There were snakes in her trailer. Sometimes they talked. Afterwards, she didn’t know if they were real. That didn’t mean she shouldn’t listen. They were blacksnakes, anyway, harmless, and she figured they ate mice. She knew the mice were real.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” Samson asked.
“Sleeping with your boyfriend, I expect.” Jordan did not have or want a boyfriend, now, but Samson didn’t need to know that. She figured he wasn’t actually gay. Bi, maybe. She saw how he looked at her legs, warm days. He let her park her trailer on his farm, as he called it. The main things the farm produced, besides whatever came out of the barn, were coyotes, blackberry vines, and various small trees growing in the abandoned fields. He charged her no rent, she knew, so she wouldn’t tell about the lab in the barn. At least, he hoped she wouldn’t tell.
He probably thought not charging rent made him some kind of philanthropist.
The old bus, yellow, was half-hidden in underbrush, a couple dozen feet off the long, circuitous, dirt-and-gravel drive that led back to the gray house. In another year or two, the bus would be completely hidden by saplings and honeysuckle, at least until winter came. Vines curved over the wheels.
Inside, summer heat made it smell of rubber and grease and mold. It reminded Jordan of the gym locker room, back when she was in high school. The bus was full of junk–used clothes, chipped coffee cups, old car parts, starter motors, generators, pumps, mufflers, the stripped-out bell housings of transmissions. A washing machine full of empty beer and whiskey bottles. Small branches grew through missing windows.
She pushed aside a cache of rodent-besmirched National Geographics, covers discolored and wrinkled by rain and age. The final few feet between her and the back of the bus were blocked by trash bags full of what felt like clothes. She moved them without looking inside. A dented toaster, once made of shiny metal, now corroded, lay on its side on top of a wooden box, about three feet long and a couple of feet wide, eighteen inches high. When she picked up the toaster, a small green snake wiggled out and disappeared in a crevice between the trash bags.
The box rested against the bottom of the rear door. She had seen it through the glass, yesterday, coming back from her ginseng hunt, and somehow felt drawn to it. The part she could see through the window said Dynam–, the rest of the word obscured by the door’s metal frame. She could think of only two words that started that way. Dynamite, and dynamo. Make that three. Dynamic, as in Duo. The Batman TV show’s theme started to run through her head. The show was older than she was, but she’d seen reruns when she was a kid. And now Adam West was dead. Him and a million others.
She pulled the rope handles fastened to either side of the box. The one on the left broke, but the box moved six inches, so she saw the rest of the word. Dynamite, of course. She brushed a thick layer of dust off the top of the box, and read the other words, Caution and Explosives.
The box made a noise.
Or rather, something in the box must be making the sound, a low-pitched rumble. She felt it in the soles of her feet, too. The world’s largest dog, a last warning growl before it sprang on the intruder.
The rumble stopped, replaced by a high-frequency whine.
Jordan backed away from the box. The whine ceased. No rumble.
She stepped closer. The rumble began once more, then the whine. She thought of lost puppies, or kittens.
She stepped away. The sound stopped.
She stepped closer. This time, just the whine. Definitely sounded like kittens. She knew an invitation when she heard one. Also, she knew there were no kittens in that box. It had been buried under too much stuff for even a cat looking for a safe place to give birth to find. Nor did kittens rumble like angry German Shepherds.
The not-kittens fell silent. She heard faint voices, human voices, and looked out the windows of the bus, though she knew they, too, came from the box.
She pulled the rope handle knotted through the top, cautiously, as instructed, expecting it to break. The top came up an inch, stiff hinges creaking. She started to put fingers under the lid, thought better of that idea, pulled a large cooking fork from a box of mismatched kitchenware, and used it to pry the box open.
The dark circle spread, black as midnight, and mushroomed out of the box to form an oval three feet wide at the center, extending to the roof of the bus. It looked deeper than the old well behind the farmhouse.
She dropped the lid. It flapped back over the top of the box with a dull thump, and the black oval disappeared. She saw only the dirty back window of the bus and
the woods beyond.
She opened the box again, stared into the seeming abyss, and shut the box to watch the dark give way to a green summer day.
The third time, she pushed a child-sized cowboy boot from one of the boxes into the oval. The toe vanished when it touched the darkness. A second later, the rest of the boot was pulled from her hand.
“Hello?” Jordan said, staring at the oval, as if she would see something if only she looked closely enough. “Hello? Is someone there?”
No answer. Cicadas rattled in the woods.
She closed the box and looked for the boot, which of course she did not find.
However, on the floor beside the box she did find a notebook, a pocket-sized three-ring binder. On the first page, in block letters, someone had printed The Care and Feeding of the Oval. She flipped through the pages, hoping for information, but found only a single ominous entry on the second page: “The portal must be fed on a regular basis, or it will grow voracious.”
Fed? Fed what? Apparently, cowboy boots would do in a pinch.
She opened the lid again, still pushing with the fork, and watched the dark oval bloom from the box. Her hand twitched. It wanted to reach for the silky darkness, When she was a kid, a seventh-grade school trip included the Empire State Building. She thought about the view from the top deck, how nobody said so, but when you looked down, you had to wonder how it would feel to fall, to fly, if only for a few terrifying, glorious seconds. Her hand still wanted to touch the darkness, caress it like velvet, or the fur of a cat, the petals of a rare orchid. It should feel cold, even in summer heat.
She picked up a coffee mug with a broken handle and stepped toward the oval. She tossed the mug. Like the boot, it disappeared without a sound. The dark oval did not so much as flicker.
In stories and movies, when people went through the portal, the gate, the wormhole, the rabbit hole, the mirror, whatever it was called, they always had a terrible time, if they made it home at all. It never worked out easily. If they ever made it back, something tragic was sure to happen first. Yet they could not resist. Just as she had not resisted opening the box. She was no Pandora, though. Why should she have thought it was anything except a box?
Jordan asked herself how she knew it was a gate or portal. How did she know the boot and the cup went anywhere? What if the objects that went in just ceased to exist? Her instincts told her that shouldn’t happen, but then her instincts were not trained to deal with whatever was in that box.
This discovery needed a lot of thinking over. She closed the lid, put the bags back on top, and left the bus.
“Oh, you knew it wasn’t just a box,” Mother Blacksnake said. She lay half-hidden under the towels when Jordan stepped out of the tiny, trailer-sized shower. “You knew it very well.” Her obsidian eyes glittered in the moist air.
Jordan didn’t disagree. Only partly because it seemed silly to argue with a snake. Getting no response, Mother slipped away behind the sink.
“What’s the deal with the old bus?” Jordan asked that evening. “Does it run?” She knew the answer, but it was a way to turn the subject.
“Ha,” Samson said. “Probably not since 1992. Why?”
He took a long drink of beer and asked, “Find much green gold?”
She poked the bag with a bare big toe. “Couple pounds. Probably worth more than what you cooked up in the barn today. And it won’t blow up.” Actually, she’d spent too much time in the bus, and filled the bag with leaves and grass, so Samson would believe she’d been cutting ginseng. He wasn’t going to look in the bag. She felt protective, almost proprietorial, about whatever was in the box.
“Who does it belong to?”
“You cut it, it’s yours,” he said, looking at the bag and then her.
“The bus, I mean.”
“Roda, I guess. She used it to clear out the antique store when she closed it.”
“The stuff that’s in it is hers, too, then?” Jordan said, tilting the glass to drain the last drop of tea. The ice slid down and hit her nose.
“Rats and all.” Samson reached in the cooler for another beer. “But it’s all junk. Nothing worth a dime, or she wouldn’t have left it here.”
“You ever talk to her?” Roda was his ex-wife, who had left him for the public defender who somehow managed to exonerate her for selling pot from behind the counter of her store. The cops had looked the other way, especially since the sheriff was one of her best customers, until she sold some laced with meth to the mayor’s kid.
“Not for years. Last I heard, she was in Denver. Why so interested?”
“Just thought the bus might make a good camper, if somebody got it running,” she lied.
He laughed. “Yeah. Good luck with that.”
“How much would you pay me to paint this house?” she asked. She didn’t mention the bus again. She didn’t want him to get interested and go poking around.
“Free rent for parking your trailer here.”
“You have paint? Brushes?”
“I’ll get some next time I go into town.”
“No rush. Hasn’t been painted in years. It can wait a day or two.”
Mother Blacksnake was coiled on the arm of the recliner. Not that Jordan ever reclined in it. Wasn’t really room in the little trailer. The mother stirred when Jordan poured coffee. “Be careful today. Strange smell in the air.” Her tongue, black as the rest of her body, flickered in and out.
“I’d offer you coffee, but you probably don’t drink it,” Jordan said.
“Makes me jumpy,” the mother said.
“Where are your babies?” Jordan asked, putting the pot back on the stove, but when she turned, the snake was gone.
Jordan took her coffee, picked up her guitar that leaned by the door, and sat outside, in the lawn chair under her trailer window. The grass was still wet. She held the guitar on her lap, careful not to spill coffee on it. Though after all the bars and coffee shops the band had played, coffee was probably the least offensive liquid it might be exposed to.
Samson opened the side door of the house, old hinges screeching in the quiet morning. He walked across the short space to where her trailer was parked by the edge of the woods. There was that look in his eye.
“You want to make some deliveries this afternoon?” he asked.
“Not really. You go put some pants on, I’ll think about it.”
She had expected the question before he asked. The two men in the Cadillac SUV had come the night before, one carrying the briefcase that swung like it weighed a lot more when he left. They talked for fifteen minutes, alone on the other side of the house.
“Don’t think too long. Days are getting shorter now.” He walked away, glutes pumping smoothly in the tight white underpants. He did have a cute butt, she had to admit. She could see what Roda had seen in him a decade and a half ago, when they’d all been young and stupid. Some of us are still stupid, she thought.
After lunch, he said, “So, about those deliveries . . . “
“Right. What about them?”
“They need to be made. Soon.”
“Why don’t you make your own deliveries?”
“My car is not built for it. You know that. Your truck can haul anything.”
