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Day Three Hundred and One: The Sweetest Sauce

March 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Iris had never understood why first dates were dreaded the way they were. Her friends talked about them like they were some kind of combat ritual, some horror show that had to be endured so that they might enter the realms of the mighty who had boyfriends and girlfriends. They traded stories about they guys who were too clingy, the ones who were too rough, the girls who were too shy or too loud, and each and every one of them just reinforced their ideas that the world was full of miserable, deranged sociopaths who wanted nothing more than to destroy a lovely evening out.

All she knew at this point was that she wouldn’t be able to tell stories about this date to her friends. “Yeah, he was really nice and we had a good time” would fall flat.

It was the truth, though. She’d met Lloyd at the post office, of all places, waiting in line behind an old woman who apparently wanted to send birthday cards to all of her grandchildren at once and with excruciating care. He and Iris had gotten to chatting about how this was such a first-world problem, and she told him about the time she had to wait a whole extra half hour at the DMV and he lamented about the cable company never coming when they promised, and they really hit it off. By the time they picked up their respective packages, he had her number, and called a couple of days later for a date.

They met at Javaville, because coffee shops were considered neutral ground, and talked about themselves over drinks. A few people waved at him when he came in, which was good. She got her coffee black, his was a soy milk latte, and she took a chance with some routine she’d heard from a comedian on TV a few years ago.

“You know that’s not soy milk, right?” she said.

He lifted an eyebrow. It looked good on him.

“Milk,” she went on, “has to come from a mammal, right? And last time I looked, soybeans didn’t lactate.”

He thought about this and nodded. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But then we’d have to call it ‘soy juice,’ and no one in their right mind would drink soy juice.” He winked and sipped at his latte. Iris suspected he had seen the same comedian, because that was pretty much the punchline to the joke. If he had, though, he didn’t call her on it.

They walked through the Hortus, the vast park in the center of the city. It was a lovely spring day and the water lilies were in bloom, making it almost tailor-made for a romantic first date. He walked close to her, but not too close, and talked about himself without seeming self-obsessed. In turn, Iris told stories about what she had done and where she had been, and didn’t try to crib from comedians anymore.

It wasn’t a date she could gripe about with her friends, but that was okay. She’d take this.

They ended the day at dinner, at a restaurant he promised was the best in the city. She stood in front of the chalkboard for a good minute and a half trying to work out the name of the place. Lloyd let her try it out a few times before he grinned and said, “It’s ‘Yggdrasillusions.'” He shrugged. “The owner has a thing for Norse mythology. Most of us just call it ‘Iggy’s’ to keep things simple.” He walked over and opened the door. “Ladies first?”

The restaurant was green. Really green. There were plants everywhere – hanging from the ceiling, growing in window boxes, and even vines crawling up the rough-hewn wooden walls. The restaurant smelled of heavy spices and loam, and light jazzy music piped in through speakers overhead. Young, pretty waitresses weaved through tables where couples and threesomes and foursomes were eating and chatting and laughing. Lloyd waved to a few people and patted some shoulders as they went to their table. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled when they saw him, all of which struck Iris as a good sign. Not how she was usually greeted when she walked into a place, but she’d take it.

The waitress was at their table as soon as they sat down. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Emili, and our specials tonight are a raw Mediterranean pesto torta, portabello burgers, and the chef’s special kale and spinach lasagna.” She beamed. “It’s really good, I had some for lunch today.”

“Thanks, Emili,” Lloyd said. “Give us a minute?”

Emili nodded and handed them menus before gliding off to help someone else. As Iris leafed through the menu, she felt her stomach grow cold. A sneaking suspicion was winding its way though her mind, and each dish she read off the menu seemed to confirm it. After a few minutes she looked up at Lloyd. “Is this a vegan restaurant?” she asked.

Lloyd smiled. “Best in the city,” he said. His smile wavered. “Is… that is okay, isn’t it?”

She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t remotely okay. She wanted to tell him that an otherwise lovely first date had suddenly turned into the inevitable horrible endurance trial her friends talked about, where she could see if she could get through the next hour and a half without being sick. Or going mad.

But she didn’t. “No,” she said. “No, it’s fine.” She smiled back at him, but she suspected Lloyd knew something was wrong.

They started off with a mountain vegetable tempura, accompanied by two different dipping sauces – one a spicy chili and the other a sweet plum sauce. Lloyd raved about them and told her about the time he tried to get the recipe off the chef, and how that had led him to a whole weird series of bets and bargains. To Iris, they tasted like chalk. Bland, flavorless bits that vanished from her memory as soon as she swallowed them.

