The Lost Level -- Chapter 1 (Novel Excerpt)

By Jason Sizemore
on December 31, 2014
MY NAME IS AARON PACE, and I’m writing this by hand in a spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook that I found in a student’s backpack inside of an abandoned school bus. All three—the notebook, the backpack, and the school bus—have seen better days. For that matter, so have I.

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Free Fiction -- The Jamcoi by J.M. McDermott

By Jason Sizemore
on November 26, 2014
1 comment

The Jamcoi

Appears in the collection Disintegration Visions by J.M. McDermott (Apex Publications, 2012)

 

Sharon had grown up in a Turkey household. Once, her mother had branched out with honeyed ham, but it was uniformly considered a disaster among Sharon’s family, and after that, it was nothing but turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, and also for Christmas. Her mother was not a talented chef. At Thanksgiving, the fact that she was actually cooking instead of ordering out was special enough. The family was just fine without jamcoi. This was fine by Sharon’s mother. Sharon’s mother was intimidated by the jamcoi, and she had no desire to cook one instead of a turkey, even if the new bird was all the rage.

Sharon didn’t mind. She liked turkey, and had no real fondness for the endorphin-rich jamcoi meat that was always a bit too soft. Jamcoi gave her a slight headache if she ate too much of it. She claimed she had a slight allergy to get out of eating it at restaurants, though it was probably just that her body was not accustomed to the rich, buttery meat.

Sharon had hoped to go her entire adult, married life without cooking either a lobster or a jamcoi. She never told this to her husband, David, because it had never come up in conversation. It wasn’t an aversion quite on par with never having a ménage à trois, or even her aversion to nagging her husband for not separating the whites and the colors in the wash, though he knew they never quite came out as clean that way. Still, her aversion to jamcoi was something she knew in a deep place inside of her. The thing was that she didn’t like the idea of shoving something still alive into the terrible fires, to baste in its blood and flood its body with natural chemicals of pleasure. The whole thing seemed quite unpalatable to Sharon.

Her husband, of course, loved jamcoi. His family was strictly jamcoi. Every major holiday, as long as anyone could remember, they picked up the jamcoi that Mr. Crosswell — that’s her husband’s father — received as a gift from his employer, a prestigious banking firm in Manhattan. He brought it home from the grocery store still squawking. Mrs. Crosswell who had always seemed to be trapped in her own mother’s generation, back when women were homemakers and little else, cheerfully donned her apron and put her extensive black hair up and back and out of the way so as to keep the blood and gristle out of it.

Jamcois are generally already plucked of their feathers by most mainstream suppliers, but it is generally considered inferior in taste to the jamcoi that arrive with all their feathers intact. Mrs. Crosswell always preferred the finer jamcoi, with all their purple and gold feathers fluffed out in terror, because she had a taste for the finer things in life. She was a Manhattan socialite, and speaking with her on the phone was exhausting. Mrs. Crosswell used a pair of designer, gourmet jamcoi tongs made by hand in Italy to hold that fat, goofy bird by its stubby neck. She pulled the feathers out like husking a corn that tried to escape. The jamcoi squawked up a storm when it happened. The plucking had to hurt. Pain, of course, was the point of the procedure, and the way to prepare the meat in the ideal manner.

The trick to jamcoi was to get just the right amount of pain to flood its muscles with endorphins. It made the meat which would otherwise be tough as a shoe and gamey, soft as cheese with buttery overtones and a hint of the allspice seeds the birds ate all year long. Plucking the feathers by hand, with the bird’s neck grasped in tongs, was just the right recipe for pain for a discriminating diner. Most chefs preferred to do the beak and legs, too, before they cut the back of the bird’s head open to remove the bulk of the creature’s brain. Mrs. Crosswell, though, did just the beak, but not the legs. She was specific about it, and always made a point of it when talking about how to properly prepare a Crosswell jamcoi holiday bird. After she got the feathers stripped, she cleared out the downy feathers with a spare razor she had taken from her husband. The birds, gripped in tongs, were naked and squawking up a storm from all the pain. They struggled and struggled against the final embarrassment of the shaving, but there was nothing to be done for the creatures. Supper was supper, and some things just had to be done. That’s what Mrs. Crosswell said.

Anyway, it was all over for the bird soon enough, and the pain would no longer be a problem as anything but chemistry, when the upper half of the animal’s brain was thrown away with the feet. The gizzard, neck, and intestines would have to be removed after the jamcoi had completely died. No one wanted the bird to bleed out in a rush. People wanted the bird’s body to linger — to slowly fade off into death. Preferably the bird’s deep organs would finally fail moments before the bird was completely cooked.

The tongue was the trickiest bit. It was utterly inedible, like chewing on a tree root. Jamcoi could dig deep tunnels with their powerful tongues. If the tongue wasn’t cut properly, the shriveling exterior and boiling bodily fluids caused an explosion in the heat. Thick, foul tongue leaked all through the upper half of the bird, ruining everything. Its tongue was the hardest thing to get rid of.

Chopping off the jamcoi beak takes skill, muscle, and a bit of luck. People who are really good at it — who could hit it in one swift strike and get it all clean like a samurai sword — say that one should practice with coconuts.

They said that one should hold the coconut out in a pair of tongs, and shake at the coconut, so one could imagine the bird struggling and squawking in terrible pain. Then, they said one should swipe at the coconut from the bottom up. The top of the bird’s head will be too wild to get a clean strike. One has to go for the bottom, where the worst parts of the tongue have to be cut through clean, lest they spoil the meat. The tongue is a challenge because it curls up like a snail when the beak is shut. One must let the bird squawk in pain to throw tongue out of hiding for the clean, sweeping blow.

Mrs. Crosswell laughs and laughs when she tells the story of her first jamcoi, how she had mistakenly struck the beak from the top, and hacked off only part of it, and its tongue had flailed about like something out of a horror movie. She couldn’t get the tongue out at all, even when she struck from the bottom, like she was supposed to. She didn’t realize it was still in there, polluting the best parts of the bird when it burst. The cooked jamcoi came out with its thick tongue still partially intact. During dinner, what was left of it popped out like a silent squawk when her husband was carving the animal, right into the cranberry sauce. It was gross. Next time, Mrs. Crosswell spent weeks in advance practicing on coconuts. And, because she was Mrs. Crosswell, it was coconut cake, coconut cream pie, and coconut shrimp until finally, the first thing Mr. Crosswell said at the perfectly chopped and cooked jamcoi on Thanksgiving was, Thank God it’s not another damn coconut!

They were jamcoi people. They had no problem cooking something while its heart was still beating, until the lungs ran out of air in the sweltering, sealed oven until the brainless bird body slumps into a hot, hot death, struggling with the stumps that used to be its legs against the lashes that hold it to the meat rack, pumping blood and pumping blood from its little heart until not even the heat could keep the blood from congealing.

The Crosswells had even done it the right way once, as the finest chefs on TV did it, leaving the bird completely alive the whole time, and never cutting out the top of the brain, allowing the animal to suffer as much as possible. Mrs. Crosswell listened to the jamcoi struggling and struggling while she was working in the kitchen on the rest of the holiday meal — yams, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, etc. The bird even managed to work loose from one of the lashes with the stump where it used to have a beak. Mrs. Crosswell wanted to try this because the time before she had accidentally cut out too much brain, and had gotten the lumpy stuff on the bottom — the medulla oblongata — and the bird actually died before it could be cooked. Everyone agreed that was the second-worst Thanksgiving jamcoi, ever, after the one whose tongue had burst.

Sharon heard all the stories about jamcoi from her husband’s family, but couldn’t share in them. Sharon had only had jamcoi from deli counters, and didn’t get it very much. It tasted a little like pickles, to her, and she didn’t like pickles, and it usually had a soft consistency, like cheese, which was not what she liked in her meats.

Sharon had never thought anything of jamcoi since the wedding. David had insisted on giving it as an option, and about half the guests preferred to have the jamcoi to the beef, and it cost about the same and the caterer did everything. Since then, Sharon had managed to live a jamcoi-free lifestyle.

All this changed, of course, when Mrs. Deborah Crosswell, probably drunk, called her son from a hotel lobby somewhere in New York. David then called his wife at work.

-Hey, Sharon. Is it all right if my folks come over here for Thanksgiving? My mom’s sick of snow. I think she was drunk.

-It’s snowing in New York?

-Yeah.

-Sounds magical. They get snow. We get freezing rain.

-Is it all right if they come down for Thanksgiving?

-Of course it’s all right. You didn’t tell them you need my permission, did you, because that’s crazy. You don’t need to ask my permission to have your parents over for dinner. I love your parents.

-Okay, babe. I just thought I’d ask first because… Well, you know…

-What?

-We’re jamcoi people. I know you hate it.

-Oh. I’ll get some tongs on the way home.

Between hanging up the phone and driving to the store, Sharon thought more about jamcoi than she had in the entire time since her wedding. When she got to the store, all the tongs looked the same.

-Hey, babe, I’m at the store buying tongs.

-Cool.

-So… They all look the same. There’s six different kinds of tongs, and they all look the same.

-‘Tis the season for jamcoi tongs.

-‘Tis. So… What am I supposed to be looking for here? There’s one that costs thirty dollars more and it looks like it might hold the feet, too. Some of them have rubber handles, but they cost more. Is it worth it?

-Mom has never, ever been scratched. That’s not worth twenty bucks. The rubber handles might be good.

-Great. Now there’s only four, identical-looking tongs…

-Get the mid-range one. What’s the mid-range one?

-14.95, plus tax.

-You know we can just tell them you’re allergic. You do get headaches from it, don’t you?

-Your parents want jamcoi, David. I can cook it. I’ll eat enough to be polite and then I’ll fill up on pie. You’re making pie, by the way.

-I am the king of all pies. I’ll help, though. I’ve seen mom do jamcoi forever.

When Sharon got home from the store, David was still at work. She held the tongs in the air, testing their weight, and imagined what it must be like to be a small child in a home where an animal is mutilated and roasted alive upon every holiday, and grew up to be a nice, normal person, like David. Then her husband came home and together they googled tips on how to cook jamcoi. It was not an easy bird, but it wasn’t as daunting as people thought it was, because it wasn’t a violent bird that struggled much. Most chefs assumed that when the endorphins struck, it didn’t feel much of anything, and the trick was keeping it in pain steadily so it wouldn’t feel anything until it died. One had to be more careful after the notorious cleaning ceremonies, with all the raw bird parts. Also, jamcoi could be fully cooked on the outside, and then undercooked inside. It could have salmonella. Salmonella could kill you. The little scratches it might sneak in with its goofy feet were no worse than running an arm across small rose thorns. Some hydrogen peroxide and you’re fine.

Mrs. Crosswell called and talked with Sharon when news reached New York of the imminent jamcoi.

-Dah-ling, I was hoping to talk to you. You know, I forgot to call you and ask if you wanted me to bring anything.

-Wine would be great. We’ve got all the food covered.

-Do you need tongs? I’ve got these amazing cast iron tongs. Heavy as sin, but no bird’s getting loose on me.

-I’ve got tongs. Don’t worry, Mom.

Sharon hadn’t been married to David for long enough to be completely comfortable calling her that. It came out forced. Mrs. Crosswell was polite enough to start talking into the pause, to ride over the awkward moment as if it hadn’t came out so strange.

- Don’t worry! It’ll be marvelous. You’ll love it. It’s so easy once you get the hang of it. Jamcoi is amazing. Since you’ve got the food covered, I’m going to bring some of our private wines with us. You don’t have a cellar in that little house of yours, do you? We have amazing wines. A nice Riesling will really enhance the bird. We have a Riesling that’s fifteen years old. It tastes like silk. Oh, Mr. Crosswell says hello. He’s doing a crossword puzzle. He’s been at it for hours, the poor dear. Mr. Crosswell, I think it’s high time you did something useful with your day, don’t you? Sometimes the puzzles must be victorious or it would mean nothing to conquer one… I don’t know, dear; go for a walk or something. Get up. Sorry, Sharon, what were we talking about?

-Riesling.

-Right, I have this ten-year-old Riesling. Tastes like butter. We can’t wait to see you. The snow is terrible. It’s all over everything. It’s too early in the year to have this much snow.

-I like snow.

-You don’t have to live with it hanging all over everything, all wet and slushy. It’s a wonderful visitor, but a terrible roommate.

-New York must be magical, with all the Christmas decorations and the snow…

-Of course, but you get used to it. One needs a break from magic. Has David taught you how to pick a jamcoi at the market?

-We’ve downloaded a bunch of stuff from Betty Crocker…

-That pancake peddler knows nothing. Listen, when you’re picking a jamcoi, look for the most yellow. Make sure their beak isn’t at all red or bloody. You don’t want a bleeder. Get an active one, if you can, with lots of strong muscles. They’ll be strugglers, but they’ll taste the best. If you get them a few days in advance, be sure to get a feeding tub. You can just leave it in the garage. It isn’t cold down there, is it? God, I hope not. Maybe a space heater if it’s cold.

The conversation went on for a long time. At the end, Sharon still relied on the jamcoi guide she got from Betty Crocker’s website. The guide told her to buy a voucher weeks in advance, so she wouldn’t have to worry about a jamcoi being there for her at the last minute, and to specify on the voucher if she wanted feathers or not. The vouchers were all bought at the cash register, right at check out, available right after Halloween.

When the time came, the store kept the jamcoi outside, in rows of stacked-up cages. They were in the spot where the Halloween pumpkins were kept a month ago, and Christmas trees would be in a few days. During the regular year, a dozen jamcoi, with feathers and without, were usually shoved next to the meat aisle, in a big plastic cage. They looked plaintively out from their cage. Children ran over to tap the plastic and make the birds squawk and squonk in protest. The caged birds that still had their feathers preened themselves constantly, and the bottoms of their cages were full of purple and gold feathers, all over the newspaper that caught their poop. In the parking lot, with all the seasonal jamcoi piled up like pumpkins by the door, the feathers accumulated in the parking lot like autumnal leaves. The birds were loud enough to drown out the Christmas music that was playing a few days too early through the shopping complex’s loudspeakers.

David said he would be coming to help her pick out the bird, but he called to say he couldn’t get out of work on time. He had to get his budget approved before the holiday break chased management off for the long weekend. Sharon told him that was fine, and that it couldn’t be so hard to get one of these goddamn birds. People did it every year. For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Crosswell did it every year, in high heels and real pearls, in a crowded Manhattan gourmet boutique. If you could do it in high heels and pearls in Manhattan, it couldn’t be that hard in the suburbs.

The birds, seen up close, all had tiny black eyes and purple and gold feathers. Looking at them, Sharon was reminded of how birds had evolved from dinosaurs. Their beaks were shaped somewhat like an oversized macaw’s beak except all in a muddy sort of brownish-black color. They had surprisingly long legs for such heavy birds. They had tiny little flightless wings like deformed growths. Their squawk sounded like something between a goose and a car horn. They were loud. All together, they squawked and squawked like an angry traffic jam. They shook their heads and jumped around their cages to look at everyone. They bit at the cages, bloodying their beaks. They nipped at anything shoved into their cages. Kids with unobservant parents shoved bits of candy and French fry through the bars of the cages. You weren’t supposed to feed them anything like that. It made them sick. Around the cages, some of the birds had been very sick. The whole affair stank like a chicken farm right next to the grocery store. Sharon marveled that anyone would eat those disgusting-smelling creatures.

Sharon wandered from bird to bird. She leaned over to see what their beaks looked like, because Mrs. Crosswell had said to find one without too much blood. The ones that were active were chewing on the bars, and it made their beaks bloody. Streaks of blood ran down their beaks, and down the cage bars. This was a contradiction in the advice that Sharon had gotten. Sharon spent perhaps too long considering the jamcoi. By the time she made her circuit of the cages, the cage walls had shrunk by at least one layer and a whole new set of victims were available for sale.

She picked one. It had mostly yellow feathers with plenty of purple near the tips. It didn’t have a very bloody beak, as it was sort of active, so it was somewhere in between Mrs. Crosswell’s advice and the reality of the scene before Sharon. No one said anything so it must have been an acceptable choice of jamcoi. It squawked a little, nervously, when Sharon picked up the cage. At the cash register next to the cages, a grocery store clerk moved the jamcoi into a sturdy cardboard box and taped it shut. The clerk was very friendly. He had a pair of tongs, and he was an expert at them. He slipped them under the cage’s lid, with one hand holding the cage door open only enough to allow the tongs through. He didn’t open the cage all the way until he had captured the bird by its neck. It seemed a silly precaution, but wise. Some of the birds were more active than others, and maybe this prevented escape.

Sharon placed the jamcoi box on the passenger’s seat. It tapped its beak against the cardboard. It squawked a little. Then, it seemed to fall asleep.

At home, David had already started cooking desserts. He had a pumpkin pie in the oven, and homemade applesauce cooking on the stove. It smelled like Thanksgiving was supposed to smell — like cinnamon apples and pumpkin. Soon, it would smell like jamcoi.

-Oh, you got it? Can I see it?

-Get the tongs.

-Just open the box. He won’t jump out.

-Seriously, I won’t have jamcoi running around my kitchen squawking and pooping on things. These birds are nasty. You should have seen the store. Get the tongs.

-Relax, we do this every year.

-‘We’ don’t. Your mom does. Have you ever plucked a jamcoi, David?

-Well… No, but it won’t jump out at us.

-Leave it in the box unless you have tongs. I command it; it shall be so. The applesauce smells good.

-Thanks. When do you want to start the jamcoi?

-Any minute now.

-Tomorrow. We should do it in the morning. Did you get a food packet?

-I think it came with one. It’s already inside with one.

-It doesn’t really matter. It won’t starve if it goes hungry one night. And, it increases the suffering. At this point, anything that increases suffering will make it taste better. We could poke it with a stick through the air holes if we wanted. We could pluck out a feather at a time in slow Chinese water torture. We could make it listen to Enya.

-No. It’s its last night on earth. We will not make it listen to Enya. We should be kind to it. It deserves a final meal. Do you think it’ll eat applesauce?

Sharon got a small spoon out and dipped it into the simmering apple sauce.

-I’m okay with the applesauce, but don’t give it any of my pie. Pie is people food. Pie is special.

Sharon tried a bit of the applesauce, to see if it was worthy of a doomed creature’s last meal.

-It’s too hot. Give it a minute. What time’s your mother coming?

-I think they’ll be here by midnight.

-Seriously?

-Traffic’s a bitch. Maybe they’ll stop and get a hotel if they get sick of traffic.

The jamcoi squawked like it had been poked with something hot. Sharon and David looked down at it. They both laughed a little. It wasn’t actually funny, but the squawk had been so out of the blue, and they had to laugh about it. Because they were both nervous about it. Because his mother was coming. Because they had to do terrible things to this bird.

The kitchen timer went off. The pie was done. David pulled it out of the oven, and placed it on top of the fridge to cool, with a cloth over it.

Sharon picked up the box. She took out the tongs.

-Fuck it, babe. Let’s do this. Get me a trash bag, put away everything — pies and applesauce and stuff — in another room, where it’s nice and safe when there might be a goose on the loose.

-Do you want to check the instructions first?

-No. Pie. Sauce. Trash bag. Feathers coming. Be like the wind.

She slid the tongs underneath the lid. She carefully searched out what felt like the head. She rummaged around the head, searching for the puny neck. She carefully closed the tongs around it, gently. She felt the pressure of the bird in the tongs. They fit tight. They were supposed to be tight. The jamcoi squonked louder than it had ever squonked before. It struggled against the tongs, but it wasn’t as strong as Sharon or the tongs.

David clapped his hands.

-You got it!

Sharon opened the top of the box with her free hand, and pulled. She had the tongs around the neck on her first try. The bird felt heavier in the air than it had in the box. Its neck, pulled out, was longer than it had appeared in the cage. At this angle, it resembled an overweight cockatoo more than a turkey, with its parrot-like beak and bright colors. The bird was trembling. Its feathers puffed out in fear. Already, Sharon could see the thin, black down feathers underneath the big yellow and purple outer layers.

-There she is.

-You think it’s a girl?

-Of course it’s a girl. David, don’t be silly. There were prettier ones for sale, with bigger tails. Boys always have more plumage.

-Human women always have more plumage.

-This is a bird, David. Girls are always the plain ones, hiding in the background with the eggs while the men get eaten.

The bird squawked and squonked. It struggled a little against the tongs. It looked all around it as best it could with its beady black eyes.

-Right. First we get the feathers. David, where’s the trash bag?

David rummaged around until he found just the right bag. Sharon looked her victim in the single eye that peered up at her, black and wide and wet, like a tadpole egg.

-I read in a book, once, about a boy who ate a cockroach to prove his love.

-That’s disgusting, Sharon. Don’t make me eat a cockroach.

-Look at what I’m about to do for you, David. I’m about to mutilate this poor animal. To impress your parents. To prove my love.

David didn’t say anything.

Sharon reached up to the creature and pulled a feather. It pulled its feet up close to its body. It tried to reach its toes up to the mouth of the jamcoi tongs, with no success. It couldn’t possibly pull its feet past its fat body to its neck, but it tried. Sharon pulled another feather, and another. She did this over and over again, and was surprised how easy it was to hurt this defenseless, struggling animal.

She put the creature back in the box. She said she needed to rest her arm.

-Give me a minute.

-I can hold it for you.

-You can pluck some feathers, too, you know. Don’t wait for me to personally invite you.

David took his turn at the jamcoi, removing feathers from its wings until the creature’s constant flapping made it hard to get them all.

Then, it was Sharon’s turn again. Everything was going fine. Jamcoi was surprisingly easy. It had such a reputation as a difficult creature to cook, to those uninitiated in its mysteries, but now it was no challenge at all to pluck away the feathers.

