Switching Gears

Like the Prose: Challenge #23 – Include your personal philosophy in your story. (I didn’t. My story is completely off-brief because I’ve had my Mom visiting from Mexico, and I’ve been spending time with her. So you get a Basil-Zoe story instead.)

Robot head looking front on camera isolated on a black background

The thing about spaceships is that when you’ve lived on one long enough, you learn the places you can go when you want to be alone, but also be able to be found. And when you’ve become friends with a line officer who also happens to be both prone to brooding and a synthetic lifeform, you learn where they are likely to go in similar situations.

Which is why I found myself climbing a ladder inside an maintenance crawlway in heels on the night of my eighteenth birthday, in order to access a little-known observation alcove where said synthetic lifeform  had often brought me to practice music “… because the acoustics here are quite excellent, Zoe.”

He turned when I stepped off the ladder, and the starlight on his pale-silver features made my breathe catch. I’d been reacting that way a lot lately. “Had a feeling I’d find you here,” I said by way of a greeting. “You didn’t come to my party.”

“I did not wish to intrude upon the fun you and your friends were no doubt having.”

Basil,” I made his name into something like an admonishment. “You’re my friend, too, aren’t you? I wouldn’t have invited you if I didn’t want you there.” I moved closer to the tiny bench he was occupying. “Move over a little.”

He did as I asked, making room for me. “I had planned to contact you once I had returned to my quarters. I came here to determine what I wished to say.”

“Well, ‘Happy Birthday’ is the typically used phrase, but if you had something more original, I’m sure I wouldn’t object.” I could tell he meant something more. I was keeping my tone light on purpose.

“You are human.”

“Kinda knew that.”

“I was not finished. You are human and you are now eighteen. In all of the aligned worlds, achieving that age marks you as an adult.”

“Is this the part where you remind me that when I complete this semester, I’m no longer considered my mother’s dependent and lose my residency eligibility?”

“No,” he said quietly. “It is not.” He changed his position on the bench, angling his body so that he was facing me. “It is the part where I tell you that I have enjoyed the friendship we have forged in the past few months. It is the part where I share that while playing music with you has enhanced my emotional and intellectual growth, so has the time we have spent ‘just talking.'” His eyes flashed ruby, then gold, then back to the cool sapphire they usually were. “It is the part where I ask if you would consider altering the paradigm of our relationship from friendship to romance.”

I reached for his left hand and wrapped my right one around it. “You skipped my birthday party because you wanted to ask me on a date?” I was only half teasing. The truth was that we’d been having regular lunches and dinners together, and even movie night, when mom’s duty shift kept her busy, for weeks. I was pretty sure his friends among the crew assumed we were dating already. I knew mine did.

“No, Zoe. While we never named it thusly, by any definition, we have already been dating. I skipped your birthday because, as I said, I did not wish to intrude upon your celebration. But also, because I wished a more private assignation with the woman I hope is my… girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend?”

“If you are amena – ”

I interrupted him the way I’d wanted to interrupt so many conversations over the past few weeks: I kissed him. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Metal? Plastic? But… kissing Basil didn’t feel physically different than kissing any other humanoid-shaped person. His mouth was warm. His lips were soft against mine, then firmer as he joined the kiss, becoming a participant. His tongue met mine, and I tasted something faintly sweet, but nothing I could put a name to. It was just… just him.

I broke away when I had to breathe.

“May I assume that was a ‘yes?'”

“You may.” I realized I was still holding his hand. I let it go and scooted closer to him. “You know I’m going to have some questions… and I don’t want… I don’t want to seem invasive or rude when I ask.”

“You have the right to ask me anything, Zoe.”

“Oh, Basil… then I guess… how far can we go? Is sex on the table? Is this only until I leave for university or work or whatever I do at the end of the school year? Are we – we don’t have to hide this do we?”

“We do not have to ‘hide’ anything, Zoe, though as a line officer, a certain level of decorum is expected. I do not believe we should define a schedule… it may be that we are not as compatible as lovers than we are as friends. It may be that when you leave our relationship ends naturally.”

“That’s fair.”

“And you would be welcome to visit, should you wish to. Even if your mother were to transfer.”

“And sex?”

“Anatomically, Zoe, I am little different than a human male. You know this.”

“I know it intellectually.”

“And you wish… first-hand experience?”

“As you pointed out earlier, I am human. But, I don’t… I don’t want to go there if it’s something you’re doing only for me. Either it’s for both of us, or it doesn’t happen.”

“I would have it no other way.”

“Good.” We sat in silence for a few moments, though Basil put his arm around my shoulders, drawing me closer to his body. The warm solidity of him was something I’d always noticed in friendly hugs. Now it was mine to experience in a whole new way. “Basil?”

“Yes, Zoe?”

“Is sex even something you’re interested in?”

“With you?”

Basil.”

“Forgive me, Zoe. Perhaps it was inappropriate to attempt humor at such a moment.”

“Only a little.”

“Then let me be clear… I am interested in exploring whatever you wish to explore, Zoe Harris.”

“You know this doesn’t get you out of giving me an actual birthday present.”

“I have a gift for you in my quarters. We can go retrieve it whenever you are ready.”

