The List

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Josh Flores


Photo Credit: Joel Montes de Oca/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Abuelito Tzoc was a quiet but imposing man. His short stocky body declared his Mayan ancestry. But it was his deep-set black eyes carved into brown-speckled-granite face which warned people. Rumors surrounded him: fearsome histories whispered from drunken lips in darkened corners of his cantina. The murmurs would stop whenever he looked up from cleaning his glassware. He would grunt and serve the next man.

This was the man the public knew and feared, not the man I thought I knew. I never heard what secrets the whispers held.

Abuelito Tzoc never smiled in public. One day, soon after I came to live with him, I passed his bedroom and the door was open; he was sitting on his bed staring at an open book. I cleared my throat and asked him why he never smiled.

Hijita.” His low baritone voice made me feel safe, it was full of strength and promise to overcome. He quickly tied a leather strap around the book and pushed it under his leg. “Smiles are precious gifts reserved for those we love. The people of this town don’t deserve such a gift. But you, Teresa, are mi corazon, my heart. I give you my smile and much more.” His lips would stretch out, showing yellow teeth long grounded into stumps from years of eating maize kernels. He scooped me up to embrace me in a loving hug.

This was the man I knew and now mourned.

I was sitting at our kitchen table taking a break from college homework. Abuelito Tzoc was drinking his nightly cafecito con leche while eating a concha. He made sure to be home by midnight every night, closing the cantina down exactly at 11:30.

Ever since I was eight years old, I’d set a pot to boil at 11:15 and put out a few sweet pastries. I would pour milk halfway into two white metal cups. I added brown sugar then poured in the coffee. I took our cups to the table. He would smile.

He would wait a few minutes, letting me have first pick. I knew conchas were his favorite, so I always picked a semita or an empanada. He would nod his head, and reached for his treasured pan dulce. His fingers would then pinch the surface of the coffee to pull out the thin skin formed from the cooling milk—la nata—and his smile grew as he raised it quickly to his mouth and swallowed it steaming hot.

I’d been staying with Abuelito when my parents died. My parents went to La Frontera to find a way to cross the border so they could find work and send for me. A few weeks passed when a couple came to visit. Their eyes didn’t look up as they told us my parents hired a coyote to take them through the desert. The patroya found them; they escaped. But not from the desert’s hungry hot grasp. I cried. Abuelito thanked them and they left. He hugged me and cried with me. I haven’t seen him cry since, but I have heard soft sobbing from his closed bedroom door often. I always wanted to run to him, hold him, tell him it’s okay.

After he ate his last piece of pan, and drank the last drops of cafecito, he smiled and thanked me.

Mija Teresa, mucha gracias. It was the best pan and cafe I’ve had. I’m so glad you’re here with me. I love you. My old bones scream for rest and my eyes itch to be closed. I go to bed now. Please don’t stay up too long. You need your rest too.”

“I won’t Abuelito. I will finish up soon. Duerma con los angeles.”

He not only slept with the angels but joined their ranks soon after. I found him in his bed, two hours after his normal waking time, when the smell of cooking eggs and bacon didn’t rouse him. He was asleep on his back with an honest and joyful smile. I knew he’d left me. For the second time of my life I cried in his arms. The first time they were warm and welcoming, this time they were cold and stiff. But I still found comfort.

Not many people came to the funeral mass, mostly my friends to express their condolences to me. There was a couple who showed up claiming to be related to me. I never knew them. I politely accepted their empty words, awkward kisses, and hugs and stared at them as they made their way to the coffin to pay their respects. Anger burst in my chest as I thought about how they never made themselves known by visiting Abuelito and me. The fact they were smiling when talking to me, had me clenching my fist. Were they happy he was gone?

Gratefully, my temper was stilled by a few of his cantina customers, asking if I was planning to sell the cantina or keep it open. I answered I haven’t decided. They murmured some words and joined the line to the coffin.

No one came to the burial except those who needed to be there: Father Torres, the pallbearers he provided for me, and the gravediggers. I was happy my relatives decided not to show.

I went home numb.

I spent hours sitting at the kitchen table, with my tablet on. I didn’t move. When thirst called me out of my trance, I drank cool stone-filtered water. The house felt wrong. It was missing the energy my Abuelo infused into it. The air sucked at my skin like a vacuum, trying to pull out of me whatever I had of his. I shivered.

I walked into his bedroom. His scent surrounded me. His bedclothes were saturated by it. It filled my lungs, sending shooting pain to my heart, forcing racking sobs. I saw him in his bed with his smile looking at me, trying to comfort me. But he wasn’t there.

I decided then it was time for me to tidy up his belongings. I never was allowed in his room, even when he left the door open. Usually he was sitting on his bed reading his book. It was his sanctuary. I didn’t know what secrets he hid from me. Curiosity pushed me forward.

I opened his nightstand drawer. I found what I expected—a bible, a pack of stationery, a pen, and a flashlight. Underneath was a leather book, with a leather strap around it.

It smelled sweet. My fingers trembling, I tugged at the thin, hard, leather strip. I unwound the strap from the book, noticing the stiffness of the leather and the contrast of its darkness and the light brown line it left in its wake on the surface of the cover. The contrast reminded me of Abuelito Tzoc’s wrinkles. It took several deep inhales and teeth clenching to stop me from crying.

Composing myself, I ran my fingers along the cover’s edge. In fancy cursive on the first page—“Diario“. In even prettier cursive underneath—“Teresa”.

My Abuelita. My father said she died when he was eight. I was named after her. Her death was a tragic one and he promised to tell me all when I was older. But he never did.

I flipped the page and began reading. The beautiful writing told a story of a young girl of sixteen meeting a dashing young man at a village dance. He charmed her with his beckoning smile and welcoming personality. They talked mostly, both too timid to dance. He promised to meet her at mass the following Sunday. A week of entries spoke of her excitement, anxiety, and fears of being close to him again.

My heart pounded faster as I felt what my grandmother felt from her words, her excitement became mine. When I arrived to the fateful day, I paused before turning the page. The sweet aroma became stronger and there was a dark-brown shadowing on the page. An outline of a flower? I turned the page. There were no words written there, instead was a pressed rose darkened by dryness and age, but still releasing its perfume. Its beauty in age spoke of its beauty when it was fresh and alive.

I turned the page, careful not to damage the rose. I was rewarded. There was her story of meeting with the boy who I knew as Abuelito. He showed up at mass with a single rose which was the most beautiful she had ever seen. They sat next to each other in the pew keeping a respectable distance apart. After the mass they walked around the town’s plaza for hours, joining other young and older couples in a waltz of romance and hopes.

After two years of courtship and many walks, the young Tzoc asked her to marry him. She agreed. He built this house for them. They had a son—my father. Tzoc built his cantina next to his home so he could be close to his family if they needed him. She stayed home and made a few pesos by selling cures.

Abuela Teresa was a healer from a long line of healing women. People came to her from neighboring towns for her medicines. She wrote of some people fearing her, spreading rumors of her being a witch and her son being Satan’s child. She scoffed and ridiculed them with a few sharp sentences.

As their son grew, try as they did, they were not blessed with any more children. They accepted this and focused on loving each other. When my father reached eight years old, Abuelo Tzoc took him to help bring back supplies from the city a day’s ride away.

After this point, her beautiful writing was replaced with a shaky print. There was a list of eight names, six of which were crossed out. I found another page with a dried carnation—a funeral flower. I realized what this meant. Flipping to the next page, the shaky print told the story I dreaded.

When Abuelo Tzoc returned to an empty house, he ran through the streets, banging on neighbor doors looking for his beloved. No one saw her. Eventually his search led him to the cemetery. He smelt the acrid scent of burnt flesh and hair. He raced through the grounds to find a burnt cross with his Teresa’s blackened body tied to it. People had burnt her as a witch.

Anger flared through me, such as I never had felt before. I kept reading. Abuelito found out the culprits through lips pried open with free tequila. He wrote the names down. Over the years, people who were named on the list disappeared one by one.

There was one more page. It looked newer than the rest. Abuelito Tzoc’s writing was shakier than before. There was a smudge of ink which looked like it could have been caused by a teardrop. His words were directed to me.

Mija Teresa. You have given love and hope to a bitter old man full of despair and hate. You are so much like your Abuelita. You have a kind, gentle heart. I make this confession to you, the people who took her away from me, from you, they have paid dearly. I made sure of it. Only two escaped me. They have hidden themselves when they realized what I was doing. They have avoided my justice… they escaped. I know I will die tonight. I feel Muerte approaching to take me home. Live your life well. Everything I have is yours now. Be happy. I love you.”

There the story ended.

I went back to the list and studied the last two names. Something was familiar about them.

The people who claimed to be my relatives, the ones at the funeral mass I didn’t know! They had told me what town they lived in. I didn’t intend to do so when they asked, but the ember of anger towards them was fed by the need for justice for my Abuelita and fueled by my love for Abuelito.

