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Unbridled Fire

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Unbridled Fire
a short story by
Robert Lampros

Jacob sat slightly higher at the table than his friend, Sunny, with whom he was speaking.  Sunny’s hands were placed flat on either side of the cloudy orange tabletop as he listened intently to the dream being recounted.

“She was waiting for me in the back of a small restaurant, kind of like this one, at a table, opposite an empty chair, and her friend Barbara sat to her left.  She was smiling a hidden kind of smile as I walked up to her.”

“You could walk, in the dream?”

“Yes,” nodded Jacob, “and when I sat down Claire leaned back and crossed her arms, like this.”  He folded his arms against his chest and tilted his head back, peering at Sunny through distrustful eyes.  “I don’t remember how it got started, but I had a book in front of me, uh…”

 After ten seconds or so, Sunny said, “A textbook?  A paperback?”

Jacob raised his eyes to meet his friend’s.  “No.  A schedule book, you know, a—what do you call those things?”

“A day planner?”

“Yeah, one of those, all filled with events and plans.  Every day had a box filled with notes, the entire year was mapped out for us with dates, vacations, parties, family visits and stuff, even big celebrations like New Year’s Eve in Times Square.  I kept flipping through the book for the best days, and reading the day’s events to her, trying to convince her, but she didn’t smile or move really.”

“Convince her of what?”

“I don’t know,” he laughed.  “Impress her, maybe.  To make her fall in love with me.”

“What was Barbara doing?”

“She might have been helping me look for days.”  Jacob stared down at his plate, at the half-eaten pile of french fries and swirl of ketchup.  “I woke up before Claire gave me an answer.”

Sunny followed him past the counter and register, then helped push his electric wheelchair over the ridge in the doorway.  They listened to the Classic Rock station on the ride home while Jacob nodded to the music, throwing punches at the air and shouting, “Alright,” when the songs got good.

“God bless you, brother,” Sunny waved out the window and sped away, the taillights blinking on in the blue evening haze.  Jacob watched the grey Chevy shrink and blur into the stream of humming vehicles, then spun and motored up the walkway toward the ramp and front door.

 All he had to do for the rest of the day was shower, get dressed, eat dinner, and go to sleep before ten o’clock.  His job at Makermart required him to be there at six sharp so he could scan the boxes after the flow team unloaded the morning deliveries.  After work he had basketball practice on Wednesdays and Fridays, and if he didn’t get enough sleep he’d be drowsy and lagging on the court.

The simple task of showering and putting on clothes took Jacob approximately three to four times longer than an able-bodied person.  Once he completed this process, he checked his phone, and seeing no new messages or calls, wheeled over to his desk, removed a bottle of tequila and plastic lime from the drawer, and commenced watching an episode of Attack on Titan on his laptop.  A team of warriors flew through the trees raining hell on a malevolent giant who had the power to regenerate his limbs and organs.  Jacob poured another shot, threw it back, and squirted some lime juice in his mouth.  His thoughts drifted to Claire and the dream again.  There may be some truth to it, he thought.  Sometimes he felt like he was trying too hard, and if she wasn’t into it, so what, there’s plenty of fish in the sea.  Then the green of her eyes washed over him, melted his indifference into a renewed determination to win her.  “I love her,” he’d say to himself, “but she better know I’m liquid metal.”

The boxes dropped onto the conveyor and slid over the silver bars, the worn cylinders roaring, then faintly whistling, as the cardboard rolled past, and Jacob’s coworkers loaded the pallets on either side of the line.  He used his manual chair there since it was easier to maneuver in close quarters.  Once a pallet was ready to go out to the floor, the worker would raise a hand and he’d shoot over and scan the barcodes on each of the boxes.  Not the most awesome job in his opinion, but at least he could listen to music, and the people weren’t all unbearable.

“But it don’t make no difference,” he sang under his breath, “Cause I ain’t gonna be easy, easy.  The only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m, killed by death…”

“What you listenin’ to today, Jake?” his friend Shane asked, but he just kept singing and scanning the boxes.

When ten-thirty came around he grabbed his lunch and rolled outside to the employee smoking area on the south side of the building.  Early December in Milwaukee, the clouds of vapor billowed out from Jacob’s lungs as the turkey sandwich on his lap began to freeze.  He watched the cars gliding past beyond the creek encircling the hill on which the Makermart sat, and let his eyes drift down to the icy water.  The edges were frozen, jagged white borders constricting the dark green current, winding through the dense woods before the highway.  He didn’t move for a while, only sat, listening.  Then, at ten fifty-five, he quickly ate the frosty sandwich and wheeled back in to help stock and zone items on the lower shelves.

The Dial n’ Go shuttle picked him up at two and took him straight to basketball, and his mother’s friend, Susan, the woman he lived with, picked him up from there.  “How was practice?” she asked, folding the wheelchair and preparing to stow it in back of the van.  “You look exhausted, did you eat your lunch?”  Jacob hoisted his right leg inside and reached out to close the passenger door, pausing a moment to consider answering her question.  “Never mind, then,” she said when the door slammed shut.

“I got you those elbow sleeves you asked for, the kind with the pad.  They’re on your bed,” she called from the kitchen.

His head bowed, almost dropping on the empty plate.  “How many times have I told you—politely—to stay out of my room?”

“Oh, I know…”  Her attention focused on the task at hand, cracking and straining the yolks out of five large eggs for Jacob’s dinner omelet, part of a high-protein, low-calorie diet he’d started for basketball, and to help him get “insanely ripped” by New Year’s.  “I thought it’d be easier than having to carry them yourself.  Couldn’t help seeing those empty bottles in the trash.  I wish you’d quit drinking so much, young man.”

He raised his head, stared wide-eyed at the ceiling.  “Nine years, I’ve been old enough to drink.  I’ll be—”

“Thirty years-old in March,” she finished the sentence with him, rounding the counter with a plate of turkey bacon and a glass of milk.  “Please take it under advisement,” she smiled gently, “you drink enough tequila to drown a mariachi band each week.”

“And she’s racist, too.”

“Winters are rough sometimes,” she said, returning to the kitchen.  “The soul tends to weep and yearn for light.  Spring will be a time of waxing joy and renewal.”

“I’m happy to hear that, Susan.”

He deliberately waited until 8:05pm to call Claire.  She picked up the phone after one ring.  “Hey, Jacob!”

“Claire, how’s it going?  How was—”

“Not bad, you know—sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.  I’m in the middle of inking the next SkyWench issue and it’s stressing me out.”

Jacob paused a second.  “I saw the sample pages on your blog the other day.  It looks amazing.”

“Well, thank you, sir.  Should be one of the best ones yet.  Now all I need is some readers.”

“Hey, Claire.”

“Yeah?  Present.”

“Would you want to have dinner with me Saturday, at my place, maybe watch a movie after?”  He almost added, “I can cook a mean roasted chicken with sauvignon blanc,” but kept his mouth shut.

A few hours passed, and Claire said, “Sure.  I’d love to.  What time should I be there?”

“Eight, eight-thirty.  I’ll start cooking around eight.”

“Sounds great, Jake,” she said, possibly smiling.  “I’ll see you, Saturday night.”

After work the next day he hit the gym, but not too hard since he had practice the day after that.  He wondered if Claire might want to go to his game Sunday.  Depending on how their date went, asking her to the basketball game could be a smart move, but if he came on too strong she might brush him off like a charity case who got too clingy.  “Cute little Jacob,” he groaned, pulling himself up into a seated position on the workout bench.  “He thinks Claire’s gonna be his girlfriend.”  Opposite the incline and decline presses, a woman in dark grey spandex pants and a sports bra was doing alternating curls and watching herself in the mirror.  He eyed her for a moment, checking out her body.  Curvy and muscular, a large chest but not huge, a moderately pretty face, and straight black hair.  She caught a glimpse of him, glanced at his shoulders and arms, and smiled.  He smiled back, then her eyes moved to the wheelchair parked beside his bench, she flashed a confused expression, stole a glance at his legs, and turned back to her own reflection.  Jacob lied down and started his next set.

Tired, tired, tired.  So tired of this…  Waking up to pitch black alarm, smelling filth in a soiled diaper, dragging self out of bed, washing, grooming, dressing, for another day like every other God-damned day.  Another day of crawling.  Susan loves, cares, and toils for him.  Sunny loves him like a brother.  Claire laughs and gazes at him from time to time, soft beaming starlight in her eyes, soon to fade, or fall, displaced by cloud or shadow, unknown amusement shaping lips into a grin.

“Hold up, let me scan those,” he barked at Richard, who’d started jacking up a pallet near the back of the truck.

“Sorry, Jake.  Kind of want to get these done in a hurry.  They should let us scan our own boxes, it’d be way faster.”

“Management wants it this way,” he said quickly.

“You’d be out of a job though, huh?”

“And what a tragedy that would be.  Kay, you’re good to go, Dick.”

Half of practice was drills, exercise, and strategy, while the second half was a scrimmage game.  His team went all out during practice games unless they had an important real game in the next few days.  Sunday afternoon they were playing the West Allis Porcupines, so no one on Jacob’s team was very worried.  The scrimmage began as usual in a fun, even brotherly spirit of good-natured competition.

“Once in a while it’s the right play to pass the ball, lame legs.”

“I’ll make sure to tell your mom that later.”

“At least Jake actually makes a shot sometimes, Danny.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” his teammates laughed.

Jacob spun and launched down the left side of the court, hoping to snag a rebound and sail the ball to Nick or Max for a shot.  He locked chairs with Elliot at the three-point line and fought to break free, but by then his team had possession, storming up the court where Max lobbed one in from under the basket.

Susan waited in the parking lot at four, folded his chair, stowed it in back, climbed into the driver’s seat, and started the van.  “Your friend dropped by today,” she said quietly.  “She left you a comic book.  Said you’re cooking her dinner tomorrow night?”

He rolled down the window, spat on the pavement, and rolled it up again.  “Is that alright?”

They already had the soy sauce, vinegar, and carrots at home, but they still needed soy beans, soba noodles, and salmon filets, so they stopped at the EarthWay grocery by their house.  He had found the Ginger Salmon recipe on a gourmet cooking site, he told her, and thought a Japanese meal would go well with the film they were watching, plus Claire liked anime, sushi, and some Shibuya-kei music.  He appreciated Susan taking him to buy the groceries.  He also appreciated her finding someplace else to be tomorrow night from seven o’clock onward, so he and Claire could have the privacy they’re entitled to as responsible, non-threatening adults.

The comic she’d given him, the latest issue of SkyWench, wasn’t her best work, although Jacob respected what she was trying to do.  Previous issues focused more on the clashes between Mina’s skyborn clan of sister warriors and the rock-dwelling Scorporanths that fed on human beings, often indulging a nigh unquenchable thirst for human spinal fluid.  In this one all she did was fly from mountain to mountain on her Sordes, with a few of her warriors, on a quest to locate a floating island where the land was fertile and the Scorporanths couldn’t reach them.  Mina ends up finding it, then changes her mind, saying life there would be, “A thunderless dream, and hence a virago’s nightmare.”  Claire’s other readers might enjoy it, either way he intended to keep any negative opinions to himself.

She showed up just after eight while he was grating the carrots.  On his way to the door he hit play on the stereo.  He had considered listening to an album that he knew Claire liked, Stereo * Type A or This Will Destroy You, but before he started cooking went with Use Your Illusion I, not wanting to look overeager to make her happy.  She stood on the doorstep, smiling, for a couple seconds, and he said, “Hey, Claire.  You look…  Hazardous.”

Black sweater unbuttoned down the front, white v-neck t-shirt, faded jeans, frayed at the bottom, over a new pair of sambas.  No purse in her hands, gently resting at her sides, and a calm, radiant, almost sarcastic look in her emerald green eyes.  Dark brown hair streaked with blonde fell over one side of her face, curled slightly beneath her chin, and flowed in a crescent to the back of her neck.  Pale rose lips, round above with softly dimpled corners, delicate, ivory cheeks, and the faintest freckles on a nose sloping bravely from the quiet shadows round her eyes.

“Invite me in at your own risk,” she said impatiently.

He poured her a glass of the Merlot that Susan drank, set it on the counter in front of her, and resumed prepping the ingredients.  Most of the tables and counters were about half a foot lower than usual, part of the renovation done after Susan bought the house.  In spite of this, and the feature of Jacob’s electric wheelchair allowing him to elevate or lower himself somewhat, he couldn’t shake a nagging embarrassment as Claire watched him cook and talked about her friends, the work they were doing, their plans for the future, and hers, which were more like vague wishes really because she still didn’t know what she wanted to do, but she’d rather live overseas and teach English than keep slanging shirts and keychains at the mall, and listening to the same fake-azz pop songs all day.

“Don’t you have to speak a foreign language to be able to teach overseas?”

“Not really.  Besides, I could always learn.”

“Where would you want to live?”

“Europe, China, South America…”

“Why not Japan?”

“I think most people already have a working knowledge of English there.  If not they probably don’t need more teachers.”

“Wouldn’t you miss this place?  Milwaukee isn’t the best city in the world, but it’s way better than Chicago, or St. Louis.”

Claire laughed a single, ecstatic, “Ha,” and let her head fall on her forearms, lifted it again, and finished her wine.  “I just know my life here has been a tragedy.”

They ate quickly, laughing now and then at each other’s jokes.  The salmon was delicious, perfectly cooked according to him, though Claire thought it was too well done.  “I agree,” she told him, “couldn’t be better.”  The tv in the living room emitted an obnoxious buzzing sound when the previews started.  He nearly fell out of his chair trying to get to the entertainment center to adjust the wires.  Unplugging and plugging them back in fixed the problem, and the film began.  The Wind Rises, directed by Hayao Miyazaki.  He’d almost chosen Ninja Scroll, but after some deliberation ordered this one, not wanting to risk Claire getting freaked out—uncomfortable, rather—due to the abundant violence.  The movie amazed her right away, she slid over next to Jacob, who’d moved from his wheelchair to the couch, and put his arm around her.

“Farewell, Mina,” he called from the doorway, instantly regretting it until she turned, laughing, and blew him a kiss.  Later, as he was falling asleep, he assured himself that it was better not to have asked her to go to his game on Sunday, better still not to have made any plans at all.  Their date was good.  Maybe in a few days he’d call her again.

The game was a blowout, as expected.  His team, the Badgers, dominated the West Allis Porcupines for a 43 to 17-point win, then Jacob and a few of the guys drove to a nearby sports bar for burgers and beers.

“I’ll buy the drinks today, boys,” he said as they rolled up to their table.

“Why you gonna do that, Jake?” asked Nick.

“I feel like being nice, since when do I need a reason?”

Danny eyed him for a second.

“In that case I want the most expensive whiskey they’ve got,” laughed Tyler.

“Did you get lucky last night, bro?” asked Danny.

Everyone at the table stopped talking, and looked at him.

“I told your mom to keep quiet about tha—”

“Yeah, yeah, just answer the question.”

He stared back at Danny and looked around at everyone.  “None of your business, but yeah, I had a date last night.”

All the guys said, “Oooooh,” and started making dumb jokes, when the server walked over.

“You sound like a bunch of tween-age girls,” he yelled.  “Look, the waitress is here.”

They ate, talked, and laughed for almost two hours, watching the Admirals and some other games on tv.  Jacob and Danny drank shots of Jack until Danny threw up a little on his plate and disqualified himself.  At home later, Susan asked how the date had gone.  He declined to answer, only said, “Thank you,” and wheeled into his room.

It had surprised him that she’d consented to the date so quickly.  Susan treated him like a baby when it came to normal adult activities, like going out to have a few beers with his friends, crashing at someone else’s house for a night, and spending time alone with a woman.  He almost never did these things, but could remember a strange paralysis coming over her, a glassy-eyed intractability, when he wanted to do basic stuff like this in the past.  Last night was no problem for her, for some reason.  Maybe she finally realized he’s a real, live, grown-up human being.  Or was it something different?  Jacob double-checked the alarm time on his cell phone.  It’s possible she sensed the truth about him and Claire, that they were meant to be together, and she didn’t want to mess with fate.  Like playing with fire, he mused, dreaming off to sleep.

To the right of the black marble steps, the ramp led up to the revolving doors in three parallel segments, with a couple feet of space between them.  Pushing hard up the first section of the ramp, Jacob’s arms began to tire, shoulders and triceps aching before turning to ascend the second, which he climbed more slowly, gasping at the start of each new push.  Halfway up the third segment and less than twenty feet from the top, his right arm gave out, and the chair swung back to the left, and struck the metal railing with a low, percussive ring, a sound that tensed and uncoiled, sweeping out through his surroundings and permeating the ground, walls, and buildings as if they were merely air.