It was true. As far as it went. His Miata had room for one passenger and the spare tire. As long as the passenger didn’t weigh much. Her truck, on the other hand, was designed for hauling. She had bought it to pull her trailer, after the band broke up and they all went their separate ways.
“So you borrow my truck. Just don’t bring it back low on gas.”
“I’d rather you do it.”
“So what’s in it for me?”
“Same as usual. Free rent. Free beer.”
“Yeah, that’s not worth going to jail for. Or worse, maybe, dealing with your business associates. And you know I don’t drink.”
“Deliveries have to be made. Like I said, I’d rather you do it.” The way he said it, she knew he wasn’t asking.
“Just admit you’re curious,” Mother Snake said. “It’s easy: ‘I’m curious.’ Then you don’t have to go through the portal. If that’s what it is.”
Jordan plopped spaghetti in the boiling water and turned down the gas. “I’m curious,” she said. “Very curious indeed.”
“Come on, I want to show you something,” Jordan said. She stood on the grass by the porch. Late afternoon cast long shadows across the yard. Samson sprawled on the ancient wooden deck chair on the porch, beer in hand, blond hair pasted to his head with drying sweat. He’d been busy in the barn all afternoon. She didn’t need him to tell her he was putting the final touches on the product he wanted her to deliver.
“Show me what?” he said. “It’s late, and hot. I’m tired.”
“I can’t really explain. Not so you’d understand, anyway. You just need to see for yourself.” She twisted her toe in the grass, drawing his attention to her legs. “It’s way cool. You’ll be glad you did.”
She led him past the first curve in the driveway, and cut across the woods along the deer trail she had discovered the day before. It was shorter than following the curvy driveway. Briars scratched at her thighs. The still air smelled of mold and old leaves.
She carried the hammer and nails in a plastic grocery bag.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“Just a little experiment.”
He shrugged and kept walking.
Halfway along the shortcut, he stopped. “Not that old bus again? What’s your obsession with that, anyway?”
“Not the bus. Something in it, though.”
“I told you, nothing but junk. You think Roda left anything worth a dime in there?” But Jordan kept going, pushing briars away from bare legs with a stick. He followed, cursing the briars.
At the back of the bus, she lifted the bags off the box. “Open it,” she said.
“What’s in there, besides snakes and spiders, probably?”
“No spiders. The snakes would have eaten them, anyway.”
He read the warnings printed on the box, Dynamite, Caution, and Explosives. “Looks dangerous.”
“It’s not. Just open it, you sissy. I did.”
“You’re sure it’s safe?” The box began its characteristic whine and rumble. Samson backed away.
“I’m standing here, aren’t I? Why should it be dangerous? You don’t think Roda was peddling black-market dynamite on the side, do you?”
Samson shrugged, but he bent forward and gingerly lifted the lid. The oval, black as obsidian, mushroomed up to the ceiling.
He gave a mindless cry and leapt backward, almost knocking Jordan down, but she moved aside.
He stared, then moved forward. “What the hell is that?”
She handed him a National Geographic. “Toss this in and see what happens.”
The darkness swallowed the fluttering pages.
“Where did it go?” He leaned forward as if to look behind the oval.
“Beats me,” Jordan said, and pushed him into the dark.
The wood was old, dry, brittle in places, rock-hard in others, but it took her only a couple of minutes and a dozen of the big nails to spike the lid shut tight.
The notebook said the portal must be fed. She believed it. After sitting in the bus so long, it must be pretty hungry.
The following afternoon, when the revving engines on the highway slowed, followed by the crunch of fat tires on the gravel driveway, she took her guitar, the only possession in the trailer that she cared much about, and went up the deer trail. She watched from the shadows in the woods as Samson’s business partners ransacked the house, the barn, her trailer, and were gone in half an hour. It didn’t take her nearly that long to put the sheets back on her bed, her clothes back in the closet, the food back in the cabinet. The dishes were mostly plastic, so hardly anything was broken.
She doubted they’d noticed the snakes.
When the cops came looking for Samson, not long after the business partners, they asked Jordan about the barn. “He said never go in there. Mean bull.” She paused. “And snakes. Also bats. I’m terrified of snakes and bats. Don’t care much for bulls, either.”
“So you never went in the barn? You have no idea what’s in there?” The deputy who asked was named Fifer. He was young, maybe twenty-five. The other deputies leaned on their cars and smoked cigarettes while he talked to her.
“Of course not. Why would I?”
She could tell he did not believe her. But it was true that she had never been in the barn. She wasn’t dumb enough to leave DNA or fingerprints.
“You have any idea where we might find Mr. Samson?”
“Nope.” Which was true, as far as it went.
“When did you see him last?”
She hesitated as if thinking. “Day before yesterday, I guess.”
“You didn’t talk to or see him yesterday?”
“No. We weren’t that close.”
“He never mentioned going away, to you?”
Jordan shook her head. “Like I said, we weren’t that close.”
“So why did he let you stay here? You pay . . . some kind of rent?” During
the pause, he glanced up and down her legs, let his eyes roam over her tee-shirt.
She noticed the deputy’s use of the past tense. “No. No rent. I did odd jobs. Cut grass, paint the house.”
“That’s all?” Fifer asked, after a moment of meaningful silence. He glanced at the mostly silver-gray wood, where paint had faded or flaked away on the wind and rain, years ago. Samson had never gotten around to buying the paint.
Jordan let her own moment of meaningful silence spool out in the quiet August air. A mockingbird cawed like the rusty hinge of the screen door. “Yeah, absolutely. That’s all.”
“You don’t seem to know much, for someone who lives here.”
“His ex-wife was my best friend for years. She told me more than I wanted to know.”
“Just not what he really did in the barn.” Fifer pushed his hat back, rubbed his forehead and pinched his nose, as if he had a headache.
“Roda just said the same as Samson. Stay out of the barn.” Jordan had called her the night before. They caught up on old times. Roda seemed to have forgotten the bus. “You want it, it’s yours,” she said.
They wanted to search the barn and the house, saying they had warrants. The sheriff himself, this time, waved a paper at her. She didn’t take it. “Not my barn, not my house. Do whatever you want.”
She let them look in her trailer, too. They’d have come back, anyway, with warrants and bad attitudes. If they saw the snakes, they did not say so.
One good thing about cops, they were neat-freaks, as long as you didn’t piss them off. They didn’t make much of a mess in her trailer. The house and barn were no doubt still in disarray from the visit of Samson’s partners. She hadn’t investigated.
“Are you real?” Jordan asked Mother Black Snake, when the cops were gone. The snake smiled and said, “It’s time for us to go.” She flicked her tongue, tasting the air, the acrid smell of cop sweat. “Oh, and Adam West is not really dead.”
She kept an eye on the box, or locked it in the trunk of Samson’s car. If he did come straggling back, she wanted to know about it. Maybe the nailed lid would stop him, or maybe opening it was just the switch. How could she know? Meanwhile, she wondered what happened to him. Did he simply vanish into the void and cease to exist? Or did he find himself teetering on the edge of a cliff, pursued by whatever passed for bears in that world? At sea in a leaky boat? Or maybe it was pleasant–perhaps he was a sultan surrounded by a harem of beautiful humans of whatever gender he was in the mood for. No way to tell. Well maybe one, but she didn’t want to know that badly.
Yellow police tape crisscrossed the doors of the house and barn. She didn’t disturb it. She slept in her trailer, as usual, and got ready to hit the road again.
She put her truck up for sale. Got a hitch welded to the frame under the back bumper of the bus, so she could bring her trailer. It took another couple of months to clean out the bus and give it a new paint job. She considered a multi-colored flower-child design, but went instead with straightforward blue and white. No point inviting hassles from cops, campground managers, and other defenders of the status quo. All new paint except the Emergency Exit sign. She took the box out of the trunk of Samson’s car and put it back in its place in the bus, by the bottom window in the rear door. She thought about just leaving it behind, but it was too rare to abandon.
Besides, it was always good to have a way out.
David Rogers’ latest work is Roots of the Dark Tower: The Long Quest and Many Lives of Roland, available from Amazon. More of his work can be read at Davidrogersbooks.wordpress.com. He also curates “David Watches Movies” and “Antique Rockets” (free classic sci-fi/fantasy stories) on Facebook.
Far below the lighthouse lamp room, a voice called from the beach. But that was impossible. I was alone on the island, since Maggie had gone. She’d clambered down to the beach, two weeks ago. I didn’t see what happened. Missing. Washed away. Gone. I’d reported it to the Lighthouse Authority.
There’d been a storm last night, the raindrops drumming at the portholes of the lighthouse. Now, in the calm of the morning, as I looked from the lamp room window, the sea was clear. The waves that had lashed the sides of the lighthouse only a few hours earlier now rippled like molten glass. So high up and so far from land, as far as the eye could see.
Another shout drew my eyes downward, but there was nobody there. Yet another came, from the far side. I looked through the opposite window, but there was still nothing to see. They say that if you live alone for long enough, you begin to think there’s someone else with you. They call it a sensed presence. It must’ve been my mind playing tricks.
Grey clouds half hid the sun, but I drew the curtains all around the lamphouse. Four wicks, eight lenses, which could magnify even a tiny ray of sun and cause a fire. That was something the Lighthouse Authority had drummed into me as soon as I started training. I picked up a cloth and dusted my qualification certificate. It stood in a frame on the table in the middle of the room. It’d taken three years, but I’d done well. Charlotte Grenville, Lighthouse Keeper, First Class. I knelt and polished the brass plaque set into the floor, commemorating Albert Grenville: Keeper of Waymark Light, 1884-1971. My great-grandad. I hoped he’d have been proud of me.
Now the housekeeping was done, it was time to start the day’s work. My shoes clanked against the latticed iron spiral stairs as I ran down past level 9. I’d had to move my bedroom there, after a wave washed right over the roof of the living quarters. Half way down, on level 6, a gust of fresh air blew through an open porthole set into the brickwork. I stopped and peered out at the sea. A small, black, doglike head poked out of the water. Captain, the seal, come for his breakfast. Hurry, hurry. But first, into the office on the level 2. Better find out how the night shift went. I called good morning to Trinny. There’d been no alarm, so there can’t have been anything she couldn’t deal with, but I’d better check.
