Amelia Earhart’s Body

“Amelia, try again.” Fred was hunched over a map, sitting at a small, fold-out table in the airplane cabin beneath the sway of a light bulb dangling from the ceiling by an extension cord. “Make the call. Someone must be listening.”

She nodded, but her thoughts were muddled, and the body — Amelia’s body — felt sloppy, like a marionette with a rattling jaw and tangled strings. Her left eye rolled upward to look at the instruments along the ceiling of the cockpit, while the other scanned the front panel for transmitter.

“For God’s sake, what are you doing? Make the call. Hurry.”

She forced the rogue eye downwards to align with the right and stole another glance at Fred. A metal canteen rolled along the floor. He picked it up and set it on the table. Fred had not noticed her transformation. Good.

Shakily, she slipped the headset over her ears and turned to the transmitter. Simply designed, the transmitter was just two gauges displaying milliamperes and amperes. There was also a knob and a switch.  She flipped the switch. It hummed.

“We must be on you, but cannot see you.” Her voice sounded hoarse and strange. “Gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio.” She tapped the altimeter with her finger. “We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

A burst of static was the only response. She peered out the window, seeing nothing but black ocean, a sky papered with stars that she could not name and a quarter moon the color of a blanched almond. The propellor beat steadily as the plane plummeted into the night. Fear coiled inside her, snakelike. There was no one out there. They were supposed to land on Howland Island, but where was it?

She looked at Fred. The bulb swayed, casting his face in a dance of darkness and light. The armpits of his T-shirt were damp with sweat and his forehead sagged in exhaustion. He unscrewed the canteen and took a swig. It made him grimace, and the smell burned her nose — smoke and metal, dead vegetation mixed with sugar. She knew what the drink was; it was the hard stuff.

“Are you drunk?”

“Nah. Just took a nip or two.” But his words were slurred.

She felt a wave of uncertainty. Icarus had promised that Fred was a great navigator. He was supposed to guide them off of Eight and lead them to a Ninth planet, one they could reach in a single lifetime. Yet, Fred didn’t know where they were now, even with a topographical map in hand and stars to show him the way. What would happen when they were in an uncharted solar system? What would happen when he wanted another drink?

“I need you sober. This plane won’t fly forever,” she said.

“You’re losing your wits. You just told me that.”

No, she hadn’t. Amelia must have said it — before she arrived in her body. It was easy to ruin a mission by talking too much. She should know better by now.

Embarrassed, she turned back to the controls. There were so many dials, a jumble of gadgets. She’d never flown a real plane, but the woman — Amelia — had been an expert flyer.

“Amelia’s body knows how to fly. Remember that,” Icarus had reminded her before she left. The loosely lit cave had been chilly, but the ankle-deep water warm. “You need to do very little, except know when to tighten your grip and when to let go.” The hood of Icarus’ robe rested on his shoulders, and she could see the deep lines on his face, cut like cracks in thirsty soil. He touched her face, and she wanted nothing more than for him to kiss her goodbye, the way he used to before things had changed between them. Instead, he only said, “I’m confident in your abilities. You have done this before. Just keep the navigator, Fred, alive long enough for the gateway to re-open. Can you do that?”

“Yes, of course.” She looked down at the water, which began to churn. “I’ll wait for you to come get us.”

“Good girl.” Icarus lifted the hood over his head and turned away as the water began to prick her skin, a sign that they gateway was about to open. She watched him go, wondering what she’d done to fall out of his favor, wishing she could stay to convince Icarus that she was worthy of him. Was it the new cadet — the boy with the large eyes and shorn hair?

The water thickened and wrapped itself around her ankles and knees, rising up to her calves, shimmering. She watched Icarus’ silhouette recede, growing hazy as the water traveled up her body and curled around her neck. The pricking sensation became stabbing, then burning. Tears fell from her eyes and skirted down the tip of her nose as the water forced itself into her nose and mouth, and she began to choke, then drown. She fought back the familiar sense of panic by reminding herself that there was nowhere else to go, only miles of twisting tunnels that led to the surface where the torch-like sun would burn her pale-blue eyes, her bone-white skin, her long, silver hair, causing her to scream as her flesh melted away. Her planet, Eight, was dead, a razed mass of sand so hot that it liquified during the day and turned to glass at night. The cave and Icarus’ now distant form fell away, and she was thrown into a spiral — spinning, turning, falling.

The next thing she knew, she was sitting in the pilot’s seat, flying over a shuddering ocean, inside Amelia’s body. In that instant, the woman’s memories were hers, and they came at her like bullets. At first, the impractical ones — vast plains stretching into the horizon with dusty towns and dogs eating fleas off their legs, the smell of gasoline at a station along a deserted gravel road, a biting December in New York City on a night so dark that even the cockroaches sang for spring, light on lemon trees overlooking mountains of sun-stroked grass, clinging with desperation to the craggy soil.

Then the quicksilver moments slipped away and the practical memories filled her head. She was going to circumvent the globe flying a 1935 Lockheed Model 10 Electra, well-built, all-metal, with a cruising speed of 190 miles per hour. Meant to carry two crew and up to ten passengers, it had been modified it to add six extra fuel takes which gave them up to 20 hours cruising time. It was just her and Fred Noonan on the journey, and Amelia had believed he was the secret to her success. He’d sailed around Cape Horn, flown to China and charted transatlantic routes for Pan Am. He was was the best navigator in the business, as long as he stayed sober.

She glanced back at Fred. He rubbed his eyes, then unscrewed the cap of a metal canteen and took another sip, this one smaller than the last.

She kept the Lockheed steady along lines 157 and 337, which she knew from Amelia’s memories was where Howland Island was located. At least, it was supposed be at those coordinates. But there was no landing strip. No glow of electric lights. Only darkness. What was going on?

The engine sputtered; gas was dangerously low. “Fred, we need to land now. We’re running on …” She searched Amelia’s mind for the right word. “ … fumes.”

No answer. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder and saw that Fred was drawing thick lines in pencil across the map using a ruler and writing coordinates above them. He glanced out the window at the moon.

“Put her down,” she said, tapping the gas gauge with her finger. It was empty. “Now.”

“I think we can land on Gardener Island. It’s only a small atoll, but better than nothing.”

“Are you sure?” Her eyes moved to the canteen.

“Positive,” Fred said, his voice confident.

She let Amelia’s body guide the plane down, lower and lower, until she could see the water just below. Spittles of sea spray crashed against the windows. Fred yelled as the plane shimmied side-to-side, his words incomprehensible. Heart pounding and sweat gathering at her brow, she leaned forward. She thought she saw land. She couldn’t be sure, but it was craggy and seemed to be firm. She had to land this plane; it would not be elegant, even with Amelia in control. She brought the landing gear down.

They crashed on a shallow coral reef, missing the beach by only a handful of yards. The landing gear broke off on impact, and the belly of the Lockheed shrieked as it skidded across the coral and rock. Her safety harness, criss-crossed at her chest, smashed into her collarbone and knocked the air from her lungs. She covered her head with her arms just as the plane came to a ear-crushing standstill.

Her ears were stuffed with silence. She ran her hands over her face and skull to make sure everything was intact. It was. She inhaled and exhaled to calm her nerves. This wasn’t supposed to happen. If the plane was going to crash, Icarus would have told her so. Surely, this was a mistake. Her mission was to take Fred to Howland Island where Icarus would pick them up. Had she done something wrong?

She glanced back at Fred. He was on the floor behind her, curled up like a child with the crinkled map between his fingers. She opened her mouth to speak, but the plane creaked as it tipped to the side, submerging one wing in the shallow waters. Hanging sidelong in her harness, she listened to the gurgle of water. Another moment. “Fred, you okay?”

He didn’t answer, but she heard him spit, his face in shadow.

