Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Helen Marshall. Helen (manuscriptgal.com) is an Aurora-winning poet, a Canadian author, editor, and bibliophile. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. In 2011, she released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side came out from ChiZine Publications in 2012. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, for which she spends a great deal of her time staring at fourteenth-century manuscripts.
“Sanditon” was originally published in her debut short story collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012) as well as in a limited run special edition chapbook (also by ChiZine Publications).
They were in the elevator, Gavin’s voice surprisingly deep and gruff, but his smile was so charming, it lit up his entire face. He touched her lightly on the arm, and she was happy for the warmth of him, but wryly wary. He was married. She knew that. He pressed the button for his floor, and Hanna felt the ground dropping away beneath her, again when he slipped his arm around her waist, not too firmly, gently really, and it was the warmth of it she loved.
“I’ve had too much scotch,” she whispered.
“Surely there’s no such thing when you’re among writers.”
“We’re not among anybody now. They’re still downstairs.”
The door pinged open: the hallway decorated with bright yellow wallpaper with paler fleurs-de-lys in velvet; the carpet red, shaggy; sconces well-lit, almost as well-lit as Hanna felt. Her steps muddled a little bit, the carpet soft under her shoes, and Gavin’s arm steady around her. She leaned into him, closed her eyes, breathed out and moved away, unhooked her arm.
“Coming in?” he said, his voice catching in the smallest way.
“Of course not.”
“Right,” he replied. And then: “Why not?”
“Because you’re married.” Hanna paused. “And I’m not, at least not to you.”
“Right.” But his hand was still hovering near her, and she didn’t move away from him or the door. “The thing is, you’re the most interesting person down there, and the rest of them are a bit of a mess right now. If you go back down, you’ll only end up playing mother to a bunch of old farts trying to figure out how to write for the BBC. Or get their novels published. Or get their published novels adapted for the BBC. Better to stay here and play the wife.”
“You’re very charming, but no.”
“Fine,” he said again, but he still hadn’t moved away from her, and in fact the distance between them was getting smaller, micro-inch by micro-inch. “It doesn’t have to be about sex.”
“It doesn’t?” Hanna replied, and she enjoyed the startling vibration of the electrons between them, wondered about all that kinetic energy piling up; it had to go somewhere.
“Sex is overrated.”
“Not with me.”
“Tea then?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“What, in your room, at four in the morning?”
“I’ll put on the kettle. I saw tea bags in here earlier.” He used the space to take out a plastic key card and slide it into the surprisingly modern lock. At her last hotel, they gave her a three-pound key that she had to return whenever she left. It could only be retrieved when she handed over her passport for inspection.
The lock whirred and clicked, and Gavin opened the door. The room was largish and decked out in the same colours as the hallway, but the lights were off, discarded luggage making muted shapes in the darkness. Gavin moved closer for a moment, and Hanna didn’t quite move away, letting him bump up against her as he slipped the key into a second slide. The lights flickered on, low for the first five seconds and then burning up to full illumination.
His hand touched the small of her back, and Hanna took a step in, but didn’t quite move past the entrance hallway and into the body of the hotel room.
There was a small round table with a tall plastic boiler, the kind Hanna had in undergrad for mac and cheese, a basket with assorted teas, sticks of dehydrated coffee, a biscuit wrapped in plastic. Gavin fitted the plug into the three-pronged socket.
Hanna looked around at the now illuminated luggage, a big brown suitcase, half-filled with books, clothes spilling out, socks; the smell of aftershave was slightly chemical.
Gavin turned back to the kettle. “Shit,” he muttered, “the light’s not on.” He tapped on it half-heartedly. And then back to Hanna: “Did you really want tea?”
“Coffee would have done.”
“Right,” he collapsed into the chair and Hanna eyed him warily. The scotch was starting to kick in a little, and she realized she actually did want the coffee; the world was a bit unsteady. “What’s it going to be then? Mother or wife?” he asked, that charming smile of his.
“Editors are boring. Do you really want to correct my punctuation right now? You can go and join the lot down there, they love editors. Until they have them.”
The jet lag was wearing Hanna’s good sense rather thin, and she liked the feeling of being in the room, watching him fumble with the kettle, and knowing that neither one of them needed that kettle to work. And the deep growl of his voice was . . .
She finished the biscuit and sat down on the edge of the bed, next to the suitcase. She took out one of his books, admiring the cover, the beautiful French flaps. “Gavin Hale. A writer at the height of his craft. A book not to be missed. From Simon Hatch, no less.” Flipped through the first chapter before laying it, carefully, beside her. Looked at him.
“The punctuation really is quite bad. Even I couldn’t fix it.”
“So don’t fix it.” He didn’t get up. He dragged the chair he’d been sitting on over with his legs until he faced her, and they were really quite close together. And then he reached out and touched her hand, very gently, opening up the fingers and sliding his hand in.
“I can’t,” she protested.
“I—” And then he leaned forward, stopping her breath, kissing her lightly on the lips. “—might.” Her eyes were mostly closed, and when she opened them, his head had moved away scant inches. He was watching her, waiting. There was a smile—that goddamn smile, Hanna thought—like the Cheshire cat’s, slipping onto his face and then off again.
“It wouldn’t be professional.” She said, but this time she let herself smile back, just a little.
“That’s mostly the point.”
She let go of his hand. He waited. Then she reached out with both hands, took the front of his shirt, and slowly tugged it closer to her.
“Good,” she said.
* * *
Hanna lay back in bed, limbs tangled in damp covers, and Gavin was beside her, sheathed in polished sweat. The suitcase sat overturned on the floor, the books scattered out onto the carpet, but other clothes had joined the mix. A lacy pale blue bra, her conference jacket, the shirt Gavin had been wearing very recently. Hanna’s breathing was still a bit scattershot, and Gavin had that smile on his face again, as he leaned over to kiss gently her collarbone, and then he moved a touch lower to the beginning of the swell of her breast, and then lower, and then to the nipple, which made Hanna lean back further into the pillows. She made a small noise.
“So the wife, then,” she said after a moment. He looked up from what he was doing, and Hanna ran a finger along his fashionably stubbled chin.
“Or the editor if you’d like.”
“That was very nice.”
“My professional evaluation?” He asked playfully, kissing her finger.
“The punctuation was very good.”
“I think I read that review once. ‘The punctuation was very good.’”
“Reviewers are terrible people. They don’t hold a candle to editors.”
Hanna watched him pause over this, thought he would make another rejoinder. Instead, he said: “You can stay the night.”
She opened her mouth to speak again, to say something else, but then she closed it. “I’ll be back in a moment.” He kissed her again and then rolled onto his back with a sigh, as she untangled herself from the covers. She slipped around the corner, and then into the bathroom. She closed the door, locked it.
Hanna let out a breath, and began to run the tap. The slightest tremors of a hangover were starting to tighten the circumference of her skull, pushing on her brain. She pooled the water in her hand and then rinsed out her mouth. Bleary-eyed. Tempted by the idea of not needing to go home. Hanna spat out the water, and then looked up into the mirror. Something caught her eye, a smallish discoloured lump on the side of her neck, no bigger than a dime. She squinted, touched it with a finger. The skin was dried out, rough, but the space itself was numb as if all the nerve endings had been disconnected.
She shook her head, tried scratching it with a nail. A queer sensation ran through her body, as if the area was simultaneously hypersensitive and blanked out with Novocain.
“Gavin?” she called uncertainly.
“Yes, my darling?”
There were sounds from outside the bathroom, but Hanna had to squeeze her eyes shut to remain steady on her feet. The handle jiggled but the door was still locked. He knocked softly. “Hanna?”
She shook her head again to clear it, and then opened the door for him. Gavin was casually leaning against the frame, but there was something subtly wrong with the pose, a slight strain in the shoulders.
“It’s . . .”
He moved behind her, and slipped his arms around her waist, kissing the nape of her neck.
“No regrets, I hope?”
“No, it’s not that. There’s something here—” Her finger brushed the spot. Numbness. Tingling. “—can you see anything?”
Hanna was a bit scared. She had read numerous accounts of women discovering small lumps on their breasts, had a friend at college who got cancer, and had to take a year off for chemo and recovery. There had been a list of people who had signed up to go with him, visit the hospital and keep him company. Hanna hadn’t been one of those people. She had liked him well enough, but the whole thing was a bit grotesque, and then he had lost his hair and his face had swelled until his head looked like an egg balanced on his neck.
Gavin reached up and took her hand in his, moving it away from the spot, then leaned in close to look. “Do you have a tattoo?” he asked after a moment.
“A tattoo?” she asked, couldn’t understand the word. It’s cancer, she thought, not a tattoo. Something that wasn’t part of her yesterday.
“It says something here: Sanditon. Is that Greek?”
“Why the hell would I have Greek tattooed on my neck? Do I look like I grew up in fucking Oxbridge?” she asked, and her hand trembled in his. She could see his face again in the mirror, and he was looking at her, face a bit tense as if he could feel their relationship going strange, growing real. The eyes were colder, and the smile had slipped away.
“Look, I’ll get your things. You don’t have to stay the night.”
“I—” she said helplessly, wanting something from him, seeing he wasn’t going to give it to her. She tried for a smile. “I don’t think I should. I’m not the wife.” A pause, and then the barest hint of a question. “Only the wife stays the night.”
He looked her over, nodded carefully and kissed the back of her neck, ran a finger down her spine, and Hanna felt it like a chill.
“You’re more fun than the wife. And the editor, for that matter.” He went from the bathroom. She stared at herself in the mirror, the dark spot, but she didn’t want to touch it again. Gavin brought her clothes to the bathroom entranceway, and she put them on as fast as she could, trying not to let her shirt touch her neck as she buttoned it up. She couldn’t figure out the jacket so she just slung it over one arm, and then she was out of the door, and standing in the hallway with the pale gold fleurs-de-lys, chest tight, feeling the fear for real now that she was by herself.
Carcinos. Carcinoma. The Greek words for cancer, she thought, and then, Screw Gavin and his books and his beautiful voice and his cat smile and his wife, damn them all to Hell and chemo and let him be the one. He has a family, and that’s why you have families, so you don’t need anyone to sign up to sit with you while you die.
And then she caught her breath, and she got in the elevator, and she went home.
* * *
Home was not really home. Home was a tiny room at the edge of Cowley, just outside Oxford where she was renting while she conducted research, met with potential authors for Belletristic, Inc. It was approximately five feet across, eight feet wide, with a recessed nook holding a desk, carelessly painted, makeshift shelves, and a window incapable of closing. The bed had no sheets, but tight, stabbing springs that she had to learn to weave her body around when she first arrived.
Hanna’s own suitcase was large, black, filled with tightly rolled t-shirts and a few nicer things for professional use, Gavin’s neatly typed manuscript handed over for her editorial inspection and a somewhat smaller sheaf of paper, her own unfinished notes on a novel. As she unpacked, she stowed the t-shirts in a rickety chest of drawers and spent five minutes wedging the suitcase between the uppermost bookshelf and the ceiling. It was too big to fit anywhere else, and if it wasn’t stowed she would have had less than a hand’s span of room to stand in.
When she lay on the bed, springs pressed sharply against her legs, the suitcase stuck out a full foot and a half over the edge of the shelf. Hanna worried that it might fall on her while she slept, so she checked it again, but it held firm, did not budge, just loomed over her, disproportionately large against the cramped, cracked ceiling.
At first, she didn’t think about Gavin, about the darkened mass on her neck. But then she did, and she rooted around in the top drawer, amidst the power adaptors, her passport, and other paraphernalia, until she found a hand mirror. She tried positioning it at different angles, and with her shirt off she could just about find a clean line of sight, the hand shaky, awkward.
But it was there, and it was slightly larger than she remembered it being. Hanna breathed deeply, her shoulders rising and sinking, the bed creaking beneath her. She put the mirror away. Then she reached up, fingers snaking along her collarbone, exploring the side of her neck. She could feel the roughness, a slight sponginess as she put pressure against it, that same feeling of simultaneous tingling and numbness. A hard scarab shell, scab-like. She forced her nail into it. The tingling intensified, but it didn’t feel bad—just very, very strange. Slowly, she dug the nail in until she could feel the edge of the thing against her finger. She dug a little bit more, scratching, getting the other fingernails involved. Then something peeled away, flaking off between her forefinger and thumb. She brought it around for inspection, leaning down on the pillow, the dark shadow of the suitcase in the background of her vision, in the foreground a paper-thin scraping of something—she didn’t know what—with the word “Sanditon” in a kind of languished, cursive scrawl.
Hanna picked up the mirror, repositioned it, but as she gazed at the spot she could see—something, the spot was dark but not as if it were bruised or discoloured or some kind of dysplastic nevus, but more like a shadow, like there was no surface at all, a hole in her neck—yes, when she moved the mirror she could make out the edges, not tears or scratches but a thin bank of skin around—nothing. Nothing.
* * *
Hanna didn’t know what to do, she had never seen anything like that. She sat on her bed, the phone receiver heavy in her hand. She thought about calling her doctor back home, but she didn’t know what to say, and she couldn’t go to a doctor here, she couldn’t remember what her health plan was and if it covered overseas medical. Probably not. Her publishers were cheap, and cut corners where they could. Like this room. Like the standby plane tickets from Toronto.
In the end, she called Gavin, his number written on a business card he had given her when they met yesterday before the conference. He hadn’t looked like his author photo; somehow the photographer hadn’t captured the energy, the expressiveness of his face, the charisma that came only in movement and animation. But she was alone in a city where she hadn’t known a single soul.
The phone rang several times. A woman answered.
“Hi,” Hanna started, suddenly unsure of herself. “It’s Hanna Greeson. I work for Belletristic, Inc.” She paused. Considered hanging up the phone.
“I’ll just get Gavin on the phone, love.”
A voice distantly called. Hanna could make out the sound of a dog barking. Maybe children in the background. Or a television. Some sort of extra noise that her room didn’t have.
And then Gavin’s voice came over the line: “Hanna.”
