Monthly Archives: February 2012

Day 28

Photo by I,Ron via Flickr

I watched as Mindy squatted barefoot in the sand, occasionally tugging at her little green and yellow polka-dot bikini bottoms. I’d fought her on those, but she’d insisted everyone wore bikinis and that if she didn’t have one, “she would just die.” I was hearing that a lot these days. Apparently many things would kill my ten-year-old daughter; like not having a Justin Beiber poster, or having the wrong pair of jeans on the first day of school.

Mark was laying on his stomach, snoring lightly. His pale back reflected the sun and I leaned over and smacked a glob of SPF 50 on his back. The beach used to be a lot more fun for me, I thought. I remembered the days when I was the one in the bikini bottoms, and Mark and I would play volleyball. He would tackle me and carry me, screaming with laughter, into the ocean if I won.

Mindy was burying her friend Adrienne in the sand. Adrienne was now a staple on vacations, because, and I’m sure there’s no surprise here, Mindy would “just die” if Adrienne couldn’t come with us. I often wondered if Mark and I should have tried harder to have a second child, but we had used up our savings on three rounds of IVF.

So instead, we had Adrienne, our little surrogate daughter. She was a quiet child, a born follower. Her mother, if I’m being honest, was a bit wild. She’d had Adrienne young, and wasn’t even 30. She would show up at school for bake sales and the PTA in her tight jeans and skimpy shirts and Adrienne would blush and stammer, trying to hide her. I’d think; I wouldn’t mind adopting Adrienne. She even looked like me, red hair, freckles, a long nose. Mindy was fair and pale blonde, she looked like Mark, but I could barely see myself in her.

It was no surprise to me that Adrienne was the one being buried in the sand. She followed Mindy everywhere she went. I worried that someday soon, my little daughter would turn on her for not being outgoing enough, or well-dressed enough, or fun enough. I could already see it happening. Adrienne was an introverted child; she liked to write and draw, and would sit down and have conversations with me like an adult. Mindy kept telling her that the things she was doing were “lame.” How a ten-year-old could already know what was lame was beyond me.

But for now the two girls seemed content, playing in the warm sand on one of the last days of summer before school would start again.

That night, we walked along the boardwalk. Mark had bought ice cream for the girls. As usual, Mindy had ice cream running down her arm, and had to lick the mint chocolate chip from her elbow. I carried a wad of napkins with me, and occasionally handed one to her. Adrienne was taking neat little licks, making sure that it didn’t melt too much. As we walked along, Mindy spied an arcade and nearly dropped her cone in excitement.

“Can we go,” she begged Mark, tugging on his arm. He looked at me and shrugged.

“Sure” I said. I checked my purse but I had no change. “Let me just get a few quarters.” Mindy squealed and ran off, hauling Mark behind her and leaving Adrienne and I standing alone.

“Off you go,” I said, gesturing for her to follow Mindy.

“I’d like to stay with you,” she said shyly. She noticed that her cone was dripping and gave it another lick.

“Oh, sure. That’s fine,” I said. “Let’s go get some change.”

I saw a change machine across the boardwalk, and began to head towards it. A moment later, I felt a warm, slightly sticky hand reach out and grab mine. I looked down and saw that Adrienne had put her hand in mine to cross the street, and my heart melted a little.

“Mrs. Gray, can I ask you something?” Adrienne said, as we walked over.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Do you think I’ll be okay in middle school?” she asked, so sincerely it nearly broke my heart.

“Of course you will,” I said, gripping her hand in mine more tightly. “You’ll be great. You’re so smart, you’re going to do really well.” She frowned, staring at her ice cream.

“Do you think Mindy and I will stay friends?” she asked. I looked down at her and saw that she had tears in her eyes. “Mindy has a lot of other friends, and I don’t have any,” she continued, a sob rising in her throat. Suddenly I was on my knees in front of her, wrapping another woman’s child in my arms and holding her as tightly as I possibly could. Across the boardwalk, I could see Mindy pause and look at us. She cocked her head to one side and appeared confused. I wondered how old she would be when she would realize just how important having a friend like Adrienne was. A teenager? An adult? In my experience, people lose a lot of friendships to carelessness before they wise up.

For now, all I could do was pat Adrienne’s back and say, “Of course you’ll be friends. It will all be okay.”

Day 27

Photo by cseward via Flickr

Emera leaned over the well and hauled up the bucket of water, hand over hand. Her belly pressed against the cool stone and she tugged her shirt down, resting the bucket on the edge of the well. Her nail snagged on the thin fabric, leaving a small hole.

“Shit,” she swore, examining her shirt. It was almost threadbare anyway, but it would be awhile before she was likely to get a new one. Runs to the East only happened in the spring, and she had at least five long months to go until then.  She’d have to try to trade for a sweatshirt in the meantime. Houser was a good mark, easily swayed by her figure, she’d try him first.

She lifted the bucket of water into the Radio Flyer wagon along with the two others, hefted a fourth onto her shoulder, and headed back down the poorly lit passage towards the Hive. They were still working to smooth out the uneven floor, and Emera had to navigate carefully to avoid spilling the water. The pits and dips were hard to see in the dull light. The gas lamps were dimmer than the electric bulbs that they had wanted to install, but they couldn’t risk having a generator near the Hive until they figured out how to mask its heat. That was not her project though.

Emera had managed to get the phosphorescent paint for the walkway though, so at least there was always light along the ground. She had also painted a few of the lower hanging stalactites so that people weren’t constantly bumping their heads, although Houser complained that he still did. Privately, Emera  thought it was probably because he wasn’t smart enough to look where he was going. He was at least an inch shorter than her.

Emera was exactly 6’0 tall with a giant mane of wiry golden brown hair that made her appear even taller. She was an imposing woman, although she tried not to use her size for intimidation unless it was necessary.  Unfortunately, she had found it necessary all too often in the past few years. She had two stilettos, one hidden in each of her boots, and carried a KA-BAR combat knife in a sheath attached to her belt.

Emera was the informal second in command at the Hive. The community had tried to keep a pure democracy at first; but it had become too difficult to maintain through the first hard months, as everyone pursued their own interests and the group began to crumble. A few bad fights had broken out, and then Skinly, a hot-headed twenty something ex-blogger had threatened to go back East, they realized something needed to be done quickly. They chose to elect a leader.

Eventually, it became clear that everyone most valued the opinion of Donelle Keynes, a 50 year old one-eyed ex-marine with a wicked sense of humor who’d also managed to raise five children as a single mother. Once that was clear, the community made Donelle’s role formal, dubbing her the CEO, as a bit of a joke. Donelle relied heavily on Emera to work on immediate operations while Donelle worked on sustainability. Donelle had suggested planting crops in the woods behind the Hive, and Emera had figured out how to grow them in a complex series of numbered plots, so they appeared to be nothing more than particularly dense patches of wild plants to the naked eye.

The well had also been her idea. Having to trek to the river each day had been dangerous and Donelle wanted to find another way to up their water supply. After mapping the path of the river, Emera guessed that they might be able to dig a well just inside the entrance to the Hive. As usual, she had been right. She and the others each had a water shift where they would grab buckets for communal drinking; three times in the morning, twice near noon, and three times again at night. It was still less water than Donelle thought they should get, but it was enough to keep everyone hydrated.

