Mars

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Anila Syed


Photo Credit: MudflapDC/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“They used to put us to sleep for this you know!” the man says, jovially.

Elin does not like him. His breath smells of fish and his eyes look scared. She shrugs and moves away from him, to look out of the window at the unremarkable grey dawn.

The man shrugs, too, and directs his attention to the passenger on his right. “They used to put us to sleep for this, in the olden days,” he says, cheerfully.

The elderly woman jumps at the sudden sound, but they start to make stilted small talk.

This is not Elin’s first trip in a planetary shuttle. She was brought here from Mars twenty-six years ago, but obviously doesn’t remember that trip she made as a baby.

The man is thin and, unusually, wears dark clothes—against current trends. He has not shaved and is not even fluid enough to use permanent depilation. Elin is not planning on any interaction with her fellow passengers anyway.

The shuttle is tiny. Hardly the luxury liner she dreamt of when her company first told her about this trip. Trust Goo to provide an economy trip all the way to Mars. Her employers need someone to investigate the recent spate of terror which is sweeping the colonisation efforts. Idiot, demented, backward, mentally-challenged—however you like to see them—people, usually in their fifties and sixties, have started to disrupt the huge Starliners which take thousands of people off Earth to begin a new life on Mars.

‘Disrupt’ is such a strange word. It could mean ‘interrupt’ or it could mean, as in this case, ‘kill thousands of innocent individuals by blowing yourself up like some kind of uber drama queen.’ Elin cast that in her blog last week. She is proud of the wording and got nearly fifty-thousand upvotes for it. More upvotes equals more credits. Credits are what control your life, especially if you are a lifer.

She adjusts the camera and checks to see that her thoughts are being cast. Lifetime bloggers give up a “normal” private existence to broadcast their every waking thought to millions of adoring fans. Except the fan pool is shrinking by the day, as more and more people climb aboard the bandwagon.

Elin is Totally Connected—thanks to her employers—it’s not cheap. She is a Hot Spot and can broadcast live video and sound, and her surface thoughts are collated and sent to an editor at Goo headquarters. The editors don’t exactly change her content, but they make sure that she is not presented in a bad way. She is a valuable asset—until the next one comes along.

The man and woman, her neighbour passengers, have quietened down, finally. He is listening to headphones now and she has her eyes closed. He is listening to headphones. He had some in his bag and has plugged them into his seat somewhere. Elin nearly bursts out laughing, but decides to start sending an extremely long thought-stream to her cloud about how she has only ever seen headphones in old clips (bit of an exaggeration to be honest) and how even though the woman looks older than the man, at least she has a trans-spot in her neck. At least she is moving with the times. Go Grandma!

Elin glances at them and takes a couple of quick snaps for her blog.

The disruption is a strange thing really. Terrorist activity. Fundamental Remainers who don’t like to see human beings colonising other worlds. They believe in the sanctity of human creation—a woman who was trending last week said that she would rather see everyone dead than to go against God’s plan. She was just a saddo ranting against a Colonise Mars badge some kid was wearing on the AirBus. That story went viral in 5.2 hours.

But the main problem is, these nut jobs could be anyone, anywhere. No one really knows how to find them until they turn up with a big bucket of something and set it on fire—still the easiest way to kill people these days.

Some days Elin feels like she has ‘shock fatigue.’ It seems like every day there’s something—some old loony being caught or some sweet-looking old dear having her house raided. What won’t these guys do to stop us? There are traffic checkpoints everywhere. It has taken her nearly a week to get past Starport security. Her internal hard drive was checked for suspicious activity and her cortex was deep scanned for stray thoughts. We haven’t been blown up, yet at least, so everyone here must have passed the scans.

At one point last week, everyone over fifty had all their cameras permanently switched on—for every device they own. They now have no privacy in anything they do. Good. Any one of them might be plotting a terror attack. Actually, a thought strikes her, both of the people next to her must have their cameras activated. In fact, a quick look at everyone in the waiting lounge showed her that at least twenty percent of the people on board must be over fifty. It’s easy to tell, even with the rejuvenating treatments. Actually, easier to tell because of the rejuvenating products. That’s a bit too sarcastic for her. Elin guesses that will be edited out later.

“So, why are you going to Mars?” There’s a quick waft of fish and Elin turns to see the thin man peering at her. She’s jolted back from her thoughts. A little number in the bottom right of her screen tells her that around 35,000 people are watching her live feed. Some have started adding the little hearts already.

While her thoughts are carefully filtered, IRL she is trained to maintain brand @Elin. With so many watching, Elin has no option but to engage.

“Like, I’m off to go on a big explore!” she exclaims in her @Elin voice. “So many of my peeps can’t go to the, like, wonderful places I do, so I get to experience it all for them.”

“Oh!” The seated man’s eyes are metaphorically looking for the exits. “That’s great.”

[In reality, Goo are sending Elin so that her followers, who have quite a young demographic, can experience the direct fear related to interplanetary travel and terrorist activity. No one watches fiction anymore. This is the new way that the masses are fed their opioids. They’ve promised many credits, just for going—plus credits for upvotes.]

A red notice appears in the middle of her vision, flashes twice and fades away.

ASK HIM WHY HE IS GOING.

Without rolling her eyes, Elin politely says, “So, like, how ‘bout you?”

“I’ve been offered a job,” he says. “I’m going out to help run the ecodomes, you know, maintain an ecologically thermically-sound environment for all the residents, both new and existing.”

The man hasn’t even noticed that Elin has stopped listening. She’s actually been playing a viral clip about a kitten who gets wrapped in a ball of wool. The little fluffy grey kitten stares out of the wool carnage so innocently.

“…so it’s the pressure that makes it a harder job.”

Elin giggles at the kitten, but mentally crosses the man off the terrorist list. He is way too boring to be one. During the man’s explanation, twenty-thousand viewers switched her off. Six thousand new ones joined, but then they left, some sending her a puzzled emoji.

He has obviously stopped talking, so she turns her attention back to the window where the rocket is now ready for lift off.

They are very protected from their thunderous escape from the Earth. It’s surreal to watch the rocket’s storm blowing around outside their pod, while they sit shielded and serene within.

At least there have been no signs of terror on this rocket. Elin does not realise the release of tension would be so palpable. She can feel the blood begin to flow back into her arms and legs as her muscles relax. She is leaving Earth. She waits for an emotion, but nothing appears. Should she feel sad? Exulted? Mars is her place of birth. She is leaving Earth and going home. Her parents came back long ago. They were among the first pioneers, but after nearly three decades, they had decided it was not for them.

The passengers are allowed to feel a few moments of weightlessness before the anti-grav is switched on. It feels unpleasantly like being drunk. The famous sketch of the quote begins to play in her vision. Her cortex is scrabbling around to find things to calm her down. Or it could be her editors, who also monitor her vital signs, who are sending her comedy clips and little kittens being cute.

Oh no! Home videos have been dredged up from the beginning of her internal hard drive. Yellow alert! she thinks, jokingly, while watching a young Elin trying to drench her older brother with a garden hose.

The thin man, Mr. Boring, has nodded off, or passed out, or something. His elbow has spread over to her seat. Curse you, Goo and your Economy travel. They reason that the followers will feel more of a connection to their Followed if they can be as close to their lives as possible. Gone are the days when only the people with the luxury lifestyles and most beautiful looks became the super mega stars.

Elin pushes the man’s elbow back to his seat and surreptitiously sniffs her hand: fish. He moves, but stays asleep. In snatching a quick snap of the sleeping form with the caption ‘Fish man,’ Elin notices his neighbour—the little old lady—is staring at her quite crossly.

She is mouthing something. It is disconcerting to say the least. The transmission-spot in her neck is flashing like crazy. Her eyes are blue and faded, but shining brightly for all that, gouging circuits into Elin.

What is she saying?

Elin sends emergency msgs to her editors.

YOU GETTING THIS?

CRAZY LADY ALERT.

Her msgs go, but there is no receipt.

It is like the light has leaked from her eyes and is firing into the space around her face. All the while, her mouth moves, noiselessly, wordlessly.

In panic, Elin scrambles for the emergency button. They just showed her this half an hour ago in the safety clip. Where is it?

She tries to shake the man. He is out cold.

Realisation spreads into her brain, slowly, trying all the ports until something understands. People around her are lying unconscious.

“Stop it!” she commands the woman. Her voice is a thin and soft squeak.

“Stop!” She holds her arm up above her face to shield herself from those eyes.

The old woman is a terrorist. It can be anyone around you. At any time they can turn into a devil. There are half a million people watching this now. Elin does not even have this many followers in this diluted gene pool she now inhabits.

KEEP LOOKING AT THE WOMAN

What? This is the command from the editors after all this time and all this danger?

Reluctantly, she lowers her arm.

ASK HER WHAT SHE WANTS

There is a scream in Elin’s throat which won’t move. There may be words behind it, who knows?

But before she can sort out her vocal intentions, the woman’s words become coherent.

“All will die,” she says.

And she keeps repeating it. Over and over. All will die.

Elin’s panic has paralysed her, half with her hand on the sleeping fish man and her other hand, lowered into a clenched fist in her lap.

All will die, all will die, all will die.

She now knows who will die and when. The passenger pod that they are in has been rigged with an atomic weapon. Separating from the rocket will trigger the countdown and by the time they reach Mars’ orbit…

She can feel the information drilling through her firewall. The handhold she has always felt as her editors since she went online feels weak, ephemeral, far away.

All will die. Yes, that’s right. All must die. Elin shakes her head, but this lets the new, upgraded-her establish itself.

Colonisation is a doomed project. Humans have ruined Earth and are now running away, like a kid who breaks a window and runs off. Going to another planet will do the same, and by then, they will spread off-world to another, and another.

No! A faint voice inside her pleads. Please, stop this!

We are strong. We are many. We are the sure-fast holders of the fate of humanity. When you join us, you will see reason. You will be shown the light and you will know.

Elin has read their propaganda, of course she has, but getting it implanted into her brain lets her see the truth for what it is. Of course!

Elin sees her life for what it has been. The little old lady’s eyes have stopped glowing, but instead they look quite red and sore. She has stopped saying, ‘All will die.’

Now she’s saying, ‘You are the one.’

ELIN, YOU ARE THE ONE.

Yes, Elin knows she is the one. She must return to save her home from the infestation of mankind. She is still emitting her life to the hordes watching on earth. There are millions of them now. She starts to get feeds from news stations, hundreds upon hundreds try and fail to hack her input. Her head reels from the sudden onslaught as images appear one after another. When that does not work, news feeds start to send her snippets of the news:

‘The Cosmic Shuttle has been hijacked by a lifer known as @Elin.’

‘The twenty-six-year-old is reported to have been born on the Red Planet and was thought to be going back to visit her homeworld.’

HELP ME!

The tiny part of Elin’s own being is dying. She will be the first casualty in the Cosmic explosion.

Elin can see a miniscule sub-routine has started to spread inside her brain and take over her thinking. In a strange way, she guesses that this sub-routine must have been implanted into her on Mars. It is working its way towards her motor cortex where it will give her further instructions.

Desperately, she tries to strengthen her firewall, using the emergency codes she was taught after her implanting was complete. If she can buy some time, maybe she can—

She can what?

You are the one.

You are the one.

“I’m not the one!” Elin hears her voice screaming. Her throat is raw with the strength of the sound.

“I AM NOT THE ONE!”

She must stand up and go to the nose of the pod. There are no pilots. There is no cabin crew. The pod disengages and is pushed towards Mars. Everyone on this shuttle is going to stay there. Elin will go to the front and place her hand on a small panel situated under the first seat of the pod. From this small action, the countdown will begin.

The human race is useless. They are a cancer, and spreading throughout the solar system will only help to spread the disease.

The news feeds are now showing her people standing in the streets. Someone has made an effigy like a big scarecrow and printed her face and stuck it on. She sees placards with her name flash briefly past.

Thousands will die.

Elin?

The sound is faint, but the strength of the bond makes it heard above all the noise.

Elin comes to her senses and finds that she has been walking along the aisle of the shuttle pod, in a nightmare daze.

Elin, listen to me.

It’s her father. “Elin, your mother and I love you.”

They are using her personal channel. Elin remembers the joking and leg-pulling she got when she had first told them about this personal comms channel that she had asked for. Only her family members had the password.

“We don’t want to see any rude stuff!” her mother had joked.

“Mum!”

“Well, you know, I don’t want to see you asleep, or on the—”

“Mum!”

Blushing all round.

“Elin, can you hear us? Your mother and I love you very much. Whatever it is you’re into, come home, love. Let’s talk it out.”

Tears are streaming down Elin’s face. She can hear sobs leaving her body. She knows she is the trigger for this atom bomb.

Her legs feel like lead.

“Elin, we know this is not you,” her mother says.

“You’ve been hacked. Your boss from Goo is here, Elin. He is going to talk to you, OK?”

“Elin!” Steve sounds strained, like he does when she’s dropped the F-bomb in her livestream and he is trying to stay calm.

“Elin, listen to me, honey, your ratings are through the roof. Keep going—“

But whatever he is about to say is drowned. Elin pictures her father wrestling him to the ground, his large hands over Steve’s rat-like face.

“Elin, I’m going to read from the manual, OK?” Mum’s telephone voice. She is aware of the watching world.

“I’m going to shut you down, OK, honey bun?”

She starts to read out Elin’s emergency shutdown codes. There are so many to get through, but Mum perseveres.

She’s at the end of page one. Elin feels her own will draining from her body. She feels like she has been in a very hot bath and now the water is draining away, leaving her heavy and useless.

Her mother is crying now, as she reads out the final set of codes.

No one. No one has ever been shut down like this before. It took sixteen years to legislate the backdoor codes and fail-safe mechanisms to prevent this kind of man-jacking. But, no one knows what will happen when that last code is read.

“Mummy,” Elin says, with the last of her sentient breath.

“I love you.”

Mum is sobbing: “5… 6… 3… K.”

She finishes reading.

Elin is lying on the floor, arm stretched towards the panel, her fingers reaching for the lock.

pencil

Anila Syed has been writing and reading sci-fi all her life. Email: syedab[at]totalise.co.uk

Project Savant

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Very good, Monsieur Savant. I can tell you’ve worked hard on your irregular verbs.”

As I mark the current question correct, I note with pride the neat row of consecutive red check marks in the margin of the test paper. We’re nearly finished his Level 3 Language Exam and he’s yet to make a single mistake. He’s only one answer away from achieving a perfect score in both correct grammar and vocabulary usage, the main objective of his course. I almost tell him this but I stop at the last moment; he’s so close, I don’t want him to suddenly become self-conscious and second-guess himself.

“We’re almost finished the exam,” I say instead, working to keep my voice neutral. It’s always been difficult for me to maintain a calm telephone demeanor when a student’s full potential is within their reach. This is especially true for a student who’s worked as hard as Monsieur Savant. Three months ago, he could barely understand anything other than the very basics of English: Hello, how are you? I’m fine. And you?

I adjust the receiver to my other ear and clear my throat before I read out the question. “Please put the following words into a complete sentence, with the correct usage of the present perfect tense, in the third person: He/She/burn/toast.”

There’s a brief pause on the line and then Monsieur Savant responds, with complete confidence:

“‘She has burnt the toast again.’”

I don’t even bother to verify my answer key. It just sounds perfect. I’m about to tell him so but he’s not finished.

“The verb ‘to burn’ has two possible past participles, no? Burnt and burned,” he says, exaggerating his pronunciation to emphasize the difference between the ‘t’ and the ‘ed’ sounds of the two conjugations.

“Could you not also say: ‘He has burned the toast again’?”

He’s right, of course. I shouldn’t be surprised he knows both possibilities. “Yes, absolutely. Both answers are correct!”

“I changed the pronoun to ‘he’ because a man can make his own toast, and burn it just as well.” He lets out a short mechanical chuckle, a brief blip in his intense focus.

“I can’t argue with that,” I laugh. I can’t help but marvel at how far he’s come from those first few painful lessons. His improvement has been remarkable, like the flick of a switch. Now he’s even making jokes.

“Congratulations, Monsieur Savant, the exam is complete and you have scored 100%!” I don’t even bother to hide my enthusiasm. Witnessing this kind of success is one of the real joys of my work as a language educator in Paris.

“Thank you. Any success of mine is due solely to your teaching. And to your patience, Miss Amelia Rogers.” No matter how much he’s improved, I can’t seem to get him to stop calling me by my first and last name.

“You did the hard work. You should be very proud.” I scribble his final score on the test paper and tuck it inside his file. A quick glance at the clock dims my spirits; this is his last lesson and it’s almost over. I’m going to miss working with him. He seems to genuinely enjoy learning. I wish I could say the same for all my students, predominantly other French professionals and government employees. Many of them prefer to use their telephone lessons as an outlet to air their grievances towards everyone and everything in their professional lives: their departments, their colleagues, the upper management, the labor unions, the Président.

But not Monsieur Savant.

He is always so pleasant, even when a concept is difficult or frustrating, and always diligently prepared. His lesson is a bright spot in my often dull schedule of drilling verbs and trying to draw conversations out from people with little to no interest in learning English. I’m dreading the next few hours of telephone lessons. It’s going to be a very long day of sitting alone in this tiny room, staring at these bare white walls or out the window into the drab parking lot, speaking with bored, expressionless voices on the other end.

“I know our time is nearly over,” he says, reading my mind. “I would like to say now how much I have appreciated speaking with you. Your help, your guidance, has been extraordinaire—forgive me, extraordinar-y.” He corrects himself followed by another of his reflexive chortles.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” I say, wishing we had another ten minutes to chat instead of only two. I shift in my seat, trying to get comfortable in this hard wooden chair. “I wish you all the best in your work—”

“Work is very difficult now.” He cuts across me, his voice low. He’s speaking with an urgency that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Time is short and I am more and more concerned… perhaps frightened even. I wish I could tell you, Miss Amelia Rogers. I think your perspective would be very helpful to me. And—ah, comment dire… comfortable? No, sorry… a comfort.”

I’m startled; this is the most I’ve ever heard about his work.

Only the briefest, most general descriptions of what he does, along with a signed confidentiality statement from his upper management have been provided, all quite typical for students from research and development in the Ministry of Defense. Any questions I asked him about how his day was or what he was working on were always met with standard, non-specific answers: Work is very busy. I have many meetings this week. Projects are progressing.

He’s never shared any details about anything, least of all how he feels about his work. Now he’s using words like difficult, concerned, frightened… I sit up straighter and lean in closer to the receiver.

“I’m sorry to hear that…” I offer, not sure what else to say, much like the time a student went on a rant about his very complicated divorce and every other word was a nasty French curse. The alarm on my mobile phone starts to screech, signalling the end of this lesson and making me jump. It’s buried under papers and books. I scramble to find it.