Time to finish my Abuelo‘s list.

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Email: JoshFloresAuthor[at]gmail.com

The Mystery of the Capucine

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Zachary Turner


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

Future Me will be fine with this, I’m sure.

There I was, perusing Indeed.com while my élèves ate chips and scrolled on their phones—swipe right for yes, swipe left for no, swipe down perpetually to pass the hours along till you die.

Ugh. There had to be more to these kids than just… this.

“Aie, euh, Baptiste,” I started. “What is it you want to do after Brevet de Technicien Supérieur?”

“Bah… pth?”

Pth isn’t an acronym. It’s not a word either, but it is French. It’s a noise, like a little fart sound, meaning “I dunno.”

“Uh huh.” What did these kids think about? Sometimes the simplest questions were the hardest ones to translate though. I dumped the following bowl of word soup on Aurélien: “De quoi tu, euh… bréf, tu penses à quoi maintenant?”

He’ll figure it out.

“Rosa.”

Oh, a little classroom romance perhaps?

“She didn’t show up today.

“I know,” I looked around the nearly empty classroom. “A lot of people didn’t show up today.”

“No, not to this class. To school. She didn’t come to any of our regular classes.”

Ok, ouch, I thought, this is still a regular class, you knob. I started turning my thoughts inward again.

“Regard.” Aurélien shoved his phone in my face, jolting me from my reverie. Irked by the distraction, I dismissively read:

FOUR GIRLS MISSING IN TWO MONTHS.

The article, published yesterday, chronicled the kidnapping of four girls from town over the past two months. Huh, I thought, that’s definitely worrying, Aurélien… but before I could follow up, the bell rang.

“Bonne journée, bon weekend,” I sighed, the boys offering passing good weekends and bye-byes as they bullrushed the door. It was always a mixed bag with these classes: half the time I left feeling fulfilled, and other times it sort of felt like I’d failed my anglophone identity. This BTS class was definitely the latter.

Tant pis, I told myself, it’s the weekend now, and I was meeting my boyfriend, Rémi, for a hike in the woods near Pons. Outside the classroom, kids were already lining up and I had to scoot through the masses before beelining for the stairs.

En route, I passed a girl reading by the window. Then it struck me just how rarely I saw anyone reading in the halls around here—I’d already taken the first step down the stairs before curiosity won over and I turned back.

“Whatcha reading?”

Le Mystère de Capucine.”

Which was an archaeological text, she explained, as controversial as it was perplexing. It claimed that the oldest book, if you consider metal plates and clay blocks books, wasn’t the 2,500-year-old Etruscan Gold Book, but rather a Neolithic Era clay tablet found in Saint-Léger’s Grotte de Bois-Bertaud. Supposedly, a wandering troglodyte had pressed flowers into the clay slabs, creating a volume that included not only regional flora, but species they’d collected along their travels.

There was a photo of the slab, with its five impressions, the biggest by far a fat, five-petaled capucine in the center.

The controversy was that while archaeologists suspected that the single surviving slab came from a greater body of slabs, the other slabs had since disappeared. Obviously, the Bulgarian National Museum of History wasn’t keen on challengers to their golden book and dismissed the claim entirely.

The mystery was how the troglodyte had come to press a capucine, a flower indigenous to Latin America. Scientists considered it impossible that a European nomad, no matter how nomadic, could’ve crossed that species.

Yet there it was.

*

“Saint-Léger.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said. In English, too, which I didn’t usually speak with Rémi, but sometimes surprise trumps habit, “Pardon, it’s just a weird coincidence.”

“How’s that?”

We were in Rémi’s shoebox car barreling down the D137 towards Bordeaux. He’d mentioned we’d be hiking around the Forêt de Pons, but I never really knew where that was. My regional geography was still a C- at best.

“Well, I saw this girl earlier today, reading a book…” I trailed off not long after, realizing the coincidence was more meaningful in my head. Out loud it sounded, well, quite ordinary.

Rémi shrugged amicably. He was lovely that way: no matter how lazy my French was, he was never cross with me.

“La Grotte de Bois-Bertaud? I know where that is. We’ll check it out.”

*

The first thing we came across on our hike was a grotto called the Rock Woman.

La Roche Madame opened up like a giant maw, and when I passed through it, I entered the belly of a giant frog. We crawled through the arms, the legs, and then ran screaming back out—this frog had eaten a colony of bats!

Beyond La Roche Madame lay the wood. A path cut through the bramble and felled trees, bounding merrily through the twilight forest.

The wood broke wide open. A hunting box lay to our left and we moved down the line, skirting the side of the clearing till we picked up the trail through the stumps and long grass. On the other side, a lumberyard tumbled down into the valley.

Walking through the lumberyard, deserted as it was, felt like we were crossing a tree cemetery. A shiver ran down my back.

“Qu’est-ce que vous foutez là?”

A gendarme was approaching from the foot of the valley. We weren’t arrested, but we were questioned. Someone had killed a girl in the lumberyard, dragged her body down into the valley, and marked the grave with a muddy insignia.

“What was the insignia?”

A fat, five-petaled flower, the girl’s namesake: Capucine.

I shuddered. Another coincidence.

There had been others as well: Iris, Lily, Daphné—all women named after flowers. All strangled to death. The gendarme turned us away with only a warning once we explained we’d only been looking for the grotto.

*

“We’ll come back tonight,” said Rémi.

“What?” Back at the car, I was scraping the mud off my trainers, but I stopped just long enough to throw him an incredulous glance. “T’es sérieux?”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s a cave. It’s gonna be dark regardless.”

“It’s not that,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Obviously. But what if there’s—”

“A little troglodyte?” Rémi laughed, “Doubt it.”

*

We did return that night: past the giant frog, along the bounding trail—the woods were really something else after nightfall. I know Hansel & Gretel were born a door over, but I could well envision a witch pitching a tent somewhere behind these walls of moonlight, hidden in the thorny brush.

A final bump in the trail before the clearing, the hunting box, the long grass and…

…a shard of light struck her body, resting in middle of the lumberyard. Below her naval gleamed a white rose, oneiric in the lunar glow.

Rémi moved to get a closer look before I grasped his arm—there was a figure hovering over the girl. Veiled behind the celestial drape, the specter towered rigidly over the night, only distinguishable by the twin twinkles reflected in his eyes.

We should run, I thought, we should definitely run. But the specter beat us to the punch, bolting into the wood.

“We should—” Both of us were standing somewhere between what was possibly right and what was definitely smart. I took the lead, advancing toward the girl, Rémi following close behind.

Rosa. Even bleached by death and moonlight, I recognized her, wearing the same leather jacket she’d had on in class a week ago. Dazed, I sunk low, crouching beside her. I leaned forward, plucked the flower…

This was a crime scene. We were in the middle of a crime scene, and I was holding the evidence.

Aie! Don’t move!” A beam of yellow light cut through the clearing—the gendarme from before was approaching from down in the valley.

“What are you kids doing back here, what…” His voiced trailed off as his eyes settled on the body at my feet and the flower in my hands.

“Put your hands where I can see them.”

“Officer.” Remi and I were both panicking, and Remi’s words came out in shaky fragments. “Someone else is in the woods, the assassin…”

Crrrrk.

All three of us pivoted at the snapping of a branch down in the valley.

“I can’t leave you two here. Follow me and stay close.”

We gave chase. Against our own footfalls, the murderer’s steps were scantly heard, but we kept the trail all the same, taking us to the opening of the Grotte de Bois-Bertaud. With no choice but to follow him in, we all clambered down the narrow entryway, into the cavern below.

Intermittent echoes traveled back to us. Over the din of our own labored breathing, we overheard some very guttural woofing sounds as he fled, always a bend ahead of our torchlight. Finally, rounding the last rocky corner, the gendarme’s light struck the man as he was shimmying frantically through a crevice. For the first time, we got a good look at the murderer and what we saw was— a caveman? He was short, hairy, and, well, naked. Nothing like the looming shadow we’d glimpsed over the girl’s body. It was enough to give me pause, but Rémi and the gendarme plowed on regardless, scooting through the crack in hot pursuit.

From the other side, I watched their bodies contract, like they were being flattened by mighty stone jaws. I gasped, stifling a cry as they suddenly vanished before my eyes, pulled through a wormhole…

No questions now, I didn’t have a choice. I wriggled between the rocks, and just as the claustrophobia set in, I felt my body being stretched, pulled and then spat out onto the muddy floor on the other side of the cavern.

The lads had caught up with the time-traveling troglodyte. The gendarme was pushing his hairy visage deep into the clay floor with the nose of his rifle while Rémi had his arms pinned behind his back, fighting to keep him down. Desperate as the scene before me was, I still spared a look for the surrounding cave.

I nearly fainted.

My face flushed, burning red-hot, and I looked through tears along at the gallery of clay tablets lining the cave wall. Each block held five flower prints—there must have been about ten in total. Violets and tulips, jasmine flowers, a whole menagerie of flora and—

Wait.