The creature peed itself when it finally lost its tail feathers. They came off in one quick yank, and the creature pooped. Sharon laughed and jumped back, holding the defecating animal over the trash bag so it could poop among its lost feathers. It squawked a little, but had long ago stopped struggling. It could do nothing. The couple took turns handing the bird to each other when their arm tired of holding the ten-pound animal in the air like that, but it wasn’t so hard, really. It didn’t take that long. When it was done, it looked like a dead goose from the neck down, and like a kind of over-sized parrot in the face. All the purple and gold plumage was gone, in a pile of trash like raked leaves. They used only a little bit of water to lubricate the hand razor to get the worst of the down feathers.

Now it was time to get the beak, the notoriously difficult part, with the most pain.

-Do you want me to do the beak?

-I’m on it. I’m all over this like your mother on gin. Stand back, or lose a finger.

The creature looked in terror at the blade. It breathed deep, terrible breaths in awful pain. It must have been so cold without all those feathers. They hadn’t bothered to shave all the down. After it was cooked, it had to be skinned, and it was widely considered unnecessary to get the down completely as long as you knew there was a very small fire risk. All the little cuts and scrapes were fine, as long as they weren’t deep enough to slice a vein.

The animal did the avian equivalent of whimpering.

Sharon wanted to comfort the creature. She knew it was a bad idea to give it any sort of humanization or mercy. It was food, nothing more. Treating it like a cute animal — even though it was actually quite cute now that it had been shed of its clothes and looked so gentle and vulnerable — was a dangerous path that led to remorse, and a feeling of guilt that would spoil her dinner. The creature had been bred for this, bought and paid for, and would soon lose the ability to process its own pain once they got the beak removed and cut off the top of its brain. The sooner, the better, to ease its suffering, if one really thought about it.

Sharon held out her hand.

-The knife.

-You want me to do it?

-The knife!

David placed the knife handle in her palm.

-She’s going to struggle a lot. You’ve got to tighten the tongs.

Sharon blinked.

-Oh, right…. Can you tighten the tongs? My hands are full.

David reached out to the crank near Sharon’s hands. The makers of the tongs kept the crank far away from the beak. A frightened beak could nab a finger.

-Ready?

-Do it!

Sharon pulled back to swing. She angled the bird in the tightened tongs so she could hit it at just the right angle. From the side, she had a perfect view into the miserable, frightened creatures face. Its beak parted — a symptom of the tightened tongs that choked it a little, made its jaw gape open after more air.

The little legs that had given up long ago started back up again.

It looked up at Sharon with horror — real horror. Sharon imagined the kind of fear she’d feel if a dinosaur stood over her, its jaws open.

-Sorry, little bird…

-Do it!

-I’m so sorry…

-Do it! Do it! Do it!

She closed her eyes. She peeked out of the side of one of her eyes so she could see where she was swinging. She screamed.

-AAAH!

-Do it!

She swung. She swung as hard as she could. She felt the stiff beak crack under her strike. She felt the bird moving against the blade jammed inside of its beak. She hadn’t even gotten halfway through the bottom bill.

The bird’s naked, stubby wings flapped and flapped. Blood welled up, oozing into the trash.

Sharon tried to pull the blade out. It was stuck. The bird screamed. Not a squawk, not a squonk, but a real scream like the kind a child would scream if someone had tried to cut the kid’s lips off with a knife. The bird kept screaming.

Sharon screamed, too.

David grabbed at the blade and the bird’s bottom bill, trying to push the blade loose.

Sharon struggled with the butcher knife.

-It wasn’t sharp enough! I should have sharpened it more.

The creature kept screaming. The neighbors were going to call the police if this kept up.

Blood was all over the blade, now. It should have lubricated things, but it didn’t lubricate anything. It just made it harder to get the blade out. The bird screamed. Its thick tongue pushed against the butcher knife. Sharon felt the tongue’s movements in her palm from the blade’s handle.

David got a new knife from the drawer — the one he used to slice brisket when he used the smoker. David swung down hard on the top of the beak. Bits of blood sprayed up from the cut. The blood got all over his face and shirt like red glitter. He got his knife out and swung again, hard.

The bird kept screaming.

-Not the beak! Get the head!

David kept hacking at the beak.

-Don’t worry, babe! It’s going to be fine!

David hacked again, and got the upper bill. It clattered on the floor like a wooden bowl.

The butcher knife slid out in a burst of blood. Sharon pulled it loose and held it in her hand, amazed she hadn’t dropped the bird. She held onto the tongs for dear life. Her arm was so tired. All of a sudden, her arm wanted to give up. She wanted to stop.

-Do it!

She wanted the bird to stop screaming. It sounded human, like how peacocks always sound like they’re crying for help and cockatiels are always trying to shout for joy and parrots are always talking to themselves in mirrors. She just wanted the bird to stop screaming.

She closed her eyes. She went straight up, as hard as she could. The rugged, thick, heavy tongue of the bird that could dig as well as a shovel in its natural conditions gave way like wet bamboo. Blood oozed out, black and thick from the stump. The bottom bill fell into the trash bag like it was supposed to. The screaming stopped.

One last strike would make everything better. Sharon tried to tell David to do it, but she couldn’t speak. She shook her head. She was crying. She dropped the knife. She covered her eyes, and wanted to let go of the tongs, but she forced herself to hold onto the tongs.

David was quick. He grabbed the tongs, where they wrapped around the bird’s neck, and clamped them shut. He jammed the knife right into the eye of the bird, into its brain. It wasn’t as elegant as what Mrs. Crosswell did every year, like most experience jamcoi chefs, chopping off the top of the bird’s head with one clean slice against a cutting board, but it did the job.

David took over.

Sharon was shaking too hard. She sat at the kitchen table, afraid to look. Her husband cleaned up the mess with they had made of the bird with a carving knife. He chopped off the feet, first one then the other, with loud blows that made Sharon jump. David wrapped the still-breathing bird in grape leaves and olive oil to seal its wounds and keep it alive as long as possible in the oven. He positioned it carefully on the wire rack over a deep pan, where all these juices would fall. They were supposed to keep the juices for stuffings and gravies and then frozen in the fridge for a year’s worth of jamcoi stock.

David washed the blood from his head. He took the trash out.

-Don’t worry, babe. They say the endorphins flood its system. They say that the nerve endings go dull. They say it can’t feel anything. It never really felt anything. It screams because the endorphins feel so good.

-Don’t ever say that again, David. Please, don’t ever say that to me again.

-Thanks for doing this for us. It’ll be just like my mother used to make. When we’re eating dinner, we’ll all laugh about this. It’ll be our jamcoi story. We’ll tell it years from now and laugh and laugh and laugh.

-I love you, too, David. I love you, too. Oh, god I love you, too…

But it wasn’t a happy profession of love that she made. She was falling into tears. She fell into her folded arms like she was reminding herself that she loves her man.

David touched her arm. She yanked away from him.

-No!

-Sharon?

-No!

-Okay. I’m sorry. I’m going to clean the bathrooms. They’ll be here soon.

David poured her a glass of wine. Then, he left to clean the bathrooms before his parents could arrive. He had forgotten about the blood in the kitchen, where little flecks of it had splattered.

Sharon was alone in the kitchen. The wine in front of her was red and thick. He shouldn’t have poured red wine when there was jamcoi blood all over the kitchen. Sharon was there, alone with the oven, and the bird that was still alive inside the oven. Its little heart was still beating. It was still feeling pain. The bird had lost the ability to know any sort of feeling, with its brain hacked out — but Sharon knew that the jamcoi was really and truly feeling a terrible, terrible pain that would last for a very long time before a slow, vegetative death.

David came in and checked on the bird from time to time. He opened the oven, and basted the fading bird in her own bloody juices. He kept telling Sharon how wonderful the jamcoi smelled, in the oven. It was struggling against the lashes with its stumpy legs like a reflex, though an hour had passed. If she looked really close, she could even see its heart pumping furiously inside of the skin that had melted into something like wet paper.

The jamcoi’s heart looked like a little tea cup, from one of those toy tea sets, of deep purple and red plastics. If she used her imagination, she could see a little girl holding it up like a teacup, with all her stuffed animals around her and the valentine-colored tea set of jamcoi hearts spread out for them in a feast, and the little girl would pour blood-gravy from David’s heirloom porcelain gravy boat into the little teacup heart for her grandmother, David’s mother, and then for herself. Together, they would lift the teacup hearts to their lips, take a sip and smile. The little imaginary girl was so cute with the gravy smear over her little lip, like a strawberry milk mustache.

They sell little stuffed jamcois at toy stores. Some people like jamcoi so much they eat them year round. Some people have jamcoi decorations for their seasonal gatherings, with jamcoi serving platters and jamcoi painted on porcelain plates.

Sharon knew she’d have to do this again, with another jamcoi. Maybe not next year, but maybe the year after and maybe the year after that.

She was alone with it, in the kitchen, and she pressed her ear against the hot over door to see if she could hear any sound — any sign of life.

 

Interested in reading more J.M. McDermott fiction?

Try his collection Disintegration Visions from Apex!

J.M. McDermott graduated from the University of Houston in 2002 with a BA in Creative Writing. He resides in Decatur, Georgia with an assortment of empty coffee cups, overflowing bookshelves, and crazy schemes. He is author of the Dogsland Trilogy from Nightshade Press with the first book, Never Knew Another, released in 2011. In 2010, Apex Publications reprinted his genre-bending and Crawford Award-nominated fantasy novel Last Dragon. Visit J.M. on the web at http://jmmcdermott.blogspot.com/.

A Hollow Play by Amal El-Mohtar

By Jason Sizemore
on November 11, 2014

Originally appearing in Glitter & Mayhem (Apex Publications, 2013)

edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas

 

 

DEAR PAIGE,

I’m heading out of the flat tonight, for once, since Anna invited me out to a cabaret thing. Funny how it happened — for weeks she’s been casually asking what I’m doing after work, but never following up after I say some variation on “derby practice” or “watching cartoons.” I guess it’s taken her until now to decide I’m someone she’d actually choose to hang out with in her free time. That should make me feel good, right? But I’m actually terrified. Because it’s been so long since — I don’t know, since I’ve had a friend? That sounds horrible. And it’s probably not true, if I sit and think about it properly. What I mean is, since I’ve had a friend the way I had friends in Canada. When it was easy, you know? When I could click with someone and just feel this trust, this knowledge that we both liked each other equally and in the same way, when I could take for granted that I could say things and have them be understood. Like with you. It feels like forever since I’ve had that. A year, at least.

So anyway, I feel like I might have that with Anna — but we’re always at work, and all the conversations we have are sandwiched between people ordering flat whites and the occasional biscuit. When it gets quiet, though, sometimes we really talk, about serious things, heart things. I’ve told her a bit about you. She told me she’s trans — which isn’t a secret, it’s okay that I’m telling you — and we talked about how basically we’re both always coming out, we can never be wholly done coming out.

 I guess I’m terrified of messing this up somehow. Being boring. Not being into the show that she’s really excited about. Being — yeah, okay, being an obnoxious North American in the company of British people, even though Glasgow’s about a million times better than London for not making me feel that way.

Right, it’s time to go. I’ll write more later.

Love,

Emily

*

Emily stood in the doorway to the Rio Cafe and looked around, half–convinced she had the wrong place. The word “cabaret” had conjured up visions of illicit underground doings populated by white–faced pianists in dark, shabby suits, coaxing notes of tragic joy from their instruments. But this was just a really nice pub, full of comfortable, brightly coloured wooden booths perpendicular to a long bar. There were some smaller tables and chairs to the right and back of it, blackboards with specials written on them, and nothing that looked like it could be turned into a stage.

Make sure you get there early, Anna had said, it fills up fast. Emily shrugged, manoeuvred her way to one of the small tables towards the back, pulled a pen and a leather–bound journal from her bag, and resumed writing.

*

Dear Paige,

So, I’m here, but Anna’s not , and I awesomely left Memoirs of a Space Woman at home in spite of knowing I’d have two hours to kill, so I figure I’ll just keep writing to you.

Cabaret! I have no idea what to expect. Have you ever been to a cabaret show? I wasn’t sure how to dress for it either — when I asked Anna she just laughed and told me to use my imagination — so I’m wearing the red top you gave me, the button–down one with the sleeves that flare out and curl from the elbows. I can’t believe I still have it — it’s been, what, ten years, three moves? It’s not fitting so great now — since I started taking derby more seriously, (I’m EMILY THE SLAYER now! Strong like Buffy!) my arms have gotten huge, and you should see the butt on me — but it’s still pretty and I love it, and it still matches my favourite earrings best.

I should probably tell you more about Anna, since obviously there’s more to her than being trans and my co–worker. She’s really great, and really cute — she just cut her hair short last week and dyed it bright orange–red, so she looks kind of like Leeloo from The Fifth Element. She’s vegan(sometimes I swear she likes the fact that I’m not, because it gives her an excuse to play “Meat is Murder” on loop in the cafe for the duration of my lunch break, which no one notices, because it sounds like every other Smiths song except the good ones, which she refuses to accept no matter how many times I explain it), an amazing cosplayer, and getting into burlesque. She hasn’t performed in public yet, just for friends in her living room, but she’s been developing this number that involves a chef’s hat, mixed greens, and oversized serving implements.

We’re not dating or anything. I’ve only known her for about a month, though it feels like way longer — and I refuse to entertain a crush, because she’s been in a closed poly triad for a while and they’re kind of going through a rough patch that she hasn’t told me much about. So I’ll tell you more about this cabaret thing instead.

It’s called SPANGLED CABARET (“spangled” is apparently one of about a million words that also means “wildly drunk” in the west of Scotland) and it happens once a month in this cafe, and Anna’s been coming to it forever, basically. She really wants to perform here sometime once she feels confident enough.

It’s also where she met her partners, Lynette and Kel. Kel’s genderqueer and prefers “they” as a pronoun, so I’ll try to keep this from getting confusing: they work nights at the airport, but Lynette’s a performer, whose stage name is Lynette Byrd; her thing is apparently to dress up like a bird and sing?

Oh, she’s just coming in. I’ll write more later.

Love,

Emily

*

“Ooh, well done,” said Anna, grinning, hooking her jacket over a chair. “These are the best seats in the house. Can I get you a drink?”

“The finest wines available to humanity,” Emily declared, capping her pen and shutting the journal. She smiled up at her. “Something red?”

“Will do.”

Emily watched her head to the bar. Anna, as usual, looked amazing, in a turquoise chiffon dress with ruffles at the neckline waving their way asymmetrically down the front, cinched at the waist with an orange belt that matched her hair.

She was also alone. When Anna returned with their drinks, Emily asked, “So, where’s Lynette?”

“Oh, she can only hang out after her act. Something about ‘diluting the effect’ —” Anna made air quotes and rolled her eyes, “—if she mingles with people beforehand. I hope that’s okay — I thought we could have a little more time to talk before launching you into poly drama.”

Emily chuckled. “That’s fine. It’s really cool to see you outside of work. You look awesome.”

Anna grinned and tossed her short hair back dramatically. “Why thank you. So do you. That’s a great blouse.”

Emily blushed, looking down at her shirt. “Thanks, it was a gift —”

“It’s very Romantic! Poet sleeves, fountain pen, leather–bound journal — excellent ensemble, though of course leather’s murder too.” Anna’s smile was teasing. “It’s beautiful, though. Where’d you find it?” 

“Oh,” she said, blushing hotter. “It was also a gift. From the same person. My best friend. The one I mentioned, Paige.” She paused, uncertain how much more to say. “I write to her in it.”

Anna blinked. “What?”

“You know, instead of letters. We each have one, and we write to each other in them whenever the mood takes us, and when they get full, or half full, we post them to each other. We’ve been doing it for years — ever since she moved out west.” She dropped it into her bag again, zipped it shut.

“That’s so cool.” Anna grinned. “You’ve actually found a way to make snail mail slower.”

“Shut up! Not all of us want to have our phones embedded in our palms.”

“Lies and trickery. You, too, lust for the Singularity in your heart of hearts.”

“Those aren’t even the same thing!”

The wine was good, the conversation easy. Emily felt herself relaxing, becoming aware of how little effort she was making, how unnecessary it felt to play at being wry and unaffected and vaguely disdainful of anything she passionately loved. By the time the lights dimmed and a tall man in red spats and cerulean trousers announced the beginning of the show, she was feeling excited.

The first act was a startling realisation of Emily’s earlier expectations, as a short bearded man unfolded a keyboard, flicked his coat–tails behind him, and sat down to play something melancholically sinister while a young woman in layers of fringed and shimmering fabric, loops of large white beads, and a flapper’s red head scarf expertly drew a violin bow along the edge of a saw. The result was equal parts mournful and uncanny.

“That,” shouted Emily over the subsequent applause, “was amazing. Is it all like this?”

Anna smiled. “Not quite.”

The next act saw Emily covering her face while an attractive young man hammered nails up his nose.

“Come on,” chuckled Anna, “it’s not that bad! It’s mostly tricks, anyway.”

“Anna he’s bleeding! He stuck a needle up his arm and drew blood.”

“He’s a professional!”

“His hands are shaking! This can’t be right!”

“It’s just part of the whole blockhead routine, honest. I’ve watched him do it loads of times.”

“Really?” She dared a peek between her fingers, winced, and covered her eyes again.

“Really. Well. Not the needle, I think that’s new, but the nails are standard. Oh, come on, you can’t miss this, he’s going to swallow those razors and knot them together in his throat —”

Hey, I need the loo and we should have more drinks. Same again?”

“Sure, sure. Coward.”

Emily stuck her tongue out and beat a hasty retreat.

It was equal parts the half–light, the show, and the wine, but the Rio had clearly slipped somewhere just slant of real. Navigating the distance between table and toilets felt like lucid dreaming. She passed men with moon–white faces in bowler hats; she washed her hands next to a woman in scarlet lingerie with mouse ears and a cheese–grater crotch. It felt like a secret carnival, like a place a runaway could call home.

She sat down again just as the blockhead was taking a bow, thankfully none the worse for wear. Anna looked positively fond as Emily pushed a new glass of wine toward her.

“You’ve got the look,” Anna said, smiling.

“The look?”

“Of the hooked. The enchanted. You’re one of us now.”

“Just like that?” Emily looked dubious. “By running away from the blockhead?”

“It takes all sorts. I can’t wait for you to see Lynette. She’s usually on towards the end.” Anna fiddled with a napkin. “She’s… Something else. I could go on and on about her and not be able to say how.”

“Are things...” Emily hesitated. “I mean, is it okay if I ask...”

Anna shrugged. “Things are things. The weirdness is mainly between Kel and me, but obviously Lynette’s involved too, she can’t not be. But — I can’t really talk about it, sorry.”

“That’s totally fine. I don’t want to pry! I just don’t know what to expect, at all.”

Anna chuckled. “That’s probably for the best.”

Once the applause died down, the emcee stepped forward to announce the final act, and encouraged everyone to stay precisely where they were.

Then the lights went out.

The cafe buzzed for a minute until a spotlight clicked on, shining up from the floor, illuminating a woman seated on a tall stool. But not completely — shadows striped her face and body, and as Emily took the scene in, she saw that the spotlight was shining through an ornate bird cage, projecting its bars against the wall and woman together.

When Anna said Lynette would be dressed as a bird, Emily had imagined something a bit camp, a bit silly, maybe a bit sexy into the bargain. She hadn’t expected this tall, solemn, slender creature of angles and air, delicate golden–brown feathers sprouting from the shoulders, hips, and hem of a long white dress worn over slightly incongruous brown boots. Thick dark curls were piled on top of her head, against which leaned a high, feathered fascinator. There was an air of honey and copper about her, a shimmering sweetness. Emily’s breath caught at the sight.

Lynette Byrd lifted her chin and regarded her audience coolly, head sharply tilted. When she parted her glittering lips and spoke, her voice was a sweep of warm light in the dim.

“Green finch and linnet bird! Nightingale! Blackbird!”

How is it you sing!” shouted the audience members as one, making Emily jump a little in her seat. Lynette smiled.

“An oft–repeated question. Why does the caged bird sing? Why does it not embrace silence in protest, refusing to give up the thing for which it was imprisoned? Why, day after day, does it warble and sway from perch to perch, trilling its essence out in unrepeatable sequence for the benefit of its captors? I am trusted,” she laughed, suddenly, a sound like glass bursting, “with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage.

With that she closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against the feathers on her shoulder, looking for all the world like a bird asleep.

Silence, then. Emily looked at Anna uncertainly, wondering if she should clap, but Anna was gazing at Lynette in rapt adoration. No one else seemed to think it was over, either. An uncomfortable minute passed, then two. A few people closed their eyes; a couple were staring intensely at their phones; one man nearby was moving his mouth without making a sound, and Emily realised he was counting. She looked back at the stage. Lynette remained completely immobile. The sound of the bartender wiping crumbs from the counter became noticeable. She heard people shifting a little in their seats, though none spoke.

Emily frowned and looked down at her own phone. Had it been four minutes? Four minutes of —

Her eyes widened in sudden understanding. Before she knew what she was doing, she had gasped “OH!” out loud, to the shock of just about everyone else in the room.

She clapped her hands over her mouth in a panic and looked at the stage, but Lynette hadn’t moved — it was only every other head in the cafe that had swung towards her, some frowning, some biting down a laugh, some laughing outright. Anna stared at her in an astonishment that bordered on reproach. Cheeks flushing, she fixed her eyes on the floor and tried to will it into melting away and taking her with it.

But only for another thirty seconds, as Lynette’s performance of John Cage’s “4’33” came to an end. As people began to clap, Emily raised her head again.

Lynette had opened her eyes and was looking directly at her. She seemed amused.

“The reason, ultimately,” she said, stretching her neck from one side to the other, and rolling back her feathered shoulders, “is that silence is terribly boring, no? Let us jubilate.”

With that, Lynette launched into the most unearthly rendition of Sondheim’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” Emily had ever heard. It was like sugar melting into caramel, hearing that bright, glittering song dimmed into a smoky minor key and twisted, stretched into so unlikely a shape. To listen was to feel her heart dragged over burrs, each turn of lyric snagging and pulling at her. By the time Lynette was asking the birds to teach her to be more adaptive, Emily had a pain in her throat and wet cheeks. Anna was quietly sobbing next to her.