“What is that sound?” Savant asks.

“It’s my timer. I’m afraid I have to say goodbye now,” I stall as the phone blares on in the background. I finally tug it out from under the stack of student files and silence it with one swift swipe. “Thank you, Phone.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, it’s a silly habit I picked up from my husband,” I babble, embarrassed to be explaining this. “He always thanks our devices when they beep at us so when the robot uprising happens, they’ll remember we were kind to them and hopefully spare us.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Monsieur Savant declares after a long pause. He’s a good sport to go along with my joke. “We live in difficult times and one must always be aware.”

“Er—yes… well, we are firm believers that being polite can save lives,” I quip, trying to keep the tone light but I sense a shift and it’s making me uneasy. Considering the difficult times we live in…? How did this conversation take such a weird turn?

There’s a sudden blast of static noise and the high-pitched squeal as though a fax line were cutting into our connection. I grimace and hold the receiver away from my ear for a second. “Hello? Are you still there?”

“There is interference,” Savant says over the crackling line. “I must go. Goodbye, Miss Amelia Rogers.”

“Goodbye, Monsieur Savant.” I wait for his little chirp of a laugh but it doesn’t come. Instead, all I hear is silence followed by the drone of the dial tone as the other line goes dead.

*

The following day is chaos.

Commuting via Paris’s metro system is never without its challenges—full trains, crowded platforms, delays due to unclaimed bags left in the stations—but an entire new set of disruptions have popped up overnight.

Some metro lines are shut down. New signs declare the trains En Panne/Out of Order and no other information is given to confused and stranded passengers.

The delays are exacerbated as every person must now open his or her bag, show proper transit validation and present their ID to the new security at every entrance and on every platform. There’s no getting around it and those who try are immediately detained. The atmosphere is tense, with the occasional outburst from the impatient crowd. No one seems to know what provoked this new system, or at least no one is telling us why.

I’m stuck in a throng of people at the Montparnasse station. I’m late for work but so is everyone else. I stand on my tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd as it surges towards the waiting train.

“Pardon,” says a man as he bumps into me. He speaks French with a distinct English accent.

I place a steadying hand on his arm as we struggle to maintain our balance. “You speak English? Do you know what’s going on?”

He pulls his phone from his jacket pocket and plays me a video of what looks like a protest outside of a train station. The video is shaky and of poor cellphone quality, but I can see gendarmes in full protective gear brandishing batons and shields as they push through the crowd. Some of the people are struck down but the crowd keeps pressing forward until one of the officers, who is bigger than any soldier I’ve ever seen, picks up one of the people in the mob and lifts him high above the crowd. The man is thrashing and kicking at the soldier, who then starts to shake the man violently. His body is a blur on the tiny screen and some people in the small group huddled around the man and I gasp. We all watch, with sickening dread, as the soldier then tosses the limp man aside. The video cut off after that.

“Where was that?” demands a young woman, one of the small crowd now watching the video.

The man looks grim. “It’s not clear but I think it’s Gare du Nord. It’s making the rounds on social media but I have yet to hear of anything on the news.”

“Nothing? How is that even possible?” The woman shakes her head, her eyes blazing. “It’s as if it isn’t happening!”

I don’t know what to say. My head is swimming with the image of the man being thrown in the air like he was nothing but a rag doll when the hordes around us jostle our little group apart. The man with the video is swallowed up into the crowd when I reach the front near the train.

“Identification, Madame!” the officer barks at me. A team of security officers are shouting into their walkie-talkies behind him.

The whole situation is unnerving. My heart is pounding so loud I’m sure he can hear it as I fumble in my bag for my ID. He studies it for what feels like an eternity before he finally lets me pass onto the train. I’m barely inside when the doors snap shut behind me. The train is packed with people wearing the same bewildered expression I know is etched on my face. I’m not the only one who breathes a long sigh of relief as the train eventually pulls away.

We live in difficult times… one must always be aware…

Monsieur Savant’s words from yesterday loop through my mind as the train picks up speed. I can’t stop thinking of how right he seems to be.

*

When I finally reach the office, I’m surprised to find it empty except for Isabelle, the receptionist, and one lone student, a man I’ve never met before. None of my other colleagues are anywhere to be seen.

“Amelia! I didn’t expect you to come in today!” Isabelle exclaims, as I stumble in slightly disheveled but otherwise unscathed. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, just a bit overwhelmed by the crowds.” I drop my bag and collapse into a chair in the waiting area. It’s taken me over three hours to get to the office and I’m exhausted. Isabelle brings me a cup of water, which I immediately guzzle.

“I haven’t been able to get cell reception and now my phone is dead; what’s going on out there?” I ask her when I can speak again.

She bites her lip and shifts her weight nervously from foot to foot. “It’s not clear but it appears there was some sort of attack at Gare du Nord and possibly Hotel de Ville, but it’s not yet confirmed.”

Another attack?! How many other people have been brutalized today?

Isabelle narrows her eyes and makes a small head jerk towards the man behind her. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me since I arrived.

“He has been waiting here all morning to see you. I told him I doubted you’d be coming in, what with all the delays… but he insisted. He says it’s urgent.” She nods to him and he comes over to me, his hand outstretched.

It’s freezing cold when I grasp it but I say nothing. Who is this man and what does he want with me?

“’Allo Miss Amelia Rogers,” he says in a voice I just heard in my head not very long ago. “I am Monsieur Savant.”

My mind is one step behind and it takes me an extra second before I understand that although I feel like I know him well from our lessons, he is nothing like I expected. He is enormously tall, over six and a half feet, with broad shoulders and a short, thick neck. His steel grey suit coordinates flawlessly with his short fringe of salt and pepper hair. He would be handsome if it weren’t for the flicker of menace behind his dark blue eyes and the way his towering frame looms over me. There is nothing in his glowering stare or his steel-trap handshake of the warm, pleasant man I met on the telephone.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you,” he says. “I know this must be very alarming for you. I will explain everything, I promise. But I must speak with you in private.” He gestures towards an open meeting room. I sense I have no choice but to go with him; it feels like more of an order than an ‘after you.’ He closes the door behind us with such force, I jump.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” he says. “I’m not used to in-person conversations outside of work. I will try to remember what you’ve taught me.” His words are kind, but I wince at how loud he’s speaking. He notices my discomfort and sits down first. He pulls a thick folder from his suit jacket and slides it across the table towards me.

“What—?”

He silences me with a shake of his head and taps the folder. “No, please look at this first. It’s the only way I know how to begin.”

I flip open the folder as though I expect it will explode at my touch. Inside are spreadsheets, designs, and specifications for something called “Projet Savant,” a line of government-issued artificial intelligence agents. Their primary mandate is peacekeeping operations. The man sitting opposite me is the same man whose photograph is stapled to the inside cover of the folder, the same man who all the agents in Projet Savant resemble.

Monsieur Savant is an android.

“For the past three months, my new language acquisition program has been undergoing extensive testing. My programmers have been monitoring how it adapts to different linguistic structures, syntax, grammar, vocabulary while I have been learning English from you.”

The designs and specifications are dancing in front of my eyes as he goes on, explaining my role in this aspect of his training. All those moments he struggled with irregular verbs and pronunciation were actually his neural algorithms adjusting coefficients to match the new input. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, so I shut my eyes to the tangled mess of numbers and letters and try to just focus on his voice.

If I just listen to him speak, it almost makes sense.

“This morning, there was a training exercise at Gare du Nord with some of the other agents in Projet Savant. That location was chosen for its proximity to some of the areas in Paris most affected by the recent influx of refugees and those who oppose their presence. I objected to the operation. I didn’t believe we were ready to go out in the field; I felt we were moving too quickly with integrating the agents with the human police force. I even tried to tell you about my fears yesterday, but of course, I could not. But I was overruled and the operation went forward. Unfortunately, when the crowds became hostile, it triggered a tactical mode in the agents present. Now the agents are outside of the government’s control and the ramifications are, shall we say, very, very serious.”

He turns over his left hand and presses his right thumb into the centre of his enormous palm, transforming it into a small screen. He taps the screen and it springs into action, playing the same incident I watched on a cellphone this morning. It’s shot from another angle, and the video quality is better: high resolution and less shaky. The biggest difference—from our table in one of the quiet classrooms of my language school—is I can also hear the audio of dozens of subtly robotic voices repeating over and over:

« Cessez et désistez! Cease and desist! We repeat, put down your weapons! Déposez vos armes! We mean you no harm! Aucun mal! Cease and desist! »

But the crowd doesn’t listen and I watch in horror as a man from the crowd screams obscenities at the “Robo-Terroriste!” and uses a Taser on the agent in front, who freezes for a moment as the electrical current takes hold, then seizes the man and lifts him in the air.

I don’t want to see the agent throttle him again, so I shut my eyes. But I can hear everything: the screaming from the crowd, the wailing of the agents’ sirens as they switch from peacekeepers to brutalizers, the bystanders’ cries of panic and fear. Monsieur Savant taps his palm once more and the screen goes dark. His hand is normal again, three times the size of my husband’s hand, but only a hand once more.

“That’s truly awful, Monsieur Savant,” I whisper. “I’m sorry that happened to your fellow agents. But I don’t know why you came to me. What do you want from me?”

“You told me yesterday you and your husband treat machines with kindness so when they show their evil natures, you will be spared.” He raises his head and fixes his steel eyes on mine. But as I return his gaze, I see them soften and fill with sadness. “Do you believe this of all androids? Are we inherently mistrusted and deemed guilty until proven innocent?”

My stomach plummets as I hear my own ignorance reflected back at me and I understand now how damaging that ignorance can be. Now I have a chance to set it right. I take a deep breath and lock eyes with Savant, the first android I’ve ever spoken to.

“My husband makes that joke to bring levity to a subject that most people don’t even consider taking seriously, but that’s not productive. I see that now and I apologize.”

The importance of what I say in this moment is weighing on me but I sense I’m on the right track as he holds my gaze and nods at me to continue.

“We believe that as technology becomes more intelligent, it also has the capacity to become more aware. And anything with the potential for awareness—human or other—is deserving of respect.”

He sits perfectly still as my words linger in the air. He doesn’t need to breathe but he lets out a long exhale and he extends his hand to me again. The light behind his eyes starts to flicker and his hands seize up.

“There’s so little time now… the program termination sequence is underway…” His eyes flicker faster and his neck starts to twitch.

It’s a second before I understand what he said and what it means.

“No! Can’t you shut it down? There must be something you can do!” I grab his hands and try to steady them but their shaking too much. His speech is cutting out every other word and his eyes are nearly dark. The sequence is too far gone.

“Miss Amelia Rogers, I must ask for your help one final time.”

“Yes, tell me!”

Somehow he steadies his hands long enough so his right index finger can trace a circle around his left palm. A small disc ejects itself from under his skin. He presses it into my hand and clasps it with his own. The shaking starts to subside and his eyes, dimming with every passing second, lock with mine. His voice is fading but he forces the words out.

“Share this footage. Spread it as far as you can. And speak your message of tolerance and belief in the potential of all beings. If enough people hear it, then maybe there’ll still be a chance for Project Savant or those who come after us…”

Just as with our last lesson, all I hear is silence as our connection is broken.

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Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Not If We Lie

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Gail A. Webber


Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr (CC-by)

“There you are. Rise and shine, malyshka.”

Gwen heard the deep male voice close to her. Little girl in Russian? My Kyril. The sudden nausea separated her from the dream and forced reality on her. She tried to focus. This wasn’t as bad as recovering from hypersleep, but in hypersleep you didn’t dream so it was easier to let go of it. The kind of metabolism-damping Mission Control was using on the crew for this run—metabosleep, they called it—was supposed to be easier on the body, but it was hell on the psyche. When you slept for a month, the dream world became your alternate life, and often it seemed better than your real one. How many times have I done this? Is this my fiftieth turn to be awake? No, more than that I think. It was hard to keep track. Once she got to her cubicle, she’d look up how many times she’d been awake so far this trip and record one more.

She forced her eyes open and saw Kyril’s handsome face. His dark eyes held genuine affection for her, but she understood he wasn’t “my Kyril” from the dream. Gwen tried to speak: “Everything…” Her voice squeaked and broke as it often did after not using it for so long, so she swallowed and tried again. “Everything’s okay? On board? No trouble?”

Kyril extended his hand to help her out of the sleeping pod. “We’re all fine. Getting some interesting dark matter data, and collected unusual micrometeoroids yesterday. Of course, we’re closer to the target than when you went into your pod—closer by the minute—but the Commander estimates we’re still months away. Other than that, just the usual drama.”

There were twelve crew members aboard the spaceship, though it only took four to maintain the ship in flight. For a number of reasons, Mission Control didn’t want to keep the same four people awake for too long, so they scheduled a rotation: eight rested in metabosleep and four were awake at any given time, new combinations rotating in four-to-six-week intervals.

Gwen removed her hand from Kyril’s and blushed. In her dreams two sleep cycles ago, she and Kyril had become lovers. But since metabosleep dreams were more real than any normal one, the experience felt like reality even now that she was awake. The smell of their lovemaking and perfume of the star magnolia in their backyard, the taste of the mint tea he made her every morning, the texture of his beard in all stages of growth, all were part of her memory and didn’t fade as normal dream memory did. Even the pains of childbirth and subsequent exhaustion of caring for a newborn on very little sleep—experiences she’d never known outside of dreams—would be as authentic for her as real-life memories. Just now when she’d awakened, her arms felt the weight of their baby daughter she held, their second child after returning home from this mission—or so it was in the dream. In real life, life on this spaceship life, they weren’t lovers. But they’d been good friends since the mission began.

He winked. “Any good dreams to share, daragaya?”

It was as if he was reading her mind, and Gwen suddenly wondered if he’d had similar dreams of her. No, of course not. She remembered his touch and blushed again. “I think I’ll keep them to myself. Hey, wouldn’t Joe be jealous if he knew you called me your dear one?”

“Don’t you worry, precious girl. Joe will sleep for another two weeks, and even if you tattle on me when he wakes up, by that time I’ll be in a sleep cycle. Then it’ll be two rotations before we’re up at the same time again, and he’ll either have forgotten, or it won’t matter.” Kyril wrinkled his nose and sighed. “I hate this staggered waking schedule.”

“Me too. And I don’t have a relationship to maintain.” She thought about the one she had for a while with Charlie McGeehan. He was one of the mission pilots, as blond and light-skinned as Kyril was swarthy, with hazel eyes that saw into a person’s soul. She was sorry it didn’t work out between them, but accepted it as the way things sometimes went. Maybe someday.

“Four of us mobile at any given time, but on staggered schedules so the fours are constantly shuffled. I guess the shrinks at Mission Control wanted us interacting with eleven other people instead of only three,” she said. “As if contact with eleven people is enough for what could be the rest of our lives.” That was what they’d all been told. The mission involved too many variables to guarantee a safe return, but each of them believed finding this new life form that was sending signals to Earth from somewhere in the Kuiper Belt was a goal worth the risk. Whatever the life form was, everyone wanted to believe it was macroscopic, intelligent, and benevolent.

“I understand the reasons for the schedule, but it’s a shame we can’t arrange for some people to sleep the whole trip. And I don’t mean Joe.”

“Stephen?” It was a question for which she already had the answer. Gwen couldn’t understand how that man had managed to hide his true feelings and opinions during the extensive screening all the candidates endured. And there was no way he could have misunderstood mission goals, but once they were on their way, he’d taken every opportunity to rail against the idea of contacting new life. He condemned humans for exterminating so many Earth species, and insisted that was what would happen to the new life forms. Humans would kill them all, intentionally or otherwise. At one point, she heard him say they had an obligation to sabotage the ship, if necessary, rather than risk exterminating extraterrestrial creatures. He claimed their extermination was inevitable.

“Yeah, Stephen. He’s been talking this shit since we started, but every rotation I see him, he seems worse.”

“We should medicate him,” she said, stretching her arms overhead. “Maybe a dose of really good drugs is all he needs. So, who else is up now? You, me, Stephen and who else?”

“Charlie,” said Kyril.

As their pilot for this rotation, Charlie held the rank of Commander.

Charlie, she thought. Wonder if we could have made it as a couple under other circumstances? But all she said was, “Good, Stephen likes him.” Charlie’s cool logic and sense of calm hadn’t yet been enough to quiet Stephen’s ranting, but there was always hope.

“He likes you too, you know—Stephen, I mean. Anyhow, I’m not sure Charlie’s calm influence is enough of a solution. But we can try.” He offered his arm as if they were about to dance. “Come, lisichka. We can talk more about all this in a bit. Right now, let’s get you to the med bay for a post-sleep assessment.”

“I’m fine, but why did you call me a little fox?”

“That red hair, of course. Even in a crew cut, you’re adorable! As for your exam, I’m sure you’re fine but, you know, regulations. Once I give you your gold star, we’ll get you some coffee. After that, you and I get to spend some quality time together in the lab.” He waggled his eyebrows and leered playfully.

She laughed. “I’ll pass on the star, but yes, coffee. Please!”

The lab work they began that morning, examination of the micrometeoroids Kyril had removed from the ramjet hydrogen collectors, would take a few days. Already, they’d found elements so far unknown on Earth, and hoped to find microorganisms of some sort, though that was a longshot. Kyril’s knowledge of geology and Gwen’s of microbiology were both useful. Those weren’t the only fields in which they were qualified, but then everyone who landed a seat on this mission had diverse training, as well as multiple talents and specialties.

Since it was hard to predict what knowledge and skills would be necessary on an extended voyage like this, each individual had to wear many hats. Of course there were computer resources on board, and contact with Earth was possible, but the delay of communication in both directions complicated the latter option. The team aboard this spacecraft had to be both independent and interdependent.

With the lab shipshape and work for the next day staged, Gwen and Kyril headed for the mess hall. Contact among crew members was not only encouraged, but required. Three times a day, the four astronauts on duty met in the mess hall to eat together, SOP unless circumstances dictated otherwise. Occasionally, the conversations amounted to little more than briefings, but more frequently they were filled with joking and teasing as well as the sharing of thoughts, fears, and comments on the food.

When Kyril and Gwen arrived, Charlie was already seated but hadn’t gotten his meal. Gwen hugged him, Kyril kissed him on both cheeks.

“No Stephen yet?” Kyril asked.

Charlie moved his head around until his neck cracked. “Haven’t seen him all day. You?”

Da. When I settled Lena in her sleep pod, right before I woke Gwen, he waved to me in B Corridor. Looked like he was headed for the computer bay.”

“He’s good at everything he does,” Charlie said, “and he hasn’t shirked a single duty, but I’m not sure what to think about his diatribes. I mean, he has a point about all the species we’ve lost on Earth, but he takes it too far. And he knows he’s supposed to meet with everybody for dinner. So where is he?”

“Did you call him?”

