Archive for the ‘!Short Story Contest!’ Category

Billy Luck

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

by DC Diamondopolous

Billy Luck’s bones rearranged themselves on the bus headed out of Gibsonton for the Tampa train station. He looked out the window, away from his trailer, all rusted, awnin torn, bricks holdin down tarp over a portion of the roof, lookin like other junkyard leftovers from his carnival days.

The bus passed an old train car that jailed tigers, vines growin through it, a giant planter. Gibsonton was a has-been like him, still some carnies left but most dead, or dyin, or just plain up and left, like his good friend Daisy, the most beautiful woman his eyes ever seen, a midget, but perfect, no matter.

Now Billy’s friends all had bodies from the shoulders up: Judge Judy, and that good-lookin gal on The People’s Court. He always took to smart, in-your-face broads—don’t take no shit type—like Daisy, who called, askin him to come see her in Miami, cause she was dyin.

What a foul mouthed little mother she been, tough, had to be, no taller than three feet, perfect proportion, and a great pick-pocket, long as people was sittin down. She been with the Gerling since nineteen fifty, five years after Billy started workin the carnival, a legend, Daisy was.

He figured since she git religion, and was close to dyin, that she wanted to talk bout that night sixty-five years gone, somethin they never spoke bout, but it was there, danglin, an untouchable. So’s Billy wondered if she got that on her mind, bein religious and all.

The bus turned the corner and he saw the corpse of a high-striker. The black numbers erodin, the bell tarnished and hangin on by a bolt. He chuckled to himself at how the marks showed off for their ladies when they took the hammer and slammed it on the lever—suckers, all of em, not knowin that life in the midway was rigged.

Billy’s memories weathered inside his head like peelin wallpaper. The old days with freaks and geeks and nights where it was so damn excitin, pickin up, settin down, movin on and on until the midway was in sight and stakes hammered, where people in scanty towns ran out to watch, hopin to catch sight of the merry-go-round or the Ferris wheel settin up, maybe glimpse a hoochie-coochie babe runnin between trailers. Billy resented the fake imitation of amusement parks nowadays, though he was glad few had animals. In his day, he’d done seen too much bad done to the beasts, Billy done seen too much cruelty, period.

Drivin along the Hillsborough River, Billy pictured Daisy as she was when he first seen her. What separated her from other midgets wasn’t just her womanly child looks but her husky voice, almost like a norm and she could sing, too. That’s what saved her when she got caught stealin at Ringlings and had to work peepshows in the basements of tenements on the lower east side. Bein a midget wasn’t freak enough she was told by the boss, “What talents do ya got?” The curtain would open and Daisy would sing, struttin her little body on the platform while doin a striptease. Her singin saved her from fuckin God-knows-what, which she wasn’t above doin. Daisy’d do whatever to survive. She come across all innocent same as one of them dolls in the window at Woolworth’s, but if you looked long enough, you’d see lots a smarts and a cellar-full a hurts.

It was her husband, Jack, who told Billy this, who saw her in the slums and brought her to Gerling’s Traveling Carnival of Fun.

Billy’s clean flowered shirt stuck to the back of the vinyl seat like loose skin bout to pare off. He used to love the humid muggy days, but now it made him tired, like standin in line for hell. Most of the time he resisted goin down the road of the pity-pot. It reminded him of liquor. It went down real good in the moment but the more you drink the more blurred your vision for any good comin your way. He knew that from his daddy, the meanest son-of-a-bitch to walk the earth.

The bus traveled up the I-75, crossed the river and stopped in Progress Village pickin up several black men who looked as parched and worn as Billy now felt, then the bus sped north, where there was as many as four lanes. Billy sat up. He liked the breeze stealin in through the window, how it reminded him of that time his daddy got a job drivin a bread truck and took Billy along, that was the year before his brother died from havin his innards cut from the saw. They tried to stuff em back in, but Jimmy passed. Only time he ever seen his daddy cry, why, for a moment it ripped him apart, his Daddy’s sadness, so like his own.

He blamed Billy, though he was nowheres near the sawmill. Jimmy just plum forgit to put on the safety belt.

Thinkin bout his older brother always brought on the blues, how Billy missed him. The way Jimmy throwed himself on top of him and his mama when his daddy felt like beatin em.

The night Jimmy passed, his daddy got wasted and told Billy he’d a wished it was him that died instead. He was drunk, but Billy knowed he was tellin the truth.

At fifteen, he packed a bag and hitched a ride from Montgomery to Birmingham, decided to change his last name from Lock to Luck, cause God knows he needed some and joinin the carnival seemed a good pick. He carried his hurt deep, like Daisy’s, guess that was one reason he took to her so.

He peered through the grimy pane as the bus pulled into the station. His hand reached for the back of the seat in front of him, his heart pumpin, an adventure, no matter, and Daisy lay waitin, just for him.

Everyone but Billy stood. The driver left the bus, and Billy watched as he opened the side panel and took out the suitcases.

When the last person left, he ambled down the aisle. The driver waited for him and offered a hand.

“I ain’t that old, I can git down myself.”

“Don’t want you to fall and sue us, young fella.”

Billy laughed. His dentures dropped. He pushed them up with his tongue, remindin him that his kisser was as fake as his hip and stepped off the bus.

“I’ve never seen a suitcase this old,” the man said, handin Billy the luggage.

“Had it since the sixties, before you was born, I bet.” Billy took the leather handle and felt the moist exchange of sweat.

“You have a good day, sir.”

“Goin to Miami, I am. On a way to see a friend.”

The man already climbed up the steps of the bus, leavin Billy talkin to himself.

He shuffled toward the train station, with the closeness of the Hillsborough Bay; Billy caught a breeze, rufflin his straggly white hairs under the straw hat. His sense of smell worked just fine as he breathed in the sharp crude from the cargo rigs mixed with the bay.

A woman held the door for him as he headed toward her.

“Thank you, ma’am. Fine day, ain’t it?” He pointed his index finger to the brim of his  hat and winked. She smiled and hurried on.

Air conditionin stung the sweat on his body. Billy shivered. “My God,” he whispered as he gazed around. The place was beautiful with long wooden benches, ferns growin in large pots at the end of each row. The last time he’d been here the place was fallin apart. But now, wrought-iron gates, wall lanterns, the floor so shiny looked like you could take a dip in it, so much light from all the glass windows it seemed the sun had eyes just for the station.

He shuffled cross the depot and out the door to the number 235 train.

Climbin aboard the Amtrak, Billy strained as he stretched for the handrail and tightened his grip round the metal. The steps were damn far apart for a man his age, but he made it. Course it knocked the air clean outta him.

It was stupid to act like he was younger than his years, he couldn’t hide the  hearin-aid behind his ear, the bum leg with the dummy hip, the missin lower teeth his tongue liked to suck, or the skinny ropes of white hair once blond and thick as a Fuller Brush mop. But he ain’t gonna turn into a mark where’s he trusted someone else to tell him what was up, no, Billy thought as he put on his glasses and matched his ticket with the seat number. All he wanted right now was to be able to walk on his own and see his friend without fallin down.

He found his seat by the window, four chairs two on either side with a table between em. Not sure if he could lift his suitcase to the luggage rack without seemin lame, besides, someone might steal it, so’s Billy set it next to him on the empty chair.

He took off his hat and put it on the table. He’d never get use to people rollin their suitcases. His been a friend for years, made of wood and leather, like him gouged with character, the handle worn from his grasp of luggin it from midway to midway.

A man put his bag on the rack above where Billy sat.

“Want me to put your suitcase up?” he asked. 

Billy marked him as a businessman; suit, tie, bag strapped cross his shoulder, late thirties, nothin stand-out bout him cept for the flashy watch, gold and turquoise ring, and a ruby stud in his ear that made him look ridiculous. Somethin bout him seemed familiar.

“Naw, thanks though.”

He sat cross from Billy, next to the window. Another guy stood lookin down at him from the aisle.

“You’re going to have to move your suitcase. This is my seat,” a man said, holdin up his ticket. “I’ll get it.” The guy grabbed Billy’s case, lifted the luggage and shoved it onto the rack.

The fella was closer to Billy’s age than the guy with the ruby and this side of obese. When he took his seat, Billy smelled Bengay. He pulled down the armrest so’s the guy’s fat would stay on his own side.