“We can go to your quarters in a bit,” I agreed, “but it’s late so I think my present might have to wait til after breakfast.” I caught his reaction to the real meaning of my sentence and smiled slightly. “For now, staying here is good. Especially if you kiss me again.”

“I am happy to comply,” Basil answered, and he did.

As his lips met mine for another delicious kiss, I considered whether it was too soon to sleep with him. I might have just turned eighteen, but I wasn’t innocent. I also knew that if Basil was declaring himself in this way, he meant it.

This wasn’t an impulsive hookup.

This was just us… switching gears.

Spooning

Like the Prose: Challenge #22 – Write something nonsensical. (I did not succeed. I merely managed to be silly.)

lizardmug

Morning comes too early. I’m pulled from sleep in the middle of REM sleep. I stumble to the kitchen in that half-aware state between sleeping and waking.

The dogs are barking at nothing.

Or something.

Maybe they see things I don’t.

Maybe the leaves three blocks away really are a threat.

Coffee.

Coffee won’t listen and understand but it will make the morning feel less like razor blades and more like something merely annoying, like when I get a hair caught in my eyelash but I can’t quite grab it, and it keeps irritating me until I’m ready to gouge my eyes out with rusty spoons.

Dull ones.

Because fruit spoons would make it too easy.

I’ve been using that line for years and I’ve never revealed that I actually stole it from Swoosie Kurt’s character in a filmed-for-tv production of The House of Blue Leaves where she threatens to commit suicide by slitting her wrists with spoons.

Except that’s not quite right.

Spoons.

Coffee.

Milk.

I pour the milk into the cup first and the coffee on top, because I’m lazy and don’t want to have to wash an extra spoon. I watch the abstract patterns form and I have the line from that Carly Simon song riffing in my head, “I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee,” and suddenly I’m on a sailboat on a coffee sea and the sails are cocktail napkins held up by masts made of balsa-wood stirrer-stick masts.

A wave of café au lait washes over the boat, and I pick up a teaspoon oar and try to beat it back, but it drenches me.

But even worse… it’s decaf.

* * *

Beeping. I hear beeping. Maybe it’s the emergency beacon and someone is floating me a stack of shortbread to float home on.

Or.

Maybe it’s the alarm, and my REM sleep was never interrupted.

And it was all a dream within a dream.

And the only spooning I’m doing is being the inside one in the stack formed with me and my husband.

Who is snoring like foghorns, loud enough to wake the dead.

And the dogs bark.

And he rolls on his back.

And I pull him back to me.

“You have to stay on your side,” I say, “because there are lizards coming to scoop out your brains. And they drink decaf and it’s awful.”

He holds me tighter.

I go back to sleep.

And in the morning, he brings me caffeinated coffee in a mug with dinosaurs on it.

 

Tea

Like the Prose: Challenge #21 – Today was about doing the opposite of what you usually do. I typically write in bed and work in a horror or sci-fi twist. I wrote this in the living room and it’s completely human and earthbound.

matcha tea

The teabag arrived in a pink envelope on a gray day. The sender had wrapped it in a page of lined notepaper and scrawled a brief message, but it had gotten wet, and she couldn’t really read the signature. The message was clear, however: it was Penelope’s turn for the tea exchange,  that she should sip the tea and think of someone she loved and then send a bag of her own favorite tea to the address on the note.

The address was surprisingly clear.

She looked at the green envelope. “Pukka,” she read. “Supreme Matcha Green.” She’d had matcha before, when visiting her college roommate’s family for the holidays. Though Emi had been born in America her parents had left Asia shortly after their marriage – her mother was from Taiwan and her father from mainland China – and they’d had packets of instant matcha powder in a basket on the counter.

Penelope had fallen in love with the stuff, searched all over it, finally told her friend she loved it, and asked how to get it. Beginning that Christmas, and every year in the decade since, she’d received a box of the stuff every December and she measured it out over the next year until the next box came.

But this wasn’t her treasured matcha powder; this was a bag of green tea with matcha in it. Still, it seemed like a lovely rainy-day sort of tea. She filled the kettle and turned it on, took her favorite mug from the cabinet, and sliced an apple and some cheese to nibble with her cup.

Never a patient person, Penelope forced herself to follow the directions on the bag and let the tea steep the required length of time. She took deep breaths of the deepening brew, absorbing the herbal scent. She appreciated the deep emerald color.

Finally, she pulled the bag from the water and discarded it.

Taking tea and snack to the dining room table, she sat facing the window and watched the rain on the street. Think about someone you love; the note had said. There were so many people! Her husband, obviously, her parents, her local friends. But afternoon tea with Emi had become a ritual in college that continued through their grad school days.

They’d rented their first apartment together – a horrible sixth-floor walkup with a toilet that whistled for three full minutes after every flush and a clawfoot bathtub that rocked back and forth when you stepped over the side to get in it.

Both sets of their parents had been mortified by the choice, but despite the apartment’s quirks, it was in a safe building in a decent neighborhood, and they had a small balcony that held two chairs and a bistro table they’d found free on the sidewalk.