“Shouldn’t have to.”

“I will,” said Gwen, and keyed her wrist communicator. “Hey, Stephen, it’s Gwen. Join us in the mess hall?” Silence. “Stephen, you there?” She shrugged and sat down. “You don’t think he could be in trouble? Hurt or something?”

Kyril shifted in his chair and looked into the galley. He was hungry.

“In his rack, I bet. Seems like he’s sleeping more than usual.”

“Hmm. Think that’s significant?” Charlie asked. “Depression, maybe? I reviewed Ron’s log from last rotation.” Ron had been the pilot before Charlie’s present duty.

“And?” Gwen asked.

“People were talking about Stephen then, saying they thought he was getting worse even though he was in metabosleep at the time. A few seemed to be taking Stephen’s side, but not to the point of suggesting we turn back, or scrub the mission, or any of Stephen’s other crazy ideas.”

“So it’s not just us.”

“Apparently not.”

Kyril stood up. “Nu, let’s start without him. I’ve been looking forward to that chicken cacciatore all afternoon.”

“Afraid it’s nothing like Mama used to make,” laughed Gwen.

While everyone ate, Charlie had questions, and questioning was one of his talents. He could be asking about your deepest secret yet sound as if he wanted to know what color apples you preferred or who your favorite baseball player was. “So, any idea what might have caused the pressure drop in Airlock #2? It looked significant.”

Recognizing the official nature of the question despite Charlie’s congenial tone, Kyril answered, “No idea, Commander. The pressure read normal by the time I got there, so I turned off the alarm. When I checked the sensors, they registered perfect.”

Charlie pursed his lips and stared straight ahead as if reading something no one else could see. Then he grunted and waved his hands as he spoke. He always did that. “That makes no sense. Either the pressure was too low or the sensors registered it wrong—it couldn’t be anything else. Could someone have used the airlock? Opened it and then closed it? Wait, was #2 the one you used to retrieve the micrometeoroids from the collectors?”

Nyet. Went out #1, and came back in the same way.”

Gwen swallowed of piece of brownie, savoring the chocolate and thanking God that Mission Control had found a way to successfully freeze chocolate. It was one of the few things as good in shipboard life as it was in dreams. “Who ran your tether?”

“Stephen.” Kyril laughed and touched his front teeth. “Uh, you’ve got chocolate in your teeth. Quite a fetching look. Seriously, he did everything right. We both suited up, and he waited for me in the airlock in case anything went wrong.”

“Good to hear, I have to admit,” Charlie said.

Gwen finished working her tongue around her mouth and showed Kyril her teeth. When he nodded, she said, “Commander, could we—or should we—wake one of the people with more psychiatric credentials than the three of us have?”

Kyril threw the biscuit he was eating onto his plate. “Screw that. If we’re worried about what he’s up to, we should put him down early.”

“Don’t say it that way.” Gwen punched his shoulder. “Putting down is what you do for an old dog so it doesn’t suffer.”

“Well, if the shoe fits…” Kyril said.

“Stop it, you two. We’re charged with maintaining the planned crew rotation except for serious illness or injury.”

Kyril shook his head. “That’s a rule for normal situations, Commander. A crew member threatening to murder everybody if they don’t do what he says isn’t normal. You heard him at dinner last night, he said that somebody could use a pulsed laser diode through a fiber-optic cable to detonate the solid fuel in the rockets.”

“And you thought he was serious?” Gwen asked. “Sometimes he makes strange jokes, and you know he’s got an odd sense of humor. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”

“To my mind, he gave way too much detail for a joke. It doesn’t matter if you laugh when you suggest we either scrub the mission or ‘somebody’ could blow up the ship. That’s not funny.”

“I agree with you that he’s acting strange, but I also agree with Gwen that we shouldn’t assume he’s serious. He definitely has strong beliefs about the effect that contact with us might have on a new species. Anyway, even if he meant it, it would be hard for one man to hurt the ship,” said Charlie. “With all the redundant systems built into this baby, that’s almost impossible.”

“Willing to risk our lives on an ‘almost’? I mean, we all understand we could die out here for a million reasons, but I am not willing to just let this go. Remember he’s a systems engineer, among other things, and I think he’s nuts. That solid fuel thing wasn’t his first threat! Remember last week he joked about how opening a door would solve our whole stale air problem? Joking about opening a door in a spaceship?”

This was all news to Gwen. “Okay, so he’s made actual threats? We might have to do something. Should it be just us who decides?”

“Who else is there? We don’t have options.”

Gwen shifted in her chair and cleared her throat. “Yes, we do, Kyril. We could contact Mission Control. We could ask them.”

“Or we could wake everybody up together, just this once, and get their thoughts,” Charlie suggested and then everyone sat not looking at each other, not speaking.

Finally Gwen spoke into the silence. Quietly she said, “There’s something we haven’t considered.”

Both men looked at her.

“You two are due for metabosleep in less than a week. When I wake your replacements, they’ll be a sleep cycle behind in background and things could happen fast. Whatever we’re going to do, we should do it now.”

“Agreed. Let’s go find Stephen.”

The ship had always felt small to Gwen, but the need to search every room and every passageway made it seem huge. All three of them stayed together so that whoever first encountered Stephen wouldn’t be alone; there was no way of knowing what his frame of mind might be. They didn’t find Stephen, but he found them and he had a weapon. The ship carried plasma cutters because geologists on board used them to slice samples from metallic meteors, ship engineers used them to make repairs, and there were countless other uses. Stephen had modified one to use as a handheld weapon, and since everyone understood what a weapon like that could do to human flesh, they listened.

“Commander, if you’d be so kind as to put these two in their sleep pods? Then I’ll do the same for you. It will be easier for all three of you if you’re asleep like the others.”

Charlie consciously kept his hands at his sides though he wasn’t used to talking without them. He didn’t want Stephen to misinterpret motion and hurt someone. Charlie’s voice sounded like velvet feels. “I don’t think so, Stephen. Let’s talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to say. I believe you’re good people, and that’s why I’ll allow you to be asleep when I do this. But you believed the lies Mission Control told you about having peaceful intentions. That makes you infantile. Whether because of intent or eventual effect, humans kill.”

“But you’re suggesting you’ll kill everyone on board,” said Kyril.

“Sometimes violence is the best option, especially when a limited act of violence prevents more larger-scale violence, even an existential one. The scale does matter. I tried to convince you to scrub the mission, remember? I tried to make you see the obvious.”

While Charlie frantically sorted arguments in his head, looking for the perfect one, it was Gwen who found it. She took a half-step toward Stephen and lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “Why did you sign on for this mission, Stephen? Before you had doubts, what compelled you to leave your life on Earth behind, to sacrifice years of relative certainty and comfort to risk everything out here?”

As he considered her question, Stephen’s face changed from hard and matter-of-fact to almost wistful. “Since I was a boy, I was fascinated with the idea of other beings, other intelligences and points of view that would be different from our human ones. I read every bit of science fiction and fantasy that included first contact. I decided that if there was anything alive in this universe besides human beings, I wanted to see it. If there were beings, I wanted to meet them. When I was approached about this mission, I knew this was my chance.”

“Me too. And I bet if we asked every person on this ship the same question, most would give the same reason. We’re curious. We want to see what’s out there, see who is out there. Each of us wants to be among the first humans they meet, and the first to interact with them. We want to be the first ones changed by the knowledge of who they are. Don’t you still want that?”

Stephen shook his head and kept shaking it, the plasma cutter wavering in his hands.

None of the others moved.

“Nononononono.”

“Stephen. Stephen, listen to me. I’m not trying to trick you,” Gwen continued. “I want you to understand that I believe the desire to see is what we all share and that it’s still the most important thing. Don’t you want to meet these creatures, figure out what they value and what they fear, learn from them? Don’t you still want to know who might be out there?”

Stephen stared at her. “I do, but it’s impossible. Even if we all agree about how we’ll handle this, that’s not enough. The politics and powers at home will take over and ruin the good we intend.”

Kyril stepped forward to stand next to Gwen and he took her hand. Charlie moved up beside her on her other side and added softly, “Can I tell you what I’m thinking, Stephen? The idea Gwen gave me just now?”

“Go ahead. Talk.”

“What if we go the rest of the way, follow the signal, and find these life forms. And when we do, we’ll wake everyone and together learn all we can, all these new life forms will allow for as long as they’ll allow it. I have the feeling we’ll learn more about ourselves in the process, but that’s another subject.”

“You haven’t said anything different than before, because when Mission Control finds out, all hell breaks loose on those poor creatures and we’ll be the reason for more death.”

“Not if we lie,” Charlie said.

“What?”

Louder, he said, “Not. If. We. Lie. Maybe we tell Mission Control all we found was an automated signal, or a ship that blew up as we approached. Whatever we tell them, it won’t be the truth, and we won’t give them any information to lead them to the aliens.”

“Recorded data gets relayed automatically—our course, our heading, our camera feed, everything,” said Stephen.

“It is,” agreed Kyril. “We’d have to account for that. Maybe after we met them and learned what we could, we might head out into deep space? Or maybe we could send the ship out there while we stay with them, if that were possible. I know every person in this crew, and I’m certain they would all agree. We all signed on willing to sacrifice everything to see what no one else ever had, Stephen. I still want to see what’s out there.”

“That speaks for me as well,” Gwen said. “What do you say?”

“First of all, I think you might be lying. As soon as I give up this cutter, you could tackle me, put me in a pod, and leave me there forever.”

Gwen heard his voice quaver.

“But second of all, I think I believe you. I’m not sure why, but I do. And yes, I still want to see.” He gave the cutter to Charlie and flinched when their hands touched.

“Good God! You’re one crazy motherfucker, Stephen,” Kyril said a bit louder than he intended, “and you about scared the piss out of me. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re totally wrong about the powers that be.”

The breath Gwen took when she smiled felt full of relief. She imagined a baby’s first breath must feel like that. “Okay, we have a plan, personal conscience over policy. We’ll lie through our teeth, and we have to do it perfectly. But first we need to do something else. We have to wake the other eight and convince them.”

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Gail A. Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, fiction writing. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Relatively new to the publishing arena, Gail’s work has appeared in The Tower Journal, Persimmon Tree, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Fiftiness, and Pink Chameleon, as well as two recent anthologies. She has also published two novels. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Fire Exit

Fiction
Phillip Mitchell


Photo Credit: Jon Seidman/Flickr (CC-by)

Sebastian swore she was Rita Hayworth. In her black capris and purple blouse—hair in a ponytail—she wasn’t Golden Age of Hollywood. But the broad face, wide-set eyes, auburn hair, and full lips were unmistakable. “She had a substantial face,” his grandfather once said, pointing to the Down to Earth poster on the wall. Until today, until seeing it in the flesh, Sebastian didn’t know how a face could be “substantial.”

“You can only see it from a distance. Like the Grand Canyon.”

Hayworth rested one leg over the other, the suspended pump dangling off her heel as she inched her foot up and down the side of the desk.

“They all had it. Monroe. Davis. Hepburn. But none of ‘em like Hayworth.”

Who was he, film geek, high school loner, bearer of acne scars, to even entertain the notion that she’d see him, too?

At the behest of his father, Sebastian pretended to take notes. “Learning to be manager,” his father had said.

But instead he was studying Hayworth in furtive glances, sketching her, winding his pencil around the legal pad.

Scenes from Cover Girl played in his head.

“We make a fine couple.”

“We make a wonderful couple.”

“Don’t we, though?”

“Why here? Why a rickety old movie house?” his dad, William, said and looked at her resume, then back at her face, like he were watching her from the other side of a seesaw. William’s ancient white short-sleeve button-up—a line of yellow at the collar—belied the glimmer in his eyes. But Sebastian could see it. Hated it.

Yes, it was a family thing, this being attracted to Hayworth.

Had William not asked these questions dozens of times the past couple of weeks, Sebastian knew he would’ve been fumbling over his words at the sight of her.

“I live about a half-hour outside of town,” she said. “I’m a film minor, kind of late getting my BA. I’ve worked in video rental stores for the past six years. Just trying to get my feet on the ground…”

She talked, smiled, stopped, tangled her fingers together, and thought just a moment then carried on.

Talking—just being alive!—was art to her, Sebastian thought. He’d never met anyone so calculated, so poised. He reminded himself this was, after all, a job interview, but it did little to quash his enthusiasm.

“And what about your job at Blockbuster?” William said while adjusting the picture of the family on the desk, moving it toward him.

The photograph had been taken three years before. The family was in Chatham, New York, out front of the Crandell Theatre, in business since 1926. Sebastian’s mother, Lorraine, stood before them, arms out and palms down, head thrown back, diva-style. An older gentleman, who had a catalogue of stories about the theatre in its heyday—that he was too willing to share—had snapped the photograph while Sebastian and William stood on either side of Lorraine, hands in their pockets, staring blankly at the old man. Sebastian remembered thinking the whole trip was dumb. But Lorraine had said that the family, “being in the theatre business and all” should be required to see the oldest theatres in the United States. It was three weeks of William wrestling the cumbersome RV into campgrounds, backing it out, and keeping it between the lines on those infinite stretches of interstate. Sebastian never heard him protest, but he knew his father tired of the trip quickly. He wanted to be back at home and back at Aspire. At the time, Sebastian was too young to care about movies, much less movie theatres. He was fourteen. Video games consumed most of his time and energy. So the trip was a bust for all of them. But Lorraine had probably had the worst time, Sebastian now thought.

He didn’t realize Hayworth had answered the question about Blockbuster until his father asked another about dealing with “irate customers.”

Hayworth straightened in the chair. “I’d respond politely, you know. I wouldn’t get mad or anything. I’d get a manager. If what they wanted was reasonable, I guess. I’d try to help them all I could. People say I’m congenial, I guess, kindhearted.”

William rehashed the “strength/weaknesses” bit, a common question Sebastian had learned about in business class.

“My weaknesses? Well…” she glanced around the room, stopped for a moment on the Down to Earth poster, and turned back to William. Sebastian wondered if she recognized herself hanging on the wall.

“Probably trying to answer questions in interviews.”

She giggled, but not like a schoolgirl. It was a woman-married-five-times kind of giggle.

She turned to Sebastian, pursed her lips.

It was only a half-smile, but it was enough. Sebastian was hopeful. She wasn’t too old for him. She was twenty-five, maybe twenty-six at the most. She, like him, carried a burden.

That his father still had youthful vigour, a face untouched by wrinkles though he was forty-five, would not help Sebastian’s prospects. His father looked like Neil Gaiman, long, wiry hair and all. And, today he sported a dark five o’clock shadow. Sebastian couldn’t even grow stubble.

“Sebastian. Will you get us some coffee?”

God, he thought. He stood, dropped the clipboard on the seat. “Sure, sure.”

Once into the foyer, he jumped over the concessions counter. He had to jump to expend the energy at work in his seventeen-year-old brain. Realizing he’d forgotten to ask how they wanted the coffee, he scaled the counter again and ran back. He was out of breath when he opened the office door.

“Just black,” she said.

“Oh, she’s a tough girl. You okay, Sebastian?” William said.

He felt the heat in his face, the steady rhythm in his chest. “Yeah, yeah.”

She was tougher than Sebastian was, for sure. He had to take both sugar and creamer in his.

He’d felt a hint of it before, back when he’d started high school and had a crush on Katie Ransom. But this was different. It was stupid, he knew. He’d just met her. And, technically, he’d not even done that. He was a silent observer, the errand-boy-in-training. He didn’t even know her real name.

He was back at concessions pouring coffee into Styrofoam cups when he heard his father laugh. Not just laugh, but explode. Guffaw. Hayworth followed suit. He edged to the door to eavesdrop, gripping the cups in his hands, steadying himself.

His father was taking off. He hadn’t heard him talk this fast in years. He couldn’t make out what he was saying, just the rhythm of his voice, and the laughter. They were both cracking up.

Opening the door with a foot, he discovered them red-faced. Hayworth grabbed her hair and twisted it.

Sebastian leaned over and extended the coffee. She took it from him. The cup trembled in her hand. When he placed the other cup on his father’s desk, he didn’t notice the ‘See Rock City’ paperweight and set the cup partly on it. He let the cup go, and it fell over, sending a wave of brown over the desk. It covered Hayworth’s resume and parted at the family photo, sending tributaries that led into a stack of papers and off the side of the desk.

His father kicked back his swivel chair. “Jesus Christ, Sebastian.”

“Sorry, sorry.”

Sebastian grabbed the stack of paper and began dividing it into smaller stacks, trying to wall in the spillage.

“What are you doing? Get some paper towels. Jesus,” his father said. “Those are my tax papers.”

“Sorry.”

Sebastian left the room, walked across the atrium, shouldered open the bathroom door, and jerked the paper towels from the dispenser.

“His” tax papers. Whatever. His father hadn’t done any paperwork since Lorraine had passed. Truth told, he’d never done any, and his mom, who’d had an MBA and an affinity for small-town American cinema, had kept the place floating since Sebastian’s grandfather had died.

When Sebastian returned from the bathroom with a handful of towels, Hayworth was standing, her purse strapped over her shoulder.

“No, it’s okay,” his father said. “He’s just a klutz sometimes. Aren’t you Sebastian?”

“Well, I—”

“It’s okay, Sebastian. I do it all the time. That’s why I’m not a waitress,” she said and laughed.

“Come on, I’ll show you the theatre,” William said to Hayworth. “Sebastian, will you get this?”

“Yeah, I’ll clean it up,” Sebastian said.

As they walked out, Sebastian cleaned off the desk. He threw the towels in the wastebasket. After stacking the papers again, he set them on the windowsill and cracked open the window.

He grabbed his clipboard, plopped down, took up the pen, and drew himself clutching his father by the throat, suspending him in the vast ocean of white on the page. He ripped off the page, wadded it up, and launched it into the wastebasket. He drew another of himself leaning over the Hayworth, handing her the coffee.

What would Mom say now?

Last night his father was in the garage, tinkering with his collection of antique film projectors, flicking them off and on, the ancient light casting grainy images onto the wall.

He always used the same film to try the projectors out, the old eight-millimeter of their outing to Hollywood, in which the ghost of his mother, Lorraine, flailing her arms in the air, waved at the camera and pointed down to the stars on the sidewalk as the video moved down to her feet. She was standing on Marlon Brando and looking nothing like Rita Hayworth. The camera moved back up. She was a plump blond and the nicest person Sebastian had ever met. Then little Sebastian appeared in the frame, grabbing his mother’s hand.

His father’s voice woke him from the daydream.

“Built in 1950, by my father, after serving in WWII, Aspire raised the post-war generation of the suburbs on Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Grace Kelly, Doris Day, John Wayne, Deborah Kerr, and James Stewart, to name a few. This was a bulwark of American Optimism, imagination, and all the bustling madness of a place trying to put itself back together.”