“Gavin,” she replied. “So that’s the wife.”
“And you’re the editor.”
“Right,” she said. “That’s right.” She could feel that the phone call was unwelcome, but she didn’t want to hang up. She couldn’t remember exactly where he lived, somewhere near Holland Park, maybe. “Look, Gavin, I’m going to be in London tomorrow and I wanted to talk to you.”
She heard a door closing at the other end, and then the noises were muffled away. Gavin’s voice, reserved, querying. “Talk.”
“Yes, talk. There’s something—something I need help with.”
“I’m not much good in the helping department. Ask around. Ask anyone. I’m bloody useless.”
“Really, Hanna, it was very lovely to meet you at the conference, but—you know how these things go, when the cat’s away. . . . There’s really nothing I can help you with.” His voice sounded final. Hanna could hear the click coming.
“Listen to me, Gavin,” she said softly, intensely. The kind of whisper you don’t ignore. “I said I’m going to be in London tomorrow and you can meet me at the Euston Flyer at three, or you can put the wife back on the line, and I can stop being fucking professional.”
* * *
Hanna took a morning bus into London. She had wanted to shower but she was afraid of what might happen with the water dripping off the edges of the opening in her neck. She had stolen some saran wrap from the communal kitchen and tried taping it like a band-aid in place. But the tape kept peeling and wouldn’t hold properly, so eventually she gave up on the whole thing and did her hair in the sink. She put on makeup, dressed nicely, wanted to look good for him, for Gavin Fucking Hale. She didn’t know why, but she did it anyway.
She couldn’t sleep on the bus. She kept wedging her neck between the window and the seat to hold it steady, but then she was worried that she was pulling too much at the skin. At last she just settled her head back, and read the book that Gavin had given her. It was clean writing, serviceable prose with just the right amount of pathos, the perfect, quirky dialogue—all up to snuff; her publisher would be proud. An old woman with pinkish-dyed hair caught her eye, smiled, nodded at the book. Hanna pretended not to see.
When she arrived in London, she picked out a seat near the back where she had a good vantage point. She didn’t know if Gavin would come. She didn’t know if she’d make good on the threat, and was half curious to find out.
Hanna spotted him, eighteen minutes late, a few minutes before she had decided to take out her cell phone to see if she could goad herself into calling. He made his way over, face looking dull, more like the author photo.
“Well,” he said, “I’m here so you can call off the charge and put down your weapon. I’ll come in peaceably if you only ask politely.”
“Gavin.” She put away the phone, waiting as he took his seat. “I’m glad you came.”
“Ah, my dear editor. What shall it be, business or pleasure?” And then to the waiter who had wandered within distance. “We’ll have two scotches. On me. Neat, no ice.” The waiter nodded, and disappeared the way that good waiters do when they can sense an awkward situation. “Neat and tidy,” Gavin continued, meaningfully, but this time to Hanna.
“I didn’t know who else to call.” Now that Gavin had come, Hanna realized she didn’t have any idea what to say next, how to begin the conversation.
“Let me start. An autograph, maybe?” A little mean, snarky. “No, something else then. A second draft on the new manuscript? Notes and first impressions?”
“What about a second fuck?” Just to break his stride. He was making her angry.
“And then a third and a fourth and when would it end? We might as well be married at that point and then who the hell would edit my books? The wife can’t do it.” His stride unbroken, and even charming in spite of himself. “It’ll be dogs and cats in the street. The lion and the lamb all cuddled up. The end of freedom, democracy, and Her Majesty out of work, pumping gas for a Paki kebab seller.” He leaned back in his chair, took a sip from the scotch which had appeared magically on the table.
“Fine,” she said.
* * *
They were in the bathroom, Hanna with her skirt up around her waist and Gavin holding her up, pinned against the side of the stall as he machine-gun thrust into her. A door opened, and then Hanna heard it closing again quickly, barely, over the sound of her panting and Gavin’s deep-throated grunts.
Then they were finished, and Gavin was slumped down on the toilet, a happy, sweaty smile on his face, running a hand over her bare buttocks, pulling Hanna close until she was resting on his knee.
“Aren’t you quite the surprise?” he said hoarsely, a little smugly too. “Fancy a second turn?”
This time Gavin spun Hanna around, her breasts pressed flat against the door. Hanna was afraid that the lock might give, the problem with ladies’ bathrooms in old pubs where the doors didn’t seem to fit the frame. Gavin pounded away behind, and his hands were at her waist, and then one cupping a breast, and then the other at her neck. Then she could feel something tearing along her shoulder, and warm numbness filled her so fast she thought she had already released.
But Gavin had stopped, she realized. His hand touched lightly upon her shoulder. He was saying something, softly, almost scared.
“A gentleman and a lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand.” Hanna didn’t know what it meant, was almost lured by the unknitting of her thoughts, the pulse of pleasure still having built to a nice warmness, mingling with the numbness starting at her shoulder; she felt happy for a moment, but Gavin was still speaking. “There is something wrong here, said he, but never mind, my dear, looking up at her with a smile, it could not have happened, you know, in a better place, good out of evil. The very thing perhaps to be wished for. We shall soon get relief—”
“What’s that?” Hanna murmured drowsily, forgetting she was leaning half-cocked against a mildly graffitized bathroom door.
“What do you mean, what’s that?” Gavin asked.
“That—a gentleman and a lady travelling . . .”
“How the Hell should I know?” He tugged on her arm, simultaneously pushing and pulling away from her. Then he was tugging up his pants, buckling his belt, as Hanna leaned against the side of the stall, trying to get her breath, not really enough room for the more elaborate elements of Gavin’s attempts to put his clothes back on.
“Gavin, what’s wrong?” The numbness fading away. Panic returning, fear. The sense of inevitable breakup, people drifting apart. “Did I—?”
“No,” he answered. “Look.” He unlatched on the door, and there was that push-pull as he took her wrist, guided her to the bathroom mirror. She tried to hitch her skirt back down, and almost tripped.
Then she was in front of the mirror, and Gavin was running a finger along her shoulder, but there was no warmth to the gesture. Hanna looked, and at first she couldn’t see it, but then she noticed the fault line running several inches to her clavicle. The edges of her skin had puckered up like old paper and there seemed to be nothing on the other side. Gavin reached up to where the fissure began, where a strip of something onion-thin, almost translucent, had curled up. He bent his head closer, tugging very gently on it: “There, I fancy, lies my cure, pointing to the neat-looking end of a cottage, which was seen romantically situated among wood on a high eminence at some little distance, does not that promise to be the very place?” He was reading, she realized, and then she could see that on the underside of the flap was a very tiny scrawl.
She pulled away from him without even thinking, her heart a misfiring jackhammer, and there was an awful tearing sound as the strip came away in his hand. She knelt down, grabbed the jacket she had left behind in the stall and wrapped in protectively around her shoulders.
“Whatever it is you’re doing, I want you to make it stop.”
“Whatever I’m doing?” he asked, but distractedly; he was staring at the piece that had torn away.
“I won’t call your wife, I promise.”
“Bugger my wife, Hanna,” he said. “The old lady has nothing on you. She’s made of nothing but laundry lists and children’s paintings and cheap romance novels. If I cut her open I’d expect to find nothing more than a list of things she had forgotten to pick up at Sainsbury’s, and maybe a notice about an overdue fine. But this is—”
“—this is bloody Jane Austen.”
* * *
Hanna did not go home to the tiny room in Cowley. Gavin set her up in a hotel room close to Victoria station, on a street filled with similar Georgian-style, whitewashed facades that hosted numerous other anonymous hotels. The manager knew Gavin, that was clear, and provided a room large enough to fit several of her Cowley apartment rooms inside. The space was comfortable, the bed soft and plush, the manager suitably unctuous if a touch overly familiar.
Gavin guided her in, his demeanour having taken on the excited, manic glow of a kid at Christmas.
“You’ll be fine here, darling,” he said, drawing open the blinds, and then shutting them again quickly. “The least I can do, considering your . . . I’ll have your things brought up from Oxford tonight.”
Hanna nodded and sat down on the bed. Her shoulder wasn’t sore, exactly, but she found herself wishing he would just go so that she could have a proper lie-down, clean herself up.
“But, Hanna, just in case—” She looked up at that. “—I don’t think you should really go outside, not in your condition. Stay here. Rest up, fortify your reserves, and I’ll have my doctor set up the appointment. Shouldn’t take more than a day or two.”
“I don’t want to go outside,” she replied.
“Of course not. Good.” He wandered away from the window and came to stand nearby, still looking around the room distractedly. “As I said, shouldn’t be more than a day or two. And I’ll be in touch.” She nodded, was surprised when he leaned down and kissed her on the mouth. Sought after some witty thing to say to him in response, because he was now looking at her eagerly, intently, for a touch longer than he should have been. He seemed to catch himself doing it, and he cleared his throat. “Take care, my darling, and don’t worry, not about a thing. I’ll take care of it all.”
Then he was gone, and Hanna could feel the weariness taking its toll. She rolled onto her side, couldn’t be bothered to get underneath the covers, and then for the first time it what seemed like a month, she slept—
—was woken up to the sound of her phone ringing.
“Hanna, Hanna, is that you?” Her publisher. “Hanna, something extraordinary is happening.” The voice was cheery, chirpier than Hanna remembered it being.
“What is it, Miri?” she mumbled into the cell phone.
“I’ve just received a call from James in Brighton. And he received a call from someone by Vauxhall. Something’s going on with Gavin Hale—something big. Everyone’s buzzing about it, but no one knows what it is. All very hush-hush. But you saw him in Oxford, didn’t you? Did he say anything?”
A stab of panic. Hanna propped herself up onto the pillows, trying to clear the mugginess from her brain. “No,” she said quickly. “He didn’t say anything. We just talked work. Regular work. The manuscript he was shopping around.”
“Was he—I don’t know—surely he must have said something?”
“No, just what you’d expect.”
A pause on the other end. Some of the chirpiness was disappearing from Miriam’s voice. “Can you find out what it is? You’re—where are you staying?—close to London, that’s right. See him. Set up a meeting. See if he’ll cut us in.”
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“Hanna, you’re twenty-eight years old and I know like every other twenty-eight-year-old working for crap pay, you’ve probably got an unfinished manuscript of your own stuffed away in a drawer, mounting student debt and the ache to do something real, to put some beautiful piece of fiction out into the world without it getting shat on, and maybe earn enough to feed yourself.” Miriam’s voice was picking up speed like a freight train. “And like every other out-of-grad-school hire, I can tell you that you know nothing. Not yet.
“Listen to me, your job status is about as close to probationary as it can be, and none of those pretty dreams are going to come true unless you can do this simple fucking job. You’re in London. This is what we need from you. That’s why you’re in London.”
Hanna swallowed. “Right.” Silence on the other end. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She hung up the phone. Her shoulder began to ache.
* * *
“I’ve cleared it with my agent, and I’ve got a deal all prepped and run through the legal mill,” Gavin told her excitedly.
“I don’t want a deal,” Hanna replied. “I don’t even know what the deal is for. I don’t know what’s happening to me!”
The hotel room had felt increasingly small over the last twelve hours, and Hanna had been pacing it back and forth like some kind of large predatory cat locked in a cage. This was the first bit of raw meat that had been dangled in front of her since Gavin had left her there, and she couldn’t help but take a swipe at it. She just wanted to see something bleeding.
“Something extraordinary, my darling. One of the world’s greatest authors, the peak of her career, just a pinch past forty and she’s writing up a storm, really gaining momentum with these quirky little romantic comedy things she’s been putting out there—and you know what?—the people love it, they’re just falling all over themselves to find out what happens with all those stuffed-up, bloody aristocrats and then—BANG!—bile and rheumatism until her mind could no longer pursue its accustomed course, and it’s all gone forever except that last, unfinished manuscript. Sanditon.”
“She was going to call it The Brothers for George Crabbe but—” He finally caught the long look that Hanna had been shooting at him, and perhaps he sensed something of the tiger in her. “Yes,” he continued, a little abashed. “Sanditon. The unfinished manuscript, only twelve chapters that she wrote, but you, my dear, you—”
He stopped, his face caught in an expression of absolute rapture. Hanna didn’t like the way he was looking at her.
“I think it’s all there.”
“What, the manuscript?”
“Yes, the manuscript, the whole bloody finished novel, there—”
“Gavin, that’s impossible, crazy, where is the doctor?”
“The doctor?” Pulled up short.
“Yes, you imbecile, the doctor, the doctor, the fucking doctor you promised me!” Hanna practically shouted the words at him. She felt close to tears. She had been terrified to look at her shoulder, afraid that perhaps there would be nothing there after all, that it would just be some malignant melanoma and that that the rest of it was all something dream-whipped up by the tumours pushing on her brain, spreading everywhere. She had dreamed that someone was feeding her through a paper shredder, and she had woken up screaming. Some of this finally seemed to get across to Gavin, and he stopped the triumphant parade, the gleeful little biography lesson and finally looked at her properly. She could see him doing it, re-evaluating her, shifting the categories in his mind.
He crouched down in front of her, and took her hand in his. “Hanna, darling.” He stroked the sensitive flesh between her thumb and forefinger, brought her hand up and kissed it gently. “Some extraordinary is happening, miraculous. It’s about more than doctors; it’s about art and beauty, something coming back to us from beyond—I don’t know, from beyond where—something we were supposed to have, that the world was supposed to have.”
He kissed her hand again, and then reached up to gently touch her face. His eyes were wide, the feverish excitement gone for a moment, and Hanna couldn’t tell if it was calculated or not, but she found herself slumping into him, into the warm embrace of his arms.
“It will be alright, my girl. There’s a kind of magic to it all, miracles don’t happen every day, and I’ll be right here, I’ll take care of you.” He stroked her hair lightly, gently. “It’s an extraordinary thing and we can’t stand in the way of it. You understand, don’t you?” He pulled away just the barest amount, and their eyes locked, his were liquid and brown and Hanna thought she could see the slight reflective sheen of what might have been tears in his eyes.
