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Tuesday, August 23rd
An Open Letter to the Ballet Camp in Vermont I Went to in the Summer of ’96
by Chantelle Tibbs

Wednesday, August 24th
Running With the Night Runners
an excerpt from
I am who I am… because of my guardian angels
by Francesca Alicea

Sunday, August 28th
Like the stars, which you don’t always see, but you know that they are there!
an excerpt from
I am who I am… because of my guardian angels
by Francesca Alicea

Wednesday, August 31st
Concept Albums Explained: Lou Reed’s”Berlin”
by Paul-Newell Reaves

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August 20th, 2022

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If Anything Changes

August 14th, 2022

By Ross West

When the front desk clerk at the Reykjavik Manor Hotel eyed Kat’s dusty duffle bags and asked if she needed any help carrying them to her room, she said she could handle it just fine by herself. She lugged the bags into the elevator and pushed the button for the twelfth floor. The whir of the machinery reminded her of the whooshing sound of meltwater reflecting off the smooth rounded contours of the ice caves she’d been exploring all week . . . sunlight filtering through the glacial ice, tunnel walls glowing an otherworldly blue. She piled the duffle bags on the bed in her room, dug her phone from her rucksack, and checked it for the first time since getting back within cell coverage. The message was there: a voicemail from the dean, sent two days ago. She listened—the committee had made its decision, please give a call. The dean’s voice was cheery—he’d left both his home and office numbers. Kat pumped her fist and danced around the room. The university would be offering her the position.

She found a tiny bottle of champagne in the minibar, poured it in a plastic glass from the bathroom, and held it high, reciprocating a toast from a room full of admirers. It was evening, a little late to return the dean’s call—but not too late. First though, she needed to calm down.

In the shower, she bounced on the balls of her feet, arms hugging her torso, water falling on her like hot rain. The tenure-track position would open doors she would run through—to Patagonia, Greenland, Antarctica. Plum gigs on National Geographic expeditions. And more books, definitely more books. Another TED talk. Maybe a special science advisor appointment. What incredible luck to be in a field so flush with opportunity. She recalled Reuben’s joke—the really great news for glaciologists is that global warming will be frying the planet for decades to come.

Toweling her straw-blonde hair, she considered how the job would require a move to North Carolina—at least for her. Reuben wouldn’t want to leave Seattle. They could keep their house there. He could keep his job. But she couldn’t possibly turn this down. Maybe she’d commute.

Pacing around the room in the hotel’s white terrycloth robe, she tossed down the last of the champagne and phoned the dean. They chatted and laughed; he talked enthusiastically about the Center for the Study of Women, Science, and Society. The phone to her ear, Kat walked to the window, rested her free hand on its smooth cold surface, and gazed down on Reykjavik spreading to the harbor, the ocean extending to the horizon. Her eyes filled with tears. She accepted the position.

Kat called Reuben, told him the university had made the offer. No, of course she hadn’t accepted it—not without talking with him. They could discuss it when they met up in Alaska.

She suddenly felt very tired and slid between the cool sheets of the bed with a relaxed sigh. Her last thought before sleep was of flying between Seattle and Raleigh-Durham . . . east then west then east again . . . striding down the long airport concourse, her wheelie suitcase rolling smoothly behind, errrr-errrr-errrr. It wouldn’t be a problem.

*     *     *

Turning the key in the front door lock, Reuben frowned. Could the timing be any worse? Not an hour ago he’d signed-off on the Halloween campaign for the ad agency’s biggest client; now home to pack and fly off early tomorrow for a vacation in Alaska that would leave the restaurant chain’s Thanksgiving campaign in the hands of . . . Well, nothing he could do about that now. Plans were plans.

He set his briefcase, keys, and phone on the kitchen table and poured himself a Scotch. After a first sip, he decided to take one more look, just to be sure; the news of Kat’s job offer had left him preoccupied all day—he could easily have missed something important. He opened the briefcase and paged through a folder of the approved artwork for the Halloween menu, print and online ads of various sizes, in-store posters, on-table placards, and take-out bags promoting this year’s Freaky Five: Scary Cherry Shake, Frankenstein Fries, Double Deluxe Dracula Drumsticks, Zombie Pastrami, and Fear-o Hero. He scanned each page for color mismatches, registration errors, bad spacing, text mistakes, anything. He slipped the files back into the case, snapped the latches shut, rubbed his tired eyes. Let it go.

After dinner, Reuben packed, emptied the fridge of food that would go bad, took out the trash. The last item on his list was the cacti. Carrying an eyedropper and a juice glass of fertilized water, he moved from windowsill to windowsill where his dozens of species of prickly and spineless cactus lived in their little clay pots. He cooed words of encouragement to them while feeding them with the dropper, giving each one what it would need in his absence.

A second Scotch in hand, he took a seat at his computer. Best not to surprise her up in Alaska. She’ll need time to think it over. He opened a new e-mail message and typed.

Dear Kat,

Love you. Miss you.

Congratulations, again, on getting the offer! What an honor! You rock!!!

He sipped and pondered how to begin.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since we talked last night. Mostly I’ve thought about where we want to be in five, ten, twenty years, and what we do to get there. It seems we’ve come to the point of making some decisions—and not just to accept or not accept the UNC offer.

Did he want her to take the job? Did it even matter what he thought? She wanted it and she’d take it. She hadn’t always been so driven—or maybe she had been, maybe he just hadn’t seen it.

Everything suddenly feels so serious.

He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes until the words came to him.

Most of all, I want us to be together and I’m willing to do anything to make that happen. I thought back on all our not-very-specific talks over the years about having kids. Remember when we used to dream about kids and getting a Jack Russell terrier? I want us to have those kids. I want us to have that life.

You’ve listened to me bitch for years about how much I hate being Management, and all my half-baked fantasies about going back to being a production artist or quitting and setting up my own studio.

But here’s what I’m thinking now. My salary is enough so you could keep building your career in Seattle, doing all the field work you want AND we could have a family. For that, I’d be willing to do anything, including change how I feel about my job.

No, I’m not being a martyr. I would, in fact, be really, truly, genuinely, honestly happy and grateful to do this.

I know we can work it out one way or another. What I want is for us to be together always. Everything else is just . . . everything else.

All my love, my dearest one. See you soon,

Roobie

PS: You’re still on flight 374 (Reykjavik/SF/Juneau) arriving at 8:45, yes? Call if anything changes.

He read the note and read it again. She wouldn’t want to hear this, wouldn’t want the pressure. If she took it wrong, it would be a week of her scorn and dagger eyes in Alaska. Still, it had to be said, their future depended on it. He tapped the send key. In her court now.

*     *     *

The Adventure Quest churned northward through the frigid waters of Alaska’s Inland Passage. The shoreline was blanketed with evergreen forests and, farther off, a range of sawtooth mountains white with snow. Their first evening on the water, the hundred Eco Tours Expedition passengers gathered in the ship’s dining room. Kat and Reuben took seats next to one another at an unoccupied table for four and ordered a bottle of wine.

She glanced at Reuben while he read the menu. It was there in his pinched lip, the tension in his brow—he was thinking he’d written his thoughts in the e-mail, and now it was up to her to respond. But not yet, not here. Put it off a while. Tell him more about Iceland—the three minke whales off Húsavík. No, they had said they would talk, they should talk. But where to start? She sipped her wine, read the menu again.

“Well, hello there,” a voice chirped from nearby. Kat and Reuben looked up to see a petite woman with perm-curly hair standing beside a lanky balding man. The woman extended her hand, “Cynthia and Robert Grossmeyer.”

“This is Kat. I’m Reuben.”

They shook and the Grossmeyers sat, with Cynthia explaining in a flurry that they were from Peoria, that Rob was an optometrist and she, an avid birdwatcher and gardener—it was absolutely breaking her heart to leave her vegetables at this time of year—was active in the PTA and the Beautify Peoria Parks Campaign in the few scant moments she wasn’t busy raising their fifteen-year-old fraternal twins currently at summer camp—sort of a dude ranch, really—in Wyoming.

“What about you guys?” Rob asked.

“We’ve met some of the most interesting people while cruising, haven’t we Rob?” Cynthia said. “I mean, really, really interesting people. From all over. We just love it.”

Rob nodded.

Between the business of giving their orders to the waiter, Kat and Reuben told about living in Seattle, his job at the ad agency, how this was his first cruise and first time in Alaska, how her aunt and uncle lived not far from Peoria. They tiptoed around mention of Kat’s work, fully aware of what would happen once the Grossmeyers learned she was one of those interesting people they were just dying to meet.

Reuben tilted the wine bottle toward Kat. She raised her eyebrows, yes, and he topped off their glasses.

Cynthia fixed Kat in the stare of her perky bright-blue eyes. “So tell us about you.”

*     *     *

As soon as they finished the baked Alaska and decaf, they exchanged a glance, and Kat told the Grossmeyers how nice it had been to meet and how, tomorrow being a big day, they were turning in early.

Descending the stairs to their cabin’s deck, Reuben chuckled and imitated Cynthia’s voice, “It’s not like I don’t have a life of my own or anything, but gawd, Kat, you are just so interesting. Isn’t she, Rob?”

“Our new best friends, the Grossmeyers,” Kat said with a mock shudder and a roll of her green eyes.

Reuben held open the cabin door for her. She entered, switched on the bedside lamp, and stood in the stillness and soft light watching him kick off his shoes.  

“So,” she said, “your e-mail.”

He settled onto the bed, propped against the headboard, arms wrapped around a pillow on his chest. She pulled up a chair and sat.

 “I keep thinking back to how things were when we moved in together,” he said.

“The apartment with the lovely sloping floors.”

“And the crazy drummer always pounding away next door.” He smiled at the memory then continued, choosing his words with care. “I was working and you were going back to school so you could get a job you wanted . . . and then we’d have a family.” He looked at her. “That was it, that was our plan, wasn’t it?”

“And we’ve done pretty well making it happen.”

“We have, and I’m not taking anything away from that. At the same time, what I want is to be with you. And I want—”

“Aren’t we here right now?”

He shot her an annoyed glance.

Her heartbeat quickened. She always cut him off when they talked like this. It wasn’t how she wanted to be, but it was what she did.

“And when we dock,” he said, “we fly back home and in two days you’re off to . . . I don’t even remember where.”

“New York, to meet with—”

“Your agent. Right.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his face. “I can’t tell you how big the hole is when you’re gone.”

She wasn’t sure what to say. Yes, she was away a lot. But—

“Everything’s coming your way—and that’s great,” he said. “But if we put things off much longer . . .”

“You want kids—with your family, all your cousins, I get it. I guess I get it now in a way that I didn’t when it was more . . . theoretical. So yes, a family, okay. But I don’t know, maybe more like . . . later.”

He stiffened.

“When something big comes along you can’t ignore it,” she said. “You win the lottery or get cancer, it changes everything. It doesn’t make sense to pretend it’s not happening.”

“You want us to put everything else on hold?”

She leaned toward him, her eyes pleading. “I never thought I’d have so little time.”

“How long do you want to wait?” His voice was brittle. He was tensing up, the discussion would become an argument. But this was worth fighting for. And it didn’t have to be a fight, just give and take. Lay out a position, make a stand—if he didn’t like it, he could come up with something different.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A while.”

He slumped forward, his face contorted by some emotion—disappointment, resentment, anger, or all three. His head shook slowly back and forth—maybe working himself into a rage.

“I did have one other idea,” she said. “Sort of a compromise.”

He turned to meet her gaze.

“I’d still be traveling a lot, but you could stay home, get all the family time you want.”

He swallowed, his eyes wide, expectant.

“If we moved to North Carolina, you could quit the agency and,” she paused, nodding her head several times, “we could adopt.”

He stared and blinked. His lips opened, about to speak, but he hesitated and turned away.

“You could freelance or work part-time, work from home—whatever feels right. We could get a nanny.” He wasn’t listening, was withering before her eyes. “Your mom could come visit.” What had she done? “I’ll have great insurance.”

*     *     *

They held one another in the dark for a long time, spoke not a word. Then their bodies entwined and writhed and thrashed with an intensity unusual in their lovemaking.

Their panting subsided, they lay side by side holding hands. Her mind raced—she was horrible, selfish and horrible. Yes, they had planned. Yes, she had agreed. And now it was, oh, hey, sorry, new plan. When she had said adopt, she’d crushed him. She hadn’t intended to. It wasn’t like an ultimatum or anything. Just an idea. A wrong, bad, stupid idea that she should have never said.

He stared at a small red light on the smoke alarm. After a while her breathing quieted and then became regular with sleep. He took his hand away from hers and rolled onto his side,facing the wall. A tear pooled in the corner of his eye and slid down toward his ear. Another ran to the end of his nose, hung there, dropped onto the pillow.

*     *     *

The Adventure Quest floated in Solstice Bay, anchored a quarter mile from the sheer towering ice wall that marked the terminus of Alaska’s third largest glacier. The air was still, the water like a mirror. Many of the ship’s passengers had signed up for either a nature photography class or a workshop on boreal ecology and ice-core sampling. Others had already departed in motorized Zodiac boats to view wildlife and hike on a nearby island. Reuben and Kat stood on the open deck near the ship’s bow in a group of twenty who had chosen to kayak among the bay’s icebergs. They listened to one of the tour’s naturalists, Megan, a tall, square-shouldered woman about thirty. Her Eco Tours parka glowed a vivid orange against the lapis sky and the blinding whiteness of the ice sheet’s face.

“You’re looking at ground zero for global warming,” she said. “The glacier is shrinking; sea level is inching ever higher. Scientists predict rising water will flood hundreds of millions out of people from their homes.”

She turned to the shore, staring at the ice long enough for the group to consider its fragility. Facing them again, she said, “Okay, enough with the gloom and doom, let’s focus on what’s happening right in front of us. This glacier is a river of frozen water flowing slowly into the sea. When the forces of fracturing exceed the forces of cohesion, pieces of the glacier body break off, or calve. Sometimes it’s only a small avalanche, a few hundred pounds of ice. But keep your cameras ready,” she said, flashing a playful smile. “On a glacier of this size you just might see fifty million pounds of ice do a bellyflop.”

Kat and Reuben wriggled into their dry suits, gloves, and neoprene booties. They donned personal flotation devices and adjusted the straps, loaded their cameras and dry bags and water bottles into sleek canary-yellow kayaks, and launched.

Once all the boats were in the water, Megan called out, “Everybody pull in close.” A tight flotilla formed, with Kat and Reuben bobbing beside one another. “We have two special rules on this bay. Numero uno: stay within sight of each other. And numero dos: never get any closer to the glacier than I do. Got it?”

Heads nodded.

“Okay, let’s head on over to bergville.” Her kayak sliced forward; the others fell in behind.

Reuben’s shoulders warmed with the exertion of pulling his boat through patches of slush and past refrigerator-sized blocks of ice. He stroked around larger and larger obstacles until the group reached the gallery of ice sculptures jutting from the water.

He stopped alongside a gargantuan berg and peered down into the water. The submarine ice descended ever farther, ever fainter, until it disappeared in the dark depths.

Kat eased her boat next to his. Her short blonde braids peeked out from under a knitted Icelandic wool cap. “Is this awesome or what?” she said, cheeks aglow and green eyes merry. Taking his gloved hand in hers, she squeezed. “Did you see that one?” She bobbed her chin toward what looked like a giant glass mushroom. “I gotta get a picture.”

She dug her paddle into the water and cut a sharp turn while thinking how happy he looked and how she loved it when he was happy. Roobie-doobie. No way she could hurt him. Close to the mushroom, she stopped her boat and stared for a long time at the strangely shaped berg. What if they had the kids? People do it all the time. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. The university would accommodate.

Megan found a high archway through a weathered ice formation and led the procession of kayakers under it. The first boater following her let out a gleeful yee-haw as he passed beneath the ice bridge, and each one that followed let loose as well. Reuben belted a whoo-hoo andthought of the many times Kat had shown him pictures she’d taken from berg-filled bays like this around the world—nearly every time mentioning how the beauty took her breath away. Now he understood.

The group followed Megan into a narrow canyon winding between tall walls of smooth glistening ice. The curvy surfaces reminded Reuben of whitest alabaster carved into the form of a voluptuous human body. He let the others pass by, turned his boat, and aimed his camera back at the canyon. The angle was right, the light unbelievable. He took shot after shot. Would he ever see anything so beautiful again?

He steered toward the other kayaks now far ahead, but his strokes had little force as he gawked left and right, distracted by each new sight. Everything around him was as staggeringly gorgeous and inspiring as the canyon and the arch. It was all perfect. The elemental purity of ice, water, sun, and sky, the extreme white, the piercing blue. The salty granite smell of the thick cold air, each breath alive in his lungs. The gloop-gloop of the eddies swirling around his paddle blade, the sound of each splashed drop plopping back into the water. He and Kat, too, he suddenly saw with great clarity, were perfect. What they had, perfect. It wouldn’t matter so much what they did. No one right way. Every path its own song.

