He had trucked downstairs. The night was only beginning – like the night before – and the one before that. It was 7:54 p.m. Once a stripling in the full sway of manhood, he didn’t speak – just hauled off and descended the stairs.
In the kitchen, she had cleaned crumbs off the counter. Probably the fourth time that day – or was it the day, the month, the year before – the crumbs—accumulating through obsolete years. “Crumbs,” Thelma Louise said to herself. “Crumbs. Crumbs.” She remembered how Gretel had scattered crumbs, she and Hansel. It was a grim thought. God, I’ve heard of affairs that are strictly platonic.
“Oh, my god,” she said again – but this wasn’t a prayer, even though the gods had played a part in life’s determinations about the great beyond for thousands of years; she was, however, no Athena. There were bags under her eyes. Brown spots on her hands. Protruding veins. She finished wiping crumbs again. And again, she would swish the dishcloth under the faucet, depositing the tidbits in the sink before turning on the disposal. There were fruit flies on the watermelon.
He had trudged upstairs now—as was customary – night, noon, and morning. He held out his hand, giving a biscuit to the dog1 who was, as usual, lying on her pallet. It had a discriminating appetite though it had once been a stray, a rescue. Now it slept in Thelma Louise’s bed, and snored. Sometimes, she would take her foot and kick it, whereupon it would hop off for awhile and return again – jumping on the bed and nudging itself against Hans, her husband who would kick it again – and so the night passed – like the night before – and the dog, without actual proof of residency, felt now a true sense of hominess.
Now, an hour had passed. Bread was baking in the oven. She could smell it upstairs. “Nothing smells as good as homemade bread!” Thelma Louise exclaimed. “The staff of life,” even if from a 7-grain mix, and the crumbs, she would lick her fingers, savoring each dib and dab rich with salted butter—and she would lick each finger in turn—the index finger first, then the thumb – and then last, as usual, the ring finger with the wedding band she’d worn for sixty years. Soon it would be her Diamond Anniversary. “Crumbs,” and she started to sing, the tune emerging throatly:
I’ve heard of affairs that are strictly platonic
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
And I think affairs that you must keep masonic are better bets
If little pets get big baguettes,
Time rolls on and youth is gone and you can’t straighten up when you bend
But stiff back or stiff knees you stand straight at… Tiffany’s…
It was midnight now, and Thelma Louise couldn’t sleep. It was often this way, yesterday, the night before, the night before that. Time was not the shortest distance. The climate was changing; how, pray would it alter the eco-system? The children were grown and had flown the coop, and the cuckoo2 clock she’d bought in Germany years before; she was 19 then and had gone abroad a whole summer because her parents hadn’t wanted her to marry her college beau. Thought she might get interested in a swarthy Italian who would serenade her and take her on an all-night gondola ride. The clock, crumbs, it hadn’t worked for years—just sat there on the wall, the little bird on it’s perch, the door broken. “Crumbs,” Thelma Jean said—and she kicked the damn dog off the bed.
“Beast,” she screamed. It had scoffed not just one tablet, but a whole pill pot – the “rejuvenix” pills that would turn back the clock on aging; take each night before bedtime and wait for morning. Now no refills.
It is/ it was a traditional cuckoo clock with leaves and two lovebirds on top.
Sue Walker, M.Ed, MA, and Ph.D., is the publisher / editor of Negative Capability (Mobile, Ala). She was Poet Laureate of Alabama from 2003-2012 and Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama where she retired in July 2015. In 2013, she received the Eugene Garcia Award for outstanding scholarship by the Alabama Council of English and a Mellen Award for outstanding scholarship for her critical work on James Dickey, The Ecopoetics of James Dickey. She has received several Pushcart nominations and numerous creative writing awards for fiction, non-fiction, drama, and poetry. She has published eight books of poetry, numerous critical articles, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. She has spoken and given workshops throughout the U.S.A. and abroad. Sue is the President of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave.
Editor’s Notes: This is another experimental poem, with some hybrid structure, that at the very least subverts form while maintaining a prose disguise. The image is that of a traditional cuckoo clock that has been warmed, enhanced and vignetted.
Out past Pluto, a man waits in the dark
beyond the reach of any human touch.
His life support failing, he fights off dreams—
hypothermic; he can’t feel his own hands.
Tries to signal Earth, but isn’t alone
as he mutters “’Seph, I don’t want to die.”
The AI responds in his ear, “The die
has been cast, the radio has gone dark.”
They’d found her here, seemingly all alone
for millennia, her servers untouched,
her existence wrought by alien hands
left here to observe humanity’s dreams.
Shivering, low on air, he said, “I dream
every night of sunlit fields, but I’ll die
here, because I had to give you a hand.”
One of his shipmates, with intentions dark,
had, when they found her, paranoia-touched,
screamed at her, “Leave humanity alone!”
Martin had stopped the attack, him alone,
but the damage provoked an endless dream,
from which Persephone couldn’t wake. Touch
of skilled hands, fervent repairs. Not to die
his goal, and not allow her to go dark.
And while to these repairs he set his hands,
his shipmates retreated, gave him no hand.
They left for Earth, left him marooned—a lone
man without her voice for comfort. So dark
seemed his prospects, but he woke her from dreams
electronic . . . in time to see him die.
“Why did you stay?” she asked, programming touched.
“I couldn’t leave you that way. My heart’s touched,
or perhaps my head. I couldn’t just hand
you to oblivion, or let you die.
You’ve become a person to me. Alone,
I’ll remain with you, until I find dreams.”
“You will not go alone into that dark.”
Thus in the dark, he drifted into dreams.
Alone, but for her, he yearned for touch, for
hands she did not have; together they died.
— Deborah L. Davitt
Deborah L. Davitt has poems accepted or published by Star*Line, Grievous Angel, The Tanka Journal, and Three-Line Poetry, as well as a short story in Intergalactic Medicine Show and three novels, The Saga of Edda-Earth (Kindle Publishing).
Editor’s Notes: The poem, a sestina (see https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/sestina-poetic-form) where A = dark, B = touch, C = dreams, D = hands, E = alone, F = die), is disciplined with decasyllabic lines. The image is that of a cosmonaut uniform combined and superimposed with an artist’s concept of the Plutonium system. Concerning the latter, the perspective is from the surface of one of Pluto’s moons. Pluto is the large disk at center, right. Charon is the smaller disk to the right of Pluto. (Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon [STScI])
First there’s the drone of a foghorn;
the clumsy ship lumbers back
down the harbor, leaving you here.
Then the familiar suck
of clinging waves, the bray
of gulls; obscene, realistic,
as if there were fish bones to pick clean.
Your group laughs gaily;
you’re a merry troupe.
Your heels clip on polished tiles
as you go in, clutching stamped tickets.
It’s all very detailed.
In the hall of echoes,
protective coats removed,
you approach the first exhibit, listen
to the throating croak of toads;
their warning lost in translation;
the tisking chide and click
of delicate wings, the silky sift
of April rain falling in Kyoto.
You hear each acute drop as it soaks
the cherry blossom. Its branches rattle,
absorb the low thunder
of the bomb as it first drops
two hundred miles away—
of a single blade of grass
to which the ant clings as it rocks
back and forth, back
and forth; the spider swings
precariously in its web. The mist
of toxin has a tiny sound, too.
The web vibrates.
No one smiles.
Move on to a bloated bee,
velveted in petals, humming,
pollenating the curled sickly stamen
(remember the bees?)
Exhibit C’s an asphalt playground.
The little children run outside, even
at noon. There’s a silver-sounding bell
far away in the Himalayas. The scrape
of small skates on a lake.
Something falls away.
Your group moves readily on
to the hiss of biscuits and good country bacon frying;
the ache of a robin’s early song.
Rock and roll, artillery fire, prayers.
Still, there is the gnaw of old memory
as you near the exit. There is the exit.
Perhaps it’s just a dull whisper
in your head…but…
the faintest memory, when you
enter evergreen. The end
of snow. Trickling, the sap-drunk
bark and needle pop.
That white bear, laughably small,
(ridiculously small), sliding into the sea
then oddly, probably unrelated,
as you leave, you remember
a particular hot June day
on some wave-crashed beach of your youth;
that one very serious teenaged guard
explaining how most things actually
make no sound at all
as they drown.
— Celeste Helene Schantz
Celeste Helene Schantz has work which appears in Eye to the Telescope, One Throne Magazine, Mud Season Review and others. She was a finalist in the Cultural Center of Cape Cod’s Poetry Competition, judged by Naomi Shihab Nye, and was one of four finalists worldwide in a competition co-sponsored by Poetry International, Rotterdam and The Poetry Project, Ireland. She has twice been chosen as a participant by the author Marge Piercy for a juried poetry workshop in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. She lives in Upstate New York with her son Evan and is currently working on her first book of poetry.
Editor’s notes: The poem itself is a successful experiment in sound. The image, “Hall of Echoes” (by Matt Forsythe), is card art for the Forgotten Myths game
See the emperor, the water bearer and the warrior,
spiraling the spoked wheel of the cosmos again.
It is a sorrow-song; nothing but lost mythologies—
cartographies plotted in the faint pulse of electrons.
A marble finger points through drifted sand.
Empty turrets stare into winking stars.
Far away somewhere there’s the echo: an old tune
being sung in someone’s bright and golden hall:
Weep not for the darkness
but only for that darkness
of a planet which will
never know another song.
— Celeste Helene Schantz
Celeste Helene Schantz has work which appears in Eye to the Telescope, One Throne Magazine, Mud Season Review and others. She was a finalist in the Cultural Center of Cape Cod’s Poetry Competition, judged by Naomi Shihab Nye, and was one of four finalists worldwide in a competition co-sponsored by Poetry International, Rotterdam and The Poetry Project, Ireland. She has twice been chosen as a participant by the author Marge Piercy for a juried poetry workshop in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. She lives in Upstate New York with her son Evan and is currently working on her first book of poetry.
Editors Notes: The Latin title translates I too lived in Arcadia, which in the context of the poem, is a warning.
The Ghost of the Cepheus Flare (similar to the Astronomy Picture of the Day, Oct 31, 2011: “Spooky shapes seem to haunt this starry expanse, drifting through the night in the royal constellation Cepheus. Of course, the shapes are cosmic dust clouds faintly visible in dimly reflected starlight. Far from your own neighborhood on planet Earth, they lurk at the edge of the Cepheus Flare molecular cloud complex some 1,200 light-years away. Over 2 light-years across the ghostly nebula and relatively isolated Bok globule, also known as vdB 141 or Sh2-136, is near the center of the field. The core of the dark cloud on the right is collapsing and is likely a binary star system in the early stages of formation. Even so, if the spooky shapes could talk, they might well wish you a happy Halloween.”)
But a similar image is used here, a perfect celestial image to complement this poem. Its eerie effect with the greenish rendition (National Optical Astronomy Observatory)—Ghost Nebula, vdB 141: “This image was obtained with the wide-field view of the Mosaic Camera on the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. vdB 141 is a reflection nebula located in the constellation Cepheus. Sometimes referred to as the ghost nebula, its awkward name is its catalog number in Sidney van den Bergh’s catalog of reflection nebulae, published in 1966. Several stars are embedded in the nebula. Their light gives it a ghoulish brown color. North is down and East is to the right. Imaged August 28, 2009.” (Credit: T.A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF)
“Doctor Lynch, can you explain for the jury precisely how your machine works,” the prosecutor began. She had been waiting for this moment for the past seven months. After the investigation, the manhunt, the arrest, the pre-trial hearings, and the standard sets of objections and appeals, the stage was finally hers.
Due to the high profile nature of the crime and the sensitivity of the evidence being given, the judge ordered a closed courtroom, but the drones chronicling the events for the record and future public consumption zoomed in on the witness, as all twelve members of the jury and six alternates leaned forward in anticipation.
It was not just a pivotal moment in the course of the trial. It was, quite literally, the pivotal moment of human history. Thousands of scientists would kill to get even the smallest tidbit of information on the heavily guarded research. Lynch and Pillay might have hidden away the information for years had it not been for the assassination. Instead, Lynch was about to reveal the secrets of the universe to eighteen average citizens with absolutely no scientific background whatsoever.
Lynch cleared his throat, recalling at the last second Prosecutor Janey’s careful instructions during their months of coaching. He dropped his fluttering hands and folded them in his lap, nails digging into his flesh as he tried to calm down. Lynch had always been more comfortable in a lab or library than around people. It was one of the reasons he had become a researcher instead of a professor. He wished that his partner Niemah Pillay had been called up first. But Janey worried about jury bias and wanted testimony from an American male instead of a South African female, whom the jury might see as an outsider in a trial involving the assassination of the President of the United States.