Trinny sat on the desk in the corner, next to the two-way radio with the broken mainspring. She was a grey metal box, about a foot in each direction. On the right-hand side was the crank handle that wound her main spring. On the front, lights, and two dials in the place where eyes would be. On the left-hand side, a label reading ‘Trinity Control System v.3.0 with new improved escapement’. The pilot light above her eyes, I mean above the dials, flickered. Her spring must be almost run down. With a rattling sound like someone typing behind a door, she spat a paper strip from the space where her mouth would have been. I mean, a printout was ejected. I must stop thinking of it as a person. What would she say if she could talk? ‘I’m sick of being on permanent night shift’?
I read the printout. ‘[…Light flashed 4 time/20 seconds. Fog signal not required…]’. Nothing to worry about. More rattling. A second piece of paper edged its way out, as though Trinny was using up her last breath.
‘SOUTH COAST OF ENGLAND ———————— ENGLISH CHANNEL —————————- APPROACHES TO DOVER STRAIT TSS ——————————- ABANDONED FISHING NETS Latitude 50º 29.555’N., Longitude 000º 26.097’W ———————————————— Abandoned fishing nets which have become entangled on the charted wreck of the “Duke of Buccleuch” which lies sunk in the position defined above, have been temporarily marked by means of two emergency wreck marking lighted buoys…’
I skimmed over the details. It was nowhere near us, so, again, no concerns. I’d leave Trinny unwound for a while. It felt right to let her rest. I looked along the shelf on the wall above her: International Code of Signals, Flags and Funnels, Bends, Hitches, Knots and Splices. Directions as for the use of the pistol rocket apparatus. I pulled out the Fog Signal Store Account Book and made a note that all had been clear, slid it back into place, and turned away to file the reports in the drawer.
On the top of the pile of papers inside was a photo of me, Mum and Dad, all smiles. On leave, the three of us, walking in the hills. It had been taken a few months before the accident. I kissed my finger tip and touched Mum, then Dad. At least I had my memories.
A buzzing inside my head made the hair on the back of my neck prickle, as though someone was watching me. I spun round, but only Trinny was there, and she was asleep. An image flashed through my mind of somewhere I’d never been. I saw a table, on which stood a pair of metal rods, sparks crackling between them, mounted on a platform shaped like a squat cylinder. A fine time to get a migraine. I waited a few seconds for the headache that was sure to follow, but it didn’t come.
I needed fresh air. I pulled on my waterproof jacket. It smelled of fish; lucky there was nobody else around. The bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling flickered and dimmed, telling me that I’d have to wind up the generator too, but that could wait till I came back. I dragged my boots on, turned my collar up and climbed down the worn wooden steps to the rocks outside.
A blast of wind blew strands of hair flapping round my face like ginger seaweed. I clambered and skidded over the rocks till I reached the sea. The waves rolled inwards, turning into foam that fizzed as it spread across the sand. I dipped in my pocket and found the reason for the pong – a piece of mackerel I’d brought out for Captain the day before, and forgotten. Seagulls squawked overhead – they could probably smell it too. I gagged. Captain poked his head above the water, let out a yarping sound, and pulled himself out onto the shingle.
I squatted and patted his head, the grey fur coarse and oily. ‘Sorry, too rough to catch anything yesterday. But hang on.’ I threw the piece of fish to him. ‘Quick, before a gull snatches it.’ He snapped it up and looked at me, all dark mournful eyes and long whiskers. If only he could talk back. ‘That’s all for now. I’ll see what I can get you a bit later. Come back tomorrow.’ His vile-smelling yawn revealed lethal looking sharp teeth as he turned and flapped back into the sea. Catching fish for seals. An odd sort of thing for a vegetarian to do.
From behind me came a sound as though the air was tearing like cloth, and a voice, crackling as though coming in on a badly tuned radio.
‘Not yet!’ A man’s voice.
I whirled round. The air thickened, and I felt like I was moving under water.
The space between me and the lighthouse shimmered silver. The outline of a figure appeared, black but edged with tiny sparks, standing in the air itself. A bright spot appeared in the middle. It expanded till it filled the darkness and changed into a man, aged somewhere in his thirties. He stepped out of the space and onto the beach, flecks of light crackling around his bright auburn hair. He wore some sort of suit looking like it was made of white paper, which crackled as he moved. There was something familiar about him that nagged at the corner of my mind, just too far away to touch.
My ears popped and I felt the sensation of a bubble bursting between us, but there was no wet splash.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. His was the voice that I had heard a moment earlier.
I gasped, my breath rasping.
‘Do you speak English?’ he said.
‘I’d better explain,’ he said. ‘I’m a physicist. Just a few moments ago, I was testing a new method of…er…transportation, in a laboratory in the Morris Institute. We’ve been trying different settings. My idiot of an assistant set it off it too early. When, I mean where, is this?’
He pulled an object about the size of a cigarette packet out of his pocket and poked at it. The object glowed. He held it close to his mouth. ‘Waymark Reef,’ he repeated, to the object. He turned to me. ‘Never heard of it. You sound English, where are we?’
‘Er…about 30 miles off the tip of Cornwall.’
He nodded. ‘Ah. Perhaps one of the smaller of the Isles of Scilly.’
He had no cause to be rude. I wasn’t silly. I’d passed my navigation course with top marks and there were no islands anywhere near. ‘And I’ve never heard of them.’
‘OK, so we’re even.’ He frowned and shook the object. ‘I was trying to transport myself…somewhere. OK. I’ll call the lab. They’ll have to send a boat out. Lend me your mobile?’
‘Mobile phone.’ He waved the object at me. ‘This. I can’t get a signal on mine.’
‘Signal? You want me to send up a flare? There’s a box in the storeroom.’
‘No, no,’ he snapped. ‘I just need to get back. Can we ask one of your neighbours if I can use their phone?’
‘There’s nobody here but me. I suppose a craft might come near enough to hail, but we might have to wait some time. This is a place only the most experienced sailors and sea kayakers should consider trying to get to. Land in the wrong place, and it’s like trying to climb up the side of a bottle. You’ll have to wait for the next Lighthouse Authority transport boat.’
He exhaled. ‘Thank goodness for that. When’s it coming?’
‘They’ve been checking on me once a week so…next Friday.’ When the new assistant was due, and I could go on leave.
He frowned. ‘That’s no good, I can’t wait that long. I’ll have to see if the Coast Guard can send out a helicopter to fly me back. Any chance of using your radio?’
‘Mainspring’s busted, sorry. That’s why they’ve been coming around every week. Otherwise, it’d have been two months, so you’re lucky. But flying’s not going to work. There’s no way a balloon could land here.’
He shrugged. ‘I’m just going to have to wait. There’s a fail-safe in the system to pull me back. The lab will be able to get a fix on me. Eventually. Unless,’ His brow furrowed. He looked into the distance and muttered. ‘No helicopters. No mobiles. Time as well as space?’ He turned towards me. ‘What’s today’s date?’
‘Why do you want to know that?’
‘Never mind why. Just tell me,’ he snapped.
That had been tactless of me. Perhaps he suffered from some sort of memory problems. Early dementia – that might account for all the things he’d been on about. Poor man. Perhaps he’d just wandered into whatever this transport device was. ‘OK, sorry. It’s November the twentieth. All day.’
He drew in a breath. ‘And the year?’
‘Two thousand and eighteen.’
He exhaled. ‘At least that’s right.’
The sky clouded over. I shivered ‘Looks like rain. You’d better come inside and wait,’ I said.
‘Sounds like a plan. I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m Charlie Grenfell.’
I blinked. ‘You’re kidding. Really?’
‘Yes, really. Why?’
‘Because my name’s Charlotte Grenville. But everyone calls me Lottie. You’d better, too, otherwise it’s going to be confusing.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Lottie.’ He stuck out a hand.
I slid mine back in my pocket. ‘Sorry, better not shake. I’m all fishy.’ Just as though I was greeting a delivery person at the front door and not someone who’d just appeared from nowhere.
Captain stuck his head out of the sea and gave a bark. Charlie knelt in front of him. ‘Hiya, Fish Breath.’
I shook my head at his disrespect for a fellow creature. ‘You’ve no call to be rude to my friend. I call him Captain. He probably thinks you’re going to feed him.’
Captain edged back into the sea and disappeared below the waves. The tide broke over the rocks. Charlie stood up, brushing wet sand from his knees. Rain began to fall, in large drops that blobbed and splashed onto the sand.
‘OK, follow me,’ I said. ‘And watch your step on the rocks.’ I picked my way across the sand. ‘I’ll put the kettle on. I can get you something to eat, if you like eggs. Not fresh, of course. But the powdered stuff makes an OK omelette.’
He shook his head ‘Never touch them. I’m a vegan.’
‘Then you shouldn’t be calling seals names.’
I stepped inside the lighthouse, and climbed the stairs, Charlie behind me. I opened the office door. The generator must have wound right down because it was dark inside, but enough light came through the porthole for me to find my way . ‘Hold on.’ I gave the massive crank handle four turns. My arm ached. That would be enough power for the rest of the day.
Charlie ran his finger along the spines of the books on the shelves. ‘Some of these old books must be worth a fortune.’
‘Cheeky. They’re the latest editions.’
I filled the kettle from the barrel and put it on the wood stove to boil. I sat at the table. ‘Now, tell me what a helicopter is.’
He sat opposite me. ‘You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?’
I shook my head. ‘Nope.’
‘It’s a sort of…flying machine. Not a balloon.’
‘Yeah, right. And I suppose they use some sort of wind-up power?
Charlie frowned. ‘Well, they do have blades that rotate, but you must know that’s not what powers them.’
‘I don’t know anything of the sort. But it’s a clever idea.’ He was a physicist; I think he’d said. Maybe that was some fancy word for story teller.
The kettle boiled. Charlie stood up and took two mugs out of the cupboard. ‘I’ll make the tea. Black, no sugar.’ A statement, not a question.
