Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ido Sokolovsky. Born in 1967, Ido is from Israel, and used to read science fiction in his youth. Now in his mid-life crisis, he writes sci-fi stories in Hebrew for any one willing to publish them. His friend Yehudit translated this story in return for a plate of humus.
This is the story’s first publication.
Smile of the Monster
by Ido Sokolovsky
“There was a monster in the loch. It’s not there now, but once there was.”
The old man’s face is red, his hooked nose surrounded by blue veins, testimony to long years of alcohol consumption. His eyes are bloodshot and he nods his head vigorously, adding: “It’s not a fairy tale. When I was a boy it was here in the loch.”
“And when was this, Garison? Seventy years ago? Eighty?” Mrs Campbell passed by him, carrying a heavily loaded tray on her way to the table of the two tourists. The young man in the green sweater has been holding forth to his red-headed freckled girl-friend as to why a monster in Loch Ness is unlikely. It is this that has awakened the old man from his drunken sleep near the counter.
“You must forgive Garison,” explains Mrs Campbell. “That’s his third beer this morning.”
Expertly she places their order before them. The young man leans over so that Mrs Campbell doesn’t block his view of the old man and asks aloud: “Do you mean to tell me that you have actually seen the monster?”
The old man is silent and closes his eyes more tightly. Apart from the tourist couple there are four old people at the inn, all well on in years. They wear peaked caps and are intent on playing some kind of card game. The remaining tables are abandoned in the cavernous dining room. Garison alone sits near the counter, a glass of beer in front of him. The windows look out on the blue-green waters of Loch Ness, surrounded by thickly forested hills. In the distance towers Ben Nevis, its summit wreathed in clouds. It is not surprising that more tourists don’t come to the inn to enjoy the stunning view. The Three Pines is at the top end of the village and reached by steep, narrow, twisting lanes. In fact it is to be wondered why the Campbells ever chose to establish their hostelry in this isolated spot rather than down by the loch where all the other shops, pubs and restaurants in the mountain village are located.
The young man interprets Garison’s silence as defeat and gives a triumphant grin towards his girlfriend. “You see, Julia, there are almost no fish in Loch Ness. If there are no fish, what does the monster live on?” Mrs Campbell who was half way back behind the counter suddenly claps her hands, her eyes wide with consternation. “I completely forgot your mustard, love,” she shouts, and dashes behind the counter, emerging with a small metal mustard pot in one hand, the soles of her shoes resounding on the old wooden floor. Mrs Campbell is short and wide, her greying hair caught up with a clip. She wears a simple brown dress and a large kitchen apron round her waist. She has plump red cheeks and although she, like Garison, is entitled to be described as “old”, when she smiles she looks like a little girl, and she smiles almost all the time.
“Once there were honest, God-fearing folk round here,” declares Garison, “and Reverend McPherson, may God have mercy on his soul, said he saw the monster, and that’s enough for me.”
“I’ve not been here as long as you, Garison,” answers Mrs Campbell, “but I did get to meet Reverend McPherson, and he never told me anything of the sort.” She turns to the girl. “Here, have some mustard, love.” She ignores the protests of the girl, who apparently does not like mustard. “This isn’t shop stuff. I grow the mustard in my garden, you know, without chemicals and things.”
“You, Flora,” grumbles the old man. “You say it’s nonsense, but your brother makes a nice living from the souvenirs he sells down at the store.”
“D’you mean something like this?” The young man sticks his hand into the backpack that lies at his feet, and brings out a glass decorated with a long, dragon-like creature, its mouth open in a roar.
The old man leans towards the couple and examines the glass, then nods as though his worst fears were realised.
“So Leonard’s your brother?” asks the girl.
“Yes, love. And I know exactly what you’re thinking: how can a little thing like me have such a tall brother?”
“You’re not that short.” The youth tries to be polite.
“Aw, you fibber! You’re too nice,” says Mrs Campbell. “You’re Americans, aren’t you?”
“Australian” he answers, adding: “I’m Jim and this is Julia”.
Jim is tall and good-looking and now he affectionately rumples his girlfriend’s mass of red curls. Julia, who has just taken a bite of her sandwich, gives him a long look as though she is not altogether thrilled with this display of ownership.
“Flora,” says Mrs Campbell. “Widow Flora Campbell.”
“And there’s a horse, too,” declares Garison. “A white horse who plays with children in the grass. He’s called Kelpie.”
“Oh, that stupid story,” says Mrs Campbell, and she suddenly looks her age as the smile vanishes from her face.
“He convinces one of the children to get on his back. The hands of the bairn stick to the horse and it disappears with him into the Loch and he’s never seen no more. ”
Silence reigns in the room. Then Jim sits up with renewed interest. “Just a minute,” he says.
“You’ve actually seen this horse?”
Garison half turns to Jim, which causes him to wobble on his chair. “When I was a lad I had a friend called William…”
“That story again,” says one of the peaked cap ancients. He doesn’t even raise his eyes from his cards.
“You hush, Busby,” says Garison angrily. “You don’t know nothing about it.” He struggles not to fall from the tall chair. At that moment, a door behind the counter opens, and out steps a young and pretty girl and lays her hand on the old man’s shoulder.
“Stop it, Garison. You know how mum hates it when you talk about that.”
Garison nods, wearily, and turns back with difficulty to the counter. He points to his empty glass. The girl takes it and expertly fills it from the draught piston.
Mrs Campbell regards the couple apologetically. “After you hear that scary story a hundred times…” She shrugs and returns to the counter.
Jim pays no attention to her. His gaze is fixed on the girl holding the glass. She has straight brown hair over a clear forehead, large green eyes and high cheekbones. A small mouth and straight nose complete the likeness of a Greek goddess. Behind her, glimmers of light through the open door reveal a hob burning in the kitchen, but the girl does not at all look like someone who was slaving over a hot stove for the last hour, but more like someone who just emerged from the ministrations of a professional make-up artist. Only after Julia’s astonished gaze lingers on his face for several long seconds does Jim suddenly shake himself and return to his fish and chips, which he devours with gusto.
“Thanks, Mary. You can go back inside,” says Mrs Campbell, and the beautiful girl goes back into the kitchen closing the door behind her.
“Strange” says Jim, his mouth full of fish. “Such a beautiful girl. I’d have thought she would be behind the counter to attract customers.”
“Maybe the owner wants people to eat her food rather than sitting and staring open-mouthed,” answers Julia, tartly. Jim turns to her with a big smile and shakes his head teasingly left and right. “Do you think I am going to abandon you for some Scottish lass? Don’t worry, Julia, for me you are the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Julia doesn’t seem reconciled, and finishes her sandwich with big bites and signals Mrs Campbell for the bill, then sits and rakes Jim with her eyes while he struggles to extract the leather pouch hidden under his clothes and pull out coins and notes. After Mrs Campbell leaves their change on the table, Julia takes a few coins and leaves the rest. She hurries to shoulder her red backpack, and waits with pursed lips while Jim struggles with his. It is now impossible to leave the inn because a large tourist bus completely blocks the door. As the bus passes the door its logo, a smiling snake-like creature, can be clearly seen below the inscription: Nessie Tours. During the enforced delay Julia notices by the door a framed photograph of a smiling boy. A small brass plaque announces “In Memory of our Little Angel Andrew. The Loch took him.” She slips the coins in her hand into a wooden charity box below the picture.
“God bless you, love,” says Mrs Campbell, pressing her hand in thanks, and Julia nods curtly. By this time the bus has passed and by the sound of it has found parking behind the inn. The young couple leave and disappear down the narrow lane leading away from the Three Pines. After a minute, the sigh of hydraulics indicates that the doors of the bus are opening to disgorge its passengers.
An attractive tourist guide now appears. Blonde, thirtyish, Celia stands and counts the tourists, mostly elderly but with one or two families as they file into the large room.
Just as she finishes making sure that everyone is in place, Aidan, the tall, taciturn driver arrives, having locked up the bus. Mrs Campbell indicates with a movement of her head the far end of the dining room, and guide and driver go and sit close to the four old men. The hubbub in the room hasn’t even made them raise their heads from their cards.
For the next hour Mrs Campbell rushes round the inn like a hurricane, handing out menus, taking orders, pouring drinks and yelling orders in the direction of the kitchen door, where Mary is intently preparing the meals. She places loaded plates on tables, collects dirty dishes, disappears with them into the kitchen and returns at a pace that many a young girl might envy. Notes and coins change hands and disappear under her apron, while the exact change is unfailingly returned each time. And all this time Mary does not set foot outside the kitchen even once, and none of the diners has the pleasure of seeing her.
Celia, who has finished her meal, leans back with a smile. “Amazing, isn’t she? She must be sixty if she’s a day,” she says to Aidan. Aidan nods without saying a word. Celia regards him sideways and the smile fades on her lips. Aidan was certainly an improvement on a randy predecessor, but long months of working with someone who barely acknowledges your existence certainly gets to one. Strange, the only time she had heard Aidan speak more than one sentence at a time had been when he recommended the Three Pines inn after some tourists had complained about the crowds down by the loch. Since then they have come here every trip, and she is very satisfied. She doesn’t have to worry that one of the tourists will wander off into the crowd, as happens all too often in the restaurant area down below, needing to be tracked down when time comes to board the bus. Not only that, but the stunning view from the windows reminds her each time why she has chosen this profession. Also there is another reason why she’s always happy to come here, a reason she keeps secret from Aidan, although it’s really no effort to keep a secret from someone who is totally uninterested in you.
She decides that the time has come, gets up from her place and heads towards the door. When she reaches the counter she stops to call out loudly: “Half an hour more, everyone”. In the momentary silence that follows, Garison’s voice is clearly heard. “…his liver floated to the shore… but he was never found…” A few embarrassed smiles appear on the faces of some of the guests. Celia acts as though she hasn’t heard, and goes out. The noise quickly starts up again, voices and the clink of glasses and cutlery fill the air while Garison’s head slowly sinks onto the counter and he mumbles drunkenly, “William, William,” and his eyes close.
Celia stands near the back door of the inn and waits. Mary, spotting her from the kitchen, comes out wiping her hands on her apron and they stand facing each other for a moment, apart yet close.
Inside the inn, Aidan sits and stares at Mrs Campbell. Now things have quietened down a bit she walks slowly, and signs of fatigue mark her face, but instead of sitting she moves among the tables checking that the guests are satisfied. One of the tourist children waves the monster doll in her face and she pretends to be frightened. But although she faces the opposite direction it seems that she senses Aidan’s stare, and goes over to him, taking the chair vacated by Celia.
“She’s with Mary,” he says, and continues to look at Mrs Campbell with no change of expression.
“What have those two got to talk about?”
Aidan doesn’t answer but continues to look at her until her smile gradually fades as understanding dawns.
“You mean to tell me… she’s, she’s like that, the other way?” There is genuine horror in her voice.
“I’ve never seen her with any bloke, ever. But she’s got two tickets for the concert tomorrow.”
“The pervert!” says Mrs Campbell through clenched teeth. “I’ll show her what for!”
Mrs Campbell gets up with renewed vigour and disappears behind the counter. “Mary!” Her voice sounds from the kitchen. “Mary! Get back to work right now, d’you hear me?”
Mary obeys, but not before she casts a long look over her shoulder at Celia as she disappears inside the inn.
