“The Voice of Hatred” by N.J. Linnehan, Winner of the 2018 Fall Fiction Contest

I sit within my sound-proof cubicle inside the Tai-lonian Social Services Department.  The light of my glass-top computer pulsates, the notifications for my messages never ceasing.  I swipe the user-interface, and the monitor goes black.  I turn to a single piece of decoration on an adjacent wall.  The details of the aged landscape painting have long since been etched into my subconsciousness.  The artist of this pre-Collapse piece is awful, so I’m told by the experts who prefer the realism of today’s holographic depictions.  My late parents had hopes that it would be an investment towards a Master’s certificate.  Real Union Credits don’t depreciate so harshly.  My stomach churns over this valueless reminder of a pitiful excuse for a legacy.  I will be tasked with assisting these dirty creatures until I’ve aged too far to use my earnings toward a better education.  I close my eyes and contemplate the cushiness of my station, grateful that I’m not a door-to-door representative entering the hovels of these animals.  I look to the clock and exhale.  Another day of dealing with the never-ending line of degenerates.  As expected, there’s a firm knock on my office door.  I breathe this morning’s last solitary breath before calling out, “Come in.”

The door slides open with a gentle hiss.  Into the space steps Santrodel.  Like me, he dresses in the professional manner of solid black slacks and a tie over a white button-down shirt.  The only difference is the quality of his exquisite, tailored clothing.  He’s twelve years my junior, with enthusiasm and an expectation for certain future success.  I’m his superior, but I’m not the one he needs to impress.  He stands there with a hearty smile.  “Good morning, sir.  I have your first appointment with me.  Shall I send him in?”

His bubbly personality gets under my skin.  This station is just a stepping-stone for him, as his family’s lineage has been well-educated for decades.  He knows that this is my station for life, and I see it on his smug face as he tortures me every day with the sincerity of his niceties.  I beckon to him with my hand, which he acknowledges with small head-bow.  “Very good, sir.  Can I get you some coffee?”

He calls me sir for now, but that will certainly change with time.  I point out a black, ceramic mug to my right.  A continuous wisp of steam rises from it.

“Right.  I’ll send him in now.”  He steps out before I hear him on the other side.  “Kel Swoon?  You may go in.”

Santrodel whispers a confident “good luck” to the thing as it steps in.  The being stops above the threshold and stands there like an obedient child awaiting instruction.  He’s smaller than average five-foot Tai-rat, but he’s well into his prime.  His disgusting, ashen-grey skin reminds me of those elephants portrayed in the city museum.  They’ve been deemed humanoid, although their anatomy resembles nothing of humanity.  He wears the appropriate interview attire that is properly cleaned but probably stolen.  My father always insisted that you can’t trust these rats, especially one in a suit. They’ll do anything to get ahead.   I pass the time by making a game out of guessing their problems.  I’m betting foundry worker, so yet another uneducated upstart intent on finding an easy way up.  It’s because of degenerates like this that my parents suffered premature deaths in the foundries.  My ancestors spent a century and a half rebuilding this world from the rubble.  The Tai-rats arrived on our Earth ninety years ago on that craft of amalgamated garbage, and yet they expect the benefits of a deserving human.  I motion to the plastic and metal chair opposite my desk.  The infernal thing squeaks with every movement.  “Please sit,” I say as I have many times.

The Tai-lonian sits himself into the squeaking chair.  As he does, I shudder at the thick, tentacle-like appendage that protrudes from the back of his head.   The thin end of it flitters around tastelessly.

“Thank you, sir.”  His dictation is clear, unlike the mumbling garble I’m usually subjected to.  His posture is straight, which is a good attempt at least.

I tilt my computer to hide it from his view before grazing a finger across the surface.  I make my way to the documents folder at a lethargic pace.  An incessant squeaking persists as I feel his leg bounce against the desk.  “Please stop.”

The whining ceases.  “I apologize, sir.”

I access my daily schedule before finding to find the client file.  A twitch develops in my cheek when I see that my guess is wrong.  He’s a secretary for someone in the Lower Business Sector and lives close to my own apartment.  These creatures fill the streets of my city and take more human jobs by the day.  I calm myself before starting with a good time-waster.  “No history of crime and a respectable education percentile.  Are you a third generation Earth-born, Swoon?”  Questions like these are of no consequence, but they’re everything to them.

“Fourth, sir, proudly.”

I stretch a smile.  “Certainly what we like to hear.  Pride is very important.”

His eyes widen.  “Yes!  Of course, sir!  I come from a long line of–”

“Excellent.  Please give me one moment.”  I squint at the file’s particulars with a feigned interest.  “So, I understand that you’re seeking an administrative station within World Union.  Our splendid government is always eager to employ qualified individuals.  So, tell me.  What makes you a qualified potential?”  They’re convincing sometimes, and on occasion I’ll listen, but mostly I take this time to just nod and agree.  His voice fades as I think about the beach. The warm sun casts so many sparkling reflections off the rippling Atlantic.  He stops speaking, and I bob my head.  “I see that you’ve done a lot for your society.  You’ve shown a lot of potential in your studies and have stayed away from illegal elements.  World Union is always searching for upstanding individuals like yourself to fill positions, especially in the Tower.”

He opens his mouth to speak, but I leave no time for an interjection.  I cover him with my gaze.  He’s already sweating.

“Unfortunately, you haven’t developed enough yet to procure an administrative station under World Union.  That being said, I can assure you that you’re proceeding in the correct direction, and at your current trajectory you will be a very competitive candidate within a couple of years.”

The pain on his face remains obvious despite his attempts to suppress it.  “Thank you, sir.  I am sorry that I have not yet fulfilled the requirements.”  He offers what would be a prolonged and pitiful bow had I not raised a hand to stop it.

“There’s certainly no need to apologize.  Keep striving to better yourself, and great opportunities will be available to you and your family,” I say.  There haven’t been opportunities in months.  Those with the positions that he wants aren’t keen on giving them up, besides the fact that I would never allow a non-human to surpass me.

He bows before straightening himself.  “I will, sir.  I intend to perform to the best of my abilities as a citizen.  I desire only to make World Union proud of me.”

He speaks Basic well.  He must be the adopted understudy of another one of the many generous human soft-hearts, but perhaps not a respectable one as there are no references in his file.  “Well, Swoon, we must never forget that society can function only when all citizens perform their part for the community, and not just themselves.  As our nation’s creed states, we must not forget our brothers and sisters who share the equal burden.”  I love to see them crack.

“Of course, sir!  It is selfish of me to procure status for my own benefit!  I strive to better myself in order to aid in the elevation of those around me!  Together we make society better, stronger, sir!”

He’s certainly the understudy of a human and a smart one to boot.  But it won’t change my decision.  I glance at the clock.  Any further and I’m sure to be written up again.  I’ll let him off easy.  “It’s truly fantastic that you feel that way.  Citizens such as yourselves are the foundation of our great society.  Your enthusiasm is quite commendable, and your level of dedication should be a paradigm of reference.”

His face lights up like the sky on Unification Day before he rambles out another sentence.  “Thank you, sir!  I do not deserve such praise, sir!”

His modesty is just another tactic.  I raise my hand to settle him down.  “Okay, okay.  I understand your passion, and it will certainly not go unnoticed.  I’m going to make note of all of your positive progress in your file,” I assure him.

It seems a sure thing that his face will tear from the intensity of his smile.  He struggles to remain still as the chair emanates an irregular array of squeaks.  “Of course, sir!  Thank you, sir!”

I fiddle about the main screen before I access my messages folder and reply to a coworker’s client transfer request.  I tell him I’m not currently capable of taking on another client, as my daily schedule is already at capacity.  I eye the clock, then the Tai-lonian with a great, accepting smile.  “That should about do it.  I’m terribly sorry that you’re not able to procure a position with World Union today, but please keep improving yourself and feel free to apply again.  You’re guaranteed to be selected when the time is right.”

The Tai-lonian stands, barely exceeding my height despite my sedentary position.  He delivers one last bow with excessive showmanship.  “I deeply respect the time that you have provided me, sir.”

I relay to him a warm smile, staring back into the black chasm of his unnatural iris’.  He exits the room and I’m given no time before the next client drifts in like an apparition.  My heart jumps at the skin-and-bones Tai-lonian who stares blankly at me from across the desk.  A female, distinguishable by the way she hangs her Tai-be tentacle over her shoulder like the tail of a dirty scarf.  Her blemished skin matches her torn and soiled harlequin clothing.  I already know the story; another tunnel-rat.  “Please sit,”

She hesitates before slinking herself into the chair with near-weightlessness.  It still squeaks.  “Thank you, sir.”  Her voice is soft, which could be frustrating.

I locate her file.  8:45, Landa-Len Wen.  A merged family name is a sure sign of a deteriorating line.  It appears as though she’ll pass out at any moment.  I received this client as a transfer from one of my coworkers, and her file contains detailed information regarding her living situation in the pre-Collapse network of tunnels beneath the city that they have subsequently coined, “The Under”.  “Good morning, Wen.  How can I assist you today?”

Her face contorts as she attempts to form her next string of words.  “Y-you should have, sir.  My need,” she mutters, trembling in the presence of my limited, governmental power.

I turn to the file and bounce my eyes around the document in no particular direction.  “I don’t seem to have it.  Who was your representative before?”  I stare at her.

Her eyes dart around the room in search of the answer as her breathing intensifies.  “I-I don’t know, sir.  They say I have new one.”  She shakes despite the room’s warmth.

“Well, it could have been Ito.  He became careless with his work and had to be let go.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had purposefully lost a lot of his records in his disgruntled exit.  I apologize, but I have to ask you to re-state the purpose for your visit so that we can restart the process.”

She stares back at me with eyes as wide as ceramic saucers.  “But I–”

“I’m afraid I can’t extend the duration of our meeting, as you’ve selected a follow-up appointment.  I’ll need you to tell me as much about your situation as possible so that I can fill out your file for your next visit.

She emits fractions of letters before forming a cohesive thought.  “I live…  Under.  They tell me move, but I live there my life!”

“I’m sorry about that, but I need you to not raise your voice, please.” I say, wincing at her horrid grammar.

She breathes a shuddering exhale.  “I sorry, sir.  I-I don’t know what do.  They kick me out, but I not on way, and I have nowhere go.”

I lean back in my chair to examine the ceiling before turning back to her.  “Have you taken your case up with the zoning department?”

Her eyes well up into a glossy sheen.  She struggles to articulate her thoughts now.  “They tell me come here.  I come many time.  My last tells me he close, that I don’t need move.”

That damn chair continues to squeak.  I’ll scare her out of her shivering.  “For Union’s sake!”

She flinches before stiffening.

“I can’t apologize enough for the disaster that you’ve been subjected to.  Wen, I will make certain that you don’t have to move.”

She shows a weak smile.  “You true nice, true nice.”  She emotes several small bows in my direction.

I raise a declarative hand.  “Please.  There’s no need for such praise.  I’m merely acting within the means of my station.”  At this point, I’m just glad that she hasn’t tried to bribe me with a sexual proposition as some of the more abhorrent females do.  My skin crawls at the thought.

She shakes her head.  “No, you true good, true honor.”

I leak a dual-edged smile.  “I do appreciate that.  Please give me a moment to reverse this bureaucratic wreck.”

She nods as she dries a tear from her greasy face.

I glide my finger across the computer’s interface to press the file-delete button.  “Alright, let’s get this paperwork started!”  I barely manage to fill out the standard information before 9:00 rolls around.  I send the thing away, and my next appointment stands before me within seconds.  Another story, another problem.  Sometimes it’s all just too much.

My lunch hour is during the most beautiful time of the day.  For five years I’ve made a pleasant habit out of strolling down to the boardwalk.  Outstretched before me is a network of smooth concrete sidewalks connecting all paths in the city.  I pass many administrative workers like myself, but in the five years that I’ve taken this path, I’ve certainly noticed the increasing Tai-lonian infection that walks about freely.  The air is cleaner by the ocean, and smiling faces radiate all around the beach’s shifting sand.  Their joyous laughter calms me until I lay eyes on a family of Tai-lonians.  I latch onto a red painted railing and close my eyes as I breathe in deep the crisp air.  Although only for a short time, it feels good to be free of that office.  My daily visit re-energizes me, and I’m ready for the rest of my day.

The rusted orange sun begins its descent behind the horizon every evening in the Autumn.  The walk home is long, but my forehead soaked with September sweat is kissed by a refreshing, gentle breeze.  I would find the walk more enjoyable if it were not for my aging back which entices me to expedite my speed.

It’s not long before I’m at the cracked-pavement courtyard of my apartment building; another bland concrete and glass structure packed with miniscule apartments unlike the elaborate structures with granite decorations around the tower.  I ascend the stairs as I brush past groups of chattering human and Tai-lonian manufacturing laborers.  Their bellowing laughter fills the breezeway between units.  As I approach the third landing, I press myself against the wall to avoid an especially greasy Tai-rat.  The spiraling staircase of chipped ceramic stones is a simple ascent, and I’m soon within the comfort of my small, organized apartment.  Many of my coworkers reside in the business sector, and they pay a third more of what I do for nicer accommodations.  I don’t blame them for their lack of frugality, but after my generation is gone, then it will be apparent whose legacy is lacking.  My living arrangements serve all of my necessities, and at a price that modestly fits into my plan.

It’s here where I spend my evenings, obsessing over the future of my legacy as I gaze at the sun’s last minutes of light, determined to push my unborn child to new heights.  A giddiness rises in me when I imagine the far-off possibility of my child performing amazing feats of heroism in the Fourth World as a contractor, the highest echelon of World Union’s militant strength.  I intend to willingly forgo my own life’s passions to pour the fruits of my life’s labor into my legacy in the hopes that they will be more integral to society than their ancestors.  Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a woman of a respectable station who shares my particular views with which to help start that legacy.

Relative normalcy has continued for months, but an exception occurred this morning after I examined my messages folder.  The details of one outlines that a big push is to be made in regards to the increasing Tai-lonian plague under Sector West-5, a recently cleared section of Union City outskirts.  With the land cleared of ancient scraps, the next step is to re-locate the Tai-lonian presence in the Under.  The Tai-lonian Social Services Department is to initiate World Union’s plan to move them several hundred kilometers away to a work colony.  My initial reaction to this news was ecstatic glee, as I’ve always dreamed that they would be sent away to clean the Fourth World.  But when I heard the same stories circulate about how extraordinarily beautiful the colonies were, it made me contemplate incessantly on why World Union would go to such lengths to care for degenerate, non-humans.  I refused to believe it until I learned that many humans would also be moving there for work.  Regardless, I’m over-joyed that a large majority of them and their soft-heart human companions will be leaving this city for good.  I’ve been tasked with serving the Under residents of Sector West-5 with eviction notices, escorted by a handful of city defense officers to act as a precautionary force.  Although I normally regard days like these to be a fantastic break from the normal routine, traveling to the Under is something I’ve never desired to do, but this is a big opportunity for me to personally rid them from my city.

We’re instructed to take a shuttle from the office, so I wait outside the Tai-lonian Social Services Department with my briefcase alongside my coworkers who exchange small-talk.  A familiar, young voice comes from behind.

“Such a virtuous thing we’re about to do!  Are you excited, sir?”  Santrodel swoops around to stand before me.  He stares with a jovial smile.

I do all I can not to roll my eyes directly at him.  “I’ll be glad to see them off.”

“Haha!” he exclaims, giving me a heavy thump on the back.  “I think we all will, sir!  I’ve considered moving to the new outpost as well!”

I can’t help but scoff.  “Such a shame.”

Before another word slides from his mouth, I’m saved by two Union City defense cruisers that come to a gentle stop before us.  The early morning sun shimmers against the pearlescent black automobiles.

“Glamourous!” Santrodel shouts as he rushes to enter the first automobile.  The rest board without hesitation.  I enter the car that Santrodel is not in, and the automobile makes its way forward.  Affording an automobile is a luxury that I could never hope to obtain in my lifetime.  This one is nice, and my fists tighten from the jealousy of not having a higher-level degree.  I shake the thought by observing the passing scenery.  It’s still early, but the streets are filled with citizens.  Our path takes us through the Center, but only close enough to get a peek at Union Tower.  The people of Sector Center, and subsequently the Tower residents, are the highest educated, the most skilled, and the most influential.  Many here walk without a day’s purpose, instead acting on a whim of impulse, dressing not for functionality, but for leisure.

A few miles through and our path takes us passed the heart of Union City and into a dirty place populated by workers of manufacturing.  The buildings here are short but numerous and vast in length, all of which emanate a wide spectrum of mechanical noises.  This entire sector is a remnant from The Reconstruction, but it’s still highly operational.  It’s a place littered with many Tai-lonians and humans alike below my station who walk their path to work in sad masses.  I can’t imagine it, every day they don their greasy coveralls and congregate in sweltering factories to produce our necessities.  If there’s one thing that I can thank my parents for, it’s working just hard enough to pay for my Associate’s certificate.

We pass the city’s defensive net, which is an array of armed guard towers that span the flat and arid outskirts.  Plumes of smoke in the distance emanate from smoldering mounds of gathered pre-Collapse detritus.  The automobile comes to a sudden stop amidst an area with no distinguishable landmarks.  The officer instructs us to disembark, which we sheepishly do.  Five of us step out onto the dry earth.  A dry breeze carries hot dust which assaults our attire.  A thought of agitation is shared amongst my coworkers as we brush away the staining dust.  The distant horizon is crisscrossed with paths for utility vehicles that extend for kilometers in multiple directions.  At a young age, we were told that The Collapse was caused by a worldwide struggle for Earth’s resources, but that it was ultimately due to the inevitable consequence of nuclear proliferation in an era of ceaseless intolerance.  There’s no place on this planet that was not touched by the damage caused by our racist ancestors.  The chills are shaken from my body as one of my coworkers speaks out.

“Hey!  Where are they going?”

Both cruisers accelerate back towards the city.  My composure remains frozen despite my rising heart-rate.

“For Union’s sake!  Are they leaving us here?” squeaks another.

Before a panic can set in, a figure emerges from the dust a short distance away.  The group quiets as we turn to it.  The figure is hazy, but it clearly beckons to us.  We come upon the figure to find it disappear into meter-wide hole in the ground with a set of crumbling stairs descending into darkness.  My coworkers worry amongst each other.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“They’re coming back, right?”

“Why aren’t they escorting us?”

