Crow in Letters

“There’s a crow up there you see?” says the ferry man.

He points to the Erie Lackawanna sign in large, red and white letters above the dock. I jab my bike between the metal railing at the stern and give the handlebars a good shake to make sure they’re secure.

“What letter is he hiding in?” I say, squinting and looking up. I cannot find the crow.

“The R.” The ferry man shades his eyes with his hand. The river slops against the wooden pylons.

“Would be funny if he was in the C,” I say.

“Yeah.” The man chuckles.

“Or maybe he thinks he is a raven. That’s why he’s in the R.”

The ferry man’s eyes widen. “Oh, yes. But that could be bad. A very bad omen indeed.”

His mouth turns down in worry, and I mirror his frown. I should think before I speak. Who am I to darken this man’s day?

My knees wobbly, I slink onto the boat and take my seat amongst the passengers.

As the ferry pulls away from the dock, I look back up at the R, but still I do not see the crow.

Paper Dreams

I hadn’t seen Haddis in a very long time. He’d disappeared some five years ago. It had started with excuses. He was sick. He had to work late. His cat needed surgery. And then, the excuses became more complicated: the weather man said there was a thunder storm and his umbrella was broken (and he didn’t have $5 to buy one) or his neighbor needed help fixing a broken faucet in the unit next door and it would take awhile because he also had to run to the hardware store to buy a wrench.

Then I stopped asking, and he didn’t reach out. I could take a hint.

That night I saw him, he was sitting on the street, his back to the dirty brick facade, his clothes rumpled, a paper bag in one hand and the Daily News in the other. I wouldn’t have recognized him, but he called out my name.

“Hey hey, well if it isn’t Chuck Lauder. How ya doin’ buddy?”

I squinted and shoved my gloved hands in the pockets of my trench coat. “Haddis? Is that you?”

“‘Tis me alright.” He took a swig out of the paper bag and grinned. His bottom teeth were black, and even in the dim lamplight, I could see that his skin had a waxy, yellow pallor. He rubbed his graying beard.

“What happened to you? Where’s Turtle?”

“Awe, man, Turtle died a couple years ago. That cat was old. Lived a long sixteen years, that one did.”

I don’t know why my first concern was the cat.

He offered me the bag with a grunt.

“No, thanks.” I frowned, and noticed suddenly that I was cold. I wondered if Haddis could feel how chilly it was tonight. “What are you doing out here? Do you need help?”

“Nah. I’m good. Got rid of all my stuff. You know, those possessions that weigh us down, keep us trapped in society’s expectations of what we should be like. Got rid of all that, man. I’m free as a bird.”

He made a flapping gesture with his hands, the newspaper forgotten and fluttering onto the ground near his boots which were splattered with white paint.

I didn’t like the cloudy look in Haddis’ jaundice eyes. They used to be electric, especially when we talked about the future. We’d had such dreams those first few years as traders. We were going to make a ton of cash, just like in Wall Street. Haddis was going to buy a place in the Hamptons after he’d married a trophy wife with big tits. I’d drive up to see them in a silver, 1969 Corvette wearing a custom, Italian suit.

None of those things happened, but that wasn’t the point.

And what was Haddis doing now? Sitting on the street, drinking. Jesus, I thought. That could have been me.

“Haddis, my man, let’s get some dinner.” I offered him my hand.

Haddis hesitated, then took it.

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.

 

Star Taker

The leaves shook at the foot of the space station as reggae boomed over the loud speakers on the planet Latmos. The red forest seemed to dance in the wake of the music’s rhythm, the scarlet branches swaying, the crimson grass bending towards the singer’s voice, which echoed in the empty forest, like a ghost after a great, murderous battle.

“What is it?” Pol asked, slinging his pack over his shoulder, his helmet hanging by a carabiner.

“Music,” Gillian said, then realizing Pol probably already guess that, added, “It’s Jamaican, mid-twentieth century, I think. I haven’t heard it before.”

Pol nodded. Being an avid collector of music, he trusted her expertise.

“How is there music playing?” he said, lowering his voice. “The station is uninhabited.”

“I don’t know. Maybe a malfunction in the operating system?” A red leaf tickled the back of her neck. She recoiled and stepped sideways, closer to Pol, so that it couldn’t touch her.