“Espèce de gros con,” growled the officer. “You killed those innocent—”

“Stop!”

Silence fell quick and heavy, like darkness in a cave.

“I don’t think he killed them. There’s no iris. No lily or daffodil either…”

I was standing in front of the last, unfinished slab. There was only one print, right smack-dab in the middle: the fat, five-petaled capucine. Pulling the white rose from my jacket pocket, I pressed it into the clay below its sister impression.

“He dragged the bodies down from the lumberyard into the valley and buried them. He was paying respect to them.”

I looked down the line at all the murders that hadn’t happened… yet.

“It’s some sort of time catapult?” I paced the length of the gallery. “With diminishing returns it looks like— I think the cave is launching him through time with less and less force whenever he goes through it.”

“Ok, but that still doesn’t tell us who killed these girls.”

“No, but this will solve the case.”

“How do you know?”

“Five thousand years of history. Five thousand years of people coming in and out of this cave and never finding the other slabs.”

Rémi caught on before the gendarme. “Oh, putain…”

“I don’t understand,” said the gendarme, now agitated. “How does that solve the case?”

“I dunno, but,” Rémi explained, “you can’t find what doesn’t exist. Once we go back through that hole, these tablets never happen, our friend here never finds their flowers. Because the case will be solved.”

We watched realization spread over the gendarme’s face. Oh…

Then, “So, what do we do now?”

“We run, are you kidding me?” I said, already back to the portal. “He’s still a f—king caveman and we just assaulted him. Allons-y!”

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Zachary Turner graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2017 with a degree in French Literature and now writes on his site, American-Fables.com. Email: snowturnerz[at]gmail.com

Gray-Eyed Greedy Guts

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jill Spencer


Photo Credit: hjl/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“I don’t know,” Momma says. She has just gotten home from work and is busy cooking dinner. Bread from a tube and something noodly with tomatoes and ground beef. It smells good. “Maybe there’s something you can use in the stuff from Grandma’s.”

She motions towards the laundry room where there are several boxes, leftovers from when Grandma moved into a nursing home. A big spoon covered in melty yellow cheese is in her hand, and I think, Later, when I clean the kitchen, I’m gonna lick that big spoon clean.

“You think Grandma kept newspapers?” I’m pretty sure old people read them. Maybe she saved some. “I could use newspapers.”

My friend Janetta plans to use wax paper to dry her leaf collection, but Momma says that’s a waste and I agree. Wax paper is for cookies. Period. Besides, think how much you’d need for thirty leaves! It would cost a fortune, which I don’t have, unlike Janetta, who has a Mom and a Dad, her own bedroom, and an allowance way bigger than poor ol’ me.

“I wish we had some old books or magazines,” Momma says. “That’s how we pressed leaves in my day.”

“Or maybe dinosaur feet and stone tablets,” I mutter.

Momma laughs and swats my behind. “I heard that! But serious, there probably are newspapers in there.” She points the spoon at me. “Just don’t use anything without asking first, okay?”

“Aye, aye, mon capitaine!” I do a goofy salute like I saw in a movie on TCM, then snag a gooey glob of noodles from the pot and pop it in my mouth. Oh my god, is it hot. “Whoo!” I hoot, waving my hands.

“Just what you deserve!” Momma shouts as I race to the toilet.

I spit the noodles in the commode, and I swear they hiss when they hit the water. Then I rinse my mouth. My tongue feels like it’s coated in fur, and as I head into the laundry room, I’m certain I’ve permanently damaged my taste buds.

The laundry room is cooler than the rest of the apartment, but underneath the bleach and detergent there’s a warm, musty smell. Probably from Grandma’s boxes, which are stacked beside the dryer.

Momma keeps saying she’ll go through them and sort the keepsakes out, but she never gets around to it. As I take the top box down, I wonder if this is her way of getting me to do it. It’d be just like her. She’s a crackerjack—that’s what Grandma says, which I’m pretty sure means tricky in a fun way.

Grandma has nicknames for all of us. Max, my little brother, is a pistol for the same reason Mama’s a crackerjack. And me, I’m Greedy Guts.

It sounds awful, I know, but actually it’s a compliment that means I’m hungry all the time—for food, for knowledge, for drama. For life.

“Gray-eyed Greedy Guts, try to eat the whole world up,” Grandma says, quoting some old poem she knows by heart.

Then there’s Daddy, who left years ago and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Boy, does Grandma have a nickname for him! Only I’m not allowed to repeat it, even if he is the reason we live in a one-bedroom walk-up and have to watch every penny so we can’t afford even two rolls of wax paper when we need them.

The box is filled with knickknacks from Grandma’s old apartment—porcelain dogs and crystal vases and flowerpots shaped like lambs and cooing doves. They’re wrapped in newspaper, only it’s super rumply. Will that work? It seems to me the paper should be flat so it leeches moisture evenly from the leaves, but I’m not sure honestly and decide to ask Mr. Akins, my science teacher.

Shoving the knickknacks aside, I dig deeper and discover a pile of kitchen gadget manuals. The paper feels like newsprint, just what I need. I pull a handful out. Yes! There’s enough for thirty leaves, easy.

It’s only when I start flipping through that I realize they’ve already been used for pressing flowers. Every single one has papery purple violets between the pages. Notes, too.

Dear Delia, I love you more every day.

Dearest Delia, My love for you is hotter than the sun.

My Dear Delia, You are the Sunshine of my Life.

Each is addressed to Delia, which is Grandma’s name, and each is signed the same: “With Love from Your Greatest Admirer.”

The dates on the booklets are from the sixties and seventies when Grandpa was alive.

“Find anything?” Momma calls.

“Not yet,” I answer, shoving the booklets back into the box.

At dinner I can hardly eat. Momma thinks it’s because of my tongue, but the truth is I have a sicky, reely feeling deep inside, like when you hit your head so hard it makes your stomach hurt.

I can’t stop thinking about those trashy TV shows I’m not supposed to watch but do anyway when Momma’s at work—Cheaters, Mistresses, Divorce Court, Real Housewives. Is Grandma like the people on those shows? Was she a cheater? A mistress? And if she was, if she’s not the little lady I thought I knew, then who am I? And who are Max and Momma? Are they still Pistol and Crackerjack? Am I still Greedy Guts?

The next day is a Saturday. After cleaning the apartment, we visit Grandma at the nursing home as usual, but I can hardly look at her. Instead I look at her bedspread, her curtains, the china clock on her nightstand. The pictures on the walls. Everywhere there are violets. There’s even a pot of them on her windowsill.

In the car I ask Momma, “What’s with all the violets in Grandma’s room anyway?”

She looks at me, surprised. After all, it’s not like they’re new. I’ve seen them before. We all have.

“What about ’em?”

“I don’t know. It’s just— she has a lot of them.”

Momma shrugs. “They’re her favorite flower.”

I have never heard this before and think on it the rest of the trip home. Were violets always her favorite? Did she tell him they were? Is that why he gave them to her? Or are they her favorite because he gave them to her?

And then I think about Grandpa, and although I never knew him, I feel bad for him.

That night, after Mom and Max are asleep, I get the flashlight and go into the laundry room. In the second box, I find another stack of manuals. Like the others, they have papery violets pressed between the pages and messages of love from “Your Greatest Admirer.”

There are at least twenty-five and I think, How could Grandpa not have known? Their kitchen must have been littered with electric apple corers and salad spinners and knives that cut through pipes. And then I think, Momma must have known too, and as I crawl back into bed, my heart feels like my stomach, all reely and sick.

The next day after school, I am still feeling yucky as I get Max started on his homework at the kitchen table in Momma’s room. The table used to be Grandma’s, but she gave it to Momma when she moved into the home.

“Get your books out while I get your snack, okay?” I tell Max, edging my way from the room.

The table is too big and, along with the bed, takes up almost all the floor. Momma says that’s okay though since it gives us a place to study. It also keeps the living room from getting cluttered, which is hard since that’s where Max and I sleep, me on the sofa bed, Max on his cot.

In the kitchen I press my hand to my wobbly stomach and stare at the bananas Momma left on the counter. No way can I keep a banana down, I think, and pour myself a glass of milk, even though it means I’ll probably have to eat dry cereal for breakfast Friday.

“Two bananas today,” I tell Max, setting them at elbow. He has removed the books from his backpack and has opened his day planner.

“Better start with math,” I say, skimming the list of homework he has written down in big round sloppy letters. Math’s always been his greatest challenge. “If you need me I’ll be in the laundry working on my leaf project.”

He gives me a funny look but doesn’t ask, and before I’m out the door, he’s deep into the world of fractions.

The whole family is like that—me, Momma, Max. Grandma too, I guess. Once we start on something, we give it our all.

Two hours later Momma, home from work, sidles into the bedroom for a change of clothes. Max and I are at the table.

“Hard at it, I see,” she says, sounding pleased as she wriggles into the space between the closet and the bed.

“Math,” Max says, wrinkling his nose.