The front entrance had a single automatic door by the top of the ramp, yet it didn’t open when he pressed the button.  Jacob clumsily wheeled in using his elbow to prevent the door from closing on him, rolled weakly past the vacant front desk, and continued across the spacious, warmly furnished lobby toward the row of elevators at the far wall.  The effort required to convey his chair across the floor seemed to increase with each rotation of the wheels, his muscles felt like dead weight, his lungs began to choke on the sour air, and his head, sweating, nauseous, clouded by exhaustion and despair, sank forward and hung limply on his chest.  He kept pushing.  One arm, both arms, one again, both again…  The lamplight in the room grew dim, and in the oaken darkness Jacob sensed the presence of his family and friends, pale, luminous figures, like spectators on either side of him, faces growing clearer, his sister and brother-in-law, with their kids, his physical therapist, his bro Sunny, Mom, Dad, Claire…  They were smiling, and crying, some of them, watching him push.  He raised his head.  The elevators appeared, blurry and quivering, just a few yards away.  The wheels squeaked on the cold tiles as he inched his way forward.  Susan stood to his left, quiet like the rest, silently cheering him on.  He looked at her and smiled, faced forward again, and propelled the chair onward with a final, broken cry.

The elevator doors slid open.  In a moment he was strong again, and wheeled inside with ease.  Four vertical rows of square buttons, twenty-five in each row and numbered one to a hundred, with several for the lower levels below, shone with amber light in front of him.  He pressed the button for floor eighty-two.  The car jolted and rattled into motion, swaying slightly as it rose, while the grid of lights over Jacob’s head cast bright floating circles on him and the elevator floor.

The car stopped and the doors opened.  He rolled into a dim, high hallway where a woman sat at a desk in a cutout to his left.  Her hair was sandy blonde, straight with dark roots, and she glanced up from her computer and smiled as he passed her.  A conference room at the end of the hall, illumined by floor-to-ceiling windows, drew him to its glass wall and door, which he pulled open, awkwardly entering, and wheeling past the empty table and chairs, he parked before the center window and stared out at the city and sunset.

Above the staggered buildings, the clouds swept down in orange, pink, and purple waves, like the break of a cosmic surf, static, though imperceptibly flowing, crashing to the earth from a separate encompassing world.  Within his heart, the softest change, a watered seed first parting, then peace, eternal dreams—

Knock, knock, knock.

Jacob turned as the conference room door swung open, and a man in his forties, eyes brown and steady, stepped in and walked over.  “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.  My name is Buddy.”

“I’m Jacob,” he answered, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Do you mind if I sit down?  I’d like to speak with you for a few minutes, if that’s alright.”

“Your office, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” said Buddy, pulling out a chair and spinning it around to face the windows.  “This is a sort of common space, for people who work in various capacities for the one who owns the building.”

Jacob leaned forward to peer down at the avenues and minuscule vehicles not quite a thousand feet below.  “He must be… rather comfortable, if he owns this place.”

“Well, yes and no,” he said thoughtfully.  “Sometimes I think he’s in worse shape than the rest of us combined.”  Buddy took a second to gaze up at the clouds.  “You could call it a tragedy, and I tend to think of it that way, then, almost as quickly, I realize there was no tragedy, and nothing that happens was ever really tragic at all.”

After a long, unburdensome silence, during which the sunset breathed perhaps its finest breath, Jacob asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The man looked at him as though irritated, but not by the question, nor by Jacob himself.  “We only have a little time here.  I’m not sure you’re going to remember this when you wake up.  If you don’t mind telling me, when you were younger, did you have many dreams about running, or flying?”

“Running, yeah.  I still do once in a while.”

“And did those dreams feel very real?”

“Sure, probably the most realistic dreams I’ve ever had.”

On hearing this Buddy turned away, pretending to survey the rooftops, level and angled surfaces to the right of their towering room.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything.  And that’s exactly why you and I are here right now.  You have a terribly important job to do,” he said, meeting Jacob’s eyes.  “There’s an infinity of ways to accomplish this work, but I’m afraid you alone are qualified.  You’re the lucky one who is able to do it.”

“Because I’m special.”

“Yes,” he nodded eagerly.

“Because I’m the bravest boy in the whole world, and God loves me so much and He’s so damn proud of me?  I’ve heard that one before, Buddy.  The lady who said it ditched me to take care of someone else’s kids.  I don’t need to hear that from you, and you know what?  I never needed her, either.  What’s the quickest way to get out of this fake-ass building?”

He didn’t respond, merely watched him for a moment with the same unfocused irritation, before fading away into blackness with the building, the city, and the evening sky.  Jacob awoke to the shrill chirping of birds in the dark outside his window.

The early shift at Makermart was painful on Mondays.  The majority of the flow team, and the entirety of the management, moped through the store on autopilot, performing their duties with alternating vexation and stoic misery.  Jacob didn’t feel too bad on this particular morning, in part because Sunny would be picking him up at two and driving him across the river to Pointer Arena to see the MMA fights that night.  He’d been looking forward to this for weeks, and so had Sunny, who’d studied Jiu-Jitsu and fought in some amateur bouts himself.

It was almost two-thirty by the time he arrived, as Jacob sat in the cold debating whether or not to call Susan.  “I am so sorry, man,” he said, jumping out of the driver’s seat and jogging back to open the hatch of his Sonic LS.

“I was about to give up on you,” he laughed, “thought we were gonna miss the fights.”

“No way.”  He removed a narrow aluminum ramp from the back of the car, anchored one end on the pavement, and did the same with another identical piece.  “My nephew had to go to the hospital, he got food poisoning at school, toxic bologna or something.”

“Is he okay?”

“Now he is, now that he puked his guts out.”

“Thank God…  Beware the poison lunchmeat.”

As they approached the Kilbourn Street Bridge, they decided to park and grab a cup of coffee and some food, and kill an hour or two along the river.  “Sorry I’m such a pain in the ass,” he called back as Sunny unloaded his electric chair in the parking garage.

“You’d be worth the trouble if you bought the food more often.”

Stopping at a Ringman’s not far from the bridge, Jacob paid for their coffee and scones and they strolled down the riverwalk as they ate.  Two young women passed them going the opposite way, walking a black Pit Bull mix.  The taller one smiled at Jacob, who grinned and said, “Hello, ladies,” forgetting he had a mouthful of blueberry scone.

“Real smooth, bro,” said Sunny, and they veered to the right, parked and sat by the railing.  The river wasn’t icy at all, even though he was pretty sure it was below freezing.  The two of them sat quietly for a minute, finishing their coffee.

“I had a date the other night.”

Sunny turned.  “With Claire?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“How’d it go?”

“How do you think it went?  I swept her off her feet.  She’s in love with me.”

“Where’d you guys go?”

“Stayed in, watched a movie.  I cooked dinner while she told me her life story.”

“What about the Sub?”

“She agreed to spend the night elsewhere, believe it or not.”  He glanced to his right.  “Shut up,” he said, shaking his head.

“Tell me you at least kissed her.”

“No—”

“Awww.”

“That would have been nice, though.  No, we just watched the movie, talked a little, and then she left.  She had a good time, though, I know that.”

Sunny peered down at the dark green water.  “And you were worried about that stupid dream you had.  I knew you’d be alright.  When are you hanging out again?”

“We didn’t make plans.  I don’t know, sometimes…”  Jacob’s eyes seemed to darken as he stared down through the bars of the railing.  “I think sometimes it’d be better if I lived alone.  I mean stayed alone, forever.”  He glanced at Sunny again.  “I’m not sure I could make her happy, especially someone like Claire.”

“You said your equipment worked just fine.”

“I hate you, bro.  I’m talking about long term, everyday life.  Do you remember, The Death of Superman?”

“The comic book?”

“Yes, the comic book.  It starts with a spiked fist beating the hell out of this thick iron door.  A big dude in a green jumpsuit busts out, and starts tearing through the forest.  Well, the Justice League hears about the damage he’s doing, and they come to bring him in, but he starts pummeling those guys.  Later Superman shows up, and Doomsday punches him in the stomach, then turns around and kicks him through a house, clean through a house.  Superman.”

“What’s this got to do with Claire and you?”

A flash of anger reddened Jacob’s face.  “Because no matter how they try to crush him, the dude keeps getting stronger.  Even Superman can’t stop him, unless he dies too.”  He searched Sunny’s eyes again.  “I feel like that some days, like Superman in that story.  Or maybe like Doomsday.  I don’t know…”

He watched the current a second longer, reached over and squeezed Jacob’s bicep.  “You might be like Supergirl in that story.  Come on, let’s go.”

Less than half the seats in Pointer Arena had filled up by the starting bell of the first fight.  Their tickets had only cost thirty-two dollars a piece, which bought them a view from about three hundred feet away from the ring—worse than most of the people there, but neither Jacob nor Sunny was too disappointed.  The first bout ended quickly, the favorite, whose reach gave him a dominating advantage, kept his stronger opponent out of range with his jab, and when he began getting tired hammered his head and face with hooks and crosses.  The next few bouts lasted longer, the fighters more evenly matched, and the last fight they saw raged for all five rounds.  One of the guys could draw and dodge punches with blinding speed, then he’d either counter or take his opponent down to the mat, but the guy kept breaking free, landing elbows or kicks while he got away, and the process would start over again.  Both fighters were swollen, bloody, and barely conscious by the end of the fifth, when the faster guy won by decision.  Sunny admitted on the ride home he probably couldn’t have beaten either one of them.  As Jacob rolled in the house at just past nine, Susan asked if it was a fun trip to the art museum.  “Sure was,” he nodded.  “You’d be amazed how exciting flower paintings can be.”

His morning routine the following day took an extra twenty minutes, since he slipped off the seat in his shower as he was reaching for the conditioner, and in his efforts to pull himself back up, his foot got caught in the plastic suspension bands, and he fell onto the shower floor again trying to free his leg.  Once he had, Susan knocked on the bathroom door in a panic, asking if he was okay.  Jacob inhaled and exhaled five deep breaths before answering, “Yes, I’m fine.  A minor accident, that’s all.”  He lay still a while on the floor of the shower, until he was reasonably sure that she’d gone away, then resumed the attempt to climb onto his shower seat.  By the time he’d finished getting ready for work, and wheeled out to the kitchen, Susan had prepared a fresh, hot breakfast of steak and egg whites, scalloped potatoes, and avocado salad.

“This looks delicious,” he said, surprised.  “I haven’t lifted for a few days, I don’t need that much protein.  Thanks, though, I appreciate it.”

“Figured I might as well,” she smiled from the sink, “having awoken to a loud, mysterious thud in the direction of your bathroom.”

“Yeah, I slipped off the seat trying to reach my conditioner.  No permanent damage.”

Turning off the water, she placed the last pan in the dishwasher and came to the table to sit with him.  “Why don’t you keep it where it’s supposed to be?”

“I do, usually.  I was…  Never mind, please.”

Susan gazed out the window, through the open blinds at a sparrow perched on the bird feeder hanging from a lower limb of the pear tree in their backyard.  A female cardinal soon alighted upon the opposite side and frightened the sparrow away, and a minute or two later a round grey dove appeared and scared the cardinal away.  She let her eyes drift down to Jacob beside her, dividing the last of the egg whites with his fork.  Her left hand flew out to brush the damp yellow waves of hair back over his ear.  His arm shot up to block hers and force it away.

Please don’t touch me.”  Swallowing the food in his mouth and setting the plate and utensils aside, he looked down at the table, turned to her and said, “Will you help me pack my stuff this week?  I need to move out.”

Susan flinched, almost invisibly, and sat up straighter in her chair.  Regarding, briefly, the kind certainty in his face, and focusing on the bird feeder again, vacant now, the seeds reduced to dotted, uneven sand between the glass, she covered his look with her own, replying, “Only if you take me with you.”

The rest of the week passed quietly and slowly.  He spent his free time at home, packing in boxes the things he needed to take with him, looking for apartments online, drinking, reading comics, and watching anime.  On Wednesday night, after basketball and a mildly bitter argument with Susan, Claire called to complain about not hearing back from him after their date.

“Hey, Claire.”

“Jacob.  How are you doing this fine evening?”

“I’m having a bit of a crisis, actually.  I’m having serious doubts about the existence of vampires in animated films and tv series.  They just aren’t scary, and vampire slaying isn’t nearly as cool as ninja warfare, cyborg-tech related espionage, supernatural kung fu battles—I’m doubting whether vampires should have a place in anime at all.”

“Sounds like you don’t understand the significance of vampires in folklore and modern literature.  Were you going to call me again after our date Saturday night?”

“I was.  Of course I was…  You think vampire legends are important enough to make all these boring movies and tv shows?”

“Which ones are you referring to?”

Jacob thought for a few seconds.  “Pretty much every vampire story ever told.”

Dracula is universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written.”

“Never read it.  Are you sure about that?”

Nosferatu, Interview with the Vampire, Blade, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, all spectacular films.”

Bloodlust was okay.  I just don’t see the draw for all these fans.”

Claire shouted something incomprehensible, then checked herself and asked, in a calmer voice, “What is it you don’t like about vampire stories?”

“Good question…  I think the bad guys get on my nerves a little bit, in a way they’re not meant to.  Villains are evil, threatening, destructive characters, that’s what makes them villains, but vampires have this weird fog around them, like they’re supposed to be, uh…”

She heard him snapping his fingers.  “Seductive?”

“No, not seductive.  Intriguing.  There’s always some mysterious cloud surrounding them, and we’re expected to be so intrigued by them.  I couldn’t care less what they do in the catacombs of their shadowy old mansions, in Transylvania or wherever.  The main characters seem drawn to them, mesmerized somehow, I don’t get it.”

“You’re not suspending your disbelief.”

“I shouldn’t have to.”

“They can fly, sometimes, turn invisible, run super-fast, they’re incredibly smart and strong, not to mention immortal—”

“Not impressed.  Give Spiderman a few thousand stakes, he’d exterminate every last one in less than a year.”

“To each his own, Jacob.  When are we hanging out again?”

They decided Friday night would be good since he planned to start moving his stuff out the day after.  Because of Claire’s artwork, he thought she’d enjoy a visit to the Art Museum, but the suggestion made her laugh and say she’d seen enough portraits and naked goddess statues in grade school.  In her opinion the Potawatomi Casino was a better place to go.  She got paid on Friday and she’d been working extra shifts to have enough to buy Christmas presents for her family and some of her friends.  Jacob inquired as to whether or not it might be wiser to postpone their trip to the casino until after she had bought the presents, to which she replied by saying she’d be outside his house at eight, and if he wanted to come with, then he shouldn’t be so critical.

The apartment he chose was in King Park, about a twenty-minute drive from Susan’s on the Lower East Side.  The fastest way to get there from her house was probably to take State Street across the river, past the highway, then cut over 14th to Juneau Avenue, and South a couple blocks to the Warsteiner Meadows apartment complex.  He spoke to the manager on the phone for a solid half hour on Thursday afternoon, listening to the myriad reasons why Warsteiner Meadows was an ideal place of residence for an individual with “special needs,” who may require “additional support,” and “extra assistance,” while “settling in to his first independent home.”  The guy sounded nice enough, but thoroughly demolished Jacob’s long-since-exceeded tolerance level for condescending, self-satisfied disability jargon.  Before hanging up the phone, and without using profanity, or even raising his voice, he asked if the manager would personally be willing to help him in the bathroom when the need arose.  He hesitated for a moment, and politely declined, before Jacob admitted this was merely a formality and he could easily make do on his own.

On Friday morning, as a result of an especially bad hangover, he took a full hour for lunch, sitting outside at the top of the slope overlooking the winding creek, bare woods, and highway.  He drew some puffs from his e-cig.  The echoing rush of broken air rolled up through the trees from the cars and trucks speeding by about a quarter-mile away down the hillside.  There had been times like this before, at different, crucial points in his life, when he’d had to follow through on a decision that would change everything, yet the more he searched his memory for those times, the harder he looked at his past, the more rapidly they slipped away, their roots dissolving into soft, cloudy pools of vague recognition.  The only thing for him to do was move forward.  Behind him lay nothing.  All he had or could hope to have depended on his doing what the tremulous flame in his heart kept telling him.  Be strong.  Stand up.  Get on with your life.