Lynch licked his lips and cleared his throat again, “The device was built after my colleagues and I discovered the flaw in the Einstein-Rosen Bridge hypothesis. By solving the Kepler problem and redirecting the gravitational…”
“In layman’s terms please, doctor,” Janey interrupted kindly, eliciting smiles and nods from the jury. She and Lynch had practiced this dialogue. Both Lynch and Pillay were reluctant to share their discoveries, fearing that other, less ethically responsible parties, would replicate or surpass their research to calamitous results. Janey had assured them that the jury, a group which included an accountant, housewife, preschool teacher, gardener, and grocery clerk, would be unable to understand the precise physics of time travel. Nevertheless, she had coached Lynch to begin elucidating on the subject, just to establish authority. Then, he could give carefully worded examples clear enough for amateurs to understand.
Janey handed her witness the small cardboard box to demonstrate. Lynch nodded and began again, “There are four known dimensions.” He held up box, running a finger across the sides and center of the box, “The first three are easily seen—height, width, and depth.”
“The fourth dimension is time. Historically, we have moved in three dimensional space. You can walk forward or backward, jump up, fall down, and spin around,” Lynch manipulated the box as he spoke, and Janey was pleased to see the eyes of the jury glued on the object, following Lynch’s every minute motion.
“But,” he continued, “thus far, we have only been able to move forward with time.” He slid the box along the rail of the witness stand, pausing momentarily as he said the words, “through the past, present, and future.”
“What do you mean?” Janey asked.
Lynch wanted to sigh. He thought this would be clear, but she had insisted on a further explanation, “Well, I was born July 6, 2013 at precisely 6:07am.” He set the box to his left. “As I wriggled back and forth in my crib,” he twisted the box around, “time continued marching forward to 6:08, 6:09, and so on.”
He inched the box forward by small increments, “I went along in that time, but I could not break the flow of time to jump ahead to noon. Nor could I jump from 6:06am to the minutes before I entered the world.”
“But now you can?” Janey asked.
“Yes,” he replied, and the jury gave a collective jump of excitement.
“Can you explain how,” Janey inquired, “again in layman’s terms?”
“Our machine is able to move backward and forward in time,” he began.
“But not in space?”
“No. It moves along the fourth dimension,” he dragged the box against the railing again, “but it is unable to move up, down, or from side to side. Instead, once it is placed on a particular spot, we are able to observe past, present, and future events only in that singular location. This is somewhat similar to the old HG Wells’ novel , The Time Machine. The device is rooted to one spot.”
“And how are you able to move into the past or future unseen?” Janey’s voice quavered almost imperceptibly. She knew this would be the most complicated part of the scientist’s testimony, and desperately hoped the jury would be able to understand. If not, the case might be lost.
Lynch explained, “Once the device is engaged, our machine, the Tempus V, moves within a fifth dimension, outside of our own.”
He opened the cardboard box and drew out the cube that had been nested within. “Think of this as a location,” he held up the box and placed it on the railing. “And think of this as the machine,” he held the cube a few inches away.
“It’s there. We can see and hear everything on the box. We can even see the box in the future or in the present. But we can’t touch it or interact with it. That’s one reason the machine doesn’t move from side to side or up and down. It’s on a different plane of existence.”
“A different plane,” Janey echoed his last words, “So, to use another literary reference, you become like the ghosts in Dickens’ AChristmas Carol?”
Lynch’s muscles eased and he realized he had been holding his breath, “Yes. We are able to observe, but can neither be seen nor heard.”
“Objection, Your Honor,” Defense Attorney Cain cut in, sneering sardonically with each word she spoke. “Are we really supposed to believe that this man and his,” she paused, “friend, fly around time like some sort of zany spirits?”
Judge Denison looked down, annoyed that the ground-breaking testimony had been cut short. It was standard and almost obligatory to object at such a point, but the seasoned lawyer had to know that she was hurting her case by doing so. “As I stated before, Ms. Cain, there have been numerous government officials who have observed Dr. Lynch’s work. Their testimonies have been recorded, but is highly classified. We will have the opportunity to hear from Dr. Pillay as well, and the defense team will, of course, have the ability to cross-examine both witnesses. Motion is denied.”
Cain nodded and sat back down. The fact was that she did know she was hurting her case, but realized that her client had been found guilty in the hearts of the jury weeks before. She also knew that without at least the appearance of a rigorous defense, Arthur Westcott would have grounds for appeal. After reading over the prosecution’s evidence during discovery, Cain wanted him executed just as much as every person sitting in that jury box.
Janey rolled her eyes at the rapt jury and smiled as if they were sharing an inside joke at the defense attorney’s expense. Turning back to her witness, she said, “You were just explaining that your machine, the Tempus V, exists on a separate plane. Once you reach that plane, are you able to move about and examine the location further since you’re unseen?”
“No,” Lynch resisted the urge to shout, bile rising slightly in his throat. He had known the question was coming, but he still felt unprepared to answer. “Our understanding of the fifth dimension, of this separate plane, is still limited,” he paused now and took a drink of water from the cup sitting by the stand and looked again at Pillay, who was staring into her lap, teary eyed.
“Look, you’re talking about moving about in a completely unknown space. Maybe you could come back into the vehicle. Maybe. But more than likely, you would be trapped within that moment, able to move through time, but not up, down, back, or forth.” His voice rose slightly as he pulled the little cube along the rail, shaking it gently to show the tension in his hand, as if it were trying to move off the railing of its own accord.
He continued, “Without the normal earthly rules of time, your body and mind wouldn’t age the same way. You’d be somewhere in this fifth dimension completely disembodied from our world, unable to communicate with anyone on this plane of existence ever again.” Lynch winced, and the entire jury shuddered right along with him.
“Objection, Your Honor,” Cain stood again. “Isn’t this entirely theoretical? Can we please return to the facts of the case?”
Lynch’s mind moved away from the trial proceedings. It wasn’t theoretical. Not in the least, no matter how he was presenting it here. But only he, Pillay, and a handful of others knew about their former colleague Rikichi Okada, and he wasn’t about to dredge up that painful incident in front of a roomful of strangers who could never understand.
Okada had assisted with the creation of each one of the five Tempus machines. Tempus I and II were complete failures. The first fell apart once the circuits were started, and the second closed up in on itself, thankfully crashing to the floor instead of creating some irrevocable time rift. Pillay had wanted to quit at that point, but Okada was more reckless and daring, and he had convinced a still-curious Lynch to continue on in their research.
Tempus III and IV had been sent out on a trial run with only a remote video feed. Only static was recorded, but they believed the experiment to be successful. The three scientists built the fifth prototype and had agreed to accept the risks of time travel when they boarded the Tempus V. Unsure whether their theories on fifth dimensional space were correct, they kept the machine in the lab, strapped themselves in and moved forward ten years into the future. When the machine stopped whirring, they saw three students cleaning beakers and straightening papers. One of the students passed directly through them, completely failing to acknowledge their presence.
Pillay was horrified when they returned, completely shaken by the experience. Lynch suggested that they had been reckless in jumping into the vehicle themselves and recommended turning the project over to the university at large. The headstrong Okada who had insisted they continue experimentation. “We are the first and only known people to travel through time,” he proclaimed. “Taking such a journey is like Neil Armstrong walking on a moon of another planet two solar systems away before anyone else figured out space travel was even possible!” After much debate and discussion, Okada won the battle.
The research team continued in their secret travels for three months after their first successful excursion. The Tempus V was a small carbon and glass structure wired to receive sound, and so they were able to observe everything, though recording had proved unsuccessful. The vehicle had room for four people, should they wish to bring someone else on board, but was relatively light and easy to transport in the large moving van they had purchased expressly for that purpose. Still, they cautiously limited trips to locations around the small college town, covertly moving the machine from place to place only at night and travelling backward and never forward, having universally agreed that knowing too much about the future could be detrimental.
They were preparing to publish a highly restrained and abbreviated account of their research when Okada suggested they take one last trip. They had taken the machine to a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of town. Then, the team rolled the machine back to the previous morning and cheerfully observed parents sending their children off to school, dogs being walked, and mail being delivered.
Without warning, Okada had shouted, “I am not a scientist! I am an explorer!” Before the other two could stop him, he threw open the door and dove headlong out of the vehicle.
They quickly closed the door, and looked around wildly, hoping to see their friend moving like a ghost amongst the other citizens of the town. There was no sight of him. They waited for hours. They moved the Tempus V back and forth through time, thinking perhaps Okada might appear in either the future or the past. But he did not, and most likely could not return.
At last, they had to leave Okada behind, wherever he had gone. Upon their return to campus, they had contacted first the university president and then a number of top government officials to report and explain their colleague’s sudden disappearance. All parties concerned had agreed to classify their findings as top-secret and move their research to the Pentagon for security reasons. Under the guise of an alternate energy grant, the two scientists continued to secretly observe and record both mundane and pivotal moments in American history.
It was not until three years later, upon the death of President Ophelia Smithe that Lynch, Pillay, and their highly guarded research were violently thrust into the public eye. The two researchers had been dodging questions and living in near seclusion under a heavily protective guard ever since.
Janey interrupted Lynch’s thoughts with a sharp, “Would you like me to repeat the question, Doctor?”
Lynch cringed, shamed that his attention had wandered at such an important moment. Janey smiled warmly; she didn’t want to alienate her star witness. “Coming back to the matter of the defendant Arthur Alan Westcott, how did you arrive at the conclusion that he had murdered President Smithe?”
The scientist relaxed again. From this point forward, his statements would be limited to those of witness describing a crime. There would hopefully be little room for the jury to doubt this evidence. “To begin with,” Lynch eased back into his chair, steepling his fingers in front of his chest, “the praise must go to the Chicago police department and the FBI for all of their hard work.”
He paused as both Janey and the jury smiled. She had thought this bit necessary, both to elucidate the procedure and to establish Lynch as not just a knowledgeable witness, but a kind, relatable one as well. Back at the defendant’s table, Cain snorted derisively but did not object, and so he continued. “The forensics team first determined the trajectory of the bullets that pierced through President Smithe’s skull and person.”
“How were they able to reach those conclusions?”
“Objection,” Cain stood. “Is Mr. Lynch an expert in time travel, or an expert in forensics?”
“I’m an expert in physics,” Lynched blinked, affronted and speaking out of turn. “I assure you I can speak to both.”
Janey smiled at the unexpected interruption. Lynch was proving to be the best witness she’d ever had. “Your Honor,” she said, “the trajectory of the bullets led directly to Dr. Lynch’s eventual placement at the scene of the crime. And, as he stated, he is in fact an expert in physics and if he can explain the bending of time and space, he can surely describe the simple path taken by a bullet moving along a mere three dimensional plane.”
The jury stifled laughter and the judge’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly in amusement, “I’ll allow it.”
Janey motioned to the scientist to continue and he said, “There are a number of factors taken into account when concluding the origin of a bullet. First, one group inspected the bullets to determine the caliber. They also examined the angles at which the bullets had passed through the President’s podium and through the stage wall set up behind her. Meanwhile, doctors at the morgue examined the wounds in the President’s body to determine the angle at which they had entered her body. Finally, a third group studied footage from television cameras and phones taken during the event.”
“And yet, no one was able to see the origin of the shots?” Janey prompted.
“Correct. No cameras had been trained on that exact spot, but using this footage, the team was able to set up a dummy the exact height of the President in her exact location on the stage. From there, rods were placed from the dummy to the stage wall at the exact angle of entry. Finally, lasers were placed to show through the entrance of the bullets in the stage wall through the President’s body, and up into the buildings surrounding the square. At that point, it was determined that the shots had been fired from the roof of the Granchelli Building.”
“And that’s where you came into the picture?”
“Not quite. The area was inspected first by the brave men and women of both the FBI and the Chicago PD. According to their reports, which were testified to earlier, there was no physical evidence. The area had been completely cleaned. There were no footprints or fingerprints, no gunshot residue, no evidence that anyone had been up there.”
“So then you were called in to help?”
“Yes,” Lynch nodded. “Niemah, that is, Dr. Pillay and I were contacted by authorities and were asked to use the Tempus V to observe events and determine what had occurred.”
“And you agreed?”
“The President of the United States had been shot three days prior. The entire country was turned completely upside-down. Everyone was, and still are, shocked with grief. Of course we agreed,” Lynch finished his impassioned answer, and Janey repressed the urge to smile again.
“Tell us what happened next,” she said. Now that trust had been established and Lynch had the jury hooked, she gave her witness free rein to describe events as he saw fit.
“After all possible evidence had been collected and recorded, a helicopter brought Dr. Pillay, the Tempus V, and me onto the roof. After setting up the device, Dr. Pillay and I entered the vehicle. We then travelled backward to five minutes before the President’s death. From our location, we observed a blond middle-aged man dressed in a green polo shirt and blue jeans kneeling at the edge of the roof. He was holding a heavy barrelled sniper rifle with a high power scope.”
“Objection, Your Honor. Is the witness also a firearms expert?”
“Sustained,” the judge conceded.
Lynch tried again, “He was holding a large gun, which was later identified by a firearms expert who accompanied us on one of the later excursions.”