Hanna wanted to say that she didn’t understand, why the Hell should Jane Austen choose to write her last words on the inside of a twenty-eight-year-old editor, almost two hundred years after her death? That wasn’t a miracle, that was fucking poor planning.
But Gavin was kissing her now, very gently, just a little nibble at her lower lip, and she found she didn’t care quite as much as she thought she might, and maybe he was right anyway, maybe it was a miracle and all this was happening for some reason beyond her. And he kissed her again, and then that spot right behind her ear, his breathing a tickle in her hair, and then lower, and then—
“I just need to see it, Hanna,” he whispered, “just to be sure, to know for sure, that I’m right. You understand, don’t you?”
* * *
It had been a week. Her suitcase still hadn’t arrived. She imagined it back in the tiny room in Cowley, shoved against the ceiling, the makeshift bookshelf beginning to sag now, hers and Gavin’s papers beginning to muddle all together. Gavin had brought her a fresh set of clothes at least, but they didn’t fit quite properly, a little tight across the chest, a little baggy around the waist, and Hanna was almost dangerously sure that they might have been things stolen from his wife’s half of the closet.
She’d received three irate phone calls from her publisher, but she’d let them all go to voicemail. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she did, in fact, have the insider knowledge Miriam was looking for, even if she couldn’t share it just yet. Gavin had warned her not to. Said he would talk to his lawyer first, make sure everything was kosher, and that she was protected. It turned out that she wasn’t—a boilerplate bit of her contract gave Belletristic, Inc. the first right of refusal to anything she produced or obtained while working for them. It was unclear which clause Sanditon would fall under, but it was clear that some part of the contract had it covered. So the lawyer had recommended a temporary gag order, and she’d listened, put everything through to voicemail except her parents, and stopped answering e-mails.
Her initial fear had begun to transmute into a waiting tension, and then boredom, and then curiosity. She had started trying to capture pictures of the novel with her cell phone. The outside bits were easy enough, where the skin had peeled back from the fissure, but she didn’t want to cause any more damage. She fingered the papery tissue carefully, with her right hand, used her left hand to zoom and snap. The first twenty pictures were awful, but after several hours she found that she was starting to get the hang of it.
With the load of clothes, Gavin had also dropped off a copy of the 1925 Chapman transcription of the original manuscript, now housed in King’s College, Cambridge. She had read through it eagerly, but in the end she found herself increasingly bored. There wasn’t much of it, not enough to truly get the shape of the novel beyond the description of the town for which the novel was named, and its various, colourful inhabitants. It wasn’t Pride and Prejudice, she thought, but it was something. And perhaps the missing bits would flesh it out, get to the real crux of the narrative.
She began to transcribe the images she could get out of the camera. It wasn’t very much, though the writing was surprisingly dense. She finished what she could in about a day’s worth of meticulous photographing and transcription. And then the boredom returned, hours of it, just sitting, reading and rereading the copy Gavin had left and then trying to match it up with what she had on her computer.
Hanna didn’t know how it happened, exactly, but she found herself tugging on the skin just a little bit, to read several lines that had been obscured in shadow. And then just a little bit more. Soon she found there was a wide enough space that she could just fit in the edge of the slim phone if she was very careful. It felt strange, but not painful, rather a tickling sensation at the edge of the remaining skin and then nothing on the inside. Without a light, though, her cell phone didn’t have a good enough camera to make out very much else, just dim shapes, the curvature of the inside of her skin.
But, still, she had plenty of new material. Hanna could intermittently pick out scraps of dialogue and narrative that hadn’t been in the original. It wasn’t all in proper order, after all, and trying to read it was something like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
When Gavin arrived on the fifth day, Hanna was debating whether or not she might be able to get a little bit more brightness on the camera phone if she could manoeuvre herself closer to the bathroom light. She was standing up on the sink, shirtless, her shoulder pressed toward the ceiling and the cell phone held awkwardly in her right hand, snapping away like mad.
She almost fell onto the sink when she heard the door open. The ceramic cup holding her toothpaste crashed to the floor, and smashed apart.
“Hanna?” he called from the doorway. “Are you alright, darling?”
Hanna crouched down gingerly, careful to mind the bits of pottery, and popped her head out around the corner. “I’m fine. Where the fuck have you been, Gavin?” She snapped.
His mouth crinkled with a smile, and his brow crinkled with a smug look. He tugged her in for a very passionate, if quick, kiss before releasing her. “I’ve been showing off the pages, that’s where the fuck I’ve been. And—you know what?—they love them, everyone bloody loves them, want to know where we’ve been getting them. I’ve gotten half a dozen calls from Rosemary Culley of the Hampshire Jane Austen society, demanding to know where I found it and if I want to publish with them; and all the big boys, of course, James & Sweitzer, Great Auk, Door Holt, and that’s just in Britain. The Americans can sense there’s something going on, and even if they don’t give two figs for Jane Austen, they can smell the money. Not that we’ll go with the Americans, of course, not really theirs, is it? I mean, it’s ours, of course, well, it ought to be—”
“And the Canadians?” she asked.
“Foreign rights, that’s obvious. But there are no major players there, wouldn’t make any sense to shop it around for the first print run, let them wait for it, they don’t need it first—”
“I’m Canadian, Gavin,” Hanna said pointedly. He had the good grace to look abashed.
“Of course, we’ll consider every offer,” he paused, checking to see if she was mollified then dismissing it. “But that’s not really the point, is it? It’s not about the money, it’s about the culture, rediscovered, the unexhausted talent of the nation’s greatest writer—”
“—Shakespeare, who is Shakespeare? A balding man with a passion for soliloquies, perhaps he had a couple of real zingers, Macbeth—Hamlet was a bit too slow if you ask me—but nothing like the human drama of Austen, the subtle play of wit, understatement, the clever critiques of a society straitjacketing itself out of all the good bits of life.”
Hanna could see that he had worked himself up into a frenzy of speechifying, but that the patter sounded clean, a little too clean, rehearsed maybe. The kind of thing you might deliver in an interview or on a talk show.
“I’ll need the next lot of papers,” he added. “The work you’re doing is extraordinary, just extraordinary, my girl. My editor. My perfect editor.” He paused for a moment, noticing at last that she had her shirt off. “What’s happened here?” He reached toward her, fingering very gently the flaps of skin, more than there had been the last time he had been there.
“An experiment,” Hanna replied, smoothing it out of his grasp and back over the gap in her shoulder. She moved out of range, feeling his speculating gaze on her back, to where she had kept some safety pins. Deftly, she slid the pins through the double flaps of skin, pinching closed the hole so that it would not tear further. “I don’t know how else I’m supposed to get anything else out of it. There’s only so much I can read on the outside.”
“Right,” he nodded, still speculating, “Of course. Can’t just cut you open, can we?” He laughed. She did not.
The next day he returned with a new camera, one mounted on the end of a snake tube. He had duct-taped a very small LED light to the tip of it. He sat her down on the bed, and carefully unhooked the safety pins, slid the camera in. Hanna held her laptop on her knees. She sat very still, afraid to move. And then the pictures began to flood in, a little grainy at first, but there was so much more than she had been able to capture herself. She felt herself getting caught up in the excitement of it all, catching little snippets that she knew she could slot into the jigsaw puzzle of the narrative.
Gavin was breathing heavily, his mouth very close to her ear as he tried to manoeuvre the camera around. He kept shifting his weight, making the bed creak, and throwing off her balance. But she didn’t move. Kept very still for what seemed like hours. She had to pull herself up straight so that her stomach, sagging a little from the English food and the lack of exercise, wouldn’t wrinkle and distort the images on the inside. Finally, he pulled out the little camera.
“Well done, my darling.” He beamed at her, and this time she did smile back, good and proper, but her eyes were already drifting back to the manuscript, the long scrawls of words written around the slight concave dimple of where her spine stretched out the skin of her back, the flat of her shoulder blade, the hollowed insides of her breasts.
* * *
The weeks had crawled by, and now Hanna was watching Gavin on television, with some late night talk show host with a polished look to him, steel-grey hair, charming and a little self-deprecating, in a neat grey suit. Gavin was well turned out, and his bearing showed off his confidence to best effect. He was talking animatedly: “Sanditon,” he said, “she called it, and I quote, the very spot which thousands seemed in need of. And now we have it.”
She muted the volume. The real Gavin was lying next to her in the bed, had stayed over for the last few nights. Hanna was glad of it, had found that the standard assortment of complaints she typically brought to bear against her partners didn’t quite bother her so much. Perhaps it was the general loneliness. Perhaps it was because he was married, and didn’t seem as demanding as she would have imagined. Sometimes he seemed to forget about the sex altogether, caught up in a blur of telephone calls, the occasional phone interview or, as she was watching just then, major media appearances. What had been an energetic bit of fucking, punctuated by happy moments of productivity had soon blurred into less frequent heavy petting and a little more kindness. He read to her from the manuscript, practised his interviews with her, got her to ask him questions, and waited, patiently, for her evaluation of his performance.
But not right then. Then he was nuzzling her shoulder, careful around the pins, didn’t want to hurt her, he said. By this point, Hanna didn’t know if it actually was hurting or dangerous. The doctor had never come, despite assurances from Gavin that he would pop round tomorrow or the next day. Not malice. It wasn’t even deception—not real deception—but she could see the question drifting out of his mind two seconds after she’d asked it, not sticking in there as a real concern at all. And so it had become less real to her as well. The manuscript was almost finished, and there would be time for doctors after that, and money too. Gavin had negotiated an advance of half a million pounds, almost unheard of, and his phone had rung off the hook for about a week—inquiries from Jane Austen’s estate, more pressing queries from the librarian at Cambridge demanding that he stop the press releases until the veracity of the document could be determined, requests from researchers, book dealers, rival agents, rival lawyers—until he got a second phone, giving the number only to his agent, his lawyer, Hanna, and his wife.
“You’re beautiful, my darling, well and truly beautiful.”
Hanna smiled, touched the silk-wire hairs on his chest. “And you are a man who gets paid to make things up for a living.”
“Am I?” he asked plaintively. “I had forgotten. It seems as if I’m only parroting other people’s words, a publicist for the dead.” His eyes flicked to the screen.
“I believe I’m the one who is supposed to be feeling sorry for myself. You should be cheering me.” She quirked an eyebrow, curious at the change of tone.
“Right,” he said, “That’s why I began with the bit about you being beautiful. Which is true, by the way. Every word of it.”
“I’m the editor,” she answered. “Not the wife. Don’t make me the wife.”
“Ah, the crux of it all.”
“Cruxes are for editors, I was taught.”
“Crosses are for wives.” He paused. “To bear, that is. I am my wife’s cross, she says sometimes.”
Hanna said nothing.
“I think I might not go home tonight.”
“I think I might not go home ever again.” He whispered.
Television-Gavin was saying something witty to the camera, and, muted, Hanna just caught the close-up on his face, smiling. She thought about that smile—the cat’s smile—slipping on and off again, the warmth of him beside her. Felt a little sad.
“I think you should go home.”
* * *
The next day, Hanna left the hotel room. The unctuous hotel manager, attentive to the last, stopped her at the door.
“Mr. Hale said that you weren’t to leave.” His voice apologetic.
“Mr. Hale is not my fucking keeper,” Hanna hissed. The manager took a step back, and she took the opportunity to walk out the front door.
She took the bus from Victoria station to Oxford, this time without a book, without anything to do. After a while, Hanna took out her phone, began to check the missed messages—an overflow of worry, excitement, sometimes anger until the voices themselves became increasingly indistinct, just a mass of things wanted from her, things offered to her. She was fired, apparently. Her mother wanted her to come home. Something from Gavin at the end that she pointedly ignored.
There was a weight lifting from her, as she stared out the window, watching the hills roll by, a patchwork quilt of dark green shrubs and lighter tones of grass, fields, the strange light of the shifting mass of clouds a clear sign that rain was coming. But it was England, and there was always rain coming, so she just watched the clouds, mottling from silver to black to white, shades and textures she never saw in the sky back in Toronto.
Hanna made her way up Divinity Road, and turned off at Minster, the smell of roses and heavy humidity in the air. She barely recognized the house now, but when she unlocked the door to her room everything was where it had been before. She was worried that someone might have put her things out by the side of the road, even though she had paid up for four months in advance.
Carefully, she climbed up onto the bed and unwedged her suitcase from its cramped space between the shelf and the ceiling. She had forgotten how small the room was, and it smelled musty now from the windows being closed in the summer. The bed was unmade, the towel she had used to wash her hair before she went to London hanging from the inside door knob. Dry now.
She put the suitcase on the floor, and lay down on the bed.
* * *
Someone was knocking on the door to the room. Hanna opened it cautiously, mostly expecting to see Gavin standing in the entranceway, but it was an oldish woman, formerly pretty, with smallish breasts and a rounding waistline.
“The wife,” Hanna guessed aloud.
“The editor.” The woman quirked her head, smiled, and she was prettier than Hanna had imagined at first. “May I come in, love?”
Hanna gestured her in, but there was really nowhere for the two of them to sit, not with the suitcase taking up most of the available floor space. The woman did not try to sit, standing a little awkwardly. Hanna caught her looking around the room, her eye taking in the peeling ceiling, the narrow walls. “Sorry,” Hanna apologized. “I’ve apparently lost my job. But it didn’t pay very well to begin with—thus, the room.”
“Gavin tells me that you stand to make a good deal of money soon, you and he. Are you going somewhere?” She nodded to the suitcase, and Hanna took the handle, tipping it up vertically so that there was a little extra space.
“Home, I think.”
“Not on my account, I hope?” The woman’s gaze was sharp, but then she smiled again and sat down heavily on the bed. Hanna sat down beside her, not quite as heavily, still unsure of the bearings of the conversation, unable to navigate it.
“No—” she began. “It’s just been a long time. I miss it.”
She nodded. “Well, you’re a pretty girl. I imagined you would be, common as any young lady in the kingdom with a tolerable complexion and a showy figure—” Quoting now from the book. “—very accomplished and very ignorant.”