A light green Toyota Highlander pulled up to the curb outside Susan’s house at 7:15pm.  The pulsing dance of the music’s bass line flooded in through Jacob’s windows.  Wheeling over to the closest one, he split the blinds and peered out at the car in the streetlight, the beams from other traffic flashing silver off its hood and windshield.  “Who the hell…” he wondered, while also thinking Claire may have borrowed someone else’s car.

Coasting down the walkway toward the street, he saw the passenger window open and heard Claire’s voice yell, “Sorry, I’m early,” over the fading music.  As they left for the casino he learned that she’d traded with her brother, her Volvo in exchange for his SUV, for the next few months, or until one of them wanted to trade back.

“Hope you didn’t do this just so you could haul me and my chair around.”

“Not really.  That may have been part of it.  So what if I want to drive you around, you don’t want to hang out with me?”

He glanced over to gauge the seriousness of the question.  “Maybe I do.  I just don’t want you going out of your way to, uh…”  He looked down at his knees and uncreased brown boots.  “To accommodate me.  I could have fit the chair in your own car anyway.”

“I thought you were taking your electric one.  Someone’s pissy tonight.”

They drove in silence for most of the way.  After ten or fifteen minutes he asked what she was listening to when she pulled up to the house.  She didn’t tell him, just turned the stereo back on and let the album play.  As they swung into the parking lot she asked if he wanted her to drop him off at the front entrance, but he said no, they should find a spot and walk in together.

Inside the place was loud, chaotic, and aglow with hazy neon brightness, fluorescent webs of tubes and screens and flashing, melting shapes among the rows of slot machines and above on the walls and ceiling.  Kaleidoscopic patterns breathing in and out their various spectrums of electric light.  He felt dizzy at first, and failed to hear Claire when she asked what he wanted to play.  She gently squeezed his shoulder and asked him again.

“I’m gonna hit the Blackjack tables, clean this place out.  What about you?”

“I like the slots mostly.  I play 3-card poker sometimes, though, want me to come with you?”

“No, do what you want.  Let’s meet back here in an hour.”

A depressed-looking Asian lady slid a chair out of the way for him, and one of the supervisors carried it behind the row of tables.  He changed three hundreds for green chips and started betting twenty-five dollars a hand, bumping it up to fifty almost immediately, and at the end of the shoe he had only three greens left.  “Thanks, buddy,” he said, tossing one to the dealer, and wheeling to the ATM by the nearest cage.  He found Claire at a hexagon of gigantic slots to the left of the bar and told her he was headed for the poker room.  An arch-shaped, pulsating banner featuring the angry face of a black bull weaving side-to-side, expelling smoke from its nostrils, loomed at the top of the machine she was playing.  She’d meet him there in a while, she said, and wished him luck, then stretched over to kiss him on the cheek.

The 2-5 No Limit table he joined had just lost four players to a tournament starting at eight-thirty, leaving six players plus himself.  He played aggressively for the first twenty minutes, calling and raising a number of forty and sixty-dollar bets, and before long he’d increased his five hundred dollars to twelve hundred.  As soon as he decided to slow down and employ a more conservative strategy, the dealer gave him a 9-10 of clubs on the button, with three players having called the big blind.  He knew enough about Hold ‘em to know he had better raise here, and that it should be a big enough raise to scare away some of the players only trying to see the flop.

“Thirty-five,” he said, pushing the chips across the line.  The small blind folded, the big blind called, the next two players folded, and the guy in the 5-seat called.

“Three players in the hand,” said the dealer, a young woman with short red hair.  She burnt a card and turned over J, 10, 3, rainbow.  The big blind checked, the 5-seat bet seventy-five, and Jacob thought for a moment.

“Call,” he said quietly, dropping the chips in the middle.

The big blind folded, and the dealer dealt the turn card, the 10 of diamonds.  The 5-seat checked.

Jacob glanced at him from the 7-seat.  He had a headphone in his right ear and was reading, or pretending to read, on his phone.  About twenty-two hundred sat in straight, uneven stacks in front of him.  “One-forty,” Jacob said, pushing the chips across the line.

Although the 5-seat kept scrolling on his phone for a few seconds, Jacob noticed a change once he’d made the bet, like the guy relaxed slightly.  He took the earphone out of his ear and eyed Jacob’s chips.  “What you got there?”

“About nine, nine and change.”

“All in.”

Yep, he said to himself, checking his cards again.  Trip 10’s with a 9 kicker didn’t look too good anymore.  He shook his head, smiled at the 5-seat, and threw his cards to the dealer.

Outside the poker room an old man with his head bowed and hair down over his eyes sat on a bench, smoking a cigarette.  He didn’t speak when Jacob asked for one, just held out the pack and flipped up the lid.  The two of them smoked silently for a minute with their backs to the wall and tall glass windows.

“I’ve been coming here since the place opened,” he said.  “You start to learn things after a while.  You hear things, if you know how to listen.”

“I hear enough right now.  Thousands of dollars going down the drain.  What do you hear?”

Smiling faintly, he said, “The system’s rigged against us.  But ever so often, you know it’s a winner, and you can bet accordingly.  Bet everything you got.”  With that the man smiled again, stood up, and walked away, and Jacob returned to the table.

Not much happened for the next hour.  He saw some flops, bounced around the thousand-dollar mark.  The seats filled up to make it a ten player game.  Around eleven o’clock a fidgety bald guy at the opposite end took a run at the pot, when Jacob flopped the nut flush draw with top pair and a decent kicker.  He turned the flush and tripled up to just below three thousand.  At eleven-thirty he looked up and saw Claire through the glass, waving to get his attention.  Pointing to his wrist, he mouthed the word, “midnight,” and pointed out toward the bar.

The last hand he played was a K-J of hearts.  There was a raise of twenty pre-flop, which he called, then a re-raise to seventy, and he thought why not, I’ve had a good night.  The flop came Q, 4, 10, with two spades on the board.  The original raiser bet out, two-fifty, about the size of the pot.  Jacob called, the other guy folded.  The turn came, 9 of clubs.  His opponent, a guy about his age, blue hooded sweatshirt, detached, steady eyes, looked at him and said, “All in.”

“I call,” he said back, and showed him the straight.

The guy shot up out of his seat and covered his face with his hands, forced them down, and flipped his pocket queens over.  The river came, 3 of hearts, and Jacob left the table with almost seven thousand dollars.

On the way to the car, Claire asked what he would do with the money.

“I don’t know.  I’ll need some new furniture for my apartment.  Might buy Susan a necklace.”

Her face shone white and peaceful in the light from above the frozen parking lot.  “That’d be sweet.  What about me, where’s my necklace?”

They stopped behind the car, and he spun left to face her.  “I was thinking about buying you a ring.”

At the entrance to the casino a scream was heard, deafening in spite of the distance of its source, and just as suddenly, the night was quiet again.

 

Unbridled Fire (Buddy Glass scene)

Jacob turned as the conference room door swung open, and a man in his forties, eyes brown and steady, stepped in and walked over.  “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.  My name is Buddy.”

“I’m Jacob,” he answered, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Do you mind if I sit down?  I’d like to speak with you for a few minutes, if that’s alright.”

“Your office, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” said Buddy, pulling out a chair and spinning it around to face the windows.  “This is a sort of common space, for people who work in various capacities for the one who owns the building.”

Jacob leaned forward to peer down at the avenues and minuscule vehicles not quite a thousand feet below.  “He must be… rather comfortable, if he owns this place.”

“Well, yes and no,” he said thoughtfully.  “Sometimes I think he’s in worse shape than the rest of us combined.”  Buddy took a second to gaze up at the clouds.  “You could call it a tragedy, and I tend to think of it that way, then, almost as quickly, I realize there was no tragedy, and nothing that happens was ever really tragic at all.”

After a long, unburdensome silence, during which the sunset breathed perhaps its finest breath, Jacob asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The man looked at him as though irritated, but not by the question, nor by Jacob himself.  “We only have a little time here.  I’m not sure you’re going to remember this when you wake up.  If you don’t mind telling me, when you were younger, did you have many dreams about running, or flying?”

“Running, yeah.  I still do once in a while.”

“And did those dreams feel very real?”

“Sure, probably the most realistic dreams I’ve ever had.”

On hearing this Buddy turned away, pretending to survey the rooftops, level and angled surfaces to the right of their towering room.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything.  And that’s exactly why you and I are here right now.  You have a terribly important job to do,” he said, meeting Jacob’s eyes.  “There’s an infinity of ways to accomplish this work, but I’m afraid you alone are qualified.  You’re the lucky one who is able to do it.”

“Because I’m special.”

“Yes,” he nodded eagerly.

“Because I’m the bravest boy in the whole world, and God loves me so much and He’s so damn proud of me?  I’ve heard that one before, Buddy.  The lady who said it ditched me to take care of someone else’s kids.  I don’t need to hear that from you, and you know what?  I never needed her, either.  What’s the quickest way to get out of this fake-ass building?”

He didn’t respond, merely watched him for a moment with the same unfocused irritation, before fading away into blackness with the building, the city, and the evening sky.  Jacob awoke to the shrill chirping of birds in the dark outside his window.

 

Daniil Kharms Short Stories

Daniil Kharms (1905-42) mainly made a living writing children’s books in Leningrad.  He also wrote poems and absurd short stories, often published in underground magazines, after the avant-garde literary societies that Kharms was associated with were banned by the Stalin regime.

In 1931 Kharms was convicted of anti-Soviet activity and spent a year in prison and exile in Kursk.  In 1937 his children’s books were confiscated by the authorities, and deprived of his main source of income, Kharms was often on the brink of starvation in the following years.  He continued to write short, grotesque stories, which weren’t published, but merely stored in Kharms’ desk drawer.

In August 1941, shortly before the terrible siege of Leningrad, Kharms was arrested a second time, accused of “spreading defeatist propaganda.”  During the trial Kharms was declared non compos mentis and was incarcerated in a military prison.  In February 1942, while Leningrad was ravaged by famine, Kharms died in prison.

 

24 Kharms Short Stories/Flash Fiction

 

Symphony No. 2

Anton Mikhailovich spat, said “yuck,” spat again, said “yuck” again, spat again, said “yuck” again and left. To Hell with him. Instead, let me tell about Ilya Pavlovich.

Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a boy, they moved to St. Petersburg, and there he graduated from the German School on Kirchnaya Street. Then he worked in some shop; then he did something else; and when the Revolution began, he emigrated. Well, to Hell with him. Instead, let me tell about Anna Ignatievna.

But it is not so easy to tell about Anna Ignatievna. Firstly, I know almost nothing about her, and secondly, I have just fallen off my chair, and have forgotten what I was about to say. So let me instead tell about myself.

I am tall, fairly intelligent; I dress prudently and tastefully; I don’t drink, I don’t bet on horses, but I like ladies. And ladies don’t mind me. They like when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna has invited me home several times, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also said that she was always glad to see me. But I was involved in a funny incident with Marina Petrovna, which I would like to tell about. A quite ordinary thing, but rather amusing. Because of me, Marina Petrovna lost all her hair – got bald like a baby’s bottom. It happened like this: Once I went over to visit Marina Petrovna, and bang! she lost all her hair. And that was that.

 

Blue Notebook No. 2

Once there was a redheaded man without eyes and without ears. He had no hair either, so that he was a redhead was just something they said.

He could not speak, for he had no mouth. He had no nose either.

He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach either, and he had no back, and he had no spine, and no intestines of any kind. He didn’t have anything at all. So it is hard to understand whom we are really talking about.

So it is probably best not to talk about him any more.

 

The Thing

A mom, a dad, and the maid named Natasha, were sitting at the table, drinking.

The dad was undoubtedly an alcoholic. Furthermore, even the mom looked down on him. But that didn’t prevent the dad from being a good man. He was smiling honestly while rocking in a chair. The maid Natasha had a lace apron and was very extremely shy. The dad was playing with his beard, but maid Natasha was lowering her eyes shyly, showing, in that way, that she was ashamed.

The mom, a tall woman with a big hairdo, spoke with a horse­like voice. Her voice spread around the dining room and echoed back from the yard and other rooms.

After the first drink, everyone was quiet for a moment while they ate a sausage. A moment later, they all started talking again.

Suddenly, completely unexpected, someone knocked at the front door. Neither the dad, nor the mom, nor the maid, Natasha, could guess who was knocking on the front door.

– How strange? – said the dad. – Who could that be?

The mom looked at him with compassion and, even if it was not her turn, poured another glass, chugged it down and said:

– Strange.

The dad did not swear, but also poured a glass, chugged it down and got up from the table.

The dad was a short man. Completely opposite from the mom. The mom was a tall, plump woman with a voice like a horse, and the dad was simply her husband. And above all that, the dad had freckles.

He approached the door in one step and said:

– Who is it?

– Me – said the voice behind the door.

The door opened immediately, and in the room entered a maid, Natasha, all confused and blushing. Like a flower. Like a flower.

The dad sat down.

The mom had another drink.

The maid Natasha, and the other one, the “flower-like” one, got very shy and blushed. The dad looked at them but he did not swear, instead he had another drink and so did the mom.

The dad opened a can of crab paté to get the bad taste out of his mouth. Everyone was happy and they ate until morning. But the mom was quiet and she did not move from the chair. That was very impolite.

When the dad was about to sing a song, something hit the window. The mom jumped up terrified and yelled that she could clearly see someone looking through the window from the street. The others tried to convince the mom that that was impossible, because they were on the third floor and nobody from the street could possibly look through the window, as he would have to be a giant or Goliath.

But the mom would not change her mind. Nothing in the world could convince her that nobody could have been looking through the window.

In order to calm her down, they gave her another drink. The mom chugged it down. The dad also poured a glass and drank it.

Natasha and the maid, the “flower-like” one, were sitting, looking down in confusion.

– I cannot be happy when someone is looking at us through the window – said the mom.

The dad was desperate; he did not know how to calm the mom down. So he went down in the yard and tried to look through the window on the first floor. Of course, that was impossible. But that did not convince the mom. She did not even see that he couldn’t reach the first floor window.

Finally, confused by the situation, the dad ran into the dining room and had two drinks in a row, giving one of them to the mom. The mom had her drink, and said that she was drinking solely because someone was looking at them through the window.

The dad spread his hands.

– Here – he said to the mom, and opened the window.

A man with a dirty coat and a big knife in his hands tried to get in through the window. When the dad noticed him, he closed the window and said:

– There is nobody.

But, the man with a dirty coat was outside looking into the room through the window, and furthermore, he opened the window and got in.

The mom was extremely disturbed by this. She started acting hysterically, and, after she had a drink that the dad gave her and ate a little mushroom, she calmed down.

Soon the dad calmed down, too. Again everybody sat at the table and continued to drink.

The dad took the papers and spent a long time flipping them up and down trying to determine what comes up and what comes down. But no matter how long he tried he couldn’t sort it out so he put the papers aside and had a drink.

– Nice – said the dad – but we’re out of pickles.

The mom made a sound like a horse, which was pretty inappropriate, and made the maids look at the table cloth and laugh silently.

The dad had another drink and suddenly grabbed the mom and put her on the cupboard.

The mom’s gray, big, light hair was shaking, she got red spots all over her face, and, generally speaking, she was pretty upset.

The dad adjusted his trousers and started on a speech.

But at this point a secret hatch opened down on the floor and out from it crawled a monk.

The maids were so confused that one of them started to vomit. Natasha was holding her forehead and tried to hide what was going on.

The monk, the one that got out of the floor, aimed at the dad’s ear and hit him so hard that everybody could hear the bells ringing in the dad’s head!

The dad just sat down without even finishing his speech.

Then the monk approached the mom and with his hand, or leg, somehow from below, he kicked her.

The mom started to scream and cry for help.

Then the monk grabbed both maids by their aprons and, after swinging them through the air, let them hit the wall.

Then, unnoticed, the monk crawled back into the floor and closed the hatch behind him.

For a long time neither the dad, nor the mom, nor the maid Natasha could get their composure again. But later, when they got some fresh air, they had another drink while adjusting their appearance, they sat down at the table, and started to eat salad.

After another drink everyone was talking quietly.

Suddenly the dad got red in the face and started to yell:

– What! What! – the dad was yelling. – You think that I’m anal! You look at me like at a devil! I do not ask for your love! You are the devils!

The mom and the maid Natasha ran out of the room and locked themselves in the kitchen.

– Go away you drunk! Go, you son of a devil! – whispered the mom and the totally confused maid Natasha, behind the door.

And the dad stayed in the dining room until the morning when he took his bag, put on a white hat and quietly went to work.

