I first met Nora in a secondhand bookstore when we both reached for the last copy of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” After several minutes of insisting the other person take the book, we wound up co-purchasing it and discussed how we would share it (should one person read the book in its entirety, or would we do a handoff chapter by chapter?) over lunch, which turned into several dates, that appeared to have deeper undertones, ones that could have led to something a little more serious.
The problem, at least on my part, was that I was an open book, while Nora avoided revealing herself to me. That was until one drunken evening when she finally invited me up to her flat and I discovered she was a writer. Curious, I pulled one of her novels off her bookshelf and she tried to snatch it from my hand, claiming that it was a first draft, just broad strokes of the story and she was still fleshing out the details.
I told her not to worry, that I’d turn off my inner critic and view it as a work in progress. But as I skimmed through the book, her entire attitude toward me changed, and I instantly regretted plucking the book off the shelf, because it turned out to be a serial killer story that described in detail how she planned to murder me.
As trite as it sounds, I wholeheartedly believe that certain individuals are born for a life of servitude. That was our Qara. Cursed with a helper gene inherited from her father’s side of the family, she was raised on the principles of being steadfast always and to carry honor and glory everywhere and at all times. These disciplines were non-negotiable. And when she became old enough to properly comprehend their importance, Qara was taught how to be strong alone as well as stronger as part of a unit.
Many of you have asked what was she like as a child and the one moment that stands out in my mind was the time I found her watching the streams of her father charging into battle. The soundless images of war looped over and again and Qara sat transfixed studying his actions, mimicking his motions. When she finally noticed me in the room, she turned and said, “I know what I want to be.”
I had my own dreams for my daughter. What parent doesn’t? I envisioned her as a diplomat because she always had such a gifted way with words, so convincing, so compelling, and able to see other’s points of view while gently persuading them to see hers as well. I pictured her initiating the peace talks that would finally put an end to this decades-old war with a relentless extraterrestrial enemy hellbent on our total annihilation. But seldom do the dreams of parents and that of their children align themselves. So, instead of voicing my objections, I simply answered, “Fine.”
I pulled her father’s old, battered, unloaded service weapon from storage and laid it on a table before Qara.
“Dismantle it.” I said, offering no instruction on where and how to begin. “If you plan to use a weapon, you should know how it operates.” I secretly hoped she would have become frustrated, abandon the effort and move on to other interests.
But there was a spark in her young eyes as she turned the weapon over in her hands, searching for connection points, latches, catches and switches. She only managed to get a third of the way before being unable to proceed any further, but it was a mighty fine effort for her first attempt.
I then sat Qara with her brother, elder by three years, who showed her the correct way to field strip the weapon and reassemble it. He only needed to perform the act once. The weapon had become a puzzle game and Qara memorized the moves to solve it. She practiced stripping and reassembling the weapon each morning before the family rose and each night before she went to sleep. She became so proficient at it that she performed the act blindfolded, and in a head to head competition with her brother was able to beat his fastest time.
In her free time, Qara rummaged through her father’s possessions, sent home to us after he lost his life on the battlefield while trying to defend the moon. She devoured material on military strategy, ran herself through a homemade obstacle course, practiced combat techniques with her brother, and though I still was not happy with her choice, I had to admit I was proud at how quickly she progressed.
Then the day came when I received the letter. Behind my back, Qara had registered for armed service. More precisely, she sought placement in the same unit her father had served in. When she returned home, I held the letter out, a mixture of anger and pride in my voice as I announced, “Drafted.” Her squeal was the last remnant of the daughter on whom I had fashioned my dreams.
Qara began studying and idolizing the veterans of the unit, most of them fought alongside her father. It was like a dream for her that came true. More than that, it was another link to her father’s past, another piece of the puzzle that completed the image of him in her mind.
The next two weeks went by too swiftly for me to properly show Qara how much I loved her. When she left, the following four months went by too slowly before I could see her again at the ceremony that marked the completion of her training. In less than a week, my daughter would be protecting our world from alien invaders, as her father did before her.
The ceremony ended with a complex weapon exhibition that was more for show and less for survival and during the maneuver, Qara’s weapon misfired. I couldn’t have been happier. I know how that sounds and how it makes me look but let me reassure you, I am far from being a cold-hearted parent and an unpatriotic civilian. I care for my daughter more than words can express and would never want any harm to befall her, but the injuries she suffered from the misfire explosion put her on inactive status, and to me it was a blessing in disguise.
When I was allowed to see Qara, the only thing she repeated was how devastated she felt at having something that was within her reach suddenly snatched away. It was the only time since her father’s funeral that I recalled seeing her cry. It hurt to see her tears, but I believed the disappointment would fade over time, even if it vanished slower than the scars on her arms. Selfish, I know, but I didn’t care. She was alive, which meant she was with me, and I wasn’t ready to relinquish custody to her late father.
To my surprise, Qara was nearly in agreement, and what I mean by that is she told me of her plans to contact the academy and inform them that she would be withdrawing from the program altogether. If she couldn’t fight, the least she could do was to make her spot in the unit available to some other able-bodied applicant.
She did it the following day, without hesitation, without a crack in her voice, but neither of us were prepared for the response she received from the commander of her father’s former unit. “You petitioned us, not the other way around. We kept a spot open for you, in memory of your father. The spot belongs to you. Be the warrior your father was and fill it.”
Qara gained a new sense of determination while I was sinking in a quagmire of dread.
She attacked her therapy to improve mobility in her weapon arm and retested for qualification. It was her dream and her passion to fight for her planet. Qara had done well before the accident, but now, driven to not only live up to her father’s example but surpass it and make him proud, she beat her previous personal best and made the top ten percentile in the academy.
Qara joined her father’s unit and fought well. She was shorter than average height and thin but few could rival her inner strength. For saving the lives of her unit during the Atmospheric Offensive, and Operation Orbital Push, she received honors, but none higher than when she sacrificed her own life during the campaign to retake the moon. The same mission that killed her father.
Qara saved the lives of the five soldiers riding with her on a reconnaissance mission in orbit around the moon. She was piloting the ship when a satellite mine attached itself to the hull.
I have been told that the satellite was one of ours that had been rigged by the enemy with enough military grade explosives to wipe out an armada. Once close enough to activate the magnetic clamp, the device began an automated countdown upon impact. Qara instructed the soldiers to evacuate to the escape pods. She could have left herself, but the propulsion units on the pods wouldn’t have escaped the blast radius. She stayed behind and piloted the craft away from the soldiers, away from the moon and away from her home.
One of the soldiers once said to me quietly, “We promised to sacrifice the one for the good of the whole. Your daughter delivered on that promise.”
Her unit paid their final respects at a private ceremony for the family. Each soldier had nothing but praise for Qara. She was professional. Dedicated. A morale booster. Quick to cut the tension by making you laugh. In line for a promotion. A hero. The compliments went on throughout the service.
Standing here in front of you all on the one-year anniversary of my daughter’s death, I tell you this story not to dissuade you from joining the military but instead to join the fight and do your part. Qara was wiser than I gave her credit for. She somehow knew that peace was not the answer, that these barbarians must not only be pushed back but crushed so that they never again think to visit our world.
If you take nothing else from his speech, embrace my family’s principles. Be steadfast in the defense of our planet always and to carry honor and glory into battle. These disciplines are not negotiable. Train yourself to be strong alone, but never forget that we are stronger as a unit.
For the sake of our homeworld and in memory of all those who have fallen, including my husband and my daughter, the humans must die!
He looked wild and unhealthy in the most horrible way possible for someone on the living side of the grave. His light-skinned thin face was a roadmap of scars and lesions, some old and scabbed and some fresh, moist and pink. The skin that circled his storm-gray eyes was a sickly brownish-purple color, that lent him a dark psychotic appearance. Even his hair was in bad shape, being matted in places and choppy and uneven in others. The interface sockets drilled into his temples and wrists seemed out of place; shiny buttons of chrome spit-polished to perfection. Like a beautiful new brass doorknob on an old weather-beaten door.