They squawk like chickens as a dim light shines from the depths.  Their jabbering fades as we stare down the pit.  I’m hesitant but eager to complete this assignment.  I force my feet forward to be the first to make the frightful descent.  A string of work lights hangs from the ceiling, which illuminates infrequent patches of darkness.  I’m several meters down before I hear the hurried thumping of heels behind me.  The harsh wasteland air is replaced by the stench of a damp rot as the passageway narrows with every step.  A network of rusted rebar covered by centuries of a thick, green moss lines the cracked walls on both sides.  I’m cautious as I lead the way, mindful of my steps across sunken-in concrete.  My coworkers resume their irritating banter.

“How much further?”

“Something just dripped on me!”

“My clothes!  Why are we here?”

I share similar sentiments, but only the completion of this assignment will allow us to leave this horrid place.  We near the passage’s end; a fissure in a wall just wide enough for an individual to slip through.  A bright light shines from the other side.  My button-down shirt snags on a bit of mangled rebar and tears as I step through.  My heart lightens at the sight.  A more elaborate string of lights adorns a massive tunnel structure that stretches far out of sight in opposite directions.  Fastened to the soiled, curved walls is an array of ancient wires and tubes which hang disconnected from each other in many places.  At my feet, two parallel beams of rusted steel run the tunnel’s length, and a cold draft brings with it a low whining howl.  A collective of awes and gasps reverberate throughout as my coworkers file in behind me.

“For the Union!  We should have gotten them out years ago!”

“I never imagined it was like this… The colonies will be a much safer place for them!”

“Those poor creatures!  How could they live like this?”

An outstretched shadow covers us as we gaze.  The figure’s boorish voice calls out to us.  “This way.”  He disappears through a side corridor when we approach.  My coworkers continue to complain.

“Why are they treating us like this?!”

“This is NOT a proper escort!”

“I’m filing a complaint when we get back!  This is ridiculous!”

We shuffle around the corner and move through a tight passageway before entering a small room littered with primeval garbage.  I stop dumbfounded in my tracks as my coworkers enter in behind me.  They breathe audible sighs of relief.

“I told you there was nothing to be afraid of!”

“Thank the Union!”

“Look who we have to protect us!  There’s no way anything can happen!”

A group of four men and one woman, all of great stature, stand conversing in a huddle at the dilapidated room’s center.  They’re not Union City defense officers as promised in the memorandum, but contractors, and I’ve never heard of a contractor performing duties within the city’s perimeter.  The obligations of a contractor always take them thousands of kilometers into Fourth World wasteland.  Without ceasing their whispering conversation, one of them turns to us and motions a signal to wait.  They wear form-fitting combat fatigues laden with slits and pockets, and they cradle assault rifles in their arms.  As my coworkers continue with a happy chattering amongst themselves, my intuition beckons me closer to the contractors.  I offer a generous bow.  “Excuse me, honored gentlemen and lady.”

They cease their muffled conference and turn to me with an unwarranted display of disgust.  The woman leans out.   “Is there something you require?”

Her impatient tone turns my face hot.  “I-I don’t mean to interfere, but we were expecting a city defense patrol.  As much as I appreciate your honorable service to our fine city, I feel as though your presence here may be…excessive.  We’re just distributing eviction notices, ma’am.”

She glares back with beady brown eyes.  “Hey guy, why don’t you stay in line with your own station!”

I recoil under her vocal power. “Yes, ma’am, I deeply apologize.  I was just concerned.”

One of her male counterparts speaks up, “You should be concerned with your assignment and not ours!” he barks.

“Of course, sir.  I apologize, sir.”

I shrink back into my group whose hatred of my insubordination I feel like a scorching heat.  They whisper loud enough for me to hear their insults.

Santrodel leans in.  “What would possess you to say such things, sir?”

I shake my head, unable to give him an answer.  Before this situation becomes too much to bear, the woman steps out of the huddle as her male companions fall in behind her.  “Listen up!  We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.  We’re going to make this quick and painless.  Our duty is to clear this place by week’s end.  It’s your job to distribute the eviction material, it’s our job to make sure everything stays copesetic.  Affirmative?”

We nod.

“I can’t hear you!”

We speak up in collective agreement.  “Yes, ma’am!”

A hideous smirk curls out from the woman’s mouth.  “That’s what I like to hear!  At this point, we’re going to split up and canvas this entire pit.  Each Rep gets protection.”  She points a stiff finger in our direction, distributing us individually amongst her squad mates.  She looks to me with a pensive stare.  “Masafid, you get the curious one.  Make sure he does his job.”

The largest of the squad steps forward to glare at me with contempt.  “Yes, ma’am.  Let’s go, desk-boy.”

He turns down a connecting passageway.  I follow close behind as the temporary string of lights dims away behind us.  He activates a bright light on his vest which casts all surroundings in a ghastly radiance.  My mind continues to race with questions, but I dare not speak up to this gargantuan.  The contractor stops to analyze a heads-up-display map which emanates as a holographic light from his wrist.   As he does so, I’m drawn to a large plaque which hangs above.  I pull a handkerchief from my pocket to wipe away centuries of dust.  Though faded, I’m able to make out a network of intercrossing colored lines over an indistinguishable map.  In large letters it reads MBTA across the top.

“You a historian now?  Do you require assistance carrying your degree along with your case of brushes?”

A chill crawls down my neck as I cast my eyes to the grimy floor.  “I apologize, sir.  Please continue.”

He rolls his eyes before turning down another corridor.  We spend several minutes weaving through this decrepit place before coming to a sealed entryway that blocks our path. He reaches into one of his vest pockets and removes a couple of spherical devices before pressing himself against the rusted entryway.  “Stay right here.  Don’t move from that spot,” he commands with a stiff finger.

I nod, and he breathes a great exhale before throwing his weight onto the door.  The act produces a horrendous screech from the grinding metal.  He throws the devices into the room before storming in. Two great flashes of radiating light fill the room beyond, followed by a collective of screaming.

His voice booms.  “Stay right there, rats!  Sit down, NOW.”

I drop my briefcase at the deafening reverberation of sporadic gunfire.  A high-pitched wailing pierces the air before being cut short by a muffled impact.

“Get in here, desk-boy!”

I rush to collect my briefcase.

“NOW.” he howls.

Overwhelming fear forces my feet forward.  I jump through the concrete and metal passageway.  The contractor stands over a dozen huddling Tai-lonians who wear tattered rags which barely cover their dirty, grey skin.  A female nurses a fresh bruise on her cheek with her palm.  The two thrown balls that sit at the end of the room illuminate the many phantom figures. Their shallow faces turn to me with frightened confusion as they squirm on bent knees.

“Quit gawking and distribute the material!”

I fumble with my briefcase before it bursts open, scattering my papers amongst the grime.  I feel the contractor’s condescending stare.

“You can’t be serious. Get it together, desk-boy!”

I scramble to collect the papers, gathering them into a hastily unorganized stack in my arms.  “I apologize, sir.  I’ve just never–”

“I don’t care!  Distribute the material so that I can get out this wretched place!”

I approach the shivering Tai-lonians and pass out single sheets of paper to the group.  Those in my immediate view scan the page aimlessly before those in the back step forward to assist them, pointing at it and speaking in their native tongue.  With my task complete, I step back beside the contractor who pierces the group with a sentry-like stare.  He holds his assault rifle tightly to his chest with his finger hovering about the trigger.  Within moments the room becomes a buzz with foreign syllables growing louder.  An older female steps up to the contractor with paper in hand, pointing to it furiously and screeching in tonal clicks and guttural syllables.  She looks familiar.

The contractor raises his assault rifle like a shield as the female inches forward.  “Stay in line!”

Several Tai-lonians reach out to her but fail in their attempt to restrain her.

The contractor raises his weapon to aim down its length as the female takes another step.  “You’re out of line!  Get back, or I put you down, tunnel-rat!  Desk-boy, do your job and keep them calm!”

Before I’m given the opportunity, the room erupts into a blaze of foreign pleas.  My heart beats faster as I absorb the situation.  “What are you doing?  She can’t understand you!  This isn’t necessary!”

He glares down the barrel.  “I’ll tell you what’s necessary, and you’ll agree without question!”

I step forward to place a hand on the barrel of the gun, but the contractor rams the butt of it into my chest, forcing me down into a pile of rancid refuse.  I collect myself in time to witness the hysterical Tai-lonian reach out to the contractor.  He pulls the trigger, but all I hear is an intense ringing as the weapon emits a bright flash.  She is thrust back as a rush of black fluid showers the other Tai-lonians.

“FOR THE UNION,” I scream, my stomach churning as her body collapses to the floor.  I scramble to my feet as a few other Tai-lonians do the same.  The foreign shouting intensifies as a few of them jump forward to the fallen female.  Several flashes fill the room as more of them to crumble to the ground, their ink-black blood painting the adjacent wall as they fall.  Those remaining attempt to scatter, prompting the contractor to continue his volley.  A wrenching mass rises in my throat as I look on at the writhing bodies.  My only thought in this moment is to stop this harrowing scene.  I lunge forward and push the contractor to the floor.  His rifle falls and lands at my feet.  Regret floods my veins over my suicidal decision.

His surprised demeanor immediately turns to a heated rage.  “Disrupting a contractor’s duty?  You’re dead, desk-boy!”

I hoist the assault rifle from the floor and aim it at him haphazardly before he jumps to his feet.  It’s heavier than I could have imagined, and I can hardly manage to keep it trained on him.

His face twitches, and he doesn’t try to defend himself.  He speaks back as if to a child.  “You have no idea what you’re doing.  You don’t realize the mistake you’re making right now.”

I struggle to hear his words over the ringing and my own heartbeat.  The time for reasoning is over, but words continue to spill from my mouth.  “You killed them.  For the Union, how do you not feel such abhorrence in your heart right now?  Such a repugnant–”

“It’s better this way,” he claims with a calm voice.

The remaining few Tai-lonians watch in silence.  My body sweats as I hesitate, searching for any rationale with which to diffuse this situation.  He’s clearly not fazed by taking lives.  “What about World Union?  What about your obligation to The People’s Decision?  What about the colonies?  If anything, they’re still useful to us.”

His cheeks tighten.  “The colonies are just another lifeline for these insects, another hope for survival.  My obligation to the soft-heart opinions of this city died in the Fourth World years ago.  The People could never understand.  You could never understand true pain.  You will never understand the reality of things, shielded from the reality of the Fourth World behind those guarded walls.”

I scrunch my face in doubt.  “Understand what?”

He breathes an exaggerated sigh before showing a crooked smile.  They grow in number by the day, and for every Tai-lonian that rises in station, a human must fall in station.  No human will fall if there is no one to fall to.”

I scan his figure with an erratic gaze.  He stands confident in his convictions as zealously as my parents did.  But unlike my parents who never raised a hand to anyone, this mad man has a lust for blood that I have never seen.  “No… That can’t be right…” I whisper, my stomach tightening.

“You would take the side of these animals over your own kind?” he barks.

My vision blurs.  I rattle my head around to restore my senses.  “No!” I yell with an adamant resolve.  “But, but–”

His head jerks in tiny spastic movements as he takes a step forward.  “I don’t have the patience for politics.  Drop the gun.  You have one chance to comply,” he snarled in a low voice.

I step back.  “I can’t!”  My grip hardens around the rifle as he approaches.  A surge of power courses through my body just by holding the thing.

He articulates his next sentence slowly.  “You don’t have a choice.”

Our eyes remain locked as a trail of dirty sweat runs down my face.  A moment of difficult silence covers us as I summon the strength to reply.  Through that strength, my voice emits as a hushed whisper.  “We all have a choice.”

His patience deteriorates before me, and saliva spews from his mouth as he roars.  “It’s over for you, soft-heart!  You just don’t realize it!”  He raises his arm and shoves a finger in his ear.  “My Rep’s a sympathizer!  Converge on my–”

I squeeze the trigger.  His body is jerked back and blood rains down as a light mist.  His body falls with a tremendous thud.  The fresh corpse twitches, a stream of blood flowing from the exposed arteries.  I avert my gaze but find the twisted forms that had been Tai-lonians.  The mass in my throat rises beyond the point of control, and I lean over to expel my lunch over an already soiled metal floor.  I clean the acidic vomit from my face before the Tai-lonians shuffle in their spots.  I whip the rifle towards them with shaking arms.  They stand statuesque in my presence, staring with such innocently wide eyes.  I cover them with my vision, observant of any slight movement.

“Don’t move!  I mean it!” I shout in a panic.  They whisper in tongues before holding each other in tight embraces, whimpering and sobbing.  The battle cry of the contractor’s approaching squad echoes throughout the passageways.  My heart batters itself against my ribs.  I contemplate my utterly foolish actions as the heat in my chest rises further to consume me.  I grip the rifle tighter.

“It’s your fault!” I scream, stepping forward to threaten them with the rifle.  They crouch further in fear, shedding tears as they wail.  One falls to his knees and throws his hands up to beg relentlessly.

“Stop it!  Shut up!”  The room falls silent save their shaking and whimpering.  In all my years of dealing with them, I’ve never seen them in such a light.  I consider the contractor’s words, and I only now realize that he was correct in a way.  I’ve never witnessed such intense pain, human or Tai-lonian.  But despite my hatred, I don’t think I’ve ever imagined myself capable of killing a Tai-lonian.  I quiver at the sight of my own frightful behavior.  I keep the rifle trained on them as a searing pain develops in my head.  “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!  I just wanted you to leave!  You stupid rats!”

The sobbing of a younger female intensifies as she cradles a bleeding thigh.

“It’s over for me because of you!”

A small voice speaks out from the group.  “Please…”

I glare through hate-filled eyes as my arms quiver under the weight of the rifle.  “No!” I cry, lowing the weapon and backing away to pace about the small space.  “No!” I scream to the ceiling.  “Is this what you wanted of me!?”

I stop with my back facing the Tai-lonians to take deep breathes.  My labored breathing calms me, and in a brief moment clarity, a sensation of tranquility washes over me.  With one last exhale, the pain diminishes.  All tension in my body releases, and I drop the gun, which clangs against the floor.  I hang my head down, and utter my final words, “Just go.”

Those Basic-speaking Tai-lonians pull along the others, ripping them from the room and disappearing into a hidden crevice.  I collapse to my knees as I let my imagination take me away from this awful world.  My thoughts bring me back to the beach where I lean against that familiar red railing, holding a faceless woman in a close embrace.  I breathe in my last moments as the distant sound of hurried boot-steps becomes louder.  A single tear falls from my cheek.  For the first time in my life I’ve decided for myself, but it’s much too late.

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Confessions of a Spook by Michael Washburn

Let me tell you just how enjoyable the scrutiny of strangers can be.

Today I am a hard, bitter man with little use for boyish fantasy. But my younger self craved the adventure, the romance, the thrill that the impressionable associate with the life of an agent in the service of Australia’s government. Having done research on the way of life of agents on sensitive missions, I thought I had an idea of the secrecy and the training that go with one’s induction into the service. Even so, a lot of what went on at the beginning came as a shock.

When I joined up, my supervisors told me that they needed to put together a detailed psychological profile of their new spy. If I was going to serve them in far-flung locales, they needed to know not just of my qualifications and skills, but of all the people I’d alienated, all the enemies I’d made, all the traumas I’d endured, all the phobias that grew like mold across my psyche. They needed to be aware of all my foibles and vulnerabilities, so that they could anticipate any scenarios where I might cave to pressure, forget my training, and act or talk irresponsibly. In the event that something happened to me, the profile might help them pinpoint who’d done it and why.

I had no choice but to cooperate. It’s routine, anyway, they assured me. A formality. Just take clipboard, pen, and paper, fill in a few pages for us, forget all about it, and move on to the substance of your elite role. Ever the obedient operative, I began to orient myself in my distant past. But the past in question was not really all that distant. I was thirty at the time they took me on, and I had to furnish an account of my relationship with my parents. I revisited the past, the life of a young man in a state of arrested development, living at home, in a two-story brick house in a suburb of Canberra, long after his friends had gotten married, started families, and become homeowners.

With respect to my mother, there isn’t all that much to tell. It is impossible for me to recall that woman without a cigarette in her hand. She began smoking when she was nineteen, evolved into a three-pack-a-day lady in grad school, and never let up. It was grotesque how much she smoked. She never—I mean literally never—exercised or saw a doctor. When my mother died of a heart attack in her sleep, at fifty-six, the question in my mind was not why she died so young, but how she’d made it that far. The last year and a half of her life were not pretty, let me tell you. It was as if she knew what she’d done to her body. She knew quite well what was coming, and needed someone to scream at and accuse of various things, to take her mind off herself. I was there and I came in handy. You wouldn’t believe what she said to me, or I to her. My own mother.

After her death, the clinical depression that had cramped my father’s existence for many years grew ever more severe. I got used to walking through the door of our modest brick house to find a man with wispy white hair lolling in front of the TV, with a look that kept just a bit of the educated, refined mien people had known him for before he stepped down from the chairmanship of the math department of one of the local universities. It might have been better if he’d just gone to hell altogether. No matter how far he wasted away, he kept just a hint of urbanity about him, and that made his inertia and dysfunction hideous to behold.

My father had a weird paranoid streak, manifesting itself in a hundred little panic attacks a week. That may not sound like much, but try to imagine what it was like for me. If he happened to see a bill from my car insurance provider on the living room table, with the words “24-hour claims service” in the top left portion of the envelope, something odd happened in my father’s mind. He didn’t think it was just a monthly bill from an ordinary service provider, but rather, a letter from a collection agency, seeking to recoup a huge debt I owed to someone. I must not be living within my means, I must be doing reckless, insane things.

Another example: If my father happened to come downstairs in his bathrobe on a Monday morning and see a week’s worth of empty bottles gathered in the pantry before I took them out to the curb, bang! He assumed I’d drunk the contents of all those bottles the night before. Ergo, I was fifty times over the legal blood-alcohol limit this morning and would get fired upon arriving at work. Some might dismiss these reactions as trivial, but they fed an atmosphere where at times I found myself wanting to kill my father. Oh, it got infinitely worse over time. My mother’s death, after decades of neglecting her health, made him solicitous about my health. The fellow was always peering at me, as if trying to look into me, to hone his view of the pockets of flab roiling inside me, the shifting fat in my body putting me at risk of a heart attack. To be quite honest, I was a little out of shape, even if no one would have described me as fat. All it took was a bit of bulge at the waist to push my father into frenzied imaginings. As fevered as his delusions were, he kept up his aloof academic air a good deal of the time. He said astounding things, but in a dry monotone. Once he and I were standing with thirty others in the courtyard of a hotel where a second cousin of mine was going to get married. People were milling around, talking of jobs and mortgages, paying special attention to my father because they didn’t want him to feel any alienation or loneliness. Every time he spoke, he commanded the attention of virtually everybody. Quite without preamble, he turned to me and said, “You know, Richard, there is a scale in the restroom right over there. You could weigh yourself.”