He put a mug down in front of me. I took a sip. ‘You asked to use a phone. What’s one of them?’
‘Never mind.’ He looked around the tiny office. ‘What are you doing here? Stuck in this place, the back end of nowhere?’
I stared at him. ‘What are you, addle-pated? I’m the keeper of this lighthouse, of course.’
‘But, they’re all computerised, surely.’
‘Oh, come on, you know,’ he said. ‘Automated. Mechanised. It happened back in the nineties.’
‘Well, it’s 2018 and here I am. Trinny is mechanical, but someone has to be here to keep her going.’ That reminded me, I’d better see what was happening. I walked over to Trinny and wound her up.
She spat out a message. ‘Assistant keeper Patricia Pryce arriving 23 November 2018. May be subject to change, in adverse weather conditions.’ Not so long for Charlie to wait. ‘I don’t believe it. More clockwork,’ he said, his mouth turned down at the corners. ‘No electricity? No batteries, even? Even you must’ve heard of that?’
I put the messages on the table and my hands on my hips. ‘You needn’t talk to me as though I came across the Channel on a banana boat. We do have electricity. You just saw me busting my arm winding the generator. Not that you offered to help.’
‘Can’t you source one powered by diesel?’
Source. What, add ketchup? ‘The Lighthouse Authority reckons what we have is good enough, and I agree.’
‘But electricity comes from cables run under the sea.’ He ran jerky fingers through his hair and leaned towards me.
‘Now you’re freaking me out.’ I stood up and backed away towards the cupboard. Not dementia. Lunacy. How could I have been so stupid? Inviting some madman inside. Letting him sit between me and the door.
‘OK, sit down,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you. Let’s talk. You can’t get much of that, here on your own.’
My heart raced. ‘I’m not usually on my own,’ I managed to force from my dry throat. ‘I had an assistant, Maggie.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Isn’t she here?’
‘No, she…went away. I don’t mind being on my own.’
He smiled. ‘Yes, tell yourself that often enough and you’ll believe it. I know. Look, Lottie. Come back. Please. I’m sorry I scared you.”
He looked into my eyes, I felt something inside me relax, unwind like Trinny’s spring at the end of a stormy night. OK, crazy but harmless. I dropped back into a chair by the table.
‘Tell me about Maggie,’ he said. ‘About yay high?’ He held out a hand level with his shoulder. ‘Short blonde hair?’
‘Yes. Know her?’
‘I think we met once.’
‘When?’ On her last shore leave, I supposed. Trust her to pick up a weirdo. I’d spent many an evening listening to her tell me about the waifs and strays she seemed to attract wherever she went. At least I stuck to befriending seals.
‘It was about two weeks ago,’ Charlie said.
‘It can’t have been. She was here. And then she disappeared. I suppose you’ll be telling me you kidnapped her, next.’ Making up stories about fantastic machines was one thing, but including real people as characters? I was beginning to find humouring him too much like hard work. ‘Anyway, don’t worry about me,’ I said ‘I love the solitude of my situation. And the sea, constantly changing.’
He smiled. ‘You sound like you’re trying to sell it to me. Or to yourself.’
‘No. This is my place in life. I could spend all day looking at the sea, but I’ve got a job to do. It’s just that sometimes, I wonder…’ I looked away from Charlie. My words tumbled out ‘Living on land all the time. What would it be like? But it’s no good thinking like that. If the Employment Authority should ever so much as suspect…’
‘Who? Suspect what?’
‘Shh!’ I put a quaking finger up against my lips. My heart pounded.
He raised his eyebrows. ‘What’s the matter? Surely whoever it is can’t hear us.’
I lowered my hand. ‘You know who I mean. And, of course they can’t hear us, but you might tell them. When you get back.’
He steepled his fingers on the table between us. ‘You can trust me. I promise not to tell anyone.’ He looked into my eyes and, again, I felt my heart slow. ‘And I really don’t know who you’re talking about.’
‘The Employment Authority,’ I hissed. ‘If they thought I wasn’t content in my work, that I wanted to do something else…’ I shook my head.
‘So, what if you did? I don’t get it. People change jobs all the time.’
‘People change jobs all the time?’ I felt my face grow warm. ‘Name me one person who’s done it in the last fifty years. It’d have been in all the papers. All the time? The prison ships would be full to the gunwales.’
He slid his hand across the table, towards me. I felt a prickling sensation and he pulled his hand back, as though he felt it too. ‘OK, you’re right, I’m wrong. But, have you never lived on land?’
‘There’s land under this rock, of course. But if you mean the mainland, yes, I have, but never spent more than a couple of weeks there, for a holiday.’ I sighed. ‘No, things are fine here. I’ve got Captain to talk to.’
‘You talk to old Fish Breath?’ He raised an eyebrow and I was glad I hadn’t mentioned talking to Trinny.
‘Call him Captain. Yes, I have him to talk to.’
Charlie smiled. ‘But?’
I decided to tell the truth. ‘But I wish there was someone-’
‘Who’d talk back.’
I nodded. ‘It’ll be OK, my new assistant will be here soon. Anyway, I’m used to it. I was born in this lighthouse. My father was the keeper, my grandad before him. And there’s a plaque in the lamphouse honouring my great grandad. There’s been a keeper Grenville ever since the very first lighthouse, when my many greats grandmother volunteered for the job. Of course, that was before the Employment Authority was set up,’ I said, looking round as though the Authority might be peering over my shoulder, taking notes, ‘when you could take any employment you wished.’ I loved the lighthouse, of course I did. It was my home. But, to find my own way in the world? I shook myself. That was no way to think.
I turned back to Charlie ‘What about you?’ I had no idea what a physicist was, but new careers were created all the time, for people whose employment had become obsolete. ‘I thought you might be a sort of story teller.’
‘No – I’m a scientist. I’m concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy.’
I nodded. ‘You mean a kinematical engineer. I suppose you come from a long line of them?’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘No, I’m the first. What did you mean, take any employment you wished? You can.’
He was harmless, but insane. ‘O-kay,’ I said. ‘You don’t come from a long line of kinematical Grenfells. You can follow any career you want. You’re very lucky. Some are. Some aren’t. Just the way things are.’
‘You make your own luck in this life. I chose to study something interesting, and get a job based on it. You could get a different job.’
‘What? Move to another lighthouse? I like this one. I belong here.’
‘But it’s a lonely existence. So why do you stick at it? You could do anything. Or nothing, while you make your mind up.’
My face grew warm. ‘Did you just say what I think you did? Get a different job? Didn’t you hear what I said a few minutes ago?’ My voice came out as a squeak. ‘That’d be a short sharp trip to prison.’ I stood up and leaned across the table, jabbing a finger at him. My voice sounded like it was coming from a distance, as though someone else spoke. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Much as I love this lighthouse and this island, I’d love to get off and do something else. But I can’t, and there’s no point thinking about it.’ I gasped and held my head in my hands. ‘Now look what you’ve made me say. Anyway, what about the shame on my family name? The Grenvilles have always been lighthouse keepers. Always will be.’ I paused, feeling my voice catch in my throat. ‘Don’t tell them. I didn’t mean it. All praise to the system. Nobody’s ever jobless.’
He raised his hands. ‘OK, don’t get off your bike.”
I lowered my hands and looked up. ‘Bike. Do you always talk such rubbish?’ And me, I’d said too much. I picked up Trinny’s print-out. ‘I’d better not leave this lying around.’ I opened the filing drawer.
Charlie peered across at the mass of paper inside and gasped.
‘I know it looks a mess,’ I said, ‘but there’s a method in there. I can find anything. Just pick a date-’
He shoved his hand inside the drawer and grabbed the picture of Mum and Dad. ‘How did you get this?’
‘You don’t have to act like I stole it. The people in the photo gave it to me. They’re my late parents,’ I said.
‘My parents,’ he croaked, poking at the photo with a quivering finger.
He flopped back into his chair.
I shook my head. ‘My parents,’ I said. ‘Liz and Dick Grenville. Dead five years ago.’
He shook his head. ‘Beth and Rich Grenfell. Very much alive.’
‘It’s a coincidence. Must be. Lots of people out there look like others.’
‘And who married each other?’
I shrugged. ‘People end up looking like their partners.’
‘That’s dogs and their owners. No. Our names are so similar. This is going to sound weird…I don’t know how it can be…but I think we might be related. And that, somehow, drew me here.’
‘This is going to be an amazing story,’ I said. ‘I hope you’re going to write it all down.’
‘No, I mean it. Have you got a brother?’
‘Why do you want to know that? I’d have liked one, or a sister. But there wasn’t the room here. You?’
‘No.’ He leaned across the table and reached out as though to grab my arm. The air glowed blue between our fingers. Pins and needles ran up my hand. I felt something push me away. A spark jumped between our hands and he looked up, frowning. I realised where I’d seen his face. It was the one I saw in the mirror each morning. My hands began to shake and I felt my heart jump. ‘How old are you?’ he asked.
‘You’ve got a cheek, when we hardly know each other.’ We didn’t. Did we? ‘But, I’m thirty-two.’
‘So am I,’ he said. ‘I was born on the second of October-’
‘Me too. Nineteen eighty-’
‘five.’ He shook his head. ‘There’s something weird about all this. I admit, I thought you had a screw loose.’
I drew in a breath. ‘And you’ve been talking concentrated rubbish since the moment you…er…arrived.’
He raised a hand. ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. The transporter…’ He clenched his hands into fists. ‘I didn’t say anything before. Top secret. But this was the first test of a portal through time.’
I thought of all he’d told me. Asking the date. Stuff like in a story. ‘You mean…you’re from the future?’ How far? We were born at the same time and he didn’t seem to have aged.
‘No. Not the future.’ He shook his head. ‘From…somewhere else. I’ve never believed it before, but some people think there’s an infinite number of universes. Everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but didn’t, occurred in the past of some other universe.’
‘I don’t get it.’ I felt a migraine nudging at the edges of my brain, trying to get in.
‘OK, what about this?’ He rested his elbows on the table and leaned towards me. ‘We think time exists in the form of particles. They last a fraction of a second before they split.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Like radioactivity?’