The train began to rock. The conductor welcomed the people aboard the Amtrak then Billy experienced the thrill of movin. The wheels forward motion caused him to lurch toward the table. He stared out the window as the air-conditionin blasted through the vents, just like old times, like watchin a movie, it was, lots of overgrown shrubs and cast-offs as rusted and troubled as his own trailer. Metal stuff with graffiti sprayed on it. Crap didn’t make no sense. Billy wasn’t great at spellin, he’d made it no farther than the  fifth grade, but what he saw out the window was nothin but young man’s rage who don’t care whether it make sense or not, just wanna leave somethin of themselves, like a dog pissin on tires.

As the train picked up speed the cool air faded, cheap-trick, made the customer think they git their money’s worth, then slight them, like he used to do out on the bally. Can’t dupe a con, Billy thought smilin to himself.

He felt like talkin so’s he took out a quarter from his shirt pocket and rolled it cross his knobby knuckles. Not with the skill like in the old days but a conversation piece, no matter.

Sure enough, the young man cross from him raised his eyebrows and smiled.

“Where did you learn that?”

“Worked the carnival for over half a century.”

“What did you do?”

“A talker, mostly.”

The guy frowned. “A barker?”

“People don’t know nothin call us that. That’s some watch ya got there,” Billy said.

“My husband bought it for me.”

Billy grinned, it never took him long to git used to the freaks, like Jamie, the half man, half woman, and Angelo, with his twin’s arms and legs comin outta his gut, but it would take some time for him to git accustomed to a man callin his partner, a husband. “Oh,” Billy said. “Guy’s got good taste. You look familiar.”

The man unzipped his bag and took out his computer. “I’m a reporter for WSFL. Maybe you’ve seen me on TV.”

“That’s where,” Billy said. “Boy, do I got stories to tell you.” But Billy read people like a canvas banner hangin in front of a sideshow. This guy was through talkin.

He put his coin away. He woulda enjoyed answerin questions. He often played the interview game, pretendin someone like Lesley Stahl asked him questions on 60 Minutes and him talkin bout his life. He imagined microphones, and lights spread all around as he sat center stage for the world to hear his story.

He woulda even enjoyed a conversation with Ben Gay, but he was too busy gawkin at his phone.

People ignorin him did have its advantages, like stealin butter and Hershey bars in the grocery store, snatchin things in the bank, like pens and paper tablets, sometimes right under the nose of the tellers, just to show em. So what if they caught him.

Billy sunk in his seat thinkin that the reporter cross from him woulda jumped through dog-hoops to interview him if he knowed what Billy had done out past the midway on that sweltering August night back in nineteen fifty.

That night, he remembered the marks had all left. But somethin nagged at him, call it sixth sense, or maybe it was that new guy who strutted into town, and took a job with the carnival, sold popcorn, cleaned up the tiger and monkey cages and the johns, jobs he did when he first joined. Billy didn’t like him from the git-go.

One day he caught him stickin his cigarette into Tuffi. Tuffi reared on her hind legs, her trunk swingin wild. He knocked the new fella to the ground, told him if he ever caught him doin that again he’d make him real sorry. Well, bout two weeks later, he saw him kickin the freak, Stumpy. Billy done did what he promised. He slugged the guy so hard he doubled and rolled on the ground, moanin. Billy thought that’d be it until the guy git up and come after him swingin and givin him a black eye. Mason was his name, mean, as cruel as Billy’s daddy.

That night, Billy went from tent to tent lookin inside, makin sure no one was there. He recalled checkin under the stage where the kids used to hide so’s they could look up the costumes of the hoochie-coochie girls and how the sawdust would have to be scattered real nice like in the mornin, he could smell it now, how it always reminded him of his brother.

The trailers had their lights on. He heard laughter, people talking; ice cubes clinkin into glasses, fiddle music comin out of a radio, like any other, cept it was hotter than most, sultry, the kinda night Billy wished he had a woman to keep him company.

He was down at the end of the midway, near the draped cage where the monkeys was cooped. The sun been gone for a couple of hours, and it was like openin night for the stars, millions of em. He recalled takin in the wonder of it, magic, real magic, where the night was brushed by the stroke of a master.

Billy began to hike. In those days, he had so much sex surgin through his twenty-year-old body, some nights he just had to walk it off. Till the day he died he’d remember the moon, wide and plump, near full, the crickets loud as he headed north toward an empty field and beyond that the woods, tree branches rustlin, spiky against a dark blue sky.

Billy breathed in the air, thick with the long leaf pine. He was thinkin bout his ma, feelin blue bout leavin her behind with the devil. Billy kept walkin. His shirt drenched in sweat. He wished he had a smoke, but he kept goin, crossin the brink of the woods.

He was gonna jack-off when somethin sounded. He stopped. An animal? Yeah. A moan cut off. No. Not an animal. Somethin muffled. A cry. Human.

Billy led with his toes feelin for twigs and dried leaves, like huntin with his daddy. He moved toward the moan. The hairs on his body sprung up. From the light of the moon, he saw somethin white swipe back and forth cross the ground. The hunched form of a man. The cries. Billy crept forward. Listenin. Strainin his eyes so’s to make sure.

Mason held Daisy’s face to the dirt, rapin her from behind. Her tiny fists battered the ground. Her little body struggled under his.

He sneaked up on Mason as he pumped away, groanin like a pig, loud enough so’s to make it easy for Billy to come up behind him and wrap his strong young fingers round his neck and squeeze. Mason grabbed at his hands. Billy felt his nails gouge his skin. Blood spewed wet and sticky, but Billy put all six-foot, two-hundred pounds into stranglin him.

Sweat ran down his chin and fell on Mason’s head, Billy felt it roll off the backs of his fingers, but so tight was his hold it never got the chance to threaten his grip. With the wrong this man done to Daisy, Billy’s hands made sure Mason never do it again. He held on, even when he felt life surrender. Then, Billy rolled him on his side with Mason’s little pecker exposed. “Let me!” He remembered Daisy demandin. Pullin down her dress she done give him a kick to the nuts and then one to the face and spat on him. She looked up at Billy, hair all tangled, nose bleedin and said, “You ever say a word about this, I’ll kill you myself.” From that day on, as long as they traveled together, no one would hurt her. 

Billy stared out the window, passin the North bound Silver Star, long fences of hedges, warehouses. He nodded. The conductor garbled somethin bout Winter Haven. The forward movement, the click-clackin over the rails, relivin that night with Daisy and him bein eighty-five years old—Billy slipped into darkness.

***

He stood with his suitcase gazin at the green home with yellow shutters, and window boxes crammed with geraniums. Its wide porch with four pillars featured a swing where as many as three people could dangle their old swollen legs. House looked to be well over a hundred years old.

Daisy and Jack invested well. Freaks always made more money than norms, at least till the sixties before it become incorrect, but midgets and dwarfs worked on, cause they wasn’t too scary lookin.

The home with a rail leadin up to the veranda reminded him of all the times he passed by in trucks and trains thankful he never had to settle down in one place, made life hard for the wives, cept for Alice, who divorced him cause he was still married to Betty. And kids? Well, he ain’t sure how many he done fathered. None never showed up on his doorstep, course he never had a doorstep, till ’05, the year they made him retire.

He trudged up the walkway. It’d be three years since he last seen his girl. He come down for Jack’s funeral and what a spectacle it turned into, musta been more ex-carnies and circus folk there than in Gibtown; fire-eaters, sword swallowers, even a Wallenda showed up, tights an all. But Jack was no ordinary midget. He was a magician, an entertainer, a munchkin in the Wizard of Oz, so charmin he could con a con and how he loved shootin craps. Billy chuckled, just thinkin bout his friend Jack.

Sure enough, Billy’s pants sagged in the butt and his shirt forced its way out of his belt. If only he could turn back into that tall blond stud with light blue eyes that drove women loco. Ah shit, least he was alive and not in some sick home like Daisy. He held onto the railin and shuffled up the porch steps.

Billy tucked in his shirttails, he unstuck his hat from his sweaty head and steered a comb over his damp scanty hairs.

He rang the bell.

A black woman opened the door dressed in white pants and a lime-green jacket. “Why, you must be Mr. Luck.”

“That’s me, Billy.”

“I’m Geneva.”

“How’s Daisy?”

“Well, Miss Daisy is having a rough day, but seeing you will lift her spirits.”

Billy wondered. She was a tightfisted little mother, always lecturin him on savin his dough. Comin down for her funeral woulda been enough money spent. But callin him before and spendin more bucks to come down after she died? Musta had somethin to do with that night, and gitten religion an all.

“Leave your suitcase and hat here in the lobby. Ruben will take it up.”

Billy stepped into a foyer with a tall potted palm tree next to a narrow table. There was a stairway in front of him and on either side the ground floor fanned out to where he couldn’t see no more, just the fronds of palm trees wavin from the air-conditionin. The place seem all spick-and-span.

