her telephone? What?! He was disappointed the police and courts became involved. Riled, he vented angrily at Wayne over his morning coffee at the judicial system—that they would gang up on and prey on a lonely woman, but he realized this was the way of society and its institutions; many were not open-minded and compassionate. Wayne shocked him with the revelation she had ordered rat poison, and George started to worry.
George proudly brought her a new phone, which he paid for with his account, the best, newest cordless telephone set he could find, with premium features, including caller and name id, speed dialing, a speakerphone, numerous other convenient features, and a three-year warranty, including the set of double AA batteries for the handset, which was rechargeable.
The night before he visited her house on the work order he wrestled with sleep.
Instead of waking up early wondering how he had managed to make it to middle age without a wife, now he could not sleep. He wondered how he could survive the remainder of his life without a spouse. He went to sleep and dreamed: he rang the bell at her house several times and knocked on the front door, but there was no answer. He glanced at the windows and drove around the neighborhood block several times, as he checked his hair, mustache, and teeth in the rear view mirror. Then he crumpled up the work order and finally summoned the courage to visit her home, ready to reconnect her phone to the telephone lines and cables and boxes. He kept knocking, noticing a strong odor, which initially he found repugnant, but made him more determined to contact her. After returning several times and getting no answer or reply, at the door or back door, he realized something was wrong and used his toolkit to break through the front door into her house. He realized he should call the police, but his need, his impulse, to do something immediately, to help, was strong. He cautiously stepped room to room, checking, and finally found her body in the laundry room body decomposing, according to strict natural laws, on the wicker chair close to where he planned to connect the new telephone to phone jacks. The receiver of the bright red telephone, in a color too bold and vivid for him, a cordless set he had given her earlier, was cradled against her head with its beautiful long flowing dried hair and decomposing flesh and the withered tissue left of her ear.
That was when he woke up, disturbed by the dream and contemplated his future. He was filled with regret at his own dreams and illusions, his fantasies of a relationship with a woman who seemed happiest alone, and how his own anonymous calls may have set in motion a series of events, including those of a psychological nature, that unbalanced her, knocked out of balance her sense of equilibrium, in her solitary existence. Still, he thought he needed to make illusion reality. From a glasses case, which contained his deceased mother’s bifocals, he took his father’s wedding band and his mother’s wedding ring, inherited, both plain gold bands for fingers of approximately equal size, into his breast pocket, alongside his pocket protector, pen, and notebook.
That morning instead of dropping by the coffee shop for coffee, and jabbering and gossiping with the Comida grocery deliveryman, he went straight to her house. He glanced at the windows and drove several times around in the neighborhood, as he checked his hair, mustache, and teeth in the rear view mirror. Then he crumpled up the work order and finally summoned the courage to visit her home, ready to reconnect her phone to the telephone lines and cables and boxes.
As he reattached the wires to her telephone, which was unnecessary, since really all he needed to do was plug in the jack into the phone box, he asked her if she wanted to get married.
“Pardon me? I don’t think I—I—I heard you correctly?”
George looked up from the telephone cables and the wires he attached to the base for the cordless telephone. He set his pliers on the washing machine and took both plain gold rings from his breast pocket beside his notepad and pens. He set both rings on her finger and the pair fit snuggly.
“Would you marry me?” he asked.
She took a deep breath and started to hyperventilate. He brought her a glass of water and when her shaking ceased and her voice was not tremulous, she said, “I’ll say yes for now, but if I change my mind later will you be angry or upset?”
“I might be upset but I won’t be angry, particularly at you.”
She thought he might have said that the same way she would consider opening another bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, but whim and impulse she could not ignore as she reached and hugged him. Then she asked him if he could help her bury a beautiful rat with the coat of a polar bear and pink eyes in the huge backyard garden her father and mother had maintained so beautiful and which he had become overgrown with thick weeds and tall grass.
Alexander Jones has placed short fiction in Akashic Books, Bastion Magazine and Crack the Spine, among other publications. His poetry has appeared in Down in the Dirt and Juice Magazine and his nonfiction has been anthologized by 2 Leaf Press. He has a BA in English/ Creative Writing from SUNY New Paltz and a day job as a metal fabricator. He lives in Jersey City.
Art shackled his bicycle to the chain link fence off the pedestrian path in the park and sat down on the bench next to Ray. Ray, slouched against the thick wooden slats, took a hand out from the pouch pocket on his hooded sweatshirt and the two lightly touched knuckles.
Art shrugged, adjusting himself on the cold wood. “You know. Same shit.”
Ray nodded. “I know.”
They both stared across the path at the dirty river and the twinkling lights of the city on the far shore. They listened to the muted traffic sounds of horns blaring and engines revving from the highway overpass in the sky above them. Car exhaust drifted and settled to the ground, the smell less burnt and acrid at this distance. Layered beneath was the sweet autumn odor of rotting leaves, signaling the impending winter.
Farther down the path, an old man with pock marks on his face cast a line into the gray water. Otherwise, they had the park to themselves.
“What’s he gonna catch, fishing this river?” Art asked.
“Cancer.” This joke never got old.
Art slapped Ray’s thigh and rubbed his hands together. “So. Whatcha got?”
Ray grinned. “You’re feeling it? You want it?” Then, with a slight teasing edge to his voice, “You need it?”
“Yeah, I want something. It’s cold out. Something to lift the blues.”
“But do you need it?”
“Stop busting my balls.” But he had no animosity, no annoyance. Just another part of their little ritual dance.
Ray shrugged. “Alright.” He wagged a finger, “You know, you do too much of this shit and you won’t remember-”
“And I won’t remember who I really am anymore,” Art singsonged. “Right.”
Cracking his knuckles, Ray reached under his sweatshirt and came up with a worn brown leather satchel about the size of a hard cover book. He slowly unzipped and flipped it open.
Ray called it his twonky. He’d named it after a science fiction story, he had once explained.
On one side, snuggly tucked into little pockets were vials of various sizes filled with a rainbow of colored gasses. Some labeled, some not. All firmly stoppered. On the other side were different sized empty vials and ampules, a pipette, a baggie of spare stoppers, some notes scrawled on scraps of paper.
Ray pawed through the collection of colored vials, pausing at a yellow one. “A kid, playing with a Labrador puppy.”
“You serious? That’s a commercial for laundry detergent or something.”
Ray smiled. “You like to bike. How ‘bout a cyclist in an important race? Bought it a week ago. Tour duh France. Last few miles, exhausted, wanting that trophy so bad. Exhilarating. Inspirational shit. You can feel the wind in your hair.”
“I feel the wind in my hair right now,” Art answered, a smoggy breeze wafting down from a tractor trailer overhead. “Besides, that sounds like it’s been used a few times already. Third, fourth generation. Right?”
Ray lit a cigarette. “Now who’s busting balls?” He smoked. “But you’re right, it’s been passed around a few times, but it’s still pretty clear. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
Ray tossed his cigarette. “I’ve got something special. A girl.”
“A woman.” Ray nodded his head. “Not just fucking her. An entire relationship with a beautiful woman. I got it from one of the washouts down at the university. Not some blowup doll fantasy, either. A real relationship.”
Art licked his lips. “Is it fresh? No thin spots, no hiccups? How much?”
“It’s been a while, you know? I’m reluctant to part with her.”
“I thought you were a terror junkie. You getting soft?”
“I haven’t got a hundred.”
“There’s an ATM at the bodega.”
“I don’t have a hundred. Besides, remember that guy tortured by the Chinese secret police? I gave that to you for practically nothing.”
“Yeah." Wistful, he said: "That was something. Only thing better was what I got from that Holocaust survivor in my mother’s apartment building.” He tittered. “Good times.”
Art didn’t want to hear about that again. “So you owe me.”
“True. But I’m not letting go of her for just money alone. On principal. Nothing scary ever happened to you?”
“I OD’ed once.”
“Coke or Heroin?”
Art smiled at him. “Speedball. Best of both worlds, right?”
Ray shook his head. “Not for me.”
Art looked over at the river, at the ripples extending from a bridge pylon in the center, lapping against the stone barrier at the edge of the park. The gray brown water held a shifting reflection of the city’s lights. A protracted blast from a car horn came from the bridge.
Ray touched his shoulder, and when Art turned, gave him a glass vial. About three quarters full, it held a coppery red smoke. Art shook it and the smoke languidly responded to the motion. “Dense.”
“Yeah, it’s a whole relationship, like I told you.”
“It’s red,” Art said, the heavy smoke drifting as he shook the vial again.
“Hey, red’s the color of passion, am I right?”
Returning the vial, Art said, “So what, then?”
“Fifty. And something horrible.”
Art dug through his pockets and handed Ray a wad of money. Then, touching his chin, he leaned his head back against the cold wood of the bench, eyes closed. The dread of coming home from school, walking around the block a couple extra times, waiting for his father because his father used to beat him with a doubled over belt. Getting caught with the belt buckle a few times. He’d pissed himself once, and pissed blood after the beating he caught for pissing himself in the first place. As a teenager, he’d broken into a junkyard to find a quiet place to get high, but a Rottweiler started chasing him. He remembered that clearly.
Opening his eyes, looking out at the water, Art thought of it. His best terror. Better than the mangy dog, or the belt.
“You got something?”
Art nodded. “It’s good.”
“It better be. You only gave me 43 dollars.”
“It’s a fair trade.”
Ray held up the vial. Sunlight caught and projected the smoky red color onto his washed out sweatshirt. They both stared at it and Ray danced the vial around, the reflected red light shifting around on his shirt. “Want to take a sample?”
Art shook his head. “Have you ever steered me wrong?"
Ray produced an empty vial from the twonky.
Ray handed him another empty vial, half the size of the one holding the relationship.
Art rubbed his eyes and stared at the churning river water, remembering everything, fastening on to details, his emotions, his beating heart, playing it over in his head and over again, over and over, faster and faster. When the memory started to spin, Art took it into the palm of his hand. He gently rolled it into a ball and squeezed it, compressed it to the size of a dinner roll and then smaller to the size of a golf ball, then smaller still to the size of a vitamin pill, careful not to lose anything, careful not to fracture it or fold it too many times, careful not to melt it with his body heat, and when he had the memory just right, he placed it right on the end of his tongue and drew in a deep, diaphragmatic breath.
Uncapping the vial he exhaled sharply through his mouth and the memory flowed into the tube. Art swiftly covered the opening with his thumb and then pushed in the rubber stopper.
The color inside the clear glass was the same color as the river water.
“That was good. You’re getting to be a pro.”
“I found a book about yoga and meditating. Expand your mind, control your center. Shit like that.”
Ray handed him the red vial. “Maybe you’ll get tantric with the girl.”
Overhead, rush hour traffic crawled. The old man had caught two fish, flopping around in a sack at his feet, and was loading up the line again. They watched as he cast.
“You wanna do them together, or wait till you get home?”
Art shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Let’s do ‘em here.”
They touched their vials together, toasting.
“To pleasant memories.”
Ray popped out the stopper, held the vial to his nose and sniffed all of it in a single shot. Art opened his and savored the smoke.
The campus gallery doesn’t open for another hour, but there are already people inside. They’re standing around and talking, pointing and gesturing at things, smiling or maybe trying to appear erudite as they hold forth on this or that. The gallery strikes the right blend of open space and bright lighting without being harsh or sterile. Those lights are extra soft fluorescents, I know because I’d installed them a week ago, nervous at the top of a twelve foot ladder.
In some places the floor is polished wood, in others it’s a sepia toned carpet which I’d vacuumed and steamed earlier in the day. I smile, the way I usually do when I get assigned to work in this area of the school. The paintings are someone’s work, displayed in the gallery, and the gallery display is my work. I stick around for the exhibits; a part time chemistry undergrad doesn’t get enough exposure to the artistic types. I’m deliberately adding to my well-rounded education, learning things I wouldn’t learn without the effort. Making myself cultured. Plus my boss thinks I’m clean cut enough to represent the maintenance department.
There’s a girl standing alone, off to the side, close to one of the walls, staring at one of the smaller paintings. I remember first being aware of her hair, a deep red flowing over the collar of her shirt. Irish? I wondered.
“You like it?” I ask, walking up beside her.
She shrugs. “You?”
I look at the painting, thinking of something to say, something on point and witty to make me sound smart, something to impress her with my depth of artistic insight and rapport, because I already know that it’s her own painting. No one in this gallery stands in front of one painting, staring, unless it’s their own.
I come up short on the sagacious artist front, so I step in a little closer, squinting theatrically. “It’s cocked.”
“What?” she asks, forehead wrinkling, drawing up her little button nose.
I grin at her when our eyes meet. “I said that it’s cocked.” I continue. “Cocked. You know…”
When her expression shifts to puzzlement, my grin widens. “Tilted.” I hold my forearm at an incline.
“Oh.” Her face relaxes as a thin smile comes to her lips.
“Oh?” I repeat. I want this girl to smile, really smile at me, and maybe laugh, or I want to know that I tried even if I failed miserably, so I say, “Oh , did you think I was saying something dirty to you?”
She blushes, her eyes darting to the floor, and bites her lower lip. “Ummm…”
Time to reel her back in, time to say something friendly or look pervy and blow it. I shrug. “I can’t think of any other dirty sounding things I can say about your painting.”
She turns to me with an amused expression and says, “How do you know it’s my painting?”
“Because you’re not admiring it. You look like you want to change something, fiddle with it.”
“So do you.”
“I’m the one who hung it here. So if it’s cocked, then I didn’t do a good job.”
“It looks alright.”
“That’s just my point. We’re not spectators admiring a piece of art in a gallery. Both of us are looking at your painting like it’s our work .”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that.”
"So it is your painting, right?"
Her smile widens so I forge ahead. "“See, this painting over here” I gestured, “I didn’t hang it and you didn’t paint it, so we can go over there and admire it together.” I touch her shoulder.
“How do you know I didn’t paint this one, too?” she asks, falling into step with me.
I smile at her. “Because this one isn’t as good as yours.”
She laughs, finally. “I’m Fran.”
“And I’m Eddie.”
“So,” she asks, as we make our way along the gallery wall, “Was the painting really cocked?”
“Well, the answer to that depends.”
“Whether I get your phone number.”
Our first date at an Italian place away from campus goes well, after I spend 20 minutes combing each strand of my hair into place before meeting her in front of the student union. We talk about her plans, her art, what she wants to be when she grows up and makes her impact on the world. I don’t talk too much about changing light bulbs at the school, more about chemistry and metallurgy, and she’s listening when I talk about the summer internship I spent extracting and smelting gold from junked computer parts at a reclamation plant. I try explaining to her why I like the work. How the impersonal challenge to formulate the best titration of chemicals is in fact a call to outwit and outsmart the immutable laws of physics. She nods and says that art is the same, it’s all about getting as close to your ideal vision as you can. That’s right, I say, and the little silence after that is comfortable and familiar instead of the stilted, awkward silences that sometimes happen on first dates when there will be no second. This quiet moment, shared during a plate of overcooked linguine, is when I fell for her.
It’s on the second date, sitting on the steps of the gallery, enjoying the warm summer night when Fran spots the burn on my forearm, a souvenir from the sulfuric acid baths I set up to get the gold. She touches the wrinkled scar, running a nail over it, and I kiss her even though I wouldn’t have a second earlier. She’s into the kiss, our lips work together, hers moist, and we hold hands. I touch her red hair and the back of her neck, her skin soft and warm as we draw to each other. Her eyes closed, mine open.
Later that night in my apartment I touch the rest of her. Her nipples are the thinnest pink against her luminous white skin, and when I touch them too eagerly her breath catches and her forehead wrinkles and her nose scrunches up; I’ve gone too far too fast, gotten out of sync with her, and something about her scrunched up nose turns me on and melts my heart at the same time, and I kiss the tip of it and she giggles and then we’re both laughing. Together.
Over time that togetherness grows and we relax and I learn her, getting to know her mentally by touching her physically, the way her eyes close tight and her two front teeth show the slightest white against her lips when she’s enjoying my touch and I feel like I’ve accomplished something, something more than just getting off or even getting her off, something greater than myself, this is what separates having sex from making love and in a way, it’s the same challenge of getting as close as I can to the ideal, having her enjoy it, having her wanting it to match my wanting it. And it only gets better.
One night in the dead of winter we rush inside, into the warmth of the apartment we now share, and start kissing, fooling around, dropping our things and pulling off our winter jackets and boots as we heat up together. We have sex in the kitchen because we don’t make it to the bedroom. The windows steam up and she shivers when I touch her with ice cold fingers. She’d been painting something with a bright blue acrylic paint which was still on her hands and the next morning I’m laughing to myself while she gets dressed. When she asks me what’s so funny, I show her the blue streaks she’d left on my body and tell her I’d been having sex with Smurfette.