“Excuse me?” I asked in disbelief, in front of dozens of attentive ears and eyes. He thought I’d said it because I hadn’t heard him, not that I was unable to believe what I’d heard quite clearly. He repeated his suggestion, in that same academic monotone.

“You could weigh yourself.”

I felt the gazes of my relatives all around me as I stood there in the warm air of the courtyard. I thought of breaking his jaw. To this day, I believe that he spoke without malice or spite, he honestly did not know why someone might not react well to his suggestion. That didn’t make me feel too much better. Oh, dad. Here was the aloof academic with whom I’d grown up. In the months that followed, his unwanted scrutiny of my body and  his panic attacks over my health or over a bill grew ever more frequent and acute. On occasion, he woke up at night in the throes of a panic attack so severe that he grabbed the phone beside his bed and called the police or paramedics, leaving me with a lot of explaining to do.

In describing my father’s solicitude for my health, and his alarm over empty beer bottles, I may have given the impression that he was an exceedingly proper gentleman who would not tolerate sloth or excess. For the record, I’ve always felt quite humiliated at my father’s deportment. There are certain stereotypes about mathematicians being nerdy and unable to interact socially with the ease that comes naturally to others. I’ve always thought my father was aware of that stereotype and tried to overcompensate. He saw nothing wrong with open expressions of sexual longing. He installed a little program on his desktop that made a three-inch woman walk across the screen, pause midway, strip, and ogle the viewer in the most lascivious way, pushing her bare breasts forward, sliding her palms across her buttocks and pulling them wide apart. It made me queasy to watch these things or to hear him talk quite openly about what he’d like to do to the teen waitress in the bar on the corner. If you ever confronted him about this, you got something between a grin and a smirk. How amusing that someone should grow alarmed over the stash of porn mags and DVDs in his bedroom, or his putting the internet at the service of his urges. He thought he was being cute!

I wanted to put my father out of my mind forever. I requested duty overseas, under the auspice of the South Asian intelligence bureau run by an official who had taken a liking to me and had voiced the highest regard for my abilities.

We were all weary of the interminable chasing and hunting of terrorists, but the public was understandably furious about intelligence failures. We were eager to nab a pair of guys who knew about the origins of the plot to blow up the nightclub in Bali in 2002, a particularly horrific event in which eighty-eight Australians lost their lives, and maybe knew about other plots as well. The status of this operation was, as they say, “ultra top secret.” The terrorists love to mix it up with the law-abiding civilians. Give them any warning, and the populace scatters like an avalanche of pebbles down a mountainside. Good luck finding anyone in particular. ASIS had invested so much into covert ops in Indonesia over the years, and we thought we had some pretty good intelligence from an operative who had sat down in a café with Prendy Gunawan, whom we knew as a member of a cell of Jemaah Islamiyah, the most widely feared terrorist organization on the archipelago. Whatever else you might say about Prendy, he was a personable guy who liked Fleetwood Mac and gave this almost embarrassingly broad grin when you met with him in person. Our operative asked him about this tic once and Prendy said the expression meant something to the effect of “Paradise is at hand.” In other words, tourism may have waned severely thanks to the bombings in 2002 and 2005, but we’re on the cusp of rooting out the terrorists and making the island a place where tourists in straw hats love to recline in chairs on the beach, sipping sangria. Our operative, alias Abdul Iskandar, worked for my ASIS colleagues Scott Gibson and Nick Talbot. He met with Prendy in a café in Kuta at the southern end of the island and gained some fairly reliable intelligence about a meeting of the higher-ups within the cell in the village. So, we were going in.

Suspicions were afoot now that our man Abdul might not have been the honest concerned citizen we imagined. Let me take this opportunity to clarify the matter. As far as I know, Abdul was quite honest and dependable. He did not share Prendy’s views. The trouble arose when a crusading online news agency, Transparent Authority, received a leak from a disgruntled Darwin-based member of ASIS, Bruce Owens, whose purview included all counterterrorism ops in Indonesia. The agency quickly distributed a list of operatives working there, including one Abdul Iskandar. It didn’t publish the information on its home page, for there were people even Transparent Authority did not wish to alienate, but on surrogate sites with text in the Indonesian language. Members of Jemaah Islamiyah quickly got hold of the information; that explains why our men in the field had a bit of trouble locating or speaking with Abdul after such a long, if covert, association.

But the mission went ahead. I, for one, acted on the assumption that Abdul Iskandar had not been privy to any dates for operations in the planning phase. We were aware of the possibility of disloyalty. We had given Abdul a certain amount of “decoy info” to mislead the jihadists into preparing for ASIS actions in cities barely on our radar at all, and we asked Abdul to gather data about people we didn’t really consider a threat. A certain number of my colleagues in the agency thought themselves exceedingly clever.

The night of the operation arrived.

I won’t forget remember the sights, noises, and odors of this night. We could not entirely avoid making noise as we moved down the road on the outskirts of the village of Sayan in the moonlight. We thought it was shrewd, deploying a mélange of ASIS men and Indonesian security operatives. all in civilian clothes. This was neither a mission launched by white “imperialists,” nor one for which we had to give Indonesia all the credit, you see. There weren’t many white faces in our team, mind you, just Scott Gibson, Nick Talbot, and myself, and we were on the inside of the cluster. Anyone who happened to glimpse us in the moonlight from one of the farms on either side of the road would probably not have made out any alarming Caucasian features. We had avoided at least one of the errors that allowed no fewer than six fugitives to slip away in the preceding ten months.

The village was coming up. I scanned the strip of bare road between the façade of a restaurant and the dark windows of a garage. I watched as things began happening nearly exactly according to plan. I started to think that the planning of the operation had been a stroke of genius. Three men wearing trousers and button-down shirts, with almost a prim appearance, passed from the mouth of the restaurant onto the moonlit road. I recognized two of them immediately. One of them was Rahman Taslim, one of the most wanted suspects on the island, and the other was Prendy Gunawan. The third fellow wasn’t obviously a match with anyone on our list of suspects but was worth questioning if he knew the other two. I was already thinking about the PR upshot of a victory.

I watched as more bodies flowed through the double doors of the restaurant out onto the road. We were closing the distance fast. The moonlight was particularly strong tonight and it threw into relief the beards and thick dark hair of the twenty or so men who had filled the street. Among them were a handful of women.

Now Prendy was looking in our direction and I had the impression, unlikely though it seemed, that he was making eye contact with me as a grin I knew all too well spread over his features. He wasn’t thinking about Fleetwood Mac right now; he had another kind of sublimity in mind. Another way to enter paradise. I guessed that Prendy and Abdul had a slightly different relationship from what we’d supposed. Either that, or Abdul’s outing by Transparent Authority had enabled the enemy to get top-secret info. At exactly this point, a bit of fluttering motion in my peripheral vision gave me a hint of the presence of maybe three people on the roof of the garage. In the crowd on the road, figures were reaching and groping as the moonlight reflected off long sleek cylinders. My colleagues noticed these developments immediately, but not what was happening atop the garage.

Scott, who had warned me innumerable times about the perils of hair-trigger reactions, gave the order to fire. His eyes told me not to argue. So what if there were noncombatants over there? The rules of engagement as he interpreted them at this moment said fire! Nick and I raised the barrels of our Beretta 93R machine pistols. The local operatives were even faster. We began firing even as a cacophony of shouts and flashes arose amid the crowd outside the restaurant. More fluttering motions atop the garage left no doubt our presence had registered up there. I heard a WHUMP! on the ground behind me, as if a giant canvas had toppled onto its face, and then it felt as if a thousand vicious insects were biting my back. My body pitched forward. I was aware of inexorable horizontal movement and I remember thinking I was going the wrong way, toward the flashing muzzles of the enemy. But then it was as if my bones turned to water, I was crumpling, I felt a round graze my right ear, and my face smacked the dirt so hard I blacked out.

I woke up in a cage in a bright room. I blinked incessantly for a couple of minutes. Outside the cage, men in crisp green uniforms, which were a little short by Western standards, moved around talking in the language I had only just begun to master. The cage was stationary but the room was moving. I was in the back of a truck. Before long, they parked and moved the cage out of the truck, through a courtyard, and into what resembled a factory. Then I was inside another bright room. This was where I first heard people say the name Dr. Fraser. The doctor was Australian, but most people here were locals. The cage was to be my home save for when a few of the captors escorted me to a dingy cement room with a toilet, a sink, and a curtainless stall. There was also the occasion where they led me in cuffs to a plain room where an officer sat at a desk and gazed at me with eyes as cold and lucid as a pond on the hills of Jindabyne. In precise, faintly labored English, he informed me that eighteen civilians had died in the botched operation along with Gibson, Talbot, and five members of the indigenous security forces. Now wasn’t the time to weep for my colleagues. When I tried to speak, a raspy moan came out.

“You have to give me a lawyer.”

“No.”

Please!

He shook his head impatiently. I told him it was most unfortunate that civilians had perished, but the enemy’s longstanding modus operandi was to mingle with innocents so as to complicate our efforts to fight back, and collateral damage wasn’t all that unusual. The officer retorted that that was what he’d expected me to say, but I must know that apart from the criminal conviction looming over me, the authorities on the archipelago had a use for me. I was the bearer of intelligence they had run after in the dark for years and years. Australia had refused to cooperate with them and it was a tense relationship at best. Nearly every time the ASIS tried to do anything here on the archipelago, it proved a catastrophe for the Indonesian authorities. They had to assuage many citizens outraged over their failure to control what a foreign power did in Indonesia in the name of Western interests. Now, at last, the officials had a live, conscious, articulate Western operative in captivity.

I begged for a lawyer. He shook his head with the same impatience. I feigned bewilderment at what this stern little man behind the desk had disclosed. I knew exactly what he meant. Now, these officials and their friends hoped and expected, they would be able to locate Western operatives the world over, no matter how cleverly or elaborately disguised. Well, I wondered, if they did find out an agent’s identity, and his or her role in sensitive operations, what exactly would that mean for the agent?

In the tentative spirit of collaboration that made the joint operation possible, the government on the archipelago had shared files with the government in Canberra. Of course I am using shared in a broad sense. Whether by request or through subterfuge, the officials who held me were privy to certain personal information.

So, if you want to situate yourself within my experience, what can I tell you?

Imagine a wall in your house is an eye that never blinks.

They took me out of the cage and put me in yet another bright room, 12’ by 12’. Here is the reality to which I awoke every morning. Contrary to what you might assume after having watched lots of interrogation scenes in films, the window forming one of the four walls enclosing me was not one-way but fully transparent. The managers of this facility wanted me to know exactly who was peering at me with the most prurient interest. I slept on a bunk at the wall opposite the window. In the morning Dr. Fraser entered the room. He was a prim middle-aged man with a bald scalp and a horseshoe of dark hair, who wore thick glasses and a white jacket.

“Good morning, mate,” the doctor said in an unmistakable Aussie accent.

Accompanying Dr. Fraser were a couple of guards. They placed me, naked, in the center of the room. Clamps joined to chains went around my ankles and wrists, then the chains tautened until I felt I was going to split apart. I saw everyone who stepped into the rectangular room on the far side of the window, and people spent many hours a day scrutinizing me. Officials, guards, doctors, twenty-one-year-old female interns in business casual attire stepped into that room to have a look. My attire was the most casual of all. I never had a stitch of clothing and my cock hung there like a burst balloon. The young female interns kept looking at it, beginning to laugh, giving each other looks. They studied me, sometimes asking questions, sometimes jotting notes down on pads. When they spoke to me at all, they said the issue of overriding concern was my health. The depth of their concern and their alarm about my health required them to examine me so thoroughly, or so they said. Surely I had not forgotten my history of health problems, my unwillingness to weigh myself, or my disregard for the concern of elders with more mature attitudes.

Mercifully, the chains loosened so I could use my limbs a bit. A couple of young guys, Amat and Lemah, took turns coming in a few times a day to deliver meals on plastic trays and clean up my waste. Amat was fit and handsome and had a brash demeanor. Lemah, by contrast, had a big ungainly figure and was quite slow. At times he seemed to struggle to recall what he was supposed to do next. Their shifts alternated at times but I was able to begin to figure out how often I could expect to see either of them. One thing I noted was that Lemah didn’t appear to resent me. He was pretty lax about letting me take as long as I wanted to eat.

People kept coming to the window and staring at me. On the rolling metal table to my left there was a towel. One day I realized that I could move my leg just far enough to give the table a weak little kick. By doing this repeatedly, I was able to make the towel fall to the floor. I got it between two of my toes and thence into my left hand. I was able to cover my cock with the towel. When the space behind the window filled up, people saw a man with sweat all over his face, naked except for that scrap of cloth over his groin. A few of them giggled at the sight. It had the negative virtue of not being interesting enough to keep them around.

The stratagem might have worked if not for Dr. Fraser. He looked at me through the window, then came in with a grin running practically from one end of his spectacles to the other.

“Clever, aren’t we?”

He swiped the towel, folded it with distaste, placed it back on the table, and left. The observers could watch me and my shriveled penis for as long as they pleased.

All of the observers took an active interest in me, but I remember that one of the young interns, in particular, an Indonesian girl with straight dark hair and glasses, liked to watch at those times of the day when my muscles writhed and tensed and slackened and tensed again and I shat uncontrollably. She maintained her maturity as she watched this happen. I imagined her thought process. Surely we are not so immature that we cannot watch a natural function of an adult male’s body. Several times a week, the official who had interviewed me during the intake moved into that rectangle of space. His questions were always pointed. He wanted the names and locations of operatives, the lowdown on planned operations. It was agents, in the employ of or on friendly terms with ASIS who most interested him. He wanted to know who they were, what online footprint they might have, what aliases they might blog or post under. Of course I knew quite a few agents, in the employ of many governments, but I thought of what it would mean for them if I sang.

My days—or nights?—were largely the same but at times, I recall, there were problems with the lights in the room and they had to send in technicians who got hastily to work. On rare occasions the whole room had problems. The chains got looser, they didn’t function properly as pulleys controlling my movements and position within the room. The technicians moved me, still naked, to the cage in the bright room where I’d been before. Outside that cage, officers milled around or sat at desks shuffling papers and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups. There weren’t many such occasions, but enough for certain people to grow quite frustrated.

On the third occasion of the room’s general malfunctioning, I sat out in the cage witnessing the most remarkable thing. A couple of the officers I observed through the bars had white skin and wore Australian uniforms. I began to wonder just how furtive the local officials had had to be in order to gain access to my file. Here I think it is necessary to acknowledge the complexity of the situation. The authorities on the archipelago were furious at Canberra for the incident in which I’d played a role, for other botched missions, and for the general high-handedness with which a Western government treated a non-white regime. At the same time, even in the face of those failures, the Indonesians knew quite well they’d be harming themselves if they refused to let seasoned Aussies, with lots of sensitive information available to them, help out as advisors in the intelligence-gathering and missions. Australia had loads of technology and manpower to commit to the efforts, at no cost to Indonesia, no monetary cost anyway. So, after the third episode where the room in which they kept me malfunctioned, I saw an Australian officer berating one of his Indonesian counterparts, who sulked like a Vichy policeman at the harangue of an SS commander. The locals had to do a better job of cleaning and maintaining the restraints in that room, he yelled, for nothing less than brand integrity was at stake! That’s exactly the phrase he used. Brand integrity. The systems of restraints and pulleys, as well as the concept of the exposed cell itself, were components of a brand developed and put to use by secret governmental organizations going back to the Vietnam War. Fuck up brand integrity in a corporate civilian context, and people will literally come after you with guns, so just imagine the possible reactions when the same happened in clandestine operations undertaken in the name of national security and counterterrorism.

Neither the Australian officer nor his counterpart appeared to notice me. Lemah’s attentions were bumbling, but he didn’t appear to hate me. As for Dr. Fraser, well, he was a different case. The doctor came and went, came and went, laughing at me, chiding me, mocking me whenever I tried to use the towel to cover my limp appendage. I spent countless more hours in front of the audiences at the window. At one point, their interest seemed to wane ever so faintly. I recall one afternoon when I hung there, unsure of whether my status as a prisoner was the same as the day before. I amused myself by making my toes dance. Where were the observers? Perhaps they weren’t quite so taken with me, perhaps they had downgraded my status a bit. I dared to hope until the door in the wall running perpendicular to the observation window swished open, and the young Indonesian intern who’d observed me before  came in. The intern moved up to a position a few feet from me and scanned me from head to foot.

“I hope you have a mature attitude to the scrutiny you’re undergoing,” she said.

My, her English was flawless. I didn’t say anything.

“Dr. Fraser has explained to all of us why this is part of an enlightened, twenty-first-century penal program,” she added.

My chains had tightened. I looked down. Her gaze had alighted on something so puny, one would hardly dare to call it a cock. Her cool professional manner implied that she, at least, had a mature attitude about her training, about all it entailed. So scholarly was her air as she stared at what was down there, mentally processing and filing away data. I tried to move my arms, but only made parts of them really red. I felt a tautening of my muscles, realizing she was just close enough for me to snap her neck if I could make one quick decisive move. She stared for maybe forty minutes before she lifted her eyes to meet mine and answered an unspoken question.

“We’re only at the beginning. You know how concerned we are about your health,” she said.

Only now did I realize that the area behind the observation window had filled up. As the intern pronounced the word health, with such peculiar emphasis, twelve heads behind that long sheet of glass nodded solemnly. The eye had not really even blinked.

On the following morning, Lemah came in to give me my breakfast. There was a roll with butter, a bit of granola, and a pitcher full of orange juice. I ate and slurped as he moved about the room, cleaning and arranging things. As usual, any distaste over my body’s functions failed to register in Lemah’s dull features. Soon he was done and reached for the tray. I signaled that I needed a bit more time. He stood there, silent, looking as if he were struggling to recall something. He then turned and walked out of the room. My sense of the ebb and flow of people on the other side of the glass was so acute that I knew exactly when to get the plastic pitcher in my hands and tear a strip from it. Within seconds, I had a shiv with a sharp point, the possession of which would get any normal prisoner a long spell in solitary.

I’d just gotten the towel into place over my groin, and the other instrument, when Dr. Fraser came in holding a clipboard.

“How are you enjoying the scrutiny, mate?”

I didn’t respond.

“The observers have given your health careful consideration and we think it’s about time to weigh you.”

Still I stared at him.

“Of course, you’re an adult, you’re perfectly capable of weighing yourself. I’m sure you’ve developed a mature, enlightened attitude.”