Emera rounded the corner into the central cavern of the Hive, where three of the little ones were playing double dutch with some of her climbing rope. She almost admonished them, but held herself back; they had so little to entertain them. Revolution was always hardest on the children. She began to set out the buckets of water in the middle of the space, when the unmistakable drone of a heat seeker suddenly came into hearing.

One of the little girls screamed and dropped her end of the rope, running to cower in the corner. The other girl ran straight to Emera and gripped onto her leg. The third was left tangled up in the rope and she fell flat on her stomach pressing herself to the ground. Emera stood stock still. So far, they had heard a number of the heat seekers pass by their cave, but the distance that they were underground had shielded them. Emera’s only worry was that someone might have been in the Vitamin D room, the only place in the caverns where the sun reached.

The little girl who had fallen to the ground slowly crawled over to Emera and reached out to clutch her friend’s hand. The third child whimpered in the corner, hugging herself. They are too young to know this kind of fear, Emera thought. We’ve done this to them.

Five minutes later, the sound passed. Emera could feel the breath escape the lips of the girls who were huddled close to her and she gave them a reassuring smile. A few moments later, Donelle came running into the main cavern, followed by Houser, Skinly, Margeurite and Zander.

“Was anyone outside?” Donelle demanded breathlessly, without a greeting. She was beginning to look old;the years underground had not been kind to her.

“No one was scheduled to be,” Emera said, calmly. The girls looked back and forth between the two of them.

Donelle let out a sigh of relief and sat hard on one of the stumps they had set up in the middle of the room. She dipped a cup into one of the water buckets and brought it to her lips, spilling a little bit down the corner of the mouth. Skinly sat down cross-legged next to her and helped herself as well. Houser, the father of the child who had run to the corner, walked over to check on his daughter, who threw herself into his arms.

“I’m too old for this crap,” Donelle said. Houser chuckled and Emera fixed him with a hard glance. One of the girls clambered into Donelle’s lap and reached for the water cup. While Donelle was thus occupied, Emera pulled Zander and Marguerite aside.

“Was anyone outside?” Emera whispered.

Marguerite shook her head. “I ran a check as soon as it started,” she said. Zander nodded in agreement. “Everyone’s accounted for.”

Emera nodded gravely. “Thank god for small favors.”

“Do you think they could have been following someone here?” asked Marguerite.

Emera felt an uncomfortable weight settle in her stomach. “We haven’t done outreach since our last Run. I doubt anyone could have found us without a guide.” She paused, reflecting. “It wouldn’t be so bad though, to get some fresh blood down here. Our skills are probably getting rusty.” Marguerite and Zander exchanged glances.

Marguerite spoke first, glancing over at Donelle. “Has the CEO mentioned doing an early run this year?”

Zander jumped in. “If we want any shot of taking down the government’s communications this time, I think we have to.” He continued, “We haven’t done an attack in almost a year. We have no idea how they’re reacting out there. They may have built up all kinds of defensive systems since we were last out. We could use more skill.”

Emera nodded. “I’ll talk to Donelle.” She looked down at herself ruefully. “Besides, I’m in the market for a new shirt.”

Day 26

Photo by eyemage via Flickr

“Do you see him yet,” Tuttle asked in a whisper, pressing his face up against the darkened window. He pulled his zipper all the way up to his chin. Lee shook her head and grabbed the edges of the sleeping bag, wrapping it more closely around them both.

“He should have been back by now,” Tuttle continued, gratefully pulling the bag tight around his small shoulders. Even in the limited light of the moon, Lee could tell that his lips were blue. Lee thought about their father, working his way through the undergrowth to the nearest town. For a moment, she held his image in her mind, making it feel warm and safe.

“You think he’s ok?” Tuttle asked. He snuggled in to Lee, his ear cold against her shoulder, and she wrapped her arms around him. Lee thought for a moment, then came up with an image of their father returning, walking tall and loaded down with food. She could feel Tuttle’s presence at the corner of her mind, and pushed out this picture.

“I hope he finds peanut butter,” Tuttle said, slightly calmer. Lee added a big jar of Jiffy to her image of their father and Tuttle sighed in contentment. He was quiet for a moment, and Lee realized that he had drifted off to sleep. She lay him down on the floor, tucked into the sleeping bag, and went back to stand by the window.

To her count, they had been in the cabin for three weeks. This was the first time their father had ventured out since they had arrived. Lee wasn’t sure how her father knew where to go, but she didn’t ask questions. She’d known something was coming for months.

Lee and her father had kept Lee’s abilities quiet for a number of years, keeping her in Special Education classes and using sign language. But once Tuttle had started school, it had become more difficult. No matter how often they reminded him, Tuttle would respond to Lee’s thoughts in front of other people. At first, it seemed as though they could pass because Tuttle was young, and it seemed as though he was imagining a relationship with his deaf, mute, sister. But after a time, the rumors had begun to spread, and Lee noticed that her classmates, who had often ignored her, were now watching her more closely. Watching and waiting to see if she might respond to a direction from their teacher even if she had her back turned to the class and Lee couldn’t read her lips. Lee caught on quickly and tried to play dumb, sheltering her thoughts and shielding herself from others, but it was too late.

She noticed the specialists waiting outside of her classroom early on a November morning. They wore navy blue suits, sunglasses, and had on running shoes. Lee noticed a bulge at each of their hips, indicating some kind of weapon, most likely a taser. It did not bode well. She’d seen them once before, three years ago when they’d come to interview a fifth year, but she had heard stories about them her whole life; mostly from her father, who would keep her and Tuttle up late at night with the tales of how the specialists haunted the internet, waiting to pick up on the slightest hint of abnormality.

Their father was off the grid. Their mother had been as well, before she was taken. Lee’s father had always warned them that they were already on the watch list because of their mother, but he had managed to hide them for a time, moving them to the most rural area he could find. One of the few places in the country left that did not broadcast wireless through the city.

But now the specialists had found her. When she first saw the specialists outside the room, she turned to Lorraine, and began to sign at her frantically. Lorraine, who was unused to Lee trying to communicate, told the class to work on an equation individually and came over to talk to her. As she came near, Lee felt the first push on her mind from a foreign source. She tried to keep calm, and debated whether a normal person might just let it happen without realizing it, or collapse in agony. She chose to collapse, and when Lorraine reached her, Lee launched herself out of her desk and began to howl silently, projecting, what she hoped, were normal thoughts of fear and horror. What she hadn’t counted on was Tuttle.

She knew he was coming an instant too late. He had run straight out of his classroom, up the flight of stairs, past the specialists and to her side within minutes, and he was crying.

“Lee, Lee what’s wrong! What are they doing to you!” He threw himself across her and glared up at her classmates angrily. “Get back from her, now!” he yelled. Lee could feel his thin body shaking despite his bravado, but she didn’t want to take the risk of trying to calm him with someone still inside her mind. Lorraine had looked from brother to sister, and then pulled out her cell phone and called their father immediately. She went into the back of the room and had a whispered conversation, occasionally glancing at the door to see if the specialists were looking in. Lee saw that they weren’t, but feared that meant that they didn’t need to, and that they somehow knew what was going on anyway. In all likelihood, there was a camera somewhere in the room. Lee hoped it was trained on the students, and not on her teacher.

When Lorraine got off the phone she got up and walked over to Lee and very carefully positioned herself with her back to her desk. So the camera’s over there, Lee thought. Lorraine started signing to her.

“I’ve called your father, but you’ll still have to talk to them,” she said, as the other children looked on. Tuttle, who knew sign language as well, almost spoke up, but Lee put her hand on his arm and he quieted.