Emily stretched out her hand without a word. Anna took it and squeezed.

*

It was like nothing else. She broke us open and read our entrails, I swear. It was like her art was a kind of sewing, a stitching together of things you’d never have thought could go together seamlessly. Hah. I just noticed how Seamstress is like a portmanteau of Seam and Mistress. Seam. Seem. Mistress of Seams and Seemings.

I’m pretty drunk right now by the way.

So she’s a Seemstress. She ended the show with a flick of her wrist, throwing a black cloth over the birdcage, and the spotlight clicked off. She didn’t take a bow. She’s drinking with Anna, now, they’re talking, and I’m hiding in the bathroom because I can’t bring myself to look at her even though I really want to talk to her and tell her how amazing it was. She came towards us after, and she looked at me in this way and said “I truly enjoyed your contribution,” and I just clammed up. I was so mortified. I don’t think she even meant it to be mocking but I couldn’t bear it. So I just sat there and got redder and redder and Anna took her attention off me, which is fine but I just felt like I’d failed, made the worst impression, and I just really needed to tell you about this right away, while it’s all still hurting, the good and the bad of it, all together. I needed to tell you. I always need to tell you and you’re not — you’re never —

I wish — I wish you could have been here. Everything would be better if you were. I wish we could be talking about it right now. I wish — God, Paige, I miss you so fucking much. I miss you.

*

The ceiling came into focus first, and it was wrong: much too high, and the familiar pale orange stain that usually greeted her when she woke wasn’t there. Then the smells: unfamiliar laundry detergent mixing with coffee like her father had it, with cardamom. The sound of water running, one wall over. Suddenly she bolted upright and took stock of the strange room, the strange bed, and the dull orange light coming through unfamiliar window slats from a street lamp outside. Still night time, then.

She felt sick. Still drunk, obviously; the room kept threatening to spin, and her vision was anchored to a slow, awful churning in her belly. Was this Anna’s place? Blearily, she swung her legs out of bed, and saw that she was still dressed. Quietly, she padded her way out of the room and into a dark hallway, toward the sound of water. She was thirsty. Her mouth felt full of sour cotton.

Light slanted into the hall from the half–open door to what she thought must be the bathroom; maybe Anna was brushing her teeth? She pushed it the rest of the way.

Lynette Byrd stood on one foot, lifting the hem of a white nightgown, one knee delicately raised above a bathtub filling with water. But her feet — Emily stared, blinked, shook her head, couldn’t stop staring.

From the ankle down, Lynette’s feet were the leathery, taloned, four–toed feet of a bird.

Lynette’s eyes met hers, and she tilted her head as she had in her performance, but it had the look of a raptor now. Emily staggered back, watching Lynette’s upraised knee lift higher, those talons flexing, swivelling away from the tub and on to the floor, clicking.

“Seemstress,” she gasped, and the room spun faster and faster until she tumbled backwards into the dark.

*

When Emily woke again, it was to morning light filtering through the blankets over her head and whispering voices in the hall. She ventured a peek over the sheets, and saw Anna and Lynette in animated conversation, while someone who shared Lynette’s height, cheekbones, and colouring stood silently by with arms folded. Kel? They had short–cropped black hair, sharp cheekbones, and human feet.

Lynette’s remained disconcertingly taloned. She hadn’t imagined it.

Emily rolled over and burrowed deeper into the blankets in search of oblivion.

“Hey,” came Anna’s voice, gently, from beyond the duvet. “Morning. How are you feeling?”

Emily tried to part her lips to say something intelligent and managed a tiny croak of misery. Anna patted her shoulder.

“Have some water. Come on, we won’t bite. What do you remember?”

Slowly, Emily sat up, taking in the company. Anna, in pink flannel pajamas, looked concerned. Lynette without her make–up and feathers was still devastatingly beautiful: her black hair was a long sideways braid over her shoulder, and her light brown cheeks still had a hint of glitter to them. Her eyes were as black as her hair. She looked less like a magical bird–woman and more like someone from Emily’s own family now — as did Kel, who was looking at Emily with distrust.

She accepted a glass of water and took small, careful sips. “Lynette has bird feet.”

Anna winced. Kel muttered something under their breath that sounded like it was probably rude. Lynette waved her hand.

“We will speak of that later. I think Anna meant from earlier in the evening.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t given it much thought. “I remember — sitting with you both, and then going to the bathroom, and, um.” The shame of it, locking herself in a stall and crying, washed over her in a nauseous wave. “I guess Anna came in to check on me after a while. I don’t remember much else.”

“You seemed very upset.” Lynette looked at her curiously. “I was concerned that I had said something to hurt you. Then you fell asleep, and Anna didn’t know where you lived, so we brought you here instead.”

Emily bit her lip, stared into her glass. “I’m so, so sorry —”

“It’s no trouble, truly,” said Lynette. Kel snorted at that, and Anna smacked them on the arm and glared. Lynette ignored them, focused on Emily. “Did I hurt you in some way?”

“No, I’m — I was just so embarrassed. About the John Cage thing. Everything had been going so well until that point, and now I’ve fucked everything up, and you — you’re being so nice —”

“Emily.” Anna looked pained. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Emily looked at her, and felt something tightly wound in her release. She felt suddenly ragged with relief.

“Really? You’re not angry?”

“Angry?” Anna stared at her. “Emily, you just found out my girlfriend’s part bird and you’re worried about what I think?”

“I think,” said Lynette, “that we should have some coffee. Would you like that, Emily?”

“Yes, please.” She looked at Kel uncertainly. “Are you — are you going to curse me or erase my memory or something?”

Lynette blinked. So did Anna and Kel. All three of them looked at each other. To Emily’s discomfort, they all burst out laughing.

“That,” said Lynette, “would be terrible manners.”

“That’s — not a ‘no,’ though.” Emily had the feeling of being in a dream, of watching herself having this conversation. Lynette only smiled, looking as if she was enjoying herself.

“Emily, if you’ll forgive me the presumption, what is your surname?”

“Haddad.”

“Then we both hail from places where hospitality is sacrosanct, and one would not offer coffee to a guest to whom one intended any harm. Come. Let us have a sobhiya.”

The coffee tasted of home, of dawns spent with her father in comfort and certainty and safety. Kel remained quiet, and Anna’s focus was on them more than Emily, but Lynette was shockingly easy to talk to. Emily found herself pouring out the history of her last year: the Master’s degree in library sciences in London, how unbearable she’d found life in the city, how brutal the sarcasm that passed for affection, how she only hated herself more for not being able to banter with her colleagues and their friends, how she never felt entirely welcome among them.

“It’s like everything I took for granted about friendship, and language, about what’s polite and what isn’t — it’s not a default. We’re taught — I was taught — that it’s somehow universal, to be kind and open and welcoming and sincere, and it’s not. And worse, it’s not that it’s bad not to be that way, there. There, it makes sense, how closed off and distant and biting everyone is. It’s just a different way of being, that’s all. But it’s hard not to feel like everything about me is wrong — the way I laugh, the things I laugh at or don’t. My words, my accent, the things I think are cruel. It’s like, to live there, I needed to… Tailor myself. Cut off bits that don’t fit, or stuff them away, and sometimes I’d look in a mirror and just not recognize myself for the silence.” 

Kel stood up, abruptly.

“I’m going to bed,” they said, gruffly, in a low voice. “Sorry. Long night.”

Emily faltered. “Okay.”

“I’ll join you,” said Anna, getting up. “Just for a bit.”

Kel muttered something by way of assent. Anna looked apologetically at Emily before following Kel and shutting the door behind them.

“So,” said Lynette, sipping her coffee from a tiny porcelain cup, turning her attention back to Emily. “Where were we. You finished your degree, yes? Why not go home to Canada? Why come to Glasgow instead?”

“Oh —” she sighed, swirled her coffee around her cup, watched the patterns the grains made against it. “I love my family, and I miss them. A lot. But — I’m queer, and they’re not okay with that. I mean,” she rushed to say, “they’re not horrible or anything. We’ve had the ‘we’ll still love you no matter what’ talk and whatever. But I just — I never really dated anyone when I was home. At all. And suddenly here, awful as everything else got, I went on dates, I flirted with men and women, and — part of me is more me here, I guess. I’m not done with that yet.”

“Even though everything else feels wrong?”

Emily chuckled, not without bitterness. “Yeah. I’m crying you a river, I know.” She finished the rest of her coffee in a gulp. Lynette leaned forward and poured more.

“It’s the plight of the displaced, Emily. The stuff of song and story. People here are fond of saying that all the most loving songs about Scotland are written by those who left.” Lynette replenished her own cup, and lifted it contemplatively. “One leaves home, one misses it; one makes a home as best one can, with the materials at hand, knowing it will never be what one had; but there are reasons, always good reasons, why one left in the first place.” Before Emily could ask anything, Lynette smiled. “But, Glasgow? Why not stay in London?”

“Honestly?” She smiled a little. “I’d never been to Scotland yet, and I loved the names of Glasgow’s derby teams. Irn Bruisers? Maiden Grrders? Seemed like reason enough.”

Lynette laughed, and Emily found herself thinking of flowers. She took another sip of her coffee, and waited.

“Well,” said Lynette, a touch of amusement still there, “I suppose it’s my turn. Do you know what a Peri is?”

Emily blinked, brain flashing through Patricia McKillip, Doctor Who, and hot sauce. “Er —”

Lynette smiled. “That’s quite all right. Whatever you do, don’t read the Wikipedia entry. Nineteenth century Englishmen with their books and operas did more to secure ignorance about us than the Severing of Seventy Bridges. Suffice to say we are a kind of — what you would call spirit. We are not human, though we sometimes enjoy human form. We have a world, our own world, that overlaps and intersects with yours,” here Lynette clasped her hands together, fingers interweaving, “and in which we are ourselves. But without access to it —” Lynette fixed her gaze on somewhere just over Emily’s shoulder, as if the world she spoke of was just there, “—we are less. We lose our ability to shift our shapes, to fly, to be flame or water. We become solid, locked. We,” she drew her gaze back to Emily, “cut off bits that don’t fit, or stuff them away, and sometimes we look in a mirror and can’t recognize ourselves. We are wrong. We are less.” Lynette paused to sip her coffee, and licked her lips thoughtfully. “Though we are also sometimes more.”

Emily felt a lump rising in her throat. “How?”

Lynette lost, for a moment, the air of knowing amusement she’d worn for most of their acquaintance, and looked only wistful. “I was no performer, back home. I had no art. It was here, in this place, that I found my voice.” When she smiled again, it was soft, and pained. “I did not learn to sing until I was shut in a cage.”

Emily frowned. “Shut? But — didn’t you leave on purpose?”

She shrugged. “To the extent that being forced to flee is ‘on purpose.’ Kel and I — ”

“Wait, Kel’s a Peri too?” Emily stared. “But — Kel’s feet —”

Lynette chuckled. “We all have different tells. Were Kel to show you their back, you would see two lines of black feathers angled along their spine. May I continue?”

She flushed. “Please.”

“We were… ‘Exiled’ is perhaps not the right word. Our country is at war, Emily. We are, in a sense, refugees. We fled, and the door shut behind us. Kel wants nothing so much as to go back, to fight, to die, if necessary. I do not. As much as I long for wings again —” Lynette’s voice caught, and she looked down, and shook her head slowly. “— No. For better or for worse, I am making a life here.” She chuckled. “Though it is difficult not to laugh, or weep, when someone asks me where I am ‘from.’ ”

“I sort of know what that’s like,” Emily murmured. “ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Canada.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, where are your PARENTS from.’ ” Emily mimed throttling an invisible neck, and Lynette chuckled. “It’s not as bad here, actually. Mostly people assume I’m American.” She paused, thoughtful. “So — why doesn’t Kel go back?”

“Ah.” Lynette put down her cup, folded her hands in her lap. “They cannot afford the cost.”

“The cost?”

“Indeed. Our world is the source of our power; when the way is open, we can shift our shapes, fly, find things that are hidden or missing, carry our lovers across the world in our arms if we so choose. When the way is shut —” Lynette shrugged, “— there is a cost to open it. At present it is as if Kel and I have been stripped of citizenship, and must apply for visas instead of coming and going as we please. And, as with visas, there is always the chance that after having paid the price and sent in our paperwork, our application will be rejected all the same. …Are you all right?”

Emily nodded, tight–lipped. “Sorry, I just — what do you mean, find things that are hidden or missing?”

“It’s just an ability we possess.” Lynette looked at her curiously. “A function of our nature.”

“Oh.” She nodded again. “Please go on. What is the cost?”

Lynette considered her for a moment longer before answering. “It is… An elaboration of the usual shedding of a form. For us, to open the way, we must give up a whole person. A sacrifice, if you will.”

Emily stared at her. “What, you mean — you have to kill someone?”

Lynette shook her head. “Not kill. Give up. Relinquish. But it only works if the person is precious, beloved. For me — if I were to cut out my tongue, I might be able to open the way back. I would be giving up who I have become here, my art. Once on the other side I might easily choose a different form, one with a tongue, perhaps one with a more beautiful voice — but I would lose Lynette Byrd, whom I have come to love, and I would never have her again. That is if the sacrifice is deemed sufficient.”

“So, Kel —”

“Kel loves nothing about who they are here. Every moment spent in their body is torment. Kel never kept one body for long, understand — if you comprehend gender on a spectrum of male and female, think of us as possessing gender along a spectrum of fluid and fixed. It is agony for Kel to be in one body, to be static, to be observable always in the same way.” Lynette sighed. “It is an exquisitely devised exile. We must love something so much that we could never wish to give it up — and then give it up. So long as Kel despises their body, they cannot shed it, and so long as they cannot shed it, they will always despise their body and the world it is forced to inhabit. The only things they have come to love, while here, are the river Kelvin, from which they take their name — and Anna. But not enough. Kel is too willing to give them up. I had hoped that perhaps with Anna — with someone who understood the pain of a body that feels wrong —” Lynette shook her head. “As soon as Kel began to feel deeper affection for her, they sought to barter it for passage.”

Emily blinked. “Kel tried to give Anna up?”

“Yes.” Lynette looked pained. “There is a ritual we do, by the river, to open the way home. Anna participated, willingly — but it wasn’t enough. The trap works too well. Kel might have once loved me enough for the leaving to hurt sufficiently, but —” she closed her eyes, briefly. “— It is hard for them, that I will not give up myself to pay for the chance of our passage. And so it goes. The magic must be cruel, to work. It must feel like the tearing of a page.”

Emily felt a sudden pang — a tug in her belly, like cresting the topmost hill of a rollercoaster, teetering on the edge of the plunge.

“So, without your powers, you can’t open the way back, and until that way is open, you don’t have your powers?”

Lynette opened her eyes again, and nodded. Emily bit her lip.

“And could — anyone open up the way? By giving something up?”

“In theory.” Emily felt her cheeks flushing beneath the sudden intensity of Lynette’s gaze. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying — suppose someone wanted you to have your powers. For something specific. Would you — could you help them, if the door was open?”

Lynette said nothing for a long moment, while Emily met her eyes. When Lynette finally spoke, it was gentle.

“What have you lost, Emily?”

She pulled her backpack onto her lap, unzipped it, pulled out her journal, and put it on the table between them.

“My best friend.”

*

Dear Paige,

I told Lynette about you. It was hard, at first. For so long you’ve felt like a secret I’ve been keeping on your behalf. My best friend, to whom I write — who never writes back. My best friend, whom I’ve known for half my life — but who hasn’t spoken to me in over a year. My best friend, who was going to travel with me, share a home with me, be up against the world with me — who vanished into air and darkness and didn’t tell me where she was going.

It was hard, but it got easier.

I told her how afraid I’ve become for you. I told her about your depression, how you’d been withdrawing for a while, that it got worse once we had extra time zones between us. I told her about the unanswered phone messages, e–mails, postcards. I told her about how I called your work one time just to see if they could tell me you were alive, and how they said they’d laid you off a week earlier, and didn’t know how to answer my question about whether or not you were okay.

She asked me if I was prepared to find out that you’re dead. I told her that I knew you couldn’t be dead, couldn’t possibly be, because I’d know. I’d feel something snap. I’m sure I would.

She told me to prepare for the possibility all the same.

So this is the last I’m writing to you in here. I’m giving you up — sort of — to find you. It may not work. It may not be enough. But I told Lynette that I’m giving up years of myself in here, too — the me who is best friends with Paige, who is happy and secure and confident, who can see friendships come and go because at her core is this one, this unshakeable soul–twin sister–friend who’ll never leave her.

So long as I’ve been writing in here I’ve felt like I could still be that person, because by writing to you I am conjuring you, I am keeping you in existence, and if you exist, so do I. And maybe if I find you — if Lynette can find you — she said Peri magics include carrying people through the air, so — if you’re in trouble, if you’re hurt — I can’t even think about that but I have to trust in something, that this will be okay, somehow. That I can still be some kind of me even without you.

I love you. I’m giving you up.

Emily

*

Lynette and Kel had gone ahead, saying they had preparations to make. Anna watched as Emily laced her boots in the entrance to their flat. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. Why would you do this. You hardly even know them.”

Emily shrugged. “It’s not for them. It’s for Paige. And — for me.”

“Bullshit.”

Emily flinched and looked up, hurt. “What possible other reason could I have?”

 Anna folded her arms, looked away. “Whatever, I don’t care.”

“Do you not want me to do this?”

Anna rolled her eyes. “Think about it for two seconds, Emily.”

“But Lynette said you wanted —”

Fuck Lynette.” Anna brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Look, I just — I love Kel. I fucking love them. And it’s — hard, to make peace with losing someone for their own good, to know that you’re the price of their happiness, and to agree to pay that price and then have it not be enough, because actually they didn’t love you enough, you know?” She exhaled, pushed the heel of her palm into her eye. “And here you are, having only just met them, making some kind of huge weird sacrifice, and if it works —”Anna choked. “— If it works, then I lose Kel, and nothing about it was noble, nothing about it was my sacrifice. I’m just another failed attempt to get home.”

“That’s not true,” said Emily, shocked, standing up so quickly she stumbled. “Anna —”

“Shut up. Go to the river, do whatever needs doing. I get it. Been there, done that.” They looked at each other through tears. “I hope you find your friend.”

Then Anna walked into her bedroom and slammed the door behind her. Emily tried not to cry as she let herself out.

*

They stood together beneath the Gibson street bridge over the river Kelvin, having climbed over the fence and down to the water’s edge. Emily clutched her journal to her chest and shivered as Kel waded into the water barefoot. Once the river reached their lips, they stopped.

Emily could hear Kel murmuring something into the water. Lynette stood next to her, wearing her cabaret costume and clutching a fistful of flower petals. She spoke quietly.

“You know what you need to do?”

Emily nodded.

“Very well. Kel is almost finished asking the river’s permission to pass through.” She looked away. “I hope this works. I don’t know how Kel will bear it otherwise.”

Emily swallowed, thinking of Anna. “I hope it works too.”

Kel stopped speaking, and began undressing in the water. As they removed their shirt, Emily saw the two long black lines of feathers running to either side of Kel’s spine like sutures, glinting in the dim light.

Kel turned to look at them, and nodded once. Lynette closed her eyes.

“It’s time.”

She drew a deep breath, cast the petals into the water, and began singing the Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage.” While she did, Emily took a few steps into the water and opened the journal. She looked down and couldn’t help but read a line — from an early entry, a happy day, speaking of how exciting it was to be in England, how she’d been to the Sir John Soane Museum and tried to count all the busts for science.

As she grasped the page and pulled, she couldn’t tell if it was she or the paper who was tearing.

Then she staggered. The world tilted, and she felt herself struggling to hold her breath. Something was happening to the water — a churning where it had been still, a circling of light flooding upwards around Kel. Emily tore another page, and another, throwing each one into the river, sobs welling up as she did, cutting into her throat every time she read, in spite of herself, a snippet of something Paige would never read, never know — her conviction that a different sun shone over London, made of syrup and smoke; the dream she had on Halloween after her first gin and tonic; her first kiss with a woman. She’d meant to share it all with Paige, had written it all out for her, and if Paige didn’t have them, how could she?

Lynette was still singing — set my spirit free, set my body free — but she sounded farther and farther away. Emily could see the light around Kel brightening, and Kel — Kel was changing. The twin lines of feathers on their back were growing out, covering more and more skin, and Kel’s body was blurring in and out of the water. Could it be working? Was it enough, after all? Would she find —

Lynette’s song ended, and half a beat after the final note Emily heard her say, as if she were shouting from a vast distance away, look into the water.

She looked. In the same brightness she had seen shimmering around Kel, there was Paige.

The sight sank into her like a knife. There was Paige, in a laundromat — she was seeing her from behind, her long pale hair twisted up into a bun. She was taking washing out of one machine and putting it in a dryer. She was humming something, happily.

Overwhelmingly, Emily knew she was happy.

I can bring her to you, thundered Lynette’s voice, if you wish. In half a moment or less.

She did wish. She wanted, so badly, to have her in front of her, to rage and scream how, how could you be happy and all right and not speak to me, why wouldn’t you, what did I do wrong, what.

Paige was happy, washing laundry, and had her back to her. Emily stretched her hand into the water, choking on everything she wanted to say. But she’d said it already, into the river, as Anna had said it to Kel.

She drew her hand back.

“No,” she whispered. “She’s fine where she is.”

Then the light dimmed, the river smoothed, and Emily found herself weeping into the down on Lynette’s shoulder.

*

Dear Emily,

This is probably cheating, but you never specified the size of journal required, and a palm–sized Moleskine is still a Moleskine, and that means journal, so. Here I am, writing to you in a journal. My penmanship peaked in Primary 6. I hope you’re happy.

I’m sorry for — well, everything. I hope I didn’t hurt you too badly by keeping away for a while — that’s why I’m writing in here, for now. I figured maybe we both needed a little space after what happened. But — well, I miss you. I miss talking to you. This is a piss–poor substitute, actually. But I guess it’s better than nothing, and I think you might like, maybe, to know that I pay attention to the things you say even if I also tease you about them a little.