Mrs Campbell, confronting the guide, points a trembling finger at the company logo embroidered on the pocket of Celia’s jacket.
“A smiling monster—that fits,” she snarls. “I should have known you were up to something when you never came to collect your kick-back.”
A thin smile flits over Celia’s face.
“If I was a man it would be perfectly alright, wouldn’t it?”
“If you were a man I’d know what to expect, sly thing that you are. Let me tell you, Mary’s spoken for!” growls Mrs Campbell. “She’ll marry when her lad comes of age this summer.”
“Oh, really!” Celia rolls her eyes. “Even you must know things have changed these last fifty years. Spoken for? Maybe when you were Mary’s age.”
“Everything OK, ladies?” Aidan appears from round the corner of the inn, his hands in his pockets, a pair of elderly tourists in his wake on their way to the toilets.
“Dear Aidan,” Mrs Campbell addresses him formally, “you are welcome to bring your tourists to my inn whenever you please, as soon as you find a new guide—one who doesn’t foist her perversions on my Mary.”
“Aiden answers to me,” says Celia, scowling. The stupid woman really lives in the last century, thinking that Aidan is the boss just because he is a man.
“As for you!” Flora Campbell points a finger, trembling with rage. “You won’t come near my inn if you know what’s good for you.”
“Very well. And I hope your business won’t suffer too much,” concurs Celia, then raises her tour guide voice to Mary in the kitchen. “Nine o’clock tomorrow night, Mary! I’ll be at the main entrance.”
Mrs Campbell makes a pushing motion with her hand at Celia’s face as though she would knock her over by remote, and goes into the kitchen slamming the door behind her.
Celia goes towards the bus where a few tourists are already gathered waiting for Aidan to open the door. Aidan also looks at the back door and seems sunk in thought. Mrs Campbell has done well to conceal the connection between them, but this business of Celia and Mary must be stopped. Therefore he waits until Celia passes him, and says quietly: “Scotland is not London, you know.”
Celia stops, and turns towards him questioningly.
“I mean to say,” says Aidan, “that here in the mountains all kinds of accidents happen to people who don’t behave with care.”
“Are you threatening me, Aidan?” asks Celia, her eyes narrowing with fury, lowering her voice so that the waiting tourists won’t hear. “You haven’t heard the end of this.”
“I’m not threatening,” says Aidan. “Just warning. You’re not from here and you don’t know this village. It’s true they all have television and most of them are connected to the internet, but make no mistake: they don’t live in the same world that you do. In some ways most of them live according to the rules of their grandfathers and grandmothers.”
He turns and goes towards the bus, pulling his keys from his pocket. Celia watches him go with pounding heart. Aidan is different from the usual blustering male; certainly he is not one for idle talk. The inn seems suddenly less friendly, the view of the lowering mountain more threatening as she boards the bus.
Despite the lovely weather round the loch that day, towards evening a thin, annoying rain begins to fall. In the inn Mrs Campbell closes the windows one after the other and pulls the heavy wooden shutters to. A bright neon strip illuminates the wooden floor with an unnatural, almost sickly light. Garison is long gone, and Busby and his card-playing friends get up and leave the inn, nodding to Mrs Campbell, disappearing into the dark one by one, bending their heads against the unceasing rain.
After a while Mrs Campbell begins to lift the chairs and lay them upside down on the empty tables. When she is done she takes a broom and with expert movements sweeps the floor, gathering the dirt at the threshold and sweeping it out into the rain. Then, when it is clear that no more guests will come, she locks the door and switches off the neon light. Only a small lamp above the counter now lights the large room. Mrs Campbell goes to the cash register and begins to count the day’s takings.
“Take a good look at that money,” says Mary, emerging from the kitchen. “It’ll be a long while till you see a take like that in one day, now that you’ve taken care to drive away the one tour bus that comes here.”
“I’m not worried,” murmurs Mrs Campbell without turning to face her daughter. She continues to count feverishly.
“Twenty, twenty-five… We’ll have a few hard months and then Aidan will come here with a new guide, preferably a married woman, forty, fifty… and you my dear will stop playing with fire and stay in the kitchen when there are customers. D’you get me?”
“You can’t imprison me here for life, mum.”
The old woman’s shoulders droop, and she turns wearily to Mary who is rocking back and forth as she leans aggressively against the half-open door.
“I know it’s boring for you here, but just a few more months and Stuart will be of age, you’ll wed him and have bairns, and believe me that will keep you more than busy!”
“And if I don’t want that lout? His head is full of straw and he’s got pillars instead of legs!”
Flora Campbell approaches her daughter and lays a hand on her shoulder, shaking her head from side to side.
“Don’t do that!” Mary closes her eyes, and turns her head away.
“Open your eyes.”
“Don’t want to.”
Slowly and agonizingly the young girl opens her eyes and looks into the eyes of the old woman who now holds her shoulder with force.
“Now,” says Flora. “Tell me please what happened to your Auntie Ronda when she went to live in the city?”
Mary obediently declaims: ”A gang of hooligans pounced on her in a dark street and tore off her clothes.”
“Exactly.” And Flora concludes: “And she wasn’t half as pretty as you. Busby and his people from the back section had to find those hooligans one by one and cut their throats, and then all of us shook with fear for months in case the police found out and came here.”
“Just a moment…” Mary raises her head. “Don’t even think…”
Flora increases the pressure on the girl’s shoulder, and leans forward till her face is almost touching hers. But this time Mary doesn’t blink, and they stand facing each other for a minute until the corners of Flora Campbell’s mouth droop disappointedly, while Mary grins, bitterly.
“Look at that,” says the girl. “It seems I’ve grown up earlier than you think. In the end I belong to the same place as you and I’m not a little girl anymore.” She grins while the old woman turns to the counter and buries her head in her hands.
“If you’re no longer a little lass it’s time you began to think realistically.” Her muffled voice is heard from between her hands and she mutters, as though to herself: “Once it was all so simple. Everyone was in the same place. When the schools began all the children went to the same school, all the youngsters married whoever their parents told them to, we were like everyone else. Today…”
“Today, deviants are not ashamed of who they are.” Mary completes the sentence, lifting her head and looking sadly at her mother.
“What exactly are you going to do with that pervert in Inverness, Mary? What do you think she’s going to want after you see the performance and have a few pints together? Don’t you realise that at some point she’ll try to touch you up? Then what’ll you do?”
“And if it was a man?”
“Exactly the same problem. That’s why you’re intended for Stuart. He may not be a genius but there’s no-one else for you…”
“And if I don’t agree?” Mary raises her head now. “Maybe I want to wander in the world, to see places and not to stay imprisoned in that kitchen, in this depressing village. Maybe it’s better for me to be alone and not have any children, ever? Children like me who need to hide all their lives.”
The old woman’s eyes widen, and she raises a finger in front of Mary’s eyes. “And little children will continue to disappear into the loch because you are not willing to do your bit?”
“I didn’t choose that role.”
The door opening with a bang cuts short her words. Aidan stands there, his bare head wet with rain.
“Everyone is here already,” he says. “Except for you two and Mrs Strachan. We should get moving.”
The two women look at each other.
“Well?” says Flora Campbell to her daughter.
“Oh, I’m coming,” says Mary crossly. “Andrew was my favourite nephew. But I’m making no promises after this evening.” She goes behind the counter with her mother in her wake.
“And you,” she says to Aidan, when she reaches the entrance, “don’t even breathe in Celia’s direction. Understand?” She goes out into the darkness. Flora stops by Aidan and they exchange looks. She opens her mouth to say something, but changes her mind and takes from the pocket of her brown dress a bunch of keys.
Outside, the rain intensifies. Aidan goes to the bus while Mrs Campbell stays to lock up the inn. Mary waits tensely for him near the open door of the bus, sticking her chin out so that the rain wets her hair and streams down her face. Aidan bends, seizes her by the waist and carries her over his shoulder into the bus. Afterwards he goes back just as Flora reaches the door, and he carries her in the same manner. The bus is full to bursting with villagers, and a chorus of voices greets the two women. Mary wipes the rain from her hair with the sleeve of her shirt and nods curtly to everyone.
“What a sour face,” jokes Stuart, a large-bodied youth of seventeen, and immediately receives a blow on the back of his head from his father, Mr Denis Calderwood, who is sitting beside him. Mary, for her part, demonstratively ignores him.
“Thank you for coming, everyone,” says Mrs Campbell.
“What a thing to say! Andrew was one of us,” says Margaret Gon, a tall thin women whose woolly cap covers her curls.
“I suggest quiet, now.” Leonard’s voice sounds from the centre of the bus. Leonard is a tall man, and although there are a few seats left he remains standing, his head almost reaching the ceiling.
“We don’t need nosey parkers like Garison to peer out of their windows just now to see what’s making the noise.”
Wordlessly, Flora goes up to her brother and hugs him briefly, and then turns and sits in a vacant seat exactly behind Aidan. The sound of air is heard as Aidan releases the hydraulic brakes of the bus, and he manoeuvres expertly in the narrow lane so that the bus turns towards the exit without once having to use the reverse gear which would sound the alarm and draw unwanted attention. The rain has become a silver screen dancing in the lights of the bus as it travels through the lanes of the village in the direction of old Mrs Strachan’s tumbledown shack.
Some two hours later the bus stops on a low hilltop overlooking Loch Glau. The noise of the motor is silenced and the lights turned off, and again the darkness is filled with the sound of falling rain. From the windows of the bus dozens of pairs of eyes search the surroundings of the loch. More than once they have had to cancel everything because a pair of lovers had decided to be alone in the wild, but tonight the rain has driven every living creature from the loch. Soon it will be too cold, but meanwhile the weather is perfect. After five tense minutes all the occupants of the bus nod to each other and Aidan frees the hand brake. The bus sails noiselessly down the hill and stops with its wheels almost touching the waters of the loch licking the shore.
Mrs Campbell now removes her brown dress and exposes her drooping breasts and wrinkled belly. Next to her Mary takes off her shirt, and the smooth white skin of her shoulders becomes rougher and rougher until it becomes a hard scaly crust. Stuart who has taken off his shirt places two muscular hands on this father’s shoulders, who for his part pulls his son’s trousers down. The trousers are joined to the boy’s shoes, and now two long hooks are exposed in place of legs. Meanwhile, Mary puts her back against her mother’s breasts. Flora clasps her close until the breasts disappear into the body of her daughter, and her head melds into her back. When Leonard undresses with great difficulty, from the waist down he can be seen to be all one bone, and this is why he cannot sit. At the back, Busby and his three card-playing friends are struggling to take off their clothes and Aidan, watching from the front, signals to Mrs Strachan, whose scales are beginning to spread over her back, to go and help.
“It’s alright, Strachan,” groans Busby, still struggling with the sleeves of his shirt with stiff arms. “We’re managing, here.”
Aidan waits until he sees that those in the rear of the bus are progressing satisfactorily and then strips off his own clothes. From the outside his shirt looks as if it’s made of normal cloth, but the inside is covered with sponge over a row of white teeth which now slowly emerge. He goes to the moving bulk which was previously the occupants of the front seat, and turns his back to them while slimy trickles attach to him to join him to the pile of bodies that is merging into a unified whole.