She crawled out the cockpit and jumped into the dark reef, surrounded by the eerie, pulsating glow of jelly fish. Fred stumbled out after her. The water was at her thighs, and the moonlight danced on the surface of the ocean. She felt sick to her stomach. Weak too. They waded through the water to the shore. Just as she reached it, her knees buckled. She fell onto the beach. At least she was still alive. Thank you, sons of Eight, she prayed as she kissed the sandy shore.

She must have fallen asleep, or maybe blacked out. When she opened her eyes, the sun was breaking over the horizon, and she could finally see the island. It was small, no more than a mile wide. The sand was powdery with some kelp and sticks lapping at the shoreline. A few trees and shrubs growing just off the beach provided a bit of shade. She listened. Only the wind and water. Not even bird. She shaded her eyes and scanned the coast. She hoped there was fresh water somewhere. There should be a little on the plane — perhaps in their canteens — at least, in her canteen — but not enough to last them more than a few days.

Gingerly, she pulled herself to sit. Her chest was sore where the safety harness had been, and her shoulders and neck were bruised; she had put everything she had into the landing. Otherwise, she seemed okay.

Fred sat next to her, his arms wrapped around his knees. He was wearing a salt-stained T-shirt and cargo pants, now shredded at the ankles. He seemed to be watching the sunrise, or studying the Lockheed. She couldn’t be sure.

“Fred?”

He didn’t answer.

She touched his bare arm. It felt hot, not from the sun, but in a feverish way. He looked at her, his eyes still rimmed red. “You alright?”

He cleared his throat. “I could use a stiff drink. Or a whole bottle. I can’t find my canteen.”

She looked into Amelia’s thoughts. “You were supposed to be sober for this trip.”

“I was, for the most part. Lotta good that did me.”

There was blood crusted along his scalp and dark stains on his shirt. He’d hit his head. She gestured to the cut. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought you might be dead.”

“The Lockheed has a medical kit. I’ll go get it.”

“Wait.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the crumpled map, which had been folded and re-folded until it was in the shape of a neat, little square. “I figured out why we missed Howland Island.” He smoothed the map out over his knee and pointed to the meridian. “Look at the Tropic of Cancer right here. It has shifted just a few degrees south, even after I accounted for the axial tilt. Do you see?”

She frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been going over it in my head, and there was no way I should not have found Howland. I even accounted for the parallax. It doesn’t make sense. Unless the map was off.”

She didn’t know anything about a parallax, or how a map could be wrong, but she took it from Fred. She pretended to study it, but in truth she could not read a map. The words and shapes did not make sense. What she did know was that Fred was a drunk, and it was probably because of him that the plane had crashed.

“You see it, right? This wasn’t my fault. This was sabotage.”

“Who would shave sabotaged us?”

“I don’t know. Charles Lindberg, or those newspapermen in California. Maybe Hearst was involved. A better story, you see?”

That seemed unlikely. She looked at the map again, then at the wreckage along the shore and the bloody gash on Fred’s head. A hard truth came over her. This hadn’t been a mistake. Icarus wasn’t coming for them, and Fred was not the navigator who they needed to take them to Ninth. No. Icarus had sent her on a fool’s errand. He didn’t want her anymore. She didn’t know what she’d done to deserve such a death, or how Icarus could be so cruel. Was this really all because of that boy — the new cadet with the pretty eyes?

“I’m going to go get the medical kit and canteens,” she said, trying to hide the tremor in her voice. With the sun warming her shoulders, she waded in the water towards the downed plane. The sun always felt so good on planet Earth.

When she returned, she found Fred several yards away, bare-chested, prostrate on his back. Waves licked his T-shirt nearby. His head wound was bleeding again, leaving an inky trail of red on the sand where he had crawled.

“Fred!” She ran to him, dropping the canteens along the beach. She knelt down at his side. He was unconscious. Sons of Eight, what should I do? She shook him. “Fred! Fred! Wake up!”

He stirred.

“Amelia.” Fred blinked, looking up at her. “I’m afraid I won’t make it. My head hurts. It hurts so bad.” His words were slurred.

“You will be fine. I just radioed more messages,” she lied. “I’ll keep doing it until .. until …”

“The battery dies?”

“Someone will hear us.”

“No one will come.” Fred looked back up at the sky. “We were sabotaged, and now we’re going to die. I wish I could see Mary just one more time. It would be nice to hold her and tell her that I love her.”

She knew from Amelia’s memories that Mary was his wife. Judging from their circumstance, he’d never see Mary again, but she didn’t want tell him this. Instead, she trained her eyes on the shore and combed the sand with her fingers. But the lump in her throat wouldn’t go away, and a tear forced itself out of the corner of her eye.

“You will see her again,” she said, hearing the own doubt in her voice. “And you’ll get to say all of those things.”

“No, I won’t. Whoever wanted us to fail, won.”

Not knowing what else to do, she took his callused hand in hers. This is what Fred’s people did when there was pain. It felt right, even in someone else’s body.

Fred squinted in the sun. “There’s something different about you,” I noticed it in the plane, and again just now when you were looking at the map.”

“You’ve got a concussion. You’re disoriented.” She squeezed his hand.

“Maybe, but it’s something else. It’s like you’re not the same person at all. I mean, you look like Amelia, but I don’t think you are.”

“That’s silly.”

“Is it?”

She waited, but he didn’t say anything else.

“No, you’re not her. You don’t move like her, or talk like her. You were disoriented in the plane, and you looked at the map like you’d never seen one.” He withdrew his hand from hers. “I think you’re someone else.”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

He struggled to his feet, moving away from her, the sun at his back and the blue sky framing his silhouette. “Are you the one who sabotaged us? What did you do with Amelia?”

“I didn’t do anything with Amelia.”

“What happened to her? Where did she go?”

She opened her mouth, then closed it. In truth she didn’t know what happened to Amelia, or any of the others on her previous missions. It didn’t matter.

Suddenly, Fred turned and ran. She stood and took a couple steps forward to chase him, but he stumbled and fell to the sand. She rushed to him and rolled him onto his back. “Fred?”

“Get away from me.” He moaned, swatting at her. “You are not Amelia. Get away!”

“I don’t know why you’re saying that.” She held him down for a moment until he stopped struggling.

“We’re going to die,” he said. “We’re going to die. And I’m stuck here with a stranger. Is this really how it ends?” He started to cry.

She slumped in the sand and looked out into the horizon, feeling the feverish warmth radiating off of Fred’s sniffling body. She was trapped too. She’d never have her own body back. She’d never feel her own powdery skin, see her own long, delicate fingers, braid her own white hair. Instead, she was stuck inside this gawky form with useless parts — earlobes, eyebrows and a fifth toe.

There was nothing else she could say to Fred. If this had been a real mission, she would have told him the truth — what her real name was and that she was from planet Eight. That she’d been sent here to take him back so that he could be the chief navigator of their starship. That they’d taken many others just like him. How they were beings of mysticism and magic, not of physics and mathematics.

If everything had gone according to plan, the gateway would open, and she would see Icarus rise out of the sea. She would feel his presence in the air, in the sun and the sand. She’d feel powerful, glorious, like a god.

But she felt nothing except loneliness and a growing confidence that she’d been brought here to die.

She opened Fred’s canteen and took a swig. The stuff was nasty. It was wild and primal, like Earth and the people who lived here. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Here,” she said to Fred as she handed the canteen to him. “Drink this.”

He took it from her and held it up to the sky. “To the end.” He drew it to his lips.

“To the end,” she said softly, staring at the sun.

Earhart-electra_10

Hunger and Death

“Well, should we go inside?” Gillian asked Pol.

“Yes, I think we should.”

Yet they both remained still. The reggae song ended, the remains of the final notes carried by the wind until there was no longer any sound at all, except for the quivering red plants.