‘My radio was active before the spring broke. I suppose it sort of split. That what you mean?’
‘No. Never mind. There are time particles.’ He stood and paced up and down. ‘Every time one splits, two halves go off in different paths, and meet different influences. And each of them splits too, like the ribs on a fan. So, there are millions of Lotties, millions of Charlies. All slightly different. That’s why we look so alike. Whatever my assistant did sent me into your world. On another rib.’
‘That much, I think I understand,’ I said. ‘Perhaps in some ribworlds Lottie never gets born at all. Her parents have no children. Or they have a boy instead. Or maybe there’s one where they have a boy and a girl.’
Or one where you could take any job. Or none. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Could you take me with you, when you go? You can send me back here. I can still keep the light. But I want to see your world.’
His voice cracked. ‘I’d love to. But you can’t come with me. I didn’t tell you everything about Maggie. I have met her, or rather, she’s been in our lab. When we first tried the portal, it opened on the beach right next to her. Pulled her straight in.’
‘So what? That’s great. You did it for her. Do it for me. At least there’ll be someone there I know.’
‘We didn’t mean to take her. It was an accident. We sent her back.’
‘Well, It’s my turn now.’
He stood up and paced up and down. ‘That’s the point. You told me Maggie’s not here. It looks like the way time flows in different ribworlds may not match up. Without a machine at this end to get a fix on her, Maggie is probably on her way back – but not for another five hundred years. Or five thousand years ago. It’d be a one-way portal for you, if you came with me. You couldn’t come back. Not to here and now.’
My throat tightened and I heard my voice rise in pitch. ‘I don’t care. I want to see a world where people can take whatever path inspires them. Where there are flying machines. I don’t want to do the same job as Mum and Dad, I want to hug them, to talk to them. There’s so much I want to say.’
‘I know you. I don’t think you could,’ Charlie said. ‘You couldn’t leave this place. Your conscience wouldn’t let you.’
I felt a cold sponge close round my stomach. I couldn’t leave the lighthouse unmanned. All those lived depending on its light. I spoke slowly, allowing the ideas to form in my mind. ‘OK. Maggie’s replacement will be here soon.’ I hoped there would not be another storm. ‘Come back for me.’
‘There’s no way of replicating the settings that sent me here. And even if I could, I can’t take you with me.’
‘You could. If you wanted to.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s not that. I don’t think we’re each other’s brother or sister, that we never had. There might be a world somewhere out there, where that’s true. But if it was, we ought to be able to do more than talk. Haven’t you noticed? Every time we try to touch…’ He reached out a finger tip towards me. Another spark cracked between us, blue and dazzling. ‘I know what you feel. I know what you think. And I think I’m you. And you’re me.’
I reached out to take his hand. Yet another jolt. I felt a wave of nausea rise in my throat. My tongue felt thick.
‘No, we can’t touch,’ he said. ‘We’re like particles of matter and antimatter. When they touch, they annihilate each other.’
I slumped ‘Now you’re trying to confuse me. Just making excuses you know I won’t understand.’
‘OK, we’re like two opposite halves of an equation. Plus one and minus one.’
‘I was never any good at algebra. You’ve lost me. But I do know that one and one makes two.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s an equation that adds up to zero. The portal will soon be opening. If I took you with me, we’d be combined when we went through. And both wiped out.’
‘You don’t know that. And who’s to say one of us is minus? We could both be plus. Then we’d end up with 2.’
‘Or both minus. And what would happen to minus two?’
I stared at him. He seemed fuzzy round the edges, flickering in and out of focus.
‘The fix. It’s happening already. They’re trying to pull me back.’ He stood up. ‘I need to get back to the beach, to the place where I came through.’ He dashed out of the door and down the steps. I ran after him, my breath rasping in my throat. He dimmed to black and white. I saw through him to the rocks behind. If I couldn’t go with him, then perhaps…
‘Stay with me.’ I reached out and touched his cheek. A flash of light filled my head, brighter than a million lighthouses, forcing my eyes shut. I felt as though the air had been sucked away. I opened my eyes. The sand seemed to rush towards me, then vanish into the distance. I clamped them shut them again, struggling to catch my breath.
I sank to my knees. A flood of memories rushed in like a tidal wave. Mum and Dad, beaming with pride as I was awarded my PhD in Physics. Sitting in a flying machine, high above the clouds. Electricity on tap, coming out of an outlet on the wall. Getting the job at the Institute. Typing messages on a keyboard with a screen. Creating the portal machine.
I stood up opened my eyes, and blinked, trying to get my eyes to focus. I was alone on the beach.
Captain poked his head out of the sea. ‘Not now, Fish Breath,’ I said.
I’d catch something for him later. First, hurry back to the office. Switch on the computer. Of course not, grab a pen and paper. Work out how to make a time portal of my own. I turned away. I’d have to find a way to make all the components myself, but with luck I would. Even if I had to source all the parts from scratch. After all, you make your own luck. Starting with a pair of metal rods, sparks crackling between them, mounted on a platform shaped like a squat cylinder.
Captain turned and dived under the waves. Just us on the beach. Charlie had been wrong about one thing. And I was right. We’d ended up with two. I looked up at the lighthouse. On high, the light pulsed, sending out signals. ‘Home. Stay. Home.’ And I would, for now, but I knew I’d never be lonely again.
I stand on the beach at the edge of the rocks. The new Assistant Keeper steps off the boat. She puts out her hand. I grab it and pull her onto the sand. ‘Welcome to Waymark Reef, Patricia,’ I say. ‘Good to meet you.’
‘Call me Trish. I’m looking forward to working with you, Charlotte. Or is it Lottie?’
I shake my head. ‘Call us Charlie.’
Judith Field lives in England. Her non-fiction has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the UK and her fiction, mainly speculative, has been published in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Startled awake from dreams ripped with explosions, I look up at the ceiling in alarm. Of course there’s nothing, only a hazy memory of a guy in grad school who slept under a dangling sword slowly circling his head. I start my day, but startle at every sound filtering through the open window. A cat howls. Children chatter past on their way to school. A girl yells, “Stop that,” and then giggles. I breathe in. Jennifer looks up from her new watercolor and knits her brows, a move that reminds me of her mother.
“We’re getting out of the city,” she says. “On Sunday. We’ll drive to Tomales Bay.”
I’m behind schedule editing an academic study of Navajo skinwalkers, but Jennifer looks pretty fierce, so I mutter, “Sure. Great idea.”
She comes over and hugs me. “You’re working too hard, Nilda. Nobody would care if you’re a few days late. They know the quality of your work.”
She’s probably right, but I never miss a deadline. It’s a point of pride, and she knows it. Jennifer and I have been together for six years, my longest relationship, and I love her dearly, but as she kisses the top of my head, I shrink down. To dispel my unease, I say, “I love you.”
“Back at you.” She kisses me again and returns to her easel.
Tomales Bay is perfect. Clear and bright, not warm enough in April for tourists. We hike to Heart’s Desire beach—wide, scenic, almost deserted. After lunch, Jennifer sets up her easel to sketch the wooded cliffs. I set off to explore the beach.
I find a trail barely wide enough for my foot. It twists around a hill to a narrow promontory where I step up on a ledge and stand against the cliff’s edge. Eyes closed to wind and salt spray, my lungs fill with molecules of sea water from the ocean beyond, diluted but still potent. My spine aligns with indentations in the rock. I press hard against them as if an extra skeleton will keep me upright. Here the San Andreas fault comes ashore. From the hill above this bay, I’ve seen the scar where the earth cracked open in the 1906 earthquake and sucked in a herd of cows. Now, this is a calm place, just water, sky, and the California hills. Above my head, a passing heron croaks.
I look up to watch it pass—a few seconds, no more—and that’s when she appears, not ten feet away, standing on a flat rock protruding from the water, wind-whipped waves lapping at her long skirt. My head pounds. She must be a projection, some fancy of light that will dissolve when I blink. But blinking changes nothing. She looks more solid than I feel.
My mind goes silent as I face a tiny woman in shapeless black, her skin so wrinkled I cringe at how old she must be. Turquoise and silver rings grace every finger; a coral brooch shines at her neck. When she raises both arms in a gesture of supplication, sunlight bounces off the silver. She points a bony finger at me. Encased in folds of sun-browned flesh, her eyes widen, black as obsidian, mesmerizing me as if I were prey. She commands me in a voice too big for her size.
I want to run, but my legs won’t budge. Time whirls around me like a gathering wind. Her eyes grow so large they fill my vision.
“Come!” she says again.
Part of me wants to obey, but I squeeze it down. “Where are you going?” I squeak out.
Louder, she rasps, “Home. It’s time. Your time.”
My chest heaves, needing more air, drowning in heat. I wonder if this is what a stroke feels like. From the beach, Jennifer’s voice breaks the spell. “Nilda! Where are you?”
I step down onto the trail and wave. “I’m coming.” When I look back, there’s only shallow water, dark blue, ruffled by wind. From where the old woman stood there was nowhere to go but through the water toward the beach. Impossible in those few seconds.
Eager to plant my feet on solid ground, I stride back to Jennifer who would never believe I hallucinated a jewelry-strewn hag. While she packs the remnants of our picnic, I stuff my blanket and book into my backpack and shoulder it, muttering that clouds are gathering and we should hurry. As we climb the path to the parking lot, she asks if I noticed an old woman in a long dress walking along the beach.
“No.” I pick up the pace.
“She had a dog. Big black one, looked like a wolf.”
“Didn’t see them.” My heart shrivels in the heat of the lie.
The crone lives in the shadows at the back of my mind. When I’m working, she recedes, but at night as moonlight glimmers through clouds of fog and my muscles relax after a long run, she saunters forward to taunt me. Her presence is so palpable, I convince myself she is real, that I must find her. Never have I felt such an irrational urge. It claws at my edges, destroys my sleep. I question my sanity, but under all the mental thrashing, calm reigns. Her call is real. She knows what I’ve lost even though I’ve forgotten.