For several minutes, an orgy of panting, groaning bodies rocks the bus, and then there is silence once more. After several minutes, the head of a huge reptile peeps out of the front door of the bus, in its wake a snake-like body with dozens of short legs. The creature flows quickly into the black waters and disappears. Again, silence reigns, and for a long time nothing happens.
Suddenly, bubbles appear in the centre of the loch, then a powerful whirlpool, then the head of a white horse emerges from the dark water. Its eyes are wide with terror and it thrusts with its hooves against the foaming water, trying desperately to reach the shore and escape the enraged predator at its heels.
Translated from Hebrew by Yehudit Keshet
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 Victor Fernando R. Ocampo. Victor is from the Philippines, and his work has been published in the Philippine Free Press and the anthologies Philippine Speculative Fiction (Volume 6), The Ayam Curtain, and Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction. His story “Here Be Dragons” won first prize at the Romeo Forbes Children’s Literature competition in 2012 and was published by Canvas Press. He lives in Singapore, by the side of foggy Bukit Timah hill, with his lovely wife and two spunky daughters.
The story was first published in Bewildering Stories in 2012.
Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
For the third time since he had crawled out of the wreckage, Felix pressed the power button on his phone. He hoped against hope that something, anything, would happen, but nothing did. It was exactly the same as the last time. His phone was inert, impotent.
“Why am I even alive?” he groaned, oppressed by the silence, of the shapelessness of evening.
Frustrated, he removed the back cover and took the battery out. He placed it between his palms and shook it desperately. For added measure, he prayed to St. Isidore, the patron saint of the Internet. “Help me,” he asked softly. “Spare me one small charge, please, just enough for a status update, just enough for a text.”
The young man required only enough power to send a quick word for help—one small blip to tell the world where he was and that he was okay. But St. Isidore’s help line, it seemed, was otherwise engaged. His phone remained stubbornly, obstinately dead.
Despite the wracking pain, he knew that he had no choice but to walk if he wanted to be rescued. “Forgive me,” he asked his passel of precious saints. “But if you wanted to really help me, you should have just killed me. At least I’d be with her.”
Felix had totaled his car on a remote and desolate stretch of highway. He hadn’t gone on a road trip in a long while, not since he’d lost his wife in the nightmare of the previous year. Now his foolhardy journey had almost cost him his life. “You’re not the type to travel by yourself,” she had once warned him. “We’re so used to being together. It would be hell to be on the road alone.”
He shook himself from the prison of memory and inventoried his things. The watch she had given him for his birthday had stopped ticking. There was a big, ugly gash on its beveled glass. His messenger bag, the one she had lovingly picked out from the recyclables store, was badly scratched but still intact. Nothing else in his car seemed worth saving.
Felix stared at the dark road that stretched out towards the horizon. The sodium vapor lamps had been spaced apart too far apart. They left only small islands of light in the vast ocean of darkness.
Before he took his first unsteady step, he made a sign of the cross and offered a prayer to St. Jude. Felix felt his soul sallow and threadbare. He needed to arm himself against the shadows. The night was still young and he worried about what further troubles lay ahead.
“Stop using prayer as a good luck charm,” his wife had chided him. “It’s not a religion for you anymore. It’s voodoo.” His little leaps of faith unnerved everyone he knew. But he didn’t really care about what anyone thought anymore. Pain and loss had a way of turning even the smallest of comforts into crutches and somehow his constant calls for intercession made him feel less desperate, less powerless, less alone.
Felix squinted and followed the thin line of orange lights that seemed to lead towards infinity. To his relief, he spotted a bus stop about half a kilometer away. “Someone will pass by for sure,” he thought. That would be his ticket back to civilization. The young man felt for his bus card in his pocket. He took it out and stared at it for a few seconds, as if to assure himself that it was really there. Satisfied, he started walking towards his lonely destination.
The night was neither cold nor excessively humid but Felix turned his collar up as a precaution. He had walked about a hundred meters when he remembered that he’d left something of heartbreaking importance, something that he couldn’t live without. He slapped his forehead in dismay and quickly ran back to his car.
“Where is that glove compartment?” he thought, as he searched the wreckage frantically. The front of the car was hopelessly crumpled. For a minute, he thought that what he was looking for was lost forever and started to hyperventilate.
“St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things… please help me find it. St Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Please have mercy on me.” He closed his eyes and repeated the litany in his head like a nervous tick. He forced himself to take deep breaths until his feelings of panic were checked. “I can’t have lost it,” he repeated, cracking his knuckles. “I won’t ever lose it.”
Felix took a step back to calculate where the glove compartment lay under the car’s twisted frame. When he settled on a spot, he started to remove as much metal and plastic as he could. What began as a careful, studied process slowly escalated into a frenzy of destruction. He tore through the wreckage until he found what he was searching for—a woman’s red turtleneck, carefully preserved in a still-intact plastic package. It had been protected from the crash by a magazine and an old rubber sleeve. The young man slowly pulled out his shrink-wrapped treasure. He opened the package then gently stuck his nose in. His wife’s sweet scent still lingered on the fabric.
Felix put the keepsake inside his bag and resumed his solitary walk to the bus stop. The terminal was unlike any he had ever seen. There was no sign indicating what station it was, nor in fact, any identifying marks at all. There were no bus schedules detailing arrival and departure times, or none of the billboards that cluttered other shelters. There was only a small laminated notice, attached to one post, reminding commuters to “Select Option 2 for a return ride.”
Felix didn’t have to wait too long before something appeared in the distance. Like the stop it attended, the city bus that arrived was odd and strange. It was a heavy-duty Hino coach, with a low non-step floor and a spacious box-like interior. He remembered seeing a vehicle like this before, somewhere in the lumber of his grandfather’s dusty photos. An unsettled feeling came over him and he had to stop himself from running away.
The vehicle was painted sky blue all over, except for a white stripe that wrapped around the cabin, below the large plastic windows. A sign on the windshield said “AIRCON” and above it was an LED board that read “Non-Stop.” Both flanks were decorated with three white hearts. The smaller ones said “Save Gas,” while the big heart had “Love Bus” in bold, red and yellow lettering. As it pulled up in front of him, he noticed that despite the vintage design the bus seemed newly manufactured. So new, in fact, that the chassis was spotless and the rubber on the tires showed no signs of wear. The surreal cleanliness added to his growing anxiety and his body made an involuntary shiver.
He made the sign of the cross three times before getting on board. As he entered, he asked the crisply-uniformed driver where the bus was headed. The man shook his head and did not speak. He pointed instead to the modern ticket reader behind him. Felix tried to engage him in conversation, but as soon as the driver’s gaze fell on him, Felix shut his mouth. The man’s eyes blazed like hollow furnaces, burning away all questions, cauterizing all speech.
Felix flashed his bus card. Two options appeared on a small screen, simply labeled with the numerals “1” and “2”.
“You are young. Choose Option 2, my boy,” the coach’s solitary passenger told him. “I’ve selected Option 1 already. That way one of us will see where each one goes.”
“Thank you, sir,” Felix said as he moved uncertainly down the cabin. He sat opposite his fellow commuter, an old European man dressed in a black cassock, with a white Roman collar around his hearty neck.
The young man whispered another prayer of thanks. What luck that he was traveling with a priest. The presence of a man of God dispeled much of his naked fears and for the first time since his accident, he felt the faint flicker of hope.
“Thank the Lord that you are here,” the priest said. “I was slowly going mad by myself. What is your name, my son?”
“My name is Felix del Mundo,” he answered softly, nervously, like a child’s prayer.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Felix,” the old man said, in a deep reassuring voice. “I am Father Vladimir of the Society of Jesus.”
“I’m pleased to meet you too, Father,” he replied, as he dusted the chair with his handkerchief. “There’s something creepy about the bus driver. He didn’t want to talk to me.”
“I don’t think he can speak. I’ve tried to converse with him for the best part of this ride. He simply took my last obolus, my last coin, and sent me to my seat.”
“Do you have any idea where he’s taking us? The sign on the bus says ‘Non-Stop,’ but where is it non-stop to?”
“I wish I knew, my son,” the priest said. “Your stop is the only one I’ve seen since coming aboard. The odd thing is that this isn’t the same bus I started riding. I distinctly recall boarding a white LiAZ tourist coach.”
“I’m not sure I get what you mean. But, yes, something isn’t right,” Felix concurred. His dusting became more frantic. “I’ve never seen this kind of bus before. What stop did you board at, Father?”
“I… I don’t remember, actually,” Father Vladimir muttered. “I was coming back to Estragon from a big Semiotics conference. At some point I think I was in a car accident. I still have my luggage with me.”
“Estragon?” the young man asked. “Where on Earth is …oh my God! We’re dead, Father. I think we’re dead!” The young man said with a start, seized suddenly by the unforgiving inevitability of mortality. “I saw this in a movie once. Think about it. We were both in car accidents, in different countries! How did we get here? That can’t be a coincidence. My God, we’re dead!”
Felix hung his head with the grim realization, and raked his hands through his hair repeatedly, trying to overcome a sudden urge to scream. “Here I was thinking how lucky I was to escape without a scratch.” Felix took out his hanky and brushed the back of the seat in front of him. He cleaned it thoroughly before banging his head against the foam cushion.
The priest let a few moments of silence pass before speaking. “Calm yourself, my son. We don’t know that for sure, do we? I certainly don’t feel dead, but then again I’ve never been dead before. There could be other possibilities.”
“What other possibility is there?” Felix asked, befuddled by the unfamiliar logic of their situation. “We must be dead, and this bus is our hearse. It’s too much of a coincidence to ignore.”
“There is… there is coincidence, and then there is synchronicity,” Father Vladimir continued. “When two things happen together, that doesn’t always need to mean anything.”
“Sorry, Father, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the young man said, cracking his knuckles anxiously.
“Sometimes things just happen together, and there’s really no connection between them. That’s called ‘coincidence.’ However, if you do find something, like an idea or a plan that connects the two, that’s actually called ‘synchronicity.’ I believe what happened to us was pure coincidence. My accident and your accident are not connected. Yes, we’re on a strange bus heading to an unknown destination, but that doesn’t mean we’re on an omnibus to the afterlife. Think about it, if we’re dead, shouldn’t there be more people on this bus? Thousands of people die every day.”
“Are you for real, Father? I’m sorry, but you don’t talk like a regular person.”
“Well, this is far from a regular situation,” Father Vladimir said. “I’m not sure we are even in the regular world anymore. We could be dreaming, or unconscious.”
“So are you saying that this is only in my mind?” Felix asked uneasily. He looked out the plastic windows with uncharacteristic diffidence as the bus swept by endless fallow fields wrapped in darkness. The pall of night reminded him of the vacancy, the finality of oblivion, but something in his heart told him this wasn’t death.
After a period of reflection he said, “Maybe you’re right, Father. I always thought that there would be a big tunnel of light when you died, and that the people you loved would be waiting for you somewhere. No, I don’t feel like we’re dead at all.”
“Don’t be too put out,” Father Vladimir said quietly. “This is all much too strange, even for me. I wouldn’t blame you at all for feeling moribund.”
The old man droned on about death and the persistence of memory but Felix just couldn’t focus enough to listen.
“It’s moving too fast to jump off,” the young man remarked. “I just want to get off. Perhaps if we rush the driver together we can overpower him.”