Sebastian noticed that he left out Rita Hayworth.

He’d heard his dad give the same spiel dozens of times, to movie critics, to school groups. But never to employees. Part of it was taken from a write-up in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Over the past three decades, Aspire had reached museum status. It was one of the only independently-owned theatres left in Georgia. The fact that it had survived in what was a borderline rural community made its longevity all the more surprising.

Hayworth met William’s monologue with more than a passing curiosity. Did they wear those uniforms back in the day? The little hat and all? Do you have any original posters from the fifties and sixties? Tickets? Films?

Randy Newman’s theme from The Natural played from Sebastian’s pocket. He pulled out his cell. “Hello.”

“Good man, Sebastian.” It was his father’s accountant.

“Hi, Donald.”

“Listen, have you talked to your dad?”

“He’s not listening to me. Hasn’t been all year.”

“You shouldn’t have to—”

“I’ll tell him again.”

Sebastian put the phone back in his pocket and turned to the open door.

His father had gotten louder. “Yes, the person we hire will be taking part in history.”

The truth was, he wasn’t going to hire Hayworth—or anyone else. Sebastian wouldn’t let it happen. Because what his father wasn’t saying to her was that next week the place would close. Last week they’d sold five tickets, one small popcorn, and three sodas.

What he told Donald was true. He’d tried to make it clear. Three weeks ago he’d sat on the garage floor while William tinkered with a projector. Sebastian had a file on his lap.

“Dad,” Sebastian said.

“Bit busy, Sebastian.”

“We’re going to have to talk.”

“This here,” he said, clinking his screwdriver against his latest project, “is a 1960—”

“Dad, we’re going under.”

“I just have to replace the bulb and it should work.”

Two years before, the Boulevard opened twenty miles north of Winder, boasting twenty auditoriums, stadium seating, hardly-fit-in-your-hand drink cups, and popcorn buckets you could carry small children in. They had 3-D. They had seats for fat people. They were servicing all the small towns that were too far from Athens and Atlanta, and they were packing the house. Twenty theatres, at least three showings a day in each, sometimes more, meant they were showing more than ten times the number Aspire could.

*

Sebastian stepped outside the office, clipboard cradled in his arm. Hayworth and his father were in front of the famous wall of signatures. They used to mean something to Sebastian. Now they were liquid assets. If they sold the photographs, the memorabilia, and some old film reels, they’d have enough to get them through the next few weeks while he figured out what was next for the two of them.

And, then, he felt it again.

No normal woman had an ass like that, he thought. It was the animal in him. Or maybe it was something else. He’d seen nice asses, mostly in films, or some in his high school, and he’d had tons of adolescent fantasies, but he’d never been in the presence of a truly great ass like he was now. It was a substantial ass, he thought, though he couldn’t imagine his grandfather saying that. This yearning was more than adolescent horniness. He was keen enough about his own senses to detect something profound at work. Then he was watching the scene in slow motion, him shutting the door, clipboard in hand, her turning, her hair moving gently to the side, until that face, that substantial face, came into view, and, lit by the incandescent lights from above, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen came into the frame, that smile. Jesus, even Hayworth’s dimples. It wasn’t just her ass; it was every part of her.

Sebastian was in Gene Kelly’s place, in Cover Girl, cracking open oysters in the diner, hopping off his stool and breaking into a dance number, out into the Brooklyn alleyway to “Make Way for Tomorrow.” But his father kept breaking in, holding her resume in the air, as he and Phil Silvers paddled the oars in the imaginary boat, then locked arms. His father hopped down and took her other arm, just as the police officer walked into the frame swinging his nightstick.

“Something the matter, Sebastian?” his father called.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, scrambling over to the wall of signatures, gripping his pen, jotting down nonsense in a blaze.

He stood behind them, looking between, then at the wall of autographs and back down to his clipboard. Burt Reynolds, Betty White, Michael J. Fox.

“So you met Michael J. Fox?” she asked.

“I did, yeah. About ten years ago. Real nice fella. A lot of energy,” William said.

Looking at his goofy smile, Sebastian wondered what his mother had seen in him. In the short time Sebastian had been alive he’d seen at least three people reach out and pull him back from the edge of the abyss.

Lorraine and William had met at the University of Georgia. She was a business major. William was a film geek and not much else. He’d dropped out of his literature degree halfway through—too institutional, he’d complained to Sebastian several times over the years—though the truth was, Sebastian figured, that his dad had always planned to do nothing but manage Aspire—and to do so under the auspices of his own father. When William’s father died, Lorraine anchored him. Maybe his mother liked saving things. Maybe in him she saw her life’s project.

“Take care of him, Sebastian,” his mother had said.

Sebastian thought that in his father’s world, people stayed alive indefinitely—and took care of the daily grind while he kept his head in the garage—and floated like a spectre at the theatre. It was a convenient arrangement, until his way of living was no longer consistent with realities that beset him. Now Sebastian was to assume the roles that his grandfather and mother had played for William.

But he couldn’t do it. Trying to finish high school was tough enough. He’d taken on a business class this year to try to help out, but he was drowning. His mother had six years of higher education and still struggled to keep the place going. As a member of the Small Business Owners Association, she’d been able to waylay the development of the multiplex for several years. But when she got sick, there was no one left to fight.

Sebastian found her last presentation, “The Real America,” last night. He’d thumbed through the yellowed document, trying to curl back the edges of every page. They’d curl as soon as he’d press. He gave up. Gave up de-curling and gave up reading.

He didn’t have her knowledge or finesse. And, more than that, though he tried talking to the bank, they told him in no uncertain terms that he was too young to apply for a business loan, and, even if he were eighteen, it was his father’s business.

That it was supposed to be the other way around didn’t matter. He’d accepted his new reality with resolve. But he knew this couldn’t be what Wordsworth—or Parks Van Dyke—meant by the “the child is father of the man.”

“So sad about his disease,” Hayworth said, looking up at Michael J. Fox.

“It is. Sebastian, tell her about the time he visited, you asking about time travel and all. I’ll be right back.” His father hurried off toward the restroom.

“Um, it was lame,” Sebastian said.

Hayworth turned and smiled again and looked back up at the photographs. “So what’s your favorite film?”

He didn’t look over, just scribbled nonsense on the legal pad. “Oh, um, I’m not sure.”

It’s a Wonderful Life was the answer. Every Christmas since he could remember he’d sat with his family in Theatre Three on Christmas Day, long after the gifts were open and Christmas dinner eaten, to watch George Bailey decide that suicide wasn’t, after all, the way to go. His father always cried and touched his shoulder when George read Clarence’s card at the end.

Rocky, I think. The first one,” Sebastian said.

“You’re kidding,” she said.

“Come on, that’s great characterization,” he said.

“Stallone’s a one-trick pony. And it’s boxing. If you’re going with boxing, it’s Raging Bull. That’s characterization. Think about him all fat in that nightclub in Miami at the end.”

“Rocky lost, too.”

“I bet you like Cinderella Man,” she chuckled. “Nice picture, by the way.”

He scratched his head and pointed his face to the floor. “Yeah, they’re all decent, I guess. I like Burt Reynolds’s ‘stache.”

“I mean the one you drew.”

Sebastian bit the inside of his lip. He fastened his eyes onto the legal pad, and wrote, at first doodled, endless circles, ocean waves, which bled into the fantasy schedule for next week’s films.

Then he was back inside Cover Girl. “Long Ago and Far Away” played in his head. He was stacking chairs on the tables at the club, and she emerged in a blue dress, waves of it cascading down her body. He lost himself there. She sang while he pretended not to notice, closing up for the evening, until he hummed, and his hum exploded into words, and then walked back into the room, and they kissed, they danced, they walked off arm in arm as the camera shifted back into an establishing shot.

“Don’t blush,” she said and put her hand on his arm.

“Oh, I’m not. Just a bit warm.”

It was all slow motion again. What if he spun around, grabbed, dipped her, as if they were at the close of a dance, and he leaned in for the kiss? Would she laugh? Did she feel it, too?

She was smiling at him, but he couldn’t look her in the eye. He looked up, focused on Betty White hanging there on the wall.

“She was my mom’s favorite Golden Girl.”

“Golden Girl?”

“You never heard of Golden Girls?”

*

William had gotten Betty White’s autograph when she’d visited Aspire a few years back. Sebastian was behind concessions, perched on a stool doing his math homework while the exchange with his father took place. He wasn’t starstruck. At that time, Sebastian didn’t know who White was, either. More important issues, like his mother in the hospital, were on his mind. When the last of the Sunday matinee-goers had paraded out the double doors, William drove them to the hospital.

Sebastian never knew the details of his mother’s illness, just that her kidneys were failing. He was fourteen at the time. The waiting list was long. William wasn’t a match and, though Sebastian was, Lorraine would hear nothing of her son giving her a kidney.

William and Sebastian had sat on either side of Lorraine, William staring out at the window and Sebastian holding his mother’s hand. When they’d come in, William had leaned over, placed the Betty White photo at her chest, and turned the chair around.

“Oh my!” Lorraine said. “She came by the theatre?”

“Dad?” Sebastian said to the back of the chair.

“He loves us, Sebastian,” Lorraine whispered and squeezed his hand. “You’re so strong, Sebastian. You know that, right?”

“That White,” William said, from what sounded a faraway place. “She’s sassy.”

*

William was tucking in his shirt when he emerged from the restroom and took his place next to Hayworth. He jerked at the sides of his pants. “You tell her about Fox?”

“I told her about Betty White,” Sebastian lied.

Hayworth glanced between them.

“Oh. Um,” William said.

“Someone have a crush?” Hayworth said, turning up to the picture of White.

Sebastian bore down on his father, but William wouldn’t return the gaze.

He ran a hand through his hair and pulled at his pants again. “Listen, Jennifer, we’ll be making decisions tonight so you should hear something soon, maybe as soon as tomorrow.”

“That sounds great.” She extended a hand, and his father took it, offered a warm smile, slightly blushing, and let it go and slid his hands in his pockets.

“Sebastian, listen, can you make sure the fire exits are locked? I’m gonna finish up here with Jennifer.”

“Oh, alright,” Sebastian said. He turned to Jennifer and offered a quick nod and a “nice to meet you” and shuffled out of their way and into the darkness of the hallway leading to the theatres.

The fire exits were always locked from the outside.

*

When he emerged from the darkness of the hallway back into the atrium, he noticed the lights were off there, too. The sky outside was indigo, and his father was a shadow in Jennifer’s headlights. If he hadn’t known him, Sebastian might’ve mistaken him for a sentry.

Does he even know? Sebastian wondered.

“Dad?”

“What do you think of her?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“You know it does. You’re going to take this place over, right?”

“This is over, Dad.”

Sebastian didn’t move closer, and William didn’t turn to face him.

Sebastian didn’t know whether to scream at him or retreat.

He was almost old enough to leave. In just a few months, he could skip town. He’d be responsible for only himself.

“I’m so sorry to bother,” Jennifer said, and poked her head in one of the front doors. “You know anything about cars?”

“I do,” William said, walking toward her.

“Thank God,” she said.

It’s just as well, Sebastian thought. He knew as much about cars as he knew about women.

So Sebastian mopped up concessions and started the vacuum cleaner. Through the window he watched his father hunched over her Rodeo, twisting shit, shaking his head, and wiping his hands on a rag. The streetlights illuminated them. It was almost black-and-white, this picture. At one point, William held Jennifer’s elbows. She was laughing. Then his father was laughing. Then they were both trying to gain their composure.

His father came in, flushed, out of breath. “Hey buddy. I can’t get her car to start, so I’m going to take her home. Close up, okay? I’ll be back in a bit to pick you up.”

*

He sat in Auditorium Three with a bag of popcorn. 1:30 a.m. It’s a Wonderful Life. It had been hours since his father left. Was he still with her? Maybe he was in the garage, tinkering again. Or maybe he’d not taken Jennifer home at all but had walked past her on the way out of the theatre, eyes fixed ahead, hands stuffed into his pockets, a somnambulant, streetlights casting his shadow onto the sidewalk, one foot in front of the other, stretching into the future ad infinitum. That’s what he’d been doing all along: strolling into the darkness, fading, as if he were only a tangential component of the world of objects around. And if he did it, if he went quietly, Sebastian wasn’t sure he’d care.

What would Mom think?

When at the sentimental end to end all sentimental endings, George Bailey’s life had been restored and he glances down at Clarence’s words, “No man is a failure who has friends,” Sebastian was suffocating.

The screen went black. He heard only the hum of the projector, a slight hiss in the speakers.

His father opened the door to the theatre and called out, the hallway light illuminating the aisle.

Sebastian knew what his mother would think. He gripped the armrests and imagined catapulting himself to the fire exit before standing and following William out.

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Phillip Mitchell has a creative writing degree from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. He currently teaches English at the University of North Georgia. His work has appeared in New Writing, Grand Central Review, Pismire Poetry, and elsewhere. Email: phillipmitchell26[at]gmail.com

The Dare

Fiction
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Mark Morton/Flickr (CC-by)

“Excuse me. I wonder if you’ve heard the news. The Russians have launched a missile. The world will be ending soon.”

His name was Alfred and he was smiling. The two children exchanged a look of fear.

Dad said he couldn’t help it. Alfred was to have been a doctor, Dad said, but he’d had a breakdown, ended up here in their market garden doing odd jobs and labouring. He had a way of approaching very quietly. They’d turn round and he’d be there. Always smiling. And talking evenly in his polite, expressionless voice.

At the beginning, the children had stood transfixed by curiosity, giggling, unsure how to react. But gradually the smooth flow of his words began to scare them, so now they ran from him, chasing each other, pretending it was all part of a game.

The market garden was the children’s own beautiful dangerous playground in which they knew every inch of the acres of land and greenhouses. It was another world, a world of space, secret hiding places, smells, and dangers. When they went home at teatime they felt caged, their nerves still taut, senses alert. Now Alfred had intruded on their world and for that they hated him.

Freddy was nine and Hazel two years younger but she kept up with her brother in most things, ran as fast, climbed as fearlessly, played as wildly. If they found a new game, it was Hazel who dared Freddy to do it. She had a way of looking at him without words, throwing down the dare.

Their new game had been to build a shack out of old broken boxes and bits of wood. They furnished it with empty diesel cans and filthy sacks, rigged up a roof from old tarpaulins. The finished construction was foul-smelling and crawling with insect life and well hidden behind the tractor sheds. As the children emerged at the end of the day they came face to face with Alfred; he was standing there smiling, a spade balanced over one shoulder.

“Excuse me. I don’t know if you’re interested but I’ve just received a communication. The Martians have finally landed. They’ll be taking over any day now.”

Hazel gave her brother an anguished look and they ran, breaking apart to pass on either side of the intruder. Why couldn’t he leave them alone?

The next day they decided to explore the greenhouses. As they tugged open the first door, they were hit with the overpowering heat and ripe reek of the tomatoes. Balancing on the heating pipes they walked the length of the greenhouse, brushing their fingers along the hairy fragrant stems of the plants, occasionally breaking off a small green tomato. They lobbed the fruit into the water tank, disturbing the weeds and scum.

The other day they had watched Dad and Ned beat a rat to death here. It had swum frantically from the tank through a connecting pipe into the tank in the adjacent greenhouse, over and over again, mad in its frenzy to escape. At each end, blows from a spade and a shovel met the animal and in the end it was dead.

Later, the huge rhubarb house became their haunt. It was a vast, corrugated barn kept in total darkness by thick, creaky wooden shutters. One of them would go inside, watching the sunlight narrow to a crack as the other swung the big heavy door shut and threw the bolt across. The dare was to endure the pitch blackness as long as possible, mastering their rising terror of all the groans and creaks. Three steady knocks meant, ‘let me out,’ and each time Hazel lasted the longest.

The third week of the summer holidays was unbearably hot. The cracks in the soil were like open wounds and the sky was an unbroken blue. Near the water tanks a dead frog lay flat and stiff.

They had played all morning on the roof of one of the old concrete shelters. By propping a plank against one side wall they could run straight up onto the roof and lie spreadeagled on the sloping concrete. The overhanging branches of an old oak tree allowed them to swing down to the ground. Eventually the concrete was so hot it became unbearable.

“Let’s go to the tractor shed,” Hazel said, but once inside they realised it wasn’t such a good idea after all. It was even hotter in there, the air heavy with the stench of oil and machinery. They took turns bouncing on the driving seat of the biggest tractor, twisting the wheel to and fro, the coarse sacking of the seat prickling their bare thighs.

“It’s my turn now, Freddy. Come on,” Hazel said, but her brother was staring straight past her. Hazel followed his eyes and saw Alfred standing in the doorway, leaning on a big shovel.

“I heard voices,” he began conversationally. “I wonder if you’d be interested in my discovery? I’ve been digging in the big fire hole and I’ve come across a live landmine from the war. I expect it to explode in about fifteen minutes so you’ve plenty of time.” Alfred turned and walked away, dragging the shovel along the ground with a harsh, grating sound.

At first Hazel and Freddy did not react. Then Hazel said, “Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?” Freddy hesitated.

“Yes—we’ve got to.”

It wasn’t far to the fire holes, deep brick pits that housed the coal furnaces to heat the greenhouses. The children were strictly forbidden to climb down but often peered in, drawn by the glistening heaps of coal and the fierce crackling heat coming from the black furnace doors. Alfred was already standing on the edge of the biggest pit, wiping his forehead with a large, greasy handkerchief. He turned and smiled at them.

“If you stand over there,” he began, “you’ll be able to hear it ticking clearly.” He looked so pleased and welcoming, his eyes smiling brightly behind his round glasses. Alfred waited patiently, a tour guide presenting a marvel. Beyond him the sun glinted on the heaps of coal.

Hazel looked at Freddy and he glanced away uncomfortably. He knew that expression. It was a dare.

Freddy forced himself to look at Alfred, still standing smiling on the edge of the fire hole. Without warning Freddy ran forward and pushed Alfred with a short jab. The man stumbled backwards, his hands clutching at the air. He looked surprised but made no sound as he toppled and fell. Hazel stepped forward and saw Alfred’s head strike the corner of the furnace. Then he lay still, his hands still outstretched.

Hazel caught hold of Freddy’s arm and nipped him hard so he squealed.

“Come on,” she said. “We’d better tell Dad there’s been an accident.”

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Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications, both in print and online. She has written four novels and two novellas; Offcomers won first prize in the NAWG (National Association of Writers’ Groups) Open Novella competition in December 2016 and three others have been either shortlisted or longlisted in national UK competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

Doctors Without Borders

Fiction
Christopher Heffernan


Photo Credit: jean-boris-h/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The room opened in front of me from the kitchen back to where three floor-to-ceiling windows looked out from Brooklyn to Manhattan, where the stairs for the loft began and where there were people in clusters with drinks, all around talking. I stepped off the elevator and took off my coat, putting it over my arm. Georgette saw me and waved but did not come over and I stood waiting for her. When she looked again I raised my coat and smiled and she put a hand on one of her friends and finally came to me. “Oh, Teddy, you’ve been here so much you don’t need me to tell you what to do.”