Her jewelry is a clue. The elaborate turquoise rings she wore are produced by indigenous people in Arizona and New Mexico. To find her, I must leave overwrought San Francisco and search the desert of the southwest. The thought is so absurd I laugh aloud. I’m happy here. Comfortable. We live in the house Jennifer’s grandmother left her free and clear. I know how lucky I am. Still, the crone beckons.
Jennifer worries about my inattention. When I tell her the story, she looks at me as if I had spoken in Romanian. “You want to live somewhere else?”
“For a while.”
“Don’t patronize me.” Her voice is hoarse with rage. Tears sparkle on her cheeks. “If you want to break up, say so, Nilda.”
“I love you.” The words sound hollow. Of course I love her. Of course I should stay here. Still, my inchoate longing tugs. “Come with me. We’ll have an adventure.”
“I love it here. So do you. You always said that escaping Ohio was the last move you wanted to make. And I’m just getting traction in the galleries. I can’t do graphic design forever.”
My feeble words cannot explain what happened at Heart’s Desire Beach. “We could try Phoenix,” I say. “Big city. Jobs for both of us.”
“When did you become a crank who chases ghosts? You plan everything. How many times have I asked you to jump in the car for a road trip?”
“I have a plan.” Which is a lie. I’m desperate to fill the chasm that opened in my chest when the crone pointed her jeweled finger at me. “Think about it.”
“You found someone else, didn’t you?”
“No. I swear.” Only a phantom crone with an offer I can’t refuse. I’m searching for more civilized words when Jennifer’s wine glass hits a ceramic pot of spindly geraniums. The shards scatter on the concrete patio in our tiny backyard, frightening a dove resting on the weathered wooden fence. The dove flies off. In the end, I choose Tucson and leave alone, breaking both our hearts.
The sky looms big and blue as the sea I left behind for this alien place. Heat shimmers in waves I could ride to shore if I knew which way to go. Beneath my cotton shirt, sand burns my shoulders. I sit up, dizzy from too much light.
The Saguaros stand at perpetual attention. Sometimes they whisper as I walk by, but today the human-looking cactus plants are silent. While I dreamed of ocean spray cooling my face, the Saguaros crept closer. Four big ones surround me, so old they’ve grown multiple arms, angled up to beseech the nourishing sun.
I pull a water bottle from my pack and drink half, warm but welcome. “Are you trying to crowd me?” I’m careful to address them as a group. Beneath the sand, they are members of one family, roots nestled against each other.
Sweat leaks through the band in my hat and trickles down my neck. This desert is too hot, too big. People die here. Stupid people. From the group, a whisper rises and falls, like chittering sea birds outrunning the tide.
“What should I do?” I whisper back.
Silence. I rise and pull on my pack to leave before the vastness swamps me. “Thank you,” I say, figuring something transpired.
A hundred yards across the packed sand on my left, a shadow jumps behind a Saguaro. I stop and stare, then stand there sweating, waiting out the mysterious stranger. Minutes tick by before I snap back to myself. Even these huge plants cannot conceal a person. I walk on.
The cars at the trailhead appear as distant squares of color when the figure from the Saguaro re-appears. I stop to confront it, and laugh when a coyote as big as a German Shepherd trots off between two mesquite bushes. Terrified that my life is tracking out of control, I run the rest of the way to the car and tear out of there, the tires of my CR-V throwing up a wave of gravel. I reach my rented townhouse in record time and lock myself in.
Why did I move to Tucson on a whim? Collapsed in my oversized leather chair, I pull up my knees and listen to the lava bubbling around my internal organs. Unchecked, it will burn through my veins and arteries and spill out my orifices, ruining the sheen on the polished hardwood floors.
I’m fine, I tell myself.
I roll down the car window to inhale a whiff of pine. Here in the Catalina Mountains, the desert is far below and out of sight. The twisting forest road up Mount Lemmon toward the campground I chose at random winds through groves of pine and oak.
The campground is almost deserted: only one couple and a family with kids near a stucco building that houses the restrooms. I choose the campsite farthest from the entrance. Unloading the car, I see no one. The distant splashing of Peppersauce Creek beckons. Eager to explore the area, I pitch my tent but unpack nothing else. With water, protein bars, and a flashlight in my pack, I take off on a gravel path marked “Peppersauce Creek Trail.”
Walking in shade near water thrills my parched soul. Sycamores and walnut trees line the creek, tall and solid and familiar, their foliage sprinkled with a few yellow and orange leaves to herald the changing season. Ferns brush my legs and grasshoppers stare up from patches of moss as the frenetic energy electrifying my muscles slides away.
The trail branches into a Y, the center point marked by a cairn with a pile of cornmeal on the top rock, maybe for the birds. One trail crosses the creek and vanishes into thicker woods. The second bends in the other direction, likely winding back to the campground. I munch a protein bar and consider. Nothing moves except a black dog sitting on a boulder across the creek. It unfolds long, thin legs and stands at attention. A pointed nose, short fur, and wide chest. A big guy.
“Hey, boy,” I call. “Are you lost?”
The tail wags once.
I search for a place to ford the shallow creek and find a little beach with flat stones spanning its width. As I step from one stone to the next, a heaviness in the air presses on my head and chest, an invisible barrier. Humidity, I decide, and push on. When I place my feet on the opposite bank, the heaviness parts like a curtain.
The dog leaps from its boulder and trots up a narrow trail among the trees. He stops and looks back. I won’t get lost if I stick to the trail. I finger the swiss-army knife in my back pocket. Cell phone in another pocket. Keys in the pack. Flashlight, check. Matches. Water. Why not? I’ve worked nonstop since moving to Tucson. A little adventure is in order.
The dog bounds around granite boulders and disappears. The trail is clear, so I keep on, enjoying the damp-leaf odor, cool shade, and the rustling of squirrels and rabbits. After an hour, my stomach signals time for lunch. I should have brought more food, but another protein bar will hold me. After a snack, I consider retracing my steps. A meal of homemade stew, thawing in the cooler, beckons, but so does the trail, now lined with taller pines and the native cypress. Based on the angle of the hill and the sky, I could reach the top in another hour. Still, I’m hungry. I’ll try again tomorrow, I tell myself as I start back.
Ten minutes later, the dog appears on my right, standing under a huge pine. He must have circled around. “Hey, boy,” I call.
Another single wag.
Convinced he wants me to catch him, I leave the trail and walk toward him. He sits and cocks his head. Fixed on the dog, I miss the hole, hidden under a layer of leaves and brush. My right foot plunges in as far as my knee. A sharp pain lances my ankle. I try to extricate myself, but my boot sticks. I sit, brush away the leaves, and rock my leg to loosen it. With a sudden jolt, it’s free.
I unlace my boot and inspect the purplish swelling at my ankle. Sprains and breaks are hard to distinguish, but the dizziness that makes me reel when I push against the ground convinces me that walking back will be a challenge.
It’s only early afternoon, but the light is fading. I pull out my phone. No bars, the charge almost gone. The dog has vanished. Even unlaced, the boot is too tight, so I slice open the sides with my knife. A nearby branch is sturdy enough for a crutch. With its help and clinging to the nearest tree trunk, I pull myself up and hobble back toward the trail. Rhythmic pain pounds through me, as if my leg has turned into a huge beating heart. Sweat pours down my neck. I grit my teeth. Gotta make it to another tree. Then another. Darkness swirls, but I keep going, a few feet at a time.
Dusk descends. The trail should be right there. Clutching a cypress trunk with both arms, I turn in a slow circle. Thickets with vicious-looking thorns surround me. I slide down the tree trunk and stretch out on the ground. Stars appear. No one knows where I am. In a hurry to leave, I didn’t think to call my neighbor. I’ve made no friends in Tucson and now I wonder why. Maybe because it’s hard to explain why I left my lover and a rent-free house to follow a ghost to the desert. As a cold gray mist penetrates my organs, I remember Jennifer’s warmth. The last thing I see is the waning crescent moon floating in blackness.
A trumpeting sound interrupts my dream of an ocean wave cresting over my head. Awake, my throbbing leg overwhelms the sound. With the help of a tree trunk I haul myself up and dig in my pack for water. Two full bottles and one half-bottle which I drain along with a stray pack of peanuts.
The trumpeting again. Louder this time—so not a dream. Bears live in these mountains, and elk and mountain lions. The sound comes closer. An ominous thrashing. Something heavy is moving through brush. The locals tell stories of wild boar, to scare newcomers, I assumed. Now I wonder.
The sounds stop. My leg burns so hot I check to see if it’s erupted into flame. My right foot is numb. I’m in a small clearing, surrounded by thick hedge with a single opening I must have stumbled through. Beyond are low bushes and trees that seemed closer last night. Okay, I can do this.
Then I stop breathing. Beyond the clearing, under a pair of cypress trees, stands an animal, wide and way too tall, with a trunk like an elephant and long, curving tusks. It raises a massive head and emits a sound that could melt flesh. I clap one hand over my mouth.
The monster turns in my direction. Its legs are thicker than tree trunks. An immense round foot stomps down. The vibration travels through the ground into my injured leg. This is no animal I’ve ever seen. Only an elephant could approach its size, but this is Arizona, and elephants do not have tusks with spiral curls.
I stare, willing it to vanish, to turn into a harmless deer. Instead, it emits another deafening roar, stretches out one front leg, then the other, and lowers itself to its belly, facing me. The sheer size of the thing, the long, matted fur, the curved tusks, remind me of low-grade horror movies, where blonde women flee from fake monsters. But I’m not blonde, and this creature is real. Then another impossible thing happens. It speaks into my mind.
I have come.
The beast stares from under its thick brow ridge. From the back of my mind, the crone from Tomales Bay saunters forth. For the first time, she smiles. I want to scream but only a moan comes out. I could be delirious. Or dead. I’d heard a dead person sometimes doesn’t realize when the spirit leaves the body. I glance around, just in case. Only bare ground. As the sun rises, a shaft of light falls on the monster, revealing dried blood from a wound on its neck. A word drops into my mind.
Without thinking, I answer. “You’ll smash me flat.” Its size horrifies me. It’s wild, primitive, probably vicious. I imagined its voice. I have to get out of its sight and pray it doesn’t follow.
