The professor held up a battered old copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
“A childhood favourite,” he excitedly announced as he threw it into the chute. Whirr whirr whirr.
happy dystopia, society gone mad
The professor looked at his student with a satisfied smile as the message on the LED screen gradually faded. “I like to think of it as literary oxidation. We’re changing the state of the text. In chemistry, oxidation is the loss of electrons; well, we’re just losing the detail. It’s a process, that’s all. You start with one thing and you end up with something else, but the two are inextricably linked.”
“I love it.” Wide eyed, the student studied the complicated looking mechanism in front of him – all metal, wires, and tubes. It was about the size of an oven, with a large chute protruding from the front, a small LED screen, and colourful wires sticking out at all angles. “But how does it work?”
The professor laughed. “I barely understand it myself. Why don’t you give it a try?”
He pointed towards an extensive bookshelf that covered one whole wall of his office, floor to ceiling, with literature old and new. The student tentatively walked over to the collection and removed a copy of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
“Throw it in, throw it in,” bellowed the Professor, clearly in high spirits. Creak creak creak.
fantasy adventure, long journey, a classic
“It works with any literature. Well, anything written using the Roman alphabet,” the Professor tapped the machine with the kind of pride you generally only see in parents with their children. He pulled out what looked like a pamphlet and handed it to the student. “Try this.”
“PowerEdge 700W Blender – Instruction and Recipe Booklet,” the student read the title as he put it into the machine. Chug chug chug.
safety messages, extremely dull
At this, the Professor and student both let out a laugh.
“And did you bring a book of your own, like I asked you to?”
“Oh, yes.” The student pulled a book out of his satchel, A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, its pristine white cover distinctly out of character with the Professor’s anything-but-pristine collection. Into the chute it went. Clonk clonk clonk.
man searches for sheep, strange, urban ennui
“It’s fantastic.” The student seemed lost in thought for a moment, staring absently at the floor, before continuing. “What does it say about this story?”
“This story…” The professor took a brief pause to scratch his chin. “You know, I never even thought to try it…It’s not even five hundred words, but we can certainly give it a go.”
He pushed some papers around on his desk and, eventually, finding the relevant manuscript, threw it into the chute.
Both pairs of eyes were locked on the little LED display, waiting with bated breath for what the machine would say. Beep beep beep.
doesn’t end well
The key chains hang in rows, ball chain dangling stamped metal tags, a whole alphabet of names. His face behind the counter is deeply grooved and droops low at the corners of his mouth, while his faraway eyes make a silent movie on the wall behind me. I rustle clinking through the tags, searching for a name I like better than my own.
Susan, Lisa, Natalie, Chloe. Martin, George, Bobby, Dan. Tyler. Shannon. Alexis. You can fit a whole disguise inside a name. You can fit a whole person. A tiny tag like a shield, a suit of armor, a magic wand. Find the right name and I can become the right person. A spell to give me a life before I give up on the one that I have.
“For yourself, or a present?” he asks, and I wonder if a present would be their name, or mine? Would giving someone my name mean love, or confusion? I wonder if I’ll ever have a friend close enough to give a name to. I think about the names people who aren’t my friends call me. Loud, across the dining hall, written on my locker, or whispered in my ear in line (if something so sharp edged and startling can be called a whisper).
He clears his throat and I remember there was a question asked, an answer expected. “For myself,” I say, and watch his face register that moment of confusion my voice can bring. The voice that is somehow not what they are expecting. Lower than my sex, higher than my gender. He blinks it off and nods, and turns away. The light catches a twinkle on his key ring, where faint, under oxidation and a patina of fingerprints, a tag reads Tommy.
“Was yours a present?” I ask, before I can clamp my mouth shut on the words. He turns back, reaches for it in a gesture I can tell is habit now. “It started that way,” he begins, then stops, looks at me again. “It was a sorrow when I got it back.” I wait for the rest of the story, but he doesn’t seem inclined to fill in the blanks. I know it’s not his name, because the yellowed tag attached to his breast pocket reads Richard.
My restless hand stirs the tags, a long chime that has nothing of the grace of wind to it. We both shift our feet, but he can’t leave, and I have nowhere to go. “She was my daughter,” he begins, and my puzzlement matches his of earlier, though with a dash of impossible hope to hear a story, however sad, of someone like me. He pulls it off the key ring and holds it closer to my eyes. There, under the build-up of time and the press of goodbye, I see the little line that makes all the difference. Tammy, after all.
“Take your pick,” he says, and I wish that I could.
“When was the last time you talked to someone about oxidation though?”
My daughter was not a budding scientist.
“Even the spelling of it confuses me, it sounds like someone’s cut the middle out, like it should be oxidization but the person is lazy, or forgot, or just didn’t care enough about it, like me.”
She wasn’t a budding anything as far as I could see.