“Maybe, but that’s sort of odd, don’t you think?” Pol’s face was a mask of fatigue and fright.

“Yes … although I guess anything can go wrong out here. A short circuit, I mean.”

Pol nodded in agreement. “It could just be going haywire. Still, it’s a bit eerie, wouldn’t you say?”

Gillian didn’t have the energy to answer. After killing the rabox, they’d hiked nearly ten miles north of the crash site to the station. Now, her back and legs felt tired.

She reached out her hand to steady herself on Pol’s shoulder, but changed her mind and braced herself against a tree instead. Her arm hurt where the rabox had clawed her. No. It burned. At the thought of the gash, the blood-colored bark seemed move under her hand like a nest of wriggling maggots. Her mouth became wet with saliva, and she fought back the urge to vomit. There were no maggots. The plants were just like those on Earth. This was her, not them. She was exhausted and in shock. That was all. And the reggae music made her feel disoriented. It was too ethereal, like a dream. Too much like home. Shut it off! she wanted to scream. Instead, she closed her eyes.

“What if the food and fresh water didn’t survive?” Pol said.

She opened her eyes. “We’ve got some more supplies at the shuttle. We can live off of those until …”

“Until what? We’re 30 light years from home.”

“We’ll figure it out. One step at a time.”

Her words didn’t seem to console Pol, whose brow became more wrinkled with worry as they listened. Like all astronauts, they were trained in how to assemble, activate and maintain the space station. Once a station was abandoned, the auto mode kicked in to monitor basic support systems — heating and cooling, ventilation systems, water supply, lights and reserve oxygen tanks. All of this was checked automatically. If there was a failure, the space station would first re-boot, then seal off the malfunctioning section by dropping a steel door that was built between every compartment of the complex, with the central control center always the last section to be deactivated.

The only question was, did the section that stored food and water remain? She hoped it hadn’t been deactivated. They wouldn’t survive long on Latmos without supplies.

Flowers in His Hair

“I bought a place here,” Dad said, sitting across from me in the lounge. He was tan, his face unlined, body strong and trim. He seemed younger than me, like Matthew McConahay from an early rom-com.

“That’s great. The boat seems really nice, a bit expensive even.”

“Yeah, well. It’s just a little place, but pretty comfortable. Have you seen the rooms? I can show you my condo later.”

“I’d like that,” I said, nodding. I did not want to admit that I’d already had a sneak peek of the condo-only cruise liner when I’d gotten lost in the bowels on my way to meet him. A door to one of the rooms had been propped open by a shriveled housecleaner. She’d shirked and turned her back to me as I peeked inside. It was small, no more that 500 square feet, but decorated in sand and linen with jaw-dropping views of the ocean from a picture window that stretched the length of the cabin. And yet, the whole thing was odd. I couldn’t imagine living on a ship.

“The only problem with it is that my folks are all the way on the other side,” Dad said, his mouth cocked in displeasure. “So, I have to go all the way across and up and down a bunch of stairs to see them. It’s really annoying.”

“Do you think Mom had something to do with that?” I said, assuming that my mother wouldn’t want to be living next door to the in-laws.

Dad shrugged, “Oh, who knows. I don’t even know where your mom is.”

The ship swayed with the buckling ocean. I felt a tinge of sea sickness, though it could have been the realization that Mom and Dad might not be together anymore, and neither of them had told me. If that was true, then what was Dad doing here? Just living near his parents? Sailing the Netherworld?

Dad took a sip of water and looked away, in the direction where my grandparents supposedly resided. I knew how dreams worked, and I expected I would not see them this time. But I felt them close.

“What did you do to your hair?” I asked, gesturing to his head. It had been shaved on one side, his brown curls spilling just above the razor’s line. He’d tucked a band of orange marigolds across the shaved section, giving him the look of a Roman emperor, or a character from a Midsummer’s Night Dream.

“Do you like it?”

“I do. You look good. Healthy. Young.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“I still can’t believe you died.” I kicked myself as the words escaped my mouth. I shouldn’t have said that. The rules were that I was not supposed to call him out on it. I did not make up these rules. I don’t know who did. It was just the way it was, and I was a visitor with a subconscious that wouldn’t shut up.

