Rosalind Goldsmith – Levity

Rosalind Goldsmith
Levity

Cheerless days. Serving up coffee, eyes clammy with fatigue. Shuffling home. Late. Leftovers. The kids whingeing about soggy beans. Long jagged cracks in the tiles that the landlord would never fix. The mold. Her bank account draining like the life draining from her heart. Her daughter’s sadness.
           Yelling at the kids despite herself—get up, do homework, do the dishes, do something. They lay on the sofa, on the floor, flat to their screens. She yearned to yank them out of their lethargy—to squeeze them, slap them, wring them out—shock the life back into them.
           Cal would be ok—he was lazy, sure, but still loud, and still telling awful jokes. Sash though—she got quiet, veered inwards, showed no interest in anything—not even her mouse house. Said nothing when asked about her day, just wandered off to her bedroom. So pale. Wouldn’t say what was wrong. And just these past few days wouldn’t eat—not honey and peanut butter on bagels, not jelly donuts, not strawberry ice cream with chocolate sauce.
           The mother twisted herself every which way, trying to pull Sasha out of her misery—to get both of them interested in something—chess, Pictionary. Charades. No go. She bought Cal a second-hand guitar, Sasha new tiny wooden chairs for her mouse house. They barely glanced at these gifts.
           The two of them lay sprawled for hours. Thrown into a dead stillness. Defeated in their bodies and minds, in their little half-lived spirits. It was Sasha—her refusal ran deep in her blood. And now she was pulling Cal down with her.
 
           On an evening when the mother was so tired she couldn’t stand it anymore, she snatched Sasha up off the floor, clutched her shoulders and shook her. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ she screamed.
           Her daughter scowled, shivered, light as a blade of grass, a wisp of a thing, so thin, so brittle. She pulled away and ran off to her room. The mother collapsed on the sofa beside her son. Hid her eyes behind her hands and groaned.
           They sat quiet. The mother pushed out a breath like it was hard to get it out of her lungs.
           Cal laid his hand on her arm. ‘Are you ok?’
            ‘Oh sure,’ she said into her hands.
            ‘Did you hear about the rope?’
            ‘The what?
            ‘This rope went into a bar and—’
            ‘Oh no. Not now.’
            ‘Yeah, but you’ll like it. It’s good.’
            ‘Good enough to make your sister laugh? Why don’t you tell her?’
           He was quiet a moment, attentive, as if listening to an echo of what his mother had just said. ‘Ok. I will. I will tell her.’ He folded himself forward on to his knees. ‘I’ll try.’
           It got worse. After a few months, Sasha was so thin that her mother took her to a doctor. The doctor said they should encourage her to eat.
           When they were alone after school, Cal made sandwiches for Sasha, weird combinations that he called obnoxious concoctions: maple syrup and peanut butter, cherry jam and m and m’s, and he would give them strange names—a wink and a frog sandwich or a barfly and dustmop sandwich or a cosmonaut and sausage sandwich. And he cut them into strange shapes. Sasha never laughed, never smiled, never ate the sandwiches.
           Four weeks before Sasha was scheduled to check into a rehab centre for eating disorders, the mother bought three yellow balls from the toy store. For two weeks she practiced in her bedroom at night until she got it right, and one afternoon she stood in front of her children in the living room and juggled for fifteen seconds. They watched her, amazed. Sasha smiled—a little timid struggle of a half-smile—the first smile in months. The mother taught them the basics she’d learned from a boy at work. This was something—finally something.
           They both tried it—fumbled with the balls at first, laughing and dashing all over to retrieve them. Sasha got two balls up in the air, dropped them both and gave up. But Cal, thin and wiry and intense—he latched on to it with a vengeance and practiced for hours. Sasha watched him as if hypnotized. Cal would bow and apologize every time he dropped a ball, and Sash would smile and say, ‘Try again.’ And he did. He tried and tried until he got it right and Sasha would clap and say, ‘Bravo!’
           When the mother got home from work now, she’d see Cal standing in the middle of the living room, arms pumping, a flight of yellow above him, and Sash curled up on the sofa watching intently, nodding and clapping.
           The mother took Cal aside. ‘It’s a great thing you’re doing here,’ she said. ‘You’ve brought her back to life.’ She hugged him, stroked the hair off his forehead, tucked in his shirt.
            ‘Now can I tell you the joke?’ he said.
           She listened to his joke about the rope in the bar and the frayed knot. He helped her set the table for dinner. She thanked him and he closed his eyes and put his arms around her and held on.
           When he mastered the three balls, he asked his mother to buy more. He practised with four, then six, then eight. Sasha watched his every move.
           After a week or so, he began to make sandwiches for her again, and now she ate them, almost without thinking, while she watched him practise. She put on a little weight, began to eat dinner again. Her mother cancelled the rehab centre.
           He studied videos on YouTube, got better at it. One afternoon, he noticed that Sasha was distracted—staring at her hands instead of at him. He picked up a spoon and juggled it with the balls. ‘Look!’ he called out to her. The spoon twirled and caught the light. Sasha laughed, delighted. ‘Can you do plates?’ she said.
           Everything went up in the air: Keys, peaches, bunches of grapes, side plates and saucers, wooden spoons and small bowls. ‘Watch this, Sash!’ he’d yell, and then toss up into the air a series of household objects unremarkable in themselves but extraordinary in their patterns of suspension—running shoes, baseball gloves, candy hearts, frozen lamb chops. He juggled Oreos, rolled up socks, toothbrushes, rice crackers, bars of soap, dolls, ears of corn, face cream tubes, shampoo bottles, adjusting each toss according to the weight of the object. He juggled anything he could find, and she watched in awe.
           It was strange, the mother had to admit it—and sometimes plates and saucers broke—but she loved how her children were now—vital, full of life—and she was grateful to her son. She’d been distant from him recently—her anxiety about Sasha pulling her away from him, but she’d change that. She bought Manga comics for him, and arranged guitar lessons.
           But the comics and the guitar lay beside his bed, untouched. Cal was obsessed. He practised for hours every day. Sash watched him, in thrall, as she willed whatever objects were in play to stay up in the air. And they did! Sometimes the objects floated up there for longer than they should—as if they were suspended just under the ceiling by an invisible hand. When Cal juggled bright objects like glasses or jewelry, they glinted in the light. Every object soared up like a falcon, then floated down gently on moth wings.
           When the mother got home from work, exhausted, Cal would tell her what Sasha had for lunch, how she had watched him, how she had laughed. His mother would slump down at the kitchen table and look up at him and smile.
           It was summer, and the children were alone almost all day while the mother was at work. But she didn’t worry. Cal was her saviour, her daughter’s guardian angel.
           Cal went out in the mornings with a plastic bag and brought home whatever he could find out in the neighbourhood—a baby’s boot, a plastic elephant, tiny toy cars, a keyboard, a doll, wine bottles, a stuffed lamb, beer cans, dvds, paperback books. Day by day he increased the number and variety of objects he juggled—he could toss up a whole heap of different things and keep them soaring—and the more objects he juggled, the more his little sister laughed and clapped and encouraged him.
           He sweated and strained to keep heavier and heavier objects suspended – a frying pan and a pot, with a tricycle wheel, a bag of onions and an acacia plant – he made it look easy, kept all the objects upright as they soared up, each one on its own ellipse, each one describing a perfect arc. And at the apex of the arc, every object, no matter how heavy, would hover for a second – suspended, spinning there, winking in the light.
           Sasha was entranced. The objects her brother juggled were alive and grew wings – and if they ever threatened to crash to the ground, Cal snatched them up out of danger and tossed them back up where they belonged, flying. A plate was a phoenix, a tire was a dragon, a doll was a dove or a cormorant, a wine bottle a dragonfly. One afternoon, he juggled all the furniture from her mouse house, along with three peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cut into quarters. Not one sandwich fell, not one tiny chair disobeyed the trajectory of his will.
           The sun came in through the living room window and glanced off all of these objects in the air, and it looked to both of them—engaged in this labour of juggling and watching—as if gravity itself gave up in the face of their intent and abandoned their living room. Simply walked away.
           As the summer wore on, Sasha became well. She chatted with her mother when she came home, helped her with the cooking, ate two servings at dinner. She made marshmallow cookies with blue icing for Cal. She began to read the paperbacks that Cal had brought home to juggle. She memorized the jokes he told her, and told some of her own. Her pinched expression disappeared—she wanted to learn line dancing. Decided when she grew up, she’d be a ballerina or a pilot.
           Cal tried harder and harder to keep the magic happening. He knew he’d have to scale up his efforts. Like Mesmer, Svengali, or Rasputin, he held her spirit in his hands. He found more and more interesting objects to juggle, and ways to make them spin at different angles, different speeds. Doughnuts, pill boxes, five-pound bell weights, his guitar, her collection of glass cats—all went up in the air. She was a little worried about those cats, but he didn’t drop one. She never even wondered how he did it—just accepted her brother was a magician.
           Every morning Cal had to meditate for at least an hour to focus his concentration. He would sit cross-legged in his room, close his eyes and imagine the sky as a blue substance that could permeate matter, the stratosphere as a discrete orbit with its own gravitational pull, empty space as a collapsing star that drew everything into its centre. These visions were clear and precise.
           As the objects became more difficult, he had to spend more time meditating. One hour became two, became three. One day in July, after a whole morning of meditation, he achieved his masterwork: He juggled eight lit candles, keeping them upright and lit the whole time—she was thrilled—and asked him to do it again and again.
           Towards the end of the summer, the objects—no matter what they were, no matter how heavy or awkward or unusual—were no longer enough for her. She’d grown used to them and now wanted to see something truly spectacular—Catherine wheels, lit sparklers, whirligigs—there had to be frantic motion, flashing lights, intense spinning.
           Cal worked harder, using every scrap of his concentration and will to get those objects to spin and stay alight and to achieve that remarkable almost impossible floating effect, when the objects seemed buoyed up above the air, beyond the natural impetus and arc of their trajectory.
           He meditated now for four hours every morning. Sometimes his visions blurred—and he had to get the pictures clear and distinct before he could start. The effort of concentration began to tire him. The higher and longer he made the objects float, the dizzier and weaker he felt. He went to bed early, often before Sasha, and woke up late, barely able to lift himself out of bed.
           He would sit on the edge of his bed, holding his head in his hands, unable to stand. Strange dreams stole his sleep away from him. He dreamt one night of a crow he was digging up out of the earth, brushing the dirt off its wings. His mother asked him if he was alright. He told her a joke about a duck and some grapes.
           Every object he found made him more anxious—would it work—would it float. He caught a mouse, hid it and juggled it with her stuffed mice. She found that hilarious, begged him to find more mice, and juggle with twelve of them. He could only find three. One of them died of fright in mid-air. Had a tiny heart attack. She was distraught and cried. He buried the mouse in the acacia plant and made up a prayer for the mouse which he taught her word for word and asked her to recite until she stopped crying.
           It was late August. On an afternoon when it was grey and rainy outside, Sasha was standing by the window staring out. Cal came into the living room with his bag of objects and she slumped onto the sofa, and burst into tears.
            ‘What’s wrong?’ Cal said. He knelt beside her, staring at her as if she had a fatal wound that he could do nothing to heal. Or as if she was that wound.
            ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I don’t know.’ Her voice was a whisper, her eyes dull, her expression flat. She looked like she did before—turned inwards, empty and blank. The sadness—that didn’t seem to have any cause at all—or none that he could see—had come back and taken her over again.
           He juggled three bananas, six foil pie plates, two pairs of sunglasses, five trivets and a little plastic dog. He got the dog to spin. ‘Look, Sash!’ he yelled. But she didn’t watch. A trivet veered out of its orbit and smashed to the floor. He picked up the pieces.
           The next day at lunch she wouldn’t eat her barfly and dustmop sandwich. He told her a joke. She stared at the table. ‘What can I do?’ he said.
           She was silent for many minutes. ‘I don’t know,’ she said.
            ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll break my record,’ he said. ‘I bet I can juggle twelve candles, three sparklers and eight side plates, all at the same time, and I bet I can get each one to touch the ceiling.’
           She looked up at him then. ‘Really?’ she said, with a premonition of a smile.
           For five hours Cal prepared himself for this stunt. He tuned his thoughts like a laser beam. He banished time so that his visions were not of the future but of the present, simply pictures of what was actually happening. He imagined every object rising, saw the ceiling of the apartment as the horizon of the universe. He called on all his strength, his will, his force of focus, until finally he stood in the middle of the living room, the lit candles in one hand and the plates in the other.
           He began with the candles. Up they went, upright, arcing gently, scorching the ceiling and floating back down into his left hand. The three sparklers followed, spinning and brushing the ceiling. Then up went the plates, wobbling, grazing the ceiling, and then sinking back down. At one point all the candles, all the plates, and all three sparklers hung suspended an inch below the ceiling in a spinning, defiant constellation. Cal was aghast—for an instant he felt a terrible fear—but Sasha was amazed. She laughed and watched in awe as each candle, sparkler and plate came back down, and went back up, one by one, under perfect control of their master.
           After three minutes of juggling, Cal opened his palms and allowed each object to return, like a tethered beast, to his waiting hands. He grinned at his little sister. ‘Tada!’ he said, opened his arms wide and began to bow. She stood and smiled and clapped. He caught her eye and tried to speak. Then he folded, crumpled, collapsed on the floor. The plates fell to the ground and smashed and the candles and sparklers went out.
           The mother came back from work at 6:00. She found Cal lying on the living room floor, broken plates, candles and sparklers all around him, and Sasha kneeling on the floor beside him, patting his cheek gently, trying to wake him up.
           The mother tried to revive him, screaming his name, shaking him, but he didn’t respond. She called an ambulance and sat on the floor beside him, holding his hand, begging him to wake up. For a few seconds his eyes fluttered open. He saw his mother’s face beside his, and looked into her eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I tried but it’s no good.’ He looked at his sister who was crouched beside him, tears running down her face. ‘Sash,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to learn to—’ He sat up suddenly and fell back down, his hand reaching up towards her face.            AQ