“If I threw the alphabet up into the air, whatever landed in front of me would make a better word than oxidation. Why don’t we just say rust if it just means rust? I like rust.”
I was beginning to feel old enough to rust myself.
“I could imagine mum telling you about her car being rusty, but if she said her car was oxidized you’d make that face and walk away and then say something about her saying it once you’d had some wine, wouldn’t you.”
She was right on both counts. She was also convincing me that I was a bit of a dickhead.
“Can I just write rust then, dad?”
“You’re going to write it anyway aren’t you, love?”
I had fallen asleep during the long drive, so I was not quite sure where I was. Near the ocean. The night air was heavy with salt.
I followed the red-haired woman into the cabin.
It was one room.
At least there was electricity, if only from a single bulb dangling from the ceiling. A counter on the right held a hot plate and a toaster. A card table with two folding chairs tilted a bit in the center of the room. Someone had attempted to disguise the rip in the table’s padded top with a single plastic rose in a beer bottle. An ancient iron bed filled the rest of the room, partially blocking a doorway to what must be the bathroom.
It was awful, and I hadn’t been so happy in a very long time.
The woman handed me a grocery bag. I emptied the contents onto the table. Two cans of soup – chicken noodle and vegetable alphabet, two cans of ravioli, a sleeve of saltines, a jar of peanut butter, three Hershey bars.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I didn’t expect you until next week. I just grabbed stuff from my house that you don’t have to refrigerate.”
“It’s fine. I had a chance and I took it.”
“We’re glad you did. Here’s what happens next: You stay here three days to make sure no one followed you. Once we’re sure you’re okay, we’ll move you to the shelter. It’s nice there.”
“No one followed me.”
“Everyone thinks that. But half of the women we help are gone the next day. And we have to protect the other half. So… three days.”
“I’ll be fine.” I spoke with an assurance I didn’t feel.
“I have to go. Take care.” She moved like she was going to hug me, and I tried not to flinch, but it showed through. “I really hope you are here when I come back.”
And she was gone. I locked the door, careful not to step near the window.
I peeked into the bathroom. Bad.
It was cold and damp. I took the raggedy quilt from the bed and wrapped it around me. I ate one candy bar. There was a crossword puzzle book and a pencil near the toaster. The puzzles were all filled in. I could sleep for the three days and maybe I would be alive when the woman returned. I lay down. I didn’t cry.
In the morning I sat on the edge of the bed and listened to the squawk of seagulls. I wanted to see them, but I didn’t go near the window.
I examined the old bed. The iron bedframe had rusted and the oxidation had left a dark red dust on the floor by the four posts. In the dust someone had drawn a heart.
My predecessor. I wondered if she was still here on the third day.
I hoped so.
“I love you,” I said to the heart.
The targeting system suggested a critical hit was unlikely, but his unit would be exposed if he didn’t take the shot.
The sound of a key in the door shifted his attention from the alien menace to a more immediate threat. Reacting instinctively, he closed the battle map and pressed F6. The door opened behind him and he punched the Return key. A Word document instantly filled the screen.
“How’s the writing gone?” enquired Pippa, struggling through the opening laden with bags.
“Alright,” replied Angus nonchalantly. “Thought I’d have a go at a competition.”
“Yeah?” Pippa dumped the shopping on the dining table, next to her husband’s laptop.
“Yeah. A short story.”
“What about?” She peered at the rather barren display. Angus’s favourite mug, proudly emblazoned with the claim Bird Nerd, was glazed with a mocha crust. It had unequivocally outperformed the keyboard.
“Anything. But you have to include three words.”
“Cool. I remember doing exercises like that in school. Like the one with the fox.”
“Yeah. The quick fox. You know the one. You get the first line and have to finish the story.”
“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog?”
“That’s it!” she exclaimed.
“That wasn’t an exercise,” he corrected. “That’s the sentence containing every letter of the alphabet.”
“Oh, yeah. Same thing.”
“Not really, but…” Angus shrugged.
“Brew?” Pippa asked.
“Love one.” He handed over his coffee-stained mug.
Angus’s movements could be traced through a network of dirty cups and Pippa collected two more on her journey to the kitchen. A chipped and cracked Ahh Bisto! had been left on the sideboard, and a half-full Lawn Ranger perched valiantly on a narrow windowsill overlooking the garden. She idly wondered which amusing slogan or advertising pitch awaited her on the bedside table.
“Any ideas?” she shouted from the kitchen.
“Dunno. I might mash up an existing one and slip the words in.”
“Is that not cheating?” She filled the kettle and placed it on the stove.
“Not really. But I’ve not done anything like this for ages. I’m a bit rusty.”
Angus continued typing sentences and deleting them, until the kettle whistled and Pippa returned.
“Maybe this will help lubricate your creative mind!” She placed his tea on the table.
Angus looked at the promotional mug and laughed: Erosion? Corrosion? Oxidation? WD-40 takes care of it.