“I know,” Lee signed back to Lorraine. “I’ll be careful.” Tuttle looked back and forth between them, fat tears forming in his eyes.

“Is this my fault,” he whispered, looking at Lee. Lee looked up at Lorraine, who knelt down next to Tuttle.

“Not at all, sweetie,” she said. “Everything’s fine, let me walk you back downstairs.” She stood up and placed her hand on the Tuttle’s shoulder, then turned to the rest of the class who had been watching the whole exchange.

“Back to work,” she said dismissively. The other students exchanged glances and turned back to their equations, and Lee stood up, somewhat unsteadily, and followed Lorraine into the hallway, where the specialists were waiting.

They had expected that Lee would come to them; she saw right away that she had made a tactical error. Without speaking the two of them flanked her; the woman on her right and the man on her left and began to walk her down the hallway. Lee turned and saw Tuttle also trying to turn around and Lorraine distracting him. Lee could make a fuss and try to appear normal, or she could come to the terms with the fact that it was probably already too late. Now that she was closer to them, Lee knew that it was the woman who had tried to enter her mind, and that she was far more experienced a reader than Lee. As she thought this, the female specialist looked down at her and gave her a slight smile, and Lee knew that she was lost.

Suddenly, she felt her father’s presence in the building. She shoved it out of her mind immediately. The female specialist kept stride, appearing not to notice, but now Lee was truly worried. She considered sending her father a message, but feared that might be rash. He was forever telling her to think defensively, and to not make mistakes out of fear.

Two second later as they entered the stairway, three shots rang out. The male specialist fell immediately; a wound to his temple erupting in scarlet blood. The female specialist grabbed Lee by the elbow and pulled her close, bringing out a weapon of her own. She projected silence on Lee, who accepted it immediately; the specialist could have blocked any projection Lee wanted to make anyway.

Lee felt the specialist send the threat to her father, and heard down the stairwell the corresponding clunk of a gun being dropped. She could hear screaming coming from the classrooms, and weaved her mind through to touch on Tuttle. He was terrified, gripping onto Lorraine’s wrist and trying to pull her back towards his sister. Lee quieted him, telling him that she loved him and that it would be alright. The specialist, who had been distracted, suddenly blocked off the projection and slapped Lee hard across the face. As hard as she could, Lee thought about turning and fleeing down the stairs, and instinctively the specialist moved to block her, stepping too close to the edge of the railing. Realizing her mistake, the specialist tried to move forward, but Lee had already shoved her with all of her strength, sending her over the railing. A second later, she heard a loud thud, followed by a shot. Immediately, she reached to Tuttle calling him to her, and when he appeared at the top of the stairwell, eyes wide at the site of the body of the male specialist, she grabbed his hand and ran down the stairs to meet their father.

Their father raced them out to the van, which he had kept stocked with food and other provisions for years, and veered off immediately. Not ten minutes later, he had pulled them out of the van, and sent it right into the river, food and all. They took off on foot and were within the woods in minutes.

“We need to get you out of range,” he said to Lee, who nodded seriously. Tuttle gripped her hand and kept up as best he could, until finally their father hoisted him up onto his back. And they continued that way for a few more hours, until they got to another well stocked car that their father had hidden in the woods.

“Paranoid?” Lee signed to her father. She couldn’t risk projecting anything then, just in case.

“And rightly so,” he responded. He handed them each a pair of gloves, and fitted hair nets onto each of their heads before touching the car and starting up the engine. They drove through the night, and into the next day, with Tuttle up front in the passenger seat and Lee in the back, covered by a blanket.

They ditched that car halfway through the day, and made their way back into the woods, towards the mountains this time. This time, before they set out, her father pulled three pairs of shoes out of his backpack. The first two were for Lee and Tuttle, and were adult-sized boots, stuffed with socks to make them fit. They were clumsy to walk in at first, but after a time, they caught on. Their father’s boots were his size, but on the bottom, he had added a slight platform to stack on a shoe tread that was a full size smaller than his own. When he stepped in front of them in the woods, he left normal prints behind him. Seeing all the planning that her father had put into their escape made Lee realize exactly how long he must have been planning it.

After two days of hiking, they reached the cabin. It was a small wooden shack in the middle of nowhere, hidden by a wall of trees on all sides.

“Did you build this?” Tuttle asked, looking at it suspiciously.

“Your mother and I did, a long time ago,” their father answered, then pushed open the door to the cabin.

It was musty inside, and Lee thought she saw a few mice scurry away from the edges of the light as the door opened, but it was better than sleeping outside again.

“It will get cold here,” their father warned, “so make sure to wear layers.” He threw his backpack down on the table, then opened a trap door in the middle of the floor and began to pull out can after can of food.

“This should hold us until we need to move again,” he said, setting up a lamp and throwing wood onto the old iron stove in the corner of the room. “We’ll stay for a few weeks and then I’ll check to see if things have died down.” He pulled out a camp stove, and set to cooking hot dogs and beans.

Lee wondered what kind of network he would be able to tap in to. She doubted that the dead specialists would be reported in the news. The government usually liked to keep these things quiet. She ran her hand over the table, and came up with a layer of thick dust on her fingertips.

“Gross,” Tuttle said. He plopped down on the mattress in the middle of the room, and pulled out his PSP. Their father had hacked the GPS tracker out of it when they’d first taken off, and stuck it to the bottom of another car.

They lived in relative comfort for the next few weeks, eating the supplies, and playing the old-fashioned board games that their father had ferreted away. Finally, he decided it was time to check for updates. He kissed Tuttle on the head, gave him a squeeze and then invited Lee to read him. She saw that he planned to be gone for three days, and that he was going to an isolated town to the north, where they had not yet been.

“They’re not exactly government friendly up that way,” he signed. He pulled Lee to him and held her tight. His thoughts came through as clearly into her mind as if he were speaking them. “I will not let them harm you.” An image of their mother flashed through his mind and he pulled away, slung his backpack over his shoulder and took off.

And so Tuttle slept, while Lee tried to stay awake near the window, waiting for their father’s return on the third night after her had left. She had nearly nodded off, when finally she felt his presence come into focus. She was about to project a greeting when his message came through as though he were screaming it.

“Run!” it said.

Day 25

Photo by DanaDrizzy via Flickr

She sat alone every day, at the corner table by the fake ficus plant that had been sitting in the lunchroom for 22 years. A thick layer of dust had settled on to each rubber leaf.

Her lunch each day was packed in a perfectly square blue Tupperware container, with a compartment for a ham and cheese sandwich, with the crusts cut off, three strawberries, and sliced carrots, exactly equal in size. She purchased 2% milk in a paper carton from the lunch aides and then walked over to her table and sat, usually reading a book, twisting her hair in front of her face.

Danielle had first noticed the girl three weeks before. She and Gray had been walking back to their table with full lunch trays. Gray had made her laugh and Danielle had walked right into the girl, dropping her tray and spilling food all over her.

For a moment, it was as though the room froze, and everyone turned to stare at them. Danielle’s spaghetti clung to the girl’s sweater, and sauce dripped onto her shoes, sending little red rivulets over the brown suede. The girl stared down at herself, clutching her little carton of milk in both hands, and then looked up at Danielle. Her eyes were gray and rimmed with tears. Danielle opened her mouth to apologize.