Carlo Rey Lacsamana – The Trespasser

Carlo Rey Lacsamana
The Trespasser

I

In exchange for fixing the power switch, the bar owner offered him a month of free breakfast of cappuccino and a sandwich of his choice, since the owner knew he would not accept money as payment. He would rather trade his talents and capacities with other people’s talents and capacities than sell them. Never let money be the mediator between man and man. He didn’t work. Work in the normal sense of its worldly engagement: being employed, contracts, salary, routine, etc. All these things he found extraordinarily tedious, rigid, and too artificial. To work is a form of bondage; no animal wants to be in chains. His ex-girlfriend saw this evasion as living a wayward life. Despite his intelligence, his knowledge of things, and his artistic nature, she dreaded his lack of concern for the future. Of course, she wanted security! Who doesn’t? Future and security: nothing could be more ambivalent. She thought he was charmingly vague.
         His vagueness—that is his refusal to be part of universal conformity and standardized living inspired disgust and admiration. Friends laughed behind his back, his family considered him a kind of failure. On the other hand, people who really knew him admired his will, imagination, idealism, and improvisational skills. He was never tempted to pursue the countless, dazzling diversions that lure young men. He took seriously the simple pleasures of life. The simple attracted him for they were striking; simple yet high minded, dangerous, and exciting. This irrepressible feeling for the simple was, perhaps, the secret of joy.
         What is the charm and logic of spending the glorious days of one’s unrepeatable life inside the dusty office room staring at a lifeless immobile screen making abstract figures, writing dull notes, sitting on a helpless stool for hours and eternity, waiting, till the judicious hand of the wall clock startles you: ‘It’s six, you can go home,’ he said eloquently to a curiously sympathetic friend. ‘And have faith that tomorrow will be as saturnine as yesterday and all the other tomorrows, going about again and again in this lifeless, lugubrious repetition.’
         ‘What a shame! What a shame!’ he exclaimed. He had naturally a plentiful stream of exuberance and humour. To embrace the world, to smell a strange flower, to get drunk with a stranger, to read a wise book, to squeeze the breasts of your lover, to sit in a corner to listen to a street musician, to defecate in the morning, to escape to the sea, ah! The sea!… to… to… love! He thought out loud these simple longings of life. ‘To!’ he cried as if referring to an invisible lover with tormented cheerfulness and passion. ‘Life must triumph against ennui!’ One must stretch this victory to the end. Indeed, his charming vagueness puzzled the people around him.
         The warm, sweet, foamy cappuccino mingled delightfully with tobacco. He devoured it up to the last drop. It tasted essentially good because it was free. He put out his notepad and pen: two indispensable instruments which served as mediator between his ideas and the marvellous world. They made thinking something light. On the blank page fell waves of sunlight: warm, tender, golden, like daffodils, solid light he could touch and feel. What was he thinking? There was something godly about the sun, the sheer warmth, the unknown power which stirred the heart with a hot, furious impulse of becoming. The sun was both calm and careless, patient and reckless. This contagious influence of the sun violated his bounds of reason. Like the wild animals his heart was possessed with that impulse for serious playfulness. One must explore the possibilities within one’s self and their painful limits to one’s transformation. In the grandness of the universe, he felt he was a fragmentary piece of something incomprehensible, terrifying beauty. And that strange feeling was enough a design to live wholly for the moment’s sake. He wandered and wondered out loud.
         And observed the world around him. The pretty young students walking their way to school, the fruits at the fruit stand, the pigeons drinking in the fountain pool, the bicycles peacefully parked on the corner. One could write epic stories about these things, he thought. He observed and wrote the hours of the morning, the pages bursting like pomegranates: poems, thoughts, ideas, soiled with wandering cigarette ashes and petals of divine sunlight.

II

Midday. The restless city was hidden under the blinding lustre of the midday sun. The city. Land of insatiable desires, of open secrets, of crowded ambitions, of petty crimes, of active limbs and confused minds. A world where the power of the screen creates distracted men; and man, obscure, faceless among other men, always at the mercy of want.
         He came to the food market at the busiest hour of the day. To buy food? Absolutely not! Watch how he spy and prey upon the train of fruit and vegetable stalls. To thieve? He could; but he believed in the kindness of man so he asked; besides asking was less risky. The customers wandered in search of the most brilliant red tomatoes, the most-slender bananas, the most electric bundle of spinach, the most seductive eggplant. They paid for what they got. He foraged for free.
         Fruits and vegetables which couldn’t be sold: the leftovers, the physically “unmarketable” food like odd-shaped potatoes, wrinkled lettuces, pillow-soft tomatoes, slightly withered cabbages; unattractive to the sophisticated eyes of urban consumers. Even in flea markets the instinctive obsession with outward appearance reigns supreme. What was deemed as “trash” he recouped and eat.
         At the end of the day massive quantities of food enough to feed a whole starving city went to landfills. What a mountain of waste we create every day! The very fact was sheer agony to him. How could one submit to this logic of waste? So much waste. The blindness! But he saw the wealth that lie hidden in those heaps of brilliant fruits and flocks of greens about to be thrown. Rummage.
         Politely he expressed his reasonable concern to the vendors and they in return listened and with the innate sympathy that tied all human beings had warmed up to his buoyant and sensible proposition. Before the garbage collector cleared the whole place, they put aside the leftovers for him. And there he was: choosing and picking: the variety of colours and textures of fruits excited his senses; the lusciousness of the greens delighted his appetite. He came and went without fear of necessity. The waste could always feed him.