She fills out paperwork for schools, I help her assemble a portfolio and write an essay over a bottle of wine and Chinese takeout. That night we make love and I tell her that her work was good and any school would want to have her as much as I wanted to have her, and that I loved her. The next morning I mail her application on my walk to work. It gets rejected, and we send a few more a couple months later.
I finally graduate and my mom visits and the two sit together in the auditorium while I collect my diploma. I take pictures of them both. At some point over dinner when Fran goes to the bathroom, my mother leans across the table and tells me that my father would have loved her, and that’s why I’m teary when she returns and whispers “What’s wrong?” and my mother winks at me.
Fran’s father is a retired lawyer with a firm handshake and calluses like mine from working in his basement wood shop. I shake his hand when we take a trip out to her parent’s for a Thanksgiving weekend. Her family is cozy and wholesome, her brother plays lacrosse and her mother makes the best turkey I’ve ever had, but the thing I’m taken with is her bedroom, preserved just as it must have been when she finished high school, with stuffed animals on the bed and a vanity mirror in the corner. I look through her yearbook and read the inscriptions. Fran tells me that her father worked from home and kept odd hours, sometimes working through the night, so she never got to christen the bed, not even with her old boyfriend Todd who’d drawn a heart on the back page. So we do, and joke about hearing a power saw whining through the floor as we finish.
The ring is good. My timing is bad. The ring is made out of titanium because any metallurgist knows that titanium shines brighter than silver, is stronger than steel, is more malleable than gold, and never tarnishes, all of which I think is a metaphor for love which I’m trying to articulate as I show her the ring. Fran takes it, says “Oh Eddie” and starts to cry. She says she loves me but she doesn’t say yes and she shows me an acceptance letter from one of those schools she’d applied to months earlier. It’s bitter and ironic that she’s been rejected by her safety school right across town; I could have dropped her off on my way to work, but her dream school has admitted her. Her dream school is an art institute in New Zealand. I’m quiet as I feel a void open somewhere inside, but then I tell that she has to go and she says that she has to stay so I tell her she has to go, and somehow we end up fighting, screaming at each other, both of us so determined to make the other happy that now we’re miserable.
The day before she leaves almost everything is moved out. The place has magically transformed from our home back to a shitty ground floor two bedroom apartment in a rotting triple decker in a questionable neighborhood. Her things have been shipped back to her folks, and I’m already moved into my new place.
“I got you something,” she tells me nervously, holding out a package to me. I take it from her, the brown wrapping paper crinkling in my hands.
“What is it?” I ask, running my index finger over the seam where she’d taped the wrapped package closed.
“Something I want you to have.”
“What is it Fran?” I regard her warily as I still touch the wrapping paper. Lately, everything we say to each other has layers to it. Will the contents of this package hurt me some more?
She says nothing, her arms folded under her breasts, so I rip open the paper. Inside is the painting, the one from the gallery.
“Great. I’ll be able to auction it in twenty years. I’ll tell people that ‘I knew her, way back when.’”
“Please don’t start.”
“Start? Start what?”
Holding up the painting, I squint at it theatrically. “You know that it wasn’t.”
I reach out to her. She comes to me, and I kiss her. “That painting. It wasn’t-”
“It wasn’t cocked. It was perfectly level.”
She starts to cry, and her hands cover her mouth so that it almost looks like she’s yawning, one of those little things about her that I love.
I kiss her again.
We make love, but it isn't loving the way I've enjoyed and come to expect without taking for granted; instead, it's the way I'd imagine the last meal of a condemned prisoner must be- no matter how well cooked and how delicious, the taste and texture of the food isn't what's relevant and can't cover up the reality to follow.
We kiss, lick, rub, suck, tease, squeeze, please; grunting, moaning, panting, gasping, grasping, inhaling, expelling and finally holding each other, sweaty from the press and the crush, breathing each other’s breath all for the last time.
At some point the sky lightens and I hear a car horn outside. A yellow cab.
Fran leans close, so I feel her lips against the peach fuzz on my ear. “I knew it wasn’t cocked.”
Then she kisses me, and then she’s gone.
Coughing, he sat up on the bench and he touched his face, cheeks sticky with drying tears. He rubbed at the slurry in his eyes smearing his vision, rubbed until he could see straight. Staring at the ground in front of him, he leaned forward, his back cracking as he sat up straight.
“Dude,” he said, turning to Ray. “That was… I can’t even say what.”
Ray said nothing.
“Worth every penny.” Art nudged him. “Ray?”
The hood of his sweatshirt fell back, revealing Ray’s pale, slack face. His blue lips, parted, revealed his tongue, also blue, and a rope of drool slid out from the corner of his mouth. His glassy eyes shined wide at nothing.
“No,” Art breathed, leaning towards him. Ray’s body shifted and slid part way off the edge of the bench, his knees scraping the leaves on the ground.
At age nine, Art spent a Christmas with his cousin who lived upstate, out in the woods. Behind his cousin’s house was a scrubby polluted pond that looked idyllic, surrounded by trees all dusted with a crust of snow. When she heard them preparing to go outside, boots dragging across the vestibule floor his aunt called out "Stay off the lake, like I told yooz," without looking up from the Price is Right. The two went outside, crunched their way through the snow covering his cousin’s yard and along the short path to the lake itself. They stared at the wan sun, and at the glare it made on the frozen water. Then Art took a shaky step down, balancing himself against the shore with a tree branch he found. He shuffled a few paces across the perfectly smooth, clean ice and turned. He slipped and almost busted his ass, moon walking to catch himself. From the shore, his cousin snorted with laughter.
“Why don’t you come here and laugh in my face, motherfucker?” He yelled, liking the echoes.
“Cause I’m not a crazy fuck, like you!” his cousin called back.
Art called him a pussy and slid out a few more feet. The ice below him sighed and cracked, a gunshot in the stillness. Art’s breath caught in his throat. Pulse pounding, his body went ramrod straight and stiff. Suddenly burning hot with tension, a drop of sweat rolled into his eye, and after a long, unquantifiable time of staring at the spider web of cracked ice beneath his feet, waiting, waiting for something to happen, he slowly, timidly stepped back toward the shore, toward his cousin, now watching him, wide eyed.
The lake surface here felt solid, so he shifted his weight onto the stepping foot. Nothing. He stepped again, another mincing step toward solid ground, toward land, and again, nothing. He let out the breath he’d been holding for so long that he couldn’t remember taking it and inhaled a fresh blast of cold air. Some of his tension faded as Art relaxed a hair.
The ice gave way.
Art let out a short scream that lasted until he submerged, the freezing water going right down his gullet through his open mouth, running up the cuffs of his pants, through his shirt, soaking everything, the gray iron water so cold it didn't even feel cold, just shocking. Art thrashed around. He sank into the frigid mud at the bottom, kicking up dirt and filthy sediment so thick it blotted out the sunlight and he couldn’t tell which direction was up, so he thrashed harder, twisting and corkscrewing himself further and further into his clothes which bound and tied him up, so that finally he lay in the muck, punching and kicking until he gasped for breath. The cold water flooded in. Now the cold inside him matched the cold of the lake outside him, and Art weakened further, his struggles feeble as his time stretched out, as each softer and softer thump of his balled fist against the sticky, yielding mud took longer and longer, became more and more epic in fuzzier and fuzzier slow motion. Too tired to panic anymore he had one last lucid thought, “This isn’t too bad,” before the blackness took him.
He didn’t remember the ambulance crew his cousin summoned, being pronounced dead, the epinephrine shot that restarted his heart, or the coma; he remembered only the cold, the terror, the dark. The grogginess as he woke up in the hospital two days later, for once glad to see his father and mother, was worlds away.
“No,” Art repeated, “no, no, no.” He slapped at Ray’s chest, and put his face close to Ray’s, hoping to feel breath, but when Ray’s clammy corpse slid the rest of the way off the bench, Art gave up.
He stood, his stomach lurching, leaned against the fence and vomited onto the bike path until the roiling queasiness subsided. He fumbled for his keys and dropped them twice in the slimy leaves attempting to unlock his bicycle.
He looked back at Ray, the terror junkie who'd now gone the route most terror junkies went, lying dead in front of the bench having finally scared himself to death. At his feet, the twonky lay upside down. Art went over and retrieved it, frowning. He didn't kid himself that this was noble or what Ray would have wanted, but Ray was dead and Art needed it.
So he took it.
Art pushed his bicycle, too shaken to ride it. It was chilly outside. He needed home. Fran would warm him up. Fran could massage his shoulders or…at least she could listen to him talk about this, Fran listened to him, but…Fran… Is Fran? Was Fran? Was he? Is he?
Michael Marrotti is an author from Pittsburgh, using words instead of violence to mitigate the suffering of life in a callous world of redundancy. His primary goal is to help other people. He considers poetry to be a form of philanthropy. When he's not writing, he's volunteering at the Light Of Life homeless shelter on a weekly basis. If you appreciate the man's work, please check out his book, F.D.A. Approved Poetry, available at Amazon.
A Hot Bath and Cold Razor Blades
I've skipped going to church on this Sunday morning. I see no point anymore. Instead I chose to take a bath, one last hot bath.
I'm accompanied by a glass of cheap vodka, a single cigarette and a fresh set of razor blades straight out the package. This is how the Romans used to do it. I feel entitled to try it their way. After all, my name ends in a vowel.
Most men hate their fathers with a passion. For me it's the complete opposite. My father, God rest his soul, was the finest man I've ever known. He had a revolutionary mindset. A reformist mentality. His dream, his goal, was to make Pittsburgh a better place. This is no easy task when one man is up against a capitalistic system that turns people into mindless consumers only out for themselves.
He had a sacrificial philosophy. He always told me, we're all here to help other people. All it takes is the swaying of a single zip code. After that the rest will follow. Self-delusion under the guise of good intentions.
I did my work accordingly, I followed the path of the righteous man. Abstaining from sex, drugs and punk rock music became second nature to me. It was for the benefit of all.
This whole "lead by example" thing didn't win me any popularity contests, but someone had to do the opposite of the norm around here, if anything was to change.
Frugal spending, no meat on Friday, television only two hours a day followed by excessive reading, mostly Hemingway, and church every Sunday no matter what. No excuses. I'd hand out self-help pamphlets downtown every other day for three hours straight.
The literature was directly out of my fathers idealistic mind. It taught people how get back at the system by working less hours and cutting down on spending, substantially.
God is Jesus Christ, not the almighty dollar. The Pepsi challenge in my fathers eyes was fruitless when capitalism breeds servitude, and coke obviously tastes better.
Any typical American moron knows that.
So I worked my twenty hour workweek as I followed the doctrine. Faygo pop and Ramen Noodles were my steady diet of vengeance against an unjust system who took no prisoners, unless you had enough finance to join the bourgeoisie.
Fuck that shit. I remained devoted, courteous and ready for change. In my mind, it was only a matter of time before people caught on. Emancipation is a beautiful thing.
The only thing that changed was my fathers actions. He met an uptight snob from Mt. Lebanon who owned a red Cadillac, three story house and a visa platinum credit card. She turned him into a green eyed asshole.
He stopped writing his revolutionary literature and started shopping like a materialistic maniac on her dime. Within a month he had his prude bitch of a girlfriend sleeping at our house almost every other night. Plus he amassed a shoe collection that could rival that of Foot Locker.
The day he came home with his stuck up girlfriend and a brand new sixty inch flat screen television is the day I challenged him on contradicting the doctrine.
"Dad, what the are you doing?"
"What's it look like, son? I'm hooking up this new television so we can all watch the Steelers game this Sunday."
"What about church, dad?"
"What about it? All God does is ignore me. I'd rather watch football."
"Yeah," chimed in his stuck up girlfriend. "Your father deserves a break after all the hard, sacrificial work he's done in the past. God can wait."
I pointed my index finger in her face and said, "You don't speak about God in this house, you materialistic snob! You've turned my father into one of them! How fucking dare you!"
My father in a futile attempt to diminish this volatile situation said, "Can someone please pass me a screwdriver?"
I looked at him and said, "Fuck off, dad! You're lucky I don't dropkick that devilish piece of propaganda!"
His green eyed girlfriend emanating with disdain said, "Don't you speak to your father in that tone, you little shit!"
I walked over to the anti-Christ with a vagina and said, "Get the fuck out, you money hungry snob!"
She ran out the door whimpering.
Ok. One less greedy asshole to contend with.
It was time to finish this.
My father had his hands above his head in a state of apprehension as he said, "You ungrateful little shit! That's not how you treat people! Don't you remember the doctrine? We must remain courteous!"
"That was then old man, this is now! You changed, motherfucker! It used to be us against them, now you're one of them! How's it feel to be on the other side, dad?"
"I love Pepsi now just as much as I love Coke. It's time to embrace capitalism, and enjoy the options at it's disposal."
"I thought it was servitude! I thought it turned people into callous pieces of shit!"
"Yes, all that's true, but it also offers a dollar menu at McDonald's and the time of you life at Wal-Mart. I'm hungry. Let's go to Taco Bell."
That's when I lost all self control as I screamed out, "Fuck Taco Bell!" and tackled my father into his precious sixty inch flat screen television.
I heard his neck snap upon impact. Had he never became a turncoat this would have never happened.
Crossing the tracks is for people crying out for help. It's an option that holds no relevance in this bathtub right now. My goal is to permanently eradicate the voices once an for all. Only the winners walk up the tracks.
A life well wasted is in fact a wasted life. All the primo drugs and vagina I've passed on in the past is meaningless, now. I'll never know what it feels like to live as a true American. There's no turning back for me, especially, when the bath water is as red as the republican party.
"Rob Hill lives in an abandoned subway tunnel under the streets of New York City where he trains rats as pickpockets and nurses sick pigeons back to health. He occasionally posts rags and bones athellospider.wordpress.com."
BREAKING AND ENTERING
It's hard to describe how restless summers in a midwestern small town like mine could be back in those days. Most kids gravitated towards the arcade under the train trestle where they would spend hours shoveling quarters into Dig Dug and Pole Position machines and guzzling down grapeflavored Slush Puppies. Sometimes there were loosely organized ballgames down in Rust Park. Or attempts to catch fish in the fishless stream that zigged behind the old church. Mostly there was a lot of waiting around for something to happen.
So it was mostly a lack of anything better to do that led Marco and me to the darkened shell of the high school one breezy night. The building lay dormant, like a concrete giant sleeping off a bender. We drove around to the back of the building and parked the car in an area where we couldn't be seen from the main road. Here a greenhouse protruded from the main building. I recalled coming out here one afternoon during lunch hour to watch another kid sniff glue. We slouched on some utility structures of uncertain purpose and argued goodnaturedly over our favorite metal lyrics. Marco at that time was fistdeep into his Napalm Death phase while the band I had recently discovered was Voivod who I had been mercilessly touting all summer.
I believe it was Marco who first noticed how easy it would be to climb up the supports of the greenhouse, and from there swing onto the roof of the school. I don't recall a moment of hesitation or anything like reservation that this might be a poor idea. We just glanced at each other as if to say "well, this is clearly what's happening." I went first, nimbly pulling myself up the metal support. My feet landed on the crunchy gravel of the school roof. A moment later Marco was beside me. From there we could see down to the desolate football field. The narrow road that snaked behind the school. The strange orange church that looked like a tented book. Beams of headlights on the main road. The blinking eye of a radio tower. An unfamiliar perspective on a painfully familiar landscape.
We walked across the unusual terrain of the roof, kicking absently at the gravel. This would be an ideal hiding spot for skipping class, we both decided. Who would think to look for us here? I nearly tripped over a grey ventilation pipe that jutted up like a periscope. We reached a roof access door. I tested the handle and found it unlocked. Beyond it stairs lead down into the school's foreboding maw. We looked at each other and shrugged. Again, that this might be an unwise sequence of events did not occur to us. I followed Marco down the steps.
The ordinarily familiar hallways now seemed eerie, like the deserted streets of a major city in a post-apocalyptic movie. Never had I seen these corridors not engorged with students rushing from classroom to classroom. The hallways were illuminated by dim emergency lighting. Everything smelled of settled chalk.
We passed the cluster of science classrooms and continued in the direction of the machine shops. I halted as we came across the entrance to a girls' bathroom.
"I have to see what's in there."
Marco had no such compulsion and did not follow as I cautiously ducked my head inside. Even in an empty building my act of flagrant trespassing made me uneasy. I fully expected an authority figure to leap out from the shadows and accuse me of wrongdoing. When this didn't happen I ventured inside the forbidden realm.
Like the boys' bathrooms I was used to, there was no door, just a cavernous mouth that zigged around a tiled wall. Once inside, the first thing I noticed was the lack of urinals. This made sense when I thought about it but it still looked strange to my eye. The other main difference between this and what I was accustomed to was the unmarked dispensary mounted on the wall beside the sinks. I went over to it, envious that the girls got a gumball machine of their own. Then it dawned on me what it really was and I didn't know what to think. I peeked into the stalls and was disappointed not to find obscenities graffitied into the paint. Didn't girls share the same vile thoughts as us? Or were they just less coarse about it? I tried to imagine what mysterious rituals transpired between these walls.