 

Andrey Semyonovich

Andrey Semyonovich spat into a cup of water. The water immediately turned black. Andrey Semyonovich screwed up his eyes and looked attentively into the cup. The water was very black. Andrey Semyonovich’s heart began to throb.

At that moment Andrey Semyonovich’s dog woke up. Andrey Semyonovich went over to the window and began ruminating.

Suddenly something big and dark shot past Andrey Semyonovich’s face and flew out of the window. This was Andrey Semyonovich’s dog flying out and it zoomed like a crow on to the roof of the building opposite. Andrey Semyonovich sat down on his haunches and began to howl.

Into the room ran Comrade Popugayev.

– What’s up with you? Are you ill? – asked Comrade Popugayev.

Andrey Semyonovich quieted down and rubbed his eyes with his hands.

Comrade Popugayev took a look into the cup which was standing on the table. – What’s this you’ve poured into here? – he asked Andrey Semyonovich.

– I don’t know – said Andrey Semyonovich.

Popugayev instantly disappeared. The dog flew in through the window again, lay down in its former place and went to sleep.

Andrey Semyonovich went over to the table and took a drink from the cup of blackened water. And Andrey Semyonovich’s soul turned lucid.

 

A Sonnet

An amazing thing happened to me today, I suddenly forgot what comes first – 7 or 8.

I went to my neigbors and asked them about their opinion on this matter.

Great was their and my amazement, when they suddenly discovered, that they couldn’t recall the counting order. They remembered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, but forgot what comes next.

We all went to a commercial grocery store, the one that’s on the corner of Znamenskaya and Basseinaya streets to consult a cashier on our predicament. The cashier gave us a sad smile, took a small hammer out of her mouth, and moving her nose slightly back and forth, she said:

– In my opinion, a seven comes after an eight, only if an eight comes after a seven.

We thanked the cashier and ran cheerfully out of the store. But there, thinking carefully about the cashier’s words, we got sad again because her words were void of any meaning.

What were we supposed to do? We went to the Summer Garden and started counting trees. But reaching a six in count, we stopped and started arguing: In the opinion of some, a 7 went next; but in the opinion of others an 8 did.

We were arguing for a long time, when by some sheer luck, a child fell off a bench and broke both of his jaws. That distracted us from our argument.

And then we all went home.

 

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Undivided Lines: Short Stories

https://www.amazon.com/Undivided-Lines-Robert-Lampros/dp/1539766810/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Undivided Lines is a collection of stories about wisdom, love, adventure, and redemption, featuring a diverse range of characters who brave challenging and life-altering experiences.  From a tenacious senator defending the legacy of his work, to a Native American youth fighting for survival in his homeland, to a new mother traveling the galaxy to solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearance, these stories entertain, amaze, and enlighten.

3 Free Paperback Copies Available (for U.S. residents):  Email rlampros27@yahoo.com or reply with your email address in the comment section below.

From Undivided Lines:

Communion

I heard the sound of flowing water and saw the outline of plants and trees by the bank.  I felt for my bow and ran down the path beside the river, able to see the light brown earth in the night.  The path curved with the riverbank.  I couldn’t see the water but could hear it rushing downstream, like a spirit in communion with life, the sound of power in harmony.

At the fork where one path led into the trees below the highest hill on this side of the river, I followed it and turned parallel to the hillside.  Even though it was dark I left the path and climbed up where there weren’t many thorns or bushes.  Before I reached the crest of the hill the sun had started to rise.

Waiting for the light with my back against the trunk of a Callum tree, I looked up with closed eyes, and stretched my arms toward the heavens.  I shook my bow in glory for God so He would bless my hunt that day, and quietly sang the song my uncle taught me, a song of gratitude and need.  The sun burnt the sky over the hills in layers of orange, pink, and yellow, with the deep green night still overhead.  A few more minutes and the land would reveal itself, and the deer come out to seek their food.

I knelt behind a line of bushes on the western slope of the hill where I could see all the way to the river.  Within an hour a doe appeared from the north, walking south along the bank near the path, fifty feet or so from the water, stopping frequently to chew grass or tear leaves from a low branch.  I waited.  If she was a mother her children had been weaned by now, for there were no other deer in sight.  Slowly I stood up, circled around the southwest side of the hill, downwind of course, avoiding leaves and sticks and pausing behind trees for cover.

A short distance uphill and three hundred feet south of the deer, I stopped behind the trunk of an old Callum and drew my bow.  She raised her head from the brush she was chewing, and lowered it again.  I closed my left eye, took aim at the hollow between her neck and left shoulder, drew my bow to full extension, and released the arrow.

After dressing the deer and eating lunch, I returned to my camp to salt the meat and prepare a gift for my family.  My way since leaving the village has been to bring them an offering from every kill.  Many capable hunters abide there, but this makes life easier for my mother, sisters, and uncle, and is an honorable gesture.  Packing the steaks into my bag, storing my share at my camp, and filling my canteen at the river, I left for the village, hoping to return before midnight.

I ran most of the way to the village, walking when my breath grew heavy, then running again after a minute or two.  This was early Fall when some leaves were changing color.  I heard their song as I ran and imagined myself flying through the air with the leaves on the tallest trees.  I flew over paths and jumped over fallen trees and leaped across streams from rock to rock, keeping my eyes and ears open for people and predators.  The bow on my back and ax in my belt gave me courage because I knew how to use them.

Entering the village one hour from sunset, I found my mother resting in the tent as her stew cooked over the fire outside.  She smiled in bed and lifted her arms for me.  I showed her the offering of meat and she called my sister, Nali, who peeked inside and stuck out her tongue at me, then took the meat away to store it.  Mother told the news of our tribe from the last two weeks.  I listened to some of it, but not all, because my mother’s voice is sharp and she speaks many words.  She said my uncle was struggling with the elders to set up a camp in the southern grasslands for the winter.  The winter before had been hungry due to hunters from other tribes killing game in our hills.  She asked me to stay for dinner that night but I said no, I hoped to return to my own camp by midnight, which was the truth.

Leaving the village at sunset I stopped at the market to see if Zeeba would give me some vegetables, she is like my aunt, but her husband, Temul, was there instead.  I thought about finding my uncle before I left, but I knew that he was busy.  The woods were dark when I left.  This was no problem because I had run the trails in the dark many times before, and the moon would be high and bright that night.

Coyotes yipped and howled after sunset, and sometimes bears and wolves came near the village, but that was rare.  As the moon rose I ran and kept running, not slowing for breath, alive with the spirit of life and the joy of life.  My legs and heart felt strong as I ran, flying with the leaves on the tallest trees.  Leaping over streams, launching off fallen trees on the path, climbing steep rises, and soaring down hills, the blood in my veins flowed through me, electrifying my journey in the quiet night.

The final stretch of the trip curved up along the river near my camp.  The moon shone brighter than the night before, the path and trees looked clearer, and I could see the light dancing on the surface of the water.  Coming to the fork where one of the paths led into the trees below the highest hill, a sharp rush surprised me and an arrow pierced a tree on the riverbank.  The next arrow hit the water, and the next tore through the brush as I ran behind a tree by the path.  The angle of the arrows showed the bowman to be one hundred and fifty feet away on the hillside, but he could have run down afterwards to fight me hand-to-hand.  I removed the ax from my belt and held it ready.  Without a sound the man appeared to my left, ten feet away by the path.  He had traded his bow for a crescent-shaped machete hanging beside his knee.  He saw my ax.

“I do not wish to fight you,” I said loudly.

“You seldom do,” he said back.  He was one of the Rihnlo Tribe.

“I have nothing to steal, except my bow and this ax.”

“It is enough,” he smiled.  This was when I knew that one of us would die.

More swiftly than I expected, his blade hissed beneath my chin then swung around below my knees, so I had to jump in order to dodge it.  The Rihnlo was fast and well-trained, but I was a champion of my village, and knew I could defeat him.  Watching the center of his chest as he weaved side to side, I saw his next strike before he did, and sank my ax into his throat.  The Rihnlo died at my feet, and I set his body and spirit free upon the river.

Dawn broke the next day and I returned to the hillside to collect his bow and other possessions.  Walking out of my camp I heard footsteps behind me in the leaves.  I was not alarmed because these were not the footsteps of a warrior. Gathering the bow and arrows from the hillside, and finding no other tools or goods there, I climbed to the crest of the highest hill where I had watched the sunrise the day before.  Leaning back against a large Callum tree, I let the one following me come within twenty feet, and called, “You are a friend of the Rihnlo I killed last night.  Come forward so I can see you.”

The person approached and I stepped out from behind the tree.  In front of me stood a woman with a baby in her arms, sleeping.  She looked at me and said nothing as the sun shone orange and gold on her and on the tiny child.  I stood looking and she stood looking, and this is how I met my wife.

 

Happenstance

The arched ceiling lent the public library an air of tranquil liberty, as if it were easier to breathe inside than it was out on the street.  Jerry sat down at one of the large rectangular tables between the rows of bookshelves, removed his notepad, his pocket Thesaurus, and three Bic pens.  This day marked the commencement of a new kind of project for him.  Moderate success as a novelist and short story writer had helped to supplement his VA benefits in recent years, but lately he’d felt like trying something new.  Instead of another suspense novel or historical short fiction collection, he would embark on the creation of an epic poem in the tradition of Homer or Milton, a work to further distinguish him and solidify his literary legacy.

Forests of the Meremac,” he wrote on the top line of his notepad, “Part I.”  While contemplating the first image of the poem he noticed a woman three tables down, staring at him.  A beautiful woman, relatively young, sad-looking, the skin around her eyes slightly puffy as though she had been crying.  Upon making eye contact with him she smiled, awakening a brightness in her face that prompted him to smile back, and kindly nod a greeting.

The woman stood up, passed quietly up the aisle toward him, letting her fingertips graze the cotton fabric on Jerry’s shoulder, then proceeding out the door into the side lot of the library.  After making love to her in his car, he learned that her name was Lana and she worked at the Thai restaurant about a mile away.  She visited the library on her lunch break to enjoy its peace and quiet.  She told him goodbye, she had to get back to work, and maybe she’d see him around sometime.

Returning to the table and unpacking his things, Jerry recommenced the writing of his poem, envisioning the landscapes he’d seen, the oceans, cliffs, rivers, plains, and forests in all the places he’d traveled to throughout the world.  Finding no sufficiently powerful image to begin the piece, he turned to some of the books from which he hoped to draw inspiration.

First, he quoted Homer, the war metaphors of Agamemnon and his soldiers overwhelming the Trojan Army in The Iliad.  “Even as a lion easily crushes the speechless young of a swift deer, coming into its lair, seizing them in its powerful teeth and taking away their tender life—”

Next, he drew from The Odyssey, Circe’s warning to Odysseus to resist the Sirens’ song.  “If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.  There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.”

Third, he recalled the envious cry of Satan upon seeing Adam and Eve for the first time in Paradise Lost.  “Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t/Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps/Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright/Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue/With wonder, and could love, so lively shines/In them Divine resemblance, and such grace/The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.”

Again he tried putting his pen to paper, and again he found no image, nor even one word, to start with.  Opting rather to devote the afternoon to promotional work, he collected his things and drove home to use his office computer.  He lived alone, and that evening he thought of Lana, replaying the details of their encounter outside the library.  He wondered if she might meet him again.  It was possible she’d intended it as a one-time, no strings attached type of connection, although she did say, “See you around,” when they said goodbye.  Jerry scratched the neck of his overfed border collie.  “Same deal tomorrow, Saucer.  We’ll try the poem again tomorrow.”

No sign of her the next day, or the next, or the next, and no matter how he struggled Jerry couldn’t produce a single line of his epic poem.  He’d sit there pondering, for hours some days, mining his intellect for the ideal words, moods, and images to catapult his readers into a grand thrilling adventure.  His fiction had practically written itself in the past, but poetry was different.  With fiction all he had to do was ramble on like he was telling a story to a group of friends around a campfire.  With poems each word had to count, every line had to radiate aesthetic power.

A week of fruitless writing sessions elapsed before he decided to stop by the Thai restaurant where Lana worked.  Worst case scenario, she wouldn’t want to see him and would ask him to leave.  Best case scenario, she’d be happy to see him and would go on a date that very evening.  The restaurant was empty, which wasn’t surprising at two forty-five.  No one at the desk to greet him.  Behind the desk an enormous golden dragon, the length of a small car, sat mounted on a base of elaborately carved jade.  The base rested on a wide cutout in the wall that looked designed to hold an aquarium of exotic fish.  He stood admiring the dragon for a moment, beholding its dynamic posture, intricate features, and shiny gold scales, its blazing yellow eyes fixed on him.

“Can-help you, sir?” a man shouted through the cutout.  One of the cooks, perhaps the only cook, had spotted him from the kitchen.

“Oh, hello.  Is Lana here?  I’m looking for Lana.”

“Lana went home.  She gone today.  Come back, tomorrow.”

“Do you happen to have her phone number?”  Jerry raised his thumb and pinky to his ear.  “Phone number?”

The cook peered over the dragon through the cutout.  “Ah, yes.  Wait a minute.”  A minute later he marched around the wall to hand him a slip of paper.  “Lana house.  You friend.  See you now.  Bye.”

Jerry left, unfolding the paper as he walked down the sidewalk.  It read:  Lana Kendrol, 2103 Sentry St., Apt. 3-D1.  He consulted his phone for directions.

The beige brick building was located in a courtyard with seven other identical buildings.  The buzzer for 3-D1 had a blank plastic strip beside it, and made no sound when Jerry pressed it, so he started up the steps.  Rounding the banister between the second and third floors, the words, “He who does not gather with me scatters,” spray-painted in tall black letters, halted him at the foot of the final set of stairs.  “He who does not gather with me scatters,” he said slowly, lightly wheezing.  The source of the words eluded him.  They reminded him of a bedtime story his grandma used to read.  Scratching his head, he carried on up the stairs and knocked loudly on Lana’s door.  No sound inside, no music or voices, until she appeared.

“Jerry?”

“Hi, Lana,” he smiled.  “I’m sorry to surprise you like this.  You never gave me your number.  The cook at your restaurant, he told me where you live.  I just wanted your phone number, but he—I’m sorry, are you busy right now?”

“Well, it is my day off.  I was trying to relax a bit.  Food service is no joke.  The pay isn’t bad, though.”  Noticing his breathing, she invited him in.

“Nice place,” he said, glancing around the small yet stylishly decorated living room.

“Thank you, sir,” she handed him a beer.  “So what brings you here?”

“Good question,” he laughed.  “I’ve been trying to write this poem, it’s an epic poem, you know, like The Odyssey or Paradise Lost.  That’s what I was doing at the library last week.”

Lana sipped her beer.  “How’s it going so far?”

“Not well.”

“No?”

“No.  For the first time in my career I can’t seem to start the damn thing.  Usually the words just roll out like, like the gears of a clock.”

“Quite the metaphor,” she smiled.

“Simile, actually—not really important.  Look, do you wanna go out sometime?  I had a great time the other day and I’d like to see you again, more formally, hopefully, like a date.”

Lana froze with the glass halfway to her lips.  “Jerry, I have a boyfriend.”

“What?”

“Sorry, yeah, I thought you knew.  What happened last Tuesday was…  I just needed to feel better.”

He sat still for a second as the words sank in.  “You mean your boyfriend doesn’t care if you…”

“It’s not like I tell him about it, but yeah, he knows.  We have an agreement.”

“Huh… Alright.  In that case, I guess I’ll be leaving.”  He set his beer on the table and stood up.

“You’re not upset, are you?”

“Me?  No, why should I be?  I’m sorry to show up like this.”

“Don’t be.  Please.”  Lana’s eyes were kind, sincere.

On his drive home he switched the radio to the Classic Rock station.  He drove slowly, carefully rounding corners, gradually applying the brakes and gas.  One of his all-time favorite songs started playing, and he turned it up until it hurt his ears.  Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better…

 

Undivided Lines

Available at Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com

Undivided Lines is a collection of stories about wisdom, love, adventure, and redemption, featuring a diverse range of characters who brave challenging and life-altering experiences.  From a tenacious senator defending the legacy of his work, to a Native American youth fighting for survival in his homeland, to a new mother traveling the galaxy to solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearance, these stories entertain, amaze, and enlighten.