“That’s quite funny for you,” he teased.
“Cheeky! What are your three words?”
Tilting the screen in Pippa’s direction, Angus pointed to the list.
“Ouch. How are you gonna get those into one story?”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“Have a break, hon.” She kissed him on the head, before transporting the shopping to the kitchen.
An unexpected thought occurred to Angus. He needed a different angle. With the swipe of a key, he unleashed his plan. Having amended perspective and focus, he sat back and sipped his tea.
Eighty-three percent, informed the targeting system.
He smiled smugly. Then took the shot.
Here is what they don’t tell you.
They don’t tell you that you will fall in love six or seven times before finding the one. Not the One, with a capital O. Just the one, the one whose voice you can stand after the six-month honeymoon period. The one whose body hair you don’t mind picking out of the bathtub drain. The one whose face you find endearing even as it loses the charm of unfamiliarity.
They don’t tell you that even that one can leave you. They don’t tell you that once you’ve come to rely on love, it is impossible to do without it. It is not the bagel slicer your grandmother bought you for your wedding. It is not the central air unit that cost half of last year’s paycheck. It also isn’t an addiction. You can’t go to meetings and share your feelings and find a sponsor. Having it has become necessary to your basic bodily functions. The oxidation of your blood relies on it, the movement of your bowels counts on it, your tear ducts stop working entirely without it.
They don’t tell you this stuff.
They don’t tell you that when your one, your numero uno, your better half leaves, you will forget things. You will leave the keys inside the house. You will get lost on your way to the doctor. You will miss the baseball game your kids made you promise to go to. You will forget your birthday. You’ll never forget your anniversary, though.
Another thing they don’t tell you is how much there is to deal with right after. You need to call your people. Your friends, your kids, your partner’s therapist. You need to report the news. You need to make plans and talk to accountants and lawyers.
Nobody tells you how scared you are to discover things you didn’t know. They never tell you that everyone has skeletons in the closet, even when you know them as well as you thought you did. It’s easy to chicken out of “going through Dad’s things,” as your daughter phrases it. It’s so much simpler to let the kids do it. To let them decide whether they want to read the diaries and old letters or not.
They don’t tell you how lost you will be for words when an anonymous secretary with a hard-to-hear voice asks what you want on the grave. How you will lose all capacity for language for what feels like an hour. How you will come to in an ambulance and see your son leaning over you, sweat dripping from the bridge of his nose. How the paramedics will push him out of the way and tell you to say your name, to recite the alphabet, to add up two small numbers.
They forget to tell you that the hospital bed will feel welcoming. How you’ll lie there, wishing for death to un-“do us part.”
There is so much they never tell you.
Brody waddles across the grass, for all the world like a real toddler.
I check myself. He is a real toddler.
He beams when he reaches me and hands me his lovey, a brass disk stamped with a lion. I force myself to smile.
Just not my real baby.
My sister, Mara, sets aside her sandwich and holds up her hand for a high five. “Good going, Robbie!”
“It’s Brody,” I snap.
“Janice, he’s been Robbie for—”
“You’re an addict in that other place.” A mean thing to say, but sometimes mean is all I got.
Brody stares at me. I wince. His silence makes me miss the gurgle of my real baby, Robbie, the one that didn’t survive the drunk driver.
Mara pats my shoulder then hefts Brody up to her hip. “C’mon, kiddo,” she says, rising above my sniping. She has the luxury of stoicism. I’ll be grateful for it later.
I watch for dogs as she pushes the little impostor in the swing. Dogs can sense cross-overs, and get viciously territorial.
I should be the perfect candidate for parallel adoption: the same drunk that killed Robbie killed me in a parallel universe.
They told me everything else about the other universe was nearly identical. The dead Janice breastfed, did baby-wearing, co-slept. Of all the universes where a Janice survived and a Robbie didn’t, hers was the closest to this one.
Closest, not exact. I think of Brody’s reverse developmental spurts. Walking, then crawling. Drawing geometric shapes, then scribbling. Like babies over there start with order and have to learn chaos. I wonder if emotions can be taught like the alphabet. What orderly thing would Brody have to unlearn to understand something as chaotic as love?
Brody lolls on the blanket, eyes picking equations from the mesh of sycamore leaves above. He’ll stay like that for hours if I let him.
“I couldn’t put Robbie down for three seconds without him fussing.” An intense baby, Robbie had regular meltdowns. I grimaced. What I wouldn’t give to hear his inconsolable wails again.
“Kids change,” Mara argues.
I palm the disk. The brass was pristine when it came with him, but now whorls of oxidation scrimshaw the lion. Robbie’s lovey was a stuffed lion. Weird parallels.
The word stabs my brain. I dive for him.
Snarls. Snapping teeth. I curl myself over my baby. Claws dig at my arms. Mara hollers, “Get your dog!”