I knew what would happen next. I had been here before — not to this ship, but other places in this realm. I’d visited my mother once in her house after she died. Twice before that I’d met strangers — a man driving a rusted truck with his yellow dog, and a woman washing her hands in a green-tiled bathroom. I’d learned the rules then.

Dad smiled at me, his teeth bone white. I wanted to say something to stop him, but he disappeared before I could.

I was left sitting in the lounge of the cruise ship, alone. I did not know if I would ever see him again, and there was no point in waiting on the ship. So, I did the only logical thing.

I decided to wake up.

Maybe We Are the Only Ones

I stood on the cold, ceramic tiles of my patio looking at the fading lapis sky and saw the faint outline of a half moon. Its crescent shape was ghostly, its surface pock-marked with craters.

I did not look at the moon often in spring. It was too chilly at night for my taste. But at this hour, with the sun sinking below the horizon, and its golden light washing my hair, it was warm enough to be outside with only a light jacket. I listened to the chickadees and gazed at the burgeoning moon.

I wondered if the wasps would return this summer. Last year, they’d built nests on the air conditioners on top of my roof. I killed them with Raid while they slept. The next day, I tore down their papery hives with a long screwdriver and tossed them over the side of the building.

There had been bats that fall too. They’d roosted on the candelabra that hung from the tin roof of my porch. I cleaned up their guano and replaced the broken votives with new ones to deter them from returning.

I leaned my elbows on the railing and watched as the moon deepened in the sky. Perhaps I should not have been so quick to kill the wasps and to chase away the bats. After all, we could be the only ones.

I understood our universe only abstractly. I’ve seen photos of goopy galaxies taken by the Hubble telescope. I’ve watched Nova and Intergalactic. I’ve looked at the panoramic images of dirt and desert taken by the Mars rover. It seemed incomprehensible that there was no other life other than our own, but it was a possibility. There was no evidence to the contrary.

I read once that a meteor crashed to Earth which contained evidence of fossilized bacteria. “LIFE ON MARS!” the headlines cried. It was retracted later as an error. In 1977, a strange signal had been picked up in space. The first contact with extraterrestrials? No. It was refuted as fraudulent. My mom once thought she saw a flying saucer over our horse pasture. She rushed out of the house, the screen door banging behind her. “I’m here! Take me!” she’d cried. It was just the Goodyear blimp passing overhead.

To be alone. It makes sense in a way. I am a creature of light, living amongst the bats and wasps, the sun and the chickadees. Gazing at the moon, I contemplated the galaxies and the solar systems, and the infinite nothingness hurts my head.

Yet, I still searched. I still believed.

At the Edge of the City

“Please don’t leave me. You’re all I think about.” Angel tore at his black hair, which stood in tufts framing his boyish face. They stood on her parents’ rooftop garden where the wind dragged its claws across her jacket. The distant cry of a siren below grew into a screaming wail.

Angel touched Sofie’s shoulder and held it there. She could smell the oil and must emanating from his fingers; he hadn’t washed his hair in days. She didn’t want to want him anymore, but she knew that a small part of her still did.

“You cheated on me.” She stepped away from him onto a bed of flowers. She heard the petals crush beneath her feet. Her mother would be so mad. The gardener had designed the violet color to match the living room walls. “You know I can’t stand her. Is that why you did it? To get back at me?”

Something flickered in his sapphire eyes, but she couldn’t read it. Almost like he was formulating a lie, but she couldn’t be sure.

“No, baby. I love you. I was being selfish.”

Sofie stared at him. He was honest about the selfish part. He moved towards her, even closer, his breath hot on her skin.

“Let’s go away,” he said. “Just for the day. Let’s take the train to the edge of the city and see the ocean.”

Sofie wanted to say no, but she felt herself nodding instead. He kissed her on the lips. They had a physical connection that was undeniable, and she was a sucker.

The ride to the ocean only took four hours by the high speed train. At 200 miles per hour, the high rises of Old Chicago gave way to thinner and taller skyscrapers of the Plaines, the tops of which disappeared into cottony clouds. Angel had fallen asleep, his head bobbing forward, his hand still interlaced with hers.

Sofie leaned her head against the windows and watched the buildings whip by in a blur of chipped concrete and rusting steel. She thought she glimpsed a naked man pulling his shades shut, and moments later a little girl sitting on a fire escape, tossing breadcrumbs at the pigeons that roosted on a flower box filled with the corpses of browned leaves.