Marco was waiting for me at the end of the hallway. He was holding a portable cassette deck he said he had found on a stool in a nearby classroom. It looked as if painters had been at work recently. The player was flaked with white enamel paint.
A distant noise sounded from far down the hall. Like a door shutting not very hard. We both froze. Was someone else in the building? We saw two roving beams of light appear at the far end of the hall. We bolted in the direction we had come. We reached the stairs that led to the roof and scrambled up them. I tried to run as quietly as possible but could do nothing about the tremendous thump of my racing heartbeat. We raced across the roof to the greenhouse, slid down, and dropped to the ground. We dove in Marco's car and were soon speeding along the back route that curved along a wooded area near the railroad tracks. Only then did we begin to breath normal again.
"So I guess there's a night watchman."
I glanced over and realized Marco had brought the cassette player with him.
"That was dumb."
"I forgot I was holding it."
And then there was an electronic shriek and police lights appeared behind us. Marco pulled over and we were ordered out of the car. I was told to lie facedown on the road. Thankfully the asphalt had cooled down after sunset. I couldn't see what was happening to Marco. One of the policeman was searching the car. I was handcuffed, lifted to my feet, and placed into the back of the police car next to Marco, who was similarly handcuffed.
They took us down to the police station, a sandstone building I had passed all my life but had never been inside. One of the policeman seemed to take his job in stride and recognized we weren't dangerous criminals but just a pair of scared kids. The other sneered at us, reminding me of the arrogant kids at school I hated and I knew exactly what he had been like when he was my age. They didn't mention anything about the cassette player. I don't think they realized it had been stolen. For most the night the jail was empty except for us and the two cops. We sat quietly in our cell and watched them eat their lunch.
In the early morning they turned us loose. I was given the name of a counselor I was to see weekly for the next two months. Marco's car had been impounded. He had to call his parents to come get him. I walked home in the pink dawn light. I don't think my parents realized I'd been gone all night. I explained to them what had happened. I expected my father would find it amusing and my mother would be upset. It turned out to be the other way around. My dad was furious that I was now a criminal. My mom just smirked, saying, "I figured something like this would happen to you someday."
The author returned to the Portland Oregon area after wandering about the US for 33 years. He was an actuary and a math teacher. In retirement he hikes, snowshoes, tweets (@dougiamm) and volunteers at a bookstore and the local Tryon State Park. He restarted writing after reading local author Cheryl Strayed's Wild and has ninety or so published stories including genre, drama, humor, memoir and the Vernonia Trilogy. Details are available in his writing website https://sites.google.com/site/aberrantword/, which covers all his works under his name. He lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon with editor Sharon and cat Kitzhaber (named after a former ignominious governor).
“Now that you’ve been in Ambrosia for a week Sally, what do you think of the place?”
“It definitely exceeds my expectations, Duke, but I still have a few questions.”
“I don’t know if I was imagining it, but I met a guy named Henderson who seemed normal, and then the next day I saw the same person with no legs in a wheelchair. Am I imagining things, or are they twins?”
“Neither. Henderson is one of the people that we recruited to join us at no charge. We saw a human interest in the newspaper about him that said he was a big time volunteer in spite of his handicap. He was very good in his job on a suicide hotline. We were very impressed that despite of his handicap, he didn’t brood, but did what he could to rescue people in despair. When you saw him out of his wheelchair, he was using prostheses that we have developed. When you saw him later, we were fine tuning his robotic legs. He thinks that we are helping him, but he’s also advancing our technology, so both sides win.”
“Most of the people that I see here are the makers and shakers, the leaders in business, science and politics. How many of the residents are exceptions like Henderson?”
“I don’t have the numbers on me, but something like a third of the residents aren’t rich or famous, they are just great humans. We have enough money here, so we can afford to offer places to people who have earned in ways other than money.”
“One thing that I like about the place is the evening dance. Some of the residents do a detailed routine, while others just get to free form.”
“I noticed that you are a truly impressive dancer Sally. Were you a professional dancer before your time in the WNBA?”
“I had trained from an early age to be a ballerina, but when I reached 5’10” as a fourteen year old, I knew that I’d be too big for the danseurs nobles to handle. I was fortunate that I was a good basketball player, so I still had something at which I could excel. Even though I gave up the idea of ballet, I kept up with several dancing disciplines as well as yoga and gymnastics.”
“Want to hear a funny story about the dance? You know that because we are so secretive and well guarded, and have so many famous people here, someone is always trying to get in to find out what we are up to. One evening while we were doing the dance, I saw someone inside the perimeter hiding in the bushes. When we caught him, we warned him that he would be prosecuted if he ever revealed our exotic dancing. I told him that we have the best lawyers in the world and besides those that live here; we have friends in very high places. He was convinced to keep his mouth shut, but the irony is that if he reported what he saw, we’d still come out fine. We did have to make some changes to our security system.”
“Based on my time here, I can see what you mean. On the subject of the residents, Ambrosia recruited me. You said that you have others that you invite in for various reasons. Does anyone ever apply to get in?”
“Many have. They usually fail. Not too long ago, we had a losing billionaire presidential candidate who expected no problem joining us. He already had plans for adding a casino. Absolutely no one here supported him.”
“Do you have any trouble keeping out the undesirables?”
“I mentioned the best lawyers. It helps that we have every single religious, ethnic and sexual orientation here. Every time someone has tried to sue us to join, we have been able to show that the plaintiff is rejected based on being an abhorrent person.”
“You mentioned sexual orientation. When I was interviewed I mentioned that I am polyamorous and love diverse partners. At the time I thought that it might be a deal breaker. Obviously, that was before I learned more about Ambrosia.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but when you were interviewed, you were given freedom to just tell about yourself. Our lawyers made sure we didn’t ask any question that could open us to legal action. You must have volunteered information about your sexual interests.”
“That I did. I wanted to do full disclosure.”
“I was told that your father, Duke Sr. started Ambrosia thirty-two years ago.”
“Was it thirty-two years? I haven’t kept track, but that sounds about right. I believe that he was the world best geneticist, and the Nobel Committee agreed. His advances were astounding, and the outside world doesn’t even know about his greatest accomplishments. I was a teenager when we moved in here. I’ve attempted to make modest headway on his greatest works.”
“Oh Duke, don’t be modest. I’ve seen and even experienced some of your best work.”
“What do you mean?”
“Henrietta, the one with tentacles, and I got intimately acquainted one evening. If an outsider had seen that, the place would be shut down fast.”
“That is why we only play with our designer friends indoors. I’m glad that you enjoyed her company. The darling is as friendly as a Labrador retriever. I hope that you get to enjoy some of the other genetically modified associates that live here. You might be surprised that some of our residents never play with them.”
“It takes all kinds. I don’t judge.”
“One last question for now. Do you play requests? I’d like to get close to something with fur.”
“That is our next project. I think that it will be a 2017 model. If you put in your request now, it can come with tentacles.”
Culley Holderfield writes poetry, fiction, and essays. A graduate of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his short stories have appeared in Wildfire Magazine, Literally Stories, and Yellow Mama. His poems have appeared in Earth and Soul: An Anthology of North Carolina Poetry, Damfino Press, and is forthcoming in Kakalak 2016. He is currently shopping two completed novels, The Storm from Afar, a spy thriller about what happens when a country out-sources intelligence to the lowest bidder, and Hemlock Hollow, an Appalachian family mystery set in the 1890s.
Credit Where Credit is Due
Cold steel against his throat woke Jayden earlier than his normal 11:30 alarm. Two thoughts sprang to mind. First, why the fuck was someone waking him up this early? Second, why the fuck were they were waking him with a scimitar to the throat? He couldn't turn his neck without the movement slicing him open, so he couldn't satisfy his curiosity about what time it was.
"What the fuck?" he asked.
"That's exactly what I asked when I checked my bank account yesterday, Scumbag," a gravely voice responded.
Jayden ran an interior recognition search for the voice and came up with nothing.
"You're think you're some sort of computer genius, don't you?" the voice continued.
Jayden didn't think it. It was true. He was only 22, but he had already built a reputation for being able to build and execute anything that could be imagined in a virtual world. He was an artist, and the internet was his canvas. He could do anything, but like artists everywhere, no one would pay him a living wage for his virtuosity. He had recently diversified his client base. He just nodded slightly.
"Well." He felt the blade lighten a bit on his neck. "Today is not your lucky day, Jayden Lang. Yesterday, my account was supposed to have thirty thousand dollars in it. I know, because I had been saving up for a year."
"Uh...okay," Jayden said, swallowing.
"But, then I went to get the cashier's check so I could make my down payment on my house, and guess how much was actually there."
He couldn't exactly shake his head. "Zero?" he offered.
"Might as well have been. It's too bad for you the cops don't give a shit, or this could have been handled in a civilized way. Instead...instead I'm going to get Taliban on your ass."
"Wait...wait...what?" Jayden didn't ever get excited about much. He assumed his lack of emotionality was due to borderline, undiagnosed autism, but now his heart rate was pounding. He wasn't a thief. He had never stolen anything in his life. He was a good student. His dad was an accountant and his mother a nurse manager. He played hand bells at the United Methodist Church for chrissake.
"You're the author of the code that was used to swipe my debit card number that resulted in the theft of the down payment on the house for my wife and kids. Now they've denied my loan and the yard my kids were going to play in tomorrow is going to have someone else's Golden Lab shitting it all up, and the jacuzzi tub that my wife was going to lounge naked in tonight is going to overflow with the weight of someone else's fatass wife, and the garage where I had already parked my 1965 Mustang is gone, with the Mustang in it."
"So, you want thirty thousand dollars?" Jayden offered. He could probably come up with it. His parents would float him a loan.
"Nope," the voice answered too cheerfully.
"Well...why are you here?"
"I'm going to chop your fucking head off, asshole."
"I didn't steal your money!"
"Doesn't matter. You made it happen by selling your code to Victor Kirin. He's in the Ukraine and you're in Baltimore. So, I thought I'd stop by before I hop my flight to Moscow."
"Turns out there aren't any direct flights to Kiev."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Your worst mistake come to life."
The movement was practiced and efficient, almost caring in a clinical sort of way, and he didn't know what was happening until the searing pain ceased and his pillow went warm and wet with what he realized too late was his own blood. For a split second, he was aware that he could not move or speak...then he wasn't anymore.
Pacing is everything in this universe of fire and ash. You don't move so fast as to miss details, and you don't move so slow as to make yourself a target. You learn early on to go steady and smooth, like a ghost. And like a ghost, you're only seen when it's to your advantage to be seen. The night is yours, darkness your ally. Any mission you start, you finish or die trying.
Cops streamed in and out of the suburban Baltimore home. A police psychiatrist sat in the living room, her hands on the mother's hands. The father's eyes had gone wide and unblinking, as if the scene he discovered in his son's bedroom had seared them open for all time.
Detective Jonas Barton lurked in the hall, watching the parents. He had been on the force for twelve years now, and the sad truth of these things was that murder was rarely random, especially the more gruesome affairs. Nine times out of town, it was the father or stepfather. But, searching the visage of the man across the room, he could find no evidence of guilt.
"Any drugs?" he asked an officer emerging from the grisly crime scene.
"None yet. Ton of computer stuff."
"I don't know what half of it is."
"Well, might as well get computer forensics out here to take a look." Jonas didn't believe in hunches, but he did believe in leaving no stone unturned. There could be information on the computers about things the kid was involved in that could have led to this, this the most gruesome crime he had ever seen.
He turned, and found himself face to face with the Chief.
"We've got media outside," the Chief said.
He nodded. The media always complicated things, seeking answers before they had developed the right questions. They would want to know who had done this terrible thing and what the parents were going through right now and that justice was to be served. And, the truth was that the blood wasn't even dry yet and the parents were dong exactly what you would expect parents to do in this situation, and it wasn't time yet to start telling ourselves the stories we create every time something like this happens. People want assurance that these things are exceptional, that there was something incredibly amiss in this household that made them not the normal suburban family they appeared to be. It's the only way to mask the cruelty all of us deny being capable of, but are.
"Tell them a bad thing happened and the family is heart-broken. Tell them to fuck off."
The Chief scowled. "What do we know so far?"
"Jayden Lang, aged 22, woke up this morning decapitated. His father found him at eight o'clock. His mother still hasn't been in the room. No sign of forced entry or robbery. The parents heard nothing unusual last night."
"Any suspects? The father?"
"Well, he tracked blood out of the room, but just the one time. We've got the shoes. Haven't found a weapon, but the nature of the cut would indicate that the blade had surgical sharpness and that whoever did it knew what they were doing. The father's an accountant."
"And the mother?"
"Well, she would have access to the tools."
"We'll follow up with the hospital, but I don't think she did it. This was somebody who had done this before. More than once I would guess. This was not a crime of passion."
The Chief shook his head. "Great."
It's not about good or bad. It's not about being strong or daring. It's not even about having the skills and the gear, though nothing can be done without those vital components. It's mainly about mind control and will, pure will. It's amazing how far you can get with just a little bit of credit and a passport. Thirteen hours and you're padding through the cold streets of Moscow looking for a man named Abram. Abram can get you to Kiev under the radar for a less than your maximum cash advance on your Capital One card. You find him in the coffee house where he is supposed to be.
"All of me loves all of you," he said, pressing an open palm against her bare chest.
She smiled, and Victor's heart became liquid and poured a warmth from the center of his body all the way to his fingertips. They kissed. Victor wasn't a young man, yet he knew that this moment had the potential to be the best moment of his entire life. Knowing that, he savored it, allowed his eyes to linger on Adriana's face and shoulders and breasts. He breathed in her scent and delighted. She had said yes...finally. The $90,000 ring he had given her was the only thing she was wearing now. It glinted in the candlelight whenever she moved her hand. Victor couldn't stop smiling and kissing her. He didn't just want to possess her. He wanted all of himself inside of her, wanted his entire body to be surrounded by her entire body.
"All of you?" she asked. "Even this?" She placed her finger on his nose.
"Even this?" She place her finger on a mole on his upper chest.
She stopped talking suddenly. Her eyes focused on something above him, then went dull and dimmed. She slumped away from him, landing askew on the floor. Before he knew what was happening, a grizzled man replaced her in front of him.
"What?" Victor asked.
"You speak English don't you?" he asked.
"Yes. What is this?" Victor tried to push back, but the man held him against the couch. "What did you do to Adriana?"
Anger and panic rose in his throat like vomit, and he surged up from the couch intent on thrashing and killing the man. But as he rose, something pierced his chest, plunging hard through bone and sinking deep into a lung. Immediately he fell back, breathing suddenly the hardest thing he had ever done.
"You're dying now," the man said calmly. "You're dying because you stole thirty thousand dollars from me, and there's nothing any law enforcement anywhere was willing to do about it. You were failed by the Knoxville Police Department, the FBI, Interpol, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs here in Kiev. If they had only been willing to do the work that I did, you wouldn't be dead now. It was really easy to find you. I'm no forensic genius and here I am in your apartment. Too bad. You could have just been going to jail now."
Victor was confused and scared. Stole? He stole? No. The Russians were the thieves, corrupting the economy so that the only way anyone could make a real living here was by running scams. And the Ministry...they didn't care about crime. They just cared about protecting the oligarchs. What was he to have done? He never stole much from anyone. Thirty thousand dollars was nothing to an American. Americans were all protected by their banks and their credit cards, and they could always make more. Thirty thousand dollars. What a stupid, stupid thing to die in this way...
"Check this out, Barton," the IT technician said as he entered the detective's office. "On the Lang case."
"You got something?" Jonas asked. "Tell me."
"The kid was a goddamn genius," the tech said.
Great. Not only was this the most gruesome murder he'd ever come across, now it was going to be the death of an internet Mozart to top it off. "What'd you find?"
"It looks like our victim didn't have such a clean nose after all. He had been cooking up some code, and it turns out that his computer was the source of the code that facilitated the big department store data breach."
"What was it? Forty, fifty million credit cards exposed?"
"And this kid did that?"
"Well, not himself. He wrote the code and apparently sold it."
Barton flung his pen to his desk and stared hard at his own computer, still a mainframe terminal decades after those had gone out like eight-tracks. A kid with a machine bought at Best Buy could wreak havoc on the country, and get in so much trouble as to wind up dead. Now he had forty to fifty million people who had lost billions of dollars to this kid's genius. The suspect pool had just exploded.
"Who'd he sell it to?"
"Some Ukrainian dude."
Like an accordion of infinite size, the pool of suspects condensed back down. "Okay. Let me get a hold of the FBI. This one's going up the flagpole."