On days when it wasn’t raining, they’d bring glasses (okay, bottles) of wine out there, and trade their boyfriend woes, complain about classes, share fears about work and life after graduation…

And on days when it was…

That’s when they’d sit in the bay window and drink tea.

Penelope finished the last wedge of apple, the last square of cheese, and the last swallow of the tea.

Then she picked up the phone and punched in the number she knew almost as well as her husband’s.

“Hello?” It was as if ten years had dropped away when she heard that voice.

“Hey, Em? It’s Pen. It’s raining here, and I was just sipping tea, and thinking of you. Do you have a free weekend anytime soon? It’s been too long. We should get together.”

 

Ione

Like the Prose: Challenge #20 – Write smut. (Well, really, write erotica. But I didn’t, quite.)

ernesto-bruschi-1443811-unsplash

There’s a subtle secret about violets. Their scent contains a chemical that turns off the human sense of smell. For this reason, you never perceive them as a constant presence, like roses or lilies. Rather, they flirt with you, tickling your awareness in subtle bursts.

The girl on the train reminds you of violets.

At first, you aren’t certain you’re seeing the same girl every day. You catch a glimpse of her calf above the top of a scuffed boot, her delicate hand holding her commuter pass to be punched, the wisp of an errant curl against her cold-reddened cheek.

You know you shouldn’t be looking. Because this girl – and she is a girl – likely sixteen, seventeen at the oldest – is a student at your school. Because she’s underage, untouchable, unspoiled. And you are none of those things.

But once you give in, once you do look, you realize, it’s not only the same girl on the train, it’s the girl in the third row of the biology class you teach.

And your interest becomes an obsession.

You study her in class, watching her when her eyes are not on you. You note the way she holds her pencil close to the tip, which cramps her fingers. You memorize the particular way she loops the letter ‘y’ in the word ‘biology.’ You make a mental catalogue of her facial expressions – happy, sad, frustrated, confused – her fresh, young face is so emotive.

You alter your schedule to ensure that you are on the train one stop before her in the morning. You watch her laughing with her friends when she boards. You bristle when she bends her head close to the black-haired boy’s on the journey home in the afternoon. You observe her sadness when he discards her for her blonde friend and then her return to joy when the handsome-but-geeky brown-haired math whiz expresses an interest.

And through all this, you consider that she is like the aroma of the violet. Something to be appreciated in fits and starts, but never in long moments.

Something to long for, but never quite have.

Alley Cat

Like the  Prose: Challenge #19 – Use an obituary to inspire a ghost story. (I used the obit of a random veteran who happened to share my birthday (8/17) about thirty years prior to my birth.)

Bugler silhouette via 123rf.com

If there was one thing that Catfish hated it was “Taps.”  He’d been a bugler in the army drum and bugle corps and switched to drums just to avoid ever having to play “Taps” again. He couldn’t help it. Every single time those first three notes rang out, every woman in a three-klick radius dissolved into tears.

And the thing is, he couldn’t hit on a woman at a funeral.

He just couldn’t.

Even if he knew she was single, and kinda into him (because he heard his buddy Frankie mention that her best friend was his girlfriend’s sister and they’d mentioned his name in the powder room at that dance o.c. the other weekend (not that he was attending the dance – oh, no! – he was enlisted – but the band was short a drummer and they knew he was good with the sticks as well as the horn so he was there).

And Pamela was the kind of woman that would make even a champion bowler like him throw all gutter balls just to make her look good, or just because she looked so good, he couldn’t concentrate.

He’d never been sure which it was. That first time.

But she’d laughed at him.

Laughed and called him Alley Cat, riffing on the nickname his buddies in the unit had given him. A nickname based on a nickname. Why not?

Of course, after the laughter came the kissing part and Catfish  – Alley Cat to his Pamela (and only to his Pamela, and god, she was gonna be so pissed at him for leaving her alone this way. So pissed. So lonely. So… STOP IT!)

The kissing part had been amazing. Forty-seven years of her kisses. Slightly fewer years of weekly trips to the Ocean View Lanes for bowling with their usual group. The group was just couples at first… then it was couples and kids, then the kids grew out of it, then they came back… then it was them and the grandkids and lately… well, lately the group had dwindled. These youngsters didn’t like bowling, The Lanes were gonna close next year, probably. Not enough business.

But that was the way of the world. Popular pastimes peaked when people needed them the most and then they waned in popularity and then maybe they spiked again, or maybe they didn’t. Roller rinks. Stick ball. Bowling. All the things he’d grown up with… they were fading.

He was fading.

He just wanted to make sure they didn’t play it. Cuz Pamela knew, but oh, god, there was the bugler standing by his grave.

And there was his Pamela, his Pammy. Her brilliant blonde hair was silvery gray now, but still as soft and silky as the first time he’d stroked it, just like the skin of her cheek,  and her skin, he knew still smelled like rose petals. God, Pam. How am I supposed to find peace without you? he wondered.

He didn’t precisely have ears anymore, but he remembered what they felt like, so he craned them to listen.