Only then did Gillian and Pol began to walk towards the station, slowly and with caution. The grass and dead leaves crunched under foot. The sun moved behind a cloud, and the station became easy to see. Weeds sprouted up around the perimeter, and Gillian could make out a tear in the silver siding of one of the compartments, which appeared to be caused by a great, crimson tree that had fallen on it. The section to sagged under its weight. Gillian drew her tablet out of her pack and took a picture, then flipped to the next page and scrawled a note on the location and condition with her finger.

It was not a basic station; that was clear.  The astronauts who built it had brought a much larger kit, one that appeared to be twelve sections total instead of the usual four. Each compartment was connected to the other, octagonal in shape with a domed ceiling made out of the tough, silver siding that could hold both heat and cool air.

“They must have meant to stay a very long time,” Gillian said as they began to circle the station, slowly, inspecting it for further damage.

“They all died, so I guess they did stay.”

“We don’t know that they died. They just stopped sending log entries.”

“Why would they stop communicating if they weren’t dead?” Pol touched another tear in the siding, examining it to see if it could be patched together with sealant.

“I don’t know. Maybe they … decided to strike out on their own.” Gillian noted the tear in her tablet before moving on.

“I doubt it. There were thirty crew. That’s a huge mission, and a NISS invested a lot of money. I don’t think they’d all agree to leave. No way. This is Jamestown. I can smell it.”

“I think it was called Jonestown. The one where everyone drank poison?”

“No. The one where everyone just disappeared from the colony in Virginia.” Pol frowned. “Or what that called Roanoke?”

Gillian couldn’t recall. Regardless, it had been nearly forty years since the last contact with the crew of Star Taker. Reports seemed to suggest that the ship and its crew had vanished two years after landing on Latmos. The station’s computer had gone into auto mode and had been maintaining — or trying to maintain — its basic systems since then.

Suddenly, she heard a pressure seal release from one of the station’s air locks. Pol tensed. Gillian froze. Her ears searched for a subsequent sound, but the forest was silent. From their position, she couldn’t make out where the noise came; the honeycomb shape of the station with its octagonal walls made it difficult to tell. And yet the noise had definitely been an airlock. She had no doubt. The only question was, which one? There was one airlock per compartment.

Gillian gestured to Pol that she was going around the side of the structure. He nodded and indicated he’d take the opposite direction. She turned and treaded silently, tracing the wall of the station with her back and hands, craning her neck to see around the next turn.

As she crept to the front near the main airlock, she saw a man with a pack walking away, his pace hurried. She blinked. Her breath caught in her chest. She could hardly believe it.

“Wait!” she cried. “Stop! Who are you? NISS Search here! Captain Gillian Penn.”

The man turned at her words and looked at her as she hurried to catch him. As she approached, she slowed. His eyes shimmered like stars on a shifting sea, but his face of one who was starving; shrunken lips, jutting cheekbones, sunken sockets and hungry white teeth that seemed to chatter involuntarily.

“Don’t come too close,” the man said, taking a step back as he rubbed his shaved head with his hand. He wore faded gray pants issued by NISS with tapered ankles and snaps along the side. But the blue and red NISS patch and had been torn off, and a piece of day glow tarp had been stitched in its place.

“Who are you?” Gillian repeated, stopping some paces away. She could hear Pol approach.

“I should ask the same of you,” the man said.

“Captain Gillian Penn and Flight Lieutenant Pol Wladkowski of NISS – the National Institute of Space Science. We came on the ship Search.

“A fitting name — Search. Welcome to Latmos. There’s nothing here except hunger and death.”

“You must identify yourself,” Pol said. Gillian saw out of the corner of her eye that Pol’s hand was on his holster.

“I don’t have to do anything anymore. You’re the ones who are intruding. This is my home.” The man looked at Pol’s gun, his expression unreadable.

“You live in the station?” Gillian said.

“I used to.”

“Are you one of the crew of Star Taker?” Pol asked, his hand gripping the gun.

The stranger glanced between them. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Pol stepped closer, his face tight, the gun at his side. “Yes, you do. You’re the flight lieutenant, aren’t you? Sharp. Desmond Sharp.”

Gillian frowned. That wasn’t possible.

“I have no such recollection,” the man said.

“You’re lying.” Pol’s fingers worked the safety on the gun.

“This man can’t be from the Star Taker,” Gillian said. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s been forty years. He’d be an old man.”

“Listen to your Captain,” the man said.

“Oh, I know who he is. Gillian, don’t you remember? From the photo aboard the Search before we crashed. It’s him. He’s the Star Taker’s flight lieutenant.”

The man’s face remained still, unblinking. His eyes brilliant, listening, studying them. Despite having the look of a man who was starving, his face was unlined, ageless, without worry. “I have no memory of being a flight lieutenant,” he said slowly, with care. “You are the flight lieutenant. I’m just Sharp. I don’t have a title or a rank.”

“See? I told you,” Pol said. “I don’t know how or why, but it’s him.”

“There’s no way.” Gillian’s mind was working. It couldn’t be the same flight lieutenant. It didn’t make sense. She hoped she was in a dream, a strange and bizarre nightmare in which she would wake up and find herself knocked out cold from the crash. The alternative — trying to explain in her NISS report that a Lieutenant Desmond Sharp was alive and hadn’t aged a day seemed more terrible than anything. They’d no doubt think she was crazy and strip her of her post, unless she could force him to explain this to NISS on his own accord. And then the implications were mind boggling.

The man — Sharp — nodded towards the station. “Sometimes I go there just to listen to music. I miss music. But there’s hardly anything left worth taking. We used all of the supplies ages ago.”

“We were going to set up camp inside,” Pol said.

Sharp looked thoughtful. “It’s a good place to sleep for a night or two. Just to get out of the cold. The temperature drops at night when the wind starts blowing. But I wouldn’t stay there if I were you.”

“Why wouldn’t you stay?” Gillian asked.

“The crew became … deranged.” Sharp’s eyes drifted to the station. “Five of them slit their own throats in the barracks. The others got hungry and started to eat each other. One by one. Until I was the only one left.”

Gillian and Pol exchanged glances.

“So, did you … eat them too?” For the first time, Pol sounded frightened. His arm was still holding the gun, but he hadn’t pointed it at Sharp. Not yet.

“I did what I could to stay alive. You would have done the same.” Sharp paused. “You can put the gun away. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Pol didn’t move, but Gillian knew him well enough to know that unless Sharp became a threat, he wouldn’t shoot. Pol was wondering how it was that Desmond Sharp was standing before them, and what had happened exactly.

“Are there more of you?” Sharp asked. “Usually with a ship is a crew.”

“The crew is dead. We crashed,” Gillian said.

“Are you sure? Are they really all dead? Did you see their bodies?”

Pol cleared his throat. “Well, mostly yes. Two were thrown from the ship upon impact. There’s no way they could have survived.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Latmos is an extremely unusual place. I wouldn’t consider them dead until you’ve seen it with your own eyes.”

Silence passed between them. Sharp adjusted his pack and looked back towards the red forest where he’d been headed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back. It’ll be dark soon, and I don’t want to be caught in the cold.”

He turned and walked away.

“When will we see you again?” Pol called after him.

“Don’t worry,” Sharp said. “I know where to find you.”

They stood side-by-side and watched him go, too dumbstruck to think of anything else to say. If Gillian was to draw any conclusion, it was that Sharp had gone crazy.

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Libertine

I’m Libertine,” she said clutching a tumbler of Malbec.

“So what do they call you for short? Libby?”

She rolled her eyes and flicked her brown, curly hair over her shoulder. A long-sleeved shirt was tied around her waist, her tank top clinging to the curve of her breasts. “No, they call me Libertine.”

“Sorry. I was trying to be funny.”

“Is that funny in your country?” Her accent was soft, laced with seduction.

“Um. No, I guess not.” Daniel looked down into his cup. A fruit fly thrashed in the liquid. He was bombing. Fast. An awkward moment of silence slipped between them. Daniel did not know what else to say. His eyes scanned the walled garden draped with bougainvillea, tables peppered with empty wine glasses and white Christmas lights glimmering in the purple flowered trees.