He sat still and drifted in the current. She had to take the offer. He couldn’t keep her from what she loved. If he was willing to sacrifice . . . quit his job, move . . . she’d feel connected if the kids were her own . . . it would work . . . somehow. If they wanted it badly enough, it would work.

The other boats disappeared around the corner of a bulky ice outcrop leaving Reuben alone among the bergs. Overwhelmed by the expansive solitude, he closed his eyes and raised his paddle high above his head. As if weightless, as if hurtling untethered through space, he felt free.

When he opened his eyes, he noticed the current had taken him nearer the glacier. Its vertical face now loomed much taller. The vast ice sheet’s incomprehensible mass, the glowing blue-white color, the shush of ripples lapping gently at its base. Entranced, he paddled slowly closer.

Voices called out from somewhere far behind him—Kat, Megan, others—a singsong chorus echoing off the ice, like they were searching for a lost child.

“I’m here,” Reuben hollered over his shoulder, and he began turning the kayak to rejoin the group when from the top of the glacial cliff came a sound like twisting metal girders. Looking up, he saw a hunk of ice the size of a house tremble then lurch downward until it smacked into the water sending a splash shooting high into the air. A wave rushed toward him. Two quick strokes aimed the bow into the swell just as it arrived, the boat bucked up and over.

A jolt of adrenaline surged through his body. He craned his neck—had the others seen the calving? He heard another sound, only on a far grander scale, as crisp and sharp as a harsh crack of thunder. His eyes snapped back to the cliff where a whole huge section of the wall shuttered and fractured from the glacier. As if in slow motion, it tilted into the void, fell, and slapped the bay in a titanic explosion.

Water and ice rained down on Reuben. He made himself small in the boat’s cockpit and raised his arms in front of his face. A jagged chunk of ice as heavy as a block of concrete slammed into his head. He folded to the left, nearly tipping the boat. The mountain of a berg bobbed in the water like a colossal polar bear; a tall collapse wave rolled outward and, meeting the kayak, capsized it. Reuben spilled from the cockpit and floated face down.

The others raced toward him, Kat paddling furiously, paddling faster than anyone.


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Fifty Miles South of Disney

August 7th, 2022

by Steve Loiaconi

The door screams across the dirty linoleum floor, rousing me from a shallow, uncomfortable sleep. The light pouring in from the outer room obscures my view at first, but I hear two sets of footsteps. As they approach, I get a better look at the second man shuffling along next to the guard who has been checking on me periodically all night. The new guy has a scruffy beard and long brown hair. He’s younger than me, stumbling in a way that suggests he’s drunk or injured. He trips and, before the cop can catch him, his head crashes against the steel bars of the cell. This close, I can smell Jack Daniels on his breath and see blood drying on his tattered white dress shirt, his gray pants stained with dirt.

The officer unlocks the cell door, metal jangling against metal as the bars slide. He gently nudges the man in. He peers down at a clipboard in his hand and looks at us, sighs, and shakes his head. He slides the bars closed, and the clatter reverberates in my ear. The lock rattles into place. The officer walks away, whistling a pop song I can’t quite recognize but I know I hate with a fiery passion. He closes the door to the cell block behind him with excessive force.

I briefly make eye contact with my new cellmate. If it came down to it, I tell myself I could take him.

He looks down at his cot. As he surveys the room, I think I hear him laugh just a little. He walks over to the sink and rolls up his sleeves. He looks like he works out, a nagging reminder of that gym membership I’ve had for years and hardly ever use.

“You’re awake, Wally,” he says, in an irritatingly familiar way.

“Do I know you?”

“You were sleeping when they brought me in. Just went to use my phone call.”

“Who’d you call?” I sit back down on my cot. “Lawyer?”

“Dominos.” He pauses, presumably to allow for laughter. There isn’t any. “Yow. Tough room. Okay. I was trying to call my wife.”

He turns on the faucet and splashes cold water on his face. He runs his hands through his curly hair, shaking free bits of dirt, and adds, “She didn’t pick up.”

Despite myself, I feel compelled to respond. “Neither did mine,” I say.

I’ve been in this holding cell at a police station 50 miles south of Orlando for I don’t know how many hours. Fighting myself, wrestling with intangible black emotions, wondering how southern Florida could be this cold in late July, and searching for a way out of this corner I painted myself into. None of it is going particularly well.

I dialed my wife’s number when they first brought me in, using the ancient rotary pay phone in the hallway. My finger circled the dial quickly as I tried not to think of the other men who used that phone over the years and things they must have done to get here. Waiting for her to pick up, that brief silence between rings seemed endless. My mind desperately fumbled for the right words to say to her. The magic explanation that would make all of this go away, sweep it under the rug of things we pretend never happened. When the call went to her voicemail after the fourth ring, I found I could say nothing. Sitting here watching my new cellmate shake water out of his long hair like a freshly bathed dog, I can’t say my situation has improved any.

He takes his shirt off and tries to dry his face with it. Unprovoked, with his voice slightly muzzled by the fabric, he says, “I know, you’re wondering about the beard, right?”

“Not really, no.”

“I’m Jesus,” he says. His speech slurs just enough to make me wish I was drunk. “I play Jesus, I mean. At the The Holy Land Experience down off I-4. At least, I did. I got fired last week. Now I’m just a guy with really long hair and a god complex. Call me Max.”

“The Holy what now?”

“Land Experience. The Holy Land Experience. It’s like a big living Bible. They do famous scenes, they all wear costumes. You ever been to a kids’ school Christmas pageant?”

“Many of them.” I think of my daughter up on stage, standing in the background in a ramshackle sheep costume she and I stayed up all night putting together.

“It’s like that,” he says. “Except we got paid and there’s a huge indoor model of Jerusalem circa 66 AD. I still remember most of my lines if you’d like to see a little of my routine. I mean, it’s not going to be the same without the props, but still.”

“This is going to be a long night,” I mutter to myself, apparently louder than I intended.

“It already has been,” Max says as he leans over the sink, beads of water occasionally dripping from his beard. I lie back down. He returns to his cot and sits. Just as I close my eyes to try to sleep again, he says, “Wondering what I’m in for?”

From his tone, I know he’s going to tell me no matter what I say.

“There’s this restaurant in Orlando,” he says. “It’s racing-themed. All kinds of exhibits. Cars everywhere, a few hanging from the ceiling, signed uniforms, trophies. They’ve got these big screens all over so you can watch famous racing crashes while you eat. It’s pretty fucking cool. You know the place?”

“No idea.”

“Come on. They also have the world’s biggest monster truck.”

“What can I say? I’m not from around here.”

“It’s awesome. You need to check it out sometime,” he says. I think he’s serious. “So me, my wife Diane, my friend Joe, and his wife, we decide to go out for a romantic dinner.”

“Nothing says romance like the world’s biggest monster truck.”

“I know, right? Anyway, we get to drinking pretty heavy. And I guess that’s where the whole thing sort of went off the rails.”

After an unnecessarily lengthy description of his meal that does little more than remind me that I should have been sitting down for a 7:30 dinner reservation with my family hours ago, his story quickly devolves into bad porn.

“So,” Max says, “I’m eating this perfectly-cooked steak and I notice my wife and Joe’s wife giving each other these sultry glances, like the kind she used to give me before we got freaky in a Denny’s restroom. Probably should have known something was up, but then they shimmy their seats closer together during dessert. Again, weird, but I didn’t think much of it. We’re out in the parking lot after dinner and I’m 60 percent sure I see them kissing in my side view mirror as I’m unlocking the car. I tell myself it’s nothing. We get back to my place, I pour some drinks, Joe and I get to talking, eventually we realize our ladies are conspicuously absent.

“We hear some giggles from the bedroom, creak the door open, and… Bam! Our wives on the bed, like five-eighths to three-quarters naked, all hot and horny, writhing and groping at each other and whatnot. So me and Joe stand there in the doorway a minute, just slackjawed, like we don’t know whether to be devastated or aroused, you know what I’m saying?”

“I really don’t,” I respond when I figure out that wasn’t rhetorical.

“Yeah, you do,” he nods. “So I stand there, admittedly longer than might be considered polite. Once the ladies make clear I’ve worn out my welcome, I notice Joe’s gone. I find him outside on the sidewalk just staring at a streetlight. I try to talk to him, but all he says is, ‘I need to hit something.’”

“We live on a quiet street, which is normally just ducky, but the silence. The silence, man.” He pauses for a moment, thinking. “I don’t know, I punched him. Like, hard.”

Across the cell, Max’s face is half-hidden in shadows.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened from there,” he says. Whether it’s because he really can’t remember or he just doesn’t want to say it, I can’t tell. “It’s all a blur. I pushed him through a plate-glass window at some point.”

“You pushed him through a window?” I ask, slightly disconcerted.

“You say it like you wouldn’t have.” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear Goofy laughing. Then he adds, “Twice, actually.”

“You pushed him through the window twice?”

“Not the same window. Two different ones on the same guy’s patio. Man, that dude was pissed.” His voice walks a thin line between pride and shame. “So yeah. Assault, disturbing the peace. And destruction of property. I think Joe’s in the hospital now.”

I shake my head and lean against the wall, silently counting cars as they pass by outside. I try not to think that every dark minivan that slows down out there could be my wife.

“Don’t worry,” Max says. “You don’t have to tell me why you’re here.”

“Was I going to?” I ask, turning away from the street.

“I already know,” he says. He points to his forehead. “I have low-level psychic abilities. I predicted the death of Sir Alec Guinness to an accuracy of within four weeks.”

“Why were you trying to predict the death of Alec Guinness?”

“Sir Alec Guinness. Respect the knighthood. It was a celebrity death pool. Pick an aging celebrity, pick a death date. Make a couple hundred bucks if you’re right. Bonus if you guess the cause. You want in?”

I think about it for a moment. As oddly tempting as it may be, gambling is somewhere on the list of things that I have, at one time or another, promised my wife I would never do again.

“No, thanks,” I say.

“Suit yourself. Anyway, all I’m saying is, I know why you’re here. You’re a male prostitute.”

I stare at him in silence.

“No? Okay. You been putting poisonous snakes in ex-girlfriends’ mailboxes?”

I shake my head and look down into the sink. “Hell of a gift you got there.”

“Damn. This usually works better.”

I run water over my hands, trying to rinse off some of the dirt and dust that has gathered on them from these walls and these bars. He watches me from his cot. An uncomfortable tension fills the space between us.

“So,” he says after an awkward pause, “what are you in for?”

****

The morning started well. Sun shining into our hotel room, fresh bagels, coffee, semi-educational hyper-kinetic cartoons to keep the kids occupied while my wife and I got ready for a long day of waiting in lines and pretending to be thrilled by the prospect of sitting in giant, slowly spinning tea cups.

The police chase, obviously, came later.

Things began rolling downhill as soon as we pulled into the absurdly massive and absurdly crowded Disney World parking lot. You would think with a lot the size of Rhode Island they could accommodate everyone who needed to park under a giant picture of Donald Duck, but you would be wrong. After a half hour of weaving through aisles of parked cars and being cut off by the same bright red Volvo at every turn, I saw a space at the end of a row. I sped toward it, seeing the Volvo creep around the corner, skidding into the space just seconds ahead of it.

When we finally got to the entrance, I looked back and realized I had no clue where I had just parked. I asked the family if they knew how to get back to the car. My son and daughter pointed in opposite directions and I felt an unwelcome tinge of frustration. I paid something near what my first car cost to a disinterested teen in a ticket booth for four passes to get in.

The thing about amusement parks is, you love them or you hate them intensely. The bright colors, the long lines, the screaming kids, the repetitive rides, the incessant need to pander to the perceived IQ of the sub-average 4-year-old. The only hope, the one even remotely shimmering silver lining of it all is the look on your kid’s face when he gets to the front of the line and has the chance to do the one thing that really mattered to him for the last fifteen minutes.

He gets to drive a bumper car.

And you sit there next to him, placating the ride operator who requires that he have a responsible adult in the car with him to play a game where the object is to drive as recklessly as possible and get hit as much as you can. You let him steer. You hold him when the car gets hit and pretend it disorients you as much as it does him. And you make sure he hears you laugh and sees your most sincere smile. Constantly.

No matter how many times you do it, how stupid it all looks in retrospect, how ridiculously sentimental you feel when you think about it, that really does make it all worth it.

It’s the only thing, besides the thought of getting home, going to sleep, and dreaming of being anywhere but here, that you have to look forward to when you’re out there, boiling in your own sweat in the Orlando sun. When you’re deprived of that smile, that look, you’ve got nothing.

So when we get to the front of the line for Space Mountain, after nearly an hour of standing in 100 degree heat, my kids’ excitement growing with every step toward the ride we took, when, after all that, some goon in a…whatever the hell Goofy is…costume stops us, takes me aside, and tells me my daughter is too short to go on the ride, I think I was justifiably upset.

I tried to reason with him.

I thought about trying to reason with him. Instead, I hit him.

****

Max laughs harder and longer than I’d consider appropriate. When he stops, he says, “There’s something missing here.” He thinks for a second, then snaps his fingers. “Got it. Cigarettes. We should be smoking.”

“What?”

“Two guys in prison, talking as men do. Times like this, a fella should be smoking.” He mimes smoking a cigarette like I might not know what one is. “It’s just a natural thing.”

“We’re in a holding cell in Leesburg, not death row at San Quentin.”

“Whatever. My point is, and I know you tell your kids what you got to tell them, teach them what’s right and what’s ‘cancerous,’ but here and now, mano a mano, come on, let’s just say it: smoking is cool. It is.”

“I don’t smoke,” I say. Anymore, is the truth. I don’t tell him I had to quit because a few years ago my daughter invented a game where she’d hide my packs of cigarettes as soon as I bought them and I’d have to go out and buy new ones. It was more fun for her than it was for me. Half the time, I couldn’t figure out how she found them—in my car, in my briefcase, she even managed to swipe a carton from a locked drawer in my desk on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. I was certain her mother put her up to it, but neither of them would ever admit that.

Max whistles. I’m jolted out of a sort of daze. “You okay?” he says. “You went off to your own little world there for a minute.”

I rub my eyes, stretch my aching legs and think, No, I am very far from okay.

****

I didn’t expect to hurt him. I mean, come on, these guys wear giant plush suits that feel like they’re layered with cotton candy. How much could one punch in the face hurt?

A lot, apparently. Especially when it knocks him off balance and sends him hurtling over the guardrail and through the roof of a pretzel stand below. His mask released a muffled scream.

It was at that point that I did something perhaps stupider than punching Goofy.

I ran.

Somewhere in my mind, I knew this was a bad idea. One punch wasn’t that big of a deal. I could have stayed there and explained to the police what happened. I’m sure other people would have backed me up. I mean, who doesn’t want to hit one of those guys?

And yet, I ran.

I ran with my wife frantically calling for me to come back and restraining my son by his shirt collar as he tried to run after me, leaving them behind, feeling the emotional impact of that punch still resonating in my fists, not wanting to admit it felt pretty good. I looked back frequently, but eventually, I turned and they weren’t there anymore. I was alone in the happiest place on earth, strangers swimming through the crowd around me, towing their families along with them, brushing past me like I didn’t exist.

There was a very brief moment when the appeal of being on the lam seduced me. Perpetually moving, wearing disguises, hiding behind false identities. News reports warning the public that I could be armed and dangerous. Federal marshals cursing my name and dispatching a small army of agents to hunt me down. Dodging bullets, running through forests, leaping off cliffs and into rivers. The adventures a 36-year-old father from Delaware never gets to have.

The Fugitive, starring Wally Allen and Tommy Lee Jones.

I was pulled out of the fantasy by a security guard shouting my name from behind me. I turned and saw him approaching, with several others close behind him. I had imagined a security force made up entirely of Goofys, Mickeys and Donald Ducks. I was a bit disappointed to see a bunch of overweight dudes in uniforms riding Segways. Again, though, I had the opportunity to stop, to give up.

Again, I ran.

I was able to regain some distance on them, running faster and breaking toward where I hoped the parking lot was. I slowed down as I approached the exit of the park. I tried to be inconspicuous, shuffling through the center of a German tour group. I ducked into the labyrinth of SUVs and minivans and pushed onward. I wanted to get back to my family, but I didn’t know where they—or my car, for that matter—were. My wife had my phone in her purse because I hadn’t been able to fit it in my pocket this morning.

I decided I needed to find a car I could break into and at least borrow until I found them. I stopped at an old Toyota that didn’t appear to have any kind of alarm system. I was composing a polite note to the owner in my head, apologizing for the inconvenience and telling them how to contact me to get it back, as I prepared to try to break the driver’s side window with my elbow.

It hurt.