So I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up — it’s a small book, and it’s not meant to replace anything, obviously. It couldn’t. I don’t know how you’ll feel about it when I give it to you. I just want you to know, basically, that I still really like you, that I think you’re grand, that I’m grateful you’re not a jerk, and maybe if you’re up for it we could go to Nice N’Sleazy’s sometime for a gig? I think you’d like it, the ceiling lights are covered in paper shades with clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds on them.

Oh, you’re just coming in for your shift. I’ll write more later.

Love,

Anna

Amal El–Mohtar is the Nebula–nominated author of The Honey Month, a collection of spontaneous short stories and poems written to the taste of twenty–eight different kinds of honey. She is a two–time winner of the Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem, and edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. She has also contributed essays to Queers Dig Time Lords, edited by Sigrid Ellis and Michael Damian Thomas, and the Hugo–nominated Chicks Unravel Time, edited by L. M. Myles and Deborah Stanish. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com.

Amal would like to point out that Spangled Cabaret is a real thing (though sadly no longer in the Rio Cafe), and that this story is deeply indebted to its participants, among them Markee de Saw & Bert Finkle, Vendetta Vain, and the Creative Martyrs. Look them up!

Such & Such Said to So & So by Maria Dahvana Headley

By Jason Sizemore
on November 11, 2014

Originally appearing in Glitter & Mayhem (Apex Publications, 2013)

edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas

(Reprinted in 2014 Year's Best F & SF edited by Rich Horton)

 

IT WAS LATE JULY, A DARK green mood–ring of a night, and the drinks from Bee’s Jesus had finally killed a man.

The cocktails there had always been dangerous, but now they were poison. We got the call in at the precinct, and none of us were surprised. We all knew the place was no good, never mind that we’d also all spent some time there. These days we stayed away, or not, depending on how our marriages were going, and how much cash we had in the glovebox. There were no trains nearby, and if you ended up out too long, you were staying out. The suburbs were a dream, and you weren’t sleeping.

There was nothing harder to get out of your clothes than Bee’s Jesus. We all knew that too. Dry cleaner around the corner. You’d go there, shame–faced and stubbled at dawn, late for your beat.

“Ah, it’s the Emperor of Regret,” the guy behind the counter would say to you. No matter which Emperor you were. All us boys from the precinct had the same title.

“Yeah,” you’d say, “Emperor of Regret.”

The guy could launder anything. Hand him your dirty shirt, and he’d hand you back a better life, no traces, no strings, no self–righteous speech.

I was trying to get clean, though, real clean, and the martinizer couldn’t do it. I knew better than to go anywhere near the Jesus, but I could hear the music from a mile away. Nobody wanted to let me in anymore. People doubted my integrity after what’d happened the last time. The last several times.

The cat at the door was notorious, and had strict guidelines, though lately he’d begun to slip. Things weren’t right at Bee’s. Hadn’t been for a while. They had to let me in tonight. This was legit police business.

“C’mon, Jimmy, you can afford to look sideways tonight,” yelled one of the girls on the block, the real girls, not the other kind.

“I’m here on the up and up,” I said, because if I came in on the down and down, the place wouldn’t show. But I’d seen it as I rolled past, lights spinning. Gutter full of glitter, and that was how you knew. Door was just beyond the edge of the streetlight, back of the shut–down bodega, and most people would’ve walked right on by.

But I knew what was going down. Somebody in that bar had called the police, and reported a body, male, mid–thirties, goner. I was here to find out the whohowwhy.

“You the police?” the caller had said. “It was an emergency three hours ago, sugarlump, but now it’s just a dead guy. They dumped him in the alley outside where Bee’s was, but Bee’s took a walk, every piece of fancy in there up working their getaway sticks like the sidewalk was a treadmill. So you gotta come get him, sweets. He’s a health hazard. Dead of drink if you know what I mean.”

We did know what she meant, most of us, and we crossed our hearts and needle–eyed, cause we weren’t the dead guy, but we could have been, easy. We were fleas and Bee’s Jesus was a dog’s ear.

Me and the boys duked it out for who was taking statements and who was caution–taping, and now it was me and my partner Gene, but Gene didn’t care about Bee’s like I did. The place was a problem I couldn’t stay away from. I kept trying to get out of town, but I ran out of gas every time.

“What’re you doing, Jimmy?” Gene said. “You’re trying to sail a cardboard catamaran to Cuba. Not in a million years, you’re not gonna get that broad back. Cease and desist. Boys are getting embarrassed for you.”

I was embarrassed for me, too. I wasn’t kidding myself, she was what I was looking to see. I was trying to put a nail in it.

Gloria was in that place somewhere, Gloria and the drink she’d taken to like a fish gill–wetting. Bee’s Jesus was Gloria’s bar now.

 *

Ten years had passed since the night she sat on the sink, laughing as she straight–razored my stubble, and lipsticked my mouth.

“Poor boy,” she said, watching the way I twitched. “Good thing you’re pretty.”

Gloria was a skinny girl with bobbed black hair, acid green eyes, and a tiny apartment full of ripped–up party dresses. In her cold–water bathroom, she melted a cake of kohl with a match and drew me eyes better than my own. She’d told me she wouldn’t take me to her favorite bar until she’d dressed me in her clothes, top to tail, and I wanted to go to that bar, wanted to go there bad.

I woulda done anything back then to get her, even though my Londoner buddy Philip (he called himself K. Dick, straight–faced) kept looking at her glories and shaking his head.

“I don’t know what you see in her, bruv. She’s just a discount Venus with a nose ring.”

She was the kind of girl you can’t not attempt, already my ex–wife before I kissed her, but I knew I had to go forward or die in a ditch of longing. It was our first date.

I saw her rumpled bed and hoped I’d end up in it, but Gloria dragged me out the door without even a kiss, me stumbling because I was wearing her stockings with my own shoes.

Downtown, backroom of a bodega, through the boxes and rattraps, past the cat that glanced at me, laughed at the guy in the too tight, and asked if I could look more wrong.

Actual cat. I tried not to notice that it was. It seemed impolite. Black with a tuxedo. Cat was smoking a cigarette and stubbed it out on my shoe. It groomed itself as it checked me out and found me wanting.

“Come on, man, go easy,” Gloria said. “Jimmy’s with me.”

She was wearing a skin–tight yellow rubber dress and I was wearing a t–shirt made of eyelashes, rolling plastic eyeballs and fishnet. It didn’t work on me. It wanted her body beneath. She was a mermaid. I was trawled.

“You expect me to blind eye that kind of sadsack?” the cat said, and lifted its lip to show me some tooth. Its tail twisted and informed me of a couple of letters. NO, written in fur.

“Better than the last boy,” Gloria said, and laughed. The cat laughed too, an agreeing laugh that said he’d seen some things. I felt jealous. “I’ll give you a big tip,” she said to him.

I was a nineteen year old virgin. I’d never gotten this close to getting this close before.

Gloria picked the cat up, holding him to her latex and he sighed a long–suffering sigh as she tipped him backward into the air and stretched his spine.

“Don’t tell anyone I let the furball in. They’ll think I’m getting soft.”

“I owe you for this,” she said to the cat.

To me, she said “Time to get you three–sheeted.”

I was pretty deep at this point in clueless. Underworld, nightlife, and Gloria knew things I had no hope of knowing. She was the kind of girl who’d go into the subway tunnels for a party, and come out a week later, covered in mud and still wearing her lipstick. I’d been in love with her for a year or so. As far as I was concerned, the fact that she knew my name was a victory. She kept calling me Mister Nice Guy. Years later, after we’d been married and divorced, after Gloria had too much gin, and I had too many questions, I learned this was because she’d forgotten my name.

She tugged me around the corner, through a metal chute in the wall. For a second I smelled rotting vegetables and restaurant trash, cockroach spray, toilet brush, hairshirt, and then we were through, and that was over, and we were at the door that led to Bee’s.

Gloria looked at me. “You want a drink,” she said.

“Do they have beer?” I asked. I was nervous. “Could I have a Corona?”

The shirt was itchy, and she’d smeared something tarry into my hair. I felt like a newly paved road had melted into my skull and gumstuck my brain.

Gloria laughed. Her eyelids glittered like planetariums.

“Not really,” she said. “It’s a cocktail bar. You ever had a cocktail, Mister Nice Guy?”

“I’ve had Guinness,” I said.

She looked at me, pityingly. “Guinness is beer, and it’s Irish, and if we scared any of that up, it’d be interested in you, but I’m not sure you’d want it. It’s heavy and gloomy. You don’t want the Corona either. You don’t want what Corona brings you. It makes you really fucking noticeable at night.”

I liked Guinness. I liked Corona. I liked wine coolers. I wasn’t picky, and I knew nothing about drinking. Whatever anyone poured me, I was willing. I had never had a cocktail. I didn’t know what Gloria meant.

She opened a door, and we were in Bee’s. Bright lights, big city, speakeasy, oh my God. My face went into a trombone to the teeth, and the player looked out from behind the instrument and barked.

“Get your mug outta my bone,” he said. He was a dog. A bullhound. But I was cool with that. Dogs, cats, and us, and it was all completely normal and fine, because I was with Gloria, and I trusted her.

I didn’t trust her. I didn’t know her. She was a broad. She was a broad broader than the universe, and I wished, momentarily, for K. Dick and his encyclopedic wingman knowledge of bitters, bourbons, and cheap things with umbrellas. I wished for his accent which lady slayed, and which made the awful forgivable. Or so he swore. K. Dick was more talk than walk.

I did need a drink.

Full brass band. Wall–to–wall tight dresses and topless, girls and boys in high heels, everyone cooler than anything I’d seen before. There was one gay bar where I came from. I knew of its existence and looked longingly at it from across the street, but I couldn’t go in. I wasn’t gay, and I wasn’t legal, and anyone having fun inside it kept the fun there.

Now, though, I’d lucked into Bee’s, and Gloria shoved me up to the bartender, through the dancers and the looks. First curious, then envious as they saw the girl I was with. I tried to get taller. My shoes were a flat–footed liability. Gloria was wearing steel–toed platforms that made her six inches my senior. I looked like I lived in a lesser latitude.

“What you drinking tonight, Glo?” the bartender asked.

“Something with gin,” Gloria said.

“You sure?” he asked. “Last time wasn’t what you’d call a pretty situation.”

The bartender had an elaborate mustache, and was wearing a pith helmet covered in gold glitter. I could see a whip protruding from over his shoulder. Around his wrist, a leather cuff with a lot of strings attached. I looked at them, and saw that they connected to the bottles behind the bar.

Gimmicky motherfucker, I thought, imagining myself as K. Dick, cool, collected, suave. I’d be a Man of Mystery. No more Mister Nice Guy.

“The lady will have a gin martini,” I said, and the bartender looked at me. I wasn’t sure if gin went into martinis, but I looked back, gave him a glare, and he snorted.

“Dirty?” he asked, sneering at me. I didn’t know what dirty was. It sounded bad.

“Clean,” I said, and Gloria grinned.

“And what about you, Jimmy?” asked Gloria. “What are you drinking?”

The bartender held out his hand to her and she spit her gum out into it. My tongue crawled backward like an impounded vehicle.

“I’ll order for the boy,” she said.

“You always do,” said the bartender, and flicked his wrist. A bottle of gin somersaulted off the shelf and onto the bar.

“You sound like you got a beef with me, Such & Such,” said Gloria, uncurling one half of his mustache with her fingertip.

“Not a beef,” he said, his mustache snapping back into place, and nodded at me. “But you bruise the merchandise. And that shit is not my name.”

“George,” Gloria said, and rolled her eyes. “Make him an Old Fashioned for starters.”

He moved his wrist and the bourbon slid over like a girl on a bench, the way I wished Gloria would slide over to me.

The music was louder than it had been, and the cat from the door was onstage now, walking the perimeter, eyeballing everyone and occasionally laying down the claw on an out–of–hand.

The bartender turned around and made my drink, and I heard a noise, a kind of coo. Then another noise like nails on a chalkboard.

Such & Such handed me a heavy glass full of dark amber liquid, cherry in the bottom. Gloria had a martini glass full of a silver–white slipperiness that looked like it might at any moment become a tsunami.

The bartender pushed them across the bar.

“Cheers,” he said. “Or not, depending on your tolerance, Nice Guy. Should I call you Mister?”

“Yes,” I said. Then I didn’t know what to say, so I said. “Call me Lucky.”

“You’re not a Lucky,” the bartender said. “You think you know a damn about a dame, but you don’t know dick about this one.”

I hardly heard him.

Gloria ran her finger around the edge of her glass like she was playing a symphony, and her drink unfolded out of it, elbow by elbow until a skinny guy in a white and silver pinstriped suit was sitting on the bar, looking straight into Gloria’s eyes, and grinning. Pinkie diamond. Earrings. Hair in a pompadour, face like James Dean.

I heard the bartender snort, and followed the chain on his wrist to the vest pocket of Gloria’s gin martini.

My drink was already out by the time I stopped staring at hers. For a moment, I didn’t know if she was a drink or not, but then I saw her wringing the wet hem of her amber–colored cocktail dress. She looked at me, and pulled a cherry stem from between her teeth. Her bracelet, a thin gold ribbon with a heart–shaped padlock connected her to the bartender’s chains.

“You lovely So & So,” said my Old Fashioned, her accent Southern belle. “Ask a girl to dance.”

Gloria was already gone, in the arms of her white–suited martini, and I caught a glimpse of her on the dance floor, her black bobbed head thrown back as she laughed. I could see his arms around her.

I’d misunderstood the nature of our evening.

Resigned, I took the Old Fashioned’s hand. She hopped off the bar and into my arms, her red curls bouncing.

“You can call me Sweetheart,” she said, and lit a cigarette off the candle on a table we passed. “But I don’t think I’ll call you Lucky. You came with Gloria, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s great.”

“She’s trouble,” the Old Fashioned said. “She likes her drink too much.”

I looked onto the dance floor to see Gloria but all I saw was a flash of yellow, a stockinged thigh, and Gloria’s acid–green eyes, wide open, staring into the silver eyes of the martini.

I spun my drink out into the room. The music was loud. The brass band was all hound dogs. I found that I could dance with my Old Fashioned, dance like I couldn’t dance, swing like I couldn’t swing. Her dress stayed wet at the hem, beads of bourbon dropping on the floor as the cat from the front door scatted with the band. I leaned over to kiss her shoulder, and tasted sugar.

“Oh, So & So, you’re such a gentleman,” she said, and spun me hard to the left, suddenly taking the lead. I kissed her mouth then, and her lips were bitter, a sharp taste of zest, the lipstick bright as orange peel.

She bent me backward and I could see her laughing, looking over me and at another girl on the floor, tight, sequined gold–brown dress, same kind of red curls. “Want another drink?”

“No,” I said, overwhelmed. The room was spinning away from me, and there was Gloria out of the corner of my eye, now dancing with three guys and one girl, all in matching silver–white suits.

By morning, I was being led around the dance floor by five redheads, and my mouth tasted bitter. I had sugar all over my clothes, and I was wet with bourbon. I opened my mouth and spat out a cherry, but I hadn’t even tasted it. I couldn’t walk.

The cat pranced along the bar, his tuxedo front suddenly white as a near–death, and said, in an imperative tone, “Time to catch the early bird.”

All of Bee’s Jesus moaned.

The cat leapt up, clawing the light cord, and fluorescents hit us hard. The bartender hopped over the bar, and raised his wrist, tugging each chain, and in a moment, all the beautiful people in Bee’s Jesus were gone.

Blast of light. I blinked.

I looked down. Broken glass and ice all over the floor, and a few people like me, in the middle of them, eyes sagging, stockings laddered. One of them in a bright yellow rubber dress. She looked over at me, and waved, her hand shaking.

“Wanna get some eggs?” Gloria said, and I nodded, weak–kneed.

*

Glo and I got married and then we got divorced.

We spent too much time at Bee’s Jesus. I got to know the regulars, the margaritas and the Manhattans, the Sazeracs and the Bloody Marys, but I kept ordering the Old Fashioned, and Gloria kept ordering the gin martini, as I eventually figured out she always would. She fell hard for her drink, and I fell hard for mine.

Eventually, we started taking them back to our place, the four of us, him sitting at our table in his white and silver suit, and her there in her sequins, lipstick on her cigarettes.

We moved out to the suburbs, but the gin martini didn’t like it there. He’d stand outside, looking down the tree–lined, holding a shaker in his hands, and complaining about the quality of the ice. The two drinks sat in the car, in the afternoons, and sometimes Glo sat with them. Eventually, the martini took off, but the Old Fashioned stayed. After a while, Gloria went back to the city too, breaking my heart, and all the tumblers at the same time.

She bought the bar, and moved into the apartment upstairs with him.

Every night, or so I heard, she could be found dancing in the middle of the floor with five or six guys in silver, the band blasting. She hired some pit bulls, and they kept the door down while she danced. Gloria had fucked a German at Bee’s Jesus one time, she’d told me at some point in our marriage. At first, this wasn’t worrying. It was when she added Shepherd to the mix. She said it like it was no thing. It seemed like a thing to me.

Now the dog seemed like a better option than the martini. She turned to drink, and then she turned again and wrapped herself in his silver arms. He spun down into her, his diamond shining.

I kept waiting for her to come home, but she’d never really loved me, and so she never really did.

The redhead put herself on ice, and now when I tried to dance with her, sugar cubes crushed under our feet, and everything got sticky and sour. Her skin was cold and hard, and she kept her mouth full of cherry stems, but never any cherries.

“I miss the martini, So & So,” she said at last, her dress falling off her shoulder, sequins dripping from her hem. “And I miss Such & Such. I miss the way he tended.”

I tried to kiss her. She turned her head. I tasted a new spirit.

“What’s that?” I asked her, and she looked away.

“Dry vermouth,” she said, and looked at me, with her liquid eyes. “He gave it to me.” Something had changed in her. She wasn’t an Old Fashioned anymore. She’d been mixing.

She swizzled out the door one morning early, and I knew she’d returned to Bee’s.

I cleaned out the cupboards. I quit drinking, cold turkey. I became a cop and tried to forget.

But soon the bar was back on my radar again. Trouble there all the time. It was a blood–on–the–tiles known failure point, and the boys at the precinct knew it well.

And now, the call, the murder. I had a feeling I knew who it might be, but I didn’t know for sure.

“Pull over,” I said to Gene. Glitter, shining in the headlights.

“You sure you wanna do this?” he asked. “I know you got a soft spot for Gloria, but we gotta arrest that broad, we gotta do it, no matter your old flames.”

“That fire’s out,” I said. It was.

I saw the cat then, his tuxedo shining. I saw his tail, the letters reading NO. I saw him run out the door of Bee’s Jesus, and into the street, and then I saw Glo, right behind him. She shook her shoulders back, and looked at the cruiser, like she didn’t care. She walked over to the window and looked at it until I gave up and rolled down.

“You got no business here, Jimmy,” she said. “Somebody called in a false alarm.”

She looked at me with those same acid eyes, and I felt etched. Nothing like a long ago love to bring back the broken.

“Stay here,” I said to Gene. “Do me a favor. One.”

Gene sighed and set a timer, but he stayed in the car.

I walked down the alley behind Gloria, and Gloria held out her fingers to me for a second. Just one. We were the old days.

I saw him shining, his white and silver leg, dumped in the alley like the caller had told me he would be. I knew who the caller had been. I knew her voice. I knew her muddles. She couldn’t let a guy stay in the street. She wasn’t all bitter, and she had a soft spot for martinis.

I saw the cat, and I saw the band. All of them out in the street, like I’d never seen them. The pit bulls and the bull hounds.

The cat looked up from what he was doing, his teeth covered in blood. Red all over the white front of his tuxedo shirt.

“Sadsack,” he said. “You knew this place, but it’s gone.”

I could hear his purr from where I stood, appalled, as he bit into the gin. The dogs and the cats. All of them on top of the martini, making it go away. There was a pool on the cobbles, and I could smell juniper berries.

“Another one back in the shaker,” said the cat, then shook his head, gnashing. “Hair of the dog,” he said, and spat.

Something caught the light at the end of the alley. Golden–brown sequins. I tasted ice. I could see her mouth, cherry red, shining out of the shadows, and then she stalked away.

Gloria looked up at me, and shrugged. The whites of her eyes were red. Her hands shook. The sun was rising.

“He used to be clean,” she said. “You remember, Jimmy, you remember how he was. You remember how he was. But he got dirty. I’m getting away from this town. This bar. I shut things down in there.”

A cocktail walked out the door of Bee’s Jesus, and I watched her come. All in crimson, her perfume spiced and salty. She knelt beside the remains of the gin martini, and stretched her long green–painted fingernails over his face. She lay down on top of the corpse, and as I watched, the gin dissolved into the Bloody Mary.

“No chaser,” said Gloria, and smiled sadly. “She’ll take him away.”

The Bloody Mary stood up in her stilettos, wiping her hands on her dress, and took Gloria’s hand in hers.

“See you, Mister Nice Guy,” said Gloria. “Bar’s closed. I have a plane to catch. Somewhere sunny. Somewhere I can get a drink with an umbrella.”

I watched Gloria and her new drink walk away. As she went, I saw her unfasten something from her wrist. A leather cuff decked in long chains. She dropped it in the gutter. I watched her turn the corner, away from the glitter, and then I watched the sun rise, shining on the mountain of ice outside the former door of Bee’s Jesus.

 *

“No dead body,” I said to Gene. “Just ice and glass. What can you do?”

I took myself to the cleaners. Blood all over my shirt front, hair of the dog on my knees. I smelled bourbon and cherries, juniper and regret. Gloria and her gin.

“Ah, it’s Such & Such,” said the martinizer. I was no longer an Emperor, if I’d ever really been. “I cleaned your dirty laundry,” he said. “But some stains don’t come out.”