My body shakes so hard I fall to my knees, bury my face in leaves and pretend none of this is happening. I curl into a ball and sob, stuffing a fist against my mouth. The scent of pine oil and wet dirt reassures me. If I’m quiet, nothing will happen. I force myself still. Unbidden images crowd my mind. How I face trouble by going stiff. Rigid. Silent. Sometimes it works. I am congratulated for being stoic. Good in a pinch.
I look up. The impossible animal stares at me. Something in my chest jolts free, unleashing a raging current. Roiling waves quench the fire inside. The water floods me, enters every crevice, and carries out detritus from all my years. Water pours out my eyes, my pores—so much water I fear I’ll drown in the sediment leached from my atoms. I surrender to the water, let it wash me clean, and when the flood stops, I’m bathed in acrid sweat. It soaks into the ground, leaving a white residue like salt after a flood.
I huddle in the aftermath, lighter now, more curious than afraid. As if I’m someone else, I watch myself stand and set out, one halting step at a time, leaning on my branch. I inch through the hedge, never taking my eyes off the animal. It holds my gaze. The closer I come, the larger it looms. Its sloping back, even sitting, is twice my height. Blood drips from its wound onto the ground. A few yards away, its musk overpowers the scent of molding leaves. I creep closer. Close enough to touch. It’s sides heave like bellows. My hand reaches toward a furred leg. I fear making contact, but my hand moves anyway. I stroke thick, matted fur.
Of course. It’s hurt. I fish out the last water bottle and uncap it. A dark eye at least three inches across follows my movements. When I extend the bottle toward its mouth, the creature lifts its trunk. A slab of flesh that turns out to be a bright pink tongue appears. I pour half the water onto the tongue that shapes itself into a funnel and slurps it up.
I soak a handkerchief in water and wipe clotted blood from the animal’s wound. It’s several inches long, but not deep. I wonder if another animal gored it, and then, which one won the fight. My leg gives out and I sink to the ground, leaning against the furry chest.
“What will happen?” I’m talking to a creature that can’t exist, but that no longer seems odd.
My brain urges me to flee. The only sane thing is save myself, but I’ve gained the ability to hear thoughts, so my brain may not be the best source of information. I will myself quiet. My breath synchronizes with the animal’s guttural pants. The creature’s breathing is hypnotic. I force my attention away from it and my throbbing leg.
What should I do? I ask.
I doze. We share the last of the water. The creature grunts in what I take to be pleasure when I stroke its damp tongue.
The sun is setting when the first whiff of smoke alarms me. I grab a handful of mammoth fur and stand. To the west, orange smudges the sky.
The mammoth raises its trunk like a periscope. Fire surrounds.
I see another patch of orange. “We’re in trouble,” I say.
It swings its head. Must go.
I think of Jennifer. My conviction that it was time to live in the desert. The Saguaro plants murmuring their wisdom. I grab my branch and test my injured foot. It’s better, I can keep going. A deer with its fawn race past, followed by rabbits, squirrels, a pair of coyotes running full out. Distant sirens blare followed by a whir of helicopter blades. All too late.
The beast hoists itself and stands there, testing the air with its trunk.
“Where are we going?” The question sounds silly, but habits die hard.
Leaning on my cane, I do as I am told.
The beast sets a course away from the flames. As we walk through barren fields, then a meadow, and finally a pine forest, nothing looks familiar. We find no trails. The fire recedes behind us, although animals continue to race past. We walk for hours and when I’m about to drop, we reach a meadow of thick grass, bounded on three sides by forested hills. In one hill yawns the dark mouth of a cave.
“Is that it?”
The mammoth answers with a warmth that flows through my mind, depositing an image of wildflowers in bloom, water plunging over granite cliffs. The entrance to the cave is wide and high enough for the mammoth to enter. It lumbers into the blackness. Shaking with fatigue, I hesitate, then scold myself. Just because I didn’t notice the line separating my previous life from this moment, is no reason to deny its existence. I follow the mammoth into the cave.
It’s too dark to see, so I grasp the tuft of coarse hair at the end of his tail. After a time, light appears. We walk through shadowy rooms with pools of water and passages with markings etched on the walls. Geometries and stick figures of people dancing.
I breathe deeply, inhaling moss and water, old bones, salt, and lime. Stalagmites appear, lining the passage, marking our way like beacons, like stars lit from within. The passage angles down, narrows, and leads us into the largest room so far, many times my height, the walls alive with green crystals, from tiny gems that would fit on a ring to enormous, shining slabs. The mammoth stops. I step up and stand beside his left front leg. The crone from Tomales Bay faces me. Her left hand grasps a hooked staff, her right the neck of the black dog who coaxed me off the trail.
“That’s your dog,” I say, marveling at my stupidity.
She bangs the staff against a rock. “It was hard to get your attention, but when you saw us, you knew. Me and now him.” She points the staff at the mammoth.
He trumpets a reply.
I want to pepper her with questions, but all I say is, “Who are you?”
“Only a guide.” She turns and aims the hook toward the left. I look and see a door, dark green and pulsing like a living thing. “There lies your fate.”
I’m tired and hungry and I haven’t come this far to accept her choice. “I don’t know about fate. Why did you bring me here? And what’s behind that door?”
She laughs. “What every woman wants. Safety. Your bridegroom. Your king, if you like.”
This is ridiculous. I didn’t follow a mammoth through wilderness and escape a forest fire to genuflect before some self-appointed king. “Not on your life. I’m not every woman, and I don’t do that.”
The mammoth makes a sound that causes the dog to fall on its belly and cower. The crone steps back and inclines her head. “From the center, there is choice.”
I look down. We stand on the intersection of three paths. In the center. We could turn around and make our way back to the meadow, but that’s no longer an option. I stretch my right hand toward the beast. His trunk grasps my fingers. I feel his wordless message, but he tells me nothing I don’t already know.
The crone and her dog step aside. I choose the right-hand path and move forward. The footfalls of the mammoth echo behind me. We come to a wall with a door tucked in a corner, shimmering green and blue like veils of transparent fabric. I push through ripples of light that caress my face and arms. He follows.
We enter a room lit with indigo light, long and narrow, a ceiling so high it melts into darkness. People watch us from the shadows, but I can make out only vague shapes outlined in pale aqua. Behind us, the door has disappeared. The mammoth nudges me with his trunk, but I don’t need encouragement.
At the far end of the room, a green ball of vibrating plasma appears. It bounces as if on a string. I walk faster. The green ball expands, acquires shades of gold and pink, and then explodes, throwing light in all directions. A chair appears, with a high back and elaborate arm rests that resemble lion heads. Glimmering strands of green and gold light form into the shape of a woman with dark hair wearing a gown the color of a fine emerald. She laughs, a joyous sound that changes me. I shake myself, draining the last vestige of fear from my cells.
I take off running. With each step, more of my body melts into indigo light. Sparks of aqua shoot out my palms. My head lightens. Heat travels through my chest and belly and down my legs. Still flesh, but pulsing light, I run faster. When I approach a chasm in the floor separating me from the dark-haired woman, I push off with my toes and spring into the air.
My momentum increases as I remember how to fly. Airborne over the chasm, I fix my gaze on the woman in green. I know you, I tell her. I remember.
Her laughter is the last thing I hear before the rest of my body metamorphoses into light and the whole room opens to my vision.
Carol Holland March lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with a fairy cat and a demanding dog who gives her ideas for stories in exchange for long bike rides and occasional treats. Her stories have appeared in numerous online and print publications and her fantasy trilogy, The Dreamwalkers of Larreta, explores love and longing in the worlds beyond the veil. She teaches writing and creativity at the University of New Mexico and blogs at AWritersHeart.com
“How long has the program been running?” asked Han.
“Two and a half thousand rotations, give or take,” said Roen.
“How’s it going? I’ve been so busy elsewhere, sorry.”
“Nicely, though there is the problem of reproduction. It’s always preferable if they can maintain that on their own. Other than that, their existence is relatively peaceful, just small squabbles here and there, occasional down on the floor tussles and some long term grudges, but no serious bloodshed.”
“Form of government?”
“A queen, elected for her lifetime or unless she abdicates or becomes incapacitated. She chooses helpers; others are elected. She holds court to hear matters of general interest and problems and with the counsel of the helpers makes legal decisions. Things generally run smoothly. The culture is mostly agrarian.”
“What do you want to do about the reproduction issue? And I’m just curious – how are you handling it now? I mean, how do the inhabitants imagine they become pregnant?”
“A variation on the usual. The females are implanted. They believe that certain foods and spiritual practices cause this to happen.”
“Hmmm,” said Han.
“Well,” said Roen, “if I want the population to be physically self-sustaining, there is only one way. I will have to introduce males.”
“You will indeed,” replied Han. “Reset the game and let me know how it goes. I’ll return in a thousand or so rotations.”
* * *
“How’s going?” Han asked. “You look a bit worse for wear.”
“Not well,” said Roen. “I’m wondering if I’m really suited for this kind of work. You know I’ve had my doubts all along.”
“Nonsense. How do you think we all started out? Now rerun the game and show me what happened.”
“Well,” said Han. “I see what you mean. Introducing the males certainly changed the scenario. Didn’t take longer than ten rotations for the trouble to begin.”
“Well, sooner than that, actually,” said Roen.
“Minor things, fighting here and there,” observed Han. “However, rape and murder and all the more serious stuff took a bit longer.”
“And you can see how it all degenerated into mass murder and general mayhem. They call this ‘war.’ And they always claim they have a good reason for it.”
“Yes, I see. On the brighter side, there’s been a lot of building.”
“There is that. Look at this small city in particular. They’ve installed plumbing and rather excellent bridges. It’s pretty incredible.”
“And hospitals, I see,” said Han. “What did they do for illness before males and hospitals?”