“And then what?” the priest asked. “We would just be lost. It would be better for us to reach a destination first, at least before we contemplate such actions. I don’t think either of us would like to be trapped out there. It’s nothing but a brutal wasteland.”
Felix said nothing. This had been the second time in his life that he had wanted to jump from a moving bus. The first was in New York City, a little more than five years ago. With his student visa expiring, he had no choice but to return to the land of his birth. The young man had been so used to life in America, that Promised Land for all Filipinos, that his trip back home had seemed like a punishment, an exile to limbo after his brief taste of heaven. On the bus he had fought a great urge to run away, and he would probably have done so, if a beautiful young woman hadn’t sat right next to him. Like Felix she was also on her way to Manila. By some odd twist of fate, they ended up spending the next fifteen hours together. In those long golden hours, they became fast friends. Before they knew it, their relationship blossomed into something else. A year later, the two of them were married.
“We feel most mortal before dawn, they say,” Father Vladimir said, trying to comfort his brooding companion. “Let us keep our wits about us and not lose hope. Who knows what destiny waits at the end of this ride?”
“Thank you, Father,” Felix sighed. He knew that the old man was trying to make him feel better. “It’s just that being trapped on this bus is driving me nuts. I wish we knew where we were going. It doesn’t really matter where. I just want to get somewhere and get the hell off.”
“I can’t honestly say that I am not worried,” the old man mumbled. “But Milton said that the mind is its own place. In itself it can make a heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven. Perhaps we can lighten our mood with a change of topic. Let me think… hmm… my life’s work, my magnum opus if I may, is a lexicon of dreams. I have been compiling it for decades. Shall we talk about dreams instead?”
“You study dreams?” Felix asked, momentarily distracted. He had dreamed of his wife every single night since her death. Different dreams, different situations, but always with one thing in common: every night she would tell him to come and find her. His anxiety returned, and Felix took out his handkerchief and started folding it into a four-point pocket square.
“Yes, I study them, looking for a common language to define their meaning.”
“So can you interpret dreams, Father?” he asked, tucking the pocket square back into his pants.
“In a manner of speaking, I can,” the priest explained. “For example, according to my research, if you dream of riding on a bus to nowhere, it means that you feel you’re being carried along by events beyond your control.”
“So…you think that we are in a dream right now?” the young man said, looking around the strange bus and weighing the unreality of their situation. “I suppose that’s possible. I could be in a coma somewhere.”
“When you wake, or think you do, what would you say of this evening?” the old man asked. “I have an interesting thought experiment. Let’s say that we are indeed just dreaming, and you are dreaming that you’re riding a bus to places unknown, what is your inescapable tragedy, my son?”
“I haven’t said a prayer to St. Christopher yet,” Felix said abruptly. He had wanted to ask the old man about his dreams, but couldn’t bring himself to open his heart to a stranger.
“Sorry? What do you mean?”
“St. Christopher. He’s the patron saint of travelers.”
“And buses, I imagine,” the priest added. “Forgive me, but I feel as if there is some truth that you are denying. However, I suppose Carl Jung can wait, if you’re not comfortable with confessions.”
The old man looked out to the manifold darkness and became lost in his own thoughts.
After a while, the young man began to feel irritable and a bit lightheaded. “Father,” he asked. “Do you have anything to eat?” In his rush to drive back to the city, Felix had forgotten to have dinner. Now he felt the deleterious effects of hunger, as his blood sugar started to drop precipitously. “Is it possible to feel hungry in a dream?” He thought, “If I die now, this won’t be suicide. The saints will let me see her. Please St. Jude, St. Anthony, let me see her. We need to be together.”
“Ah, hunger…another great leitmotif. Knut Hamsun used it well,” Father Vladimir murmured, still lost in his thoughts. The priest had spent too much time in the bus alone, and succumbed readily to the temptation to forage in his mind for conundrums and verities.
“Father, I have diabetes,” Felix cried out. He knew that his wife wouldn’t have approved of a diabetic coma, not after she had spent so much time mothering his illness. “I feel dizzy.”
“Oh! I’m sorry. Where is my head today?” the priest said, with much embarrassment. Father Vladimir opened one of his large valises, inside which he had an enormous bag of chocolates, bottles of mineral water, and a crumbly cake packed securely in a sturdy Styrofoam box. “I was on my way to a party for the children of my orphanage. I suppose this is as noble a use for these victuals.”
The priest took out some paper plates and used the handle of a plastic fork to cut the cake. He carved out a big piece and handed it to Felix, along with a bottle of mineral water. “Smačnoho!” he exclaimed. “That means bon appetit.”
“Thank you. That was surprisingly delicious,” Felix said, gobbling his share with desperate gusto. “What kind of cake was it?”
“Kiev cake,” the old man answered proudly. “It’s a divine confection, isn’t it? It’s made of two airy layers of meringue with hazelnuts, chocolate glaze, and a butter-cream filling. It’s very rich, like the culture of my people.”
After they finished eating, the young man excused himself to take a nap. When he woke up it was still night time. In the bus he did not dream, and that bothered him greatly. He realized how deeply he needed the comfort of seeing his wife every night, even if it was just a shade of her memory.
The young man noticed that Father Vladimir had also fallen asleep. He wondered how long they had been traveling. He looked at his watch but remembered that it was still broken. He tried to recall the details of his accident, but his memory now seemed fuzzy. It was as if it had happened a very long time ago. He took his phone out of his bag and checked it again. “Please, I just want to see her picture,” he prayed, but his phone remained hopelessly dead.
A voice boomed suddenly in the darkness: “Come on, let’s get to work! In an instant it will all vanish and we’ll be alone again, in the middle of nothingness!”
“Dios ko po!” Felix cried out, startled by the old man’s declamation. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were awake, Father.”
“Nothing like a quote from Samuel Beckett to start the day,” Father Vladimir said gruffly. “Night and sleep came and went but we did not dream. At least I didn’t.”
“But it’s still night,” Felix protested. “In fact, I think it’s still the same night. Everything is exactly the same. Nothing’s changed since we ate and slept.”
“Forget the night, my son! Beckett said that nothing matters but writing and this applies to us now,” the priest said, with a distressed tone and an odd, vacant look. “I think I have figured out where we are. We are not dead. We are not dreaming. We are in a story. Oh heavens, this would be such a contrived, self-referential plot if that were true!”
“We are trapped… in a story?” Felix asked warily, as he got up and moved a few rows behind his companion. The young man wondered if their situation had finally taken its toll on the old man’s sanity. He started a silent litany to St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental health, just in case.
“Yes, I believe so,” Father Vladimir repeated, suddenly livid at their situation. “We are trapped in a cliché. I had hoped if someone ever put me in a story I would be in something literary, not genre—some novel of ideas or lofty philosophical fiction. But two strangers trapped in a single point in space and time, waiting for Godot all eternity? Maybe this is purgatory…”
“Father,” Felix cut in. “I’m a Business major with an MBA. I’m not so deeply into Philosophy. I have no idea what you’re rambling about and, frankly, you’re scaring me.” He crossed himself silently and said another prayer to St. Dymphna. For good measure, he added another to the martyr St. Sebastian, the patron saint of cranky people.
“I… I’m sorry.” Fr. Vladimir apologized profusely. The young’s man’s worried tone had returned him to his senses. “It’s just that I have dedicated my life to words and meanings. If my absurdist conjecture was true, then this would be the equivalent of hell for me.”
“Hell on a bus? This is hell?” Felix asked. He hadn’t thought about that possibility. Now it became his turn to get upset. There were things that Felix had done in his life that he wasn’t proud of, and Catholic tradition wasn’t particularly kind to sinners. Besides, there was no truer hell for him than any place where his lost love wasn’t.
“This ride… this infernal ride has both of us undone,” the priest reflected. “Let us talk about more pleasant things instead. I myself love to read. Do you like to read, my young friend?”
“Sometimes,” Felix answered, fitfully. “Business books on my tablet mostly. It’s more convenient to read them in the toilet that way.”
“Touché,” Father Vladimir said, suddenly tired beyond belief and without a single word to say.
They remained silent after that. Felix felt his fellow passenger didn’t really converse, but rather lectured; Father Vladimir lamented the decline of Philosophy in an age of restless, clueless youth.
The young man looked out through the dark windows, searching for the moon or the stars, anything that would help him determine the passage of time. There was nothing in all directions but a desolate landscape, one that mirrored the hollowness in his soul. “Just take me away, my love,” he whispered, longingly, forgetting which saint reunited soul-mates and lovers.
After a while, the oppressive monotony of the road began to affect him. Without the company of his wife or the distraction of his phone, Felix’s mind started to root for something to do. Eventually, he decided to move back towards his companion and brave another conversation.
“Father, you mentioned Waiting for Godot earlier. I saw that play in college. Isn’t it the one about the two bums who wait for this guy who never shows? I remember it.”
“You do?” the old man said, his face lighting up. “Godot is a difficult work. Not everybody likes it. Why do you remember it?”
“My wife played one of the characters, the one called ‘Lucky.’ I could never forget it.”
“Is that so? Where is your wife now?” Father Vladimir asked.
Felix absentmindedly reached inside his bag. He squeezed the plastic with her shirt tenderly, before continuing in a pained, halting voice. “She died of leukemia a year ago. Her… her scent is still with me, though.”
He pulled out the precious, shrink-wrapped relic, and showed it to the priest. “It’s like I’ve vacuum packed her ghost.”
“I am so sorry to hear that, my son,” Father Vladimir said sadly. “And I am sorry for intruding on your personal life again.”
“No, it’s alright,” Felix said. “I like talking about her. It keeps her memory alive. Her life was all about that —keeping memories alive. She was an ethno-linguist. After we came back from the US, we traveled around the provinces collecting stories from indigenous tribes. She had wanted to record them all, before they faded away forever.”
“That is a worthy endeavor,” Father Vladimir said solemnly. “Oral traditions are important and they must be preserved.”
“That’s what she always told me,” the young man went on. “She used to dream about a giant computer somewhere in the clouds. It was a place where she could store all these dying stories. In my own dreams my wife keeps asking me to come and find her. I guess in a way I’ve been doing that ever since.”
“I have heard of such places,” the priest whispered, “at least in literature.”
“Anyway… getting back to Beckett,” Felix continued, somewhat embarrassed he had revealed so much. “I was thinking about what you said about synchronicity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m in a situation that’s just like the only play I can remember. I believe there’s some greater design at work here. In the tribal stories my wife collected, there’s always a man that goes on a quest to the land of the dead. Father, what if this wasn’t coincidence but synchronicity?”
“That’s… not how it works,” the priest said, “How do you know that what you perceive is true and not simply what you would like to see?” Besides, these Orpheus-type stories always end in tragedy. Haven’t you suffered enough? She’s dead, my son. Let her go.”
“I can’t do that, Father,” the young man said, turning towards the darkness. “I have nothing but my faith left. I’m… scared out of my mind… but I have faith that this bus is where I need to be right now. I also have faith that I will find my beloved Dolores again, no matter how long it takes me.”
“‘Dolores’—what a lovely name,” Father Vladimir noted. “It means ‘sorrow’ in Spanish, and your name ‘Felix’ means ‘happy’ in Latin. Happiness is searching for Sorrow. That is all so tragically poetic.”