“I wasn’t sure if there was some special coatroom for tonight. I didn’t know how you were organizing the place.”

“The coats go in the closet,” she said, opening the door. “Like always.”

I took out a hanger and hung it up. “Who’s all here?”

She smiled. “The gang. We didn’t go too heavy on the food. Cheese plates and a few sausages and things. Take what you want,” she said, leaving me.

A few bottles of wine stood open on the counter and I poured myself a glass of red and looked through the crowd until I saw Claire. She had on a black dress with a sequin belt and a little black purse and every time she laughed she switched the purse to her other hand.

“You should put that down and get yourself a drink,” I said to her.

She looked at me and smiled and kissed me on the cheek. “Where have you been?”

“Everywhere,” I said.

She introduced me to her friends whose names I forgot immediately.

“I’ve already had enough to drink,” she said. “Maybe I’ll have one later but right now it’s a little too much.”

“I hope you had some of the Cabernet. It’s delightful.”

“Jeremy’s here,” she said. “Isn’t that a kick?”

“Jeremy?” I said.

Then she asked about my day. I started to tell her this and that and watched her smile as I spoke but nothing much was going on and I subtly switched things over to her, wanting to know what cases she was working and when she tried to insist that what she was doing was boring, I peppered her for details, laughing at her little insecurities and seeing her face light up as she talked about her office, finally someone actually interested in the incompetent people she knew losing clients as they cheated on their spouses and robbed the petty cash.

Three flights up the back stair was a fire door that the alarm never sounded for where you could get on the roof and see the skyline and see the fireworks unabated. I had been thinking about this all week, knowing about this party and knowing she would probably be here, and figured I could sneak a bottle and two glasses and get her to follow me by telling her there was a secret door and secret stairs and she would know what it was all about but the fun of pretending that everything was a mystery would make things tingly.

“Come,” she said, then put a hand on my arm. “Come. Let’s go in the back.” She led me down the hall where the sound of the crowd out front died away and I was reminded of when I was a child ducking out to lie alone on my parents’ bed at Christmastime, far from everyone, on all the fur coats. Where my child’s mind was warm and buried and could wander through the perfumes of my aunts and the ladies from town my mother knew who would sometimes come for dessert on the holidays. We went to the back bedroom where there was a group of people sitting on the bed and floor in front of Jeremy who stood against the desk with his arms folded across his chest, talking, saying something that he broke off from when we came in.

“Oh my goodness,” he said. “Look who it is. How’ve you been, old bean?”

“Fine,” I said.

“Where’ve you been hiding yourself? We’ve all been wondering where you were,” he said.

I looked around the room and did not recognize any of the people.

“Busy,” I said.

“Doing what? Work can’t take up every moment of the day.” He laughed and then the others laughed and then Claire laughed.

“Actually,” I said, “I was finishing up my application for Doctors Without Borders.”

“Teddy’s gonna save the world,” Claire said, putting an arm around me. “At least the sick people part of it.”

“Really?” Jeremy said.

“Something like that,” I said.

He looked at Claire, then looked at me. “That’s a tough gig.”

“I’ve heard,” I said.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” he said.

I didn’t know what he meant.

“Talk about what?” Claire said.

“When I was in Doctors Without Borders,” he said.

“You were in Doctors Without Borders?” Claire said.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” he said.

He was never in Doctors Without Borders.

“Well, I don’t want to stir up any ghosts,” she said.

“Ghosts?” he said. “That’s all that’s left, I guess. It was a very long time ago. When I was first out of med school and I had all that vigor and thought I would go take on the world. Like Teddy here. But I was an idiot. There’s no other way to say it.”

He was never in Doctors Without Borders. When he was first out of med school he was giving throat cultures to the grandkids of Vietnam vets in some shit-water military town in the California desert.

“They sent me to Africa,” he said.

“Where in Africa?” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “All of Africa is in so much need. Anyway, it’s not a great story, it’s just that there was this virus going around this town and we, the doctors without borders, were there helping. The virus was spreading faster than we could contain it. We had run out of penicillin and things were getting desperate so we had to declare a quarantine until the U.N. could step in and get us some supplies. People started dying. Things were getting scary.”

He looked at Claire. “I was terrified. Everyone was terrified. This little nothing virus from the jungle that didn’t even have a name. It was…” he said, then he mouthed something no one could hear.

“So anyway,” he continued. “One morning, this little boy, Obudon—he was this little guy that hung around the offices—he wanted to come to America and play basketball. He used to make us all laugh. So this one morning he comes to me and he says, Mr. Jeremy, I’m not feeling so good. And I knew. I knew what it was. His sisters and his brother were all sick. In fact, his brother had died. But he just kept on going, just kept on going like a little spark plug. I’m gonna play basketball in America, he kept telling us. I looked at him when he told me he wasn’t feeling well and all I wanted to do was cry. But I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t let him know I was scared. I had to be strong. Or at least seem strong. There had to be some hope for this little boy. Some hope for all of us. Some sort of strength the dying could draw on from the living. To keep us going. It was terrible. Now I knew the offices two towns over had penicillin. But only a little bit. Only enough for them and they were outside our quarantine. So, you know,” he said, again looking at Claire, “I knew what I had to do. I couldn’t take the jeep because that would arouse suspicion, so me and Obudon had to walk the fifteen miles to the offices in the middle of the night and break into the offices and steal the penicillin. Which we did. Fifteen miles there. Fifteen miles back. But my superiors found out and for saving Obudon’s life they put me on a plane back to the States. One way ticket. Gone.”

Then he said, “No more Doctors Without Borders.”

“Oh my God,” Claire said. “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?”

“That’s so crazy,” one of the girls on the bed said.

“Wow, man,” a guy said.

“Excuse me,” Jeremy said, and pushed by out of the room. He went down the hall and stopped in front of the bathroom where he looked at the floor and rubbed his eyes. Claire jogged out after him. She put a hand on his shoulder and patted his chest.

The crowd was looking around me, through the door.

“It’s all lies,” I said. “He was never in Doctors Without Borders, he was never in Africa and I’m pretty sure Obo-whatever-the-fuck is not even an African name. I’ve known that guy forever. It’s all lies.”

“You need to relax,” one of the guys on the floor said.

“Why would he make it up?” one of the girls on the bed said.

“It didn’t really sound made up,” the other girl on the bed said.

“Why would he make it up,” the first girl said, “when he would know that you would know that he was lying?”

“Because he’s that much of a prick,” I said. And I walked out.

“I mean, it didn’t really sound made up,” I heard from behind me.

They were not in the hall and the bathroom door was locked. I punched the door as I went by.

I went to the kitchen and poured myself another wine and then coming out to the living room saw, miracle of all miracles, Claire by herself by the tall windows.

“Hey,” I said, coming up to her, “is everything alright?”

“He was just a little upset,” she said.

“Yeah, the funny thing about that is…” I started to say, but a tall guy with a beard in a black sweater came up to us and handed Claire her coat.

“Thanks,” she said to him. “Teddy, this is Gil.”

“How’s it going?” he said, and stuck his hand out.

I shook it. I looked at Claire, trying to figure out what was happening.

“He’s giving me a ride home,” she said.

“You’re leaving? Why are you leaving?” I tried to laugh. “The night’s just starting. It’s not even midnight. You know, there’s this stairway…” I started to say.

“Gil’s a bike messenger. He’s one of those guys who rides like a maniac through traffic.”

“And let me guess, he’s giving you a ride home on his bike.”

“Ha!” he said. “That would be impossible. There isn’t even a basket on that bad boy. No, no, I have a Vespa that I ride sometimes. You know, I take it out when I want to be casual.”

“A Vespa,” Claire said. “So we’re going. We’re gonna go be maniacs in the street. He’s gonna take me all around.”

“But it’s cold,” I said.

“Not really. I’ll see you,” she said, and waved at me over her shoulder.

I watched them go.

Jeremy came up behind me. “Well,” he said. He put his arm around my neck and we were looking at Claire waiting for the elevator.

“I’m gonna fucking kill you one day,” I said to him.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“You’re gonna end up on my table with a boil on your ass and I’m gonna stick my scalpel in your goddamn ear. I don’t care if I get the electric chair. I swear to Christ. I swear to fucking Christ I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.”

pencil

Christopher Heffernan has had poetry and fiction published in magazines and journals including The Writer’s Journal, Summerset Review, The Believer, Midway Journal, Cottonwood, Talking River, The Broadkill Review as well as the anthology You’re A Horrible Person, But I Like You. In 2015 his book of poetry and flash fiction, Rag Water, was published by Fly By Night Press. Email: christopherheffernan1[at]gmail.com

Crow

Fiction
Bim Angst


Photo Credit: Mary Bailey/Flickr (CC-by)

When the call came, rain was pounding, and Anna was stalled as traffic swung deep into the grocery store parking lot rather than roll through the puddle growing across the road so fast it backed up at the median and folded into whitecaps. Maggie Nazlevik, whose kitchen window looked onto the porch of her parents’ retirement ranch.

“Your mother’s basement is flooded,” Maggie lit in before Anna said hello. “She’s been down there. Pants wet to the knees, checking her freezer. She knocked on my door, asked me to call the fire department to come pump it out. I thought you should know.”

All Anna could think was: sweet Jesus, all that wet paper.

And then Maggie added: “She could have electrocuted herself.”

Thereafter, the image Maggie’s musing brought to Anna’s mind would return, embellished, many times.

As would the fact that the old crone had not, in fact, electrocuted herself.

 

Though it was only late afternoon, the rain had so darkened the day and freighted the air that the crows, hundreds of them, were already roosting in the trees along the alley. Anna would not disturb them. She shifted her car into neutral and rolled to a stop behind her parents’ garage. She shut the car door without a bang. Nary a bird stirred.

Inside, the house was dark, except for the television. The door stuck in its frame. Both to open and to close, Anna pressed her shoulder against it.

“The vermin are home early,” her father said.

The crows. He meant the crows. He could see them from his chair.

“Somebody should do something,” Anna’s mother said. “They shit all over, and they steal things.” Somebody. Always someone else.

Anna turned on a lamp. The place looked the same, smelled the same, with top notes of sour laundry and a signature of scorched coffee. Anna took off her coat, rolled up her sleeves and waited for the base note to register: urine. So far, so good. All was as usual. The basement lights worked, a good sign. The water had reached the third stair from the bottom but was dropping.

Too bent with age to see over Anna’s shoulder, Dorothy lifted Anna’s arm and slid her head beneath. “I offered the fire company a couple of hundred dollars, but apparently my money and I aren’t good enough.”

There’s no point in explaining, thought Anna. That water was likely rising everywhere, that pumping would not divert or stem the flow, that the fire company was busy with more important things, that her parents and their basement were not an emergency, that little could be saved, that money really couldn’t buy everything, though it had seemed so once. The water would recede. Anna descended the stairs. The line of demarcation was already blurring but the high-water mark was clear.

So much had been piled on the floor. Listing stacks of The Clareville Sentinel, The Anthracite Herald, and The Patriot-News swelled. File boxes bursting with onion-skin carbons and fading thermofaxes. Yellowing paperbacks, Louis L’Amour and John D. MacDonald by the dozens. Crates of jumbled hardcover histories. Mingled National Geographic, Field and Stream, Woman’s Day, and Reader’s Digest going back, in no order, at least to 1963. Photographs, clippings, cards, hand-scripted letters, scattered notebooks, checkbooks, calendars, diaries. Bulging folders of long-ago paid bills. Manuals from appliances irreparable decades before. Her mother’s cookbooks, pages marked with rusting clips, thousands of recipes on index cards. Glue gave. Covers rippled. Cardboard curled.

Anna lifted a box of cards. At top, the paper held. But lower, the ink of her mother’s hand was dyeing the white stock blue, and when Anna pinched, card pulped and came away on her thumb. Potatoes, pies, preserves, starches and cloying sweets Anna, finally, would never again be called on to prepare, would never again be browbeaten to eat, never again pretend to enjoy.

 

At first, Dorothy and Pete Derchenko acknowledged the necessity of speed and the dangers of creeping rot. They were reasonable, relieved, it appeared, that Anna was there to help. Just bring the stuff upstairs and let us go through it. Let us save what can be saved. Thank you thank you thank you. But Anna knew better than to hope. Dorothy pinched Anna’s cheek.

The appearance of compliant sanity was, as always, a feint, a ploy, a shifting surface, an oil thinning as it spread. The brown water that continued an irregular ebb and flow from the storm drain percolated through the newsprint, turning it to mush. Pete railed as Anna set out the heavy-duty bags. He was almost mollified for a short time when Anna told him that newspapers would be available online forever­­, or at least, Anna did not say, all of forever that he’d need. Each day, Pete insisted he checked email, claimed he had “heard from” friends online, though his computer had not worked in months, and for far longer he had not been able to figure out how to turn it on. Not that he needed the clippings and email anyway. Was there a project? Anna would not broach that discussion again. Pete raised his wild eyebrows and rubbed the grizzle on his chin, palmed over the white feather-fluff of his see-through hair, but acknowledged that technology was, indeed, marvelous, as he well knew: Didn’t he remember back to when cars had to be cranked? Didn’t Anna herself remember when they got their first color TV? He drove his finger into the flesh of her arm to make the point. Remember, girl? Remember? Ah, what he had chosen to keep, what to discard.

And so, Anna began clearing with the newspapers. Her hands pruned and blackened. At the top of the basement stairs, his tiny dog standing beside him, Pete leaned on his cane and supervised.

“Be careful of your back.”

So he knew, thought Anna. Even dry, archives this deep weighed tons. And yet, he had forgotten. It was not her back that pained her, but her knees. Always, her knees.

The crows watched, heads turning, as Anna wore a wet path to deposit the sacks and boxes at the end of the yard for pick up by the garbage crew. As she returned to the house, one or another crow glided down, turning a head to aim the gleaming bead of a black eyeball first to Anna and then over the growing mound of ancient debris.

 

The first dark spots appeared in the paper of the walls of her father’s basement “office.” As the spots grew, Anna boxed the dampening contents of cabinets and shelves. Was there a letter he had ever not saved? All his life, he’d worked toward something, saving scraps that he’d turn into—what? The family history? Where they’d come from. Who they were. What they did. Who was buried where and who had been left behind. This digging and looking back was an imperative Anna did not understand.

“Bring them up so I can sort through.” Pete pointed with his cane at the several boxes Anna had set on the basement steps.

But the furniture upstairs was so cluttered—yarn, envelopes, clothes, blankets, magazines, flyers, plastic ware, wadded bags, used tissues, books—that Anna had to set the box on the floor. Placed where he could reach it, the carton blocked a portion of her father’s matted path through the shag carpeting. More boxes would create a minefield. If he arrived there at all, her father would get from his rubber-sheeted chair to the bathroom even less than he did now.

Had everyone’s parents saved such things? The second-grade report card. A Sunday school perfect-attendance pin, generic, tarnished, of indeterminate vintage. Even the church had not been named.

The saving, the sorting would have been safer, easier, if they had laid things in an annual box, closed the lid, and labeled it. Like her, they might have had the forethought to limit themselves to a box a year, a shapely, ordered thing, concise, clear—not pell-mell piles in the cavern of a seeping basement, on surfaces, in nooks and crannies all over the house. Someday, soon perhaps, Anna would have to open the closets. Already, the old people had fallen, faltered, been carried away, and in their absences Anna had been called upon to rifle through their chests of drawers for small necessities and comforts. Beneath the threadbare nightwear and heel-sore socks, tie clasps, cuff links, school pictures, prayer cards, foreign stamps. They kept everything and stored it with no plan.

Take a picture, Anna thought, then let the thing go. A digital file took no space. A memory stick fit into a pocket. Forethought. Consequence. The later burdens of others. How many ornaments and lights, plastic pumpkins and snap-open eggs did child-rearing require? The celluloid trees of her early Christmases bent and shed their snow-covered needles among the fading plastic Rudolphs of her children’s. Paint flaked from glass orbs, tin stars crumpled, and flood water scummed it all. She wiped a rag across a plush chick’s yellow fluff. The fur mashed, the stuffing wept. Anna hadn’t wanted holidays, their pretense, their waste, their pain, what you got, what you didn’t get, who gave it, who did not, the judgment on why.

The crows bathing in the puddles of the alley scattered as Anna threw the decorations on the pile at the end of the yard, another layer mingled, as they all were, among pencil stubs, rusting cans of nails, broken fishing lures, tangled leader, crumbling tins of treble hooks, scraps of ancient fabric bleeding.

 

“Damnedest thing,” said her mother. “My things are being returned to me.” She held a tiny buckle out for Anna to see, and then offered up the lid of a shoebox, across it scattered bits and fragments, pieces and parts Anna recognized from the trash she’d piled at the end of the yard.

“They show up on the porch,” Dorothy said. “Somebody puts them there for me.” She held up a furled shell, its body whorl eroded. “This is from the first time I took my Gracie to the ocean.”

My Gracie. Possessions yet, thought Anna.

 

A middle-of-the-night call: her parents balking, bawling. Afraid of hurting them as they flailed, the police gave up trying to carry them out of the rain and simply kept them from wandering, kept them contained, stood watch in the broad ray of a motion-sensor light diffused by a dense fog.

Her mother on her hands and knees in the sodden turf, screeching, scrabbling at sagging boxes, a pocket leaching rust from the shanks of buttons shedding peeling paste pearls, gilt, and clouded rhinestones. The spotlight behind her sent a glow through the thin faille of the old woman’s nightgown; the dark substance of the old woman’s body was without flesh, and if anyone looked away, it was in pain at her thinness. Her father, skeletal, bellowing, held his pajama bottoms up with one fist, and with the other, barbed with the stubs of his ancient pencils, jabbed at the sky. His cane lay in the grass. Who knew they could step down off the porch? Who knew they could muster such noise? Who knew they could fall of their own accord to their knees?

Watching from windows and porch swings, the neighbors crossed themselves. There but for the grace of God.

The old ones were brought, shrieking, inside. Anna flipped the breaker on the yard spots.

At dawn, when the crows began to fly off in their individual way and her old people finally slept, Anna removed the bulbs and took them with her, resolved they would never light in that yard again.

 

Anna set out no more trash. Daily, she took a tiny bag with her. The old people consumed now so little. There would be no more acquisition. Every day, she would bring food, clean clothing. Every day, she would haul many things away.