“Watch where you’re going, freak,” Gray said, pushing past the girl. He put his arm around Danielle and walked her back to their table, giving her his lunch, before going to grab another one for himself. Danielle watched as the girl, who had been frozen in the middle of the room, ran out of the doors. Danielle caught a glance exchanged between two of the lunch aides. One of them took off after the girl.

Gray came back and sat next to Danielle, kissing her on the temple. Their friends were all laughing and joking and he joined in the conversation, beginning a long story about the new car that he was detailing with his dad.

Danielle tried to listen, but she kept looking back towards the doors, waiting to see if the girl came back, but she didn’t return that day.

Or the next.

The girl finally appeared a week later, sitting at her usual table. Danielle noticed her as soon as she entered the cafeteria. She wore an oversized sweatshirt and khaki pants, and her hair was greasy. In front of her was the Tupperware lunch that Danielle would come to recognize.

Danielle had never really bothered to notice anyone outside of her circle of friends before. It wasn’t that she was intentionally exclusive; it was just that she had her friends and her boyfriend, and that was enough for her. But this girl bothered her. This girl weighed on her conscience. She tried mentioning it to Gray later that week as he drove her home from school.

“Who is that girl who sits by herself in the cafeteria?” Danielle asked as Gray turned onto Kings Drive.

Gray glanced at her. “Who?” he asked.

“That girl, the one I dumped my lunch on,” she said.

“Oh, you mean the spaz that bumped into you? She’s just some sophomore. I don’t know her real name.” He shrugged. “Why?”

“I don’t know, she’s been on my mind, I guess,” Danielle said. “Anyway, where are we going this weekend?”

Danielle tried not to think about the girl, who she’d come to think of as Corner Table, but once she noticed her she began to see her everywhere. Corner Table was in her bio lab, and in her gym class. Corner Table passed Danielle in the hallway at exactly 12:23 every day on her way to Calculus. She even thought she started seeing her outside of school, first at Gino’s Pizza, where she’d waited nervously to pick up a pizza, chewing on her nails; then crossing the street near Danielle’s house while Danielle was out for a run. It was like the girl had sprung into existence simply to taunt Danielle.

On the Wednesday of the third week after Danielle had first noticed Corner Table, she decided that she wanted to apologize for bumping into her. It had been weighing on her mind, and she was sorry for Gray’s behavior too. Danielle was fidgety in class all day, chewing on her pencils and doodling all over her work. When the bell rang for lunch, she bolted out of her seat towards the cafeteria and headed straight for the ficus plant, but Corner Table wasn’t there. She waited, as her friends trickled into the room, and finally gave up after it was clear the girl wasn’t going to show up. She got in the lunch line behind her friends who were whispering to each other.

“Did you hear?” Danielle’s friend Sarah asked, pulling her into the conversation.

“What?” Danielle asked, leaning in.

“Some girl killed herself last night,” Sarah replied, a strange spark of malice in her eyes, as though the news were more exciting than sad.

A chill ran down Danielle’s spine.

“Who?” she demanded. She felt her stomach lurch.

“That’s the crazy part,” Cora interjected, “Nobody knows who she was. Her name was Nina something or other.”

“I mean, can you imagine?” Sarah continued, “She OD’d on painkillers. I guess her mom walked in and found her, there was a real scene.”

“Why isn’t anyone saying anything to us? Shouldn’t there be an announcement or something?” Danielle demanded. Hot bile rose in her throat. Her face flushed; her sweater suddenly felt prickly and hot. Cora and Sarah looked at her passively and it seemed like she was seeing her friends for the first time.

“Why would they,” Cora said. “It’s not like anyone was friends with her. Apparently she was a real freak.”

It took Danielle a few seconds to realize that she had slapped Cora across the face. Cora was staring at her, her mouth a wide O of shock, and Sarah had pushed between them.

“What the hell is WRONG with you Danielle?” Sarah yelled in her face, flecks of spittle hitting Danielle on the cheek. “You can’t just hit people.”

“She was the girl at the corner table.” Danielle hissed, then turned on her heels and fled; out of the room, down the hall, out of the school as fast as she could.

For years after that, whenever she saw someone sitting alone, she asked if she could join them and if they said yes, she sent up a silent prayer for Corner Table.

Day 24

The rain beat heavily against the windshield. Donna leaned forward, squinting through the distorted glass. She was concentrating to hard that her head ached, a tight pain right in between her eyes. She could barely make out anything outside, just blurry pinpricks of light far ahead of her. The sky was a dark green, and she could feel the wind making the car sway as she raced down the interstate.

Tramp, her big black lab, lay on a blanket across the backseat, panting. Her leash and the remains of a bag of dog food were on the passenger seat, along with the box of protein bars. She’d been stocking up for awhile, keeping cans and boxes from the last rounds of prepared food around her bunk. A crate of water bottles were still in the back of her car, and she’d also managed to buy a two pack of the giant bottles of One-A-Day Vitamins off a woman selling them out of the back of her truck. Donna hoped they were legit.

Her rifle lay across her lap, and she had two more guns and six boxes of ammo in the trunk. She was surprised by how clear the roads were. When the emergency alarm had sounded in the early morning, she’d already been awake. At the first blare of the horn, she’d grabbed Tramp and been off. She’d been on the highway heading north-west within two minutes. She assumed a pack of traffic was building behind her, and that, as more time passed, the roads would begin to clog up. She figured that if she could get a good 30 miles west before having to figure out the back roads, she would be in good shape.

Not everyone had a car these days. She’d shot two jackers who’d tried to take off with hers. One had been a young girl, barely over fourteen. She’d looked soft, laying on the ground after Donna had shot her. She hated to shoot a sister, but it was survival of the fittest.

She’d been invited to stay in the Clutch, but she thought she’d be more likely to make it on her own. Her only regret was leaving her sister behind, but Karen was a zealous revolutionary. She and the other women of the Clutch had decided to stand their ground and face down the invading troops.

After the Law had passed, the Clutch had stormed the capitol, laying waste to everything in their path and rounding up the men. They had cordoned off the city. The leaders of the movement, who had seen the Law coming for years, had been prepared. They had stored weapons, and food. They were prepared to take over the city.

They burned the men alive one week later. The smell of burnt flesh hung in the air for days afterwards. As each man was brought to the bonfire, Karen read their list of crimes against women aloud. It wasn’t long after that that the Clutch had rounded up the rest of the men of their relatively isolated city. Donna and some of the others fought it at first, but they couldn’t dissuade the Clutch from killing the rest of the men too. It was days before the Government could decide how to respond. After all, who wanted to go after a city completely occupied by women and children? But then they began to receive daily announcements, jamming up the radio waves, and appearing in texts and emails. The men were coming. That was when Donna decided she had to go out on her own. Better take her own risks by crossing the border than burn everything to the ground.

Besides, her belly would begin to swell soon, and she couldn’t be sure what she was harboring. And she wasn’t going to let anyone else make any decisions for her.

Day 23

Photo by Robbie via Flickr

It wasn’t until Darla felt the soap stinging in the shower that she noticed the scratches on the backs of her hands and arms. Angry, red scratches that ran from her knuckles up to her elbows. She stared in horror at the deep tracks that lined her arms and tried to figure out what to do next.

Darla stood, indecisive, under the steaming hot water.  Her first aid kit was in the kitchen, and she was probably out of hydrogen peroxide. She was terrible at keeping track of things like that. “I should pay more attention,” she admonished herself. One of the scratches had opened up and begun to bleed, dripping bright red blood onto the white shower tile. Her stomach churned, and she threw back the shower curtain and turned off the water. She reached for her towel and wrapped it around her torso, wishing that she could cover her arms.