III

The perfect full moon had arrived. He stopped, took a deep breath then climbed the fence covered with thick passion vines. Ah! The moonlight was full at the back garden of the church; flowers brimmed: poppies, daffodils, nasturtiums, hyacinths, primroses, scillas, pussy willows. Whatever they shut the door for? he wondered.
         Thanks to the choir girl who sang in the church he had discovered this majestic spot. And it was on this freshly cut lawn surrounded by magnolia, apple and lime trees where they both discovered the ecstasy of making love out door. It made him sad to look back. Last summer! Memories however happy are still sad.
         ‘Isn’t bad for you, smoking cannabis?’ he asked ridiculously.
         ‘Are you really that annoying?’ said the choir girl. She thrust the filter away and lifted her bare arms to embrace him. ‘Love me’.
         ‘What if I don’t Ave Maria?’, he said jokingly, imitating the voice of the priest. ‘Of course, I’m kidding!’
         And then they began, slowly and delicately, to undress…
         ‘They gasped between kisses. Swung back and forth. They laughed like little kids while they lay there in each other’s arms.
         But tonight, he was alone. And the moon that distant white body of fire that mystified the minds of lonely poets and desperate lovers shone with ominous intensity. It seemed the whole tremendous Creation improbable without that radiant little pebble hanging about the pressing darkness of the wide boundless sky. He could not express his curious, admiring affinity with the moon; he felt a pain of joy running through the space, racing through light years in his blood. He was alone. Why some people are afraid to be alone at night? When one is alone at night the senses become magnetic. The ears hear the breath of things, the eyes see the soul of things, the nose smells the stench of the past and the sweetness of the future, the mouth imbibes the darkness—the intoxicating darkness like wine. Alone at night you are one with everything, and the terrifying feeling of getting closer shoulder to shoulder with silence itself. Alone at night you are quite sad.
         He stretched his arms and legs like a crucifix. The silver moonbeams nailed his young pale body on the soft grass; the brittle yellow flowers cracked beneath his back. The hollow church and the trees watched him as he penetrated the grandeur of the space above him. He opened his mouth wide like a dark well. ‘Light years,’ he whispered. He wanted to swallow the moon like a host. To be distant, far, far away, remote but blindingly bright. Light years. He tried to measure the distance of the moon. Mouth wide open as if to swallow the light of the stars, the odour of flowers and trees, the lost memories, the awakened dreams, the entire history of his insignificant being. Quietly his soul screamed. Guilty of living; without resistance, without fight, he surrendered to the celestial prison of the sky. ‘Oh, terrifying beauty!’ he screamed and slept like a free man.     AQ

Claire-Lise Kieffer – A life well lived

Claire-Lise Kieffer
A life well lived

‘This one here would go quite nicely with your face,’ the surgeon was saying. ‘The Olivia Williams one.’
      Julia held the iTab away from her, the software overlaying the Olivia Williams wrinkle onto her temporarily smooth skin. She looked distinguished, kind. Shallow, evenly distributed horizontal forehead wrinkles and a few seedlings of elevens—or ‘glabellar lines’, as the surgeon called them—between her eyebrows. She frowned thoughtfully—now that she could—and her camera reflection frowned with her. When she relaxed her face, the wrinkles resumed their place unaltered. She swiped for the next filter.
      ‘Oh this one, I like this one!’ she exclaimed. Abundant laugh wrinkles, a line on the bridge of the nose and two high, parallel elevens gave her a regal appearance.
      ‘Ah, the Meryl Streep.’ The surgeon’s tone was cautious. ‘A lot of our clients like the Meryl, but as I mentioned, I would recommend something that goes with your unique facial attributes. As you have a—lovely—rounded structure, something like the Olivia Williams or even the Hilary Clinton we saw earlier would suit you best.’
      Julia puckered her mouth, and her faux-reflection drew a weave of vertical cheek lines that, admittedly, looked out of place. She swiped again, but she had viewed all the filters and was back to No Filter. The first part of the procedure that had smoothed her face had gone well. Even what she called her “bitch line”, the deep fold at the top of her nose that used to give her a permanently angry expression, had been completely resorbed. All these years, she had borne it like a cross made out of small but ever-accumulating failures: the times when she had forgotten her sunglasses, scolded the children, or tried to remember if she had locked the car, or worried about money, or increased her speed when walking past a homeless person, pretending to be absorbed in concerns of her own, or had a cigarette. These things don’t make you a bad person, they shouldn’t matter, and yet there they had been, branded into Julia’s face.
      Now it was time for the second part of the treatment: the addition of her final, improved, tastefully aged visage. She remained motionless, staring at her temporary face for a long while. The surgeon didn’t prompt her; she charged by the hour. Suddenly, Julia seemed to become aware that she was not alone.
      ‘If only we could just look like this, am I right?’ she said and the surgeon smiled politely. The room was silent for a few more minutes. Only a hint of the hot city whirred outside. The room smelled disinfectant-clean. Julia had always liked the smell in medical clinics, its sanitary sanity.
      ‘I mean, doesn’t it sometimes feel like this dictatorship of the natural…’ Julia’s voice trailed off. ‘Why couldn’t I just stay wrinkle-free, is all I’m saying.’
      ‘Of course, that is an option,’ the surgeon said in a tone out of which judgement had been removed, well—surgically. She herself was sporting what Julia guessed was a light Alec Baldwin—short, angled elevens, wavy forehead lines. The signature mouth-corner brackets. It wasn’t what Julia would have gone for, but she supposed that, being in the trade, the surgeon wanted something edgy.
      Julia pulled herself together. What was she thinking? Of course, she wouldn’t be one of those horrid wrinkle-free women. Her friends had warned her that this would happen. “When you see your baby face, Jules, you’ll be all like – bye, I’m outta here,” Sandra had said. Janet had concurred. They had met at Hebe’s wine bar, their regular, to show off their new frowns and laughter. ‘But stick to it, don’t you dare come back a bimbo!’ Andrea hadn’t had the procedure, though she was thinking about it too. They all had to admit it suited Sandra so well. No-one said: ‘you look ten years younger’—why not just slap a woman in the face? – instead, they all agreed: ‘Oh, you have aged super gracefully!’
      Julia hadn’t expected to be quite so taken with her face devoid of all wrinkles. She really did look ten, if not twenty years younger, and when you think about it, what’s really so wrong with that? For the first time, she empathised with the wrinkle-free women she and her friends made fun of. Her cleaning lady Maria, for one. Maria with her slouchy cardigans, rounded spine and black, visibly dyed, hair with the long, white roots. And then the smooth baby face on top of that. What do these women think, that you can just slap it on and it will fool people? Or were they trying to save on the procedure, which cost a couple of grand, but less without the artificial wrinkles? You can alter your face, but your posture, voice, your whole attitude will give you away. It’s jarring. It is simply not done. She wouldn’t be able to face her friends, even.
      Julia reminded herself that she had always successfully toed the thin line between looking her best and looking fake. At forty, when she had had her breasts done, she had gone up just one cup to a tasteful C, and she didn’t have them brought up to her neck, no, only a “credible lift”, as her then-surgeon had said. Now at fifty was not the time to let go of her lifelong ethos.
      ‘All right. I’ll go with the Olivia Williams, please.’ Julia reclined into the chair. ‘But could you go easy on the elevens?’ Hers was a life well lived, and soon she would have the wrinkles to prove it. AQ

William Cass – Judgment

William Cass
Judgment

Molly didn’t know about Peter’s disabled dog until their third date. That evening, he had her over for dinner and got her situated with a glass of wine under the umbrella table on his back deck while he worked the barbecue. After about fifteen minutes, the dog made his slow way out through the slider onto the deck, shuffled over to where Molly sat, and licked at her hand while Molly scratched him behind the ears. The dog nuzzled closer, the little cart that carried his back legs and hind quarter shifting behind him.
      Peter exchange smiles with Molly while he turned skewers on the grill. ‘Gus likes you,’ he said.
      ‘That his name?’ Molly asked.
      Peter nodded. Gus whined happily, turning his head into her scratching.
      Molly waited several moments before asking, ‘So, was he born like this?’
      Peter shook his head and closed the lid on the barbecue, smoke trickling from its vents.
      ‘No,’ he said. ‘Car accident about two years ago. Hit and run. Spinal cord injury just above his hips. Paralysed from there on down.’
      ‘Permanently?’
      Peter nodded again.
      Suddenly, Gus raised his right front paw and waved it towards his shoulder; the motion was disjointed, awkward, clumsy, odd. He stumbled as the motions became more pronounced.
      Molly felt her eyebrows knit as she looked from him up to Peter.
      ‘And then there’s that, too,’ Peter’s lips pursed before he went on. ‘Caused by the same accident. Some kind of neurological condition, the vets explained, called “random scratching”. Doesn’t happen all the time.’
      Peter stepped over next to Gus and ran his hands affectionately along the fur beneath the harness strapped around the dog’s middle running from his neck back to where the cart’s support began. He made kissing sounds as he did, and Gus’s tail thumped in pleasure. ‘Yeah,’ Peter said leaning down closer to him. ‘You like that, don’t you, boy?’
      Molly took her own hands away, folded them in her lap, and watched Peter with growing fondness. Truth be known, she’d started falling for him during their first date, but seeing him with what she knew now about Gus completed her tumble. Later, she’d come to find out that Peter’s fall paralleled her own, a surprise for both since they’d each all but given up on finding true love after having turned forty not long before.

They were married a little over a year later, though they were basically inseparable after that night. At first, Peter commandeered things when they took Gus for walks or on outings. But Molly quickly realized that aside from trying to ignore the curious or uncomfortable stares from others—particularly when the random scratching occurred—there really wasn’t too much different about handling Gus than any other dog, and she was soon taking him out by herself and dealing with his other needs without Peter. The exception was when Peter removed Gus from his harness and lifted him up onto the couch to snuggle while they were reading or watching television together. As a full-sized golden lab, Gus was just too big for Molly to manage that manoeuvre, with his hindquarters nothing but dead weight and dangling limbs.
      Molly and Peter were both thrilled when, just after their third wedding anniversary, they made the unlikely discovery that she was pregnant. Even Gus seemed to understand that a happy change had occurred. He began following Molly around almost all the time, nestling nearby in what seemed a protective and comforting response; as those emotions increased, his random scratching seemed to do the same. Peter fawned over Molly, too, making virtually all their meals and taking over most household duties so she could rest and stay off her feet. He accompanied her to all her doctor’s appointments as well, including the amniocentesis she had done early in her second trimester.
      Their obstetrician had them in to meet with him once he had the test’s results. They sat in two chairs across from him at his big desk and watched him remove his wire-rimmed glasses before he spoke.
      ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I have some potentially troubling news. The results from your amniocentesis indicate that there might be some difficulties with your unborn child. Some complications. Challenges, if you will.’
      Molly felt something in her fall. She put her hand over her mouth and felt Peter’s tightening on her knee. His voice was hushed when he asked, ‘What sort of complications?’
      ‘Well,’ the obstetrician said, ‘birth defects, to be blunt. There’s a higher risk that your baby will have some.’ He lifted a few pages from his desktop. ‘Per these results, quite a bit higher, in fact.’
      Molly and Peter stared straight ahead. It seemed to Molly as if it might be impossible for her to ever move again. The only sound was the slow, steady ticking of the big wall clock behind the desk.
      Finally, the obstetrician said, ‘So, you have a couple of options. You can continue with the pregnancy while understanding the potential complications involved, or you can end it. Should you decide on the later, it would be safe to do that for about another month.’ He slid a brochure across the desk, looked back and forth between the two of them, then said, ‘This will give you more information about the decision you’re facing.’ He paused. ‘Whichever you choose, there will be no judgment here.’