Something tears at my scalp. “Shh, Brody, Mommy’s here.” Peace smoothes out my words even as my heart beats itself to pieces.
My son gazes steadily at me.
I must be in shock. “It’s going to be okay.” Is telepathy an orderly form of speech?
You protect me because it’s necessary.
“Because I love you.”
Shouting, barking, people rushing to help – a maelstrom twists itself around that quiet truth. Tiny fingers brush my cheek. Brody closes his eyes and begins wailing inconsolably.
Not exactly like Robbie, but close enough.
The bed ends had been rusting away in a boggy field up in the mountains, fenced round a cast iron bath from which soft eyed Chianina cattle lapped water with rough tongues. Carlo had given a few Lire for all three items to a peasant.
“Unfortunately,” he’d explained, “a severe case of oxidation prohibits me from offering more.” Highfalutin language always did the trick.
Back in his antiques boutique in old Arezzo, near the famous frescoes adorning the church of San Francesco, the loot now stood as props in the shop window.
On this makeshift stage, Giselda, his lover and part-time actress, enjoyed attracting audiences of tourists on the street outside with impromptu performances of stories of love and hate.
“What have you found for me this time?” she’d asked, reclining on a green velvet chaise longue, horse hair stuffing poking out from beneath. She puffed smoke rings from her Malboro and fluttered eyelashes at him with promises of who knew what.
Helped by fellow actors, lured by promises of free suppers at the trattoria opposite, she devised comedies and costumes for her troupe: concoctions from antique lace, moth-nibbled plus fours, fox furs, cloche caps and other garments discovered in trunks or carpet bags Carlo had picked up here and there.
Rummaging in his store room, she’d come upon a mottled photograph of Mussolini, a torn text book of alphabet letters and an abacus, some blue beads missing from the bottom row. And suddenly an idea for another scene hovered like a surreal mirage, dancing attention for her magic touch. An allegory of a classroom; an Italy stultified by a crazy dictator-cum-teacher with maybe a clown or two thrown in to set her public wondering.
It was 1947. Fun was essential when memories of war still cobwebbed lives. Her plays provided free entertainment and it was amazing the stuff tourists purchased from Carlo when relics were brought to life in his shop.
Carlo had fully intended to throw the valise he’d hidden in the cellar into the sea at Cattolica, but he’d never got round to it. It contained Karl’s SS uniform, worn in another lifetime and which he was therefore shocked to see upon Giselda’s shapely figure as she strutted before the blackboard, her indolent pupils lounging over small, wooden desks. Outside, tourists and a few locals whistled and guffawed at the satire enacted behind the shop window.
In the morning, she lay asleep upon the antique bed, a monogrammed linen sheet draped over her left side, one bare arm exposed. A tourist or two stopped to linger at the sight, marvelling at yet another inventive set.
Three days later, when bluebottles patterned the inside of Carlo’s shop window, carabinieri were called.
The curtain came down on the final act.
Sara and Jim were nearing their destination. The buildings around them were mostly grey and empty. A few artist lofts, a corner store, some urban gardens tucked between. Sara was trying to make sense of the directions on her phone.
“I’ve been here before,” Jim said as they turned the corner.
Sara looked up. “You said you had never been to Cleveland.”
“I haven’t. But I have been here before.”
“Every city has one, right?” Sara smiled.
“No, I mean I have been there before.” Jim pointed to a building down the street.
Sara looked toward the building. It was a new construction, all metal and glass, nesting quietly by itself beside a lot of overgrown weeds.
“Probably some kind of start-up, venture capital thing.” She turned to Jim but he was already walking away.
“Jim, wait up. Don’t you want to find the pop-up?”
He didn’t turn around. She followed after him down the block, across the street and up the metal steps to a bright orange door with a sign that read “Alphabet Labs”.
“Sounds about right,” said Sara as she reached Jim.
Jim turned around slowly and Sara noticed his eyes were red and moist.
“What is it, Jim? What’s going on? Is this about yesterday?”
He stared at her for a second. Then he reached out, pushed open the door and walked in. The door closed behind him.
Sara stood there, letting out something between a grunt and laugh. This must be some kind of surprise, or a prank. But that was not like him. She was the planner, he the appreciator. That is how their love worked. She sat down on the top step. He will be out soon, she thought. He was probably looking for a bathroom.
Ten minutes passed and Jim had not returned. Sara got up and pushed open the orange door. She entered into a light-filled lobby, all white but for a wooden desk to the left, a small woman standing behind it.
“You must be Sara. Jim said you would be in shortly. He is almost finished.”
“Excuse me? Finished with what?”
“Oxidation. That is what we do here. Oxidation.”
“Oh, like some kind of metal work?” Sara imagined some rustic metal sculptures. Jim would like that. Maybe he was picking something out for her, for them.
“No, no oxidation is a procedure. A medical one and a spiritual one.”