I tried several more times, my arm growing almost unbearably sore and not even cracking the glass, before a larger problem occurred to me: I don’t know how to hotwire a car. I mean, you do a thing under the steering wheel so you can pull down a bunch of wires. You do another thing, connect the right wires and the engine starts, but I don’t know which wires.

Panic set in. I was totally lost. I had to get back to our hotel, is all I was thinking. They’d have to go there eventually, right? My mind raced and I started to feel dizzy. Then I looked around and saw a man walking away from his car with his keys in his hand, trailing his wife and daughter by about 100 feet. So I took what seemed to be the only reasonable action at the time.

I ran out from behind the Toyota and tackled him. His head thudded against the asphalt and I ripped the keys from his hand and bolted for his car. It was a relatively new Lexus. I unlocked it, got in and started the engine. I could see through the windows of the Jeep next to me that the man’s wife was helping him get up. I shifted into reverse, whipped out of the space, put it in drive and slammed my foot on the gas.

As I sped away from the park, heading northwest on the highway, I kept playing out different scenarios for where this goes from here in my mind, each more elaborate than the last and none of them ending well. At some point, I missed the exit for our hotel, continuing south, not even noticing it.

****

“This is the part that’s hard to explain,” I say, attempting to figure out how to put the best possible spin on what happened to me next.

“Beating the crap out of a father in front of his kid?” Max says. He’s looking down, holding his head in his hands. It’s like he’s embarrassed for both of us. “Yeah, that’s tricky.”

“All I did was tackle him,” I say with a defensive shrug.

“And steal his car.”

“I had to.” I’m slightly unsettled that I nearly believe myself. “Alright, you know that guy you see on the news speeding down the highway with like twenty cop cars behind him and you’re watching thinking, who is this idiot and how does he think this is going to end?”

“That’s damn good television,” Max says. “But it makes sense to me. Who wants to get caught?”

“See, I think it’s more than that,” I say as my eyes dart toward the window. “What I think is, he’s thinking, there’s got to be a way out. He knows the odds are against him, but he has faith that there is always a way out. You just need to keep looking until you find it.”

Max just stares at me.

“Faith is a dangerous thing for an irrational man to have,” I add.

“Or the guy just really, really doesn’t want to get caught,” Max says.

He’s not wrong, but I like my version better. It makes it sound almost noble.

****

After about a half hour of driving aimlessly, the red and blue lights of a police car flashed behind me. I slowed down to let it pass, but it slowed with me. I pulled over onto the shoulder and it followed. An officer stepped out and walked toward me. Watching him, I realized how serious the situation was. And I realized I had to keep running.

There’s always a way out. Isn’t there?

I slammed my foot on the gas and drove off. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the cop stumble and race back to his vehicle. I also saw the lights and heard the sirens of several other police cars in the distance, catching up fast. I drove on, swinging through traffic, trying to maintain control of the car. A hovering police helicopter tracked the Lexus, its spotlight shining down on me from above. I looked up at it through the car’s sunroof, letting it distract me for a moment, and when I turned my head back to the road, I was seconds away from crashing into the back of a Volkswagen. I jerked the wheel to the right, slammed on the brakes and skidded across two lanes of traffic, spinning off onto the shoulder and screeching to a stop. My heart was raging and my whole body was shaking.

I fainted just as the police surrounded me and I woke up in the back of a police car. Raw, tired, ashamed, and wondering how my children were.

****

Max glares at me for a long time. I’m fairly certain he’s judging me.

“All this over Space Mountain,” he says eventually. “If it’s any consolation, I went on it a few years ago and, dude, the ride kind of sucks.”

“It’s not.” I walk to the bars and focus on the cell block door.

“Yeah, I guess it wouldn’t be. But come on, you hit a cartoon character.”

“I know. But he was just standing there looking so damn…”

“Goofy?” he says with an insincere smirk.

“I don’t know what it was.” I search for justification I know I don’t have. “He wouldn’t let my kid on the ride. I guess I just snapped.”

“And that explains stealing the car too, huh?”

The pain in my head returns. I’m a 36-year-old investment banker and a few hours ago I stole a car. I stole a car because I didn’t want to get arrested for punching a theme park employee. I punched a theme park employee because my kid couldn’t go on a stupid ride. And now I’m in jail. I can see clearly how I got from A to B. All the dots connect. That doesn’t make me feel any better about having done any of it.

I think of my wife, what she might be doing right now. In our hotel room, hysterical, calling hospitals and jails all around Orlando while at the same time trying to calm the children, telling them everything will be okay and wishing she could believe it. My mind tries to calculate the longest possible time it could take them to find me out here. I also think of the possible sentences carried by the several felony charges I might be facing. In my head, I see her going back home to Delaware with the kids, reluctantly admitting to all of our relatives that I abandoned them at Disney World and went on a mad crime spree. I see her at holidays, cocktail parties and weddings, searching for a delicate way to explain to friends that I’m incarcerated. I see her in our bed, watching TV at night, feeling desperate nostalgia when our favorite shows come on, storing them up on the DVR until she runs out of space. I see her at my son’s grade school graduation, clapping softly, an empty seat beside her, trying not to look too out of place. I see her five to seven years from now, waiting for me as I step outside a state penitentiary, her new husband idling their trendy SUV across the street as she gives me an awkward handshake and walks away forever.

I sit down on my cot and wonder if Max notices my body trembling.         

“Couple of years ago,” he says suddenly, and I realize he’s too lost in his own thoughts to notice anything about me, “somewhere out west. LA, San Francisco, I’m not sure. It’s raining. People have umbrellas up. Crowded streets. Way it is in big cities. So there’s these two guys, they pass each other. Umbrellas collide. No big thing, right? Well, one dude stops, closes his umbrella, lances the tip of it into the other guy’s eye. Thing pierced his brain.”

“He stabbed the guy in the eye with an umbrella?”

“Does it really sound that crazy?”

Images of a giant dog-like creature in overalls being pounded into the concrete by a man who looks unsettlingly like me flood my head.

“No,” I say. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

“One thing leads to another leads to another leads to this,” he says a moment later, gesturing to the walls around us. “Sometimes, life is just one long slippery slope. Right?”

I don’t answer. I just lay there peacefully and try to fade away.

****

I wouldn’t call it a dream because I know I’m not asleep. It’s just this scene that’s been playing out over and over in my head all night as I twist and turn on the cot:

One of the officers tells me I have a visitor. He leads me out of the cell and into the bright station lobby where my son sits waiting and surveying the walls of the station with a sense of fear that even I can feel. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust.

“Five minutes,” the officer says, checking a pocket watch.

I hug my son. 

I wipe a tear from his eye.

I hug him again.

As he pulls himself away from me, I ask him, “Where’s Mommy?”

He stands.

“Goodbye, Daddy,” he says.

He walks out the door.

****

Sick of watching my boy walk away in my mind, I open my eyes and sit up. I survey my surroundings, disoriented. Max stands over the toilet in the corner.

“Bad dream?” he asks.

I feel a sharp pain in my forehead. I lean forward, resting my head between my knees.

 “Long fucking night, bro. Long fucking night,” he says. I hear him zip his fly. “So I just been over here thinking, there’s gotta be a way I can make some money off this professional Jesus thing. Like do some infomercials or a hidden-camera prank show. I’m leaning toward, like, a discount electronics warehouse or something. You know, ‘Looking for a good deal on a flatscreen TV? Come to Jesus! Our savings are divine!’ Something like that.”

“You’re taking this jail thing strangely well, you know that?”

“I’m still pretty drunk,” he says. He talks over the flushing toilet. “But come on, you need a new stereo. Who you gonna trust—some high school dropout at Best Buy…or Jesus?”

I lie back down and turn away from him, my headache subsiding a little.

As he washes his hands, he asks, “You know something else I was thinking about? The Hulk.”

I turn toward him and sit up. “Like from the TV show?

He gives me a brief confused look. Then he shakes his head and says, “Oh, yeah. I forgot. You’re old. You would have been, like, a kid when that was on.”

“I’m 36. I can’t be more than seven or eight years older than you.”

“You’re only—geez, really?” He stares at my face for a moment. “You look older. Anyway, no, I was thinking about the comic books. When I was young, I always thought smashing stuff like he did looked fun. Ran around being all ‘Max smash puny human! Max smash!’ Shattering my mom’s dishes on the kitchen floor. You know how it is.”

“I really don’t.”

“But now—” He cuts himself off and looks at his hands. “Hey, do your knuckles hurt?”

“No. Goofy was kind of, you know, plushy.”

“My knuckles hurt.” He’s flexing his fingers and trying to open and close a fist. “I think I might have broken something. You ever hit anybody before? Before tonight, I mean.”

“In high school, I guess.” I think back hazily. “A few times. Everybody does at that age.”

“I didn’t.”

“Did other people hit you a lot?”

“Depends how you want to define ‘a lot.’”

“I’ll tell you,” I say, “the reason they hit you is because you never hit back.”

“Also because I was fat, I had asthma, and I had a pink backpack.” He shrugs, “But I’m just saying, tonight, the smashing? Not as fun as I hoped.”

He lies down and within minutes I hear him snoring.

****

I watch him sleep, jealous. Tired as I am, I don’t even close my eyes at this point. Like I’m afraid logic is going to shiv me in my sleep and spill whatever’s left of me onto the cold, hard floor. So I just lie here, starting to get used to the feeling of the hard mattress. I look up, studying the way the one light bulb illuminates long, jagged cracks in the white ceiling paint, like bolts of lightning, that reveal glimpses of the older, tarnished surface underneath.

“Handcuffs are not comfortable,” I hear Max say suddenly. He sits up, holding one wrist with the other hand and gazing at it like he’s looking for bruises. “I mean, duh, obviously. But seriously, more than you’d think, right?”

I look down at my own wrists and see the faint outlines of where the cuffs had constricted around them. “I was surprised by that too,” I say.

Max looks to the window. “Not much traffic around here this time of night,” he says.

He tries to assess the damage to his hands again, turning his palms over, raising them toward the ceiling light. He balls his right hand into a fist and jabs it against his left palm, the smacking sound of the impact echoing in the silence. After the fourth or fifth time, he stops.

“Yep, that’s painful,” he says. Then, he looks over at me. “Hey, it’s kind of taking your woman a really long time to find you, isn’t it?”

“It’s a big state,” I say. It’s a reasonable question, one I’ve been avoiding because I don’t like any of the possible answers. But to be honest, the more I think about it, I’m not sure I’m ready to face my wife yet.

I wonder if she is even really looking for me or if she’s leaving me here for the night in one of her attempts to teach me a valuable lesson about something.  I don’t want to let myself think that she might not be coming at all, but I know it’s possible. We’ve been together for more than ten years and, sure, we’ve had our good days and our bad days, but this is one of those tests neither of us ever prepared for.  Nothing in our wedding vows addressed how one of us should react if the other beat up a fictional character and stole a car.

Lack of foresight on our part, I suppose.

I think about rotting here in this cell for god knows how long, or being transferred to someplace worse and sharing cells with real criminals, going on trial and being sent to a prison full of killers and rapists. I grit my teeth and try to block out the fear. It doesn’t work.

 Briefly, my mind turns to this meditation class my wife made me take once. It’s never worked before, but I close my eyes and try to focus my energy, become aware of myself and what’s happening inside me. I sense my blood coursing through my veins, my muscles tensing and relaxing, my lungs operating, my heart beating.

“Question,” Max says, snapping me out of it. He strokes his beard. “Do you think people would pay to have Jesus appear at their kids’ birthday parties?”

“No,” I say. I take another look outside. Only a few stars break through the smog and clouds above, drawing a crooked line to the barely-visible half moon above.

“Come on,” he says. “It’s just like having a clown or a mathamagician. Except it’s Jesus.”

“I don’t think kids would be into that,” I say. I step away from the window.

“I’d have business cards,” he adds. “’For a miraculous birthday, call Jesus!’”

He continues to think out loud, rambling enthusiastically about turning water into Kool-Aid and walking across swimming pools, but I tune it all out.

I lie back down, close my eyes, turn to the wall, and wait for the light to burn out.






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The Pingbell Arena

July 31st, 2022

by Brad Kelechava

A businessman of Bert’s caliber didn’t need to question his actions. His instincts were never wrong, and he always got what he wanted.

So, he parked his car on Conifer Street and walked to the backyard without knocking on the front door.

Just as Bert’s customer had told him to expect, a group of children lolled in the wind. Surrounding them was a square pen composed of gridiron fencing and a small gate, with a robust bell attached to one of the corners. As Bert approached, he could make out a smile on each kid’s face. Above their collection of white teeth and vacant tooth sockets, he saw eyes as empty as the grassy field that surrounded them.

Except for the man in the brown T-shirt. He hadn’t noticed Bert, continuing to fiddle with the tablet in his hands.

“What’s going on?” Bert asked, getting the attention of the man. “You’ve got kids standing in a pen here.”

“Uh,” the man in the brown t-shirt said, “Mr. . . .”

“Bert Garner.”

“Bert, they’re connected to that pingbell.”

“Is that right?” Bert examined the bell-thing in the corner of the pen, but it didn’t look like anything special. He scratched his head, and one of his fingernails shed a hair from his thinning crown. “What, uh—” He hesitated, and he hated himself for it. Bert needed to be the one asking the questions here, but he didn’t want to demonstrate any gaps in knowledge. “Remind me, how does a pingbell work?”

“The pingbell is composed of an array of microprocessors, and it sends signals to the minds of the children playing within the fences. The children send, you know, similar signals to one another.”

“These kids are reading each other’s minds?” Bert asked.

The man dismissed the thought with a lazy wave of his hand. “Sometimes, uh, thoughts are just feelings. The children are relaying those synaptic firing patterns.”

“Mm hm. How exactly is this allowed?” That would dig into this guy’s heart of paranoia. Haggling 101—have him weak and in the palm of your hand even before he knew you wanted anything. He sure seemed vulnerable enough.

“It’s safe,” the man said. “My technology had a pilot run last summer in San Francisco. It was rated ‘Top Fence-Based Augmented Reality Tech to Watch Out For’ by screenluv.biz. I gave these children, you know, forms for their parents to sign.”

“San Fran, huh?” Bert asked. “Long way from Nebraska. Why come all the way out here?”

“Pingbell arenas require some space,” the man said, finally blessing Bert with a cursory glance. “I found decent rates on this property and thought it would be a good location to develop.”

“Right. I’m here because I heard,” he cleared his throat, “Hadley Beecher came to see you a few days ago.”

“Oh yeah, Mrs. Beecher.”

“Look—” Bert began before finding his words converting to warped utterances as they left his throat. How could Hadley still have this effect on him? It didn’t help that despite all his success, Bert’s time in high school had comprised the greatest part of his life. He knew, even in the darkest moments of his drunken nights, that those thoughts weren’t pure maudlin. “One of my customers told me that Hadley talked to his kid here about having parties at her restaurant.

“Yep,” the man said. “She gave me twenty bucks for it.”

“I know you’re new to town, but Hadley owns The Pickled Pepper,” Bert said. “It’s not much more than a diner, but she and her husband serve some grimy pizza, so they think it’s Chuck E. Cheese. I own a joint called Cheesey Fun. We’re big on pizza, games, and such.”

“Sounds like Chuck E. Cheese.” The man still fiddled with that tablet.

“It’s not.” Bert clenched his fist before soothing his aggravation. “How about I give you twenty-five and tell these kids that Cheesey Fun and not The Pickled Pepper is the place their parents should take them.”

The man shrugged. “Sure.”

“I do advertise, you know. Billboards, mostly, but you can never do enough. It sounds like I might want to put a billboard here.”

“Bert, this is my private property. Besides, the pingbell arena world is highly immersive. Those kids wouldn’t be able to see a billboard. You give me twenty-five, and you can speak with the children once they exit the arena. If you would prefer, uh, I can give you something I didn’t offer to Mrs. Beecher. I can reprogram the pingbell signals to occasionally encourage the kids to crave the food at your restaurant.”

“Sounds great to me,” Bert said.

“Of course, the, uh, advertisement signals will be charged differently—twenty dollars for each day?”

“Each day? You gotta be kidding me?  Hadley only paid you once!”

“Your friend paid me for one minute of interacting with the kids. You will get twenty-four hours. Sounds like, you know, a steal.”

“She’s not my . . .” How would he describe someone who once meant everything to him? How about someone who had thrown away their life together with a phone call? Bert shuffled from foot to foot in the stiff grass. This sort of thing was beneath the grandest echelon of entrepreneurship in which he thrived. “Fine,” Bert said. “Who should make the check out to?”

“Marton Merchant, nice to meet you. And no, I take, you know, card.”

#

“Oh hey, Bert,” Marton said, offering Bert a cursory glance before returning to work on his tablet. “How is, you know, business?”

“Business is good—well, was good,” Bert said as he joined Marton. “After I stopped by a few weeks back, we had a full house almost every day. But our numbers are down now. Marton, what am I paying you for?”