“We have your room ready for you. It’s on the third floor.”

“Hope I don’t have to walk up no steps.”

“Lord have mercy! You wouldn’t find me walking up three flights of stairs. No, Mr. Luck, we had an elevator put in years ago.”

“I’d like to see Daisy, right soon. An call me, Billy.”

“Sure, Mr. Billy.”

He smiled at Geneva callin him Mr. Billy.

“We’re going to have dinner in couple of hours. Would you like to join us in the dining room?”

“That sounds right nice, ma’am.”

“Let’s go see Miss Daisy.”

Billy followed Geneva past the stairway. The house seemed bigger on the inside.

He passed a room where people watched TV with a piano off to the side, and several white-haired ladies sat on a couch. Three old geezers played cards at a table, lookin like waxworks they did, till one of em eyed Billy—the scrape of emptiness passin between em.

“How sick is she?” Billy asked.

“She’s had hospice this morning. She ate some and that’s a good sign.”

“How long she gonna live?”

“Months, maybe weeks.”

“Can ya fix her with chemo?”

“Mr. Billy,” Geneva said, pausing at the doorway, “Miss Daisy refuses to have any more chemo.”

“She got tubes and needles in her?”

“No. We’re keeping her as comfortable as we can. She’s a spirited soul.”

“She always been stubborn. Her sickness got anythin to do with her bein little?”

“Not that I know of. But she’s eighty, that’s a long life.”

“Don’t seem long enough even when you’s ancient like me,” Billy mumbled.

He followed Geneva though a courtyard with hangin ferns the size of bushes and flower beds, all kinds, roses, pansies, other plants and colors he didn’t know the names of, all of em shootin toward the sky.

A fountain splashed down into a small pool. Billy wiped his upper lip with his handkerchief. “My that water looks invitin,” he said.

“We have a pool. Guest are allowed to swim. If you’d like.”

“Oh I don’t look so good in trunks.” Billy chuckled. “Used to,” he added.

“Well, if you change your mind we have bathing suits for our guests.”

“Don’t think so,” he said.

Billy tried to keep up so’s not to look feeble.

Geneva stopped at a door, knocked and inched it open. “Miss Daisy, Mr. Luck is here.” Geneva pushed the door open for Billy to enter.

A sweet sickly smell like hamburger goin bad greeted him as he took a step inside. He’d been so eager to see her but sometimes emotions made him feel lost, runnin blind into nowhere.

Through the cracked door he saw a child’s dresser with pictures on it, a kid’s table and a small chair.

“You okay, Mr. Billy?”

“Oh, I git all sorts of tummy problems.”

He went into the room. There on a child’s bed he saw his old friend, tiny, scrunched and shriveled, her white-blonde hair thin and dull. She looked at him.

Not movin no further, he stood in the middle of the room wonderin what to say, what to do, how to bring cheer to his friend who was dyin.

He turned to Geneva. “I wanna be alone with her.”

Geneva nodded and closed the door.

Billy swallowed containin his sorrow. He felt that sudden grab that never left him alone when in Daisy’s presence, it wedded him to her like no other woman ever done. But he never seen her lookin so bad. She always wore make-up, fixed her hair, a real looker, presentin herself like a lady.

“You look swell, Daisy.” Course bullshit was like breathin for Billy.

“Liar,” she rasped.

“Ah, you gonna be okay. Bet you just layin there sick-like cause you want me to feel sorry for ya.” His jokin fell flat. “Everyone treatin you good? Geneva looks to be a right nice colored gal.”

“African American,” Daisy said.

“I forgit. Use black most of the time. Miss talkin on the phone but git your letters. You git my postcards?”

She nodded toward the dresser.

“I keep yours too,” he said glancin round the room that was good size even for a norm.

The window with open curtains let in light, and she had a small patio with a little chair and table right outside her room.

Everythin was make-do for her. The bathroom door was half closed and he wondered if that too was re-done.

“There’s something,” the effort to talk took her breath.

“Oh, I know you git religion and all,” Billy said, raisin his palms up. “You gonna preach, well I ain’t interested.”

Daisy scowled.

“Well, can’t be just a good-bye. You too practical for that. So’s if you lookin for me to ask forgiveness for what I done to Mason or somethin, I ain’t gonna do it.”

Daisy rolled her eyes. “Stupid, old goat.”

Billy turned his right ear toward her. “Whatchu say?”

She shook her head. He’d seen that same scorn in her eyes when she thought he or Jack said somethin dumb.

“I heard ya.” 

He felt his cheeks burn. He done read her wrong, bet she never give that night another thought. Daisy moved on, while it tailed him the rest of his life. Billy blew troubled air through his mouth. He was angry at himself, lettin Daisy know that night lived with him right up to now.

“Took a portion of my social security check to come down to see ya, so’s whatchu want?”

She struggled to sit up. Billy come over to help but she shooshed him away.

“Open the top dresser drawer,” she said in a weak voice. “There’s an envelope—for you, under the garments.”

“You want me to poke around in your girlie things?”

“Go on.”

Billy shuffled over to the dresser and crouched down first on one knee then the other. He saw pictures of Jack as a young man, another of Daisy lookin gorgeous in a black dress. He picked up one of the three of them together taken back in the seventies. “Look at us then,” he said, turnin to Daisy. “That was taken the day Abner’s magic trick backfired and the dove done flown out of his fly.” Haha, haha. Billy laughed hard bringin his butt down on the heels of his tennis shoes. He glanced over at Daisy, who smiled back at him. “We seen some funny things in our time, huh, girl?”

She nodded. “The drawer,” she said in breathy voice.

Billy jiggled it open. He saw her nighties, the sheer see-through fabric. Didn’t seem right him goin through her personals, he never so much as touched Daisy, she bein special and all. He put his hand under her clothes feelin the feminine softness till he reached the envelope. He pulled it out and shut the drawer.   

Billy labored as he pushed off from the dresser to git to his feet. Once standin, he spread his legs apart to balance himself, he took his glasses from his pocket, put them on and opened the envelope. He found a paper. It looked all serious with a picture of a funeral home and a payment made for $8,500. He never liked showin how ignorant he was, and that defect git him into trouble sometimes, so’s he picked up symbols to help him along. He studied the words and pictures he knew, three plots, one taken. He looked at Daisy. She done wanted him buried with her and Jack. It touched him, she wantin him near her.

“I coulda used the money it took to buy this.”

“You would have wasted it on whores.”

“Hell, nowadays thinkin bout a roof that don’t leak turns me on more than a long legged hooker.”

Billy took off his glasses. “So’s that why you called for me to come?”

“I want you buried with Jack and me.”

“That’s mighty nice, girl,” he said. “Just thought the county would come take my ole body and cremate me or somethin. Didn’t give it no thought.” He stuck the paper in his back pocket. “Never did git use to livin in one place even after ten years. Guess when we die, we don’t have much choice. Glad I’ll be with friends, least my ole bones an all.”

He went to the chair by her bed and sat down. “I hate bein old. Live in my memories I do, cause that’s where I feel safe.” He stared down at his hands, hands that once could do anythin. He kept his eyes lowered, feelin blue, sad for the way life turned on Daisy. “Least you git religion,” he said, lookin up.

Her eyes roamed his face.

“Daisy? You okay?”

“I always believed,” she whispered. “I just never talked about it.”

“Well, you full of surprises. I never knowed that. Never heard you say peep bout God till you git sick.” Billy chuckled. “You didn’t live like no Christian, stealin and all.”

“God forgave me.”

Billy figured if God was in the business of judgin he wasn’t worth glorifyin.

“The bathroom. Cabinet.” Daisy sighed. “There’s a brown bottle. Bring it to me.”

“What is it?” he asked.

“Medicine.”

“Want me to git Geneva?”

“No.”

“What kinda medicine?”

“Morphine.”

“Geneva give you the right dose.”

“Not the dose I want.”

He crossed his arms and tilted his head back squintin at her. “Whatchu askin me is a big deal.”

“If I could get it I would.” She winced.

He hobbled to the slidin door where he looked out on the lawn with the plastic pink flamingoes and alligator steppin stones. He gazed past the hedges, where he could see through the leaves to the pool beyond. He looked back at her. “I ain’t takin your life.”

“I’m not asking you to.” She slumped further into the pillows.

“What your maker think bout this?”

“God doesn’t want me to suffer.”

“We don’t know nothin till we die,” Billy said.

She stared at the bathroom, her lower lip juttin, gave him the silent treatment, she did.

He looked out the window thinkin bout what Daisy wanted. He saw dashes of white and printed bathing suits, people goin for a swim. He raised his hand to the curtain and pulled it all the way back as if some kinda wisdom was out there waitin, just for him.