“If there was one thing Catfish hated it was ‘Taps.’  He made me promise, military funeral or not, that we wouldn’t play it for him. Said if we did, he’d haunt us all forever. As much as I might like the notion of my Alley Cat lingering nearby until I’m ready to join him, I can’t let him have unfinished business. So, my darling, wherever you are, this is for you…”

And the bugle played.

And Catfish laughed.

Well, he would’ve if he had a body that could laugh.

Because the guy with the horn played the opening from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

No, Catfish couldn’t laugh, because he was done with earthly things.

But everyone standing near his grave, everyone listening to the horn player… they would have sworn they heard his laughter anyway.

 

 

 

 

Adelaster

Like the Prose: Challenge #18 – Write a gothic horror story in a contemporary setting. (Please note. This is a very rough draft. I had a concept, a main character, a plot, but I was having a bad writing day, a bad migraine, and couldn’t make it flow. It’s something I’ll come back to. I’m posting it anyway, for completionist’s sake.)

house fire

Adelaster

 

It ended in fire of course, but then, these stories always end in fire. At least the great mansions in them always do. That is, when they don’t tumble into the sea or crumble into the mines upon which they rest.

In the case of Adelaster, however, there was no sea, despite the fact that the great, gloomy structure was situated on a private island, and there were not mines, so it had to be fire.

Standing on the mainland, I could see the flames turning the night sky as orange as the setting sun… ah, but I digress. My name is  Hugo Gleason, an unlike those who travel to the island to steal video footage or illicit photos of the denizens thereof, my time there began with an invitation.

Well, that’s not precisely accurate.

It began with a job hunt.

In any case, I arrived at the island mansion as the latest tutor to a fifteen-year-old girl, the only daughter of the renowned neuroscientist Elizabeth Lassiter.

The child herself met me at the door wearing a toque to cover her bald head and chattering at breakneck speed. “So, you’re Hugo, huh? I’m Emmaline, but you can call me Emma. Mom says you have a degree in folklore. Does that make you kind of like Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

“I do have a degree in folklore,” I confirmed, “but I’ve never met an actual vampire. Maybe we can find some here if we look. It seems like the kind of house that might have secrets.”

The girl’s face flashed a haunted expression, then cleared. “Yes, there are secrets. But I don’t think we have vampires. Maybe we can go looking. I haven’t ever checked out the old chapel on the north shore.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Jessie can get you a map, if you like.”

Jessie, I knew, was the island’s caretaker. She’d been my pilot on the boat ride over, and she’d explained that there was a cleaning staff and a kitchen staff, and she was in charge of everything else. “IT, basic handyman kinda stuff, that’s all me. I even take care of the dogs.”

“Dogs?”

“We keep a collection of border collies on the island. If you’re so inclined, I’m sure you can choose one for yourself. I’ve got two that are mine, specifically, and Morris, the head chef, has a dog named Jasper that sleeps in the kitchen while he works.”

I had always enjoyed the company of dogs and told her as much.

“Well, that’s great, Hugo; you’re gonna fit in just fine,” she’d responded. “Just… don’t worry if Emma seems a little strange from time to time. She’s a special kid. Been alone a lot. Sometimes it gets to her.

But that had been on the ride over, and now I was faced with Emmaline – Emma – herself. “I’ll ask about the map,” I promised.

“Cool, cool. Let me show you to your room now. You’ll meet Mom at dinner, and she’ll give you all the rules and regs, but it’s Friday and we won’t start real work until Monday, so you’ll have the whole weekend to get acclimated.”

The girl turned and headed up the left-hand stairway and I had no choice but to follow. (My bags, Jessie had informed me earlier, would be taken to my room before I ever got there.)

Over the next several weeks, we established a routine. Jessie, Emma and I would breakfast together and then take the dogs for a walk, then Jessie would go off to her work and Emma and I would focus on her studies. Her best subjects were English and literature and her imagination was incredibly vivid, but she was hardly shabby at math or history, either, and we incorporated technology into all of our courses. Science was her mother’s forte. Twice a week, Emma would spend the afternoon in Dr. Lassiter’s lab working on things I knew not of.

For the most part, it was a typical tutoring assignment. My weekends were my own. I had access to a boat if I wished to go back to the mainland, I had, in fact, adopted one of the dogs, I got on well with the doctor and my young student, as well as Jessie, but I also noticed a few oddities…

The dogs, for one… I knew they were all the same breed but even within a litter there should be some variation in markings. These were all nearly identical. My own Tiberius (named, I admit, for Captain Kirk) was virtually a twin to Jessie’s pair though hers were at least two years older than my pup. It was spooky.

And then there was Emma.

I knew she was homeschooled because she had a health condition, but because of her hair loss I’d assumed it was some form of brain disease or cancer. When I questioned her, she was vague. When I asked the doctor, she brushed me off. “You’re a tutor,” she would say. “Teach.”

And so, it went on, but Emma grew thinner and frailer.

Our morning walks with Jessie soon required that she use a wheelchair. I didn’t mind pushing her. Neither did Jessie. A pack of pooches joined us. It was still pleasant.

But when her nose began to bleed during an algebra class, I new something was terribly wrong.

Dr. Lassiter was called over the intercom.

Jessie and I helped get Emma bundled into bed.