“You’re not paying me,” Marton said.

“Oh, yes I am. Twenty dollars a day.”

“I haven’t charged your credit card in over a week.”

“What? Why?”

“Because you don’t have to give me any money,” Marton said. “Your advertising signals aren’t running.”

“Why aren’t they running?”

“Mrs. Beecher came by to see me last week. She offered me twenty-five a day, so I switched out the Cheesey Fun signals for The Pickled Pepper.”

“Why on Earth would you do that?” Bert asked, fuming and ready to explode. Of course, Hadley would sneak around and deceive him. He wouldn’t expect any less from the woman who had screwed him over by erasing the future she and Bert had dreamed of sharing. All for some other guy. Bert didn’t take kindly to getting screwed again by those two, certainly not with all his success.

“She offered me a higher bid,” Marton said.

Bert’s palm met his own face with so much force that he thought he might knock himself out. He could do much worse to Marton, but that wasn’t how you did business. He had a degree in marketing, after all, and he was one of the most prominent business owners in town. “Fine, if I give you twenty-six a day, would I get my ads running again in there?” Bert asked.

“You could, but you would risk being, uh, outbid. I’d recommend thirty.”

“Well, what about in that one?” Bert held out an open palm—an essential gesturing skill for any high-performance businessman—toward the second pingbell arena where children stood with their aimless stares, bright smiles, and occasional motioning of their limbs.

Marton’s eyes first locked onto Bert’s hand before tilting toward the second pingbell arena. “Anything, I guess.”

“How about I give you twenty-one?” Bert asked. Marton nodded. Satisfied with the business transaction, Bert added the question, “What’s the deal with the second pingbell, anyway?”

“There was an, uh, incident between some parents,” he explained. “Mrs. Trecklin accused Mrs. Nebster of getting close to her husband. She said that she didn’t want her, uh, slut daughter around her son. Mr. Trecklin came by and put the fence together, and the children broke into two groups.”

“Jesus, she really said that? These kids are like eight.” He let the thought settle in of Marcia Trecklin, a common patron of his, spreading such foul rumors of Janet Nebster, although Janet was known to have a few other instances with married men—the going belief was that her husband, Mike, was into it. “Wait, how did they make another pingbell?”

“I’ve built a lot of pingbells. I leave them and the fencing materials in that shed. They’re free for anyone to use here in the field.”

Then it came to him—the realization that would change everything. Even back in high school, Hadley lacked what it took to be the best. They were both C+ students, but school didn’t matter much in the long run. The world was connected by streets, and Bert Garner had plenty of street smarts. When things got complicated, Hadley didn’t follow. Bert, as an early victim of her callousness, knew that better than anyone. The world was connected by streets, after all, and Hadley was as simple as an alleyway.

“Marton,” Bert said, “lose my credit card information. I prefer free advertising.”

He walked to the shed and got started.

#

A dampness overtook Bert, as if the backside of his brain were exposed and the birds in the trees gazed into his secrets.

Footsteps. Someone stood in front of him, but Bert’s eyes caught only blurred pixels obfuscating everything he tried to see. Vision meant nothing in this world.

Fwing in: greeting.

Words didn’t mean much in this world either, but the short bursts of words the man standing in the pingbell arena sent to Bert indicated a greater meaning.

Fwing in: greeting, greeting, greeting.

Each ping sent into his head brought a perplexing blend of discomfort and curiosity. It surged waves of anxiety throughout whatever parts of Bert’s body existed in this world, yet it left him soothed and craving more. Bert relaxed and let those birds plunge, beak first, into his exposed brain.

Fwing out: greeting.

Fwing out: introduction.

Fwing in: curiosity.

Bert didn’t just understand the man’s curiosity—with the power of the ping, it was his curiosity now, too.

Fwing out: explanation, explanation, explanation.

That was strange. Bert tried again.

Fwing out: explanation, explanation, explanation.

Fwing in: confusion.

Bert didn’t blame the guy there. In each effort to tell the man of the party packages at Cheesey Fun, the ping he sent out—although the sound was more reminiscent of a sharpened arrow grazing your outer ear—remained “explanation.” The bird in the back of his head didn’t permit such a direct approach, it seemed.

Fwing out: welcoming, hospitality, hunger.

Fwing in: unease, unease, unease.

Fwing out: hospitality, togetherness, entertainment, joy.

Fwing in: happiness, interest.

Fwing out: peace.

Moment of truth.

Fwing in: interest.

He had him. They had exchanged few words, yet he knew that the man not only comprehended all components of Bert’s business but was interested in booking a party at Cheesey Fun next weekend.

He could feel others entering his pingbell arena.

Fwing out: welcome.

#

Fwing in: comfort.

Did Bert just get pinged? He was outside of his arena—removed from any arena, for that matter. A pingbell shouldn’t have that level of range.

Nearby demolition machines toppled neighboring houses. In their place would soon be more pingbell arenas. All of damn Conifer Street had been blocked off to make space for pingbell arenas—Bert had to park nearly half a mile away. Nearly all the arenas were stuffed with expressionless users. Considering that it was Monday—Bert’s only day off—these things sure were popular.

But Bert’s arena hadn’t felt a taste of that popularity all morning. During the few times someone did stumble into Cheesey Fun’s pingbell arena, they left within the minute. Almost as if they weren’t receiving Bert’s pings.

Marton’s modest two-story house had been demolished. In its place stood a high-rise building, currently little more than an I-beam skeleton. Bert imagined that the tower would stretch over ten stories when completed. It and the recent expansion of pingbells into the road surely violated city ordinances, but that didn’t seem to be an issue. The mayor spent most of his time in the municipal pingbell, and the governor stopped by on occasion. Bert wouldn’t be surprised if the next G5 summit were scheduled to occur at a pingbell arena.

Bert entered the interim help center on the completed first floor. A woman stepped forward to greet him.

Through her thick smile, she said, “Hi, Bert. My name’s Valerie. How can I assist you?”

“I need to—” he began before his mind caught up with his ears. “How do you know my name?”

“I’m here to assist you with anything you need,” she said. The logo on her t-shirt was a blending of “ping” and “bell.” “The system picked up your info when you walked in.”

“I need to speak with Marton.”

That face-engulfing smile of hers returned. “I’m afraid Marton is very busy at the moment, but I’m here to assist you with anything you need.”

“I think there’s something wrong with my pingbell.”

“I’m happy to put in a ticket to have your arena checked for any malfunctions. I can also connect you with your arena excellence officer—”

“No,” Bert said. “I gotta speak with Marton. I know he’s here.”

He brushed past the girl. He was a true entrepreneur, one of the most lucrative in town, and he always found the best option. If he had to pull one of his classic moves and cut by an underling to find a higher-up more vulnerable to manipulation, then that’s just what he would do.

He had to barge into three offices to find him. Behind a thick mahogany desk, seated in a luxurious leather chair, Marton fiddled with his tablet. “Hello, Bert,” he said, his gaze remaining on his tablet. “How are you? How is, you know, business?”

“Well, Marton,” Bert said, taking a seat at the opposite side of the desk while Valerie remained in the doorway, “Not a lot of people are sticking around in my arena. I think it’s because the signal is weaker, and you’re dampening it.”

“That’s preposterous!” Valerie yelled. Bert looked back to see that smile of hers abandon her face.

“I also think you put a pingbell or two outside the fences,” Bert said. “You’re sending signals out into the world.”

Marton set his tablet down. His eyes met the space on the desk in front of Bert. “Bert” he said, “I did install pingbells outside of the arenas. My technology is an entirely new immersive experience. The first time you used it, you probably felt that the experience was, like, grander. The more you got used to my system, the less, uh, inspiring it became. So, it might seem like it is functioning at a lower capacity, but it isn’t.”

“That’s bullshit. You did it on purpose to get us to buy ads. I bet if I gave you money, you’d make my pingbell start working again.”

“We do offer, uh, enhanced pingbell service for a daily fee.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised.” Bert settled in his chair. He had the weirdo right where he wanted him. This was where he did his magic. Everyone else was forced to pay? Not him. Those rules didn’t apply to a top-level deal closer. “Marton, look. I’m not about to pay for something that was given to me for free just a few months ago. I was your first guy here. Before me it was just a group of kids. I’ll tell you what. You bring my pingbell back to normal, and I won’t tell anyone about this whole fiasco.”

Marton slouched in his leather chair. “Bert, I can’t do that. This system is completely impartial, and I can’t give favor to one person or company.”

“But you’re supporting some companies over others. How is that impartial? I bet Hadley’s pingbell is working just fine.”

“The, uh, Pickled Pepper does pay for enhanced service, as well as a range of ads. That’s not favoritism—you can invest in your pingbell arena’s success, too. We allow many competitors to use our platform. We have both local Democrats and Republicans running campaign ads. But the use of pingbell arenas is entirely free and, you know, impartial, and I won’t do anything to harm that.”

“Well, I’m not paying. And I’ll tell you what? If this is so impartial, what’s stopping me from going into other people’s arenas? How about I head over to Hadley’s arena?”

“I would not recommend, you know, harassing another pingbell user. It violates our terms of use, and you will be given a warning—”

“Yeah, yeah, warn away,” Bert said, standing up and rushing to the door. He pushed past the girl. For a moment, that smile of hers flickered back. Habits were hard to break.

#

Fwing in: greeting, familiarity.

Fwing out: disgust, nausea, wickedness, distrust.

Fwing in: concern.

For years, Hadley and her dim-witted husband had tried to compete with Bert with their rust bucket of an establishment. It would end here. If it had to be in her arena, so be it. She didn’t stand a chance against Bert’s pings.

Fwing out: morbidity, infection, unease, flushing, discomfort, loss.

Fwing in: anger.

The crowd in The Pickled Pepper pingbell arena was thinning out. They would be disturbed by Bert’s pings, but it was better this way. A cluster of rubes like them should have no trouble stumbling into something else in another arena.

By the time the others were gone, Hadley stood directly in front of Bert. He didn’t see her, of course, but the connection was taut thanks to the power emanating from the pingbell that joined them. He didn’t think they had been this close since, well, when they were as close as any two people could be.

Fwing in: remembering, joy, unity.

Bert fought the bubbly aura of jubilation she was sending into his brain. What the hell did she know about unity? It had been decades since they had last seen each other. You would think that all that time and all the success Bert had found as a local leader in business would have helped him get over it, but he knew better. Your grand accomplishments didn’t define you. No, your limited periods of sorrow took care of that.

For Bert, most of that pain had come from the girl who grew into the woman before him.

Fwing out: remembering, deceit, anger, distrust.

That was the only way he could describe it under the bird’s panoptic eye, but Bert couldn’t have said it better with actual words. He often revisited the memory of her telling him over the phone that she had met someone else while away at Northwestern. Everything about the recollection had faded, other than the twist of his heart.

Fwing out: rejection, sorrow, loss.

He had gotten over her, business had been booming. But, ten years ago, the Beechers moved to town, and The Pickled Pepper opened.

Fwing in: excitement, regret, solace, acceptance, peace.

Bert couldn’t fight it. Her pings displaced his own feelings, and, for once, his anger took a break. When Hadley had come back to town, like a deluge of venom, Bert’s sorrow for losing her returned as rage, and he had never let himself escape it. He had even scampered out the back door the few times Hadley had tried to stop by Cheesey Fun. Why did he have to define himself from one year of pain?

As Bert stood before her, unable to see the girl he had loved but succumbing to everything she was feeling, that agony rushed back into his chest, but it quickly subsided. The venom went out with the tide.

Fine. Bert didn’t think his pain over the years had all been for nothing, but he was beginning to think that he was ready to forgive Hadley. He hated to admit it, but seeing matters through such simple terms as the pings blasting into his brain showed that his perceived future for Hadley and him had been a little one-sided on his part. Maybe her returning to town and opening a restaurant wasn’t a personal attack against Bert, but just a woman returning her skills to the place of her upbringing.

Bert left Hadley’s pingbell arena and walked into the grass between it and the next arena. He waited for Hadley to join him before the world around him imploded.

#

Bert couldn’t see too well in his smudged surroundings, but he knew that Marton was the one kicking the shit out of him.

As Bert tried to draw in a gust of fresh air, Marton pulled back his foot and delivered another blow to his head. Bert spit out blood, feeling some of it stick to his cheek and blend with the sweat and saliva that sheened his face.

“I told you not to violate the rules, Bert,” Marton said. Bert knew he could take this punk down in a fair fight. Just needed to even the odds.

Bert jumped to his feet and charged. Marton managed to deal a blow to the side of Bert’s head that sent him back to the ground.

Bert’s expression slipped into a crimson smile. He attempted to call Marton a moron and threaten to sue him, but his power play only revealed itself as:

Fwing out: complain.

“Bert, don’t bother,” Marton said.

Bert tried to scream to the hills about how pingbells were manipulating people’s minds, but his message again came out as:

Fwing out: complain.

“Bert, do you know where we are right now?” Bert’s vision was blurred, but it seemed like the hard ground he found himself sprawled on was pavement. “We are within my system. I’m not really hitting you. You are completely unharmed. You can have your, you know, pizza place, but I am in control here. Pretty soon, we won’t even need arenas. There will be an open pingbell system, and our expansion to towns throughout the country will ensure their use. You won’t be able to hinder that. Just go back to your arena and buy some ads to support your business, or you’re banned from my system.”

Bert searched for an opportunity to escape, but he could tell when he’d been outplayed. He wouldn’t be able to escape the pingbells; his restaurant was in the system’s range. As was Hadley’s. Hadley, who rode the wave of pingbell technology to fill the seats at her atrocious dump. But Bert had been wrong about her. Was he wrong about this too?

Deep down, he’d never be able to accept it, but he could play along.

Fwing out: acquiescence.

Marton nodded. Bert didn’t know if it were from the pingbell system’s pixelation, or if he was delirious from his fictional concussion, broken ribs, and other bodily trauma, but it seemed that the affirmative gesture lasted far too long, like a video on repeat.

Marton disappeared, leaving Bert alone in the pingbell world for a few moments before another man appeared.

Bert wouldn’t be able to handle another beating.

Fwing out: pleading, begging.

“Everything is going to be alright, Bert,” the man said. “I’m Brecken, your arena excellence officer. Let’s invest in your business’s future.

#

The sky above Conifer Street was as blue as ever, but Bert, lying on his back in the grass between arenas, was the only person nearby who could enjoy its natural beauty.

 Powering past the phantom pain that lingered throughout his body from the ordeal deep within the pingbell system, Bert rose and dusted off the dirt that had smudged the backside of his clothes.

In the pingbell arena ahead of him, Hadley stood expressionless with a few others. Finally getting a look at her after so much time, she looked much the same, and the faint network of wrinkles lining her face did little to diminish her good looks. Bert wished he could say the same about himself, but, these days, he didn’t know where his hairline began or how his potbelly extended further past his belt with every meal.

Had she not stepped out with him? Bert had expected the two of them to have at least some semblance of a touching reunion, but there were others in the arena with Hadley. Bert could get that—business always came first.

Bert began to move back into The Pickled Pepper’s pingbell arena, but, as he reached for the gate, he decided against it. Better to let her woo her two potential customers. They’d have plenty of time to ping each other later.

Instead, Bert took the time to move throughout other arenas tightly placed throughout Conifer Street. As he explored them, he encountered a man expressing paranoia with the current political situation, a boy exhilarated at the thought of new video game releases, a girl praising her jacket, and a college student procrastinating on completing his term paper by listening to a Korean War veteran explain some of his worst days.

Their means of communicating through pings was simple and streamlined, but Bert understood it all. By the time he took a break from the pingbell arenas, the blue sky had swapped places with darkness dotted with bright yellow stars.

Down on Earth, work lights illuminated several dozen stories of Marton’s tower in progress.

Bert didn’t like the guy, but he could appreciate the monument to Marton’s success. In pingbell arenas all over the country, people would rekindle connections, sustain relationships, and ignite conflict, and businesses would scramble to try to connect with those users in their natural habitat in seemingly natural ways.

Once that tower was finished, Marton would take the top floor spot. Not a better power move than that. Up there, Marton would listen and comprehend more than Bert was willing to cram into his brain.

Bert walked back into his pingbell arena, ready to get a few hours in before heading home. Someone else could watch over the restaurant tomorrow. Bert knew where he would be.





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Batwoman on the Brink

July 24th, 2022

by Ginger Dehlinger

CYNTHIA DREW A LINE through the last item on her to-do list.   

  • book flight to Las Vegas
  • call the Flamingo
  • buy wet suit
  • pay bills
  • write note

She wrote several drafts of the note on a yellow pad before copying the least incriminating version onto four sheets of ivory monogrammed stationery. She signed the vague ramble, With love, Cynthia, placed it in a matching ivory envelope and left it on the dining room table next to a recently notarized will. Reservations could be cancelled, wet suit returned, but a note that took half a morning to write meant her plan was set in stone.