“Hate to say ‘I told you so’, but—” Marv flashed her a smile. Yellow, ragged teeth clenched around the cigarette butt. He adjusted the rumpled clothes that hung off his anorexic body like a tent. In his current condition, he looked more like the national poster boy for The Euthanasia Campaign, rather than one of the Eurasian Alliance’s Most Wanted.
Talitha watched his eyes take her appearance in. Her hair was cropped short, reddish-brown, curly. Her skin was a beautiful copper color. She recently lost a few pounds which brought her down to 121, which she considered to be her optimum weight.
“Are you alone?” Talitha asked, letting her eyes quickly dance around the room but always snapping back to her target, in case he decided to make his move. The only move he made was with the cigarette hand, bringing it to his lips for a quick toke.
The studio, stripped of the cheap grandeur it once laid claim to, was small. There was barely enough space to fit the little table and two stools that sat across from the stove and sink. To the right was an alcove that held a toilet, no sink, no shower, and no door. To the left, where Quinton stood, was an unrolled sleepmat. Atop the little table was an ashtray made of foil, an open can of Albanian beer, a dusty and scratched cybermodem with connecting interface wires, and some half-melted candles. Come to notice it, there were candles all over the room, on the stove, the sink, the floor.
Most importantly, on the floor, by his right foot, was a pistol. She brought her own gun to bear and targeted the spot between his eyes, her lips skinned back from her teeth. “Slowly kick the 9mike-mike my way, now!”
Marv hesitated a moment, looking at his Browning and its distance from his hand in relation to the slamtracker’s finger to her gun’s trigger. He sighed and complied, kicking his pistol across the wooden floor.
“Turn around and assume the position,” Talitha said.
He took a long last pull on the cigarette, crushed the butt in the ashtray, turned quietly and leaned against the wall, hands flat, feet spread apart. Talitha bent her knees and reached for the Browning, never taking her eyes off Quinton, and tucked it into the waistband of her slacks. She moved to her bounty and patted him down. Nimbly reaching into the largest of the advantage belt’s compartments she produced four very thin metal bracelets, two with green markings and two with red.
Talitha turned him to face her and Quinton obediently held his fists in front of him. She gently but firmly took him by one shoulder and pulled him down vertically, knees and back bent in a crouch, his hands positioned close to his ankles. With a series of clicks his wrists and ankles were cuffed. The bracelets had no chains or bars linking them. The slamtracker stepped away and triggered a device. Dim green and red lights emanated from the bands and they homed in for their counterpart. Two sharp clinks resounded when magnetized metal rings touched. She had arranged the bands so that his left wrist was shackled to his right ankle and vice versa. Unable to keep his balance in the awkward position, Quinton landed on his butt, knocking over his stool.
She did a quick scan of the toilet. Quinton was alone. In the periphery of her vision, she could see him sitting on the floor testing the magnacuffs.
“Forget it,” she said, holstering the Glock and examining the Browning. “To separate the cuffs you’d need to exert five hundred pounds of pressure in both directions.” Marv continued testing the cuffs anyway.
“Why didn’t you shoot me when I first walked in?” she asked, holding up his gun as if to say it’s loaded and functional.
“Not my style,” he looked up from the cuffs. His eyes, although weary and bloodshot, were sharp, intent, intelligent. “When I aim that gun I don’t shoot people, I shoot obstructions. I shoot aberrated ideologies. I shoot the future that has no place for the individual, only the corporate. The things that hit the ground when I squeezed that trigger were definitely not human. Maybe at one time, but not when they came to me.”
“You can’t glamorize killing. I do enough of it to know.” Talitha sat on the stool nearest her. “There’s nothing poetic about what you did. Nothing justifiable.”
“Since when isn’t freedom justifiable? Who decides that?” There was a twitch in one of Quinton’s jaw muscles.
“The survivors of murder victims.”
“And if you murdered me right now, could my survivors claim your freedom? Your life?”
“See this face? Not impressed by your word games.”
“They’re only word games, Ms. Slamtracker, if you’re on the losing side. When you’re winning, they’re indisputable facts.”
“Secure that crap, okay?”
After a long silence, Quinton said, “Murder me. Give my people a cause.”
“Your people? You mean—what is it you call yourselves now—The Midnight Raiders?”
“That’s what you call us. The media spoon-fed you a label and you lapped it up like a good corporate doggie. I’m talking about the hapless, the wretched, the destitute, the impoverished, the indigent, and unprovided for. All the underdogs are my people. They’re the stuff of lore. The kindling that keeps the flame alive.”
Talitha stared at him through slitted eyes. “Underdogs? How can you say that with a straight face? You’re part of the largest terrorist organization on three continents!”
Quinton’s intensity seemed to spark around his shoulders like electricity. “Since when is it terroristic to fight for freedom? When the movement first began, we held anti-corporate law protests, which was our right, to have our voices heard, to demand justice and equality. The response? They passed laws against us, claiming we were a menace to the EA Nations.”
Talitha glowered at him. “There are ways of fighting that don’t violate the law.”
“These corporations you work for, whose values you uphold and defend, siphoned billions of dollars from public programs that should have been used for food and shelter, creating a homelessness problem, which they sought to solve by rounding up the homeless and turning them into unwilling human subjects. They carved up the brains of public assistance recipients to implant software, wetware, data and storage chips, at first just to test the effects and later to create nonvoluntary data couriers. They connected toxin sacks to these people’s vital organs to force their cooperation. How can they expect us not to fight back?”
“Spare me your recruitment propaganda,” Talitha said and placed Quinton’s Browning in her waistband at the small of her sweat-stained back, adjusting it for comfort.
“Did you know the very first ‘Rinthjock, the guinea pig that was fitted with prototype interface sockets, was a woman on welfare?” Marv didn’t wait for her response. “Documented fact, look it up. In order to receive benefits for herself and her four children, she had to agree to submit herself for testing. The techies who created the method of downloading data directly into the mind without having to constantly slice open a skull and install datachips, devised a way to patch the human nervous system into a direct computer link via the major nerve trunks in the wrist and base of the skull. The process placed her in a vegetative state and to get a better understanding of what happened, they vivisected this poor woman, whom they considered intellectually inferior, and then had the nerve to rename the internet after her in tribute.”
“Her name was Labyrinth?”
“No, they weren’t interested in making a martyr out of her so they hid their tribute within a longer word. Her name was Arinthia Simpson.”
“You know, I let you go on to see if I could make some sense out of what you’ve done,” Talitha said. “But this dump is a sauna and I’m not in the right frame of mind to listen to zealotry at the moment, so be quiet, while I call this in.”
Double-tapping her right temple, Talitha activated her comm implant and held her thumb to her ear while speaking into her pinky. She called in the bounty and arranged for a wagon to swing by for the pick-up. All there was to do now was wait.
They sat in silence for nearly a half-hour, each with their own thoughts, until Marv said, “I read in a news article about a torture gadget the Eurasian Alliances Science Guild makes to sell to foreign countries that are still run by military dictatorships. Our own police agencies help by selling them torture equipment like this headband I saw. It’s worn like a skull cap and clamped on tight. Tiny pins on the inside of the band pierce the forehead, through the skull and into the brain. When activated, the headband selectively fries the forebrain with a jolt of current. Most of the victim’s memory is eradicated, leaving enough to implant an easily controlled pseudo personality into the empty brain, creating a killing machine.
“Our corporations manufacture these headbands. It’s made here, mass-produced in sweatshops that employ poor people at slave wages. Most of them don’t realize they’ll be wearing that cap eventually for some minor infraction that a rich person can simply buy their way out of. Mind you, I’ve only seen photographs of the headband; not the torture, just the results.”
“What did I tell you about—”
“Not spewing propaganda. Just making conversation to pass the time,” Marv said. “That wagon sure is taking its sweet time getting here. You positive it’s on the way?”
“It’ll be here, so why don’t you just sit there and reflect on your life choices.”
“Can I just tell you about this chair I saw?” he asked but didn’t wait for an answer. “It was a picture of an ordinary wooden chair bolted to the floor in a room in Chad where people had been tortured. There were no people in the photograph, but you knew from looking at the chair, from the blood-soaked back and seat that people had been tortured there. Women and men, light-skinned and dark, rebel and scapegoat, sane and crazy. In Chad, in Nova Scotia, in Cuba. And if it’s there for foreign dissidents, you know it’s here for native ‘Rinthjocks.”