Billy scratched his arm. He raked his neck. His whole body crawled with sadness. “Oh girl, I know you feelin bad.” He shuffled to the side of the bed. He bent so close to Daisy he smelled the rot comin off her. “You been my family. My little sister.” Billy sniffed. “Think I’m gitten a cold from all the air condition.”

“It’s a brown bottle,” she said. “Bring it.”

“Geneva gonna know I git it for you.”

“She won’t. It’s time, Billy.” Her voice sounded tinny, like comin through a pipe, it did.

Through the years he denied her nothin, the only woman who could make him walk through fire and feel privileged to do it.

He felt Daisy watchin as he crossed to the bathroom. He went inside. It was a place for norms, even the john. Billy opened the cabinet door and saw several brown bottles, two, with paper round the neck. He took the open one and went back to Daisy.

“You done planned this all along, you little con.” But Billy couldn’t be mad, just mystified at the way he was fated to this woman.

“Give me the bottle,” she whispered. “And hand me my juice.”

Billy saw the glass on her nightstand and give it to her.

She poured the medicine. She swished the morphine round and drank. “Put it back.”

Billy set the glass on the stand, returned to the bathroom and did as Daisy said. He shut the cabinet door and glimpsed his reflection, turnin away so’s not to remember the moment. Grabbin the doorknob to steady himself, he took out his handkerchief and wiped his face. He limped back to the chair. He moved it as close to the bed with him still able to sit.

“Thank you, Billy.”

Seemed his whole life got stuck in his throat. He cleared it. Coughed. “Ah girl,” he said. “I didn’t do me no favor. Who do I got now?” He reached for her tiny hand. Her frail fingers slid through his. Like a bird, she was, flying over the carnival with the merry-go-round music blarin, the Ferris wheel turnin, the people all happy cause they feelin free, in one hand they eatin cotton candy, the other holdin the hand of a sweetheart.

He let go of Daisy.

Billy done feel like his life folded, where his heart was ground into sawdust and just blowed away leavin him alone on the midway.

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2016 !Short Story Contest! live

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

Welcome to defenestrationism reality.

 

Our finalists for the 2016 !Short Story Contest! are announced

Meet the Finalists

Posting Schedule

 

We are equally honored to announce a new Judge for defenestrationism.net contests:

D.E.B. studied history at Bowdoin College, the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Yale University.  After a decade as an historian with the federal government, he changed careers, first with a job as a boat rigger on Long Island Sound and later serving as chief of staff to a Maryland state legislator.  His literary interests incline toward Lincoln’s writings and the King James translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.  He reads Moby Dick every few years to scrub the barnacles off his brain.

Meet the rest of our Judge Panel

 

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Bonafides and Circulation

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Meet the 2016 !Short Story Contest! Finalists

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

Version 2DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer published worldwide. DC’s short stories have appeared in online literary magazines: Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Fiction on the Web, Eskimo Pie, Five on the Fifth, Crab Fat Lit and many more. DC stories are also in print anthologies, Blue Crow, the Australian literary journal and Scarborough Fair, published by the University of Toronto. DC won second place in the University of Toronto’s literary Contest for 2016 for her short story, Taps, and won two Soul Making-Keats honorary mentions in 2014 for her short stories, The Bell Tower and Taps. DC lives in California.

GB in truck - URLGlenn A. Bruce has an MFA in Writing, was associate fiction editor for The Lindenwood Review, and has published seven novels as well as two collections of short stories. He wrote the movie Kickboxer, episodes ofWalker: Texas Ranger and Baywatch. He has been published in RedFez, Beat Poets of the Forever Generation, Alfie Dog, LLR, Carolina Mountain Life, Oval, Brilliant Flash Fiction (where he was also final judge for the Flash Fiction 2015 contest) and many others. He recently won top prize in the “Quick & Dirty” short story contest for Also That (which included a cash prize and some cool art!). He currently teaches Screenwriting and Acting for the Camera at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.

chad tilla5 (5)The son of a World War Two US Marine, Chad Ehler is an avid military historian and researcher. He studied national security and military affairs at UC Berkeley and constitutional law and jurisprudence at Santa Clara University.  His latest novel set in England and France during the Battle of Britain, 1940, is set to be published in 2016 by London-based Endeavour Press, Ltd. You can find him on Twitter @ghqhomeforces or on Fidalgo Island, Washington, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Tara Campbell_With_DinosaurTara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Previous publication credits include stories in Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Master’s Review and Magical: An Anthology.

Don Noel for DefenestrationismDon Noel retired after four decades’ print and broadcast journalism in Hartford CT, a career that included runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize, finalist for a White House Fellowship, an Alicia Patterson Fellowship for study in Cambodia and Romania, and a dozen or so other honors.  Turning in retirement to fiction, he took an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University at age 81. His work has so far been chosen for publication by Calliope, Shark Reef, Drunk Monkeys, The Tau, Indian River Review, Midnight Circus, Oracle, Clare Literary Magazine and The Raven’s Perch.  He has a novel and two novellas looking for publishers.  The Albert Einstein quote on the desk reads: “If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

 

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In the Realms of Light and Darkness: eight letters from war: 5. Gordafarid

Friday, January 1st, 2016

5. GORDAFARID

My dearest Son,

Your uncle (whose name I cannot write here, of course) was very understanding. He left the decision up to me, he did not apply pressure. He is a good man. He explained how a woman would not arouse suspicion, as a man would, entering such a place. And he urged me to discuss it, with him, and with you and your sisters, because you are all old enough to understand. But you, my Son, are too far away and it was not something that could be discussed by letter. Even this I must leave with someone whom I know you will think of when you hear what has happened, and that person will place it where you will think to look. Your younger sister would not understand why I would do this. She has babies herself and a husband who is alive and good to her, and who cannot go to war because he cannot walk. She only feels, not thinks. She did not come to see me today. Uncle said it was best if no one entered the house today who did not enter it every day.

Your other sister remains in the hospital. Her wounds are healing but she will, I think, never again be well. She has nightmares every night about the bombing, wakens screaming, her husband tells me. Of course I have not talked to her of this. She sees people die every day and to know her mother has planned her own death would be more than she could bear. Please explain to her when she is well enough just to weep.

Uncle fears the authorities will punish the rest of the family. I fear that too, but they will claim they had no knowledge of my act. Now that I have made the decision he said it would be all right for me to write this for you to find later, but he cautioned me: Do not use anyone’s name.

I write this with both sadness and exhilaration in my heart. I have prepared myself, with uncle’s wife’s help. She too is sad but she understands things the way I do. It is the way men must understand: This is war and, in war, we all must be soldiers. There is more at stake than one woman’s life. There is what we believe, what we live for. I will leave in a little while but it is important to write to you, to be able to say these last words to you, my Son, so you will remember that what I do is done from belief in our cause, and faith, and love.

What, after all, is death but an opportunity to join God? I am fifty — that is not old, but I have lived a full life, loving and being loved by your father, giving birth to my children and watching each of you grow. You are my legacy, as you are your father’s. He will be proud that I have chosen to serve God and our people, just as I am proud of you for the service you perform in protecting our nation.

I know there is much to say that is important, yet it is the weather that impresses itself on my mind. It is a warm day, but not so warm the bindings are uncomfortable. When we put them on it felt odd, to know I was dressing for the last time, that these would be the garments in which I would say my last prayer, that the photograph uncle’s wife will take of me will show me in this unobtrusive clothing in which no one will notice me. Few people have noticed me in my life, except your father, and I have not minded. I have lived a simple life, as God has willed. This is good. I come to my death with my eyes and my heart open, in clear conscience, despite the deaths I know I will cause. I believe those, like mine, are the will of God.

It is bright outside, a beautiful day. I am grateful for God’s kindness in granting that.

Walking where I must go I hope I am not so absorbed that I fail to notice the sun, the sky, the children, even the scarred streets and buildings. There is so much beauty even amid the rubble their bombs and soldiers have left.

I recall when you were a baby, how I nestled you to my breast and you drank of it. How I loved that! My breasts are dry now but still, whenever I think of you I think of that, your lips gently suckling, your eyes closed, your tiny hands reaching out for me. It is I who reach out now, to you, to the rest, asking for your prayers. Heaven will be a lonely place if your father is not waiting for me, if you and your sisters do not join us one day.

I am not afraid. Uncle assures me there will be no pain, I will hear nothing. The passing will come too quickly for me to even notice. I will close my eyes, take a breath in which I will pray and speak your name, your sisters’ names, your father’s. Then I will press the button and go to meet God.