He handed me a white shirt not mine. He waved me out the door and back into the brittle light of the morning.

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the dark fantasy/alt–history novel Queen of Kings, as well as the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes. Her Nebula–nominated short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Subterranean, and more, and will be anthologized in the 2013 editions of Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven. Most recently, she co–edited the anthology Unnatural Creatures, with Neil Gaiman. Find her on Twitter at @MARIADAHVANA, or on the web at www.mariadahvanaheadley.com.

FREE FICTION: Paying It Forward by Michael A. Burstein

By Jason Sizemore
on September 22, 2014
1 comment

For more from Michael A. Burstein, but a copy of his collection I Remember the Future.

I’M DYING.

No one knows it yet. Having never married, I have no family to mourn my passing. I do have my fans, who would probably turn out in droves to say farewell if I had chosen to let them know in advance. But in the twilight of my time, I want to face this final passage alone.

Of course, I’m not completely alone. I still have my mentor, Carl Lambclear. I’ll email him tonight, and he’ll email me back, and just remembering how much he helped me will keep me going until the very end. We’ll exchange our latest story ideas, and share more turns of phrase that we both find appealing. Carl Lambclear is the one person I could open up to about my condition, and I’m glad that I did.

It’s the ultimate irony, I suppose, that once more I find myself having something in common with Lambclear. He, too, is familiar with the emotional gamut that accompanies an inoperable brain tumor; after all, many years ago, he died of the same thing.

* * *

It started long ago, at the beginning of the century. I think it’s almost impossible for anyone who didn’t live through it to fully appreciate the swinging moods that the world experienced. For the months before and after New Year’s Eve 2000, everyone all over the world seemed to harbor a quiet expectation that things would become new and different. The twenty-first century, a century of imagination and great wonders, was arriving, and optimism was the order of the day.

Of course, most of us sobered up after the economy tanked and September 11 happened and the other events of the ohs came to pass. With each tragedy, small or large, it was as if a curtain had plummeted down over another hope that was now irrevocably gone.

For me, the curtain came down when Carl Lambclear died.

I was in my early twenties, a recent college graduate dealing with one of the worst economic downturns to follow a time of great economic growth. Despite a double honors degree in Chemistry and Physics, I couldn’t find a job, and I didn’t really know what I would do with one if I had one.

Because what I really wanted to do was write science fiction.

My parents had waited until their later years to have their only child; and, as an unfortunate consequence, they both died of old age while I was still in college. But fortunately, they had also left me enough of an estate to take care of myself during that difficult time. And that meant I had a chance to explore what I wanted to do with my life, rather than having to take the first job that came in my direction just to support myself.

I had grown up reading the great works of science fiction, pressed upon me by my father. Although in his later years his tastes had turned to mystery novels, he still understood the ability of science fiction to unleash the imagination of a teenage outcast. And I had been so captivated by the works of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and all the rest, that I simply could not imagine doing anything else with my life but trying to bring that sense of the fantastic to others.

And so I had been trying to establish myself as a writer of science fiction. I’d published a few stories in small markets while in college, but to no great acclaim. While pursuing my formal degrees, I had studied writing informally by reading book after book on technique, plot, character, setting, and whatever else seemed useful. But one book I had devoured above all others: Writing Short Science Fiction by Carl Lambclear.

It wasn’t just that I enjoyed Lambclear’s novels. I also enjoyed his ability to teach, to explain how he created the worlds that he did in a way to make them fascinating. Lambclear had a lot of advice on how to draw the reader in, and the advice was just as fun to read as his fiction.

On the day he died, I visited his webpage, and read about all the new books he was planning. It’s a strange phenomenon, I suppose, the dead leaving traces of themselves scattered around cyberspace as if they were still alive. Of course, I imagine people might have felt that way from the time the first person died who had a portrait painted. I remember reading mainstream mystery stories involving messages from beyond the grave, but not ghost stories and the like. There was nothing new about the idea of someone leaving a suicide note, or a clue to their murderer, but as technology progressed, the fictional and nonfictional deceased would leave answering machine messages, videotaped wills, and even emails set to go if a code word wasn’t entered into a computer on a daily basis.

But for me, the spookiest of such messages from the dead were the web pages.

A personal webpage—even a professional webpage, come to think of it—was a vivid statement in the ether, saying to one and all that this person exists. To visit a webpage knowing that the subject of it is dead is like talking to a ghost, and hearing about all the tasks that the dead one left undone.

So, when I heard that Lambclear had died, it spurred me to visit his webpage. I had never done so before; odd, I suppose, given how much I liked his stuff, but it had honestly never occurred to me to do so.

So I pointed my browser (Microsoft’s Internet Explorer on an iMac, connected via a 56K internal modem, if anyone still remembers those things) at his webpage and waited for it to download. The long amount of time it took surprised me. Most writers maintained web pages that were light on the graphics and easy on the text, which made downloading them rather fast, even over a simple phone line. But Lambclear’s page displayed elaborate graphics, and so I sat at my desk, staring at my computer screen and sighing as I waited for the bytelock to clear.

Finally, just when I thought my computer had frozen up completely, the browser bar filled all the way from the left to the right, indicating that the download was done. The picture on my screen made it evident why it had taken so long. Lambclear’s webpage displayed a simulation of the control panel of a spaceship, with digital displays and blinking lights. As I stared at it, dumbfounded, my speakers started playing beeps and whooshes to go along with the effect. Windows on the control panel flashed funny messages, warning of strange anomalies, asteroids, black holes, and wormholes, and requesting that I make course corrections so I wouldn’t hit anything.

I smiled. Although I doubted that Lambclear had designed the graphics himself, they did fit his style quite well. Lambclear wrote a lot of hard science fiction set on spaceships, rollicking adventure stories set against a rock-solid background of real physics.

Something else fit his style as well. The graphics were intense on the eyes, but they didn’t make the webpage confusing to navigate. When I moused over all the graphics, nothing happened. Lambclear had placed a list of links to the other pages on the site over on the left of his main page, away from the graphic of the spaceship control panel. And each link was a simple word, such as “Home,” “News,” “Biography,” “Novels,” and “Bibliography.” The link right under “Home” was to a site map, so I knew that despite the fancy setup, he wanted his information to be as accessible as possible to any visitors.

And on the bottom of the page sat a link that read, very simply, “Send me email.”

I stared at it for a long time with regret. I had never emailed Lambclear, and clearly he had been interested in receiving feedback from his fans. If only I had thought of it before, I could have emailed him, let him know how much his work meant to me, and how much I wanted to emulate him.

But it was too late. Lambclear didn’t even have a family to whom I could send my sympathies; he had remained a solitary bachelor until his last day. There was no one to whom I could properly express my appreciation for his work and my sorrow for his passing.

No one except…

I moused over the “Send me email” link and watched it blink back and forth between white and red. Finally, I clicked on it, bringing up my email program with the “To:” field already addressed to Lambclear’s America Online account (again, does anyone still remember them?). For a brief moment, I felt silly—but only for a moment. I stared at the screen, looked out my window at the autumn leaves just beginning to turn on the trees, and then I composed this message:

 

Subject: Hello

Dear Mr. Lambclear,

I’m sorry I never got in touch with you before. I’m a big fan of your works, from the Ethereal Web stories to the Five Universes novels. I even have a copy of your first short story collection, The Universe Off to the Side, which my father gave to me as a birthday present when it first came out.

I doubt you’ve ever heard of me, though, and I hope you won’t think it forward of me to write. (Your webpage did seem to invite email.) I’ve been trying to write science fiction myself, with no real success. I have to admit that I’ve been emulating you, with the hope that one day you might read my stuff and realize that we were kindred spirits—at least, as far as our tastes in writing.

I’m sorry that will never happen now. I do wish I had written to you sooner. Although I knew you were something of a recluse, the afterword in Writing Short Science Fiction seemed to indicate that you were willing to hear from your fans. But I just never had the inclination to write to you. In the back of my mind, I think I was waiting until I had published enough stories myself so I could approach you as a fellow colleague. But I guess, as I said, that can never happen now.

I hope you can forgive me for waiting. Thank you for all your stories. You will be missed.

 

I clicked the SEND button on my computer screen, and the email went off to its destination. I felt better. Even though I knew that Lambclear could never know of my appreciation of him and his work, at least I knew about it, and that made a difference.

I went to bed that night feeling a little less sad about his passing.

A reader of this file, if anyone finds it, could probably guess what happened next. But as I write this, I still choose to approach the event slowly, like I did that long-ago morning.

My alarm clock went off at 7 AM, blaring its grating tone as usual. I could have slept later, I know, but my parents had instilled in me a fear of sleeping away the days of my life. I pulled myself out of bed, walked to the kitchen, and brewed a cup of fresh-ground Colombian coffee to help me wake up. Still in my blue chamois pajamas, I sipped from my father’s old porcelain mug, sat down at my computer, and downloaded my email.

And among the voluminous spam and occasional email from friends, I found a reply from the account of Carl Lambclear.

At first I was confused, and I almost choked on my hot beverage. Lambclear was dead; how could he have replied to my note? Perhaps a friend was cleaning out his mailbox. Or maybe Lambclear had set his computer to send out automatic replies, acknowledging receipt of email. Whatever the reason, I knew an obvious way to find out. Just open the email and read it.

I hesitated, as unwilling to resolve my situation as the familiar quantum cat. So long as I left the email closed, I could imagine that Lambclear lived; but the moment I opened it, I would come face to face again with the bald fact of his death.

I shook my head, sighed at my own silliness, opened the email, and read it. And when I came to the end of the email, I leaned forward and read it again and again.

 

Subject: Re: Hello

Dear fellow traveler,

It was an absolute delight to receive your missive from yesterday. As a matter of fact, I have heard of you. I keep up with all the magazines, even the semipro ones, and I fondly recall one of your stories. If my memory does not fail me, yours is the story about the young girl who runs off to join an interstellar circus. Good stuff, even if the writing is a bit awkward in places, and the plot a little thin. But writing weakly is a phase we all must pass through, and within your story I do espy the seeds of better work.

However, the point of my reply is not to criticize your work, as I would hesitate to do so without a formal invitation. Rather, I am writing to tell you of my gratitude in knowing how much my work has meant to you. It may surprise you to hear this, but in point of fact I do not hear from many of my fans, even those who would aspire to join me in my calling. I presume most people are put off by my reputation of reclusiveness, and are therefore hesitant to intrude upon my privacy, no matter how delicately they might.

But I must admit, now being in the autumn of my life, I find myself more willing to be an active participant in the world than I have been before. And since your letter arrived at this propitious moment, I feel that perhaps I owe you a little bit of the assistance that was offered to me at the beginning of my career. I would like to offer you the same help, giving you advice on your own stories in the hopes that you will grow to be the best writer that you possibly can.

In other words, if you are willing, I would be more than happy to begin a correspondence.

Sincerely yours,

Carl Lambclear

 

After reading the message three times, I leaned back slightly in my chair, sipped my coffee some more, and pondered. The email was impossible. Lambclear was dead; notices of his death had appeared on all the usual places, including the Locus and SFWA web pages. Lambclear could not have replied to me; therefore, by simple logic, someone else must have done so, pretending to be Lambclear.

But who would have done that? For a moment, I had the fleeting thought that perhaps Lambclear actually did have a family. Was there a secret wife who replied to my message? Or maybe a secret child? But I dismissed that notion as quickly as I came up with it. It simply didn’t make any sense, given the tenor of the reply.

Still, someone must have been reading his email, and whoever it was seemed intent on playing a joke on me. Rather than fall into the trap, and be made a laughingstock, I carefully composed my next email to dissuade the prankster. It went like this:

 

Subject: Re: Hello

Dear “Mr. Lambclear”:

Whoever you are, this joke is in poor taste. Both you and I know that there is no way in the world Carl Lambclear could have responded to me. All I meant to do was express my appreciation of his work, and you poked fun at me for doing so.

Leave me alone.

 

I sent it out within the hour, and then spent the rest of my day writing. I managed to get my thousand words done, not bad for the day’s work. And, as was my habit, I refused to check my email while working. I knew too many aspiring writers who had fallen into that trap and never written a word.

Furthermore, that night I had no time to read my email after I finished my thousand words, as I went out on an unsuccessful blind date. The date was disastrous enough that I still recall it today; still, the less said about it, the better. So the next morning, when I once again was drinking coffee in front of my computer, I found another ostensible reply from the account of Carl Lambclear.

I sighed, thinking that this was absolutely ridiculous. I had already told off the anonymous person who had emailed me the first time; I didn’t really want to have to go through this again. I highlighted the email and prepared to delete it. And then a random piece of advice flitted into my head and stayed my hand. Some writer once said that any experience, no matter how bad, was fodder for the typewriter. Perhaps this message might lead to a story idea. At any rate, it couldn’t really harm me just to read it.

So I clicked on the email, opening it. And read the following:

 

Subject: Re: Hello

Dear fellow traveler,

I must admit being somewhat perplexed as to both the tone and the content of your last message. Here I am offering you a chance for personal feedback from me, and you react with hostility. From what you said in your first note, I was under the impression that you found my work enjoyable. Was I mistaken? Should I have not written back with the gratitude that I did?

Please rest assured that it was indeed I who responded to you, that no one was poking fun at you, and that I am in fact Carl Lambclear.

However, if I do not hear from you again, I will assume that you wish me to leave you alone, as you so explicitly indicated in your last sentence.

Sincerely yours,

Carl Lambclear

 

It was only after I read the email that I noticed the attachment accompanying the message. Normally, I would approach an attachment from a strange email address with wariness, but curiosity took over. Besides, people never usually wrote computer viruses for Macintosh computers, so I figured the file would yield no problem.

I opened the file and began reading it. After a moment, I choked. Lambclear, if it really was he, had written a critique of “Alien Circus,” my story about the young girl who runs off to join an interstellar circus.

At first, I felt insulted. How dare this person, pretending to be Lambclear, take it upon himself to criticize my work without invitation?

Then I began to read the critique.

The writer, whoever he was, had made some very cogent points about the flaws in my story. As I continued reading, I felt my anger melt away. The writer’s gentle phrasing and spot-on analysis rendered me more grateful than upset. Lambclear clearly knew what he was talking about—he showed great insight in his comments—

I shook my head. When had I decided to think of this person as Lambclear?

I reached the middle of the document and stopped reading in order to ponder its existence. If I had written to Lambclear but a year or two ago, and gotten this email in reply, I wouldn’t have questioned its veracity in the slightest.

And yet, how could Lambclear have sent me this email today, given the incontrovertible fact that he had died? Could he possibly still be alive? He wouldn’t perpetrate a death hoax, would he?

A thought occurred to me, prompting me to open the first message I had sent Lambclear. I noticed something interesting; I had never mentioned in my note that Lambclear was dead. It didn’t seem important at the time, but now I wondered. Could whoever it was had taken my email as an invitation to give me the mentoring I so desperately wanted?

And the funny thing, the two emails did sound like him. I went back to his book on writing and some of his essays, and the style felt very similar. I considered hiring someone to do a textual analysis of the two emails and the critique to prove that Lambclear was really composing them, but it didn’t seem worth it. Kind of like killing a fly with an atomic bomb.

Still pondering and puzzled, I returned to the critique to see what else he had said about my story. My thoughts flipped back and forth over the question of whether or not Lambclear himself could have written this document.

And then, when I finished his critique of my story, I saw something that clinched my belief that my correspondent might in fact be Lambclear. I pulled Writing Short Science Fiction off my shelf again, and riffled through the pages, until I came to the page I remembered.

In this book on writing, Lambclear had given the subconscious mind a name. He called it “George,” and frequently noted that George would tell him to do this, or George would tell him to do that. Well, in the critique of my story, he ended with this piece of advice? “I suggest you get in touch with your inner George.” Now, the possibility existed that some other close fan of Lambclear’s work had written that final sentence. But it seemed unlikely, especially when taken together with all the other evidence I had that Lambclear himself had written back to me.

And yet…rationality said otherwise. How could I reconcile the fact that Lambclear was dead with the fact that he was writing to me? I had grown up a rationalist, an agnostic, a skeptic in the face of superstition. How could I believe that I was now corresponding with the dead?

I wrestled with what to do for few hours, finding myself too distracted to write fiction. Finally, I wrote another email:

 

Subject: Truth

Dear Mr. Lambclear (?),

Thank you very much for your critique of “Alien Circus,” and for your willingness to reply. I only wish I had had the opportunity to run the story by you before it saw publication! Still, some of your comments suggest to me the possibility of a sequel, which I feel would have a higher quality than the original story. And so it goes, I guess.

You must have noticed that although I removed the quotation marks from around your name, I’ve added a question mark in parentheses afterward. Please do not take that as an insult, only as a representation of my confused state. You see, after reading your critique, I am convinced of a few things. I am convinced that you understand the art of writing very well, and that you also have great skill as a teacher. I am also convinced that you have a deep understanding of the field of science fiction, and what makes a story evoke that sense of wonder we all strive for.

And yet, for reasons I do not want to mention explicitly, I find it extremely difficult to believe that you really are Carl Lambclear. Not to be insulting, but there are compelling reasons for me to believe otherwise. I hope you will understand what I mean, and still be willing to continue this correspondence that I may have inadvertently started. But I further hope that perhaps you can tell me something to clear up my confusion.

 

The email sent into the ether, I returned to my daily quota of words. I recall how sometimes the critiques I received in writing workshops would make me freeze up for days on end, unable to write anything. It pleased me to discover that Lambclear’s critique had the opposite effect. I zipped through my thousand-word quota, and even doubled it before I declared my working day over.

And the next morning, when I checked my email, I found another message from “Carl Lambclear.”

I noticed he had changed the subject line.

 

Subject: What is truth?

Dear fellow traveler,

I am delighted to see that you have come around somewhat, and are willing to accept the fact that I am who I say I am. (I remind you once again that you were the one who initiated our correspondence, not I.)

I must admit, I haven’t received too many emails recently; or at least, not emails of any major interest. I suspect that most people doubt I would bother replying, for those same “compelling reasons” to which you obliquely referred. But you, my young friend, chose to write to me anyway, and for that, I hope to repay you.

Essentially, I plan to share with you seeds of story ideas that might blossom under your tutelage. My wish is that you grow enough in your talent to be able to take these story ideas and make them uniquely yours. But let me begin with an idea that is uniquely mine, and which is also one that might make you feel better about corresponding with me.

Let us posit the following scenario.

Suppose a writer knew he was dying. An older writer, but not one who has yet reached what most would consider the twilight of one’s life, but rather just the autumn. Such a writer might feel many things: desperation, anger, and fear are the obvious ones, although one cannot omit the possibility of feeling peace or a sense of completion. A psychologist could discount that, however, and suggest that the writer might even go through the five stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

But the writer might do something else instead. Suppose that writer was also a Ph.D. physicist and an expert computer programmer, and he wanted to make sure that he would be remembered. What might he do? How does a person with a technical background and a ceaseless imagination deal with the inevitable conclusion of his existence?

I know that such a scenario must be light-years away from your own mind, but that makes this all the more interesting a challenge. If you can figure out my idea, you might have the makings of an excellent spinner of tales of science fiction.

Sincerely yours,

Carl Lambclear

 

I didn’t know it then, but this was only the beginning of the meat of my emails with Lambclear. Lambclear called it “Campbelling” a story, named after the most influential editor in the field of science fiction. John Campbell would give story ideas to his writers, and ask them to write the stories. They would take his ideas and run with them; for example, Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” which was once voted the best science fiction story ever written, was based on an idea given to him by John Campbell. Lambclear loved to throw ideas in my direction, and over the years, many of my most well-regarded stories had their roots in Lambclear’s suggestions. I suppose I could come clean now, and point out which stories of mine came from Lambclear’s suggestions and which didn’t, but I think it is best if I do not. I have to leave something for the scholars to argue about, after all. (Ah, a writer’s ego rears its ugly head once again; why should I assume that future scholars will have any level of interest in my scribblings?)

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because on that long-ago night when Lambclear first sent me a story idea, I had no idea where this would all lead. Picture me as a young, confused writer, who still had no idea what Lambclear was getting at. I suppose I could have terminated our correspondence right there and then, or just emailed him back innocuously. But the idea had created some deep feelings within me, and I decided to make my distress evident.

 

Subject: Re: What is truth?

Dear Mr. Lambclear,

I’m afraid I’m totally at a loss as to how to develop that idea you’re suggesting. In fact, I’m not quite sure why you’re even suggesting it to me in the first place. After all, if it’s just a story idea, why not write the story yourself? And if it’s more than a story idea, why hint at it in such an odd way?

I actually have more experience with death than you may expect or realize. You see, although I’m just out of college, both of my parents have passed on. I was there for each of them, and I helped my mother and my father go through their struggles before dying.

Furthermore, Dad was a scientist, much like yourself, and Mom a computer programmer. So to suggest, as you did, a story idea in which someone with technical expertise finds himself dying—well, it hit me a little too close to home. Literally.

My guess, though, is that you didn’t know. Otherwise you wouldn’t even have suggested that idea. But maybe this is why I’m having trouble spinning fiction out of your idea.

Or maybe I’m once again having trouble dealing with the question of who you really are.

Please stop playing games with me. Just be up front and let me know what’s going on.

 

Subject: Re: What is truth?

Dear fellow traveler,

My first reaction to your latest note was to sigh, as I felt heavy with guilt of unintended actions. I truly did not mean to bring up any unpleasant memories. As you ascertained, I knew nothing of your family background, and had no idea that your parents were deceased. Please allow me to offer my sympathies, belated though they may be.

That said, I do feel obliged to point out to you what you must have already learned if you have truly read my book on writing. The best stories come from deep within a writer’s soul. The death of your parents may hurt you deeply, so deeply that you choose to withhold your emotions; but if, instead, you were to tap that resource, you would probably find a rich vein of story ideas that would never be depleted.