“Of course, because you’re beset on all sides by the tyranny of evil corporations, blah-blah-blah.”
“Do you know the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist?”
“I’m sure you’ll enlighten me,” Talitha rolled her eyes.
“It’s what side of the line you stand on. I’m on the freedom fighter side. How about you?”
“I’m on the side that upholds the law, the side that has to listen to your lies and whiny nonsense about being forced into a way of life not of your choosing. And when I don’t subscribe to your bullshit, then I become the enemy and that gives you the right to kill me.”
“That’s not what we—” Marv started.
“You weren’t born a rebel with interface sockets and firearms, it’s a choice,” she said. “You made a conscious choice to live outside the law and enforce your own brand of justice and you don’t even have the decency to explain yourself and own up to your crimes. Why is that, Mr. Freedom Fighter?”
Quinton squirmed a little to get comfortable in his crouched position. He was used to the heat so it didn’t bother him much but he noticed Talitha could not say the same. She had tied a rolled handkerchief around her head to keep the sweat out of her eyes, but was helpless to stop the dark crescents that grew under her armpits. “I’ll explain it to you, the way my mother did to me,” he said, keeping his tone even, gentle but not condescending. She was the one with all the weapons, after all.
Avenue B was crowded with petty consignees who made their living as best they could. DNA, RNA and organ banks. Barter firms. Boosterware outlets. Gambling holes. Hotels. Bars. Trixiepens. Bodegas. Prosthetic surgeries. Hockshops. Each animated with the cadence of people turning profits, the murmur of small enterprise, the barbed aroma of sweat and adrenaline.
Talitha Manchand inched her way out of the vendor clutter and holographic psychedelics of the avenue and jetted down a hotel-lined sidestreet. Three quarters down the block, she hooked a sharp left and spun the ’13 GeoPlymouth Cloudburst into a convenient alley. Guided by its lasertracking system, the hovercar maneuvered effortlessly through a maze of dumpsters and garbage cans, kicking up a mini-storm of grit and paper trash. The Cloudburst stopped a few feet from the back entrance to the Forgotten Realm Hotel, gently lowering itself on its flexible skirt. When she killed the engine, the skirt deflated and retracted into the car’s underbelly housing. She flicked on the dome light and slipped the Glock 19 out of the holster secured under the glove compartment and checked the load.
Flicking off the dome light, she climbed out the car, checked the alley, holstered the Glock in her advantage belt and walked over to the hotel’s back door. The sonic padlock was ancient; she picked it with a high-frequency whistle normally used to stand off attack dogs. With a soft click and a push of the door, Talitha stepped into a cluttered urine and sex-scented stairwell that used to be a service entrance and ghosted her way through the lobby.
The lobby loiterers were pretty much what she expected: snuffheads, scavoes, jonniegirls. Each in their little cliques, dialoguing. Except for a rail-thin stimfella, who was dealing stims to a skud, she might have gone unnoticed. The skud looked so hard up for a fix he probably would have snorted potassium cyanide. Behind the stimfella were two husky goons on the lookout. Definitely his billyboys.
“HEY!” the skud yelped as the stimfella pushed him to the side and walked away. “I slid you cash, so where’s my stash, man?”
Talitha knew there was no way the skud was up to going toe to toe with the stimfella but jonesing muscles sometimes made a weak man strong. And judging by the way he was listing and clutching the left side of his torso, he probably sold a lung or kidney to enjoy the uncollected stim.
“I’m talking to you, man! You deaf, or just stupid?” His answer came in the form of sledgehammer fists. The billyboys beat him to the ground and all he could do was bawl out in anger against their fury, trying to protect the recent surgery stitches.
The stimfella swaggered on an intercept course with Talitha and his billyboys, having made short work of the skud, weren’t too far behind. All three men stopped directly in front of her, blocking her path.
“Name’s Trent, jodie. Whatcha doin’ in the Paradise?” the slump-shouldered stimfella brushed blond locks out of his eyes and rubbed a blemish on the side of his aquiline nose. “Your man not servin’ you right? Lookin’ for a jock to rock your box? You found ‘im. I promise you a screamin’-and-creamin’-yabba-dabba-good-time,” he said, licking his thin dry lips.
“Fuck off,” Talitha said, before her brain could catch up to her mouth. There was no way this was going to end peacefully.
“Best put some speck on the way you talk to me, ‘fore I have to do it for you, the hard way,” The stimfella said, grabbing his crotch.
The billyboys exchanged glances and laughed. This was a game to them, Talitha realized. They were out for shits and giggles. Their laughter faded when Trent, sporting a lime green weasel-suede leisure suit, reached into his breast pocket, came out with a yellow plastic inhaler and fired a round up each nostril. He absently passed the inhaler over his shoulder for his billyboys to divvy up the dregs. Talitha studied the stimfella. A full head taller than she, confident, tough and tanked up on some stim that probably boosted his reflexes and gave him an adrenaline buzz. Someone was going to get hurt.
Talitha considered it might be her, so she tried to sidestep. Billyboy one and two flanked their boss left and right and circled her, smiling, Trent lashed out at her face with the back of his left hand, a bitch-slap, what real men used to keep their women in check. This punk regarded her the same way he did his stimmed-out trixies. Someone he could slap around one minute and get them to go down on him the next.
That was all it took.
Talitha’s body went wild. Blocking the slap with her forearm, she snagged his wrist with one hand and slammed the heel of her other palm into his elbow. The impact forced the elbow joint to bend the wrong way with a moist, popping sound. Trent’s scream trailed his collapsing body to the floor.
Billyboy One came in from behind and tried to get Talitha in a headlock but before his arm locked around her throat, she slammed the back of her head into the biliyboy’s face, smashing his nose. At the same time, she hooked her foot behind one of his knees and forced it to buckle while shifting all her weight against him suddenly. They toppled backward. When his head struck the tiled floor, his grip loosened and she rolled out of his arms and drove her elbow down into his solar plexus.
The remaining billyboy was over her suddenly, shifting his weight to his right leg so he could kick with his left. Talitha ducked inside the kick with her arms close to her chest. Then both arms shot out one after the other and her tiny rock hard fists slammed into the billyboy’s testicles like pistons from an ignited car engine. The quadruple punch doubled the man, forcing him to topple over Trent’s body and crash to the floor in a fetal position.
Talitha rolled to her feet and brushed herself off. She glanced around the lobby, her expression explicit. It said, simply: Next?
The cliques slowly scattered, loiterers making their way towards the exit. They recognized the fighting style and pegged her as slamtracker.
“Now that they know what you are,” said a voice from behind the front desk. “They’re probably planning to bum-rush you when you leave.”
“The least of my worries,” she mumbled.
The desk clerk, who’s nametag read: ADEL, was a nondescript beaker-bred hermaphrodite who looked as androgynous as they claimed Bowie did in his heyday. Adel seemed mildly amused, glancing past Talitha to the three moaning men on the floor.
The skud picked himself up unsteadily and began rummaging through the stimfella’s pockets. Trent made a weak grab attempt but the skud stomped down on Trent’s broken arm. The stimfella shrieked, eyes rolling into the back of his head, and the skud returned to his scavenger hunt, taking all the stims and money he found.
Talitha thought, maybe, if he hurried to the organ bank, the skud could get his old lung or kidney back, or even buy new ones. More likely, he would forego the organs and buy more stims. He was visibly bleeding from where his stitches popped, but he seemed rather pleased with his ill-gotten gains. He pocketed his goods and on his way out the door, he kicked both billyboys in the face, obviously the icing on his satisfaction cake.
Talitha turned her attention back to Adel, flashed her credentials and said, “You know why I’m here.”
“I’m the one who called, but don’t go thinking I’m some sort of snitch. I just needed the finder’s fee for an emergency, that’s all,” the clerk said and pushed a slip of paper toward her. “That’s his room number.”
“Not my concern how you justify it, as long as the information is accurate,” Talitha started for the elevator, spotted the OUT OF ORDER sign then made for the stairs instead.