Goodbye, my Son. Pray for me.

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In the Realms of Light and Darkness: eight letters from war: 4. Habibah

Friday, January 1st, 2016

4. HABIBAH

My dear daughter,

I must write this sad news, though I cannot see the paper through my tears. They have knocked at our door today and told me. Ayyub is dead. Of fever, not a sword.

It was only three months ago he was here, a proud groom, standing beneath the canopy with Esther, both of them filled with laughter. What a lovely day. It seemed there could be nothing but joy, for everywhere in the world, for all life to come. The song, the hope, the laughter. There was no war, then. Only happiness. How beautiful she looked, how beautiful they both were. Children of gold, gleaming. Only the old women cried, through their smiles. And the old men held their hands and smiled as well, just as Ayyub held Esther’s and smiled at her.

Today her tears flow, as mine. There is no comfort to give or to take. We hold each other. We try to speak, but words have no power to heal. I look in the mirror and see I am not whole any more. A part of me has vanished.

He was kind, the man who came. I saw him from the window, on his horse, riding slowly up the street. It was a clear day, the sun was bright behind him and his face was lost in the light, but I knew who he was. He has come often in these times. Yesterday he stopped at Sarah and Daniel’s door. I watched him dismount, straighten his trousers and coat, remove his hat. I watched him step, silently as possible, to their door, knock, wait. When the door opened I looked away, with sorrow and relief. Today, I watched him, with fear. There are so many in our little street, so many who have sons who fight. I prayed: Adonai: Let him go past my door. Let him stop at Noam’s or Anya’s, any door that is not my door. I am ashamed to say that, but it is true. My son, my only son, Esther’s husband. I would trade his life for another’s. That is wrong, but I am a mother. I can be wrong, but love cannot be wrong.

When he knocked, I knew. Esther was in the barn, I was alone. I stood. I could not go to the door. He knocked again, a third time. Then he called, in a quiet voice: Habibah. He opened the door and stood there, looking at me. I did not look at him. Habibah, he said again, gently, and he came to me and took my hands. I am sorry, he said, but Ayyub…

I did not weep, then, nor cry out. A fever, he explained. He was brave.

Brave or a coward, sword or a fever: He is just as dead. He is just as dead. If he had not gone to fight he would not be dead.

Many soldiers have died from it, this fever, the kind man said. We have buried him, as we did the others, quickly. He asked that you have his mezuzah. And he gave it to me, put it in my hand. And he left.

I am an old woman now. I was young, this morning, now I am old.

I am sorry, my daughter. I am sorry I must tell you these things, I am sorry I must know

them. I am sorry I am old. And I am sorry for my tears. They do not help me, they cannot help

you. They are just stains on this paper. And on my heart.

I hope you will come, if you are able. Esther will need us both.

Sadly, Your mother Habibah

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And the Winners of the 2015 !Short Story Contest! are…

Monday, September 7th, 2015

A glorious Labor Day to you all.

 

What a great contest.  Our Slim Stat numbers show

over 1,760 page-views from

360 unique IP addresses.

 

And the Fan Favorites are:

 

tied at 11.6% of the Runner-up votes,

The First Time I Painted my Nails, or the Moose is Not an Ass

by Ariel Fintushel

and

The Egg Stealers by Sarena Ullibarri.

 

And with 16.8% of the Grand Prize votes:

Liarbird by Sara Kate Ellis.

 

 

 

And, drum-roll please…

by four-Judge panel plus fan voting,

 

the 2015 !Short Story Contest! Runner-ups:

The First Time I Painted my Nails, or, the Moose is Not an Ass

by Ariel Fintushel

and

The Egg Stealers by Sarena Ullibarri.

 

And the defenestrationism.net 2015 !Short Story Contest! Grand Prize Winner:

Liarbird by Sara Kate Ellis.

 

!Congratulations to our winners, and all our finalists!

 

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Winners Announced Today…

Monday, September 7th, 2015

 

The Fan Voting polls have closed,

the Judges have voted,

we are tabulating the winners as we speak…

 

Keep tuning in,

we’ll announce the winners soon.

 

 

 

!Short Story Contest!

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Last Weekend for Voting for 2015 !Short Story Contest!

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

 

Send in your final votes for the

2015 !Short Story Contest!

for Voting Closes Sunday,

September 6th,

at 7:59 Eastern Standard Time

 

 

!Short Story Contest!

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Through the Window

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

Through the Window
by T.C. Powell

“Men!” Saldana said, as though it needed no elaboration.  Lise and Maggie nodded in agreement.

They sat around the Denny’s table on a lazy Saturday afternoon, finishing slices of pie.  Saldana, three years removed from a five year marriage, had the most authority in these discussions.

“It’s so typical.  That’s the shame.  Sure, we expect them to cheat, but with their secretaries?  How cliché!”

“Know what he said about her?”  Lise said.  “‘She’s not a secretary, she’s an executive assistant.’  Can you believe it?”

Maggie mumbled disapproval, like she was expected to, then eased back in the booth, watching the world outside the window, not really listening to the conversation.  She didn’t have to.  She’d already heard it, every first Saturday of the month for the past two years.  Details changed — different men who found different ways of breaking their hearts — but the punchline remained the same: men were awful, evil, and from then on, eternally forsworn.

“…and I promise,” Lise was saying, “I’m never going to make that mistake again.”

“Hear, hear!”  Saldana applauded.

Outside, Maggie watched a car stranded on the far side of the road.  A pretty girl in her early twenties had a flat.  She was waiting in the car for help — probably already put in a call — when someone pulled up behind.  Not roadside assistance, just a Good Samaritan.  A guy hopped out, trim and tall with dark curly hair, and jogged up to her window.  Lucky girl.

“You can ask Maggie about David.  She dated him, too!”  Lise said.

“Huh?” Maggie said.  “Oh yeah, David.  It’s been a long time…  He was a sweet guy.”

“But didn’t it gross you out?  The way he’d belch songs when he drank beer?  I mean, first time?  Funny.  Hundred-and-first time?  Not so funny.”

“You know, we dated in high school — I don’t think he was doing that then.”

“Hmmm,” Lise said.

“Well, I’ll tell you the grossest thing I ever saw Enrico doing,” Saldana said.  “I woke up late one night and Rico wasn’t in bed.  I went to the bathroom to see if he was okay, and…”

The guy had the tire off.  He was older, maybe twenty-eight, but they would make a cute couple, both young and attractive.

Life was crazy.  You could have a flat, whole day ruined, when someone comes along to help.  But it’s not just anyone.  It’s him.  The guy with the hair and the build and the smile, and not just those things — he’s a good guy, too — you know because he stopped.

And so you say “hello” (coyly, because you don’t want to seem aggressive), but he can tell you’re interested anyways, and he knows that you’re right for him, too.  Cue the music swell.

The flat tire, that one-in-a-million quirk of fate, leads to a first date, then roses and candlelight and dancing, then bed, smiling as you wake up next to him, stretching in the sheets and feeling his warmth beside you, knowing that you won’t have to start your day like normal, cold and alone.  Then everything.

Maggie sighed.

Saldana was still talking: “…I swear, it was a week before I could use the tub again.  You can still see the stains if you know where to…”

The tire replaced, the girl started to get back into her car.  The guy was watching her, looking around, obviously trying to come to a decision.  It was so cute!  A guy like that, nervous about a girl.

He walked up and knocked on her window.

She put it down.

Here it was — the big moment.

Then, Maggie could see the girl hold something out.  Money.

The guy hesitated, took the bill, and stood back as she put the window up and started her car.

As she drove off, he watched after her, maybe to see if she would come back.  She didn’t.  Just left him standing there.

The little fool!  Maybe being so young, she could believe that this kind of thing happened every day — maybe Maggie, herself, believed it once — but a day would come when she would know better.  She just left, having paid for his attentions like an escort.  He didn’t want your money, kid.

“Really,” Lise said.  “Where are you supposed to meet the good ones?  All the usual spots — bars, clubs, even the libraries now — that’s where the ‘players’ go to find their next victims.”

“You assume too much,” Saldana laughed.  “What do you mean ‘good ones’?”

“Ha ha, I’m serious.  Maggie, maybe you know.  If you wanted to find a good guy — someone real, that you could spend your life with or whatever — where would you look?”

Outside, the guy was headed back to his car, his head down.  Maggie couldn’t believe the girl had blown it.

“Everywhere I could.”

Saldana said, “Honestly, Lise, I think if you want to meet the perfect man, you have to rely on fate.  You can’t make it happen.  You just need to recognize it when it does, so you don’t let it get away.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Lise said.