She padded into the kitchen and searched her cabinets for bacitracin or hydrogen peroxide, to no avail. These were the times that she wished she could live with someone. Preferably a responsible roommate who would buy things like milk and stamps and medical supplies. She looked around the kitchen, and her eyes fell on a bottle of Jack Daniels.

“Why not,” she said to herself. She grabbed the bottle and walked over the sink. Unscrewing the top, she held her arm over the sink and took a deep breath. She poured the brown liquid over her arm and for a second felt nothing. Then her arm lit up like it was on fire. She gasped, dropping the bottle in the sink. The contents spilled out before she could snatch it up again.

“Shit,” she swore. She realized that her hands were shaking. She dropped the towel on the floor ran over to her bed, curled up in the middle and pulled the blankets all the way over her head.

This was the thirty-second time that Darla had changed. Each time came without warning. The first time, she had been visiting her dad’s place in New Hampshire. Her dad was a retired forest ranger who still lived right on the edge of the State Park. He loved it there and had vowed that he would rather die than move. They had been close when she was a kid, but had grown apart, inevitably, during high school. The visit was one of the first that she had made post-college. Her dad had barbecued burgers for dinner, they had watched a few reruns of Seinfeld together, and she had gone to bed in her childhood room.

Four hours later, she had woken up with a cramp in her side. At first she thought it might just be gas, but then a sharp pain shot through both of her legs. She called out for her father, and tried to stand. Her knees gave out and she crumpled to the floor. Every detail came into sharp relief, and she could feel individual splinters against her arm. The floor was cool, and for a moment, she lay there, hoping that the pain might dull. Then her head began to ache. At first it was a dull ache, like a migraine about to settle in, but quickly it grew more severe, as though someone was trying to pry her head open at the temples. She gasped and began to dry-heave, trying to pull herself up onto her knees. She tried to yell for her father again, but all that came out was a strangled cry. Ten seconds later, her whole body convulsed and she passed out.

When she awoke, her vision had cleared and she could see every stitch in the coverlet on her bed. Then she realized that her glasses were not on. Then she realized that it was still dark. Her whole body felt as if it had fallen asleep; pins and needles raced up and down her skin. She tried to move, and found that her feet and hands didn’t feel quite right. She turned her head, rotating it slowly and realized that nothing was preventing her from turning her head all the way around. She squawked and fell over, scrambling to right herself again. She threw out her arms and felt the strength of the wings before she realized what they were. She screamed again, and this time her father came running into the room and threw on the light. She was temporarily blinded, and she lurched forward, trying to escape.

Her father swore, and scooped her up. It wasn’t until that moment, that she realized that she was impossibly small. She lashed out, catching him in the face with her foot by accident, and she saw that she had left a trail of beaded red across her nose. Her father raced downstairs and threw open the back door, carrying her out into the night.

“It’s going to be okay, Darla,” he said. He held one arm out in front of her and she stepped up onto it, panic racing through her body. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. Then he brought his arm down quickly and launched her up into the air. Caught by surprise, she threw out her wings and caught flight. It was all too much for her; she swooped low, heading back for the house and crash landed on the porch. She hopped over to a planter and burrowed behind it. She heard her father sit down quietly in front of it, guarding her, and they stayed that way until sun began to rise, when suddenly she was overcome with pain again, and began to grow.

Her father ran and grabbed a blanket, wrapped her up, then carried her into the house and laid her down gently on the couch. She was still too in shock to speak, so he waited. Finally, she was able to speak.

“Dad, what the fuck?” Darla screamed. She pulled the blanket around her more closely. “I need clothes,” she demanded. He jumped up and came back a few minutes later with her jeans and a black sweatshirt. Then he left the room to let her change. She called him back in when she was done, and he returned bearing two peanut butter sandwiches and a cup of tea.

“So, I owe you an explanation,” he said, setting everything down in front of her. She stared at him.

“Dad, that’s an understatement.” Her voice was shaking. She couldn’t bring herself to touch the food.

Her father settled back in his favorite leather chair and took a moment, staring at his hands.

“I started changing when I was 17,” he said, “Younger than you.” He looked at her, and seeing that her face was still blank, he continued. “I was a porcupine my first time.”

“Am I supposed to find that funny,” Darla asked.

“I was hoping…” he said.

“How did you hide this from me? From Mom?” Darla demanded.

He shrugged. “Your mom and I didn’t live together for very long. And for me it mostly happens at night. I’ve been able to tell when it’s coming for a long time now.”

“So, this could just happen to me anytime?” Darla asked.

“Day or night,” he replied.

“Why? Why does this happen?” Darla asked. Her father shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “There’s no family mystery, or if there is, my parents didn’t know anything about it. I thought it was just me. No one else in my family had this. And when you got through 18 and nothing had happened, I thought, well I thought I’ll never need to tell her.”

“That’s the explanation you’re going to stick me with?” Darla rose and walked over to the door, retrieving a feather that was lying in a pool of sunlight. “I turned into a fucking owl and you say ‘Woops, sometimes we do that?’” She ran out to her car and took off, with him running out of the house after her. And that would have been that, except that she shifted again three weeks later.

The second time she had shifted, she had become some kind of big cat. She couldn’t open the door of her closet to see her mirror, so she had no idea what kind. She called her father the next morning in tears, telling him that she was afraid of what might happen next. Her father told her that she would get control over it. That it took him time to understand when the changes were coming.

The next time, she became a bear, and destroyed most of her house through sheer clumsiness, and left the bed covered in scat. When she woke in the morning, she was disgusted. She balled all the sheets up and got rid of them.

Slowly she became more and more isolated. She was fired from her job for being unreliable. And it became difficult to get by with so little money, especially when she kept destroying her furniture during transformations. At first, Darla took temp jobs, driving into the city for the work, but she kept getting fired for having to leave, or simply disappearing during the day. Luckily the worst thing she had become in an office was a ferret, but she began to have panic attacks at the thought of being caught out. After a time, she limited herself to freelance, conducting her work completely over email.

Even though she rarely left home, changing was still dangerous. The scratches on her arms had no doubt come from a fight with a coyote that she’d had the night before. She’d startled it rifling through a dumpster and it had gone for her throat. She’d managed to defend herself, some sort of instinct kicking in. When she’d finally limped back home, running through the doggy door she’d installed for herself just in case, she’d curled up on the floor and fallen asleep immediately.

And so she found herself, with a cut up arm that stung like all hell, and an empty bottle of whiskey.

Day 22

Photo by takgoti via Flickr

“Dr. Dunham?” Maya stands at the door of my office, looking nervous.

“What’s up?” I say, gesturing for her to come in.

“That guy is back, the one with the fake prescriptions?” Maya is a sweet kid, but I have no idea how she got the idea that she could intern at a clinic. She is a pretty girl, impeccably dressed, with straightened blond hair and flawless makeup . She only started three weeks ago, but even perfect makeup can’t hide the bags that are beginning to form under eyes. The problem is she’s too idealistic; kids like her always have a savior complex. I hate that grad schools can just send do-gooders with no real life experience my way, especially ones with Vineyard Vines bags and diamond earrings. But I have to take what I can get with such a small budget.

“Which guy with the fake prescriptions?” I ask, trying to sound patient. “Half of the people who show up here are on something.”