Hanna didn’t let herself show any sign of emotion at the jibe. “He showed it to you then? The pages?”
“That’s not new, love. The original, the bit we already had.” Mrs. Hale turned away then, and began to dig through a large, overstuffed purse she had brought with her. Eventually she took out a manila envelope tied shut with string. She unwound the string carefully, not drawing out the suspense on purpose, but Hanna began to feel it anyway, something like dread. The envelope had an address on it, and a name, JAMES MARTEN, M. D.
Finally, Mrs. Hale slipped out a series of photographs—x-rays, the shapes white and grey against a background of black, oddly reminding Hanna of the clouds earlier. But then as she looked further, she began to make out letters, little scrawls. Her eyes had gotten surprisingly good at reading this kind of text, fitting the superimposed images together, separating them into sensible bits and re-arranging them in order.
It was a love letter. To Hanna Greeson, the most darling editor in all the world. She couldn’t make out all of it, but what she could read was most definitely Gavin’s—clean writing, serviceable prose with just the right amount of pathos, the perfect, quirky endearments. But tiny, distorted, imprinted on the insides of his tissue.
“He came home complaining of a pain, oh, months back now. Around the time he went to Oxford. And met you, I expect. Dr. Marten investigated. We were worried about colon cancer. His father went that way, younger than he should have. He was about Gav’s age. We were both very scared.
“But then the results came back and it wasn’t cancer, and Gavin said he had found something, he had a major project due, something big. Yes, he showed me some of the pages. They were good. Very good. And it was all very exciting, a huge relief, something to take our minds off the things that had almost but not quite happened. But he didn’t come home one night. I wasn’t surprised really. Sometimes he does that when he’s working. God knows, we have enough money and with the kids around it can be hard for him to get writing done, so when he’s in one of those moods and there’s a deadline coming, sometimes he’ll just rent a hotel in town and stay on until the work is done. Or so he’s always told me.
“But then the doctor’s office called. I was half-sure that they had been wrong the first time, and it was cancer after all, but no, something else. They showed me the photographs. I didn’t know what it was.”
She was silent for a long moment. Hanna looked again at the images, Gavin from the inside, made strangely unfamiliar when she saw all the curves and the angles backward. And the writing, of course.
“He told me. He told me about the pages. About everything.” Mrs. Hale looked up and Hanna found herself returning the look, unwilling to speak. And then, unexpectedly, she rested her hand on Hanna’s.
“It’s okay, love. Really it is. You weren’t the first, and I have no doubt there will be others. It’s just his way, and I’ve made my own peace with it. It’s what we do—wives, that is. It’s what marriage always meant to me, and it’s why I married him. Because he needs someone to care for him, for all that bundled enthusiasm and pride and ego and sometimes kindness. He’s not a bad man.
“And the truth is—the real truth, between us women—is that I’d rather have Sanditon. Even if Gavin never wrote another word, the world would keep turning, there are plenty of Gavin Hales in the world and no one would really mourn.” Her smiled quirked up, reminding Hanna of Gavin’s smile, the way two people can come to look alike when they have shared a life together. “But then there’s you, my dear, and then there’s Jane. And maybe the world can’t live without her. Maybe that’s what it all means.”
Carefully, Mrs. Hale reached for the photos, took them from Hanna’s numb fingers, slipped them back into the envelope and placed it on the bed beside them.
“He might come for you.”
“I’m going home. Tonight,” Hanna said.
“He might come anyway. But I hope not. He’s a good husband, despite everything.”
Mrs. Hale stood, took her oversized purse and left.
Hanna was alone in the room. The envelope was beside her, but she found that she didn’t want to look at it again. She could hear the footsteps going down the stairs, listened as the front door quietly clicked shut.
Then she unzipped the suitcase, and searched around inside for her own manuscript, the pages not entangled with Gavin’s after all. She counted out each one, finding herself reading bits and pieces as she went, automatically reassembling the words in her head, the shape of the unfinished story. Hanna found she liked it still.
And then she slipped off her jacket, unbuttoned the blouse beneath and slipped that off too. The pins had kept the skin from tearing much further, but she could feel the perforation running down further, almost to the swell of her breast now. She undid the pins one by one. She pulled back the flaps of skin. The ink smudged a bit, but she didn’t need to be so careful now that it was all fully photographed, the words recorded. She found that she could peel away most of her shoulder, that queer feeling of numbness and excitement all wrapped up together.
And then she rolled up her manuscript, and she slid it through the gap, could feel the slight pressure of it against her ribs, on her pelvis. It felt right there. She reinserted the pins again, closing up the gap, thought better of it, and took out the tiny traveller’s sewing kit she kept in the top drawer. Bit by bit, she stitched together the edges until they just about fit, only a few times when she had to tug the skin close to match up ends that didn’t quite join up any longer. She could feel the weight of it, the way the pages settled against her inside, the words face-to-face with Jane’s, pressed together, ink rubbing on ink in the darkness inside her skin.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Jordan Ellinger. Jordan is a recent first place winner in the Writers of the Future Contest and is a Clarion West graduate. His work can be seen in Gotrek & Felix: The Anthology, Hammer & Bolter, and Story Portals. He has two graphic novels in various stages of development: The Seven with Luke Eidenschink and Causality with illustrator Joey Jordan. In his spare time, he helms Every Day Publishing, publisher of Every Day Fiction, Every Day Poets, Flash Fiction Chronicles, and Raygun Revival.
Don’t Move a Muscle, Mr. Liberty
The hat is everything.
Crumpled leather the colour of a fisherman’s tan, it sits on its head in the middle of the cobblestone plaza. It is a great fisher of men, my hat. It sweeps up passing tourists and holds them before me, their jowls hanging loose like gasping catfish as I ply my trade. At the end of my performance, my hat pulls back its hooks in the form of jangling change.
It is customary to bow lavishly for the kids, give ’em a show, but it’s as much for my sake as theirs. Being a human statue isn’t like being a juggler. It’s a high risk profession. Your blood doesn’t flow right. Your heart, it turns out, relies on minute muscle movements to help propel blood around your body, and if you remain perfectly still your fluids get sluggish. Veins get inflamed, muscles start to ache. Any normal job, you just lean on your other hip. Not me. Don’t move a muscle, Mr. Liberty.
That’s my gimmick. Bought a green suit from Value Village and painted my face with the kind of zinc you might have seen on a surfer’s nose back in the eighties. Lady Liberty carries a book commemorating Independence, but this is Canada, so the inscription on my cardboard replica reads JULY I, MDCCCLXVII. When a local notices this, they are often compelled to tip me. They tell themselves they’re being patriotic, but really it’s to show me they’re clever enough to spot the difference.
You’d think the torch would be a problem, but my arm only hurts for ten minutes and then it goes to sleep. I heard there was a yogi in India whose god told him to hold his left arm above his head. He did that for forty-three years until it shrivelled up and froze that way, but he said it brought him closer to God. I check my arm for shrivelling every night.
Sometimes I see a poser painting his face and wrapping himself in tin foil. Figure all it takes to be a human statue is the ability to remain perfectly still. This lasts for ten minutes, half an hour tops. Then the ache sets in.
The ache doesn’t bother me anymore. I tune it right out. I sing “Let It Be” by the Beatles in my head, over and over again like a mantra. I must have sung that song a hundred thousand times. I could quote you the lyrics two months after I die.
It feels like only fifteen minutes have gone by but it’s noon and the hat is starving. There’s a recession on, but honestly. I don’t ask much. The change from your pockets, the stuff you’re embarrassed to count out at the corner store. No need for a coin jar crowding the top of your dresser. Put it in the hat.
People flit by like schools of fish and the effect reminds me of Jimmy Wallace. Jimmy Wallace was an eleven year old in Nebraska who took a picture of the intersection outside his house every day at the exact same time until he was twenty-six. He compiled it into a montage that you can watch on YouTube. For nearly a third of the video, a young woman passes by on the other side of the street carrying an umbrella. Rain or shine, there she is — caught in a sunbeam, sheltering against the storm, picking her way through the snow.
Suddenly a single photo stretches out for seconds, a hiccup in the download, and there she is struggling with her umbrella. The street is more lake than asphalt, but awash in golden light. She’s caught in silhouette, mid-step, back hunched, hair falling in front of her eyes. A fly in amber. For that one moment it feels like you’re seeing right into her soul. And in the next picture she’s gone, never to return. Eaten up by the city.
A shout focuses my eyes and I realize that I haven’t bowed when a little girl dropped coins in the hat. I see the father with my peripheral vision. My peripheral vision is 20/20. I’ve got a sidelong glance Sherlock Holmes would envy.
He’s German from the accent, on the part of the tour where you’re encouraged to drop a few bills in the local shops, buy a sixty-five-dollar baseball cap. He’s angry but mute and indistinct. All I can hear is the way he deepens his voice when he pronounces certain vowels. I ignore him. He can’t touch the statue. There’s an unspoken agreement between performer and audience that holds him back even though he wants to slug me. Don’t touch the statue.
Still it’s nice to hear tourists talk, even to curse me out in a language I can’t understand. All locals ever talk about is the weather but the weather is always the same in Vancouver. Overcast with a chance of being pissed on. The sun isn’t out and I have no idea what time it is because I don’t wear a watch. The ticking hands would give me away.
A half-dozen bills sit on a bed of silver coin and my hat is bulging a little. It looks like a lot of money, but really it’s only fifty bucks or so, and this is a Saturday in July. Prime tourist season. A half-circle of cyclopean picture-takers stand around me; some get quite close for fancy shots or silly poses, but they never get closer than the hat. That’s the barrier. Stay out.
I resist the urge to empty my hat into the beat-up rucksack I brought with me. Instead I focus on the sound of the cement factory behind me. Ocean Cement Ltd. is a relic from when Grandville Island was an industrial zone under one of the city’s main arteries. Now they keep the land because it’s close enough to downtown that their trucks save precious fuel. The Merchants’ Association and the art school on the other side of the island have turned its fence into a technicolor yawn, but if I turn my head, I can still see the cement towers that rise beyond.
I do not turn my head.
Instead I concentrate on the sounds behind me. The repetitive drum beat of gas guzzlers cruising the parking lot, crossing paved-over railway tracks. The puttering of pleasure craft out in the bay. A flickering sizzle as the giant neon sign advertising the Market clicks on and off. This must be how the blind live. In that direction I am blind.
Ever been in a serious staring contest? It’s tough until your eyes dry out and then you’re home free. You need a third party to mediate if it goes this far — and it rarely does — because sometimes your vision gets so blurry you can’t see if your opponent blinks. You have to remember to dab yourself with a couple of drops of Visine when it’s over or you can damage your corneas when you blink.
The hat is gone and it is very dark. The giant neon sign has just gone out and a white-clad cook is tipping a trash receptacle into a blue bin. There aren’t any nightclubs on this side of the island, but I can hear the faint beat of eighties music, mostly thumping bass, from somewhere behind me.
I mourn the hat.
While I was singing “Let It Be” in my head, I let it go. Someone just took it. I wonder where people will put their coins, but then I remember my rucksack. It’s behind me in the land of the blind, but I sense it there. They’ll feed the bag instead of the hat.
The thumping stops a few hours before dawn breaks. I didn’t notice that it was time to go home and now it’s time to start work again. There is a persistent itch between my shoulder blades where a fold of the T-shirt I wear under my suit jacket is irritating my embarrassingly hairy back but I can’t itch because the first tourists have begun to show up and they check for that. Instead I slowly clench and unclench my deltoids. I can do this imperceptibly because my Value Village suit is three sizes too big.
I have come to the conclusion that I would have detected even the most cunning hat thief. My peripheral vision is 20/20. The hat has been eaten by the city.
The day is not fruitful without my hat. Confused tourists (too many for a Sunday, is it Saturday again?) walk up to me looking for my hat, but when it’s not there they look for a plaque. Maybe it’s a real statue, honey. Otherwise why would he be out here without a hat?
I miss my hat.
I’d like to buy another one, but the store across the way sells them for sixty-five dollars, and without a hat I can never earn that much. It’s the classic Catch-22. Briefly, I wonder if Joseph Heller had a hat, but then conclude that he would have made enough money from his books not to need one.
It is getting cold and amber leaves drift lazily across the cobblestones. A slight wind has dusted the bay with whitecaps and the tourists have become locals. We are in danger of getting pissed on and some of them wrestle with their umbrellas.
My eyes have long since dried out. I make a mental note to buy Visine. The city has become a blur and is transformed. The line of brake lights passing over a distant bridge is a pulsing red artery bringing nourishment to the city. Condo high-rises have become teeth and cars slosh between them like saliva. The city is slowly digesting them.
I begin to wonder if I am a man pretending to be a statue or a statue pretending to be man. Chuang Tzu was confronted with a similar problem when he dreamed that he was a butterfly and then awoke to find himself a man. Could it not be that he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man? He concluded that the question was irrelevant. When he was the man, he would live as a man, and when he was the butterfly, he would live as a butterfly.
I feel my arm again when it snows. The extra weight is almost too much to bear and I dearly want to shake it off but they check for that. Instead I think of that yogi with his arm in the air, shrivelled up like an atrophied erection. I wonder if his god ever came to him. I imagine him sitting cross-legged on a dirt floor, ribs shading a concave belly. The fingers of his right hand covered in saffron, a sparse dinner bowl discarded nearby. The muscles on his left side are steel cable, his shoulder a lump of granite, but after forty-three years his arm is a tiny, misshapen thing. He meditates well into the night. All the fires have gone out in the village, the dogs have ceased their barking, the distant ocean surf has stilled. And there, in that perfect silence, enlightenment comes. He smiles with crooked teeth, and it is like dawn stealing over the Ganges.
I promise myself that when the ocean surf stills for me as it did for him, I will allow myself to move the twenty-six muscles it takes to smile. When they check for that, as they always do, they will discover only an empty pedestal without a plaque. Nearby, I hope, they will find my crumpled leather hat.