Felix said nothing and excused himself. He couldn’t tell if the priest was being sympathetic or condescending. He grabbed his messenger bag and moved again to the rear of the bus. After he sat down, he took out his phone and removed the battery. He warmed it in his hands, praying to St. Jude to give him one last burst of power. He returned the battery to his phone and hit the power button. It was still dead.
The bus continued on in the darkness. There were no other stops.
After their third cycle of sleep, Felix finally saw something that looked like a destination, a gigantic tower looming in the distance. As they got closer he realized that it looked oddly familiar. In fact, it looked exactly like something from his childhood prayer books, a picture of the Tower of Babel.
“Incredible!” Father Vladimir exclaimed. “It is Brueghel the Elder’s painting come to life!”
The digital signboard above the driver flashed three times. The words changed from “Non-Stop” to “The Infinite Library.” Finally, the bus passed through the building’s soaring gates and came to a halt near a low parking garage. There a group of monkeys were waiting with a notice board. The sign read: “Welcome Father Vladimir of Estragon, SJ—Semiotician, Philosopher and Dream Bibliographer.”
“I guess this is our stop,” the priest said cautiously.
“Father, those monkeys are dressed like people,” Felix said. “Who are they? What are they? What is this place?”
“Hmmm…our bus says we are at a place called the Infinite Library,” Father Vladimir ventured.
“Those creatures… They seem to be expecting you,” Felix said. A pang of suspicion began to gnaw at his mind. “Did you know that we were headed here?”
“This is as much as a surprise to me as it is to you, my son,” the old man answered. “But as it happens, I do know where we are. I first read about this place a very long time ago, when I was but a child. My family had a complete set of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia. It was all there, in a thick volume for the letter ‘I’, along with ‘India,’ ‘Idiom’ and the ‘Immaculate Conception.’ I remember that the ‘Infinite Library’ is where all that has ever been written and all that will ever be written is recorded and preserved for all eternity. If that’s true, I cannot wait to step inside.”
The LED display flashed three times again before changing to “Please wait for the Return Bus.” All the lights powered down and the driver stepped out for a smoke. It was then that Felix realized that the man on the wheel was almost skeletally thin, a shadow of death himself.
The leader of the monkeys boarded the bus and greeted them in perfect, if archaic, English, one pregnant with meaning and epic formality. They extended an invitation for the old man to visit the library.
“I must follow my guides,” Father Vladimir said, collecting his luggage.
“What about me?” Felix asked. Though he was terrified of the strange creatures, the young man refused to be left alone in the dark. “You can’t leave me Father, please.”
“You chose Option 2, did you not? That means you have a return ticket. Just wait for the bus to be ready,” the priest reminded him. “My son, I’m afraid that your grief is still very much in denial. Your beloved wife is gone. This is not your story, go back to the real world. Find yourself someone else. Don’t let your tale end in tragedy.”
“No. There must be a reason I was brought here,” Felix insisted. “Take me with you, please. Someone here may know how to find Dolores.”
“Well… I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t,” Father Vladimir said, turning to ask the monkeys for permission. “However, if you miss your bus, you may not be able to go back.”
“I’ll take my chances,” the young man insisted.
“It’s a fair bet,” the priest said. “In a place like this, where only infinities matter, I suppose your bus can wait indefinitely.”
They stepped into the library together. The interior was even more massive than the building itself, with endless rows of galleries and hallways that seemed to extend all the way to the clouds. Each gallery, in turn, was connected by a multitude of pillars and spiral staircases that linked everything together into a gigantic labyrinth of knowledge.
Felix noted that each hall and gallery had a brass nameplate over its entranceway. He did a quick survey and read some labels at random: “English 51st Century Fiction,” “Flash Fiction,” “Algorithms and Equations,” “Internet Memes,” “19th Century Erotica,” “Maps and Cartographic Materials,” “Songs and Song Lyrics.” He could not find any sign for an Oral Traditions section. He tried to ask directions from the monkey guides, but each creature pointed to a different doorway.
Their motley group walked to the central rotunda from where each of the halls for the living languages radiated like spokes. They stepped into a mirror-like portal, and suddenly the signs in the library changed. Instead of language families, the two of them now passed row upon row of galleries dedicated to individual authors. Father Vladimir stopped by the entrance to one of these, a doorway with a brass plate that read: “The Works of Karl Rahner,” and spoke to one of the librarians.
Felix wondered where the priest’s own writings were located. From his companion’s great eloquence, he imagined that it would be a huge gallery. He tried to ask the librarian a few questions, but he seemed only interested in theological polemic. The strange man barely even acknowledged his presence.
Felix left the gallery and began to wander aimlessly through the labyrinth of books. Eventually he came across the room that housed Father Vladimir’s work. Unlike Rahner’s numerous lexicons, this collection consisted of only one bookshelf. There was a thick encyclopedia of dreams, and various books on Faith and Theodicy, as well as many slim folios investigating Liturgy, Charity and the Importance of Sacrifice. He noticed that for some reason there was not a single volume on Love. Felix wondered if the old priest had ever known true love.
He stepped into another mirror-like door and found that the hallway signs had changed to modes of communication. He was in a gallery called “The Cradle of Literature,” where to his delight there were hundreds of music players laid out neatly on the tables. He picked through the gramophones, walkmans, iPods, and strange listening devices that looked like quivering crystals, until he saw one whose power source was compatible with his phone. He pried the back cover open and removed the battery.
Just then a librarian came out of a side door and accosted him. “Sir, you are not allowed to do that,” she said. The young woman looked into the intruder’s face and her eyes widened in stunned recognition. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “You… you found me.”
For what seemed like an eternity, Felix and the librarian stared at each other, not stirring, not talking; for fear that the other might disappear like a dream. They stood apart, separated by a hyperbolic space, as if they could not touch each other without shattering.
Finally his heart could bear no more, and the young man jumped towards his lost love. He gathered her in his strong arms. “Dolor,” he cried softly. “I’ve missed you so much.”
No words or explanations were needed. The two remained locked in an embrace, cocooned in the library’s strange twilight, when Father Vladimir and the bus driver found them.
“I am truly sorry to break you up,” the priest said, “but I am told that Felix has to go back now.”
“Can I stay, please?” he begged the bus driver. But the skeletal man just shook his head, his face impassive as chalcedony, as he pointed a bony hand towards the exit. Felix felt a shiver that chilled him to the marrow.
“Father, help me! We can’t lose each other again,” Felix cried, his tears flowing freely. He got down on his knees and took the priest’s hand. He whispered a silent prayer to his favorite, St. Jude, and to St. Raphael, whom he now remembered as the patron of soulmates and lovers. His mind composed a desperate canticle to his beloved saints, calling for their intercession, and the compassion of their sacred thaumaturgies. “You said my story shouldn’t end in tragedy,” he said to Father Vladimir. “You have the power to change that.”
The priest heaved a sigh and looked away into the distance. He seemed older, a man filled with the melancholy regret that came with age. “Have you seen my gallery?” he asked. “It’s not as big as I’d hoped. I suppose I still have much work to do before they compare me to Rahner. Right now I feel like that Kiev cake we ate on the bus, all filling and no substance. After watching you and your wife here, maybe I should go back and write about Love.”
Father Vladimir held onto the young man’s hand, contemplating the fragility of existence and the resilience of lovers.
“It’s my story that’s not yet complete,” he said, finally. “Give me your ticket, my son.”
Felix wiped the tears from his eyes, and fished the ticket from his pocket. He picked up the battery he had dropped and slipped it into his phone. It turned on with a full charge.
“This is a multi-band phone,” he said, as he handed it to the priest. “Wherever you are in the world it will pick up the nearest signal. You should be able to call for help. Thank you. Thank you so much!”
“I am a man of the cloth and a soldier to Ignatius. To give and not to count the cost is our motto,” Father Vladimir declared. “Besides, what fool would not do this for love? It trumps all religions and philosophies. Your Godot has come, my son. I must go and find mine.”
As he was about to leave, the old man started chuckling, out of character. He turned back towards Felix and said: “Do you know why your batteries ran out? You had your music playing in a nonstop loop.”
“Yes, I know, Father. I forgot to switch it off,” Felix answered. “I think I was listening to The Police.”
“How prescient,” Father Vladimir mused, as he read the album’s name from the phone’s music player. “Synchronicity.”
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Geetanjali Dighe. Geetanjali lives in Mumbai. She publishes IndianSF (IndianSF.wordpress.com), a bi-monthly magazine that features science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Muse India. On Twitter she is @GeetanjaliD.
This is the story’s first publication.
I am dying, Manohar. It’s been a long, hard life without you, but at least I met you in this life. Will I meet you on the other side? Will you be waiting for me, as you promised? thought Ratan, half-asleep, on the edge of death, in the middle of the night. Her old and wrinkled body lay on her warm bed.
The fabric of Ratan’s life began to tear, and the glow behind it poured out in rays. The tear stretched softly, like an old paper coming apart at its fibers, and through it a heavenly Goddess appeared by Ratan’s death-side. A Goddess with a glowing face, a golden orb around her head, four arms; and clad in a beautiful red sari decked with golden borders.
“Remember, the wise see only the truth in the mirror, Ratan,” the Goddess said. Mirror? How odd, thought Ratan. “Seek the truth.” The Goddess smiled and beckoned her with outstretched hands.
A dream-like haze came over Ratan, and she barely felt the tug as she came apart, unglued from her body. She quietly died in her sleep. It was the year 2009. She was 95.
When she opened her eyes, she was sitting on a cot in her backyard, outside her house in the village. Manohar’s brown horse, Chetak, was lazily nibbling grass by the guava tree.
A policeman shimmered beside her. He smiled and said in the most gentle way, “Namaste, Ratan. I am your guide. I thought you might find it comfortable to meet me in this attire.”
“Namaste,” Ratan got up and smiled. “Yes. Manohar, my husband, was a Sub-Inspector. He was killed by a dacoit in the jungle when my children were very young.” She paused. “He is here, isn’t he?” she asked gingerly, looking around.
“Ratan,” the guide said, very lovingly, “Manohar as you remember him is not here with us.” Ratan gasped. “This cycle of life and death – it’s an illusion. It’s a kind of art that you have created and loved. Here, there is only Oneness. Many beings choose to discard their identities once they reach here and coalesce into this one truth – this Oneness.”
“No. No. You must be mistaken!” Ratan sat down stunned. “Manohar promised if anything ever happened to him, he would wait for me, meet me when I died. He said so to me himself that morning, when he rode off to catch that dacoit in the jungle. He never came back.” Ratan started sobbing. “I cried for him my whole life. I had to raise five children all on my own. He promised he’d be here.”
“Dear child, this sadness is just your memory. It’s not real,” said the guide.
“Oh! If I could get just one glimpse of him!” Ratan wept.
“Look around you, these surroundings – your body, your tears – they aren’t real.”
Ratan held up her hand. It started to become transparent. She could see Chetak through her hand, and as she watched, the horse started to dissolve. Bewildered, she wiped her tears, but she could not feel her face.
“Have I become a ghost?” she asked and looked for a mirror.
“I am afraid mirrors aren’t allowed in this realm,” the guide said. “Here there is only Oneness. When it is reflected, it creates some resonant infinities that are difficult to attenuate.”