Momma slides the closet door open and looks over her shoulder at me. “How’s he doing?”

“Pretty good,” I say, wrinkling my nose, too, but for a different reason. The closet is a mess. In addition to her clothes, mine are in there. And Max’s. “He’s only missed two so far.”

“But I’m correcting them,” Max chimes in, so proudly I pinch him when Momma turns her back.

“Geek,” I whisper.

“That’s the ticket!” Momma says, her voice muffled as she fishes sweatpants and a T-shirt from the shelf. “That’s how you learn. From your mistakes.”

As I watch, a pile of clothes falls on her head then to the floor, and she has to back into the bed to get them, the space is so small. It makes me so angry my stomach twists.

“Let’s get rid of this stupid table, Momma,” I say. “Get TV trays or tables from the thrift shop and do our homework in the living room. We’re taking all your space!”

Momma shakes her head. “You know why the table’s here.”

“But it’s not right! You should have some room for yourself!” I slam my fist down on the tabletop, surprising us all, then feel the tears start, although I never cry. I never cry. It’s just— I’m so angry. About how we live. And why. About Grandma.

“Good heavens, girl!” Momma wraps her arms around me. “What’s got into you?”

“I hate this table, that’s all. It’s too big!”

“It’s the right size to me. Just big enough for my two babies to do their homework on.”

I roll my eyes. “We’re not babies,” I say, wiping my cheeks. “And it is too big. You don’t have any room!”

“That may be, but I don’t mind. Besides, I’d never get rid of this table. I remember when Daddy gave it to your grandma. He put it by the Christmas tree with a ginormous bow on top. Momma was so happy she cried. He was always doing nice things for her, getting her little presents. Love gifts, he called them.”

Momma smiles, a faraway look on her face, and I wonder if she’s remembering or wishing she had someone like that.

“So stop fussing!” She gives me a little shake then scoops her clothes up and heads for the door. “I’m gonna change and then, dinner! With my family.”

Like it’s the most exciting thing in the world.

Late that night I get the flashlight again and pad into the laundry. One box is left. I tear it open and get to work, an hour later finding what I’m looking for, a red envelope with “For Delia” scrawled across the front. Inside is an old-fashioned Christmas card.

With shaking hands, I open it, sandy glitter roughing my fingertips. The handwriting is the same as in the notes.

Dearest Delia,

Here’s the kitchen table you wanted. It’s just like you. Round in all the right places, strong enough to love for a lifetime, and beautiful.

Merry Christmas!

Your Greatest Admirer

I press the card against my chest, so happy. Grandma is a little lady. And Momma’s a crackerjack, and Max is a pistol. And me? I’m Greedy Guts, and sometimes a dumb one.

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Jill Spencer lives and works in Southern Maryland. In 2014, she won the Three Cheers and a Tiger fall contest. Email: spencer.jill[at]yahoo.com

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.

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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

Union

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Meredith Lindgren


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

It was the fourth day, three after Sadie reported George missing, that the note came in the mail. Talking to his memory helped her to feel sane during the lonely hours. The note was in his handwriting. She looked up to ask his memory what she held, but it wasn’t there.

The note smelled of paper, not him. It was sandwiched in its envelope between two back pages of different entertainment sections. Puzzles and horoscopes. The way his mom had wrapped money she sent in the mail to hide it.

There was his handwriting with all of its grace and superfluous curves, swirls and quirks. Lines that tapered and went nowhere. Letters written over one another or crossed out so that words would be spelled correctly.

It said:

My dearest Sadie,

It is you and only you, you are the one who I will miss. Our Union has meant the world to me. If ever I have met one who made the world a better place, it is you, my lovely Sadie. For that reason, a world without you, is the one thing which is unacceptable to me. I fear for your safety, so long as I am alive.

There is nowhere to go that could ensure your safety, so I take my final holiday beneath the waves. Let’s hope it is a tranquil one.

Those who are after me are nothing if not relentless. If only I had stolen anything besides other than knowledge I would simply give it back, such is a journalist’s life I suppose. I am not the only one in peril, by which of course I mean Finn and Heyduke. Now I suppose it is one down, two to go.

There is so much, it seems, left unsaid that you must be saying right now to yourself. I am at an advantage I suppose. I have but one. Except for knowing that the most important thing is that I love you, knowing that that is the one thing I should have said more often and wish I could say in a way where you could take it with you forever, the rest is a blank. You knew me better than anyone and that is why I have walked into the ocean, never to return to you or this life.

I would never leave, but for your safety. I love you always, so long as I can love. I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but I did this for you. One time and a thousand times more, I love you.

Love,

George Goodsell

And that was it.

Like all lovers, they always meant, but never actually got around, to talking about everything. But once, in the whispering hours of an especially macabre morning, after a good friend’s close call and cry for help, he had told her that he couldn’t imagine anything driving him to suicide, but if he were to do it, he would freeze himself to death. She said that if she were to take herself out it would have been by walking into the sea or, as cliché as it was, driving into the Grand Canyon.

“What is this?” she said to her memory.

“A suicide note,” the glimmer of George in her mind said.

“But what does it mean?”

“Read it again. It might mean I killed myself.”

“I don’t need to read it again. Why couldn’t you just go to the police?”

“Maybe they were in on it. What do you think, did I do it?”

“If so you borrowed my suicide.”

She tried to see forever out the window, but snow reduced her view to a couple of feet. She tried to look past it, as if, for the first time ever she would be able to see either the Grand Canyon or the sea from their apartment in Denver. The second day, she had spent a lot of time crying; if she started again, it might make it true. George would be dead the minute she started crying.

He walked up behind her and she could feel the shape of his body against hers, at the same time feeling how much it wasn’t there. She tilted her mouth toward his but in his absence, she couldn’t lean into him without falling, so she didn’t reach.

“Where is it postmarked?” he said. She looked at the envelope again.

“San Francisco. Your least favorite Californian city.”

“If I didn’t want to, but had to kill myself, would I do it in San Francisco?”

“That night we talked about it you presented some pretty good reasons to freeze to death and the weather’s been good for it.”

“Plus, I didn’t want to drown at all.”

“You said it would hurt too much.”

“Sure.”

“So, I need to buy a ticket to San Francisco.”

“Assuming I sent this from there, would I stay?”

Questions like this made this apparition’s origins glaringly apparent. He might stay in San Francisco, he might go someplace else. He might have actually killed himself, but she didn’t believe it.

“Why did you have to leave me all alone?” She couldn’t help it, she cried. As she did so chanting, “He didn’t. He’s still alive,” to no one. Her memory of George watched silently and at a distance. She did this for some time. She woke the next morning from dreamless sleep, slipped into without intent, although gratefully.

His memory was there.

“I don’t want to talk to you. Not if you did it.”

“Yet, I’m still here.” He wavered.

There was a knock at the door. It was the police.

“Ma’am, I’m Officer Edwards and this is Officer Cooper. May we come in?”

“Yeah,” she said. She let them in.

“We have an update on your husband,” Officer Cooper said. “You might want to sit down.”

She sat down.

“His car was found abandoned in San Francisco. There was a note,” Officer Cooper reached into his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. It was a copy of an original suicide note. It was not the same as the one she had received in the mail.

It was unaddressed. It said:

I can’t take it anymore. This world is far crueler than it is kind. I have taken care of the disposal of my body by walking into the sea. Tell my wife I love her and hope she can forgive me.

That’s all. I have nothing more to say,

George Goodsell

George always had more to say. She put her hands with the note in it in her lap. “The coast guard is sweeping the bay for the body. All along the west coast folks are keeping a lookout,” Officer Edwards said.

Sadie nodded.

“Sadie, I know this is hard,” said Officer Cooper, “but you don’t happen to have a sample of George’s handwriting, for comparison’s sake, do you?”

“Uh, sure,” she said. She stood and walked to the bookshelf.

“The more recent, the better,” Edwards said.

The most recent thing he had handwritten was an anniversary card. Instead, she pulled out a grocery list and put the card to the side.

“Is this good enough?”

“That should do, although if you have anything more, it really would be helpful.”

“Let me look.”

She found some notes on what he was working on most recently for work. If he was dead, she should give them to the police. If not, she shouldn’t. She bypassed it for another notebook which she handed to Cooper.

“Can we take this? You’ll get it back,” said Edwards.

“Yeah, sure.”

“I have to ask, had you noticed any changes in George’s behavior,” said Cooper, “just before he disappeared?”

“No,” she said.

They nodded and asked her if she had anyone to call, to be with her during this difficult time. She called the electric company and pretended their phone tree was her brother. The officers offered to wait with her until he arrived. She declined, saying that it would be several minutes, not so long that they should worry, but long enough to keep them from their jobs.

She watched them go. The snow had stopped and the streets were plowed. Even still, Sadie was going to take the lightrail.