She would have spent far less time fiddling with words if she hadn’t dotted every I; far less if she had been candid. Her husband Paul would want to know why, yet all he would read and reread was a word-smithed version of what she told her shrink when he asked, “Why are you so unhappy?” She praised Paul, thanked him for the twenty-one years they had been married, and then ended the note with, Please don’t bring my body back to Florida.

At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, she told the lanky young man behind the Avis counter she wanted a car with GPS and all-weather tires. “Nothing flashy. Blue or white would be good. And make sure it has Arizona plates.” The light blue Toyota Carolla he rented her was exactly what she had in mind.

“Why the Arizona plates?” the agent asked.

“Because that’s where I’m headed. A car with out-of-state plates is going to draw attention in the dead of winter.”

The young man shrugged. Maybe the good-looking blond was being stalked. Maybe she had watched too many episodes of “Law and Order.” She wasn’t beautiful, not movie star beautiful, anyway, but pretty hot, considering the birth date on her driver’s license.

It was sunny when Cynthia left Las Vegas. Four and a half hours later, she was driving the Carolla under a scum of gray clouds. An inch of snow covered the ground as she followed Siri’s directions into Grand Canyon National Park. She had hoped for more snow, expected a foot of the white stuff in January at six thousand feet above sea level. Cold air and snow were essential to her plan. Fewer tourists would visit the Park in bad weather. More importantly, decomposition would take longer if her body lay at the bottom of the canyon for weeks before being discovered.

She had arrived at this grim conclusion after reading a book that chronicled the Grand Canyon’s suicides and other fatalities. Struck by the author’s descriptions of human remains, she did not want to leave a mess on the canyon floor. The wet suit she donned before checking out of the Flamingo Hotel that morning had been purchased for the same reason. She believed squeezing her body into a tight Neoprene suit would protect her innards like the casing of a sausage when she hit bottom. Cleaning up scattered body parts was too much to expect from anyone, even strangers.

She purchased the full-length wet suit at a sporting goods shop in Palm Beach where she spent five minutes admiring herself in a dressing room mirror. She would have preferred a reflection with tighter abs, but gave herself good marks for a woman of forty-five. The zip-free suit she wriggled into was solid black. When she tried the suit on again at home, this time with knee-high black leather boots, she decided she looked like a cat burglar or a malnourished seal. To soften her image, she added a designer scarf sprinkled with bright red poppies and purple asters.

At the south entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, she handed the station agent her credit card and smiled when the woman handed it back to her with a compliment for the colorful scarf. From the ticket booth, Cynthia drove east on South Entrance Road, then took lesser roads to The Abyss. During the short drive, she was surprised to see vehicles from New York, Massachusetts, Missouri, and California. Although the Arizona plates might not have been necessary, they still gave her the feeling of anonymity she desired.

While planning this rendezvous with the Canyon, she pored over pictures and descriptions of viewpoints along its south rim, made a list of those with steep drop-offs and a history of past suicides. The Abyss matched these specifications on paper, as did the other sites on her list; however, she needed to see them with her own eyes to determine if there were intervening features below the rim that could break her fall—ledges, rock formations, trees (dead or alive.)

The Canyon’s vermillion splendor had captivated Cynthia the first time she looked into its breathtaking maw. On that hot blue day in June her skin blossomed with goosebumps as she stood, speechless, scanning a panorama so vast it would take an artist’s entire supply of Titian red, ochre, and burnt umber to capture it on canvas. She wanted to breathe the Canyon in, taste it, somehow get her arms around it. The serene, chiseled landscape held the kind of grandeur she desired for herself—solid, timeless—like the relationship she had with the man standing next to her. After their two-year affair ended, she decided the only way to attain the same level of glory she had experienced with him was to become one with the Canyon.

On this trip, her second, when visibility was paramount, she walked to the edge of The Abyss and looked out over an ocean of fog. Arizona’s famous sun had warmed the Park the day before. Overnight, snow had fallen, and the combination of warm rocks and cold snow had created an all-encompassing fog. The ghostly mist filled the entire gorge, transforming its magnificence into a terrible sameness. No wind ruffled the eerie quiet—no birds, no echoes. The few tourists strung along the viewing platform at The Abyss conversed in whispers.

Cynthia waited several minutes, hoping the sun would show itself and the fog would dissipate. But the earthbound cloud, silent and mysterious, stubbornly refused to budge. After suffering the same disappointment at Maricopa Point, she got back in the Corolla and set out for the third viewpoint on her list. She held the steering wheel in a death grip. Unaccustomed to snowy roads, she drove slow as a street cleaning truck, one eye on the wintery pavement, one on the rearview mirror. She had prepared for snow. She made sure the Carolla had all-weather tires and asked the Avis agent to include a set of chains. She didn’t know how to put them on, but somebody would. She also bought a can of de-icer and heavy-duty gloves. She had not, however, considered the possibility of fog. Nor had she planned for the patrol car that had been tailing her since Maricopa Point.  

CORBYN SCOTT, CHIEF RANGER for the Park’s law enforcement team, was on duty that morning. During a routine stop at The Abyss he spied a woman leaning too far over the steel mesh fence meant to restrain gawkers. The woman had spent ten minutes there, gazing into the cloud-filled depths before returning to her car. He followed her to Maricopa Point where she ignored the Park’s safety signs again.

Dressed in solid black, the woman wore a scarf, no jacket or coat. During Scott’s twenty-six years as a national park ranger, he had seen just about everything when it came to visitors’ attire, but it was not how the woman was dressed that caught his attention. He radioed the other rangers on his team to be on the lookout for a tall blond dressed like Batwoman. “Could be a jumper,” he said into the mic. “She’s flirting with the brink and not taking pictures.”

CYNTHIA, DRIVING AN unfamiliar car faster than she dared on snow and ice, hustled into the Visitor Center parking lot, killed the engine and ducked out of sight. She kept her ears tuned for an approaching vehicle while she tried to figure out why she was being followed. She knew she hadn’t been speeding, well maybe a little when she dashed into the lot. Had she been driving too slowly? Was a tail-light out? The car’s lights had worked when she checked them in Las Vegas. She remembered seeing the same type of official vehicle parked at The Abyss. Had the man seated inside noticed her? Liked how she looked in a wet suit? She glanced at her long, Neoprene-wrapped legs, smiling at the notion she might still be a fox. Immediately she chastised herself for allowing the distraction to interfere with her plan. Why she was being followed wasn’t important, but a ranger on her tail was. Something had triggered his interest, which meant she had to stop looking for the perfect site. It was Mather Point or bust.

The parking lot where Cynthia sat in the Carolla served both the Visitor Center and Conservancy Park Store. She and her lover had wandered the store’s aisles for close to an hour during their last stolen weekend together. She had purchased the fatalities book there, hoping it would explain the Canyon’s strange magnetism. Instead, the book had become a nagging reminder of two days of bitter arguments and a heartless last kiss.

She raised her head, peeked over the dash board. When she didn’t see a white Ford Explorer with roof-mounted lightbar, she sat up, removed everything from her purse that had her name on it, and tossed the car keys into the glove compartment. She left her purse in the trunk next to the tire chains, threw her driver’s license and other ID in a trash bin near the store’s entrance.

 Leaving the store behind, she hoped it would be a decoy, an ally to buy her some time. If the Park ranger truly was after her, not a figment of her paranoid thoughts, he would look for her inside the store. By the time he realized she wasn’t there, she would be gone for good.

CHIEF RANGER SCOTT lost sight of the blue Corolla after it zipped into the nearly full Visitor Center parking lot. He drove by the first two rows of cars. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he radioed his team.

“Batwoman just pulled into the main lot and disappeared. We’re awfully close to Mather here. Based on the other stops she made so far, my gut says she’s looking for a place to jump. She could be inside the store. Maybe she’ll buy some postcards and be on her way. I can’t be in two places at the same time, so meet me in front of the store…pronto!”

Five minutes later, two park rangers, one male, one female responded to Scott’s call. “I found her car,” he told them. “It was open, keys in the jockey box. You two search the Center and store. Can’t miss her. Breezy blond hair…tall for a woman. Dressed head to toe in black. I’m heading for Mather Point. Call me if you find her. Follow me to Mather if you don’t.”

A HANDFUL OF TOURISTS lined the far end of the Mather Point viewing platform when Cynthia arrived. She was disappointed to see the site’s four-foot, heavy-duty steel mesh barrier was bolted so close to the edge of the drop-off, only a scant windowsill of platform remained on the Canyon side. Stepping off the top rail of a fence was not how she visualized taking the plunge. In the video that had played countless times in her mind, she always scooped up a little terra cotta soil in each hand, walked to the edge of a sandstone ledge, opened her arms, and let the Canyon pull her in.

She spied a rocky outcropping a few feet below one of the barriers, and in less than a minute she scampered over the fence and dropped onto a ledge about the size of a kitchen table. She heard someone yell, “Hey!” followed by shoes scurrying across the stone and cement platform. She looked up and saw six to eight tourists sporting winter hats and scarves, peering over the barrier at her. Everyone was talking at once. One person said, “I’m dialing 911.”

Their outstretched hands couldn’t reach her. The ledge was too small for anyone crazy enough to join her, so she turned her back on the powerless lot. Rubbing her hands together to warm them, she stared into the quiet miasma that had invaded the Canyon’s rapture. The topmost stretches of the east and west rims were visible, but fog, blind as a coma, filled the gorge. She had thoroughly prepared for this moment. Now, smack dab in the middle of it, she blamed the fog, vague and haunting, for the tightness in her chest.

Taking short breaths of cool, moist air, she posed the same questions she had been asking herself for weeks. Will I wet myself on the way down? Will I pass out, unable to breathe with so much air rushing up my nose? Will my face contort like an astronaut’s during lift-off? The questions had been somewhat titillating when she pictured herself succumbing to a rugged expanse bathed in sunlight. Now, with the Canyon’s voluptuous cleavage draped in fog, the euphoria was missing.

AS RANGER SCOTT HURRIED down the incline leading to the Mather Point viewing platform, he felt a ripple of dread at the sight of every tourist on the platform gathered in one spot. As he drew closer, he saw the tourists were looking down at Batwoman who was on the Canyon side of the barrier. She stood on a boulder or some sort of projection, facing the fog bank. Without breaking stride, the gravel-voiced ranger bellowed, “Get back where you belong!”

The tourists scattered. Cynthia gave a startled cry and fell to her knees, parallel to the barrier, an arm’s length from the drop-off.

“Did you have to yell?” she asked when the slightly out-of-breath ranger bellied up to the fence. “Leave me alone. I’m fine. If you try to come down here, I’ll jump. I mean it. I’ll jump.”

She took a quick inventory of the barrel-chested man who had been following her: clean-shaven, aviator glasses, bulky, army green jacket with a Park Service patch on one sleeve. His tan hat was similar to a Canadian Mountie’s hat. Still on her knees, she leaned forward, placed the palms of her hands on the sandstone for better balance.

“I’m fine,” she repeated as she splayed her fingers across the dust-covered surface of her perch.

“That was a command, Lady, not a suggestion. One false move and you’re gonna fall.” The ranger spoke to her with calm assurance; upped the volume when he ordered the rubbernecking tourists off the platform.

Without turning her head, Cynthia flashed the ranger a dismissive wave. “Go away. Give somebody a ticket or something. I know what I’m doing.” She lowered her hand, returned it to the security of a four-point stance and left it there.

“So, tell me, what are you doing? For starters, you’re on the wrong side of the barrier, and that’s against the law.”

Closer to Batwoman than he had been earlier, Ranger Scott saw her black clothing was actually a wet suit. “Who in hell wears a wet suit in the desert?” he scoffed. “There’s no scuba diving in the Colorado. Not even in July. And you won’t bounce in that rubber suit if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Cynthia shook her head in annoyance. “I may not bounce, but I won’t splatter, either.”

Her eyes flicked from fog to ranger to fog while her fingers clung to the rocky ledge like sticky pads on a frog’s toes. She thought about ending his smugness by rolling over the edge before he had a chance to talk her out of it. I win. He loses. She waited for him to reply with something snarky. Instead, he took a cell phone out of a pocket in his jacket and pinged a number on the keypad. He lowered his voice during the call, but based on a few words Cynthia recognized, he was speaking to someone in authority.

During the call, she inched her right hand across the outcropping to determine how close she was to the edge. Her fingers brushed a bit of sand and pebbles into the fog. When the fragments of cracked earth didn’t clatter on the way down, she knew she had found the unimpeded drop she wanted, a realization that didn’t come with much satisfaction.

“Looking for reinforcements?” she asked after the ranger put his phone back in his pocket. “Need to call out the National Guard or something?”

She giggled, giggles that spiraled into laughter, and then quickly morphed into shivers. Her hands were cold by the time she climbed over the fence. The rest of her body had remained warm until this sudden onset of the shakes. She shifted her gaze a degree or two to the right, just enough to peer into the pall. She could feel the Canyon beckoning her again, not with wide open arms like the first time, but with the lure of a Siren. She had rehearsed this moment for weeks with eagerness, not fear. Now her heart was doing flip-flops inside her Neoprene-enclosed chest. It’s the fog’s fault, she told herself, the ranger’s fault. If the fog would lift, if the ranger would leave, everything would proceed as planned.

She crouched lower, rested her forearms on the sandstone and cradled her forehead on the backs of her hands. Trapped between a man trying to ruin her plans and fog doing the same, she grew still as a petroglyph.

“Sorry we took so long,” she heard a woman say. “It was crowded in there. Looks like your instincts were right, Corbyn. Anything we can do to help?”

Glancing upward, Cynthia saw two more people in Park Service uniforms. One was a thirty-something woman with dark brown shoulder-length hair, the other, a man in his twenties. The woman had a slight southern accent, more Charleston than deep South.

“I’ve got it handled,” Ranger Scott said.

The female ranger, leaning as close as she could get to the woman she knew only as Batwoman, rested her arms on the fence cap. “We all go through a rough patch now and then, Honey.”

“I said I’ve got it handled,” Ranger Scott said, louder this time. He motioned his small team to form a huddle. “Seems we’ve got a wacko on our hands,” he said quietly. “A minute ago, she was laughing. Now she’s shaking like someone on death row.”

“Is she praying?” the female ranger whispered. “She looks like she’s praying.”

“Her? Are you kidding?”

“What are you, I mean, what are we going to do?”

Scott rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, this is my first live one. Every jumper I’ve dealt with in the past was already on the Canyon floor. The fact she’s shaking makes me think she’s having second thoughts. Either that or her wet suit isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.”

“If I had a lasso, I could rope her,” said the younger man. “I’m pretty good at that.”

Cynthia raised her head. “I can hear you.” She listened a few seconds before resting her forehead on her hands again.

Chief Ranger Scott scowled at his young subordinate. “One of us needs to guard the entry. Go up there and keep everybody away except emergency personnel.”

After the young ranger left, Scott cleared his throat and returned his focus to the woman on the ledge. “What’s so bad about your life that you want to end it? You know suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

“Really?” Cynthia groaned. “Is that all you’ve got?”

“Listen, Lady, forever is a whole lot longer than you or any of us can imagine.”

Cynthia’s nose was dripping. She pulled the scarf off her neck and used it as a handkerchief. “What if my problem isn’t temporary?”

“What do you mean? You have a terminal illness or something?”

“No.”

“Then you don’t have a permanent problem—not that a terminal illness is an excuse to jump into the Canyon. Do you realize how much trouble you’re gonna cause if you go through with this? For the Park Service? For your family? Do you have a family? Do they know you’re here? Do they know what you’re thinking about doing?”

“Stop asking so many questions.” Cynthia took a ragged breath. “I have a husband, no children. By now my husband knows what I’m doing.”

“Why isn’t he trying to stop you?”

“I didn’t tell him where I was going. He probably thinks I’m in Las Vegas.”

“I looked in your purse and couldn’t find a single clue to your identity. What’s your name, anyway?”

“If you really want to know, look in the trash can in front of the store.”

Scott paused to collect his thoughts. “Have you asked for professional help?”

“Yes. It wasn’t what I would describe as helpful.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No! Why should I discuss my troubles with you?” She dabbed at her nose with the scarf.

“I might know more about your troubles than you think. If this has anything to do with your marriage, I say try to make it work. I didn’t. Been sorry ever since.”

“You sound like my shrink,” Cynthia mumbled.

She assumed empathy had been part of the ranger’s customer service training, not that he was genuinely sorry he hadn’t made his marriage work. On the other hand, what if he was telling the truth? She wondered what Paul would do if she told him to ignore the letter and replaced its rambling contents with the truth. Would he rather have her damaged than not have her at all? His business kept him jetting from one city to another. Over the years he would have had plenty of opportunities for an affair of his own. Could she somehow avoid telling him the real reason she had been despondent? She hadn’t mentioned her lover in the ambiguous note she left on the dining room table. Her shivers grew more intense as she concentrated on swallowing the good hard cry festering in her throat.

“This has gone on long enough,” Scott grumbled. “Come on, Lady, don’t be a fool.” He leaned across the barrier and extended his arms. “You need to get back up here where you belong. Where it’s safe. I’ll come down and give you a hand, if you’d like. Afterwards, we can go inside and have a drink. Do you drink? If you don’t, you could have a hot chocolate.”  

“Okay, okay, stop talking. And don’t come down here. I can figure this out on my own.”

The sky hung over her head like a suffocating pillow as Cynthia, in the same slow way she got out of bed every morning, rose from a nearly prone position to her knees. She sat on her haunches a moment and stared at the tendrils of fog crawling up the Canyon’s walls. A spasm of fear snaked up her spine and then radiated to her very core. Suddenly, she desperately wanted off the ledge, out of the fog, away from this gigantic hole. She would come up with something credible to say to Paul when she had more time. Right now, all she could think about was being back on solid ground.

She got to her feet and mentally gauged the space between her and the rangers. By standing on her toes and extending her long arms, she could reach the bottom of the steel pole that anchored the fence, use it to pull herself up. All those hours she had spent at the gym were finally going to pay off. She wrapped her hand around the base of a footing and looked for a toe hold in the rocky slope.   

“Don’t forget your pretty scarf,” the female ranger said.

Cynthia let go of the pole, knelt down and grabbed the scarf. She stood too quickly this time and lost her balance. Confused by the dizzying cloud that shrouded her perch, she shuffled her feet, windmilling her arms in a frantic attempt to right herself. But the smooth soles of her leather boots skidded across the sandstone, and she tumbled backwards over the brink. She let go of the scarf as she fell. The red and purple square of silk floated for a lazy second before it followed her terrified scream into the waiting fog.   






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The Moth

July 17th, 2022

by Robert Bagnall

And at that moment, the Prince saw the dragon.

He saw its ruby red eyes and darting tongue and the snorts of smoke from its nostrils. And he felt his limbs turn to stone.

Literally turn to stone.

Everything below his neck was now the grey of granite, the weave of his cloak merely scratch marks.

He turned his face to the statue of the princess and saw that she had become flesh. He was caught between terror at the approaching monster and sheer wonderment at her release.

He felt his neck grow cold, his tongue thick.

“Why?” he asked groggily.

But even as he said it, he knew the answer.

Doctor Kilty paused, searching the horseshoe of faces in front of her, as if letting an echo fade.

“Come on, people. Let’s offer criticism without being critical. The assignment was to write your own fairytale. Did Gypsy succeed?”

Foot scraping.

“Anybody?”

From the corner, I raised a hand. There was some snickering, and I caught the word ‘cripple’.

“I didn’t see any foreshadowing.”

I kept my gaze on Gypsy. She had turned her work over and was absent-mindedly doodling, but I saw her darting gaze challenge me through the curtain of black hair behind which she hid her eyes.

“Well, we ought to somehow know that Oberon can turn the prince into stone in advance. Otherwise, it just comes out of nowhere.”

I had more to say, to casually drop in Deus ex Machina, but Doctor Kilty had pulled up. Her fingers went for her collar as if gasping for air. We all stiffened—was this what a heart attack looked like?—everybody except Gypsy. She just carried on sketching.

Doctor Kilty had gone pale.

And then Gypsy stopped and looked across at me.

“I think that’s enough for today,” Doctor Kilty managed, catching a breath, eyes on the wall clock.

After she had been helped away, brushing off the clucking of girls, I saw, abandoned, what Gypsy had been sketching. A moth, in miniscule detail, albeit incomplete. The outline of two wings: one reaching forward, one paddle-like behind; the body: thorax and abdomen. Deft flicks of the pencil suggesting the facets of a compound eye. Antennae, each with wisps of hair.

Benzedrine thin, she had been dropped into our class as if from Mars rather than Ogden, Utah, where she said she came from, halfway through a semester, chewing gum and studying us from behind the redoubt of her fringe. Somebody said she was an exchange student from a wandering Dada theatre company. She always wore black but on her it was somehow more colorful than all our denim and hoodies combined.

I recognized her accent, but in every other way, she was from no place I had ever been or could ever imagine. When they asked her name, she said ‘Gypsy’, because she used to collect moths, with no sense of the outré or the theatrical. Wordlessly, she challenged us to find it off the wall. I don’t think she ever told us her real name.

The rest of the class had departed; it was my fate to forever walk in other people’s wakes. I propped a crutch and snatched the drawing up and loosely rolled in into a pocket. If she didn’t want it…

***

The next time I saw her, she was delivering flyers, a military-style knapsack swinging at her hip. She’d hop up the steps of the brownstones and slip a card through each mailslot, skitter back through gates.

“Hey, you want me to do the other side?”

She shook her head almost imperceptibly as she brushed past me.

“I can take some if you like.”

But she was onto the next house.

I limped up a path to where one of her cards stuck out of a sprung letterbox. On it, in bold black print, were five words.

WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE

Just those five words, bold and black on a plain white card. It made no sense.

“What’s it advertising?”

I wondered whether I should mention stealing her drawing. But if she left it behind it wasn’t stealing…

“Isn’t advertising anything.”

For once, my withered limbs had no problem in keeping up with her as she went from door to door.

“Is this some kind of art project? Like Dada or something?”

“Like Dada or what?”  Words shot back at me, returns of serve that I couldn’t catch to my tentative forays, like checking for depth whilst crossing unfamiliar waters.

I laughed, unsure, tongue-tied, and she made to walk away.  The next set of houses was a way off.  They had traditional mailboxes on poles out front.  I wouldn’t be able to keep up with her nor catch her on the next drag.  I had to do something if I were to have just a few minutes in her orbit.

“I think you’re just like me.  Damaged.”

She stopped and turned.  I quaked slightly, uncertain at what her face would tell me.  There was a sneer in there—it wouldn’t be Gypsy without a sneer—but something else as well.  A quizzical quality, like she’d just seen me for the first time.  Like she was studying me.

***

Afterwards, in bed, I asked her why she sketched moths.

“They’re my familiars,” she said simply. “You know what a familiar is?”

I shook my head.

“I’ll sketch you,” she offered.

She pulled her shirt back on, missing out buttons, before draping herself sideways in an ancient recliner. Finding pencil and paper from my desk, she began to sketch me. In order to stay still, I concentrated on her legs swinging over the duct-taped arm, straight and slender, fragility and strength combined.

I suddenly wanted her gone. Suddenly, those legs, so perfect, felt like they were mocking my twisted and disobedient limbs.

I made to rise.

But my limbs felt as if they were glued to the bed. As if they were made of stone. I tried to move, but I couldn’t. Confusion was replaced by fear, my mind no longer speaking in any language that my body could comprehend.

I think I made some sort of gurgling noise as I tried harder to move, not caring if my effort showed.

But Gypsy just carried on drawing, quickly, efficiently, carefully, and yet without a care in the world.

My chest constricted, tightened, like metal straps being ratcheted. I had to really pull to breathe. But if all my effort, all my energy, was focused on merely breathing, then what had I left?

And then she breezily dressed, as I gurgled and gasped, and was gone. I didn’t even see her go. My eyes were closed, all energy focused on trying to draw in air, no concern remaining for my spastic body.

My greying gaze settled on the drawing that she had left abandoned on the carpet. A moth; perfectly executed. Each eye with its countless facets, each leg dotted with hairs. The ridged abdomen. Pencil on paper, monochrome and two-dimensional, but with such a sense of vibrancy, of life. It even left you with a sense of the dust on its wings.

As my vision grew narrow and dim, I knew. I knew the truth.

The moth may only have been scrapes of graphite on paper.

But I was the one who had been collected.


END





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Precious Package

July 10th, 2022

by Greg Nooney

We celebrated Thomas’ 119th birthday alone on the balcony overlooking the lake. It was that special time of year when summer wasn’t quite finished with its preoccupation with heating things up but was no longer up to the task, and autumn was still a newcomer, not sure of its role. There was a gentle breeze that shifted my hair slightly, so that I had to pull it away from my face. Thomas was a mere slip of the man he used to be, his back bent, his cheeks reddened by his acquiesce to a decade-long series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Fingers spread slightly apart, I touched his cheek, and noticed the beginnings of fuzz just starting to grow on the top of his head. I thought of the countless hours of cleaning up after him, sitting by his hospital bed in the living room overseeing the lake view, late at night listening to his raspy breathing, afraid to go to sleep lest he slip away, and I felt new levels of resentment rise in my chest.

After he forced himself to swallow a few crumbs of birthday cake, he turned to me, but he didn’t touch me. “Read the paper to me.”

He closed his eyes as I began to read, and I wasn’t sure if he was awake or asleep.  “Oh, it looks like the opening of that time capsule is tomorrow,” I remarked, and his eyes flung open.

“What did you say?”

“The hundred-year-old time capsule, they’ll be opening it.”

He leaned toward me, now fully awake, and whispered. “We have to go.”

I paused, took a deep breath, and snorted a laugh. “You’re kidding me, right?” I wanted to say You’re not going anywhere. Can’t you face the fact that you are dying? Instead, I said, “You know it’ll be outside. There’ll be lots of people. I don’t even know if your chair will be able to navigate the town square.” I paused, searching for what else to say. “Thomas, let it go, please. We can watch it on television.”

Thomas grabbed my hand. “You must promise me that no matter what it takes, you will drive me to the courtyard even if you have to carry me.” I felt my chest swell as my resentments threatened to turn into anger, but when I looked into his eyes, his desperation peaked and my own waned. “Of course,” I replied, then let go of his hand and hurried back into the house. When I checked on him fifteen minutes later, he was sitting hunched over, whispering into his phone. “Who are you talking to?” I asked. He shook his head, and made a gesture of dismissal in the air.

I looked down at him, and our eyes met. There was passion in my gaze, but no anger; rather, there was a deep-rooted pain, and fear, a longing that I could never share with him in words. My gaze told him that he owed me, that the time for secrets was long past, that my years of devotion had to be worth something. My eyes were challenging him to prove what sort of a man he really was, if he couldn’t trust me after all that we’ve gone through together. I’m sure he took all that in, but his response was cruel. I saw a hardness settle into his eyes, a coldness that was not quite condescending, a reminder that I was his employee, that he compensated me well, and that he was the boss. “I’m just calling in a few favors,” he said. Even though I knew I was expected to be thankful for every tidbit of information I received, that he had no obligation to tell me anything, his words still stung, and I could barely hold back my tears long enough to step back into the house.

If Thomas had been demented, my job would have been simpler. I would have been able to convince myself that his rudenes, his curt demands, his total lack of kindness, was due to his cognitive decline. The truth was that no matter what new forms of poison the doctors prescribed and pumped into his body, his mind stayed alert, sharp. He treated me the way he treated me because that was the man he was.

If only I hadn’t fallen in love with him.

Thomas awoke the next morning with a start. He sat up in bed and looked straight into my eyes. “I dreamt of dragons.” he said. I pressed him for details, but he wouldn’t elaborate. The next hour was spent preparing for our trip into town. He insisted on wearing a suit, but all his suits were two or three sizes too large, so I did the best I could in dressing him, and a memory came back to me. A few weeks after I accepted the job of primary caretaker for Thomas, fifteen years ago, he told me a story of how he had been a 19-year-old cadet when the time capsule was sealed and he had secretly added a small package into the capsule. He didn’t reveal what the object was, whether he was following orders, or, if not, why he did it.

My curiosity got the better of me. “Thomas,” I said, “what did you put in that time capsule?” Thomas looked down at his lap and shook his head. I placed the palms of my hands on his shoulders. “Please, just tell me!” He wrapped his hands around his knees and buried his head between his legs. I felt a knot of guilt form in my belly. My knees buckled, and I almost doubled over. I stopped to check myself and took in a gulp of air. Adrenaline rushed through me, washing the guilt away with each additional gasp of air. I let go of Thomas, shook my head, and went down to the garage to load his special chair into the van.

When we arrived at the town square we were immediately escorted to the front row of the crowd. I had no way of knowing if this was to accommodate his wheelchair, based on one of the favors he called in, or simply due to his upstanding status in the community. I turned to him, and he moved just enough to glance at me out of the corner of his eye. The tip of his tongue protruded and attempted to moisten his lips, so I grabbed his water bottle and helped him place the straw in his mouth. It took a great effort on his part to suck in a little of the liquid. In spite of his wheezing, the drink seemed to revitalize him, and he made eye contact with me. There was a softness to his eyes, which I interpreted to mean he appreciated me. Gooseflesh pebbled my arms; delight billowed in my heart; and the last of my resentment vanished. I suspected this day would not end well, and I was willing to accept whatever consequences may come our way, with no regrets.

The mayor, Braulia Rodrigues, was about to open the capsule when a black SUV with tinted windows pulled onto the courtyard and slammed on its brakes a few feet from the mayor. Two burly men emerged, automatic weapons in hand, dressed in military garb, and took positions on either side of the vehicle. A loud gasp erupted from the crowd and the press drones buzzed with activity. The mayor’s mouth formed a circle as she touched her hand to her face and retreated several paces, and I realized the military escort was not an invited guest to the ceremony.

A third soldier, a tall woman in a dress uniform, stepped out of the SUV, walked up to the mayor and introduced herself. “I am General Nia Abara, ma’am, and I apologize for disrupting your ceremony.” She handed Mayor Rodrigues her credentials. “I am here under the direct orders of the President of the United States.” I noticed the four stars on her shoulder, and remembered the five stars on Thomas’ uniform, which hung fresh and crisp in his closet, the uniform I sent to be cleaned twice a year, even though Thomas hadn’t worn it in decades.

Thomas took a deep breath and touched a button on the arm of his wheelchair. The wheelchair purred as it extended itself up to its full height, making Thomas appear to be standing. His blanket fell to the cement, revealing his spindly legs, a minor detail to which he paid no notice. He turned slightly towards the mayor, keeping eye contact with Abara. “Madam Mayor, would you be so kind as to introduce me?”

The mayor’s posture straightened, and she gestured as she spoke. “This is General Thomas.”

I noticed the slightest muscle beat in General Abara’s jaw, from which she quickly recovered, and saluted. “I am honored, sir; your accomplishments were required reading at the academy.” The edges of her lips twisted momentarily, then managed to produce a wry smile. “I am surprised to see you here. I thought perhaps you might be resting, given your age and medical condition.”

With massive effort, Thomas straightened his spine as best he could, and waited for several moments before returning the salute. “At ease, soldier.” General Abara’s face screwed into a scowl, her shoulder muscles locked, and she sat down on a chair which had been placed near her by one of the mayor’s attendants. “What is your business here?” Thomas demanded.

Her jaw protruded forward. “There is a small item in the time capsule. My orders are to retrieve it,” she said.

The dignitaries sitting closest to the center of the square were turning to one another, talking in low tones, and the townspeople sitting further away had gone silent. It didn’t seem to be a comfortable silence: the muscles in my shoulders tightened; and I was relieved when Thomas spoke.

“Well then,” Thomas turned slightly to the mayor, “let’s proceed.” Still visibly shaken, Rodrigues nodded, hoisted the edges of her mouth into a smile, and spoke into the microphone, announcing she would open the capsule. One by one she removed the contents, held them up for all to see, and described them: pictures drawn by Kindergarteners who were likely dead due to the one hundred years that had passed, several hardback first edition books by authors I had never heard of: Novik, Owen, McCaffrey, Paolini, Walton; letters written on archival paper enclosed in plastic; and several other items, which were, in my view, equally unimpressive. Finally, at the bottom of the capsule, with a surprised look, she brought out an item wrapped in translucent silk, turned to her assistant and whispered, “this was not on the list.”

General Abara stood up and the features on her face drew tight as she held out her hand. Her words surged forth, precise and demanding. “That item belongs to the United States Government.” The two soldiers raised their automatic weapons and took one step closer to their commander. General Abara’s eyes darkened and her face was serious. “Ma’am,” she demanded. The mayor did not let go of the bundle as she looked it over and glanced up at Thomas, as if to ask him what to do.

Sitting so close to Thomas, I could see a small amount of spittle when he spoke, and I resisted the urge to reach over and wipe his mouth. “I can’t allow it,” he said. I saw his long fingers starting to punch in codes on a small device affixed to the arm of his wheelchair, and I heard an almost imperceptible click. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw movement from the nearby press drones, a flash of light, and suddenly the two soldiers brandishing weapons collapsed onto the concrete, darts sticking out of their necks.

The crowd gasped, and I felt a slight tingle in the center of my spine. As the sensation slowly traveled up my back, I was unable to determine if it was excitement or fear. That Thomas’ network of favors extended to gaining the ability to hack a series of press drones did not surprise me. That it reached far enough into the military-industrial complex to allow for the installation of military-grade poison darts to said drones, did.

“I do not wish to incapacitate you as well, General. Stand down. Now.” Thomas’ words were not loud, but clear and commanding.

General Abara bit her lip and her hand started to edge toward her sidearm. But she must have thought better of it, because she turned to face Thomas instead. “General, if you take possession of the egg, against my orders, there will be serious consequences.”

When Abara said the word “egg,” I leaned forward to see the bundle more clearly, and imagined a decent sized egg hidden beneath the silk. I noticed the way the orange translucence of the silk contrasted with the blue of the sky as the mayor held it up, and I turned my attention to the conflict erupting between Abara and Thomas. I noticed Thomas’ lips tighten, and his eyes widen. He said “I outrank you, General.”

“You are retired, General, and have no authority here, as you know fully well.” The ridge of her back went straight, her eyebrows folded down, and she lowered her voice. “I’m trying to show you respect among your townspeople, sir, but I cannot allow you to take possession of the package.”

Thomas matched General Abara’s softer tone. “Nia, I must protect the sovereignty of the being. It may be the last of its kind, and I will not allow the government to experiment on it. It must be set free.”

General Abara reached for her sidearm, but Thomas was quicker. Just as she succeeded in getting her pistol out of her holster, the dart from the nearest drone hit her in the neck and she collapsed, her mouth open. Whatever she planned on saying, was left unsaid.

Madame Mayor shuddered at the sight and quickly handed the precious bundle to Thomas, as the crowd froze into a deadly silence. With great care, he opened the silk wrapping, closed his eyes, and cupped the brown-and-purple-spotted egg in his hands for several minutes, then held it close to his heart, providing it his warmth, and I suspect, his love. I heard a cracking sound, and Thomas held the egg up as high as he could, gasping at the effort. The crowd watched, captivated by the sight, until a small creature emerged and unfolded itself, shaking its head. It extended a pair of leathery wings, and leisurely licked them clean. The scales on its flank and tail glimmered in the sun. It opened its mouth and showed its sharp teeth, and for a moment I thought it was going to speak. Instead, it coughed, and a small cloud of smoke emerged. It shook its head again, turned to gaze at Thomas, and I imagined I saw intelligence in its large vertically pupiled eyes. It nodded its head, snorted, then extended its wings to the peak of their span. Then in the blink of an eye it leaped from Thomas’ hands, flapped its wings and flew in spirals higher and higher overhead.

I felt a sheen of sweat form at the back of my neck, and my legs threatened to give way. I turned to Thomas just as the last of his energy left him and he collapsed onto his knees, his back bent forward. As I felt my hands reaching toward him, I heard a cracking sound. His suit coat and pressed white shirt was pulled away and a fissure formed along his curved back. I pulled my hands away as the fissure deepened and a black gooey substance emerged and spread along his arms, and slowly grew into a pair of leathery wings. What was left of his white chalky skin flapped unused and unimportant.

Bile rose slowly from my stomach and I fought off the urge to vomit. His neck grew sparkly scales as it snaked upward to a repulsive length. His nose became disfigured as his face stretched outward, his mouth becoming a horrid thing, and I heard a popping sound as each pointy tooth emerged. Scales formed on his spindly legs as they merged into a long tail, and new legs sprouted from his chest and belly. There was a sharp sound as his newly formed claws struck the concrete. He turned to me, fully transformed, and I looked deeply into the vertical pupils of his eyes, and called his name “Draco.” He had always hated being called by his first name, but it seemed appropriate today. If he heard me, he gave no notice.

He turned his head upward and made several clicking sounds, which were repeated by the newly hatched baby. With one wing he flipped his wheelchair out of the way, opened his wings to their full length, and ran along the square, people hurrying out of the way, until he gained enough momentum to take to flight. Once in the air, he flew in a wide circle around the town square, and I called after him “Draco, Draco.” I watched for several minutes until he and his offspring became little dots in the distance. I imagined that when he came to his senses, he would remember that in fact he loved me. I would wait each evening on the balcony where we used to sit. One day he would fly up to me, and I would climb onto his back. He would carry me higher and higher, into his magical dragon mountains, and he would ask his little dragon baby to call me “daddy.”




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Dream Valuation

July 3rd, 2022

by Lucy Zhang

For one dream, you can afford chemotherapy. Two dreams for a real fancy car. Three dreams get you a down payment. Four dreams, a child who doesn’t cause trouble. Of course, the price varies based on the quality of dream, but this is the baseline we all know by heart. Sell too many dreams and you risk becoming a Shell. Normally Shells come from desperate folks who sell all their dreams—those drowning in debt or trying to pay their way out of prison. You can see Shells anywhere if you look carefully: they run errands like automata programmed to execute the same sequences of events every day. They remain silent even when others try to converse with them, and they move with a rigidity resembling mannequins. I’d see Shells working at banks, staring at me yet not staring at me, eyes lost to the blank wall as they processed my request and then pivoted their chairs to their screens as they typed. The Shells don’t type with the same staggered rhythm I use, faster when I’m thinking straight, slower when my thoughts cannibalize. Shells type like metronomes.

Valletta gave up two dreams to save my life and now she’s deteriorating fast. We thought she’d be fine since most folks still resemble humans after selling two dreams. But Valletta was too simple and dumb to have a sufficiently substantial third dream. She said her life goal was money and that’s it. I wasn’t even sure where her second dream came from.

I am healthy now, organs in full operation, cooperating like a well-oiled Rube Goldberg machine. The underground doctor had said a parasite was eating me from the inside out and the only way to ensure my survival was to cut me open—one long slit from head to crotch—and carve out my uterus. The expensive part of the procedure came afterward: the doctor incised my uterus, and from the opening, dumped out its contents and inverted the organ like a dirty sock in need of a good rinse. That was the best way to clean out any residue which could easily rise to new parasites. My doctor had done this operation many times and knew not to leave steps out, including scraping the uterus down with straw bristles, scalding it in blue flame and soaking it in bleach before stitching it back together and reinserting it into my body. This procedure costs one dream. Valletta purchased my recovery care with her second dream. I was convinced we didn’t fancy recovery care but she insisted, claiming it wasn’t worth the risk. I think she felt bad because it was her ex-boyfriend who’d infected me—stuffed his prick up me the wrong way. Was there supposed to be a right way? The doctor said most people healed fine without additional care. I figured it was like driving a used, dented car: cosmetically disadvantaged but functionally passable. A body only needs to get you around, a vessel for the brain. But Valletta paid up and I recovered without a hitch.

Without her dreams, Valletta argues less, speaks less. She eats with the same motion: hand opens, arm extends, fingers grip utensil handles like claws, hand closes, arm retracts toward mouth. She takes twenty bites and swallows. Always twenty whether it’s something you’re supposed to slurp like liang pi or something that resists the strongest of jaws like undercooked beef tendon. Her daily routine never changes: ten brushstrokes in each direction when she brushes her teeth, seven steps to the closet to dress for the day, one blouse hanging in the front of the queue in her closet and one pair of jeans sitting on an office chair as the standard work outfit. I end up moving in with her because the construction contractors have started digging up the old sidewalk pavement, and she might fall and scrape herself up during her 557 steps down the street to her parked car.

But Valletta is not a Shell. I know this.

I ask her what she wants to do with the parasite the doctor sent us in a container filled with formalin. It’s all hacked up with a 0.5 cm eyeball suspended between fragmented, macerated fetus parts. I think I can make out a finger but can’t identify the hand.

“We’ll hold a funeral,” Valletta replies. A proper Shell would suggest tossing it in the trash or sending it back to the hospital for research or going to a proper parasite disposal area.

“Where?” I ask. 

And then her eyes dull and she goes silent even though it’s not a hard question. There are plenty of places: the ocean bay, the cliff far off in the backyard, the bridge crossing over a river we used to play near. I tell her I’m ok with anything. I shouldn’t be picky.

But Valletta never answers. The container stays on the counter for days.

We have money, but not much. Even though her dreams covered the operation, I require long-term medication and checkups to ensure parasites don’t grow back. These forms of life are tenacious, the doctor warned. I tell Valletta I can afford my expenses without her help.

“Save up for your life of luxury and abundance,” I advise.

“Why?” she asks me. I don’t know why. And it’s no use asking her now.

Before Valletta sold her dreams, she penny-pinched like no one else. She saved banana peels to cook in curries and soups when she ran out of vegetables. She charged all her electronics at the public library. She woke up while it was still dark outside so she could walk the six miles to work rather than purchase a car. Her wardrobe consisted of my old clothing and the few things mom bought during her teenage years. But when I visited, she’d set out a floral tablecloth and whip out the good olive oil, freshly-slaughtered-from-the-tank flounder, Kimlan soy sauce, and freshly ground spices. She’d turn on all the lights in the kitchen, the brightest her home ever got, and drag a chair to the upper cabinets to retrieve the few porcelain dishes she possessed. When I visited, she’d be bustling around, pulling utensils and bottles and bowls out at her leisure even though I figured she was secretly counting the number of things she’d have to wash, to wastewater on. Once, she had been cooking rajma in a pot and gleefully told me we’d be getting plenty of protein at a fraction of the price of meat. Then she dumped two cans of kidney beans in the pot and started slicing these brilliantly red vine-ripened tomatoes. “I still splurged on the tomatoes though!” she had proclaimed like she’d won the lottery. I said, “good job, that’s amazing.” Then I asked her what she’d do if she had infinite amounts of money to which she answered: “buy a better pressure cooker.” The one she owned required several jostles to get the lid fitted tightly and beeped until you unplugged it once it was done. Plus, it was chipping around the edges. I eventually bought her a new pressure cooker because I couldn’t handle the sound, and when I asked her again what she’d do with infinite money, she said “buy free-range eggs, the kind over six dollars a dozen.” I figured I could just fulfill her dreams for her, although I didn’t know when they’d end.

“We’ll worry about it later, after you’re completely recovered,” Valletta replies out of the blue, several days after I posed the question.

“There’s no need to wait.” I eye the container. “Plus, it looks real creepy sitting there. If it’s between waiting and throwing it away, I’d rather chuck it.”

“It almost killed you,” Valletta says.

“Sure did,” I agree. “All the more reason to get rid of it.” I dislike looking at the eyeball, the bundle of cellular mush.

I am trying to leave her the courtesy of deciding what to do with the parasite since we acquired it at the price of her dreams. But she never acts on it. Valletta has trouble doing things that deviate from routine. They said this would be a side effect of selling her dreams. And because her routine doesn’t include cleaning the counter or staring into the parasite’s eyeball, Valletta never seems to notice the container. We never hold a funeral. I end up stuffing the container into my backpack on my way to work and tossing it into the public trash can, hoping the garbage gets collected soon.

For the most part, I feel healthy now. I can bend and stretch and run again. Valletta continues to penny-pinch, but when I ask her what she’s saving money towards, she shrugs and says, “living expenses.” “I can comfortably afford both of our living expenses,” I reassure her, but she continues saving water and working her nine-to-five like a trusty, grinding gear. She buys the same crates of bruised apples and bananas that are sold for two dollars each. I start replacing the groceries with organic produce I buy from Whole Foods, waiting for her to throw a fit about wasting food and money. Instead, she opens the fridge without a word. I begin to wonder if she’d even notice if I disappeared. If she’d remember that we are our only blood ties now that the parasite is gone.




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The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved

June 26th, 2022

by Bobby Harrell

It was then and there I decided to kill the bastard who made me drink all that rotgut and sleep in my EVA suit. Prying the helmet off, I watch it drift towards the ceiling of the shuttle. 

Luckily, I had a sick bag ready, just as the smell hit me. Old air scrubber fluid, weeks old body odor and that frying bacon smell of cramped humans floating in a beer can. 

“Rabbit,” I screamed. “Rabbit, I am going to kill you, then myself, by opening the airlock. It’ll be a mercy, I swear.”  

Rabbit drifted in from the cockpit, the reek of patchouli and marijuana coming off him in tidal waves. Long ears, and his habit of jumping at the mention of a freight run earned him his name. He was naked from the waist up, his jumpsuit stretched out in less gravity like extra arms at his sides. “Born to fly, Forced to work” was tattooed over his left nipple. 

“No one made you drink all my moonshine,” he says slowly. “I told you to take it easy.”  

I reach down to untether myself from the floor and feel my gorge rise again. “How was I going to stand another minute in this outhouse of a capsule? How far off are we?” 

About an hour, Rabbit says. Force Fed magazine paid for my zero-gee flight from San Francisco to Orbital Three, which left me with enough credit to convince Rabbit to fly me. But after two weeks in this goddamn death trap of a shuttle, I think he owes me. 

“What are you supposed to do out here?” Rabbit asks as he floats a cold packet of coffee to me. I gulp it down through the straw. 

“Fleet’s got a brand new carrier about to make way. State of the art. Want to see if it’s any better than the one that took me back from the war.”  

“I still can’t believe they pay you to write about this shit,” Rabbit says on his way to the vacuum shitter. “Some of us have to work for a living.” 

“If it makes you feel better,” I say, “they don’t pay me much.” After a rubdown with an antibac cloth and a change of jumpsuits, I feel less like a shaved ape. 

I’m back in the EVA suit and strapped into the copilot seat just before coming within range of Station Alpha’s scanners. Some no-neck with too much authority roars at poor Rabbit over comms for confirmation of access codes before he blows quote that piece of shit outta his sky end quote. Rabbit’s too stoned to muster anything resembling anger. Which is good. Last time I saw him angry, Rabbit had already cut one miner across the forehead with a broken barstool and was getting ready to put the hurt on three more. He’s fast, too. 

“Transit Eileen Gutierrez to Advantage, over,” Rabbit says. 

Rabbit flies Lydia into the massive maw of the station. It feels like being swallowed. I want to puke again. 

Rabbit tries to hug me as I’m heading out the airlock and for once I let him, because he’s not all that bad for a hippie type. Payment in full goes from my hand to his suit pocket. I put my helmet on and the doors cycle open. The umbilical walkway is partially transparent, so I get a good look at the station’s guts. Industrial on an almost planetary scale. Cargo loaders swimming in lesser gravity with containers twice their size like sucker fish with too big a bite to swallow. Out here I get my best look at the Advantage

The carrier I rode home on looked like an orbital construction platform, all antenna and asymmetrical flanges, emergency yellow. This thing’s sleek, black and curved, with the flight deck facing backwards, slung underneath the main engines. It vaguely reminds me of a stapler. Something in my stomach slides left and I focus on getting to the other side of the airlock. 

Waiting for me is a very green ensign. Curly black hair cut tight. The uniform, some cross between a flight suit and a dictator’s utilitarian business suit, sits crisp and smart. He’s so young that I gain ten years just looking at him. 

 “Ms. Gutierrez?” The ensign says. I crack open the helmet and a blast of cigarette smoke hits him dead in the face. Between coughs, he tells me there’s no smoking on board. I extinguish the cig and turn on the fan. The smoke gets sucked back into the suit. 

“Better?” I say. 

“If you’ll follow me,” the ensign says. “I’ll show you to your quarters.”

If it seems like I’m being an asshole, it’s just because I can’t stand myself. I’m such an introvert outside of a job that being a shithead helps me overcome my timidness. 

 The carpeted decks in this section of the ship have that industrial glue smell people mistake for new. Some workers in bright green jumpsuits are tearing plastic wrap off holographic emitters, directing bots to vacuum up random dust. 

The pain’s a constant companion. The EVA suit braces most of my body, dealing with years of low grav travel. Bones become more fragile. My spine lengthens without gravity to hold it down. THC pills and nerve dampers help. 

Some of my stash is prescribed. The rest is recreational. I take too much too often. Let me be honest to myself about that, if no one else.

 My quarters are no bigger than a Martian jail cell, only cleaner and neater. Crisp linen sheets on the twin bed. Warm ambient light from the edges of the ceiling. The ensign leaves me to it, visibly happy to be going. I have that effect on people. 

I sit down on the bed, wanting to sleep for two days straight. I’m exhausted just from walking here. My breath comes with a small clicking sound. Instead, I place my helmet beside me on the bed and start running a sweep. No easily spotted bugs, audio or visual. Some sensors for fire and hull breach. Modify the fire so I can smoke in here. I place a clear plastic sensor next to the door. Hard to see on sensors and the naked eyeball, it tracks whenever someone other than me passes through the door. This isn’t paranoia. Being cautious with the military is just good sense. 

A blinking icon appears on the corner of the wall just above eye-level. Calendar reminder. I snap two fingers and an invite takes up the majority of the wall. Subtle. 

Meet-and-greet with the ship’s Executive Officer in Lounge 3 in half-an-hour. Best I get ready. 

I send a few programs into the ship’s systems through the fire alarm security vulnerability. They’ll signal when they’ve found what I’m looking for. 