“Don’t be fooled by the hospitals, Han. Their existence does not necessarily imply an improvement in healthcare. You wouldn’t believe the brutality and sadism that goes on in there. As is usual, the males have established a hierarchy with any attending females at the bottom. Since they have created a rigid class structure, they only treat those they consider on the top with a good degree of care and the rest, those they call “the lower orders,” they basically use for experimentation. They perform surgery when it’s unnecessary and often just for the pleasure of showing off. While a few lives have been saved, many others have died early deaths for no intelligent reason whatsoever. The females are often appalled but have little power to change the system.”
“How did the females maintain healthcare before the introduction of males?”
“They used herbs, poultices and various psychological/spiritual practices. Lives were saved, though many were not. In the ideal society, a combination of yin and yang methods would be applied but–“
“If things were ideal, Roen, which they never are. Do you want to reset?”
“I’m not sure.”
“How about I return after a few hundred more rotations and then you can decide?”
Roen agreed, though without feeling much confidence about anything improving.
* * *
“The males have invented vehicles with combustible engines,” Roen reported to Han when he returned. “Factories are spewing waste products into the atmosphere and we know where that ends up.”
The sight of Han was most welcome; it was lonely working by oneself.
“I see,” said Han, looking around at the ongoing game. He and Roen were able to stand anywhere inside it, unseen by the participants.
“The wars have accelerated with thousands more murdered or maimed. Primitive flying machines have been used in one case.”
“Anything positive to report?”
“Surgery and dental work have improved with better anesthesia and more lives saved, though the numbers do not match up to those killed in wars. The females weep to lose their children. Males have invented numerous laws to hold females in the males’ idea of their proper place, using fabricated religious rules. No matter what the religion, this is the result – subjugation of females.”
“And homosexuals? Or anyone else who does not fit into the dichotomy?”
“They are ostracized or even executed.”
“Are the females accomplishing anything much as far as the improvement of living conditions?”
“A few, yes, but their accomplishments are claimed by the males they work with and the public rarely hears about it.”
Han looked at Roen long and kindly. “You miss the days when-“
Roen sighed. “Oh, I do, I do. I can’t help it. It was so pleasant to watch my first creations and occasionally take on one of their forms to join in. To lie on the grass with flowers in my hair, stroking a cat, sipping spring wine. My inhabitants weren’t perfect – they were way too accepting of a lack of technological progress though they did make achievements in what some might call “magic” or the manipulation of natural processes. They kept things so …”
“I understand, Roen, but as you know, the whole point of birthing these civilizations is to see them grow and thrive on their own, not to keep them as pets. If you feel this current one is not working, then I suggest you reset and start over.”
Roen was silent while mulling this over.
“I will return in five hundred rotations,” said Han. “Do not grow discouraged. That’s an order.”
* * *
Roen hated to admit defeat but he knew when he was licked. After making a few adjustments, he reset everything. Back to square one, but this time he introduced males as physically smaller and weaker than the females.
He watched this new scenario with excitement, though after a while he experienced some degree of disappointment. When Han arrived, he was almost afraid to give his report.
“I sense a reluctance to begin,” noted Han.
“Well,” said Roen, “I admit I’m feeling lukewarm about the situation.”
“The females, in general, love and even adore males of their choosing, but reproduction runs at a slower pace than in the first reset. Females tend to run their own societies with males as second-class citizens as long as the males involved remain peaceful and somewhat passive. Since I did not remove the natural tendencies of the males, even thought they are physically smaller, a high percentage of them still strive to dominate each other or whomever they can, therefore creating the usual volleying for position whether females are involved or not.”
“And so….” encouraged Han.
“Since the physically larger females are less likely to allow themselves to be controlled either physically or emotionally by the smaller males, and since in some cases, they just tend to ignore or exclude them from important roles in society, the males often form groups of their own with infighting and then fighting with other all male groups.”
“How bad is this fighting? Are you referring to actual war as in the last scenario?”
“Yes. In a few cases, they used serious weapons and ended up burning villages uninvolved with the disputes.”
“Killing females again?”
“And the peaceful males who live with them.”
“Let me ask you this: what were the main occupations of the peaceful males?”
“Farmers, livestock managers, scientists – for the time period, of course – we are speaking here of a still primitive and mostly agrarian society but with small cities developing; architects, town designers, builders and inventors. Some doctors and artists.”
“How is that different from how peaceful males behaved in the first reset?”
“These do not dominate the females. They are not much involved in politics. The females don’t permit it. Should they try, they are told to leave and eventually locate the all male tribes. In some cases, these tribes kidnap smaller women and hold them captive as reproductive slaves. Their lives are, as you can imagine, hell.”
Han sighed. “What do you plan to do?”
Roen’s attitude had, Han noted, changed some. More experienced now, he was not so afraid to dive into the project and get his hands dirty. “I’m going to reset,” he said with some confidence. “There is no other option.”
* * *
Han, having issues of his own, did not return until more than a thousand rotations had passed. “I’m so sorry,” he told Roen. “A huge upheaval occurred, universes subjected to turmoil and reversals. I would have come sooner but it was impossible to get away.”
Roen didn’t seem perturbed. He wore the preoccupied look of a well-engaged professional. “I have it all going now, though it might be too soon to know if this new reset is going to work.”
“Tell me about it,” Han said.
“I just finished another reboot – you missed what happened.”
“I’m really sorry,” repeated Han.
“I am not trying to cause you to feel guilt. I just wanted to tell you what happened before I performed this new reset. I think I’ve got it now, but you need to hear what occurred in reset number three.”
“Well, I introduced normal sized males but with a female to male ratio of 4 to one. This kept the males somewhat in line as far as governing went but created other problems.”
“I can imagine,” said Han dryly.
“The males had to be shared for reproductive purposes and the females didn’t like it. They grew quite testy. Certain higher placed females in society hoarded males for themselves and their daughters. As a result, those males grew either conceited or exhausted and depressed. Few were allowed to develop their own interests and many tried to escape into the wilderness. Some enjoyed the pampering but those were few. A society that tries to keep any of its members down and unable to expand on and develop their own interests will just not work.”
Han smiled. “So, you’re just starting reset number four? What do you have in mind this time?”
Roen smiled. “Are you ready?” He was obviously pleased with himself.
“Quite,” said Han.
“There appear to be different mentalities in males, what could be called Alpha, Beta and whatever on down the range. I’m not sure what you’d call those who don’t do much of anything, just sit around drinking or smoking something in front of huts or general stores. There are always a lot of those around, but of the ones who contribute to society in a larger way, it boils down to Alphas and Betas.”
“Well, I am resetting to a scheme that will contain an equal amount of females and males but the males will all be Betas.”
“I like that,” said Han. “Would you mind if I stick around a while and watch how this goes?”
“Not at all,” said Roen. “Perhaps while we do so, we might drink or smoke something while sitting in front of a hut?”
* * *
After a few hundred rotations, Han, who currently was enjoying a cup of mead while disguised as his avatar, noted to Roen by a rigged up communicator device, “Have you noticed that the less intelligent females are frustrated? Apparently in past resets, they have been most attracted sexually to Alpha males, or possibly males who imagined they were Alpha, and now those females can’t find any? The Betas just don’t do it for them.”
Roen, currently disguised as an old female weaver, whispered into his communication device, which was attached to a bag of magical charms he wore around his neck. “Yes, that is definitely noted. While some Betas will use less intelligent females for sexual amusement, not many wish to mate with them permanently.”
“Consequently, those females are not reproducing much. When they do, their female relatives often support them, but they often enjoy no steady mates, male or female, which is not conducive to a healthy family life.”
“So,” whispered Han after taking another sip of his mead, “you’re predicting that eventually less intelligent females will die out? I have a question: wouldn’t the less intelligent females, even when mating with a Beta male often produce less intelligent males, which in turn might turn into Alphas?”
“I have,” said Roen, “set things to weed out those genes. But if a strong Alpha male should appear anywhere, I will remove him from the game. After a while, they will cease to appear.”
“And you will have a world of intelligent females and Beta males.”
“Yes,” said Roen.
“I do have a question.”
“I’m sure you have many,” whispered Roen in his old woman weaver guise. “Some people have seated themselves next door. I can listen but not speak so well.”
“Let them think you’re a crazy old woman who talks to herself,” joked Han. “My question is: when intelligent females and most likely intelligent Beta males run society, what would happen should a threat appear from outside? I mean, since without Alpha males, there wouldn’t be endless wars and destruction, who would lead to defend the society militarily should that threat actually call for war and destruction in return?”
“Good question, Han. But I’m not worried. You must realize that Beta males took part in great numbers in all the wars they were forced into and most likely often arose to leadership because of their steady, sane way of handling things and their quiet manner of using their brains instead of being led by testosterone. Who, do you imagine, in my first reset, unobtrusively built the ships and other vehicles that carried the explorers or warriors? Who, do you think were the ones quietly working in their studios on their inventions or painting their masterpieces? Mostly Betas, I am certain. And do not fear that a Beta will not pick up his sword should he need to in order to defend his family and land. Also, do not imagine that the females will not fashion extremely cunning weapons should the need arise. No worries, my friend. I believe this society is in good hands. Indeed I almost hate to leave it.”
“But leave it, you shall, Roen. I am a proud teacher and you have graduated. Let us pop out of the game, if we may, and I will tell you what’s in store for you next.”
“Next?” said Roen quite out loud, causing the women next door to look at the crazy weaver and whisper among themselves. Carefully, Roen gathered his belongings and stepped inside “his” little house from where he would vanish completely and the ladies would spend the rest of their lives wondering if the old weaver had been a witch.
* * *
Han and Roen met in their space as usual, far above the game, which was now running quite satisfactorily. “You may return to check on it now and then but in the meantime, Roen, your next assignment is ready.”
“Will it be similar to this one?” asked Roen with some trepidation.
“In some ways, quite similar,” said Han. “Though I have upped your difficulty level. This game will involve three sexes and five forms of intersex. Have fun.”
Margaret Karmazin’s credits include stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, The Speculative Edge and AnotherRealm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. Her story, “The Manly Thing,” was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award. She has stories included in several anthologies, including STILL GOING STRONG, PIECES OF EIGHT (AUTISM ACCEPTANCE), ZERO GRAVITY, DAUGHTERS OF ICARUS and SPACE BETWEEN STARS. She has also published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK.