Doing the Right Thing (a Basil and Zoe story)

cassiopeia-a-11180_1920

“Why does doing the right thing never feel good?”

“I do not understand.” Basil’s voice was mild as always.

“Well, take us for example. We’ve been dating since I was seventeen, but until I was eighteen, we never went farther than kissing. Seventeen is legal throughout the Coalition of Aligned Worlds, so why did we wait? It made me antsy and worried you didn’t feel as much as I did. We waited because we were concerned your reputation would be…”

“… besmirched?” Basil interrupted, his tone amused.

“Yes, thank you.” I took a breath. “But it turned out no one cared. So why did we do it?”

“We did what we felt was right at the time,” he reminded me gently. “And we went farther than kissing, Zoe.”

“Well, yes… if you want to be technical.”

“I am technical,” he reminded me. It was an old joke, and one that he’d never cease making. “And you are using the fact that we did not ‘jump into bed’ as a deflection for your true concern. I cannot help you work through it if you do not tell me what it is.”

“See, you’re doing the right thing, and it doesn’t feel good.” I paused for a beat. “Well, it doesn’t feel good for me right now.”

“You are still deflecting.”

“Must you always be right?” I grumbled.

“Yes, even when being so doesn’t ‘feel good.'”

“Brat.”

“Sometimes,” he agreed. “But you have yet to tell me what is troubling you. Dearest, whatever it is, it cannot be ‘that bad.'”

I paced back and forth in front of his console for a few minutes. Then I stopped, and said, “It’s the Kazoines.”

Basil’s last mission – the ship’s last mission – had been an attempt to relocate a colony of twenty-thousand people. The Kazoine sun was failing, and the Stellar Navy had been sent to rehome the colonists. Except they refused. Well, some of them. Some had come aboard the Cousteau and a few of the other ships in the fleet, but not enough.

“You believe we should have enacted a forced evacuation, pulling people from their homes, even though they understood the danger of remaining on Kazo Prime.”  Basil wasn’t asking. He knew how I felt. He knew a good number of the officers and crew felt the same.

“Yes.”

“But you know that those who chose to stay were honoring their faith, and their commitment to the homes they built on their planet. And you also know that the vast majority of those who remained behind were disproportionately aged and infirm. The rigors of space travel and resettlement may well have caused as much harm as staying on a planet that was losing its sun.”

“I know,” I said. “I know it was an informed choice. I know they would likely not have survived planting a new colony and all the work that entails. I know that even now the Kazoines who did come with us are complaining about lack of space and creature comforts.”

“Do you believe living on the Cousteau is a hardship?” Basil changed the subject, but I knew we’d go back to my issue.

“Well, no, but I share private quarters with you. And this is home to me now. The colonists have been ripped from their homes and are basically living in dorms.”

“That is true, but it will only be for two weeks, and they are aware the situation is temporary.”

“I still feel awful about it all,” I said. “But especially that we left those people to die.”

“It is alright to feel that way,” Basil assured me. “We had little choice in this mission because Coalition regulations do not permit us to supersede local authorities unless criminal acts are being committed. I, too, regret the loss of life and separation of families that will and has happened as a result. But we did rescue seventeen thousand people who will continue to live fruitful lives.”

“And you believe those seventeen thousand negate the three thousand who stayed?”

“Not at all, Zoe. But saving those who were willing to come was the right thing to do.”

“I know,” I said, collapsing onto the couch. “I know. But it still feels pretty awful. Why does doing the right thing always suck so much?”

“It does not,” Basil said, “always.”

And I had to accept that.

Written for Brief #23 of Like the Prose 2021:  First line prompt.

 

 

 

 

 

Five More Minutes

Dreamer

“Five more minutes,” I demanded, and the Faceless Man nodded. “It’ll cost ya,” his voice came from nowhere. And everywhere.

“How much?”

“Ten seconds of attention.”

Attention was one of the highest currencies. If the time was taken from your account at the wrong moment, you might blink and miss an ID scan or turn your head and get clipped by a teenager taking the family flitter out for a spin.

“That’s a lot.”

“You know my prices rise every time you come to me for more.”

I couldn’t help it. Like everyone else in the Belt I was tired, hungry, and chilly all the time, even though I had a cushy office job and wasn’t actually running the water makers or mining ore.

“I know.”

“Maybe you should buy five degrees of heat instead. It’ll only cost you two breaths and being warm might alleviate your other… problem.”

Tempting. It was tempting. But I needed the dream-time with my  lover out on patrol duty beyond the Rim more than I needed to be warm.