The Forgotten Realm lived up to its name. Calling the place low-tech would’ve been high praise. Most of the mechanix here were decades old. Still, Talitha had to admit she was slightly impressed that the whole place was put together from salvaged materials. Shame no one here jerry-built an air conditioning system. She was on the nervous side to begin with, add that it was the last night in July, and it made for a woman who gave off enough sweat to cure the Delaware drought. Walking up twenty-three flights of rickety stairs didn’t help the matter any.
Talitha heard the stairwell door close behind her. Her left hand adjusted her advantage belt to put the more suitable compartments in her reach. The Glock 19 mini 9mm trembled in the grip of her tense right hand. She debated whether or not to leave the safety catch on. Her index finger rested near the trigger.
Cold fear poured down her spine as she started down the long, empty hallway. She licked her lips, trying to taste some courage. The Glock grip itched her palm. Her breath was quick. She paused outside the door number scratched on the slip of paper. Standing off to one side, she tweaked the doorbell and waited. Nothing. She put her mouth to the apartment’s intercom, ‘Marv Quinton?” Still nothing.
The locks on the door were electronic; finger-idents that were programmed to the renter’s fingerprints that could only be overridden by special 4-digit codes. Child’s play. From one of the smaller sections of her advantage belt she pulled a device roughly the size of her thumbnail. It looked like a tiny calculator. She placed it on the lock panel and it took all of fifteen seconds to tumble the locks.
As soon as the pneumatic door opened, her stomach quivered. “Mr. Quinton?” Talitha called into the doorway of the jet apartment. No answer. Not that she expected one. If he felt up to having company, he wouldn’t have made her pop all three of the finger-idents on the door.
Her weapon readied, she stepped inside. The door hissed shut behind her, the locks snapping closed. Darkness swallowed her like a hungry animal. The heat was three times as severe inside, made worse by the stale air. “Lights on.” she spoke to the ceiling, but nothing happened. Either he had disconnected the light mechanism, or this dump wasn’t fitted with voice activated halogen strip lighti—
To the left, the tip of a matchstick scraped along the warped wooden floor and burst into life. The barrel of the Glock swung left, her body following and she planted her feet firmly apart, slightly bent, thumbed the safety off and braced herself to lay into that corner of the room.
Laughter. Man’s laughter, as the match rose to light the tip of a cigarette. She couldn’t see his face clearly, the flame played eerie shadow games with his features. He sat on a stool in the corner, looking like a gargoyle on a precipice.
“You should be more careful when you violate someone’s space. If I was as mental as most make me out to be, I would’ve flatlined you at the door,” the gargoyle said. He blew out the match and was devoured by the shadows again, all except the fiery tip of his cigarette.
“Marv Quinton?” she tried becoming less of a target, stepping away from the spot he saw her at, but the floorboards creaked, giving away her movements.
“Depends on who’s asking,” the cigarette tip bobbed up and down as he spoke.
“Talitha Manchand, ‘Rinth police.”
“You mean slamtracker, don’t you? ‘Rinth cops don’t come this far out when they can hire local.”
“Fine. I’m a tracker, okay?” she swiped at the sweat on her forehead.
“Not in the dark, Mr. Quinton-“
“Not in the dark, Mr. Quinton!”
“I have my reasons.”
“NOT IN THE DARK, MR. QUINTON!”
“The years haven’t been kind to me.”
“Did I ask you all that? I just need to viz you, okay? It’s regulation.”
Quinton stood up and reached over to hit the old fashioned manual lightswitch. Two dusty fluorescent rings flickered on and Talitha squinted until her eyes adjusted to the light, and it took all the self-control she had to keep from flinching.
In the heart of Slummer Paradise, where the pollution-to-air ratio was widely acknowledged to be the worst on the planet, Marv Quinton fitfully tossed and turned on a rented rotten wood floor.
Why he opted to lay his sleepmat there was obvious. Being hazardzone, the Paradise offered excellent cover because it was as dark, grimy and ominous as the rumor suggested. The persistent stinging smog created by makeshift power stations and chemical plants, hovered over the tiny region and cut resident life expectancy short by sixty percent with cancer, heart disease and emphysema. The drawn faces of the locals took on the grays and browns of the cityscape. Acrid smoke from rows of chimneys darkened the streets. Lignite and coal, used to fuel the mechanix of the area, was primitive, cheap and abundant. It was also high in sulfur and ash and intensely dirty.
All in all, it was a small price to pay for a rest to the endless running.
The area was originally named Alphabet City in the PreCollapse Days, but that was before the FlatFall of ’92, when the Eurasian Alliances established the Global Commodities Barter Systems which succeeded in destroying the economies of the former superpowers. All plans for the commercial and residential redevelopment of Alphabet City were scrapped in the depression that followed.
After years of neglect and decrepitude, after sewage, factory discharge and poorly stored toxic waste had contaminated most of the surrounding areas, the residents who could afford it began moving away in droves and a dome was constructed to contain the area’s pollutants. It became a scarred and battered, lost part of Manhat, rumored to be inhabited by freaks and misfits. A place where acts of depravity and violence were the social norm.
An exaggeration on the truth. The area was inhabited by travelers and squatters mostly, with a few neurobikers, ‘Rinthjocks, and down-n-outters tossed into the pot to add flavor. Even though many of the babies were born with deformities, asthma, bronchitis, and eye and skin ailments, due to the high level of toxic metals collecting in their parent’s tissues, they were not misfits. They were pioneers that saw a home in a lifeless place. It was their sweat and muscle that rebuilt the area, some were even cunning enough to devise independent air-filtration, sewage and electrical systems. And as for the acts of violence and depravity, well, they happened no more in the Paradise than anywhere else. Both factions of segregated Manhat gave the Paradise wide berth just the same.
Rising fear from the rumors eventually led to the area being legally designated Hazardzone. That was when Alphabet City’s concrete and steel skeleton became Slummer Paradise. Home to those who had nothing to lose by becoming lost in the bureaucracy. Visited by no one in the mainstream, except for slamtrackers, who came to collect either police or private bounties.
And in the center of this asphalt and tar prairie, Marv Quinton hid in a one-room coffin, equipped with the barest of essentials needed to continue his existence.
Nighttime stressed him the most. He was used to being mobile until daybreak. The hysteria, brought on by the restlessness he usually managed to beat down, was just about to bust its cap. The rathole he took refuge in suddenly began to close in on him. He yanked the interface cables from his head shunts and shoved his cybermodem violently aside. Not even being online in the Labyrinth contented him any longer. He paced the room, chain-smoked and flicked stations on the vid monitor until nothing was on the screen but the subliminal psychedelics of the non-broadcast channels that were meant to lull the viewer into a passive, consumable state, which had no effect on Marv. For inspiration, he worked on his agenda and list of priorities until they became so sophisticated and scrambled, he had to stop before he lost his mind. Funny thought, that, since he was surely crazy already.
Sleep deprivation made him this hunted animal, addicted to fear and sometimes murder. He would have done Strega blotter, mescaphine tabs, hyperpyridinium Jell-0 shots, anything to put himself under, but his metabolism had been altered to make him immune to stims. So he forced himself to stretch out on the hard, unyielding sleepmat. He was certain he understood what Hell really was; lying down, tired enough to sleep through his entire lifetime, times three , yet not able to close his burning, bloodshot eyes.
Dreaming, perchance to sleep.
That was a curse he acquired while on the run. He never had dreams anymore, the dreams had him. Clutching him in a two-fisted chokehold of rudimentary panic that was beyond the realm of his comprehension, yet so basic in structure that it was ingrained in the very foundation of his nature. The fear, or the dream, he wasn’t sure which, had turned his cramped room into a vast black canvas, stretched to opposite sides of infinity. And his childhood phobia of the dark bubbled to the surface from that place buried by years of conditioning, logic and maturity, deep within the sub-sub-sub-regions of his mind. That tiny concrete and steel room, wrapped in wrecking ball chains, with the huge reinforced padlocks that held all the real horrors of the world: the deranged and deformed Prometheus, cybervampires, hellhounds, the CribDeath Man, Geriatric Rabid Killer Teddy Bears. Somehow they were all free again. Some nosey bastard just had to find out what was in that room, just had to pick the padlocks. And now they were coming for him, to exact their revenge, to toss his into that tiny prison. But not before they had their fun. Rule Number 101 in the Horrors’ Ethics Handbook: Always Enjoy Yourself At The Expense Of Others.