“Don’t Move a Muscle, Mr. Liberty” was first published in AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ben Godby. Ben writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.
This is the story’s first publication.
The Princess and the Shadowspawn
Along the banks of Big Kruarnoth, factories compete to make the loudest din: the forges hiss, assemblies drum, meatpackers scream.
Black hills, gray skies, and fishes witness. It’s been ten thousand years now—unabated.
* * *
A shitty afternoon like all the rest, a rider—lone—emerges. He sits astride a thundercycle: big wheels, big boots, black shining leather ideals. His hair is loose and flies free in a windsphere, a paraphysical channel he has conjured up, a force he summons with his demon speed.
But otherwise, the air is dead round Big Kruarnoth.
The rider’s name is Scorn Defeat. His heart is hard, but wasn’t always: his mother and his father placed a spark, a flame, inside his infant chest, and now—like an oyster—a stone hides in the folds of living flesh. He grips the handlebars with molten knuckles and chivvies the accelerometer in his brain, for he’s brought only one bit of wisdom with him: that you must go very quickly to get nowhere, if from all worlds and landscapes you seek escape.
The thundercycle spits and screams, while the banks of Big Kruarnoth quake and shudder, and call his name.
* * *
Beneath Scorn’s wheels, the desert turns to glass.
Long behind him are Big Kruarnoth and her tributaries, the hills of moldering chlorophyll and those volcanic cliffs of scree, those bracken thickets, hedgerow deadpools, and the chasms of sparkle-deadened gneiss and blackened basalt bands. The earth has become an aqua-mendicant, and yet a river’s tongue still ebbs and flows, and eddies in the pockmarks of Scorn’s soul—not quite as forgettable as the rider once believed.
“Turn back, Scorn,” here spits the sun. “This world is always only wasteland; all ruined hearts and ruined dreams.”
The rider wonders, thinks, denies; his thundercycle laughs, then screams.
The sun, a disc; the sky, a wheel; a blade that’s blue and black as ice, strapped to the back of Scorn Defeat.
* * *
The earth metastasizes at the desert’s end: erratically, black life perfuses. The ochre dunes begin to slip, then stumble, rear, and march toward an ocean that, beyond the bleeding sun’s horizon, stinks of salted bones. Silted tendrils comb the limbus; trees lift their legs out from the muck—unsure, unsown.
The rider has been lulled by lengths of red and yellow sand, and on this border of the land the change is jarring, jolts him awake, though still too late. Scorn’s wheels spin; the heavy metal chassis starts to sizzle, splutter, spark and steam. The rider is immersed in green water that, when he stands, rises barely to his knees.
Scorn spits, and swears, and drags himself beyond the sopping marrow of the bog. Insects titter, and the daylight bats that hunt them pause, rest their eyes upon this interloper, and consider. He stands to let the water sluice free of his jacket, but he can’t stop the swamp-juice leaving stains.
Somewhat drier and halfway calmer, the rider climbs the shallow hill, where he parts the bracken and the boughs and gazes up at the enameled road he just blazed across the sands. His path forms an iridescent track, a highway betwixt the dunes that, soon—as those stolid hills begin to shift—will crack.
He wonders if, along it, someone might follow; if he, or if this swamp, holds something that maybe someone wants. He thrusts his hands below the waterline, sifts the muck, then sniffs it once.
Nothing but the putrid. If something’s here, it’s buried deep. He looks toward the sun, now wrapped in a corona of clouds and atmospheric gauze.
“Perhaps there’s something, down below, for you,” says Scorn. “You have, I think, the time to look.”
He pulls the vehicle from the swamp and drains it. Its pipes piddle on the sodden grasses; its gas tank, never filled, burps with approval. Then, unconcerned the sun was unresponsive, Scorn climbs aboard his cycle, lights the engine, tests the boiler, then through the mangroves and the deadfall passes.
* * *
Twilight descends just as Scorn finds the town. At first he thinks it must be an illusion. Wooden frames, thatched roofs and gables; water pumping, cattle braying; Scorn finds himself amidst a panoply of village sights and village sounds.
In the face of this domesticity, he kills the engine, slows his thundercycle down.
“BONEDUST,” reads a sign. And: “WARNING: THOSE THAT LEAVE SHALL NOT LEAVE ALIVE.”
Scorn wonders how the village ever got its name, when it’s so near those fens of groundwaters deep and soils moist. He’s seized by an instinct: he tests the blade that the sun made upon his back, and tastes its ice.
That, too, a riddle—though only such as life.
The sun is setting, yonder, among the rifts of distant hills: a yellow hulk, and midnight mounds.
* * *
Two steel rails run straight from nowhere and onwards through the village square. The railroad rests on ties of timber, stained with blood, and the ballast is of bones. They are the diplomats of industry, and Scorn hates the feeling he feels of home.
The village is now settled with a silence deadly (long gone, or never were, those phantasmagorical pastoral sounds). Shadows rule the alleys which are more numerous than the dwellings, from which windows lurch and shudder as though their casements were alive. The shopfronts yawn, awaiting produce, and the rails run too plumb and narrow—as though modeled on some equation straighter. Beyond the limits of the village they enter forests hot and deep, and, somewhere beyond them: a castle on a rotten hillside, very dark.
A cuckoo-clock goes off somewhere, chiming nine.
The forest’s lips grumble, smack, and lick—then open wide.
“Help!” a weak voice cries. “You must save me, interloper, or else surely I’ll die!”
Scorn cuts Bonedust’s welded air with his blade, sending azure tracers through the sky. He ponders this gutless reaction without conclusion before he looks; then, there, in that window of that tower, that slender claw of black and broken stones that stands from here not very far (a dozen steps from anyplace would get Scorn there), he sees her drift among the lintels, like a curtain: nocturnal wisp, a midnight willow, some unfortunately fallen star.
The rider wonders if he hasn’t been equipped just for this—if Providence is not an overarching plan, but rather like a guiding fist restricted to the heroes and the heroines of myth. The sword, his thundercycle, and Big Kruarnoth refute all other explanations, and, like a mollusc wrenched from water, Scorn’s flesh—for better or for worse—tastes air.
“I wouldn’t think, if I were you, of doing anything so daring.”
Scorn spins, his weapon once more fighting for him. A man in black—cowled, leering—stands just beyond the village clearing.
“Who are you?” snarls Scorn.
The cowled man pauses, smirks, considers. “Azdrobanus?” he says at length. “Mecrathanthum. Gillee-Talril, or maybe Est-Ton-Bal-Rol.”
The sun has set quite completely now, and a sudden cool sets Scorn’s blade to dripping. His fingers clench the frozen hilt. The creature laughs.
“More important: lord of Bonedust, and chief engineer.” He stamps the railway, which straightens. Then he again considers. “Necromancer. King of Darkness. Enemy of All That’s Living. And my daughter, Sweetly, is not for the taking.”
“Help me, Scorn!” the princess screams—his name written on his face like in all ages.
For that one moment—the duration of her sylvan voice—Scorn feels transported. The clatter, the hammering, the ignominious deafening, that din, that song, that wretched hurlyburly known as Big Kruarnoth that roils in his heart is then dead, and buried—its grave site lost.
“You cannot stop me,” says Scorn Defeat.
Azdrobanus moves too freely, his body melding angles easily; antiquity is painted on his face like some infernal scar. “If I can’t, well… they surely will.”
Scorn looks around. The moon passes over Bonedust luminously, and in the village alleys, shadows… scraping sounds. Yellow pupils in green setting; mouths breathe fire, begin to glow.
Scorn shivers. The sword has been reduced to snow-leather grips and hoarfrost crosspiece: the nexus of an implement not present. The princess leans out from her window, but he can’t bear to see her now.
“Leave and don’t come back,” says Azdrobanus, “or they’ll remove you.” He grins slyly: lupine teeth in goblin visage. “Please don’t make me tell you how.”
* * *
Beyond the edge of Bonedust village, Scorn Defeat lies tossing, turning, and in certain lucid moments dreaming. The starlight wheels; his cycle purrs while gently sleeping.
“Why did I come here?” wonders Scorn. He stands and looks east, south, west and north: so many variations on the path he might have taken.
And yet his destination, he wonders—thinks—denies—believes—could be no different.
In his chest, a spark—a flame—is licking at live flesh again. What was it that his parents said—so ordered, clipped, regurgitated? Spoken in the language of machines, a dialectic that some men and women esteemed godly lore. An explanation: how things ought to be.
“Louder, louder,” and, “always, forever;” until the day a thundercycle rode up the banks of Big Kruarnoth, bearing Scorn Defeat. Across moldering hills, volcanic cliffs, bracken thickets and deadpool hedgerows, chasms of sparkle-deadened gneiss and blackened basalt bands, unto these midnight porticoes that stand just beyond the sands.
Scorn leaps to his feet and kicks his vehicle alive. His hilt spits a blade of fire, now; the thundercycle roars, and, with a voice of pistons pounding, Scorn cries.
“The future will burn what’s come before!”
* * *
The town of Bonedust lies silent underneath the waning moon. Nocturnal vistas propped on alleys are predicated on blind ends, and stir in languor; the air that winds around in cul-de-sacs snaps and snarls its own heels, while Scorn’s thundercycle’s engines boom.
Rubber screeches on the pave-stones, leaving black tracks on the graying monoliths. “Princess!” Scorn Defeat goes crying. “Princess Sweetly, trapped in yonder tower tall!”
The girl appears, a ragged mist; her face is neither energized nor listless. She seems to brighten, shedding lumens, gathering a blood-fresh humor, coinciding with the vision of this black-clad hero at her prison door.
“Have you come to rescue me?”
“Of course. My heart is melting! Never have I ’til now been living. Now let a ladder down, or else open up this wooden door; and flee, we shall, from Bonedust and our fathers’ stolid worlds, together, on towards a future without ceilings, without floors.”
“Scorn!” the Princess cries, now pointing. Scorn turns to watch the dancing yellow dots and listen to the scraping sounds—picking from the outside, inward—that, moving quickly, thwart the village square, spelling doom.
“Come, night monsters!” calls Scorn Defeat. His hands hold nothing, though he wields his sword, and his hair flies freely in a windsphere—a channel conjured by his motions and his striding forth. “I do not fear you. This princess shall be freed, and we shall live in peace forevermore.”
“Kill him!” Azdrobanus shouts. His voice echoes and assaults the air as though spoken from a thousand mouths—even though, at this late hour, he’s no more visible than a mote of dust, some fungal spore.
Skeletons and zombies crawl, and stagger-shudder, invite each other in their myriad droning mutters to come along on this their midnight stroll. They’ve been frozen, preserved, re-animated, and now enact their master’s vicious commands.
But Scorn’s got the breath of life inside him—the kind of life that’s stronger for once being dead.
With battle cries he cuts them down, and bludgeons them and strips their bones. There’s a fire burning somewhere, and a rod of ice that gleams; but at this late hour his sword is no more solid than his sorrow, or his shame.
Bodies pile in night’s shadowed corners; the ballast of the railway is buttressed more. Scorn stumbles through the shamblers, creepers, revenants and all these ghosts of yore, and fights his way back, returns to the base of the tower and its door.
It is Azdrobanus, his body taking shape.
“I’ll kill you, too,” says Scorn, a rictus scowling. “I’ve cut through all your deathly lore.”
“I’ll kill the Princess,” says Azdrobanus, grinning black through midnight’s spoor. “You think I wouldn’t? I hold her breath, just as you are master of your sword. Bonedust is my realm, Scorn, and you are just a wanderer within it.”
“I don’t believe you could kill her,” stammers Scorn—not sure what it was that clenched and tightened in his chest. “No, not your daughter. That would be worse even than fratricide, or the killing of my parents. There’s limits even when it comes to hate.”
“Ah, Scorn, your words are fine, but you understand it all too well—the bond that links a parent and their children, and how those ties do ebb, regress, and flow. Now look!”
From the window, some feeble cry: the Princess dangles, her body limp, her eyes wide and harrowed.
“No!” cries Scorn. “What are you doing? Without her, life is not worth living.”
“Is it? I wouldn’t know. But I’ll trust to your judgment if you trust mine. See, you can help me. Scorn, please understand: through that forest yonder I must pass. And yet, there’s something, some diurnal aberration, an abyssal darkness too unlike and like me, that guards the way to that very castle’s door.”
Scorn slowly turns, now unbelieving, to regard the sloping, wooded maw. He sees, as dawn begins to pale, the bodies strewn across the forest floor. Twisted rails and shattered stumps tell the tale of their work so far.
“Find me some way up that hill… and the girl is yours.”
“You’ll keep your word?” Scorn says, desperate.
“I will, if you can keep your life.”
Scorn ponders this and thinks it’s fair: better, yes, by far, indeed, than to live alone or on the banks of Big Kruarnoth, making noise with breath and deed.
He leaves Azdrobanus and his kidnapped daughter in his wake, and walks upon that ill-conceived and dreadful road with his pace now unsteady, now unsure. The castle looms, beneficent in all benighted glory. Scorn looks back toward the village.
“What did you say it was?” he shouts back, brushing icicles from his whiskers and his face. “This thing, this monster lurking in the forest?”
“I do not know,” says Azdrobanus, his voice a whisper swept upon the wind. “You’ll tell me when you’ve killed it.”
Scorn considers, disappears.
“Oh, Father,” mourns the wispy child, her virgin bosom heaving now. She still is crooked, strange, and brutal, hanging from her window like a ragdoll, the spell still cast. “What if Scorn Defeat does not return?”
Azdrobanus doesn’t answer… shrugs.
“Then another, we must assume, will come along.”
* * *
The wood stinks of must and loneliness; of rusted iron, calcified verdigris. There’s rotting matter lying on the ground, that—with time—will seep into the earth, and revivify it.
The trees all dangle, hunchbacked and calloused; the ferns bunch in groups, except for the occasional stray that’s wandered off in a desperate bid for solitude, or in response to some socio-botanical ostracism. These loners are sometimes fuller, capturing the forest’s paucity of nutrients for themselves; but alone, still, they are less impressive than the groups.