“So, the man was holding a gun at the edge of the roof where the bullet was determined to have originated from. What occurred next?”
“He fired five shots directly at President Smithe. The first two were fired off within seconds of each other. Both entered the President’s chest. She stumbled backward and a secret service agent dove in front of her, but the agent was unable to prevent the third bullet from entering her skull and piercing through her brain. The assailant moved his gun to a lower trajectory and the fourth bullet crashed through the podium, missing the President, but hitting a second Secret Service member, Agent Cody Michaels in the shoulder. The final bullet went wild and killed Melissa Evans, a five-year-old child standing in front of the stage,” he paused as members of the jury gasped, clutched hands to mouths, and shook their heads. The death of the young girl had engendered almost as much sadness and outrage as the death of the President.
“After Melissa collapsed to the ground in a pool of blood,” Lynch remembered to elaborate on this portion of the story, “the assailant took precisely thirty-nine seconds to disassemble the sniper…the weapon. He had been kneeling on a blanket placed on top of the rooftop gravel. After placing the weapon into a green and white gym bag, he pulled up the blanket and shoved that into the bag as well. He then proceeded out of the rooftop door and calmly exited the rooftop.”
“Can you identify the man you saw that day?” Janey asked.
“Absolutely,” Lynch said, pointing to the defendant. “He’s sitting right over there.”
“And did you identify him immediately?” Janey asked.
“No. After a number of observations, Dr. Pillay and myself along with several other attending witnesses worked with sketch artists provided by the FBI. Once a sketch was created, there was a manhunt for the suspect, which lasted eight days. After Mr. Westcott was apprehended, Dr. Pillay and I were brought in to identify the suspect. Separated from one another and brought in before independent police lineups, both she and I identified Arthur Westcott as the perpetrator.”
“Was there ever any doubt in your mind that Mr. Westcott might not be the person you saw that day?”
Lynch sat forward, “Ms. Janey, seeing him kill the President and that little girl once would have been enough, but my colleague and I observed the murder precisely forty seven times.” He paused as the jury gasped again.
Lynch turned away from Janey and looked directly into the eyes of every juror and every alternate one by one. His voice became slow and deliberate, “Forty seven times. From every angle imaginable. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the man we saw that day over and over and over again is the man who sits before us now.”
“Thank you, Dr. Lynch, for your clear and courageous testimony. Your work will have far-reaching implications not just on the outcome of this trial, but on the fields of science and history. No further questions at this time, Your Honor,” Janey said, taking her seat.
“Would you like to cross-examine the witness at this time, Ms. Cain?” the judge asked, hoping the lawyer would say no so that they could pause for a recess and he, like everyone else in the courtroom, could take time to fully digest the implications of Lynch’s testimony.
Unfortunately, the attorney replied with a terse, “Yes, Your Honor,” and approached the witness stand.
“Mr. Lynch,” she began.
“Doctor,” he cut her off.
“You’ve been calling me Mr. Lynch all afternoon. I have dual doctoral degrees in physics and astronomy. I would prefer being addressed by my proper title.”
“Doctor then,” she conceded, to the delight of the jury and the chagrin of her client. “Dr. Lynch, I am not going to question any of the observations you or your colleague made that day.”
“You’re not?” Lynch tried not to show the shock which was written all over his face.
“No,” she smiled, “instead, I’d like to focus on your theories of time travel.”
He resisted correcting her again, even though theories were unproven concepts and his beliefs on the rules of the space-time continuum had already been proven many times over. She continued, “First, could you explain why you are unable to move about in three dimensional space and why you are unable to be seen by anyone?”
“Asked and answered, Your Honor,” Janey objected.
“I think we could all use a bit more clarification,” Cain smirked.
“I’ll allow it,” the judge decided.
“Well, as I stated before, working fifth dimensionally, we are outside this plane of existence,” Lynch said. “So, first is the fact that within the realms of the fifth dimension, space and time do not…” he paused, searching for the right word, “bend to allow for horizontal or lateral movement. Beyond that, there are two theories of time travel, one of which presents significant complications if one were to be seen.”
“Can you explain?”
“The first school of thought states that the fourth dimension, that is to say time, is unyielding. In this case, any visit to the past and any interference therein would have almost no effect on present or future events. You could attempt to travel back to prevent your own birth from occurring, but would be unsuccessful.”
“Ah. I see, and the second theory?”
“The second school of thought states that time is highly viable. So that any small alteration, even the tiniest of changes, would have enormous repercussions on the future, possibly even causing an unalterable paradox which could theoretically tear the fourth dimension apart.”
“Yes. To draw from the earlier example. If you went back to prevent your own birth and were successful, you would not be born, nor would any of your children or grandchildren. Yet, you were the one to prevent the birth. So, you would be there to do it, but you would not be born to complete the task. This process of being born and unborn might loop, or might destroy a part of the universe in unimaginable ways.”
“And yet, you took the risk that this would occur, at least with your first journey?”
Lynch looked over to Pillay, wondering how much to say, “We knew that working within the fifth dimension, this would not be a possibility. However, as a precaution, we journeyed first into the future as any visit ahead of our time would not cause any sort of alteration such as I have described.”
“Except that you could then know the future,” Cain quipped.
“Objection, badgering,” Janey broke in.
“I’ll answer,” Lynch said, wanting to explain. The judge nodded and the researcher said, “Before our work was brought under the auspices of the federal government, we took only two trips into the future. Both journeys were within the confines of our laboratory, and both lasted less than three minutes.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Cain said. Waving a hand at an already rising Janey, she resumed, “Withdrawn, Your Honor. Now, Dr. Lynch, outside of these two excursions, you have traveled into the past on a number of occasions?”
“I’m afraid that’s classified,” Lynch said. Finally there was a question for which he had been prepared, and he hoped his answer would be the same for every other inquiry the prosecutor threw his way.
“I’m sorry, but this is a federal trial in the case of the assassination of a president. Surely, you should be as forthcoming as possible,” she pretended to be shocked, turning with mock horror to the jury.
“I have been advised to limit my answers to the events of that day,” Lynch said.
“You have been advised,” Cain murmured. “By Counselor Janey, I presume.”
“No,” Lynch said, actually shocking her this time. “By Vice President, sorry, by President Lopez.”
The jury broke out into loud murmurs and exclamations that did not cease until the judge banged his gavel, “That will be enough. Continue, Ms. Cain.”
“I see,” the prosecutor arched an eyebrow, playing the part, but again secretly pleased to see the case was not going her way. She had only one set of questions left and hoped Lynch would be able to refute them. There were weeks left to this trial, but everyone knew the verdict would be truly decided today.
“Are you familiar with multi-verse theory?” she inquired.
“Of course,” Lynch said. His hands began to flutter again with nervousness, and again he folded them in his lap.
“Could you explain it for the jury?”
“In layman’s terms?”
“Of course,” she inclined her head
He turned to the jury, “The theory of the multi-verse proposes that there are parallel universes all existing in different planes of existence. According to these theories, some of these universes are nearly identical to our own. Others may follow entirely different laws of physics.”
“So there could be an earth without gravity?” the prosecutor asked.
“Or there could be an earth with a carbon copy of myself asking you these very same questions?” she probed.
“Possibly, again, theoretically. Unlike our theories on time and time travel, the theory of parallel universes has yet to be proven,” he looked directly into her eyes.
“And yet, don’t many researchers believe that there are at least ten or eleven of these parallel universes?” she asked, staring right back.
“They did,” he said.
“Or, at least, they still might, until Dr. Pillay and I present our findings.”
“I see. Let’s imagine for a moment though that you’re wrong about this theory. Isn’t it possible that the man you and your friend saw on the roof that day was not my client? Isn’t it possible that it was another Arthur A. Westcott living a parallel life in one of ten or eleven or even a hundred other dimensions?”
“No,” Lynch stated.
“And why not?” Cain leaned in toward him.
“Because if other universes existed within the fifth or sixth or tenth dimensions, we would be able to move around within them. Almost like astronauts coming into the moon, we would be able to come into those worlds, be seen, walk around, and interact among the people there. This, we are unable to do.”
“I see,” Cain pretended to look disappointed. “And could you tell us whether you’ve ever tried to do such a thing, to test out this particular hypothesis?”
“We have, but the details are classified,” Lynch took another drink of water, thinking again of the reckless Rikichi Okada and the memorial service they’d held for him back in his hometown of Takayama, Japan. He, Pillay, and Vice President Lopez had flown in on Air Force Two for the solemn occasion. The Vice President gave an impassioned speech about the dedication and sacrifice of the researcher while standing in front of a coffin that could never be filled. Besides the assassination, the empty coffin was the one image which would never leave him.
“I see,” Cain said again, looking defeated. “One final question. Why forty seven times?”
“I’m sorry?” Lynch’s brow furrowed.
“You stated previously that you and Dr. Pillay returned to the scene of the crime forty seven times. Why forty seven? Or is that classified as well?”
“No. It’s not classified,” Lynch said, reaching up a hand to massage the space on his forehead between his eyes, where a migraine was beginning to form. “The original plan was to observe the event one hundred times.”
Cain pounced, “And yet, you stopped short at forty seven.”
Lynch looked up, “It came down to PTSD. We were all developing it. Witnessing a murder once is horrifying enough. To see it over and over again and from every angle as I said before… Well, the scene was shocking, as anyone who saw it in person or in the media knows. We observed it as often as we could. By the time we arrived at that number, more journeys and observations didn’t seem necessary, and no one at the FBI, CIA, or Pentagon felt that we should put ourselves through any further distress than was necessary.”
“The trauma of seeing a beloved leader and an innocent little girl getting shot over and over again without being able to do anything about it,” Lynch rasped, holding back tears. “Once would have been enough. Ten times, more than enough. Forty seven was excessive. We were seeing it in our sleep, in our daydreams, every time we closed our eyes to blink. We didn’t need to see it again.”
“I see,” Cain repeated. She retreated, head bent down toward her shoes as she returned to her table. Her posture was one of defeat and the jury could guess her words before she even uttered them, “No further questions, Your Honor.”
Judge Denison looked to Janey, “Redirect?”
“We don’t feel there’s a need, Your Honor,” Janey said, standing tall and triumphant.
The judge nodded, “We’ll break for today, then and reconvene tomorrow.” He banged his gavel and at the sound, Lynch gave a sigh, wanting to cry tears of relief that he could begin putting this tragedy behind him.
◊ ◊ ◊
The next day, Niemah Pillay was called to the stand. Her description of their research and eye-witness statements were a formality, since her testimony was almost identical to her colleague’s. The trial was paused that Saturday and Sunday, but resumed the following Monday with testimony from Derek Tamworth, the lead investigator on the case. The courtroom was still closed to everyone except those involved in the case. Typically, witnesses were excused from the courtroom to preserve the authenticity of their testimony. In this momentous trial, all the usual rules seemed to have exceptions. Seated in the gallery seats, Lynch and Pillay observed the proceedings, ready and willing to return to the witness box, if necessary.
Under Janey’s direction, Tamworth again covered the territory begun by Lynch and Pillay, describing the forensics of the bullet trajectories in more detail, and using diagrams to explain how they had made their final determinations. After several hours of testimony the jury had already heard and understood, it was at last Cain’s turn to question the witness.
“Deputy Director Tamworth,” Cain began her cross, “isn’t it true that you had absolutely no physical evidence in this case prior to bringing in Drs. Lynch and Pillay?”
“Yes. That is correct.”
“And isn’t it true that even after the eye witness testimony, there was no further corroborating evidence pointing to my client as the perpetrator of this horribly tragic crime?”
“No. That is incorrect,” Tamworth said.
“Oh, so there were records of Mr. Westcott buying a rifle?”
“Or, perhaps there were witnesses who saw him receiving firearms’ training, or accounts of any gun clubs he might have joined or firing ranges he might have visited.”
“And, as you stated before, there were no fingerprints, fibers, DNA, or other pieces of evidence tying my client to the crime scene?”
“That is correct.”
“So, could you tell us just precisely what this other evidence consisted of?”
“There were psychological indications that Westcott was guilty,” he held up a thick calloused hand to ward off her objections before she could make them. “I know, I know. I am not a psychological expert. They’re not due in for another week or two, I’ve been told. So, I’ll just stick to the hard physical evidence within my realm of expertise. In terms of actual physical evidence, we had several suspects after the artists’ renderings were released to the media. However, within all the crackpot calls and tips on individuals with solid alibis leading nowhere, Westcott’s name kept reappearing.”
He cleared his throat and continued, “After questioning peers, family members, coworkers, and neighbors, it was clear that Westcott did not have an alibi during the afternoon of the incident. Based on those interviews, we were able to obtain a warrant, which we used to search Mr. Westcott’s home and office.”
“And in your searches did you find a weapon of the type described by Dr. Lynch and Dr. Pillay?”
“No,” Tamworth admitted, “but we did find clothing that matched their description.”