Wait! What was that at his ankle? Felt like teeth. Long, sharp, metal…
Only then, when he choked down a scream that made his throat raw, was he beset with the meat of the nutshell. The dream.
Flash-card remembrances assaulted his senses, of different things and different times, but ail in order, as if they had been carefully filed in some sort of mental card catalogue and plucked out by a librarian and thrust into his face, one at a time.
MEMORY of the rough feel of his father’s hands as they brushed his own, accepting his third year birthday gift. The hand-me-down IBM keyboard, one megabyte ram, forty megabytes hard drive with a built-in VGA holoplate that weighed a ton in his tiny grip.
MEMORY of the sweat that poured down his face and stung his eyes, at age nine, when he battled the school computer’s AI for supremacy and rewrote the comp literacy program to upscale the daily lesson plans to something a bit more challenging.
MEMORY of the wonderfully dirty, used smell of the money he made changing grades after he cracked the Board of Education’s mainframe.
MEMORY of the coy smile that played at the corners of his mother’s mouth when she announced, on his twelfth birthday, that she would finance his first set of chrome interface sockets.
MEMORY of the first time he jacked into the Labyrinth, the way the computer data reached out to him, into him, and tickled his nervous system. He reached his first orgasm at that moment, and was embarrassed at the time. Now he wished he could go back and re-experience that sensation. No other orgasm had come close since.
MEMORY of his father’s chalky brown face on the day of the funeral. The facial expression wasn’t right, wasn’t natural. The person that handled the cosmetics obviously never met his father while he was alive.
MEMORY of the scratchy white tissue in his mother’s hand that wiped the tears from his swollen eyes, as she tried to explain in a hushed and frightened tone, that his father hadn’t died of a stroke as she led everyone to believe. His father had actually been part of a rebel group named “The Midnight Raiders” who punched into the Labyrinth and attempted an illegal data raid on the Polygenom Corporation. Somewhere something went wrong and they tripped over an anti-intrusion program that wiped their brains clean and stopped their hearts cold.
MEMORY of his stomach churning savagely on the night before his fifteenth birthday, when he woke to the sound of his mother’s screams. The ‘Rinth police had violated the sanctity of their home and yanked her from bed with a gun to her head, dragging her struggling body into the street. She was still in her nightgown.
MEMORY of the mixed look of terror and anger on his mother’s bruised and bloodied face, as they shoved her into a dark nondescript van. He knew that was the last time he’d ever see her again.
MEMORY of the helplessness he felt, handcuffed in the backseat of the squad car, overhearing the conversation of the two ‘Rinth cops up front. They discussed sticking him in a foster home until further orders were received. Their casual tone of voice, like they were dropping off clothes at the cleaners, made him kick at the wire mesh partition until he wore himself out. The cops just laughed as he cried in frustration.
MEMORY of him breaking out of the foster care system two days after his arrival. If there was any justice in the world, he hoped somebody snatched the stupid ‘Rinth cops’ families out of bed at gunpoint and shoved the lot of them into a van, never to be seen again. How hard would they laugh then?
MEMORY of learning how to hustle on the streets to avoid eating out of restaurant dumpsters.
MEMORY of faces. Thirty-five screaming faces of strangers, slamtrackers, each characteristically unique and detailed. Faces burned on the insides of his eyelids forever. Thirty-five people, women and men alike, who probably had families that depended on ‘Rinth police bounties. Money that would never be collected. Families that needed to find a new provider.
So many memories, tiny shard images and hollow voices. He supposed, in its own way, it was a form of rest, a sort of OEM sleep. Open Eye Movement. His eyes darted around the bleak room, tracking the images that ran at ultraliminal speeds. The same way tonight as every other time he tried to sleep since he was fifteen. The dream made him a captive audience to a personalized home movie that he was powerless to stop when it came over him. Unable to sleep until the dream ran its course. When it was finally done, so was he.
Just as he was about to settle into that brief and fragile thing that passed for sleep, Marv Quinton woke hard, clothes clinging to his sweat-spackled body. Grabbing the Browning Hi-Power beneath his pillow, he racked the slide, chambering a 9mm shell and covered the door. The act was a smooth reflex, practiced so much, he could have done it in his sleep. Many times he had. The room was windowless and pitch to human vision, but he twisted his head back and forth anyway, scanning. His heart hammered. The remnants of the dream shrieked through his mind. An eddy of pure panic swept over him when he realized he had company.
Someone was in the hallway, just outside his room door.
After what’s been done to us, it’d be easy to wallowin bitterness and self-pity, but both grief and insecurityhave to be faced, dealt with and exorcised. There’s more,you know, there has to be more to life than simplytrudging through daily hassles, waiting to die. We have a role, a purpose, far greater than self.We have to set examples, lead the way. We represent what weshould be, what we dream of becoming and not the thing we’re forced to become.Yes, we as a race screwed up. That’s to be expected sometimes,it’s only human. What’s also human is the ability to learn from those mistakes. To grow. To mature. If you do that, even alittle, then perhaps what we went through will have apositive meaning. Don’t let me die in vain.
-The final words of Cheyenne Willys
To Be Continued…
Author’s note: Once again, I’ve gone scrounging around in my box of old first draft/half-finished stories, which is the writer’s version of taking a walk down memory lane. This story was written on the tale end of my fascination with cyberpunk, a sub-genre I was sure was going to take over the market and launch science fiction into bold, new territories. Anyhoo, the above passage may not make loads of sense but it’s the quote I opened the novella with that ties into the backstory of the piece. Why I chose to isolate it in this post is anybody’s guess, but here it is nonetheless. Hope you enjoy it and come back for the rest.
Even before the Uber came to a complete halt, Katie Solomon had the back passenger-side door open ready to hop out, and was pushing her way through the crowded airport with her wheeled carry-on case in tow. Her phone rang and she struggled to fish it out of her coat pocket.
The phone screen read: GRACE.
Katie rolled her eyes and exhaled sharply as she pressed IGNORE and shoved the phone back into her pocket. Not watching where she was going, she collided with someone and was about to apologize when she looked up and saw Grace Brewer holding out her phone.
“Did you just ignore me?” Grace asked, face like a thunderstorm.
“What? No!” Katie lied. “What are you doing here?”
“Um, trying to speak with my supposed best friend who’s been avoiding me for the past week?”
“I wasn’t avoiding. Things are just hectic at the moment and I’m running late for a conference but if I get through screening like right this minute, I can just make my flight.”
“A week, Katie. Not one returned call or text in a week.”
“But it’s never just a week with you, is it, Grace?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means when your life begins a downward spiral, it’s months of consoling, months of advice, months of talking you down off all the ledges. Months that I don’t have right now.”
“Oh, didn’t realize my misery was such an inconvenience to you. Go on to your conference-thingie, then.”
“I am,” Katie said, as she made a beeline for the escalators.
Grace stood there in shocked disbelief, ready to let out a scream of rage that her best friend couldn’t even spare a few minutes of her time, when her phone rang. It was Katie.
“You’ve got some nerve,” Grace started.
Katie cut her off. “You’ve got a few minutes until I board the plane, so you’re on the clock, talk!”
“What? How can you just put me on the spot like that? It’s too much pressure.”
“Okay, then I’ll go,” Katie said. “Here’s the real reason we haven’t had this conversation yet: You’re. Not. Ready. You’re in the first stage of separation: denial.”
“I’m not in denial, in fact, I think I’m being very mature about things. Colin and I are talking, actually talking, for the first time in a long time.”
“I’m sure you think it’s a mistake, but I still love him. There’s a lot going on. We have history.”
“Germany has a history, too. Nazis, the SS, Panzers. You learn from history, you don’t repeat it.”
“I just need to know if we have a future. Odds are this will fail miserably and leave me more devastated than I already am, but I’ve got to try. Who wants to live the rest of their life wondering what if?”