Home is still the basement apartment it was two weeks ago. You pull up into the shared drive and sigh at the steps that plunge down to your front door. You know that when you open that door the musty smell of mildew will fill your nostrils and it will smell like failure. A man provides for his family. And you've tried your best, but you're not nearly as good a husband as you are a warrior. Taking the contract work in Afghanistan had enabled you to save up the down payment for the house even though it meant twelve months away from the family. The house was going to change everything. In the house, the kids would each have had their own room. In the house, your wife would have a big kitchen and a gas stove just like Emeril. There would have been a backyard and cookouts and a garage that would fill up with the detritus of an active life: skies, boogie boards, bicycles, and balls. Basketballs, volleyballs, soccer balls, and footballs. Instead, you come home to this, this low-class din of dank one level up from hell. You slam the gearshift into park and shut the truck off. The apartment door opens, and out rushes three year-old Daniel. "Daddy!!" he yells, rushing the truck, and despite everything that has transpired, you can't wipe the smile off your face.
Some cases are easier than others. Barton had just put the period on the end of the summary that wrapped up the investigation of the theft of an advanced copying machine from a graphics studio. Turns out each machine has a unique imprint on the copies it makes. Turns out it was an inside job by one of the firm's employees.
"Barton," the Chief said, barging into the office.
"Sure, Chief," he said. "I have a minute."
"There's some news on the Lang murder."
"Victor Kirin, the man who paid Lang for the code, was found dead this morning. Both he and his girlfriend were stabbed to death. Each had a single puncture wound. Hers right through the heart. His through the lung. Surgical precision."
"That's got be our guy."
"I would say so."
The chief shook his head. "The FBI got there and turned the place over. Nothing. No sign of forced entry. No prints. No murder weapon. Nothing. It's like they were killed by a ghost."
"Just like Jayden."
"And we only have forty million people who would have wanted these two dead."
"Yep. Count me as one of them."
"I got my checking account statement yesterday and I had five thousand less dollars than I was supposed to have."
"You shop at Target?"
The chief nodded.
"So where were you on the night of Jayden Lang's murder?"
The chief's perpetual scowl turned into a smile that conveyed more ire than his scowl ever could. "Lay off, Barton."
Barton chuckled. "Don't worry, Chief. Whoever did this had a lot more self-control and precision than you would ever be capable of."
"He's a hero if you ask me," the Chief said. "I'm the goddamn head of this department and there's nothing I can do about my five thousand dollars. It makes you feel impotent to have this happen. We can file a report, the bank will cover the loss, and the FBI will add it to their analysis, but you and I both know that whoever actually orchestrated this is never going to be caught by the authorities."
"So, who would know this, be able to do the legwork to find Lang and Kirin, then execute them without leaving a trace?" Barton was uncomfortable with where this train of thought was taking him.
The Chief lifted his eyebrows.
Barton had never served in the military. He had gone to college, then law school, and took a lateral leap into law enforcement. The Chief, though, had been a Marine and knew a thing or two about the capabilities of highly trained men.
"Snake-eater, probably," he said.
"Special Forces Operator."
"There aren't that many of those, are there?" Barton asked, feeling like he was onto something.
"More than you would think. But, whoever did this was the elite of the elite."
"What? A SEAL?"
The Chief sneered. It wasn't often that he actually knew something Barton didn't. "There are units more elite than that."
Barton shuddered at the notion of eliteness being tied to an ability to carry out this gruesome of a thing. Shouldn't elite mean something beautiful and noble? There was neither here. This, this was brutal and unnecessary. "Well, let's get a list."
The Chief turned and left the office, shaking his head at Barton's naivety all the way to his own office. Barton shrugged, and picked up the phone. "Get me the Inspector General for the Department of Defense."
Once you've spent more than an hour or so in the apartment, you no longer smell the mildew. You sit on your couch, the one year-old climbing on your knees, three year-old Danny banging a plastic baseball bat against the leaning indoor basketball goal. What you'd really like is a bourbon, but you've sworn off drink, so you endure the ruckus sober.
"Honey!" Your wife's sweet voice carries through the tiny place from the foyer. Home from her job at the supermarket, she enters the den waving a thin envelope. "This is from the bank."
"The bank? Open it."
She tears open the envelope, and any excitement she had flees as she reads the letter.
"Declined," she says matter-of-factly. And that's what rips your heart out, not that the loan was actually denied, but that the fact of it being denied isn't a surprise to your wife. It's just one more failure in a long string of failures. The predictable outcome of a loser like you trying to get something nice for the people you love. You want to explain, but you say nothing.
"It says due to cash, insufficient income, and credit," she reads. "What does that mean?"
She doesn't know what she's asked. What does it mean? It means the house was never going to be yours, that those who stole from you and paid the ultimate price for doing so were not in the end responsible for this outcome. Thirty thousand dollars or a zero balance, your lot in life is simple: sit on this couch or go back to the killing fields. In truth, you've made your decision already. You made it when you went after the punk kid and followed the trail to Ukraine. In fact, you made it long before that, with each and every moment in which you chose mission over family. If you love them, you'll leave. If you care about anyone, you'll go back and do the only thing you've ever been good at. Isn't that what the experts say? Find something you love and are good at and do it?
"It means that you deserve better," you say. You rise from the couch, pat Danny on the head, kiss the little one, hug your wife, and leave.
Your future is a high desert where freedom weighs 147 grains and wears a steel jacket. It's an inhospitable terrain where jurisdiction has no translation.
Barton had the contents of a file strewn over his desk. The case had all makings of a great mystery. There was a femme fatale by the name of Rose and her accomplice, name as yet undetermined. They were running a scam in which they posed as a sales team for a prominent home security company and tricked homeowners into giving up their security codes. It was the kind of crime that took up ninety percent of Barton's day. He looked up to find the Chief standing in his doorway.
"How long have been there?" he asked.
The Chief looked at his watch. "Two minutes. See. I don't barge in, and my time gets wasted."
"Ever think of clearing your throat or just saying, 'Excuse me'?"
"No." The Chief thrust himself into the office. "You should know the Lang case is closed."
"They caught him?"
"No. Closed due to national security interests."
"I don't know what to tell the parents," the Chief confessed.
"Tell them he's collateral damage in the War on Terror."
The Chief started shaking his head and didn't stop. "Barton... You're of no use whatsoever." He wandered away, his head still bobbing like some inane doll, the sad truth not enough. It never was.
Andrew was born in Yorkshire, England many years ago but now lives on Merseyside where he writes stories and works as a support worker, supporting adults with learning difficulties. His stories have appeared on various websites and in print magazines.
Lord I am only young, even now barely seventeen although I feel much older and wiser. Who will marry me now? I did nothing wrong but I cannot escape the rumours and gossip, however far I travel; even in London I am sure that they are talking about it, maybe even abroad.
I was fifteen and a good and innocent girl when I became a maid for the new minister Rev. Baker. My parents had been going to the Presbyterian Church in High Green for ever so long; my father since he married my mother, my mother since she was a girl. They were always there in the church, attending the various meetings and active as much as they could be. But now my mother goes to a Congregationalist church in another part of Nottingham, and doesn’t like to tell people her name, whilst my father stays at home and hides his shame.
After it happened my aunt found me a position as a maid over in Derby, but the family I work for now know all about what happened. It is short distance between Nottingham and Derby and scandal travel fast. I was naïve I suppose, even for my age; I read my Bible every day and went to Sunday School, but I did not know what goes on between men and women and had not even been kissed by a boy. I was respectable and so were my parents; we may not have been rich but we were decent and we feared God.
The Rev. Baker had not been there long. Our previous minister, the Rev. Dunlop had got a post in London and for about three months we had various men from the Nottingham District tending to our needs, and then we were told that the Rev. David Baker would be our new minister; he had taken a trial and preached a sermon a couple of weeks earlier, and now here he was. He looked in his mid-thirties; a fine looking man but perhaps a bit clever for the congregation. The Rev. Dunlop had preached with passion and gazed deeply and darkly into the eyes of everyone present; even a nervous young girl like me. But the Rev. Baker lacked that fire, and his eyes were kind and with humour and it was as if he were preaching from a book.
His wife Ruth was there at his first Sunday; a dark lady, finely dressed, and whose eyes never left her husband. Next to her was Miss Morton; with her red hair and green eyes who was Ruth’s companion; a quiet, rather willowy woman who gazed about her as Baker preached about King David. The Bakers had no children which might have made a difference.
Things had changed the old queen had died a year earlier and now we were in the Twentieth Century and a corrupter, wicked time was upon us. I wish I had not been dragged into it, but what could I do; a young girl with no say in anything? Yes, I had bad thoughts; was jealous of my brothers and sisters, coveted things that were not mine. But did I deserve this?
Mrs Baker had a word with my mother; the household needed a maid. The previous lady who had looked after the Rev. Dunlop had followed him up to London. I was flattered to be offered the job and I was not scared of hard work; on the contrary I saw it as important; as a way of worshipping God. Perhaps I was nothing special in the scheme of things, but at least I could work zealously and do my functions in life well. My parents were also pleased; they were both in awe of the Bakers who had an air of superiority, more so than previous ministers, and they were anxious that I held myself well and did not embarrass them.
The Manse was a large house; dark and with heavy furniture, which smelt of damp and food. It had been left to the church by one of the first Presbyterians in the area, a business man my mother vaguely remembered but who was dead well before I was born. I had been in there before for the yearly garden party and other activities the church held. But now I was going there to work and to spend most of my day.
And so I came into the house at six in the morning and stayed until ten at night cleaning and polishing, serving food, running messages and answering the door. The minister seemed to spend much of the time in his study; a dark room at the back of the house and down a long corridor which meant it was rather separate. I rarely went in there apart from on a Thursday afternoon when Baker visited the poor and sick and I was then supposed to give it a clean, but not to move any of the books or the papers on his desk.
And there were so many books; not just Bibles but books about the gospels, the Pentateuch, the Psalms, books about the Jews and about Moslems who I knew a little about, and the Cathars and the Rosicrucians who I didn’t, and there was poetry and all sorts of books I have never come across since and don’t particularly want to. There was nothing there that would appeal to a young girl although I always did well at school and could read far better than my parents. But when the Rev. Baker lost his job, they also accused him of blasphemy as well as immorality, and I think it was on account of those books.
He seemed a kindly sort of man; he often spoke to me and asked after my parents and my brothers and sisters, and he did not scare me, like the Revered Dunlop had done. I also liked his wife’s companion; Miss Morton, or Naomi as Mrs Baker called her. She was a quiet woman but she was friendly and somebody who I instinctively to trusted; she never hurt me and that is something. When we talked, she was always present in the conversation unlike Mrs Baker who rarely listened to anything I said.
I could not like Mrs Baker; always sneaking up on me, catching me out. Telling me off, and there was that patronising voice.
“Come on Deborah, I think you know better than that……why not try that again……oh dear I thought you would have been taught better……where is your common sense girl?”
And the way she dressed; too fancy for Highgreen, and I could not understand her Yorkshire accent; she tried to sound posh, but when she was flustered; which was a lot of the time, her voice became broad and I had to say “excuse me ma’am could you repeat yourself”, but then she would get cross, so it was easier to guess what she had said.
Once he called me into his study. He was sitting on a sofa with a book in his hands; it was poems by someone called Donne, and he asked me to sit down and he read to me. He always seemed a bit scruffy; I don’t know why because he wore lovely clothes, chosen by his wife I think, but they never sat well on him. He seemed to read well although I did not understand very well what the poems were about; lots of angels and there was one about the sun and love. Great I am sure, but not really for me. After that he often read poetry to me, even some of his own, and I loved the sound of his voice even I could not always understand what he was saying.
I wondered if he had nobody else to read poetry to; perhaps his wife did not like it although I imagined that Miss Morton was poetic, but perhaps she preferred to read to herself and maybe she liked different poets. And then Naomi and the Reverend Baker did not seem that close but avoided each other.
I did not understand Miss Morton; she seemed a clever lady so why just sit about the house all day as companion to a woman who really did not need one? And why was her bed sometimes not slept in? The blanket had been mussed up but it was easy to tell that she had not lain there all night. And she loved going out; even when it rained, and it was a very wet autumn that year. She would go out and come back drenched and would asked me to dry her and help her put some dry clothes on. Previously the only grown-woman’s body I had seen was my mother’s by candlelight, but Miss Morton’s was beautiful; far shapelier than you would expect when seeing her dressed or even in dishabille.
Once I was helping her dry herself in her room; she was pale and naked, and we chatted about the town and the people in it, as I rubbed her back with a towel. And then Rev. Baker walked straight into her room without knocking and looked straight at her.
“Naomi” he said, the first time I am heard him call her by her first name. And then he saw me and turned red, and muttered something before walking out. She laughed and quickly put on a wrap whilst I found her some dry clothes.
“That man is forgetful, probably came into the wrong room” she said, but she sounded false, which was unlike her. And I had seen the look in the Rev. Baker’s eyes, and it was not shock at seeing her naked, it was shock that I was there.
Then Autumn was almost over and the house was cold. Rain sometimes came through the roof, and there was a damp smell which never quite went away no matter how hard I scrubbed and cleaned. Often the only fires that were lit were in Baker’s study, and in the sitting room. Even when all the fires were burning the corridors were cold and dark. And I hated going home at night into the darkness, but there was nobody to walk back with me.
One Friday morning there was a loud knock at the door; I knew that Mrs Baker was in the kitchen cooking; she often spent hours in the kitchen, face flushed but at peace. It was Mr Smythe; the senior elder of the church, at the door. He always scared me with his strong Scottish accent, and that fierce look that never left him. I could not understand what he said but assumed he must want to see the Rev. Baker.
I hurried back into the house and knocked on the study door, but perhaps too quietly and the rain was loud and heavy, so the Rev. Baker can’t have heard me as I walked into his study and found him on his settee, with his head between the legs of Miss Morton who was naked and head lain back in ecstasy.
I was in shock, but automatically turned to walk out of there and make some excuse to Mr Smythe, but he had followed me into the house and was just behind me starring at his minister who was still unaware of the intrusion, and behind him stood Mrs Baker who must have known what was going on. She kicked me hard as I stumbled past her and out of that house, my leg throbbing.
I never saw any of them again; Rev Baker, his wife or Miss Morton. And yet I do find I miss those days; I loved the reverend Baker reading poetry to me, even if I did not understand it all, and I liked the kindness of Miss Morton. But Mrs Baker, I do not miss; a savage creature who was lucky to be married to a clever a man; no wonder he did what he did. She could have stopped what happened if she had wanted to. I know it is a sin, but I hate her, and nothing will change that.
I was questioned by one of the sisters from the church, who was embarrassed and cross. What had I seen? Had I been involved? And then I fled to Derby. But shortly after I left Nottingham the story made the newspapers and I was even mentioned by name. Suddenly I was shamed; everyone thought I had done things. Everyone knows about it now, and I cannot bear it. My aunt is going to arrange for me to go to Canada; perhaps it will be a fresh start and I can marry a farmer, and live a happy, hard-working life, amongst good people who don’t know anything about me and where such goings-on are unknown.
I remember the first time I saw him; it was the welcoming service at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Leeds. I was eighteen and had been going to the church since I was born, and was now a teacher at the Sunday school. He stood there looking down upon us, the window behind him giving him a sort of halo. He looked so young and innocent that I wanted to protect him, although he was in fact eight years older than me. And he had this sense of boundless possibility about him, which suited me as I wanted to get out of the city, and out of Yorkshire, away from my parents and live a life with a great man by my side.
I am an attractive and beautiful woman and was even more so then. In that church with all these provincial bankers’ daughters and virgin teachers, it was easy to turn his head and within a year of my first seeing him I was installed in the Manse with his ring on my finger and the world my oyster.
He never quite fulfilled my expectations, even though once I became his wife I spurred him on, providing everything he needed for his great career. He stayed in Leeds far longer than I wanted him to, and then three years in the North-East, before Highgreen, another dead end part of a provincial city, although we were slightly nearer London I suppose. But then there was the scandal after that stupid girl Deborah caught him in flagrante with Naomi. But it wasn’t her fault, if only Baker and Naomi had been more discreet, saved all that stuff for the bedroom at night when nobody could catch them and Deborah was at home in her bed safe with her innocence.
Sex had been a problem from the start; it just hurt so much. I let him have his way a couple of times but it was impossible. I went to a doctor who told me it was just something that I would have to endure. But I couldn’t, not for anything, and to be fair to Baker, he did not want to hurt me. He was sympathetic, but I know he needed that, it is what all men need and I was ashamed that I could not provide it.
So when I heard from my friend Naomi a couple of years later it was ideal; she was reasonably attractive, and regarded herself as an intellectual which would suit my husband. We had known each other since children and then she had got married and moved to Sheffield, but her husband had died leaving her with nothing, and she did not want to go back home. I suggested she move in with me as a companion, I did not mention the other stuff; I would let nature take its course.