From Undivided Lines:

The Senator

“The first sign of the decay of nations is when they begin to have common gods.  When gods begin to be common gods, the gods die as well as the faith in them, together with the people themselves.  The more powerful a nation, the more individual its god.”  — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons

The senator’s crisp white sleeves made a whisking sound as he punched, jab, jab, right cross, left hook, left uppercut, jab…  He kept his chin in and head down, weaving lightly back and forth.  The standing mirror in front of him quaked gently after every punch, faintly blurring his reflection, as he threw his fists harder, faster, exacting a fierce combination of head and body blows until the whole room began shaking, then he slowed, dropped his hands to his sides, stood there and watched himself breathing.

“You don’t get into my line of work unless you care about people and want to make a difference in the world.  I look back at who I was thirty, forty years ago, and it amazes me how much I didn’t know.  It astounds me.  You could fill a library floor-to-ceiling with volumes of books about the staggering depths of my ignorance.  The knowledge I’ve gained since then has changed my opinion about some things, but honestly, the reasons for me staying in this fight are the same as when I started.  My heart’s the same, it’s about heart.”

The boy glanced up at the creases branching out of the corner of his dad’s eye.  “Brandon said his grandpa had a heart attack a while ago, and he died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  May Brandon’s grandpa rest in peace.  Steven, I’m talking about your figurative heart, like your spirit.  When heart attacks happen it’s your physical heart, here…”  He pressed his hand against the boy’s chest.  “That’s what pumps your blood.  I’m talking about the heart you feel with, the heart that makes you strong.”

“Where is that one at?”

“Same place, I suppose.  Only it’s invisible.”

“Invisible?”  The boy’s eyes opened wide as he smiled.

“Never mind.  The point I was trying to make is whatever you decide to do with your life, you’d better make doggone sure you’re doing it for more than a paycheck.  You can farm money trees for all I care, but if you haven’t got a bigger goal than making money, you might as well set those trees on fire.”

Burn money trees?”

“You bet, burn ‘em up.”

“Wouldn’t that be a waste—”

“No, it wouldn’t be a waste.”  He looked at his son’s blank expression.  “Yes, it would be a waste, but only because of what you could accomplish with all that money, the businesses you could start, people you could feed, and bless, and help out of all kinds of trouble.  The money itself isn’t the thing, is what I’m saying.”

“The money isn’t the thing,” the boy echoed.

“Correct.”

“Isn’t the thing,” he said again, more softly.

The pavilion they were in had a green pyramid-shaped roof made of hard plastic that started to click right then with the impact of heavy raindrops.  Click-click, click, click-click-click, click, click-click, click…

The senator cast an irritated glance upward.  “Did they design this thing to be obnoxious in the rain?”

The pavilion was built on a bridge spanning a small lake in a park near their home, and the fish started jumping once the rain began, launching out over the rippling surface and splashing down, or merely churning the lake with a whip of their tails and descending.

“Whoa!  Did you see that?” the boy asked, his eyes lit like high beams.

“Must have been a five-pounder,” he answered.

Steven jumped up and walked over to the railing, then, feeling the cold rain, leapt back under the roof of the pavilion.  “It’s cold.”

“It’ll stop soon.  You see those clouds over there, the gap over those trees?  The wind is driving ‘em this way.  We may see sunny skies before lunchtime.”

Sitting down again, he turned and asked, “What’s for lunch, you think?”

“Chips,” the man smiled.  “Salsa.  P, b, and j.  Doubt mom’s gonna fix anything today.  She might, though.  Never know.”

The rain slowed to a light drizzle.

The man cleared his throat.  “Steven, I want to tell you something, and this may have been what I was trying to say earlier.  You’re too young now to understand it, perhaps, but I’m not getting any younger myself, so here goes.  Grown-ups, we do the best we can.  We start out as little kids just like you, everything’s new and interesting, the world’s a great big adventure.  We go to school and get jobs, start families, and hopefully put our time and effort into something useful.  The problem is, most of the time, the simple goal of building something, building a career, a life, can be the most difficult task in the world.  And people can hate you for it, even when you’re just trying to help.”

“Hate you?”

“That’s right.  Now life is complicated, son, and the world, it’s a chaotic place.  Chaotic, you know, crazy.  For everything that goes right and smooth and the way it’s supposed to go, there’s about fourteen hundred things that go wrong along with it.  I’m not saying I’ve been a perfect man, far from it.  But I have tried, every step of the way, to steer clear of trouble, both for myself and your mother, for you, Helen, Jenny, and Allen, and most importantly for the American people.  My job is tough, Steve, tougher than you know.  You’ve got to fight and do the best you can to help the highest number of people you can, and half the time you’re killing yourself just to steer clear of the next catastrophe.  Catastrophe, like a disaster, like an earthquake or something.  Anyway, that’s what I tried to do, day in, day out, for thirty some-odd years.”  He smiled.  “So don’t let them tell you different.”

The boy glanced up at him, half-smiled, and gazed out over the water.

“You hungry?  Let’s go get that p, b, and j.”

As they crossed the bridge onto the path that curved up toward the front of the park, it started raining again, harder than before.  The senator hopped a few times and started running, smiling back at the boy, and letting Steven run on ahead.

 

From the Pit

A jagged diamond of bright white light, fuzzy like he was looking through an unfocused camera, appeared directly above him.  At the same time the pain awoke, a searing fire in his lower back and legs, and then he noticed the cold.  He didn’t want to move in case he’d broken something when he fell, assuming he could move, and assuming he did fall, so he just laid there, blinking up at the jagged white diamond.

The sides of the enclosure gleamed softly beneath the opening, a faint silvery luminescence gracing the edges and faces of the gray-black rock unlike any of the rocks he’d seen in the hills around his home.  “Home,” he thought.  Where was home?  Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck his back, convulsed his whole body, a cloud of steam burst up toward the diamond light, then another, smaller cloud, and another, each one frying his nerves like a blast of fire.  “Note to self,” he thought when the pain had settled.  “Try not to cough.”

How he had landed at the bottom of the pit may have been a useful question to try to answer, but his memories vanished like fleeing shadows; his own name wrestled free from his grasp.  A fall like this practically guaranteed severe brain trauma.  Staring up at the diamond some seventy feet above he felt a rush of gratitude for being preserved alive.  Drawing open his jaw, he whispered a word of thanks, one word, “God.”

Soon after that he slept, he must have, because the next thing he knew the diamond had disappeared and the pit was covered in darkness.  Fixing his eyes on the place where the light had shone down he searched for stars, clouds, the slightest hint of moonlight, yet found nothing, and shutting his eyes again, resolved to sleep until daylight.  Before the numbness could swallow him, a crawling sensation on his right calf alerted him to the presence of some creature lurking there, a small animal with strength, insect or lizard.  With a simultaneous kick of his right foot and flail of his left arm, he managed to smack it off, then laid as still as possible till the fire in his bones subsided.  Sleep overtook him, smiling in the dark.  He could move.

The next day proved somewhat productive, though advancement was slow.  By the hour at which the diamond began to grow dim he’d completed a turn onto his stomach, and had inched forward two or three feet in the direction of what he judged to be the closest wall of the enclosure.  The floor of the pit, mostly sand and gravel with a few large rocks the size of car batteries, felt soaked by collected rain water or maybe thin puddles seeping up from an underground stream.  Whatever its source the liquid was nearly frozen, numbing his flesh on contact.  Sinking into sleep that night, his thoughts narrowed upon the goal of crawling to the wall by the end of the following day.  He remembered a line his brother used to say, a quote from the Bible.  “All things,” he whispered.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Voices, sounds, groaning…  Spirits churning in the deep…  Dull chanting like the songs of a demon choir woke him, drove him up past the surface of oblivion.  He gasped, a quick succession of panting breaths, the gritty taste of sand in his cheek.  He turned his head upright and spat, resting his chin on a smooth flat stone, and blinking his eyes, detected the faint sheen on the nearest wall, twelve, thirteen feet away.  “This is possible,” he assured himself.  Drawing three more deep breaths, he hoisted the weight of his torso onto his right elbow, unleashing a tortured wail, and threw all the power he could summon from his right shoulder and lat into propelling his upper body forward, in the hope that his legs would advance behind him.  The maneuver planted him flat on his face in the rocks, with a succession of gnawing aches pulsing out from the base of his spine.  Ten long minutes elapsed before the agony receded enough for him to open his eyes and gauge the progress he’d made.  The gently luminous wall still shone twelve feet away.

The day he’d set for reaching it became one week, and the week became two.  Every attempt to move forward tormented him worse than the last, however this impression faded with the agony itself.  When the sober working of his faculties returned at the end of the day, he believed the pain to be lessening with each new attempt.  Whether or not this was wishful thinking, or the projected longing of sheer faithful desperation, was impossible to say.  He hoped the pain was receding, that his body was healing, but these concerns fell into periphery on the morning he reached the wall.

The full utility of his right arm and most of the use of his left would help him grip the holds and hang there, for a few minutes at least, to catch his breath, before pulling up to the next resting place.  To even begin the climb required a minimum of leg strength to support his body while resting, letting him search out the next viable hold with his free hand.  His legs had proven useless during his journey across the floor of the pit, since any endeavor to bend his knees or push with his feet spiked a debilitating shock into his back, blinding him and nearly rendering him unconscious.  But he felt better now, stronger, like God had empowered him for the second phase of his escape.

Turning so he sat with his back against the wall, he felt behind him for leverage to stand up without bending his legs.  Securing his palms to the edges of two uneven holds about a foot off the ground, he strained up and back, shifting more and more weight onto his outstretched legs, lifting higher, to the highest position his grip would allow, the pain smoldering in his back, until his left palm slipped off the wall and he fell, catching himself with a backwards slide of his right foot, able somehow to support him now.

He stood up for what felt like the first time ever.  He turned around, rocked from heels to toes, heels to toes, leaned his head back and shouted for joy.  The bright diamond beamed down at him from a height that looked insurmountable.  His joy ceased instantly, destroyed by the cruel hammer of reality, and he dropped, hollow, to the ground.

For days he stayed there, curled up by the wall.  The sun would rise, somewhere, illumine the mouth of his pitiful den, grace the cold rock in front of him with a soft blue sheen, and set again, immersing his life in empty darkness.  One day, two, three, he stopped counting, buried his mind in the chambers of his soul where a soft dim warmth still glowed.  Waves of grief passed through, turned him over in riptides of hungriest despair, roaring death pounded nightly at his door, and then, hearing no answer, tore away again, letting warm comfort envelop him and soothe his damaged heart.

One morning as the diamond light waxed brighter up above, he extended his arm, pressed his hand against the cool angular surface, when instantly the stone awoke, enlivened by his touch and animated inside by golden flowing particles of light.  The light poured through the rock, entered his fingers and traveled up his arm, collecting at his core and radiating outward in slowly widening rings.  This occurrence jolted him awake, though he failed to move from his place by the wall.  No physical sensation had accompanied the influx of this new light, but rather an awareness, the sudden activation of knowledge so familiar, so native to his soul, as if a vital circuit were now restored, engaging the harmony and totality of his being.  Silently rolling onto his back, and standing up, he started to climb.

Carefully at first, making certain not to slip, testing the holds with his hands and feet before committing his weight to them, then more quickly, each safe elevation adding new courage, strength, boldness.  Toward the light he struggled with increasing confidence and ease, joints and muscles working smoothly, painlessly, like he’d been built to scale this wall, intentionally designed to conquer this surface.  The stone gleamed brighter and brighter—in an instant he felt it, his right hand breached the diamond entrance of the enclosure and grabbed hold of the jagged shelf.

A combined lift and pull of his arms let him swing his foot over the ledge, and at last he was free, on his back in the light.  Shielding his eyes, cautiously, he looked around.  At first all he saw was mini-blinds.  Light filtered through the horizontal bars outlining a female body standing beside him, speaking quickly and squeezing his arm.  The words grew clearer as his vision sharpened, and he saw her, a young dark-haired woman wearing a stethoscope and black scrubs.

“Don’t try to move,” she told him.  “Can you understand what I’m saying?  Blink once for yes and two for no.”

“I can hear you fine,” he said.

“You can talk.”

“I can talk.”

“Stay still, please, sir.  We’re going to have to run some tests.”

 

Lighter Side

Square stone tiles the color of white ash formed a rectangular grid on the second floor balcony of the food court at the Vibrant Valley mall.  Half of the tables had been collected and moved into storage for the winter, while the remaining twenty formed a dotted right triangle over the other half of the balcony, leaving a triangle of empty space outside the doors.  A dark-haired girl stood smoking in the corner opposite the staggered line of tables.

The soles of her shoes had started peeling away from the webbed fabric on the toes.  She’d only bought them two months ago, paid eighty dollars for them.  Her feet looked small inside the large square, almost like two hooves.  “They call me Goatgirl,” she whispered, letting smoke flow out the side of her mouth.  She smiled.  “Stop by the Vibrant Valley shopping mall from two to four today and see the amazing Goatgirl.  Watch her clop across the floor in worn-out tennis shoes.  Scratch between her horns and hear her say, ‘bah.’  Be careful, though, she will headbutt you.”  She dropped the cigarette and ground it out on the tile.

“I think you meant bleat,” said a voice as she passed the gap beside the automatic doors.

“Ahh!” she jumped, stumbling backwards.  “What the hell are you doing there?”

“I’m sorry,” he laughed.  The man wore all denim, a denim shirt, jeans, and a tight jean jacket.  His hair was silver and curly.  “I couldn’t help hearing you just now.  You said that goats bah.  Goats don’t bah, they bleat.”

“Alright,” she smiled, continued walking.  “Don’t make eye contact.”  The doors slid open and she stopped, walked backwards to where he was standing.  “What are you doing here?”

“I work here, at the music store.”

That’s where I’ve seen you.  Stocking cd’s at Javelin Records.”

“Guilty.  What are you doing here, Goatgirl?”

She thought for a moment.  “Killing time.”

“That’s rather impolite, don’t you think?”

“Eye for an eye,” she said.  “Time kills all of us, so…”

“Ah,” he laughed.

“Just returning the favor.”

“You don’t work here?”

“Nope.”

The droning hum and choral rush of cars on the highway filled the space in their conversation.  The girl’s expression conveyed sadness mixed with confusion, a perplexed melancholy, as she peered at the concrete, then back up at him, and nodded goodbye.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Minette,” she told him.

“Well, Ninette, there’s an old—”

“No, Minette, with an ‘m.’  Like Minnie Mouse.”

“Well, Minnie Mouse, there’s an old Bob Dylan song, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody.’  It goes:  You may be an ambassador to England or France—”

“I don’t really like Bob Dylan.”

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance—”

“He’s a little before my time.”

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world—”

“And his voice sounds kind of… nasally.”

You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls,” the man sang in a low, bluesy baritone.

She started laughing.  “You’re a lunatic, aren’t you.”

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” he sang louder, “yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  He punctuated the verse with a sky-splitting howl.

“You are… a true maniac,” she said, still laughing.  “What’s your name, Bob Dylan?”

“K.R.,” he bowed.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too.  I hate to break it to you, K.R., but I don’t believe in God or the devil, so that song doesn’t really apply to me.”

Glancing at the horizon, he asked, “What about your parents?  Do they believe?”

“My parents are from China.  They’re non-practicing Buddhists, I guess.”

“Brothers?  Sisters?”

“Solo Minette.”

“Well, Solo Minette, the force is with you, whether you believe in it or not.  Let me show you something.”  K.R. pushed off the wall he was leaning against.  “Creak,” he groaned, walking out from the cutout by the doors and across the empty side of the balcony.

“Where are you going?”

“Come on, Minette, join me by the railing for a moment.  I wish to impart some wisdom.”

Directly below the balcony, one of the mall’s main entrances stood at the vertex of a giant parabola opening out toward the parking lot.  The patio of an Italian café formed the left side of the arch, from where they were standing, and the psychedelic windows of an art gallery and supply store formed the right.  Shoppers approached from the lot a couple hundred feet away.

“Now humor me, please, Minette, and just observe these people for a minute.”

She stepped up to the railing, looked down at the shoppers.  A few teenage boys in a row, joking and laughing, not much younger than her.  An elderly woman digging around in her patchwork bag while she shuffled past the vibrant paintings in the art shop window.  A middle-aged married couple discussing something serious or troubling as they hurried inside.

“Okay.  What’s your point?”

K.R. stretched his hands over the railing, palms down.  “What do all these people have in common?”

“They have money.  I mean, they can afford to come and buy stuff, so they must have money.”

“Probably so,” he nodded.  “What else?”

“They’re all from Vibrant Valley?”

“No, you don’t know that,” he shook his head.  “They’re all alive, Minaret!”

“Are you high right now?  Seriously, did you just smoke like a bunch of pot?”