He brought his wine to his lips. His hand trembled. He put the glass down without taking a sip.

“Whats wrong?” she asked.

His hand trembled again. This time, the wine sloshed over the lip of the cup. He watched it splash onto the stone terrace.

“Nothing. It’s nothing.” He tried to smile, but he knew it fell flat.

Libertine glanced at the spilled wine then back at his hand.

“I should go,” he said. His hand wouldn’t stop shaking. It always happened at the most inopportune times. Daniel tossed the cup onto the table and began to walk away, feeling stupid for even trying with a girl like her. No one would go for him. Not anymore. His life was pretty much ruined. No, actually it was destroyed. Decimated. Beyond repair.

“Hey, wait,” she said.

He turned.

“What’s your name?”

He cleared his throat. “Daniel.”

She moved closer to him. “That’s a good name. Strong.”

He looked into her brown eyes. They were cavernous, unreadable. She blinked. Her eyelashes were long, her brows delicately arched. Her lips were small, but pouty and naturally pink. Or maybe the red wine had stained them so. He decided she was way too good looking for him. He wished now she would just go away.

“What’s wrong with you? You seemed into me for a moment, and now you’re not.”

Daniel was struck by the bluntness of her question. Maybe Argentinians were just like that. “I don’t know. I guess I just changed my mind.” He knew that was mean.

“I don’t think so.” She tilted her head and studied him. “Why does your hand shake like that?”

He looked down. It was still trembling. He hadn’t even noticed this time. He shoved it in his pocket. “I doesn’t matter.”

“It does.”

“I have this problem with my nervous system. I tremble.” He hoped that was enough.

“What causes it?”

Daniel didn’t want to talk about it. ”Genes. The environment. Fucked up shit in my brain. I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, well. Whatever.” He looked back at the party. Everyone was drunk. A few people were sat at the table. He watched as they poured more wine into their cups. Some were laughing loudly in the yard near the bocce ball court. The party had peaked and was on its way down.

“So what are you doing in Buenos Aires?” Libertine’s words a little slurred too.

“I’m visiting my cousins. They live here.”

“You’re cousins?”

“Yeah, Marie and Fritz. Over there.” He gestured to his relatives.

“I don’t know them.”

He shrugged. He’d only actually met Marie and Fritz once before. He was thirteen. They stayed at his family’s Carnegie Hill apartment on 90th Street and spent most of their time in Central Park, throwing stones into the lake and smoking cigarettes on the bridle path near the reservoir. They’d invited him to Argentina after Daniel’s mom had announced to the family he was sick. Marie had been the first to email him. Come stay with us. We have a nice house right in Palermo. You will like it. XOXOXO Marie. 

He remembered thinking he could use time away. No more of “the best” doctors, no sympathetic looks from his mom as the doctor explained the side effects of amantadine. He wouldn’t have to see the rings around his dad’s eyes, which he knew were from staying up late reading forums on his iPad.

He took a leave of absence from NYU and got on a plane to Argentina. And now he was here, with Libertine, at a party of a friend of a friend in some bourgeoisie villa that must have once been owned by a rich family, but was now a little run down.

He didn’t mind it. The place had charm. It was sort of magical. The best part was that he was not taking his meds, and there was no one here to chide him about it.

Libertine wove her arm around his waist and guided him away from the party, to a small pool littered with leaves and flowers, aglow with a white, underwater light. They sat down at the edge of the pool. She rolled her pants up and swirled her calves in the water. He did the same. It was still warm with the hot South American sunshine. She smiled, sort of demure, but not totally. He wanted to hang in the moment for just a bit. He was here at a party, a little drunk, with a girl. Anything could happen. He had to go with it.

She leaned over and kissed his neck, then his cheek, finally his lips. The girl wasn’t just hot, she was sexy. Daniel brought his free arm, the one that did not yet tremble, around Libertine’s waist. She pressed her body against his, her heart beating, her warmth filling the empty spaces in his heart. He lowered his head into her hair and closed his eyes.

“What are you doing?” a voice said.

Daniel looked up. A young guy, about his same age, was striding across the lawn, towards the pool. Uh-oh.

Libertine rolled her eyes and stood up. Daniel followed her, the water now cold, dripping down his legs. He straightened out the cuffs of his pants. The guy was handsome in the same way that Libertine was beautiful. Brown eyes, brown hair lightened by the sun, skin smooth and olive colored. They could have been related.

“Daniel, this is my brother, Guillermo,” Libertine said.

“You’re brother? Jesus. I’m not your brother.” Guillermo turned to Daniel. “She does this all the time. Tells people I’m her dumb brother.”

Libertine’s hand moved to her forehead. She squeezed. The softness that he’d seen in her was now gone. Her muscles were a river of tension.

“So, what are you then if you’re not her brother?” Daniel asked. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know, but the conversation was taking a strange turn anyway.

“Tell him, Libertine,” Guillermo said. “Tell him what I am to you.”

“Can we please do this later?” Libertine said. ” Another time. Not tonight.”

“Always tomorrow, my dear. Why don’t you explain to your pale skinned North American here what we are?”

“You’re drunk, Guillermo. Leave us.”

“I’m not going. I’m staying here. I want to hear you say it.”

Libertine stared at Guillermo, her face a mask of exasperation and hurt. Daniel should have excused himself, but the thought of her lips kept him rooted in place. “Daniel, Guillermo is my  … partner.”

Guillermo laughed. “Partner? I guess that’s better than boyfriend. I hate that word.”

Libertine tugged on Daniel’s arm. “Come, let’s go.”
Daniel hesitated. He didn’t want to be in the middle of — whatever this was. He looked at her, and knew then he couldn’t resist. She was so beautiful. He allowed himself to be pulled along.

“That’s right. Go,” Guillermo called after them. “Just remember, my sweet, I know what you’re up to!”

“Sorry about that,” Libertine said as she pushed the door open into the house. “He’s jealous.”

“I would be to.” Daniel paused. “Listen, you seem really nice, but I don’t want to cause any problems.”

“Don’t be bothered by Guillermo. Pretend you never saw him.”

“I don’t think I can do that.”

“Pretend you never heard his voice.” Her hand moved to his chest. He realized that the house was dark. Were they in a hallway?

“Like you never knew his name,” she said as she moved closer. Her breath was warm. It smelled like his grandma’s hose. There’d been this bush just outside of her screened in porch with tiny pink and white heart-shaped buds. It had a sweet smell, almost like roses mixed with blackberries and honeydew melon.

His heart beat faster as she pressed her body against his. Her lips were close. He wanted to push her away; it seemed wrong to be involved with this girl — Libertine — who already had a boyfriend, and clearly was cheating on him.

But he didn’t. It kind of turned him on.

The next moment they were kissing. His skin was on fire. He remembered grasping the railing of stairs as they half stumbled, have rolled up towards the second level of the house, into her bedroom and onto her mattress.

He couldn’t be bothered with words after that. He didn’t want to. He didn’t even deserve her. She was just a fling, and he was no one important. An American kid with a twitch, visiting friends in Buenos Aires for the summer.

As for Libertine, she was a moment — the kind that sends ripples across a pond under the soft splash of mayflies. The sort that reminded him of the moon on a hot evening as a fan clicks overhead with knotted pink yarn used as a makeshift cord. In her bedroom with its plaster walls washed teal green was a poster of dappled horses galloping across a field of dandelions, corners bulging with crumpled balls of masking tape. He recalled a small, stuffed bear poised in the windowsill, eyes the size of quarters, fur glinting from the white Christmas lights in the backyard. Its ears perked forward at the mumble of the party’s late night conversation, which had long turned honest under the influence of red wine.

In vino veritas.