“Right.” Sara paused. “But really, where is Jim?”
The lady smiled and motioned for Sara to follow. Sara walked with her down a long white corridor, pushed open two glass doors and motioned for Sara to go through. Sara hesitated for a moment before walking into a small room. The room was perfectly empty and warm. It felt both light and heavy. Sara looked through the glass doors back at the smiling woman.
“Where is Jim?” Sara’s voice quivered slightly.
“Everywhere and nowhere,” said the smiling woman, before she turned and walked away.
She doesn’t see it coming. The blow is dealt so swiftly that it throws her off balance. The impact can be seen at once: a fiery red imprint quickly replaced by a large splash of metallic hues. Verdigris, oxidation on copper, rust.
She utters an “oh” of surprise and, in slow motion, the world blurs and she staggers, tripping over an uneven paving slab, feeling the unforgiving pavement greet her.
People gather. Stare down. Stunned at the strange angle at which her arm now lies, since the bag has been ripped away. Wondering at the colours on the side of her face changing, deepening, damaging.
Voices: Did you see? Where did he go? Why would anyone do that? Tripped on that slab. There he goes. Round the corner. Call the police. Call an ambulance.
A quiet girl kneels on the pavement and adjusts her skirt, offering back some dignity. The girl leans over her, feeling for a pulse. Remembering – Airways, Breathing, Circulation. The first aid alphabet.
“Can you hear me?” She whispers. Yes, a slight nod.
“Help is on its way.” A nod again.
“Stay still until the ambulance arrives.” The girl rests a tepid hand on her to offer reassurance, the sympathetic love of a stranger.
She breathes slowly, becoming aware of the roar around her. Strangers shouting over each other, shuffling of feet, horns blaring and tyres on tarmac. Everything is highlighted. Whiteness and warmth pierce her eyelids. And the pain is beginning to focus its aggression. A coursing of lava where she was struck, her wrenched shoulder shrieking.
She tries to keep as still as she can. She wants to ask: Did you catch him? But that’s not the plan. She is under instructions. Keep still. Keep the focus on her. Don’t worry about the bag. Did he get away? Why the need to hit her? Why not just grab the purse and go? Why inflict pain and humiliation? All part of the strategy – they’ll concentrate on the victim. Be concerned for her.
Gossip over supper: You should have seen. I was so shocked. Don’t expect that to happen. Think he got away. No one went after him.
She is aware of an official presence. No siren, but slamming of doors. Feet moving to allow the professionals through. Creaking of shoe leather. Soothing voices. Notepads, forms, and now she’s on the stretcher being borne away to bleached corridors and antiseptic hand gel.
All worth it, though. Despite the pain. The plan worked. Hours searching for the misaligned paving slab. Perfect timing and a blame culture. Insurance job for the bag and compensation for the fall. Nice one.
Susan trudges through the deep woods. Scraps of cold autumn sun flutter to her shoulders, to the ground, landing pale and weak, like wounded moths. She ignores the compass now, counts her steps instead. She murmurs the directions she memorized, directions that must never be written down. The Tree’s story was told to her in whispers brushed with doubt, thready with hope, the way you hear stories of miracle caves, of healing waters.
Once upon a time, the Tree provided lush cover for innocent first kisses, for lusty first times. It wore the initials carved into its skin like a tattooed alphabet of love. But eventually, ripped open hearts bled beneath the Tree’s branches, and rages of betrayals and broken promises tore at its bark, scratching and digging, desperate to get back what was taken, what was lost.
Now the Tree serves a different purpose.
Susan sends decaying leaves scuttling with every step. Her right ankle, still swollen from last week’s fall down the stairs, rubs against the leather of her boot. The ache it sends through her is nothing compared to the fear filling her. She tries to catch her breath beneath her aching, bruised ribs. She reminds herself that she’s exhausted all the conventional methods to save herself. This, this is her last chance. But what if it doesn’t work? She lied to get here today. She stole. Her body shakes in terror at the thought of being caught. What if it’s all for nothing?
She steels herself, pushes forward into a clearing. The air goes hard, sharp like glass. Silence swells. No birdsong, no rustling. Susan gasps.
The Tree looms, a hulking, deformed beast. Its roots thrust up from underground like the arms of corpses writhing over the earth, grabbing what they can before plunging back to Hell. The names etched into its bark are scarred over or gouged out, leaving chunks of the Tree’s flesh rotting and weeping a dark muck down its trunk.
Susan stumbles to the Tree, wedges herself between its roots. She sinks to her knees, digs with cold, shaking hands. Her fingers brush what she was told was buried there. She stills, stares at the wedding ring given over to oxidation, at the shard of bone still wearing it.
She takes out the first aid kit, the knife. Susan holds her breath. One finger is such a small price to pay.