Dr. Fraser bent forward and yanked the towel off me. With a movement too fast for him to see, I thrust the shiv upward and cut his forehead from end to end. He danced around the room screaming for a full minute, blood shooting everywhere, before the Indonesians rushed in. When they carried him from the room, a huge bloody flap of skin dangled from his forehead like banana skin.

They put me back in the cage in the bright room to which they had moved me once every few weeks. They could hardly move me to a worse place than where I’d been, and at this point it didn’t matter. One of the Australian officers, a young lieutenant with fringes of blond hair just visible under the edges of his cap, came up and viewed the gibbering naked man. He came up to the cage and talked with me through the bars for an hour. The sensitive intelligence in his eyes responded to what I was whispering. My next meeting was with three Indonesian officials and a pair of high-ranking ASIS men. The latter had grown interested in my case after hearing about me from a colleague and were now leaning toward the view that if I’d had anything to share with the local authorities, I would have done so long, long ago.

I was going to be free. I was going home to the house my father still owned in the suburbs of Canberra. He no longer lived there, but in a nursing home where seniors went to scarf Jell-O and watch game shows in grimy rooms for a few months or weeks before they kicked off. Moreover, in recognition of my experience being a tad unpleasant at times, they were coming through with a monetary settlement. A nice one, to be quite honest. On many afternoons during the six months after my release, I pulled into the driveway of the house in Canberra, got out, stretched, walked up the drive to my front door, and noticed something rather odd in my peripheral vision. Yes, it was quite odd. A young dog, practically a puppy, white with black and brown splotches, was poking its head over the top of the knoll forming the western perimeter of my block. The dog wore a little red plastic collar with a bell on it, had an eager look, and held something in its mouth. I stood there on my doorstep making eye contact with the dog until it mounted the knoll and galloped down the edge of it and up the drive. The creature was so eager, so friendly. I knelt, plucked the envelope from the dog’s mouth, patted it on the head, then watched it race back up to the crest of the knoll and disappear. Inside the envelope was enough to live well for a long, long time. I received regular visits from that little dog until I was almost ready to say, Hey, I’m not a victim, misunderstandings happen even between friendly governments.

            But every time I tried to take a cab from the office where I worked to a doctor’s office for a routine checkup, I experienced such severe panic and hyperventilation that the driver ended up taking me to a hospital. Once we got to the hospital, I refused to get out of the cab, and the poor Pakistani man behind the wheel of the cab ended up calling the police. I have come to the realization that this syndrome isn’t going away until I bring it before the world. I need the world to listen. I’ve come to understand what lies in wait for operatives when somebody outs them. All candidates for high office, in every country in every corner of this hideous terrifying world, must understand their obligations to keep secret what must never, ever come to light. Imagine a wall in your house is an eye that never blinks.

“Togetherness Is A Fable (We Tell Ourselves In The Hope Of Not Being Alone)” by Frederick Barrows

15°

“Ella?”

The man’s eyes fluttered. Even in the subdued light, he had striking, golden-hazel irises.

“No,” she said. “I am Dr. Shi.”

“Ella…” He looked too rangy for the adjustable bed’s standard-sized frame. “I…” He lifted his large hands and stared at them, astonished. “My God…” He shuddered. “You brought me back. You … you actually did it.”

He had a full head of dark, curly hair, albeit speckled with gray, and a warm glow had returned to his light brown skin.

“Welcome back, Mr. Crain,” she said. “Your vitals are strong but it will take time for you to…”

“God!” He turned, coughing sharply.

“Halitosis is a temporary side effect of the restorative chemicals.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked around, taking in the cylindrical spaciousness of the antiseptically chrome- and white-polished lab and its encompassing, blue-tinted glass. Dr. Shi wondered if he’d comment on the absence of door handles, as more than a few before him had done.

“Ella, where’s my Ella?”

“I am sorry, Mr. Crain, I do not understand what you mean.”

“No…” He shook his head. “No, no, no. That was the arrangement. We were supposed to come back together. That was the deal.”

“Mr. Crain, there is always some fear and uncertainty associated with…”

“Where the hell is my wife?”

It was more plea than demand. Dr. Shi was startled by the immediacy of his yearning, especially after such prolonged isolation. He spoke as if he’d been separated from his spouse for a few hours rather than two centuries.

“I understand your concern, Mr. Crain, and I will do my best to answer all of your questions.”

He looked at her. “Your eyes … what…?”

She turned her head from side to side. “The color of the irises vary depending on light intensity.”

“Come again?”

“They have been augmented, greatly enhancing my limited inborn vision.”

“Augmented?” His settled against the pillow. “That a big deal … now?”

“Yes. Most people employ some form of augmentation.”

“Have my ruined lungs … been augmented?”

“No. Nanite technology repaired them, as well as your extrathoracic and mediastinal lymph nodes, using organic rather than artificial tissue.”

He looked puzzled. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“As a rule we try to avoid utilizing augmentation on new arrivals. It is better to allow patients to decide, depending on cost-effectiveness and the condition of their bodies after restoration.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess.”

“We endeavor to bring you back in the most optimal condition.”

“By the looks of this place, it appears it took quite a while for me to achieve optimal anything.”

“I am still running diagnostics. Please, try to rest.” She turned to go, revealing a withered left arm.

He gestured with his left index finger. “What happened to your arm?”

“Rest,” she said, showing him her right shoulder. “Soon, there will be answers.”

20°

Mr. Crain appeared more amused than bewildered by the quintet of holographic heads that floated over his bed. Respectively, encircling from his left to right, were Doctors Cao, Yao, Tang, Banerjee and Jha. Dr. Shi, the lone female, stood a few paces from the foot of the bed.

“Congratulations, Mr. Crain,” said Doctor Cao, “you are free of cancer and, overall, in excellent health for a man of your age.”

“It is a most remarkable recovery,” said Dr. Yao. “You have surpassed all of the predicted metrics.”

“We are pleased to have you back in the world of the living,” said Dr. Tang.

“Shortly,” said Dr. Banerjee, “you will be on your feet and commence the reorientation process.”

“It is the final step with us but the first in what we hope shall be a long and rewarding new life,” said Dr. Jha.

“Wonderful.” Crain shifted his weight. “Now, tell me about my wife.”

Dr. Cao’s brow creased. “Yes, well, once you complete your recovery with Dr. Shi and transition into the reorientation program…”

“Where is she?”

Dr. Cao paused. “Excuse me?”

“My wife,” he said. “Where is she?”

“The important thing, Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Yao, “is for you to successfully transition into the reorientation program.”

“Will Ella be waiting for me when I get there?”

Dr. Shi focused on the great, curved windowpanes. Rain struck the armored glass and steamed. Bruise-colored flashes rippled in the distance.

“All of these questions and many more will be answered by the temporal therapist assigned—”

“No,” Crain said, cutting off Dr. Tang. “I want them answered, now.” He wriggled against his bedding. “Look, are you people even associated with the outfit that put me on ice in the first damn place?”

Dr. Cao looked in Dr. Banerjee’s direction.

“Yes, well, you must understand, given the span of time…”

“Just get to it.”

He smiled conciliatorily. “The organization that performed your initial procedure ultimately sold its assets to another corporation, which in turn resold them. This process of asset management and transfer repeated, quite a few times. And now you are under our dependable custodianship and care.”

Crain grimaced and repositioned his pillow.

Dr. Jha’s head drifted closer. “Yes, Mr. Crain, and despite the transfer of your assets, let me assure you that all of your rights and privileges are still valid and binding, as per your original agreement with…”

“My wife…” he said, visibly flagging. “My wife and I had our own valid and binding agreement that we would be revived together. To-geth-er.” He sighed. “Look, I’m not budging until I know where Ella is … or at least find out what happened to her.” He scanned the heads. “Get me, fellas?”

“Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Tang, “it is essential that you finish your recuperation and graduate to reorientation.”

“Not without my Ella.”

Dr. Yao cleared his throat. “Sir, whatever interpersonal agreement you and your spouse may have had, surely you realize that everyone who undergoes cryopreservation, be it whole-body or neuro, does so singly.”

Crain nodded. “Right, right, I understand. Now, tell me, is my money still good?”

Dr. Banerjee’s head bobbled. “Absolutely. The trust set up to pay for your storage and restoration is most healthy. The investment portion alone has placed you in quite a strong position, going forward.”

Crain laughed, raw and throaty. “God bless compound interest.”

“Indeed,” said Dr. Banerjee.

“Come now, Mr. Crain, all of these matters, both financial and personal can be addressed once you begin the reorientation—”

“No,” he said, looking at Dr. Cao. “No, I don’t think so. Not right now.”

“Mr. Crain, please, there are protocols.”

“To hell with your protocols. I’m still your customer and my account is in good standing. And since the customer is always right—at least he was back in my day—I’m staying right here. You work out whatever arrangement you want. But until I see my wife, or find out where she is, I refuse reorientation. I don’t want to know when I am or…” He looked around, wincing as he craned his neck. “God, am I even in the same hemisphere?”

The heads, save for Dr. Cao’s, disappeared.

“Same planet, for that matter…”

“We shall confer, Mr. Crain, and return momentarily,” Dr. Cao said, and then vanished.

Crain stared down the length of the bed, at Dr. Shi. “Sorry to be a pain but … my wife, Ella.”

She smiled. “Everything will be fine, Mr. Crain. You are acting within your rights.”

“First comforting thought…” He grunted and touched the nape of his neck. “What in the hell—?”

Dr. Shi approached on his left side. She pulled her shoulder-length, black hair aside and revealed three small, metallic contacts embedded just above the base of her neck.

Goosebumps decorated Crain’s forearms.

“I am sorry if I have alarmed you,” she said, straightening. “These connections comprise the current standard interface.”

“Meaning I had no choice?”

“It is essential to the revivify procedure.”

“So much for that no-augmentation policy.”

“A mandatory exception.”

He scratched around the connectors. “Right…”

The heads reappeared, causing Dr. Shi to step back and out of Dr. Cao’s holographic space.

Crain crossed his arms. “Gentlemen.”

“Mr. Crain, since you have not left the storage lab, you are, technically, still considered to be in a cryo-state.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning,” said Dr. Jha, “that you may remain where you are, for now. Your meals, and other personal expenses, will be charged to your account. Of course, these costs are nominal. Ideally, you will soon come to the most reasonable conclusion that reorientation is the best outcome and move to the next stage.”

“And my wife?”

“Reorientation first,” said Dr. Tang, “and proceed from there.”

He snorted. “We’ll see about that.”

“Be well, Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Cao. “Future messages may be relayed through Dr. Shi. If you need anything, simply request it of her.”

“Uh-huh.”

The heads disappeared.

He looked at Dr. Shi. “Say I go through this reorientation process and then find out Ella’s still iced and might remain iced longer than I can realistically wait … can I be refrozen?”

“Once you begin reorientation you are no longer considered under the institute’s primary care. To be readmitted can prove challenging. There is a waiting list and priority is given to those who are younger or have a medical condition that cannot be addressed with current technology. You would have to justify the need and await a ruling, which takes time, and may or may not go in your favor.”

“Meaning there’s no guarantee?”

“Not once you leave this lab, no. There are other institutes and organizations, of course. We are among the very best, however, and I would not recommend—”

“No, I understand,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Just a lot to consider.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay, Doc, how is our particular arrangement supposed to work?”

“You have a bed. You will have access to clothing, sheets and toiletries.” She indicated a nearby rolling nightstand. “There is a bathroom and a shower. An artificial assistant will explain how everything works.” She paused. “Meals are twice daily, eight hours apart. Snacks are available. The kitchen area is modest but functional. You must understand, though, this is not a hotel.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, that part I gathered. I’m just glad everyone still speaks English.”

She tapped her connectors. “Communication is no longer a great obstacle.”

He smiled. “Chalk one up for the future.”

She nodded. “If you need anything, please let me know.”

“And who do I contact, when you’re not around?”

“I am always here, Mr. Crain.” She gestured toward a faintly illuminated doorway, accessible via magnetic lift, located on the lab’s uppermost tier.

“Ah.” He nodded. “Well, since we’re going to be roommates, you can call me Edgar.”

“All right, Edgar,” she said, smiling. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to my duties.”

“And what should I call you?”

“Dr. Shi,” she said, and walked away.

25°

Dr. Shi sat in her office, her neck nestled in a padded headrest that linked her with the institute’s systems. The mundane tasks of process reporting, system diagnostics, and scheduled maintenance of storage dewars required minimal active concentration. It was literally something that she could perform in her sleep. Her primary interest had become the behavior of her recently thawed patient.

She scanned his file for the umpteenth time, as if convinced some heretofore unrevealed insight might be gleaned. Charles Edgar Crain, Professor of Economics, aged sixty-one years, four months, sixteen days. American. Primarily of West African (70.2%) and Northwestern European (23.4%) descent. Non-smoker who received a diagnosis of lung adenocarcinoma in his fifty-sixth year. Lived in an onsite hospice care facility his final six months.

No known living relations.

Her request to inform him of that fact had been emphatically denied. Reorientation or nothing. Legally, he remained frozen. He was not the first to resist reentering the world, nor would he be the last. He was, however, the most outwardly stubborn in his resolve.

Ella cannot help you now, Edgar, she thought. But I can. I am here and I am real and I absolutely understand what you are feeling.

I am not some faded ghost.

In fact, I am the exact opposite of that.

She sighed and closed the mentally-projected file.

Edgar was tidying his bed. She had arranged for rolling privacy screens and furniture to provide some semblance of a personal space. The unicolor, one-size-fits-all shirts and elastic-banded pants sufficed, and he had a choice of green or white slippers. He had easily mastered the AI commands and was neat to the point of being fastidious. Over the past few days she’d consistently reminded him that he didn’t have to clean up around the lab. He ignored her.

A (mostly) model guest.

He approached the glass-enclosed office. She sent a thought-command. The door parted.

“So, Doc,” he said, grinning, “when’s the next defrosting?”

“You know I cannot tell you that.”

He crossed to the transparent wall opposing her desk. “Is my Ella down there?” he asked, scanning the orderly assemblage of vacuum flasks. “Has there been no cure for whatever killed her? Is she still younger than me? Older? Ageless?”

“Edgar, please.”

“It may not be legally right to tell me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do.”

“That is not my decision to make.”

He lowered his head and sighed. “Little victories, then.” He pivoted. “I’m not leaving this office until I know something I didn’t know before entering.”

“Edgar…”

He moved closer. “How old are you?”

She reflexively moved her right hand to her crippled arm’s wrist. Why would he ask such a thing? She frowned. What was the point?

“Well?”

“I am twenty-nine.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Coincidence.”

“Excuse me?”

“Ella was the same age when I … when I unwittingly became a transferrable asset.”

Her posture relaxed. “Coincidence is a statistical inevitability.”

He waggled an index finger. “Spoken like a true scientist.”

“And chance is merely an unexplained outcome.”

“Uh-huh.” He went to the doorway and then halted, his back to her. “What about death?”

“Sorry?”

He half-turned. “Have we conquered death?”

She shook her head. “Information-theoretic death is the great threshold. That is why protecting the brain is so vital. The rest of our bodies can be augmented, reinforced, replaced. Personality and presence, however, the distinctive spark of self that springs from consciousness defies faithful replication.”

“Shorthand: death is still inevitable.”

She rotated her chair, facing him. “Death can be delayed but not denied.”

“Well, now I know,” he said.

“I am sorry to disappoint,” she said.

37°

He touched the back of his neck. “How secure is this thing?”

They were sitting near the small kitchen, on a translucent, backless plastic bench.

“It depends on what you are connected to,” she said, stirring her red rooibos tea. “Remote connections tend to be more vulnerable than direct ones.”

He dipped a semi-sweet biscuit into his black coffee. “Have you ever been hacked?”

She took a sip from her cup. “I am sensibly cautious.”

“Right, of course, but with the proliferation of augmentations, doesn’t that make people more vulnerable to attacks?”

“This building is very secure, essentially a closed system. Once you reenter the world, however, it will be important to educate yourself about current encryption protocols, public versus private connections, and which interfaces you can and cannot trust.”

He pointed to a recliner next to his bed. “I gotta admit, it’s pretty neat to be able to just sit back and call up replays of any baseball game ever recorded.”

She smiled.

“And I am encouraged by the fact that the Grand Old Game has mostly stayed the same, however long it’s been since…” He chuckled. “Cute how you scrub the dates from what little media I can access. Downright cagey of you.”

“It is true,” she said. “We tempt with modern but familiar content.”

“Not gonna work, Doc.”

“You are like a fish that we eagerly want to bait but, sadly, cannot coax from the frozen depths of its obstinate ignorance.”

Edgar blew air over his lower lip. “Poetic, if harsh.”

“To remain here is no life.”

“True, but I’m not the worst roommate, right? I mean, it must get terribly lonely,” he said, looking around, “inhabiting this icy fortress of solitude.”

“I have grown accustomed to it.”

“You’re definitely not the stir crazy type, Doc.”

“This is not a job for those incapable of being alone.”

He deposited his cup in the stainless steel sink. “Tell me your name.” He looked at her. “Come on, Doc, what’s your Christian…” He massaged the back of his neck. “Tell me your given name.”

She sipped her tea.

“Okay, then. What do you do for fun?”

She paused, and then returned to the pleasures of her tea.

23°

“What’s with the big boxes?” He appeared in her office doorway, shortly after waking up.

Three portable containers were staged near a small couch and table, not far from his sleeping area.

“I received permission to allow you access to your personal effects and other articles,” she said. “Everything should be as it was before you entered biostasis. Copies of vulnerable items have been uploaded to a digital archive.”

He looked over his shoulder and then back at her. “You messing with me, Doc?”

She shook her head. “I am not messing with you, Edgar.”

“Wow…” He walked over to the containers and sat on the edge of the couch. “Even tastier bait.” He hesitated, as if assessing a particularly crucial chess move, and then reached out and depressed a latch-trigger on the nearest box. The unit sighed and the lid silently rose.

“Almost like Christmas,” he said, gingerly lifting the lid and placing it nearby. He moved the box closer and began digging through its contents. He pulled out a set of video discs and placed them on the table. His face brightened as he produced a bulky album filled with photographs.

“Oh … oh…” Tears welled in his eyes as he shakily turned the laminate-covered pages.

Dr. Shi exited her office. “Are you okay, Edgar?”

“It’s just … just so real, you know? Something connected to…”

She approached. “Is that Ella?”

“Yeah,” he said, sniffling. “She looked so good in that blouse. Man, what a smile…”

Lustrous blonde hair, shimmery turquoise top, long and trim. “She was quite pretty.”

He nodded. “Despite the age gap, we had a lot in common. Certainly a lot more than me and my first wife. Ella and I were both homebodies, loved to just sit on the couch, watch a show, maybe have friends over for charades or a board game. Just nice, uncomplicated stuff. Our wonderfully dull, happy place.”