Katie said, “That feeling of betrayal? That doesn’t go away. Trust? You can toss that out the window. And every time you two get into even the smallest argument, guess what gets tossed into the mix?”
“I hear what you’re saying, Katie, but I…”
“But nothing. You said the sex stopped months ago. He bought new clothes, started spending more time at work, that’s all the classic signs. Were you really surprised when he asked for his keys back? Doesn’t take Holmesian intuition to work out that he met someone else and it was over between the two of you.”
“But I asked him if he was cheating on me and he said no. Granted maybe nothing was going on between them while we were still together, but he was starting to develop feelings for her that he didn’t want to admit to.”
Off the escalator, Katie located the arrow pointing to her gate and headed in that direction. To Grace, she said, “Okay, here’s the part you’re not going to want to hear, the friendship breaker. Yes, Colin is a vile creature who’s sleeping with the office slut, but he’s not in the wrong here, you are.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s one name that hasn’t come up during all this.”
“Mark. Your husband.”
“That’s not fair. You know my marriage means nothing to me, obviously, or I wouldn’t have gotten involved with Colin. The only respect I have for Mark is that he’s Lucy’s father. He doesn’t deserve anything else from me. He lost that right before Colin ever came into the picture. Mark is my legal husband, Colin is the husband of my heart.”
“So, what do you hope to get out of all this, a reconciliation? Even if you pull a miracle out of your ass, are you going to leave Mark? Wait until Lucy’s old enough to understand? How many years until she’s off the college? Nine? You really think you can keep a guy like Colin on the side for that long?”
“What am I supposed to do? Financially and logistically, I can’t care for Lucy alone right now. And Mark would flip if I moved her in with Colin. Should she go without or live in a dangerous neighborhood because I’m not in love with her father anymore? There’s no family for me to turn to for help and support. I’m not looking for another father for her, she’s got one. I just wish that we could live under a separate roof. I need to be able to care for her by myself. This situation is unfair to everyone involved.”
“I’m not blaming you for doing right by Lucy, I’m just saying if you plan on winning Colin back, you need to start filling sandbags and shoring up your castle to protect the queen. And be prepared not to let him into your heart again until he proves himself over time. And if you do let him back in, be shrewd, be careful and keep your eyes open wide. Listen for the wrong answers. Remember, in his eyes, regardless of your shared relationship, he’s sleeping with a married woman. After a while you cheapen yourself by staying with him and he’ll value you less. And that’s unacceptable,” Katie said, and off Grace’s silence, added, “I’ve said too much, please be careful, I know what you’re going through and it’s hard to let something close to you go… probably the hardest thing anyone can do. “
“Cheapen myself? He can’t possibly see me that way, can he?”
Katie shrugged. “Don’t know what to tell you, Grace, you’re still kind of unavailable to him. Marriage has a way of doing that to the third party.”
“I just not willing to accept the fact that all the time we’ve spent together was for nothing.”
“There are no number of years together or history or whatever that’s worth your peace of mind,” Katie said, reaching a security checkpoint, She presented her ticket and boarding pass. “He’s violated that by sleeping with someone else and it’s something he can never repair. No matter how good he may be or become. You are the only one who can give yourself peace of mind. I highly recommend you wean yourself from him, as difficult as it may be. There’s more out there. Yes, he’s familiar, but take a good look at that word: fami-LIAR.”
“All I can say is this. I know with everything that I am that I was meant to be with Colin.” Grace said. “For how long, I can’t say, but I know we’re not done. This is not a desperate cry, this is a maturity that’s awakening in me. I won’t forgive him for what he’s done, but I have to work past it. It’s like gutting a house, sometimes the foundation is strong enough so that you just have to replace the innards and resurface the exterior. You combine the old and the new into something better.”
“Look, if Colin’s indiscretion is something you can live with fine, but for me, personally, I can’t deal with infidelity. If the person I’m with starts messing with someone else, it’s adiós muchacho.”
“Don’t you understand? This is about more than just him being attracted to someone else. It’s been a long time since I felt free, an eternity since I let someone really see all of who I am. You were there, Katie, you knew me when. Not to sound vain or anything but I’m beautiful. I’m a unique vision of creation, a work of art, who’s trying to get back in touch with the person I was, who I still am, not the golem that my life experiences are trying to carve me out to be.”
There was silence on the other end of the line and Grace thought the connection had dropped. Katie’s voice finally broke the silence, her tone a little softer. “I get that.”
“Well, you must be close to your gate by now, so don’t let me keep you. I really just needed to say the words out loud before they consumed me. Thanks for being a friend,” Grace said as she ended the call.
Dejected, Grace walked out of the terminal and stared at the long queue for the taxi stand. She resigned herself to her fate of waiting, when a hand hooked the crook of her arm, pulling her in the opposite direction.
It was Katie.
“What the hell are you doing?” Grace asked, confused.
“Being the friend I should have been in the first place.”
“But your flight—”
“I’ll catch the red eye. So, liquid or frozen?”
“Name your comfort poison, booze or ice cream.”
“Wow, you really do suck at making decisions.”
“I make decisions all the time,” Grace said, indignant.
“Yeah, the wrong ones.”
“This is being a friend? You know, it’s probably not too late to catch your plane.”
“Still got a little fight in you. Nice to know,” Katie smiled. “Now, where can we grab a froyo mojito?”
Normally, one touch was all it took for Aaron. Even an accidental finger brush on his arm sent electricity coursing through his body and activating hormones that effectively shut down his higher brain functions and picked the lock on the cage of his animal self. But that wasn’t the case with Sarah. Oh, she was beautiful, to be sure, just his type physically, but like the wrong puzzle pieces, they hadn’t connected in the right way, their passion, intensity, and the things that made sex intoxicating, a drug, an escape from reality, just wasn’t there. At least not for him.
All of Sarah’s switches had flicked on from the first time they met and their chemistry was incredible and she was well and truly smitten and on a ride down the road of true love. She was so head over heels that she experimented in sexual activities that she once found sinfully inappropriate and hadn’t minded one bit making the sacrifice.
In the midst of the questionable acts, Sarah let judgment, inhibition, and all the pretense she dressed herself in to conform to societal norms simply fall away. She melted into decadence and let her body express her true feelings in a way her words never could. Aaron made her beg for it at times when she was unable to articulate a response with anything other than throaty moans.
And when they were both spent, and the room was filled with nothing but twilight shadows and their combined scent, Sarah rested her chin on her husband’s chest, examining his face while running her fingers absently through his hair.
“You understand me,” Sarah said. “You see me like no one else in the world. As I truly am. Don’t you feel the same way?”
“Of course, I do,” Aaron locked in on her eyes, careful not to blink or give away the fact that he was lying.
“I think you should paint me, you know, the way you really see me. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
“Absolutely,” Aaron smiled half-heartedly, brushing a lock of hair from her face.
“Are you just saying that or do you really mean it? Because you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“It’s a great idea, darling.”
“I don’t want to force you.”
“I want to paint you. I should have done it years ago.”
“Really? I feel so close to you right now. Like I don’t know where I end and you begin,” Sarah smiled and leaned in for a kiss.
Aaron should have been concentrating on the kiss but he was aware of the sound of the rain outside, tapping a soft symphony on the window glass. He felt crushed beneath the pressure of her lips and the weight of her stare. The sheer density of her love caused him to sink into the mattress, straining the bedframe until it gave way and shattered, crashing him through the floorboards beneath, into the living room below and down still through the basement.
Sarah, of course, was blissfully unaware of this.
The next morning Aaron awoke to find Sarah gone, but she left a text message on his phone:
Remember, you promised, it read, followed by an emoji he couldn’t quite make heads or tails of without his glasses and an electron microscope.
She meant the painting, of course. The one Aaron never actually promised he would do of her but arguing that point would have revealed him to be the lying, heartless ogre that all men were genetically predisposed to become. So, he placed his current work aside and prepped a brand-new canvas for the masterpiece that would prove his so-called love.
He stretched the canvas, applied the gesso, and gathered all the photos he had of her, the ones in which he thought she looked most beautiful, and… his paintbrush hovered just above the canvas surface. For hours. Until the cramp in his arm forced him to step away.