Morning sunlight splashed through the diaphanous curtains that gathered in a young breeze. She had rolled over onto her side, facing him, her chest rising and falling. Her eyes moved beneath her lids, and her long hair sprayed the pillow. He blinked, hardly believing himself. She was more beautiful that he remembered. A wildflower of the Southern Hemisphere. How had he gotten so lucky? The curtains billowed, and the sunlight glinted off a silver necklace around her neck. A locket.

It was polished, or maybe just worn shiny, and rectangular in shape with script engraved across the surface in English. My life closed twice before its close; It yet remains to see. If Immortality unveil. A third event to me so huge, so hopeless to conceive, as these that twice befell. Parting is all we know of heaven, And all we need of hell.

Curious, Daniel reached out to touch it. Libertine’s eyes snapped open. Her hand, with lightening speed, flew over the locket, clutching the pendant. “It’s not for you.”

“I’m sorry,” Daniel said quickly. “I — I did not mean. It’s just interesting. Who wrote it?”

“Emily Dickinson.”

Her breath was like spoiled milk. He didn’t mind though. He wanted to kiss her again. “It looks old,” he said instead. “An antique. I’ve never seen one in that shape. Not that I’m that into lockets or anything.”

She blinked. Her lashes were a web of sunlight. She rubbed the locket between her fingers. “What illness do you have? You never said.”

“Parkinsons.” Daniel moved his hands under his head as he rolled onto his back. The ceiling had hairline cracks. It needed to be re-plastered. “Early onset.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Like shit. Like I’ll never live a normal life. Like it’s been stolen from me.”

“If you could make it go away, would you?”

Daniel laughed. “Of course.”

“What would you do then? With this second chance?”

He hesitated and looked back at her. Her eyes were huge brown saucers. It was as if she could see around him, into his soul. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve never thought about it.”

buenos-aires

The 7:52 Part Two: You of All People

This is an update from the B.A.R.T. control center. Please remember that there is no eating, drinking, or smoking on B.A.R.T. trains.

Ruby rested against the pole in the middle of the car. If she leaned, she didn’t have to touch anything. Commuters back in New York never would have let her take up so much space, but she’d been lucky in Oakland—people seemed to give her more room.

Giggling babies. Seven Signs He’s Cheating. Hamster on a Piano. Facebook was the literature of commuters. It was all crap, but she checked her feed anyway out of FOMO: Fear of Missing Out.

Now departing 19th Street Oakland. This is a San Francisco-Millbrae train.

As the doors tried to swing shut, a single bare leg thrust itself between them causing them to bounce back open. A man jumped in, sweaty and panting. His clothes were meticulously clean, but they were all out style. His tie was last season and his button down shirt was short sleeve, which was never acceptable, and cut too boxy. Ruby placed it circa 2007, a relic of the pre-metrosexual craze. The rest of him was more shocking than his bad taste–between his shirt and cheap faux-leather shoes, there was nothing. Nothing, that is, except bright white Fruit of the Looms. The pair must have been torn from its plastic wrapper no less than an hour ago.

“Jesus! Can’t you hold the train? You all saw me running for it.”

No one even looked up at him. It was a collective thought: Do not stand next to me.

As the man squirmed through the school of commuters toward Ruby, she could not help but stare. His head nearly brushed the top of the train, and his body shape was as terrifying as his height—a great upright praying mantis with an impossibly flabby belly pulling at the buttons of his shirt.

She tried to create a little space, but the woman behind her slammed an elbow into Ruby’s rib. “Move over. So gross!” The woman spit the words out with more hate than Ruby was accustomed to.

The man fixed his blue eyes on the woman and scowled, “Sorry, you have to make room for everyone, lady.” She didn’t hear him. Maybe she didn’t want to. He jerked his head toward Ruby, and leaning in close said, “Can you believe these assholes moving out to the East Bay, jacking up our rent?”

Ruby didn’t respond.

“Holy Moses, it’s hot as hell in this shitbox.” He thrust his hand out. “I’m Miles.”

“Leave me alone.” Ruby unlocked her phone and opened Farm Heroes Saga, examining him out of her periphery.

“You don’t have to be rude. We are all in this together: This great machine, this great commute.” He shrugged with vaudevillian exaggeration and gestured toward his legs. “I assume that the fact that I am not wearing any pants is the source of your animosity?”

He bother anyone else. He ignored them and they ignored him—a silent agreement Ruby was not privy to.

The train lurched to the left. Its abrupt stop smacked her against Miles. She reached her hands out, an instinct, and they sunk deep into the soft cushion of his revolting belly.

Sorry, folks. We’ll be holding here for just a moment. There’s a medical emergency at Montgomery station.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

Miles swung his willowy arms above his head, “Give her some air!”

“Stop. Please.”

“Why? Who cares what they think. Look around. They pretend I don’t exist.” He examined her for a beat too long before his eyes went gentle, “Do they ignore you too?”

“We all ignore each other. I’d like to ignore you too. Stop talking to me.”

Okay, everyone. Hold on. We are clear for Embarcadero. Thanks for your patience and thanks for riding B.A.R.T.

“Do you want to know why I’m not wearing pants?”

Ruby screwed her face up into her most deadly look. “No, I don’t. But I imagine your goal is to make us all uncomfortable. Well, you won.” Miles recoiled as if slapped.

“I guess I thought you’d understand.”

“Why on earth would I understand? Now, go away.”

The doors slid open. Commuters moved out of the train and onto the platform at Embarcadero station. Miles bent over and picked up his briefcase. He paused for a moment to look at Ruby. The swarm of people moved around him, in front of him, through him. From somewhere deep and unexpected, Ruby felt shame. He turned on his heel and walked out without looking back. The train felt empty.

She moved toward the doors anticipating the timing to Montgomery station. After three years on the same route, she had it down to a science. Today, Ruby wanted to be the first one on the escalator. The first one out the turnstile. The first one onto the street.

“Excuse me, honey?” An old, wrinkled woman jabbed the back of Ruby’s thigh with her cane.

“Am I in your way?

“No, sweetie. But I think you forgot something this morning.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, what?”

“Your pants. Young lady, you forgot to put your pants on.”

Ruby caught her reflection in the train windows. She wore her favorite grey silk blouse, a black suit coat (meeting with her boss), soft black leather heels, and nothing else from the waist down except white cotton bikinis. The kind you bought at Walgreens.

The doors tore open at Montgomery. Ruby ran a hand through her hair to straighten it. She popped her ear buds in and stepped among the swirls of commuters racing along the platform. For a moment the old woman could make her out among the others, the bright white panties bobbing like a buoy in the water, and then, just like that, Ruby was gone.

noname

 

Advanced Gene Therapy

Gillian was late to Dr. Foster’s class. He glowered at her through his octagonal eyeglass spectacles as she descended the steep staircase and settled in the first empty chair. She knew as well as he did that there was no excuse for tardiness while you were on his clock. This was Dr. Elwin Foster, the premier researcher in gene therapy. His class was only open to the best students. She had applied, endured two interviews and finally been accepted after being wait-listed for one semester. And now here she was on the first day of his mind-blowing lecture. Late.

Her chair creaked as she crossed her ankles and sunk deep into her seat. She unzipped her backpack and reached inside to remove her light pen and eyeglass. She positioned her eyeglass over her ear and onto the bridge of her nose, then navigated to the syllabus by touching the virtual overlay with her light pen. The syllabus read: “Advanced Gene Therapy 401: Curing Maladies, the Extension of Human Life and Beyond.”

Dr. Foster cleared his throat. “As I was saying, this class consists of one lecture per week and two practical lab classes. We’ll begin these intensive labs by genetically analyzing a randomly selected types of cancer to isolate the mutations that cause the cells to replicate unchecked.” He pressed a button to change the slide behind him to what Gillian could tell was a mutated sequence of genes. “Once you have isolated the mutation, you’ll need to figure out what mechanism is causing the malfunction and write new genetic code with instructions to repair it.”

A girl in the front raise her hand.

“Yes?”

“I don’t see any text books in the syllabus. What should we read to prepare?”