After awhile, the buildings began to all look the same, but the monotony suited the gentle rocking of the train. There was nothing but endless city all the way to the ocean, most of it uninspired and cheaply made. She sometimes forgot how nice her neighborhood was with its architecturally curated skyscrapers. Her family’s apartment was especially luxe with its rooftop garden and oversized fireplace. She loved the view; there was only endless cloudscape from her bedroom window.

“Wake up,” Angel said. “We’re here.” He was shaking her. Sofie opened her eyes and blinked. She must have fallen asleep.

“First Queens,” the electronic voice announced over the intercom.

Sofie stumbled out of the train into the blinding sunlight with her arm interlaced in Angel’s, her backpack slung over one shoulder. Slipping on a pair of sunglasses, she inhaled. She could smell fish, brine and the putrid stench of sewage and rot. Just outside the train station, the sidewalk was flooded with a shallow pool of water, and seaweed gathered in clumps around the street’s drainage system.

“I haven’t seen the ocean since I was a kid,” she said.

“I was here last summer for the weekend with my parents. Remember? It’s going to be high tide soon. Good thing we got our boots on.”

Sofie did not remember. In fact, she was pretty sure she would have recalled him going away. She wondered suddenly if he’d brought that girl with him. The thought was like a wound that stung. She removed her hand from Angel’s arm.

“I’m so glad we did this.” He pecked her neck with his lips and took her hand again.

The walk to the coast was only ten minutes, but with each block the flooding got a little worse, until they were wading ankle deep through dirty, inky water. They passed by residence towers and saw kids tossing a ball with paint-like splatters of gray sea sprayed across their bare legs. Further down, the shops at ground level had boarded up their windows and relocated to the second and third floors of the high rise buildings.

“Just a little further.” Angel picked up speed, the water at their calves now.

Sofie had been prepared for the flooding, but the fact that she couldn’t see what was beneath the muck was starting to make her sick. Something tangled between her legs. She stumbled and readjusted her backpack. They could now see the ocean between where the street emptied out onto the shore. It was fair blue, reflecting the even bluer sky. But the high tide continued to rise.

She pointed to sign for a bar at the bottom of a set of stairs. “Let’s go inside and wait until the water recedes.”

“Naw,” Angel said. “Let’s check out the ocean now. We can get a drink later.”

“I’m wet. I’d rather get a drink and dry off. The next train isn’t for three hours anyway.”

“I thought we could spend the night.” Angel looked at her like a Golden Retriever humping a pillow. “Maybe just stay up all night looking at the stars and catch the first train home.”

She hesitated. She liked the idea of spending the night on the beach, but she also wanted to punish him. The bastard had cheated on her. “Maybe. Let’s just see how we feel.”

They waited at a bar until the water went down, seated at a two-top that had an expansive view of the ocean. For the first time since she was a girl, she could see the edge of the city. She sipped a gin and tonic with a sallow lime wedge and looked out at the tossing sea.

“Do you think there’s anything out there?” Sofie glanced at Angel. He was on this third beer already, eyes glazed. “I mean, maybe an island with palm trees — you know, like the ones in the pictures?”

Angel took her hand and rubbed it against his cheek. “I don’t know, baby. If there was such an island, don’t you think we’d all be there?”

“And then there’d be no island at all because there’d be too many people.” Sofie withdrew her hand from his gentle grip. “It’s just hard to believe that there’s nothing else.”

“We’re all that matters anyway.” Angel’s hand moved to the inside of her thigh, rubbing it. She closed her legs.

“Let’s get a room,” he said.

“Let’s get another drink first.” She was stalling. She didn’t want to get a room. The ocean seemed sad. This place was depressing. She wanted to go back to Old Chicago.

Angel gestured to the bartender.

A few hours later, Angel was passed out on the table. He cradled his head in his arms. Sofie had switched to tequila at some point. Rather than having a dulling effect, she felt invigorated. The sun was at the horizon, and the water had receded, leaving black water stains along the sides of the skyscrapers and pieces of plastic, dead fish and trash loitering in the streets. A few people had wandered out and bent to pick up the trash. Yet the ocean had calmed, and the waves lapped tamely at the shore. The waning light sparkled like champagne bubbles.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I mean, it’s like something from a dream, wouldn’t you say?” The bartender slipped another drink in front of her. She did not remember ordering it.