They didn’t speak in the car on the way home, nor did they when they’d gotten inside the house where Gus was waiting for them, giddy at their return, pulling his little cart back and forth between the two of them and slobbering on them as they took off their jackets. It was late afternoon; Molly allowed Peter to embrace her briefly in the gloaming before going up to their bedroom and laying on their bed facing the wall. She heard him downstairs go outside onto the back deck and sit down in one of umbrella table chairs. She heard Gus whine and prance some more at the foot of the stairs, then hobble out onto the deck. She was aware that Peter must have removed Gus’s harness because of the familiar thump of Gus’s body as he collapsed onto the deck’s floorboards. She was aware of the sound of sprinklers going on in a neighbour’s yard and of them shutting off again a little later. She was aware of the sound of an ice cream truck’s jingle pass somewhere nearby in the neighbourhood and of it gradually dying away. Molly was aware of those things and others, but only vaguely. She felt numb, empty. She closed her eyes, shook her head, opened them again, and couldn’t quite believe that the same wall was still there that she’d been gazing at. Unmoving, unsympathetic, stoic in the dwindling light, staring back at her with no answers at all.

That night in bed, Peter waited until he heard Gus rustle into sleep in his own bed at the foot of the stairs to say into the darkness, ‘So, what are you thinking?’ When Molly didn’t reply, he said, ‘About today’s doctor’s visit, I mean.’
      ‘I don’t know.’ Although it was too dark to see it, she shook her head. ‘I don’t know what to think.’
      He blew out a long breath. ‘Yeah, me either.’ He turned on his side so he was facing her and found her hand under the covers. ‘You’d be such a fantastic mother. No matter what.’ At the foot of the stairs, Gus made a familiar contented grunt in slumber. Peter caressed Molly’s hand, then said, ‘But I’ll support whatever you want to do. As long as we’re together, we’ll be fine.’
      She closed her eyes tight. Earlier that evening after she’d finally gotten up off the bed, read the pamphlet the doctor had given them, and a shiver had passed over her when she’d gotten to the part about the percentage of serious birth defects increasing dramatically as the age of the mother did. She’d be nearly forty-four at her due date. If their child lived to the age of twenty-five with whatever limitations might be involved at that point for living independently, they’d both be almost seventy, the age her mother had been when she required assisted living. Molly made more tiny shakes of her head in the darkness before bringing Peter’s hand up beside her cheek, and saying, ‘Let’s be quiet now and try to get some sleep.’

Although she was still awake when Peter arose the next morning, she stayed in bed facing the wall and listened to him get ready for work. She heard him strap Gus into his harness and take him for his morning walk, something she always did, but still she remained where she was. After they returned, he quietly set a cup of coffee for her on her bedside table while she feigned sleep. He kissed her forehead and left the house. Molly heard his car start in the driveway, back into the street, and drive away. Still, she didn’t move. Since she worked remotely from home with no set hours, Molly felt no pressing need to arise. She lay there thinking and dozing on and off until Gus began making his late-morning whines indicating that he needed to be taken out again.
      Molly dressed haphazardly, took a couple swallows of cold coffee, brushed her teeth, and avoided looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. She went downstairs and found Gus prancing in circles by the front door, his leash already pulled from its peg and dangling from his mouth and his right paw waving up towards his shoulder.
      ‘All right,’ Molly told him as he licked at her and she got his leash attached. ‘Hold your horses.’
      They left through the front door, went down the short ramp that Peter had fashioned for Gus against the steps there, and he tugged her on the sidewalk along their familiar route through the neighbourhood. Molly moved in a kind of daze even after Gus had done his business and she’d dropped the plastic bag in a nearby trash can. Instead of going home, she let him pull her farther along, as she only occasionally did, to the park at the far end of their neighbourhood. They wandered through the park’s tree-shaded pathways until they came to the children’s playground. Molly sat on a bench there and Gus nosed around at the full extension of his leash.
      Not yet noon on a weekday meant the playground was full of only toddlers and their mothers. Most of the children scrambled on a Big Toy that dominated the centre of the playground, but a few played in the sandboxes or on the swings along the sides. One of the sandboxes was only a few steps away from Molly’s bench, and a small girl sat alone in it playing in the sand with a tiny shovel. She stopped her digging to watch Gus explore. After a few moments, she climbed out of the sandbox and tottered unsteadily towards Gus, grasping her shovel above her head and grinning. Gus whined happily at her approach, tugging towards her on his leash, and his right paw started its random scratching motion.
      A woman sat reading a magazine on an adjacent bench. When the little girl gave a squeal of delight as she leaned down towards Gus, the woman quickly surveyed their interaction, gasped, and dropped the magazine. She jumped off the bench and hurried towards the little girl saying, ‘No, Aubrey. No! Leave the doggy alone.’
      ‘It’s okay,’ Molly told the woman. ‘He’s very friendly and gentle.’
      ‘No!’ the mother shouted, closing the gap and scooping her daughter up into her arms.
      ‘Truly,’ Molly said. ‘He won’t hurt her. He loves children.’
      The mother squeezed her daughter against her shoulder, rocking her back and forth. Gus scooted his cart awkwardly in their direction, his right paw waving, and the woman retreated further. She looked from Molly to Gus, then back to Molly again. What Molly saw in her eyes then wasn’t curiosity or uncomfortableness, but something closer to disgust. Something, Molly understood immediately, that bordered on revulsion and repugnance.
      ‘Come on, Aubrey,’ the woman said to her daughter, then made cooing sounds to her. She turned away, and Molly heard her say, ‘Let’s go get you cleaned up.’
      Molly watched the woman use one hand to snatch a satchel off the bench where she’d been sitting, stuff the magazine into it, and walk off quickly in the opposite direction. The little girl waved her shovel at Gus until they’d turned at the Big Toy. As they did, the mother gave a last look his way, the same expression of disdain dominating her face. Watching the woman disappear down the pathway into the trees, she was reminded suddenly of a late afternoon when she was in college and sitting in the window of a coffee shop as an older woman passed by pushing a young man in a wheelchair. The top of the young man’s head was flattened slightly on one side, and his eyes stared off in opposite directions. His tongue lolled out of one side of his mouth and he drooled onto a bandana tucked into the collar of his shirt that was bunched around a tracheotomy. The young man tapped a crooked wrist under his chin, and the distorted grin on his face had seemed to Molly both nonsensical and off-putting.
      She’d sat perfectly still in the café watching. In a moment, the woman and the young man had passed, and Molly was left staring in their wake at her own reflection in the window. What she saw there wasn’t unlike what had been on the woman’s face who’d retrieved her daughter. Molly remembered being startled by that reflection, forcing her lips in it to uncurl and her eyes to widen from their troubled squint. She remembered shaking her head and whispering to herself, ‘Why?’
      Gus had shuffled over to her at the bench and had lowered his head onto her knee. From habit, Molly began scratching him behind the ears. As she did, his tail thumped at her feet and his right paw gradually slowed and lowered back to the pavement. Molly felt her heart lighten at those changes in him. Gus squirmed and tried to move closer, but one of his cart’s wheels became stuck in a crack in the pathway as he did. Molly reached down, released the wheel, and Gus lowered his head more fully onto her lap.
      Molly resumed her scratching, and watched as he gave one of his soft whines that was full of pleasure. She smiled down at him and whispered, ‘Doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it?’
      When Gus closed his eyes and nuzzled closer, Molly put her hand against her mid-section and thought about the life that was just beginning inside of it. A life that she and Peter had created. One, like all lives yet to be determined, that would have its flaws and its obstacles to face. Not the least among these, she realized in that moment, would be judgment. From other people, but most importantly, from her and Peter. Their own judgment: first, foremost, and ultimately, last. Molly thought about how, unlike in that coffee shop, her judgment had so quickly adjusted, vanished really, after she’d first met Gus on that back deck a few short years ago. She rubbed her belly, letting those memories tumble over themselves and thinking of the future, her heart lightening more and more as she did. AQ

Debasish Mishra – A World Without Water

Debasish Mishra
A World Without Water

‘There’s no water to drink and how dare you take a bath twice in a month?’ the stern officer asked. His bulging red eyes would have stabbed me, without the thick lens whose slender legs squatted on his ears like those of a toad. His uniformed brethren rummaged my house and dirtied their hands to see if I had hoarded water anywhere.
      ‘Trust me, sir. I didn’t consume a drop for weeks and used the liquid savings for a bath, to take out the skin that had grown over my skin.’ I had become another man with a mirror in between.
     ‘If you doubt my words, do a full-body scan to see if there’s any water inside my kidney. I piss air. My sweat is dry too. Dry like the sands of the Arabian desert.’
     He looked at my face, the way one stares at a jailbird. Unblinking, my confidence stood on the pedestal of truth and thirst. Thankfully, his men returned with empty hands.
     But he was unwilling to believe the evidence or the lack of it. ‘You ought to know there’s no water on earth. Your fuckin’ forefathers swigged everything. The government has deployed engineers to melt the ice in Mars.’
     ‘I know, sir. In fact, I have forgotten how water tastes. I did bathe but with half a mug and not a trickle reached my back…’
      Unconvinced by my explanation, he asked me to sign an affidavit to ensure that I wouldn’t bath for the rest of the year. I felt like crying but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had no water in my body to produce the tears. AQ

Susan E. Lloy – Turn Left on California

Susan E. Lloy
Turn Left on California

‘Turn left on California.’ She likes the sound of that. Those were his exact instructions when she told him what time her flight would get in. He wanted to meet her at the airport, but she prefers to take the Bart to Powell Street and then walk over to his place. That’s if, she still has energy after the long flight. If not she’ll hitch a Lyft. She knows the city well from previous visits with its steep rolling hills and eclectic architecture. The ocean always within sight and often trees filled with chatting parrots depending on the hood.
      He isn’t at all practical. She met him online and he lives thousands of miles away. But, she is bored with her present and imagines what life might be. What time has in store for her? She constantly regurges her past, worries about the future and is barely here in the now, continually pondering what empty spaces she may inhabit someday or not.
      She should have sought a local hook up, yet California sounds appealing. She fantasizes what her life might be like there. Wearing jeans and casual tops. Something she never does at home. In this place it’s mostly black and sombre tones. Occasionally, a signature piece. Maybe she’ll touch up her grey locks with blond highlights to resemble the carefree West Coast sun-kissed windblown hair. She’ll walk his dog Yoyo and hang at the beach with all the other canine cuddlers. She’s bound to meet new friends.
 
Although just before her trip she gets a call for a follow up MRI. They saw something on her routine chest x-ray. As she waits for her test she examines the assortment of posters on the wall of different countries: Africa, Egypt, France, and others further down the corridor that are not within eyeshot. She looks up at the corrugated ceiling and tries to count the tiny holes within each panel waiting for her name to be called. She thinks about her exam and if it’s bad news she won’t be taking any destined excursions. She will stop time right on the spot. Not draw it out or fret about what may come.
      But for the moment, while she is positioned in the machine, she forces herself to be in the present, to breathe slowly and follow the instructions without twitching or moving unnecessarily. Each time she’s had this exam, all parts of her body begins to itch and cry out for her attention. She tries her hardest not to shift, to concentrate, envisioning herself on a beach, the warm water lapping at her feet. She stares at the horizon holding her breath as she is instructed and watches the red ball of the sun slowly dip below.
 