George worked in the newspaper office downtown, the full length of the 16th Street Mall from Union Station. She couldn’t speak to him about it aloud, but two notes were not a thing. He was alive somewhere. She needed to talk to whoever he was working with, the others in danger, Finn and Heyduke. She needed to find out what he was working on.

The girl at the receptionist’s desk, Susanne, Susan, Suzette, some kind of Sue, recognized Sadie and escorted her back to George’s desk. Cubicle walls surrounded it. Sadie was encountered with a small pile of papers. In the trash, there was a hand-drawn crossword puzzle. As soon as the Sue left, Sadie pocketed the puzzle. She was looking through the papers on the desk when George’s boss approached.

“Sadie, what are you doing here?”

“George’s car was found abandoned. I need to talk to the people he was working with on his most recent article.”

“What people?”

“Finn and Heyduke.”

“You haven’t heard from George at all, have you?”

“No. His car was found abandoned in San Francisco,” she said.

He didn’t react.

“There was a suicide note.”

“Maybe you should sit down.”

She sat in George’s chair.

“I’m not surprised,” his boss said.

She looked up at him. It was her turn not to react.

“We don’t have anyone here named Finn or Heyduke. Further, his work has been,” his boss paused. He did not want to say what came next. “Erratic.”

“Can I see?” she said.

“We need to clear out his desk, anyway. I just wasn’t going to rush it,” he said. “Take what you need.”

Sue was there with a box. Sadie hadn’t even seen her approach.

The boss started picking out papers and personal knickknacks from the desk, leaving office supplies that belonged to the newspaper. It was full when he handed it to Sadie.

“Sadie, maybe you should take it easy,” he said.

Sadie nodded.

“No, I mean… the things George was working on…” He was struggling. “He seemed fine, right up until the end, but the things he was writing, they’re not even disturbing as much as nonsensical. He kept doodling unsolvable crosswords and the like. Maybe you should rest.”

“I will,” she said. “I’ll just take this home and rest.”

Once in the apartment she ignored the box, fully expecting that it was indeed, filled with gibberish. He had not been different in the past several weeks, not in the way people seemed to expect. Not with her.

“Why did you make up Heyduke and Finn?” she said.

“Think,” the memory of George said. “Think.”

“You’re not dead. You can’t be.”

He was there, in her mind. “Have you looked at the crosswords yet?”

“What? No.”

And she pulled the discarded crossword out of her pocket. Her eyes were blurry from tears and staying up to talk to ghosts. Now that she had time to look at it she saw, it was incomplete and thus unsolvable.

The clue for nine across was “Doc Holliday’s final resting place.” That was Glenwood Springs, the place he had asked her to marry him.

He had put the word holiday in his note.

“Glenwood Springs,” she said. “You want me to go to Glenwood Springs.”

She was excitable and his memory didn’t answer. He just watched her go to the computer and make the reservations. The next train was leaving at eight the next morning. She packed.

“Of course you’re alive,” she said. “It makes so much sense.”

She found she was tired for the first time since he had been missing. But when she went to bed she couldn’t sleep. Half the time she was excited. Half the time she was wrong and he was dead.

When the alarm went off the next morning, she was unsure of how long she had slept, or if she had done so at all.

The train ride lasted a long time, almost six hours, and while at the start she had tried to read George’s work notes, by the end of it she was observed by other passengers talking to herself in half-conversations.

She got off the train and began to search the station for George’s face. People bumped into her or avoided her and she was left standing by herself on an empty platform. It was frigid and snowflakes with little substance blew around her, finding her face as pinpricks of cold.

“Where are you?” she said. “Where are you?”

And the loneliness was vast and surrounded her on all sides. Her efforts and failure heaved around her, a grim tide. The air was wet and took on weight. As she fell to her knees things began to dim. This is what it was like to drown. On the way down, she might see him.

 

George stood at Union Station in Chicago. Sadie should have the clues. They were lame. He had taken it for granted that he had more time. Once he realized that he was probably going to have to disappear, he had begun work on a crossword where the down clues were to read that he was in Chicago. One, “I think ___ I am”; two, “Inn, as an example”; three, “Three past nine down.” The solutions were meaningless for the most part.

He couldn’t tell whether it was too obvious or elusive and at the end he ran out of time, the senator’s men were driving him off the road. He’d left for San Francisco, the other end of the line and the best he’d been able to do was send her the note that should have told the police the same story as the one he left in the car, if she shared it with them, but tell her the truth. It was sandwiched between two crosswords called Chicago. Each with union as a solution.

He waited.

pencil

Meredith Lindgren graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (under her previous name, Meredith Bateman) and Subprimal Poetry Art. Although she would not call herself a crossword aficionado, she does honor their right to exist. Email: nuclearmirror[at]gmail.com

The Ginger Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
R.J. Snowberger


Photo Credit: KotomiCreations/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The five of us sat, ignoring each other. We didn’t know why we were there. The will had already been read, the inheritance dispersed. There was nothing left to do. So, why had we all been summoned?

I shifted in my thinly padded chair to keep my butt from going numb and passed furtive glances over my cousins. Alec and Dirk were playing games on their phones, while Julia had her nose in a romance novel, and Maria—bless her heart—balanced the spine of a coloring book against her knee, attempting to fill in an animated cat with a gel pen.

When I thought about it, I realized I didn’t actually have a problem with Maria. The snobby, trust-fund triplets, yeah, but not Maria. We just hadn’t seen each other much since she had moved away when we were teenagers. We were merely out of touch. That was nothing to dislike anyone over.

I was considering going over to talk to Maria when the lawyer finally entered the room. He was a stocky fellow with brown hair that had been slicked back with so much gel, it lay flat against his scalp. His tucked-in, collared shirt was a little too tight and had a small stain in the middle that played peek-a-boo with his suit jacket as he moved.

“Hello, everyone. I am Peter Bradley, your grandmother’s lawyer,” he announced with a jovial smile. “I guess you’re all wondering why you’ve been invited here, today.” He looked like a clean-cut Hagrid, offering us a scholarship to Hogwarts. We were not amused.

His smile faltered and he continued. “So, when your grandmother died, she left most of her things to either the VA or your parents—”

“We already know that,” Alec interrupted. “It was in the will.”

“She left our mother a broach,” Julia added, face lowered and eyebrow lifted in disgust.

“Right, but what you don’t know, is that she left something for you, too,” Mr. Bradley replied with an ‘Ah, I’ve got you there’ expression. He then hesitated before correcting himself. “One of you, that is.”

“Which one of us?” Dirk asked.

“Well, that is to be determined by this.” Mr. Bradley held up a small stack of papers. After passing the pages out, he stepped back and watched as we scanned the document. He seemed amused by our bewilderment.

Maria was the first to speak. “A crossword puzzle?”

Even as an adult, her voice still had a high, squeaky pitch. When we were children, I used to tease her about it, calling her Maria Mouse. She would protest, retaliating with, “Yeah, well, you’re Piper Pepper” to which I would say, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Then we’d both pout, and Grandma Pat would tell us to “get over it” while simultaneously giving us sweets.

I guess I unconsciously smiled at the memory, because next thing I knew, Mr. Bradley was saying, “See, Piper is excited about the puzzle.” How a smile translated to ‘excited’ I’m not sure, but I received a few smoldering glares from the triplets for it.

“Now, the instructions are quite straightforward,” the lawyer continued. “The first one to finish the crossword puzzle, discovering the hidden message in that center column there, receives the prize.”

“And what is the prize?” Alec asked. His tone implied he wanted to know whether or not the puzzle was worth his time.

“Unfortunately, only the one who receives it will find out the answer to that,” Mr. Bradley replied.

“So, you don’t even know?” Alec asked incredulously.

Mr. Bradley ignored him, continuing on with the instructions. “There is only one stipulation. The puzzle must be completed alone. You are forbidden to help each other, so no group sharing.” He passed us all a stern look, but it was obvious that he was referring to Alec, Dirk, and Julia.

“My number is at the bottom of the page,” he stated, drawing our eyes to the name and number printed below the clues. “Let me know when you’ve finished.” He left then, leaving the five of us sitting in uncomfortable chairs with nothing but a crossword puzzle and the hope of maybe receiving a mystery prize.

Maria was the first to react. She packed up her coloring book and gel pens, and stood up. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve got a job, a husband, and a very busy two-year-old. I loved Grandma Pat, and I’ll miss her, but I don’t have time for games. I wish you all the best.” She gave us a small smile before following in Mr. Bradley’s footsteps, leaving her copy of the puzzle behind in her chair.

“Weirdo,” Julia snorted as the door closed behind Maria.

I immediately felt the urge to slap her and shoved my hands under my legs to keep myself in check. So Maria was a little weird. She still had some good points. I may not have a husband or a kid, but I did have a job. A full-time job—one that paid the bills and provided money for food.

Even as those facts crossed my mind, however, I was still considering the possibility of taking some time off. Just a day or two. Plus, there was no way I could allow one of the triplets to win, right?