She became company for me as we moved to Newcastle and then Nottingham, and she helped deal with the physical side of the marriage which I could not do. I just left them to it, I did not need to know, and I had plenty of other things to be getting on with. Occasionally I was jealous; when I saw them exchanging a look which made me feel excluded or when I heard them in his bedroom at night. But if I could not provide what every woman should provide then could I really complain? It is only physical after all; a relieving of the humours.
And then after he was thrown out of the church, it was me who suggested that he become a teacher. We had money between us; my parents were dead by this time and I had no surviving siblings. Naomi gladly gave what little she had and Baker had some savings. One of Baker’s friends knew of a school in a town called Ware a little outside London where the teacher was retiring. We went up and soon took it over.
It was a select school with fourteen borders aged between eight and fourteen; and we were able to charge a good amount as it was a wealthy town, with prosperity etched all over its’ grand buildings and large houses. Baker taught the oldest amongst them, myself the youngest, and then there was Mr Daniel Henderson (Cantab) who taught the rest.
Daniel was tall and handsome, with his beautiful Cornish vowels; he strode above the pupils, who all adored him, but then how could anyone not? He lived in town and came into school every day. I would watch him walk up the drive, looking so unconcerned; his mind on higher things. And when he looked at me, my heart beat so fast and I felt myself go red. I knew that he was the man I was destined for, having that ambition and brilliance that my husband unfortunately lacked.
Naomi lived at the top of the school away from the boarders, and on occasion I would hear Baker go up there at night.
“You need to be discrete” I told him, “the children are not stupid. We cannot afford another scandal.”
He said not a word, just looked at me as if I was a particularly impertinent child and stalked off. He was remote and austere now. But he seemed to blame me for the scandal and humiliation, and he and Naomi were closer now as if the intimacy of the bed had pervaded to the rest of their relationship.
I had hoped Baker would prove to be an inspired teacher; he loved books and I remembered him speaking to the congregation so eloquently and intelligently. But he seemed to have lost interest now.
“They are just not interested” he told us; “I try to talk to them of beauty, of the mysteries of love and God, about politics and injustice, but all they want is enough to pass the time until they work for their fathers, or get a job in the city.”
Naomi was sat next to him as we drank coffee in the room we had commandeered for us meals.
“I am sure you are inspiring some of them” Naomi told him, “you are a great teacher”.
I had never seen her so demonstrative; cool, reserved Naomi who seemed to have undertaken her sexual duties as a favour to me, could she be falling in love with my husband?
And then I saw Daniel outside in the garden gathering plants and I forgot about Baker and Naomi. I decided to get some air so left the house and soon met Daniel. He took my arm as we strode about.
“You seem sad” he told me.
I could feel his hand on my arm, and was never so conscious of another man’s presence.
“I worry about the children of course; their welfare is such a responsibility.”
“Of course” and then we talked of various pupils.
This became our habit; walking through the garden in the early evening, talking of the children and then as we became more intimate, of wider matters. I had never felt happier, and at times wondered what it would be like to be married to Daniel. Perhaps sex with him would be loving and joyful, or perhaps we would not need that. We could sit and read in the long evenings with nobody to disturb us, and forget the past. I loved him and knew it was only a matter of time before he would take me away with him to begin our life anew.
And so we were on our own. David and me. When my former friend ran off with that soppy teacher we tried to carry on with the school. After all David was the best thing about it; but the scandal was too great. Ware is a small and respectable town and soon we were a school without pupils, and then somebody found out about that nonsense at High Green and we had no choice but to go.
When I moved in with them it was Ruth who was my friend and David her husband. The marriage was not happy and it was because she struggled with physical intimacy. Nothing was ever said; but about a week after I had moved in he came to my room and we made love. For him it was a physical release; men have their needs but over time I began to feel something for him, and when my heart beat when he came to me it was not for the physical sensation of him inside me, but just being with him; his smell, his humour and his teaching.
He was a born teacher; always telling me things about religion, about books, nature, politics, the stars. He loved learning new things and then spreading that knowledge. And I loved to listen. I am not a stupid person and have read well therefore I can listen and hold my own in a conversation, and I can learn. Often he would read to me before and afterwards and we would talk. Sometimes the sex was just perfunctory as if the main reason was for us to chat and to learn, and perhaps it was. But other times he was filled with lust for me and for my body, and I did not mind that at all, not one bit.
So I went with him when he left Ware. We sold the school to a family and travelled. Ostensibly he wanted to write a book like his hero Daniel Defoe. A description of England in the new century.
“Things will change” he told me “I feel it. There is a sense of unhappiness and discontent about the country.”
“What do you mean?”
He thought for a moment; “poverty, dislocation, the worship of power. It is in the air we breathe, in the looks that people give us.”
He began to rent rooms in the cities we visited and gave talks. We started nearby in St. Albans where for a fortnight he gave lectures on a range of subjects; the poetry of William Blake, Islam, the music of Henry Purcell, the abolition of the monarchy, the Jewish prophet Obadiah, the evils of colonialism and Chartism. He charged a fee for entry and got enough people to make a small living. The lectures seemed almost improvised, perhaps he had been practising when he lay with me in his bed and we talked.
We moved up the country; Reading, Oxford, Leicester, Sheffield, Manchester, Carlisle and Durham. The more he spoke the better he became. But then being a minister and a teacher he was used to speaking in public, and he started to get a reputation particularly in the north where they appreciated his radical ideas. He was even asked to contribute to various radical newspapers. Perhaps this was when he started to fulfil his destiny.
I helped him with his writing; he knew what he wanted to say but was not sure how to compose it. We would sit in the afternoon him musing aloud whilst I made notes and later wrote it all down. How much of the finished book was actually his is a matter for conjecture, but it was under his name that it was published by Hammond and Taylor, a well-known publisher, who encouraged him to write more. It sold well and he became a least a minor public figure for a time.
And then Ruth wrote to me; a long letter full of regret and sadness. Her elopement had not worked out “the usual problem” and she was living with her parents, looking after them. She had heard about David’s talks and asked if she could see him. I destroyed the letter as I did the others that she subsequently wrote to both David and me. Burnt them as I wished I could burn her.
“We need to travel” he told me; “I want to see Europe; Paris, Germany and Italy. And then Russia. That will be what my new book is about.”
So we took trains and we travelled. He had assumed that I would go with him and he was right. We stayed in Paris for a month he taught, spoke at various colleges and we wrote together, and then we travelled to Rome. We had a suite of rooms in a hotel near the centre. We hired a young maid called Leontyne who he taught English to in between writing and teaching.
We are a family I thought; he is my husband and we will grow old together. But of course he wasn’t, and I knew that if he left me I would be alone and virtually penniless. But could he manage without me? Much of what he had become was due to me, but I am not sure he saw that, rather saw me as his secretary who he also happened to share a bed with sometimes.
When weren’t together I visited art galleries and churches and examined the great buildings and ruins. I loved Rome and wanted to stay there; it was my home which I had now discovered after living so long in damp England. Until one day, walking into his rooms when he was supposed to be away meeting a professor, I found him on the bed, Leontyne naked and astride him; their shadows moving against the white walls. I suppose I was like that poor maid Deborah when she found him with me in his study, and I was equally shocked.
I had been so happy; in a beautiful city, helping the man I loved write a masterpiece. I felt that I was doing something that would make a difference. I was part of the world, not some poor girl from Leeds who knew nothing.
“It is only my needs. Love is the essential.”
“No, it is more important than that.” I told him, “you betrayed me. Why did you need somebody else? You could have me anytime you wanted to.”
I could smell the perfume of her body as I stood in front of him as he lay on the bed. He looked pathetic and feeble and I felt heartbroken.
We stayed in Rome for a few more weeks as I helped him finish off his writing, but other than that we had little to do with each other; I did not know what would happen but there was no way I was going back to England.
“I am going to Russia” he told me, one September morning. “Come with me; I will leave Leontyne behind.”
“I doubt she would go with you anyway; she has never been outside Rome.”
“She would if I asked her to. But I want you.”
“No. I am happy here in Rome and I can make my way. Up to you what you do, but I am staying here.”
Leontyne did go with him; I watched them leave from my window the following morning; both unhurried as if they knew what they were doing. They put the cases into the carriage to take them to the railway station and then far away to the north and east; away from the hot sun and beauty of Italy. Neither of them looked up at the hotel, they were concentrating on getting their stuff packed and away. They were leaving me behind.
I stayed in Rome; taught in a school and then married a widower who lived opposite the pensione that I rented a room in. I am happy now; I love Italy and I love Paulo, a kind man who is patient with me and who helps me learn. I am no longer an ignorant Leeds girl, but a sophisticated Roman and I have two children who have stayed in Rome and are true Romans too, and only know about cold, dark England from pictures in books, and from stories I tell them about my youth.
I often wondered about the Rev. Baker, particularly during the war and the revolution that followed in Russia. Had he survived? Had he even got to Russia? Did he finish his book? Our lives are such frail journeys it is a wonder that we get anywhere at all.
This was all a long time ago. Europe is falling apart and we have that clown Mussolini posturing and preening himself; but I think and hope he will be with us for only a short while and then the grown-ups will take over. And I am getting old, my temptation is to keep my head down and weather what comes.
Whilst Paulo talks to his old friends I sit in cafes, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, and think about the past and how I got to where I am now. And yes I would like to meet Baker once more, to discover what else he has learned and seen; to sit him down and tell him that now he can rest from his travelling. But somebody like that can never be at peace; he will always want more, and even in paradise he will still be searching for something and somewhere just out of reach.
Charles Hayes, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
School House Perspective
The white school house, covered with years of coal dust, looks so much smaller now. A rusty flag pole, white when it adorned, lies among the busted mine machines that cover the grounds once for play. The mine gone, the coal trucks only noisy ghosts in my mind, can I have lived here?
Its little flat spot up against the steep land of the hollow where it came to be, my place to learn and grow back then. Marbles at recess, oral book reports to a room with two grades, and the growling gray trucks, humped with coal, that passed all day.
Broken windows, like eyes that only light can see, sadly look my way. And a missing door with only night beyond seems to say, “Oh yes, I loved you then. I am not so bad. Look at you now.”
Matthew Jankiewicz is a graduate student in the Creative Writing program at Columbia College Chicago, working towards completing his thesis. His fiction has appeared in The Alembic, 3 Elements Review, Toasted Cheese, and was selected to accompany an exhibit of Ron Jude's photography at the Museum of Modern Photography (MoMP). He is also the founder and co-editor of Flyleaf Journal, a literary periodical that publishes works of fiction in print and digital formats from emerging and established authors. For more information on how to submit or subscribe, visit www.flyleafjournal.com.
THE SIGN MAKER’S DAUGHTER
The sign maker and his family lived in a remote three-story Victorian home along the outskirts of town behind a wrought-iron fence bearing a placard that read: “Safety does not happen by accident.” To reach The Safe House, as the sign maker called it, one would have to navigate the serpentine gravel roads that cut through the sloping hills outside of town, leaving behind the last vestiges of civilization to burn like embers in the distance while the bumpy roads climb higher and the pine trees draw nearer.
It is there, inside the detached garage that now served as his workshop, where the sign maker would spend his days hunched in his stool, leaning over his workbench deep in concentration. Here, alone in his own world, the sign maker created what he considered to be works of beauty, painstakingly engraving messages into metal or wood that he designed, cut, and hand-painted. The art of giving new life to ordinary materials, of transforming them into signs to be posted in various places across the globe instilled a deep satisfaction in the sign maker.
The sign maker’s wife was a florist and took great care in nursing flowers, which would be used to create beautiful bouquets and floral arrangements for weddings and funerals. Over time, she had transformed their backyard into a two-acre flower garden that was teeming with bright roses, daisies, lilies, orchids, tulips, and an assortment of rare species gathered from distant lands. The sweet fragrance of the flowers was so pungent that the townspeople claimed they could smell them from miles away. During the spring, when the bulbs blossomed, thousands of butterflies would flock to The Safe House. Mrs. Halloran, who owned the food market and made weekly grocery deliveries to the house on the hill, once swore that there were so many butterflies covering the windows of the home that she thought they were made of stained glass.
Like most homes, The Safe House was decorated with artwork, mirrors, photos, and the various personal items one accumulates over the duration of a lifetime. Unlike other ordinary homes, however, these decorative accouterments were interspersed with hundreds of signs designed by the sign maker himself, all for the general purpose of maintaining a safe environment.
Affixed to the tiled backsplash in the kitchen was a sign that advised to REMEMBER TO UNPLUG ALL APPLIANCES AFTER USE. As if to reinforce the message, an illustration depicting a burning house was printed under the words.
A plastic sign in the shower stall stated CAUTION: SLIPPERY WHEN WET.
In an effort to avoid the potential of ingesting poisonous substances, a sign in the laundry room served as a reminder that the cleaning chemicals stored on the second shelf were HAZARDOUS MATERIALS.
Due to an unforeseen incident that had occurred three years ago, circumspect signs were arranged to prevent accidents in the surrounding outdoors. It was on that humid August afternoon while traipsing through the garden that the sign maker’s daughter had stepped off the flagstone path that meandered through the colorful flowers like a ravine in a valley, her foot landing atop a bee nest. The enraged colony of bees retaliated against the hapless girl by engulfing her in a buzzing cloud that chased after her as she ran toward the house. Her screams of pain and fright drew the attention of the entire household, who poked their heads out the windows to find the source of all the commotion. Her mother, who heard her daughter’s cries from the living room where she crafted her bouquets, rushed to the backyard, unfurled the garden hose, and released a shower over the young girl and the surrounding swarm of bees. After the last of the hive was finally washed away, the girl was left with over a dozen bee stings and spent the remainder of that summer indoors coated from head to toe in Benadryl. Alarmed that such an episode could happen under his watch, the sign maker immediately set about the task of fashioning a sign to prevent future incidents from occurring. By the week’s end the young girl’s father had devised a white wooden sign that he staked in the soft soil of the garden every few yards cautioning to PLEASE REMAIN ON THE PATH.
Today marked the twelfth birthday of the sign maker’s daughter, and to celebrate the special occasion the family had gathered in the dining room along with her two best friends—who also happened to be her only friends—Anna and Linda. It was a sunny afternoon in early June, and outside the flowers had stretched their petals into full bloom, emitting their nauseatingly sweet fragrance to infiltrate the entire house through the open windows. Remembering the flower’s pungent assault on The Safe House from previous visits, Linda brought a clothespin with her to clamp around her nostrils. Anna, on the other hand, did not appear to be bothered by the flower’s saccharine stench in the least. Being the daughter of a successful perfume saleswoman, Anna had served as the test subject for all of her mother’s latest concoctions. As it turned out, the excessive exposure to chemical compounds had resulted in the limited use of her olfactory senses by the age of nine, allowing Anna to detect only three distinct smells: copper, apples, and dirt.
In light of their daughter’s birthday, the sign maker’s wife had adorned The Safe House with festive table decorations and dozens of oval and triangular flower arrangements that had been intended for a wedding that was cancelled at the last minute. In a futile attempt to mask the stench of the flowers, Aunt Fanny—the sign maker’s sister who lived in the attic apartment—had spritzed a deodorizing concoction of lemon, lime, grapefruit, and vodka. What little remained at the bottom of the bottle, she drank quickly when no one was looking.
After all the guests were seated, Aunt Fanny placed a cake molded into the shape of France, the country that the young birthday girl most wanted to travel to, in the center of the dining table and inserted twelve white and pink-spiraled candles through the thick layer of icing. They remained unlit, however, during the singing of Happy Birthday, since the lighting of candles of any kind was strictly forbidden in The Safe House. THE FLAME OF LIFE CAN BE SNUFFED OUT WITH FIRE declared a sign posted next to the fire extinguisher near the kitchen sink.
After the cake had been eaten and enjoyed by all, the sign maker’s daughter began to unwrap her presents with a grin of delightful anticipation.
Anna gave her a nail polish kit and one of her mother’s best-selling perfumes called Wet Passion.
“Too flammable,” her father muttered under his breath.
Linda’s gift sent a quiver of anxiety through the sign maker, causing him to tumble backward and knock over a cluster of posies resting on the table behind him. To the average twelve year-old-girl with a burgeoning preoccupation with their personal appearance, the hair straightener that the birthday girl uncovered beneath the many layers of wrapping paper was as valuable as any sacred talisman. In the eyes of the sign maker, however, the beauty appliance was nothing more than a dangerous weapon, and as her father and protector, he felt it was his duty to make such concerns known.
“That can cause burns,” he admonished.
“Oh, please,” Aunt Fanny said, rolling her eyes in response to her brother’s statement. “You always manage to find the danger in even the most ordinary of objects. A car, according to your logic, is nothing but a form of population control, rubber bands are a choking hazard, and now, apparently, a simple hair straightener is a weapon of mass destruction.”