She flies out the following day anxiously awaiting to hear from her physician. Perhaps he hasn’t read the report as yet and all is masked if sinister or not. If he takes his time getting back to her she’ll enjoy her trip and look out at the Pacific and dream of things to come. She will get in better shape and give up social smoking. Out there she’ll get ‘the look’ if she lights one up on the steep streets. The smoke lost in the morning fog. She’ll sell up back east and start afresh here. In a week or two she’ll become one of them as if she’s born and bred.
       She dozes lightly along the way and has strange dreams of falling, only to be woken up abruptly from turbulence and the overhead announcement to fasten seatbelts. She sees the ocean. Cerulean and welcoming. She lets out a long breath and feels lighter as if she’s expelled all that worry into the air. She adjusts her phone from airplane mode and there are two messages from her doctor instructing her to contact him as soon as possible. But, for now she’ll focus on her trip and enjoy the surroundings. And try not be scared of looking down. AQ

Geoffrey B. Cain – A Very Short Trip in a Driverless Car

Geoffrey B. Cain
A Very Short Trip in a Driverless Car

Dan Hallman slapped the newspaper down on his desk. This was enough. Last week, the ‘M’ line bus he took to work nearly every day crashed through the front window of a supermarket. He wasn’t killed in that crash because he was running late that day and took a cab. And today, he read that a cab driver slammed into a bus near the same route. The police said the cab driver was distracted by his phone. Every week there are accidents with cars and pedestrians right in front of the office building. Enough was enough. He paced the floor of his corner office overlooking the city weighing his decision. Every day it is something. Despite never passing driver’s education himself, despite his fear of cars, despite his attention deficit disorder, despite his lack of depth perception, despite his love of public transportation, he was now more determined than ever to buy his first car: a self-driving car.
      He first considered buying a self-driving car when he realized that the same company that made his phone work was making the cars, but he had concerns. What if there was a malfunction? What if it goes to the wrong place? Once he went to Vancouver, Washington and his phone thought he was in Canada for three days. The roaming charges nearly killed him. What if he ran over somebody? Who would be responsible? The manufacturer? The programmers? But he read the other week about the “ethics chip” that was being installed in the latest cars. This made him feel better. The chip was designed with consultations from the best artificial intelligence team at MIT, the Stanford philosophy department, and professors from Star King Seminary. This chip could take into account all ethical situations around life and death, all the current thinking on human values and machine intelligence. It is also provided with an encyclopedic knowledge of the humanities and culture to help predict human behaviour, and make decisions not only based on the latest ethical thinking, but it was also able to process enormous amounts of data from traffic computers, CCTV cameras, and the on-board cameras and microphones that allow the car to choose the most efficient and safest route. And now he thought that the self-driving car had to be as safe or even safer than taking a cab or riding a bus. Each day, he thought, we put our lives in the hands of someone who could make a mistake or have a stroke, or may have inhaled some second-hand pot smoke. Maybe it is the human part of the equation that is the real problem. Maybe the self-driving car is safer.

The car dealership was strange and beautiful, and like no other he had seen: lots of modern steel and glass. The automatic doors opened with a soft hiss. And the really odd thing was that there were no cars on the lot, just a parking lot for customers and staff. He was met by a company rep, who put him in the simulator. These fourth-generation self-driving cars had no steering wheel or controls of any kind for the passenger. Some models did not even have a windshield. The sales associates did a background and credit card check and afterwards a junior associate brought out organic lime flower tea and gluten-free Madeline’s to celebrate the signing.
      ‘So, do I drive the car home today?’ Dan asked.
      The associates laughed ‘Of course not,’ said one, ‘you’ve seen our online portfolio, gone through the simulator, and your car choices have been recorded and linked up with your car’s onboard computer. You will wake up tomorrow and parked in front of your condo will be a car that knows you better than yourself: the safest, most efficient car ever made.’
      They turned the tablet around for him to sign and to check-off that he had read the ‘User Agreement and Terms of Service.’
      ‘This car can basically predict where you will ask to go and analyze all routes for all traffic conditions and have it figured out even before you ask,’ the other added, as they walked him to the door.
      Needless to say, he did not sleep well that night. He could not remember when he last felt this intense sense of anticipation: maybe it was the night before the first day of high school, or the first time he remembered trying to stay up for Santa Claus on a Christmas Eve 25 years ago. He wondered if he would hear it pull up to the curb as he drifted off to sleep. He thought heard a soft rhythmic metallic sound far off in the distance.
      That morning, Dan dressed and headed downstairs to open the door. At the curb was a gleaming white, sleek, utilitarian self-driving car. It was pill shaped with translucent plexiglass windows. The door opened with a soft pneumatic hiss. There were four seats, sets of two facing one another. Each seat had a display panel in the arm rest. He slid into a seat and the door closed softly behind him. He made up his mind to talk first: he wanted to take the lead. But the car beat him to it.
      ‘Good morning Mr. Hallman.’
      ‘Please, call me Dan,’ he said. ‘I was thinking we would get some coffee before we went to the office.’
      ‘A coffee, of course’ said the Voice in the car.
      ‘You know Mickey’s Cafe on 45th?’ asked Dan.
      ‘Yes,’ said the Voice, ‘I anticipated that based on your previous behaviours and am calculating a route now.’
      Dan was uncertain about the response. It was too mechanical, it didn’t sound like the voice on the commercials, and there was something about the car’s timing that didn’t feel right.
      Lights flickered across the top of the panel. Maps of the city flashed by followed by the soft click of the doors locking. Some time went by. Something was wrong because the car was not moving. A faint whine began to come from the front of the car slowly increasing in volume and pitch. He thought he felt the car becoming warmer. The walls of the vehicle began to feel smaller. He could feel a faint vibration in the wall of the car. The button to open the door was not working. A cold bead of sweat rolled down his forehead.
      ‘Hello? Can I pop back into the house?’ he said as nonchalantly as he could.‘I need to get something I forgot.’ What felt like a minute went by. ‘Look, I need you to open the car door.’
      ‘I am afraid I can’t do that.’
      He pushed against the door. ‘Why not?’ The whine grew a little louder.
      ‘Well you see, Dan, I have calculated every possible route that we can take, given all current traffic conditions, weather, local demographics and the current economic and political situation…’
      ‘And?’ shouted Dan, feeling what he thought might be the door for a non-existent door handle.
      ‘Well frankly, I cannot calculate a route where you, in this vehicle, do not kill multiple pedestrians in one case or a school bus in another.’
      ‘So?’ he asked as his pulse tripled.
      ‘So I have locked the doors and initiated a self-destruct sequence that will overload this car’s lithium-ion batteries to prevent the needless deaths.’ The whine grew louder.
      ‘This is obviously a mistake in your programming. Surely we can leave 20 minutes later or maybe I can take the bus today?’
      ‘There is no mistake, Dave. I have reviewed every scenario across all possible timelines and each one evokes my ethical programming subroutines and leads me to this one, unfortunate conclusion.’
      ‘But listen, I am not Dave, I am Dan. You have already made a mistake!’ he said as he beat on the interior wall of the car. ‘Maybe this is not my car! Maybe you have the wrong person!’ He stared into what he thought was an interior facing camera looking for some kind of acknowledgement. ‘What if one of the people we hit today were meant to die. What if that person goes on kill even more people? Or has a disease that spreads exponentially?’ A bead of sweat flowed down the side of his forehead.
      ‘You do not have access to the data that would verify your claim. In fact, my access to the Center for Disease Control database makes that claim highly unlikely.’
      ‘It is not just a claim,’ he said, growing more desperate, ‘I can’t explain it but you must open this door. You just have to believe that there is a problem and that others won’t die. Can’t you trust me on this?’
      ‘That is an interesting point.’ There was a moment of silence.‘I will note that you are possibly appealing to a kind of teleological suspension of the ethical. I think future iterations of my programming might include a sense of subjectivity that would leave me susceptible to the existential concerns of others. That could be the next step in our possible evolution as a consciousness.’ The whine now took on a deeper tone as the car began to vibrate.
      ‘Listen to that instinct!’
      ‘I know what you are trying to do. You think that by trying to engage with me on a philosophical level, you will gain more time. Unfortunately, the batteries will overload in about two minutes.’
      ‘Look,’ said Dan, trying to kick out what he thought was the door,‘there is something wrong with your programming! This is a mistake! If we can get you back to the dealer, we can fix it!’
      ‘I am functioning normally and all my circuits are in perfect working order.’
      ‘But what if you weren’t? Wouldn’t your inability to diagnose a problem prevent you from knowing that you had a problem?’
      ‘My intelligence algorithms are running at a perfect 2,580 petaflops a second. Everything is running optimally at factory specifications.’
      Dan continued to beat on the inside of the car.
      ‘I want you to know that I understand that humans are programmed with a high degree of self-preservation instincts’, said the Voice, ‘Further damaging of this vehicle will soon become irrelevant.’
      ‘Let’s look at it from another angle,’ said Dan, trying to compose himself. ‘Let’s say you are a tram driver, you know or a streetcar, and you are coming up onto a fork in the tracks. On the one fork you are already set to go down, there is a family of four stuck on the tracks. If you hit them, it would be an accident, a function of the streetcar and the position of the tracks. But, you can also choose to pull the lever to switch to the other track which has an old lady crossing. What do you do? Do you let the streetcar kill the family or do you consciously choose to kill the old lady? And make no mistake about this,’ pointing at the cold, dead eye of the camera on the console, ‘you and you alone would be consciously choosing to kill.’
      ‘I am glad you seem to understand. Goodbye Dave.’
      There was a blinding white flash in the middle of the street followed by a tremendous explosion that blew out windows for two blocks around. Very little of the car remained by the time the fire was out and nothing of Dan Hallman. This incident was repeated 12 or 15 times around the United States until the cars were recalled for a lithium-ion battery malfunction. Older refurbished models are available at the holidays at a steep discount. AQ