He opened the other containers and began pulling things out: shirts, pants, cufflinks and deodorant. A framed doctoral diploma. Several board games. Two pocket combs. A pair of white gold rings.

“There we go,” he said, slipping the larger of the twin bands on his ring finger. “After I got the bad news and the treatments failed to yield positive results, we discussed our options. Cryopreservation was, by a wide margin, the most extreme choice. Regardless, we made a pact to be together in a future age. Seriously romantic stuff.”

Dr. Shi absently touched her wilted arm.

He met her gaze. “Surely you can understand the impossibility of going it alone? I mean, why do anything if it’s just for yourself? If you can’t share the experience with someone … someone meaningful, what’s the point?”

“The institute’s great hope is that you undergo reorientation and begin a new life.”

“Not without Ella. Not a chance.”

Dr. Shi moved past the couch and peered out the colored glass. “There was a woman, this was almost a year ago. We successfully revived her but, sadly, not her cat.” She drummed her nails against the pane. “She was similarly reluctant to leave. However, after a while, she understood that life must go on, regardless of circumstance. Delaying the inevitable is merely another kind of death.”

“Ella is far more significant than some damn cat.”

She nodded. “I am sorry, I did not mean to imply…”

“Are you trying to tell me that Ella didn’t make it, that she’s…?”

Dr. Shi focused on intermittent currents of lightning, admiring their dynamic patterns.

“Well, maybe there’s something bigger than your tidy, clinical definition of death. Maybe our consciousness is liberated when the body fails. You’ve got no data to disprove that. Love will always transcend death. Absolutely.”

She looked at him. “I meant no offense, Edgar.”

He squeezed his left hand into a fist. “If I can guess your name, will you tell me?”

She shook her head.

“Well, then,” he said, nostrils flaring, “it must be Bitch.”

13°

She sat in bed, carefully applying vermilion polish to the nails on her lifeless left hand. The door was secured and her personal shock shield enabled. She could hear him, moving around the lab. Since he’d received the stored goods, he’d slept little. Contents of the audio and video discs had been retrieved from the network. He played them incessantly. His passionate devotion to the woman’s memory was formidable. Admirable. Not sustainable, however. No, not anything close to that.

She heard his wife’s voice, the engaging sound of her laugh. Again.

It was just an echo, though, an ancient, empty echo. And you cannot wrap your arms around an echo.

He must know that.

It was so painfully obvious.

Dr. Shi exhaled and called up a self-curated collection of long, tonally nonconcrete, mentally soothing sounds.

100°

“Ah!” Edgar lashed out, scattering backgammon checkers across the floor.

Unfazed, Dr. Shi said, “It was closer that time.”

“Yeah, well, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” he said, grumbling as he collected strewn pieces.

She laughed. “I am unfamiliar with the expression.”

“Trite but true, Doc.” He slapped the checkers down and stared at the board. “You know, I was quite the player, way back when. I mean, I was competitive. Fairly dominant. What’s your secret?”

She separated the red and black pieces. “It is just patterns. Like most things, once the underlying design has been decoded the surface variations are easily manipulated.”

“Well, seventh time’s the charm,” he said.

She yawned. “Last game.”

“So, uh, you ever been married, Doc?”

She leaned over, retrieving a piece he’d missed.

“Okay,” he said. “This the sort of work you imagined yourself doing when you were younger?”

“Yes,” she said. “I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”

“Sure, but what about your life outside this place?”

She inspected a chipped red checker. “My current rotation ends in eight days.”

He blinked several times, as if perplexed. “Eight days?”

“Yes.”

“My God, who’s going to replace you?”

She rattled her dice cup. “I do not know.”

“Doc, tell me whatever you can about my wife. Please.”

Dice tumbled across the right-hand side of the board.

Edgar remained in bed the majority of the following day. He pored over keepsakes and looped the sound of his wife’s voice.

As Dr. Shi was preparing for bed, he said: “I don’t know if God exists the same way for people now as He did in my time, but my God has a heavenly space reserved for true believers, a beautiful patch where all of your loved ones congregate in peace and harmony. Like a great big park with perfect weather forever. Just barbeques and togetherness. The rational part of me knows it’s fanciful, something to give comfort in the deep dark of the night. But my heart yearns for it. When Ella came into my life I caught a glimpse of what that special afterlife might be like. Truth is, passing with her still so young, I was selfish. Whatever awaited beyond this world, I didn’t want to spend one second of it without her. Stopping time was my way of not having to confront that. But, now, look at me. I’m stuck. If I leave here, surrender myself to the mercy of the unknown … and find out she’s not there … well, that … that I know would be a living Hell.”

-13°

The holographic heads of the other doctors hovered around Edgar. This time, however, Dr. Shi spoke for the institute.

“Though we have mastered the revivify process, it is important to understand that each patient is different, meaning we cannot confidently predict the outcome of undergoing a subsequent procedure.”

“Meaning my revival a second go-around is not guaranteed.”

“That is correct…” she said. “However, Mr. Crain, given the current pace of cryonic advances, I would say your odds of returning are most excellent.”

“And since there’s no disease to cure this time, I suppose I need to tell you when to bring me back.”

“Your input would be greatly appreciated. However, if you do not commit to a fixed date, we would determine an optimal time to revive you.”

“And what if my assets get transferred again?”

“In that case, you would be revived before transfer.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Look, tell me about Ella and I’ll begin reorientation immediately.”

No response.

“What’s to gain by stonewalling me, dammit?”

“Are you positive you do not have a preferred time to be awakened?”

“Yes,” he said, crossing his arms. “Bring me back when you can cure what I’m feeling inside.”

-18°

It was the second to last day, for both of them. They shared a final meal and then went over the impending procedure.

“Take care of my stuff, Doc,” he said, gesturing toward the containers.

“I will,” she said.

“Shouldn’t be nervous, but God knows I am.”

“You can still change your mind. It is not too late.”

He shook his head. “Old mule stubborn.”

“Of course.” She produced a small, glossy white cube. “Once connected, this cryoinducer will put you into a restful state and gradually lower your body’s temperature. Final prep will occur, your heart will be stopped, and you will be placed into storage.”

“Yeah, I’m mostly familiar.”

“We begin first thing tomorrow morning.”

He chuckled. “By dawn’s early light.”

“Yes.” She paused. “I want to have time to make sure you are perfectly situated before…”

“Your replacement arrives.”

“Correct.”

“Have you ever undergone the procedure?”

She nodded. “When I was young, I was very sick.” He glanced at her arm. “My parents were part of the institute. They helped found the cryonics division. I grew up around labs such as this one and lived in corporate-sponsored housing.”

“When you were first brought back, did your parents look like grandparents?”

“Yes.” She brushed a wisp of hair from her face. “A cure took longer than expected. Despite my late revival, neither chose to delay the inevitable. The following year, they passed within hours of one another. I was determined to help the technology evolve … to ensure that it far exceed known limits.”

“Determined to reach some post-death finish line?”

She smiled, her mutable irises transitioning from blue to green.

He stared at her. “God, how many times have you been brought back?”

“It can become an addiction,” she said. “I give my life to the institute and they grant me opportunities to test, discover, and document what comes next. I very much like being a pioneer of progress.”

“Still,” he said, “pretty risky behavior.”

“I came to peace with that, long ago.”

“So why not … fix the arm?”

She shook her head. “You described your ideal heaven. Well, my ideal heaven is called xīn shēnghuó, or ‘new life.’ It is a world where everyone has an opportunity to hibernate-on-demand and ultimately settle on a future of their choosing. Being born in a less advanced age seems arbitrarily cruel and wasteful.”

“One-way trip, though. Shame if you abandon a better past for a worse future.”

“I have not been disappointed, yet.”

He leaned forward. “Doc, please, what happened to my Ella?”

She tapped the center of his forehead with her index finger. “Like you said, Edgar: one-way trip.”

-40°

Dawn. The cryoinducer had been attached. He was fading.

“Doc … what … sound?”

“That was a test tone,” she said, checking a digital readout. “I made a recording for you.”

“Re-recording? … Ella’s?”

“No,” she said.

He licked his lips. His voice was ragged. “Yours?”

“Yes, Edgar. Mine. It will play once per calendar year, on the anniversary of your return to biostasis.”

“Why?”

She placed her hand on his chest. “To better understand.”

Two assistants appeared and waited nearby. Dr. Shi initiated the final shutdown sequence.

Edgar’s fingers twitched. His eyes rolled white. “Tell…” He licked his lips. “Tell me… puh-please…”

She did not remove her hand until his heart had stopped beating.

-150°

Dr. Shi tidied the lab, checked the systems, and began repacking Edgar’s things. Ella’s wedding band was the last object remaining. She held the white gold halo aloft and examined it. Written on the underside was the inscription: Love without end.

Her replacement was due to arrive within the hour. For her, it was back to the research department and unappealing interactions with choleric colleagues and smug superiors. Reorientation to the mundane determinacies of daily life.

She carefully maneuvered the ring onto her left hand.

But not quite yet.

-196°

“A pair of ice fishermen unknowingly left a fish behind. The tiny creature tumbled from one of their buckets and bobbed in the slushy ice that filled the hole they had cut. Paralyzed with shock, the fish was unable to dive. Overnight, the ice thickened. When the fishermen returned to their hole they discovered the orphaned fish. It was trapped between worlds. One of the fishermen claimed the creature’s mouth was moving, as if desperately trying to tell them something. The other fisherman said his friend was imagining things and that he should lay off of the late night drinking. If capable, the tiny fish would have laughed itself to death.”

A calm exhalation.

“Edgar, I plan to be here when you are brought back. Regardless, you will do so alone. You have been alone for a very long time. That does not mean, however, that you are incapable of enjoying a rich and fulfilling new life.

“When you do reawaken, even if I am not present, I hope the first name that you speak is mine.

“Take care…

“菊.”

Spring Fiction Winner: “A Wartime Guide to Confession” by Michael Pesant

A Wartime Guide to Confession

 

“May the most holy, most sacred, most adorable,

most incomprehensible and ineffable Name of God

be forever praised, blessed, loved, adored

and glorified…”

The Golden Arrow Prayer

 

 

Daddy!

The girls call in their father like an air strike. Their voices are girly, ear-bleedingly high-pitched, but the word rolls like thunder through the fortress of brick and trees behind them, and we scatter before the lightning hits. I trail Bertie across the street, losing ground even at my wildest sprint, hurrying to the safety of our backyard.

We live under constant threat of him, the monster next door, but we wage our war against the girls anyway.

Bertie says it’s the rule, basically, growing up: your neighbors are either your best friends or your worst enemies. I believe him. For one, Bertie is always right. I mean, he lies, who ate the last pop tart and stuff, but he’s never wrong when it matters. Also, it just kind of makes sense to me.

Not that I want enemies, but I won’t call evil good, either.

He means the kids only, with the friends/enemies rule. He says most grown-ups pretend to like each other, even if they don’t.

Bertie’s my older brother. Alberto really, but since he shares that name with my dad, the nickname stuck. They didn’t name me after anyone; my parents wanted an American name.

Bertie likes to point out that he was born in an entirely different decade than me, which is technically true, even if he’s less than two years older. He often points out that, unlike him, I’ve never lived anywhere but this house on Seventy-third Terrace, which is also true. Bertie says he’s lived in two houses, and three decades, and Mom and Dad have lived in two countries, plus probably more houses and decades than we can count. I’m uniquely sheltered, he says, taking his time with the ten-dollar words.

He’s somewhat annoying with the whole wise man act, but like I said, he’s also always right.

Mom describes the girls across the street as roughly the same ages as us. Very roughly, if you ask me. Alyssa just turned eleven, and I’m firmly twelve. She acts nine. Vicky and Bertie are both fourteen. We’ve hated them as far back as I remember, which is probably when I was three or four years old, so maybe farther than that, from birth or something.

Alyssa has a crush on me, although it’s not as sweet as it sounds. She wields it like poo on a stick. I try to keep my distance, but she’s relentless, she taints me with her presence. At this point, I suspect the cooties to be a fictionalized plague, but if they ever found one rare case of the disease, I would not be surprised to learn it was Alyssa. At school she’s made it like a thing, Alyssa and Mikey, and even though I hate her, think she’s foul, somehow I’m guilty by association. Like I said, tainted. The worst thing is, when I deny it, I’m the mean one.

Vicky’s kind of hot, but I’d never admit that out loud. She looks almost like a grown woman, except I’ve never met a grownup who wears all black all the time, including nails and lipstick. Bertie doesn’t agree she’s hot, but then again Vicky doesn’t crush on him the way Alyssa does on me. Funny how that works.

I hate her, even if she’s hot, even if I can’t help picturing her black lips sometimes in the shower. On Christmas morning, she steals the controller to my RC car, practically from under our tree, and drives it up and down the street, taunting me. Alyssa taints and Vicky taunts; they’re quite a pair. Vicky’s a bitch, even if she’s a hot bitch. I try not to talk like that, but as Bertie puts it: war is war.  

“Have I been indifferent to God? “Have I considered Him and His plan for me in my daily life?”

In CCD class, we receive a guide of sorts, a series of questions to ask ourselves before taking the sacrament of confession. Our teacher says it’s a guide for teens, but we should read it, anyway, to be prepared. The neighbors come up in most of my answers; they provoke my sins – hatred, anger, impure thoughts, foul language…

I try to explain this to Father Mark, to justify my profanity, even as I cop to it in the booth, but he’s not buying it. Father Mark says Vicky was made in God’s image, and when I call her a bitch, to think about who I’m actually insulting. He says it just like that, uses the word “bitch” and everything, and then I feel really bad, because I just made a priest curse. I only tell him the bitch part, not about thinking she’s a hot bitch or anything about the shower. I’m not ready to talk to anyone about that, including God.

Especially God.

Father Mark assigns me fifteen Hail Mary’s and tells me to try and remember what Jesus said about loving our neighbors. I wonder if Jesus could have ever imagined having neighbors like this. Vicky and Alyssa’s dad Mariano is a contractor, a construction guy. It’s obvious because when you look across the street they always have a bunch of dusty pickup trucks and work vans parked out in front. The other thing is their house isn’t normal. It’s a perpetual construction site. Mariano is always adding on. My dad says he’s like an artist who doesn’t know when to put down the brush.

Like I said, Mariano’s house is not a normal house. During the few short truces in our lifelong war with the girls, they’ve given us guided tours of their place, presumably to freak us out. I’ve tried to describe it to friends who’ve never seen it, and always worry they can’t quite picture it from my words.

Basically, it is a normal house, yellow three bedroom type of thing, but no one would ever know, because he surrounded it on all four sides with a brick fort, and further entrenched that behind a dense and unruly forest of tropical trees. He built it all using materials left over, or scavenged, from his other construction projects, and every few feet the bricks vary in size and color, with the largest section towards the back made of limestone. In the front, the fortress extends all the way down the driveway, ending in a large wrought-iron gate, about the size of a garage door. Welded on the center of the gate was Mariano’s symbol, a weird circular M made from swords.

All of this on a regular suburban street, the houses aren’t all the same like some neighborhoods I’ve seen, but they aren’t so different either. Mariano’s castle sticks out, like the one petri dish in our class experiment that exploded with bacteria.  Dad says he probably moved to the area because the zoning laws are famously lax. He says in Italy, where Mariano’s from, you’re probably allowed to build whatever you want.

Mariano sometimes sends Dad invitations to political meetings he holds in the castle; he started something called a libertarian militia. Dad says libertarians think there should be a government, but only a very small one, and no laws except to arrest thieves and murderers. He says libertarians aren’t the worst, but that we do need some rules to keep people from doing whatever they want, like drugs for instance.

Zoning laws or not, people notice, and complain, although maybe not to Mariano’s face. He’s a scary dude. He looks like a construction guy, short but strong, with forearms thick as thighs, and a scruffy beard patched on his face to match the paint all over his clothes.

I wonder if the girl’s mom, Mariano’s wife Carla, worries as much as my mom does. She’d really have something to worry about, but I can’t tell, because she barely exists. Carla shrinks around the fortress, as tiny as Mariano looms large. When we do see her, occasionally venturing into the street or the yard to address the girls, she barely makes eye contact, staring down at the ground and speaking Italian so softly it looks like she’s praying the rosary.

Before going to sleep, I commit to finish reciting all fifteen of my Hail Mary’s, but I keep getting distracted after nine or ten, and force myself to start again. To stay focused, I concentrate on each of the words, on the prayer’s meaning, but inevitably, my mind wanders, and sometimes the places it goes feel as unholy as it gets. When I was little, and my grandmother Chichi taught me these prayers, I’d misheard the word sinner, thinking she said stinger. Chichi had an accent. Pray for us stingers, from now until the hour of our death. Even now, when I pray the right words, the old meaning lingers, and I can’t help but imagine people running around stinging each other like honey bees, dying after they sin.

Have I been violent or abusive either in action or in speech?”

Bertie hides the bomb manual like it was a dirty magazine, not under his mattress, but smarter, tucked away into the pages of a faded philosophy book no one ever reads. I think it belonged to my grandad or something; the author must be a Cuban guy, with a name like Descartes. Bertie says his friend photocopied the bomb pages out of something called The Anarchist Cookbook. I tell him I don’t think a cookbook is a very good guide to war, but he says I’m too dumb to know what anarchist means. It means chaos, he says.

I ask my dad what anarchist means, just to double check Bertie’s definition. He says anarchy is a political system, one where there isn’t any government, and people just do whatever they want. I ask him what’s worse, communism or anarchy, and dad says anarchy is dumber than communism, but not worse. He says nothing is worse than communism, not even abortions. Not even tattoos.

War is war, Bertie says, and war is hell. It feels like hell, in the August heat. In the summer ours is a kind of trench warfare, attack and retreat, quickly getting back to the safety of the air-conditioning. Summers in Miami are like winters for people up north, the air is something you can feel, it hits you in the eyes like a blow-dryer when you walk out the front door. Dad says we live two feet below sea level, and that’s why it’s so humid, because we’re technically underwater. I don’t get it. I can ride my bike to the canals, and we’re definitely above the water.

The sea level thing seems to be a major component of why everyone is freaking out over Mariano’s latest project. He’s digging himself a basement. Dad says it’s impossible; people just don’t have them here, but Bertie points out that Mariano has many things that people around here don’t have, like a rabbit pen, a gun cellar, and a weird rooftop deck with some kind of altar thing on it. With all the workers around, and most speaking languages other than English, Dad says Mariano’s new project is like the Tower of Babel, only headed in the opposite direction.