The air is cloying, and the rails run, run on, and run out.
Shadows play in dawn’s faint light, but as yet they spawn no interlocutor for Scorn to face. Ahead, the forest rises, sweeping up the hill like a blanket covering a giant. The castle rears, stoic and hard, a block of masonry that from where it sits atop the hill will not be moved.
The broken ground is fixed again, nature having reclaimed the spaces that the workers fought for. Scorn goes further; then, losing himself in the forest dawn, slugs the air. It covets him with heat and sweat, though inside he cannot warm enough. He tears apart his jacket, casts the leather down; ties his hair up for a moment before unleashing it again, for now he’s cold. This particular stretch of wild has something in its makeup, as though the very atmosphere were unclear.
He climbs up the slope, unsteady still, until he’s reached the top. The castle looms, a morning shadow; a low keening flies from darkened windows, some kind of din, fantastic and quite overbearing, that seeks to crush his spirit, turn its vane against the wind.
Or only, perhaps, to invite him in.
Scorn scowls, grabs his chest, and pries it open. Meatpackers scream; the pistons deep inside it growl and grind his name.
* * *
With dawn breaking over broken hills, and sunlight chasing undead ills, the forest groans and spits forth a warrior clad in black.
He looks the same, all chains and leathers; and still the grime of riding long and hard—without purpose, goal, or tactics—stains the space along his inner thighs. His hair is windblown and his cheeks are frozen fast.
He comes along the path to Bonedust, ignores the wizard at the lintel, and goes inside to gather up his Princess, Sweetly, for all time.
* * *
“Is something wrong, Scorn?” the Princess asks. “Something eating at your mind?”
Scorn stares out the window, toward a castle dark in deep forest; but all he hears is pistons, clanging, hammering out his name.
The Princess sighs and slumps in her chair. The dark tower with its broken fingers, its ragged claws, she has remade. There is fresh white wash across the stones, wainscoting, countertops, and brand new devices imported from the banks of Big Kruarnoth—across the wild land and the desert’s inland sea.
“What’s wrong, Scorn? For God’s sake, tell me! Ever since you slew that thing, that spawn of shadow…”
“That was nothing,” Scorn rasps, half-dreaming. His eyes are drifting, gaze ranging out the window—toward the rumpled, broken land.
“Nothing? Not at all! It had trumped my father—bastard though he is—for far too long. And you, with your bravery and guile, your aptitudes heroic, did defeat it.”
Scorn laughs. Then he chokes, turns to gaze upon his wife. “Nothing there,” he whispers.
“Nothing there?” The Princess pales. “Whatever do you mean?”
“There was nothing there!” screams Scorn Defeat. The whole tower shudders, shivers, quakes—though not for Scorn nor for his anger, but rather on account of falling beneath the yonder castle’s gaze. The sun, falling through the window, casts its blade upon the hero, that icy rod of puissance mighty; but on the hill that fortress waxes under spells still darkly—each brick mortared with a sticky shame.
“There was nothing there,” he whispers again. “Just the forest… some clever ruse…” He looks at the princess with hooded eyes. “Some aspect incomplete.”
“Then what…” The girl is fearful; swallows. “What happened in those dappled maples, among the darkling shrubs and bushes?”
“Look in my eyes, girl, and tell me, please: does anything—anything, anything at all—still remain?”
The Princess is backed into a corner by her husband’s deep gunmetal eyes. In them—in all their swirling grayness, flecks of whiteness and their pupils’ utter blackness—is surging the waveform crucible of that song: the banging, slamming, ringing tones of maritime manufactory. The banks of Big Kruarnoth, dread and total, in his eyes even while he sleeps.
And in the shadows of those surging verges, fishes watch, and something spawns; though the Princess, bless her, will never—ever—quite know how to speak its name.
“Yes, Scorn, my very darling,” the Princess whispers (shrinking further), “I think that something—something—must still, forever… always… remain.”
* * *
Along the banks of Big Kruarnoth, the factories compete in many games. The spark of life and screams of death are, to them, just One, and Same.
The tower down in Bonedust will one day begin to crumble, its stone-cut tendril-fingers reaching for the village floor. A castle, mired amongst the forest, casts its shadows over lands now listless; and a princess, on the hilltop, has been buried there in vain.
And of Scorn Defeat, his princess, and the Shadowspawn that bound them, one wonders whether something, anything, or nothing, might be, or has been, or will one day still remain.
Six Brumes [Six Mists] is an independent Québecois genre publishing house helmed by Jonathan Reynolds and Guillaume Houle, based in Drummondville and Sherbrooke. I met them at Congrès Boréal (a Québecois sf and fantasy convention) this past May in Montréal, where they were celebrating ten years of existence as well as the nomination of a novella they had published, L’Aquilon, by Carl Rocheleau, for the Prix Borèal. In November 2011, they were honoured on the occasion of their tenth year of existence at the Montréal Salon du livre by the association’s president.
Q: Why did you decide to found Six Brumes during your studies? Did you find that your professors or fellow students thought that genre literature wasn’t worthy of attention, or for other reasons?
Jonathan Reynolds: In all of our efforts, we are passionate. Thus, when we founded Six Brumes, it was of course our passion that prompted us, passion for promoting fantastic literature in all ways: writing, reading, editing, publishing . . . Our mission was very simple from the start: to help authors become known, to serve as their springboard. We published the first books of a number of authors who are now well experienced: Michel J. Lévesque, Dominic Bellavance, and Mathieu Fortin, among others.
Q: What lessons in the business and art of publishing did you learn in your first years?
Jonathan Reynolds: We started from zero, without any experience. So, we went step by step, with our first book, first launch, first distributor, first attendance at a book show, first prize, first reprint. I learned never to become discouraged: these tests are here to make us grow and learn. There are no mistakes, just challenges that one can choose to surmount, or not. It doesn’t matter what project you’re working on: it’s all a question of believing or not believing. How far is one willing to go to realize one’s dream and those of others (in this case, authors publishing their first novel)?
Guillaume Houle: I ask myself lots of questions about authors’ involvement in the promotion of their books. More and more, the author is becoming like both a film director and an actor at once, and must connect with the reader, whether indirectly through the media (television, the web, newspapers, etc.) or directly (at workshops, literary events, book shows, or with a personal website). Paid publicity helps very little, so we concentrate on authors who are comfortable coming out of their hideyholes to meet readers. We have effectively refused, after a number of years, to publish writers who we never meet and who don’t want to attend the Salons du livres or other literary events. On the other hand, one can notice a difference between what one likes as an editor and what sells well. In choosing to have a vision and investing in less popular genres, one reaches a more loyal and dedicated audience, but a smaller one.
Q: Why do you define literary genres so specifically on your website? Is it to clarify your submission preferences?
Jonathan Reynolds: In effect, the principal reason is to classify submissions, to make sure we’re all on the same wavelength. It’s also because the readers may choose what they want to read based on its genre. For example, we don’t market a horror story in the fantasy genre, or our readers won’t like us anymore. Of course, there are a number of crossing points between existing genres, and we are also interested in those, but we classify our books within their predominant genre.
Q: Are the same readers reading detective or crime fiction and fantastic literature?
Jonathan Reynolds: Good question. At first thought, I’d be inclined to say ”No, these genres don’t attract the same kind of reader,” but after further thought, I’d say the answer is more complicated. Because it varies from one reader to another, and there are as many kinds of readers as there are kinds of human beings. And I have seen the same person buy Kindresser (a detective novel) and Morphoses (an anthology of fantasy stories) at a Salon du livre.
Guillaume Houle: Our main reader base, fans of Québecois sf and fantasy, will buy almost everything we publish. Occasional readers are willing to try two or three different genres. Those who buy a book just because they know the author tend to confine themselves to a single title.
Q: Talk to me a bit about “l’Inconnu” . . . what the the similarities between this style and Weird or Slipstream in anglophone fantastic literature?
Jonathan Reynolds: This genre seemed to us to be an entry point for manuscripts that we are interested in but which do not fit into other categories. To be honest, I don’t know the Weird or Slipstream styles, because I don’t read many books in English.
Guillaume Houle: We haven’t explored “l’Inconnu” much, but one could say that it resembles Slipstream in the sense that, as Jonathan said, it opens the door to manuscripts that are difficult to categorise.
Q: How did you develop the idea for your Nova series?
Jonathan Reynolds: It was Guillaume Houle’s idea to create a collection to publish short stories without having to collect them in an anthology.
Guillaume Houle: I was working in a supermarket at the time, a job where the mind, having nothing to do, reflects constantly. I had an idea to make a collection, “le Librio”, for two euro each, making the classics of literature accessible for one low price. I also thought of the collection of the Thousand and One Nights which I worked on when I was at the book distributor SOCADIS.
The difference is that these would be by new writers, and targeted first and foremost for Salons du livre, where you can attract hesitant but curious readers with a book at a low price: $5.
Q : What are your plans for ebooks?
Jonathan Reynolds: We are presently working on converting our books to electronic formats. The novella La légende de McNeil is already available in PDF and epub.
Guillaume Houle: We are publishing, slowly but surely, more ebooks. They will be released via our distributor, Prologue Numérique, and on the websites of resellers in Québec, Canada, and eventually the United States.
Jonathan Reynolds: We were first inspired to start this house because we both like reading short stories.
Guillaume Houle: I also like to think that we train new Québecois authors of sf and the fantastic. And for me it is essential that a new author start in with short forms before trying long ones. This allows them to develop their capabilities, their writing, and their critical sense, as well as a network of readers.
The Dragon and the Stars, collecting original sf/f stories from across the Chinese diaspora, and edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, has won the Canadian Prix Aurora, for best related English book. Charles Tan has a handy page with links to online stories, where available.
Accepting the prize (from L to R): Derwin Mak, author Tony Pi, Eric Choi.
The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association / Associatin canadienne de la science-fiction et du fantastique has announced the finalists for the Prix Aurora:
Best English Novel
Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell, Great Plains Publications
Destiny’s Blood by Marie Bilodeau, Dragon Moon Press
Stealing Home by Hayden Trenholm, Bundoran Press
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking Canada
Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer, Penguin Canada
Best English Short Story
The Burden of Fire by Hayden Trenholm, Neo-Opsis #19
Destiny Lives in the Tattoo’s Needle by Suzanne Church, Tesseracts Fourteen, EDGE
The Envoy by Al Onia, Warrior Wisewoman 3, Norilana Books
Touch the Sky, They Say by Matt Moore, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, November
Your Beating Heart by M. G. Gillett, Rigor Amortis, Absolute Xpress
Best English Poem / Song
The ABCs of the End of the World by Carolyn Clink, A Verdant Green, The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box
Let the Night In by Sandra Kasturi, Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead, EDGE
Of the Corn: Kore’s Innocence by Colleen Anderson, Witches & Pagans #21
The Transformed Man by Robert J. Sawyer, Tesseracts Fourteen, EDGE
Waiting for the Harrowing by Helen Marshall, ChiZine 45
Best English Graphic Novel
Goblins, Tarol Hunt, goblinscomic.com
Looking For Group, Vol. 3 by Ryan Sohmer and Lar DeSouza
Stargazer, Volume 1 by Von Allan, Von Allan Studio
Tomboy Tara, Emily Ragozzino, tomboytara.com
Best English Related Work
Chimerascope, Douglas Smith (collection), ChiZine Publications
The Dragon and the Stars, edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, DAW
Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead, edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, EDGE
On Spec, edited by Diane Walton, Copper Pig Writers Society
Tesseracts Fourteen, edited by John Robert Colombo and Brett Alexander Savory, EDGE
Best Artist (Professional and Amateur)
(An example of each artist’s work is listed below but they are to be judged on the body of work they have produced in the award year)
Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, Brekky cover art, On Spec Fall
Erik Mohr, cover art for ChiZine Publications
Christina Molendyk, Girls of Geekdom Calendar for Argent Dawn Photography
Dan O’Driscoll, cover art for Stealing Home
Aaron Paquette, A New Season cover art, On Spec Spring
Fan/ Amateur Awards
Best Fan Publications
No award will be given out. We received insufficient nominations for this category to be eligible.
Best Fan Filk
Dave Clement and Tom Jeffers of Dandelion Wine for “Face on Mars” CD
Karen Linsley; concert as SFContario Guest of Honour
Phil Mills, for “Time Traveller” (song writing)
Best Fan Organizational
Andrew Gurudata, organizing the Constellation Awards
Brent M. Jans, chair of Pure Speculation (Edmonton)
Liana Kerzner, chair of Futurecon (Toronto)
Helen Marshall and Sandra Kasturi, chairs of Toronto SpecFic Colloquium (Toronto)
Alex Von Thorn, chair of SFContario (Toronto)
Best Fan Other
Tom Jeffers, Fundraising, FilKONtario
John and Linda Ross Mansfield, Conception of the Aurora Nominee pins
Lloyd Penney, Articles, columns and letters of comment – fanzines
I’m pleased to present today Canadian writer Stephen Kotowych‘s short story, “Borrowed Time”. Stephen is a winner of the Writers of the Future Grand Prize, and has been a finalist for Canada’s Prix Aurora Award.
By Stephen Kotowych
The look on Vincent’s face confirmed for Kayla that she was the last person he expected to see when he answered the door. She pushed past him into the apartment.
“Hey!” Vincent said sharply.
The apartment was much the way she remembered it: looking (and smelling) of bachelor. In the half-light through the closed drapes–the ones she had made him the year before–she saw magazines and newspapers scattered on the couch, a pizza box under the coffee table, and dirty plates full of desiccated pizza crusts, and worse, sitting on top. She was sure the kitchen sink would be full of unwashed dishes.
“Still don’t clean?” she said, stepping over a fallen t-shirt. Reaching into her shoulder bag, Kayla pulled out a gold pocket watch, and popped open the cover. She studied the four small dials of its chronograph face by the dim light. Each of the tiny hands turned at a different speed, some forward and some back.