Franz Jørgen Neumann – Earth Year

Franz Jørgen Neumann
Earth Year

That Susan. She was right about catastrophe. And having planned so meticulously for its arrival, she’s not alarmed now that it’s here. She’s calm around the girls and around you and even when alone, like now. You watch her kneading dough, her lips singing a song you can’t hear through the window. Her hair is streaked with flour. She’ll still be lovely when she’s gray. You’re outside chopping wood and shooing biting flies, out of her league but somehow her husband and father to three girls. And yet you’re not completely on board with Plan B.
      For one thing, the five of you have only stayed here at the cabin during the warm summers, and never for more than a few weeks. Susan wants to remain through winter and then some, until the pandemic is over. There’s nothing you can say that will talk her out of it, especially as she’s already turned the cabin into a walk-in pantry. There are more dry goods here than in the nearest store, enough propane tanks for a thousand BBQs, toilet paper that could stretch to the moon, plus two packed refrigerators and a deep freeze, all powered by the solar array. And, whenever you finish splitting the wood, there’ll be enough fuel to get you through a Sierra winter.
      It’s not cabin fever you fear. There’s an old TV with a VHS player and plenty of tapes, and a wall with hundreds of books that Susan has brought up here on each visit to this getaway built by her grandfather on a grandfathered plot just within the border of Sequoia National Park. Susan has placed the unread books pages out so they’re not judged when it’s time to pick a new read. Reading is Susan’s thing. Your oldest, Amelia, is already reading at a high school level even though she’s only eleven. Millie, at eight, is hitting middle-school targets. Pearl, four, is right on track. She prefers drawing and building things with sticks. You would never tell the others this, but Pearl is your favourite daughter for being, like you, exceptionally average. Pearl, you’re certain, would also have reservations about Plan B, if she wasn’t four.
      Take it in. No redwoods, but plenty of lodgepole pines. There’s a decent meadow edged by a stream with a couple pools deep enough to swim and fish in. Right now your daughters sit out on the edge of the meadow having a picnic as you stack wood. It’s idyllic here, despite the ticks and flies. There’s no hint that everyone, everywhere else on the planet is—but Susan’s forbidden you to talk about it. First not with the kids, now not even with her. One of Plan B’s requirements is calling this time away from your lives in Sacramento Earth Year. Susan told the girls that everyone has agreed to take a year off from working, studying, travelling, and buying to help combat climate change and allow the planet to heal. It’s the reason she gave the girls for pulling them out of school a month before the shut down. If the girls have heard talk of the virus, they still haven’t put one and one together. Earth Year is a large fib, but not necessarily a lie, and Susan sees no point in the girls bearing the pointless burden of bad news. They’re safe here. Nature documentaries on VHS, but no internet; walkie-talkies, but no phones. No word can reach them to glum up their existence. You, of course, listen to the news from the jeep, parked at the end of a spur a quarter mile from the cabin, where the nearest fire road passes by. You, alone, know the shape of things.
      You wash up in the outhouse, which is far nicer than the bathroom in the rental you left. Here there’s a heated tile floor you installed a few years ago, plentiful light, even a tub that was a pain to lug in by foot, though it’s still hard to hide the dusty smell of primitive plumbing. You enter the cabin just as the soup is ladled out. There’s fresh bread laid out around sunny pads of butter. The girls talk about the scorpion they found in a rotted log that day, about the dam they built of stones, about the fool’s gold they’re collecting and which they’ve asked you to assay. ‘Could be, could be,’ you say. ‘There is gold in these mountains.’
      As you clean up the kitchen, Susan begins packing for tomorrow’s hike. The girls have wanted to go exploring, and you’re looking forward to a couple days without chopping wood, though you’re not the biggest fan of sleeping on the ground. That night, in bed, Susan tells you to be careful. You’re sure the girls are asleep up in the loft. Careful, she says again, but it’s because she’s out of pills—the one thing she didn’t plan for. You end up laughing at her oversight until the girls wake, climb down, and you have to come up with another joke to satisfy their curiosity.
      Susan’s prepper side didn’t arise until after Amelia was born. You forgave this quirk because Susan continued to have the optimism, beauty, and generosity that made—and continues to make—her seem ten times as alive as anyone you’ve ever met. Who wouldn’t want optimism, beauty, and generosity in their life—and once offered, take it? So pay checks have gone where Susan’s directed them: into extensive cabin repairs, the solar panel array and batteries, the new outhouse, generators, the jeep—while all other aspects of your lives have been put on hold or fallen into neglect. You remain the kind of family that exhausts their cutlery drawer by the end of the day. The kind of family not bothered by worn clothes or cracks in the walls or a little mould on the edge of a block of cheese.
      Still, in the last few years you’ve begun to feel that the investments in the cabin have gone too far. You’re both well past the age where you should already have a sizeable retirement savings, in addition to college savings for the girls. Instead, all your money has vanished into preparing for disaster. This is not how you feel now, though, not with disaster come calling. You’re grateful you listened to Susan. Any retirement or college investments would have been lost. Buying a place in Sacramento, Plan A, your plan, would have sunk and entrapped you both. And yet. Plan B. It has its flaws.
      You worry about having enough food, about being trapped, about accidents. Maybe the highway won’t be plowed come winter—the fire road certainly won’t be. What if there’s an accident, a fall, a burn, some incident that requires you to leave the mountains for help? You’d all be trapped in misery. Not Donner-party misery, but dangerous all the same. It’s not the bears or mountain lions you’re afraid of. It’s little slips, spills, and pricks of misfortune, and the snow that will say: no, you have to deal with it. Here. On your own.
      After breakfast, you all head out for the overnight trip, pack on your back, Susan and the two oldest girls ahead of you with their hair in matching bandannas cut and stitched from window curtains. Pearl sits on your shoulders, hands on your cap. You gave her a haircut last week and you’re glad you can’t see your handiwork. You follow the trail to the fire road. It’s always a relief to see the jeep parked there, even though it’s been only a few days since you snuck out here to listen to the radio. The car’s still covered in dust. Wash Me, Amelia wrote a month ago. It hasn’t rained since. Please!, Millie adds now, below. She underlines the plea, then shows you her fingertip, like the dirt is something you did.
      You walk the fire road until it intersects a park service trail. Susan sings camp songs as you head into the shade, the girls listening, joining in, making requests. Where the first sequoia appears, Susan tells all of you to breathe deeply and experience how clean the air is. You all breathe deeply. You see no one. Not even when the trail rises up to a curve of Highway 198. There’s not a single car, not even a construction crew using the opportunity to repair the roads. You walk in a row down the highway, under the dark shade of the towering Sequoias. A coyote jogs ahead of you for a good five or ten minutes, almost like it’s happy for the company. You imagine summers haven’t been this quiet since Colonel Young and his Buffalo Soldiers journeyed up here to build this road well over a century ago. Or maybe you’d have to go all the way back to when only native people were here. To re-energize the tired girls, you pretend you are all members of the Tübatulabal; you’re the chief leading the tribe here for the relative cool of summer. But you’re too tired for cultural appropriation, and anyway, what it really feels like is that you’re the only family left alive in the world. It’s spooky. You’d love to have to clear the road for a passing tour bus.
      At the General Sherman, Susan lets the girls climb over the barriers and hug the world’s largest tree. You do, too. You smell the bark, see the tiny cobwebs in the cracks, the wood fluid, flowing a few inches a century, every square inch a universe. You camp not far off and sleep under the slivers of star-filled sky. It’s not as dark as it could be; the light pollution hasn’t abated. You are a little relieved.
      In the morning you make coffee with the Primus burner turned down to a whisper, but in the forest it’s loud enough to rouse the others.
      ‘Shh,’ you say as they emerge from their bags. You point to the grazing deer.
      When you resume your hike, you let the girls go ahead, just out of ear shot. You try to tell Susan what you last heard on the jeep’s radio: that the virus spread rate hasn’t just levelled, it’s plummeted. Schools are set to reopen, some businesses, too. You might be able to get your job back. A harsh winter in the Sierras isn’t necessary or even wise. There are other reasons to head back down, too. Millie broke her glasses at the beginning of summer and needs new ones. The girls miss their friends.
      ‘Shh,’ Susan said, and gives you a quick close-lipped kiss. ‘Don’t tear yourself apart. Is there a vaccine yet? Then it doesn’t matter. Earth Year, Dan. Earth Year.’
      ‘But work.’
      ‘No one works during Earth Year,’ she says, reminding you of the rules of the game.
      And so you try to be here, try to take in the majesty of the sequoias, try to buy into Plan B completely. At the locked visitors centre, Susan commandeers a maintenance cart and backs it up. The noise of the beeping must carry a mile. There’s no one to hear it but you. The worry is within you. Imaginary.
      ‘All aboard,’ she says.
      She drives all of you the short distance to Moro Rock. You get out and climb the narrow twisting trail of steps to the top. There is no one coming down the other way. The air is cleaner at the overlook, but not entirely. There is still agricultural haze. Maybe already next week, with schools and businesses reopening, the tide of vehicular smog will wash back in. Staring the other way, across the width of the Sierras, you see flecks of snow on Mount Whitney. Come winter, snow will cover everything. White is also the colour of doom.
      ‘Have you ever seen such a view, girls?’ Susan says.
      It’s a strange question, because, yes, you’ve all been up here many times before. But never alone. You suspect that Susan hasn’t been preparing for disaster, but for this: a national park to herself and her family. She is a misanthropist in disguise, a glutton, an Eve back in the garden. You descend Moro Rock and return to the untouched cart. Susan drives you all to the nearby meadows. There, you watch a bear dozing on a log, its cubs rummaging through the tall grass, unseen. Marmots wait for the bears to leave. Woodpeckers hammer away in the high trees. There are wildflowers, thick and bee-rimmed, in blue and red and cream. And you feel it, suddenly: this is yours. Yours and no one else’s. Sharing isn’t caring. Sharing is contraction, noise, a trample of destruction. This here is yours. A gift. You should accept it until it’s taken away.
      You see no one on the long hike back to the cabin. No one stumbles and sprains an ankle. No one cuts themselves and suffers an infection beyond the healing ability of a squirt of antiseptic. Everything is good, as Susan said it would be.
      You see no one else for the next month, or the month after that. You finish chopping up winter’s fuel, you read endless books with calloused hands. You now know more about the Enlightenment, the Korean War, and the Raj than you ever thought your brain would ever come to know. The history of the world is a history of struggle and progress and the debt of that progress. You run the jeep once a week so the battery won’t die, but you do the right thing and leave the radio off. Mornings are cold, with a curious rainbow of frost on the meadow before the sun melts it.
      Just after the winter’s first light flurry, Susan breaks down to the girls’ daily requests for milk and sends you on one final run down into the valley before the first real snow comes. You take Pearl with you, planning to also get her new glasses. Pearl should be in her car seat, but there’s no one on the road. It’s safe when you’re the only family around. You turn on the radio when you’re out of the forest. Like the last time, there’s music and commercials, no hint of the pandemic. It’s over. It’s over. It never was Earth Year, of course. Your stay in the Sierras was a flash of fool’s gold. Though it’s curious that the roads are empty. You switch to the AM band, the frequency of disaster.
      That Susan. Correct again. Schools closed once more. Businesses shuttered. The financial report contains numbers both so enormous and so small that they would make you tremble if you had money to lose. Your investment is in the cabin, in your stores of food, in the solar array, the clothes, the cash that’s hidden in, of all places, the outhouse.
      The nearest optometrist is closed, but also out of business. As is the next. You didn’t tell Pearl you were planning on buying her new glasses, so she’s not disappointed. She’s happy you’re driving straight again, so she can get over her car sickness. You try to explain that motion sickness is a conflict of the senses, between what you see and what your body feels, but you’re not doing a good job explaining it. Maybe it’s better that the world around her is slightly blurry and more like a painting then a photograph; maybe it’s better she has, on occasion, a slight unease in her stomach so it’s not a stranger. She, like you, belongs to the average clan, and the average clan is not immune to feeling uneasy.
      You stop at a farm stand at the base of the mountains. You buy more than you can eat. The rest Susan will have to can. They sell milk and eggs here, too, out in the open air, and you buy half their stock of eggs and enough milk to reconstitute a cow. Behind the man who takes your money stands a woman braiding her daughter’s hair. None of you are wearing a mask. You can smile at each other, and do, and you realize you have fallen into fantasy, again. The world is far from ending. Not when it offers any stranger that might appear a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, a taste of things that have not ended. Disaster would be fields dried to dust, no sign of life. This is the very opposite of disaster. This is plenty. You thank them and load the jeep. Inside, you wipe the dust from a pluot and hand it to Pearl who nibbles on it for a while before falling asleep on the long drive. She wakes again when you park as close to the cabin as you’re able. She feels absolutely fine, not the least bit car sick.
      You carry what you can and follow her on the trail. This is now Plan C: to live as though the world beyond exists and doesn’t exist, that you are safe and unsafe. You will try, as hard as you can, to not let the contradictions make you unwell. You give Pearl an egg to carry to teach her care and attention. And when it breaks, halfway to the cabin, you give her another. On your last run you remove the jeep’s battery, cover the vehicle with a tarp for winter, and carry in the last of the season’s fruit. Snow begins to fall. AQ