The guy was back in his car.  Maggie’s stomach dropped to see him go.  Who knew where he’d go now, or whether he’d ever find anyone, himself.  Maybe he’d drift, like her, never quite finding that someone.

She saw him turn the key.  Nothing happened.  He tried again, but his car wouldn’t start.  He cursed, and she stifled a small laugh.  Suddenly it hit her, and she laughed even harder.

“Maggie?” Saldana said.  “Where are you going?  We haven’t paid.”

“I’ll be right back.  There’s something I have to do.”

Maggie scrambled out of the booth, her pumps clapping on the linoleum as she raced from the restaurant.

Through the window, Saldana and Lise watched as Maggie approached the guy’s car, just as he finally got it started.

He took down his window, they exchanged smiles, and she said, “Hello.”

 

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Liarbird

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Liarbird
by Sara Kate Ellis

 

I wouldn’t have looked Jenny up if it hadn’t been for two things.  I had a forty-hour layover in that tin can port, and I was rich.

Not stinking, but comfortable by Jenny’s standards, and I’d been waiting years during that climb to security, the marriages — and the divorces, thank god – for a chance to show her up.  Maybe even before, when no one could foresee Jenny’s plummeting fortunes, and all I could think about was punching her in those perky tits till they were facing the opposite direction.

Here’s how I played it in my head. Jenny’d appear at the door of my suite, or I’d stroll casually down to meet her in the plush, carefully guarded portel lobby.  I’d lift my arm, curl my fingers just so like I was playing a bar of light, plinky jazz and say it.

“Oh. Hi, Jenny.”

Full stop after the Oh. Almost like I could see a stain on her jacket, but chose to keep it to myself.  I’d even practiced in the toilet on the shuttle in.  Couldn’t let the Gicks see.  After decades in their company, it was still spooky how those large, ophidian eyes could deduce every thought from a toss of the hair or chew mark on a bottom lip.  The Gicks were why the judge banished Jenny to this shithole in the first place.

I sat on the bed in my suite and slid my hand over the remote, watching as the walls melted to let in a view of the port.  Nothing devastating, not like the view of Proxima Centauri a few stops over, but pleasant just the same: Shuttles and police drones lifting off and landing, the Hub crackling up there in the dark with Jupiter rising up from behind like a wheel of cloudy pastels.  Serene enough to make me nod off, but when the COM buzzed I jumped.

“Maddy?”  The voice on the other end was arch, but warm.  “You did know they wouldn’t let me up.”

“Oh. Hi, Jenny,” I said.  I pulled my hand from the mic, got silence.

“Hello?” I said again.

“You’re in the executive suite, smart ass. I can’t get up without clearance.”

I forced a chuckle and Jenny met me halfway, her laughter vibrating through the air like something unsavory had just fluttered in through the vent.

“I’ll be right down,” I said.

I wasn’t going to apologize.  Whose fault was it that no one could trust her anymore?  Or that I’d found her ten years back with her legs wrapped around my fiancé?

#

The lobby was all fake wood and plush modular furniture, predictable comfort for a soft class of anthropod whose money didn’t put it above the worst kind of sentimentality.  In the bar, a piano trilled under the ministrations of some Gick’s gummy, attenuated claws.  It was swaying from side to side, its large eyes reflecting warm nostalgia as it crooned out a near perfect rendition of Armstrong that made all the faces in the room sag with a longing for home.

Everyone but Jenny.

She was turned away as I approached, her arm curled over the back of a half moon sofa like she had it in a headlock.
I steeled myself before meeting her eyes. Like the Gicks, Jenny was good at mimicry, at exuding warmth and charm, but she had to have some sucker to mirror first.

It was that same fiancé who’d first explained them to me, a few years after the Gicks made landing.  Stan was biologist who specialized in alien neurochemistry for the now not-so-big pharma. He was working in one of their think tanks, cooking up new drugs for a new age.

“The Gicks evolved around millions of sentient life forms,” he said.  “Their neurochemistry, hell, their entire biological makeup is primed for mirroring and mimicking, kind of like the voice box on a lyrebird, only it’s mostly,” He took off his glasses wiggled his brows. “In the eyes.”

Jenny turned, that dazzling smile had already lit across her features.  She held up a half-finished martini.  “Hope you don’t mind, but I put this on your room.”

Before I could answer, she was up, her arms flung around me in a throw back to those squealing embraces of our girlhood.

A decent act, I noted, but nothing that could work on me.  As we came together, she patted my back like she was drying her hands on a washroom towel, and I glanced warily over her shoulder, calculating the price of the gin in her glass.

“Don’t be so shocked,” she said, pulling back. Her eyes narrowed as they swept over me. “You thought I’d be living in the ducts? Maybe, mopping floors for the Gicks in this here hotel?”

It was true.  Jenny’s resolute beauty had dashed part of my hopes. Her skin shone from recent treatments, and her eyes displayed the same eerie circumspection that had always made her recklessness such a shock. She certainly didn’t look like a woman who’d been incarcerated for two years, however cushy the circumstances.

“Laying it on thick, don’t you think?” I said, my voice faltering.   The waiter, a gawky human with a rash cresting beneath his bow tie, passed me a Scotch and I nearly missed my mouth as I sipped. Less than a minute and Jenny Belveth had ruined my entrance.  Or maybe I’d just stumbled into hers.

“Sit down,” Jenny said. She took my arm and shoved me gently down on the sofa.  “We’re wasting time.”

As I expected, she gave short shrift to my career, the marriages, and that last, interminable divorce.  Our conversation hemmed safely around the old days, politely skirting her trial, the jail term, and when we ran out of past, I listened to her spew hatred at the Gicks.

“You wouldn’t believe what it’s like outside,” she said, pointing down rather than at the view.  “They are so goddamned literal.  They insist workers’ subsistence levels be based on that of most humans on earth, so much for making us richer.  They put most of the indentured into goddamned shantytowns to avoid incongruity with their ‘peasant sensibilities.”

“Huh,” I said, keeping my voice level.  These sob stories were nothing new.  Gicks controlled all transit, the technology to harvest the energy from stars and gas giants to power their Hubs, and they fancied themselves as cultural arbiters, so long as those cultures were versions that abetted their narrative of adulthood.  Their evolutionary quirk meant they were the only beings capable of cross species communication and authentic mutual understanding – a term I’d always laughed at — and thus the only ones capable of running the Hubs.

“What about you?” I said.  “Is that where you’re living?”

“Please.”  She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes.  “Got out of that hole in the first week.  Of course, the shanties are spotless, a goddamned theme park of poor.” She put down her drink and glanced at me cautiously. “You know, you really should see it while you’re here.”

I stared blankly into the bottom of my glass.  “I’m not really here long enough to-”

She sighed, drummed her fingers on her knee.  “Don’t tell me you’ve sold out. After all that talk about social justice back in law school?  You used to bore me so.”

We both laughed, but her remark was was more jab than tease. The idea of Jenny burning with moral opprobrium for the disenfranchised was the real joke when she couldn’t drum up enough for those closest to her. She’d done a number on Stan after I’d left, put him in therapy.  For that, I was perversely grateful.

“I guess I have.”  I kept my smile firm and made to stand.  “It’s been really good to—.”

Jenny leaned over and snatched the bill.

“You can leave that.”

She glanced up at me.  A glimmer of disbelief crossed her features.  “Oh my god.  You thought I was serious.”

“I didn’t mind.”

Jenny stood and slipped her handbag over her shoulder. “Let me get this, Maddy.”  She grinned slyly as she strolled toward the register.  “Get a cab. You must at least be hungry.”

I bristled.  I hadn’t planned to leave the hotel, much less the area.  Jenny, however, knew my fondness for discretion and she used that moment to blow it wide open.

“I know a great place,” she called across the room. She gave a meaningful nod toward the Gick pianist.  “And it sure as hell beats trying to eat with all the you-know-whats in the room.”

I felt the heat rise to my face.  Every Gick in the bar had registered her insult, along with every human most likely, but Jenny’s lack of tact had forced my decision.  While she paid the bill, I told the Gick concierge I wanted a hotel driver, Gick security preferably, and all of my contacts routed through.

As always, the thing’s eyes mirrored back my unease with alarming reassurance, and I felt a friendly loosening in my chest.  Here was the trait that allowed them to gain trust, to work their way in among so many divergent civilizations, stringing up Hubs through the galaxy like tinsel around the branches of some great suspiring tree.  It was why Jenny had volunteered for the study all those years ago, the one that shoved her out of a dull, pimply gracelessness and into a world that for a few years anyway, was unequivocally hers.