She fiddles with her thumb ring. “The guy with the really long hair? I think he said his name was like, Dozer or something?”

Dozer is well known at the clinic. He’s been incarcerated at least four times on possession, once with an 8-ball, and three times for selling Oxycontin. His latest thing is getting fake prescriptions, not just for Oxy, but for anything he can get his hands on. The thing is, he is the most charming man when he is high. Helpful. Thoughtful. It’s only when he comes down that he gets nasty. He gets shakes, throws things, and screams at park benches. An all around nasty character.

Maya self-consciously adjusts her J-Crew button down shirt and I realize I’ve been staring at her. “So what’s the problem?” I ask. Dozer frequently checks in with us for a one night stay at the insistence of his sister, who has been trying to get him clean for two years. It’s a pretty typical.

“He says he wants to get clean,” Maya says.

“They always say they want to get clean,” I reply. I hate to sound so jaded, but I have to be realistic with the staff.

“He just, sounds like he means it, I guess…” she shrugs and trails off.

“Alright, I’ll handle it. Can you finish filing this month’s intakes in the front office then?” She nods and scurries off, seeming relieved that I have absolved her of the dirty work.

Dozer is sitting in the lobby when I walk out, twisting his hat in his hands.

“Doc!” he says when he sees me. He jumps up and I can tell right away that he is still on something.

“How’s it going Dozer?” I hold out my hand, and he grabs it, pumping it up and down in a strong handshake. His hands are rough and dry.

“Book me for two weeks this time,” he says, grinning. “I want the whole shebang.” It looks like he shaved recently, and poorly. He missed a strip near his left ear, and cut himself on the chin.

“Where’s your sister?” I ask, leading him to the intake desk. I gesture at Maya to hand me the forms.

“Came by myself this time, see. I gotta get clean.” Dozer twitches when I hand him the forms. His sister usually fills them out for him, and I have no idea if he actually knows the information.

“Why don’t I give her a call, Dozer? She can come in and help walk you through this,” I say, reaching for the phone behind the desk.

“No!” He grabs my arm and pushes it away, then immediately jumps back looking ashamed, holding his hands palm up in front of him. Maya looks terrified. She rolled her chair back against the wall when he put his hands on me, and I can’t help but feel a sting of annoyance.

“Sorry Doc, but I gotta do this one myself. I found out I’ve got a baby on the way and I’ve gotta get my act together or she won’t let me see it.” I’m sure if he’s talking about his sister, or the baby’s mother, but it’s more important to get him checked in. Dozer crosses his arms, hugging himself. I can see Maya slowly begin to reach back for the files.

“Alright, why don’t we get you settled, we can deal with this later,” I say. Dozer relaxes a little. I have all his information on file anyway.

I set Dozer up with a bed, and schedule his first round of appointments. Then I go back to the front office to find Maya, but she isn’t there. I look around for awhile and finally find her outside, taking long drags of a cigarette. She’s trembling, the cigarette shaking perceptibly between her fingers. I didn’t know she smoked. I’m kind of surprised.

“Bad habit,” she says, smiling ruefully when she sees me coming. I lean on the wall next to her and wait for her to tell me she wants to quit her internship.

“Do you think he’ll make it?” she asks instead, looking at the ground.

“Who, Dozer?” I ask. She nods. “Maybe. If he has a reason to, he might this time. His track record’s not great…” I notice that her shoulders have begun to shake a little, and finally it hits me.

“Who was it for you?” I ask, trying to seem gentle. She looks up at me, tears falling from her pretty green eyes, and her breath catches.

“My mom,” she says. “None of us knew for so long, because she was home during the day.” She pauses,   “My dad was super pissed when he found out.”

“What was she using?” I ask.

“It was prescription for her. Vicodin. My dad found a little stash of bottles in one of her shoeboxes.” She stops talking and takes a deep drag on her cigarette. I notice that she is using the past tense, and wait. If it’s past tense, the story only has two outcomes; recovery or death.

Maya continues, “My dad had her in and out of treatment for the last eight years. She’d get better and then relapse, even at the smallest things. Like she was doing great for six months, and then she hit a squirrel while she was driving my brother to school, and that was it. She was back on it for another year.” She looks at me and I find myself nodding along to the story.  “I even went to college late because I wanted to be home with her…” She fiddles with her thumb ring again, her cigarette is almost burned down to the filter.

“She’s clean now, I guess,” she continues, and I release the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “But you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?” Maya asks. She looks at me beseechingly. “I know it’s pretty cliché, but I thought, maybe if I figured out how to do this for other people…” She trails off. We’re both quiet for a bit.

“Do you still want to do this?” I finally ask. Maya is silent for awhile before she answers. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, I think it’s important.”

“Alright then,” I say. “Let’s get back to work.”

 

Day 21

I’m not sure what to do about Mitchell. Ms. Barrowman called me at work again today to tell me that Mitchell had been bullying a new kid in kindergarten, a little Asian girl this time.

When I was pregnant, it never occurred to me that my kid might come out an asshole. I was shy in school, read above my grade level, got picked on a lot. I avoided kids like Mitchell like the plague. Brian, my husband, is as nerdy as I am. He’s a little Jewish guy, was picked last for every team in gym class, studied photography in college. He’s a gentle soul. And our kid, somehow the kid that we two nerds made together, is a loud, large, brash little devil who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to walk up to a girl on the playground and tell her she smells. Just my luck.

I’m not sure where he’s getting it from. He only watches age-appropriate tv shows; I’m very strict about media consumption. And Brian reads to him every night. We’ve read all the parenting books. And I mean all of the parenting books. Our Amazon account suggestions are only for books about raising children.

When I get to the school, Mitchell is sitting outside of the classroom. He insisted on dressing himself this morning, and is wearing a Star Wars t-shirt that is a little too small for him now, jeans, and the vest from his cowboy costume. If he had a mullet and a cigarette he would look just like the delinquents that I used to go to school with. He sees me in the hallway and has the decency to look ashamed.

“Hi Mitchell,” I say, squatting down next to him. Brian promised to meet me here, but he texted to say he is running late, he needs to finish editing some project. Mitchell crosses his arm and pouts at me. I can see myself in his face, especially around the nose. We both have ski jump noses, they turn up at the end.

“Ms. Barrowman doesn’t like me,” he says. I sigh.

“Why do you think that?”

“Because she thinks I pushed Sayoko.” He’s not meeting my eyes.

“Did you push Sayoko?” I don’t want to bargain with him, I just want to get him home and put him to bed, and have a glass of wine, maybe four.

He appears to think about that for awhile, then finally says, “Maybe.”

“So yes, you pushed Sayoko.” He shrugs and kicks at the floor.

“I’m going in to talk to Ms. Barrowman, and then we are going to go home, and you are going right to bed with no dinner. You need to think about what you’ve done.” He leans back in the chair and I leave him there, preparing to make my apologies yet again to the poor harried Ms. Barrowman.

Later that day, after Brian and I have finally wrestled Mitchell into bed despite his protests and tears, I decide to call my mother. It’s been hard for me to admit that we’ve had so much trouble with Mitchell. We had to fight so hard to have him that I feel like it’s disloyal of me to say anything bad about him.

My mother picks up on the first ring, and when she says hello, I almost dissolve into tears at the warmth in her voice.

“Oh Mum,” I sigh, when she asks how I am. “Mitchell is being difficult.” My mother is immediately on alert.