She spread a plastic shower curtain in the trunk of her car, arrived near dusk, saw they ate something, anything, of what she brought, and, through the basement’s exterior door, lugged the family archives out into the night. Crayons, pebbles, parts of broken toys, tiny clothes, faded plastic sand shovels, glass baby bottles, diapers and pins, dolls, a million tiny molded soldiers neither Anna nor her children wanted.

None of it would return.

 

“Save this box,” Pete said, the dog on his lap in the stinking chair. The yellow nail of his gnarled finger scraped the cardboard and came away with a frosting of white.

“Did you go through what’s in it?” Anna asked, but she knew the answer.

“Everything in there is important.”

Anna stood.

Pete tapped the box. “Put it back where you got it. All of it.”

His pencils, his papers, all his things. He held her responsible.

Anna returned the frosted box to the basement. She obliged out of habit, but out of necessity, by deed and omission, Anna lied.

 

The crow lay on the porch, its brethren watching from the trees. Nearby, her mother’s broom, around its willowed splay a tangled remnant of rotting clothesline, one end knotted to a porch-beam.

Anna could imagine the scene, the old woman grabbing the nearest thing, aiming her long-handled weapon from the first not to shoo or stun but to kill. Her wraith of a mother smacking the crow, her face triumphant, stepping back to see the fruit of her righteous blow. The scene was familiar. Any item at hand became weapon in wrath, scepter in triumph. And another image, less familiar, but more pleasing: the woman stunned, confused her blow is blocked, baffled at being thwarted, astonished a living force dares to rise against her. This time, the crow. Perhaps, as the dark bird lifted, it cawed as the rope staved for a moment, and the blow’s pause drew the woman’s rage to her grip, her anger tightening, arcing along her spine. She chops, cleaves the line, and the crow falls.

When Anna touched the body of the bird, the black beak opened and the creature heaved, breathed.

The bird was bigger than Anna might have imagined, had she given thought before to the weight of birds.

 

Crickets, worms, fruit. Anna offered and the crow ate. With one wing and a foot dragging, the crow hopped on Anna’s kitchen counter, tilting its glossy head as it dipped a beak to catch the drip from the faucet. The crow, it seemed, was not afraid. It took cooked pasta from her hand. It stretched. It opened its beak and panted. It clacked, it chirped, it scratched. It poked its head in things. Whenever Anna looked for it, the crow was already watching her.

Someday, thought Anna, you too will leave.

 

Anna stacked the boxes and bags on a table in the basement.

“I’ll go out through the cellar,” she said. “I’ll check the lights and lock the doors.”

“You can be such a good little girl, when you decide you want to be. Such a shame,” said Dorothy. Girl. Little girl.

Pete’s eyes filled. “Don’t go,” he said, cupping Anna’s hot cheeks in his cold hands, finally choosing Anna and holding on.

They would not remember what they had, what they had driven away.

“I’ll be back,” Anna said. And under cover of night, Anna filled her car and slipped away.

 

Parties. Holidays. Graduations.

Picnics. Vacations.

Plays, band concerts, award ceremonies.

Weddings. Christenings.

A hundred years of pictures. The crow on her shoulder, Anna held the photos and slides up to the light. Their slippery images smeared and ran. Few faces stuck, and the thick flow of their drained emulsion tainted the flesh of the boxes and stained the skin of her hands oxblood, wordless, mewling beast, sacrificed.

Detritus. Treasures. Garbage. Gems.

Not that the details mattered. The kids had gotten out as soon as they could, flung themselves to the far corners, and they were too far, too long gone to want to come back.

Why stay?

 

“What is that on your sweater?” Dorothy brushed at Anna’s back. “It’s bird dirt!” The old woman held her hand with the smear close to Anna’s face. “Those damn crows. I’ll blast them out of the trees.”

“It’s just one crow.” Anna turned to watch her mother’s face. “My crow.”

Your crow? You’re joking.” It was not a question.

“I found it on your porch, hurt. I took it home.” Anna did not bite her tongue. “You remember the one.”

“You took it home.” Dorothy scoffed. “You were always picking up crippled things.” She shoved past Anna to the sink and washed her hands. “Soft in the heart, soft in the head. Always bringing some filthy thing into my home.”

My home. Here it comes.

The old woman took the familiar stance, one hand on her hip, the other raised, first a fist, then pointing. Anna steeled herself, arms crossed. But when the old woman opened her mouth to deliver the charges, Anna watched as the old eyes went blank and the lips faltered.

Whatever Dorothy had planned to say had escaped.

 

“Look at this,” Dorothy would say, handling the trinkets of the shoebox lid on her lap when Anna arrived. “Come see what I have.”

“Someone stole my things,” Dorothy purred, “and now they are being returned. Look what came back today!” She held up a child’s plastic barrette. “My Vera’s! I used to put this in her curly hair. It was her favorite.”

My Vera’s. It was like a stab.

Dorothy held up a red plastic monkey. “My Vaughn used to love these!”

“Monkey in a Barrel,” said Anna.

“Yes!” said Dorothy, delighted. “I played that with him for hours.”

“Guess what this is?” Dorothy opened her palm.

“The head of a Ninja Turtle,” said Anna, reaching.

But Dorothy closed her fist and held it against her chest. “This was my Henry’s. He had the full set.” She paused. “You can’t have it.”

“No, of course not,” said Anna, and, though she meant to keep it out, Dorothy caught the edge in Anna’s voice.

“You always want what was mine,” said Dorothy. “Covetous. Envious. You were always that way. You hateful child.” And then the full list came, as if the old pump had been primed. Selfish. Lustful. Brazen. Strong-willed. Defiant. Disobedient. Disrespectful. The familiar pause, then: Ungrateful. Ungrateful. Ungrateful.

“What you could have been,” Dorothy finished. “Such potential.” She pursed her mouth, shook her head. “Such a waste.”

And then, Anna took a breath as Dorothy with her sigh gave the cue, and when Dorothy started in on the chorus, Anna chimed in: I should have never had you.

Anna’s hand was up blocking the blow long before Dorothy remembered to slap Anna’s face.

 

“She has the police here now,” Maggie Nazlevik whispered into the phone. “She insisted I call them, wouldn’t leave my kitchen till I dialed.”

Anna waited. It would come.

“She says you abused her. She has the cops taking pictures now.”

A long pause.

“You didn’t hit her, did you?”

In the background, Anna could hear Dorothy crying. It was not hard to distinguish the crocodile tears from the real. Was this dissembling, this fracture, this fall what Anna had waited for?

“She has a terrible bruise.” Maggie drew a long breath. “Your father does too.”

When Anna arrived, Maggie scurried down the concrete walk of her yard, waved Anna over, and drew her behind the hedge.

“I don’t want you to be shocked,” Maggie said. “You know how easily old people bruise.” Maggie held up her phone. “Are you ready?”

Maggie touched the screen and Pete’s face flashed.

“She says you struck him many times.” Maggie flipped a finger across the screen and an arm appeared.

“She says she was hurt when she tried to stop you.”

Of course. The words were out of Anna before she realized she’d said them out loud.

Maggie stepped back.

“Of course, there’s an explanation.” Anna looked over the hedge to her parents’ porch. Dorothy, shredding a tissue, sat in a lawn chair, chin on her chest. She’d carried on so long she had hiccoughs. A stout police officer stood beside her.

“I’ll talk to the police now.” Anna looked back to Maggie and patted her arm. “Thank you. For looking out for them. You’re a good friend.”

It had come to this. Hadn’t she known she would again be accused for whatever went wrong?

“Thank you, Officer.” Anna stepped onto the porch.

“That’s her,” Dorothy glared. “That’s the bad seed who beats me and wants to lock me away.”

Anna looked to the officer. “Have you spoken with my father yet?”

“He’s old, he’s out of his mind.” Dorothy clutched at the officer’s arm. “He doesn’t know anymore what he’s saying.”

The officer placed his big hand over Dorothy’s and she leaned into him.

“Officer Skerchok is taking his statement now,” said the officer. “EMTs are on the way.”

“I don’t remember,” Anna heard Pete say. “I woke up on the floor.”

As she crossed into the house, Pete called to her. “Anna. Anna, you’re here.” He lifted the ice bag from his forehead, exposing the astonishing bruise as he looked from Anna to the officer and back. Was he pleading?

“My daughter will explain.”

“Ma’am?” The officer held a small notebook and pen. “Can you give me the name of your parents’ caseworker?” He’d already pieced enough of it together.

“They’ve declined services,” Anna said. “Many times.”

Just the facts now.

“I see,” said the officer. “Then a caseworker will be assigned.”

Anna nodded. Finally, they were out of her hands.

“Anna? Anna? Where’s my cane? I need to make water.” Pete pressed on the arms of his chair, but as Officer Skerchok tried to help, the old man’s pants darkened.

“Don’t get old,” Pete told Skerchok.

“I’ll try not to, sir.”

Thank you, thought Anna.

Anna supported Pete to the bathroom, balanced him against the vanity while she held up his feet one at a time, bore his wobbling flyweight, and helped him out of his pants.

“This old dance,” he said. “You poor girl, looking after your old man like he was a baby.”

“It’s the cycle, Pop.”

“That it is,” he said. “That it is.”

The ends of his shirt were wet, and Anna stood to unbutton him.

“You’re a good girl,” he said. His blue eyes fogged, the white of one a shocking red. He took her chin in his hand. “You are a very good girl,” he said and kissed her.

A lump rose in her throat. His affection was never calculated. He had not protected her, though his inattention had pained him. She flustered for a moment and then got back to cleaning him up, opened the top button and slipped the shirt off his bony shoulders.

A crazy-quilt pattern of yellow and green, blue and purple bruises cross-hatched his back and chest.

What had he said or not said? What had he done or not done? What rules had he disobeyed?

That old dance, the dance partners changed.

 

Anna emptied the cabinets, the drawers, as the house was cleared, the men with the truck asking: this? this?

Haul it all away.

The older man, the crew chief, sometimes squeezed her shoulder as he passed. Did he think she’d cry?

When the house was empty and the men gone, Anna brought the crow for company, opened windows, propped the door. As Anna cleaned, the crow picked in the dust and bits, burbled and clacked, clasped this and that as it flapped, and before sundown one day opened both wings and joined its brethren in the trees.

pencil

Bim Angst’s writing has won some nice recognition from places such as the Illinois Arts Council, Yaddo, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Email: bimangst[at]gmail.com

I Ask You for a Cigarette

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
SK Elliot


Photo Credit: Douglas Eshenbaugh/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

An R.V. coughs to a halt in the parking lot. I want to rest in this quiet dry moment until the end of time. But I know that cannot be so. We are standing above the visitor’s centre on a scenic platform. We’ve been on the Appalachian Trail for 112 days. And this is where we peel off. We’re supposed to go to a funeral. Part of me likes being able to look out over what we are quitting. Like I am finally making some peace with years of failure that have crept up on me. Then, I lift my heavy legs, walk over to the railing, and ask you for a cigarette.

In the gift shop you rifle through a tourist book of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My feet are sweating and tingling from standing around. Something in me wants to keep walking. Even if it is nothing more than my feet. I am aware of that feeling in my gut again. It haunts me. A frustrated, sad, stuck feeling.

I can tell that your flesh is warm so I reach out to touch it. You look up from a glossy page and at that moment I want to tell you exactly how much I love you. I want you to know how tenderly my entire heart is wrapped around you. Even though it curls back at times. But this feeling saunters by and I look up at you without knowing what to say. “Are you hungry?” and I am not talking about a physical hunger.

“Yeah, a bit.”

I could feel nothing of that kind of passion the night before. We shared a meal of beans and wieners with a Swiss couple hiking in the other direction, towards Maine. Her name was Sophie. Blond, big blue eyes, a tight tanned body. Every inch of her was gorgeous. It is a nice name to say out loud; Sophie. You kept saying her name and then pausing. I noticed that you were lost in an uncertain moment of time.

“Sophie,”—leaves rustle, a morning dove coos—“would you pass me my beer there?”

“Sophie,”—the water boils over the edges of a pot and sizzles on the burner—“what do you think of America?” There was something in that long space. After her name. Space that shouldn’t have been there.

Later when you touched me your being seemed to be elsewhere. Your mouth tasted unfamiliar, almost like metal. Like some strange chemistry coursing through your veins. When I closed my eyes I saw a little boy full of excitement. All over my body I could feel your grown-up hands with complex needs. And that made me want you more. I wanted you everywhere at once. I wanted our two bodies to fill up the space after Sophie’s name.

“Well then, breakfast?” You say this with your eyes sucked back into the world of gloss. But I am not hungry, not for food. I am hardly ever hungry for food. Though the roundness of my thighs and the breadth of my stomach tell another story.

We get a ride into town with the woman who has just cleaned the toilets at the dam. I ask her what time she starts work.

“Five a.m., girl. I hate it but ain’t much else to do round here. Times are hard. The economy ain’t what it used to be.”

I nod, mostly to prove that I am listening. But I have never known hard times, not the kind she’s talking about. I grew up in Montreal. In a big, old house that sat on an immense lawn with big, old trees. My professor parents made lots of money and squared it away like good soldiers. There were no hard times in Montreal, at least not for me.

A song on the radio chases down my thoughts. It’s been ages since I have heard music. It hasn’t even been playing in my head. Despite the heat I shiver. “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, the quintessential break-up song. A voice that is like velvet and rust slowly dancing in an empty pool hall. I lean back into ripped vinyl and watch my wrist bumping up and down on the baby seat. Its movement and the song and the heat of the day pack together into a tiny little speck. I am utterly mesmerized. Something like gratitude washes over me and I sing along with Stevie.

We get into town. The cleaning lady lets us off at a diner.

“Git the waffles, they’re delicious.”

My belly grumbles as if to thank her. Once we have picked a table we order two coffees and two waters. I realize we haven’t sat down in front of each other for some time.

While hiking we ate our meals mostly in silence, sitting on hot rocks. Looking out over the towns below, the endless sea of blue-green. The hazy silhouettes of more and more mountains in the distance. Once the sun was down they would transform into ominous, dark masses sprinkled with glowing dots. I would lust for what was below. A different me: thinner, more agile, less achy.

Soon I realize I have guzzled my coffee. I flag down the waitress. She fills up my cup and I vow to stay present for a few minutes. If only to enjoy a hot cup of coffee. “What are you going to have?” I lean over towards you. I notice your eyes on my breasts. They are cradled in my bra. My dirty, sweaty shirt dangling, barely covering them. Your eyes slowly retreat back to the menu.

“Mmmmm, waffles, I guess. And a double side order of bacon. You?”

And as if I could really hear what you are asking, I go for it.

“What will we do, Johnny?” It’s like a half-born question to try to nudge you into a conversation about what was and what is to come.

You look up again. I am sitting up straight this time. I can feel the curve in my back, all the way down to my sitting bones. I can feel the flesh of my butt splayed around those grounding bones. I can feel my thighs firmly resting on the bench. Moist, sticky, glowing from all the sun. And like a bud, my tightly packed insides open. Cautiously at first and then I can feel it, the alive and the breath.

I am not sure what you’re thinking. You always keep an even temperament. Even back in Virginia when we learned about your uncle’s truck, smashed into hundreds of pieces on the highway. You take a sip from your glass of water. You clear your throat and drink some coffee.

“I don’t know, Becky. I don’t know what we should do.”

And I love you all the more for this answer. It is entirely perfect, this answer.

The waitress comes over to our table. She can’t be more than nineteen. Some menus under her arm, a pen behind her ear. Her hair a pleasant mess around her flushed cheeks. Her skirt is short, her legs long and lean. I sneak a glance at you to gauge your level of interest in this attractive creature. But your face is buried in the menu again.

We place our order and stare out into the room. Worry rolls into my mind again like fog in a seaport. There is a young family sitting at another table. A little girl and boy are driving their forks through a city of cups, salt and pepper shakers. Their parents are lost in an intense conversation.

You never had much luck with women, or at least that’s what you told me the day we met. The apple trees were in full blossom and you were sitting on the boardwalk looking out at the lake. I stopped to take a picture and you came up to me.

“I know this is crazy,” you said later at a bar downtown. “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer and I know we’ve just met and I know we’ve had too much bourbon but would you come with me?”

When I fell asleep that night, your long body folded around me.

We sit in silence till the food comes. I eat like an abandoned cat. Licking at the last traces. My body’s metabolism is still in full tilt. I sigh as I think about regaining the ten or more pounds that I lost on the trail.

“What?” you say.

“Oh, I’m just thinking about Mars. That Rover thing, the data it’s collecting.” This is one of your favourite topics and I cannot admit the ordinary truth. My preoccupation with weight is ridiculous and embarrassing and I could never explain to you how I constantly battle with the fluctuating size of my body.

“Unhun,” you say. You lean back into the wall and put your feet up along the length of the bench. You also ate fast and are in the midst of a digestive haze. “Well, Beck, I don’t know either. I have had a really good time.” You look up like you’re carefully hanging heavy keys on a little thumb tack.

I feel exhausted. Not from hiking. The kind of exhaustion that is hardly ever there when I first wake up in the morning. It’s the kind of heaviness that comes with slowly remembering all of steps and missteps that cannot be retraced. Like being in a maze, with no start and no finish. I ask you for another cigarette and tell you I’ll be outside.

When I step out into warmth I see the mountains. I feel sad and alive in equal parts. My body bends gently into crumbling steps. I light the cigarette. I inhale and the smoke fingers the walls of my mouth. It hits the back of my lungs and then I let it out. I am breathing deeply. I don’t know what I want to do but I know what I can do. I won’t go to the funeral and I won’t go to Asheville with you afterwards. Instead, I’ll go back to Montreal, to my parents. I’ll crawl up in one of those big, old sugar maples and sit and be still. And for a moment things will feel easy again, uncomplicated and manageable. I’ll look down on the world and you won’t be in it. And I won’t ask you for a cigarette.

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SK Elliot is currently undertaking a degree in Biochemistry. She lives with her husband in a small farm house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Email: sarahzadie[at]gmail.com

A Pot of Tea

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: 約克夏飼主/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The first week of summer vacation, Olivia and her grandmother bake scones. Nelle sits her granddaughter down at the island in the middle of the kitchen, tosses her ingredients to measure and weigh.

“Lavender in the scones?”

“A girl after my own heart,” Nelle says. Nelle uses lavender for more than baking—her favorite thing is to add a teaspoon of it to a pot of Earl Grey tea. After they shape the scones and put them in the oven, Nelle gets hot water ready and measures out the tea.

“Mom never measures out the tea,” Olivia says, and Nelle laughs.

“Which is why mine is always better.”

But Olivia isn’t sure—her grandmother’s tea is consistent, and her mother’s isn’t. Sometimes it’s sharp and bitter, other times too pale in color, but once in a while it’s the best cup she’s ever had.

“She thinks hers is better,” Olivia says.

“You’ll think yours is better soon enough.”