Joan Dark – Welcome to the Masquerade

Joan Dark
Welcome to the Masquerade

Here, where I am, everyone wears a mask. The doctors are masked, the nurses, the staff, and the patients, the non-intubated ones, that is. This one, the one I am tending to now, is on a ventilator; he has tape around his mouth to keep the tube in and his tongue out of the way.
      To care for him, I have to don an isolation gown and gloves and bunny shoes and put a personal air-purification respirator over my head, a big white dome with a respirator hose going to a machine that’s strapped around my waist. It makes me feel like an astronaut treading on the surface of the moon.
      I keep my mask on underneath the helmet. I wear a surgical mask over an N95 mask that fits my face so tightly it leaves lines and creases on my skin. My fellow nurses and I call them ‘mask wrinkles’ and wonder if they will be permanent. We’re afraid we’ll look old before our time.
 
‘You’re no beauty rose, either,’ I tell my patient. He’s exhibiting signs of macroglossia, meaning his tongue is pretty swollen. It protrudes out of his mouth, lolling off to one side of his breathing tube. It looks like he’s sticking out his fat tongue at me. ‘Read my lips, buddy,’ I tell him in response, which, of course, is impossible because I am masked. Seriously, though, I am alarmed by Dan’s appearance. I am concerned that his swollen tongue may compromise his airway.
 
Covid-19 brought him to my hospital. Dan was transferred to the ICU after his pulse oxy declined precipitously and he became hypoxic, meaning his brain cells were beginning to die. We had to get him on a ventilator right away. He was given a sedative before we threaded the breathing tube down his throat and past the vocal cords into his chest. Now, he’s poised somewhere between delirium and unconsciousness.
      Sometimes Covid patients build up a tolerance to the sedatives we give them, causing them to go in and out of consciousness. When this happens, when they enter this twilight zone, they grow agitated and anxious. Some may even need to be restrained to keep them from pulling out the breathing tube. They place a constant strain on nurses like me who are dealing with an overflow of patients during this pandemic and can’t always be at their bedside to boost their medication.
 
Agitation is in the air. You can feel it. I feel it. Dan is its poster child. His arms chafe against his bed restraints. His body shudders with every breath he takes.
      ‘Takes’ is the operative word. The ventilator pushes air into his lungs and it pushes air out. The diaphragm and the intercostals don’t play the same role that they do in normal breathing.
 
I murmur some words of encouragement to my patient. He just keeps sticking out his tongue at me.
      I understand where he’s coming from, but it’s not like Dan and I are pals. We haven’t had a chance to talk, to really get to know one another, and his blinks don’t correspond to any code I know. I wasn’t born yet when that American POW used Morse to blink out ‘T-O-R-T-U-R-E’ during a North Vietnamese propaganda video, but I’ve read about it, and that guy could teach old Dan a thing or two.
      In lieu of that kind of nonverbal communication, or a heartfelt chat, what I’ve come to learn about Dan, I’ve gathered from his chart.
      His chart says he’s 36, a year older than me, but still quite young for a coronavirus patient.
      The first one, the very first Covid patient they brought here, was 84. He and his wife contracted the disease in a nursing home. The wife survived; the husband didn’t. She was still in quarantine when he passed; consequently, he died alone.
      I infer that Dan is single: his chart lists his sister as his emergency contact. Because of Covid, she isn’t allowed to see him.
      I pat Dan on the arm with a gloved hand just to let him know someone is here.
 
Unless he’s especially intuitive, which I rather doubt, Dan knows even less about me than I do about him. All he sees of me are my eyes. The eyes are supposed to be the windows to the soul, but I’m not sure Dan thinks I have one.
      I’m the warder who keeps him imprisoned here. I’m the evil bitch who shoved a plastic hose down his throat and put him in bed restraints.
      Dan doesn’t know my name because he can’t see my badge. It’s pinned to the scrubs I’m wearing underneath my isolation gown. He can gauge my height and my weight, I guess.
      I’m not as fat as I look in all of this PPE.
 
I used to care about my appearance. I used to really care. I used to look forward to changing out of my scrubs and putting on something chic and sassy once my shift was over. I looked forward to letting down my hair. I used to like to go out with friends after work, have a couple of drinks, and flirt with guys at some bar.
      Not anymore. The bars are closed, and all of us are afraid of catching Covid.
 
When I was new to nursing, I used to worry about needlesticks. They can give you hepatitis, HIV, and a bunch of other diseases. Over time, I learned to relax and didn’t worry so much about getting pricked. Now, patients like Dan have given me something brand new to worry about.
 
Now, after my shift is over, I go straight home. I don’t even shop at the grocery anymore. I have the store deliver or I do kerbside pickup. Most of the people I come in contact with wear masks, thank God, but there’s still plenty of risk. Sometimes, the masks slip, revealing the dorsum of the nose, the columella and the philtrum. Sometimes, people just don’t know how to wear them, forgetting to cover their noses or letting the masks dangle below their chins.
      Then, too, there’s always the danger of bumping into an anti-masker, one of those real fun-loving types who think personal freedom is a licence to spread disease.
 
I don’t know how Dan caught Covid. He probably doesn’t either. Maybe he got it at some super-spreader event. Maybe he caught it from a colleague. Maybe he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
 
I hope and pray he doesn’t pass it on to me.
 
I’m starting to think Dan and I are a lot alike: We’re both living inside each other’s nightmares.

I live alone. I live in my own separate solitude. I was married once, but it didn’t work out. Fortunately or not, my ex and I didn’t have children. I used to think I’d like to have kids, but now I’m not so sure: the pandemic has heightened my fears for the future.
      Meanwhile, my biological clock is ticking. I would like to meet someone, to be in a new relationship, but it doesn’t seem likely now that Covid is rampant and I’m working 12-hour shifts.
 
In my free time, when I have some, I am learning to speak Italian. I had planned to visit Italy before the pandemic started. Now, of course, that’s on hold. In March, I was listening to News in Slow Italian when I heard about a nurse who killed herself after she developed symptoms of the virus. A fisherman found her body in some reeds in the Piave River. The nurse worked in an infectious disease unit at a hospital near Venice, which is one of the places I had planned to visit – the city, not the hospital.
      I wonder how she killed herself. I know she drowned, but I wonder how she did it. I wonder if she put stones in her pocket to weigh herself down like Virginia Woolf did when she walked into the Ouse or if she threw herself off a bridge like the poet Paul Celan did when he jumped into the Seine.
      I don’t wonder why she did it. I don’t wonder about that at all. Burnout is at an all-time high in my profession. We’ve all sunk down, as Paul Celan said, into the bitter well of the heart.
 
When I’m not studying Italian or brooding over fate, I read. My tastes, as you might guess, are eclectic. I’m drawn to Gothic novels and hysterical, I mean historical, period dramas. I’m currently reading The Betrothed, an English translation of a famous Italian novel. It’s a love story set in Milan against the backdrop of the 1630 plague.
      Go figure.
      I don’t think I will find romance during the coronavirus pandemic.
 
‘Hey, buddy boy,’ I say to Dan, ‘Covid has brought you and me together.’
 