“Difficult like a normal five year old, or something else?” She asks carefully. She knows I have been fiercely defensive of everything we do with Mitchell. Everything I’ve been holding back for the past few months suddenly comes pouring out.

“He’s a jerk,” I sob, as my mother immediately begins to make soothing voices through the phone. “He’s a bully and the other kids hate him. He pushed a little girl on the playground so hard that she skinned her hands! And he stole another kid’s book. And I don’t know what we’re doing wrong because Brian and I were picked on and it feels really shitty not to like your own kid!” At this point my mother goes from soothing me to chuckling.

“Christine, you may have been picked on in high school, but you were a brat at five.”

“What?” I am honestly incredulous. I don’t remember anything about that.

“Oh lord, the trouble you put me through. You used to beat up the boys on the playground, and steal their legos. And the girls were all afraid of you, you were such a tomboy. But you grew out of it eventually.”

I am speechless.

“It’s going to be okay honey. You and Brian are good parents and Mitchell is going through a phase. A crappy, awful phase that you’re going to have to work like hell to get him out of, but you grew up to be a pretty amazing person despite the fact that I wanted to give you away when you were his age.”

We talk a little more and by the time we hang up, I am feeling a little better. Brian is sitting on the couch and has already poured me a glass of wine.

“It’s a little early,” I say tentatively, not meaning it. He laughs and I snuggle in next to him.

“So apparently I was a nasty kid,” I say, sipping my wine. It is a little vinegary, but not too bad. Brian strokes my hair.

“Yeah, I can see that,” he says, smiling down at me. I punch him lightly on the shoulder.

“Anyway,” Brian continues, “Mitchell came out and gave me this while you were on the phone with your Mom.” He hands me a folded piece of notebook paper with a stick figure of a man crying on the front. I open it and inside, in barely legible writing, Mitchell has written “SORYY.” And thinking about it, I actually believe that he means it.

“We’re keeping this one,” I say, propping it up on the coffee table in front of us. Brian laughs, and for now, things don’t seem so bad.

Day 20

Photo by Irice via Flickr

Herr Nachnamen grabbed the oil cloth off of his messy worktable and wiped down the gleaming bronze side of the beast. 253 clocks ticked in perfect unison as he worked, finely tuned by his dexterous fingers.

He rose in the dark and wound each of the clocks as the first flickers of light hit the morning sky. He always finished winding the last clock before his wife awoke. He’d then return to the house from his workshop and start the fire in the kitchen. He would pull the bircher out of the ice box and add the dried apples and nuts, and then set the bowl on a little tray and carry it into Else to eat in bed. He hoped that it was not his imagination that her color was beginning to come back. His wife had not been well; she had begun to cough that summer, after their old dog Madchen had passed.

The commission for the beast had been a godsend. One morning in September, he had been woken by a rapping at his door. He glanced over at Else, who was still snoring softly next to him, and climbed carefully out of the bed, avoiding the floorboards with squeaks to let her sleep in. He threw on his robe and padded out to the door. He looked through the small window in his door and saw a handsome young man that he didn’t recognize looking impatiently at a fob watch. He did recognize the watch though, it was one of his own, the cover made from wood of the Black Forest, an odd choice for a man who clearly came from wealth. He was wearing a brilliant gold, black and red plaid waistcoat that nipped into his trim figure, a tall top hat befitting the fashion of the time, and gripping a long black cane with an ivory head carved in the shape of a wolf.

Nachnamen opened the door a crack, leaving the chain on and peered through the crack. The young man looked up and smiled.

“Herr Nachnamen,” he said, tipping his hat. “I’m so sorry to disturb you this early morning, but I come on urgent business.” Herr Nachnamen eyed him, and then unhooked the chain, stepping out into the chill morning.

“My wife is unwell. I would prefer not to wake her,” he said. “We may speak in my workshop, if you do not object.”

The stranger nodded his head in ascent, and Nachnamen led the way into his studio. He wished that he had taken the time to tidy up the night before, as in the light of day, the workshop was clearly in disarray, with gears and cogs appearing haphazardly throughout the room. Upon entering, the stranger immediately moved towards Nachnamen’s masterpiece, a little clockwork bear, exactly three inches tall, that could balance a ball on its nose while riding a unicycle. The bear was dressed in a delicately sewed harlequin costume that Else had painstakingly stitched together before she had fallen ill.

“Would you like me to wind it for you?” Nachnamen asked the man. He nodded, and Nachnamen pulled his keychain out of his desk drawer, selected the tiny key that wound the bear and fitted it into the hole on the bear’s thigh, and turned it three times.

The bear sprang to life, and Nachnamen set it on the floor of the shop. He and the stranger stepped back, allowing the bear room to pedal about. After the bear was steady, Nachnamen reached out and set the ball on its nose. For a second it teetered, but the bear adjusted, and the ball held, spinning on the bear’s nose.

The stranger pulled off his leather gloves and applauded Nachnamen unabashedly.

“Herr Nachnamen, this is truly a wonder. I had heard tales of your ability, and in truth I am quite fond of my watch which I believe to be your creation, but this is beyond what I could have hoped for. You are the man I have been seeking.” Nachnamen flushed. The stranger continued. “I am hoping to set you a commission, for which I will pay you 500 thaler; half now, and half when you have completed the task.” Nachnamen gasped. That money would allow him to keep Else comfortable for years. The man unscrewed the head of his cane, pulled out a rolled piece of parchment, and proceeded to unfurl it over Nachnamen’s worktable. Nachnamen looked at it, then pulled off his glasses, wiping them on his shirt.

“Is it possible?” asked the stranger, and he seemed to hold his breath.

Nachnamen was silent for a moment. The drawing was of a great clockwork wolf-like beast, a beast that, he could see from the intricate drawings, was meant to be able to run and attack. A beast with metal teeth and snapping jaws.

“How can I promise such a thing, knowing that it is meant for destruction?” Nachnamen asked.

The stranger smiled, his teeth straighter than any Nachnamen had ever seen. “I have heard that you and I may have the same sympathies. I am not a man of action; I am a man of means. And I wish to procure this for men of action.” He held up his cane and Nachnamen observed that on the end, so faint that he could have imagined it, was a five pointed star.  Nachnamen looked again at the drawings laid on the table. “Do we understand each other?” the stranger asked. Nachnamen nodded.

“It can be done,” he said finally. The stranger dropped a bag of thaler on top of the parchment. “I will be back in three months time,” he said, and then left without ever giving his name.

Nachnamen had begun to work immediately, pulling various cogs and wheels loose from other projects and dumping them in a bowl. That day he worked until the small hours of the morning, only pausing to feed his wife and wrap her in another layer of blankets. The next day, he wound his clocks, and went off to fetch a doctor with his new fortune. In town, he purchased two thick wool blankets, and a pair of well knit socks, before stopping in to call on Dr. Becker. The elderly doctor came out to Nachnamen’s home and saw to his wife, leaving behind medicine and hope. As soon as his wife was settled, Nachnamen returned to his workshop and began to work again.

His life quickly became focused on three things: winding his clocks in the morning; caring for Else; and creating a piece of machinery beyond anything he had ever imagined.  The beast was tricky. He had to scrap the original drawing when he found that the mechanics wouldn’t work. Instead, he built the machinery for each minute detail of the creature; one to control each paw, one to control each leg, a gear for the jaw and a gear for the head. And out of sheer whimsy, he added a tail; a tail that twitched and waved as the beast ran.