In any event, I reread “Alien Circus” and it reminded me again that you do have a talent I could nurture, even if it is still in its most rudimentary form. (Please do not take that as an insult; even well-established writers need constant nurturing, and the more mature and comfortable writers are with their level of talent, the more they understand and accept this.)

So let me help you with the development of the story idea I suggested. Again, the question I posed is: suppose a writer with a strong background in Physics and Computer Science discovered he was dying? What might he do?

To my way of thinking, the obvious answer is that he might try to find a way to stave off the grim reaper. Our field has plenty of examples of stories of immortals, or near-immortals; and yet surely, our field could support many more. So I played on this idea for a while, and came up with my own conclusions.

The first thing that such a person might do is attempt to download his personality into a computer, so that he could continue living. Of course, as a few philosophers have been quick to point out, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer himself would continue to feel alive. Instead, others who interact with the computer program would swear that the person was alive and intelligent, so his influence would live on in an explicit way even if he himself did not.

But, sadly, current technology doesn’t yet allow for an actual uploading of a mind; our brains are still far too complicated for us to understand that completely. However, if our imaginary writer had the skill, he might write a computer program that could simulate himself as a rudimentary form of artificial intelligence. Perhaps even as an AI which could pass the infamous Turing test.

(As a side note, it seems to me that the writer, relying only upon his own judgment, would program the computer with only his best qualities, and leave out the worst. After all, we all imagine ourselves to be nobler than we really are.)

Doesn’t that strike you as a fascinating idea to play with?

Ah, but I hear you ask? what else? What other ideas come to mind?

Well, try this one. Suppose this writer, having a background in Physics, figured out a way to connect his computer to another universe via a wormhole. Perhaps travel between universes is not possible, but communication is. If so, it might take the imagination of a science fiction writer to make it work. Could that writer arrange for all his incoming email to fall through that wormhole and end up in the mailbox of another version of himself? And might that version then pick up his communications where the original one was forced to leave off?

Think on it, my young friend.

Sincerely yours,

Carl Lambclear

 

Subject: Re: What is truth?

Dear whoever,

Are you saying you’re a Carl Lambclear from another universe? Are you saying that you’re a computer simulation of the Carl Lambclear who just died? WHO ARE YOU?

 

Subject: I am that I am

Dear fellow traveler,

I believe the standard reply on the Internet is ROTFL, for the phrase “Rolling On The Floor, Laughing.” Nowhere in my email do I mean to imply that what I wrote is the truth! My idle thoughts were merely an exercise in speculation, nothing more. I’m not saying anything about the real world. I’m just doing what we science fiction writers always do, positing scenarios and generating story ideas.

Of course, you may choose to believe what you wish, but remember the curse that falls upon the heretic. I dare say that if you took these bizarre insinuations to anyone but myself, they would look at you askance and inquire as to what weed you were smoking. Those who would hang on your every word are probably also those with whom you would be most reluctant to share these ideas.

I will finish this email with the following offer, reiterated. I find myself with much time now, and can think of no better way to use my time than to help you along. If you would have me as your mentor, I would have you as my pupil. I only ask that you no longer question me on how and why, but accept this for being just what it is.

Sincerely yours,

Carl Lambclear

 

I took Carl up on his offer, and with his help, my writing blossomed. I managed to crack a few minor markets at first, semiprozines and webzines, until finally I figured out how to make a story work for a larger audience. And then, by the purest luck, I managed to catch the wave of the science fiction renaissance, the so-called Second Golden Age.

My stories were some of the first to appear in Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Absolute Magnitude, and Artemis when the kids who had grown up on the fantasies of J.K. Rowling and Tamora Pierce suddenly turned to science fiction to satiate their appetites for that undefinable sense of wonder. Of course, these things do come and go in waves. Eventually, the wonders seemed pedestrian again, and the circulation and sales dropped as they had many times before. But they will grow again at some point in the future; of this I am sure. As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

After having cut my teeth on short stories, I finally began publishing novels. My novels sold well enough for me to make a living, and garnered me some minor critical acclaim, even an award or two. And so the years passed. I need not recount them here in any sort of excruciating detail; anyone interested can refer to The Scenes of Life, the autobiography I uplinked just ten years ago in 2060. My estate will surely find the royalties useful for settling old debts. Instead, I turn now to the end of the tale, the last few emails I shared with my mentor.

The emails in which I finally unearthed the strength within my soul to tell Carl Lambclear the truth.

 

Subject: Cancer

Dear Mr. Lambclear,

I’m dying.

I didn’t want to tell you this news. I know how much we’ve avoided talking about death, ever since the beginning of our emailing back and forth. I suspect I know why, and I’m sure you do too.

It’s particularly disheartening, because the reason I’m dying is that I have an inoperable brain tumor. There is an irony in all this, I suppose, but again, I wouldn’t feel right pointing it out to you. Not after all these years of your help and guidance.

I know I have very little time left; unfortunately, I have no way of knowing exactly how much. I must admit that part of me feels the need to ask you how you managed, after—well, you know what I mean. But the other part would hesitate to dispel the magic, and so I refuse to ask for a peek at the man behind the curtain.

 

The email sent I went back to my bedroom to try to get some sleep. The pain came and went, but by popping THC and plugging my head shunt into the wall, I managed to doze off and even have a few pleasant dreams of old friends.

* * *

My EC chirped, waking me up, and called out the time in a flat monotone. “Eleven twenty-two PM,” it said. The middle of the night. I gently creaked out of my bed, pulled my tattered blue robe around me for warmth, and glided into my living room. The wall screens remained dim, due to the lateness of the hour.

“Messages,” I called out. Perhaps it was old-fashioned of me, but I never wanted the whole house connected, just this one room, which was why I had to leave my bed for the alert.

“You have twenty-seven messages,” the room said.

“Delete all spam.”

“You have one message,” the room said. As I had expected.

“Display,” I said.

And the screen on the walls turned bright with Carl Lambclear’s final message.

 

Subject: Re: Cancer

Dear fellow traveler,

So it has come down to this. In the end, we really are fellow travelers.

I am truly sorry to hear your news. I still remember my first reaction when I found out about my own terminal condition. You may recall how I refused to let anyone know about my cancer until I had finally passed on. My agent was good at keeping secrets, and she handled the announcement and the estate matters very well, or so I have always felt since.

Because we are fellow travelers, my young friend (and may I still call you young?), I understand your feelings. We strive for immortality, all of us, in our myriad ways. Some of us run for public office, in the hopes that we will change the course of the world. Some of us teach, in hopes that out of the thousands of students we encounter, one will blossom. Some of us get married and have children, so that a little bit of us will survive in a fellow human being’s DNA. And some of us create, whether it be art, music, poetry, or stories, in hopes of communicating to the future that once we were here, and that once we mattered.

In the end, however, from dust we sprang, and to dust we shall return. Even I was not immune to that, however much it may seem otherwise from our years-long correspondence. You know that I died, or at least a version of me did; and that is something you were never able to shake, no matter what.

But, as I said, I feel greatly for you. And so, at some expense to myself, I have decided the time is ripe to provide you with my solution. I have sent you an attachment to this email. I assure you that it is not a virus, nor anything of a malicious sort.

For reasons that will soon become clear to you, I am afraid that I will be unable to continue our correspondence for much longer. And so, having taken note of your salutation lo these many years, I would like to offer you one final hand of friendship. After all, we are no longer mentor and student, if we ever were. We have long passed into the roles of colleagues, equals in our field. And so, we should address each other as such.

Feel free to call me Carl.

Sincerely yours,

Carl

 

I read Lambclear’s—I mean Carl’s—note with tears welling up in my eyes, until I could no longer see. I removed my glasses and wiped them on my robe, and then the house brought me a tissue and I blew my nose.

Eventually, I managed to regain my composure, and I took a look at the attachment Carl had sent me.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a computer programmer of any sort. Even today, when one programs the more complex computers by simply telling the less complex computers what you want them to accomplish, I still would have no idea what I’d be doing.

Nor am I a physicist, despite my degrees. My education is so far in the past, in any event, that I can barely understand the mathematics of the cutting-edge theories proposed today.

But I am a science fiction writer of many years, and I can comprehend certain concepts far better than the ordinary person. And as a science fiction writer, I am now prepared to accept even the most outlandish ideas that others might dismiss out of sheer mundanity.

Carl’s attachment was a computer program. He had sent me the same program he had created shortly before he died, the program that allowed him to communicate with me. I tried to decipher it at first, but the coding was far too obscure for me to grasp.

Fortunately, Carl’s program was filled with comment lines, laying out every step of what it did. The comments made it trivial to command my system to execute the program. And as an added bonus, I now know just with whom I was communicating all these many years, and I no longer have to guess if Carl’s emails came from an artificial intelligence, from another universe, or from something or somewhere else that no one could ever guess. Because in the comment lines, Carl explained how he had managed to apply the Tegmark Hypothesis.

Max Tegmark, a physicist who did much of his work at the turn of the millennium, when I was just out of college, had proposed an interesting take on the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Many-Worlds, proposed by Hugh Everett in 1957, explained away the paradoxes of quantum uncertainty by postulating that every time a decision has to be made, the universe splits into two, yielding an infinite multitude of realities, sometimes referred to as the multiverse. Well, Tegmark looked at this bizarre concept and proposed an even more bizarre idea of his own, which came to be known by his name.

The Tegmark Hypothesis can be summarized as follows: The only realities you continue to be aware of are those in which you survive.

In other words, suppose you do an experiment where you ask an assistant to push a button which will randomly cause a machine gun to either fire or not fire. You position yourself exactly in front of the gun, so that if the gun fires, you have no chance of surviving.

Here’s where quantum mechanics comes into play. It is certainly possible for your assistant and for the rest of us to observe the experiment and recoil in shock at the sudden explosion of a bullet into your chest. But because there are an infinite number of tracks upon which the universe can run, you yourself will never feel the bullet. For you to be a valid observer, your consciousness must follow a track along which it will never—can never—be snuffed out. Because the alternate way to phrase the Tegmark Hypothesis is this: You can never have any awareness of realities in which you are dead.

Carl’s program opens a connection to computers in other universes, and seeks out the universe in which “I” continue to live, forever and ever. The program will reach that version of me, and explain to that version exactly what is happening to me, in my universe—which is, of course, the only universe which matters to me. The program will bring a message about my life to my other self, and propose that my other self keep the memory of my existence alive in this particular world, doing exactly what Carl started doing those many years ago.

And so now I know what I must do. Web pages are years in the past, of course. We no longer surf websites on the World Wide Web; rather, we visit Holosites in the Universal Database. But email, in whatever form one calls it, is still the same.

Carl’s program was easy to download into my own machines. I do not have to wonder if it scans my files and reproduces an artificially intelligent copy of myself, for I now know that it does not. Nor do I have to concern myself with the entropic problems of creating a gateway into another universe, for that gateway is only for computers to navigate. And because I know what will happen, it no longer matters to me that Carl’s program cannot keep my “me-ness” intact. Within a week or a month, I know I shall be gone, and in the meantime, I must keep my shunt plugged into my system. Although it may be immodest of me, I imagine that on the day I die, some young fan who aspires to write will visit my site and will see the recently installed link that encourages fans to email. I imagine that the fan will hesitate, just as I did so many years ago, and then decide to send one more email into the ether, as a tribute to the author of that fan’s admiration.

And when that happens, my system will be ready. Carl’s program is set, and the young fan will receive “my” reply. With luck, my encouragement will spur my correspondent into a full-fledged calling as a writer. Another, immortal, version of myself will help that fan, in the same way Carl helped me and generations of writers beforehand helped him. All of our influence will be felt throughout the centuries. And none of us will be forgotten.

It pays to pay it forward.


Afterword
 
“Paying It Forward”
* * *

A few people who have read my stories have come to notice a theme I tend to revisit again and again—the question of how we will be remembered in the future. Nowhere is that more evident than in this story, which was inspired by the passing of writer Charles Sheffield.

In 2002, Charles Sheffield died of a brain tumor. A decade before, I would have acknowledged his passing somewhat more remotely, as I wasn’t personally acquainted with him or any other science fiction writers. But Charles I knew, and not just as a remote writer I admired, or as a writer I met through a workshop. I had met Charles on the convention circuit, and he had befriended me like he befriended so many others.

His death hit me in a different way from Isaac Asimov’s, or even Damon Knight’s earlier that year. I suspect it was partly because Charles died exactly twelve years after my father had, to the day. I found myself thinking about Charles a lot, and while I was thinking about him I decided to visit his webpage, which I had never done when he was alive.

What I found I already described in the story as Carl Lambclear’s webpage. And like the unnamed protagonist, I moused over the email link, and contemplated what might happen if I sent Charles a final email. And at that moment, in a flash, the entirety of the story “Paying It Forward” came to me. I outlined it immediately and began to write.

Settling on the title of this story was difficult for me. The title “Paying It Forward” popped into my head from the very beginning, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. But a movie called Pay It Forward, based on a book of the same name, had recently been in theaters, and I knew that titling my story “Paying It Forward” could lead to slight confusion. Still, I wanted to evoke Robert A. Heinlein’s statement about how in the field of science fiction, we don’t pay it back, we pay it forward, and there was no other title that seemed to fit.

Charles Sheffield died in November 2002. I finished the story in January 2003, and Stan bought it for Analog without requesting a single change (thanks once again to Nomi for fixing it before I sent it to him). The story came in second for the Hugo Award. I have to admit that I’ve always been surprised that the story didn’t make it from the preliminary to the final Nebula ballot, since many writers have told me how much this story has meant to them. But in the end, the awards and award nominations are just another way for folks to express their appreciation for one’s work, and with this collection I finally have a chance to reciprocate.

FREE FICTION: Kaddish for the Last Survivor by Michael A. Burstein

By Lesley Conner
on September 16, 2014
1 comment

For more from Michael A. Burstein, buy his short story collection I Remember the Future.

“The deniers’ window of opportunity will be enhanced in years to come. The public, particularly the uneducated public, will be increasingly susceptible to Holocaust denial as survivors die… Future generations will not hear the story from people who can say ‘this is what happened to me. This is my story.’ For them it will be part of the distant past and, consequently, more susceptible to revision and denial.”

—Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust, (1994)

 

SARAH JACOBSON’S HANDS SHOOK AS she parked her clunky Volkswagen across the street from the old suburban house in which she had grown up. She sat there, breathing in the gas fumes from the idling engine as she watched the reporters swarm all over the front lawn.

Her boyfriend, Tom Holloway, sat next to her in the passenger seat. He stared at her for a moment, then asked, “Ready?”

Sarah nodded. As she turned off the car’s engine, Tom jumped out of the front seat, dashed around the front of the car, and opened the driver’s side door for her. For once, she was grateful for the old-fashioned Southern charm. To think, when she’d first met him, she’d resented it.

Well, she didn’t resent it now. Tom was positioning himself to fend off the horde of reporters, and she was grateful for that, too. Fortunately, no one had noticed, or else they had not yet connected Sarah to the biggest news story of the week. Tom gave Sarah his hand, and she allowed him to help her out.

She stretched as she got out of the car, feeling the warmth of the spring sunlight on her back. How strange that she could enjoy it, on this morning of all mornings. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, listening to a bird singing in the distance.

Tom’s voice intruded upon her brief peace. “Shall we?”

She gave him a small smile. “I guess so.”

“Okay.” Tom looked around, concentrating his gaze on the sea of reporters. “Lot of excitement for a small town on Long Island,” he said. Sarah noticed that he was making no effort to suppress his Southern accent; he knew how endearing she found it. “Hard to believe your grandfather’s attracting all this attention.”

“Yeah,” Sarah replied. “I know.” She cocked an ear toward the reporters. “Listen.”

One radio reporter, close enough to be heard, was speaking into her thumbnail recorder, taping commentary for her story. “This is Paula Dietrich, reporting from Lawrence, Long Island, where Joshua Cohen is dying. Born in Warsaw in the 1920s, Cohen—”

Tom whistled. “He’s become a celebrity. Finally got his fifteen minutes of fame.”

Sarah shrugged. They’d both studied Warhol. After all, they had both graduated from Harvard with honors. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s just my grandfather.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tom said softly. “Sorry. You sure you’re ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess. If I can survive this, I can survive anything.” Sarah grabbed Tom’s hand. They walked off the sidewalk onto the path leading up to the front door. She braced herself for the barrage.

One of the reporters glanced in their direction and recognized Sarah. “It’s the granddaughter!” he yelled and began running toward them. In seconds, all of the shouting, sweating journalists had descended upon Sarah and Tom. The way they jostled at each other, trying to get better positions for recording their images, reminded Sarah of a plague of locusts come to feed.

“We’d like to ask you—”

“May I ask you—”

“I have a question—”

“How do you feel?”

“Did you ever think—”

Tom shouted above the Babel of voices. “Please, everyone! Sarah just wants to get inside.”

Obviously that was not good enough for the reporters. Instead, they used Tom’s interruption to create some semblance of order to their questioning. One reporter took the lead, and the others fell silent.

“Ms. Jacobson, Trevor Hunt, USNA Online. Could you tell us what you’re going through at the moment?”

Sarah glanced at Tom and shrugged. It would be easier to answer a few of their questions first, she decided, and then go inside. She looked directly into Hunt’s right eye, which glowed red with the lens of an implanted camera. “What anyone would go through when her grandfather is dying, I guess.”

“But, Ms. Jacobson!” interjected the radio correspondent they had been listening to earlier. “The circumstances of your grandfather’s position—”

Sarah interrupted her. “Listen. I know what my grandfather is to the world, but to me, he’s just my grandfather. Now let me go say goodbye to him in peace. I promise I’ll talk to you—all of you—later.”

Apparently chastened, the reporters parted in front of Sarah and Tom, clearing the path to the front door. As they walked up the path, a background murmuring began, like cats growling at each other over their food. The reporters chatted with their colleagues or recorded views for their broadcasts. Tom whispered to Sarah, “I’m really surprised. They’re being more courteous than I would have guessed.”

No sooner had Tom said that when a small man stepped right in front of them, blocking their way. He brushed back his sandy blond hair and asked, “Ms. Jacobson, why does your family continue to perpetrate this hoax?”

The growling noises of conversation cut off, leaving nothing but the sounds of the cameras and recorders.

At first Sarah thought he was a private citizen, not a member of the media, as he carried no recording devices and his eyes appeared normal. But a second glance exposed something far more sinister. This man wore a memory recorder implant behind his right ear. His audience, whoever they were, would be able to directly interface with his memories of confronting Sarah, over and over again.

As calmly as she could, Sarah said, “Excuse me?”

The man smiled. “I asked, given the fact that your grandfather, who lived a long and healthy life, is now on his deathbed, why does your family feel the need to perpetuate the hoax of the Holocaust?”

Tom stepped forward, shouting, “Now, listen here, you—”

Sarah gently reached out and grabbed Tom’s shoulder. “Tom, stop.” She turned to the man. “Excuse me, but I didn’t catch your name.”

“Sorry. Maxwell Schwab, from the Institute for Historical Revision. I’m doing an article for our academic journal.” He waved his hand at the other reporters. “We’d like to know why your family has gone to the trouble of inviting the mass media here, pretending to the world that the Holocaust actually happened and that your grandfather was a victim of this fictional event.”

Tom pulled at her arm. “Come on, Sarah, we don’t need to listen to this shi—this crap.”

Sarah resisted. “No, wait.” She pivoted her body to face the reporter. “Mr. Schwab?”

“Yes?”

Sarah slapped him on the face, hard, glad she’d studied self-defense. He staggered back and fell onto his backside. Sarah hoped it was painful enough to keep people from playing this memory.

Schwab sat there, unmoving, just staring at Sarah. No one bothered to pick him up.

She turned to Tom. “Now, let’s go inside.”

No one else stopped them.

* * *

The first thing that hit Sarah as she entered the house was the smell. The odor of stewing meat and potatoes from the kitchen mixed with the old, musty smell that had always been about the house whenever Sarah had returned from college. The living room seemed dark, and it took her a moment to realize that all the shades were drawn, probably to keep the reporters from looking in.

She called out to her parents. “Hello? Dad? Mother?”

Her father called back, “In the kitchen, honey, be right out.”

Sarah turned to Tom. “Are you going to be okay?”

Tom smiled, shrugged, and took Sarah’s hand briefly. “Yeah, I’ve dealt with her before. It’s not too bad.”

“She’s not your mother, though.”

The door to the kitchen swung open. Sarah’s parents, Paul and Anna Jacobson, entered the living room. Her father looked calm, cool, and collected, the way he always looked. He wore a jacket and tie, in stark contrast to the polo shirts and jeans that Tom and she were wearing. Sarah couldn’t remember a time when her father wasn’t dressed so impeccably. Her mother, on the other hand, wore a sweatshirt and sweatpants, as if dressing well was currently her last priority. She appeared frazzled, with her hair all askew.

Tom greeted them with a simple hello. Sarah’s father smiled at Tom, but her mother barely glanced in Tom’s direction.

There was a moment of silence, which her father broke. “Come, Tom, I need your help in the kitchen. You can tell me how your family’s doing back in Durham. And how about those Mets?”

The two men went through the slow swinging door, which creaked loudly until it finally shut, muffling their awkward conversation about baseball. Sarah and her mother watched the door for a few seconds after it had closed, and then Sarah turned to look at her mother. “I guess,” Sarah said, “I ought to go upstairs and see Grampa.”

Her mother sniffed. “Sure, go ahead. Do you want to bring your goyische boyfriend upstairs too?”

Damn, Sarah thought, she isn’t going to be reasonable. Surprise, surprise. “Mother, please—”

“And now you’re living with him.”

Shocked, Sarah took a deep breath. “I never told you that! How did you find out?”

Her mother grinned. “Just now, Sarah. You may be my smart Harvard daughter, but you’re not smarter than me.”

Sarah felt furious, but more with herself than with her mother. Anna Jacobson had done it again, pretending to know something so as to trick the information out of Sarah. Damn! How could she have been so stupid? Well, as long as Mother had figured it out, Sarah might as well get everything out in the open.