Lounge 3 ends up being three tram stops from my closet of a room. The doors hiss open and representatives from Buzzfeed, InterStellarCast, Al-Qarr look any direction but mine. Everyone else has a good look then goes back to their drinks. My reputation precedes me.  

Mikki Anders waves me over from the bar. Mikki’s a good one. Covers military affairs for the Crease. Great reporter. Owner of massive locs and self-proclaimed blackest woman alive.  

“Who did you piss off to get assigned this?” she says. 

“That’s hurtful, Mikki,” I say. “I have great interest in the Fleet’s maintenance of military superiority.” 

“Bullshit,” she says. “Ten to one you’re here about the cost of this carrier, too.” Did I mention smart? 

She’s about to continue when the door hisses open and what can only be the XO comes in, flanked by two lieutenants. He’s a grizzly old bastard, square cut grey hair, trimmed beard, hands the size of construction gauntlets. He rubs those bear claws together and smiles like a shark. 

“Welcome, everyone. Welcome. I’m Executive Officer Trent Lantham. Now, before we begin the tour…” 

I raise my hand. “Eileen Gutierrez, Force Fed.” 

Lantham frowns. Mikki puts a hand over her eyes. 

“We’ll have time for questions at the end of the tour,” Lantham said. 

“What’s the retirement age for senior officers in the Fleet?” I say. 

“I’m not sure what that has to do with…” 

“Because the last time I checked it was 50. You’re 53, according to your bio.” 

Lantham frowns deeper. “I have special disposition…” 

“Given by Admiral Takanawa when you personally led the mission that rescued her granddaughter from pirates off Saturn Station. Must have been a rough mission, seeing as how there’s no helmet cam footage of it.” 

The skin under Lantham’s haircut is flush. Anger issues, according to his last psych eval. 

“Are you insinuating, Mizz Gutierrez, that I’m responsible for the lack of helmet cam footage?” 

“No,” I say. “I’m just thinking out loud.” 

Then we glare at each other for a few seconds. 

“Now,” he says, almost gritting his teeth. “The tour.” 

The other reporters follow him out of the room. 

“What the fuck was that?” Mikki said. “He was never going to tell you anything. You’ll be lucky if you don’t get kicked off the ship.” 

“Then I’d better stay out of his way,” I say, walking out. 

Lantham’ll be so busy trying to be personable that he won’t miss me for a while. 

I’ve got a few places to check out, data to sample and sift through. Plus press tours are boring, scripted shit. 

First, I turn on my displacer tag, confusing on-board sensors for a while. Then I pull up the map I built from leaked info about the Advantage

The tram drops me off at the ship’s largest med bay. I put the suit’s ears out. Data starts to trickle in. Wartime capacity of the med bay is 200. Only 9 of the beds are in-use. Skimming patient info tells me it’s basic stuff: fractures, bruises. 

One guy’s getting treated for pain med abuse. Speaking of, my spine’s on fire. 

“Excuse me,” I say to one of the nurses. “I’m sorry to bother you. I must have eaten something nasty on-route to the ship. What would you suggest for a throbbing headache and general hatred of the universe?” 

The nurse stares at me.

“Where is your security badge?” she says. Shit. 

Then someone else comes up. I’ll call them Doc. Not an actual doctor. Blue scrubs. Thin, of Indian descent, hips you can grab onto. It may have been a while since I got laid. 

“I’ll take care of this, Keenan,” Doc says. “How can I help you, Ms. Gutierrez?” 

“Only on board ten seconds and I’m already well known.” 

“We’ve been briefed about our guests,” Doc says. “And you’re the only one confined to a suit at the moment. I like your work. Does the International Surgeon General actually prescribe himself antipsychotics?” 

“No,” I say. “But he should. He’s batshit insane. Hangover cure?”  

“Bloody Mary’s are nice, but I think I’ve got something else for you in the pharmacy.” We walk across miles of curving floor to a frosted sliding door. Doc locks the door behind him. 

“Okay,” he says. “How much do you want?” 

It occurs to me then that Doc is trying to sell me drugs. My lucky day. 

“Well, I’m coming down from some uppers, so opiates would help. The Alzheimer’s cure, because I’m a little sleep deprived and that hangover cure.” 

I pay with an anonymous credit chip. The hangover cure ends up being an IV canister and some caffeine pills. Waste of time. I ask Doc why they would risk getting court-martialed by selling on a military ship. 

“Because I get paid next-to-nothing,” they said. “Fleet spends more money on making a pretty hospital than actual medical equipment. And because I get bored easily.” 

Once I’m adequate, I stroll out of the med bay and take in the recycled air. There’s something wrong with this ship. Or maybe I just hate the idea of it. The future now before it works properly. 

Another tram stop, another datapoint to exploit. The Simulation Chamber was supposedly designed to practice emergency procedures with the crew, along with occasional recreational use. Carriers can spend years in space during a tour of duty. I’d have killed for a little reminder of Earth back when I was enlisted. Or something fun that wasn’t drinking until I blacked out. I pop the Chamber door open and walk inside. Its neutral state is like the inside of a golf ball: grey panels curving at ceiling and floor. I step up to an operating panel and have the suit send some commands. 

The chamber hums and bright light flashes from the walls. The floor changes to holographic grass. Trees sprout from them. The room grows in depth. A horizon behind a wide open field. 

From behind a tree trots out a centaur. Usually the torso of a human and the body of a horse. Only this one’s switched. Giant black eyes look out of a horse’s head with brown fur and a diamond shaped white patch between the eyes. The fur continues past hooves where there should be arms. At the waist the human part starts, but with the largest set of Combined genitalia I’ve ever seen. The centaur flicks its head in a way I have to assume is come hither. I make a note of who’s listed as the program’s owner and move on to other simulations. There’s a few orgies, which are boring after you’ve been to a few. I check to see if anyone’s run anything remotely combat related in the past two weeks. Nope. 

Humans. Can’t chuck them into space without them wanting to fuck. 

I walk the decks for a while to clear my head. Next on the list is… I’m near some gymnasium when my feet give way. I stumble, but the suit manages to keep me upright. I do a med check, but its green across the board. Something’s up. I’ve been getting high since I was ten years old. This feels like nothing I’ve ever done before. 

Then I remember Doc and his “hangover” cure. I tell the suit to search for pathogens or poisons. Gotcha. That asshole dosed me with Asteroid Miners Fever. Guess Doc wasn’t on the take, unless you count Fleet as a racket. There’s no cure, but it works its way out of your system in a few hours. The bastards are more prepared for me than I thought. The hallway swims in front of my eyes. If they think I’ll give up and go back to my room, they’re full of shit. 

I try to tell the suit to steady me, but the buttons have been moved. I’ve got to find somewhere to rest. 

My memory skips. I’m in a large room with massive bulkheads ahead of me. A few lobsters….crewman…are working on an eggplant…fuck… there’s got to be a chair somewhere around here. Skip. I’m sitting down. Finally. I try to follow a thought, but I only get so far before having to go back and try it again. There are people staring at me through a window. Are they trying to kill me with their eyes? Can’t connect with the suit. 

I get up and walk out in a daze. The screaming alarms and lights shake me out of it. Time to see what’s going on. I tap into the nearest data node as crewmen rush around me. 

The Captain’s signaling the station. External sensors ping several unrecognizable ships.  

The deck lurches under my feet and the suit topples over. 

My head bounces off the deck. 

Things go black. 

I’m gone for a while. When I come back, the alarms are still sounding. Somebody’s shuffling around nearby. 

I lean up and touch my head. 

“Fuck,” someone says. “This one’s still alive.” 

My eyes crack open. 

Two men in patched EVA suits are standing in front of an exposed vent. Plasma cable is coiled at their feet, torn directly from the wall. 

“Either of you have any pain killers?” I say. 

The nearest one, head shaved clean with a maze of scars across his forehead, grins at me with rotting teeth. Lot of pirates smoke meth before raiding a ship. Funny the things you remember when you’re piss scared. 

“I’ve got just the thing,” he says and a sharpened length of steel comes out of a leg holster. 

“I don’t think you understand,” I say as he surges forward. 

The baton pops out from underneath my right gauntlet. The steel glitters in the red alarm light. 

He raises the sharp high and I slap him across the cheek with mine. 

Runny white pours out of his mouth. 

Riot baton. Makes you leak out both ends. I had my taste once while covering a food riot in New York. Knew I needed one for my collection. 

His friend is confused about what happened, which gives me enough time to get to my knees and smack up with the baton. It catches him on the nose and he pukes on his friend. 

Time to run. 

I’m several doors down the hall when the lift opens and a dozen sailors pour out of it, stun pistols at the ready. I dive down on my knees and put my hands over my head.  

Fun fact. Stun pistols can actually kill you. Stops your heart at higher doses. Sweat pools in the suit. Boots pound down the hall. 

“Who the fuck are you?” one of the sailors screams into my ear. 

“Reporter,” I say. 

“Nice try,” he says and disables my suit’s power core. With my arms zip tied behind me, I’m not going anywhere. 

They actually high five each other as they drop the puking twins next to me. 

The Advantage’s brig is not nearly as nice as the rest of the ship. It’s a metal box with plastic molded benches and one toilet. The two assholes who tried to kill me keep glaring at me from across the room. I’ve been peeled outta my suit like a crab. I’m so weak I can barely keep from sliding onto the floor. Only thing I’ve got going for me is the guard glaring at us from the other side of the doors. The moment he takes a break or gets the nod to take a walk, it’s going to be none. I’ve spent enough time in jails to figure that out. 

The door behind the guard slides open. My jaw sets. An ensign comes in. He whispers something to the guard. Here it comes. The guard pulls his stun pistol out. 

“Get against the wall,” he says. Only the gun’s pointed at the two pirates. 

“Let’s go, Guiterrez,” the ensign says, pushing in a float chair. “XO wants to have a word.” 

“Can’t I just stay here with my friends?” I say. Hate radiates from their eyes, but neither pirate moves a muscle. The ensign loads me very gently into the float chair and it follows him out of the brig. 

Lantham’s waiting for me in his office, his back to the door. His desk’s made of actual wood, large enough to serve as shelter during planetary bombardment. He swirls a glass of bourbon around as he stares out a port window. The implication is clear. The float chair parks several feet away from Lantham and the ensign retreats out the door. 

“Do you know what I love most about this job?” Lantham says. 

“The view?” I say. 

Lantham chuckles. “I’ve been staring out portholes my entire adult life. The view never changes. No, getting to serve as XO of this ship. Brand-new. Gleaming in the night.” 

He turns and glares at me. 

“Well, it’s mostly good. I’ve been learning a bit about you since our encounter earlier. Studying your articles. Lot of violence in them. Lot of drugs being taken.” 

I shrug and fire crackles up and down my shoulders.

 “I write about my life.” 

“It makes you an untrustworthy journalist,” he says. 

The bourbon rocks in his drink clink together as he takes a big pull. 

“Along with a danger to my crew and other guests. Trespassing on government property. Hell, how do I know you didn’t help those pirate bastards onto the ship? I’m just guessing, but with what we’ll find in your suit and in your bloodstream, you’ll be lucky if you can get a job writing obituaries. Fleet has its own narcotics policies, thankfully more strict than the rest of the universe.” 

I can see we’re getting to the point. Finally. 

“What is it that you want?” I say. 

Lantham props himself on his bunker of a desk. 

“I want a written apology that will be sent to the far corners of this station, along with my command staff. I want this apology read out loud to the guests that were at the reception. And if you don’t do that, your chair might malfunction and drop you out an airlock. Am I being clear, you little shit?” 

I have to say, I’ve been threatened by a lot of people over the years, but this guy’s got them all beat. 

“Of course,” I say. “What’s my deadline with the apology?” 

It catches the man a bit short. 

“ASAP,” he says. 

“Got a tab I can use?” 

He doesn’t let me near his terminal and he has nothing else in the room that would transmit for security purposes. So Lantham orders the chair to find my EVA suit, which a few technicians are turning inside out. 

I shoo them away and haul myself back inside the suit. I’m a sweaty gross mess, but I don’t have time to clean up. Lantham wants this done within the hour. So I bring down the helmet’s visor, lock it in place and light up a cigarette. My fingers dance over the touch keys inside the suit, words appearing on the visor. Time gets so short I go full voice recognition, which makes for shit copy, but I clean it up after. 

My meetup with destiny happens in the reception area. 

Lantham taps a spoon on a flute of champagne. 

“Before we celebrate our victory over the pirates, I believe Ms. Gutierrez has something she’d like to say.” 

I walk up to the mic. 

“Thank you, XO.” I face the crowd. Mikki’s in the front, eyes sympathetic. “My remarks are being downloaded to your sites even as I speak them.” 

Lantham had to verify every word before it went out. 

He’s standing just to my right, a small smirk playing across his lips. 

“Earlier today, I made some accusations about Executive Officer Lantham’s storied military career. That he had erased helmet cam footage of the rescue of the Admiral’s granddaughter. I’m here to say today that those accusations were false and that I apologize to the XO for any embarrassment my statements may have caused him. A malfunctioning engine core set off an EMP which wiped the hard drives.” 

I turn to look at Lantham. I make sure our eyes are locked when I speak again. I want him to see me say the words. 

“Along with that is evidence of other accusations I’m about to make right now. Such as the fact that the Advantage is a trillion credit project that not only doesn’t make our Fleet stronger, but will cost lives.” 

Lantham shoots me a death glare and whispers into his lapel mic. No doubt he’s trying to stop the downloads. Only he can’t.

My suit’s spent the past few hours burrowing into the networks onboard. Any intelligent programs probably think my digging is part of its normal functions. 

“Along with records of millions spent on luxury accommodations for officers, when most crewmen don’t even have hot water, are deep scans of the ship itself.”

 I’m really going to owe Rabbit for that one. He’s the only one that could do the scans without getting caught. 

“I’ve highlighted in my reporting the thousands spent on its infrastructure and hull, when the ship budget shows it should be millions. It’s why the Advantage couldn’t uncouple safely when the station was attacked. There’s about a million in damage to the station and the ship.” Which would probably have been hushed up if I hadn’t just announced it in front of these bloodhounds. 

“Funds diverted from the budget into an extremely expensive simulation chamber used mainly for sexual activity, along with building a cigar lounge, bar and pool. But not all of the money went into these frivolous things. Some of it went into a particular account. One that was very difficult to source.” Until I was let right into the office of the person I was gunning for. 

“You’re retiring next year, right, XO? I wonder where you’ll go. Anywhere, I suppose, with the millions you’ve siphoned away…”

Lantham leaps at me, fingers splayed like claws, pure fury boiling out of his eyes. He gets an armored gauntlet to the face, which knocks him out cold. 

He flops to the ground and I stare down at him. What did he expect? That I’d fold because he threatened to kill me? 

I hit my comm. 

“Rabbit. Now would be a good time to leave.” 

I’m running for the launch bay as fast as the suit allows. Just because the information is out there doesn’t mean someone won’t kill me as revenge for the XO. There were more partners in this scheme. They just need tracking down.  

Chatter on the shipwide comm goes berzerk. 

“This is the XO. We have a spy onboard. Stop Eileen Gutierrez from leaving this ship at all costs.” Fuck. He’s never going to stop lying. Doors slide open and confused crewmen stare at me as I rush past them. Some of them try to latch onto the suit and drag me to the floor. Problem is, the suit’s slow at first, but once it has momentum, it’s hard to stop. 

Case in point, an entire platoon of sailors comes to a halt in front of me, plasma rifles at the ready. I plow through them and keep going. I’m trying not to hurt them. Change of plans. 

I find a semi-empty hallway and pull down a latch on a wall. A door hinges up and I squirm into an emergency pod. An engineer stops to stare at me. 

“It’s anarchy!” I say, closing the hatch back. I strap into the seat and yank the emergency releases. The capsule tries to fling me against the hatch, but the straps keep me in place. Fire frames the small porthole in the hatch, then the Advantage. There’s massive scarring across the ship’s hull. I catch a few thousand frames with my suit’s camera. 

“Rabbit, you copy?” I say. 

“Roger,” he crackles in my ear and I breathe a little easier. 

“I’m about to hit this capsule’s locator. I need a super-quick catch.” 

“I figured as much. This is beginning to be an expensive trip for you.” 

“Not me,” I say. “Force Fed. But you’ll get paid well, Rabbit. Hell, I’ll probably get a bonus. Maybe even a column.” 

“This is your life?” he says. 

“Is there any other way to live?” I say. I can almost hear him shaking his head over the comms. The capsule shakes and veers sideways away from the ship. I pop a few uppers and sip on my emergency stash of bourbon in the suit and reroute comms through Rabbit’s ship. Offers for articles from other sites are rolling it, but Force Fed’s still outbidding them. For now. They’ll probably take the cost of being sued by the military for hijacking a capsule out of my pay, but it’ll have been worth it. I lean back into the seat and think about the next story. 




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