“What?” Ratan remembered something about the Goddess and mirrors. “But I want to see myself.”
Pop! As if on command, her beautiful Burma wood dresser appeared beside them. It was intricately carved, her case of perfumes lay next to the bronze jewelry box; but in place of the full-length oval mirror was an impossibly deep hole.
The guide sighed, and waited. Ratan walked up to the dresser and looked at the mirror. It was a dark tunnel – a hole of nothingness. Puzzled, she peered into it.
It was as if she had dipped her head in an ocean, and was looking at underwater corals. Except that the coral and the seabed were a boiling burning mass, molten and heaving.
Ratan pulled her head quickly out of the mirror. “What happened? What was that?” she said. “Tell me the truth, was that hell?”
“No. It was Aldebaran. You peered into a star,” the guide said.
“You are not in space-time now. You are in another plane – a plane of consciousness. It’s like a dimension… mirrors are gateways to different dimensions here. Let me explain,” said the strange guide. “You can now access any universe, any time, all lives and probabilities. They all exist, in all their possibilities, alongside, beside, below, and above each other. You can jump to any time, any space, any universe.”
“You mean there are parallel universes?”
“Is there a universe where Manohar wasn’t killed?”
“How do I find it?”
“You can look into the mirror and choose.”
“Choose?” Ratan was bewildered, but quickly put her head into the mirror. Sure enough, she saw herself at a function where Manohar was being made the Deputy Commissioner of Police. She saw them living their long life together, and felt all their moments strung out like pearls. She could wear them as an ornament. She pulled back out of the mirror.
“So, by going into the mirror, I can create any life for myself?” She asked.
“Yes, but all those worlds are an illusion – they are Maya. The truth is Oneness,” the guide said.
“But, then, if this is all Oneness, how am I still talking to you?”
“Are you really?”
“Am I talking to myself, then?”
Her voice seemed to echo in the silence.
“Did I create the guide and the Goddess? Is all this my own imagination? Who am I?”
Who wants to know? came her own reply.
Then Ratan looked at the self inside herself. She was now, never and forever, here, there, everywhere and nowhere. She was the reflection mirrored in myriad lives and worlds and times. She was the mirror reflecting herself. Ratan mirrored and saw Manohar. He was her. There were not two, was no other, only awareness. There was only Oneness.
But I can still choose. I can love Manohar, one more time. I can see Manohar come home, riding on Chetak, one more time. Just this once, Ratan thought, and with a quick step, walked through the mirror and plunged into the tunnel.
It was 1914. In the green, misty monsoon dawn, a group of people were on a morning walk in the village, singing patriotic songs, holding candles for the freedom movement. That morning, in that village, Ratan came kicking and crying into the world. Again.
German author Frank Habuold is a winner of the Kurd-Laßwitz Award. He is the author, with Gill Ainsworth, of the collection Seasons of Insanity, published by Apex Books.
Frank Haubold interviewed by Charles Tan
Hi Frank! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with science fiction and fantasy?
Oh, that was many years ago. I think it was in the early 70s, when I experienced first books by Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley and Stanislaw Lem in the library of my hometown. These books were rareties, which could not be bought in bookstores of former Eastern Germany. I’ve always fought with me in order to give them back. Fantasy as a genre did not exist at that time.
It was – I think – in 2006, when I sent one of my stories to several English-language magazines. Unfortunately I only got rejections, but the mail from Gill was very friendly and interested. So we stayed in contact. Gill revised the translation of another story, which later reached the shortlist of the Aeon Award, and I translated two of her stories for German anthologies. Sometime later, we had the idea for a joint collection in English.
That was a little difficult because the prerequisites were not optimal. Gill does not speak German and my English is rather poor. It is sufficient to translate English texts into German, but the reverse is much more difficult. So I translated my stories sentence by sentence in a kind of pidgin English, and then Gill brought the fragments into a readable form. It took many weeks and months, and of course there were sometimes misunderstandings. Against this background, 130 pages are a lot.
Of course I have selected only stories, that I particularly like. Therefore, the feeling when reading and Pretranslation was not so bad. If a story is a few years old, there are of course always little things one would write a little different today. Much more interesting and sometimes disturbing is the diversity of languages. A phrase that sounds good in German, can sound terrible in English and vice versa. Therefore, only a native speaker is able to assess and correct these subtleties. I am very grateful that Gill has taken this burden.
How did you come up with the concept of seasons for the book?
Gill had this idea. We had a few stories that are tied to specific data, such as Christmas or Halloween. And we had others where the weather plays a role and is typical for certain seasons. Therefore it was making sense to bring the stories to a chronology of the seasons. This works, of course, not perfect in every story, but it does bring some structure into the book. That’s why I like the idea.
How did Apex end up publishing Seasons of Insanity?
That was not an easy way. Fortunately, my role was confined to inquire every few weeks, wether the project is going on or not. Obviously, the U.S. market is difficult, and the few genre-publishers are inundated with manuscripts. That makes such projects not easier. But it worked in the end, still, and I am very grateful, that Apex Publications has published our book.
What’s the genre field in Germany like?
In Germany, the SF and horror scene is much smaller and more clearly. Everyone who deals intensively with the genre, knows the relevant publishers and publications. However, only few genre authors are able to earn their bread and red wine with writing. I’m not one of them, and that’s not because I drink too expensive wine …
On the other hand, there are a number of dedicated small publishers who are active in the scene, and also a loyal core audience, however only few young readers.
Who are some of the authors that interest you?
There are many authors, whose works have impressed me. Ray Bradbury, of course, James G. Ballard, Clifford Simak, Stanislav Lem or the Strugatsky brothers. Unfortunately most of them have already died. I like Dan Simmon’s “Hyperion” und the SF-novels of Sergei Lukyanenko. Some of the older novels by Stephen King are also fascinating.
Anything else you want to promote?
This is difficult because there are no English versions of my more recent novels and short stories. Currently I am writing the second part of a space opera called “Twilight of the Gods”, which keeps me busy for almost a year. That’s a pretty crazy story from a distant future in which also the poet Rilke and Jim Morrison will have an appearance. Science fiction purists will not like it. ;-)
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Indrapramit Das. Indrapramit is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Apex Magazine, Redstone Science Fiction and Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (Zubaan Books, India), among others. He also writes reviews for publications including Slant Magazine and Strange Horizons, and comics for ACK Media. He has an MFA degree from the University of British Columbia, which he uses as a small tablemat while pretending to be an adult. To find out more, visit http://flavors.me/indra_das or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).
The story was first published in the November 2011 issue of Redstone Science Fiction.
Looking the Lopai in the Eyes
by Indrapramit Das
Earth almost looks like home, from here. Brilliant blue, cloud-clothed. More visible land-masses, but otherwise strikingly similar. But Alwaea knows it will be very different. She touches the cold window, tracing with her finger the sun-brightened curve of the planet her genes were forged in. The planet that decided, so long ago, what she would look like, right down to the pattern of spirals on her fingertip, delicately imprinted on the glass.
Alwaea knows that Earth did not decide who she would become, and that is all she has. Her hand is trembling.
She is the Ambassador, she tells herself. She was chosen for this.
She will soon meet the governments of all the countries that sent their diaspora across the galaxy to populate her home. She cannot imagine the myriad cultures, the clashing languages, the opposing ideologies, the boiling throng of violent discord she understands Earth to be. She can barely imagine a planet inhabited by billions of humans, when her world has yet to host even a million.
When she first saw Earth through the windows, it almost felt like she hadn’t slept for years, nurtured by robots while her vessel folded space around itself. It felt like she hadn’t left at all. But the closer she comes to the planet, the more different it seems. The glass squeaks as Alwaea runs her fingers across it. This time she traces them along the shorelines she can now see below the clouds. In her mind, they evoke the Earth-map of hundreds of countries she had studied when she was younger, so different from the undivided canvas of her world’s supercontinent. The map had confused her, especially when her mother told her it was obsolete because of temporal distance and shifting politics.
Alwaea’s home is one world, and one country. She represents a single government, though her people have a different word for it.
She closes her eyes and thinks of the vast open spaces of her world. Of staring into the crafty yellow eyes of the Lopai on her nineteenth birthday, winter-breath lit up by the sister stars. She had locked her arms around its horns and rammed her booted feet onto its simian hands, hard enough to shock but not to break. She had wrestled the devil of the steppes to the ground, snow turning to slush underneath them, and she had let go and spoken one of the twenty words the Lopai speaks, one that her mother had taught her. She had watched it run from her on all fours, graceful muscles rippling and horns lowered sideways in submission, its long tail a whiplash against the white ground. She had laughed at the wet red of her hands, when she touched her bloody face.
Alwaea opens her eyes, and she is still shaking. She has never been this afraid in her life.
She opens the envelope in her hand, takes out the letter inside. It is from her mother, who was also Ambassador. It has been years since she handed it to Alwaea on the surface of their world. The vacuum seal of the locker it was in has kept it from weathering. The handmade paper is still crisp, if a little warped. She can even smell the overwhelmingly familiar fruit-sweet traces of pyrap musk her mother wore as perfume, hiding under the smoky scent of brewed ink. Alwaea has waited for all of her voyage to read the letter, as she was told to. She reads it aloud, so the whispered words reverberate in the cramped landing capsule.
“Don’t let them look down on us, Alwaea, like they did to me. You’re far stronger than I. Show them how we’ve grown, and show us how you’ve grown. Come back with our independence in your hands.”
Alwaea’s chest tightens to see her mother’s slanted handwriting again, after this endless voyage of cold sleep. She should feel fury at the letter, the way it leaves no room for failure, no room for concern, even. But she thinks of the time her mother sat in a capsule much like this one, approaching Earth, both her parents long dead from pre-vaccine contagions. Her mother, who came to Earth and failed at diplomacy, failed to show its nations that her home no longer needed to be called a colony but a world of its own.
No, Alwaea thinks. Light-years away from home, she cannot remain angry at the woman who taught her to tame the devil of the steppes, to look the Lopai in the eyes, the woman who had kissed her bloody forehead and come away with lips red to show her pride. Alwaea knows that her mother might no longer be alive by the time she returns to her world. But she will bring their independence with her all the same.
Alwaea puts the letter in her lap. Earth comes closer, little by little, the sun glaring off the mirrors of its oceans. Her people’s motherworld, still beautiful despite its age. Yes. Alwaea will show Earth how they’ve grown in the solitude of another constellation. She realizes she is no longer shaking.
Alwaea touches her face. Her palms come away wet, and she laughs.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Bojan Ratković. Bojan is an aspiring writer from Serbia, currently living and working in Ontario, Canada. He has a Master’s degree in political science from Brock University in Ontario, Canada and he is currently pursuing a PhD degree in political philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario.
“Battleflag” was inspired by Bojan’s own personal experiences during the civil war in the Former Yugoslavia. This is its first publication.
They rang out all night, the bombs and the missiles. They do most nights. The world shook and trembled and the ground swelled with falling rubble. Older folks say the sound reminds them of fireworks. They had fireworks in the former times — they would shoot up and light up the skies with bursts of color and everyone would look up, and their eyes would glimmer. No one looks at the skies anymore — the sound of fireworks is the sound of death.