Before I was told to take a long weekend so the girl could rest, I sat with her at her bedside. “You’ll get better,” I said. “You must. We still have to check out the chapel.”

“Do it for me,” she whispered. “I need to know what’s there.”

I promised her I would.

I left the house, planning to head to the dock and take a boat to the mainland. I hadn’t seen my parents in a while. I thought Emma might like a comicbook I remembered telling her about… maybe I’d get her a few issues.

Sunday night brought me back to Adelaster, but I was told Emma was still unwell. “Take Monday to rest,” I was told. Morris made lasagna… comfort food.

Jessie wasn’t available to take our walk that morning, so I kept my promise to Emma and went north toward the chapel. I was surprised to meet the caretaker returning from the direction I was heading, a shovel in the back of her golf cart.

“You would pick today…” she said. “Well, better you find out from me.”

“What do you mean.”

“Hop in.”

She turned the cart around, and we went north.

The old chapel felt like something out of a novel. Ivy covered stone. Carved figures of angels. It seemed old and damp and somehow … wrong.

And yet it was also compelling.

And strangely beautiful.

The kind of place a vampire would love.

But I was certain that Emma would be disappointed. There were no vampires there.

“This way,” Jessie said. She stepped out of the cart and led me to the churchyard behind the building. Several old gravestones dotted the area, and then, closer in, several newer ones. Six of them, and at the end of the row, a fresh grave.

“Emma… died?” I asked. “No one told me. There was a funeral already?”

“There won’t be a funeral.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at the headstones.”

And so, I took a closer look at the first row. Emmaline number 1-A. Emmaline number 1-B. Emmaline number 2-A. 2-B. 3-A. 4-A.  Suddenly the dogs made sense. And suddenly I knew Emma would be fine when she returned to class.

“I have to leave.”

“Best if you don’t try.”

“Why?”

“Oh, don’t worry, you won’t be murdered or anything. But you won’t work again. Doc’s connections are deep. Best thing to do is show up for our walk tomorrow like nothing happened.”

“But she can’t… a new Emma won’t remember…”

“Oh, she will.”

“But… how?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

I managed not to vomit until I was back in my own suite of rooms.

As Jessie had promised, Emmaline was just like new on Tuesday morning.

“I have bad news for you, Emma,” I told her. “No vampires at the chapel. New target?”

“The south tower. Next time there’s a storm.”

“It’s a date,” I promised.

Our days continued. Another six weeks. Another cycle. Another Emma fading out and a new one brought in. How long, I wondered, could this go on?

And the Dr. Lassiter told us at dinner that she’d be going away on a speaking engagement and would be gone for a week. I knew it was time to act.

I knew where the lab was even though I’d never been in it. I waited for the third day of the doc’s trip… just to make sure. Then I headed down there. The code on the door was easy to figure out – Emmaline’s birthday.

I don’t know what I expected to find… gurgling tanks of murky fluid, I guess, like in a horror film. The reality was much worse. Six Emmalines-in-waiting in glass stasis boxes, and a seventh lying in state in the center of the room. Except, I realized, the seventh wasn’t waiting to be a fresh replacement. The seventh was the original.

I approached that one. The girl who wasn’t dead but wasn’t alive. My proximity triggered something because a monitor awakened above her… station… and a video began to play.

This is this the last wish of Emmaline Lassiter, age fifteen. I don’t really want to die; who does, but I know it’s gonna be hard for my mom to say goodbye. So, when it is my time, I want to be very clear: it’s okay to let me go. It’s right. I’ve had a disease my whole life. It’s made me hurt and bleed and lose my hair. I’m so tired. Just… let me rest, please?

And then it ended.

I had never been the most tech savvy of men, but I understood several things. Emmaline the original was alive because Dr. Lassiter couldn’t let her go. The clones were her way of holding on. But when you clone a sick person, you clone their sickness. So, the clones didn’t have a great shelf life. But they were all connected through a neuro transmission system. That’s how the new ones had all the memories. The doc was a neuroscientist, after all.

“Can you do it?”

I heard the doctor’s voice behind me.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have intruded….”

“I expected you to. So many tutors. No one can do it. I can’t can you. You and Emma get along so well, but can you do it? Can you turn her off?”

“It’s wrong that you did this. She wanted to let go.”

“She’s my daughter.”

“She’s done.”

“She’s everything.”

“You have your work. You have so much….”

“Can you do it?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Yes.”

“I can. For Emma I can.”

I pulled the plug. I left the room. And the next morning Dr. Lassiter “returned early” from the trip she’d never been on.

Together, we watched this last Emma die.

And this time there was a funeral.

I woke up to the smell of smoke and the sound of dogs barking and someone pounding on my door.

I went to open it, standing there, bleary-eyed in only my boxers. “Jessie?”

“Get dressed. Get Tiberius. Get downstairs. Crazy bitch is torching the place. We have to go.”

And that was my last hour at Adelaster. A mad rush of smoke and chaos and grief.

 

It ended in fire. Jessie and I stood on the opposite shore, on the mainland, and watched Adelaster burn with Dr. Lassiter still inside.

She’d be with Emmaline again.

She’d be with all the Emmalines.