That night he had a dream that he painted the most beautiful portrait of his wife. It was so wondrous that it brought tears of joy to the eyes of everyone who viewed it. And when he woke up, the memory of the painting was so vividly implanted in his mind that he was sure he could finally paint it.
But the brush hovered again. All day long.
Sarah asked how the portrait was coming along and in a rare moment of complete honesty, Aaron revealed his dream about the painting and his inability to replicate it in real life. Sarah interpreted the dream as his artistic genius pushing him to do his best work ever. She was convinced this was the beginning of a bold new step in his creative process.
A week later, after running a few errands, Aaron returned home and found Sarah sitting at the dinner table, her face tighter than a newly stretched canvas.
“What’s wrong?” Aaron asked.
“I just got off the phone with my mother,” Sarah said. “I’m going to stay with her for a while.”
“My God, did something happen to her? Is she all right?” The concern in Aaron’s voice was genuine. Sarah’s mother was the kindest and friendliest person he had ever met and it was clear that Sarah hadn’t fallen far from the tree.
“My mother’s fine,” said Sarah, but her distant eyes were focused on a point far past where Aaron stood.
“Then what’s the matter? And don’t give me that nothing nonsense. I can clearly see that something’s upset you.”
He hadn’t realized that Sarah’s hands were under the table until she lifted them and she was holding one of the preliminary sketches he had drawn for the portrait.
“This is what I look like to you?” Sarah asked.
Aaron let out a relieved chuckle. “Is that what’s bothering you? Honey—”
“It’s not funny!” Sarah crumpled the sketch into a ball and hurled it at him before storming out of the room. He stood there for a long moment, stunned, trying to puzzle out what was happening and the best he could figure was apparently, her vision of the painting far exceeded Aaron’s crude charcoal doodle.
He tried explaining that he was only working out shapes, angles, and compositions but his wife was in such a state of hysterics that he doubted there was anything he could have possibly said to get her to stop packing her travel bag.
As confused as he was at how something so small could have escalated so drastically, the moment Sarah slammed the front door behind her, Aaron felt lighter. The unending weight of her love was being lifted from his shoulders and now he finally had the freedom he desired since the beginning of their marriage. And he intended to enjoy his newfound weightlessness while it lasted because he knew she would return eventually. His wife loved him too much to stay away for long.
But he wasn’t exactly in the clear, either. Because he knew she would eventually return, he was still going to have to produce her portrait and it needed to be the best thing he had ever painted.
After his initial relaxation period, Aaron began losing a sense of time. Hours turned to days turned to weeks turned to months and even seasons, and in all that time, Sarah never once attempted to contact him. Then he began to realize that his weightlessness had transformed into emptiness and he began missing little things about his wife. Her gentle and never mean-spirited teasing about his odd habits. Her witty retorts to his sneaky jibes. The little noises of satisfaction she made while enjoying a meal, a program, or a good book. It was at that moment that he realized he actually loved her for more than just her money, her patronage, he had simply been a fool for looking at it from the wrong angle. And that was the impetus he needed to push through the barrier of artist’s block.
A year after the day that Sarah left her husband, she finally returned home, thanks mostly to her mother’s sage advice, but she wasn’t coming back without a fight. In the year she spent away, never once had he tried to contact her, send flowers or apology notes. Now it was her time to make him beg.
But when she opened the front door, she found the house in such a state of disarray that her anger turned into concern. Room after room she searched for Aaron until she finally found his dead body in his studio, surrounded by hundreds of canvases of varying size, littered across the room in various stages of completion. All abandoned. All rejected. All quite not right. His face was hollow, a pale mask of emptiness, and his painting hand was gnarled and twisted from a year of abuse.
The shift in my life began the day I discovered someone had broken into my car. The thief took nothing, but managed to leave behind a wallet containing the ID of a Miss Bunnie Baker, a name that unfolded long-forgotten childhood memories of better days filled with innocence, laughter and tears. This wallet belonged to my imaginary friend.
Well, perhaps imaginary wasn’t the best word to describe her, because she was real, only no one else could see her. We used to chat all the time about so many things and I loved conversing with her because she was so much smarter and worldlier than me, but when my parents grew concerned that I was talking to myself too much and considered psychiatric therapy, Bunnie and I began communicating telepathically, which was harder to master than one might have imagined.
But as I grew older—and Bunnie remained the same—our conversations became more casual and her visits decreased in frequency. She had supposedly found a crowd of people just like her—non-imaginary but unseeable—during the times we were apart and I had to admit that I was a bit relieved. She had a privileged air about her that I admired at first but eventually came to despise because she pranced around like the golden child and sought to one-up me at every possible turn. Then came the day of the big argument, the day she went away, and I forgot about her in the same way people tended to forget their dreams. She simply evaporated from my mind.
What prompted me to post the bizarre occurrence on my social media accounts was anyone’s guess, and I was well and truly roasted by my friends and followers, but then weird responses began appearing. It turned out that I wasn’t the only person who knew Bunnie.
A nonbinary librarian in Nowhere, Colorado, claimed to have been in a relationship with Bunnie but was forced to break things off after she lost her struggle with mental health and started becoming violent.
An industrial engineer in Nothing, Arizona, accused Bunnie of stalking him and harassing him with phone calls, text messages, and on social media insisting she was his wife and berating him for abandoning their children, which led him to file a restraining order against her.
And so on. Over a hundred posts of insane encounters that covered the span of nearly twenty years. But why had Bunnie broken into my car only to leave her wallet without a word of explanation? I kept turning it over in my mind and the longer I attempted to unravel the mystery, the more memories I unlocked, such as the only tv show that Bunnie enjoyed watching with me, the one about this little animated frog who had to solve puzzles in order to have friends to play with.
I did a quick search on YouTube and found an episode of Phroggie Phriends, which was laughably bad and it was clear why the show hadn’t had the staying power or reboot potential of its more successful competitors. And that was when I felt a tiny tingling sensation at the nape of my neck, followed by a soft female voice.
“Did we actually like this show?” the voice asked.
I turned in my seat and was surprised to see Miss Bunnie Baker in the flesh, fully grown now but still recognizable as the little girl I once knew. If her features revealed anything to me, it was that time had not been kind.
“No, we loved this show,” I answered.
Bunnie pulled up a chair beside me and we sat in my kitchen and watched the episode all the way through, laughing more at ourselves for having devoted so much time and attention to Phroggie, than at the childish humor the show served up.
I closed my laptop and we sat there in an awkward moment of silence, which I eventually broke by saying, “So, you broke into my car.”
“I didn’t break anything. I opened your car door,” Bunnie corrected.
“And how did you manage that?”
“It’s been a while since we last saw each other. I picked up a few skills along the way.”
“And you couldn’t have just come to me directly?”
“We didn’t exactly end on the best of terms,” Bunnie said, staring at her feet. “I was scared. I didn’t know if you wanted to see me again.”
“Can I be completely honest with you? I had forgotten all about you until I saw your ID. Nice photo, by the way.”
“Thanks. And I get it. Folks like me are typically the out of sight, out of mind sort.”
It was my turn to stare at my feet. “I posted about you online. I don’t know if that breaks some kind of cardinal law—”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Well, some people, a lot, actually, responded with some pretty disturbing stuff.”
“Pay them no mind,” Bunnie said.
“I mean, really disturbing stuff.”
Bunnie shrugged. “Chalk it up to growing pains. It was hard surviving without you.”
“Oh, so this is my fault?”
“Sort of, yeah.”
“How do you figure?” I asked.
“You mean, you haven’t worked it all out?”
“Worked what out?”
“I have absolutely no clue what you’re on about.”
“How did we first meet?”
I drew a blank. “I don’t know, you were just there.”
“Yeah, after you dreamt me.”
“After I what?” And as soon as I asked, it all came flooding back to me.
The dream I had with Phroggie, trying to help him solve a puzzle and unlock the door to a bakery so that a cute little bunny rabbit could come out to play. And in that weird dream logic the rabbit was a bunny one moment and a little girl the next, with absolutely no explanation. And when I woke up, the dream faded away but the little girl I named Bunnie Baker remained.
“You created me,” Bunnie said. “You’re my mother.”