“Very astute! There are no textbooks. You’ll be graded on your problem solving skills, creativity and the total length of time it takes you to find the solution, if you can find it at all. Considering that you have learned the basics of gene therapy in preparatory classes, you should already have the proper foundation for more ambitious experiments.”

The student whispered to the girl next to her.

“And to make this even more interesting, I’ll be assigning you all new lab partners. You won’t be able to rely on the combined knowledge of your usual collaborator.”

A groan erupted from the class. By the third year of school, most students already had a designated lab partner. This was someone with whom they worked well, a person they could rely on and who challenged them, or at least matched them intellectually. Gillian’s partner was Alexia, but she hadn’t been accepted to this class. The right partner could make or break a course like this.
Wearing a smug expression, Dr. Foster crossed his arms and pushed up the sleeves of his snug fitting argyle sweater. “Everyone ready?”

The students let out a loud cry of protest.

“If you are seated in an odd row, which are the ones with the blue chairs, please look behind you.”

Gillian looked behind her. A baby-faced guy with spiky blonde hair and long, thin fingers twirled his light pen between his fingers. He wore vintage high-tops that had laces instead of magnets, and his eyeglass was made out of a pair of twentieth century horn-rimmed frames.

She inhaled slowly, then exhaled. She was hoping for a nerd. This guy looked way too cool to be in Advanced Gene Therapy.

“I guess we’re partners,” he said with a genuine lack of enthusiasm.

She nodded in agreement and held out her hand. “Gillian Morris.”

He shook it. “I’m Pol.”

“Paul?”

“No, Pol. With an ‘O’”

“Nice to meet you, Pol with an ‘O’.”

He continued to twirl the pen between his fingers.

“What’s your last name then?” Gillian couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Wasilowski.”

“Wasilowski?” Gillian repeated, playing with the sound on her tongue. The ‘W’s were pronounced like ‘V’s. “Pol Wasilowski. What sort of name is that anyway?”

He smiled. His lips were beestung, woman-ish, but in a cute way. “It’s Polish.”

“Polish?” She wondered if this would impede his proficiency in the lab.

“Yeah. I’m from Krakow.”

“Krakow?”

“Yes, Krakow. It’s in Southern Poland. Really lovely. You should visit some time.”

Gillian blushed. “Maybe.” She paused. “You don’t have much of an accent.”
He set the light pen down and leaned towards her. “Neither do you.”

“I should hope not. I’m from Iowa.”

He leaned back and began twirling the light pen again. “Iowa. Such a desolate place. But pretty … really pretty.”

“You’ve been?”

“Not yet.”

So flirty. Gillian had to remind herself to breathe.

“So when can you get together to study?” Pol asked.

“Mondays or Wednesdays work best for me.” This was true. She had back-to-back classes on the other days.

“Wednesdays then,” he said. “Meet in the lab, say 10am?”

“Sure.”

Pol crossed his ankles. His black, acid washed jeans tightened over his thigh.

She bit her lip. He cleared his throat. “Don’t you think we should get the most uncomfortable question out of the way?”

She knew what he meant. “Yes, I think that’s a good idea.”

“Ladies first.”

She smiled. “I’m 135. What are you?”

He hesitated and thumbed the light pen again. “I’m 133.”

“So, our IQs are about the same. That’s good.”

“You’re two points higher.” He looked worried.

“Two points is like spitting hairs.”

He shrugged and looked away. She hoped he wasn’t one of those guys who needed to be smarter than his girlfriends. Whoa. She was getting way ahead of herself. He was really cute though. Smart enough too. But boyfriend material? Probably not.

Dr. Foster clapped his hands. “Okay, class. I hope you are satisfied with your new partner.”

He crossed the stage and rubbed his hands together in an overeager gesture that reminded her of an evil comic book character. “Now, down to business. To earn an ‘A’ in my class, I expect you to be working all the time. You will work harder than you ever thought possible. Your eyes will bleed, you will fall asleep standing up. You may even forget your name.”

The class chuckled.

“I am not joking.”

Gillian glanced at Pol. He locked eyes with her.

Dr. Foster cleared his throat. “Let’s begin. Please open the file titled ‘Lecture 1: Common Genetic Mutations that Lead to Cancer’.”

After class, Gillian followed Pol up the stairs and out the double doors. “Did you see the homework for this week?” he asked. “It’s going to take at least 20 hours to finish.”

Gillian pushed her eyeglass onto the crown of her head. “I don’t know how I’m going to keep up with my other classes. I mean, I knew this was going to be intense, but I guess I didn’t realize it would be this bad.”

“Maybe we should meet twice a week. Mondays too?”

Her heart leaped in her chest. She tried to slow her pulse by inhaling with a deep breath. “Yeah, Monday works.”

“See you then.”

He nodded, swung his backpack over his shoulders and zipped up his black hoodie. “I have a good feeling. I think this will be an excellent semester.”

Gillian smiled. “I think so too.”

They pushed through the doors of the lecture hall into the brisk autumn day dappled with soft, golden light. She was about to ask him out for a beer under the guise of discussing what they were going to work on in lab when she heard Alexia’s voice.

“Gilly! Pol!”

She turned just in time to see her friend rush towards them and hook her arm around Pol’s waist. He stiffened.

“I see you two have met.” Alexia beamed up at Pol. “Gilly, I was going to tell you about him. He’s so great, isn’t he?”

Gillian didn’t know what to say. Alexia always had a new boyfriend. She couldn’t keep track. And no wonder with those big, fawn eyes and long, espresso hair. Every guy fell for her at some point.

“We’re partners,” Gillian said. It was all she could manage to get out.

“Oh?” She squeezed Pol’s hand. “Gilly is my oldest and best friend in the world. She’s a great partner too. You’ll see.”

Pol nodded, then averted his gaze and shifted his feet. “That’s great, Lexie. We should go.”

“Gilly, we’re going to see the space shuttle launch tonight. Do you want to come?”

The thought of sitting on a blanket with Alexia and Pol made her stomach lurch.

She wasn’t sure why. After all, she’d only just met him. “Um. I … no, I have to do some homework.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, but thank you.” She turned to Pol. “It was nice meeting you. Monday, then?”

“Yeah. See you then.”

Gillian lowered her eyeglass and pretended to check her e-mail as they walked away. She read ten messages, but she couldn’t remember a word. She marked them all unopened, put her headphones on, turned on some Baroque and walked back to her apartment.

Cancer cells iStockPhoto 11115

The Seven Fifty-Two: Part One

It hadn’t rained since he had moved to Oakland, at least it seemed like it, and the sudden onslaught of moisture in the last 24 hours had first annoyed Caleb, and then alarmed him in its ability to compel him from his apartment. By the early grey streaks of morning he had burst forth through his door. He was set loose on the throngs of commuters mindlessly walking with their smartphones in hand, weaving down the street drunk and unsteady on Facebook or Instagramming the banalities of their crushing lives.

The sidewalk smelled different, like earthworms, and it bothered Caleb. He preferred the stench of his parched city. While other people clamored for rain, measured the water line at the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, took short showers, and brushed their teeth with only enough water to fill a Dixie cup, Caleb flushed twice and took baths. He watered his lawn for hours and did the dishes twice. The drought was his greatest love of California, and he diligently did his part to ensure its continuation.

He turned off 13th and headed to the subway station. Caleb checked his watch: Yes, it was seven forty-two. He had plenty of time to catch the seven fifty-two. He scanned his ticket at the booth and stepped through the turnstyle.

“Morning Caleb. Paper?” Roger waved The Chronicle in the air at Caleb.

“Not today,” Caleb forced a smile. He had been practicing in the bathroom mirror lately—he had a hard time discerning between a friendly, toothy grin, and a more sinister one. Rehearsals were required if he wanted to blend in. “I don’t have any change, actually.”