When I arrived back at my apartment, I decided to see how hard the puzzle was before making any work-related decisions. Who knows? Maybe it wouldn’t be as time consuming as Maria had thought.

As far as games went, I hadn’t been all that surprised that Grandma Pat had chosen a crossword as her way to test us. She had always loved them, putting aside an hour or so every morning to fill out the one in the daily newspaper. She claimed they kept her sharp.

“Make sure you always find time to engage your brain in something that really tests you, Piper,” she would tell me. “You don’t want to become dimwitted.”

Upon first perusal of the clues, I experienced a brief moment of glee when I thought the puzzle might not be that difficult to complete. One, three, and five down, for instance, were simple: the clue “onion garden” obviously referred to chives, while “Grandpa Richard’s favorite game” was pool, and “The only type of tea” was loose-leaf.

As I filled in these squares, however, I noticed that none of the letters corresponded with the central column. The clues I’d answered were just distractions from the main point of the puzzle. I knew I shouldn’t have been shocked by this. Of course Grandma Pat wouldn’t make the clues to the main answer that easy.

Annoyed with myself, I found the clue for nine down—the middle column, mystery answer—and read it. It was about as vague as vague comes: “Where hope is kept.” What was that supposed to mean? The first words that came to me were ‘mind’ and ‘heart,’ but the answer had to be nine letters long.

Since columns six, eight, and ten across intersected with nine down, I switched my attention to them, hoping they would provide some letters for me to start with. Their clues, however, turned out to be just as vague: “Where love awaited,” “A memorial,” and “China.”

I decided it was time for some coffee.

While listening to my old coffeepot gurgle and slurp in its attempt to brew the nectar of life, I grabbed a Kit Kat bar from the freezer and pondered the clues I’d read so far. “Where love awaited” and “A memorial” were beyond me, but “China” struck a chord. I highly doubted that Grandma Pat was referring to the country, which meant it had to be a china set.

When we were five and six, Maria and I had been obsessed with tea parties. We each had our own little plastic sets, but sometimes on a quiet Saturday afternoon, Grandma Pat would bring out her white bone china set with the hand-painted, purple pansies, and we would have a real tea party. I could still remember her telling us, “You always need to have a set of four cups: one for yourself, two for your guests, and one for a surprise visitor.”

I froze for half a second, allowing the memory to wash over me, before snatching up the puzzle. To my delight, I found that the answer to column ten across only needed four letters. I wrote in F.O.U.R and stepped back, proud of myself for having figured out one of the hard clues.

Once my coffee was brewed, I mixed in some cream and sugar and then returned to the crossword. Deciding to save the main clues for later, I focused on some of the easier ones.

As I read over the clues, I found myself amazed at how a simple phrase or word could elicit such strong memories. Stories and funny instances that I had long forgotten came back to me in a flash, filling my mind with happier times. It was nice, but sad.

One thing I did notice, though, was that most of the memories had occurred when only Maria and I were present. The triplets wouldn’t have had any part in them, having grown up in Ohio instead of in the same town as our grandparents like Maria and I had. They wouldn’t know that Maria had once called Grandpa Richard’s eggplants purple squash, or how I had picked a leaf from their fig tree, exclaiming, “This was Adam and Eve’s clothes!”

So, why would Grandma Pat contrive a test that only either Maria or I could finish?

With the easy clues out of the way, I saw that a letter had been provided in the columns of the harder clues. From this—and some of the memories that had sprung up—I discovered that the answer to “Where love awaited” was hospital—because Grandma Pat had met Grandpa Richard when she was a nurse during Vietnam—and “a Memorial” referred to the azalea bush that Grandma Pat had planted in memory of her mother.

Now, all that remained was that center word.

The answer took me a while to figure out. However, with only the letters ‘I’, ‘E’, and ‘O’ and the phrase “Where hope is kept” to work with, I couldn’t fault myself too much. I could only remember Grandma Pat using the phrase a couple of times, and I had no idea what it meant. After all, how could hope be kept in a ginger box?

The ‘ginger box’ was a small silver-and-gold box that had sat on our grandparents’ mantle. It hadn’t seemed very special. My grandmother only used it to keep her ginger candies in. She had offered me a ginger candy once, but it had been too spicy, and I’d spit it out. Grandma Pat had laughed and said, “You get used to them,” but she never offered me another.

I learned later that she’d acquired the habit of sucking on them during her time as a nurse. She’d said they helped her ignore the stench. Afterwards, she’d carried them around when she was an activist in the late seventies and early eighties, standing up for women’s rights. “They gave me courage,” she’d explained.

The box of candies obviously held a special meaning to Grandma Pat. But why leave it to one of her grandchildren? And why create such a difficult puzzle in order to see who received it?

After typing in Mr. Bradley’s number, I pressed my cell phone up to my ear and waited. When he answered, I read him off the answers to the puzzle. I could hear a smile in the lawyer’s voice as he instructed me to meet him the next morning at his office.

Mr. Bradley only grinned as he pressed the ginger box into my hands. When I just stared awkwardly down at it, he added, “You’ll understand once you read the note.”

I decided to wait until I was in the security of my own home before I did anything. I don’t know why. It just seemed proper. So, while seated cross-legged on my brown, squishy couch, I opened the box. I half expected to find old ginger candies inside, but, instead, there was only a folded envelope. My heart hammered in my chest as I withdrew the crinkled letter and read its contents.

Dear Piper,

Yes, I knew it would be you reading these words. Though it was obvious that you would be the one receiving this gift, I only thought it fair to allow the others a crack at it.

I daresay, the triplets never stood a chance, but they needed to feel involved. They always did care more about physical possessions than life experiences. That left you and Maria. However, I’ve known for a while now that Maria is contented with where she is in life. She doesn’t want to relive the past, nor think of what could happen in the future. Which leaves you.

You’ve had it hard, Piper, and that’s okay. Life is never easy. This box can either financially stabilize you—for it is made of pure gold and silver—or inspire you to continue working towards a brighter future. It has been in the family since the early seventeenth century and has been my reminder that life goes on. It has also been somewhat of a good luck charm. I hope it will be the same for you no matter what you decide.

Love you, dear,

Grandma Pat

I blinked. She was handing me a choice between hope and riches. A smirk crept over my lips at the realization that I could be richer than the triplets.

I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket, distracting me. I knew who it was without looking.

“How did you do it?” Julia’s voice exclaimed. “That puzzle is impossible.”

“Really? I didn’t think so.”

She huffed in response. “Whatever. So, what was the prize?”

I looked down at the ginger box and smiled. “Hope,” I replied, and hung up.

pencil

Email: rjsnowberger[at]gmail.com

Special Warranty Activated

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Edsel Little/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

That ‘Everything’ bagel was a mistake.

I could smell my own breath—the distinctive waft of garlic and onions—as it crystallized, mid-sigh, in frigid, early morning air. Bits of poppy and sesame seeds were wedged between my teeth. I ran my tongue along my gums, grimacing as I tried to work them free.

I should have stuck to my regular order.

Plain bagel, lightly toasted. Small coffee, black. No fuss, no mess. No lingering onion breath, nor visible evidence to clear away. My order took longer than usual today and by the time I was out the door, I’d missed my train.

I should have known.

Deviation from routine equals disruption, then distraction, which leads to mistakes, then to reorganization and, if all these warning signs go unheeded, demotion. Deviation from routine is how you find yourself alone on the platform in the freezing cold, digging bagel bits out of your teeth while you wait for the train to take you to a job you hate, in a life you never wanted.

But I never seem to learn the lesson.

I stomped my booted feet against the frozen tiled pavement and checked my watch for the tenth time in last two minutes. According to the blinking sign above the platform, not only had I missed my train, the next one was running late. Not that it really mattered; I could parade in naked to the call center, or stumble in drunk, and no one would so much as look up or bat an eye.

Of course I’ve never done that. Too conspicuous.

The whole point of my working there is to blend in and take up no more space in the pack of pathetic sad sacks who work there than necessary. I resign myself to that existence because I have no choice, but I would much rather arrive on my own terms. On time.

A long, exasperated exhale escaped. At least my breath was clearing up.

The train finally rumbled into the station, the blurred faces in its packed cars coming into focus as it slid to a jerky stop. The doors jutted open and a stream of passengers spilled out and mingled with those waiting. I joined the advancing swarm, expertly navigating around the elbows, briefcases and backpacks until I found a seat. I brightened slightly; I never get to sit on my regular train.

Cellphones, tablets, and the occasional book or newspapers appear in the hands of my fellow commuters, pulled from their various purses and pockets. Their eyes glaze over; their jaws go slack as they disappear into them, shielded from unsolicited small talk and awkward eye contact with the people planted much too close within their personal space.

This is why I hate having bad breath. I can’t control who breathes on me, but I can lead by example.

“Excuse me, Miss, can you think of an eight-letter word meaning ‘to cause to function or act?’” says the man sitting next to me. I jump at his voice and my eyes lock involuntarily with his for a second. He is a jovial, unassuming old man: round face, pointed nose, grey eyes peering out from behind thick glasses, wispy tufts of white hair poking out beneath a faded green cap. I glance away, but not fast enough to discourage further conversation.