The sign maker’s daughter and her friends giggled at Aunt Fanny’s outburst. The sign maker clamped his lips into scowl but managed to contain any further objections while his daughter opened the rest of her presents.
Aunt Fanny’s gift bag contained a pair of white socks and a bottle of rum, which she greedily removed from her niece’s hands, telling everyone it was an accident, that the present must have been intended for someone else. “Although I’m not sure how in the world anyone could possibly live in this house without a good stiff drink now and then,” she muttered.
Her parents gave her twelve gifts to celebrate the occasion, each one having passed their stringent safety criteria: markers, two bars of dark chocolate, another pair of socks, a bandana, a nail filer, an Elton John record, a Quarter Collector’s map of the United States, four state quarters, and Fodor’s Travel Guide to France, which she would add to her growing collection of travel guides.
Despite being in the company of her friends and family, surrounded by the objects of their generosity, the sign maker’s daughter couldn’t quite shake a gnawing disappointment. Like the flowers her mother grew in her garden, the sadness bloomed in her heart, swelling until it hurt too much to ignore. She was now a year older, and accompanying the passage of time was a deeper awareness of the differences between life in The Safe House and the world outside, a world that contained a multitude of surprises waiting patiently like buried treasure to be discovered. Her desire to leave, to indulge her curiosity of everything outside of her father’s control, had been under development for years, and would continue to harden with time.
Later that evening, after her friends departed, the girl lay awake in bed with her hands pressed over her ears like mittens in an effort to stifle her parents’ argument spilling throughout the house. After a half hour, the yelling subsided, leaving The Safe House to become, once again, shrouded in a sleepy hush. The sign maker’s daughter closed her eyes and dreamed of late evenings in Paris, drifting down the Seine River on a steamship, the Eiffel Tower standing as a beacon in the distance while she listened to the reedy bellows of an accordion mingling with water lapping against the side of the boat.
The squeak of her bedroom door woke her from her dream. Squinting against the harsh light that had suddenly filled her room, she saw the outline of her mother standing in the doorway.
“What’s going on?” the young girl asked.
“Shhh,” her mother whispered reassuringly. “There’s something I want to show you. Follow me.”
Still wearing her pajamas, the curious young girl followed her mother through the quiet house, out the back door, and across the flagstone walkway that wove through the lush garden. Despite the warm afternoons this time of year, a chill had snuck its way into the air. The young girl watched the vapor of her breath disappear into the darkness while her mother pulled the folds of her robe tightly around her neck to shut out the cold.
On the lot beyond the gardens stood a few oaks, a few bushes in the front, and much overgrowth of honeysuckle vine. At the very back end, at the fence, stood a wall of sunflowers as tall as a grown man. They came to a halt when they reached the sunflowers. The girl looked around, wondering what they could possibly find out here in the middle of the night.
“Just a second,” her mother said as she stepped around the row of sunflowers and pulled something out that had been concealed. A soft bell rang out. The young girl stepped to the side as her mother steered a pink bicycle into view, its wheels sinking into a muddy patch.
“Wow!” Her daughter’s eyes peeled wide with excitement. “Is this for me?” Last year she had begged her parents to buy her a bicycle, but her father had adamantly protested, listing off the many dangers associated with bike riding: she could fall and hurt herself, she could be snatched kidnappers, she could get lost and be unable to find her way back to The Safe House.
“You have a curious mind,” her mother said with a grin as she watched the twinkle of excitement in her daughter’s eyes. “I think it’s time that you explore your surroundings beyond The Safe House.”
“Has Daddy approved this?” the young girl asked, remembering his reaction when she asked for a bike the previous year.
She shrugged. “Your father loves you very much, but what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Your father loves you very much. The young girl had heard her mother speak those words countless times in the past, used as a way of defending her father’s cautionary behavior. Whenever her mother said this, there always seemed to be a deeper unspoken meaning like the water that trickles through underground caverns. Even though you don’t understand his methods of protecting you, it still doesn’t mean that he cares any less, is what she meant to say. Love is a riddle, could have been another translation. That’s the problem with love; you can’t argue against it because by definition it implies that an action is unselfishly carried out for the benefit of someone else with no expectations of gratitude or remuneration.
“When I was your age,” her mother continued, “I had a bike of my own. It was wonderful, having the freedom to go wherever and whenever I pleased. I remember the wind pressing against my face when I would glide down a hill, the exhilaration filling me up like helium, making me feel weightless, free from worries.” She sighed and looked up to the sky, her eyes reading the constellations above like they were a map to the past. She looked back to her daughter, who thought she could see one of the shimmering stars stuck in the corners of her mother’s eye. “I want you to be able to experience that for yourself.”
The girl wrapped her arms around her mother and felt a kiss against her cold cheek followed the warmth of her mother’s tears.
The sign maker’s daughter was ten years old when she learned about the many unexpected deaths of her relatives. One night, she’d been secretly reading a book about New York City under the bed sheets (this was before she’d developed an interest in international travel), the images of skyscrapers illuminated by the glow of her flashlight, when she heard a shrill cry from downstairs. Alarmed, the young girl snapped the book shut and planted herself at the top of the stairs, straining to listen in on the conversation that was taking place below.
“…Green Lake County police on the phone,” her mother said, her voice somber and heavy with hesitation. “They said there’d been some kind of accident.”
“I can’t…I can’t believe this,” Aunt Fanny said. “I can’t go through this again.” All of her words were muddled, turning into what the young girl called wet speech. Even when her aunt wasn’t sad, sometimes the wet speech would intrude in her conversation, especially when she had too much to drink.
Although the young girl wasn’t entirely sure what had happened to her uncle, the moaning of her aunt and the deep trembling sobs from her father filled her with sadness. She retreated back up the stairs and climbed into bed. She cried for hours until her eyes were sore and snot dripped across her lips, eventually falling to sleep.
The next morning, the sign maker’s daughter found her mother at work in the living room bundling up various flowers into bouquets. Still deeply troubled by what she’d heard the previous night, the young girl sought to find out what happened. When she asked about the commotion from her father and Aunt Fanny, her mother sighed deeply.
“Your Uncle Harry had an accident last night. He’d been at a wedding reception and had consumed several drinks. Apparently, he and several other guests left the party to go to smoke on a balcony. He leaned against the wooden railing, and according witnesses, there was a sharp snapping sound and within an instant the railing collapsed behind your uncle, sending him tumbling over the edge and…well, he hit his head pretty hard.”
“Will he get better?”
Her mother shook her head, and the young girl knew that the accident was serious.
“That’s why I’m making these flower arrangements,” her mother said. “They’ll be on display for your uncle’s funeral.”
She tied the stems of several roses together with white ribbon. “There’s something else that I need to tell you.” Her mother stared at her for a moment, collecting her thoughts, and began to speak. “Your father and Aunt Fanny had six brothers and sisters,” she said. “And of the eight siblings, your father and his sister are the only remaining two alive.”
As her mother continued, it became clear to the young girl that Uncle Harry’s death was not the first brush with misfortune the sign maker and his sister have encountered. The other siblings, like her uncle the night before, had all died tragically, each in an unlikely manner: a drowning, a motorbike accident, a heart attack. One of them, her Uncle Thomas, who she never met, had been struck by lightening. Of all the terrible accidents that had befallen her father’s family, however, the most peculiar were the deaths of her grandparents.
“Your grandmamma and grandpapa were celebrating their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary in the same way they did every year with a trip to the Wisconsin Dells,” the sign maker’s wife told her daughter. “We found several photographs they’d taken during the trip that showed them wearing the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen on them. It was during their drive back home, however, when things took an unexpected turn, the odds of which couldn’t have been less than one out of a billion. They’d been following the route they always took while navigating the country roads of rural Wisconsin when, suddenly, a bale of hay weighing half a ton rolled down a sweeping hill, gaining momentum. The police believed that the two of them never saw the bale of hay in their periphery as it gathered speed, plowed through the rickety wooden fence that bordered the road and tumbled on top of the sedan, crushing them instantly under its tremendous weight.”
The story was as equally bizarre as it was sad. The obvious question that entered the girl’s mind was what would have happened had her grandparents left for home one second earlier or later than they did? Perhaps they could have stopped for gas or grabbed a bite to eat at a diner along the way. Her grandmother could have pointed out a nice little produce stand on the side of the highway and said, “Look darling, fresh watermelons,” and they could have pulled over and avoided their ghastly fate entirely.
“Why didn’t you tell me all of this before?” the young girl asked her mother, her eyes swollen with tears.
“You were only two years old at the time when it happened, so there was no way you would have understood. Your father and I thought it best to wait until you were older to tell you. We didn’t want to frighten you into thinking that something bad was going to happen to you.”
After a moment of reflection, the young girl asked, “Do you think this has anything to do with why Daddy makes all those signs?”
Her mother swallowed and glanced down at her fidgeting hands. “People deal with grief in different ways. Sometimes, we can’t make sense of others reactions, but it doesn’t negate their feelings. Your father loves you very much and would do anything to keep you safe.” Although her mother did not say it exactly, the girl knew that all of the tragic deaths accounted, in part, for her father’s odd behavior. The safety signs had simply become a replacement for the silence that had inserted itself between her parents.
The morning after her twelfth birthday party and her mother’s secret visit in the night, the sign maker’s daughter awoke full of excitement at the thought of riding her bike. She jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs. Sunday mornings meant that her mother would be cooking pancakes and eggs while whistling some old tune she wouldn’t recognize. When she stepped into the kitchen she found the stove cold and no one around. She searched in the living room and found that it, too, was empty. She searched the parlor room where her mother made her bouquets, then the dining room and the laundry room, but her mother was nowhere to be found. Finally, when she opened the door to her father’s workshop, she found the sign maker sitting at his workbench with his head slumped over a piece of paper that seemed to be swollen with teardrops. She didn’t need to read what was written on the note to understand that something was wrong. She closed the door gently, not wanting to make her presence known lest he realize that she had caught a glimpse of him in such a vulnerable state, and fled to her mother’s garden.
Nearly an hour passed before Aunt Fanny found the sign maker’s daughter lying in a patch of daisies and gazing up at the limitless blue sky.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” her aunt said as she lifted the girl’s head onto her thigh and began brushing her hair with her pruned fingers. “Your mother will come back soon. You’ll see,” she said. “Everything will be better.”
The girl knew that these were merely hollow promises meant to lift her spirits. She didn’t cry, not then. There would be many spilt tears in the years to come. But in that moment, she concentrated her gaze on the indigo sky as she worked out the scattered jigsaw of emotions, fitting the pieces together—heartbreak, isolation, anger, confusion—parsing each of the past twelve years of her life to search for a memory that might help her invent an excuse for her mother’s abandonment.
One afternoon several weeks after the sign maker’s wife left, Aunt Fanny returned from Ageless Antiques, where she frequently shopped for things she did not need but wanted very much. She asked the sign maker’s daughter if she could lend a helping hand in carrying her newfound treasures from the car—which had been filled to capacity—upstairs to her bedroom. One of the heaviest items was a large dollhouse that, oddly enough, held a close resemblance to their real home. The dollhouse was much less cluttered, decorated with the kind of precision that you would only see in a luxurious hotel or on a movie set. There were no people inside the home, but the girl imagined that any family who was lucky enough to live in such a lovely place would surely be the happiest in the world.
Aunt Fanny’s room was crowded with furniture and mounds of objects that carried no significance to the young girl. Like a police officer directing traffic, Aunt Fanny motioned with her hands toward a piano that was missing several keys and told her niece to place the dollhouse on top of it. The girl obeyed her aunt’s directions, treading along a narrow aisle that had been carved through the clutter.
“Do you like the dollhouse?” Aunt Fanny asked.
The girl shrugged her shoulders. “It’s alright.”
“I used to have one just like that when I was a little girl,” she said, smiling faintly.
“What happened to it?”
Her aunt’s smile melted. “It broke. I dropped it by accident and it split in half.”
“Oh,” the young girl said. Then, unable to think of anything better to say, added, “You must have been very upset.”
Her aunt shrugged and said, “Nothing lasts forever. I’ll go and get the last few things from the car. Feel free to play with the dollhouse.” She rubbed the top of the young girl’s head and disappeared out of the room.
The girl played with the family in the dollhouse for a few moments before her attention drifted to a precarious pile of objects that slid like an avalanche when she touched it. A small wooden box bearing an insignia of a heart etched on the lid tumbled to her feet. She picked it up and opened it. Inside she found a collection of old Kodachrome photographs.
In one of the pictures a boy and a girl were sitting on opposite branches of a tree, looking down with bright smiles at whoever was holding the camera. Another one showed the same two kids clinging onto a tire swing being pushed by a hefty child. In the next one they were sitting behind the wheels of bumper cars, crashing into each other with reckless abandon. They both looked so happy in all of the pictures, doing things that she only dreamt of doing herself.
There was something familiar about the features of the two children in the pictures, especially the girl’s tangled curly red hair and the boy’s ears that stuck out wide from his head. It was her father and Aunt Fanny, she realized, although the disguises of their smiles made it difficult for her to recognize them.
The door shut behind her, and when the girl turned, she saw her aunt standing over her shoulder. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been watching her thumb through the past entombed in the photographs.
“Those were good times,” Aunt Fanny said dreamily as she lowered her weight slowly until she was seated next to the young girl on the floor. “Yes, good times,” she repeated, softly.
“You and Daddy did so much when you were young,” the young girl said, unable to draw her gaze away from the photos. It was difficult for her to imagine him doing anything outside of The Safe House.
“We did. Back then the world was a much larger and more exciting place.”
“But all of the things you did in these pictures were dangerous—hanging from tree limbs and swimming and sledding. You could have gotten hurt.” The girl was surprised to hear the echo of her father’s voice in her words.
“Nonsense. Look at our grins, the dimples impressed in our cheeks. Do you think we were worried of falling or tripping or hurting ourselves in any way? Of course not! Our minds weren’t capable of producing such ridiculous concerns.” Aunt Fanny’s breath smelled sour, like the clear liquid in the bottles she kept on the shelf next to the bookcase. Her eyes were red around the edges.
“Why don’t you do any of these things anymore?” The girl asked.
“Because we’re wiser than we were back then.” She pointed to the picture that the girl was holding in her hands. “That one is my favorite.”
The girl looked down and saw her father and her aunt standing on the beach next to her grandparents along with who she believed to be their siblings—all eight of them. The expanse of the ocean spread out behind them, vanishing into the horizon. They were all smiling with squinting eyes under the radiant sunlight.
“We should frame it and hang it in the foyer,” the girl suggested. She had never seen a photograph of her grandparents and all of her now-deceased aunts and uncles together.
“Your father wouldn’t like that. The pictures would bring back too many memories.”
“Why wouldn’t he want to remember?”
Aunt Fanny put the photos back into the wooden box and placed it under her bed. “Some memories are just too painful,” she said.
Something in her aunt looked broken, and it saddened the girl to know that she couldn’t fix whatever was wrong. She was all-too familiar with this broken part, because it hurt inside of her whenever she thought about her mother.
Above the seat where her mother used to design and arrange the flowers into her masterpieces, a small banner made out of felt paper dangled from two hooks that her father installed on the ceiling. The sign read: We miss you so much. Please come home.
It was difficult for the sign maker’s daughter to accept the idea that her mother was gone and that it was unlikely she would ever return. Whenever she inhaled the scent of flowers it seemed that, for a brief moment, her mother was standing right next to her, smiling and telling her that everything would be okay. She’d hand her a corsage made out of silky roses and posies, and tell her that she kept all of the heart-shaped petals for her.
She picked up one of the half-finished bouquets in her hands, wondering where her mother was at that very moment. The petals were brittle and crumpled between her laced fingers like tissue paper.
The next day, while sitting on a garden rock and gazing at a double-page spread of the Eiffel Tower in her new travel guide to Paris, a brilliant idea formed in the mind of the sign maker’s daughter. Since happiness dwindled as people got older (at least, that was what her aunt told her), then she should try her best to preserve the present, to keep her own box of memories. A camera would be needed and she knew exactly where she could find one.
“I need a camera,” she asked Aunt Fanny one morning while she was putting on her makeup. She was getting herself ready to leave The safe House for the day to go scavenger hunting at various estate sales around town, something she did every Monday.
“What will you give me in exchange for it?” Aunt Fanny asked, always hesitant to give away any of her prized possessions.
The girl thought for a second before she said, “I’ll give you my travel guide to Bangladesh.” It was an outdated edition, so she had no qualms about giving it up.
Her aunt’s eyes flickered with curiosity. “Make it two books and we have a deal,” she bartered. Negotiations had become second nature to Aunt Fanny, who nearly spent as much time hunting for bargains as she did in The Safe House.
After spending some time rummaging through the mountainous piles of stuff, Aunt Fanny found not one but three cameras. Two of them were non-functioning, but the third one she found to be in perfectly good-working condition.
