Doing the Right Thing (a Basil and Zoe story)

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“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

Where the River Meets the Sea

Boat at Night

They knew weather conditions in the gulf were unstable, but her grandfather checked the maps and figured they were far enough south to avoid the brunt of any storms. So, they went to the dockside cafe and stocked up on fruit and sandwiches and bottled water, and  they took the boat out anyway.

Motoring down the Anclote River to St. Joseph’s sound they made up stories about the Original Occupants (that’s what he called native Americans) and their guardianship of the freshwater springs that dotted the coast.

“Sweet water,” she mused. “It doesn’t make you young but keeps you alive. Maybe we got the Fountain story all wrong.”

“How so?” His voice seemed craggier than usual.

“What if it wasn’t the fountain of youth? What if it was the fountain of life?”

“You might have something there,” her grandfather agreed. “Maybe you could make a story about it.”

He always said it that way.  Make a story. Not write one. And why not? Storytelling was as much construction as imagination after all.

“Maybe I could,” she agreed.

They kept the engine going until they were out past Anclote Key and into the Gulf of Mexico. Then they hoisted the sail and switched to wind power until they’d reached the secret beach.

They anchored the boat in shallow water and half-swam / half waded to shore, floating their cooler between them.

They picnicked under a palm tree and then she swam while her grandfather napped. It used to be that he would fish during these excursions and bring home the catch for her grandmother to clean and cook. But Grandma had left them several months before and it wasn’t the right time of year for grouper, anyway.

Before dusk, they returned to the boat, turning on the lights so they’d be visible. Again, they stuck to wind power on the gulf, heading home with her at the wheel.

Just outside the mouth of the river, her grandfather said, “It’s time.”

“Oh, Grandpa!”

The old man pulled a black plastic box out of a storage chest and leaned over the gunwale of the boat. He opened the lid and poured the gray-white contents into the water.

“Your grandmother and I met at a solstice celebration,” her grandfather said. “She made me promise to say goodbye to her on the first one after her death.”

He looked down into the water. “Swim with the dolphins, my love. I miss you.”

There were no words she could have uttered so she merely slung her arm across the old man’s shoulders and kissed his stubbly cheek. He smelled of tar and salt and peppermint, and there were times she wanted to wrap that scent around her like a blanket.

The motored back to the harbor in silence, tied the boat, and made to leave.

“You go home, honey,” her grandfather said. “I’ll bunk down below tonight.”

Reluctantly, she left him. But somehow, she knew that next summer solstice, her grandparents would be reunited.

Written for Brief #20 of Like the Prose 2021: Solstice

 

 

 

Red Velvet

Red Velvet Cake

I woke to the sound of my grandmama singing in the kitchen.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

 

Her voice was deep and rich, like the red velvet cake she was probably making right that very moment. We always had red velvet cake for Juneteenth, and I always licked the bowl.

I jumped out of bed and pulled on the t-shirt and shorts I’d worn the day before. There weren’t too many grass stains, and my mother would make me change before the picnic, anyway. Grandmama was stirring the cake batter with her big wooden spoon. Mama had a Kitchen-Aid mixer, but my grandmother said the spoon was better. “Hand mixing adds in the love,” she would insist whenever my mother or sister would try to convince her otherwise.

I made it to the kitchen in time to join in on the chorus of the song. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us Facing the rising sun of our new day begun Let us march on till victory is won.” My voice wasn’t deep or rich yet, at least, not all the time, but I sang the words anyway, and there was something magical about singing with Grandmama in the kitchen when everyone else was still asleep.

“‘Bout time you showed up, handsome boy,” Grandmama greeted me. “I was beginning to wonder if you were too old to help me with the cake.”

“Not yet,” I said. “Not ever.”

“Oh, if only that were true,” she laughed. “C’mere and stir this for me. I need to rest my tired arms a minute.”

I took the bowl, tucking it under my arm like she did. We had plenty of counter space, but we never braced a bowl any other way. Not for stirring, I mean.  “Am I folding or just stirring?” I asked.

“Just stirring. I want that batter nice and smooth before we add the red to it.”

It’s a little-known secret that red velvet isn’t actually a flavor. It’s really just chocolate with red food coloring in it. Only Grandmama didn’t use coloring from a bottle like most folks. Instead, she used cherry juice. She said it was better to use natural flavors because our ancestors always cooked with real ingredients, and we had to honor their memories, their struggle, and their courage with the food we made for this day.

“Is it time to add the juice yet?” I asked when I’d switched the bowl and spoon from side to side a couple times.

“Yes, I guess it is,” Grandmama said.