Dad’s pretty funny, but he never acts like he’s telling a joke, which is different from Bertie, who thinks everything coming out of his mouth should be followed with a rim shot. Like I said about Mom, she mostly just worries all the time, which is occasionally funny, like when her worries aren’t quite rational. A couple years ago, she wouldn’t let Dad go to a business conference in Memphis, because that’s where Martin Luther King got shot. As if Dad was a civil rights hero, instead of just a Cuban guy who co-owns a furniture store, as if there wasn’t already a bunch of crime in Miami.

When Mom’s not home, we go back behind the patio where we keep all the tools and stuff and experiment with the bomb manual. Bertie wants to make something we can plant under Vicky and Alyssa’s toilet, to cover them in their own pee and poo, but so far, everything we blow up has a pretty short fuse. When Bertie’s off with friends sometimes I go back there and experiment by myself, pouring out paint thinner in the grooves between the patio tiles, then lighting one end, and watching the flame catch down the line. Later I can smell the singe and fumes on my fingertips, no matter how many times I wash my hands, and it smells good but I feel a little guilty, too.

“Have I stood up for those unjustly accused, or am I merely a channel through which rumors pass, whether or not they are true?”

Since he’s started digging the basement, there is even more construction mess around Mariano’s fortress, more trucks, more piles of brick, more mounds of dirt, and more workers, too. At least some of the workers he imports, I guess from Italy. A new one shows up, skinny with tiny eyes and huge ears, who seems to be lurking around the house all the time. Vicky and Alyssa nickname him Nerdo. Or, maybe that’s his real name, Bertie says, maybe it doesn’t mean the same thing in Italy.

Vicky and Alyssa take a break from their war with us to torment Nerdo. They always lure us outside to watch the show the same way: a phone call, three rings, and then hang up. Occasionally, they stay on the line long enough to hear us answer and say look outside fags or something like that. I keep waiting for them to mess up and call Dad a fag or curse when Mom answers the phone, but they never do. We don’t call over there; neither Bertie nor I take chances with Mariano.

The first time we meet Nerdo, he’s sitting under a palm tree taking a break, from what I don’t know. Alyssa comes out the gate holding a plate in her hands, and tells him she’s made him an American sandwich. From our yard, we can’t tell for sure what’s in there, probably a bunch of ketchup and mustard, maybe hot sauce. I think he must be dumb, or really hungry, because I’d never eat anything Alyssa touched, let alone cooked. Nerdo takes a bite, and smiles widely, he’s eyes growing even tinnier, like two ink smudges on a blank paper. We look at the girls, and they look back at us, and then all four of us start to crack up, which at first gets Nerdo laughing, too, although after he few seconds he looks confused.

Later, we find out Nerdo is retarded. Vicky tells us about Mariano complaining on the phone, yelling at someone in Italy for sending him a retarded worker. Nerdo never really does any construction work, just hangs around the yard and smiles his confused smiles while the girls torment him. Bertie and I never do anything mean to him, only laugh when the girls put ketchup packets under his toilet seat, or change all the clocks in the house, or douse him with fart spray. While Nerdo’s around, we fight less with the girls, although Bertie and I still secretly work on the bomb.

With so many workers, almost every night is a party at Mariano’s. Sometimes we can spot them on the roof, or on the fortress’s back patio, drinking late and speaking loudly in Italian. The voices are all male, and I’m not sure where Vicky, Alyssa, or their mom go; I guess they stay inside. Vicky says Nerdo can’t drink because he’s already retarded, and she overheard her dad say it would be like giving liquor to a child. She and Alyssa work on a plan to trick Nerdo into getting drunk. Bertie and I have some experience with this, when we gave our Weimeraner Cleo vodka and watched her stumble around the yard. Vicky wants to sneak the booze into Nerdo’s thermos so he drinks it without noticing. Bertie tells her try mixing it with Cheetos; it worked for Cleo.

Bertie tells me they’ll never succeed though, even if Cleo is smarter than Nerdo. He says no way Nerdo doesn’t notice the booze in his drink, even if they mix it in with some juice or soda. He says Cleo probably did notice the vodka in her bowl, but decided to plow away at the Cheetos, anyway, on account of them being so irresistibly delicious.

A few nights later, the partying sounds rowdier than usual. It’s a weekend, and with Mom and Dad out to dinner, Bertie and I sit on the edge of their bed, trying to watch Mariano’s fortress from the big window in their room looking out into the street. We can’t see much. They’ve built a fire, the smoke rises up past the palm fronds, and we can see orange flicker through the limestone, or at least Bertie says we can. The same stones muffle the parties’ noise, and we don’t speak Italian, anyway, but towards ten or eleven at night, the voices starts to sound different from regular weekend nights at the fortress. They go from one big party noise to separate voices, chopped up, quick bouts of screaming like machine gun bursts.

Mom and Dad come home to chase us out of their room. I try and explain why we were in there but Bertie just looks at me with eyes shaped like stop signs and I drop it. Later we put socks on and plod slowly up to their closed bedroom door, where we think we can hear them still awake and Bertie says they’re probably watching out the window, whispering and spying on Mariano while we whisper and spy on them.

No one sees Nerdo again. The girls don’t come outside for almost a week, make no attempt to crank call or prank us. I think I overhear Mom say something to Nancy Castille about someone trying something with one of the girls, about them not being totally right in the head, drinking a lot. I wonder how they know how much Nerdo drank, if even Nerdo knew. Bertie spends most afternoons at the high school because he’s decided to go out for football this year; he either has practice or he hits the weights on his own, making up for lost time.

“Have I been uncharitable in my thoughts of others?”

I spend the last days of summer mostly on my own, burning things on the patio, trying to keep the bomb project alive. The cookbook is only so helpful; it must be missing pages. I rescue toilet and paper towel rolls from the trash, stuffing them with rags soaked in various flammable smelling liquids. My experiments smoke and flame like a space shuttle launch, but never really explode. When I see Vicky and Alyssa again, I don’t have the guts to ask about Nerdo.

On the weekend before school starts back up, Vicky throws a party and invites everyone in their grade except for Bertie. Kids float a rumor around that Vicky’s mom is out of town and her dad doesn’t care; he’ll let her have whatever kind of party she wants. I think these kids don’t know Mariano, but maybe her mom really is out of town. I don’t know where she would go, Italy, I guess.

Bertie claims he isn’t too shredded about the lack of an invite because not that many cool kids are going to the party. Mom invites the Castille’s to dinner, and Ricky comes to our house instead of the party, so at least Bertie has a friend. I want to talk to Bertie about the bomb, my new plan, but they go in Bertie’s room and close the door to have a push up contest or something. I sneak into Mom and Dad’s room and watch the cars drive by from the window, mostly parents dropping off, or older siblings, but a couple kids are old enough to have a license and drive themselves. Peter Conrack parks his mom’s purple egg van on our grass. I don’t think he realizes it’s our house.

Ricky Castille’s dad, Big Ed, is one of those experts on everything you didn’t know it was possible to be an expert in. He spends half the night giving Dad a lecture on the proper way to cook on a barbeque, and by the time the chicken is ready to eat it’s almost ten. Nancy Castille finishes the bottle of wine she brought as a gift to my mom, plus half of the one she brought the last time she came over. It’s understandable she’s thirsty, the overcooked chicken dries our mouths out, leaves my tongue feeling like a charcoal briquette. I’m nervous because I can tell my mom’s getting nervous, wanting to everyone to go home so she can put on her nightgown and clean the kitchen. She keeps making comments about the dinner in past tense, like we ate it a month ago, saying oh how delicious Nancy’s salad was, when most of us still have a heap of it on our plates.

While we’re still eating, we hear the doorbell, and the first of the party’s migrants arrive, two girls in jeans and t-shirts cut off at the waist. I’ve never seen them before but they say hi to Bertie and Ricky like they know them. The girls speak quietly and look stunned, only asking if they can use our phone to call their parents. Mom takes them to the phone in the kitchen, looking really nervous now. Within five or ten minutes, more groups of kids arrive at our door, including several that I definitely recognize, from school or even ones that have been to our house before. These new waves of refugees don’t bother with the first two girls’ quiet politeness; a few are so excited they’re practically flapping their arms.

They line up in the kitchen to use the phone, and while they wait, the story emerges, pops excitedly out their mouths in scattered details, loose beads for us to string together. The roof deck, Mariano, a friend, a threat, drunkenness, crazy house, stuck, lost, a gun, maybe multiple guns. No one is hurt, they think. They all seem more excited than scared to me, like a big bad thing happened, but emphasis on the big.

Vicky walks in just as we’re beginning to piece it all together. She doesn’t ring the bell; between the people flowing in and out, the door is more or less permanently open. She sees Bertie and me, plus a bunch of the kids who escaped her party, but doesn’t look at or talk to us, instead travelling almost instinctively through the living room and into the kitchen to find my mom. When she finally opens her mouth, we can all hear her, but she only talks to Mom. I can’t remember the two of them being together before, but they seem familiar, close.

It was just a flurry, Vicky says, not a big deal. She says it’s ok for everyone to go back to the party now; Mariano was only kidding, would never shoot anyone. My mom looks at her and I think she must be so nervous right now, all these people in her house, ruining her dinner party, and this emergency next door, but in the midst of it mom is looking at Vicky calmly, like a doctor examining a patient. Nancy Castille starts to say something about the police, but mom swivels her head and says just a moment, Nancy in a voice I’ve never heard. She says to Vicky that of course it’s not a big deal, and not to worry, but it’s late now anyway, and better for everyone to go home. Mom touches Vicky on the shoulder and for a second I think Vicky’s gonna cry or hug her, but instead she turns and runs out of the house like she was shot by a pinball plunger.

Have I appreciated my own good qualities, or do I constantly compare myself with others and become resentful or bitter? Have I been satisfied with what God has given me?

School starts two days later, and the story never really grows legs, at least not in my class, with everyone so breathless and jittery about middle school. We have an assembly the first day, and along with teacher introductions and announcements about lockers and stuff, the school police officer stands up to give a speech about drugs. Office Manley is shaped like a snowman, hairless and round: round head, round belly, round butt, bowlegged. I imagine if he ever came across a drug, he’d just open his mouth wide and eat it like a Pac-man, end of story.

Officer Manley says now that we’ve reached the seventh grade we need to be alert, we’ve officially become targets for the pushers. He teaches us a bunch of different ways to say no, and reminds us to be on the lookout, to watch out for each other. He says the whole city’s in the midst of a drug frenzy, and to be aware, some of the junkies could toss their dirty drug needle syringes into the bushes or the soccer field, and if we touch them we could get drugged, or AIDS. He says remember not to touch them but to tell an adult right away.   

A new commercial comes on TV almost every night now. It’s not even trying to sell anything. There’s a family watching TV, either in an apartment or townhouse type situation, and they can hear their neighbors through the wall, a man and woman fighting. They hear a loud bang and then the woman crying. The mom and dad from the family look at each other, and you think they’re going to say something, but instead the dad just walks over to the TV and turns the volume up. Sometimes I see mom looking over at dad whenever it comes on, but he just stares ahead and sips from his tiny little drink. I think if he tried to the turn the volume up, it would only make the commercial louder.

Everyone in my class is going crazy trying to get a girlfriend. One, the girls show up back from summer break wearing bras. We spot the twin outlines of the straps through their shirts, running down their backs like suspension cables on the Biscayne Bridge. The girls confuse and intimidate the hell out of me; they seem important now, older, but I can’t quite put together why. I wait excruciatingly for a glimpse through the rolled up opening of a t-shirt sleeve, their white skin beige against the bright circuitry of fabric and plastic. Through the first two weeks, I’m so distracted I forget to write down my assignment and get a missing homework note for the first time in my life. I figure dad’s gonna freak and mom’s gonna cry, but they barely say anything to me, waiting until they’re alone in their bedroom to fight about it.

It’s not just bras; suddenly, all the seventh grade boys obsess about panties, too. Although surely they’ve been wearing bottoms the whole time we’ve known them, now we’re greedy to see them, on high alert for anyone wearing a skirt. Joner Schmidt fits a hand mirror through the laces of his Nike Airs, and slides a foot under Abby Denunzio’s yellow sundress while pretending to mess with his locker. He advises everyone to buy the same one from the five and dime and he’ll show us how to attach them to our shoes. I tell Bertie but he’s firmly opposed. Bertie says think about how clearly can you really see through a set of shoelaces, and also to consider how nervous I’ll be, how hard it will be to concentrate on the mirror for the few seconds it’s under her skirt. He says, big picture no girl is ever going to want to hook up with a guy who does something skeevy like that, anyway.

In science class I sit right next to Abby, on account of the seats are alphabetical order. She’s nice and talks to me every day at the beginning of class, right up until Mr. G gets up from behind his desk, raises his fist like black power and tells everyone the hand goes up the mouth goes shut. On the very day he announces we need to pick lab partners, we’re sitting face to face in our chairs, and Abby is laughing like crazy because I’m talking like Apu from the Simpsons. I hear Mr. G say take your time and choose wisely, this is for the whole semester, and think I’m in, perfect timing. Before Abby even stops laughing long enough for me to ask her, Michelle Ruiz yells clear across the room, hey, Abby, it’s Mikey and Alyssa, remember? Abby goes redder than a bell pepper, then walks over to Michelle and agrees to be her partner. I end up partners with Joner.

I twist myself knotted thinking about it. Almost everyone in class couples up, after a few weeks they break up, enjoy a half-day or so in the spotlight in the hallway gossip circles, then recouple with someone new. Through the first few months of the semester I burn through a heartbreaking series of crushes, Abby D, but also Mary, Caro Sanchez, Chloe. I worry something must be broken about me, all those girls smile and talk to me, Mary even writes my name across my binder in bubble letters, but none take the final plunge into coupledom. Like Dad says, they come in to look but never buy the couch.

There are girls at church, too, other girls, girls who go to different schools. They yank me out of my usual mass coma. Except for Father Mark, all of our priests come from other countries, and when they warble through the Liturgy it’s impossible to follow word for word, they drone me into a sleepy trance. Now I sit alert, waiting for the offering of peace, scanning to see which girls are in range, stressing over whether to offer a hand or kiss on the cheek. I watch them intently as they take careful steps down the aisle towards communion, newly in heels, in makeup, in grown up looking dresses. I wonder at how suddenly their lives have diverged from mine; I still spend Sunday mornings lazily watching cartoons over a bowl of cereal or digging in the yard, not dressing for church until five or ten minutes before we load into the car, when mom’s worried reminders become unbearable.

I watch the girls so intently I almost don’t notice when Dad stops taking communion. He stands up when the usher releases our pew, but only to let the rest of us out before sitting back down, I guess to pray. I ask Bertie why but he seems uninterested in the question, says the Pope probably said something nice about Castro and Dad’s mad about it. I ask Mom if the Pope said anything about Cuba recently but she says no, not that I know of, but she doesn’t seem too interested in my questions either.

“Have I intentionally dwelled on and taken pleasure in impure, sexually-arousing thoughts? Have I tried to resist such thoughts when they have come to me involuntarily?”

Father Mark teaches our confirmation class, and I feel so guilty about spending the entire mass thinking about girls that I force myself to pay attention to every word, dig my nails hard into palms whenever I start to drift. He takes a break from quizzing us on the sacraments to discuss that morning’s first reading: the passage from Genesis when God asked Abraham to kill his son Isaac, only to call it off at the very last minute. Father Mark says the story is something called an allegory, referring to when God will later actually sacrifice his own son Jesus. I can’t stop thinking about how messed up it is, how God tested Abraham to see who he loved more, God or his son.

I try to bring it up with Dad, to start a conversation about church stuff that maybe will give some clues about him skipping communion. I ask Dad who he loves more, God or me, but he just says not to be ridiculous. I’m not sure which answer is the ridiculous one. I bring that conversation up with Bertie, who says not to worry, because blood sacrifices are like sending telegrams or something, people just don’t do them anymore. Except for maybe Mariano, he says, pointing towards that weird altar on the roof deck.

Bertie is wrong. Abby Denunzio decides to date Joner, even after she finds out about the mirror in his shoes. I find out before the seventh grade dance, when I ask Abby if she’ll save a dance for me, and she tells me about Joner. Instead of dancing, I hang with a couple other rejects near the punch table, playing volleyball with balloons. One of them said his strategy for the next dance is to go ugly early. Alyssa and Vicky don’t come to dances, I think they’re not allowed.

Bertie quits football, and, at first, I’m happy about it, thinking he’ll be home in the afternoons again, but instead he just hangs out with other kids who quit the football team, too. The worst is that sometimes these kids come over to our house after school, and instead of joining us in the war, they convince Bertie to go next door and hang out with Vicky. I work tirelessly on the bomb, building something big enough to impress Bertie, who now says making bombs is for kids, but I notice he still takes matches from Dad’s desk when he heads over to see Vicky with his new friends. I see thin waves of smoke rise up past the fortress walls, so they must be burning things, too, the hypocrites.

Have I caused others to sin?

I take advantage when they’re over at Mariano’s and I have the house to myself, getting the shower water running hot, and taking as long as I’d like, undisturbed. The bathroom door doesn’t lock, and when I hear the knob turn, I assume Bertie came in to pee or something. The shower’s window faces the patio, and, although it’s fogged, I can make out the shapes of people standing outside, and catch them snickering.

It’s me, Lyssa, I hear through the shower curtain, her voice high-pitched and froggy, nervous. She says she needs a shower and is going to get undressed and hop in with me. I freeze, standing silently under the running water, wondering how to escape without her seeing me naked, whether I can use the curtain as a makeshift robe. Alyssa names each article of clothing she removes, and I think I can almost make out her outline through the curtain, even though it’s a solid yellow plastic. Shoes, socks, sweater, jeans, shirt, bra… I remember Bertie saying something about Vicky giving Alyssa her hand me down bras, and knowing that pushes me from grossed out to sort of excited, although mostly I feel panicked.

Alyssa counts down to total nudity, and I stay behind the curtain, imagining all the clothes piling up at her feet, waiting. It’s easier to imagine the clothes pile than her actual naked body. I still hear the laughing outside, and I hate them for laughing, for being out there, for leaving me feeling trapped in every way, all while trying to brace myself for the reality that an actual naked girl is about to be in the shower with me, also completely naked. The water starts to lose pressure, cool down to lukewarm, and just as I think Alyssa is about to pull back the curtain, instead she opens the door, and runs out into the house.

Have I entertained impure thoughts or desires?