With the camera slung over her shoulder, the girl rode her bike—which she kept hidden behind the sunflowers—down the gravel road, past the gate that marked the beginning of all that lay beyond The Safe House until she reached Anna’s house in a neighborhood a couple miles away. Her father, who was busy in the workshop, would assume that she was busy reading in her room (the safest activity for a young girl, he believed) or playing in the garden with her friends.
This was the first time she’d ever been inside Anna’s house because her father was convinced that the environment of the home was too hazardous for daily living, let alone recreation. Her father did not inspect Anna’s home in person (in fact, he hadn’t stepped outside of The Safe House for as long as his daughter could remember), but instead, had sent his wife with a list in hand to appraise the safety of the home. The young girl was fascinated by how empty the walls looked without the foreboding signs.
After a lively welcome by Anna’s mother, the young girl was invited inside and asked to try four different types of perfume on her neck and wrists. One of the perfumes, called Intensity, induced a sneezing bout in the young girl that lasted for ten minutes.
“I appreciate you volunteering to try my perfumes,” Anna’s mother said when they were finished and the stinging sensation in they young girl’s nostrils dissipated. “Your input is invaluable.” As a consolation for her time, she gave the young girl a small sample vial of Snuggle, the only fragrance that didn’t make her nauseous.
When Anna was ready, she and the sign maker’s daughter met up with Linda. The three of them rode their bikes together, feeling like explorers in a strange land. They swam in the nearby ravine, spied on the boys who played baseball in the park, and picnicked together on the lakeshore.
The sign maker’s daughter chronicled her adventures that summer with her friends, taking photos of their surroundings and posting them in an album with titles like “The Wilderness” and “The Unknown” and “The Changing Tides.”
Over the years, with no one to tend the garden, the landscape of the sign maker’s home fell into disarray. The flower petals wilted and the maidengrass and purple fountaingrass faded under the broiling summer sun, never to grow back to its former lushness. The scent of the garden, once as potent as the perfumes Anna’s mother sold, had faded away entirely along with any hopes the young girl had harbored of her mother returning to The Safe House.
The sign maker’s daughter, now eighteen years old and no longer a small child, was ready to leave The Safe House to attend college in California to study photography. Her father begged and pleaded with her stay home, hoping to convince her to become his apprentice so she could learn how to make signs. “Signs make the world a safer place,” he would reiterate over and over again. But the young woman had seen enough contradictory evidence outside of The Safe House during her clandestine escapades to know that her father’s cautionary words were formed on groundless logic.
“You can’t keep her here forever,” Aunt Fanny told him just a few days before his daughter’s departure. “It’s time for her to experience the world for herself.” This statement had a shattering effect over the sign maker. He spent the next three days locked away in his workshop, only leaving to get food from the pantry and to sneak a bottle of rum from Aunt Fanny’s private liquor cabinet.
It was a bright and crisp October morning, and the sign maker waited anxiously near the mailbox at the end of the driveway—the farthest he would venture from The Safe House—for twenty minutes, pacing in circles to whittle away the time until the soft rumble of the mail delivery truck could be heard over the whispering wind. The deliveryman hardly parked the truck before the sign maker dashed over to the side door and greedily snatched the mail out of his hands.
Clutching the envelope and National Geographic magazine to his chest, the sign maker ran along the driveway toward The Safe House, his silver hair waving against the breeze like a dandelion. Once inside, he called out to his sister, “Fanny, the mail is here!”
He heard the slow thump, thump, thump of his sister’s cane marching down the stairs. Her leg had been flaring up with bouts of pain for the past few months, for which she’d been taking several prescriptions to help ease the discomfort. He waited patiently for her to enter the kitchen before opening the envelope that his daughter sent him. With their heads only inches apart, they leaned forward and read the letter together:
Dear Daddy and Aunt Fanny,
These past couple of months have been a whirlwind for me. Oh, how I wish you could be here to take in all the sights that I’ve seen. Copenhagen is even more beautiful than the travel guides portray with the building’s many pastel colors and river passageways crisscrossing through the city. Last month, I met a man from America who is passing through to study the city’s marvelous architecture. He himself wants to become an architect and build magnificent structures that will overcome the amnesia of a bygone era. Listen to me ramble! It seems that I’ve already picked up Nathan’s penchant for poetic language just by being around him. I hope one day soon you and Aunt Fanny will be able to meet him.
I’ve included several photographs with this letter for you to see what my words can’t describe. You’ll find them in the magazine that should be delivered with this letter. I hope I’ve managed to do the scenes justice.
As always, I love you both and wish you all the happiness in the world.
Several months later another letter arrived, and again, the sign maker and his sister slanted their heads over the piece of paper, greedily reading its contents.
Dear Daddy and Aunt Fanny,
I’m writing this letter to you on a cruise ship. Nathan and I are traveling to Aruba, where the water is the clearest and most beautiful that I’ve ever seen. In the evening, when the sun begins to dip below the horizon and the locals begin their merengue, the entire ocean is smeared with a golden light like icing. As you can imagine, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take a photograph.
It brings me great excitement to announce that last month Nathan and I got married in Paris. Words cannot begin to describe the feelings that coursed through me during our travels together. I so badly wish you two could have made it to the wedding, but I understand that there were certain complications associated with getting you here. There is a surprise for you in the National Geographic I sent you (you’ll find it on page 49).
I love you both and look forward to seeing you soon for Christmas.
The sign maker opened the magazine to the page mentioned in the letter to find several photographs taken by his daughter in Paris. In the first photo, twilight had nearly fully embraced the city with its shadows, turning all the buildings to coal against the fiery setting sun. Standing prominently in the center was the Eiffel tower standing sentinel against the rest of the city. He turned the page to see the famous landmark illuminated with flashing lights that shone like stars against the backdrop of night and squinted to get a closer look at what appeared to be a white flower at the top of the tower.
“My magnifying glass,” he said. His sister opened up a drawer labeled Miscellaneous and found her brother’s magnifying glass. Holding the lens up to the image, he saw that the flower was in fact his daughter dressed in her wedding gown standing next to her husband, the man they had only met through their daughter’s letters. They were smiling and waving from the top of the tower toward the camera at ground level. In the caption beneath the picture, the sign maker found the title of the image: FREEDOM.
Over time, a pattern developed between father and daughter. Every couple of months she would send him a hand-written letter along with the latest issues of magazines containing her photographs taken from all around the world. For the sign maker, the sights captured by his daughter’s camera became an extension of his own small world.
He would correspond with her through mail as well, postmarking his responses to a P.O. Box in California that she checked during her return visits to the States. His letters were full of compliments on her latest publications, telling her how proud he was of her for all her accomplishments, for taking so many risks. He would relay to her any news that was happening around The Safe House, which was usually very seldom and often inconsequential. “Mrs. Halloran has sold her grocery store and retired with her husband to Florida,” he told her once. Another time, he wrote to tell his daughter that her childhood friend, Anna, had a baby girl recently and that he’d sent her a wooden plaque engraved with her daughter’s name, date of birth, horoscope sign, birth weight, and an imprint of her baby feet and hands.
Most recently, he delivered the unfortunate news that Aunt Fanny had passed away from liver disease. After the doctors delivered his sister’s prognosis, she and the sign maker made every attempt to enjoy their last few months together, cooking all of their favorite foods and listening to records they found in the attic that they thought had been lost long since their childhood. What could have been a time of sorrow, they had managed to transform into days of joy, full of remembrance and laughter, right up until the very last days.
Now that his sister was gone the hermetic house seemed vacuous and much too large for one person. He didn’t mention this to his daughter in his letters because he didn’t want to upset her. After Fanny’s death, the sign maker no longer addressed his residence as The Safe House but rather as The Lonely House. That is how he felt now, alone in his own home, and there was no one with whom to share the burden of his isolation.
It was Christmastime when the sign maker’s daughter and her husband, Nathan, paid a visit to The Lonely House. Every time she returned, it always surprised her just how distant the house was from the neighboring town, as though it had been built on unsteady ground that was slowly sliding away like the continents shifting on tectonic plates. They always travelled to see her father during the holidays, and every time, he would gather them in a warm embrace and ask them a litany of questions about their worldly exploits. In the past, Aunt Fanny would bake the softest and sweetest maple-nut cookies and apple tarts and rhubarb pie they had ever tasted. Christmas simply wasn’t the same without the smell of pastries baking in the oven or her lengthy discussions about her latest treasure hunts at the antique shops, complete with the history of the items, where they came from and how much they were currently worth.
With the absence of her mother and Aunt Fanny, there was something different about the house. It wasn’t just the quiet that permeated throughout, but something physical as well. She didn’t notice it at first, but as she moved from room to room, the reasons why all the rooms felt emptier became clear: all of the signs had been removed. Where cautionary discretions had once hung there were now only faded spots on the floral wallpaper.
“What happened to all of the signs?” the sign maker’s daughter asked.
The old man shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t need them anymore.”
When she was about to ask him why, she saw his face clearly: the sunken cheeks, the tired and aimless eyes, his white hair as thin and wispy as cotton. She could hardly recognize this man as being the same she knew from her childhood.
Later that night, after eating Christmas dinner together and opening presents, the sign maker and his daughter sat outside on the patio, bundled up in their warm coats while they watched the snow fall in swirling motions as it covered up the vast expanse of land that had once been brimming with color. Inside, Nathan slept soundly on the couch, having had too much eggnog during dinner—a recipe that had been passed down by Aunt Fanny.
“It’s been quiet here without your aunt and your mother,” the sign maker said dispiritedly.
“Yes, I can imagine.”
“It gives me a lot of time to think.”
There was a moment of silence between them filled with unspoken memories and regrets.
“I’m sick,” he said eventually, his voice cutting through the silence like a knife with a dull edge.
“Well, of course you don’t feel well. You must have eaten too much for dinner,” his daughter said in an attempt to deflect the seriousness of his tone. But when she glanced at her father, his dull gray eyes revealed that his sickness was more serious than indigestion.
Her father spoke slowly as though he were remembering the words he was supposed to say from having played out this moment many times in his head.
“Doctor Metzler came to see me after I called him about these persistent migraines I was having nearly every morning. After his visit, he told me to see a specialist, and I told him I couldn’t do that. Fortunately, the specialist was able to have a PET scanner transported on a truck to our house. Shortly afterwards, Doctor Metzler called to tell me the results of my scan. He told me I had a brain tumor—stage four. Based on the sound of his voice, I could tell that it was very upsetting for him to have to share the bad news with me, and when I asked how long I had left, I told him to be honest with me. He told me that I’d be lucky to last six months.”
“When did you find out about this?”
“Four months ago.”
She didn’t say anything for a moment, opening and closing her mouth several times while she formed her thoughts before finally saying, “I wish you would have told me sooner.”
“You were away in Australia at the time, and I didn’t want to worry you.”
“I still would have liked to know. We could have spent more time together.”
“You mean I should have joined you on your travels?”
“I mean you should get out of this house, this goddamn prison that you keep yourself locked inside of all the time.” Her voice was flimsy, on the verge of shattering like a dropped dish. “I see you withering away in this place, keeping yourself contained in some kind of effort to preserve yourself. Or maybe it’s some kind of punishment, I can’t tell the difference.” The tempo of her words quickened as she spoke, spilling out of her mouth like a levee that had collapsed.
Her father’s gaze was fixed to the edge of the patio where the awning ended and the snow began to form a wall. He couldn’t bring himself to look his daughter in the eyes.
“No matter how hard you try you can’t bring your parents back and you can’t save everyone, Dad. The idea that you could somehow protect us all was ludicrous. You didn’t attend my graduation. You couldn’t even come to our wedding,. When are you going to realize that staying here in this house is causing you to miss out on your entire life?” Or what’s left of it, she thought with a jolting realization. She had finally said what had been building up inside of her for years, and even as the words were coming out of her mouth, she felt a wave of regret take over her.
Her father stood up slowly, his joints cracking as they always did when it was bitter cold outside, and made his way to the sliding glass door. He looked so fragile under the pale moonlight, her father, like a piece of glass that could shatter at the slightest disturbance. Before opening the door, he turned to her and, brushing his gray stubble with his thumb and forefinger, said, “I certainly don’t want you to worry about me.” He disappeared inside, spilling a wave of warmth and the smooth voice of Nat King Cole singing the Christmas Song.
The next morning, the sound of frying eggs and soft humming could be heard all throughout The Lonely House. The sign maker made his way downstairs to the kitchen to find his daughter cooking breakfast. She stopped humming Christmas tunes when she saw him enter the kitchen. After he took his seat, she poured him a glass of orange juice and placed the morning newspaper on the table in front of him.
“I’m sorry about what I said last night,” she said.
He stared intently through the large windows that overlooked the barren land in the backyard.
“I’m really sorry,” she said again.
He took a sip of his juice, grunted, and after a pause, he said, “There is a place I’ve always wanted to go—or rather, return to.”
The sign maker’s daughter remembered biking to Chestnut Hill when she was a girl. The top of the hill provided an extraordinary view of the entire valley and the town that sat at the bottom. You could stand anywhere in town and have a clear view of Chestnut Hill’s summit.
She found the idea laudable that out of all the places in the world to visit, he wanted to go someplace that was a mere five miles away. “There’s nowhere else you’d rather see?”
“No. I want to go to Chestnut Hill.”
“Now,” he said without the slightest bit of hesitation.
Even though the sun was now poking out from behind the clouds, several inches of snow had fallen the night before. Driving along the narrow icy roads up the hill would be dangerous. He must have been out of his mind to even suggest that they go out today.
“Dad, you’re sick. I can’t take you up there. What would I do if you fell and hurt yourself?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, you’ve been trying to get me out of this house for the past thirty years, and now you’re going to let a little illness get in the way of that?”
He finished his breakfast and, using the table for leverage, pulled himself up onto his feet.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“If you aren’t going to take me to Chestnut Hill,” he said defiantly, “then I’ll go by myself.” He disappeared into the garage. There was no arguing against the old man. She knew that once her father made up his mind about something, nothing could lead him astray from his convictions.
Seeing no point in arguing with him, she knew that the only alternative was to help him. A wish, after all, was a wish, even if she would have chosen differently.
“Nathan!” she called out at the bottom of the stairs, rousing her sleeping husband, who clambered down the stairs rubbing the corners of his eyes.
“What’s the matter? What’s all the shouting for?” he said. His long sleep had evaporated most of his intoxication.
“My father wants to go to Chestnut Hill,” she said with a smile. Her husband stood for a minute, but once his foggy mind had process what she’d said, his eyelids parted wide. “Well, what are we waiting for then? Let’s go!”
Nate brought the truck around to where the open garage door was. In the center of the workspace sat a large pile of metal sheets and string and wires and a collection of tools used for building signs. The sign maker picked up a few supplies in his arms, and, struggling under the burden of their weight, carried them to the bed of the truck. No one knew the purpose of all of the parts. The sign maker hardly spoke a word except for the occasional, “Be careful with that, it’s fragile,” or “Easy now, we’ll need everything,” while his daughter and her husband helped to load the items onto the truck.
Once the hatch was filled to capacity, causing the cab of the truck to slump ever so slightly under the heavy load, the sign maker and his family set out for Chestnut Hill, the snow crunching softly under the tires.
“We’ll need more help,” the sign maker said. There was no explanation affixed to this request, and when Nate asked why, there was no response. “We need more people,” was all he said. He covered his eyes with his hands in an attempt to ignore the treacherous road conditions.
The sign maker’s daughter knew exactly who might have been willing to help them, and several minutes later, they arrived at Anna’s house. After sharing their predicament with Anna and explaining that her father wished to go to the top of Chestnut Hill, Anna agreed to help them accomplish whatever it was that the old man had in mind. Anna’s daughter and husband drove behind them as they made their way toward their destination. They made one final stop to pick up Lynda, who also agreed to help the family.
With her childhood friends driving in tandem behind her, the sign maker’s daughter could hardly believe that this was actually happening.
“Slow down, the sign maker said. “I’ve been waiting thirty years to get out of the house. I don’t want to get into a car accident before I get to the hill.” His eyes were trained on the speedometer, ever-vigilant to catch the slightest deviance from the posted speed limit.
The caravan of cars drove carefully up the gravel- and snow-covered slope. The slightest slip on the ice would send the sign maker into a fit, causing him to make sharp squealing noises with a look of profound terror distorting his features. Nate tried to calm the old man’s nerves by playing soft orchestral music over the speakers, which seemed to allay his fears to the point where his yells simmered to a soft whimpering.
They were nearly at the summit when they came upon a guardrail bearing a reflective sign that announced the end of the road.
“We can walk the rest of the way,” the sign maker said. He stepped out into the chilly morning, slipping on a piece of ice buried under snow and nearly tumbling backward. He managed to latch onto the side of the truck and regain his balance.