“I was going to tell you anyway, Mother. Today, in fact. Tom and I are living together. We have been for a while now.”

Her mother glared at her and Sarah said, “I don’t care how you feel about it. And anyway, things are different now.”

“Such defiance,” her mother said, making clucking sounds with her tongue. “And things being different isn’t an excuse.”

“You’re right, Mother,” Sarah said as sarcastically as she could. “An economic depression is no excuse for being unable to afford my own apartment.”

“Now Sarah—”

“‘Now Sarah,’ what?” Sarah slammed the doorframe with her palm. “It’s not like you have the money to help out; you still live here, in the oldest house in the neighborhood. You can’t even afford automatic doors. Well, I can’t afford to live by myself. No one right out of school can, not with our loans. And as it is—” She paused for a moment, then took the plunge. “As it is, Tom and I will probably be getting married soon anyway.”

There. The big secret was out. Sarah studied her mother’s face carefully; it seemed completely shut down. Her mother just stared at her, stonily, not reacting. Finally, Sarah couldn’t take the silence any longer. “Well?” she asked. “Aren’t you going to say something?”

Her mother sighed. “Sarah, it isn’t Tom. He’s a nice boy, and I do like him. But I—and your father—would prefer that you marry someone Jewish.”

“Why?”

“Why? What do you mean, why?”

“Exactly what I said, Mother.” She spoke crisply, trying to imitate the Cambridge accent of some of her professors. “Why?”

Her mother looked over Sarah’s shoulder. Was it possible she had never really considered this question before? After a few seconds, Sarah’s impatience got the better of her again. “Is it because of Grampa? Because he’s the last one?”

Her mother immediately replied, “No! It’s because you’re Jewish. And it surprises me you’d even think of marrying someone who isn’t.”

Sarah shook her head and sighed. “You know, Mother, you shouldn’t be so surprised. You never raised me as Jewish.”

Her mother’s eyes, filled with shame and fear, locked onto Sarah’s. “That’s not true,” she said softly.

Sarah nodded and went back to being sarcastic. “Yeah, Mother. Matzoh ball soup on Passover, and Chinese food and a movie on Christmas. Should have been enough for me, right? That didn’t make me Jewish; it just made me a different type of American. And that’s how you and Dad raised me, as an American.”

Her mother stood still for a moment, then sank onto one of the cushioned chairs. It sighed, sending dust into the air. “I can’t believe it,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m doing what I said I never would.”

Confused, Sarah asked, “What are you talking about?”

Her mother seemed to go through an internal struggle, and when she spoke next, her words were chosen with care. “Sarah, I guess you were right, in a way. It is because of Grampa that I want you to marry someone Jewish, but it’s also because of Grampa that I never really made that clear. Because…because I wanted to protect you.”

“Protect me?” Sarah felt surprised; the only things her mother had ever tried to protect her from were strangers and bad grades.

“Yes, Sarah, protect you. I mean, just look outside at that mob of reporters. You don’t know what it’s like growing up as the only child of a survivor. I had to grow up listening to all these stories over and over, all this pressure on me from your grandfather. Because of the Holocaust. All that pressure you’re feeling from me—I felt it from him. He’s dying now, and I still feel it.” Her voice trembled, but she clamped her mouth shut.

“Because of the Holocaust? Mother, Grampa was never very religious; you told me that yourself. And I don’t see how the Holocaust is a reason to marry someone Jewish.”

“Why not?” she asked softly.

Sarah considered the question. “I know something of our religion,” she said without conviction. Somehow, that was the one thing she had never gotten around to studying while at Harvard. “The Holocaust is not exactly a…a defining event in Judaism.”

Her mother shook her head. “Oh, yes it is. After all, Sarah, by intermarrying, aren’t you denying what it is about you that made the Nazis try to wipe us out? Some would say that you’re letting Hitler win. After all these years.”

Sarah didn’t know what to say to that; it made her angry and upset, and choked her up. But her mother continued. “Sarah, these were all the things I had to grow up with from your grandfather. I don’t know what it was like firsthand to be in the camps, thank God, and God forbid that anyone ever will again. But to your grandfather, his experience there was always more real than the rest of his life. More real than the people in his life.”

Her mother paused for a moment, then said, “It was even more real to him than I was.”

“Oh,” Sarah finally managed to say.

“Your grandfather felt that every minute of life had to be devoted to reminding the world. Except instead of bothering the world, he bothered your grandmother and me. When you were born, I promised myself that I wouldn’t let him warp your life the way he warped mine.”

“But your life isn’t—” Sarah cut herself off.

Her mother chuckled bitterly. “It isn’t warped? Sarah, compare your life to mine; you’ve always had more choices than I did. In my day, there was still so much women couldn’t do, or wouldn’t be allowed to do. Things were good for a while, but then when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it was like the clock turned backwards for all women. And for a Jewish woman, the only daughter of a survivor—” She stopped.

“Yes, Mother?”

“Let’s just say that your father was not the first man I wanted to marry. But your grandfather, well…”

There was nothing Sarah could think of in reply, and her mother gave her a sad smile. “Now, maybe, you understand,” she whispered.

“And maybe you do too,” Sarah whispered back, a question and a statement at the same time.

Mother and daughter regarded each other for a moment, and then Sarah spoke. “I’m going upstairs to see Grampa, Mother. It’s my last chance.”

Her mother sighed. “Go. I’ve already made my peace with him. We’ll talk more later, after—when there isn’t so little time.”

* * *

Grampa looked so weak lying in the hospital bed that U.S. Hospice had provided. Where was the strong man of Sarah’s childhood, the Grampa who had carried her on his shoulders at the playground, who had comforted her on her first frightening day of school, who had attended her high school graduation just five years ago? This old, frail shell of a man, lying in bed with blankets around his thin body and snoring weakly—Sarah couldn’t reconcile him with her memories of her grandfather.

Then, tattooed upon his left arm, she saw the number: 110290. It had always been there. She remembered that first time she had asked Grampa about it. She’d been six years old. He had taken her to the playground near the house, on a hot summer day. Grampa took off the raincoat he always wore, sat on a bench with other old people, and let Sarah run off and play while he “snoozed and schmoozed,” as he liked to call it. She never understood how he could sleep with all the noise from all the children playing, but Grampa seemed able to sleep anywhere. It might have scared her, but he always woke up when she called him.

When she returned, she was shocked to see that Grampa had rolled up his sleeves because of the heat. Grampa never rolled up his sleeves.

“Grampa,” Sarah had asked, “what’s that?” Her little fingers reached out to touch the number.

He woke instantly. “What is what?”

“That number. What is it?”

Grampa saw what she was looking at and quickly rolled down his sleeve. “Better you shouldn’t ask,” he said, and glared at her. Then his face softened. “Saraleh, how old are you again?”

She laughed. “Six, silly!”

“Six.” He looked into the distance for a moment. “I had a sister who was six, once. She never got to be seven.”

Grampa had had a sister? Sarah had never heard of this before. “What was her name?”

“Sarah. You were named for her.” He looked at his left arm and rolled the sleeve back up, displaying the tattoo. “I was sixteen; that was when I got the number. Sarah, forget what I said before. It is better that you ask. You must ask. And remember.”

He had told her of the horrors of the camp. Of how his own grandfather had disappeared one night. Of how he, his parents, and his little sister were taken away in cattle cars from their home to a place called Auschwitz, where they were separated, and how he never saw them again. Of how he had very little to eat, all of it bad. Of how he had to endure the beatings of the guards. Of how he got sick with typhus and thought that he would be sent to the gas chambers and turned into smoke and ash. Of how they marched him to Buchenwald, and how he almost collapsed and died along the way. Of how he was barely able to move when the Americans came to liberate them, and how two righteous gentiles whose names had sounded Jewish, Sergeant Rosenthal and Corporal Glaub, had attended to him and nursed him back to health.

His stories had seemed so incongruous in the bright, sunny playground filled with the laughter of little children, and at first Sarah thought he was making them up. But as the stories continued and got more horrible, Sarah became mesmerized. When he finished, Grampa had tears in his eyes. She hugged him, and he trembled just like Sarah did when she woke up from a nightmare.

That night, so many years ago, the rain had pounded on Sarah’s bedroom window like gunshots. It was a hot, humid night, and as Sarah drifted off to sleep she thought of all her grandfather had told her. She dreamed of being stuffed into a gas chamber, the stink and sweat of human flesh pressing on her from all sides, Nazi stormtroopers shooting people outside, human flesh burning, going up in sweet-smelling smoke—

And she awoke, screaming and crying. Her mother had come in and held her for a long time. When she found out about Sarah’s dreams, she promised Sarah that she would never have such dreams again. From that day on, Grampa never took Sarah to the playground alone. And the nightmares had faded away and disappeared, except for the memory of the number on Grampa’s arm: 110290.

Sarah shook her head, clearing away the memories of that long ago night, and looked at the bed. The frail old man wrapped in blankets had that same number, 110290, tattooed on his arm. There was no question in Sarah’s mind now that this man was her grandfather, lying in his bed.

And dying.

I shouldn’t disturb him, Sarah thought, and had turned around to leave the room when she heard his voice. “Who’s there?” Even when he was dying, he woke to the sound of her.

She turned back; her grandfather’s eyes were open. “It’s Sarah, Grampa.”

He smiled. “Saraleh, it’s good to see you.” He struggled to sit up in bed, and coughed. “Here, come sit next to me, on the bed. We’ll have one last chance to snooze and schmooze before I go.”

“Grampa! Don’t talk like that.” She moved his blankets over and sat down.

“Sarah, Sarah. Years ago, it would have been tempting the evil eye to say such things, but now…now I am dying. And I am looking forward to peace. I have not had a peaceful life, mameleh.”

“I know.”

“So nu. Tell me, how are things? What are you doing with yourself?”

Sarah shifted around. “Well, I’m living in New York City now, you know. I’m working for a web publisher. Editing.”

“And are you enjoying it?”

“I suppose, although what I’d really like to do is write.”

“Eh. And are you seeing anyone? I want great-grandchildren, you know.”

He laughed, and Sarah joined in. “You remember Tom, don’t you? We’re living—I mean, he’s now at NYU, in law school.”

Grampa fixed Sarah with a long gaze. “So, you’re living together?”

Sarah blushed. “Yes. Um, I tried to keep it a secret. I’m sorry.”

“What is there to be sorry about?”

“Well, it’s just…”

“It’s okay, Saraleh. I understand your generation. It is not that much different from mine.”

“But you don’t approve of Tom, do you?”

Grampa sighed. “Tom’s a good boy, a fine young man. I would have preferred if you had met someone Jewish, but I can’t fault you for your choice. He will make a good husband.”

Sarah thought for a moment. “Grampa, can I ask you something?”

“Anything, mameleh. But you’d better hurry.” They both smiled at that. Sarah blinked hard to stop the tears.

“Why is it so important to you that I marry someone Jewish? It’s not like you were ever religious or observant.”

Grampa closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You ask such a difficult question, like the simple child’s question about the Passover seder. It’s true, I never was observant, not before the camp or after. But, Sarah, because of where I was—Auschwitz—your children have to remember, they have to know what they are and understand where they came from. I need them to be Jewish, and not just because you are. They have to know that they are Jewish.”

“But why?”

He sighed. “Because if they do not realize who they are, they will be the first to go to the gas chambers the next time there is a Holocaust.”

Sarah was shocked. “Grampa, you can’t seriously believe that it could happen again. The Holocaust is a distant memory from the last century. Even if it did happen—”

“If it happens…when it happens, God forbid, again, the first Jews to die will be the ones who don’t realize they are Jewish. The German Jews saw what Hitler was doing. They were Germans, they said, not Jews. What Hitler is doing doesn’t apply to us. They never believed it would…until it was too late.”

“But it couldn’t happen again. Could it?”

Grampa was silent for a moment. “Sarah, your generation grew up in a world that felt much safer than mine. We made it that way. Maybe it really wasn’t so safe, maybe we weren’t so bright, but your parents and I certainly tried to protect you from the world outside. Maybe we succeeded too well.

“It is because you feel so safe, and because the Holocaust is so distant, that your generation is in danger. People are forgetting. The Holocaust Museum in Washington lost its funding and is gone now, after only thirty years, because no one thought it was important anymore. Auschwitz—Auschwitz is now a side attraction for people going to the VR mall across the way.” Straining, he bent his head over and spit on the floor. “There are even people who claim the Holocaust never happened in the first place, people who are being taken far too seriously.”

“I know what you mean. Just outside—” Sarah bit her lip.

But it was too late. “What? What happened outside?”

Sarah shrugged. “A reporter. He—he accused us of making it all up.”

Grampa frowned, his voice bitter. “Always,” he said. “Always the big lie. Well, they wouldn’t let me live in peace. Why should I expect then to let me die in peace?”

“It was only one, Grampa,” Sarah said dismissively. “The other reporters are—I mean, they know it’s for real.”

“Even one person denying the truth is one person too many.” He sighed. “The deniers are everywhere, Sarah. They started when I was just out of the camps, telling me that the horrible things I had seen with my own eyes never existed. Telling me I was crazy. But there were always enough of us around, to educate, to lecture, to write, to bear witness for the world. But now—”

He coughed, loud, long, and hard. Sarah stood up. “Grampa, you must rest. You’re letting yourself get all worked up. I’ll go get you some water.”

He shook his head and waved for her to sit back down again. “Please, Sarah, wait. I don’t have much time, and this is far too important.”

She sat down again. “Yes, Grampa, what is it?”

“Sarah, you must promise me. After I am gone, there will be no one to bear witness. I am the last of the survivors. You must bear witness for me—for all of us, the six million who died and those who survived to tell the world.” He took her left hand in a grip that was surprisingly strong.

Now the tears welled up in her eyes, past her strength to hold them back. She began to weep. “Yes, Grampa, I will.”

Tears blurred her sight, and Sarah wiped them away. As her vision cleared, she noticed Grampa staring directly into her eyes.

“Sarah, listen carefully. I want you to open that drawer over there.” With his right hand, Grampa pointed to the top drawer of the bureau. Sarah let go of his left hand, dutifully walked over to the bureau, and pulled the drawer open. It contained only one item, a small, shiny metal box with the logo MEMVOX printed across the side. She pulled it out and turned it around, studying it.

“My God, Grampa,” she said. “Is this what I think it is?”

He nodded. “A memory recorder. The chip is inside.”

Sarah hesitated before asking her next question. She feared she already knew the answer. “Grampa…what’s on it?”

He coughed. “Me. When I am gone, I want you to play it.”

Sarah now understood what Grampa had meant about her bearing witness. She shook her head. “I can’t do this, Grampa.”

“You will do the right thing, I am sure of it. Sarah, you must. You’re young, you’re strong, you can handle it. When you play that chip, you will be the last survivor.” He coughed. “Zachor. Remember. Bear witness, from generation to generation.” He turned away from her and began to recite the Jewish affirmation in the existence of God, “Sh’ma Yisroel…” His voice trailed off. His breath faded. Then it ceased entirely.

Sarah wiped the tears from her eyes. She stood up, then covered her grandfather’s face with the blanket. She finished reciting the Sh’ma for her grandfather in English; she hadn’t realized that she remembered: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One. She turned off the light and left, closing the door silently behind her.

* * *

That night, Sarah sat alone in the bedroom of the two-room Manhattan apartment she shared with Tom. She had asked Tom for some privacy, and he had readily agreed; so he was in their living room, watching TV or logged onto the Internet, Sarah wasn’t sure. Tom had assumed that the stress of the quick late afternoon funeral and burial was what had prompted Sarah to ask for some time to herself, and she had chosen not to correct him. She was glad that Jewish tradition held that a funeral and burial should take place as soon as possible after death; she had a lot to think about and didn’t want to have to worry about seeing her mother again so soon after Grampa’s death.

On the small night table in front of her sat the memory recorder and the chip. She picked up the chip and turned it over and over in her hands. Grampa had labeled it in black ink with his name and date of birth. Sarah had written in today’s date at the bottom of the label, in blue ink, but that was all she had done so far. Tom had given her the privacy she requested over half an hour ago and Sarah still wasn’t sure what to do.

A wastebasket sat next to their second-hand full-size bed. Sarah could just drop the chip into it and never think of it again. Or she could take it to a recycling center and get some small amount of money for it. As for the memory recorder, although used, it was valuable, and could easily pay the rent for the next few months.

But that would almost be like desecrating her grandfather’s grave. Grampa had given her the recorder and the chip for a reason. He wanted her to play it, to share those experiences with her. She thought about those experiences, the stories he had told her about the Holocaust when she was six years old, and she realized that she would never want to live through it herself, even vicariously through someone else’s memories. She held the chip above the wastebasket, ready to let it fall—

—And then she remembered the reporter from that morning.

She had to fulfill her promise; her grandfather had depended on it. Quickly, so she would not be tempted into changing her mind again, she inserted the chip into the recorder, attached the wires to her head, and hit PLAY.

An hour later, when the chip had finished playing, she slowly removed the wires. She shuddered and began to cry, but softly, so as not to alert Tom. She removed the chip from the recorder and stored it safely away. The memories from her grandfather’s Holocaust experiences precipitated in her a decision, a choice; she just hoped that Tom would understand. She knew that she would have to find someone knowledgeable about computers and recorders, someone sympathetic to her position who could hack the Internet and force Grampa’s memory records to be played by anyone plugging in, at least for a short while. Sarah would come forward and take responsibility, once she was assured that no one would ever take the revisionists seriously again. But…if she went forward with this plan, to bear witness for her grandfather, there was one other step she needed to take first.

* * *

Sarah walked into the tiny store, a remnant of the old Times Square, struggling against the gentrification of the past thirty years. Most places of this sort had moved to the outer boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, but this one was still there. The sign above the glass bore the one word, ADULT, in large black letters, and hanging in the window Sarah could see signs promising things like fake ID chips and real tobacco cigarettes.

She strode in purposefully, ignored the grime of the floor and shelves, and walked through to the room in the back, where the guy she was looking for worked. The room was small, empty at the moment except for the artist, who was reading a newstape as she entered. His appearance repulsed her, as he had rings through his nose, ears, and eyebrows, and he also sported tattoos on his arms and face. She would never see a person like this socially, but she was here for something else. The guy looked up at her inquisitively as she approached.

“Hello,” she said. “I’d—I’d like to get a tattoo. Can you tattoo a number?”

“Sure,” he said, putting down the newstape. “I can do anything.”

“Good.” Sarah sat on the long chair meant for his clients and rolled up the sleeve of her left arm. “I want you to tattoo the number 110290 right here.”

The man looked askance at her. “Like a Holocaust victim?”

Sarah nodded, pleased that the guy recognized what she wanted. She would still go through with her plan, but for the first time since her grandfather had died, she thought that perhaps there was still hope for the world to remember its history after all. “Yes,” she said. “Exactly like that.”


Afterword
“Kaddish for the Last Survivor”
* * *

Before I discuss “Kaddish for the Last Survivor,” let me begin by welcoming you to this collection of stories.

If you’re reading the afterwords, then you’re a reader after my own heart. I love the short form in science fiction more than the novel. And I’m fascinated by how writers create their short stories. Throughout my life, whenever I picked up a short story collection by a favorite writer, I hoped that the collection would contain notes on the stories, and usually I was not disappointed.

If you’re a reader like me, then I hope you enjoy the afterwords as a window into how I created these particular stories. And, if you’re an aspiring writer who hopes to learn a little bit about my creative process in order to aid your own, the journey continues online at my website and blog.

Now, about “Kaddish for the Last Survivor”: This is probably my most well-known story. It was inspired by the quotation with which the story opens, from Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust, in which she cautions us about the transience of memory and history.

Ever since first coming across her words in 1994, I became obsessed with what would happen when the last Holocaust survivor finally died. My generation knows of the Holocaust from eyewitness testimony, and I have met survivors. But in a world where history is continuously in danger of being rewritten, revised, and reworked for the benefit of the powers that be, the Holocaust itself seems particularly susceptible to the demons of doubt and uncertainty.

After the story was published in Analog, I had the chance to meet Deborah Lipstadt and to hear her speak at Northeastern University. I’d like to thank her for allowing me to quote from her important book at the beginning of my story.

Interestingly enough, the way I put together the story is illustrative of what writers have to do. Like many of my stories, this one began with an image, in this case of a young woman whose survivor grandfather lies dying. As he dies, the concentration camp number tattooed onto his arm fades away, and with the pain of six million needles, it magically reappears on her own. I wrote that ending first, and then I wrote the entire rest of the story to lead up to that ending.

Obviously, if you’ve read the story, you know that the story doesn’t end that way. Instead, after her grandfather dies, Sarah makes the conscious decision to have her grandfather’s number tattooed on her own arm. Before the story was published, I had shown it to a few friends, and a few suggested that the original ending made Sarah out to be a passive character. I realized that they were correct, so I altered the ending. I introduced the concept of the memory recorder and allowed Sarah to choose for herself to take on the tattoo. And yes, I am aware that halacha (Jewish law) is against tattoos, but Sarah is not observant and is unaware of the restriction.

But despite making the changes, I still miss the original ending. I fully understand Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice that sometimes you have to “murder your darlings” when writing, but I continue to harbor a sentimental love for the magical realism of the original ending. And thanks to Apex Publications, I can now share with my readers the first words I actually wrote for this story.

So, for the first time in print, the original ending to “Kaddish for the Last Survivor.”

* * *

Tears blurred her sight, and Sarah wiped them away. As her vision cleared, she noticed something strange. She watched the number 110290, tattooed on his arm ever since he was a child, slowly fade away until his withered, age-splotched arm was left smooth and pink. At the same time, her arm tingled with the pain of six million sharp needles, but Sarah refused to let go. The number 110290 slowly appeared on her arm, in the exact same position as it had been on her grandfather’s.

“My God,” Sarah said. “Grampa, is this—does this mean—?”