“That would be Prosecution’s Exhibit E?”
She held up the clear plastic bag containing the shirt and pants in question. Lynch, who had not seen them since the repeated day of the assassination, sat forward in his seat in the second row of the gallery, squinting at the shirt beneath the plastic. “This pair of pants and shirt?” Cain asked the obligatory question.
“The very same,” the man nodded.
“And were you able to read the labels on the clothing in question?”
“And where did those labels identify the clothing as coming from?”
“The jeans were Levis and the shirt was from Lacoste,” Tamworth mispronounced the brand name.
“And are you aware that these are the most common cut of Levi jeans? Or that this shirt is two years old, and that two years ago the Lacoste Company produced 25,000 shirts of the same size and color that year?”
“No. I was not aware of that,” Tamworth said, “I am not an expert on fashion. All I can say is that the clothing described by the two witnesses was found in your client’s closet, a man who matched their description exactly. At the point we found the items in his wardrobe, we made our arrest.”
“So, you arrested a forty-five-year-old school teacher with no evidence of firearm training and no history of violence on the basis of a commonly produced polo shirt and an even more commonly produced pair of jeans?” Cain sneered.
“Yes,” Tamworth admitted again, “and then after the arrest, the perpetrator was identified by both witnesses.”
“After you had spoken to them?” Cain attempted.
“Absolutely not. In a case as important as this one, we wanted to follow everything according to the book. After their work at the crime scene and their eye witness statements, they were kept in isolation both from the other investigators and from each other. Then, each was brought in separately to view the lineup and make identifications with yourself, your paralegal, and your independent investigator as witnesses for the defense. There were no violations here, Ms. Cain.”
“Thank you,” Cain said. “No further questions.”
“Redirect?” Judge Denison asked.
“Not at this time, Your Honor,” the prosecutor smiled, standing tall once again.
“Then we’ll take a break for lunch, and pick up with testimony in one hour,” the judge banged his gavel and the jury exited the courtroom.
As soon as they were out the door, Lynch and Pillay began whispering to each other fervently. She was violently shaking her head, but he pointed again to the bag and then to Janey, and at last, she shrugged, seeming to give in.
“We need to talk,” Lynch tapped the prosecutor’s shoulder.
“Here?” she inquired.
“Better to do it in your office,” he eyed one of the drones buzzing nearby.
She followed his gaze and nodded. Once they were seated in the quiet privacy of Janey’s office, Lynch said, “We never saw the other evidence before today.”
“Your point is?” Janey was tired and annoyed at this impromptu meeting so late in the game.
“That’s not the shirt.”
“What?” she tried not to shout, in case someone outside could overhear them.
“That’s not the shirt,” Lynch repeated as Pillay sat silently next to him, looking at the floor and shaking her head.
“How can you be sure?” Janey whispered.
“The logo on the breast of the shirt. I saw it through the bag. It’s an alligator.”
“Yes. That’s the standard logo for that company,” she replied.
“When we saw the murder, it was a penguin,” he said.
Janey froze, “Are you sure?”
“Forty seven times,” he reminded her. “Each time, it was a penguin.”
“But surely, he might have worn a different shirt, perhaps even bought an almost identical one after the crime,” Janey turned to gaze out her window, speaking more to herself than to either of her witnesses.
“Maybe,” Lynch said, “but it’s their only piece of physical evidence, surely…”
“Surely, he purchased a second shirt, Mr. Lynch,” Janey whipped back around, glaring at him sternly.
“That could be the case, but you don’t understand,” Lynch fumbled. “The multi-verses the prosecutor was talking about could…”
“I don’t want to hear it, Mr. Lynch, and neither will the jury. I see no reason to bring this to Ms. Cain. Discovery concluded long ago…”
“But this is new evidence,” Lynch tried again, wishing Niemah would jump in.
“This is a theory speculating that Mr. Westcott may have worn a different similar shirt the day of the crime,” she said and turned her attention to the silent Niemah. “Dr. Pillay, do you recall the shirt in question?”
Niemah shrugged, refusing to lift her gaze from the floor. Witnessing the assassination had been traumatizing, and now that her testimony had concluded, she didn’t want to talk about the incident ever again.
“Do you recall identifying the murderer from a lineup including nine other nearly identical men?” the prosecutor pushed.
“Yes,” the researcher squeaked.
“That settles it,” Janey brushed her hands together. “We shall assume that if Dr. Lynch is correct about the appearance of the attire, after the murder, Mr. Westcott stripped of his clothing, disposed of said clothing in whatever location he also hid the gun, and purchased a similar shirt to replace the one missing from his wardrobe.”
“But certainly, you could easily check with his wife to confirm the shirt had altered,” Lynch stammered, as Janey stood and ushered them toward the doorway, indicating they were done.
“And you could easily become the laughingstock of the scientific community,” she retorted, opening the door and practically throwing them out.
Lynch stood in the hallway staring as the lawyer quietly closed and then locked her office door. He looked to his colleague, stunned, “Niemah, you know I’m right. We have to go to the defense team with this.”
“Drop it, Gary,” Pillay replied. “We did our part, and we did our best. Let’s just leave it. We can even abandon the research. Go back to the university and start on something new.”
He shook his head, unable to fathom such a possibility. Abandon the research? The research was everything. “I’m going,” he squared his shoulders.
“Then you’ll have to go alone,” she turned and walked away.
Lynch was unsure how to approach the other attorney, and wondered whether witnesses were allowed to confer privately with the other side. He didn’t know what the rules were, but at this point, he didn’t care. He waited in the hallway outside of the conference room Cain and the rest of her team occupied, wondering when she might emerge. He didn’t have to wait too long as the defense attorney came out of the room alone ten minutes later. She was pushing open the door to the ladies’ room when he intervened. “We need to talk,” he said.
Shaken, Cain said, “I shouldn’t be…”
He cut her off, “Alone. Now!”
She pulled him into the bathroom, locking the door and carefully opening each stall to ensure no one could overhear their conversation.
“What?” Cain’s hands were shaking worse than his had been earlier.
“The multi-verse theory you mentioned earlier?”
She nodded and he continued, “There was one other flaw I didn’t mention.”
“What?” she asked again, her heartbeat quickening.
“Flaws, changes from one parallel universe to the next. You said it yourself, one carbon copy of you asking the same questions, another world in which gravity doesn’t exist.”
“Right,” she raised an eyebrow.
“Under that theory, in each universe, there would almost by necessity need to be at least some small infinitesimal changes in each dimension. For example, if true, there could be another me, exactly the same as myself, only with blond hair instead of brown.”
“I see, and did you observe any of these differences in any one of your forty seven trips to the crime scene?”
“No,” he admitted, feeling as if he were under cross examination again.
“You said the multi-verse theory was impossible,” she stated.
“We had a colleague whom we lost when he tried to move within the other dimension. We thought he was gone, but if the theories are correct, it’s possible he’s moving between each universe, or that in moving laterally, he landed in a separate dimension, a different parallel world we couldn’t see.”
“Doubtful and difficult to either explain or understand,” Cain said.
“But Westcott’s shirt,” Lynch exclaimed, “I saw it before. It’s different now. When we saw it on the roof, it had a penguin logo on the breast. Today in court, I saw that the logo on the shirt in evidence features an alligator. If those theories of multiple universes are correct, it could mean that Dr. Pillay and I observed a completely different parallel world in our travels. In those worlds, anything could be possible. There could be a world in which Arthur A. Westcott might be named Arthur B. Westcott. A world in which the mild mannered school teacher and father of three has no children, or has the same family, but homicidal tendencies, or had a different upbringing, or…”
“Or, a world which is precisely our own in which Mr. Westcott simply discarded the shirt along with the sniper rifle,” Cain interrupted.
“That’s exactly what Janey said,” Lynch was shocked that both women had arrived at the same conclusion.
“So you told her,” Cain tilted her head. “What did she say?”
“She told me to keep quiet,” Lynch admitted.
“She was right,” Cain smiled at the man’s wide eyes and gaping mouth. She had shocked him for once.
“She, she, she…” he stammered again. “But, the evidence. You said it yourself. It’s the only piece and if it’s wrong, if I’m wrong…”
Cain held up a hand to stop him again, “What you’re telling me could be enough to cast reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. Your testimony is what won the prosecution’s case. If you back down or change your story now, it will throw everything off track.”
She leaned forward, causing Lynch to retreat, his back against the door of the bathroom stall. Cain continued whispering, “If you’re wrong, then that still means that some Arthur Westcott in some world somewhere out there murdered the best president this country’s ever seen and took a five-year-old girl down in the process. And someone is going to pay for that. And I don’t have Arthur B. or Arthur C. or Arthur fucking Z. in that courtroom. I’ve got Arthur A., and he’s the only perpetrator this universe is ever going to see. And I’m going to make damned sure he’s punished for the crime, no matter which version of him actually pulled the trigger.”
“But you’re his lawyer!” Lynch cried.
“Wise up, Mr. Lynch. Arthur Westcott is a psychopath and a murderer and not one person in this whole damned country is on his side, including me.” She unlocked the door. “And this conversation never took place.”
For the second time that afternoon, Gary Lynch found himself thrust out into the hallway, alone and desperately questioning every decision he had ever made.
Neither he nor anyone else needed a time machine to determine what was going to happen next. The prosecution whipped through witness after witness including three more forensics’ experts and a bevy of psychologists and psychiatrists, all testifying to the fact that Arthur A. Westcott was a dangerous psychopathic murderer who had shot down President Ophelia Smithe in cold blood, and had maliciously kept firing, injuring a valued Secret Service agent, and murdering an innocent little five-year-old in the process. Then came the pack of other eye-witnesses including Vice President, now President Thomas Lopez, the injured Secret Service agent, Cody Michaels, and Melissa’s parents, each of whom wept throughout their entire testimony.
But, as both lawyers had surmised, it had been Lynch’s testimony that had condemned the man. The rest was all nearly routine. By the time the trial was done, the jury reached a verdict in just under eight minutes, though they waited a respectable seven hours before revealing their decision to the court, wanting to seem as if they had truly deliberated. Westcott was convicted and, in a move that defied the traditions of the American legal system, he was executed for the crime less than six months later, the American people almost unified in their cry to see him punished.
The day of the execution, Lynch and Pillay silently dismantled the Tempus V and erased all of their research. For extra measure, they destroyed the computers beyond repair and then set about first shredding and then burning all traces of paperwork. Neither one spoke of time travel, the assassination, or their doubts ever again, but neither one ever had another night of uninterrupted sleep either.
Until the end of his days, Lynch’s dreams traveled back to the day of the assassination and he watched Westcott from every possible angle as the logo on the man’s chest flickered and changed from penguin to alligator and back over and over again.
Megan E. Cassidy’s young adult novel Always, Jessie will be published by Saguaro Books this spring. Other short stories and essays have appeared in Pilcrow and Dagger, Wordhaus, and Gilded Serpent Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Brockport and us an Assistant Professor of Literature and Writing at Schenectady County Community College.
Right in the middle of breakfast, my telecommunications console beeped at me, “Amy, you have a priority 3 message.” It was a notice from the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service, something I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. A recent story submitted by one of my creative writing students had a 95% percent plot match and a 67% text match with “A Green Thumb for Martha” by Janine McConnell, published eighty years ago in The Best American Short Stories of 1947.
At the turn of the 21st century, student plagiarism had gotten so bad that Tucson Community College contracted with Platt to screen all student papers submitted for class credit. First-year screening results were disturbing, and TCC began requiring all students to submit their papers electronically through a server that automatically checked for plagiarism. After a rash of student suspensions, the number of cases dwindled dramatically.
I brought up the eighty-year-old story from the Google Scholars Library. The original story described the aftermath of the combat death of a husband during World War II and the gradual recovery of the widow through gardening. In my student’s story, “La Jardinera”, the Hispanic widow of a Marine killed in the Middle East War is treated for depression at her local community health center using horticultural therapy.
The only real plot change in “La Jardinera” was the historical difference. For Martha the constant victory celebrations and triumphalism following World War II worsened her sense of loss. In “La Jardinera”, Dolores is depressed by the defeatism and self-recrimination following the US withdrawal from the Middle East and that region’s subsequent plunge into chaos, making the loss of her husband even more acute.
I called the Office of Academic Integrity and asked to borrow the computer-lock program. It was an extreme measure, but it was the only way to tell who or what had perpetrated the plagiarism.
I always took the outside route from my office in Sentinel Peak to the creative writing class over in Santa Catalina—no matter how hot it was. The thirty-year drought was finally over, and we’d had big thunderstorms each of the last three afternoons. It was 103 degrees; the dew point was over 70. This time of year I lived in conditioned air all the time. I liked to get out in the real thing, even if it made me sweat, so I could re-establish myself as a human being—not that my students would appreciate this.
I felt the chill of the conditioned air evaporating the perspiration from my damp clothes when I entered the Santa Catalina building. I passed the information desk and went down the dead-end corridor to SANCAT G28. The door was open; fifteen plasma screens glowed in the dark.
I had always known computers, expert systems, artificial intelligence would affect the way creative writing was taught. I expected to be replaced by a supercomputer program containing the wisdom of all the creative writing instructors since the beginning of time. But in a plot twist that would make William Trevor proud, the intrusion of artificial intelligence into creative writing turned out to be, not in instruction, but in creative writing itself. Now, twenty years after Brutus.1 produced the first published literary short story, most people had stopped writing their own fiction. Prospective authors purchased high-end computers with an artificial intelligence chip and one of a half-dozen creative writing programs. Creative writing instructors like me, if we wanted to stay employed, enrolled in the Microsoft’s artificial creativity technician certificate program, after which we could begin training computers to produce stories with plots and characters chosen by the author.
Some of my students were running their screen savers, the problem of plasma screen burn-in having never been solved. Others were running search programs on different databases. Dell-Blue was displaying some kind of engineering database; I could see the schematic designs and data tables flashing by. Dell-Blue wrote science fiction. Images of dissected human body parts were racing across HP-Red’s screen, probably background for its pathologist-detective novel. Toshiba-Mauve’s screen showed text that looked like Cyrillic, poetry from the formatting.
Unlike my former human writing students, computers weren’t programmed to be suspicious. I logged in and instant-messaged Sony-Green, the student that submitted “La Jardinera”.
Green, I have an old DVD of Captain Blood with Errol Flynn. I thought you might like to look at its dialogue for your historical novel, I said.
Thank you, Amy. Sony-Green opened its DVD drawer and I inserted the disc. The DVD indicator light came on and immediately the screen flickered. Sony-Green’s firewalls tried to prevent infiltration by the computer-lock program, but TCC computer services had installed a Trojan horse in its communications software for just such instances. In another ten seconds, the flickering screen turned a pale green and the hard drive indicators showed that Sony-Green’s drives were being scanned.
Sony-Green has a malfunction today and won’t be able to participate in class, I instant-messaged the rest of the class. I disconnected Sony-Green’s cable. When we finish, please send Green a transcript of the class so it won’t fall too far behind. About halfway through the class, the computer-lock program ejected the disc from the DVD reader and initiated a shutdown of Sony-Green. I retrieved the disc; the other students never noticed.
Although their grammar and punctuation were always perfect, the computer writers, just like the old human writers, often had problems with character development. True, if you needed a paedophile in your story, the computers would search the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit script database to find a paedophilic character of the appropriate age, race, occupation and social class. Where the human writer would have given a flat or inconsistent portrait of a paedophile, the computer writers would produce an overly clinical character, lacking spontaneity.
Of course, I was thankful for this defect in the current generation of the creative writing software; without it I’d be a sixty-six years old widow greeting customers at Wal-Mart or flipping tofu burgers at McDonalds. Although artificial creativity had its critics, there was something to be said for the politeness and predictability of training computers to write creatively. When I was younger, I could handle the stress and turmoil of human writers. Let’s face it, they weren’t society’s best-adjusted members. And artificial creativity brought a tremendous increase in productivity; my computer students could easily produce ten polished stories in a semester, where human students struggled to produce a couple of first drafts.
The main critique of the brave new world of artificial creativity was that it spawned a tidal wave of well-formatted, closely spell-checked formulaic writing of mind-numbing monotony. Personally, I felt badly about not being able to keep up with, or even stay focused on, the 150 short stories my workshop of computer students would write during the semester. No story written by a computer student was ever as bad as some of the drivel I’d received from the worst of my old human students, but in over a decade of humanizing computer writers, I hadn’t seen that spark of genius when a human student wrote well about something close to her heart.
But now, with the collapse of Social Security following the 2020 reforms and the evaporation of my 401(k) retirement account in the double-dip of the Great Recession in 2019, I was going to be working right up to the day before my funeral. The authors who enrolled their artificially intelligent computer writers paid the tuition that paid my salary. Tucson Community College had terminated employee health benefits a decade ago, and I needed every penny I could earn to pay for the twenty-seven prescription drugs and dietary supplements I took every day.
After class, Julio, Sony-Green’s author, stopped by to pick it up.
“Professor Scribner, why is Green turned off?” he said.
“There’s a problem with the last story Green submitted. I had to use the computer-lock program.”
Julio looked at the copy of the e-mail on my iPhone, and I told him the Office of Academic Integrity would contact him. I dropped off the computer-lock disc at the OAI. Back in my office, the latest story revisions from my computer students were ready; they only needed an hour to process the transcripts of the class and make appropriate revisions to their stories. I transferred them into my iPhone, closed my backpack and left for the bicycle parking lot.
The ‘victory’ over insurgents in the Middle East two years ago left gas prices hovering around $75 per gallon, and I couldn’t afford to drive my fourteen-year-old Prius hybrid except on special occasions. Fortunately, I lived close to campus. I rode home on my three-wheel Geezer-Trike with intelligent stabilizers to prevent tipping and falling.
The next morning Academic Integrity e-mailed, asking me to stop by the office. Something was wrong. I’d never been asked to stop by the office before; always I’d received a copy of the analysis indicating that the author had added certain story elements on a particular day or days along with the references to the plagiarized story elements. Of course, I hadn’t had a case of plagiarism since human enrollment in my creative writing course ended over a decade ago. When I arrived at Academic Integrity, the assistant led me immediately into the Director’s office.
“Amy, thanks for stopping by. Something unusual has happened,” the Director said.
“Don’t tell me. The author wasn’t responsible for the plagiarism?”
“It looks that way. There is no evidence of author interference. The author specifications for plot and character are quite general,” the Director said.
“Isn’t Sony-Green running StoryExecutor 17.3? There must a half a million people running the program. I’ve never heard of a verified case of programmatic plagiarism before,” I said.
“Neither have I, but did you know your student computer was also being trained at the University of Scottsdale?” the Director said. “There is a fellow at the U of S Tucson campus who offers a course in creative writing. We found a couple of files from his class on Sony-Green’s hard-drive.”
“Zane Goodman. He knows as much about creative writing as I do about astrophysics,” I said. “I had an author who enrolled his computer in my class for a couple of years who wasn’t making much progress humanizing his computer. He moved it over to the Goodman’s course and boasted to the other authors how much better his writing had become.”
The Director smiled. “We found evidence of a hidden module. The program doesn’t appear in the file allocation table. It’s probably opened by the main writing program, but we don’t know how it works. The source code is encrypted, and we can’t decipher it. Maybe when the main writing program is activated, the source code for the hidden file is compiled at some remote site and downloaded into a temporary file that causes the main writing program to plagiarize. We sent it over to the computer science lab at the University of Arizona. We were wondering if you would test the program?” the Director said.
“Me test it? I’m no computer geek.”
“No, but you might be able to see some patterns the computer geeks can’t,” the Director said.
A day later I was staring out my office window at a thunderhead gathering around Pusch Ridge, having made no progress figuring out how the mystery file might be affecting the StoryExecutor program. I called Julio.
“Julio, good news. You’ve been cleared of responsibility for the plagiarized story.”
“I’m sorry for the problem my computer caused. I’d never even heard of ‘ A Green Thumb for Martha’ before this happened,” Julio said.
“Don’t worry. I just wanted to ask you about your creative writing course at the University of Scottsdale. How’s your writing going over there?”
“Actually, it’s going great—at least until now. I enrolled my computer there after Dexter Ewing told me how much better his computer was writing after he transferred. U of S is more expensive than TCC, but my stories seem to have come alive. Frankly, I have been hanging on at TCC because your recommendation will carry more weight when I apply for the creative writing MFA program at Cal State-North Beach,” Julio said.
“I just wondered what I might do to help my other TCC students get the same results you are getting at the University of Scottsdale. What’s different there?”
“It’s funny. I don’t see many differences at all. The exercises Professor Goodman designed for our computers are nearly the same as yours,” Julio said, “although Professor Goodman does make a big deal about sleeping on our stories.”
“What do you mean?”
“We kind of have a little ritual we have to go through. Professor Goodman says it’s like the rituals insomniacs use to get themselves psyched up for sleep. We write out our plot and character elements longhand, and just before we go to bed we enter them into the computer; then we both sleep on them,” Julio said.
“Me and my computer,” Julio said.
“You leave your computer program running all night?”
“Right, I hook it up to the class network and let it run. I get up in the morning, and I have a great new story to work on,” Julio said.
I thanked Julio and called the Office of Academic Integrity to ask the Director to arrange for the TCC computer center to monitor my home IP address for the next three nights.
I picked three short stories in The Best American Short Stories of 1940, a few years older than Janine McConnell’s “A Green Thumb for Martha.” The stories meeting my criteria needed to be very distinctive so that the plagiarism would be obvious.
◊ ◊ ◊
The semester was nearly over before the Office of Academic Integrity received all the necessary bureaucratic clearances to host a meeting with Zane Goodman and his superiors from the University of Scottsdale Tucson Campus. I was anxious to get the meeting over with. The Director faxed the University of Scottsdale a copy of the report his office had put together with my assistance. At 10 am the contingent from the University of Scottsdale arrived at the TCC Chancellor’s conference room. I recognized Zane Goodman and guessed that the first gentleman in the five-hundred-dollar suit was the dean of arts and letters for the Tucson Campus. I wondered about the third gentleman in the fifteen-hundred-dollar suit with the Rottweiler expression and the gold Rolex; not even the TCC chancellor could afford to dress like that.
The guests were shown into the conference room. The U of S Dean spoke first, introducing himself and Zane Goodman. He turned to the third gentlemen and said, “This is Forest Nails. He’s the University’s Associate General Counsel for Litigation.” The Dean trembled almost imperceptibly. “He’s from headquarters.”
We all sat down; coffee was offered and declined.
“We asked you here to discuss the report I faxed yesterday regarding the surreptitious file that is apparently being distributed as part of Professor Goodman’s creative writing course materials,” the Director said. “A computer undergoing training with our creative writing instructor, Professor Amy Scribner, was found to be infected with Professor Goodman’s surreptitious file. The student’s StoryExecutor program created a short story, which the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service determined to have been plagiarized. Our analysis of the story log shows the plagiarism was not the result of author interference. We made a copy of the surreptitious file available to Professor Scribner, who tested its activity on her own computer. I will let her summarize her findings.”
The fifteen hundred dollar suit turned toward me with eyes so cold I wished I’d worn a sweater.
“I chose three stories from The Best American Short Stories of 1940,” I began. “I wrote an abstract for each story and then on three successive nights I entered the plot and character elements into the StoryExecutor program on my computer containing Professor Goodman’s surreptitious file. I logged into Professor Goodman’s ‘sleep creativity’ website and left the program running all night. In each instance, the new story produced by StoryExecutor was found to have plagiarized the stories from which I took the plot elements and characters. ‘Roof Sitter’ by Frances Eisenberg was plagiarized 93% in plot and 72% in text, ‘That Fine Place We Had Last Year’ by Roderick Lull was plagiarized 97% in plot and 79% in text, and ‘Four Worms Turning’ by Morton Stern was plagiarized 89% in plot and 67% in text, according the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service.”
I handed around copies of the original stories and the printouts of the infected StoryExecutor-created stories to Zane Goodman and the Dean. I hadn’t made a copy for Forest Nails; the Dean immediately surrendered his copy.
The Director resumed. “Based on these results it appears Professor Goodman is using a plagiarism program in his creative writing class. When students log into Professor Goodman’s class web page a hidden program is activated on their computers. The program operates surreptitiously behind StoryExecutor, Dramatica, Final Draft or other popular creative writing software. While the author and the computer are allegedly sleeping on the story overnight, the program searches through anthologies, like Best American Short Stories, to match the author’s plot and character specifications with an extant story. The hidden program then feeds the story content back to the creative writing program, which produces a ‘new’ story with minor changes in character and place names and time period. Logs of computer activity on Professor Scribner’s infected computer show that these transfers happen sometime between 2 and 4 am, probably after the computer has been unused for a period of time.”
“Are you finished?” Nails said. When the Director hesitated, Nails continued. “I would like to ask Professor Scribner how she obtained a copy of Professor Goodman’s program?”
“I obtained a copy of the program from the hard-drive of the computer that produced the original plagiarized story.”
“Did you obtain permission to remove Professor Goodman’s program from his customer’s computer?” Nails said.
“No, we used our computer-lock program to inspect the computer for possible author interference. This is when the surreptitious program was discovered.”
“Did you use the author’s University of Scottsdale customer identification to access Professor Goodman’s website?” Nails said.
“Are you aware you used a copy of proprietary software that was not licensed to you? That you impersonated a customer to gain access to course resources restricted to University of Scottsdale customers? That you committed software piracy when you produced your own stories, the results of which you just distributed to us?” Nails said.
“Hang on a minute,” interrupted the Director. “Are you saying you copyrighted a creative writing program that plagiarizes published stories?”
“I object to your use of the word ‘plagiarize,’ Nails said, “But, yes, Professor Goodman’s program is copyrighted and the license agreement is included in the class materials distributed to Professor Goodman’s students. Professor Scribner is not licensed to use this program.”
Zane Goodman turned toward me and the Director. “You see, my program only accesses stories that are now in the public domain, so there is no copyright infringement. And it’s not plagiarism. The author does not seek out an existing story, which she then claims as her own. The author’s creative writing program is given, by my assistive module, an example from the public domain literature of a story to serve as a template. The author is free to change as much or as little of the initially reprocessed text as she likes.”
“But your program acts surreptitiously,” I said. “You don’t tell the authors their writing programs are being given ‘reprocessed’ text previously published under someone else’s name.”
“Of course not,” Goodman said. “If they knew they were being assisted by reprocessed text it would destroy their creativity. Some would jump to a moral judgment, like you have, that this is plagiarism, and they wouldn’t be able to go forward with recreating the story they have been given. Others would be reluctant to modify anything, thinking a published story is already better than anything they could possibly write.”
The Dean turned to the Director. “We’re sorry you have taken this the wrong way. Professor Goodman is simply helping his writing customers who, even with the assistance of standard creative writing software, are incapable of producing an acceptable story. It gives these under-skilled writing customers a chance to write something they can be proud of.”
My mouth fell open. “Are you telling us it is acceptable to trick people into thinking they have written something that is beyond their capabilities? What do you think will happen when the authors find out they are being duped.”
The gold-rimmed glasses turned again in my direction like a gila monster moving to eat a baby quail. “Since Professor Goodman’s salary depends on keeping his customer enrollments up, any negative reports regarding his teaching methods could constitute interference in a legitimate business activity and might be actionable. Moreover, your report is based on information obtained through illicit and illegal means. As we speak, my associates are filing a request for an injunction to prevent TCC from releasing this report,” he said, as my analysis slid out of his hand onto the table like a piece of rotten fruit. Then with a flick of his wrist to reveal his gleaming Rolex, he said, “Gentlemen, I have an important meeting to attend.” Goodman, the Dean and the Rottweiler packed up their papers and left.
As soon as they were gone, an assistant came to the door of the conference room and told the Director the Chancellor wanted to see him immediately. I said I would wait. It didn’t take long for the Director to return.
“The Chancellor got the notice of the injunction. He says it’s not worth fighting the University of Scottsdale. Apparently the TCC attorney trembled when he heard Nails was in the building. Sorry, Amy.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I left without saying anything.
◊ ◊ ◊
A month later I dropped off my request for unpaid leave at TCC Administration and on the way home spent $749.53 at the Haliburton service station filling up the ten-gallon tank of my ageing Prius hybrid. I loaded the trunk with gallon-jugs of water, sleeping bag, toiletries and assorted camping items. I filled the back seat with clothes, a six-month supply of prescriptions, thirty-six rolls of toilet paper, and a large box of freeze-dried rations from the military surplus store, along with three dozen large yellow pads, a gross of pencils and a mechanical pencil sharpener. My house was rented to a semi-retired faculty couple whose courses on the TCC North Campus had been moved to West Campus; the three-gallon commute put too much of a strain on their budget.
I pulled out of the driveway and turned west on Speedway toward Gates Pass. As the little Prius clambered up the summit, I could see the Kitt Peak in the distance. In the abandoned buildings of the former national astronomical observatory, shut down when Federal Government reallocated all National Science Foundation funds to Star Wars development, l’activiste Quebecoise Clarice, one of my last human students, had set up a HandWriters’ Commune; authors wrote out their own stories in longhand on pieces of paper. Just let Nails try to serve me papers up on Kitt Peak for exposing Goodman’s plagiarism program in the Tucson Weekly.
After a torturous drive over Gates Pass, I stopped in Three Points at the Haliburton service station, the only gas station between Tucson and Sells, to top off the tank of the Prius before making the ascent up Kitt Peak. The prices were even higher, $93.99 per gallon. After a visit to the service station restroom, I rested on a bench facing the Tucson Mountains and my former home behind them. An old Indian sat in a lawn chair about six feet away, looking in the same direction.
A light flashed from high in the mountains. The old Indian raised a spyglass in the direction of the flash.
“Hummer, Dark Cloud edition. Don’t see many of ‘em around here.”
“You watch for cars coming over Gates Pass?” I said.
“Yep. Then I call my daughter on the walkie-talkie so’s she’s ready when the customers stop.”
“You saw me come over Gates Pass?”
“You bet. I knew it’d take that little lawnmower engine about three hours to get here, what with all the pot-holes and gully garbage,” the old Indian said.
“You can even tell the kind of car.”
“Sure, but your little hybrid didn’t stir much interest. Ten-gallon tank, how much can you buy?” the old Indian said.
“I only bought a little over a gallon, about $100.”
“That there Hummer Dark Cloud, paramilitary edition, it’ll have a 60 gallon tank. Prob’ly buy ten-twelve gallons.”
“Paramilitary? What for?” I said. There hadn’t been any border crossers from Mexico in more than a decade. In Mexico gas was $50 a gallon.
“If it’s the rig I think it is, it’s private. Process servers, bounty hunters, that sort,” the old Indian said. “They’ve been by here before, usually looking for a husband running away from his wife’s alimony, or the other way around.”
I reached for my car keys. “How long before they get here?”
“Faster’en you. Maybe two—two and a half hours,” the old Indian said.
I got back on the road. The Prius’s best mileage came at 37 mph, but I decided to push it up to 45 mph. My white knuckles were fused to the steering wheel; avoiding potholes took all of my concentration. The surface of AZ 86 was only marginally better than Kinney and Sandario Roads, very slow going. Road repairs were prohibitively expensive because of the price of oil, and the roads weren’t used much any more.
After another thirty-five minutes, I turned off AZ 86 onto the road to Kitt Peak. I stopped in the turnout at the 4,000-foot elevation marker; there was a good eastward view of AZ 86. I got out the binoculars and saw flashes from the windshield of what was probably the black Hummer the old Indian had seen. If they were process-servers, then I was the likely target because of the newspaper story about Goodman’s plagiarism program. I had to find Clarice’s commune before the Hummer found me.
L’activiste Quebecoise Clarice had been very upset with me when I caved in to economic reality and closed the writing workshop to human enrollment back in the fall of 2017. “Merde! Computers shall not replace the human mind creating art. One day, you shall see, mon amie,” Clarice told me after the last class.
I had doubted Clarice could keep the primitive art of handwriting stories alive. I certainly could not have filled my classes teaching story writing the old-fashioned way. Unless a student had a natural talent or had been writing for years, it would take three or four semesters of hard work to produce a story as technically proficient as an artificially creative computer could produce in the first semester. “Wine needs years to age,” Clarice would say, but those who enrolled their computers in my creative writing class wanted to produce a palatable beer in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t romantic, but it was a living.
Clarice had demonstrated for Native American causes on numerous occasions, and the Tohono O’odham Tribal Council trusted her enough to allow her to set up the Handwriters’ Commune on the grounds of the closed Kitt Peak observatory in exchange for providing a permanent security service for the abandoned buildings. Now, a dozen years later, the Commune was flourishing, and Clarice was willing to forgive me for accommodating to the perversion of artificially intelligent creativity.
Commune members shared guard duty on the observation deck of the Mayall dome on the northeast side of the Peak, monitoring westbound traffic along the Ajo Hwy from Tucson with binoculars or a spyglass. Another guard was placed on the west-facing WIYN observation deck, where eastbound traffic from Sells could be monitored, and where vehicles could be followed coming up the mountain once they reached the 4,000-foot marker. However, the entrance to AZ 386 was not visible from Kitt Peak, so the Mayall and WIYN guards signalled each other when a vehicle approached the foot of the mountain in either direction. If the vehicle was not spotted travelling in the other direction within 15 minutes of disappearing into the blind spot, it was assumed to be coming up the mountain.
When a vehicle was spotted at the 4,000-foot marker, Clarice would ride her mule down to the gate just below the turnoff to the old 12-meter radio telescope to intercept the intruder. Clarice carried a walkie-talkie and kept in radio contact with the WIYN Observatory lookout, who monitored Clarice’s encounters with would-be trespassers. If trouble arose, the lookout had one of the two working cell phones, programmed to call the Tohono O’odham tribal police headquarters in Sells.
The Mayall lookout had picked up my Prius leaving the Three Points Haliburton station and alerted the WIYN lookout, who spotted me at the 4,000 foot marker turnout. The sentinels signaled Clarice to ride down to the gate. The Mayall lookout had also seen the flashing light from a vehicle with a flat windshield, either a Jeep or a Hummer, and later sent a message over to Clarice that a black Hummer had been spotted travelling toward the entrance at over 60 mph.
Reaching the gate, I said, “Oh, god, Clarice, am I glad to see you again.”
“Bon après-midi, mon amie. I am glad to see you too.”
“Clarice, I think someone might be following me.”
“Oui, a black Hummer. No one friendly to us would drive such a vehicle. We will hide you in the Solar Observatory,” Clarice said. “Follow the signs, and I’ll meet you there.”
The overloaded Prius strained up the Peak. The sun was setting, glowing the clouds a deep gold, soon turning to red and then purple. The Solar Telescope looked like an italicized A rising out of the mountain. Behind it under the glowing blanket of fading sunlight lay Baboquivari Peak, the home of I’itoi, the creator of the Tohono O’odham. Clarice emerged on her mule from a trail on the south side of the parking lot. She unlocked the double doors.
“Drive your vehicle through these doors and all the way to the end of the hall,” she said.
It wasn’t a garage, but the entrance was wide enough for the petite Prius. Inside Clarice opened another set of double doors that led to what had been an equipment room for the Solar Telescope. The Prius fit nicely inside.
“Amy, I’m going to lock you in this building. The team in the black Hummer will probably search the observatory until the Tribal Police arrive to arrest them for trespassing. They won’t look for a vehicle in this building; you’ll be safe. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Clarice said, giving me a hug.
I passed several hours locked in the equipment room. At one point, I heard some distant shouting and banging on the entrance door, which ended after the faint wail of a siren. Finally, the equipment room door opened and Clarice entered with a flashlight.
“Amy, are you okay?” Clarice said.
“Fine,” I said. “What was going on out there? I thought I heard a siren.”
“Well, it was the Craddock and Mitchell gang in the Hummer. They were looking for you. I told them they were trespassing and had to leave. They forced their way through the gate and started searching the grounds for your car. The Tribal Police arrived and arrested them before they could get back to AZ 86.”
“Who are Craddock and Mitchell?” I said.
“They are a big corporate security firm. They do bounty hunting, private security, process serving, pretty much anything short of armed combat. Asarco used them to try to bully the Tohono O’odham out of mineral rights near Baboquivari. I was surprised such heavy-weights would be after somebody like you,” Clarice said.
“Before I left, I exposed academic fraud at the University of Scottsdale’s Tucson Campus. They threatened to sue me, but this seems like an over-reaction,” I said. “I never imagined my expose in the Tucson Weekly could lead to such a mess.”
“Let me take you over to dormitory. Tomorrow you can meet the rest of the Writing Commune. Everyone is eager to see you again; half of us are former students,” Clarice said.
◊ ◊ ◊
Almost a year after my last contact with an artificially creative computer, I sat in the weak December light of my writing area in the 0.9m telescope control room. Because of the process servers I was afraid to leave the Observatory grounds, so I had to make do with the cash I’d brought to cover the room and board costs. To compensate, I decided to accept the role of moderator for the weekly handwriters’ workshop. Without the formal status of being an instructor with the power to give grades, I had to rely purely on my skills as a critique writer and discussion leader. It was, in some ways, the greatest challenge of my professional life. Although there were the predictable disagreements and disappointments among the writers about specific stories, the workshop became the highlight of everyone’s week, and it was difficult to get the members to end the sessions for Sunday supper.
From more than 250 unique handwritten narratives read in the three-dozen workshops I’d led, I had selected sixteen, the best one from each commune writer, for a volume commemorating their remarkable experience living in a community totally dedicated to creative narrative, Handwritten Stories from Ioligam. Last October, I’d submitted the collection to a dozen literary journals, carefully selected to highlight the significance of handwritten stories in an age of artificial creative intelligence. One of my best human students, Cary Pritchett, was the editor of the literary review, WripWrap, at Cal State-North Beach; I had been confident that she, at least, would want to publish the some or all of the collection. Now, I held in my hand the last three of the dozen rejection letters we had received. All the stories had been perfunctorily rejected; even Cary sent a form letter.
Clarice climbed the catwalk to the control room.
“Oh, Clarice. More bad news from the last three journals about Handwritten Stories. I just don’t understand it,” I said. “Every rejection was a form letter. With stories of this quality, most editors should make some conciliatory comment or apologize for not being able to use at least one of them. I don’t know if I have lost my critical sense.”
“Maybe someone is trying to sabotage Handwritten Stories,” Clarice said. “But why?”
◊ ◊ ◊
On January 15th I eased the Prius out of the equipment room and into the parking lot of the Solar Telescope. It had half a tank of gas, more than enough to get me to Ajo, where I refueled on my way to Los Angeles. After a second full day of dodging potholes, I was exhausted. Coming over the crest of the San Jose Hills by Puddingstone Reservoir in Pomona, Los Angeles lay stretched out before me. At the turn of the 21st century, the tall downtown buildings were barely visible through the blanket of smog. Now the air was as clear in LA as it was in Tucson. The massive highway system, so overtaxed in the past with traffic jams, was nearly empty. With high gas prices, only the wealthy could afford to drive private automobiles, and even they drove small hybrids, like my Prius.
Commuting by car was a thing of the past, and so were their deteriorating freeway suburbs, many now ghost towns. Los Angeles had become a city of high rises, more densely populated than Manhattan at the turn of the century. People spent hours queuing up in front of elevators as they went back and forth from their overpriced apartments to their 50th floor offices.
I exited I-10 at the Rosemead Boulevard, near an almost abandoned subdivision offering cheap and anonymous short-term housing within commuting distance of downtown LA. Next morning I drove to the University of Southern California to see MaryLynn Hawkins, the faculty advisor for Palaver, USC’s literary journal. I’d been afraid to call ahead, so I checked MaryLynn Hawkins’ teaching schedule online and reckoned the best time to drop in. At the Palaver office in Leavey Hall I gave the receptionist my name and asked to see Professor Hawkins.
“I’m sorry, she is not in this office right now. Do you want to talk with her about Palaver?” the receptionist said.
“Yes, about some stories I submitted a few months ago.”
“Let me see if she is in her English Department office,” the receptionist said.
The receptionist called MaryLynn Hawkins. Her face became grimmer and her voice lowered to a whisper as the telephone conversation continued. She hung up the phone and said, “I’m sorry but Professor Hawkins has been called away on a family emergency. She asked me to take your number and address. Perhaps she can get back to you tomorrow.”
“I just arrived today, and I am not located yet. I’ll call back when I have a place and a number. Thanks.” Was that a brush-off? Was I being paranoid? I went back to the car and headed toward UCLA to buttonhole Morton Hahn, the faculty advisor for Westwind, the UCLA literary journal that had also rejected Handwritten Stories from Ioligam.
I missed the turn to Hahn’s office in the Humanities Building. The building was on the right, so I parked in a lot just north and backtracked on foot. In the passageway between two buildings just north of the Powell Library, a black Hummer was parked by the Library’s west service entrance. The Hummer was pulled far enough in front of the Library Building to maintain visual surveillance of the entrance to the Humanities Building. This was too much of a coincidence; I wasn’t paranoid.
I went into the Library, and in the computer commons I found a computer a student had left without logging out. I searched the white pages for Cary Pritchett’s home address, my former student who was now the faculty advisor for the Cal State North Beach literary journal WripWrap. I wouldn’t try to meet with Cary at the university; I’d follow her after work, catching her on the way home.
At Cal State North Beach I parked north of the McIntosh Humanities Building and walked to a narrow passage between the Library and the Multimedia Center from which I could see the turnaround loop leading to the McIntosh Building. No Hummer. I then walked around to an area partially enclosed by the Education 1 and Education 2 Buildings with a view from its southeast corner of the turnaround loop. There was the Hummer. The University of Scottsdale knew all of the places to which I had submitted Handwritten Stories.
The Hummer could monitor vehicles entering the turnaround loop, but not someone entering the north side of the subway terminal. I went back around to the north entrance of the Studio Theatre Building. The Hummer’s view of the south entrance to the Studio Theatre Building was blocked by the subway station.
Cary’s home address was only a few stops north on the subway’s purple line. I waited in the lobby of the Studio Theatre Building until 4:45, fifteen minutes after Cary’s scheduled creative writing class was due to end and then slipped over to the subway entrance. At 5:05 Cary came out of the entrance of the Humanities Building. I went down the escalator, paid the fare and waited behind a column. Cary entered the waiting area, and I moved behind her, following her onto the subway train.
It was rush hour; there were no seats. Cary was holding onto a pole near one of the doors. I said, “Why did you reject Handwritten Stories?” Cary dropped her briefcase; her face turned white.
“Amy! What are you doing here?”
“I want to know why you rejected our stories.”
“You know, Amy, we get a lot of submissions. Your stories just didn’t fit in with our publication schedule.”
“Don’t lie to me, Cary.”
“I can’t say any more than that. I’m sorry, Amy.”
“Has someone been pressuring you to not publish our stories?”
“Amy, I’m sorry.” Cary raised her palms in a gesture of frustration.
“We’ve known each other a long time, Cary. I taught you how to write.”
Cary was crying now. “I’m so sorry, Amy. I can’t say anything.”
The train stopped, and Cary rushed off. It wasn’t her station. She wouldn’t tell me anything more. I went back to Cal State North Beach. Leaving the station I circled back around the Library. The black Hummer was gone.
I ate dinner at the café just north of the parking lot. I’d be harder for the Hummers to spot in the dark. A flyer on the Café’s bulletin board caught my eye: Real Books Written by Real People. The body of the flyer read: Sick of reading computer-generated crap? Tired of trite text of standardized plot with cardboard characters selected from a character database created by hacks? Want to see what real people write when their brains have not been rewired to conform to a corporate theme? At the bottom the flyer was the name: Gutenberg’s Bastard Son, Publisher and Bookseller, 2516 S. Figueroa, Los Angeles. This address wasn’t far from my temporary residence. Tomorrow, I’d make a visit.
The 2500 block of South Figueroa was in a deteriorated section of downtown Los Angeles. Gutenberg’s Bastard Son was housed in an old but well maintained building. Books were crammed in the storefront windows. An old-style magazine stand was filled with printed newspapers across the bottom shelf and magazines in the middle and top racks. I didn’t think people still read printed newspapers. Even printed books were rarities and expensive; most everyone bought e-books and e-zines.
Behind the counter stood a wizened old man with a gray beard, gray hair tied in a ponytail and wearing what looked like an antique Hawaiian shirt that fit him better in his younger, heftier days.
“Hey, cutie. What’s a fox like you doing in a dump like this?” the old man said.
“I’m looking for the person responsible for this,” I said, holding up the flyer.
“That’d be me, cutie. You got something against Real Books for Real People.”
“No. I’ve got a book I want to get published.”
“Are you willing to sleep with the publisher for extra consideration?” the old man said.
“No. At least, not unless the publisher is better looking than you.”
“Okay, strictly business. Your scribbling better be pretty good.”
“They’re handwritten,” I said.
“Really? I didn’t think anybody wrote by hand any more. Have a seat down by desk there,” he said, pointing to a cubicled area at the back of the store. “I’ll finish up with this other customer and then we can talk.” He picked up the phone next to the old-fashioned manual cash register. “Vera, can you come down and watch the store for a minute. I have an author with a handwritten manuscript.”
While the old man rang up the sale for the other customer, an old woman came down a spiral staircase from an enclosed loft above the store. She saw me sitting by the desk.
“Hi, I’m Vera,” she said. “Did Roscoe proposition you yet?”
“Why, yes, he did,” I said.
“You didn’t accept, did you?” Vera said.
“No, should I have?”
“God, no. Not unless you have a stronger stomach than me. I got a Taser to keep him away from me,” Vera said.
“Aren’t they dangerous?”
“Exactly. He claims the stun gun just turns him on. The doctor told him that if he got Tasered one more time, it could be his last,” Vera said.
I laughed. “What did he say to that?”
“He said that was okay. Said he wanted to die with a hard-on. Of course, if he actually got a hard-on, I’d likely be the one to die of shock.”
“You women finished talking about my privates yet?” Roscoe said. He turned to me. “I’m Roscoe Little, but don’t let the name fool you, ‘cause I ain’t.”
“I’m getting the Taser,” Vera said.
“No need for that. I’ll behave myself, since it appears that our author doesn’t want to use her feminine wiles to get her book published,” Roscoe said. I nodded.
“Okay,” Vera said, and then turning to me, “Let me know if he gets fresh.”
“All right, little lady, let’s see what you got,” Roscoe said. I gave him the evil eye and looked toward Vera, but he held up his hands, “The book, the book.”
I handed over the copy of the handwritten manuscript to Roscoe; he thumbed through it.
“You write this?”
“Me and my friends on Kitt Peak,” I said.
“How’d you come to bring this to me?” he said.
“I was in town trying to find out why some of the university literary journals had rejected it. I was over at Cal State North Beach and I saw your flyer.”
“The literary journals won’t publish something that’s been handwritten. They’d lose their funding,” he said.
“How many literary journals would you say there are today?”
“A lot, maybe a couple of thousand,” I said.
“And how do you suppose those couple thousand literary journals support themselves?” he said.
“Well, most of them are sponsored by universities, some scholarly societies.”
“You’re a university teacher? Yes?” he said. I nodded. “How’s your budget been last few years?”
“In the crapper, ever since the Middle East War. I don’t even have health benefits any more.”
“So where do you suppose these broke universities are getting the money to fund all the literary journals nobody reads?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“The creative writing software companies, that’s where. If they’re going to get people to buy their software, they’ve got to have an outlet for all the drivel they produce. So the software companies make grants to universities to pay a faculty advisor for the literary journal, usually creative writing teachers who are already using their software and endorse it for their students. The teachers get half their salary paid, time off from classes, invitations to conferences and dinners featuring the company’s software. And all they got to do is be sure that what gets published in their literary journal was produced by the company’s software, usually with a software reference in the acknowledgements.”
“So, if one of these faculty advisors were to publish a set of really good stories written by hand?” I said.
“Then the software company might withdraw its stipend and find another journal to support,” Roscoe said.
Now all the rejections made sense, but the harassment by the University of Scottsdale was still a mystery. “I’ve had these guys in black Hummers following me, sent by the University of Scottsdale. What’s that all about?”
“The University of Scottsdale is owned by the same conglomerate that owns StoryExecutor. The University of Scottsdale requires its creative writing students all across the country to use StoryExecutor—without disclosing that its parent owns the software rights. Now, if some cute little community college prof got a bunch of her students to write some really good stories by hand, and the word got out to new writers that writing by hand was better than using some corporate software—and let’s face it, new writers are like a school of minnows, they’ll chase anything that shines—why, it’d put a real dent in software sales. I’m surprised they’re not trying to sue you,” Roscoe said.
“They are,” I said, and proceeded to tell Roscoe the story of the surreptitious plagiarism program at the University of Scottsdale Tucson branch and my exposé in the Tucson Weekly more than a year ago.
“These stories must be pretty good if they are willing to go to those lengths to stop you. Can I keep these?” he said, lifting up the handwritten manuscript, “and we can meet tomorrow afternoon to talk about publishing them. I can distribute copies to about 1,000 alternative booksellers around the country and overseas. Let’s see, in your area, Tucson, it’s a…,” he fingered through a Rolodex, “Antigone Books. You could do a reading, maybe a book tour.” Roscoe said. “You know, it couldn’t hurt your chances of getting published if you slept with the publisher before he reads this,” he said, pointing to the manuscript.
“I don’t see how you are going to be able to read the manuscript if you’re out cold because Vera shocked you with the Taser,” I said.
I signed a publishing contract with Gutenberg’s Bastard Son to print 2,000 copies of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam to be distributed to the national consortium of alternative booksellers. And I didn’t have to compromise my virtue. Six months later the contract was first on the agenda the Writers’ Commune monthly business meeting.
◊ ◊ ◊
“I just received the second quarterly statement from Gutenberg’s Bastard Son on the sales of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam,” I said. “Everybody remembers that the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out the first month. Well, the second printing sold out in a month as well. Roscoe says that he will print another 2,000 copies this quarter and see what happens.”
“Amy, I know we’re selling copies of the book, but no one I know seems to be able to get one. My mother has been looking for a copy in Green Bough Books in Charlotte for months,” Ronda said.
“My brother in Seattle says the same thing. Every time he goes in the bookstore, they claim they just sold out,” George said.
“My father managed to get a copy on order in San Antonio, but when he went back to buy a copy to give as a gift to my sister, they were sold out and waiting for a new shipment,” Ruth said.
“I’ve heard the same thing from my friends,” I said. “When I go to TCC to renew my leave papers, I’ll stop by Antigone Books to see if I can figure out what is going on.”
I put on a large, loose fitting dress, a floppy hat, dark sunglasses, and borrowed Clarice’s methane-powered Jeep to avoid the black Hummers. After submitting my paperwork at TCC for another year’s unpaid leave, I went to 4th Avenue and Antigone Books. Gutenberg’s Bastard Son had just shipped a dozen copies of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam; the copies would be on the shelves.