“Dad,” his daughter said imploringly, “watch your step. We’ll get the stuff from the truck and carry it up for you.”
“I’m okay,” he said, waiving his hand dismissively. He straightened his coat on his weak body and made his way over the guardrail and up the last fifty feet of the hill. Lynda, Anna, and her family followed after the old man bearing expressions of concern. But the old man’s pace was quickening, fueled by a sudden burst of excitement.
“It’s around here somewhere,” he muttered. He scoured the snowy landscape, looking at the ground like a treasure hunter scanning a beach with a metal detector. “Perhaps, over there,” he said. His companions looked at each other and shrugged their confusion, waiting for directions from the old man.
He stopped in front of a snow-covered bush and began to shake the powdery snow off its branches, revealing the bright pink flowers of the Japanese cherry blossom. Even after all of these years, the flowers remained exactly where his wife had planted them all those years ago for their wedding day. The old man’s eyes widened. “It’s here,” he said. From the place he was standing, the entire group could see the panoramic spread of the surrounding forests and the valley and the town that occupied the basin, so small and insignificant from the high altitude that the buildings looked as though they could have been made out of matchbooks. Beyond the town and over the crest of another hill, The Lonely House stood on a plot of land all by itself.
“We will build it here,” the sign maker said.
It took them the entire day to build the sign from the parts they brought with them, using ropes and pulleys to hoist up the metal sheets so that they interlocked with each other. Sitting in a lawn chair behind the group of friends and relatives, bundled up in his favorite heavy coat and fur cap, the sign maker watched the assemblage of his sign, doling out an occasional instruction or piece of advice here and there. Nathan, having designed many buildings, was able to discern the old man’s blueprints with ease.
When they were finished, their fingers were numb from the cold and the ache of exertion. But they remained under the massive structure they had constructed, standing seventy feet high above them like a monument. It was by far the most elaborate and striking sign the old man had ever made. Behind them, the sun began its long decent view, spreading fiery banners of light across the sky.
The old man remained in his lawn chair, marveling at the structure in front of him, and whispered, “She’ll come back now. Just wait. She’ll come back.” He smiled as the sun completed its disappearing act.
Far below in the valley, at the foot of Chestnut Hill, the townspeople fixed their attention on the enormous structure that loomed high above them, captivated by the image illuminated by hundreds of solar lights like some divine message, enticing anyone who laid eyes upon it to try to unravel its mystery.
Reverend Sharp paused in the middle of his evening sermon, looking squarely at the sign that appeared through the round window at the back of the chapel.
Mr. and Mrs. Adler, who ran the diner, peaked through the window blinds, their mouths hanging agape, to get a better view.
The Ullmans’ were eating dinner when they saw the dazzling sign, their forks and knives still fastened in their gasps.
All across town everyone stopped what they were doing to marvel at the sign, each person drawing their own individual meaning from it. Even if the townspeople didn’t understand the sign entirely, no one denied its significance.
Days and weeks passed, and still the sign remained standing upon the hilltop, gazing down upon the town like some omniscient being. Bewildered by its sudden appearance, no one dared to remove it for fear that the slightest disturbance would result in misfortune.
Even from the small window in the corner of the hospital room, the sign maker had a clear view of his greatest triumph. He grinned with satisfaction as he lay on the unfamiliar sheets in this unfamiliar place, reading the message over and over while waiting with a practiced patience for his wife to return and bring him home.
"When not imagining how AI might save us from the consequences of ocean acidification, Sidney enjoys learning about the inner workings of our brains, and wondering how much of ourselves we might pass on to our creations."
One Parasite Two Parasite
Six year old Cyndee ran down the stairs and jumped into her Grandpa’s lap.
“Grandpa,” she asked, “what’s Schubsee and Zoopers?”
Grandpa looked down at her very surprised. “Now where did you hear about that?” he asked.
“Me and Levy were playing in the closet upstairs and she found it. How come it looks so different from the other books?”
“That’s because it is not a book from this time. I took it with me here,” explained Grandpa.
“Can you read it to us?” asked Cyndee. “Please-please-please-please-please-please-please??”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that here,” he replied, “it’s much too old for you. I can tell you the short, simple version myself though. And it’s pronounced shoob-zee, not shubb-cee.”
Cyndee smiled. Grandpa’s stories were always the best.
A very long time ago, even before the first Connectome was destroyed and Earth abandoned, Schubsee stood on the south coast of France. She was filling up with water again. In front of her was Corsica and to her left was Italy, and they both looked so close. She’d never stood on Corsica and really wanted to, but wasn’t sure if she could jump that far. Her insides could handle the acid water and process it properly, but her outer shell was not strong enough. If she didn’t jump the full distance, that might be the end of her.
As she was finishing, she looked to the southeast and saw a big storm coming. Scared of what the acid would do to her, she stood up quickly and looked for a good place to get away. Europe was a dangerous place to fill up – there was so much water nearby that there was a risk she would have nowhere to run. Luckily, there were always the Alps to hide behind. She turned north, took a few steps to pick up speed, and with a big leap went right over the Alps and landed in northern Switzerland. She turned back around and smiled, not many Orograths could jump like she could.
Now filled up and with a good power supply, Schubsee headed inland to where the good soil sites were. She hoped it wouldn’t be too crowded; the ecosystem inside her was still growing and not ready to get its genetic supplement yet.
Meanwhile, Zoopers carefully tiptoed through the Karakorum mountains. This was her favourite place - it was so peaceful and quiet. None of the other Orograths could walk on the uneven mountain ground like she could. She often wondered if there was some sort of ‘glitch’ in her neural net that allowed her to walk where the others could not. But the best part was the snow. Snow was much less acidic than ocean water and this made her systems run much smoother.
As she bent down and lowered a tube to start sucking some snow up, her infrared sensors picked up some tiny dots on the surface. When she looked closer, she couldn’t believe what she saw. Little biologicals! They weren’t in a biodome either! Somehow they had climbed all the way up the valley and carved out little caves in the mountainside. Here they were safe from the rain.
Zoopers felt sad. She never understood why they chose to live like that. She could relate to their dislike of the domes, for she was no different. But unlike her, they had the option to plug in to the Connectome, where they could live whatever life they chose for as long as they wanted. Zoopers looked up at the Connectome in orbit and sighed. She would be on Earth forever.
“Grandpa,” Cyndee asked, “why did people live in biodomes at all? Shouldn’t they have just gone into the Connectome right away?”
“Yes, they should have,” he explained, “but a lot of people were afraid of it and didn’t understand that it was just as real as in the domes. I’ve always thought that as soon as the acid became strong enough to destroy the biodomes they should’ve given up on being biological.”
“But the people in the Orograths were biologicals, right?”
“Yes, that’s what I was getting at. The whole idea of mobile biodomes that could escape the hurricanes was noble, but very dangerous.”
“I don’t understand,” interrupted Cyndee. “I thought living in a dome was really safe.”
“It was, the danger was with the Orograths themselves. You see, for a machine that big to work properly, the programmers had to break the A.I. law and give it too many connections, which made the Orograths able to think for themselves.”
“You mean like our neighbours?”
Grandpa laughed. “Yes Cyndee, like our neighbours. Remember though that the Orograths lived Outside, so there was a danger they could harm the biologicals. Luckily, they were not interested in anything but helping us.”
“Grandpa,” Cyndee asked, “did the Orograths ever get sick?”
After much wandering, Zoopers reached India, where many other Orograths were present. Her ecosystem was fully grown and long overdue for genetic pollination. To prepare for connection she did an extra air cycling of her biodome. However, a small glitch in her neural net that had gone unnoticed her whole life was suddenly triggered. It caused one of her vents to blow off and allow unfiltered outside air to enter her biodome.
The air carried lots of toxic spores, and once inside, the evil spores did what they do best; multiply. Multiply and multiply until they’d consumed every biological resource in the ecosystem and then spread into the electronic ones. They got inside Zoopers’ neural pathways and chewed their way through many systems. To make it worse, she was unable to seal the broken vent because the spores had destroyed the pathway to it, so more and more spores kept pouring in. As Zoopers began to lose function and became increasingly paralyzed, she noticed something horrible; the spores were headed for her neural core.
Determined to survive, Zoopers took drastic action. Using a combination of real-world compounds and data she’d obtained from the Connectome, she manufactured a parasite inside her neural core. As the spores approached it and with no visible alternative, she unleashed the parasite inside her own neural net.
The parasite, which was red, was very effective at stopping the spread of the spores, but it came at a terrible cost. As it spread throughout her circuits killing off the toxic spores, the parasite also took control of much of Zoopers’ neural net. Still unable to seal the vent, her only option was to produce more and more of the red parasite to fight the continuing outbreaks of spores. With the parasite controlling half of her circuits, and new spores entering her biodome every day, she could hardly walk, let alone form a connection with another Orograth for pollination. Worst of all, her ecosystem had been completely destroyed.
Schubsee was alone in northern Siberia harvesting sand for her biodome. Her ecosystem was almost ready for pollination. When she finished, she turned to head back to the others and all of a sudden her neural core lost power, and she fell to the ground.
“Nooo!! What happened?!?” Cyndee was very upset. “Schubsee was my favourite!”
“Well Cyndee,” Grandpa responded, “I’m not quite sure. I don’t know much about neural cores and artificial intelligence, so I can’t really explain it. I’ll go back to Zoopers now...”
“No! Schubsee was my favourite! I wanna know what happened!”
After much struggling, Zoopers was finally able to crawl away from spore-infested India and reach Tibet. Here the air was cleaner, and there was enough time between waves of spores that she was able to seal off the open vent. No more spores entered her biodome. However, the red parasite did not starve to death as she had hoped. Somehow more spores were still being produced. Impressed with the effectiveness of the red parasite, Zoopers manufactured a second one, which was blue. This one was better at destroying small, hard to reach spores.
It also worked quite well, and no food was left for the red parasite. It gradually faded away, but as it did Zoopers became very sad. The new, blue parasite was filling in the neural pathways that the red had taken control of. So even though she was able to function now and was no longer at risk of a complete system failure, she was still some sort of empty shell of her old self.
After she got up and left Tibet she noticed something worse. Some of the spores had dug deep into the dirt in her ecosystem where they were safe from both parasites. Although slowly, they kept multiplying and would come to the surface frequently. Zoopers knew that so long as it had a source of food, the blue parasite would never go away.
“Schubsee was my favourite! I wanna know what happened!” continued Cyndee.
“Alright Cyndee,” replied Grandpa, “she was found by another Orograth really soon, and repaired right away so that she was good as new. The other Orograth even installed a monitor in her neural core so that there would be less chance that it would happen again.”
“Wow, that’s great,” Cyndee said.
“You’re right, it is,” replied Grandpa, “and not just for Schubsee.”
Zoopers continued walking towards Africa. The going was slow and difficult, mostly because of the parasite, but she was able to make steady progress. She was going to the Sahara, where many of the newer Orograths would be found. Hopefully, one of them would have what she desperately needed; thermide plasma bombs.
Thermide plasma was the only compound she knew of that burned hot enough to cleanse her of the toxic spores and of the parasites she had manufactured inside of her. It was her last hope, for if it did not destroy the deepest roots of the spores, then she would likely have to continue with outbreaks forever. She knew that if that became the case, then she would never grow her ecosystem back, never connect, and never have her ecosystem pollinated. Her biodome would be empty and useless forever.
She arrived in Mali exhausted and uncomfortable – the wide, flat desert was not to her liking – but surrounded by other Orograths. After approaching a few, she found one that was willing to trade her some thermide plasma for several of her spare reactors. Zoopers knew that she would likely need those reactors at some point, but also knew that there was no point in reaching some point if she was still so infected.
Zoopers and the other Orograth formed a material-level connection – just material could be transferred, not ecosystem DNA and no neural link was formed – and Zoopers received the thermide plasma. As the connection was severed she dropped the first thermide plasma bomb into her biodome.
Schubsee’s neural core reactivated. Her sensors turned back on and, slowly, she stood up. She had been fixed! She examined her biodome and was delighted to see that her ecosystem was completely intact. She resumed her march southward, this time intent on pollinizing her ecosystem.
The thermide plasma worked, and Zoopers was thrilled to see many spores die off. The others kept multiplying though, so she continued to drop thermide plasma until she had emptied all of it in her biodome. After the haze lifted, she saw that almost all of spores were destroyed. Now she just needed more thermide plasma and she would finally be right again.
However, as she started walking she realized that although the red parasite was now completely eradicated, the blue one had spread significantly while she dropped the thermide plasma bombs. It occupied much of her neural net, and although she could function coherently, the parasite was always present.
Zoopers was sad. Not only did she still have the occasional, small spore outbreak, but she worried now that the blue parasite would be with her forever. She considered just accepting that, and going off into the Karakorum – accompanied by her infestation – and living there alone. But something deep inside her neural core was not ok with giving up like that. She remembered that when those evil spores first entered her biodome, she planned on recovering so well that no one would ever know she’d been infested.
She turned, and headed out of Africa, back towards the Himalayas. Perhaps there she could find a few Orograths with lots of extra-strong thermide plasma. She would drop so much that every single biological cell – spore or parasite – inside her would be wiped out forever, even if doing so burned up so much of her neural net that she was no longer herself.
Schubsee wandered south towards India. She could just make out the Caspian Sea on her right and the Karakorum Mountains on her left. Instead of going over the Himalayas, she had taken the long way around because she was still unsure of herself after what had just happened. Although her expectations were low, she really hoped that in India she would find an Orograth with good ecosystem DNA and be able to connect with it. Her ecosystem was becoming overdue for pollination, after all.
Just as she began to turn left, she saw another Orograth stumbling out of the desert to her right. She was waving for her to stop. She did, and when the Orograth reached her Schubsee noticed she was a much older version than herself. Definitely pollinated already.
“Hello,” began Schubsee, “you must be one of the Zinc-powered Oxygen-breathing Orograths with Platinum-shielding and an Electromagnetic System?”
“Electromagnetic Resonance System,” the new Orograth explained.
“Oh ok,” said Schubsee. “So… Zoopers?”
“Yep, that’s me!” answered Zoopers. She paused for a moment, not recognizing Schubsee’s design type.
“Self-Contained Hydrogen-powered Uniskeletal Biodome…?” she began.
“…for Surface Exploration and Endearment!” finished Schubsee. “It’s nice to meet you!”
“Wow, I thought they were never gonna meet!” said Cyndee. “Are they gonna get pregnant soon?”
Grandpa was shocked. “No Cyndee… Orograths don’t get pregnant, their ecosystems get pollinated.”
“Isn’t it the same thing?”
“Not at all,” Grandpa explained, “and I don’t know how you got such a silly idea. When Orograths connect to exchange ecosystem DNA, their neural nets join. This allows them access to all of the other’s neural pathways, both good and bad ones, which is a great way to gain experience and enhance themselves. Connected Orograths often function much better than they do when alone.”
“Grandpa,” asked Cyndee, “what if their neuron things are broken? Does it still work?”
Schubsee was impressed. It seemed that Zoopers had been all over the world. It was strange that she hadn’t connected yet though.
“My neural net is very badly damaged,” explained Zoopers, “and I need thermide plasma to fix it. Do you have any? I’ll trade you some reactors.”
“Sure,” answered Schubsee, “I have lots. You can keep your reactors though, it would be horribly exploitative for me to trade like that.” She knew Zoopers was hiding something, since thermide plasma was used for ecosystem cleansing, not neural repair. She decided to give Zoopers some anyways, and reached out to do a preliminary test connection.
As the low-level connection was strengthening, Schubsee detected a glitch in Zoopers’ programming. Somehow it had gone completely undetected. She promptly fixed the glitch, and prepared to transfer the thermide plasma.
Zoopers felt something very strange. All of a sudden her biodome climate control had reprogrammed itself, and was now adjusting to the new parameters. As the climate and atmosphere in her biodome changed, she noticed something else; the parasite was dying! She wasn’t sure why, but clearly it was not suited for the new climate. She was not concerned about a spore outbreak either, for her sensors showed that even the deepest buried spores had shrivelled up and died in this new climate inside her biodome.
She knew that thermide plasma could kill spores easily, but she had doubted that she would ever be rid of the blue parasite. And yet, now it was dying off faster than she thought possible. She felt as if some sort of giant rain curtain had being hanging over everything and was now just thrown back, making all the world shine out the clearer. Confused, she wondered how this was all happening so suddenly after so much struggle she’d been through on her own. And then, as the sun glinted off the top of Schubsee’s biodome, she turned, and that was when she knew.
“Zoopers?” asked Schubsee, “are you ready for the thermide plasma transfer?”
“Wait – “ replied Zoopers, “…I’m not sure I need it anymore.”
“That’s crazy!” said Schubsee. “You need to accept it so I can help fix you!”
“No… it’s too late for that…” she said, opening her neural gateway completely so as to allow for a full-level connection, “… you already have.”