“I’ll pay your price,” I said. “Five full minutes.”

“Have I ever stiffed you?”

“No. No, you haven’t.”

“Alright then. Your hand?”

I put my hand in the cold machine and felt the prick of the needles. Two of them. One to give me what I wanted and one to fulfill my payment.  “Thank you.”

I pushed the com-set away and rolled over in bed. Five more minutes of sleep and happy dreams.

I never noticed that the elevator car wasn’t there when the doors opened.

I never knew that’s how the Faceless were created.

The next time I used a com-set, I’d be the one with all the time in the world.

Written for Brief #21 of Like the Prose 2021: Fantasy

Eating Pistachios in Bed

 

Pistachios

Hemingway wrote standing up at his typewriter, at least when he was a war correspondent, but Twain liked to write in bed. I’ve always preferred the former’s style, because he said so much with so few words, most of them simple, but well-chosen. I write American Sentences as warmups. Sometimes I write them on notecards and take pictures of them. But when it comes to where I write, it’s Twain’s example I follow: I like to write in bed, late at night. I even make sure all my laptops have backlit keyboards so I can write in bed without disturbing my sleeping husband. Tonight, though, I’m 1,046 miles from my husband, in my mother’s guestroom, which is decorated in “beach chic” because this is Florida, after all. My mother went to bed two hours ago, and I, who revel in darkness, am cross-legged on the coral-colored bedspread with the quilted sea shells with YouTube playing a documentary about the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof while I write this piece that really should be more than one paragraph, but I’m feeling like a stream-of-consciousness piece is called for this evening. Or is it morning? It’s after midnight, but dawn is hours away. Thunder is rumbling, low, in the distance, the first fringes of a storm building in the Gulf, and I’m eating pistachios (roasted, salted, no shells). That’s my nightlife this summer: Writing and eating pistachios in bed.

 

 

Written for Brief #18 of Like the Prose 2021: You, Now.

Summer Storm

Summer Storm (Felix Mittermeier via Pixabay)

Thunder murmurs in the distance, and the sky brightens in response. Both are soft at first, but in wee increments, they increase in intensity.

The murmur grows into a conversation, and then an argument, two gods boxing in the heavens, it seems, or perhaps it’s humans moving heavy furniture. No matter, the sound is now percussive, shaking windows and making entire houses shiver.

Again and again, streaks of incandescent amber divide the night sky, white-hot and singing with static.

The night air is thick with bruising energy that expands and expands waiting for when, with one great burst of white fire, the skies divide and rain descends.

The wind whips the water in different directions.

The precipitation spreads into every nook and cranny of the street, the pavement, the grass. Temporary ponds form.

As if someone turned off a tap, the rain ceases.

The booming and hissing in the sky fade away.

The night sky returns to its former state, with a mere hint of remaining humidity.

The storm is over.

The chorus of geckos, frogs, and crickets serenades the neighborhood.

Written for Brief #15 of Like the Prose 2021: Lipogram
(The omitted letter is ‘l.’)

Glove You So Much

 

Ballerina

You can tell everything about a person by their feet. And for dancers, you can tell our histories.

Dancer FeetThat scar on my heel? It’s from my first time playing Marie in The Nutcracker. I had thrown one of my slippers at the Mouse King and spent the rest of Act I  in only one ballet shoe. I bet you didn’t know you could get sliced by stepping on a sequin, but you can.

That red V between my toes and my instep? That’s where I was permanently marked by a pair of pointe shoes that were fitted too tightly at the toe and too wide at the heel. A professional fitter changed my life, and probably prolonged my career, by introducing me to two words: wing blocks. If you have wide feet, with tapered toes remember those words.

Blisters over healed blisters.

Swollen bunions over swollen bunions.

A dancer’s feet – my feet – are ever changing.

See that second toe that isn’t quite straight? That’s where I rolled over in a dead shoe and broke the toe. See the lumpy bit on my right big toe? That’s a bunion that never quite heals.

And see how my toes are all slightly crooked now, and how my metatarsals are extremely prominent? That’s arthritis. It’s what dooms us all. I started feeling the telltale pain when I was twenty-six but managed three more years on stage.

Twenty-nine is ancient for a ballerina.

But when my ankle collapsed during a performance of Coppelia, I knew it was time to move on. I went to the doctors.

“You tore your Achilles,” the company ortho told me. “Which is bad enough and will kPedicureeep you out of dance up to a year, but this ankle is deformed from arthritis, as well.”

“So, it’s time for me to turn in my pointe shoes?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“I’m afraid so.”