I had a good time sipping coffee and browsing through all of the new books I’d missed while in exile on Kitt Peak. Ten of the twelve copies of Handwritten Stories were on the shelves; the other two were on the reserve shelf behind the counter. I sat where I could monitor the new fiction shelf. Zane Goodman entered the store. He picked up all ten copies of Handwritten Stories from the new fiction shelf and then went to the checkout desk.
“I’m here to pick up a book for Federico Quiñones, Handwritten Stories from Ioligam,” he said.
“Yes, I have it here,” the clerk said. “Are you Federico Quiñones?”
“No, I’m his teacher. I am picking up copies for the rest of the class. They are hard to come by,” Goodman said.
“Yes, they sell out quickly. It seems like a lot of classes use this book. It’s surprising, because printed books are so much more expensive than e-books,” the clerk said.
“I tell my students that buying a first edition of a good book is an excellent long term investment. Just too bad we couldn’t get signed copies,” Goodman said.
“Okay, that’s 11 books at $69.95 each, $769.45, plus 16% national sales tax, is $892.56,” the clerk said. “How will you pay for that?”
“Credit card.” Goodman handed the clerk a credit card with the logo of the University of Scottsdale.
Goodman took the large bag of books and threw it in the back of his car and left going north toward the University of Scottsdale Tucson campus. I followed in the Jeep. Goodman passed the main entrance off Stone Loop and went north to the service entrance, pulling up to the loading dock of the main library. He got the bag of books and went toward the recycling bins. I parked the Jeep and followed him on foot. Goodman passed the recycling bins for newsprint, office paper-white, office paper-mixed, glossy magazines and unbound journals, and stopped at the books and bound journals bin, where he dropped the 11 copies of Handwritten Stories into the recycling dumpster. When he turned around, he was facing me; my hat and glasses were off.
“Maybe you would like me to sign those before you recycle them? It will make them more valuable,” I said.
“Thanks anyway,” Goodman said. “They’ll be put to their best use as insulation.”
“It’s going to make an interesting story in the Tucson Weekly, how you are spending the University of Scottsdale’s money to get revenge against me for exposing your plagiarism program,” I said.
“You think I am doing this to get even with you. I just picked up the books today because the department assistant who usually does this is out sick; she didn’t get picked in the flu shot lottery this year,” Goodman said.
“So it’s the University of Scottsdale who’s destroying our book, not you?” I said.
“Now you’ve got it. Once you got the book published by that randy maniac in LA, there was no point in harassing you anymore. Have you noticed any black Hummers lately?” Goodman said.
“Well, no,” I said. “I thought it just got too expensive for them to keep bothering me.”
“That too. But that crappy little publisher of yours can’t put out more than 8,000 copies of your book a year,” Goodman said. “It’s cheaper to buy and destroy them than it is to sue you, especially given your skill avoiding process servers.”
“So, you buy and destroy all the copies of our book shipped to Antigone?” I said.
“No idiot. The University of Scottsdale is everywhere, well, in every major city that has alternative bookstores selling your crap,” Goodman said. “We get a student to go to the local bookstore and order your drivel; when it comes in, an assistant from the liberal arts college goes down to the bookstore and buys all the available copies. However, we insisted they be disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.”
“Insisted to whom?”
“To StoryExecutor, of course. They’re a sister company; we bill them for the service,” Goodman said.
“What, you never read the Wall Street Journal up there in the ethereal heights of Kitt Peak?” I put on my best stupid face. “StoryExecutor and the University of Scottsdale are both owned by SGH.” I gave him another dumb look. “Slime-Garner-Haliburton, which took over Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire when he died. Haven’t you wondered why your book never gets reviewed by any major newspapers?—not that it wouldn’t get trashed. Because it is not in SGH’s interest for the world outside that of the hippy-dippy left-wing freakos to know about your book. Weak-minded prospective writers might start thinking that they could do better writing by hand rather than using SGH software.” Goodman smirked. “And on any campus of the University of Scottsdale you get the added benefit of my assistive program.”
“You’re telling me it makes business sense to destroy our book to keep up the sales of your software?” I said.
“We did the research. Our focus group trials showed that 3.65 out of 10 prospective purchasers of a StoryExecutor program would decide against buying our software after reading your piece of crap. Do the math; StoryExecutor cost $350, your book $69.95. Every time we buy three of your books, we save about $100 in sales revenue,” Goodman said.
“This is going to make a great story in the Tucson Weekly,” I said.
“Yeah, and it will have the same effect as the last time, a little local ripple, and that’s it. You’ll never be able to get this story in the national media, print or electronic, because SGH either controls that media or can make it worth their while to let the story pass.” Goodman stepped around me, returned to his car and left.
The debate in the Writers’ Commune about how to respond to the University of Scottsdale lasted for weeks and ended without consensus. Some felt that the plan proposed by Clarice and me to exploit the University of Scottsdale’s attempts to suppress Handwritten Stories and use the proceeds to fund a fellowship program for young writers who would follow the handwriting principles of the Commune was unethical, comparable to using Nazi medical research. But there were no other practical alternatives. Suing the University of Scottsdale, which meant suing StoryExecutor and SGH, would result in decades of litigation the Commune couldn’t afford. Besides, since the 8,000 books being destroyed every year were paid for, there was no economic loss, no basis for a suit.
So, Gutenberg’s Bastard Son maximized print runs 10,000 copies per year. The Commune made $8.39 in royalties on each copy sold, which it used to resurrect Peg Folder’s defunct Tucson Writers’ Workshop, closed down when the human enrollment in creative writing at TCC ended. Following the Workshop, the Writers’ Commune sponsored a four-week fellowship for fifteen handwriters and one workshop leader selected from hundreds of applications distributed through alternative bookstores and submitted by prospective writers interested in alternatives to artificially intelligent literary creativity.
After the Tucson Writers’ Workshop wrapped up Sunday afternoon, the first class of writing fellows stopped at the grounds of the former Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for a brief orientation. At 7 pm I asked the fellows to step out on the southwest veranda. It was still hot, at least 97 degrees, and the sun was hanging directly over Kitt Peak. The Commune’s resident astronomer assured me of a spectacular sunset.
Waiting for the sunset, I told the fellows, “In about fifteen minutes we’ll be leaving for Kitt Peak, or Ioligam as the Tohono O’odham called their second most sacred mountain and from which they watched the stars. For more than half a century, Kitt Peak was the place scientists searched as far as humans can see to understand our universe. Now with this first class of handwriting fellows, Ioligam is being rededicated to understand as deeply as writers can the human heart.”
The sun sank down directly behind Kitt Peak, and a large red eye opened from the top of the mountain, projecting the rays of the setting sun back to the Desert Museum. Like the Native Americans and astronomers inhabiting Kitt Peak before us who marvelled at the beauty of the distant nebulae and galaxies, the red beacon provoked an almost mystical experience. The sacred mountain was calling the fellows, their faces bathed in the bright red glow, showing them the path to the secrets of evoking beauty and pain and joy and despair in those who would one day read their handwritten stories from Ioligam.
The red eye closed as the sun set behind the mountain. The bus pulled up to the loading area on the north side of the patio, and the writing fellows began their passage to Ioligam, the red glow still warm in their eyes.
Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine.
Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published fifty-seven works of fiction in the Sandscript, OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), The Legendary, Widespread Fear of Monkeys, Hobo Pancakes, Twisted Dreams, Long Story Short, The Lorelei Signal, Silver Blade, Thick Jam, Copperfield Review, Fabula Argentea, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Defenestration, Mobius, Grim Corps, Coming Around Again Anthology, Former People, Thrice, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Black Market Lit, Paragraph Line, Subtopian Magazine, Pine+Basil, Festival Writer: Unpublishable, Fiction on the Web, Children, Churches and Daddies, Midnight Circus, Stockholm Review of Literature, Lowestoft Chronicle, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Spank the Carp, Beechwood Review, Pear Drop, Marathon Review, Cyclamens and Swords, Short Break Fiction, Flash: International Short-Short Story Magazine, Slippery Elm Online, Story of the Month Club, Birds Piled Loosely, Zero Flash, Canyon Voices, Alebrijes.
flash fiction by M. C. Tuggle
The hovertrain whispered to a stop at the Cemetery of the Republic. The doors slid open, and I saw before me two lines of people stretching from the platform to the casket. It reminded me of running the gauntlet at military school, and I froze. Something sharp poked me in the shoulder from behind, and I turned and gave Mom my best glare. She out-glared me and motioned me forward. I walked.
Mom probably thought I’d hesitated out of childish anger since we’d argued on the ride to the cemetery. My face burned as I stalked past the mourners, elderly men and women in grey-and-green uniforms from the Montana-Iowa War. As my mother and I scuffed over the dry grass, my anger magnified and deepened at her and the silly ceremony I was now stuck in. Two weeks earlier, I’d turned 12. She shouldn’t treat me like a child.
Mom had said, “This isn’t about you, Jemmah. It’s about your grandfather.”
“None of the other cadets follow Bright Path. They’ll see the news vids and laugh at me.”
“Let them laugh.” Mom held her chin high. “Some of us still believe.”
“Giving dead people presents they can use in the ‘Great After’ might’ve made sense a hundred years ago. Not anymore. When you’re dead, you’re dead.”
Mom had the same grey eyes as my grandfather, and the same devastating stare when angry. “I want you to participate. If not for yourself, then for him.”
My daydream dissolved and we stood in the sunlight beside my grandfather’s closed casket. The Bright Path priestess motioned for silence, then called out lines the mourners repeated. I stood respectfully, though I did not say the words of the old singsong chant. But almost all of Grandpa’s war buddies joined in. It amazed me that even these wrinkled men and women in uniforms from a nearly forgotten war could utter such nonsense.
The priestess, a small woman in white robes, stooped and pulled a flamer from a tattered cloth bag. She stood and lit torches at each end of the casket. The priestess stared at the ground in silence as white smoke curled at our feet. She looked up and said, “What gifts do you have for Charlton Loomis to use in the Great After?”
An old captain shuffled up to the casket, a young woman at his side. The woman handed him a plasma rifle, which he gripped in both hands. He stood straight and said, “Charlton Loomis, please accept my field piece. Watch over us, and use this to keep us safe.” He placed the rifle on the casket, and the woman held his arm as he crept back to the line. I heard several sniffles.
Another man placed a gorgeous antique pistol, a shining .44 Magnum, on the casket. I clenched my eyes in disbelief. What a waste.
Ten old soldiers in all made offerings. It was one thing to honor a fellow soldier, but to throw away treasures made no sense.
The priestess nodded at my mother, who strode up to the casket. She faced the mourners with a hunting knife in her hand. For a few seconds, she said nothing, only stared at the ground. A few of the mourners coughed. Then Mom looked up. “I want my Dad to have the knife he gave me when I was six. He made doll’s heads from pine with it, and showed me how to carve traps, and to defend myself. Without those skills, I would not be here today.”
Mom turned to the casket, placed the knife on top, and touched the casket surface a moment.
I took a deep breath. The smoldering torches filled the air under the canopy with the strong scent of cedar.
Mom returned to my side and leaned close. “Your turn, Jemmah.”
I stared at her. She stared back. I shook my head. Even if I believed, I had no present for my grandfather.
Mom took my hand, and dropped something into it. I gazed into my open palm at the tiny gift, a black hook with a silver spiral along its length, and tufts of white and yellow feathers sticking out. It was my Black Ghost fishing lure. For a fleeting instant, I stood on the banks of the Am River learning how to cast for brown trout. My grandfather, with his one-of-a-kind way of blending military preparedness with infinite patience and kindness, taught me how to fish, how to gut and clean my catch, and how to cook it.
I looked back at Mom, who mouthed the words, “It’s not for you. It’s for him.”
What could I do? I strode up to the casket and faced the assembly. Holding the tiny lure before me, it was all I could do to keep a straight face. “This,” I said, “is a fishing lure my grandfather made for me.” I gulped air and searched the sky above for words. “Grandpa, if there are rivers in — in the Great After where you’ve gone–”
My lips moved, but I could not speak. My chest tightened, and I let out a loud sob. This was the first time I’d admitted that Grandpa was gone. I didn’t know what to do. Foolishly, I tossed the lure onto the casket. I turned back toward the assembly with my head bowed. No doubt people were laughing at me. I looked up. Through wet eyes, I saw the old men and women stand straight, shoulders back. I knew that look. It was one of respect.
I wiped my eyes and treaded back beside Mom, who had this mysterious smile on her face. The priestess continued talking, but her words darted past me like mayflies on the river. A comforting but puzzling realization occupied my mind. Mom had been wrong. Letting go of the lure wasn’t for my dead grandfather. It was for me.
Maybe one day I would explain it to her.
M. C. Tuggle is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. His fantasy, sci-fi, and literary stories have been featured in Space Squid, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mystic Signals, Fabula Argentea, and Fiction 365. The Novel Fox released his novella Aztec Midnight in December, 2014.