She looked up at him. “I guess. I mean, the flooding is bad. When did the water breach the dykes?”

“Oh, maybe ten years ago now. I can’t really remember exactly.”

He straightened his narrow black tie. Sofie realized for the first time that he was dressed in a formal, old-time sort of way. Collared white shirt, pressed and starched, dark trousers, polished dress shoes and a blonde, waxed mustache on his upper lip. An apron was double-tied around his waist. Yet, his head was shaved to his scalp, and she could see that his arms were covered in tattoos. His brown eyes glimmered as he looked out across the ocean.

“I used to come here when I was little,” Sofie said. “It was nice then. There were beach chairs and cotton candy. My mom used drink Campari and tonic.”

“We closed that a long time ago.”

“Why don’t you leave?” she asked, wondering why this man — her own age, probably — would stay in such a sad place. He seemed interesting, like he should be from somewhere else.

“Why don’t you?

She laughed. “I don’t live here. I’m from Old Chicago.”

The bartender’s eyes darted to her, and then Angel, whose face was smushed against his hand. “I meant, why don’t you leave him?”

Without breaking eye contact, she said, “I don’t know.”

He paused. “You came all this way. Why don’t we dip our toes in the ocean?”

It may have been the tequila, but for the first time in a long while, she did what she wanted.

Little Fish

She was a little fish in an infinitesimal pond, but this pond was outer space, and it slid boundlessly across the universe.

She touched her hand to the large window that looked out upon the stars that fanned across the Milky Way. The glass felt icy and a fine layer of crystalline frost had formed along the edges near the seal. She first noticed the frost twelve days ago after being aboard the small shuttle for nearly 40 nights. This was a very bad sign.

To measure the creeping frost, she had taken to drawing hatch marks on the window in green toothpaste with the edge of a knife. She estimated this to be 34 millimeters every 24 hours, which meant that in fifteen days the window would be completely frozen over. She could only assume the rest of the shuttle would be in a similar state. The systems might work for another few days before the frost crept into the wiring and froze the guts of her flying machine solid. After that, she would only have an hour or so before she became a popsicle herself. The cold would certainly get her before the lack of O2 did.

She tried not to think about that too much. It was demoralizing to dwell on impending death. She needed to stay focused, sharp and physically fit. If she gave up, all hope was lost.

She moved to the center of the space shuttle and sat in the center, facing the window. With eyes partially closed, she meditated. She thought of Iowa, where she was from. There, the fields were green in the summer and paper brown in the fall. When the corn was harvested, the husks were big and heavy in her hand, and when she peeled back the leaves, sometimes she would find misshapen kernels, or a black and white striped worm. She thought about other details too, like the heat that undulated off the fields when the weather got hot, and the blue sky that stretched on for as far as the eye could see.

She could see the similarity now between the corn fields and outer space. Iowa was just another big pond in a different place. Sort of. In Iowa, there had at least been daily routines shifting between the grocery store, bank and Dairy Queen that left her feeling like she’d filled up her day with something. But out here, in space, there was nothing to do, nothing to see. It was a vast emptiness.

Yet space was not the real nothingness. No. That existed beyond space. The nothing started where space ended. It was outside of time, had no mass or sound. Even the principles of science and mathematics were crushed by its fist. Yet she had trouble believing that was true. After all, nothing was something, wasn’t it? Which would mean that there a place beyond space.

She opened her eyes and let her thoughts settle. She could not dwell inside her head. She stood, crossed the room and took out a mat from the closet for her physical exercises. Part of emergency training at ISSI included an exercise routine to maintain physical strength. Though she had memorized the routine for final exams, there was also a card pinned to the mat with pictures of a person doing each movement. Arms up, arms down, touch the toes, jump back into a push up, stretch to a plank, jump forward and repeat twenty times. This was followed by balances on one leg and sitting stretches for hamstrings. She added to it by finishing with a headstand, which she held for five minutes twenty-two seconds. The physical exertion made her feel better. It gave her a sense of purpose, no matter how brief.

Refreshed, she stood and walked to the control panel. A small, red light blinked with persistence. It was the signal for the automated emergency message that was broadcasted once every two minutes. The message was transmitted first in Morse code, and then as an audio file.