 

 

 

Allez-vous En (Go Away)

Like the Prose: Challenge #17 – Begin your story with the first line of a famous novel or short story. (I used the first line of The Awakening, by Kate Chopin).

Pedro Parrot

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez-vous en! Allez-vous en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”

It was rare to see an old Earth animal in a place like this, rarer still to encounter one that spoke French – and obscure French at that – but I chose not to heed its advice to ‘go away.’ Instead, I reached for the bright new keypad set into the peeling blue paint of the ancient door and entered the code I’d been provided.

For several seconds I was convinced the code was a dud, that the door would remain shut, but finally there was a deep thud from within, followed by a series of clicks and whirrs and then it swung open.

Inside, I found a lively café. The scents of coffee, spices and just a hint of smoke from clove cigarettes perfumed the room and the buzz of conversation was at the perfect level for anything from a discrete affair or clandestine business – loud enough to dissuade eavesdroppers but not so loud that a quiet conversation was impossible.

Scanning the room, I found an empty table against a wall with a view of the door. Claiming it, I sat down and perused the menu. Basic Terran bistro fare mixed with more exotic offerings including pub food from about seven of the non-aligned worlds. Impressive. A server came to take my order. “Just espresso for now,” I said. “I’m waiting for someone.”

I knew I should eat, but I also knew that if I waited for my… appointment… to arrive, there was a good chance the bill would come out of his credit account rather than mine.

I was halfway through my second cup when he sat down opposite me with no greeting whatsoever.

“You’re late,” I observed.

“You were early.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You’re always early.”

I bristled as much because he was right as because he knew me well enough to point it out. Unsurprising, really. He’d been my handler for half a decade longer than he’d been my lover, and another two years since we’d ended that aspect of our association. I pasted a fake smile on my face. “Are we eating?”

We called the server back over. He ordered a burger, fries, a beer. Earth food. I chose a baked fish dish from Pacifica and replaced my espresso with a glass of firefruit cider from an obscure planet I didn’t think anyone else had ever been to.

As was our habit, we didn’t talk business until we had our food, and then it was conducted between bites.

“The gunrunners out of Aldebaran?” he asked.

“Hancho Alliance is behind it,” I said. “Authorities nabbed them this morning, local time, and you’ll find that Orzo wired payment to your account.”

“The arranged marriage between…”

“The princess from Betelgeuse and the prince from Hattaras Six? They’ve agreed to move forward for the good of their planets. The trade agreement that was part of the marriage contract was crucial in order to maintain peace in the space lanes.”

“Doesn’t it bug you the way we talk about space lanes as if they’re narrow corridors we have to stick to instead of huge expanses of vast nothingness?” He often diverged into philosophic questions.

“It does,” I agreed. “But language isn’t mine to change.”

“True enough.”

We went over several more cases I’d handled for him, and then I reached into my pocked and handed over a data solid.

“What’s this?”

“My final expense report. My notes on everything else. There are one or two long-term projects that haven’t been resolved. You’ll need a new field agent.”

I saw his eyes, his face, change as they registered what I was really telling him.

“Sasha – no.”

“Martigan – ” I matched his tone. “- yes.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s time. Because the ‘negotiation’ between the Betelgeusians and Hattarians nearly got me killed. Again. Because…”

“Because you met someone.”

“That, too.”

“Who is he? Jonas? Noah? Benjaril?”

I shook my head. “No one you know. No one in the business. He’s… normal.”

“Human?”

I smirked. “As much as any of us are, these days.” Pure humans didn’t really exist anymore. All the species of humanoid had been intermixing for centuries.

“Fair point.”

“You won’t be able to stay out of it,” he said. “Normal life… it’ll kill you. You’re built for adventure and intrigue, Sasha.”

I was silent for a long moment. In a slow voice I suggested, “Maybe… adventure and intrigue are what you make them. Maybe… learning to be in once place and discovering all the secrets of one person… maybe that’s its own form.”  I pushed away my plate, drained my glass, wiped the corners of my mouth with my napkin. “I should go,” I said, rising.

“But… Sasha…”

“No, Martigan. It’s time.”

He met my eyes and held my gaze with his for several seconds. Then he nodded. “Okay. Yeah. Okay.” He took a beat, and then favored me with the insouciant grin that had made me fall for him in the first place. “I’ll be seeing you.”

I kissed his cheek. “No, you won’t.”

The voices of the other patrons drowned out the clicking of my heels on the floor of the café as I walked out the way I’d come in. I felt Martigan watching me, but I didn’t give him the satisfaction of looking back.

The parrot in the cage squawked at me as I passed it and repeated its earlier admonition: “Allez-vous en! Allez-vous en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”

But the words didn’t ward me away so much as remind me of a song I once heard in an ancient film, and I sang it to myself as I headed toward the transport station that would take me to the man I was going to build a new – normal – life with:

“Allez-vous-en, allez-vous-en, monsieur
Allez-vous-en, go away
Allez-vous-en, allez-vous-en, monsieur
I have no time for you today.”

 

“Allez-vous En” was written by Kate & Anna McGarrigle.