The cab waiting for us was a climber, equipped with spidery grapplers meant to usher the workers into the most hard-to-reach depths of the port. The Gick concierge had seen to that too.  It must have picked up where Jenny wanted to go, or at least the seediness of our destination.  Likely there was a tracker on the car as well, I told myself. The Gicks think of everything.

This Hub was one of the main transfer points out of Sol, and the Gicks employed thousands of workers to mine energy from Io and Jupiter.  Many came voluntarily, excited at the chance for higher wages or credit toward interstellar travel, but some, like Jenny, were sent up to serve sentences or wait out their paroles.

“I’m not sure about this,” I said.

“You called the cab,” Jenny said. She took my hand and tugged me into the warmth of the car.

“Where to, Madame?” the Gick spoke in a clipped British accent, but Jenny chattered back in fluent Gick.  I caught a whiff of irritation in her voice, and the thing raised the glass barrier between us.

“Some privacy,” she said. “Finally.”

I hiccupped as a hole opened in the surface and the cab dropped into the duct. It felt the way I imagined it might to find myself hurtling down an elevator shaft.

“This ought to help.” Jenny pulled a flask from her handbag, opened it and waved it under my nose.  She giggled as I recoiled at the strong, yet familiar scent.

“I don’t forget,” she said.

#

It was the cherry liqueur we slugged in college.  We pounded it back that night we crashed the opera. Jenny’s idea, of course, a first sign someone else was emerging from that grabby, insecure kid I’d known growing up. I chalked it up to a new pair of contacts.

“Put it on,” she said, tossing me a blouse.  It was white and downright frumpy, its coarse fabric grazing my fingers.

“I thought you said opera.”  I gestured to the strapless black gown I’d spent a fortune on, and Jenny grinned and lifted my arm, slipping it into the scratchy confines of the cloth.

“We’re ushers,” she said, “We stake out the empty seats in the first act, then right before intermission, we head off for a powder and then—”

She lifted her shirt to reveal her own sequined garment, the fabric clinging to her like a second skin.  I swallowed as I took in the glow of her skin, the red silk augmenting her hair, her eyes. The baby fat, along with the old Jenny, had simply got up and left.

By intermission we were sipping champagne in the lobby, our shirts crammed into our handbags, the hands of wealthy older men tickling our elbows as they led us to our seats.

“Fitzgerald got it wrong,” Jenny said, as we settled in for Gatsby’s fate. “Second act’s when you’re home free.”

#

     I took a swig of the liqueur and felt it burn with the memory in my chest.  “Where are we headed?”

“I’ve got to stop somewhere first,” Jenny said.

The other shoe, I thought wryly.  But the alcohol and Jenny’s nearness had dulled the impact, turned it into a foot massage.

In Jenny’s second act, she’d had a star turn as a litigator, winning billions of credits in cases for her firm.  In the third act, which none of us had anticipated, she’d gone from star to villain, an expert jury tamperer in one of the biggest doping scandals since the Olympics of 2048.  Headlines called it the Charm Offensive, and her firm went under the same year Jenny went to trial.

“Where is that?” I asked finally.

“I’ve got a guy.  He’s keeping something for me.” She lowered her eyes, and then lifted her chin to face me.  “It’s something I’d like you to see.”

“I thought you wanted me to see the ducts,” I said.

It was dismaying how fast, how smoothly her expression could shift from a lighthearted arrogance to the kind of dejection that made you want to throw your arms around her or worse, yank out your billfold.  It was my first discernable sign that evening of the change in her, the evolution, pharmaceutically triggered, that had turned her into such a charming pariah. I reminded myself that this was artifice, that Jenny could work on me like a toy surprise on a sugar-starved toddler.

“What is it?”

Jenny reached into her bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She lit up and answered me through a cloud of smoke.  “I’ve been doing some consulting.”

I sighed, batted the smoke away.  “They’ll put you back
in for that.“

“I know that.”

Officially Jenny’s diagnosis was listed as a disability, an incapability “to connect on an equivalent level of human interaction,” but it was a defect that gave her an unfair advantage. Fellow human beings just couldn’t keep up.  She wasn’t allowed to practice law anymore, couldn’t work in marketing, or most types of business for that matter. It was a condition of her parole.

“What if I said it’s for a good cause?” She turned away again, her eyes traversing the shadows, the random streaks of light that flashed by as we descended into the ducts.

“You?” I laughed. Workers’ compensation and labor rights had been my niche back in law school. It was how I got myself taken seriously. Jenny, on the other hand, went straight into corporate litigation, those giant payoffs I’d been too ashamed to admit I wanted.

“The prisoners are having problems with the Gicks.  It’s a mess. You wouldn’t believe the conditions they work in, the utter lack of safety standards.”

Jenny exhaled the last of the smoke, stubbed the cigarette out on the window glass.  “Working the harvesters on Io takes crews of ten, fully armored, hundreds of thousands worth of Lead-Bismuth coolant pumped through by the minute.  Even then, they need to switch shifts every ten minutes or risk permanent damage. Only the Gicks are sending them out there in teams of five, most with substandard protection.  They’re coming back so hot their neighbors are getting nosebleeds.”

“Why don’t they report to the clinics?”

Jenny shot me a look of disbelief.  “You think they haven’t?”

She took another pull on the flask, then went on easy breezy like she was midway through a presentation.
“The problem is getting the evidence and testimony into the right hands back home. That’s where you come in.”

“Me?” I laughed and pressed my feet against the back of the front seat.  “You said it yourself, Jenny,” I said.  “I’ve already sold out.”

I was trying to appear blithe, but Jenny snatched my wrist and squeezed hard enough to hurt.

“No, Maddy.”  She said, relaxing her grip. She rubbed her thumb over my palm, tickling the skin.  “I’m the one who’s changed, remember?  You were always the bleeding heart.”

“I’d like for that not to be literal.”

“It’s just a few files,” she said.  “Harvester layouts, radiation readings, medical charts, affidavits, all on paper. No one here trusts the signal. Gicks could intercept it in a heartbeat, trace it back. I promised them I could get it to the right people.  You can do at least that, can’t you? Christ, slip it under the door of the State Department and run if you have to.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  Jenny reached up, took my chin in her hand and forced me to look at her. Once more, I felt the pressure of her fingers on my hand, and found myself dumbly squeezing back.

“Maddy,” she said.

“I can’t promise anything.”

“That’s enough. Thank you.”

She closed her eyes and slumped back into the seat in exhaustion and relief.  When she let go of my hand, I felt bereft.

#

    Neither Jenny nor Stan told me she was volunteering.  The study was confidential, but that summer before we both took the bar, I sensed something irrevocably different about her. That day she came striding through the crowd at my engagement party, there was looseness, a fluidity to her manner that made her seem less material than the others. Jenny was more flicker than flesh, applying her attention with light speed precision to whomever might need it.
And they did need it, I saw.  They craved it.  As Jenny neared, people’s bodies drew in around her, their faces brightened and their voices rose in greeting.  Everyone but Stan.  Stan was impervious, holding forth on his work: a drug synthesized from a Gick hormone.

“It targets transmitters that fire up the mirror neurons, even stimulates growth when there’s a deficit,” he said. “We’re seeing treatments for autism, depression, a whole host of personality disorders, even shyness. Our subjects are already showing progress.”

Even then I noticed she was standing a little too close to him, but Stan was still talking. He was the only one not trying to get her attention. I reminded myself that this was why I loved him. I didn’t know his indifference by this point was practiced, pulled off like a Gick.

“How do you know?”

It was Constance Turner, the kind of woman who’d compliment you for wearing a skirt instead of pants. She’d also noticed Jenny’s proximity to Stan, and was watching me smugly, waiting for my response.

“Know what?” Stan said.

Constance folded her arms.  “How do you know they’re not faking?”

Stan’s expression soured as Jenny plucked his drink from his hand.  She tossed me a playful grin as she downed the glass.

“Good question.”

#

Jenny knocked on the shade, chattering more instructions as the Gick lowered the barrier. We circled down the ramp into a sprawling vaulted chamber, cluttered with tin shacks and abandoned vehicles.  Tarps extended from the ends of abandoned sewage pipes, inside of which I could see light and movement.  A few of the human inhabitants peered back, their weary eyes locking on the Gick driver as we passed.

“Gicks don’t come to these areas much.  It’s not part of the showroom,” Jenny said. There was indignation in her voice, but underneath a twinge of haughtiness, as if the driver’s presence had boosted her status. We pulled up in front of what looked like one of those prefab construction site offices on earth.

“Here?” I said.