Bertie thinks it’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened. I never find out if she actually took her clothes off. Bertie says they watched her dart across the street in her undies, clutching a ball of clothes, but from his tone, I think he’s messing with me. I can’t tell. Outwardly, I say I’m furious about it, and vow revenge, but by myself, I can’t stop thinking about Alyssa. It’s so confusing. She isn’t pretty like the girls at school, or grown-up and fancy like the girls at church, but she is a girl, I think, scientifically and everything, and something more, too. Whatever is shiny and secret and wanted in these other girls must be true about Alyssa, too. Maybe. I go back and forth.

 I spend time reading the print on the bottles and cans of stuff in the patio shed, finding more and more labelled contents under pressure. On The Simpsons, Otto, the hippie bus driver, says he learned the hard way that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. I think if I incorporate some these spray cans into the bomb, it really could explode. Too bad they don’t fit in the paper towel rolls.

If Mom is home and I can’t work in the patio, I sometimes ride my bike down to the park, and go hunting under the trees and bushes, looking for dirty needles, so I can turn them into the police and be recognized on the morning announcements. Joner gets a special citizenship award for finding and returning a twenty-dollar bill from the cafeteria floor, but Bertie suspects it was his money all along, that he just did it for the glory.

First semester grades come back and Bertie practically fails everything. I see his report card on the kitchen counter and gasp at the F in Biology. I’ve seen the grade handwritten on tests and assignments before but never in print, it rises off the page like a swear word. Like with my homework, and I expect Mom and Dad to go ballistic, but they say little, saving their discussions for behind closed doors or speaking in Spanish, which I can understand but not great. When they speak Spanish I get about eighty percent of it, but it’s always the important parts that evade me.

For Christmas, I ask for, and receive, a high-tech telescope. It comes packed in long cardboard cylinders, like how architects transport their blueprints on TV. I spend almost three days just trying to set it up, with no help from Bertie, who’s been more or less AWOL since Ricky Castille got a driver’s license. Once it’s working, I make a big show of locating Jupiter and Orion, invite my parents to come out to the patio after dinner and take a peak. The next afternoon, I rest the optical tube on the v of the wooden fence, and pull a patio chair under the tripod. I try a dozen different positions before I find anything beyond a blurry eyeful of brick and leaves, but eventually the lens lands on the girls’ bedroom window. They’re not home, but I mark my spot on the fence with a pencil.

Have I been envious of what other people have? Have I cheated?

Like every New Year’s Eve, we drive the few blocks along the canal to the Castille’s house. They’ve got a pool. When I was little, this was my favorite night of the year, better than Christmas Eve or even my birthday. I still like it, look forward to it, but I wonder if that isn’t because I can’t help thinking about how it was before, like when Cleo gets excited to roll over even though she hasn’t gotten a treat for it in five years. At the Castille’s, the adults all drink champagne instead of regular wine, and something about the bubbles makes everyone crazy. I’ve seen Big Ed put a lampshade on his head like in cartoons, and almost every year someone starts a Conga line around the pool. I know the bubbles make the difference, because the kids get sparkling cider, and we get wild, too. Bertie had his first kiss on New Year’s at the Castille’s party three years ago, with Ricky’s cousin Georgette, right after we counted down to midnight.

Nancy Castille thinks it’s cute to have me be the bartender, since I’m the youngest, even though we’re about five years past it being funny. I don’t really bartend per se, but every time Nancy catches me, she sticks an open bottle in my hand and says go see who looks thirsty. Dad is thirstier than Mom, who puts her hand, palm down, over her wine glass whenever I pass by and says why don’t I go find the other kids and play. A couple times, I fill my glass with the champagne instead of the cider, and they taste similar, sweet and fizzy, except the champagne leaves you feeling thirsty after every sip. When the conga line starts, Dad pulls Mom out her chair by her elbow, and forces her to dance. After a few laps, Ricky starts in with this crazy spin dance, trying to weave through the line. He doesn’t mean to, but he isn’t being very careful, and when he weaves between Mom and Big Ed. He accidentally steps on her foot, and she loses her balance and falls in the pool.

Dad laughs, then apologizes, then runs inside to get a towel and ask Nancy for a change of clothes. Mom tells him she’s leaving, and Dad walks her to the car, but I can tell they’re fighting the whole time, even if they wait until they’re past the Castille’s fence gate before they really raise their voices. Bertie and Ricky leave early, to go to a high school party, and Big Ed lends Dad his golf cart for us to drive home, since Mom took the Explorer. I think I want to stay until midnight, but there’s no one to kiss, and most of the adults are talking inside the kitchen, instead of dancing or doing anything funny. Dad lets me drive the golf cart home, since you don’t really need a license or anything. It takes four times as long to get home, and we don’t talk much, but I don’t mind. I pull the cart up to our lawn, and we can see into the window from outside, the bedroom light’s on, and Mom’s sitting in the bed reading, even though it’s late.

Dad glances towards the window, then puts his arm around me and says come on, let’s go to Mariano’s, he invited me to his party and it isn’t even midnight yet. It’s true a few more cars than usual scatter the street around his yard, and I can smell the fire, but I don’t hear much noise coming from Mariano’s house, especially for New Year’s Eve. I ask Dad what time it is and he says quarter til midnight, come on let’s go say hi and do the count down next door, then we’ll come home.

I can’t remember Dad doing anything spontaneous before, but I like him like this, think it must be the bubbles. I think about Alyssa and try to summon my own bubbles for a midnight kiss. She’s not so bad, I tell myself, thinking of her face, like Vicky’s but softer, her skin pale as paste under thick black hair, red lips not yet painted black, baby fat. I think about her wearing Vicky’s bra. Dad opens the gate without knocking, and we walk up the outside steps towards the back. I decide to be brave. Bertie’s all but abandoned me, and nothing else seems to be happening in my life. It’s now or never, I tell myself, now or nothing.

Have I been reckless in the pursuit of my desires?

We walk around the side of the house to the deck, and when the party comes into view it’s clear to me we’ve missed the best of it. A fire burns in a pit built into the stone floor, but mostly embers. An obese man snores loudly while he sleeps on the ground, his head less than a foot from the fire pit. The few guest remaining, all men, maybe five or six of them, sit around the coals, barely speaking, taking turns pulling a metal grate from the fire and rotating some brown balls. Dad sees me looking and pulls my sleeve. Roasting chestnuts on an open fire, he says, just like the song.

I wonder how this crowd would even know when to count down to midnight, if any of them wear a watch.

Mariano sees us approach and stands up. He’s let his beard grow, I guess for the winter, even though it rarely dips below seventy degrees. Covered in charcoal and soot from the fire, his beard looks dark grey even though I think it’s normally white. He smiles between puffs of a cigar stub, his teeth purple from the wine, speckled with bits of brown, chestnuts maybe, or tobacco. I notice his eyes for the first time, blue like the Gulf Stream, and empty; I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to him before. Probably I think of this because Dad mentioned the Christmas song, but he looks like a mean Santa.

I start to ask if Vicky and Alyssa are still up, but before the question escapes my lips, Mariano leans down and pulls me into a bear hug. He smells like fire, like the way my fingers smell when I burn things on the patio, but times a thousand, permanently baked in, a lifetime of burning things he shouldn’t. When he finally lets me go, he looks at Dad and says you’re so lucky you have a son, all I have is two bitches. He says one of those bitches, Victoria, told me tonight to go fuck myself. Mariano tells us God punished him with two daughters, then looks up at the sky, laughs, and says at least he gets a chance to dole out some punishment himself, says he’s God between these walls.

Dad doesn’t say anything; he just lets the comments hang in the air until they’re gone and it’s quiet and Mariano feels like he needs to say something else. I don’t bother asking about the girls again. I figure wherever they are is safer than sitting by the fire next to their dad. One of the still awake guys makes a big show of teaching me to eat roast chestnuts, but they’re covered in ash and taste like it. Dad takes a cup of wine poured from some weird jug Mariano has, and I sit silently while they spend ten or fifteen minutes talking, mostly Mariano rambling about so and so regulator or auditor who’s an asshole, who stood in his way, who didn’t believe he could build a basement.

Before we go to bed, I bring up what Mariano said with Dad. I’m upset and I think he can tell, but also think he’s tired and has dealt with enough upset people for one night. I ask if we’re going to do anything about it, and he asks like what, and I say I don’t know but maybe tell a teacher, or the police, or Father Mark or someone. Dad’s face turns from tired to hard, and he says telling on your neighbors isn’t something that we do. He says that people do it in Cuba; it’s why he had to leave. I know enough to drop it, but I don’t feel better.

Have I held grudges or tried to get even with others? Have I hated or failed to forgive someone?

Everyone sleeps in the next morning. I wake up like normal with the house to myself, the streets to myself, the world. I think I’ve figured out the bomb, everything except the fuse, but it can’t wait. Knowing Mariano and his workers sleep, too, I sneak my supplies piece by piece under the cover of Mariano’s jungle, the cylinders packed with flammables and contents under pressure. He’s built his basement, against all odds, and the only thing missing is a gate to the outside. He wants to weld it himself, so he can add one of his symbols. Like I said, I figured everything out but the fuse, but I can’t wait any longer. I lay my bomb gently across the basement floor, close to the entrance, and pray for some divine intervention, a cigarette butt, a stray spark from the welding gun.

Bertie wakes up. He doesn’t ask, and I don’t bother telling him about any of it. I’m hungry from being awake for the last few hours, and he’s hungry from sleeping I guess, so we toast a couple pop tarts and turn on the TV. We watch highlights from Dick Clark’s Rockin New Years Eve, and just when that band Kiss is getting started, the old guys with the makeup, the phone rings twice and then hangs up.

I follow Bertie into the front yard. He says let’s be careful and walk behind the Explorer, in case they throw eggs or something. It feels like old times, Bertie and me against the neighbors, before everything started to change. We hide behind the car and wait for an ambush, but instead Vicky walks across the street smiling, with nothing in her hands, and Bertie comes out from behind the car to talk to her.

Vicky says, look up on top of that work van and see Alyssa. She’s standing on the roof, by herself, a crazy look on her face. Bertie says, what the hell is she doing up there and Vicky says just keep looking, she’s going to perform a strip show. I come out from behind the car, and Bertie and I sit on the lawn, while Vicky goes back across the street and leans against the brick wall behind the van.

There isn’t any music or anything, but Alyssa starts to dance like there was, like Madonna was playing. She pulls her sweater off over her head, holds a sleeve in each hand, and then sort of runs the sweater back and forth between her legs, as if she was cleaning her butt. It’s goofy as anything, and we all laugh, except Alyssa, who still has that weird look, a forced smile and eyes like the end of my telescope. I notice she’s barefoot, and before we even finish laughing, she drops the sweater and pulls her sweatpants down. I remember what Bertie said about the mirror, and realize he’s at least right about one thing. I’m feeling so nervous while I watch her that I can’t really concentrate on what I’m seeing.

Still, I think, I’m seeing a naked girl. Alyssa starts to pull her t-shirt up, pulls it up almost to her armpits, and then changes her mind and lets it drop back down over her underwear. For a second, I think I spot the white of her bra, of Vicky’s bra. Then she rips the shirt off, quicker than the sweatpants, and right as I’m really seeing her just standing on the top of work van in her underwear, the look on her face completely changes, the smile drops and her eyes focus in on us. Alyssa throws her t-shirt down off the van, and it settles onto the street, forgotten, while she begins to scream deafeningly, her voice like a police siren, a plaintive loop, the same word over and over, as if possessed.

Have I received Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin?

I freeze, feeling confused, but then I look down and see my feet moving and I’m somehow running, my body’s taken over. I run towards our fence, towards our gate, towards the safety of our backyard, and in front of me, Bertie’s running too. He’s running, and I’m running, but I’m not following him really, not any more, just headed in the same direction at the same time, moving instinctively towards home.

 

 

Suddenly On Air by Edward Raso

We at Causeway Lit are happy to present the very first winner of our fiction contest. We’re so very excited to add Ed Raso’s work to our collection and look forward to many more contests and great writers to come! Enjoy!

by EDWARD RASO

When I was seventeen and ready for a well-deserved summer break between high school and college, the economic realities of my nascent adult life reared up and squashed those bohemian delusions. Instead, I found myself searching for work in order to maintain some semblance of a social life and to purchase the exorbitantly priced textbooks I would need come September. My parents were of modest means and my tuition alone was a struggle for them. Books and living expenses would be up to me.

It was the early nineties, when majoring in communications was still a somewhat viable thing to do. And although it wasn’t exactly what a parent wanted to hear, pursuing a career in the entertainment industry was not yet the life-choice equivalent of telling your sobbing mom and red-faced dad that you were off to sell flowers for the Unification Church.

In any case, I needed a job. Because music was my passion but my utter lack of talent for any instrument that I laid my fumbling hands on was painfully apparent, I set my sights on radio. My first call was to WPEC 88.9 FM (Newstalk All Day/Jazz All Night!), a station in Stranten, Ohio, my little fart of a hometown.

Yet, calling Stranten a “town” isn’t quite accurate. Stranten was, and is to this day, simply a town-sized area of suburban developments whose planned neighborhoods are at odds with their rural surroundings. There is no Main Street; there is no town square. Hard angles of any sort are difficult to find on the recursive, McMansioned roads that all seem to end in ouroboros-like cul-de-sacs.

I cold-called WPEC one Tuesday morning and, to my surprise, was put immediately through to Charlie Wolfe, the general manager. He sounded annoyed right off the bat and I’m pretty sure he picked up the call by mistake. I told him I was looking for work and he told me to send the station a résumé, which the tone of his voice indicated was shorthandtelephone-295075_1280 for I’d like to end this phone call immediately.

Before he could get off the line, I added with some desperation: “Mr. Wolfe, I’m actually from right here in town. I grew up listening to Jazz Thru the Night. Teddy Roe is one of the reasons I’m going to school for communications. I’ll take whatever work you might have available. You wouldn’t believe how expensive the books are. Even the used ones.”

The line went quiet for a moment and I thought that he had hung up. But then he said, “Look, kid, I can’t promise you anything. But since you live so close, why don’t you swing by and introduce yourself tomorrow? At the very least I could give you a tour.”

“That would be great!”

“Eleven-thirty Ok?”

The following day Wolfe greeted me himself, not because he was convivial or eager to make my acquaintance, but because WPEC was perennially understaffed and the receptionist was out on an errand. He shook my hand with a weak grip that was the antithesis of every type-A, expensive-suit-and-crisp-aftershave, capillary-crushing handshake you’d expect from a middle-aged man in a position of authority. It was a diffident grip that seemed to say: Run away! And don’t look back, or you, too, may wake up at the age of forty-five: balding, pudgy, and stuck in a low-paying job in an industry whose pyrite sparkle has long since faded, working for a station at the end of the dial and in the middle of nowhere.

I discreetly wiped the remnants of his sweaty handshake onto the leg of my pants.

“So, how about that tour?” he asked.

Without even pausing for me to reply, he began. I had expected more of an industrial/technological motif, but PEC’s decor was eclectic and slapdash, with lots of carpet and wood. It was quaint in a disappointing but not entirely unpleasant way. The building itself was one story and made of brick, and from the outside could easily have been mistaken for a machine shop, had it not been for the mural along the south wall, depicting the station’s frequency and call letters in cartoonish block characters being struck by a Shazam-like bolt of lightning.

After the tour we went into Wolfe’s office to talk. We sat facing one another across his cluttered desk.

“You must really need a job,” he said to me, moving aside a stack of papers to improve sight lines. “Most kids your age are content to spend their summers sleeping in and jerking off.”

The office walls were covered with black-and-white photographs of famous jazz musicians. I recognized them all. Most I had first heard on WPEC, usually as I fell asleep with my headphones. None of the photos were personalized, but I could tell by Wolfe’s expression that he was very proud of them indeed. I went over to the far wall to admire a candid of Miles Davis. It was a young Miles, sitting on a stool with his trumpet, contemplating a microphone that resembled a giant metal Tylenol capsule.

“That wasn’t just bullshit on the phone yesterday, was it?” he asked me. “You really are a jazz head.”

“Definitely.”

As I came back to my seat, Wolfe sky-hooked a wad of paper to the left corner of the room, towards a wastepaper basket whose contents had exceeded capacity and were creeping up the corner-line like ivy. The paper bounced off the side and landed on the floor next to several others. We sat for a few moments, saying nothing, while Wolfe tapped on his desk with a pen and made clicking noises with his mouth. He leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily.

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we just don’t have any work for you.”

I had expected as much. But at least I had made a contact for the future. I rose and extended my hand. “Thanks for your time and for showing me around.”

Wolfe looked at my hand as if I were holding a turd. “That’s it?? You’re not even going to ask me to reconsider? How do you expect to break into this business if you’re just going to give up so easily?”

“But you said—”

“Yeah, I know what I said. Do you have any idea what people will do to get a foot in that door? You’ve got to assert yourself, kid. Stick that big ol’ Converse high-top right in there!”

“What?”

“Don’t take no for an answer, is what I’m trying to tell you. Why don’t you try asking if I’ll change my mind?”

This was getting a little weird, but I went along with it.

“Ok. Uh . . . Mr. Wolfe, do you think you might reconsider?”

“You see? Now was that so difficult?”

I shook my head and smiled hopefully.

“I’m afraid I’m still going to say no.”

I tried to maintain a professional composure and not let my frustration show, but my face must have given me away.

“Relax.” Wolfe reached over and slapped me on the shoulder. “I was only joking. I think we can work something out here. You can probably tell that our operating budget is very tight. But I’m going to take pity on you since you seem like a nice kid. And frankly, I pity anyone who wants to work in radio. Here’s the deal: Arne, our maintenance guy, was just in a motorcycle accident and needs to recover for a couple of months. So your timing is pretty good. Arne’s, not so much. He made an ill-advised left hand turn into what he thought was a sufficient break in busy traffic. He’s lucky they didn’t have to scrape him off the road.”

“I’m sorry to hear about that,” I said.

“The guy’s in his sixties and he’s still riding around on a goddamned motorcycle. Who does he have to impress?”

“Women?”

“Not likely. Arne’s gay. Hmmm . . . come to think of it, maybe that explains some of his motorcycle attire.”

I shrugged.

“Where was I?” Wolfe asked.

“Arne’s recovering.”

“Right. So we originally planned on trying to get by without hiring a temp, but I don’t think that’s going to work out.” Wolfe glanced at his wrist as if he were wearing a watch. “Today’s Friday. Let’s say you take the weekend to acclimate yourself to the overnight hours and begin on Monday.”

“Maintenance? I really appreciate the opportunity, Mr. Wolfe, but I didn’t expect to be offered a maintenance job.”

“I thought you were willing to do whatever work we had.”

“I am! It’s just—”

“Well, I’m not going to twist your arm. If you feel you’re above the work . . .”

“No, of course not,” I said.