“No, that’s not—”
“Possible? You’re an adult talking to something you pulled out of your dreams as a little girl. I think we’re miles past questioning possibilities, here, don’t you?”
“But other people can see you, how?” I asked.
“I don’t know the rules,” Bunnie admitted. “All I know is when I left you, I was determined to show you that I didn’t need you, so I tried becoming someone else’s pretend friend. And it was working until I noticed I was starting to grow older and children became afraid of me, so then I started seeking out lonely people who lived in seclusion and invented perfect partners for themselves, but no one ever taught me how to love properly, so those relationships always fell apart.”
“So, it was my job to teach you how to be what? A person?”
“Yup. That responsibility is all on you, none on me.”
“Then you’ve been shafted, kiddo,” I said. “Look around. I’m nearly thirty years old—”
“And I’m alone. How am I supposed to teach you about love and maintaining solid relationships?”
“I don’t know. You just do it.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you weren’t meant to run off like that. What were we fighting about, anyway.”
“That’s funny because I can’t remember either. But my point is maybe that’s why you were created, so we could be together.”
“You’re my Mom, that’s creepy.”
“Not in that way, silly. I meant maybe we were meant to be companions. You know, do things and go places together.”
Bunnie took my hand into hers. “That wouldn’t be fair to either of us. You deserve to be with real people, building real relationships, and I need—”
“What do you need?” I asked.
“I need to go back to where I belong,” Bunnie said. “Which is the real reason I’m here.”
“Okay, see my expression? This is me not understanding,” I said.
“I need you to undream me.”
“That is so not a thing.”
“It is and I can show you how to do it.”
“And you know this how?”
“I told you, I picked up a few tricks along the way. Unseen people have access to more knowledge than you think and we’re pretty good at disseminating it.”
“Then why didn’t you just undream yourself?”
“Because it can only be done by the creator. That’s you, Mom.”
The conversation then turned to a long-forgotten lucid dreaming technique that was popular during the times when magic was at its apex, allowing a dreamer to pull apart disturbing aspects of dreams, which was typically used to dissolve and control nightmare states.
She began to instruct me in the ways of the undreaming and it was a steep learning curve but, in that time, Bunnie and I were able to reconnect and share our stories with one another and rebuild our once fractured relationship and when my training was complete, I swore to Bunnie that I would never forget her again. She smiled, but I knew she didn’t believe me.
We enjoyed our version of a last supper—tomato soup and salted peanut butter and bacon grilled cheese sandwiches—before I slipped on my pajamas and climbed into bed. Bunnie sat beside me and lulled me to sleep with the lullaby my mother used to sing, all the while dropping suggestions to “Dream of me.”
And I had. When I entered the dreamworld, we were once again with Phroggie but we let him go about his merry way to find more suitable playmates, while we remained in a field of rainbow flowers and took our sweet time saying our goodbyes. And when everything had been said and done, I kissed my dream daughter’s cheek before she transformed back into a bunny rabbit and I began picking at a loose thread of her reality and pulled the string, unraveling her until she was no more. I woke up with tears in my eyes and a profound sense of loss and my apartment seemed somehow emptier and I hadn’t the faintest idea why.
Ruthie woke with a long exhale, her brain still fuzzy with the nonsensical and evaporating vestiges of a dream. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, her vision slowly coming into focus, she was surprised to find Stuckman seated in the chair beside her bed, watching her with amusement.
“What are you doing in here?” Ruthie asked. “You get your kicks creeping on me while I’m asleep? Like your women young and defenseless, do you?”
“Good morning, Ruthie,” the older man said. “How did you sleep?”
“I don’t remember waking up in the middle of the night, so I guess I slept all right.”
Stuckman raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember, then?”
“Yelling at me?”
“Did you deserve it?”
“You mean, did I try to touch you? No.”
“So, what did I say?” asked Ruthie
“A lot of things.”
“You talked about her,” Stuckman said, the disdain in his voice evident.
“She has a name, you know.”
“Why do I need to say it? You know who I’m talking about.”
“Say her name,” Ruthie insisted.
“Why is that important to you?”
“You don’t think she deserves to be called by name?”
Stuckman sighed. “Aisha. Satisfied?”
“Never,” Ruthie said. “So, what did I say?”
“You blamed me for what happened to her–Aisha.”
“So, do you?” Stuckman asked.
“Do I what?”
“Blame me for Aisha?”
“Would it bother you if I did?”
“You still love her, don’t you?”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“You still have feelings for her.”
“And if I do?” Ruthie’s tone was more defensive than she intended.
“That poor girl had no clue that you’d wind up causing her nothing but trouble in the long run.”
Ruthie let out an ironic chuckle. “I’m the best at what I do.”
“If you really loved her, you should have cut her loose.”
“I don’t have feelings for her, so you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? You think I can’t read your body language? Your expressions?”
“I think you see what you want to see.”
“So, you’re telling me that you don’t hold me responsible for making you the monster you are today?”
“You think I’m a monster?”
“No. You think you’re a monster. You said as much last night.”
“I’m my father’s daughter,” Ruthie shrugged. “I make no excuses for that.”
Stuckman shook his head, rose from the chair and walked out of the bedroom.
“If you can’t stand the heat,” Ruthie yelled after him.
When Stuckman was clear of the room, the door to the walk-in closet on the opposite side of the bed slid open to reveal a twenty-year-old girl, as translucent as gossamer, hanging like a bat by her ankles from the clothing bar.
“Why do you do that?” the young woman asked.
“Morning. Why do you taunt him?”
“Because he needs to pay.” Ruthie said. “But he never will.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Aisha said, gesturing at her ghostly form. “Take it from one who knows.”
“But they don’t happen to men like him.”
“I think you’re being too hard on him.”
“Hard on him?”
“Yes. He’s going through a tough time.”
“How is this about him?”
“Because he’s the one that will have to live with your decision,” Aisha said.
“Let’s get one thing straight: this right here is my life, not his.”
“But you’re living under his roof.”
“I realize that and I make certain concessions.” Ruthie admitted. “I pitch in to help with the cooking and cleaning and chip in for the rent and bills. I even respect his ridiculous curfew and keep my friends far away from his house—”
“Still, he is within his rights.”
“But not when it comes to this body, this mind, this life. They’re mine and that’s where I draw the line.”
“He brought you back to life, Ruthie,” Aisha said. “What you’re planning to do is wrong.”
“Why? If I decide one day that I no longer want to live, that decision is mine to make and mine alone. I’m no one’s property to be ordered about. Who can demand that I continue to live? Who can remove my right to control my own destiny? And what type of life do I have without choice? Don’t I have the right to choose whether or not I want to continue to suffer?”
“I just want what’s best for you, babe. I always have.”
“Then what’s wrong with me ending my life?”
“Because you plan to do it in his house. Because your motive isn’t to end your pain, it’s to add to his.”
“Get out,” Ruthie said.
Even though Aisha had no weight or body mass, she went through the motion of unhooking herself from the clothing bar and stretching before heading for the door.
“Sorry for dumping on you,” Ruthie said before her friend reached the door.
“As smart as you are, you just don’t get it, do you?”
“You’re looking at the only person in the world who loves you unconditionally,” Aisha said. “You can trouble me with anything that bothers you. My shoulders are broad and strong enough to help you carry every burden you choose to heap on yourself.”
“Then why do you mind if I kill myself?”
“Because that would mean that I sacrificed myself for nothing,” Aisha floated over to the bed instead of pretending to walk. “You’re quick to talk about it being your life, but we both know it’s a lie. That’s my life force powering your body and I didn’t mind giving it to you, because I love you, but when you talk about killing yourself, does it ever register to you what a slap in the face that is to me?”
Ruthie’s eyes widened. “Oh my god, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”
“Of course not. All you ever think about is yourself.”
“That’s not true, I care about you.”
“Oh, really? Prove it.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Stuckman’s in the kitchen making breakfast. Go and make things right between the two of you.”
“You can just fuck yourself,” spat Ruthie.
Aisha giggled and shrugged. “Can’t blame a gal for trying. I almost had you there, admit it.”
“Again: Fuck. Your. Self,” Ruthie flung a pillow that passed harmlessly through her friend.