The hot water boils with a sharp whistle. Nelle takes the kettle off the stove with a kitchen towel wrapped round the handle—they have an electric kettle, sitting in a corner, but Nelle refuses to use it.

Every morning, Olivia is awoken by the whistling sound of the kettle as her grandmother makes a morning pot of Earl Grey.

Nelle pours the water carefully, then carries the blue china teapot to the island in the middle of the kitchen where Olivia sits. “Get the cream and the butter, Olive,” she says, and goes to check on the scones again.

Within minutes they are sitting down to an afternoon feast of scones and tea. Olivia breaks open a scone, watches steam rise in great curls. She slathers it with butter in a rebellious sort of way—Nelle would never comment on it, but Olivia can just imagine the way her mother’s eyebrows would rise.

“I noticed you’ve been over at Angela’s a lot lately,” Nelle says. She pours Olivia a second cup of tea. Olivia stirs in one sugar cube and a bit of cream, taking a sip to get scone crumbs out of her mouth.

“Yeah, I have.” Angela is loud and she’s funny and she’s Spanish and her mother always smokes at the kitchen table during breakfast. Angela wears black nail polish and she even dyed her hair once. And she’s sixteen to Olivia’s fifteen—it’s only half a year difference in age, but it’s enough.

“Don’t listen to your mother about her,” Nelle says matter-of-factly, as if she disagrees with Olivia’s mother all the time. “The important thing with friends who are louder than you is to know what’s in here,” Nelle says, and she reaches over to tap Olivia’s chest, right where her heart is.

“I know what’s in there,” Olivia says, but Nelle’s words prick at her skin. Does she? She is only a few years a teenager and Angela is already sixteen, big and bold and beautiful and so very sure of herself.

“Have another scone,” Nelle says, and she puts two on Olivia’s plate.

When the pot of tea is about to run empty, Olivia knows without asking that it’s time to make another. Always two, Nelle says, three if we’re desperate.

 

“How did she die?” Angela asks, tucking her legs beneath her.

“Heart attack,” Olivia mutters. They are sitting on Olivia’s bedroom floor, a tub of cookies that a neighbor brought over between them. Olivia has eaten five of them and she’s nibbling on a sixth.

“I’m so sorry, Liv.”

“Yeah.”

Olivia keeps glancing over at the teapot, beautifully white with blue flowers curling around its sides. It was Nelle’s favorite teapot, and, after Olivia begged her mother, Diane let her have it. But it doesn’t feel right to use it without her grandmother there.

“If you ever want to feel her presence again, I know something we can do,” Angela says.

Olivia shoves the rest of the cookie into her mouth. She knows what Angela is talking about—magick. Angela is a proud Wiccan, and she’s always trying to give Olivia crystals to carry in her pocket, gifting her with candles and herbs. “Maybe,” Olivia says.

The next morning, there is no whistle of a teapot. Instead there is the gentle chime of the hot pot. It sounds like the noise a stone makes in an empty cave.

There is no dessert for a week, not until Olivia drags out Nelle’s favorite cookbook and puts a chocolate cake in the oven. She proudly serves a slice to her mother after dinner, careful to make sure it’s a small piece.

“Lovebug,” Diane says, eyeing the size of the slice Olivia cuts for herself, “I don’t think it’s good for our health to have sweets around the house all the time.”

At night, Olivia turns on Jeopardy, but it isn’t the same without Nelle’s voice shouting all the wrong answers. When she can’t sleep and her throat hurts from trying to cry quietly, when her nose keeps running and her bed is too hot, she slips down the hall and into Nelle’s room. Diane made the bed. It looks exactly the same, just quiet. Olivia lies on top of the covers, cool and soothing against her cheek.

The next day, she goes over to Angela’s.

 

“Ready?”

Olivia nods. Her stomach is a writhing pit of worms, and there is a hard rock of guilt in her throat. Nelle, who went to church every week, probably wouldn’t approve. But Olivia is desperate. So here she is, sitting on Angela’s bedroom floor, praying to a god, any god, that this will work.

Angela uses a stick of chalk to draw a circle around them, sets a black candle in the middle of the circle. Olivia takes the thyme she brought from Nelle’s garden and they twist it into a wreath, encircle the candle. Angela has Olivia light the candle with a match.

“We have to say it at the same time,” Angela says, “and think of Nelle when you say it.”

That won’t be hard, Olivia knows. They speak, haltingly, together: “You who lived yesterday, I’ll call you from my mind to yours, come back from the shadows into the light and show yourself here.”

Olivia waits. Her skin goosebumps. She thinks of Nelle and how she kneaded her bread by hand even though they had a mixer, how she thought there was something alien and magical about crop circles, how she liked to tell stories about Olivia’s early years (sometimes so fantastical Olivia suspected she was lying).

The candle’s flame flickers, and Angela’s face splits into a wide grin. “She’s here.” Angela whispers, “Can’t you feel her?”

When Olivia closes her eyes, she is sure that she can. It is almost as if her grandmother is right there, pressing a cheek against hers, as if there is a hand around her heart, squeezing softly.

“I think so,” she whispers back.

“Do you have any questions?” Angela asks.

“No,” Olivia says, keeping her eyes shut, afraid to open them—afraid to ruin whatever it is she feels, deep in her bones, warm and familiar. “Just… I miss you.” She stays there for a while, her heart pounding madly, her palms turned toward the ceiling. There is pressure on them, just a little, just enough for her to know.

“We should let her go,” Angela says after a while, and Olivia’s eyes flicker open. The candle between them has burnt down to half its size, and the room smells like thyme.

Olivia nods, and they speak together, “You who lived yesterday, thank you, now fly away from this earth and join the world of spirits.”

Angela blows out the candle.

 

Olivia builds herself an altar in her closet. She takes cardboard boxes and stacks them on each other, turning them to create little levels, little platforms, on the corners of the lower boxes. Draping scarves over the boxes, she lines them with little candles, herbs, a large abalone shell that she rests her smudge stick in. After looking up altars on the internet and finding websites with flashing icons and black backgrounds, she reads about the god candle and the goddess candle, a pentagon. She adds some of those things, but mostly she makes it her own. She steals one of the lighters kept in the kitchen, and Diane muses out loud once that she swore there were two of them and goes out to buy another.

She even buys a goblet when she is out at the mall with Angela, unsupervised and with two twenty dollar bills in her pocket. It is tarnished and embellished with curling Celtic knots, and it rests heavy in her hand. Angela coyly suggests she borrow some wine from Diane for a spell here or there.

And even though Olivia calls Angela up, asks her about this spell or that, she does not show Angela her altar. It is a thing for only her. Olivia takes Nelle’s teapot and sets it at the back. She chooses rose quartz down for love, hematite to fight negative energy, aquamarine for courage, blue tourmaline for healing and opening (sometimes she has trouble breathing).

When her lungs do close up, or when Diane is shouting about the mess in the living room, or when it’s so hot outside and her body aches like little fairies have been using it as a trampoline, Olivia will open her closet and slide the door closed, sit down in front of the quiet altar. There is a sliver of light from where the doors don’t quite meet, a line that comes down right across her lap. She lights her candles. If there is still a tablespoon of wine left from when she poured a bit into her ceremonial goblet after her mother had gone to bed, she will sip it carefully. She pretends she is a priestess and the wine a gift from the Goddess, and, in the dark of her closet, it doesn’t feel silly at all.

 

Angela’s mother goes away for the weekend and, after nagging at her mother for several days, Olivia is allowed to stay with Angela. On the first night, they read tarot and do a spell to ensure that they stay best friends forever. Angela jokes about how “middle school” it is, but both girls eagerly join hands in the circle, prick their fingers with needles and mix their blood.

The second night, they light a fire in the backyard. It’s a new moon, and the sky is clear, stars like little pinpricks in a black sheet held taut over the sun. In firelight, Angela strips down, tossing every bit of clothing behind her. Olivia, fingers shaking, follows suit, but she cannot help the way her hands slide to cover the softness of her stomach, the thickness of her thighs.

As they spin, dizzily about the fire, Olivia cannot stop looking at Angela—her dark hair falls down her back in wild waves, her skin alight. It is in this moment that Olivia finds herself believing in the truth of magick. She feels it deep in her gut, down to her toes, and when Angela pauses to smile at her, to take a hand in her own, Olivia forgets to worry that she is naked. She forgets to care about anything beyond the light the fire casts as they dance, together, in mad circles around the fire.

 

One morning, Olivia goes downstairs to make tea and finds that Nelle’s old kettle is gone from the stove. Rage and righteousness well up and out of her eyes.

Diane finds her in the garage, throwing rotten banana peels, papers covered in coffee grounds, and unidentifiable chunks from the garbage can and onto the floor.

“What are you doing!” Diane shouts, but Olivia is beyond words. She keeps going, her hands wet and stomach turning. Diane tries to grab her arm but Olivia has spotted the kettle. She wrenches away from her mother’s grip and yanks it out of the bin, holds it in the air like a trophy. Diane lets out a heavy sigh.

“Lovebug, we don’t need that anymore.”

“Yes, we do,” Olivia says, stalking into the house. Diane follows her, watches as her daughter washes the old kettle thoroughly in water so hot that her hands turn raw and pink.

Diane tucks an escaped strand of frizzy hair behind Olivia’s ear, rests her palm against her daughter’s cheek. “It might be good not to have so many things of hers lying around. It can make things harder.”

But Olivia just fills up the kettle with water and sets it on the stove to boil. She makes sure to glare at her mother. “It’s already hard.”

Diane leaves the kettle alone after that.

 

In early July, Diane’s ex-boyfriend brings over a bottle of vodka. Diane makes a face at it and chucks it into the trash without pouring it down the sink. (Diane has been throwing a lot of things away. Her own things, Nelle’s things, Olivia’s things. Olivia thinks it’s a phase.)

Thinking of Angela, Olivia makes her way back to the garbage sitting in the garage, digs it out from where it smells of rotting meat and other bottles Diane couldn’t be bothered to recycle. She rinses it in her bathroom sink, squinching up her nose, and drips lavender essential oil on the outside of the bottle to get rid of the clinging garbage stink.

It occurs to her that Nelle would disapprove.

She puts the vodka beneath her bed. It is a few weeks before she has the guts to get it out, to present it to Angela like the grandest gift she could get her.

“Oooh!” Angela squeals, and she breaks its seal, a scent not unlike rubbing alcohol drifting up. Olivia gets up off the bedroom floor to light incense.

“Let’s be careful though,” Angela adds, pouring out just a couple of glugs into a mug. She sips it, winces, and hands it back to Olivia, who does the same.

“Have you ever kissed anyone?” Angela asks when they are on their second mug of vodka. She is swaying a little to the music Olivia put on, her eyes half-closed and dreamy.

“No. Have you?”

“Yeah, a couple boys, but they were all terrible.”

Olivia smiles down into the mug. “Well, of course they were.” She can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss a boy—she wants to kiss Angela, who is sitting across from her in a black dress, a Wiccan pentacle tied around her neck. Angela has lips that are a beautiful, plush pink.

“Because they were boys?”

“Duh!”

“You think you could do better?”

The vodka makes her bold. “I know I could,” Olivia says with a grin, leaning in just a little, just enough—

Angela moves forward onto her hands, presses warm lips against Olivia’s. Olivia’s chest is an empty cavern, striving for air. She tries to do what she’s seen in the movies, what she has practiced on pillows and on the back of her hand since she was eleven.

It’s over in a heartbeat. Angela leans back, picks up the mug again.

Olivia raises her eyebrows. “Well?”

“You were right.”

 

After several nights of quiet, furtive hands and lips, the girls grow bold. Angela slips a knee between Olivia’s thighs—Olivia lets her fingers graze lower than the soft rounding of a breast.

Angela leans against Olivia’s shoulder on the couch, watching TV with Diane. Olivia holds Angela’s hand at the mall. Diane comments on how close they’ve grown, and Olivia barely stammers when she replies with a “yes, very.”

Angela suggests that they perform a ritual for power, sitting across from each other. When they hold hands, Olivia’s entire body is electric. After the ritual, they wind up in Olivia’s bed, limbs a tangle, nearly caught by Diane bringing them lemonade.

When Olivia is alone after a particularly bold session with Angela, her fingers wander to her lips, red and swollen, and then there is something on her chest—like a mountain, like a clamp around her heart squeezing the blood right out of it.

She invokes the Goddess, but her voice shakes and the weight grows. Her lungs shrink. She does a spell for peace, leaping out of bed to light a blue candle, fanning sage above her head. But the panic is stubborn. Her mind is a slippery wine glass, like the one she dropped in the sink washing dishes the other day. No amount of chanting or candles can stop it from shattering.

She imagines Nelle, watching from heaven, thinks how disappointed she must be. Her granddaughter can’t keep herself together and now she’s turned to witchcraft despite all the times Nelle put her in Vacation Bible School as a kid.

Olivia tries to will her away, push the weight off her chest, but the altar in her closet feels less like safety and more like a lie.

It takes a couple glugs of the vodka beneath her bed to get the weight to ease. Her pillow remains soaked with tears and black mascara streaks, so she finds a dry corner and presses her face into it. She is an empty seashell. Hollow, but hold it up to your ear—

Can you hear something?

 

One day in late July, Olivia returns to her bedroom from a quick bathroom break, and finds Angela standing in front of her open closet, staring at her altar. Olivia’s cheeks run hot and she hurts like her ribs are curving inward.

“What’s this?” Angela asks, bending, her fingers skimming the blue-and-white china teapot.

“An altar. I made it a while ago,” she says, hoping her voice sounds dismissive. Olivia is all too aware of how different it looks in sharp midday light, all magick sucked away—a cardboard fantasy built by a stupid, naive little girl.

“Quaint,” Angela says, and Olivia does not—can not—miss the mocking in her voice.

Sharp anger hits her in the stomach. She steps forward, slams the closet doors closed. Angela touches Olivia’s arm, seeming to regret her words.

“Olive, I’m sorry.”

But the use of Nelle’s pet name adds pain to her anger, and Olivia just snaps, “Don’t call me that.”

There is no kissing that day.

 

There are quiet apologies made, but the next time Olivia and Angela wind up naked in bed, there is something different. A recklessness that pushes them further. It’s a need. It’s power and control. It’s the same feeling Olivia had when she first did magick—nagging guilt, rush of pleasure, something deep in her blood urging her on.

Later, Diane invites her out to sunbathe on the porch, and Olivia feels like a different person. She thinks of the neediness of it all, watching a red sun through her eyelids—of the line crossed from fooling around into sex, of the detached loneliness that comes after a hard spike of pleasure.

 

Angela mentions that she knows a spell that could help them find true love. Olivia has known for a while that they are not each other’s, but the suggestion makes her body hurt like her friend just drop-kicked her across the room.

“Sure,” Olivia says. They have to write down who they want their true love to be, and they write at the same time. But Olivia finds that she can’t—there is a vivid pain across the bridge of her nose, and she just scribbles nonsensical words down after she sees that Angela has written “he.”

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday approaches, and she and Angela have stopped kissing. Olivia thinks Angela might have crossed a line she never planned. Kisses and touching were things girls just did sometimes, but they moved beyond that. Angela’s true love would be a man—Olivia’s would not.

Would Olivia have told Nelle everything? She always had, always inherently trusted her grandmother where her mother had to work for that trust. For the first time, Olivia wonders if Diane resented that. Not for the first time, Olivia wonders if she would have fallen for magick or for Angela if Nelle hadn’t died—where would Olivia be, then?

And would she give up Angela to have Nelle back? Would she give up her brief affair with magick, with control, with love? Would she give up her first time, tangled in sweaty limbs and sweet lips? She wonders if that’s how death works—how death gets you, keeps you submerged, how you lose the fight. But still.

She would give anything.

Later that day, Diane catches Olivia unable to breathe—Olivia has dropped Nelle’s teapot. The lid chipped, a sharp little nick on one side, and suddenly her lungs were empty and closing in like fake walls in a haunted house.

Diane names it—“Are you having a panic attack?”—presses her cool hand to Olivia’s forehead, instructs her how to breathe, holds her tight.

The following week, Olivia is prescribed a little jar of pills to take when her lungs are trying to kill her. They work much better than praying or magick or even vodka. She needs to take one after she and Angela go to the movies and Angela tells her she kissed a boy named Roberto.

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday party is loud and drunk. Olivia invites all of her friends and Diane invites all of hers. Diane decorates, stringing white lights all through the house, hanging red Chinese paper lanterns and star lamps in the corner of every room. Scarves and bejeweled pillows cushion every seat and chair—Olivia thinks it looks like the inside of one of those hippy dippy shops that always smells of musky incense.

In previous years, Nelle spent all day in the kitchen. Olivia remembers the way it smelled—of roses and sugar and sweet, moist cake. Olivia would poke her head around the corner, and Nelle would tell her to come taste, stick a frosting-covered finger in Olivia’s mouth. She always made the same cake for Olivia’s birthday: a honey cake frosted with rose and cardamom, covered in fresh, soft figs.

Olivia’s favorite thing about her birthday is the timing—fig season.

This year, though, Angela informed her that wasps and figs go hand in hand. The wasp crawls into the male fig, lays eggs, and dies. The babies emerge, and the cycle continues. Olivia finds it fitting—death and her favorite fruit.

When Nelle would have Olivia taste the frosting, Olivia would always tell her to add more cardamom.

This year, there is no honey cake. Olivia will turn sixteen without Nelle and without figs. But she does have her mother, who is kind despite how alien Olivia finds her, and she has Angela, who arrives to the party an hour early.

Olivia answers the door, and Angela stands there in all of her Wiccan glory, wearing a pentacle necklace and holding a box of beautiful figs.

“Happy birthday,” Angela says, and Olivia hugs her until she manages to blink the tears out of her eyes.

And then it’s almost seven o’ seven, the exact minute of her birth sixteen years ago. All of her mother’s friends are loud and drunk and all of her friends are loud and sober. Diane stands behind her daughter, finishing her toast, and Olivia holds a glass of punch.

Every face at the party is watching her. The clock clicks over to seven o’ seven, and Diane hurries—

“My daughter, my heart, how happy I am to know you. What a woman you will be.”

Cheers. Olivia sips her drink, and everyone congratulates her. It makes her feel a bit strange, a bit lost—all she has done is grow up, and she had no choice in that.

Her mother’s friends, dressed in bright colors, their cheeks flushed and lips loose, kiss her and wish her well. Olivia’s friends titter about how nice she looks, dressed in a pretty white sundress, her light brown curls wild and long. They lean on her shoulder and bring her punch.

Right when Olivia starts to feel tight in the chest, her fingers shaking, unable to say “thank you” to another person, Angela finds her. She pulls her into the bathroom, locks the door. The roar of the party quiets. A candle flickers across Angela’s dark features. Olivia breathes.