 

 

 

Old Friends

Like the Prose: Challenge #15 – Write a story with all four narrative styles used in the previous week. (Mine is actually a sequel to Sincerely, Megan)

nathan-anderson-98354-unsplash

I held the postcard in my hand. Like those I’d been receiving since I was in high school, it was a vintage card, postmarked from somewhere in central Iowa, but I knew it had actually originated somewhere much, much further away.

Dear Megan.

It seems impossible that this day would ever arrive, but our worldship is close enough to your Earth that we can engage in a brief visit, if you wish.  We have, of course, been exchanging photographs of one another for several decades by now. My antennae are no longer proudly erect, but are beginning to wilt from age, and you have complained that your facial epidermis bears wrinkles. And yet, I hope that you will be brave, my long-distance friend, and allow me to set foot in your back yard one the evening of your summer solstice. It will be a brief visit. Only fifteen of your minutes. But I do not wish to waste the opportunity.

Your friend,

Xplo!kka’t

I took the card into the house. The summer solstice was a week away. Jasmine, my daughter, was away at a songwriting camp with her partner Noreen. They’d met at college the previous September. Separately, they were each talent, together, they were electric, in songwriting and in love. It was lovely to see.

My husband Jeff was off on Luna Colony for three months. We hated the separations that took me to different parts of the Earth and him to the Moon and Mars, but the saying about absence making the heart grow fonder? Totally true.

I pulled a postcard from the antique secretary my grandmother had willed to me. My first summer of correspondence with my alien friend had turned me into a habitual letter writer, and my grandparents had only encouraged the tendency.

Dear Xplo!kka’t

Of course, you may visit. Fifteen minutes, fifteen seconds, fifteen hours. I’m so excited to meet the person who has been one of my dearest friends for so many years. Be welcome.

Sincerely, Megan.

* * *

“You aren’t really meeting him, are you?” Jeff asked his wife when the call from Luna Colony to New Jersey finally went through.

“Of course, I am,” Megan replied, her voice firm with her decision. “Xplo!kka’t inspired me to become a science journalist, and then to turn my experience into books. Without his encouragement Earth would never have corrected our pollution problem, and we’d likely be dead.”

She didn’t tell him that her spacefaring friend had once confessed that his race was seeking a new homeworld, and that their interest in Earth was not initially friendly, but rather, they looked at the green and blue world as a place to invade, to reform, to claim as their new home. It was only because Megan continued her strange correspondence with the person she’d thought was her husband (though of course they were only schoolmates at the time) that Sol III had been given protected status. Now, her friend was coming to visit. Not his whole worldship, she knew. That wouldn’t be close enough for another several decades. This was a dart pod. Sort of like a super-fast shuttle. And okay, fifteen minutes wasn’t a lot, especially given the span of years and the vastness of space, but it was fifteen minutes more than zero. And until now, zero was all they’d had.

“Do you want me to see if I can come home early? Be there with you?” Jeff asked.

“Can you?” Megan responded, hope lighting up her face.

“I can ask…”

But they both knew it wasn’t likely. Transport was expensive. And slow.

“What if we made sure you Facetimed while he was here?” Megan suggested. “I’d love for you to meet him. As much as you can.”

Slowly, Jeff nodded. “I can do that.” They chatted for a bit more. “I love you, Babe. To the moon and back.” And he grinned at her the way her always did when he made that horrible, horrible joke.

“Love you, too. Around the world.”

And they cut the connection.

* * *

You look in the mirror. You are no longer the teenaged girl who sent a postcard into space and actually got a reply. You’re a grown woman. A wife, a mother, an accomplished journalist. A bestselling author.

You have wrinkles in your face – your husband calls them ‘laugh lines’ and thinks they give you character, and you smile when he says it, just they way he smiles when you tell him you don’t mind that he’s a little paunchy because you find him sexy as much because he’s familiar as for any number of other reasons.

It’s just after twilight on the summer solstice and you’ve moved all the lawn furniture out the way. You hear a whooshing sound in the back yard, and open the back door, iPad in hand, and pause on the threshold.

From this moment on, alien life isn’t just a fantasy, and even though you sort of knew that, you couldn’t quite accept it until now. Because now it’s not just postcards. It’s real.

You step out the door, and down the two steps.

A figure about a third of a meter taller than you, not including the slightly wilted antennae, is descending a ramp.

His voice, when he speaks, is warm and mellifluous, even though the English comes a few seconds after his own language. (But you’re accustomed to that, from your occasional video chats).

“Megan,” he greets. “I am Xplo!kka’t. It is good to meet you, my friend.”

He extends a hand, six digits including an opposable thumb, because you’ve told him a handshake is an appropriate greeting, but you step closer, and push it away.

“I meant to tell you,” you say. “Handshakes are for strangers. Friends hug.” And you gently embrace him.

Because he is bright and adaptive, he follows suit.

When Jeff calls a few minutes later, you are at ease with one another. As old friends should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

School Figures

Like the Prose Challenge #14 – Write a story in second person. Make it a choose your own adventure story.

kelli-mcclintock-1365427-unsplash

You are six years old, and you’re standing on the rubber mat at the edge of the ice rink. In your head you’re wearing a pretty skirt and leotard and your skates are white with shiny silver blades, like Dorothy Hamill’s.