The main course was a spicy chana masala, one of several Indian dishes that were on the menu. Emili told them about how the restaurant owner had gotten that recipe from a man he met while backpacking in India and how they were the only restaurant in the city to serve it. Lloyd clearly loved it, barely stopping to talk as he ate. Emili brought over some lychee-soy milk drinks and said they were on the house.

Iris picked at her food until she realized she was picking at it. She didn’t want to be That Date, the one he told stories about to his friends – Yeah, I brought her to my favorite place and she just nibbled at the food – so she scooped up spoonfuls and tried her best to look like she was enjoying herself. It went down like the flavorless pap they gave to babies and old people. There was no substance to it, no energy, and she wasn’t even sure it reached her stomach. The only thing even remotely good was the wine, but she suspected it was made from organic grapes by the thinness and emptiness of its flavor.

After a dessert of non-dairy ice cream and some coffee, Lloyd sat back, looking full and happy. “This really is a great place,” he said. “I’d come here every night if I could.”

Iris forced herself to smile and hoped her stomach wouldn’t growl. “Thanks for sharing it with me,” she said. There was a moment of awkward silence. “I do need to know, though – do you come here because the food is good, or because you’re vegan?”

He shrugged. “Any reason it can’t be both?” he asked. “The food’s great, and no animals died to get it to us. Win-win.” He sipped at his coffee. “Thanks for having an open mind about this, by the way,” he said. “I think you’ll find that vegan food is better than anything else you’ve eaten, and you’ll have a clean conscience in the end to boot.”

Iris nodded, and knew that there would be no second date.

He paid for dinner, although she tried to go in for half. He walked with her to the subway station and took her hand as they waited for his train. He’d had a really good time, and he’d definitely call her again. Soon. He promised. Iris tried not to let the mask slip and just said, “That would be nice.”

He waved to her as the subway pulled out. She waved back, once.

When the train was out of sight, she went back up aboveground and headed to the nearest SmackyBurger just a few blocks away.

The kid at the counter welcomed her to SmackyBurger, but she cut him off.

“Gimme a super-double burger with bacon.” She took a twenty out of her wallet. “Throw a couple of extra patties on there and this is yours.” The young man didn’t even hesitate to take the money.

Three minutes and forty-five seconds later, Iris was sitting in a booth and took a great, jaw-cracking bite of her burger.

The cows that had been slaughtered to make this burger had lived short and uneventful lives. Memories of packed bodies and chemical-laden feed flooded over her tongue and almost made her moan. The darkness of the slaughterhouse, the smell of blood and that last moment of realization before oblivion all washed over her, and within moments, she was licking her fingers. She went back up and ordered a chicken filet sandwich. This one was better than the first. The birds had been raised in a battery farm, kept in cages only slightly bigger than they were. They knew only suffering until the last moment of their lives, and that suffering, that knowledge of horror was what filled Iris’ stomach. The energy of fear and hopelessness and pain rushed through her. The world became vivid, alive.

No block of tofu had ever watched a farmer come at it with an axe. No carrot had ever smelled the blood of its brothers on the killing floor and been unable to run. No bean sprout had ever struggled for life, caged in with hundreds of competitors who wanted it dead.

Iris needed that suffering, that pain. She didn’t know why, but she knew what she liked. And she was pretty sure Lloyd wouldn’t understand.

She finished the chicken sandwich, wiped her hands on a napkin, and left the restaurant. She wasn’t sure how she would spin this into a first date horror story, but she was sure it would be better than the truth.

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Day Two Hundred and Sixty-two: Mutual Understanding

February 10, 2012 Leave a comment

“Go ahead,” the genie said to Jack. “Put on the ring and complete the circuit. And when you do, you and April will know everything about each other.” The genie took a long drag off his cigarette, and smiled when he exhaled smoke that was pink and shimmered slightly in the light from the kitchen lamp.

Jack turned the ring over in his hand. It was small, made of silver, with a pale blue gem set into it. His wife had the other one, identical except that her gem was pale pink. She had already put it on, and was staring at him while he hemmed and hawed. He could feel her urging him on. The genie just watched.

It had been a simple wish, though Jack hadn’t really been expecting it when he came home. After a long day trying to develop new things that could be done with processed food, he came hope in the hopes of having something to eat with his wife, maybe a beer while he went through his web-surfing, and then bed.