“Yes. You are the last survivor now, Sarah,” he whispered. “Zachor. Remember. Bear witness, from generation to generation.” He turned away from her began to recite the Jewish affirmation of the existence of God, “Sh’ma Yisroel…” His voice trailed off. His breath faded. Then it ceased entirely.

Sarah wiped the tears from her eyes. She stood up, then covered her grandfather’s face with the blanket. She finished reciting the Sh’ma for her grandfather in English; she hadn’t realized that she remembered: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One. It was time to fulfill her promise. She stood up, turned off the light, and left, closing the door silently behind her. As she walked slowly down the stairs, she knew that she would have to talk to her parents and to the reporters about her new role. And then she paused on the middle stair, a lump in her throat. What would she tell Tom? Marrying him was out of the question for her now. But Tom was a righteous gentile, the kind of person who had saved Jews during the Holocaust; he would understand.

She just hoped the world would understand as well.

 


FREE FICTION: I Remember the Future by Michael A. Burstein

By Lesley Conner
on September 11, 2014

I REMEMBER THE FUTURE.

The future was glorious once. It was filled with sleek silver spaceships, lunar colonies, and galactic empires. The horizon seemed within reach; we could almost grasp the stars if we would but try.

I helped to create that future once. We created it out of our blood, sweat, and tears for a penny a word. We churned that future out onto reams of wood pulp paper, only to see the bitter acids of the decades eat it away. I can still smell the freshness of that world, amidst the stale odors left in the libraries, real ink on real paper.

But I despair that no one else does.

* * *

Smith turned to Angela, whose face was obscured by the glass plate of her helmet. Despite the higher gravity and the bulkiness of his environmental suit, he felt like jumping a hundred feet into the vacuum.

“Angela, look!”

“What is it?” she asked. She reached over with her gloved hands to take the object from him.

“Gently,” he said as he handed over the sheet. “It’s paper. Real paper.”

Angela took it and handled it almost reverently. Once again, she looked around the large cavern at the many inscribed marble columns, flashing her light into every dark corner.

“Paper? That dead wood stuff you told me about? Made from trees?”

Smith nodded. “It’s true. We’ve found the ancient lost library of New Earth. And maybe, just maybe, in these volumes we’ll find the final clue that will lead us to the location of the original human home world.”

—Abraham Beard,

The Searchers (1950)

* * *

The day after my diagnosis, Emma comes to visit me at home. When she rings the bell, I get up from my seat in the living room, where I’ve been watching Forbidden Planet on DVD for the past hour, and I shuffle over to the front door at the end of the hall.

A cold wind blasts me as I creak open the door. I shiver momentarily as Emma strides past me.

As I shut the door, she opens the hall closet and lets her hands dance upon the hangers. She ignores the empty wooden ones and selects a blue plastic one.

“It’s the middle of the day and you’re still in your bathrobe?” she asks me as she slips off her overcoat.

“I’m retired and it’s the weekend,” I say. “Why should I get dressed up?”

“Because your only daughter is coming to visit? Oh, never mind.” She hangs up her coat.

“Where’s Frank and the kids?” I ask her.

She sniffs. “They decided to stay at home.”

The kids decided to stay at home. My grandchildren, Zachary and Kenneth. Or Zach and Ken, as Emma told me they prefer to be called. I haven’t seen them in months. “They didn’t feel like schlepping out to Queens?”

“It’s too cold.”

“So why the visit?”

Emma purses her lips and glances at the floor. “I thought it would be nice to see you.”

I know there must be more to it than that, but I don’t press it. Emma will tell me in her own sweet time. “Are you hungry?” I ask as we walk to the living room. “Do you want something to eat?”

She smiles. “What are you going to offer this time? A red pepper? A clementine?”

As it so happens, the refrigerator crisper holds many peppers and clementines, but I refuse to give Emma the satisfaction. “I thought you might want some ice cream.”

“Ice cream?” she asks with bemusement. “Sure, I’d love some ice cream. Where is it?”

“It’s in the freezer,” I tell her, although it should be obvious. Where else does one keep ice cream?

* * *

The first thing Larry noticed was the cold. It filled the core of his being, then slowly began to recede as tendrils of warmth entered his body.

Then he noticed a faint white light, blinking in the distance. Either the light became larger or it moved closer, and it continued to pulsate in a regular rhythm.

And finally he heard a hiss, the sound of air leaking quickly across a barrier. He tried to breathe and felt as if his lungs were filled with liquid. He tried again—

—when suddenly a door swung open, and Larry realized that he was floating vertically in a round glass chamber. The gelatinous liquid surrounding him quickly drained, and Larry fell into the arms of two men in silver jumpsuits.

“Easy now,” the taller one said. “Your muscles need time to adjust.”

Larry shook off their support. “I’m fine,” he croaked. He coughed up some fluid and spoke again. “I don’t need any help.”

“If you say so,” the taller man said.

“I do, indeed,” Larry answered. He stretched out of his stoop, and although his legs felt like they would give way, he refused to give these strangers the satisfaction of seeing him fall.

“Where am I? What’s going on?” he asked.

“All in due time,” the shorter man said in a thin, reedy voice.

Larry turned to stare at him. “I am Larry Garner, the richest man on Earth, and I demand you tell me what’s going on, now!”

The two men looked at each other, and the shorter one shrugged. “Usually, we give people more time to adjust, but if you insist—”

“I do!”

“You’re in the future,” the man said. “It’s two thousand years since you died.”

Larry fainted.

—Abraham Beard,

The Unfrozen (1955)

* * *

“Earth to Dad? Hello? Are you there?”

Emma is waving a hand in front of my face.

“Sorry,” I say. “I was just thinking. My mind—”

“Was elsewhen. Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”

I realize that we are sitting in the dining room and that Emma has scooped two bowls of ice cream, one for each of us. I pick up my spoon and take a bite. It’s butter pecan.

I hate butter pecan, but I bought some for when Zach and Ken were last here.

The ice cream is very badly freezer-burned. It’s so cold against my tongue that it hurts. I put the spoon down into the bowl and watch Emma eat her ice cream.

“You can take the rest of it when you leave,” I say. “The kids might enjoy it.”

Emma gives me a half-smile. “Even with the cold outside, it’ll probably still melt before I get it home.”

“Oh,” I say.

We sit in silence for a few moments, the only sound the tick of the analog clock in the other room, the clock my wife, Sheila, bought when we got married, the clock that hangs above the flatscreen television set that Emma and Frank gave me for my last birthday.

“So, how are things?”

“Things are good.”

“The kids doing well at school?”

“Yeah.” Emma smiles. “Zach did a PowerPoint presentation on blogging for one of his teachers.”

I nod and try to keep my face neutral, but Emma sees right through me. “You disapprove?”

“It’s not that,” I say. “It’s just—”

“I know what it is. Rant number twenty-three.”

“I’m not that predictable.”

She crosses her arms. “Fine. Then what were you thinking?”

I pause for a moment, but she doesn’t sound sarcastic so I say, “When I was growing up, the future seemed so full of possibilities.”

“We have possibilities, Dad.”

I shake my head. “We’ve turned inward. All of us have. We used to dream of a world as big as the sky. Now we’re all hunched over our tiny screens.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “Like I said, rant number twenty-three. Within three sentences, you’re going from the Internet to the lack of a manned space program again.”

“You don’t think it’s a problem?”

“It’s just that I’ve heard it before.”

“The more true something is, the more it bears repeating.”

“Nothing bears repeating if you can’t do anything about it.” She sighs. “I mean, seriously, what did you ever expect me to do at the age of twelve when you first warned me about the eventual heat death of the universe?”

* * *

The starship HaTikvah had finally made it to the edge of the universe. A hopeful mood filled the souls of the fifty thousand humans and aliens who occupied the ship, each the last of their kind.

On the bridge, Captain Sandra McAllister spoke into her intercom. “Fellow sentients,” she said, “this is the proverbial ‘it.’ The universe is ending, the embers of the stars are fading into nothing, and in a moment we’ll tap into the power of Black Hole Omega. If all goes according to plan, we’ll break out of our dying universe and into a new one, one that’s young and vibrant. Our own personal lives will continue, but more importantly, we will continue to exist in order to be able to remember all of those who came before us.”

McAllister turned to her first officer and said, “Any time you’re ready, Jacob. Push the button.”

Jacob nodded and reached out with his spindly fingers to the Doorway Device. But just as he was about to depress the red button, a blast rocked the ship.

“What was that?” he cried out.

Virilion, the ship’s robotic helmsman, replied in a croak, “It’s the Nichashim! They’ve come to stop us!”

McAllister narrowed her eyes. “Like hell they will,” she said. “Virilion, fire at will! Blast them out of our sky!”

—Abraham Beard,

Fire and Ice (1980)

* * *

“Dad? Dad?”

“You don’t need to shout.”

“You were gone again,” she says.

“Perhaps,” I say, “I’m turning inward because I’m getting old.”

For the first time since she came into the house today, Emma looks worried. “You’re not that old, Dad.”

I smile at Emma to keep her from noticing the wetness I feel in my eyes. “That’s nice of you to say, but it’s not true. I am old.”

“You’re only as old as you feel. You told me that once.”

I shake my head. “It’s hard to feel young when so many of my colleagues are gone.” First Robert, then Isaac, now Arthur, I think, although I don’t say it aloud. I know Emma too well; she might laugh at me for placing myself among such giants.

Instead, she doesn’t seem to know what to say in response. She fidgets for a few seconds, eats some more ice cream, and then changes the subject.

“Listen, Dad, I’m here because I have news.”

“Funny, so do I. You go first.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. What is it?” I ask.

She takes a deep breath and looks me in the eye. “We’re moving to California.”

* * *

Jackie looked at the gleaming silver spaceship with portholes running all up and down its sides. She felt more excited than she ever had before in her six years of life. Soon, her family would leave behind this polluted, depressing planet for a new world filled with cool green fields, rich with possibilities.

Jackie’s mother and father held tightly onto her hands as the three of them walked in the line out onto the launching pad. The hoverlift floated next to them, carrying their luggage, while Jackie’s robot dog kept running ahead and back toward Jackie, matching her excitement.

Finally, after what seemed like hours but Jackie knew was only minutes according to her chronometer, Jackie and her parents made it to the open hatch of the spaceship. A stewardess, her hair dyed platinum blonde, stood at the doorway greeting the immigrants with a big smile. She took their tickets and welcomed them aboard.

“Is this really it, Dad?” Jackie asked

Her father removed the pipe from his mouth and smiled. “It is indeed,” he said. “Goodbye, Earth! Next stop, Mars!”

—Abraham Beard,

The Burns Family on Mars (1960)

* * *

“Dad? You’re gone again.”

“No, I’m not,” I say.

“So.” Emma says. “We’re moving to California.”

“Why?”

She takes a deep breath. “Frank’s got a new job. UCLA is offering him a tenured position. Full professor.”

“UCLA. Hm. California.” I try to sound as noncommittal as possible, although Emma must know how much this news hurts me.

“Yes, California.”

“From what I hear, California is a nice place.”

She frowns and looks puzzled. “Aren’t you going to object?”

“Are you asking me to?”

“Don’t you even want to know why we’re moving?”

“You told me—Frank’s got a job offer.” I pause. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“I don’t think you’ll be able to keep working at the New-York Historical Society if you’re living in L.A. Have you found a job at a museum there?”

Now she pauses before speaking. “I’m not planning to get another job, at least not right away.”

“Oh?”

“I want to be there full time for the kids.”

I stare into her eyes, seeing the six-year-old girl who wanted nothing more than to be the first astronaut to walk on Jupiter. “Is that really what you want?”

She glares at me. “I think at least one parent should be devoted full time to raising the kids.”

I feel the sting of her words. I consider once again telling her what I’ve told her before: that times were tough, that money was tight, and that Sheila and I both had to work to support Emma properly. But then I recall the many times I shut the door of my home office on Emma to meet a deadline, and I realize that the chance for apologies and explanations has passed far into the mists of time.

* * *

Allen Davidoff walked around the floating cube of mist, careful not to let any of the tendrils touch him. There was nothing else on this planet for miles around.

The Keeper, still covered entirely in her white garment, walked three paces behind him until he finally came to a stop.

He turned to face her. “Impressive,” he said. “An atmospheric phenomenon?”

She laughed and her hazel eyes twinkled. “You are pretending to be the fool,” she said. “You know better than that.

Allen nodded; she was right. He did know better, but he had previously allowed his hopes to be raised during his quixotic quest only to have them dashed time and time again.

“Then I’ve really found it?” he asked.

She nodded. “You have indeed.”

Allen looked back into the white mist. “It’s the Gateway of Time,” he said. “I can go anywhen into the time stream I want.”

“It’s the Gateway of Time,” the Keeper echoed. “You can go to any time period and any location in the universe you want. But there is one problem.”

Allen waited. The Keeper remained silent as his watch ticked off the seconds, and so finally he asked, “What’s the problem?”

The Keeper grinned evilly. “The only problem is, once you’ve made your choice and entered the past, you can never return. The trip is one way and final.”

“So—”

“So choose wisely.”

—Abraham Beard,

Amidst the Mists (1991)

* * *

“I hope it works out for you,” I say. “You know that I only want what’s best for you and the kids.”

If she notices that I don’t mention Frank, she doesn’t say anything about it. Instead, she nods and says, “You said before that you had news as well.”

I open my mouth to tell her about my diagnosis, as I had planned to do when she first called to tell me that she and the family wanted to see me, but then I hold back. I’m not dying yet, but I am old. My doctors say that my mind is not as sharp as it once was and my years are drawing to a close. If I tell her, maybe she and Frank will postpone the move, or at least stay closer to New York City, so I can keep seeing them in my dwindling, final days.

* * *

The last man on Earth said farewell to the spaceship carrying the rest of humanity to the stars. As the ship became a tiny dot in the sky, he took a deep breath of the fresh air and smiled. Someone had to watch over the planet as it was dying, and it was only right, he felt, that it should be he, and only he.

—Abraham Beard,

The Final Days of Planet Earth (1970)

* * *

I decide not to tell Emma about the diagnosis. It wouldn’t be fair to her or the kids to add that factor into the equation. But she’s waiting for me to tell her my news, and I only have one other piece of news to share. It’s extremely private, and possibly just the first symptom of my oncoming dementia, but I’ve felt the need to tell someone. And Emma is here, and Sheila is no longer here.

“Emma, may I confide in you?”

She tilts her head. “You never have before.”

I open my mouth to object, and then realize that she has a point.

“Well, I want to confide in you now. You know all those stories, all those novels that I wrote?”

“Yes,” she says flatly. “What about them?”

“My entire life, I never felt like I was coming up with anything on my own.” I stare over her shoulder. “Sometimes, when I was lying awake at two or three in the morning, I would get the feeling that the images in my mind weren’t just things I was making up myself. I felt as if I was a conduit, as if I had lifted an antenna into some sort of cosmic fog and that I was receiving messages, real messages, from the future in my dreams.”

Emma sits stoically as I tell her this. I don’t know what reaction I am hoping for, but Emma rolling her eyes is definitely not it. Still, it’s what she gives me.

“So what’s the news?”

“I’m not really sure,” I say. “You know how I haven’t written anything new for five years now? That’s because the messages stopped. Except…”

“Except what?”

“The dreams have started up again. I’ve been waking up again in the middle of most nights, feeling as if the future is trying to reach me one more time. But as soon as I wake up, the images the future is trying to send me recede into the distance.”

She sighs and stands up; I can’t tell if she’s angry or just frustrated. “You’re bouncing story ideas off of me again, aren’t you?”

“No,” I say, shaking my head. “No, I’m not. This is really happening to me.”

Emma’s expression is pitiful. “So that’s your excuse,” she says softly. “The future was really trying to contact you, and that’s why you always had your head lost in the clouds.”

I try to protest, but, ironically, I have no words. Emma picks up the bowls and used spoons and takes them into the kitchen. I hear her wash them quickly and leave them on the drainer while I sit at the table, unsure of what to say to her to make it all better.

She emerges from the kitchen and dashes through to the hall closet. I hear her put on her coat, and then she is back in the dining room, standing over me.

“Dad, you were always so busy living in the future that you never enjoyed your present. And now you don’t even live in the future anymore. You’re living in the past.”

With that, she walks out of the room and out of the house.

* * *

Over the next few days, Emma uses my spare set of keys to let herself into the house. She barely nods hello to me as she climbs to the attic and sifts through the boxes, packing away those few remnants that she wants from her childhood.

I want Emma to leave the photographs, but I’ve come to realize that she’s going to have to take them with her anyway if I want my grandsons to continue to remember what their grandfather and grandmother looked like. Emma tells me that she will scan the photos into her computer and send me back the originals, and I just nod.

The days pass far too quickly. Finally, the last morning arrives in which Emma will be coming over to take the last few boxes of possessions. What she doesn’t know as she is driving over is that this morning is also the morning of my final moments on this Earth. And in my final moments on this Earth, I am redeemed.

* * *

I am lying in my bed, wearing my favorite blue pajamas and peering through my glasses at the small print of a digest magazine. A half-eaten orange on a plate sits on my end table; I can still taste the juice on my tongue and feel a strand of pulp between two right molars.

And then it begins.

A slight breeze wafts toward me from the foot of my bed. I move my magazine aside and look, but I see nothing there but the wall and the closed bathroom door.

As I begin to read again, another breeze flutters my pages. Then the breeze builds, until a gust of wind flows past.

A tiny crack appears in midair, hovering about six and a half feet above the red-carpeted floor. The crack expands into a circular hole. White light emanates from the hole, which gets wider and wider, until it becomes a sphere about six feet in diameter, crackling softly with electricity. A human figure in a silver spacesuit, its face obscured by a helmet, emerges from the sphere with a loud popping sound.

I know this is no illusion, that whatever is happening in front of me is real. I manage to keep my composure and ask, “Who are you?”

The figure grabs hold of its helmet, breaks the seals, and pulls it off.

The astronaut is a woman. She shakes her long blonde hair out of her face and smiles. “You know who I am, Abe. Take a good look.”

I do, and I feel a chill. “It can’t be.”

She nods. “It is.”

“You’re Sandra McAllister. But you’re fictional. You don’t exist. I made you up.”

“Yes, you did make me up. But I do exist.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We figured you might not, but we don’t have a lot of time, so listen carefully. As far as our scientists have been able to determine, every time you wrote a story, you created a parallel universe, a place where the people you thought of really existed. Apparently, your brain has some connection on a quantum level with the zero-point energy field that exists in the multiverse. You’ve managed to bend reality, our reality, so that we ended up existing for real.”

“That’s not possible,” I say.

“You’re a rational man, Abe, I understand that. So explain my presence some other way.”

I know in my heart and soul that I am not hallucinating. And with the impossible eliminated, I am left with the improbable.

“So you’re real?”

“Not just me,” Sandra says.

I start thinking of all the characters I created throughout my career. “Jackson Smith and Angela Jones? Larry Garner? Jackie Burns? Allen Davidoff? They’re all real?”

Sandra nods after I recite each name. “They’re all real. We’re all real.”

“Even if so, how did you break through the barrier between universes? It’s not possible.”

“It is if you harness the energy of a black hole using the Doorway Device.”

I am puzzled for just a moment, and then light dawns. I recall the details of the story cycle from which Sandra comes. “The spaceship HaTikva,” I say.

“And the Nichashim,” she adds.

I goggle. “You’re mortal enemies,” I say. “I wrote you that way. How can you be working together?”

“The Nichashim understand that you created them too. We’ve got the two ships tethered together in orbit around New Black Hole Omega.”

I can’t help it; I flip the sheet off of my frail body and swing my legs around so I can stand up and face Sandra. “That’s far too dangerous, Sandra. You could lose both ships in a blink.”

“Which is why you must hurry.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Why do you think I came here?”

“Um, to say hello? To let me know that I didn’t live my life in vain?”

She rolls her eyes. “To rescue you. To cure you of your oncoming sickness, and to impart to you the same immortality you generously granted to all of us.”

“Rescue me? You’re using all that energy just to rescue me?”

She shrugged. “You’re our father. Why wouldn’t we?”

I feel tears starting in my eyes, and I move forward and hug Sandra as tightly as I can. She holds me as I cry.

“It’s all right, Father,” she says. “We’ve come for you. Welcome home.”

* * *

The last bit I can only guess at, as I was already gone by then. But the way I see it, as Emma was turning her keys in the lock, the house rumbled, and she heard a loud pop and whoosh coming from upstairs.

“Dad? Dad?” she called out, but I wasn’t there to answer her.

She dashed up the stairs and turned right, toward her father’s bedroom. She pushed the door open to discover her father already gone, amidst a trace of ozone.

I remembered the future.

And in turn, the future remembered me.


Afterword
 
“I Remember the Future”
* * *

When Apex Publications decided to publish this collection, I asked the readers of my LiveJournal if they could come up with an appropriate title. A high school friend, Andrew Marc Greene, came up with I Remember the Future. I decided to go with that title for the book, and that meant writing a new story with that name as well.

As my publisher knows too well, it took me a while to figure out what this story would be about. I kept running the phrase “I Remember the Future” over and over in my head, but no story idea came to mind.

And then on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 18, 2008, we heard the news that Arthur C. Clarke had died. (Oddly, because Clarke lived in an earlier time zone, he died on Wednesday, March 19, but those of us living in the West heard the news on Tuesday. It’s almost like time travel.)

Late that night, as I stared into a mirror and thought about how the last of the Big Three was gone, I suddenly realized what this story had to be about. I quickly shared the idea with my wife, Nomi, and then jotted down a bunch of notes so I wouldn’t forget it. I also called Janna Silverstein, since I needed to tell another science fiction and fantasy writer about the epiphany I just had and it was too late to call anyone on the east coast.

If you’re reading these stories in order, I suspect you’ll discover very quickly why I grouped these last three together the way I did. I’ll have more to say about that in the afterword to “Paying It Forward.”

“I Remember the Future” is dedicated to Arthur C. Clarke.

 

Buy a copy of I Remember the Future by Michael A. Burstein direct from Apex or from one of our online retailers.

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