“No problem, no problem,” Roger reached his ink-stained hand into the pocket of his Carhartts and pulled out two quarters, “I can spot you, man. Pay me back tomorrow.”

Caleb’s moss-green eyes narrowed. Why Roger felt they had rapport was beyond him. He had bought a paper from him one morning when he had decided to practice friendly banter. Every since then, Roger assumed they were acquaintances, friends even. What was worse was that Roger insisted he buy The Chronicle every day, and Caleb actually hated the newspaper more than he hated Roger.

“Sure. Thanks, Roger.”

“Well, no problem, buddy. Just get me back tomorrow. You read it every day.”

Caleb pulled his lips over his teeth in a reptilian grimace, “You’ve sure got my number.” Friendly. Friendly smile. Not too wide. Roger recoiled slightly. Most people had a warning system built into their primate instincts to alert them to people like Caleb, and Roger’s was firing. Lucky for Caleb humans buried this alarm tried to ignore it, assuming that it did not fit into modern concepts of civilization. God forbid someone thought they were rude. Caleb thought that Roger should listen to his instincts more.

He grabbed the paper from Roger’s filthy hand, and raced down the platform before Roger had the chance to prattle on about football or some other inane topic—real estate maybe. Caleb landed on the platform and looked at his watch. Seven fifty-one. One minute until the train.

He wondered what car she might be in this morning. It was a game. He picked one car, a different car, each day. He could have gotten on the first one and then worked his way through all of them. But he felt like everyone stared at people who did that, who moved from car to car. No, normal people picked a subway car and stuck with it. That way was more meaningful anyway. It meant that if he ever saw her again it was because it was meant to be. It was fate. Kismet. One day she would look up and see him reading his paper. She would recognize him from the café, and he would charm her. Mary. Even her name was irresistible. So innocent.

The picture of her had not faded during these months. Liitle lamb. It had grown sharper, more detailed. Little lamb. He had a photo in his mind that captured the fine upward brushstrokes of the pale flesh that stretched over her refined cheekbones, or the slight curvature of her left eye that he noticed was just a few millimeters higher than then right. Its face was white as snow.

Seven fifty-two. The board above the platform blinked in red letters “SFO Millbrae.” A hot wind blew through the tunnel and preceded the arrival of the train itself. During the height of the drought, this wind had been dry, but the moisture in the air and rain outside had turned it into a sticky fog, heavy with the underground’s stench. The train reached the platform in a loud roar, and its doors slid open, releasing a blast of steam. A bike messenger with a beard and wearing a small cycling hat cut off an old Chinese woman in front of him. “There’s a line,” she hissed, shaming him back from the door. She moved slowly into the car, her gait achingly halting and holding up the queue behind her.

Caleb moved to the railing on the right side and leaned against the bar bolted to the side of the car. Inside it was like a sweat lodge, and it stirred a primal competitiveness and anger up from the massive crowd pressed inside.

The rain had also lured out his people. The forgotten ones. The crazy ones ripe and stained by their own stench. Some you could spot right away—the one sitting on the floor of the subway pulling on his ragged beard and mumbling about motherfuckers, for instance. Others were less obvious, perhaps invisible to the sane eye. Of course Caleb could spot them right away. It was their mouths. Most people believed that you could tell by their eyes. That was bullshit. The smile of a seriously disturbed man or woman was subtle enough though that if you did not know what you were looking for, you might miss it. Caleb missed nothing.

He opened Roger’s newspaper and pretended to read the sports section, a normal section for a man in his late twenties to read, and peeked over the top scanning the crowd for her.

Mary. He caught a glimpse of her in profile at the other end of the car. She pushed a strand of black hair behind her ear and glanced at him, quickly averting her eyes. Did she recognize him? Did she know how long he had looked for her?

Caleb felt his mouth twist delightedly behind the newspaper before he remembered to smile normal, like in the mirror. The man with the beard mumbling on the floor pulled on his pant leg. He recognized the smile. It identified Caleb as a kindred spirit.

Caleb folded the paper and swatted the man’s hand to dislodge it from his cuff. He moved through the car toward Mary.FullSizeRender

Silver 1000 (Part II)

March stared at the screen of his laptop and paused as he tried to think of what to say. He wanted to test Silver, to make sure that she really understood what he was asking. If he couldn’t write a sentient program now, he wasn’t going to make it. All the great Silicon Valley programmers made it before they were thirty. He was 29. That meant he only had one year, maybe two, before he was a failure.

And what would he do then?

He pressed his thumb between his eyebrows and kneaded. If he didn’t relax, he was going to get a wrinkle there — the kind that was a deep and vertical, painful to look at. Everybody would know that he had struggled to make it and didn’t.

The cursor blinked.

There was so much riding on this.

He turned up the collar of his corduroy suit coat, which he wore over his running gear still damp from his early morning run across the Golden Gate and back. The jacket was good luck; he’d found in at a Goodwill in Madison when he was in college. Threadbare in the back with missing buttons and coffee stains, he’d never even considered getting it mended or cleaned.  He wouldn’t be able to code without it.  Even so, it was now pushing 9 A.M., and he still couldn’t think of what to say to Silver.

“Fuck.”

His iChat plinked. Did u see Mark’s FB Status? Party tonight. Wanna go? It was Mindy again. She had the worst timing — always interrupting him while he was in the midst of programming. Always about something meaningless too, like a party in Palo Alto, or eating at some new restaurant in the Mission. He really just needed to work right now. He would concentrate on Mindy later. He signed out of iChat.

Silver, are you there? How are you feeling today?

It was a dumb thing to type, but he wasn’t Thoreau. The cursor blinked against the black screen. Silver was just DOS right now; he’d make her pretty when he knew she worked.

I’m bored, she responded.

March felt his face flush with excitement. To be bored meant that you had desire. This was significant.

What makes you feel bored? he typed.

A pause.

There’s nothing to do. I’ve been sitting here all day waiting for you.

Jesus.

I’m sorry, Silver. You weren’t working yesterday, so I made some revisions last night and was hoping — praying — that you’d be responsive today.

You didn’t give me the book yesterday. So, I didn’t know how to answer your messages.

The book? March picked up his Sharpie marker and wrote down “BOOK?” in capitol letters, then pinned it to the wall with a yellow pushpin.

What book are you talking about?

The cursor blinked, seemingly hesitatant.

The book by Mr. Hook. The Transcendentalists Guide to Interpreting Symbols.

March had no idea what she was talking about.

Silver 1000

Silver squatted on the floor of the cell and pressed her elbows on the insides of her legs then rounded her back like a turtle inside its shell. The stretch felt good, and was a welcome distraction from the nicotine itch. She was out of cigarettes.

She glanced at the pile of empty Parliament boxes that she’d stacked neatly against one wall. The packs were a way of keeping track of the number of days she’d been trapped in the cell. 626 and counting. They couldn’t keep her in here forever. Could they? After all, what would happen when the empty packs filled up the entire room and she had no where to sit? They’d have to let her out then. Her eyes scanned the area of her cell. It was metal with no windows, probably ten by twelve. It would take a lot of cigarette packs to fill up the room. The only sound was the hum of the vent in the ceiling that turned on when she smoked. They clearly wanted her alive, otherwise they’d let her die by asphixiation. Her eyes came to rest on the overflowing ash tray next to the metal slot in the wall. God she needed a smoke.

Silver crawled towards the metal slot on her hands and knees. It felt good to touch the cool metal with her palms, even though she knew that she looked like an animal doing so. No one was watching anyway. She sat cross-legged in front of the metal slot and waited.

Impatient, she began to hum and braid a long strand of her white hair. She used to be brunette, but her hair had changed color the first month inside the cell. It was now stark white and yellowing at the tips, probably due to the cigarettes. She tried to remember what life was like outside of the cell, but her memory was blurry. She saw a jetty along a great sand beach. The tide was low and sticks, kelp and dead fish had washed ashore. She recalled putting her hands on the railing, the taste of salt spray when she licked her lips and the way the wind made her hair greasy with the sea. There was a little girl talking to her. She could not see her — the girl stood off to the side, and when Silver turned to catch a glimpse of her, there was only a dark smudge where her face should have been. But she could hear her voice, cherubic and sacchrine, as she described the sea gulls circling overhead. The memory ended there, and she was present inside the cell again.