“Here,” Angela says, and out of her pocket she pulls a handful of figs.

“Oh, yes,” Olivia says with a moan. She eats them in seconds, licking her fingers. Then Angela hands her a glass—it is full of golden liquid.

“Cheers,” Angela says.

“What is it?”

“Tequila. The liquor is all very unguarded in the kitchen.”

Olivia takes a big sip. It burns but it also makes her insides feel lighter.

“Thank you,” Olivia says, handing her back the glass and sitting on the toilet lid.

Angela hovers over her, dark eyes sparkling. She takes a sip herself, winces, takes another sip. “Listen, Liv… if you don’t want to do Wicca anymore, it’s okay.”

Olivia’s chest feels tight. “I’ve lost the… truth of it,” she tries to explain. She’s lost the truth of the two of them, too, but she thinks maybe she found a new one. With friendship instead of kisses and a different kind of pleasure.

Angela touches her friend’s cheek, a gesture that sets Olivia’s heart on fire. “It was a summer love,” Angela says, and Olivia knows she isn’t just talking about the magick.

They finish the glass of tequila, brush their teeth to try to get the pervasive scent off their tongues. Olivia’s head is full of clouds as she turns to her friend, grinning widely. “Can you smell it on me?” she asks.

Angela leans over, presses warm lips against Olivia’s, a final offering. “Not at all,” she says. When they leave the bathroom, Angela offers Olivia her arm as if she is a gentleman and Olivia her lady, and they head, giggling, back into the party.

 

After the party has ended and Diane has collapsed in her bed, drunk and snoring, Olivia makes her way back downstairs, tiptoeing through streamers and party hats, into a kitchen whose counters are cluttered with glasses and plates and forks sticky with cake. She pulls out the teapot, fills it with water, and sets it on the stove—she waits.

She measures out Earl Gray, adds a teaspoon of lavender. She thinks of the saying “a watched pot never boils” but she also knows that it has to boil eventually, even if she never takes her eyes from it. At the first soft whistle she snatches it off the stove.

Then she thinks of her grandmother, the way she would pour so carefully. Olivia pours like she always does, nearly overfills it.

She hasn’t turned on a single light, and everything is awash in blue darkness. Olivia thinks that it suits the teapot very well, with its blue china flowers, the stark white of it dulled in the dark. When she pours the tea it feels as ritual as the spells she’s been doing all summer, and even though she knows it isn’t magick, there is something magical about it—tea at three in the morning, the dead quiet of a world asleep.

She adds a bit of cream, whiteness blooming within her teacup, settling into the perfect creaminess. It is perhaps the best pot of tea she has ever made, and there is an ache at the thought. She lets the ache sit there, lets it find a home in the hollow of her throat. After a while, the tea washes it away.

She gets up to make another pot.

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Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki’s favorite thing to do is weave together imaginary worlds (often with magic), but she also frequents used bookstores and enjoys a good cup of tea. She lives in South Carolina with a very inconsiderate cat. She won a mini-contest with On The Premises and has been published with Twisted Sister Lit Mag. Email: v.levinpompetzki[at]gmail.com

The Formula for Skipping Stones

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
LS Bassen


Photo Credit: Owen Jones/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

For two summer weeks, on and off, we’d seen one another, the fisherman and I. He was in an old motor boat out at the end of the C of the New Hampshire cove, and I was sitting on a boulder well within the center of the letter at the lake’s edge. I’d just turned fourteen, brought by my aunt and uncle to take care of my cousin. When three-year-old Kenny napped and my aunt did whatever she liked in the large cabin, I was free to search about the woods and shore. I often ended up at what I named Lonely Rock that looked out onto the wide Winnepesaukee. The water around the giant rock was deep and clear. I often watched minnows in miniature schools. Out at the pine-covered point of the cove was the fisherman. I never waved at him, but each day he brought the boat in a little closer. By the end of two weeks, I could see more than the silhouette of the man. He looked old, in his late fifties, his long face a mottled tan. It seemed to me that every time he threw in his line, he reached back with a shining fish he’d admire and then toss back before it drowned in air.

When he brought the boat right up to Lonely Rock, I held stiff as the stone.

“Hey, you,” he said, his thin body shaking at the steering wheel. I knew how to handle a boat as big. My uncle rented one, and I was proud he’d taught me to dock the twenty-four footer easily even though home in New York, I was two years too young even for a learner’s permit.

I didn’t answer him. The breeze blew across his back, from the lake toward the land. I breathed pine and water, pipe smoke and sweat stink. It was a strong male smell, like the beer another girl in the cabin colony and I had discovered. The brown glass bottles had been hidden in a stone-covered roadside culvert. Kathy and I tasted some of the beer before we broke all the rest, shattering them against a low stone wall nearby.

“Hey, you,” the fisherman repeated. “Wanna ride?”

He nudged the boat up against Lonely Rock. In the stern, I saw feathery lures arranged in a metal tackle box. I looked over my shoulder to the hill clearing and cabins.

“Wheah ya friends?” he asked.

“I don’t have any friends. No one’s talking to me.”

“Me eithah.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“Long stawhy,” he said.

The teeth he wasn’t missing were brown-speckled, like pebbles in the sand at the lake’s edge.

He moved quickly for all his shaking, leaning over the boat’s glass windshield, giving me a hand stepping onto the bow. Then I climbed over and sat on the mate’s seat. He turned on the ignition, which coughed wetly a few times, and backed the boat out into the cove. In a few moments, we were well beyond it, on the open lake. Speed lifted the prow out of the water and gusted the summer air. I shook out my loosened braids.

“You look’t like a Penacook boy,” he said, disappointed, “but ya eyes ah blue. Y’act like a boy. Why’s no one talking to you fah?”

“It’s a long stawhy,” I imitated. Then I blurted, “I did something bad.”

“Who ain’t?” He cut the motor.

“No one likes me anymore.”

“I don’t like guhls. Name’s John.”

“Well, John, where’s all this forgiveness you hear about in church?”

“Guess that’s wheah it stays,” he said.

“How do I act like a boy?”

“Got no brains. Like t’go fast?”

He started up the engine again and raced us across the water faster and farther than I’d ever been out before. We must have been miles from the cove. Still, there was more and more lake, more bends and curves we took at high speed, water splashing in our faces when he steeped a turn. I stood up to feel the spray hit, and John yelled over the motor noise, “Siddown goddammit!” He reached out and pulled me into the seat and slowed the engine. Gasoline fumes sweetened the lake air. He turned the boat around and headed back to the cove. He left me off not at Lonely Rock but on the narrow lip of beach by the point where he usually fished.

“Next time weah a suit so ya can swim,” John said.

*

Every day it didn’t rain I went out on a different boat with Old John. I didn’t tell anyone about him. I thought it served them all right since no one was talking to me. My aunt was tight-lipped around me and kept shaking her head, muttering about my father and what would happen when I got home. Meanwhile, she didn’t have any problem with me playing Cinderella to her Wicked Stepmother. She told me the unidentified bites or rash I’d gotten were fair punishment. I had to wear dishwashing rubber gloves and couldn’t go swimming, she said, because it could spread. So I sat in the big white Adirondack chairs on the hill, watching my little cousin race his toy cars in and out of the elaborate pine cone obstacle course I’d created for him. I looked down the hill to the lake where Kathy, my beer-smashing pal from Beverly, Massachusetts, was off duty from babysitting her four younger brothers and sister. She was swimming with the Swampscott minister’s son Tim, his thirteen-year-old half-sister Diane, and Jay, the townie boy from Passaconaway. Both boys were handsome.

Some days, standing on the beach, the boys skipped stones. Jay’s always flew farther than Tim’s. While I wondered what Galileo or Newton could make of it, Kathy and Tim’s half-sister cheered the boys on.

In our first week at Winnepesaukee, Diane and I had taken out a row boat and shared stories about our older brothers.

“Behind a billboard?!” I choked. Diane rowed the boat in circles while I reached to regain the oar I’d dropped. When I tried to explain what incest was, she refused to believe that she was no longer a virgin.

During my cousin’s afternoon nap time, I’d go sit on Lonely Rock. I imagined how it locked into the lake in winter when Jay said you could walk across the ice. Jay lived on a farm. He said that after the frozen months what New Hampshire looked forward to most was the coming of the new lambs. He said he’d pulled live lambs right out of ewes. In the summer, he also worked at a bakery in Wolfeboro where I’d seen him “selling overpriced cookies to overweight tourists.”

I’d hear whatever boat Old John was in that day before I’d see him clear the point. I’d jump up and run through a pine-needled forest hemming deeper woods, running over the rocks and hollows among the trees, fleet as the Penacook Winnepesaukee natives I imagined there long before. The boat sputtered in neutral. I got on without Old John’s help. He snorted at my aunt’s orders.

“Found a fine place to fish,” he said, before he gave me the wheel and I pushed the throttle into drive, “and ya go ahead swim.”

He directed me around turns to a new, hidden cove. I couldn’t tell one bend in the lake from another, but they seemed recognizable to Old John. By this time I’d confessed to him, and we had a way of doing things beside one another. Some talk, Old John tied knots, taught me Cat’s Cradle or fished, and I’d swim. He’d show me a fish and name it and tell me its ways while it squirmed in his shaking hands. He’d lean over the boat and let the fish back into the water near enough to where I was treading to make me squeal at the thought of it swimming through my legs. It always made Old John laugh, and then I’d laugh, too.

“What do you do?” I eventually asked when were returning to the point at our cove.

“Always keep one for supper and one for breakfast,” he avoided. “Wha’d’ya do?”

“I go to school, of course. I’m going into ninth grade. What’s your profession?”

He snorted again. “I do what I can.”

“I mean it, John.”

“I’m an escaped convict.”

I was thrilled. “Like Magwitch in Great Expectations! That’s a book on our list for next year so I read it ahead. So I’m Pip? You steal these boats? I could change my name.”

“Bahrrow ’em. No one the wiseah. Ya name’s okay. ‘Leenda,’ they say. Means pretty. Changed mine to John. Lotta Johns. Lotta leaves ont trees, ev’ry one jus’ ta leaf.”

I agreed. “It’s my father’s middle name. Dr. Theodore John McDermott. He makes me eat calcium tablets bigger than communion wafers because the Russians resumed above ground testing, and he’s afraid the Strontium-90 will leach calcium from my bones.”

We neared the point, and I slowed the boat. He held the wheel as I turned, reached for a sweatshirt. While it was still over my head, Old John said, “It wasn’t such a bad thing you done with eitha boy, the ministah’s son. Was t’othah one, Jay’s fault, talkin’ ’bout you.”

I’d described kissing Jay when he’d walked me back from the beach in the dark and confessed about going into the apple orchard behind the cabins one night with the Swampscott boy, how I’d run away from Tim after fighting him off.

With the sweatshirt still covering my face, I said, “No, I was all wrong. Diane told me what Tim did. I knew Kathy liked him and didn’t tell her. When he said to meet him, I did. Back home in New York, I’m a Good Girl. Up here, they’re all blond and I’m not, so they think I’m a…” I couldn’t repeat the word Jay had called me.

Old John pulled the sweatshirt down so my turtle head popped out. “Jus’ ’cause you wanted some kissin’ and have th’sense of a buttahfish?”

We were at the point then, and I started clambering off the boat, but not before Old John caught my sleeve. I thought it was to steady me. He made me fall back against him. His smoky, sweaty smell was friendly by then. But he pulled me to him and kissed me harder than either boy had. Those mottled teeth hitting mine! He tasted sickening of beer and age, and I pushed him with enough force that I fell out of the boat. My heart thundered with adrenaline. Stunned, I tread water and saw minnows scatter. Old John backed the boat away.

“You said you didn’t like girls,” I shouted.

He yelled over the motor, “I like you!”

*

Linda was neither an old child nor a young adult. On the number line, she saw herself going up only to fourteen for her recent birthday, a primer page in a Universal encyclopedia of possibly infinitely numbered, disconnected dot-to-dots. She’d heard a singsong: Freshmen don’t know they don’t know; sophomores know they don’t know; juniors don’t know they know; and seniors know that they know! Linda didn’t know that she didn’t know she possessed any agency, nor that she lacked fear. She only knew things happened. The Earth moved around the Sun, and the Moon around the Earth in ways better explained by science than mythology, which is what Linda called religion ever since, at eleven, she had been stunned by her mother’s reaction to Sputnik, “But where does God live now?”

The convict’s kiss shocked, flattered, repulsed, and disappointed her. Those were some dot-to-dots to try to connect. All the recent kisses had no different effect from her secret practice at home against the wooden leg of a Queen Anne chair while the family had watched TV. So far, kissing was all mechanics and momentum, no communion. She thought there must be something wrong with her. She was like the Betsy McCall paper doll on the last page of her mother’s monthly magazine. She had stopped cutting out and playing with them but still looked for them every month. Betsy McCall was flat, two-dimensional, a little girl. Linda was a big girl who acted like a boy and felt nothing when kissed.

The next day, Linda was in hiding, waiting at the point for Old John.

He was surprised to see her emerge from the pines. He had been sitting behind the wheel trying to calm his shaking hands by tying knots. It was late August, autumn chill in the air, leaves turning. There wasn’t going to be much time. Beside him on the mate’s seat was last week’s newspaper whose rumpled front page reported that in Moscow, downed American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had been convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Ten years didn’t sound long.

Linda was dressed in jeans and a thick sweater. The motor idled.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“Why’d ya come back fah?’

“To say goodbye. We’re going back to New York later today. To ask.”

“What?”

“Why do you shake all the time?”

He held up a sloppy bowline knot. “Parkinson’s. Ev’ry thing’s got a name when they don’ know whah t’is.”

“I didn’t feel anything with you either.”

He laughed. “Me, neithah. Ya not a boy, jus’ a green apple. Ya shoulda felt scaihed.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Not much left t’. Surpris’d ain’t bin found, but maybe wasn’ much lookin’.” He tapped the newspaper. “Don’ worry so much about Russians and bombs. But don’ you nevah go nowheah with a strangeah again.”

*

My father smelled like the brown bottles and Old John. It was the cherry pipe smoke and sweat. My father didn’t shake, but he looked sad. Kathy and I had smashed the beer against the low stone wall, laughing at the explosions of foam, glad to be rebelling against grown-up deception.

When I returned from New Hampshire, my parents and brother were waiting in the car in front of my aunt and uncle’s house. After the long drive and longer summer, it was good to get out of the car, a new 1960 Buick station wagon, that Clydesdale of automobiles. I hugged my father, but he didn’t come inside where I carried my sleeping cousin. I put Kenny to bed while my uncle went around opening windows, and my aunt did something in the kitchen with my mother and brother, who, I noticed, hadn’t stayed with our father. Just another disconnected dot.

As I came out of the bedroom, my mother grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the pink-and-gray hall bathroom. She shut and locked the door.

“Your aunt told me. You are just like your father,” she hissed.

I’d never seen her that angry even during the Kennedy–Nixon bouts she had with my father. They argued about everything, but before I’d left for the summer, it was politics. He’d voted for Eisenhower, and she and my aunt were not only Democrats, but also Catholic like Kennedy, who I only cared was handsome.

“It will take every cent we have—and my uncle who is a State Supreme Court judge—to keep your father out of prison and save his license!”

I became so dizzy, I fell. It took hours of that day and years later to make sense out of my mother’s fury. At home that same night, she sent my older brother to my bedroom.

“Are you chaste?!” he demanded.

For the first time in my life I said, “Fuck you.”

Later that September, before the Kennedy–Nixon debate, the family drove up to Troy in the huge Buick station wagon. I sat in the smaller rear seat with Kenny, feeling carsick facing backwards at the past rather than ahead to the future. I attempted and failed to keep Kenny busy for awhile playing with string; a three-year-old’s attention span and finger control were equally unreliable. I did a few of the eight turns Old John had taught me: Soldier’s Bed, Candles, Manger, Diamonds, Cat’s Eye, Fish in a Dish, Clock, and Cat’s Cradle. My uncle was at the wheel, and my aunt sat beside him. With my maternal grandmother, my mother was crammed between my father and brother in the middle. The radio was on in the front of the car, and my uncle was explaining about “payoffs” when my brother snapped, “You’re stupid.”

There was some swerving and yelling, and Kenny didn’t know whether to cry. My brother’s cramped position—also as firstborn and family genius—he eventually won a Nobel—kept any hand from being raised to smack him.

In November, Kennedy won the election. Three years later, after skipping my senior year of high school, I felt the same dizziness again. I was a freshman at a college where tests were administered on a non-proctoring honor system, so it was a shock when our French professor entered, crying, “Ah, mademoiselles, on à assassine Le President!”

Even before we’d left New Hampshire, I knew my aunt had been wrong about swimming spreading the rash. In time, I ripened and mastered Cat’s Cradle, studied geometric topology, and won a minor award in 2007 for a paper chronicling the 1867 faulty atomic theory known as the Tait conjectures that quantum theory eclipsed for awhile. By the end of the twentieth century, knot theory had reemerged. Useful regarding DNA and polymers in biology and chemistry, its related braid theory figured in the development of quantum computers’ resistance to decoherence.

My father’s license was suspended during my college freshman year, but thereafter he practiced medicine until he died the year I was pregnant with my firstborn. To his wake, one of his immigrant patients who had paid in barter since the fifties, brought jugs of homemade wine and frozen packages of deer he’d hunted. A Guinness World Record for stone skipping was set in 1992, thirty-eight bounces, filmed on the Blanco River in Texas, bested once in 2007 and twice in 2014. Galileo and Newton had gotten the laws of motion moving, but it was a French physicist who developed a formula for estimating how many times a stone would skip based on spin and speed. The key to a good skip, Lyderic Bocquet said in 2004, lay in spinning the stone. Engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed a HyperSoar airplane, which would skip along Earth’s upper atmosphere at five to twelve times the speed of sound.

In 2010, Boeing was reported designing an experimental military weapon that could fly twenty-five miles above Earth, then drift up into space and down again. When it hit the denser air of the upper atmosphere, it would bounce back up like a stone hitting water. Eighteen skips would be enough to get HyperSoar from Chicago to Rome in seventy-two minutes. As of June 2015, the U.S. military was reportedly developing such a new hypersonic vehicle that could take flight by 2023, building upon research from a 2013 test flight of the experimental X-51A Waverider.*

What’s it to be, then, sorrow over the depths to which a stone may sink or celebration of its defiance of gravity? Kathy surprised me by calling at the very end of that August at the beginning of the sixties. She put her phone up to her radio and told me to listen to the song that had just come on, the one we’d sung to each other all summer. Then with the radio in the background, Kathy sang and once again together we imitated Brenda Lee’s melodious growling of “Sweet Nothings.

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Website: lsbassen.com  Email: LSBASSEN[at]aol.com