The knife is sharp, her actions swift. She weeps as her severed ring finger falls into the hole, as her blood drips over all those buried beneath hers. If the Tree’s story is true, right now its dark magic is seeping into the black heart of her husband, stopping it, seizing his life and whatever soul he has left.
Her wedding ring glints up at her from its newly dug grave as if giving her a wink.
Our homes for the next ten days seemed adequate, 414 and 415. He pouted on the balcony while I stepped inside to search for our toothbrushes. Waist-tall pyramids of light drifted along the beach below. We were both curious. Only the promise of finding flashlights that next morning pulled him inside, down the hall, and into an unfamiliar bed.
Two shadows wandered the empty sand, sporadically calling out, but I never heard an answer to their “Marco!” From the adjacent terrace Becky spoke the word “hey,” and as my lungs filled with the breath of an answer, she continued into the beginnings of a conversation. Her lilt seemed comfortable, familiar. When I had listened too long and convicted myself of some brand of creepiness, I silently backed into the condo, every step feeling a stomp. In the distance I heard “Polo!”
Hunter borrowed my flip flops over the path through the dunes. Decades of oxidation had left the boards splintered where they weren’t missing. He seemed to be afraid of all things beach, even the sand sticking between his toes. Finger-long fish dancing in the shallow water made him screech. Hiding under a green umbrella, consumed by an iPad, seemed to be his only source of contentment. “He is your son,” I reminded Becky.
Along the wet edge of sand that night, little white crabs crept in all directions, most no bigger than a thumbnail. Children up and down the beach trudged through the shadows, occasionally illuminating their prey. I ran back up to the condo and fished an alphabet soup can from the garbage, removing the label so our trio would seem less amateurish. We had started coordinating our vacation time three years ago, Becky’s idea, and it had worked. She and I seemed to tolerate each other, for these handful of days anyway, we enjoyed ourselves even.
“He is your son,” Becky whispered at breakfast as she disappeared with a basket of laundry. Two slices of French toast had been zipped through, but a yogurt cup and apple slices remained as protest. “Mom might still love you,” he offered from nowhere and my reflex nearly reciprocated. He’d become skilled at crafting an argument recently, setting the place for one question with another, forcing us to think ahead of him. My delay in answering wasn’t because I intended to win this new game of ours, but this had been the first moment in nine years that the words didn’t feel completely true. “You want to go find a sand dollar?” I asked. His scrunched brow spelled that he easily understood my tactic. Some subtle change had occurred, still love maybe, but not in the way this little boy might define it. That early the beach was still mostly quiet and I needed to walk. “Come on! Go get your mom. Let’s go find a sand dollar!”
“She’s still here then, Dad?”
“Afraid so, Sarah, but thanks to the headphones you bought me last week I can hardly hear a thing.”
Ada Benson was a nightmare. Dad had been stuck in a ward with her for three weeks and she was always complaining.
“Here’s a crossword book to keep your hands occupied while your ears are busy.”
We didn’t talk much after the first five minutes of visiting time, hence the crosswords. I would have bought him more but I was made redundant last week. I daren’t tell him; he had enough to worry about.
With Dad busy chewing his pen, I looked over at Ada Benson; she was more entertaining than staring at the jumbled letters of the alphabet on the back of Dad’s puzzle book.
“Remember when Mrs Abernathy had her false teeth stolen?” she boomed to her daughter, Jess. “Well that’s what’s happened to my locket. One of the nurses must have pinched it.”
“What would the nurses want with Mrs Abernathy’s false teeth?” said Jess.
Jess only visited on Sundays.
Ada waved the air.
“Well I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m sure they could sell my locket. You know nurses don’t earn much these days.” She leant closer to Jess, yet you could probably still hear her in the next ward. “Some of them are lap dancers, you know. I read about it a few years ago.”
“Mother! Where do you get these ridiculous ideas?”
“People aren’t the same as they used to be. Everyone’s horrible these days.”
“People are the same as they ever were. You just hear about it more quickly.”
“Hmmm,” said Ada.
“Sarah, love. Beginning with ‘O’: the natural rust and discoloration process,” said Dad, interrupting my version of Days of Our Lives.
“It’s that one, I’m sure,” said Ada, pointing indiscreetly at a nurse. “She looks a bit shifty.”
I looked at the nurse. Shadows under her eyes, she looked exhausted, not suspicious. I stared daggers at Ada Benson but she didn’t notice; people like her never do. She’s one of those distracted people, who’d ask a question just to answer it themselves, not bothering to listen to the reply of the other person.
“Which locket are you talking about, Mum?” said Jess.
“The filigree silver one. Though it’s a bit dark inside.”
“How odd,” said Jess.
How apt, I thought.
“It’s because of oxi-what-do-you-call it,” said Ada.
I tapped Dad’s arm.
“Oxidation,” I said.
He saluted me with his pen.