Vincent gave a frustrated sigh. “I haven’t spent a lot of time here lately.”
“So I hear.”
Vincent straightened. “What does that mean?”
Kayla’s brow furrowed. The readings from the chronograph dials synched with the time reading from the large hands. She held the watch out for Vincent to see. “There’s no variation from baseline here.”
“Why would there be? I’m hardly having a good time.” Almost at once Vincent’s eyebrows arched. “Oh, that’s what this is about. You’re checking up on me. You just can’t get over–”
“What the hell is the matter with you?” she interrupted. “I thought you were going to stop stealing time.”
“You wanted me to stop. There’s a difference.”
“Because I knew you’d get caught!”
“No, Kay, you were worried you’d get caught. That’s different, too.”
“So who is she?” Kayla demanded, crossing her arms. “Another new recruit?”
“I’m through dating younger women,” Vincent said, wandering into the kitchen.
Kayla’s eyes narrowed. Though he’d meant to hurt her, she was angry with herself for taking the bait. The Chronographer’s Guild had recruited her right after grad school and assigned Vincent–only four years older–to train her. He’d hardly robbed the cradle. Besides, she’d been just as interested in him and had sent all the right signals. She’d been surprised it took him so long to clue in.
Light spilled into the dim apartment from the refrigerator. Pop-snap. Vincent stood in the open door of the fridge, bathed in light, drinking a soda. His wasting energy still bothered her.
“Did I ever get my key back from you?” he asked casually, in between gulps.
Kayla gave no answer.
“Kay?” he said. “Where’s my key?”
She made no motion, no response.
Vincent’s eyes went wide. “Oh God,” he said. “You turned me in.” He tossed the empty can to the counter. Stepping past her, he turned the deadbolt and slid the door chain across.
“I didn’t turn you in,” she said, defensive. “They came to me. You stopped meeting your quota, and then you stopped checking in altogether. They notice that kind of thing. They want me to bring you in.”
“You? Why you?”
Kayla hesitated. “Because of our…history.”
Vincent scoffed. “Is that what they told you? Doesn’t matter. I don’t work for them anymore.” He looked out the door’s peephole.
“They don’t see it that way.” Kayla didn’t believe him, either. Vincent still wore the bracelet that, along with the chronograph, was the mark of their secret profession. A braid of rope in gold–a reminder of their first lesson, to think of time as a piece of rope, and of each moment a fiber twisting together to make up the whole. The bracelet was a constant reminder to all chronographers of their mission and oath to gather lost time, moments people skipped over, which would otherwise slip away into nothingness.
Kayla, like most chronographers, came up with her own simile for time after considering the lesson of the rope. She preferred to think of time like oil; as non-renewable a resource, and just as slippery to deal with.
“Things are so black and white for you, Kay. I wish it were that simple.”
“You steal lost time and use it for yourself. Seems black and white to me. Chronographers are supposed to collect lost time and use it for the future! Without the Guild and the chronographers, who knows how much time we’d have left?”
He laughed. “Still such idealism? I always loved that about you. But it drove me crazy, too.”
“I am idealistic,” Kayla said. “And I’m not ashamed. The work we do,” she caught herself, “the work I do is important, noble.”
“Noble? You’re the one who’s stealing time, not me–you and the other chronographers.”
“That’s ridiculous. What we do, we do for the good of everyone, the whole human race. You know our days are numbered if we do nothing about it.”
“How many tomorrows do we have, hmm?” He crossed the apartment. “Have we ever been able to tell how much time remains unused, in reserve? The Guild would have you believe that all we have left is what the chronographers have saved and put back into use. What’s that make our lead-time? A year? A bit more? Are we that close to oblivion?”
Vincent pulled one edge of the drapes back a bit, letting in a sliver of the day, and looked out across the skyscraper skyline. “All those people out there using up time, skipping over baseline like rocks over a pond, unaware of the moments they have. Humanity entered the twentieth century with one billion people; it exited with more than six. That number will only rise. There aren’t enough of us,” he waved his hand back and forth between them, “to keep up the quantities of time people are using. There never could be. It’s diminishing returns. We’re fighting a war of attrition, one that entropy is destined to win.”
“We delay the end of time as long as we can. That’s all the Guild could ever do,” Kayla said.
He rounded on her. “What if the Guild is wrong? We could have a hundred years left, or a thousand, or maybe aeons more. Then what would that make the chronographers, if not thieves?” He crossed back to the door and looked out the peephole again. “It’s one thing to lose time, and another to have it taken from you. How many hours have you stolen, Kay? How many days or years of someone’s life have you taken?”
Kayla’s mouth worked, but no words came out. She’d never heard anyone speak about the Guild or the chronographers that way. She was not like Vincent! She gathered time the way all good chronographers did–when it wouldn’t be missed. And she returned it to the Guild, for the benefit of all to use, not for herself.
She would gather moments from the sleeping, from the excited, from the distracted. So someone would wake up feeling like they’d only just closed their eyes, or someone would see that time flies when you’re having fun. Their sacrifice meant those moments would be recycled, available for someone else to use, cheating entropy of its victory for another few seconds. Vincent made it sound like she killed people.
“We all steal time,” Vincent said. “I just use it differently than you.”
He pulled a jacket and small duffle bag from the hall closet. He’d been preparing for an escape. He slammed the closet door.
“Where are you going?” Kayla asked. She turned as if to block his way as he headed for the window. Vincent bumped her out of his way with a shoulder.
“Vincent, where are you going?”
He pulled the drapes open, violently, ripping one from the curtain rod. It peeled away like a skin, and fading daylight streamed in. Vincent pushed the window open and threw one leg out onto the fire escape.
The sound of the bullet entering the pistol’s chamber stopped him. He stood frozen for a moment, straddling the window frame, before Kayla finally spoke.
“You can’t leave, Vincent. Unless it’s with me, and back to the Council.”
Vincent looked at her, studied the automatic she pointed at him, and turned back to the window. “If you want to stop me you’ll have to fire…and shoot me in the back.”
“They’re in the alley, waiting for you!”
Vincent hesitated. “Nice try. But I always knew when you were lying. The Guild knows as much about bringing in a fugitive as a bunch of librarians. Don’t take this the wrong way, hon, but if you’re who they sent after me I don’t think they bothered putting anyone in the alley.”
He waited for a moment before pulling his other leg through the window. There was the sound of footfalls on the fire escape, and he was gone.
Kayla rushed to the window and leaned out. She could hear him getting farther away, rattling down the escape toward the ground, but couldn’t catch sight of him.
Strangway, the Guild agent who had assigned Kayla this task, had given her the gun but she’d never intended to use it. The threat would be enough. But no, not for Vincent. Idiot.
There was a knock at the door. Kayla checked her watch. Twenty minutes and they’d follow her up, they said. Right on time.
Muffled voices outside the door, and then the key she had given them turned in the lock. The door opened as far as the chain would allow. A body slammed against the door. The chain held, but Kayla knew it wouldn’t for much longer.
What would they do, she wondered, when they found out Vincent escaped? It would be the end of her career, at best. They might let her stay on as one of the rank-and-file, patrolling every day, gathering stray bits of time day after day for years, until retirement. She didn’t relish the idea of such mediocrity.
“Stop! Freeze!” she yelled. That sounded like the right kind of thing. The crashing at the door stopped momentarily. She scrambled on to the fire escape and held the gun high above her head, pressing a finger in one ear and the other ear into her arm. “Freeze!” she yelled once more for good measure, and squeezed the trigger.
She jumped at the sound but the kick was what really surprised her. There wasn’t normally any call for a chronographer to use a firearm.
There were shouts in the hall, and as Kayla flew down the first set of metal stairs she heard the splintering wood of the doorframe giving way.
When her feet finally hit the ground, she ran hard down the alley. Would they know that she’d hesitated, or that Vincent had a three- or four-minute head start?
As she cleared the alley, which opened on to a busy city street, Kayla looked to the darkening sky. She couldn’t take the chance that he was right about how much time was left. She had to find him. Otherwise, her charade wouldn’t make much difference–she’d be finished in the Guild, and time itself would be in danger.
* * *
Though she had her chronograph out, Kayla relied more on feel to guide her through the city streets, in what she hoped was Vincent’s direction. She found the usual fluctuations from baseline, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Sitting on a park bench, Kayla clicked shut her chronograph. She needed to gather her thoughts, focus her attention. She drew deep, slow breaths, emptying her awareness, focusing on becoming a vessel for time to pass into. Kayla waited for…something, some clue to where Vincent might have fled.
The glow from a hundred office towers, each a shimmering finger of glass, steel, and light, illuminated the downtown core. People in suits emptied from them, filling the streets to teeming. Each of them rushed somewhere, distracted, minds racing ahead of them. The city intruded on her awareness.
She’d never considered how many moments she could gather from these rat-race types. There was no need to check the chronograph for confirmation. She could tell there was time here, ripe for the taking; she could see it in their eyes, feel it in her bones. It would be hard to find Vincent through such a jumble.
Learning the true nature of time–that it was a real and tangible thing, as elemental as fire, as invisible as the wind–was one thing. Look at how time ravaged and wrinkled the faces of the elderly, or how the monuments man built wore and decayed as the ages passed, and it made sense. Learning the ebb and flow of moments people use but don’t observe, how to take those seconds or minutes without being noticed, was something else entirely.
She had skill for it, more than some Guild recruits, and she found her own instinct often as good as data gleaned from a chronograph. So she closed her eyes, and imagined herself reaching out to them, scooping up their unwanted time like sand on a beach. Instants, seconds, moments slipped through, each one distinct to her, like sand against her skin. She could not save them all. Entropy would have its due. But she could save some.
Something indistinct pulled at her, there, over her right shoulder. Her attention shifted. There was a definite pressure, familiar…
Into the park she ran, deep into its darkness, with no thought of what might lurk there. He was close, she was sure, and that was what mattered.
She slowed her pace as the pressure built, like pinpricks all over her skin, like the tingle of a sleeping limb. It was right in front of her, and it was…nothing. Kayla paced near a stand of trees, feeling the pressure stronger here, weaker there, the boundaries of a bubble.
Kayla knew something of such spaces from her time with Vincent. She closed her eyes, preparing. She moved through the barrier. How seductive it was. How easy it would be to give in as she had so many times, unaware, with Vincent.
Opening her eyes, she saw the world overlaid upon itself. Night and day flexed and jostled, each trying to impose itself over the other.
Kayla was still within the same stand of trees, but there were children suddenly, half a dozen, all nine or ten years old, playing in the dying sunlight of a late August day.
Each part of Kayla’s awareness fought for dominance, just as the flickering night and day did. Two moments: one theirs, one hers. Their moment was an echo for her, she realized, a flash into how they were experiencing time. Children wove around her, running after one another. Did they see her? Was she really there?
Kayla’s brow tightened. Guild agents used time differently from others, were more “in-moment”, in Guild parlance. They observed baseline more closely, used time at a fairly constant rate regardless of circumstances. But even they sped through moments sometimes. Everyone, even chronographers, lost stray seconds without noticing, like losing eyelashes, or shedding skin cells.
Those children, though, did not. They had every second at their disposal. There was no room for Kayla to reach in and take moments. She could feel them using and attending to every moment individually, perfectly, like no one she’d ever encountered… But how? They couldn’t all be so naturally in-moment.
Until she had appeared at his door that afternoon, Kayla hadn’t seen Vincent in almost a year; he’d made no effort to contact her. But now he wanted her to find him. It was the only thing that made sense.
Vincent had somehow given these children time. He knew that she would recognize the strange sensation and track it. The children were a marker, part of a trail. Vincent led her to them, and was leading her to himself. But why?
Time began to move faster around her. Kayla turned to see the sun falling behind the skyline, felt coolness against her skin as buildings’ long shadows raced over her, filling the park. In the same moment, she saw the moon, the starless urban sky, the glistening office towers.
The flickering between moments intensified as they moved to merge at baseline. It was her presence, she realized, her observation of this strange sliptime, that was bringing things back into synch so rapidly.
And it was night again suddenly, Kayla’s moment. The children called goodbye to one another, promised to play again the next day, as they scattered in all directions.
A young boy collided with Kayla. Perhaps he hadn’t seen her, she thought, for there was surprise on his face at running into a strange woman who, for him, had not been there a moment earlier. He ran off without an apology.
Kayla began running, too, in the other direction. Vincent was close now, she was sure. And he wanted to be found.
* * *
She rounded a corner. Another something was nearby. Time rushed away from her like water through a burst dam, pulling her along in its current. He was here, on one of the restaurant patios that lined the sidewalk.
Kayla felt an unmistakable tingle and turned. Instead of Vincent, she stood in front of another trail marker: a blissful young couple. They were having coffee and dessert, holding hands, lost in each other’s gaze.
“I’ve spent my whole life in this city,” said Vincent, suddenly beside Kayla. “Maybe people are different somewhere else, I don’t know. But here, watching people always in a hurry, always thinking about what’s next, I realized that we need to do more than just make sure there’s a tomorrow. We need to make sure that, once they have them, people use their todays. Or what point is there in keeping the wheel turning?”
“How are you doing this?” Kayla asked, awed. “What are you doing?”
“You’re seeing what I do with the time I take. I’ve applied the same principles I used when we–when I–took time for us.”
“You steal time for them?” she asked, confused. “Do they pay you for it?”
“They don’t pay me.” His voice had an edge at the accusation. “They don’t even know what I’ve given them. You know they rarely see us.”
Moving in moments where others were not meant rarely being seen by those people, like the children in the park, or the couple at the restaurant. Even standing so close you could reach out and touch… It was one aspect of the job Kayla knew she’d never get used to.
“I borrow time for them, Kay. The Guild will take other moments from them, I just borrow against that. I took a cue from something you said when we, well…”
A lot had been said the night she walked out, a great deal of it hurtful, and designed to be. She didn’t look at him.