“Come on. Come on. Come on.” Her hands worked her braid, and she began to rock back and forth. Her hands felt itchy. Is this what it was to be an addict? She really needed a smoke.

The sound of scraping metal ricocheted in her ears. The slot opened and a worn, spiral-bound book fell into her lap. A Transcendentalists Guide to Interpreting Foreign Symbols by R.K. Hook. A pen on a string was tied to the spiral binding. She opened the book and waited.

Misdirection (Part VI)

Samuel picked up his pocket watch and checked the time. He set it down on the table, propped open and facing him. “I did not murder Jasper.”

“You’re going to have to do better than that.”

A waiter who had the same black eyes as the maitre d’ interrupted them. “Can I get you a drink sir?”

“I’ll have what he’s having,” Drake replied.

“Actually, I’ll have another,” Samuel added. “Make it a double and give me three cherries.

“Very well sir. Three cherries for you as well?”

“Sure, three cherries. Why not?”

The waiter walked away, but Drake followed him with his eyes. Now that he thought about it, he looked the same as the maitre d’. Was it possible they were twins?

“Like I said. I did not murder Jasper. It’s all a great misunderstanding.”

“I’d like to believe you.”

“Jasper asked me to take the key from Daisy. He said that he was going to perform the greatest trick of all time, and that I’d get an exclusive.”

Drake caught himself frowning. “Jasper said nothing of this to me. I should know. We review every trick together. We have no secrets.” Yet as he said this, he realized it was not true. He did not know why Jasper wandered the streets late at night. He should have asked him rather than assume he simply needed a girl.

“He said this trick was going to be a surprise.”

“Are you suggesting he wanted to commit suicide?” The thought sickened Drake. He surveyed the room for the waiter with the drinks and cherries.

Samuel glanced at his pocket watch again. It was nearly 1am. “No, I don’t believe he wanted to kill himself. I think he wanted what every man in his line of work wants. Glory.”

“And yet he died.”

Samuels eyes were lined red. “His exact direction was to get the key from Daisy, which I did.”

“Which you did quite well.”

“I’m not afraid to admit that Daisy is an attractive girl.”

“Nor am I.” Drake thought the way she’d eagerly parted her legs laying on her back on his desk, mussing his papers. It had only been one time.

“He then said to meet him here. He said he’d meet me at 1am sharp, after the show. He said not to worry, no matter what happened.”

“I don’t understand. Do you think he’s still alive?”

“I’m not sure.”

“We both watched him die, Samuel. We saw his body. They carried him out in a bag.”

“I know. And yet, you can’t deny he was a great magician. And that perhaps his death was an illusion.”

Drake considered. He’d looked into Jasper’s eyes after he died. The man had not been alive. Drake would have seen it. He would have known, and probably played along. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Samuel glanced at his watch again.

“Here you go, sirs.” The waiter set down the drinks on napkins. “Can I get you anything to eat?”

“No thank you,” Drake said, thinking of the bloody meat. “Say, are you related to the maitre d’?”

“Why yes, sir. I am one of three triplets.”

“Triplets?”

“Yes, our other brother is the bartender.” The waiter gestured to the oak bar. Drake could hardly make out the man, for the bar was crowded. He imagined he had the same black eyes, empty and fish-like.

“That’s unusual for three brothers to work in the same establishment, is it not?”

“Well I never thought about it much.” The waiter shrugged. “Can I get you anything else?”

“No, thank –”

Samuel stood up and the table tottered, spilling his brown drink on the white table cloth. “Look!” He pointed a finger at the window.

Jasper standing on the opposite side of the street. Drake would not have believed it, but seeing him with his own eyes, he had no doubt. The man was Jasper. Wearing an overcoat unbuttoned, Drake could see the outline of Jasper’s athletic figure beneath his evening tuxedo. His patent leather shoes glimmered in the gas lights. Jasper tipped his silk top hat to them and smiled.

“I knew it,” Samuel stammered. “He’s alive.”

Drake rose from the table, forgetting his cane. “It can’t be.”

Just as Drake was inclined to rush outside, a carriage passed by. In the reflection of its windows was the Hotel Astor. The reflection showed the hotel engulfed in flames. It was a great fire with black smoke and helmeted firemen. Onlookers pointed to what appeared to be guests trapped inside, hanging out of the windows, shrieking and waving white pillow cases.

Drake glanced back at the bar. The hotel was not on fire. The patrons were still eating and drinking, the music was playing.

When he looked back to the street, Jasper and the carriage were gone. The street was naked. Somehow Drake knew he’d never see his friend again. He could not say how he knew this; he just did.

Samuel was still standing, staring out the window in a stupor.
“His greatest trick … his greatest trick …”

“Was showing us what could be.” Drake finished his drink.

The dog barked somewhere in the distance.

Misdirection (Part V)

Past the darkened hallway patterned in navy blue and hunter green wallpaper lay a great bar carved from what appeared to be solid oak. The bar was at least twelve feet tall and eight feet wide, and featured two mermaids with deadened eyes, also made of wood, holding up the entire structure using their hands and opposing force of their outstretched tails. Where the mermaids’ fingers gripped the mantle were carved whales, squid and serpent-fish splashing at the surface of a tumultuous ocean frozen in wooden time. In the mirrored back panel were bottles eight shelves high of every liquor Drake supposed existed, while surrounding the bar were white-clothed tables, each occupied with guests who laughed as they clinked crystal glasses and clanked silver knives against china plates portioned with bloody meat.

A black-eyed maitre d’ stood at the doorway, like a shark trolling for chum . “Can I help you, sir?”

“I’d like a drink, if it’s no bother.”

“Are you the magician?” the maitre d’ asked, his fish eyes moving up and down.

“Why, yes, I am.” Drake considered this a compliment, and he didn’t feel the need to explain that he was technically a magician’s manager.

“Wonderful.” The maitre d’ consulted the reservations in an over-sized gold-leafed book. “Mr. Jackowitz, yes?”

That caught off him off guard. But Drake was a good liar. The best. He didn’t hesitate. “Yes, that’s right. Jasper Jackowitz.”

“Your guest has been waiting. Follow me, please.”

Drake gave the man his best imitation of nonchalant and hobbled into the bar, all the while wondering who Jasper was supposed to meet, and how it was that the black dog had led him to this very place. Yes. The signs were strong tonight.

The carpet was plush and the air was thick with the fragrant, heavy waft of cigar smoke. Permeating the haze were strikes of piano keys to the tune of a melody that Drake did not recognize. He knew most modern music, but this was different. It was fast, discordant, dark yet light, all the while mixed with a rhythm from an era he did not know. These must be some high-class society men, he decided. Forward thinkers.

The maitre d’ led him through a maze of tables to one near the window. Drake kept his composure as they approached, but he could feel the seed of rage begin redden. Samuel was sitting at the table, looking out across the snow-lined street, compulsively turning over a pocket watch in the palm of his hand.

“Your guest has arrived, sir.” The maitre d’ bowed and turned on his heels.

“I should have guessed.” Samuel’s skin was ashen.

Drake sat down and leaned his cane against the table. He considered his next words, hoping he was wrong, but filled with dread the moment they began to pass his lips. “Where’s the key?”

Samuel downed his bourbon. He reached the pocket of his jacket and set the key on the table. Drake knew without a doubt that this was key that opened the box with the ax. He knew this without having to examine it. Drake huffed and hung his head, a deep sadness overtaking the rage he’d felt a moment earlier.

“How could you?”

“He asked me to.”

“Don’t play coy. As far as I can tell, you murdered Jasper.”