Visiting time over, I kissed Dad on the cheek and walked towards the door. I put my hand in my pocket and felt the chain of the silver filigree locket slither over my fingers. It was a shame it was discoloured inside but I’d get a few quid for it.
The head landed so powerfully it was a wonder the desk didn’t collapse. Ellandalagalula recoiled from it and covered his nose with his sleeve.
“What possessed you to bring that here?” Ell demanded.
“It’s a gift from my king,” the hunter said.
“Unicorns are under the protection of the Law of Oxidation Forest,” Ell said.
“It’s a gift of war.”
Ell’s stomach lurched, but as the Elf King’s right hand he could not afford to show fear. He mentally recited the Elven alphabet and was soon calm enough to speak.
“Why is your king declaring war?” Ell asked.
The hunter shrugged. “The messenger said so. He had the king’s seal and everything. He was real official.”
Ell narrowed his eyes. The hunter cleared his throat several times. A bead of nervous sweat trickled down through the hunter’s copious chest hair.
Something was not right here.
Ell forced himself to look down at the severed head. The fur was black and it looked soft. There was a white starburst over the left eye. It was striking, and somehow vaguely familiar, but was certainly not a unicorn.
“That’s a horse’s head with a horn tied on.”
“No it isn’t!” the hunter protested, panic sharpening the edges of his voice.
“I know some unicorns. We play poker three nights a week. I love unicorns. That,” Ell pointed vigorously, “is no unicorn.”
The hunter’s lower lip protruded slightly. Ell realized he was pouting. It was ridiculous on a man so large and forged out of pure muscle.
“My people aren’t going to war over a horse,” Ell said.
“Not even a little war?” the hunter asked. He held up a thumb and forefinger to prove how tiny his request was.
The movement drew Ell’s attention to the bag slung over the hunter’s arm. As far as Ell knew, humans didn’t usually carry around bags of human limbs.
“You’re an ogre, aren’t you?” Ell asked. Sometimes he had difficulty telling the inferior races apart but he was sure he’d put his finger on it.
The hunter’s pout deepened. “Yes.”
Ell rolled his eyes. “If you want more humans to eat, kill them yourself.”
Ell shooed the ogre out and slammed the door. He hated complaint day.
“I’m always the one stuck in the office while the Elf King gets to go out and frolic about on his horse,” Ell muttered.
Ell imagined the king laughing at him, astride his black stallion. Didn’t the king’s horse have a white starburst over one eye?
Where had the ogre found a horse to murder in Oxidation Forest? More importantly, where had he found a human – or human-shaped person – to dismember and put in a bag?
The ogre might have his war after all.
“Stop that ogre!” Ell cried. “Stop him! He killed our king!”
“There are only so many letters in the alphabet. After that, you’re done for. You think you have all the time in the world at the letter D, but then you’re suddenly at the letter M, and by the time X rolls along…”
Uncle Jeff was silent for a moment. He shook his head regretfully.
“My advice is, stick around and smell the roses. Live your life. Fall in love. Don’t make the mistakes I made. Learn from me.”
His niece Emily stared at him. In front of her was her workbook. She had been practicing her handwriting.
“I was trying to write a B,” she explained. “It’s for homework.”
“B?” He asked. He stared down for a moment. “You got it backwards. It’s a D.”
“Oh. Oh. Right.” A little embarrassed, she started writing her D the opposite way. She took her eraser, a pink thing shaped like a little moose, and erased her earlier effort. Then once again her oversized pencil scratched against the paper.
“Good,” Uncle Jeff encouraged her. “That’s the way. You know, when I was your age, I had a problem with that too. Got my letters backwards all the time. Don’t worry about that, Emmy. What you’ve got to avoid, is getting your life backwards.”
The tip of the pencil broke off with a snap. Emily brushed it away and took out her sharpener. It was also pink. Round and round, the pencil scraped, until it was sharp again.
“How long do you think that pencil’s gonna last?” asked Uncle Jeff.
“I dunno,” said Emily.
“Long enough, I guess. Long enough for what you need. There’s always another pencil, right. Don’t need to worry about that. There’s pencils enough in this world, huh?”
There was a moment of silence, and Emily concentrated on getting her letter perfect. Uncle Jeff stood up and stared through the window.
“You ever see a piece of metal go brown?” he asked. “Like that fender on your Daddy’s car outside?’
“Um, I think so.”
“You know what that’s called? Oxidation. Ox-i-da-tion. Because oxygen, well, we need it to breathe, we need it, got no other choice, but sometimes, well, all that breathing can turn you a little brown inside.”
Emily looked up in alarm. “Am I brown inside?” she asked.
“Not you,” said her Uncle Jeff. “You know what you are? You’re the Statue of Liberty. She got all oxidized, but you know what, it just made her more beautiful. Not a speck of brown. Not one speck.”
The workbook was now covered with D’s. Emily turned the page.
“I don’t really know what you’re talking about,” Emily told her uncle.