Jenny didn’t answer as she stepped out of the cab.  I wondered if I shouldn’t tell the Gick driver to turn tail, but the slumminess had piqued my curiosity.  The light was on inside the trailer, and music, a heavy thrum of curse and boast, vibrated the structure’s thin walls.

“Ioan?” Jenny said, strolling up the ramp.  She banged her fist on the door.  “Ioan, open up!”

The door opened and a burly man wearing a T-shirt under a suit vest glared out at us. “They’re in back.”

The inside didn’t betray my expectations.  It looked prepped for a construction crew the next day.  There was a fridge, an old desk, and one of those cheapo filing cabinets someone had dented with the toe of a cheaper shoe. On the wall hung an earth calendar from two years back, the entire month of October drooping blank beneath a girl riding a “vintage” Gick Skyskipper.  She hadn’t lied about the paper at least.

Jenny glanced around the empty disheveled room, her face betraying a whiff of anger.

“They started already?”

“They waited long enough,” Ioan said.

She pulled the fridge open and took out a beer, passed me the open bottle a little too fast.  It spewed some of its head onto my hand.

“Just a sec, ‘kay?” she said, her mouth quirking into a cynical glower, her shoulders lowering, readjusting themselves as if completing a transformation.  “These Joes are real secretive.”

I stood there, taken aback by the change in her demeanor, the downshift in her speech as I blanched at the smell coming from the bottle. It wasn’t beer, but some nasty combination of hops and molasses, maybe the only thing they could get down here.

Ioan blocked me as I tried to follow her in. Jenny turned around, cupped my cheeks as she leaned in and mouthed, “Fifteen minutes. Tops.”

I leaned in as the door closed, trying to get a glimpse of the men in the room, see those downtrodden souls she’d talked about, but these men looked nothing of the sort.

#

 It was hard to remember the Jenny from before, that endearing, pathetic shadow I’d never quite had the heart to shove away.

There was the time in fifth grade when Billy Hollis shoved through the cafeteria line, knocked the food right off of our trays.  I remember picking up my half spilled milk carton, barging through the crowd to dump the remainder down the back of his shirt.

“That was so cool,” Jenny told me, even as she handed Hollis a paper towel.

Or the summer when we were sixteen, when Jenny came to all those movies, must have been a dozen, and said she didn’t mind sitting apart while Greg Peabody and I necked in the back row.

I didn’t care how Jenny might feel, sitting there by herself, only a chewed up straw and the remnants of the crushed ice in her cup to keep her company.  I was too busy having my mind blown by the possibility of freedom, of rebellion and the feel of a boy’s hands beneath my shirt.  I’d always thought Jenny adored me, maybe up until the day I’d walked in on her and Stan, and discovered it was the other way around.

By then, it was too late. By then the Gicks had long since come and blown all our minds, and made some of them unrecognizable.

The results would take years to confirm, but there was that expert testimony at her trial, the same research trotted out in the hundreds of doping scandals that cropped up around the same time.  The outcome was clear: Years of abuse of the drug meant irreparable damage to the amygdala, a permanent deadening of empathy. The ability to charm, however, to diffuse tension and manipulate remained seamless.  Alien, yet so familiar.

#

I checked my phone.  Twenty minutes minutes gone, almost an hour since we’d left the portel. I got up.  Ioan stood up.

“Can I help you with something?”

“You got anything better?” I said, nodding to the drink on the table.

Ioan snorted, gave me a little bow as he stepped over to the fridge and I snuck another glance out at the cab.  Good Gick, I thought.  I wasn’t going to wait much longer. Give Jenny maybe five more minutes.  I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. The number was from work, a signal bounced all the way from the nearest company station. A signal delay of 19 minutes registered at the bottom of the screen.

“Ms. Foley?” said an automated voice. “This is Daniella from accounts. We’re calling regarding charge made to your account at the Io-Onyx Suites at 38:01. Please confirm.”

I ran a sweaty hand through my hair. I guess Jenny hadn’t picked up the tab at after all.  She’d likely been sitting there for hours guzzling up bottles of Grand Cru.

“Amount?” I said.

“40,000 credits,” the voice continued chirpily.

40,000.  The phone nearly slipped from my hand. That’s what all the nonsense had been about at the bar, Jenny feigning poverty and then making a big show of wounded pride as she magnanimously took the check. It was the perfect in to wheedle, somehow, just enough information from the tab, from that waste duct of waiter to access my expense account.

My teeth were grinding something fierce.  I felt the ping of an untended cavity and stopped.

“Decline it,” I spat.

“OK.  Transaction declined. Your confirmation number is-“

The phone was halfway in my pocket as I hung up.

Ioan was still rooting in the refrigerator, most likely having difficulty reading the labels on the bottles, and I stood, and crept cautiously toward the backroom. When he turned, I made a run for it. The door gave easily and I found myself falling into the room.

Jenny was at the center of a rickety table, hunched over it in a perfect mimicry of her slouching companions who presided over an enormous pile of currency: paper cash from various countries and Hubs, account slips and Gick transport credits. There was even a stack of gold coins, piled high and shiny like an illustration in a kids’ adventure book.

I felt Ioan’s knobby hand on the back of my arm, and tried to shove him away, but he held fast, squeezing hard enough to make me buckle.

“Don’t!” Jenny said.  “It’s okay.”

“What’s okay?” I said.  “You just…” I stopped myself.  Why give her a chance to argue? I’d lose, had lost already. Slowly, Jenny rose from her seat, raised her palms in a placating gesture.

“Maddy,” she said.  Her eyes were shining with warmth and understanding, as if I’d been the one caught in a lie.  “Everything is going to be okay. Really.”

“Don’t,” I said, breathing hard.  The smell of that god-awful drink still was on my hands, my clothes even, and the silence that passed between us was loud enough to drown out the music. “Just don’t.”

The other men, I realized, weren’t looking at me.  Their eyes were on the spread of hands circling the table, and Jenny’s, a royal flush.

“Well, that was fun,” she said, stretching her arms in a yawn before reaching down to sweep up her winnings.  “I hope Mr. Gick is still out there. I’m knackered.”

So that had been part of it too. Jenny had banked on my trepidation; she knew I would ask for a Gick driver as protection. For myself.  These men wouldn’t dare touch her now.

She shoved a wad of bills into her pocket, another into her bag. “I hope you’re not too upset, Maddy.  The charge was just collateral.  Otherwise they wouldn’t have let me into the game.  I knew they wouldn’t really let it through.” She winked. “You’re too much of a big shot for that these days.  “Of course you get a cut. I really appreciate you—”

“I don’t want anything,” I said.

“Don’t you?”

I don’t know what it was that made me do it. Maybe it was the way she tilted her head, her chin jutting out slightly in a mode of provocation. Or maybe it was the hopeless, stammering need to respond all the while knowing she’d hit right back with something sharper.  I saw myself reaching out, taking Jenny by the arms and pulling her to me, heard the cheap cat calls and whistles of Ioan and the others as I pressed my lips to hers, and felt silence.

If Jenny responded at all, it was to relax and play along. But I knew it was all wrong because for the first time since those early years of college, Jenny Belveth seemed awkward, her arms limp, her mouth slack and half open, just enough for me to taste the cherry liqueur that still clung to her breath.  And when I pulled back, I knew just how badly I had blown it.  The blue in Jenny’s irises grew darker, her pupils dilating to form a great sucking whorl in which I felt drawn, powerless. Not powerless so much as meaningless.  She looked away, plucked up a stack of gold coins, and hands trembling, slipped them into mine.

“Well,” she said, taking a step back.  “I suppose we should get going.  You’ve got a transfer to make in the morning.”

“Jenny,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her expression demure, yet mildly patronizing.  “We sure had some fun tonight though, didn’t we?”

I felt the weight of the coins in my hand, gripped them hard enough for it to hurt. I wanted to bend them, to squeeze them into pulp and let all of Jenny’s assumptions about me, the calculations and extrapolations she’d pulled from my voice and behavior, ooze through my fingers like shit.

I loosened my grip, let the coins drop soundlessly to the carpet. Then I lifted my foot and kicked the table, or tried to, but my heel only set it to wobbling. Jenny threw back her head and laughed.

“Oh, come on!” she called after me as I stumbled out the door and down the unsteady ramp toward the cab. “We’re still okay, aren’t we? We can call it even!”

The driver stood ready, holding the door of the vehicle, and as I approached I caught myself in the empathic shimmer of its gaze, saw my confusion and shame, the desires unsung and unrewarded. No one could be that transparent, I thought.  Then I stopped, stepped back into the light seeping from the open door and waited for Jenny.

#####

 

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