She sat down in front of the control panel and pulled the headphones on to listen to her voice in the recording — again, for the thousandth time. “Mayday Mayday, Mayday. This is escape pod Alpha 2. Emergency evacuation from Blackbird Station, planet Mars. Need immediate transfer to passing vessel or request urgent landing on any available docking station. One Dr. Gillian Morris aboard of planet Earth, Des Moines, Iowa. No surviving crew. No injures. Model A156.”

She glanced back at the window and the creeping frost. She swallowed hard. She needed to update the message with more information about her current condition. She didn’t want to though; it was like admitting that she was going to die. Her finger hovered over the record button for a moment before she pressed it. Her lips brushed the mic.

“Condition of ship deteriorating. A crack in the right window.” She paused and looked at her watch. “Will be frozen in 15 days from January 6, 2513 Earth time. Life support systems currently stable.”

After a moment, she played the message back and was surprised to hear a woman’s voice that she did not recognize. It was thin and raspy. She frowned. Was that her? She re-recorded the message, then listened to it again. Yes, it was her voice. How was that possible? She sounded so weak.

With the new message activated, she checked that the transmitter was still working. It was. There were no messages of course; there was no one to hear her. She was millions of miles from home.

There Are Worse Places

The wave rolled towards the shore, slow and slushy. It was not completely frozen — not yet. Determined, it tried to reach the wide, sandy beach and break, just as it had done for a millennia. However, there was no glorious white cap of water followed by a crash. No. The wave was low and dull, the crystals of frozen water tumbling like a Slurpee machine and reflecting the moody sky above. I heard it strike the shore, a steak slapping against a marble counter. I did not think of it as a wave at that moment. It was something unnatural — a thing that did not have a name. It retreated, and there was a brief moment of silence before it repeated.

These were my days. I spent them watching the ocean, the sky and the direction of the wind. I knew there were worse places I could be. Yet, sometimes I thought it would have been more merciful to be at home when the Froid happened. I imagine I would have been outside on a wintry day, with my long hair tucked inside my warmest cap, trudging in the early morning to the grocery store to get coffee filters and an almond danish. I know myself well enough to predict that I’d be out of filters by that time and would not have planned ahead by buying them the night before. Besides, those almond danishes were temptingly sweet. The thought of them alone would have rousted me out of bed, though more likely it would have been the dog licking my face, begging to go out for a pee.

If that had happened — if I had gone to the grocery store — I would have frozen solid, maybe mid-stride, without even understanding what was going on. I would have never known about the Froid.

However, that had not been the case. I had been on vacation, wanting to get away from the grip of winter. The irony of it was that I rented an apartment for a week, and I never left. The owners didn’t contact me; I assumed they froze somewhere up north. The local management company went silent. I presumed they just didn’t see the point in harassing me for more money.

There were the initial news reports. I hated thinking about them, but I kept finding myself searching for answers in those final blips of moving electronic images. “Sudden Freeze,” read the headlines in English and “Le Grand Froid” in French. All were followed with talking heads discussing the phenomenon, some denying that there was climate change at all by referring to a sudden blizzard recorded by pioneers in the Dakotas and a frozen lagoon in eighteenth century France.

If it had been fleeting, I might have been inclined to believe the skeptics. But the Froid persisted, spreading its icy fingers across the rest of the U.S. and Europe, even those areas that were mild, until most of Earth was arctic. The final news reports stated that electricity in most major cities was down, and there was rioting over food and oil supplies. I can’t say what happened afterwards because the news stopped broadcasting.

It was more peaceful in the Caribbean, where the Froid was slower — more nefarious, some here would say. It seemed to get a little colder everyday. We watched mostly from our windows.

Yesterday, I went to buy pain sucre from my neighbor, Jean, who sold bread from his kitchen. I wrapped myself in blankets and hooded my head in towels. I ran as quickly as I could, feeling the sharp sting in my lungs from being out-of-shape and equally sharp pricks in my fingers and toes from the cold. The beach village, painted in bright Creole colors, was quiet, except for the slapping of the slushy waves and the wind threading through the curving streets. Garbage bags were piled near the fence line. All the Citroens and Peugots had flat tires. We’d run out of gas ages ago, and of course there was no trash service.