I had the surgery, of course. I might not perform again, but I could still teach if I took the time to recover correctly.

The first day out of the cast, I had a pedicure.

I let them scrub away the last of my callouses. I let them soothe my bunions and shape my toenails. And I chose a bright red color to paint them with: Glove You So Much by OPI.

You can tell everything about a person from their feet. Mine? Mine used to be bloody and pussy from hours in pointe shoes. But now? Now I can wear flipflops without embarrassment.

I used to be a dancer. My feet still show the signs (you would die if you saw my arch). But my toes… my toes tell another story now.

Polished toes

Written for Brief #14 of Like the Prose 2021: Acceptance

Bookworm (a story in dialogue only)

Reading in Bed

“It’s bedtime.”

“Five more minutes?”

“You have school tomorrow.”

“I’ll get up on time, I promise.”

“It’s very late.”

“But I’m almost done with this chapter.”

“Is it for school?”

Well, no.”

“Five more minutes…”

“Five more minutes from the time you close the door?”

“You’re pushing…”

“Well, you used my first five minutes asking me why I needed five more minutes. So really, I should get ten. More.”

“Or, maybe since the original five minutes expired, you should turn out the light now.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Life’s not fair.”

“Do you want the five more minutes, or not?”

“Ten.”

“And you’ll get yourself up on time?”

Reading in Bed with Flashlight“I’ve already got the alarm set.”

“You were that sure I’d agree.”

“No. But I was that sure you’d get tired of arguing with me, and send Dad in, which would have given me at least fifteen more minutes.”

“Ten more minutes.”

“Goodnight, Mom.”

“Goodnight, my little bookworm.”

Written for Brief #12 of Like the Prose 2021: Bargaining

 

The Tenth Time (A Basil and Zoe story)

Anger“Take this,” he said as we approached the shuttle bay. “In case I do not return.”

It’s a ritual we’ve been through ever since the Cousteau’s mission had changed from exploration to war. Except no one called it “war.” They called it, “defending the Coalition of Aligned Worlds.” Basil and I knew the truth though. The Kastellian Hegemony had been attacking planets on the fringes, and now there was an incursion into Coalition space that threatened the lives of no fewer than six colonies and eight systems.

“Come home to me,” I said, accepting the data solid from him. I knew what it contained. His final message to me. His final wishes. Nine times he had returned from one of these missions and I’d given the solid back to him, without ever scanning it. I wasn’t religious, but I prayed there would be a tenth.

“I promise to try.”

Five days later, Captain Rousseau came to my quarters in the middle of the dog watch. I invited her in and offered her tea. Tea made everything better… Almost everything. But I knew – I knew – she wouldn’t have come at that hour just for a chat.

“Zoe, I’m so sorry. As you know, Basil’s mission was to rescue a team of scientists from Beta Capella. The Kastellians were waiting. There were no survivors.”

“No.” I said. “You’re wrong.”

“Zoe… as his captain… as your friend… I’m not wrong.”

“No!” I said again, louder, more emphatically.

“Zoe, I’m sorry. His shuttle was destroyed.”

“NO!” I shouted the word that time. “Damn it, Cecile… he never should have gone on that mission. He’d already done back-to-back away assignments. He wasn’t supposed to be in the rotation.”

“He had special abilities that I felt were required.”

“You mean, you sent him because a machine who doesn’t get tired or burnt out.”

The captain – Cecile – was quiet for a long moment. “I’m sorry, Zoe. I made the best decision I could.”

“Fuck your decision,” I hurled the epithet at her. “Fuck your decision. Fuck this ship. Fuck this war. Fuck YOU.” Tears flooded my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. Cecile stepped closer to me, probably meaning to offer comfort but I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I raised my hand, and without any conscious plan, struck her on the cheek.

She let me do it.

And the slap of flesh on flesh snapped me out of my blind rage.

“Oh, gods,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, you’re not.” Her words were grave. I got the feeling she understood me. I also  got the impression she felt she deserved it. “I’m going to go now, Zoe. I hope we can talk again in a few days. I’ll have our mental health department contact you.”

I just nodded.

The captain left, and I collapsed on the couch. I was thankful, in that moment, that Elizabeth was on Centaurus with my father. Safe. Sheltered. I tried to do the time conversion in my head and couldn’t. I’d call her later. In the morning – evening – whatever.

Robot head looking front on camera isolated on a black backgroundI went to Basil’s desk and removed the data solid. I knew I should play it, but it was too soon. And maybe, maybe if I didn’t play it, he would come back.

Except, of course, he couldn’t.