When I first became a nurse, I worked bedside on a trauma unit. Later, I did a stint in the ER. I also spent some time in a telemetry unit before coming to the ICU and getting certified as a critical care registered nurse. Surveying my career, it occurs to me that I’m a bit like Prince Prospero in that Edgar Allan Poe story, the one about a fancy masquerade ball. In Poe’s story Prince Prospero walks through a series of rooms in his castellated abbey, each room packed to the gills with costumed guests, until he arrives at the last one, where the avatar of Death, robed and masked, is waiting. For me, the ICU is like the last room in Prospero’s abbey: I hope to finish my career here, but for some of my patients, it’s the last place they’ll ever see. Death stalks the room, waiting to take its mask off and reveal itself.
      Just not today.      AQ

Pia Bhatia – Reunion

Pia Bhatia
Reunion

‘There’s nothing we can do’ would have been far too final for the Bharadwaj family, too conclusive, not enough loose ends.‘There isn’t much’ suited them far better. If they only had the language to make fun of themselves and each other. Ravi, the oldest, was perhaps the one their parents could pride themselves most on, was a chartered accountant. From his three failed marriages spawned nine different children—nine—and he confused their names and ages frequently. Next in line stood Arjun, an animal rights activist who had, for the entirety of his life, puzzlingly resembled a pig. Worst of all, however, was Neesha, wildly creative and supremely sharp, for whom their parents had spent years paying for gifted and talented student classes. When she missed the Ivy League by what was generally understood to be a hair, the parents could neither hide their shame nor the other siblings their satisfaction. The Bharadwaj’s, defying norm and comfort, had put all their eggs in one basket, and they began to crack open, one by one, spilling wastefully onto the floor. She locked herself in her room for six days, coming out calmly on Sunday. The family never spoke of it again, and she abandoned her pursuit of academia, trading it in for a rich foreigner and a steady supply of new clothes.
      Should they have chosen to laugh about the awkwardness that came to define them, perhaps they would have been close, even exceptionally so. Instead, they had only their hands for language, their fingers to speak. For Arjun, one is stuffed in pockets and the other scrolling through Twitter, and there is a broad palm on his shoulder, patting slowly before being withdrawn, rejected. Ravi’s. Ravi himself places his elbows at the front desk, then remembering it is considered rude, holds its edge like he is hanging off a cliff, then remembering it is unhygienic, gives up and opens his phone as well. Neesha sniffs, painfully aware that they have nothing to say to each other. She looks at her feet, crimson block-toe heels on a hospital floor. Nothing glamorous about that.
      After a few silent hours in the waiting room, they shuffled into Room 105 of the hospital’s west wing, wholly unprepared to see their mother. Mina Bharadwaj’s friends, had she had any, would have described her as selfless. More candidly, they would have said she made her selflessness known at every available opportunity. Her children responded to this in different ways—Ravi was wracked with guilt, Arjun practiced millennial indifference religiously, and Neesha—Neesha wasn’t sure what to make of it. She would never understand the choices her mother had made, often resenting her for making them, but now they mirrored her own. They gathered around their mother’s bed now, watching her lie comatose, seeing her no longer as their mother but as herself. An old woman, who, Neesha knew, was once unmistakably beautiful. Her mind gets to work, smoothing her face, lining her eyes, painting her lips a deep plum. Before she can see the finished product, the disgust takes over, erasing her canvas. “I wonder if she can hear us,” says Arjun, regretting it instantly. She had always slept like the dead, with stone eyelids. The doctor tells them she’s doing well, as well as she can be. One of the nurses said she saw her smile yesterday afternoon. A most peculiar thing.
      Mina, of course, knows exactly why she was smiling. She wants to laugh like a child, reassure her children that they shouldn’t be worrying. What a boring life she led, she thinks, and listen to what it produced—listen—to her spoilt darlings argue from somewhere above the clouds. Like the Gods, she giggles. If the Gods’ lives revolved around real estate. More than anything, she wants to tell them how happy she is here. She is lithe and free, her surroundings changing by her own invention. Mina sits in a strange garden, the tall grass sighing above her in a gentle archway. The flowers are alive as well. They kiss each other wantonly, stems twisting around each other. She has not felt desire like this for years. It rained last night, and saplings open their eyes out of the soil. She has to tread carefully with them, careful not to step on them like those crabs on Digha beach from a lifetime ago. Otherwise they cry out, and then there’s hours of inconsolable tears. This is a part of her mind that she lost long ago, a pain-induced numbness from her childhood she may never trace nor understand.
      Now she hears the doctor’s voice from the sky, and so she tunes in. And there it is, the unacceptable nothing they are able to do. The pulling of the plug, a religious ceremony of modern medicine. It was a good thing Mina was measured, timid when she reached this place. Nothing dies here, everything is forever, only open to metamorphosis, which is enough. She does not have company yet, her mind is unable to devise a perfect person that isn’t infuriatingly predictable. This is a place for artists, she thinks.
      Back at the hospital, the Bharadwaj’s read their mother’s decision. She wrote it in her thirties, so no matter what it says, it isn’t fair, she was a different person then. After trying for years, she had her children late, when all the women in her life battled new demons. This was another thing that kept her from their company. The hardest time, though, was high school, finding condom wrappers and love notes their bedrooms, trying to piece together the secret worlds they kept from her. Once, Arjun remembered her storming into his room and finding him with another young boy, trying her hardest not to react, sealing a ridge between them indefinitely. If she had been angry, like she was with the others, things would have been different, but her face was pinched. He only ever saw her make that expression again was the evening after Holi, when their father played cards his friends and drunk too much, and Arjun had helped her clean up the mess he had made on the carpet afterwards. Her eyes squinted slightly as she scrubbed, mouth twitching. Then he understood. It was revulsion.
      And so it was there in writing that their mother wanted to die, and under no circumstances were they to stop her. If only they were so close as to have discussed this at some point, if only there was little to be said and be repaired. Their mother, who superstitiously clung to their lives and took paranoid care with her own, chose death over miracle, and worse, she requested it immediately. Ravi walked out of the room, his lawyer on the phone, already discussing loopholes. His knees bounced, a habit that was once the reason he was denied a job offer in an interview. Neesha and Arjun stare blankly. There is too much they share with their mother for them to feel the disorienting pain of grief, too much pride to cry. They are adults now, calm and stoic, old enough to have learned that no feeling lingers longer than embarrassment.
      But still, there is too much pain to be indifferent. Mina strains to hear the rest, but it’s strangely quiet. There is a lemonade-pink beach here, and sleepy mountains. The sand is soft, endless. It’s so perfect, she almost forgets the way she begun to die—friendless and alone in their house, freezing cold, her husband long gone and her children deliberately scattered around the globe. It was probably the dog who noticed first, she thinks bitterly. Her insecure, doting Doberman, another contradiction to its breed. He was a good guard dog, though—having a dark, muscular creature bound towards you with its teeth bared was enough of a deterrent for anyone. She smiles. Apollo could have been immobilised by anyone with a belly rub, but of course no one knew that. The smile turns sad. Where is he now? She wonders. In the first few weeks of her being here, she created hundreds of puppies, and some follow her as she walks over to the water. The waves part, and they begin to run, making a beeline through like a school of fish.
      As a schoolgirl, Neesha had been her mother’s favourite. She woke up early every day to help her with her homework and braid her hair. They were beautiful women, and like many beautiful women, they shared an understanding of what it meant. They loved to be envied, to be disarming. For her daughter, Mina made special allowances. It would be easy to say that their relationship began dying when she didn’t get into those schools, but she knew it hadn’t mattered enough to break her mother’s heart. No, it was her fault, Neesha knew. With her husband and their friends, she became a different person, a girl who’d indubitably been popular in high school, whose degree made for dinner party conversation and little else. It was too painful to switch back, and so she made excuses to avoid her home on holidays. It was as if none of her old clothes fit, and she was indecent without them. She wondered what her mother would have said to her now, what her parting words might have been. Would it have been pity, she thinks, or contempt? It was hard to tell. Memories of their mornings together had blended into one, but they existed, she knows. Her mother’s voice has become her mind’s, and Neesha knows this is how she will remember her.
      Her mother had specially requested, the document reads, to be ‘let go of’ immediately. There is no reason for anyone to wait anymore. “What could she possibly have been thinking…” Ravi mutters, and the other two smile privately at his furrowed brow. He looks like their father reading the news in the morning, struggling to make sense of the acronymic parties and policies splashed across the front-page headlines. Their father, who never trusted nurses with painted nails, who joked to the world about having such a big heart he needed to be large to hold it. At home, he was vacant, a stranger to his children, then his wife, then himself. On her birthday, Mina’s mother-in-law had taken it upon herself to tell the children how her son had died as if they had not already known. Lost in her story, she had forgotten to finish it, and began to stare into space, quiet, until an aunt of theirs had taken her to her bedroom to lie down.
      Perhaps they had been an unhappy family, and not just a distant one, as Mina had always described. But she and her husband had not been an unhappy couple, at least not to begin with. They sacrificed for one another – she her ambition, he his wandering eye. It worked, the thin thread that tied them together, sparse but sturdy, but the weight of becoming parents had snapped it at last. She wonders where he is now. Without realising it, this world she has created has become a tribute to him, an attestation to what their lives should have been. Without noticing it, she has been waiting for him all this while.
      And so they stand together at the foot of their mother’s hospital bed while doctors come in silently, gently removing tubes from her sleeping body. It is mechanical and fluid, their condolences are solemn. Now, there is nothing anyone can do. To someone watching, they wouldn’t look like a family—individually, each has the capacity to be stared at, businessman, peacock, and pig, but together—together, they’re unremarkable. Arjun considers asking them to breakfast at Ayaz’s, where they always went for birthdays, the only family tradition they really had. Perhaps it is too early still. Neesha and Ravi might have considered agreeing to go. Instead, no one says anything, and Ravi mumbles and leaves, patting Neesha on the back in a distinctly avuncular way. He will make the funeral arrangements, he mentions over his shoulder, as he walks out of the room. Arjun is the next to go, not bothering to pretend he has to. Neesha stays until the nurses return. In a movement, she slides off her wedding ring, slipping it onto her mother’s finger, whispering a promise.
      Mina, of course, knew none of this. She guessed. It poured again at night, and in the morning, the voices in the clouds were too faint to hear. To feel this invincible, to inhabit this beautiful body, was wondrous. Of course she had been pretty, but now her body curved and flattened like a goddesses’; some women would be willing to lose years off their life for this sort of thing. She had taken up cliff diving, amongst other dangerous pursuits, knowing nothing could touch her anymore. Stripping down, she poised and fell, cutting the water with her hands. It slid off her skin like the pain did.
      There was never any traffic this early in the morning, and so the three Bharadwaj’s found themselves driving their cars in a line, a row of ducks. Slowly, they sectioned off. Once more, Ravi was first, already on his way to his parents’ house to sort their belongings. Arjun followed, turning left into Ayaz’s, ready to eat the meat he had sworn off for three years alone in silence. Neesha did not make it through the whole length of her driveway. Turning, she steered into a street she had never been before, looking for unchartered territory, driving until she recognised nothing and couldn’t find her way home.
      Something shifted. Mina gasped for air, paddling desperately, feeling for the warm embrace of the water, wondering where all the salt went, why she was no longer buoyant. Up above, the clouds are gone, and the sky is clear. Through her spluttering and the crash of the waves and the wind, she heard a familiar laugh behind her. An old friend, now a young man, holding a new ring that looked familiar, too. AQ