“You said I was selfish,” Vincent continued. “In fact, you said stealing time, even to spend whole, perfect days with you, was the most selfish thing you’d ever heard of, as I recall your exact words.
“You know,” he said in hushed tones, “some women would find that terribly romantic.”
She could tell without looking that he was smiling. She smiled, too.
“That really stuck with me,” he said. “It hurt. Mostly, I guess, because it was true. I was selfish. And one day it occurred to me: What if I gave time back? We know what happens when we take time, but what happens if we give time back to people? If we let them use the seconds or minutes we would otherwise snatch up and store away, what then?”
“You can do that?” Kayla asked.
“I have been, for months now. The results, Kay! This is what life was meant to be like! This is how it was in the beginning, how all our hominid ancestors experienced existence before we became self-aware. A perfect now. We lead such short, fragile lives…”
Was that a tear Kayla saw in his eye?
“Don’t we deserve a chance to slow things down, to expand our finite lives sometimes? And when they have those moments people just let time wash over them, know how to handle it, the same way newborns will hold their breath under water–instinctive!”
“You knew I’d find you. You left a trail. Why?”
“Because I wanted you to see this. You are the only one who could find me. You don’t really think they sent you after me because we used to date, do you?”
A denial died in Kayla’s mouth.
Vincent shook his head. “Oh, Kay. So naive. They sent you because you were there when I started stealing time. You know it’s possible. You know what it feels like, how to sense it. The Council knows I can borrow time, but could any of them track it like you could?
“It’s a test of allegiance,” Vincent said, turning to face her. “The Council wants to know whose side you’re on. They’re wondering will you turn me in, or are we in league?”
Kayla considered the idea. Did the Council question her loyalty? Perhaps they were right to. Turning Vincent in had been clear-cut when she thought he was robbing time for his own use, but now she wasn’t sure. What would they do to him if she handed him over? What would they do to her if she did not?
“How are you doing this, Vince?”
“I’ll tell you, but there’s something I need to show you. Then see if you still want to bring me in.”
He took her hand and they ran into the night. And as they ran, he explained.
* * *
The last time Kayla had been in a hospital was also at Vincent’s side, during her training.
A tour of the coma patients was a required part of training. Whole days, months, even years could be taken from them. There were chronographers who specialized in coma patients, slipping unseen into the rooms of patients over and over… It was an easy way to make quota, but it struck Kayla as ghoulish, like preying on the helpless.
The cold and the antiseptic smell brought it back to her as she and Vincent again walked hospital halls.
Vincent found the room he wanted and they stood in the doorway, watching. An old man lay in bed connected to a web of wires, tubes, monitors, and machines. Racking coughs shook his withered frame; his voice was thin and raspy. A middle-aged man sat at his side, holding his hand. They talked in hushed tones, and sometimes the old man would smile meekly, or weep gently.
“James is dying,” Vincent said quietly. “He won’t last the night, the doctor says. That’s his son, Derrick. He’s come to say goodbye.”
Kayla said nothing. She could feel the tingle of moments all around her, like an itch she wanted to scratch. She wouldn’t let herself.
“The world won’t let children stay children for long these days,” Vincent said. “The kids in the park deserve one golden summer to always remember, so I’ve been giving them time for weeks now.
“That couple on the patio? Today was the day they fell in love. And, well, you know how relationships go.”
Only hours ago, Kayla realized, she would have taken that as a veiled accusation. Now, she nodded her head and understood.
No matter what happened later in their relationship, the couple would always have that magical, intensely lived day they fell in love. That’s what Vincent had given them. Just as, Kayla realized, he had tried to give her.
She didn’t want him stealing time for her, but had she misjudged him? She considered him for a long moment, seeing perhaps for the first time what she loved in him.
“And them?” Kayla asked, turning her attention back to the old man and his son. “This is an awful time to be in-moment.”
“But it’s not, Kay! That’s what you made me realize. With us, I tried to prolong all the happiness, all the easy moments. I didn’t want the difficult ones. No one does.”
He became very still. “My father died last year.”
“Vincent…” Kayla took his hand. Vincent’s father had been ill for several years, the whole time Kayla and Vincent were together. Vincent hadn’t wanted them to meet until he recovered, saying his father didn’t want people seeing him as an invalid. Now it was too late.
“It was a lot like this,” he said, looking over the hospital room. “I sat with him, held his hand. We were close, I thought. We talked a few times a week; I’d go visit him. But then he was gone, and I realized there was so much unsaid. I could have taken time, spent weeks and weeks with him in-moment…but I didn’t. It was too hard, too scary. And now…Now it’s too late.” He wiped away tears.
Kayla’s throat burned. She squeezed his hand, and felt him squeeze back.
“That’s when everything you’d said about my selfishness made sense. Even if we don’t want those moments, even if they scare us, we need them. They make us see what we don’t like about ourselves; they shake us up and change us.
“Look at this man, dying in his bed, and tell me that he hasn’t been robbed of his most precious possession–time. For him it’s lung cancer, but it could as easily have been some Guild agent who took just enough moments… I can’t make him say the words, but I can give him time, and give him the chance. Time to say all the things he never said. Time to bring some peace to his life, and his son’s, before the end.” He turned to look at her. “If you want to put me away for that, well, you’re welcome to it.”
Kayla leaned up and kissed him, standing on tiptoes as she’d always had to. As their lips met she felt her resistance melt away, and she gave in. Every second–every one!–washed over her like a warm rain. She was there with Vincent, and with the old man and his son, in the moment, fully living each instant. It was all she remembered it being, and more. This was how life should be lived!
She broke the kiss when she realized the hushed conversation by the bedside had stopped. Kayla could feel eyes on her. The old man could see her, was looking at her! She was so used to not being seen she could find no words to answer the questioning look on the old man’s face.
“Sorry,” said Vincent. “We must have the wrong room.” He took Kayla by the elbow. They stepped into the hall and back into baseline time.
Waiting there for them by the nurse’s desk was Strangway, the tall, grandfatherly Guild agent who’d set Kayla after Vincent.
“Don’t move,” Strangway said. Men appeared at Strangway’s side, and others blocked possible avenues of escape. They were the kind of men librarians wouldn’t know to hire.
Cold slipped down Kayla’s spine as Strangway settled his gaze on her. He knew, didn’t he? He knew that she had let Vincent escape his apartment, that she now did not intend to turn him over to the Guild. They’d just been using time–had he been able to sense it? Is that what drew him here?
A pair of the men with Strangway moved to either side of Vincent, each roughly taking an arm.
“Hey! Easy!” Vincent said.
The gun. It was still in her bag, Kayla realized. Could she get it before they stopped her? She slumped her shoulder, trying to slide the strap down her arm.
“You’re a little late to the arrest,” Vincent said, as the men pushed him toward Strangway. “Kayla was about to bring me in. She’s convinced me to turn myself over.”
Kayla wanted to scream that was a lie, but his look as she caught Vincent’s eyes held her back. I know what I’m doing, they said. Don’t stop me.
“Well done, Kayla,” Strangway said. “I knew I was right about you.”
Kayla didn’t like the implication.
“You know,” Strangway said, stepping to within inches of Vincent, “what we do is like building a bridge of stone. All of humanity walks as one across the endless span of this bridge, except for us. We walk a few steps ahead on the leading edge, laying down the next course of brick, the next row of stones, so everyone else will find safe footing for their next step. What you do, though, is monstrous–stealing bricks from under the very feet of your fellow man!”
He nodded his head and the men ushered Vincent down the hall, through a set of swinging doors, and out of sight.
As she motioned to follow, Kayla felt an arm slip around her shoulder. She fought the urge to shrug it away.
“It’s gratifying to know that you are on our side, Kayla,” Strangway said. “This wasn’t easy for you, I’m sure. You realize by now that this wasn’t a simple assignment from the Guild.”
Kayla considered the slipperiness of his statement, the layers of meaning: a veiled reminder of his secret knowledge of her crime; a kind of congratulations on passing the test and expiating her sin. It was how Vincent would have picked apart the statement, she realized. He was right–she had been naive.
Not any more.
“I think any lingering doubts have been put to rest,” he said, slowly guiding her down the hallway. “You made the right choice in the end, and that’s what counts. There’s no need to discuss your, hmm–youthful indiscretion?–ever again, as far as I’m concerned.”
Kayla mumbled false words of thanks and forced her attention to stay in the moment. Trauma was one instance where it was easy to skim the seconds, awareness shutting down as you went into shock. She was determined to have every instant of the pain, to feel it all, remember it. Like Vincent said, the hard moments helped you change…
“It’s clear you’re a person of special talents,” Strangway continued, “one who won’t be content in the trenches, gathering time forever, yes? I have something of an eye for talent, and you have greatness in store for you, I’m sure of it. I don’t doubt eventually you’ll be sitting on the Council with me. It might do you good to have a friend in high places as you make your way.”
She allowed herself a moment of dark pride at the confirmation. Pieces had fallen into place after Vincent said her mission was a test. Of course Strangway was on the Guild Council: who else would be trusted with the knowledge that you could turn time to your own purpose?
Something about keeping enemies closer crossed Kayla’s mind as she forced the effusive thanks for Strangway’s patronage that he would expect.
He smiled softly and disappeared through the swinging doors at the end of the hall.
Kayla headed for the elevator, tears in her eyes at last.
* * *
Strangway wasn’t the last person Kayla expected to see when she peered through the peephole, but she thought he would wait longer before coming to see his new protégé. It had been less than a week.
He knocked again.
She watched him, strange and distorted through the peephole, grow increasingly impatient with waiting. He checked his watch–not his chronograph, Kayla noted; that was a good sign–knocked once more, then turned and walked down the hall.
Kayla waited, ear pressed to the door, until she heard the elevator open and close again. She exhaled a deep and ragged breath. Had she been holding it the whole time? She slid the door chain across and decided to have more deadbolts installed; she’d seen how little help chains could be.
She closed the blinds on her living room windows–the ones she’d made herself when she made Vincent’s–and returned to work on her chronograph.
Did Strangway suspect? Had he taken apart Vincent’s chronograph, seen how its gears and counterweights, its crystals and wires had been modified?
Vincent had explained the basics of his borrowed time during their hurried trip to the hospital. The chronograph was the key. Simple modifications turned it from a meter for time into a conduit to dispense it.
How many others, in the long history of the Guild, had happened upon this secret? How many of those had the Council also “disappeared”?
She’d heard the rumors, of course, the urban legends chronographer trainees told each other. Cross the Guild, they said, and you’ll end up in the coma wards, your body kept alive as Guild agents steal away every moment of the rest of your life… She’d never had reason to believe that, until now.
Was that where she’d find Vincent–a John Doe in some faraway coma ward? And would she find other chronographers who’d made the same modifications Vincent had? Did they share his vision? As she soldered wires and reweighted the mechanisms in her chronograph, Kayla vowed to find out.
Borrowed Time (c) 2007 Stephen Kotowych. First published in the anthology Under Cover of Darkness, edited by Julie E. Czerneda & Jana Paniccia.
New web magazine AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, has just posted a new story by French author Jacques Barbéri, translated by Michael Shreve – The Butcher Boy:
The alarm sounded at six. Charles Argus’s arm thrashed about under the covers, popped out, whipped the air and swooped down on the machine. The ringing stopped, the nightmares faded away: the large, silent parking lots where the beef and pork carcasses were lined up, peaceful and hung on chrome hooks, slowly vanished within the mesh of fear.
He knew that he could do nothing to halt the course of time. The cycles are indestructible. However, like every morning, he hesitated … “And if I don’t get up? And if I head calmly to the airport? And if I go out naked in the street? And if … And if …”
Charles Argus got out of bed. He had breakfast. Left the building. Turned up his coat collar thinking he was performing a cinematic gesture. A rehearsal in a way, he thought, smiling. When’s the final scene?
On the moped the fresh air lashing his face did little to wake him. Then the butcher shop window ripped open his eyelids. Height of horrors. Charles Argus could not stand red, raw meat.
When his father had found him this job, he could not refuse. He had been looking for something for months already and the claws of marginalization were beginning to drag him toward the public benches and soup kitchens. He told himself that for a little while red meat would be preferable to misery. But what he could not have imagined (who could have?) what would happen next. Time skid. The endless loop.
At least his job as delivery boy allowed him, as much as possible, to avoid the sight of meat. He took his moped and transported the steaks and carved up rabbits to their destinations in opaque plastic bags. Restaurant managers, the disabled, the shut-ins. But the air wafted the carnal aroma to his nose and the forms of fragmented animals took shape under the plastic, arousing the awful taste of red meat on his carpet of taste buds, on the mucous membranes of his nose and the roof of his palate.
Time folds back on itself like that — Schlak! — without a word. It’s one day, one hour, one second and Charles Argus is a prisoner. With no exit.
He delivered his plastic bags all day long, went back home, exhausted and disgusted, ate, went to bed, strolled along the large, silent parking lots between the pork and beef carcasses, hoping that the hooks would not break, that the meat would not tear off and that he would not have to continue his way trampling on a meat floor, red and white, forever. Then the alarm sounded and he got up, had breakfast and went to the butcher shop where the animal bags were waiting for him. A perfect loop.
But a time loop always has a knot. And Charles Argus finds it every Monday. On that morning the alarm does not sound and his nightmares go on until nine or ten o’clock. The rest of the morning is spent between the kitchen and the bathroom. Elegantly dressed, closely shaved, smelling good, Charles Argus leaves his house around eleven and takes the bus to go to see Miss Fonck. Helen Fonck is the only friend, the only confidante, of Charles Argus. The only good thing that came out of his job at the butcher shop. – continue reading!
You can also read the original, in French – La promenade du garçon boucher.
Over at the SF Portal, René Walling reviews Solaris #175, “one of the oldest ongoing genre magazines”, and the premier French-Canadian SF magazine:
Like most issues of Solaris, this one offers many mixes: fantasy and SF, literary explorations and pulpy adventure, Canadian, French and American writers, yet somehow the editorial team manages to bring it all together in a coherent and diverse whole. – read the full review.