Older folks still talk about the former times, but those are just stories… fairy tales. The bombs are real, the sewers are real, the death and the putrid smell are real, and the rest are fairy tales. This world — their world — is their tomb.
Mornings are a time for weeping, weary faces, and empty silence.
A time for cleanup.
Blasts from the night before tore the roof into pieces and the main bunker was in a shambles. A metal pipe snapped off the wall and killed an older woman in her bed. Everyone worked on cleanup that day. Two boys carried the corpse into the sewer tunnels. The sewers are where all of them end up, eventually.
A tomb within a tomb.
The boys wiggled their way into a narrow corridor and forced the stretcher in behind them. “Which smells better, Wynn? The sewers, or last night’s dinner?” One of the boys grinned, his parted lips revealing chipped, rotting teeth. The dead woman was hoisted up on a stretcher, her cold face covered with a sheet.
“This ain’t the time for jokes, Donny,” Wynn Caden said without turning around. He was a tall, lanky boy of nineteen and he towered over his shorter companion. “But if I really had to guess, I’d say your breath tops it all.” He pressed on, holding up the stretcher from the front and marching forward, knee-deep in muck and waste. Donny tried to keep up, pushing the stretcher from the back and staggering through the filth — thick in smell and texture. The air of the sewers made his throat convulse.
“How’s your li’l sis, Wynn? She okay?” Donny asked as they squirmed their way through a bend in the pipes.
“She’s holding up,” Wynn said and hawked a big slab of spit into the waste below. The yellowish-green slime floated up in the dark water, and Wynn could see a hint of blood in the mixture. “I don’t know how she does it, but she’s holding up.”
“How old is she now?” Donny pressed forward as the flicker of fluorescent tubes grew dimmer, and the darkness thickened.
“Turning ten next month,” Wynn said. A strong desire to barf clawed at him from deep inside the gut, but he clenched his teeth and swallowed down on the sickness.
Donny smiled as muck splashed against his beaten clothes. “Ten already? She’s growin’ up quick. How old was she when your parents died?”
“Not yet two.”
“Whoa… it’s been a long time.”
“It’s been forever. How’s your pop doin’?” Wynn took a big step forward, careful not to slip and tumble into the liquid dung below. The stench was now worse — at first it scarred the nostrils, and then, after a while, it numbed them completely.
“Not too good, pal. I know he’ll end up down here too, like old Mrs. Dorin.” Donny glanced sympathetically at the woman’s corpse, frowned, and turned away. “Sometime soon.”
“Don’t think that way, Donny. You can’t.”
Donny shrugged. “I ain’t got much of a choice, pal. It is what it is, and I guess that’s how it’s gotta be.”
Wynn stopped and turned around. He searched for Donny’s face in the darkness. “Hey, you already know what I’m gonna say, don’t ya? Either we stand and fight our way out of this goddamned pit or we give up, lie down and wait for the rats to eat us. I’d rather fight. You should, too.”
“Sure, Wynn. If you say so.” Donny looked away, eyes swelling.
“Don’t lose faith, Donny. It’s the only thing they couldn’t take from us — it’s all we’ve got left.” Wynn whispered, and then they walked in silence, listening to the splatter of the water and the scurrying of rodents.
Just ahead, deep in the darkness, there was a hole in the pipes. The boys walked carefully to the edge and lowered the corpse. On the count of three, they swung the stretcher and dropped the dead woman into the blackness below. The body tumbled down the pit, and then there was a single deep splash. “Goodbye, Mrs. Dorin,” Wynn said, and Donny mouthed a prayer. They turned and headed back.
* * *
They made their way back through the sewers, slowly climbing to the bunker’s main floor. Suddenly, Donny jerked his head upward. He heard something beyond the buzzing and twitching of florescent lights — it was a steady, rattling sound.
“Something’s up,” Donny said.
They moved closer. They could hear a commotion coming from up ahead. Not the usual kind of commotion: the terror, the screaming, the panic. This was different… this was something else.
Donny dropped his end of the stretcher and rushed forward. Wynn pushed the contraption aside and followed. As they emerged from the sewer pipes, they saw that a large crowd had gathered on the main floor. They were talking loudly, and some were even laughing.
“Someone’s here, Wynn! Someone’s here from up top. Let’s go see.” Donny took off, and Wynn leapt after him. They squirmed through the mass of people and hurried to the front of the crowd.
“They’re coming, Wynn! My dear boy, they’re coming to save us!” A tiny, pale woman with burn marks on her face grabbed Wynn by the shirtsleeve, her voice cracking.
Wynn’s eyes widened. “Who’s coming, Betty? Who’s coming to save us?”
“Battleflag! Our boys from Battleflag are coming! They’re gonna free the city. They sent word. Thank the good Lord, Wynn! Thank the good Lord!”
“But who… Who’s here from up top?” Wynn pushed himself up by his toes, fighting to see. There was some movement ahead of him, and then he felt the push of a dozen bodies.
The residents of the bunker swarmed forward until they had formed a tight circle around one thin, ailing man who used a walking stick to keep from falling over. His skin was dirty and scarred; his hair wild and greasy. From his darkened face hung a patchy, rugged beard covered in dirt. He wore the gray uniform of the surface rebels.
“My friends, listen up! Listen up, friends! Everyone, please, listen here!” A thick man with a harsh voice screamed, his arms flailing through the air. He made his way to the front, then stood beside the stranger and gestured for calm. The crowd settled around him and slowly the noise subsided. The man was Commander Marcus, the bunker chief.
Wynn was shoved and he shoved back, determined to keep his place at the front of the crowd. Donny was there too, his eyes gleaming. Lieutenant Marcus took a deep breath, his chest growing, and then continued:
“My friends and fellow residents of Bunker 13-A, the man standing before us is Captain Rom Ashe of Battleflag. He comes to us with an important message from his headquarters in the north. He has asked me to deliver this message to you, the good people of Bunker 13-A.”
The stranger nodded and tilted his body to the side, briefly revealing the black and gold insignia of the Battleflag rebel group sewn to the side of his jacket. There was a collective gasp from the crowd. Moments later, all were silent.
Lieutenant Marcus wiped the sweat from his wrinkled brow, then unfolded a large piece of paper and began to read:
“The High Command of the Battleflag Resistance Corps wishes to inform the people of the Red Zone, and particularly the residents of Bunker 13-A — the largest civilian shelter for the Red Zone — that major operations intended to liberate them and the entire region from the brutal tyranny of the Forefathers are now under way. Battleflag has committed all of its resources to the Red Zone Offensive, which will put an end to the death and destruction brought on by the Forefathers and their inhuman regime. The brunt of the offensive is set to begin within the next twenty-four hours. We advise you, the residents of the Red Zone, to stay put and await further instructions.”
Lieutenant Marcus finished reading, cleared his throat, and folded up the paper. After a brief, stunned silence a mighty cheer rang up from the crowd and echoed through the bunker like a blast wave. The residents cheered, clapped their hands, and some giggled like schoolchildren on Christmas morning. For the first time in a long time, Wynn felt hopeful. He smiled and his eyes sparkled with uncried tears.
“They’re coming, Wynn! It’s true!” Donny embraced his friend.
“Battleflag…” Wynn, still dazed, returned the hug. A single tear trickled down his cheek.
* * *
In a matter of minutes, the entire bunker was animated and many were drinking. One man held a crude, handmade guitar and he tugged at the strings softly. A crowd had gathered around him, laughing and singing and dancing.
All were overcome with emotion. All, that is, but one man — the man in uniform, the stranger. He just stood there, quietly leaning against the wall and propping himself up with the walking stick. Every once in a while the residents would walk up to him and offer their hands — he gave each a single firm pump, and sent them on their way. He smiled once or twice, but it was a distant, empty smile.
“Donny,” Wynn snapped. “I have to find my sister. I have to find Nellie.” He shook his friend by the shoulders.
Donnie laughed and nodded. “I saw her playin’ with the other kids, outside the gen-room. You go get her, Wynn. Go tell her!”
* * *
A few yards from the closed doors of the generator room, some of the bunker children busied themselves with their usual pastimes. The boys kicked rocks and fallen debris around and chucked them at the walls playfully. The girls played hopscotch at a safe distance from the boys. Wynn ran past the smaller groups of people that had formed around the edges of the larger crowd, and leapt across the main level of the shelter until he reached the grayish-white walls of the gen-room. There, he saw his sister.
“Nellie, get over here!” Wynn shouted and waved.
The small girl turned. “Winnie!” she screamed, and threw herself into her brother’s arms.
“I told you not to call me that,” Wynn said and held her close, the girl’s long black hair tickling his face.
“Tough luck, Winnie,” she whispered, then giggled.
“I love you, sis.”
She pulled away and looked up at him, her hair draped over her shoulders. “Love you too, bro.” She smiled. “Did you hear? The other kids said that the rebels are coming to save us. Do you think it’s true?”
“I hope so, Nellie. I really do.”
“Me too!” She jumped back into his arms and squeezed tighter. He squeezed back.
* * *
By the afternoon things had settled down and many of the drinkers had drunk themselves to sleep. Donny was slouched over a garbage can, half-conscious, his insides revolting against the oily bunker gin. Once his stomach settled, Donny would sleep it off as he always did. For Wynn, drinking bunker gin was like drinking turpentine, and he couldn’t stand the stuff.
The stranger was now sitting on a small wooden chair not far from where he had been standing. The walking stick was resting on the ground by his feet. He stared blankly into nothing, taking quick, rhythmic puffs of a dwindling cigarette. The bunker folks had left him to his thoughts.
Wynn saw his chance. He approached the man and held out his hand. “Captain, thank you for coming, sir,” he said and smiled.
The man in uniform tilted his head, nodded, and shook the boy’s hand.
“My name’s Wynn, sir, and I really appreciate it. I know you risked your life to get here.”
“Wynn…” the Captain said softly.
“Wynn Caden, sir.”
“Wynn Caden,” the Captain took another puff of the cigarette and calmly rubbed his chin. “Pull up a chair.”
“I’m Rom. Pleased to meet you, young man.” The man took another puff and blew a thick ring of smoke into the air. It floated upward and dissolved quickly, the residue flowing into the air vents.
“Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“You’re the computer kid, right?”
Wynn’s pale face lit up. “Yes, sir. I’ve been helping the rebels for two years now.”
“Yes, of course. You took down the Oakridge Power Station last Fall.”
“I had a lot of help,” Wynn muttered.
“Of course, of course. Good work, son.” He flicked the cigarette away. It died a slow death on the bunker floor.
“Thank you, sir,” Wynn said.
“So Wynn, do you have any family here?” the man asked, his eyes staring off into the distance.
“Only a sister. She’s turning ten next month”
“You takin’ care of her?”
“Yes, sir.” Wynn nodded.
“Good, good. You been alone a long time?”
“More than eight years now. Our parents died in the first uprising.”
The man sighed. “I’m very sorry.”
“There was a raid in our neighborhood, and we were caught in the crossfire.” Wynn paused and took a deep breath. “They died protecting us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The man shook his head and leaned over slightly in his chair.
“Yeah. It’s been a long time, you know? Some rebels found me and my sister hiding in a ditch and brought us here, to the bunker. We’ve been here ever since. That’s about it.” The boy’s voice was dry and it cracked as he spoke.
The Captain placed his hand on Wynn’s shoulder. “It’s a tragic story, but a story I hear all too often.”