I wanted to scream more, but my energy was rapidly draining. Sleep. I needed to sleep.  I took the data solid into our bedroom. Holding it in the palm of my hand, I sat down on the bed. “You promised me forever,” I said into the room. My words were directed to my absent partner, and to the computer chip I held.

“You lied.”

Written for Brief #11 of Like the Prose 2021: Anger

Fine.

Denial - hidingShe knows she should be writing tonight. She has a deadline. Sure, it’s voluntary, but it’s still a deadline.

But she doesn’t want to.

She’s tired. She’s sore. She’s had a bad day that began at three AM when her last insulin pen slipped out of her fingers and landed on the dining room floor. Miraculously, the glass hadn’t shattered, but the end of the pen, the bit that controls the dose-dialer, broke off and disappeared. So, she now has a full vial of insulin she can’t use, and a three day wait for more.

At least she’s type 2. She’ll be fine for a few days. Really.

God, she’s so tired.

She’s tired of being at her mother’s, tired of being away from home, away from her own schedule, away from her husband and dogs. She’s tired of hearing that the contractors haven’t started, tired of picking colors of paint and types of tiles she has no faith will be installed, and tired of feeling so disconnected.

But mostly, she’s also physically and mentally exhausted. She’s working more hours than she wanted to while away. She can’t cope with her mother’s fear of air conditioning. Everything hurts. Everything feels off.

She misses her dog, the one who went to Heaven in March.

She hasn’t slept without the help of  medication since the storm in February, and it’s starting not to work so well anymore. It’s only meant for two months of use. She’s on month four.

She’s losing weight, but not in a healthy way.

Denial - windowShe jumps every time a television screen fades to black for commercials, checking to see if the rest of the power is still on.

But when people ask…

She smiles brightly and lies to their faces, using the two words every woman knows and every woman uses:

I’m Fine.

Except… she’s not.

Written for Brief #10 of Like the Prose 2021: Denial

Words Have Power

 Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_kladyk'>kladyk</a>

“Chill out!”

I knew that voice. It was the scratchy tone of a faerie  – almost more white noise than actual speech. But I knew what to listen for. And I knew it wasn’t just dated slang. It was a curse.

“Why me?” I whispered into the darkness, already feeling the temperature start to drop. “I haven’t wronged you.”

“Haven’t you? So many stories about the fae, the djinn, the fanged ones… so many begun, none finished. A book promised and not executed. Your lack of attention to your avocation over the last year has caused harm to the creatures you used to write about.”

“Harm? How?”

“How can you be a tale-spinner still be such a nitwit,” the faerie snorted. “Dim bulbs, the lot of you humans, but you… you should know better… why do you always have to finish reading a scary story?”

“Closure,” I answered.

“Wrong!” The temperature in my house dropped again. “Peter would be so disappointed in you.”

Peter… oh, Peter… my first love! Before my husband. Before my dogs. Before my friends and family… there was Peter. “He… he would?”

“‘He… he would?'” The faerie mimicked my voice and my tone. “Of course, he would you idiot bird. When’s the last time you clapped your hands in glee? When’s the last time you created a working plot? When’s the last time you finished a story?”

“You mean… my writing gives you power? I didn’t know.”

The room grew even colder. “You didn’t know? YOU DIDN’T KNOW!” A blast of cold came with her  – I knew it was a female faerie now and was certain of her name, as well. “Our existence in this world depends on the belief of humans. Try thinking with your brain instead of your tits, girlfriend, and you might understand. Without belief, we don’t exist. Without stories, there’s no belief. We’re dying… all of us… and it’s  all. Your. FAULT!”

“I’m not the only writer…”

“No, but you’re one of the few who still retains that hint of childhood possibility. Why do you think you have so many nightmares? Why haven’t you been able to sleep well for a year?”

I mentioned things like stress and a global pandemic.

She didn’t buy it.

“Look, Chica, writers write. You’re failing yourself. You’re failing us. What do I have to do, bust a pipe and let water flood this idleness out of you?”

“No!” I scooted back against the pillows of my bed. “I mean, please don’t. I’ll try. I’ll try tonight… only… please turn off the cold first? I can’t feel my fingers.”  I held out my hands. They were rapidly turning blue.

“Twenty-four hours, wordwench, or I come back and turn you to an icicle.”

I looked at the place in the room where I thought she was and smiled softly. I knew what I’d write. “Sure, Tink…” I said. “Give Peter my love, won’t you?”

“Bitch!”

Her word hung in the air where she no longer was, but my house was warm again.

Written for Brief #9 of Like the Prose 2021: Faeries and Folklore