“No,” he grinned, “I don’t smoke anymore.  I’m trying to illustrate an important truth here.  Look,” he pointed at the hillside beyond the parking lot.  “You see that grass on the embankment?  It’s tan and dry, right, it’s dead.  Now look at the bushes down by the patio.  Green, lush, radiant.  They’re alive.  Do you see the contrast?”

“Yes.”

“It’s night and day, like the difference between seeing a dead person and a live one.  Have you ever seen a dead body?”

“My grandpa, when I was three.  I don’t remember it very clearly.  What’s your point, K.R., I’ve got loitering to do.”

“Life, child.  My point is life.  You said you didn’t believe in God.  I’m telling you that life is proof that there’s a God, life itself.”

Minette turned back toward the parking lot and the oncoming shoppers.  Their faces looked sullen and vacant now, their gestures cold and mechanical.  “War,” she said.  “Sickness, hatred, anger, jealousy, death…  If you ask me that’s proof there is no God, or if there ever was then it’s like that philosopher said, God is dead.”

“Friedrich Nietzsche.  I don’t think he meant that exactly.  God is the very source of life.  The source of life can’t die.  I’m tired.”  He walked a few paces to the nearest table and sat down.

She leaned forward with her arms crossed on the railing and slid down toward him.  “Are you married, K.R.?”

“No, ma’am, I am not.”

“You were, though.”

“Yes, ma’am, I was.”

Minette gasped.  “She’s not dead, is she?”

“Unfortunately not,” he laughed.

“What a diabolical thing to say.  There it is again.”

“There what is again?”

“Proof, that there isn’t a God.”

“How’s that?”

“Well,” she sat down beside him.  “You were married.  You proposed to…”

“Natalie.”

“You proposed to Natalie, she said yes, I presume, you walked down the aisle, spoke your vows to one another, till death do you part, you kissed each other, and so on, and however many years later, you broke up.  Did you get married in a church?”

“Our Lady of Peace.”

“A Catholic church no less.  So, if God brought you two together, why would He separate you?  Why would He let that happen?”

The sun had emerged from a screen of wispy clouds as she was talking.  K.R. had to squint in order to look at her.  “I asked Him the very same question.  Want to know what He said, Ms. Minnie?”

“God actually talks to you?  You really are a lunatic.”

“He answered by telling me He didn’t split us up, or even let us split up, and in His eyes we’ll always be married.  In the kingdom, that is.”

“But you’re divorced.”

“Yep, and she’s remarried.”

“How…?”  She raised her hands, shaking her head.

“It’s a great mystery, Minnarino.  I can tell you this, though.  Nothing that is loved is ever lost.  Wise man said that.  Peace out, little sister.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Cd’s to stock.  Bob Dylan cd’s,” he smiled back.  “Hey, maybe I can get you a job there.  What do you say?”

She thought for a moment, glanced down at her worn-out tennis shoes.  “Yeah, check and see, will you?”

“Come on then, Minaret.”

 

Mountain of Silver Dust

Audio_MOSD_mp3
Audio_MOSD_YouTube

 

I.

Each grain of azurcose was a truncated icosahedron.  She remembered this from school as thousands of them avalanched into her crystal mug of dark brown coffee, “like a million tiny footballs,” she whispered.  Only these had flat faces, whereas the tiles on a football were convex, giving it its smooth rounded shape.  “Thirty-two faces…  Twelve pentagons, twenty hexagons, sixty angles, ninety lines.  Remember that the next time you slurp your darn SyraNova drinks,” she mimicked her Chem teacher’s gravelly voice.

Someone snorted a few booths away, the group of punks she’d clocked on her way inside, only other people in the diner besides the cook, the server, and herself.

She wasn’t going to make him stay in her life if he didn’t want to, baby or no.  How could she?  Korratrea was still a free country, unless there’d been a coup she hadn’t heard about yet, which was unlikely.

The short one slid in beside her, and two more across the table, while the cautious one sat lightly at the adjacent table to her right.  Clack-clack-clack, the man’s knuckles tapped on the hard plastic surface beneath her chin.  Clack-clack-clack.

“Did you order yet?” he asked.

“Nope, just trying to enjoy this coffee.”

“Nice ring.  Where’s your husband?”

“He said he was on his way.”

The man smiled to his friends, who laughed.  “Yeah, well, I think he’s crazy to leave you alone like this.  Middle of the night, strange neighborhood…  Uncivilized company.”  His friends laughed again.

“Funny, I was thinking the same thing.”

He reached around her shoulders with his left arm and let it rest on the back of the booth.  “Amazing girl like you, if I was him I’d be afraid someone might take you away.”

“Did you take Chemistry in high school?”

“What?”

“How about Geometry, do you remember Geometry class?”

He stared at her quietly, boldly, in offended disbelief.

“Because if you do, you’ll probably recall hearing about the Goldberg polyhedron.  It’s a multi-sided shape made up of hexagons and pentagons, the faces joined together at vertices like this, here.”  She picked up the azurcose shaker and sprinkled some out on the table.  “Every grain is like a—”

“Like a tiny football,” said one of the friends, before a dark glance silenced him.

“That’s right,” she continued, “and unlike snowflakes each grain is one hundred percent identical.  Zero variation, upon production at least.”

“Is there a point to this little lesson?”  He let his hand fall gently on the back of her left shoulder.

“There is,” she nodded.  “Because azurcose, due to its structural shape, has an amazingly high degree of both molecular strength and flexibility.  So if I were to say, smash this container on the wall, the stuff would fly everywhere.”  She swept the shaker up and crushed it on the wall to her left, simultaneously leaping out of the booth, eyes closed, and flipping backwards onto the tabletop behind them.  As the short man and other two sat groaning and rubbing their eyes the tall one darted from the farther table, his lightblade drawn and glaring.

Waiting for him to slash, she caught the knife under the sole of her boot and stomped it down against the plastic tabletop, pivoted on his hand, and caught the hinge of his jaw with the toe of her other boot.  Two seconds later she was out the door and in the pilot seat of her motordeck sailing up toward the storm cloud where she could lose them.  Their engines revved and hummed below, behind her, fading gradually as she launched into the flashing mist and set the coordinates for Jadengate 794.

*         *         *

The motordeck hatch shot open as she approached, and the vehicle maneuvered into position on the landing board.  Zipporah swiped the ignition card and stepped out before the pilotside door closed and the board raised the motordeck into the ceiling.  Removing her jacket, kicking off her boots, and pulling the elastic band out of her hair, she grabbed a bowl of leftover noodles from the fridge and plopped into the basket chair in the corner by the window.  Space looked cold and blue, like it always did.

After dinner she checked her mail, took a shower, and crawled into bed—the bed they’d shared until a few months ago, before he ditched her.  Her fingers dragged across the skin of her softly rounded stomach as she descended, away from consciousness, her mouth whispering, “Great and marvelous are your works, Lord God Almighty.  Just and true are your ways…”

The Egg in the center of the living room broadcasted the System Daily News from every angle, literally, as she cleaned up and made breakfast.  Dark matter readings off the Southeast edge of Chambrek’s orbit were “disturbingly disproportionate,” higher than any time on record.  The InterSolar Truth Observers commissioned a quantification team to investigate the anomaly.  Planet-wide political and social reconstruction on Taldrathon was coming along nicely, with fewer incidents of intra-species assaults-and-consumptions than in prior weeks.  System health in general was up, effective plague containment, lower cancer and terminal disease statistics, continued vaccinations on the Outer Four (less advanced worlds), and the Sun shone bright and strong despite the frequent outcries of the Implosion Hypotheorists.  Zipporah felt in her soul that it would be a good day.

While eating her breakfast salad the phone rang, she jumped up and ran into the living room.  “Egg off!  Hello and greetings…”  She stood waiting.

“Hello, honey.”

Her eyes dropped to the maroon carpet.  “Hi, Mom.”

“Don’t sound so excited to hear from me.  Where were you last night?  I called seven times and no answer.”

“Cabin fever.  I went out for coffee.”

“What happened to the coffee maker I gave you for Christmas?  Does that not work anymore?”

“No, it works.  I wanted some air so I went over to the sand fields for a short walk.  It was nice, actually.”

“Did you see anyone?”

“A few guys at the diner.  I’m fine, Mom, no worries please.”  Zipporah glanced at her boots next to the doormat, eyeing the brown crust on the right toe.

“You aren’t fighting again, are you?”

“Me, fight?  Pshhh, I…  Come on, I…  Pshhh.”

“Okay, just remember, ‘those who live by the sword will die by the sword.’”

“Will die by the sword,” she echoed, “yes, I remember.  Thank you, Mother.”

That afternoon she went for a jog around Power Town, the enormous generator in the center of their quadrant, forty-six cubic miles of engine machinery encased in a mammoth bubble of reinforced explosion-proof glass.  The platform of steel grating around its perimeter measured to just under fourteen miles, a little more than a half marathon.  She’d been running there for years and had completed the lap with no problem a few weeks ago, but that was before she’d started to show, and this time she only made it three-quarters of the way around before having to slow down and walk.

“What are you doing, child?” she said cradling her belly.  “Trying to make me a couch potato?”

*         *         *

Nights were quiet, slow, and lonely.  She took her mom’s advice about steering clear of the sand fields and the outlands in general.  The worlds were too dangerous these days, and the child far too precious.  She spent her free time listening to music, reading French Existentialism, praying, and dreaming of the day when Karrick would return.  He would return, she felt it, knew it to be true.  The only question was when.

On the fifth waning moon of Quintember the doorbell chimed at four o’clock in the morning.  No phone call, no warning, no guests expected, and by now Zipporah was visibly pregnant.  She approached the door in her husband’s boxers, a t-shirt, and one sock, and pressed a button illuminating the screen by the keypad.  Three soldiers appeared on the step, one in uniform and two in full body armor behind him.  Captain’s hat.

“No, no, no,” she bowed her head against the door.  Then, drawing a deep breath, punched a code on the keypad.  The door clanked, parted, and slid open.

“Zipporah Dallens?”

No, no, no…

“I have news from the Colonel, ma’am.  May I come in for a moment?”

“Just say it.”

“Your husband, Lieutenant Karrick Dallens, perished honorably in service of the KWPAF.”

 

II.

The hazy green nebula over the distant horizon swirled slowly, but not too slowly for its tranquil rotation to be observed with the naked eye.  The inhabitants of Calperon-T34 called it the distant side because that was the direction of the uncharted lands opposite the highly populated, heavily policed colonies of sector T15-30.  T34 designated a liminal territory between the crowded city and wild country, both hazardous in their own ways, the land between providing a supply station, a hospital/information center, and a village for the local residents as well as the occasional weary ex-traveller, a category to which Zipporah now belonged.

She ducked out of a tan igloo, straightened her back and reached for the sky, letting her eyes drift from the pale green cloud up to the starry space above, opening her mouth and releasing a mighty yawn into the galaxy.  A second later the baby started crying and, smiling drily, she turned and ducked back inside the metal dome.

“Hush, little théquo,” she said, rocking him gently in her arms.  “What’s wrong, don’t think today will be a good day?  Shhhh, shh, shh.”  Her warm brown eyes were circled underneath by dark crescents, her black curls cropped short at her ears, and her forehead marked by three sharp lines from squinting in the evening winds.  The dust on Calperon tanned your skin a chalky copper color if you spent any time outside, which you had to do if you lived beyond the colonies, where fresh water was scarce, reserved mainly for cooking and hydration.

On her way to work she noticed a body stretched out among the nettles by the path, she almost kept walking but heard a faint cough and saw a limp hand draw toward it’s cloth-wrapped head.  Glancing at the infant bound against her chest she asked, “What say you, Saiojéte, should we investigate?”  The goggled head of a miniature mummy tipped back and peered up at her, dark lenses staring, and emitted a gurgling squeak through his beige mask.  “I agree,” she circled round to see the man’s face.  His cheek and jaw were red, possibly wind-burnt, lips dry and dark, eyes concealed by a fabric head covering.

“Can you walk, sir?” she called from several steps away.  “Hello.  Can you walk?” she asked more loudly.  Hugging the child tightly, she walked over, slowly, and nudged the man’s shoulder with the toe of her boot.  “Are you alive, sir?”

“Ah, huh,” he mumbled.

“Okay, I’m going to fetch an airsled.”  She bent down close to his ear, “I will be back in one hour.  One.  Okay?”

“Ah, uh-huh.”

Edging her way past the line of customers and into the supply tent, she hurried along the right wall to the other side of the counter, and up to the slender arachnoid woman operating the register.

“Hulé, I need you to watch Saio for twenty-five, thirty tops.”

“Do you see this mob I’m dealing with?”

“I know but someone’s injured, a traveler from the outlands I believe.”

“He better take a number.  I’ve seen fifty injured travelers this week.  Put some gloves on, please.”

“Hulé, I promised to help this man.  I promised I’d come back.”

“You promised me you’d mend these time suits today.”

“I will just as soon as I get back.  Here…”  Zipporah untied the papoose and hoisted her son into her highest left arm.

“Don’t you dare walk away.”

“Relax, you still have seven good arms to work with.”

The man lay on his back when she returned.  The airsled fishtailed to a halt and hoverparked beside him, she dismounted, approached, and gently shook his shoulder.  He awoke, attempting to look around through the cloth over his eyes.

“Here,” she said, folding it back.  “I’m taking you to a hospital.  Hospital.”

“Manglokel,” he groaned.

“Yes, medical.  Come now, help me lift you.”  Sitting him upright, she hooked his arm around her neck and stood him up on wobbly legs, guiding him to the vehicle.  Once she’d secured him to the rear bed she looked into his wandering blue eyes, squeezed his hand and said, “You’re safe now.”  He nodded and closed his eyes.

*        *        *

The music that evening reverberated from the Shell like an echo chamber, as if the sonic drums and whale horns were being played at the mouth of a cave.  Zipporah and the child had remained in the village after her shift ended to await news about the traveler.  She bounced Saio on her knees at a table not far from the arched enclosure where the less reserved inhabitants of T34 celebrated their evening revels.

Behind the Shell a flock of théquos grazed at the edge of the creek, snuffing at the dusty ground with dangling beaks.  “Look,” said Zipporah, turning Saio around.  “See them?” she pointed, “Your papa used to call them flying pigs.  Whenever we saw them back on Korratrea he’d say, ‘Anything’s possible, Zeeah, now that pigs can fly.’”  She made a high-pitched clucking sound in his ear and the baby squealed and started laughing.

A young man of nine or ten solars jogged up and stood before them panting.

“What news?”

“He’s awake, your traveler.  Frantic, speaking Braekean, no one understands him.”

“Where is Hulé?”

“I don’t know.  How should I know?”

“Never mind, I will fetch her.”

The two women hiked along the trade road in darkness with only their ion lamps to light the way.  “You owe me, sister.  First you abandon me at work and now you drag me out of bed to translate for you?  I want extra shifts for this, Zeeah.”

“Fine, whatever you want.”

“No, you know what?  You can clean the store for me.”

“I said fine.”

This week.”

They heard him wailing before entering the hospital tent.  He sat straight up on a cot in the rear corner, waving his arms at the doctor and two nurses, shouting what sounded like accusations then reaching up and crying out to heaven.

“What’s he saying?” Zipporah asked.

“Help me, save me…  Dear God, save me from these lunatics,” Hulé answered, rushing toward the corner with all eight of her arms extended, palms showing.  Upon seeing her the traveler shrieked and froze for a second with wide terrified eyes, then, apparently recognizing her species, exhaled a deep sigh of relief.

They spoke for a while as Hulé relayed messages to the medical staff.  The man had a severe drug allergy and had been refusing the pills they’d attempted to give him.  After a while he calmed down, took the medicine, and reclined on the cot to try and sleep.  Zipporah watched with Saio from a distance until he looked relaxed enough for them to leave.

“What did he say?” she asked on their walk back.

“His town was invaded.  His wife and son were killed, across the System, way out in the Outer Four.”

“Which planet?”

“Raanved, early last solar.  Claims he spent ninety moons on a salvage freighter before arriving here.  What is it, what’s wrong?”

“Probably just a coincidence.  Karrick, before he left, that’s where he was going.  His last mission was on Raanved.”

 

III.

The cots were lined about one pace apart, about a hundred and twenty beds in the hospital tent.  It reeked of sour blood and excretions, the rotten odors mixed with the sterile smell of rubbing alcohol and fresh medical supplies.  Zipporah slipped past the rows of patients, some dazed, others sleeping, a few of them wide awake and frightened.  One who’d arrived the previous week from crash landing in the outlands, a male TigerMole, a soldier, beckoned her as she passed by the foot of his cot.  Pausing for a moment, she turned and stepped up to the creature’s bedside.