“Don’t worry about that, honey,” her uncle replied. “Look, you know what I’m going to show you? I’m going to show you how to write the letter E.”
The sleek surface of the ship begs me to run my hand over her. The aerodynamic speeder shows no oxidation, and the hydrogen collectors are clean, which is remarkable in a 50-year-old system jumper.
“Want to take her out?” The yellow teeth of the salesman show gaps as he smiles.
“Sure.” A closer look shows small imperfections on the canopy. “Is she safe?”
“Safer than ships made today.” The scent of coffee and cigarettes litters the air between us. His putrid breath makes me gag, but I hold back the bile rising in my throat. “Hell, she has more years left in her than there are letters in the alphabet.”
There’s that smile again. “Old Earth English.” He walks around the nose, shoes squeaking on the cement. His clothes are right out of the 2180s, a white polyester jacket, pleated pants and a blue t-shirt. Sweat runs down the side of his face. “You have a license, right?”
“Sure.” I fish out the plastic card.
He leans forward and squints, reader in hand. “Looks like ya, Su… Su…”
“Suchalia.” I smile. Fresh ID and the net’s already updated. He scans the barcode. No warrant will show, no smuggling charges revealed.
“She’s charged and ready to go. No need to kick the tires on this beauty.” His hand comes down on the hood with a thunk. I wince at the sound. “Don’t worry. This baby can take a full laser hit at 500K; my little tap won’t hurt her.”
I examine the clear reflective surface. Sure enough, the sparkles in the deep paint reflect the bright sunlight. I’ll have nothing to fear when running contraband between systems. “What’s her top speed?”
“Ninety five percent light, then she jumps to hyperdrive.” He beams again.
“If you can handle the Gs, she’ll make orbit in under three minutes.”
Fast. I nod, happy. “And the price?”
“Why talk ‘bout the price now? Take her up. Test how she responds. We put new phase generators in her. She can shoot ’n run without blinking.”
The hair on the back of my neck starts to stand up. Sweat is on his brow now. I should take her up; put her through a little test, make sure she’s airtight. “Only if we talk about price when we get back.”
“How else ya’ going to buy her?” His rhetorical question hangs in the air. I almost answer, but think better of it.
“Okay, I’d love to take her up.”
He sweeps his arm toward the gangplank at the rear of the ship. He’s still grinning like a desiccated corpse. “This model only has a rear entrance.”
I saunter over to the small ramp and he hits a button. The doors open and the muzzle of a gun presses against my neck. Slowly I raise my hands. “I thought we agreed to talk price after the test flight?”
“Darian Colter, you’re under arrest for smuggling.”
It figures, taken in by beauty once again.
You can’t fix a person like you can a car. Take this fuel pump. I just went down to the auto supply store and bought it. For a car, the fuel pump is like its heart, right? And you can’t just take someone’s heart out and put in a new one.
Well, yeah, nowadays you sort of can. But you know what I mean!
Can you hold this wrench for me here? Thanks. Yeah, sure, I had my heart broken once or twice. I was what you call a late bloomer. When I was twenty-three I was still looking for my first real girlfriend. Just shy. Plain old shy.
I was working at Kinko’s and there was a girl there who was an artist. Kinko’s was spilling over with artists and intellectuals. It was a college town. Anyway, she was something else.
You know, she wore men’s underwear? Said it was more comfortable. Sometimes I’d come over and she’d be in her underwear eating a bowl of alphabet soup.
Damn, this bolt’s tight. If I could just get a better angle on it…
You know, I don’t know much about cars, but everything I know I learned fixing up this 1978 Celica. And every time something goes wrong, it’s something new, and it’s like I’m accumulating all this knowledge I’ll never need again.
Yeah, she was an artist. We visited the art college in San Francisco where she got her degree. She dressed all in black for the trip — she called it her “city armor.” One student there did nothing but these life-size portraits that looked like they were painted 500 years ago, except that all the heads were beehives. Yeah, beehives.
She showed me a beautiful portrait one of her friends did, and I said it was “nice.” It wasn’t “nice,” she said. That was just the wrong word.
I brooded about that. I don’t think she thought much of me. But here I am talking about getting my heart broken when she was more broken than I was. One night we were kissing in the car and I put my hand on the nape of her neck to pull her towards me. She pushed my hand away. It brought up bad memories for her. I felt guilty, selfish, annoyed…
Our relationship sputtered along for a while. A relationship is sort of like a car: the longer you have it, the more attached you become to its quirks. If it breaks down, you don’t want to leave it by the side of the road. If you’re smart you keep up the maintenance. You take the spark plugs out every once in a while and scrape off the oxidation.
Eventually she just got her fill of “nice,” and I did my blubbering and that was that. Did I love her? I don’t know. I thought I did. Do me a favor and start her up.
Listen to that purr! Well, it’s close enough to a purr for me.