“So what is it, the hours? It’s much too busy around here during the day. We can’t change the hours.

“No, it’s not that, either. I’m up late all the time. And like I said, Jazz Thru the Night is my favorite. You should hear my Teddy Roe impersonation.”

“I’m sure it’s fantastic,” Wolfe said. “So then what’s the problem?”

“I just don’t have any maintenance experience. I mean, I’ve tinkered with friends’ guitars and amps at home from time to time. I’ve replaced some fuses, repaired some cables—that kind of thing—but I don’t think I can maintain the equipment of an entire radio station.”

Wolfe looked like he was waiting for the world’s biggest punchline. When he realized I was serious, he laughed for what felt like a full minute before he composed himself. “I think you’ve got the wrong idea about the job,” he said, wiping his eyes. “It’s not technical maintenance. Arne’s position here is a bit more . . . janitorial. You’d be cleaning the bathrooms and offices and doing a bunch of other shit.”

“Oh. Ok.” I felt stupid.

“The equipment maintenance and repairs are outsourced to a freelance guy who comes in once or twice a week and for emergencies.”

“I can do that. What time should I be here Monday?”

“Your hours are nine to five. I’m not here when you get in but Andrew will get you started. He’s the night manager-slash-receptionist but his background’s in audio engineering. You can learn a lot from Drew. Anyway, congratulations. You’ll get paid on Thursdays.”

As I turned to leave his office, Wolfe said to me, “Hey, wait a minute. Let’s hear that impression.”

“What?”

“The Teddy Roe impression. If it’s as good as you say, I want to hear it.”

It wasn’t my best performance. I was nervous and probably overdid it somewhat, but when I was done Wolfe looked astonished.

“Well fuck me sideways! If I had closed my eyes I wouldn’t have known the difference between you and Teddy. Alright, kid. Come back Monday and don’t wear anything that can’t get filthy. Congratulations and welcome to radio.”

***

WPEC put out only five hundred and fifty watts. That the station had a laughably small radius of reception goes almost without saying. If you happened to be passing through Stranten during the day, perhaps on your way to Toledo or Dayton, and your car radio was tuned to 88.9 FM, you might have time to catch one or two news stories or local commercials before the rural and semi-professional-sounding voices were overtaken by more powerful stations inhabiting that frequency range. If you were driving through at night, however, those few minutes would likely be filled with some of the best jazz to ever grace the airwaves. And if you were lucky, you’d also get to hear the smoldering voice of our local legend, the reclusive and gifted DJ Teddy Roe.

Roe had fascinated me ever since I was a child. His delivery was the polar opposite of your typical DJ, whose loud and obnoxious voice my mind immediately banishes to  a place reserved for such annoyances: billboards, car alarms, babies’ cries—jejune twittering of all sorts, to be ignored and bulwarked from my consciousness’ finite and precious bandwidth. Roe’s voice, on the other hand . . . how to describe it? It was soft and narcotic. It drew you in and took hold of you personally, never pressing, a gentle question to take or leave as you would.

At 10 PM, after a block of commercials, there’d come the sounds of horns and piano, the twack of bass and the boom and sizzle of drums. And then, as true to the music as any of the instruments taking their bars to shine in solo, Roe’s hypnotic voice would begin and offer up to the night the words that sounded to me like Bebop itself: And now, ladies and gentlemen, owls and friends, it’s time to relax and take in the sounds of jazz. Sit back and feel the flow. I’m your humble host, DJ Teddy Roe. At which point the music would flourish but never quite fill the void left by the cessation of his voice, and it was just him and me and the music and the great big night.

***

My first official task in radio was emptying trash. I started in Wolfe’s office, where his had climbed even further up the wall and was strewn around the floor in disgraceful amounts. Then I got the lounge, the bathroom, the kitchenette, and the control room. I wondered how such a small operation could produce so much waste. I mopped and swept and dusted. I cleaned the men’s and the women’s bathrooms, I unpacked boxes and broke them down for recycling, I changed the water cooler bottle and cleaned the drip tray that seemed to have  developed its own micro-ecosystem. I was so busy, in fact, that on the first night I never even saw Teddy Roe arrive. Nor did I see him enter the studio. But at ten o’clock, his voice was ubiquitous, simulcast on all the speakers throughout the station.

It was on my second night that I met Roe, and of all places, in the men’s room. I had gone in to clean it during a long block of Coltrane and he was just coming out of the stall. He went over to one of the mirrors and began practicing a commercial read. I had never seen a picture of Roe and it turned out that the owner of that big voice was actually a small-framed man just south of elderly. He acknowledged my gawking presence with a quick nod and went about the business of washing his hands. I had been thinking practically nonstop since I got the job about how I would introduce myself. But now as I stood there next to the man, close enough to catch the unmistakeable whiff of Choward’s Scented Gum, all the cool, knowledgeable things I had scripted seemed ridiculous to say aloud. Yet my mouth didn’t care. Nor did it concern itself with the social taboos of small talk with strangers in bathrooms. No, my stupid mouth decided to seize the moment and, with horror, I heard myself saying: “Hi, I’m the janitor! So nice to meet you.”

Roe took a moment to consider the wincing idiot in the mirror, then turned, offered his freshly dried hand, and graciously replied, “Hey. Nice to meet you. You’re new, right?”

***

For the next few days I kept away from Roe out of fear of saying something stupid again. But we soon began talking jazz here and there. He seemed impressed with my knowledge of the music and treated me like a peer. Our conversations grew longer and more substantial and what I can only describe as a friendship began.

When I told him that WPEC wasn’t simply a summer job for me and that I was in fact going to major in communications, that I eventually wanted to become a DJ, he invited me to sit in the studio and watch him work whenever I wanted. I was ecstatic; this was more than I could have hoped for. I became quite efficient at my job and obsessed with finishing my tasks as soon as possible so that I could watch and learn.

Untypical of other great talents, Roe was a good teacher. He sought to impart knowledge and made a point to explain virtually everything he did, from the simplest parts of the job to his ideas and philosophy regarding its function as a craft—not an art, he said. Art was a term used too liberally these days. Music was the art, and his job was to help facilitate its reception. He compared himself to a curator: knowledgeable and professional and never as important as the work he was presenting. He loathed the modern shock jocks whom he saw as vulgar, narcissistic, vaudeville comedians devoid of musical knowledge.

“No curator would ever stand in front of the Mona Lisa and tell poop jokes,” he said.

Roe also taught me about the equipment he used for the broadcast. There was enough room in Jazz Thru the Night’s budget to hire an audio engineer, but he had asked them not to. He liked having complete control of the console, of his microphone, the duration and length of the music fade-ins and -outs. He even set the microphone pre-amp, equalizer, and compressor himself. Their faceplates looked to me like they were on loan from NASA.

When I asked Roe why he concerned himself with all the technical minutia, he acted as if it was the most ridiculous question he had ever heard. “Man, my voice is my instrument,” he said. “You think Hendrix let some ponytailed engineer mess with the tone on his amp? Or turn down his input volume to stop it from distorting and making all that lovely fuzz? Imagine some gangly bespectacled tech-head telling the maestro to quit pointing his pickups at the speaker because he was causing feedback. You’ve got to understand: the sound of my voice is my voice, and my voice has got to be right.”

The summer went by faster than an Art Verdi paradiddle. I got used to the vampiric hours and my desire to become a DJ grew. My only fear, one I hadn’t even fully admitted to myself yet, was my lack of personal style. I hadn’t been able to cultivate much of a delivery of my own. I could easily mimic my favorite DJs, especially Roe, but my own voice left me cold.

As late August brought my employment closer to its end, the thought of leaving WPEC—even with its paltry salary, even with college and the beginning of my adulthood waiting—saddened me.

One rainy evening, Roe and I were sitting in the lounge before the show, talking.

“You know, you’re a pretty all-right young dude.”

“Thanks, Teddy.”

“Maybe a little odd, though, I’ve got to say.” He took an exploratory sip of his coffee, screwed up his face, and dumped another spoonful of sugar into the cup.

“How so?”

“Most kids—excuse me—young adults your age are into pop and rock. Some listen to that party rap. What do they call it? Hip-hop. Others go for the violent stuff. Jazz is hardly ever on their radars.”

“What can I say? I love jazz.”

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a wonderful thing to see someone your age enjoy it.”

“I really do. All those records you played while I was growing up just struck me as kind of . . .personal, you know? Authentic.”

“Ever go listen to it live?”

“No.” I said. “There’s not much opportunity in Stranten.”

“Well then I can see why you’d make that mistake.”

“What mistake?”

“I hate to break it to you, but recorded jazz is the least authentic of all music. That latest Madonna single is more authentic.”

“Wait, what? Of course jazz is authentic! Recorded or otherwise. It’s real. It’s all about the real. There are real musicians playing real songs. Difficult songs. Pop is just a bunch of sequencers and synths and formulaic, reductive crap.”

“And of all music,” Roe countered, “jazz is most about performance. Spontaneity and improvisation. What happens once was never meant to happen exactly the same way again. Except, though, when you record it, it does. That shit happens the exact same way every time. You’re capturing what was meant to be held only in memory, and in doing so, you are degrading it. A jazz recording is not a performance and a bunch of listeners is not an audience. With all due respect to my profession, of course.”

“And why would a recording of a pop song be any more authentic?” I asked.

“Aw, come on, man. Because pop’s venue has always been a sound-recording. To those cats, multi-tracking is an inherent part of the creative process. The effects-processing becomes almost part of the instrumentation. The engineer becomes a collaborator. When you tune to the middle of the FM dial you know you’re going to hear a song the way the artist envisioned when he wrote it. Shit, he probably wrote the thing in the studio. A sound-recording is pop’s actual canvas. Jazz records are like lithographs.”

“Wow, you’re kind of depressing me, Teddy.”

Roe looked at me with a grave expression. “Don’t worry. Pop music still sucks.” His face broke out in a smile and he laughed his deep, broadcast laugh.

“So what was the best show you ever saw then?” I asked. “Impart some tales of authenticity on the kid.”

“Ha. That’s easy. Thelonious Monk at the Village Vanguard in 1972.”

“You saw Monk.”

“Sure did. A buddy and I took the Greyhound up from Virginia. We considered seeing him somewhere closer, Baltimore maybe, but in the end we knew it just had to be the Vanguard. Greenwich Village in the early seventies? Woo-Wee! Here come two good-looking, strapping young lads ready for whatever New York had to show us. Didn’t even have the money for a hotel room. But we got lucky and hooked up with a couple of NYU students at the show who let us crash with them afterwards. Real cuties, too. We had us a time, let me tell you. One of the best damned weekends of my life. And Monk did not disappoint.”

musician-623362_960_720I couldn’t help but to visualize it: The Village Vanguard at night, its red carpets and curtains glowing mephistophically from the stage-lights in the otherwise darkened venue like the insides of your eyelids at a campfire. The cigarette smoke lapping at the ceiling. I imagine Monk’s quartet in mid-song: They’re performing something that really grooves, perhaps the lively “Hackensack,” saxophone and drums bickering loudly back and forth while the piano picks its spots, retorting with restrained grace. The bass like the steady voice of a gentle father soothing his petulant children.

Then the phone rang at Andrew’s desk, and Monk and his band disappeared back into jazz lore.

“Guess I’d better get ready for the show.” Roe gave me a fist bump and headed towards the studio.

“Teddy,” Andrew called out, “you’ve got a phone call. It’s the hospital.” He transferred the call to the lounge and Roe picked it up on the first ring.

“Hello? Yes, this is he. What? What happened? She did? When? Oh God. Ok. I’m on my way.”

Roe let the receiver drop back into the cradle. He mumbled something neither Andrew or I could make out. We asked him to repeat what we couldn’t understand.

“I’ve got to go,” he blurted, and put on his hat and raincoat and hurried out of the station. Andrew and I went to the door and called after him, but he seemed not to hear a word. He started up his car and the wheels kicked back a spray of gravel as he pulled away into the darkness and the wind-canted rainfall.

Inside, Andrew called up Wolfe at home and relayed the story in a panic. He nodded epileptically to Wolfe’s reply.

When he was done he handed me the phone. “Charlie needs to talk to you,” he said, and went into the control room.

Wolfe sounded more relaxed than I expected.

“How are you feeling tonight, kid?” he asked.

“I’m all right.”

“Good. Because I’m going to need your help with something.”

“Whatever I can do. I think Roe got called away to the hospital.”

“It’s probably his wife. She has some heart issues.”

“Geez. Do you think she’s going to be all right?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Two years ago she had an emergency bypass. Then a few months back, Teddy rushed her to the ER because they thought she was having the big one.”

“What happened?”

“The Doctor had her lay on her left side until she farted and the pain went away. Flatulence and infarction, kid. Getting old is a fucking joy. So who knows? At least the hospital is right down the street.”

“What are we going to do about the show? Play a ‘Best Of’?”

“Have you ever heard a Jazz Thru the Night ‘Best Of’?”

“Now that you mention it, I haven’t.”

“Teddy stipulates this in every contract. He doesn’t want his show replayed, for whatever goddamn reason. So look. Here’s the plan. Drew just finished cutting together a bunch of Blitz and McCoy ‘Best Of’s’ that we were planning on playing during Teddy’s vacation in a few weeks.”

“Great, so you’re covered for tonight.”

“Well, yes and no. We haven’t recorded the V/O’s yet. I need you to do some on-air reads at the top of the show and after breaks.”

“Me?”

“Yeah. You’re listening to the ‘Best Of’ Blitz and McCoy. Some shit like that. Can you do it?”

“Are you kidding? Of course I can!”

“You’re a lifesaver. Drew should already be setting up.”

I hung up with Charlie and quickly called up my mom and dad and told them to record the show.

Then something occurred to me. And don’t think I wasn’t thrilled to be doing some reads on the air. I was. It would have been a nice bonus with which to end my summer gig. Call it greed, ambition, whatever, but as I looked into the control room at the waiting microphone, I began to think: What if I got some real experience? What if I did Jazz Thru the Night? Choosing the music would not be a problem for me. And after weeks of watching, I was fairly confident I could use the equipment well enough on my own voice. I even had some practice and had a good feel of the throw of the faders. Teddy had said he hated the idea of having his shows replayed, but that didn’t mean someone else couldn’t spin some jazz in his stead. I could be present in his absence.

Wolfe would never agree, of course, but there was no time to call him and square it anyway. I thought back to the job interview, when he told me that I needed to be more assertive. Hijacking a radio broadcast was definitely assertive, you couldn’t deny that. I got the feeling that he might secretly applaud what I was now seriously considering.

I opened the top drawer of the reception desk and pocketed the set of keys I knew were kept inside. I walked towards the studio. My stomach felt suddenly self-aware, as if it was plotting a revolt against my mutiny. I took a breath to calm myself. I took another and pulled the control room door open with a click.

Drew looked up from the console. “There he is! So are you down for this, or what?”

I nodded.

“Word. Plug these in next to mine.” He underhanded me a set of headphones. “Feel free to warm up, clear your throat, whatever. You’ll be able to hear yourself in the cans but you won’t actually be on-air until I press this.”radio-1475054_1920

He pointed to a mute button that was red-lit. Teddy had shown me this on the first day I sat with him. The mute button on that channel cut my microphone’s feed to broadcast, but I was still able to hear it in the headphones from a pre-fader send. The next two faders were for stereo channels. Written on the strip of tape above them: CD PLAYER #1 and CD PLAYER #2. The first was for commercials. It was loaded with a two-minute block that would air after the NPR News feed was done.

Drew watched the digital clock that displayed seconds. When the NPR update was done and the clock read 9:58:00 he rolled the commercials.

“Two minutes,” he said.

I plugged in the headphones and adjusted the volume.

“Drew, one side of these are out,” I lied.

“Shit. Let me run grab another pair.”

He left the control room and I locked the door behind him. Besides Wolfe’s and Teddy’s, I had the only other set of keys in my pocket.

I opened CD player #2 and removed the “Best Of” Blitz and McCoy. I quickly scanned the wall-mounted case that held a few hundred of Teddy’s “go-to” CDs and found the first couple of tracks I’d use to open the show. I placed the first disc into the tray.

In my headphones I heard a severely underproduced spot for aluminum siding. Drew was back and at the control room door, pulling on the handle and looking through the small window, his expression confused and frightened.

Now came an ad for the First National Bank. Drew knocked on the window, then held up his watch. He pointed down towards the lock as if this could all be some sort of mistake.

Next up was a PSA. Drew began to look very pissed. I had to turn my back or I wasn’t going to go through with it.

He started pounding on the door.

I spoke into the mic and adjusted the preamp and compressor. Hearing myself for the first time through the broadcast’s signal path was epiphanic. The voice I had grown so used to, filtered by my own skull, came back to me now through the microphone, mic preamp, equalizer, and compressor, sounding as if it had been on an anabolic steroid and five-day-a-week gym regiment. There was a sheen to its upper frequencies that made my every syllable and minor mouth noise into a glorious event. The unpleasant lower-mid frequencies were scooped out. The tone was perfect. I was present.

The block of commercials ended with a WPEC promo. Drew was still pounding on the door. The digital clock ticked to 10:00:00 and the air was all mine. I hit play on the CD player, cleared my throat one last time.

Brubeck’s “Take Five,” the song I had always imagined to be the first I would play on the air, began. Joe Morello’s drum intro was first. Its busy ride-cymbal never fails to conjure up in my mind heavy rainfall pattering onto a city sidewalk. Morello was joined four bars later by Brubeck’s relentless and iconic 5/4 piano riff. Eight bars after that, the alto sax made its entrance as Paul Desmond began the song’s melody. I decided I would begin when the sax left the blues scale a few bars later.

I always thought that when the time came, I would know just what to say. And how to say it. I assumed the words would simply come to me. That’s the danger of improv, which is the peril of jazz. When it’s your turn to take a solo you had better not only be ready to perform but also have something to say.

What did a seventeen-year-old have to say in place of the greatest jazz DJ he had ever heard?

The banging on the control room door stopped. I saw it slowly open from the corner of my eye but I refrained from looking back. Desmond betrayed his minor key for a major but I wasn’t ready; I’d need to give it a few more bars before I began. I closed my eyes tightly
and gripped my headphones. I un-muted my mic to air. “Take Five” was well into the alto sax solo and no spot felt right just yet to dip the music down and speak over. The weight of a steadying hand on my shoulder and the scent of clove on a wave of violet. He and I and the great big night. Desmond’s solo ended and microphone-516043_1920.jpg“Take Five” went back to its main shuffle, creating a perfect, natural lull.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, owls and friends, it’s time to relax and take in the sounds of jazz. Sit back and feel the flow. I’m your humble host . . .