Wynn bit down on his lip and held back the tears. It took effort. “Have you eaten, Captain?”
The man shook his head, disinterested.
“I’ll bring you some lunch,” Wynn said and flew off his chair before the man could protest. Moments later, the boy returned with canned beans and cracker bread for two. They popped the cans open and scarfed the food down.
“Thanks very much, son,” the man said after he was finished. “So, how’s your sister doing? She’s only ten, you said?”
“Yes. She’s holding up. Some of the women here volunteer to watch the children during the day. Nellie’s with them now.”
“That’s real good.”
“Yeah,” Wynn said and laughed. “I promised I’d read to her later. I do most nights.”
The man nodded and forced a smile, but there was a profound sadness in his eyes. “Wynn…” he whispered after a lengthy pause. “Do you think it’ll ever end?”
“The war, sir? I don’t know.” Wynn lowered his head.
“Do you still hope?” the man asked, his eyes swelling.
“And what about those other days?”
“Those days are hell.” Wynn said and frowned.
There was a long, heavy silence.
“Let me ask you something, Wynn,” the man said finally, raising his head. “If you could help turn the tide of it all, would you?”
“Of course I would, sir. In a heartbeat.”
The man nodded. “And would you give your life for the cause knowing that your sacrifice would give others a fighting chance?”
Wynn thought of his sister. “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Then listen closely, son,” the man said and the corner of his mouth ticked up. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
For the first time since he arrived, the man seemed lively and alert. He leaned forward in his chair and the boy sensed a sudden change in the Captain’s demeanor. Wynn saw the man’s ancient face transform, betraying a slight glimpse of youth.
“As you know, this whole mess started with the Augustine Wars some thirty years ago. I’m in my fifties now, though I look a lot older than that, but I was around your age when the damned thing first got going. Everything before that we call the former times.
“By the time the war was over, the fate of many nations rested in the hands of weak leaders and weaker governments. Twelve of this country’s most powerful generals decided to take matters into their own hands, and their armies marched on our cities.
“The twelve generals dubbed themselves The Forefathers, prophets of a new era — the age of discipline and hard work. In reality, it was the age of slavery. As people starved to death on the streets of our cities, the tyrants poured everything worth a lick into the source of their power — the army. We had no running water and no electricity while the army spent our wages on newer and deadlier weapons — weapons they would then turn back on us. The army became judge, jury, and executioner. The Forefathers became gods.”
Wynn nodded but didn’t speak.
“Then came the first uprising.” The Captain slapped his bad leg with the palm of his hand. “It was a long fight, a good fight, but in the end the tyrants proved too strong and the whole thing went to hell.” He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his sleeve. “We’re four years into the second uprising now. So many are dead, so many are suffering…”
“But the Red Zone Offensive is coming — that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? We’re gonna turn the tide now, I know it.” Wynn flung his arms in the air and gestured toward the whole of the bunker. “We’ll fight our way out of here soon, I… I just know it.”
The Captain breathed a heavy sigh and lowered his head, shaking. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this… maybe I feel you have the right to know, or maybe I just need to get it off my chest.”
Wynn studied the man’s smirk.
“There are spies here, Wynn,” the Captain mumbled, his face downcast and his eyes fixed on the floor. “There are spies in Bunker 13-A.”
“Spies?” Wynn snapped, stunned.
“Yes, informants for the tyrants.”
The boy shook his head. “No way! That… that’s not true.”
“It is,” the Captain whispered, not looking up.
“That’s impossible,” the boy protested. “I know everyone in here, and there are no spies. All of us are…”
“The spies are here, Wynn,” the man interrupted. “We’ve confirmed it.”
“But… but…” Wynn struggled with his words. “But you told all these people about the Red Zone Offensive. You told them that Battleflag is coming to save us, didn’t you? Why? Why did you say it in front of the spies? Why would you do that?” The boy’s cheeks turned hot and his voice cracked painfully.
The man shrugged his shoulders. “I asked you before if you would give your life for the cause knowing it could help turn the tide. You told me that you wouldn’t hesitate.”
The boy made no reply.
“You said that when the day came to make the sacrifice, you wouldn’t think twice about laying down your life so that others may live. Isn’t that right, Wynn?”
The boy leapt from his chair. “Of course I said it, and I meant it. I would do anything for the cause! You don’t believe me?”
“No, that’s not it,” the man said, smiling a sickly smile. “What I mean to say is that the day for sacrifice has arrived. Today is that day.”
* * *
Wynn stood there for a moment, frozen. He felt a grueling chill creep up his spine. A single drop of cold sweat shot down the nape of his neck and dripped over his back. “What are you talking about, Captain?” he said finally.
The man was perfectly calm. He looked up at Wynn, their eyes meeting for the first time in what seemed like forever. “Battleflag has the nuke. Did you know that?”
“I’ve heard rumors, sure.”
“Yes,” the man nodded with pride. “We snatched up a few warheads last summer, from the Stadt Air Force Base.”
Wynn’s mouth flew open. “So it’s true, then?”
“Yes, it’s true. The tyrants don’t believe that we have the capability to deploy them. But Wynn my boy, they’re wrong.”
“So then we’ll nuke them, right?”
The man shrugged again. “This war has gone on for far too long. You weren’t here for all of it, but you can see the horror, can’t you? So many are suffering — dying — every single day.”
“Yeah, but what are you getting at?” Wynn’s teeth rattled as he spoke. The man was starting to bug him now — bug him profoundly — and he clenched his fists almost instinctively.
“They think we’re attacking the Red Zone at dawn,” the Captain said, grinning. “They’ve sent everything they’ve got to defend it. They think they’re really gonna get us this time, Wynn, but they’re wrong.”
Wynn opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t.
The man wobbled his head back and forth, his arms shaking. “You asked me if we’ll nuke them. We will. We’ll hit them where it’ll do the most damage—we’ll nuke the Red Zone.”
“WHAT?” Wynn erupted, his eyes burning red. “You’re gonna nuke here? You’re gonna nuke us?”
“We have no choice,” the man said, still shaking. “This is our chance to save millions — our last chance. They’ve put all their eggs in one basket — they’ve sent everything they’ve got right here. This is our chance to take them out in one fell swoop — our chance to end the war!”
Wynn took a quick step forward. “So what then, you’re just gonna kill us? You’re gonna kill all of these people?” He swung his outstretched arms across the bunker. “You can’t!”
Instantly, the Captain jumped from his chair and seized Wynn by the collar. “Keep it down, son,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “You’ll start a panic in here. Do you really think there’s another way — any other way at all? I’m in the Red Zone too, Wynn, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m here because I know the sacrifice I have to make — the sacrifice that all of us have to make — here today in this bunker.”
Wynn stepped back, trembling. “You’re a liar, you hear? A dirty liar. You… you…”
“Keep it down,” the Captain said and tightened his hold on the boy. “You told me you were prepared to sacrifice your life for the cause, didn’t you? You told me you would gladly die so that others may live, didn’t you? That’s exactly what you’re going to do — what we’re all going to do.”
“But what about these people, these innocent people? They deserve to live, don’t they? Who’s gonna fight for them?” Wynn paused, holding back tears. “Who’s gonna fight for my sister?”
“We’re fighting for all the sisters and mothers and daughters. We’re fighting for all the sons and fathers and brothers, too,” the man pressed, the aging muscles in his face twitching. “We’re fighting for the future of this world!”
Wynn laughed maniacally. “You’ve lost your mind, pal. You really have!” He turned to the vast expanse of the bunker. “Dear God, I’ve got to tell these people who — what — you really are!”
The man cocked his head to the side, his eyes scanning the length of the bunker. “You can tell them if you’d like, but it’s too late. It’s been too late since before I got here. Listen…” He pressed his ear to the wall. “Do you hear it? Do you hear the roar of their armies? An endless parade of tanks, batteries, harvesters, and infantry transports is thundering above our heads at this very moment. They’ve sent everything they’ve got at us. Tonight is the last night of their tyranny, the last night of the war. ”
Wynn began to cough. It was a wet, whooping cough and when he was done, he could taste blood in his mouth. “I… I have to tell them. I have to tell these people. We have to do something!”
“There’s nothing we can do, son.” The man frowned and turned away, releasing the boy from his grip. “Our sacrifice will end this war, and that’s the way it has to be. If you ask me, these people are right to celebrate.”
“Celebrate their deaths? How can you do this? You call yourselves rebels? You’re nothing but murderers!” The boy’s voice was now a desperate screech.
“We didn’t have a choice, Wynn. Can’t you see that? They’ve got spies everywhere. They’ve known about our plans to launch an offensive in the Red Zone for months. What do you think would happen if we went through with it? They would have slaughtered us.”
“So don’t go through with it. You don’t have to kill these people!” Wynn cried, his palms cold and sweating.
“And what do you think will happen to all of you if we call it off? Face it, Wynn, the location of this bunker is no secret. Not anymore. The tyrants know exactly where you are and how to get to you. If we call it off now, they’ll storm in here and butcher every single one of you. Can you imagine what they’d do to you — what they’d do to your sister?” He sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, son, I really am, but it’s the only way.”
Wynn’s face twitched and the lower half of his body felt numb, distant. “The only way? Death is the only way?” His lips trembled as he spoke.
The man nodded. “It’ll all be over in an instant. There will be no pain, no suffering. Not anymore. When it happens, you won’t feel a thing.”
“We never had a chance… Dear God, we never had a chance!” Wynn dropped to his knees, the world crumbling before his eyes. He fought against the woozy darkness that clawed at the back of his eyes.
“Don’t pass out, son,” the man said and shook the boy by the shoulders. “Look at this place. Take a good freakin’ look. We’re in hell already — this is hell — so how much worse can death be?”
Wynn was silent. Tears ran down his cheeks in steady streams, oozing past his chin and dripping on the cement below.
“You’re really gonna kill us, aren’t you?” Wynn sobbed, his voice now only a whimper. “We’re all gonna die here tonight.”
“No, son,” the Captain smiled, his face scarred by a lifetime of pain. “Tyranny dies tonight! As for us, tonight we’re free — free forever.”
Wynn stopped listening. “I promised my sister… I promised I’d read to her.”
“Now’s as good a time as any,” the Captain said and sat back down in his chair.
Wynn turned away. He stumbled back through the concrete frame of the bunker and toward the filth of the sewers. He felt lightheaded and weak, his knees nearly folding under the pressure of his steps. To the folks of the bunker, Wynn Caden looked like another kid with too much gin in his system. They ignored the tortured expression on his face, and the bloody terror in his eyes. Once in the sewers and out of sight, Wynn felt his insides bubble up and he puked, half-digested beans and blood jetting from his aching gut. Then he wept.
* * *
It was well past nightfall by the time Wynn pulled himself together. He staggered slowly toward Nellie’s sleeping quarters — one step at a time, one foot after the other. He passed Donny on the way, keeled over on his side and hugging the garbage can. At that moment, Wynn envied him.
Nellie was already in bed and waiting for her brother. Wynn embraced her and held her close, hiding his sorrow behind a smile. He grabbed an old story book from beneath the mattress and flipped through it until he came upon a tale they both loved. He was reading about Peter Pan and the land where children never grow old when it hit.
They didn’t feel a thing.