But your outfit is not a cute skating dress; you are wearing a track suit over tights so that you stay warm, and your hair isn’t cut into a sassy wedge, but twisted into two braids.

And your skates are not the pristine white that they wear in the Olympics.

They are boy’s skates.

Black and heavy, with double blades.

They are clunky and ugly and make you feel slow and clumsy, which, in truth, you are, but in your head, you know every jump and turn.

You even know how to do the school figures, the perfect figure eights that the skaters have to execute in order to demonstrate their technical proficiency.

* * *

You are twenty-one years old and you are sitting on a folding chair on a rubber mat in front of the barrier that separates the main seats of the arena from the ice of the rink. Your best friend from college is in the seat next to you. It’s winter break, and she’s housesitting for her parents while they’re in Europe and you’re there for her birthday weekend. She’s just turned twenty-two, and this trip to watch Stars on Ice is your gift to her, because you both love figure skating but neither of you actually skate anymore.

You’re kind of reeling because a few hours before, while you were eating burgers and drinking beer at a really great diner near the arena, she came out to you, and you’re not sure if you reacted the right way, because no one’s ever come out to you before.

It’s 1992, after all, and this isn’t a common experience for you yet, though as you get older (you don’t know this yet) you will become the person your friends come out to, about their sexuality, gender identity, and more.

If Harry Potter had been published at that time you would define yourself as the world’s Secret Keeper, except what Cora has told you isn’t a secret, exactly, it’s just a thing, a fact, and you don’t think you gave it the respect it deserved.

Were you supposed to stand up in the diner and hug her and say, “Congratulations?” Or was your actual reaction – telling her that you’re honored that she told you, and that you’re happy to listen to whatever she needs to talk about but you’re not the best to advise because except for some brief experimentation you’ve really only ever driven stick – the right tack to take?

You’re not sure, you can’t be sure. You can only be there.

But the music is starting, so you resolve to put it aside for the moment. Maybe the feminist bookstore downtown has cards for this, and you can send her one when you get back home.

* * *

You’re thirty-eight, and your husband is in Tokyo on business, and won’t be home for three days, and you know something is off because you’re late in the way women sometimes are, even though you haven’t missed a pill, so you get a test and are shocked when it flashes ***pregnant*** at you (the digital tests leave nothing to interpretation).

There’s a fluttering in your stomach that you can’t quite name. It might be fear or anxiety or happiness or delight or a little bit of all of them, with a touch of wistfulness that your partner, your best friend, is half-way around the world and many time zones away and you can’t interrupt him to tell him.

You take a picture of the stick and the result and you text it to him and wait.

For three days the two of you are long-distance giddy, and you imagine his homecoming and how you’ll greet him and how you’ll send ultrasound pictures to your parents and his on Mothers’ Day. And then, when you’re on the way to the airport to pick him up, the cramping starts, and by the time you park, you know – you know – that your three days of blissful hope were all you were going to get.

He’s tired, but he takes over the steering wheel so you can close your eyes and let the tears come on the way to urgent care. You’re their last appointment – they close at seven – and they give you warm blankets and coddle you as they run their tests, but the results are clear

Miscarriage.

You’re not surprised. You’ve had two others.

But you really thought this time it would stick.

And you’re thirty-eight.

So, when you and your husband have dried the last of your tears and his, you tell him you’re done trying.

He finds a skating competition on television and you curl up together with hot tea to watch it.

And you confess that you always wanted a little girl to watch skating with, the way you watched it with your mother.

* * *

You’re fifty.

And you’re hosting a Ukrainian orphan for the summer. You got the idea from a friend of yours who did it a few years ago, and you always wanted a child, but never really wanted a baby… Then, too, you and your husband are in a place where you’re financially stable. You have a house with empty rooms. If not now, then when?

Her name is Natalia and she dreams of being a figure skater.

Using a translation program, you ask her if she knows how to skate, and she says there’s a pond they skate on at their school, but their skates aren’t very good.

It’s summer, but there’s a rink at the mall, so you find out when the open sessions are and whether or not there are lessons in the summer. And after you and Natalia have had a few days to get to know each other a bit, you tell her you have a surprise.

The rental skates at the mall are brown, and clunky, and you are reminded of the ugly black skates you had as a child. But then you remember your second pair of skates which were still used, because you were a growing kid, but were white, with proper blades, and you take your foster daughter to the pro-shop.

A soulful Russian with bright blue eyes crouches in front of the sandy-haired teenager, and at first, she’s thrilled because his language is similar to hers, but then he remembers he’s required to speak English, and so is she.

You tell him to fit her with a basic pair – student skates – and he understands. They’re not professional skates, but they’re better than the rentals, and they’re hers to keep, you tell her. You realize, as the salesman laces them onto her feet, that they are the first things she’s ever owned outright.

You decide to buy a pair for yourself, as well.

You are fifty years old, and you are standing on the rubber mat at the edge of an ice rink, but you are not wearing a pretty skating dress. You are wearing jeans and a tank top and a hoodie, and you are holding the hand of a skinny Ukrainian girl who is only yours for the summer but is somehow the child of your soul.