His eyes were watery, elliptical orbs, gray iris’s nearly eclipsed by the pupils, gazing up through her face, through the roof of the tent and into distant space above them.  She held the digits of his paw and smiled.  Under the sheet lay the form of a right hind leg and the absence of a left one.  Zipporah placed her palm on the mole’s forehead and stroked his charcoal fur with her thumb, quietly humming the gospel hymn her mother used to sing to her when she had lain sick as a child.  Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, come, He’ll show you the way.  Sons and daughters, great-grandfathers, come, He’ll show you the way.  Follow Jesus, Lord and Savior, take a drink, be still, no greater, peace, He’ll show you the way…

The traveler she’d rescued had settled down since the day he was admitted.  He sat propped in the corner intently watching the Egg mounted over the center aisle of the tent.  Nodding curtly when he saw her, he kept his eyes on the System news, watching over her shoulder after she pulled up a stool and sat beside him.

“Do you remember me?”

He glared at his visitor, then back at the luminous Egg.

“I hauled you in from the road the other day.  I helped you.  Helped, remember?”

He shook his head and muttered something in Braekean, likely a profanity.

“I only want to talk,” she continued.  “It’s possible you can help me.  I need to ask you about Raanved.”

The mention of his home planet got his attention.

“I need to know what happened there.  I know this is painful for you, but will you talk to me?”  Zipporah tapped her fingertips together and pointed back and forth between them.  “Talk?”

The man stared in her eyes for a moment as though he knew exactly what she wanted, then turned and locked his focus on the Egg.

Work was slow that afternoon, she and Hulé sorted boxes of worn out time suits, making three piles for the varying levels of dilapidation.  She glanced at her boss.  “How does the store look, Hulé?  Clean, is it not?”

“You did a fine job, Zeeah.”

“Thank you.  It took quite a while.”

Hulé sliced open another box of time suits.

“Hot yesterday, too.  And the dust, aye, terrible.”

“What do you want, sister.”

“Talk to him again?” she asked.  “Please?”

“The sick traveler?  What about?”

Zipporah smiled meekly.

Hulé’s four top-eyes opened wide then narrowed sternly at her friend.  “Not in a million solars would I ask that man to discuss his past.  His wife and son were murdered, Zeeah.  Would you like to relive that?”

“I do relive it,” she answered.  “Every morning, every day, every night I wonder what happened to Karrick.  I lay awake and watch him getting blasted, exploding in his craft or worse, getting shot down in some terrible outlands where God knows…  I do relive it, sister.”

Hulé stood now with head bowed and eyes closed.

“All I want is one conversation,” she said softly.  “And I think I know how to appease him.”

*         *         *

Saiojéte rose up and ran forward, toddling across the floor at an increasingly reckless incline until she caught his arms and swept him up, twirling around under the dome of their tan metal igloo.  “You are mad, little théquo,” she laughed, rubbing her nose against his.  “Just like your papa.  What should we do today, huh?  Take a drive in an airsled?  Go and hike by the river?  If only that stream were water and not indrosludge we could jump in and have a swim, you and me.  Cluck-cluck-cluck,” she chirped in his ear.

The land around their dwelling was desert; dark red sand, weathered rock formations, and harsh dusty winds.  Woodland also with patches of thick forest, tenacious plant life, gnarled old trees, and the occasional pool of slime welling up from subterranean currents fed by the colonies of Calperon T15-30.  The area was far from safe, although as long as one didn’t fall and cut one’s skin, or physically ingest any elements of the environment, it was possible to survive the wilderness for short periods of time.

Zipporah trekked through the trees with Saio bound to her chest in a papoose, the limbs curling above them as they hiked, wandered, seeking something new.  “Look at this flower, little one—no,” she slapped his hand away, “just look.”  The pedals were white with purple flecks like teardrops running out from the center.  “Beautiful, no?  Bee-yoo-tee-full.”

“Brrrrrrmmmphrrrll.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

They trekked on past the plants and trees and out into a rocky expanse of rolling sand hills that rose into reddish crags and layered rock walls overlooking shallow dusty canyons and dry ravines.  The tallest peak spiked half a mile into the sky, a makable trip from where they stood now, not too far from their dwelling.

“Do you feel like an adventure?” she asked the child.  “A bit of a climb?”

Saio cooed happily.

“Alright, mum-mum,” she wrapped the head cloth round his nose and mouth and fixed the goggles over his eyes.

*         *         *

“Eklokeyli gand lávwequor, beczun vaknegáu,” spoke Hulé to the traveler.  “Vikhan Raanved.”

“Uliel ke guavgon,” he retorted, not without compassion.

“I know this is difficult,” she continued in Braekean, “I wouldn’t want to look back either.  My friend is like you, seeking only peace.  Is there anything you can tell me about the invasion, anything at all?”

The man sighed, looked down at his stomach.  “If I do this, I do this one time.  You mustn’t return with your widow friend to ask me more questions.”

“No, of course not.”

“Alright.  I was a clayworker by trade.  My store crafted dishes, pots, bottles, mostly kitchen pieces for those in my village and sometimes the neighboring towns.  My wife, Duijairo, helped at the store, firing the kiln, repairing broken vessels, manning the register—”

“I too run the register, at my store,” Hulé said cheerfully.  “Sorry.  Please go on.”

“The Trozek armies had been robbing our land for years.  Every two weeks, when it was bad, a new gang would fly through and storm our town, take what little food we had.  When it was good, half a solar might pass without a visit from the thieves.  Nevertheless we hid portions of our goods away, you know, always keeping enough in the open so as not to anger them or cause suspicion.”  The traveler smiled faintly, “One thing about the Trozeks, they never raised a hand against anyone in my village.”

“No?”

“No.  Their war was with the rich, the government, not us farmers.  As long as we had enough food for them to eat their fill they remained civil.  People feared them, complained.  Duijairo, she complained all the time.  ‘Trozek this, Trozek that, a Trozek stole the Egg remote.’  Most of us knew it could be worse.  Some Raanvedians,” he shook his head, “never knew peace.”

“Your son,” said Hulé, “did he work in your shop too?”

“Ccazi?  No.  Ccazi was a musician.  Altophone, drums, harpong…  He played everything.  The night… it happened… the night they died, he was playing a drum and singing outside in the market.  Duija and I had come to take an order and buy groceries when they arrived, eighteen of them, on a Rettrian Plank.”

“A destroyer ship?  Trozek rebels?”

“These were not Trozeks.  They were Korratrean soldiers—I know,” the traveler’s face darkened, “I was surprised as well.  Until then I had only seen Korratreans on the System news.  What are these men doing here? I asked.  Then the leader, a commander, you can tell from the eyes, he looked over the whole market, like he was scanning the place for, I don’t know, something.  Then he turned around, spoke a word to the captain, and reboarded the Rettrian.  That’s when it happened.”

“What happened?”

“Genocide.  They murdered my village.”

Hulé held his hand between two of her own.  “I’m so, so sorry, Ccazolan.  How did you survive?”

The traveler scoffed.  “Dumb luck, I guess.  No reason for the gods to spare my rotten bones, not when my wife could have walked away instead.  She saw me, truly.  My soul was the last thing she saw.”

They talked for a while longer about pleasant things.  She asked easy questions about Duijairo’s favorite foods, favorite trees, favorite seasons on Raanved.  When it was time to go he asked, “Don’t you want to know what the commander said, the word by which he murdered my family?”

“You heard him?”

“I saw his lips.  My son, Ccazi, was deaf since birth.  The word he spoke to his captain, I’ve never heard it before, but there is no doubt in my mind as to what this man said.”  A spark of silver flashed in the traveler’s eyes.  “Manglokel.”

 

IV.

The papoose had been shifted to Zipporah’s back for the climb, the child looking out over the desert through which they’d hiked to the foot of the mountain.  She moved quickly, gripping holds with confidence, even leaping to catch ledges a full body length above her.  The reflexes she’d acquired as a young warrior returned alongside the exultant joy of climbing, the fresh air, the danger, and the thrill of freedom.

“Don’t worry, Saiojéte, I could do this blindfolded,” she called back.  The child squealed a reply touched with fear.  “No, I won’t actually try it,” she added.

The steep cliff they scaled flattened onto a broad shelf where they could rest and rehydrate.  Zipporah untied the papoose and gave Saio a drink from her canteen.  “Look,” she pointed, “you can see the village from here.  You see the supply tent, and the Shell, look, aha.”  She squeezed the last of the water into her mouth.  “What will we see from the peak I wonder?”  She kissed her baby’s forehead.  “You’re a brave one, little théquo.  Your papa was brave, too, as brave as one could be.”

The rest of the climb was relatively easy.  A thin ledge circled the highest rock so all she had to do was cling to the wall and shuffle sideways, one step at a time, until the uneven plateau came within reach.  Hoisting herself up and sitting atop the tallest boulder, she unfastened the papoose and cradled Saio so he could see the vast horizon.

The metropolis of Calperon T15-30 dominated the skyline, its massive buildings looming far into the purple and green swirling vapor that filled the upper atmosphere.  T30 limits ended more than eighty miles away, yet the colonies gave the impression of bearing down on the outer territories, of imposing on the inhabitants of T34 despite their considerable distance.  Even from the mountaintop Zipporah felt as though the city were towering above her.  “Okay, brave one,” she said, casting a final glance at the stars twinkling out beyond the radiant mist.  “Let’s go home, shall we?”

*         *         *

On the way to work the next day, she stopped into the temple so she and the child could receive the sacraments.  The village priest, a cheerful old Urguit, greeted her with a hug and kissed both her cheeks.  He inquired about her work, the baby’s health, the general wellness of her existence on Calperon, and they stood before the altar and prayed.  The priest anointed the baby’s head with oil, then Zipporah’s, before distributing the elements.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he blessed them, making the sign of the Cross over the empty sanctuary.

The store was busy that morning.  A shuttle of Chambrekian refugees had arrived with no clue where they were or why they’d been displaced.  The dhreion bomb that hit their sector dissolved their mid-range memories, a trick employed by rogue nations in the Outer Four.  When people don’t remember their lives before a change of power takes place, they’re more adaptable and less likely to revolt against the new leadership.  Two hundred and thirty amnesiacs filed into the village like so many children in need of grownups to provide them food and shelter.  Hulé and Zipporah took charge of collecting their time suits and arranging proper clothes for them all.

“Next,” called the flustered arachnoid, motioning the line forward with her eight skinny arms.  “Name please.”

“Abimiku Ckezvwa Topepsmaquodrote,” said a small human woman.

“Alright if we call you Miku Todrote?  Good.  Date of birth?”

Zipporah passed out clothing vouchers, guided people through changing stations, and directed them to the bathing facility just past the hospital tent.  In between gathering time suits and replacing fresh polyrobes she unfastened Saio and let him chase his pneumo-ball around the sideyard of the store, keeping a close eye on him at all times.  T34 could be peaceful for long stretches but was no place to let a human child go unsupervised.  The price one could get for him could pay a year’s worth of rent in one of the looming towers on the horizon.

Perhaps it’s for the best, she thought to herself.  The Chambrekians looked almost happy as they received their instructions and ventured out into their new temporary home, their unknown futures.  For a moment she wished her own memory had been erased when the news of Karrick’s death arrived, then quickly no, she thought.  No peace of mind, nor even freedom, was worth her memories of him.

Later on after dark, after all the refugees had been cared for, Hulé offered to buy dinner at the market bar and restaurant.  She chose a table inside opposite the patio where they could talk and ordered a bottle of warm liquor and two small mugs.

“I didn’t want to tell you amid all the craziness today, but yesterday I went and spoke to your injured traveler.”

“What?” cried Zipporah, “without me?  How could you—”

“Shhh, quiet, sister.  Here, drink.”

“No, you’ll need the bottle to yourself, once I snap off one of your arms.  Why did you not wait for me?”

“He would have held back with you there, he might not have told me what I know.  Will you listen?”

“I’m listening.”

“Before I say this you must promise to not do anything foolish, Zeeah.  You have a baby who needs a responsible mother.”

“I also have a friend who gives me no credit.”

“And don’t forget a temper that sometimes gets the best of you.”

Zipporah poured herself a cup and drank it down.  “I’m listening.”

“The traveler, Ccazolan, he lived in a sector of Raanved where rebel forces frequently sought provision and shelter.  They rarely had problems with the Trozek rebels, but one day last solar a division of soldiers arrived on a destroyer ship.”  Hulé spoke slowly, “Korratrean soldiers.  A commander, a captain, and their men.  They annihilated his whole village, Zeeah.”

“Karrick was not among them.”

“I don’t know.”

“I know.  How much money do you have?”

“No way,” Hulé shook her head, “none for you, sister.”

“Suit yourself.”  She leaned over the table, hugged her, and whispered in her ear, “You are my only friend.”

The following morning Hulé rose from bed, stretched, and walked out to find Saiojéte in her living room, standing and watching the crabfish swimming laps in her aquarium.

 

V.

On the kitchen counter beside an unplugged Egg lay a sheet of notebook paper, which read:

Dear Hulé,
I do not expect you to approve of this decision, but I know you’ll take good care of Saio.  As you’ve probably guessed by now I’ve gone to seek the truth about my husband.  I cannot say where this quest will lead, nor how long I will be gone, and yes, it is possible that I will not return.  Please do not worry, and please don’t be angry, for neither of those feelings ever does any good.  Love my baby for me.  I go with God.  ~ Zeeah

P.S.  The Egg is for the traveler.

*         *         *

The sidewalks of Calperon T15-30 were made of reinforced glass suspended every thirty feet around the buildings to allow traffic to fly between the levels.  Zipporah walked quickly up a ramp along the Gomtroyer Heights, the tower that housed, among thousands of other offices, the Raanvedian Embassy and Travel Bureau.  She ascended the ramp, traversed the crosswalk to the wall of the adjacent tower, and ascended the next ramp, and so on and so forth until estimating the number of ramps she’d climbed at somewhere in the triple digits.  The architecture struck her as being absurdly inefficient despite the fact that the ramps were intended for people to advance from one level to the next, or perhaps to walk up two or three.  Everyone else used the elevators inside of the buildings, however admittance to the elevators required an ID scan, and preferring not to leave a trail of bread crumbs, she had no option but to take the ramps.

The nebula had fallen by the time she reached Floor 462, when the sector lights switched on, saturating the streets with blinding fluorescent light.  The various caps and boards zooming by enabled their shield screens while the pedestrians all disappeared into the towers.  At night, apart from air traffic, the city streets were bright and vacant.

“Name?” asked the gnarly-eyed Talitron behind the travel counter.

“Abimiku Ckezvwa Topepsmaquodrote,” said Zipporah, covertly reading the ID.

“Date of Birth?”

“Quartember 9th, 12,091.”

“Place of Birth?”

“Bazeldown, Fohposkal, on Raanved.”

“Can you spell that please?”

“Uh, sure…” she hesitated.

“This town and country isn’t in our system.”

“That’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”

The Talitron looked up from his Egg screen.  “Can you spell it or can’t you, Ms. Topepsmaquodrote?”

“Of course I can,” she answered, looking him in the eye.  “B-A-Z-L, I mean E-L-D-O-W-N.  And the nation is spelled, F-O-H-P-O-S-K-A-L.  Would you like me to spell Raanved also?”

“That won’t be necessary, Miss.  How long will you be staying?”

“I’d like an open-ended ticket, please.”

“How many items will you be taking?”

“Just me and my time suit.”

He leaned forward and inspected the weathered silver garment.  “Is that standard issue?”

“Yes, for five solars ago.  They’re still regulation for intra-System space flights.  Are we almost done here?”

“Almost, Miss.  May I ask the purpose of your journey?”

“Visiting family.”

He finished punching sensors on the magnetic Egg pad, and the inverted pyramid to her right spat out a holographic ticket.  “Your flight leaves at 19:00 on the forty-first of Thorgh, one waxing moon from tonight.”

“Is there no earlier flight?”

“Not to Raanved there isn’t.”

“Right, thank you, Mr…”

“Thank you, Miss.  Have a pleasant journey.”

*         *         *

Zipporah spent the days leading up to her departure reading what information she could find about contemporary Raanvedian power shifts and land disputes.  Failing to discover any connection between the current governments of Raanved and Korratrea, or any logical reason for the KWPAF to send troops there, she resolved to find the village where the genocide had occurred.  Whatever interest the Korratrean Military had in that location was somehow linked to her husband’s death, or possibly… well, too early to say.