“Starts with ‘A’?” he ventures, eyebrows raised hopefully. He gestures to the crossword puzzle on a tattered page of newspaper in his hand.

I’m caught. But I don’t have to play along. “Don’t know. Sorry,” I reply.

He looks crestfallen.

“Active?” The woman across the aisle pipes up. She puts down her knitting and shoots me the briefest of glares as the man counts the squares in the crossword grid. He shakes his head and sighs.

“Activate?” I offer. I wouldn’t normally get involved but the woman’s righteous glare shames me; she’s like the teacher who guilts you into partnering up with the fat kid with no friends.

The man resumes his counting—the word fits. He fills in the spaces carefully and looks up at us in triumph. “How about another? I need an eight letter word for ‘a stipulation, explicit or implied, in assurance of some particular in connection with a contract—‘”

The wording of the crossword clue stirs up a memory. A monotone voice, an odd instruction from the past:

Study these definitions; you’ll need them when someone asks for help with a crossword…

“Warranty,” I state before I’m aware of it. I feel a familiar unease stirring; old instincts aroused. I’m hyperaware of my surroundings, my mind starts taking in and noting the smallest details: the knitting woman’s wool is baby blue, the person three seats down from me just spilled tea down his front, a child’s mitten is lying abandoned on the floor under the emergency buzzer…

It could be nothing… don’t read into it unnecessarily…

The old man smiles and nods his confirmation but I already knew it was the right word. My body grows tense in my seat. He busies himself with the puzzle but keeps his eyes trained on me. My gaze shifts towards the door, where I count the blinking lights above indicating the train’s route. Four more stops.

They’re supposed to ask for help three times… he’s only asked twice.

“One more—seven letters, means ‘an exceptional degree; particularly valued’…” The third question. He trails off and there’s a weight in his voice that wasn’t there a moment ago. He’s knows that I know and he’s waiting.

“I really can’t help you—” I grope for my bag and try to stand up as the train starts its screeching deceleration. It’s not my stop but that doesn’t matter. I need to get off the train right now. The car rocks as it rounds a turn and the lights dim for just a second. Before I’m on my feet,a strong hand seizes my elbow and pulls me back into the seat.

“Oh, I think you can,” the man says, his voice low. His smile remains benign but his eyes darken ever so slightly. His hand is gripping my elbow, squeezing it so hard I almost wince.

“It starts with an ‘S’…” He hisses the letter and I feel a chill that has nothing to do with the gust of icy wind that rushes in when the doors fly open.

“Special…?” I whisper.

He nods again and releases my arm. I fight the urge to rub where his fingers dug in through the thick tweed of my coat. He gets up, touches the brim of his cap in a gesture of farewell to the woman across the aisle before he exits the train. He glances back at me for a moment while the door buzzer blares. The train jolts ahead and he’s gone.

I look down at the paper he placed on my lap and see it, intersected within the crossword puzzle, the signal from a former lifetime:

Special Warranty Activated

*

“You’re late.”

It’s an hour and seventeen minutes later when I walk into the half-empty diner. It’s next to the Specialty Electronic Shop on 10th Street, with an ‘Active Warranty’ sign in the window. The man from the train is waiting for me.

I move to sit in the booth behind him, with our backs to each other as is procedure, but he beckons me to sit opposite him instead, my back to the door.

I slide into the booth and bite back the sense of dread that creeps up from my gut. I need eyes on the door and I don’t have them. I catch a crude image of the door reflected in the dented metal napkin dispenser. It’s better than nothing.

“Did you forget how to interpret the signal?” He taps his watch at me in a ‘tsk, tsk’ gesture; all traces of the old-man joviality gone. He’s irritated, impatient.

I don’t apologize for being late; just as every other day, when I show up is one of the few cards I have to play.

The first words are critical… don’t rush them. You have all the time in the world…

I take my time getting settled: I pull my gloves off finger by finger, and then rub my cold hands together. I unwind my scarf in near slow motion.

Get your bearings. Easy does it…

I hear the bell above the door jangle every time someone enters. The early lunch crowd is arriving: the businessmen in their tailored suits, the old ladies shuffling in with their bulging shopping bags, the solo diners gravitating towards the counter. The noise level swells as the tables fill up.

I turn my attention back the man. His mouth twists itself into an irked half-smile as he takes a sip from his chipped tea cup.

“Terrible. Over-steeped.” He finally says, exasperated by my continued silence.

Good… Make him come to you.

“Would you like something? Coffee? A late breakfast?” He pushes a greasy laminated menu towards me.

I ignore it and clamp my eyes on his. “I already ate.”

“I can tell. You have something stuck in your teeth.” He smiles at my obvious annoyance. The bagel that put today in motion refuses to die.

“Who are you and what do you want?” I ask. My voice is devoid of emotion, calm even, despite the sweat gathering under my arms and at the base of my neck. They trained me well.

“You can call me Carl,” he says, offering his hand which I refuse to shake. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mathilda.”

“I go by Brenda now,” I counter before I can stop myself.

He cocks his head to one side thoughtfully.

I gave him—‘Carl’exactly what he wanted: a noticeable reaction to my real name. I press my hands into the table and take a steadying breath.

Stay in control. You can do this.

“I know. Brenda Southland. 31 years old. Entry-level Customer Service Representative. Single. No children. No friends. Not even a cat,” he recites in a bored voice. He opens his jacket to reveal a thick manila envelope tucked inside. He taps it over his heart before zipping his jacket cheerily.

“What do you want?” I repeat, raising my voice a hair above normal.

Steady now… it’s a test… stay with him…

“I want to eat lunch. I’m starving. Then we’ll talk.” He snaps his fingers and a waitress, glaring haughtily at him, appears at our booth. “Two cheeseburgers, please.”

“As I was saying, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m aware of your current predicament—your demotion and subsequent relocation—and I want to help.” He removes his glasses, polishes them on a gleaming white handkerchief and puts them back on.

I open my mouth to respond but he cuts me off.

“Don’t insult me by pretending you don’t need my help. You were a good agent but you got sloppy. And now you’re stuck warming the bench. But you’re still valuable. I’m willing to put in a good word with The Administration. Get you back in the game.” He watches me draw in a breath. “What do you think, Mathilda?”

My real name sends me back to that last fateful mission:

I’m alone, crouched in a darkened motel corridor. I’m waiting for the ‘all-clear’ but something’s not right. My watch reads one minute past the specified drop time. I catch the faintest whiff of something in the air… cigarette smoke? No, gunpowder. I hold in a gasp as something dark and red oozes slowly under the door. Then I run.

I was training at the call center less than 48 hours later, or rather, ‘Brenda’ was…

I snap out of my memory. Carl is munching happily on his cheeseburger, waiting for my response.

“The Administration made it very clear the agents were killed because of my mistakes,” I tell him. “I don’t see them changing their minds so easily.”

He takes a long time to finish chewing as he considers what I said. He gestures for the ketchup, lobs a healthy dollop on his French fries and leans in closer. His voice is so faint, barely a whisper but there’s no mistaking his excitement:

“The Administration needs new intelligence. The easiest way to get it is to access a large communication network. Tell me, ‘Brenda’,” he says, a disgusting leer on his face. “What is it again that you do all day at the call center?”

Realization dawns, bright and clear, and a rush of goosebumps shiver up my arms. My pulse quickens. I just stare at him, unable to speak.

It’s so simple…what’s the catch?

“What do they want me to do, exactly?” I ask, breathless. My knee jumps under the table so I reach down a hand to steady it. The bell rings as the diner door opens. In the napkin dispenser, I see the distorted reflection of two construction workers in bright orange vests enter.

“Plant the malware on the server. When the system backs itself up, a copy will automatically download to the district server. The Administration will have its access and you’ll have your life back.” He smiles and for the first time all day, so do I.

Suddenly, a raised voice startles the noisy restaurant into a stunned silence.

“FBI! Freeze! Put your hands where we can see them!”

It’s the voice of Special Agent Mathilda Hawthorne—me.

I’m on my feet, my one hand brandishing my badge, the other closed around my gun, which I retrieved from my boot in one swift motion. My dining companion never saw it coming. He cowers, arms over his head.

“Great work, Agent Hawthorne,” crackles the voice in my earpiece, my partner in the Bureau.

“Thanks. Let’s get him out of here,” I motion to the construction workers, my backup, and they haul him out of the booth and into the waiting van.

“Nice undercover work, Hawthorne.” says Agent Cole as he tightens the handcuffs on ‘Carl’. “But just so you know, there’s something stuck in your teeth.”

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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

The Error in Desire

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
R.J. Snowberger


Photo Credit: Charlotte Godfrey/Flickr (CC-by)

“But, Mommy, I want to stay with you.”