Along the way, I saw a purple orchid near the hedges, preserved in a crust of clear ice. I paused to study it, my breath twisting like smoke into the air. It had roundish petals with dark purple veins that were lighter at the edges. In the center was a yellow lip splashed with whites and electric violets. A creeping vine sprouted from the orchid’s side with another small bud that never had the chance to bloom. I’d run by the orchid countless times. How had I never seen it? I wanted to pick it up, but my hands were too cold. I stuffed them beneath my blanket and hurried on.

“Jean!” I said, bursting into his tiny apartment with a view of la plage. “Did you see the frozen orchid?”

Comment? Tu parles trop vite.” His shorts were dusted white with flour; his skin so much paler than it used to be.

I repeated myself in French.

He replied that oui, he’d seen the orchid many times. He was surprised that I had not. Then he kissed me as he always did.

I was like that — not very observant. But I thought that I was becoming better. I had time to sit and watch now. My mind was becoming more still. I was preparing for death as the creep of the cold slipped over my head like a wool sweater.

Today, the wind was stronger than usual, and it was blowing in from the north. Certainly, this was a bad sign. I suspected the temperature would plummet even further that night. I wondered if the last of the palm fronds would fall as a result. Most of them had already broken off, though there were still a few stragglers.

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/weather/frozen-slurpee-waves-lick-shores-nantucket-n314116

Nightmares of Light

My puppy cried out in the darkness and heaved in an asthmatic grip. As she tried to inhale, her ribs moved like an accordion, in and out, her back rounding and arching. I hugged her close and stroked her. “Shh. It’s okay,” I said. “Relax. Easy.”

Curling against me, shaking and licking my hand, she was inconsolable from what could only be a nightmare. The moonlight spilled between the half-open blinds and mixed with the yellow glow of the streetlights and the distant rumble of a siren. I talked softly to her, petted her narrow head and stroked her wiry fur. As she drifted back to sleep, I wondered what it was that she saw in her dreams that had frightened her so.

She was well-cared for, perhaps overly adored. She had a woodchuck that yodeled when its belly was squeezed, a Chewbacca stuffed doll purchased at Comic-Con, chicken breast dinners baked in our slow cooker and an alpaca sweater from Peru. She went with me to work often, commuting to the West Village by train, then weaving through the cobblestone streets to SoHo. At work, she played with a dog named Pickles and lay on the couches while co-workers petted her belly. On days that I couldn’t take her to work, our dog walkers took care of her at 11am and 3pm. At night, she begged for goulash and hamburgers, ran after her yellow ball and chewed on an antler to amuse herself.

Her life was simple and should be free of worry. I wonder then, could her nightmares be like mine? Did she dream of being attacked, dying or things that were lost? Did she see monsters? In her doggy-mind, did Chewbacca come to life and chase her down the hallway? Was she afraid of intruders, or of being abandoned?

Perhaps it was the position of the stars, the shape of the moon or the pull of the tides, but I too had an unsettling dream that night, before my puppy had hers.

In my dream, my father’s ghost was locked inside my uncle’s closet. My uncle had painted the closet white, added red paneling and new shelves. He said that the remodel would keep the ghost away. I peered into the closet. The pendant fixture inside was bright, washing the small room with artificial light that reminded me of being inside a shopping mall. I gave my uncle a wary look. “Are you sure he’s not in there anymore?”

“Well, no,” My uncle said, standing inside the closet, rubbing his balding head. “He’s still here, though less so than before.”

“Shouldn’t you keep the door shut then?”

“Yes, that’s probably a good idea.” He stepped out of the closet and closed it without turning off the light switch.

I stood there for a moment, unsure how I felt. There was a crack beneath the door, and I could see the artificial glow of the fixture inside. It pulsed with a supernatural energy, as if it were viscous, full of dark matter and the wisdom of an infinite universe. My father was still in the closet; I was convinced of it. I backed away, afraid. Then awoke in my bed with my heart pounding.

At that time, my puppy had not yet rounded her soon-to-be nightmare. I watched her twitch in her sleep, then got up to re-fill my water glass to wash away the sour taste in my mouth. I lay down again, snuggling her into the crook of my arm. The night folded over me until my puppy awoke me with her little cries.

I wished I could ask her what she’d seen. Knowing this to be impossible, I fell asleep.