 

VI.

The day before the launch Zipporah went back to the library to see if the name of the traveler’s village or the commander’s death word, “Manglokel,” would turn up any last minute search results.  She surfed down from her cube gate on the complimentary graviboard they’d given her at check-in.  Accelerating into the right lane, she leaned forward and sped up behind a sluggish motordeck.  There was a time when she would have swooped the front of the vehicle just to teach the driver not to fly so slow in the airlanes, but she was older and wiser now, and all the more cautious for being on an important mission.  Sliding left and away Zipporah flipturned into the plummet shaft and dove toward ground level where the T29 Public Library was located.

You had to scan your ID in order to use the personal Eggs there, a calculated risk she decided to take.

“GREETINGS, ABIMIKU!” the Egg flashed in pink and green strobing letters.

Zipporah flinched and shielded her eyes.  “SyzNet search, please.”

“PROCEED WITH YOUR QUERY.”

“Search for Raanvedian village, Henlopyow.  Spelled, H-E-N-L-O-P-Y-O-W.”

“SEARCHING RAANVEDIAN VILLAGE: HENLOPYOW… … … … …”

She glanced around the library.  Mostly human and radnoid beings seeking employment opportunities.

“… … … … … … … … …”

“End search, please.  New query.  Search for life form, location, or verbal expression, Manglokel.  Spelled, M-A-N-G-L-O-K-E-L.”

“SEARCHING LIFE FORM, LOCATION, OR VERBAL EXPRESSION: MANGLOKEL… … … … …”

From the sound of it the term could have originated in any number of Raanvedian languages, only Hulé said the traveler denied ever hearing it before, and when she’d searched SyzNet the last time nothing came up.  Manglokel could mean anything in the universe, or nothing.  The traveler might have misunderstood what the commander said.

“… … … … … … … … …”

She sighed.  “End search—”

“MANGLOKEL,” the Egg flashed.  “PHYLOGENETIC SPECIES RECOGNITION AND SPECIES CONCEPTS IN FUNGI.  ECTOMYCORRHIZAL FUNGAL COMMUNITIES.  SPOROSTATIC PRODUCTS OF MANGLOKELIAN FUNGUS, EFFECTS OF ZYGOMYCETOUS VESICULARARBUSCULAR MYCORRHIZAL FUNGI ON HOSTS, CHANGES THE ENVIRONMENT, ESPECIALLY THE SOIL.  ANTAGONISTIC PROPERTIES OF SPECIES, ALGONIZED SYMBIONTS PLACED IN LICHENIZED GENERA WITHOUT CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE…”

Zipporah read on for a few minutes, understanding little other than the apparent fact that “Manglokel” was a type of fungus.  The connection could be coincidental, but on the other hand this may lead to the truth about Karrick’s death.  Grabbing the synthepage from the printer on her way out, she hopped on her graviboard and surfed up to the Raanvedian Embassy to get her ticket stamped for the next day’s flight.

*         *         *

That night in her cube, she lay on the fan bed, slowly turning, staring up at the intergalactic map on the ceiling.  So many Systems, so many worlds, a limitless universe of infinite possibilities…  The swirling clusters of stars and planets reminded her of the lights she’d seen in Karrick’s eyes.  They seemed to hold the vastness of creation within their delicate lenses when he looked into her own brown eyes.  Saio’s too reflected the universe, beaming bright and giddy, twinkling with delight at the wondrous discoveries they made each day.  What life her family carried, stored up and burning, shining, blazing, trailing out like comets’ tails wherever their hearts conveyed them.  How she missed him, how intensely she wanted him to behold his son, how many times she’d imagined the look on Saio’s face, the curious smile he’d make upon seeing his papa for the first time, on recognizing his own form, his own source and life in another.  She closed her eyes and pleaded silently for Karrick’s return with her to Calperon.  She didn’t care if he lay dead and buried on Raanved.  A kiss from her faithful lips would raise him.  Grant this, O Lord.  Grant this, O Lord.  Grant this, O Lord…

*         *         *

The trip would take five-eighths of a solar, one way, during which time she’d be asleep in her cryopod.  The craft prepared for launch as she sealed her helmet to her time suit and locked her ankles, thighs, waste, torso, and head in place.  The passengers began the journey conscious, standing up in their pods, then after exceeding the reach of Calperon’s gravitational pull the captain would initiate cryosleep.  The engines rumbled below Zipporah’s feet.  The helmet clasp rattled in her ears.  Any second now they would launch and then it’d be like waking up from a long nap, in another world, where maybe, finally, she’d find the man who vowed to bring her home.

 

VII.

At first glance the capital of Raanved reminded her of certain places she’d read about in history books, developing nations where new technologies promoted growth, prosperity, and vitality.  The same vehicles flew the streets as on Korratrea and Calperon, but these looked newer, more colorful, and the people more alive with anticipation of future happenings.  The whole land rang with purpose, which startled Zipporah since she had envisioned the place as a wasteland.

Her first order of business was to find the traveler’s village, Henlopyow, roughly twelve thousand miles away, a distance quickly covered by the Raanved Express, a beam train running the span of the primary continent.  She had preordered a ticket at the travel bureau on Calperon, naturally, under the alias of Abimiku Ckezvwa Topepsmaquodrote.  Her train left at 10:00 that night, leaving her four hours to explore the city and learn what she could about Manglokel and the Korratrean Military’s involvement there.

Another difference she observed was that all the advertisements in the capital, the holographic billboards, the digital posters, even the Egg commercials between segments of the System News, they all seemed like public service announcements of a self-help, do-it-yourself variety.  Instead of typical slogans like, “BroomSled, It Tidees As It Glidees,” she read inspirational mottos like, “Only You Can Achieve Your Purpose,” and, “Attention: You’re Already A Winner!”  At first Zipporah figured this for a symptom of cryofatigue, selective vision and hearing, but literally every advertisement she saw conveyed an encouraging message.

The next strange difference she observed had to do with the inhabitants themselves.  They were all human.  Unlike every other location she had visited in the entire System not one nonhuman being appeared in the streets of the capital, not piloting the vehicles, not working at the stores, not strolling on the sidewalk.  Every life form she saw was a human.  She scanned the busy crowds for quadrupeds, to no avail.  Not so much as a pug walked among them.

Last on her list of bizarre observations pertained to the phenomenon of Raanvedian communication.  Far from the language through which Hulé and the traveler had conversed in the hospital on Calperon, the language employed in the capital used no words at all, but merely facial expressions—a series of smiles, frowns, raised eyebrows, scrunched up noses, all manner of facial contortions in precisely ordered combinations functioning as what appeared to be a coherent and articulate vocabulary.

Zipporah proceeded down the street, gripping the train ticket in her pocket, determined to board the Express and finish her journey.

*          *          *

She got on the train early, found her seat, and sat down, the only one in the passenger car.  The door at the back slid open with a sharp whoosh as the gray haired attendant entered and sealed the door behind him, a gentle humming as the cabin repressurized.  He marched up the aisle to her row, spun right ninety degrees to face her, and planted his feet.  “Your baggage, Miss?”

“You can speak,” she said, relieved.

“Indeed.  Do you have any bags, Miss?”

“No, no, just myself alone.  Tell me something, has this place always been like this?  The ad slogans, the humans, the faces and all?”

“I don’t follow,” replied the attendant.

“Has there always been such a low nonhuman population in this city?”

“I’m afraid so.  As long as I’ve lived here, at least.”

“What about their faces?  It seems like everyone here communicates by making odd faces at each other, everyone but you I mean.  Is that how the inhabitants speak, by making faces?”

The attendant stood silently for a moment watching Zipporah’s expression as if to assess the full significance of the question.

“Do you understand what I said?” she asked.

“I believe so.  Would you mind joining me in the dining car?  I’d like to address your concerns over coffee, if I may.”  The attendant smiled and stepped backwards, indicating the aisle with his hand.

“Ohh-kay,” she stood up and shuffled past the empty rows.  At the back of the car she turned the handle and the door slid open with a sharp whoosh.  They passed through four or five more passenger cars before reaching the dining car, which happened to be filled to capacity by people eating quietly and conversing in the peculiar way she had observed on the street.

“There’s one,” spoke the attendant, pointing to an empty table beside her.  “Please,” he pulled out the chair.

Once they’d sat down, she said, “You understand my confusion.  People don’t normally interact like this, and I haven’t seen a single nonhuman being since my arrival.”

The clinking of utensils and soft clatter of dishes grew louder in his silence.  He only watched her, smiling faintly.  “Perhaps you’re dreaming,” he said at last.

The words sounded like she had said them, like it was her own voice speaking from the mouth of the attendant.  “Could I be…  Am I still in cryosleep?”

*          *          *

“Can you walk, Miss?  Hello.  Can you walk?”  Zipporah felt the edge of a hard object push against her shoulder.  “Are you alive, Miss?”

“Uh-huh.  Yes,” she responded.

“I’m going to fetch an airsled.  I’ll be back soon, okay?  Very soon.”

When she woke again she was being loaded onto the back of an airsled like a pallet of Egg adaptors.  “I can walk,” she called to the blurry figure above her.  “I’m awake, I can walk.”

She rode shotgun as they flew down the path, back to the city where the craft must have docked.  Out beyond the forest to the left of the towers, looming over the trees and over the highway leading to and from the capital, a silver-peaked mountain shone softly in the moonlight.

The man piloting the airsled noticed her looking.  “Manglokel,” he said, pointing at the mountain.

“What?”

“Manglokel.”

“Take me there,” she asked, reaching into her time suit for the last of her money.

 

VIII.

The silver sheen at the peak acquired an aspect of movement the closer they got to the foot of the mountain.  The shimmering light flowed in subtly pulsing waves from the icy peak down the pine-blanketed face and sides, making Zipporah doubt the validity of what she saw, and wonder if this weren’t all a dream or hallucination induced by cryosleep.

“Do you see that?” she asked the driver, “can you see those light waves?”

“This is the magic of Manglokel,” he smiled.  “The Mountain of Silver Dust.”

When the road ended at the base of the foothills and the airsled could fly no farther, the man hoverparked at the gate of a chain link fence, turned and said, “Take care that you do not abide here.  The mountain is beautiful, though it is not for us to make our home here.  The people of Raanved have always known this.”

“Thank you,” she handed him a stack of thin emerald plates.

The wind blew cold and strong as she bounded up the trail as quickly as her space-weary legs could carry her.  The pines whispered the presence of awakening life forms, some predators no doubt, and she without so much as a lightblade to protect herself.  No sign of the waves she’d seen from the road, not until she mounted the crest of the highest hill below Manglokel’s wide face.  Peering up through a gap in the trees she saw rivers of flowing silver light cascading over the mountain’s surface, ice, stone, and trees, like a projected ocean, billions of tiny particles glimmering and sliding weightlessly in paper thin layers over solid elements and beneath the air.  Zipporah’s curiosity about the nature of the dust combined with her need to uncover the mystery of Karrick’s disappearance, an occurrence she knew to be inextricably linked to the power of this mountain.  To reach the source of the waves she would have to climb all night and into the morning, uncertain of what effects the dust might have on her mind and body.

Many miles up the mountain, long after abandoning the winding trail for a more direct path, and still no sign of the dust on the ground or in the pines, she unsealed the top half of her time suit to cool off and tied the sleeves around her waist.  Glancing down in the dark, suddenly her black shirt and bare arms shone with silver light, the sweat trailing lines of bright moisture on her skin, the fabric of her shirt emitting a silver-blue radiance.  She squinted up at the treetops but could see no dust.  “It must be invisible from below,” she thought, “or else activated somehow by water.”  Zipporah drew a deep breath, exhaled.  She felt neither sick nor weak, no more than expected after a climb like that.  Judging by her view of the orange dotted towers of the capital she must be at least halfway to the peak.

*         *         *

“I knew I’d return to you,” he said calmly, “as soon as it was safe.”

She ran to meet him, kissed his lips, his hands, his face.

“The mission here, there was too much at stake.  They never gave me a choice, Zeeah.”

They spun around and held each other, she kissed his neck, his cheek, jumped up into his arms.

“Every night I dreamed of waking you, every night.  I watched you die ten thousand times.  No other way he’d leave us alone, no other way.”

He wrapped his arms around her, tucked her head beneath his chin, rocked slowly back and forth, back and forth.

“Civilizations, Zeeah.  Not towns, not cities, not even worlds.  Whole species will be saved because of this.  Life as we know it, life itself.”

“What of my life?” she demanded.  “What of Saiojéte?  The life of your child for the life of the worlds?  You would make that exchange?”

“Why not, our Creator did.”

“God did that so we wouldn’t have to,” she cried.

Karrick lifted his hands and held them up in front of Zipporah’s face.  “A soldier of my company, not much older than a boy, received this back because of Manglokel.  His arms were severed at the wrist and at the elbow.  We flew him here, took this,” he dipped his fingers in a glass cylinder of luminous silver grains, “spread some on his bleeding stumps and in minutes, Zeeah, his hands were restored.  Since then we’ve seen cancer, plasma burns, failing organs, shattered bones, wasted nervous systems, all completely, instantly healed.”  He drew a dark curl of hair back from her left eye.  “I’m sorry I was not there for our son’s birth.  I’m sorry I have not been able to share in his life thus far, but Zeeah, you must believe that I have not been able.  My allegiance is to God and look, He has cared for you.”

“I met a traveler,” she said, “from the village of Henlopyow.  A man named Ccazolan.  Your commander and fellow soldiers, your brothers, murdered his family.”

“I wasn’t—”

“I know you were not there!  Is innocent blood the price of healing, Karrick?  Your men destroy a village and why?  To keep the natives from resisting your presence here?  To send a message, we will save the world at any cost?”

The Commander entered the laboratory with the Captain and two soldiers.

“Commander Xinn,” Karrick saluted.

“Lieutenant.  Do you mind telling me what your wife is doing here?”

“I’ve come to—”

“I was just trying to ascertain that information myself,” he answered.  “It sounds as if a survivor from Henlopyow informed her of my location.  I apologize for the inconvenience, Commander.  I will make haste to tie up any loose ends.”

“Like your so—”

“And I will prepare a full report for you by quarter moon, Sir.”

“By tomorrow, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, Sir.”

He eyed Zipporah calmly.  “Can I trust her to keep her mouth shut about our operation?”

“She won’t be a problem, Commander.”

“Escort her home please, Lieutenant Dallens.  Report back on the first of Thorgh, next solar.”  He eyed Zipporah once more.  “If I see her again she dies.”

As the Commander marched toward the laboratory exit, Zipporah called out, “His wife was Duijairo.  She helped him at his store, firing the kiln and repairing broken vessels.  His son, Ccazi, was a musician, and brilliant, deaf since birth.”

Commander Xinn paused for a second, and kept walking.

 

IX.

Zipporah, Karrick, Hulé, and Saio sat at a table on the patio of the market bar and restaurant in Calperon T34.  Karrick was attempting to persuade Saio to eat his cacti pasta, while Zeeah and Hulé speculated about the fate of the injured traveler who’d journeyed into the outlands once his health had been restored.

“Perhaps he went seeking a village where he could open a new store?” said Zipporah.

“I don’t think so, he didn’t have the look of a man in search of a home,” said Hulé.

“What did he say before he left?  Did he mention anything about his plans, or a destination?”

“It has vitamins,” said Karrick.  “Yummy vitamins.”

“Not to me.  All he said was goodbye and thank you for the Egg, last I heard from him.”

“He took the Egg?  I never said he could keep it.”

“How about you, Lieutenant,” Hulé asked, “what happens after the first of Thorgh?”

“Report for duty back on Raanved.  The KWPAF arranged a sky home in the capital for these two théquos,” he nodded at Zeeah and the child.  “I guess I’ll be working in the lab on Manglokel.  There is more to that mountain than any mortal can know.”

Zipporah thought for a moment watching Saio poke a slice of cactus with his index finger.  “Why do you think Ccazolan claimed he’d never heard the word, Manglokel, before?  Every native of Raanved knows that name.”

“I wondered that myself,” said Hulé.

“He probably lied,” said Karrick, “to protect the secret of its magic.”

“I doubt that very much,” said Zipporah.

“Is it possible he failed to recognize the word, not because he’d never heard it, but because of the context in which the Commander spoke the name?  If the mountain is as sacred as you say, perhaps the name is only true for those who honor it.”

 

~*~       ~*~       ~*~