Grace tried not to look too closely at her daughter’s sad, imploring face. She knew that one peek at Maddie’s droopy blue eyes, flushed cheeks, and wisps of sweaty blonde hair stuck to her forehead would set off the motherly instincts that she was trying her best to bury. Maddie was sick, and she would continue to be sick until Grace could find the money to pay for medical treatment. She kept this knowledge in her mind as she unclipped Maddie’s car seat.

“I know you do, baby girl, but mommy has a test she needs to take, and I can’t take you with me. Don’t worry. You’re going to have lots of fun with Uncle Harry and Uncle Mason.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I know,” Grace replied, lifting the four-year-old from the seat. Maddie immediately buried her face into the crook of Grace’s neck, her fingers clutching at Grace’s shirt collar.

Mason opened the door to greet them before they had even walked halfway down the driveway. He looked like an Italian model: his tall, slim, muscular build enhanced by his choice of a fitted gray shirt and blue jeans. With his undercut styled jet black hair, chocolate-colored eyes under bushy eyebrows, and an olive complexion, Mason was the complete opposite of Grace’s blonde, blue-eyed brother Harry. But then, people did say, “opposites attract.”

“How are my two favorite ladies?” he called out with a bright smile on his face.

Grace shook her head, and Mason’s smile faded into tender-eyed sympathy.

“Not feeling good today, sweetie?” he asked, rubbing Maddie’s back lightly. “I might have something to fix that.” He held up a DVD that he had been hiding behind his back. “Want to watch some Princess Sofia with me?” he asked, and then leaned forward and added in a whisper, “And I’ve got a super-secret, special snack for once your mom leaves, too. What d’ya say?”

Maddie tried to hide her smile, but it was obvious that she was hooked.

“I knew I’d win you over,” Mason chuckled, motioning toward the house. “Harry got a work call and had to pop out for a bit, but he’ll be back soon.”

“That’s fine,” Grace replied as she carried Maddie towards the spacious living room just to the left of the main entryway. “He warned me that he might get called away.”

While Grace situated Maddie on the couch, Mason got the TV set up for their movie watching experience. By the time Grace was kissing her daughter goodbye, Maddie was snuggled up in blankets and ready for her mother to leave so she could enjoy her show and find out what the super-secret treat was.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Grace smiled, tapping Maddie on the nose. She waited for her daughter to nod and then headed for the door. Before she reached it, however, Mason had wedged himself in front of her, blocking her exit.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Little late for this conversation, don’t you think?” Grace replied, not looking Mason in the eye. She couldn’t afford to let him change her mind. “It’s safe. It will get me the money I need to help Maddie. I’m doing it.”

“Grace…”

“Please move.”

Mason sighed but stepped out of the way, allowing Grace the escape she’d asked for.

*

The first hour was nothing but paperwork. “…and sign here. Please initial that we have explained and you comprehend the…” blah, blah, blah “…concerning this procedure.” Grace couldn’t understand why they were making such a big deal about the test. Virtual reality had been around for years. Why did it matter whether or not you were asleep while you experienced it?

Next, they asked her about her personal life. Nothing too specific, just questions about her family: what her daughter was like, her parents, her brother, Mason. They asked her if she was married, dating, if she had eyes set on anyone. She answered vaguely, “Who doesn’t see a cute guy every now and again?”

Finally, they had her change into a blue cloth gown and led her to a room containing only a single hospital bed and a bunch of monitors. They inserted an IV into her left arm. Grace had never been good with needles, but after having watched Maddie get multiple pricks and sticks, she felt stupid freaking out herself.

“Now, like we’ve said, this machine is programed to give you the perfect dream,” a lab technician explained as he attached little electrodes to her forehead. “You’ve got the easy job. All you have to do is sleep while we watch your vital signs on the monitors.” He smiled as if he’d made some sort of joke, but Grace didn’t get it.

He cleared his throat. “Are you ready?” When she nodded, he plunged a serum into her IV catheter. “Sweet dreams.”

*

It took a moment for Grace to realize that the water was still running in the sink. She had been watching Maddie out of the window as the happy child played with a small Labrador puppy in the backyard. The two were running around aimlessly, Maddie shrieking with laughter as the puppy chased after her, nipping at her heels anytime the four-year-old slowed down enough for it to catch up.

“Everything all right?”

Grace turned to see Mason entering the room. He was dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and blue jeans, his black hair was short and combed neatly to one side. For a moment, Grace thought he looked a little different than usual, but the moment passed, and she smiled. “Yeah, everything’s fine. I was just watching Maddie and got distracted, I guess.” She turned off the sink and turned towards Mason who was stepping forward to wrap her in a hug. She fit perfectly in his arms, felt safe there.

“I think that puppy was a good idea,” Mason said, as they both gazed out the window. “I know Maddie is young, but it’s never too early to begin teaching responsibility. This way, she can have a little fun as well.”

“Mhmm,” Grace grunted in agreement.

“And speaking of responsibility,” Mason began. “Your brother is going to be a little late to dinner tonight. He has a situation at work that’s going to keep him longer than expected.”

“What else is new?” Grace sighed, falling out of Mason’s embrace. She turned back towards the sink but couldn’t remember what she had been doing there in the first place.

“He is bringing his new boy-toy, though,” Mason announced. “So at least he got back to us on that.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t call them that.”

“I wouldn’t have to call them that if he would stick with one long enough for the guy to be considered anything else.”

“He just hasn’t found the right person yet,” Grace countered. “Not everyone can get it right the first time,” she added, smiling up into Mason’s deep brown eyes. How she loved those eyes.

“Yes, well,” Mason muttered, leaning forward to give Grace a kiss. It was a full kiss, a deep kiss that made Grace hunger for more.

“Mom!”

Grace and Mason broke apart to see a muddy puppy scrambling down the hall, leaving a splatter of footprints in his wake as Maddie charged full speed after him.

Maddie paused long enough in the doorway to screech out, “Dodger got inside!” before continuing her chase after the rampaging puppy.

“I’ve got it,” Mason announced, “but we’ll finish this later,” he added, passing her a sensual look.

As Mason cleaned up the mud, Grace prepared dinner, and by the time six-thirty rolled around, everything was as good as it was going to get. Grace’s parents arrived first, her father as loud and jovial as always while her mother stood quietly by his side, smiling politely when necessary. Mason’s father was next to arrive, his mother having declined the invitation. Ever since their divorce it was always either one or the other. This left only Harry and his date who, surprisingly, appeared only a mere half-hour late.

“This is Brian,” Harry introduced, and Grace was surprised to see that Brian looked a whole hell of a lot like Mason.

Who knew we had the same taste, she thought as she herded everyone into the kitchen to make up plates.

The meal was basically finished when Mason turned bright-eyed towards her, the corners of his mouth turned up in anticipation. “Are you ready to make the announcement?”

Grace smiled back, the warmth of his loving expression filling her up. “You do it.”

“Okay.” He picked up his fork and began tapping the side of his water glass. It was corny, but cute, and managed to get everyone’s attention. “Hey, everyone, we actually invited you all over for dinner tonight because we have a special announcement.”

He paused then, at which time Maddie popped up in her seat and cried, “Mommy’s having a baby!”

Grace never got to hear her family’s reaction. A moment later, she found herself lying on a hospital bed, staring up at a blinking monitor.

“You did really well,” a lab technician said as he began unhooking her from the machine. “We got excellent readings. All that is left now is for you to fill out a little questionnaire and you’re free to go.”

Grace nodded, but she hadn’t really been paying attention to what the man had said. Her hand was on her stomach, right over the baby. She was pregnant, but not by Mason, or even someone like Mason—not like it should be. Derek wouldn’t want this baby, just like he hadn’t wanted Maddie. He merely wanted the sex, content to jump in and out of her life like a yo-yo. There would be no family dinner where the announcement was made followed by congratulatory smiles. In fact, she hadn’t even bothered to tell anyone yet because she knew the kind of looks she would receive.

The dream had shown her what she wanted, all right. Maddie healthy and running around was no secret, but she’d thought the crush on her brother’s husband had been locked away deep in the depths of her soul. How did the computer know about that just by a few questions concerning her everyday life? She felt dirty now—secrets exposed, her true feeling laid bare even if it was only in her own mind.

She wished she’d never had that dream and yet… if she could trade it for the life she had now, she would. That machine was dangerous. Sure, it might keep nightmares away, which was supposedly its purpose, but who would want to live in the real world when they could have the one they always imagined while they slept?

Once Grace was unhooked from the machines, she was taken back to her changing room. She ripped off the gown, flinging it away from her before scrambling back into her own clothes as if they would somehow vanquish the grimy feeling left behind from the test. When she opened the door of the changing room, she startled as she found herself face to face with the lab technician.

He handed her a clipboard. “If you could just fill out this questionnaire before you leave. And also, for further reference, would you be interested in repeating this test if the designers thought it useful in the future?”

“Yes,” Grace replied without thinking.

pencilEmail: rjsnowberger[at]gmail.com