For run the beast did. The first time Nachnamen set it free in the woods behind his home, he nearly wept with pride at the pure beauty of it. The size of a large wolf, it could run at a full tilt, and the springs were so delicate that it seemed able to sense obstacles and leap out of their way. Its bronze and gold parts gleamed in the winter sun. When wound, it could run as long as a clock, or longer, over twelve hours. And, per the stranger’s specifications, it could attack, rearing up on its hind legs and snapping with its hard silver pointed teeth that had been filed as sharp as knives.

The job was done three days before the stranger was set to return. Else, who had been recovering slowly, had begun to grow curious about his work. At the end of the project, she began asking him every day if she could see what had so consumed his time. She was still frail, but Nachnamen thought that perhaps he might be able to show her, he was too proud of his work not to ask her to share in his delight.

On the day before the stranger was to arrive, he set a chair behind their house, wrapped Else in a set of blankets, and carried her outdoors. She had rarely seen the sun since the beginning of her convalescence and it took time before she could adjust. She nestled into her blankets and held out her hand. Nachnamen took it into his own.

“Was it always this beautiful here?” she asked, looking at the sunlight streaming through the edge of the woods. Nachnamen smiled down at her.

“It is more beautiful with you here,” he said, and then blushed, but Else simply smiled up at him.

Nachnamen went into his workshop and pulled out the set of three keys that were needed to wind the beast. The beast itself was laying on the floor, much like a dog in slumber. Nachnamen set to work, and soon the beast was ready. He opened the door, and it flew out into the garden, and he heard Else give a yelp of delight as it careened around the grass. He came out and stood behind her, his arms crossed as they both watched the creature run away from them.

“Will it come back?” Else asked, reaching up for Nachnamen’s hand again.

“It will,” he said. She sighed happily.

The creature turned and raced back towards them. Nachnamen watched it approach, and as it gained speed, it occurred to him that the creature might not differentiate an enemy from a friend. Perhaps he should not have brought Else out here. The beast did not slow. Nachnamen gasped and reached towards Else to pull her out of harm’s way, when suddenly the beast drew up short, skidding to a stop in front of Else. Nachnamen let out a breath of relief. The beast cocked its head to one side, and then, just like their dog Madchen had once done, laid its great head on Else’s lap.  Else squealed in delight, and petted it on the head, and the creature wagged its tail. Nachnamen stared at it in disbelief; the creature had never been designed to act in such a manner. He could not account for it.

“He’s wonderful,” Else breathed, and Nachnamen thought he had not seen his wife look so well for a very long time. He looked at the beast, and the great bronze creature nearly seemed to smile in response. The beast slept on the foot of their bed that night, and Nachnamen was almost certain that he could hear it snoring.

The next morning, when the stranger arrived, Else sat in their room and quietly wept as Nachnamen made the exchange. The stranger left him with another bag of money, but somehow he could not bring himself to touch it. And the next morning, for the first time in years, he could not bring himself to rise and wind his clocks. Instead, when dawn broke, he pulled Else to him and held her tightly, matching his breath to hers.

The stranger returned two weeks later, arriving as unceremoniously as he had the first time. However, he brought the creature with him. When Nachnamen answered the door, he noticed that the man looked a bit disheveled, and seemed in an ill temper.

“Your machine does not work Herr Nachnamen.” The stranger said, when Nachnamen allowed him to enter. He noted the bag of money still sitting on the table where he had left it. “I see you might have anticipated that.”

Nachnamen shrugged. “A machine’s disposition is of its own making. I can only do so much,” he said humbly. The stranger grunted.

“The thing wants to play fetch,” he said distastefully. “I had hoped that it might inspire fear, but instead, my men have begun to call him Rolf, and scratch him behind the ears.”

Else appeared in the bedroom doorway and caught her breath when she saw who had come. The creature immediately moved and went to sit at her feet. Else placed her delicate hand on its huge head. The stranger marked the movement.

“I see where we stand then,” he said. “I will have to ask for the second payment back.” Nachnamen nodded, too overjoyed to speak. He exchanged a glance with Else who gestured for him to return the stranger’s money. The stranger grabbed the bag of thaler and left, and they saw him no more.

A year later, Nachnamen received a letter from his brother in Berlin that said the revolution had been lost. He folded the letter back up and placed it in his pocket, and turned instead to watch Else, who was chasing Rolf happily through the garden.

 

Day 19

I smack the barrel with the palm of my hand, sending a loud boom through the dark forest. A great flock of starlings rise up and lift away, flying over our heads. No one else will hear. We are alone here. One by one, my friends take up position by the exposed pipes and the doorframes of the abandoned factory, and begin to set a beat. I smack the barrel again, and then settle into a softer rhythm. Boom, ba doom da, boom, ba doom da… The clinks and chimes of other sounds join with me, raising the noise like smoke into the night sky.

Erik, my Erik, throws a heap of kindling on top of the dry logs already set up in the center of the concrete tarmac and pulls out his Zippo. He holds the lighter aloft to the sky, a single flame fighting the black night, and a great cheer goes up from the group. “Fire!” they scream enthusiastically. In the factory, we quiet our beats, waiting in anticipation. Erik, beautiful even in the dark, swoops down, as if in a bow, and touches the blue white flame to the edge of the kindling. The flame catches immediately, and Erik leaps back, howling in joy. He runs across the circle and grabs Zu Zu’s wrist and pulls her along after him in a twisted dance, where they run around the fire, whooping and hollering. They are striking together, their faces aglow with ecstasy, and for a moment I’m eaten alive with jealousy. My beat falters and I have to correct it.

The rest of the group joins in, screaming with abandon at the night sky. Ray and Button, the best dancers of the group, quickly take over the pace and the rest fell in line behind them, circling the fire. They reach towards the sky, trying to take in everything. My crew and I, watching them from the wall-less frame of the factory, respond with a burst of sound, pounding away on our chosen instruments. I am breathless and so alive. My palms begin to tingle, but it doesn’t matter.

They dance and we play through the night, throwing more and more fuel on the fire, until it is raging at six feet high. Erik and the rest are lit up against the wall of forest that surrounds us. The graffiti on the walls of the nearby building seems to move in the shadow and light of the fire, dancing along with them. When it begins to grow light, they start to fall off, first one by one, then in groups. I hate this part, when I know that it might be months before I see any of them again. In the end, it is just Erik dancing and me playing, the two of us greeting the dawn with our last bursts of energy. It is Erik who stops first, pulling up short and walking over to find the shirt that he had torn off in the middle of the dance. He picks it up off the tarmac and gives it a shake, removing the bits of broken glass and grass that cling to it, while I give one last mournful bang to my drum.

We look at each other, both exhausted and glowing with sweat. At rest now, I can finally feel my hands again. My palms are burning and bloody, but I don’t care. Erik looks me up and down like he could eat me up, and then walks over to me, his chest still heaving, and pulls me to him. I lean into him, my heart still beating to the time I had kept, boom, ba doom da, and kiss him hard on the mouth, trying to fill all of the months that we won’t have together. The kiss is still too short; we are both panting.

“See you next time,” Erik says, pulling away. I nod, not trusting myself to speak, and grab my coat out of the hole in the wall where I’d stashed it. He turns me around and kisses me again and then takes off running across the empty tarmac towards the forest edge as soon as he lets go.

I watch him run away from me, and then, purposefully choose the other direction, and begin to run as well.