I put the bowl on the kitchen counter, and Grandmama poured cherry juice into the bowl. It pooled on top of the chocolate batter, and she took the spoon from me, and started folding the deep red liquid into the warm brown batter. At first, it did look a lot like blood, but once it was mostly mixed in it just looked like reddish cake batter. She didn’t hand the bowl back to me, just stirred until it was one, uniform color, and then she poured it into pans. Most people do just two layers, but our family makes four-layer cakes because Grandmama’s people had been in America for four generations when Juneteenth happened, and people here in  Texas knew they were free forever.

I never asked Grandmama to tell me the story of her family. I wanted to, but Mama said it was too sensitive. It turned out I never had to ask, because if you got Grandmama singing, she’d follow that with a story, like when her four-times great grandmama (I think I’m counting that right) were forced into hot, smelly, ships and went over the ocean until they ended in Galveston. All these many years later the foods my ancestors brought with them – things like okra, and kola leaf tea (which is also red)  – that have become foods everyone in the south eats all the time. I hate what they went through, but I love that these people they brought over as enslaved people ended up influencing their culture.

Grandmama says I have to learn our history, just like I have to learn to make red velvet cake with cherry juice, so I can carry our legacy forward. “Just because you’re my handsome grandson, doesn’t mean you can’t cook just like your sisters. All the famous chefs are men, anyway. Hopefully that’ll change someday.”

Once the cakes went into the oven, Grandmama took me into the parlor where the old piano was. Mama kept saying we should get a new one, because a couple of the keys just would not hold their tuning, but we never did.  “Everyone’s sleeping, still,” I said as she sat down and positioned her worn hands.

“Well, then… let’s wake them up.”

And so, as the red velvet cake baked in the oven, I sang with my Grandmama, and we woke up the house.

“Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land
Our native land”

 

Note: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by R.M. Carter, J.R. Johnson, and J.W. Johnson

Written for Brief #19 of Like the Prose 2021: Juneteenth

 

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.

Got a Light? (an really bad rap in extremely poor taste)

Smoking Elephant

Picture it, I dare ya, out there in the Jungle

Of India, a place so old it makes you humble

There’s no roads and the trees are close together

So the way to get around is very clever

See the way that we’re rolling is ridin on a creature

And if he were a movie he’d be a double feature.

We’re riding high over terra-ferm’

On TuPac the two-pack-a-day pachyderm.

 

Now, this is the truth, and I ain’t jokin’

This elephant is addicted to tokin’

He’s hooked on the bud, and it makes him kinda mellow

Pretty useful for a beast that’s such a big fellow.

He can be super stubborn, so you gotta treat him firm.

He’s TuPac the two-pack-a-day pachyderm.

 

Elephants are super good at sucking cigs

Their prehensile trunks are build for holding twigs

But the problem is that smoking is just awful

What it does to lungs that big  – imagine them all coughful

So even though TuPac was babied all his life

Cancer turned his end days into strife.

In the middle of the jungle though, nestled in some ferns…

Is a statue of TuPac, the two-pack pachyderm.

 

Written for Brief #16 of Like the Prose 2021: Tu-Pac

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

If Only It Would Rain (a Basil and Zoe story)

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Her head hurts.

And there’s this weird choking feeling in the back of her throat as if she stuffed grief whole into her mouth but can’t swallow it down where it won’t hurt anymore.

And the storm clouds are overhead, and thickening.

If only it would rain.

She goes through the motions… She meets friends for pedicures, but the colors seem overbright. She makes nice meals for herself, but the food all tastes like sand.

And the sky is black above her, no sun to be found.

Sundays are the worst.

Any other day, she could go up the street to see Sissy or Gina and share a frosted glass of iced tea on the porch or call across the fence to Becca and accept the invitation for a dip in her pool.

But Sundays are family days.

And her family is far away.

And her partner is further away than just “away,” because he’s dead, and she can’t wrap her brain around it, quite.

And the sky is getting thicker and she can feel it in her brain pressing harder and harder.

She considers traveling, but she’s not ready to leave the house they built together, the things they so lovingly collected (trinkets from a myriad of planets) the bathtub he had installed just for her, because it echoed the one he’d installed in their cabin on the ship.

She considers going back to work, but she’s not ready to face auditions, and she’s spent enough time away that she no longer gets straight-up offers. Or at least, none that don’t repel her.

Her daughter tries to make her smile, asks her to play, demands beach days… and she does her best to be present in those moments, but inside all she feels is numbness, blackness, a void deeper than a black hole.

And the thunder is unceasing.

If only it would rain.

Written for Brief #13 of Like the Prose 2021: Depression