Instead, he found this strange man standing in the living room, next to his wife. The man was dressed in an immaculate white suit, with a few gold rings and a bracelet that gleamed against his olive skin. He had longish hair, so black that it was almost blue, and just the right amount of stubble on his face to bring him over from “too lazy to shave” to “incredibly sexy.”

At first, he thought his wife was admitting to an affair. If that had been true, it would have been a relief. Though Jack had never had any real reason to suspect she would sleep with someone else, he couldn’t think of a good reason why she wouldn’t. If the opportunity arose.

He didn’t understand her, and that was the real problem, wasn’t it? They’d been to couples counseling, but hadn’t had much luck with it. Neither of them was the type to pour out their innermost wants and needs to anyone, so they got along with each other and set up a life together that worked reasonably well. Or at least, well enough.

But there were times when he looked over at her, and he couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going on in her head. He was pretty sure she felt the same.

So when he came home and saw the strange, very handsome man, he thought, Well, here it is at last. One of us has done something, so I suppose the hard work is done.

No such luck. “Honey!” she yelled when he came in. She ran up to him and hugged him for a lot longer than usual. His hug was safe. Non-committal. Three pats and a squeeze. He never took his eyes off the man.

When April pulled away, her face was practically glowing. “You won’t believe what happened,” she said. “I was out shopping and I went over to the thrift store.” Jack bit his tongue. Their house was already cluttered from her thrift store adventures. “And there was this oil lamp,” she went on. “So I thought it might look nice on the mantle.”

“Is there room?”

She laughed and slapped his arm. “Of course there is – I was going to move the ducks to the bedroom. Anyway.” She walked over to the strange man and grasped his arm. “I was polishing it, and this man – no, not a man. This genie just appeared out of nowhere!”

The genie tipped his hat. It took Jack a moment to realize that the genie hadn’t been wearing a hat before.

Or had he?

“A genie, huh?” Jack said. He sighed and took off his jacket. “Honey, I’m really too tired for this. If this is your new boyfriend or something, I wish you would just -”

April’s gasp was enough to stop him cold. “Boyfriend?” she whispered. She stood there, hand to her heart, just blinking at him for a moment. “Jack, what on Earth would make you think I want a boyfriend?”

There was no good answer to that question. Of that much, Jack was sure. “Sorry,” he said. “It was a joke, honey.” He leaned over to kiss her, but she pulled back.

The man – the genie – stepped between them. “I understand your confusion, Mister Logan,” he said. He extended a hand and gave a bright smile. Jack noticed that the man’s eyes were a strange blue-green. “I am Nawfal,” the genie said. He took Jack’s hand and give it a single squeeze.

A wave of warmth rushed through Jack’s body, and he gasped and shuddered. He nearly fell to the floor, but Nawfal caught him. When Jack stood again, he knew something had changed. He wasn’t sure what, but something… April was staring at him with wide eyes. Jack looked from one to the other. “What?” he said, running a hand through his hair.

His hair.

Whatever was on his head, it wasn’t the thinning crop of hair that he tried every morning to make as inconspicuous as possible. He hurried into the bathroom and flicked on the light.

Not only did he now have a full head of thick, auburn hair – hair he hadn’t had since high school, for god’s sake – but he had the body that he always imagined he should have. His waist was narrow, his shoulders broad, and his back was straight and strong. No twinge at the base of his spine, no dull ache in his hip that was a signal of things to come. The man in the mirror wasn’t young again, but he was the man he would have been if he’d taken care of himself.

Nawfal came up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Not bad, eh?” he said. “That one’s for free. Just to cut short the ‘You cannot possibly be a genie’ conversation.” He lit another cigarette, and the smoke smelled of freshly-baking cookies. “I hate that conversation.”

He guided Jack out of the bathroom with some effort. “Your wife has a wish,” the genie said. “And it involves you.” He parked Jack in front of April, who kept looking him over. He was tempted to tell her that his face was up here, but it seemed in poor taste.

The genie nudged April. “Your wish?” he said.

She started. “Oh,” she said. “Right. Well.” She laid a hand on Jack’s chest and nearly lost her train of thought again. “I… I thought a lot about what to wish for,” she said. “I know we still have a lot of money on the house to pay off and there’s the credit cards, but…”

Jack’s stomach dropped. Those would have been really good wishes. The house was never going to get paid off, and the credit cards would probably go right before they died of extreme old age. Wishing for permanent financial security was probably a really good idea. “But what I wanted was…” She took a deep breath, and Jack waited for the shoe to drop.

“What I wanted was for us to understand each other, honey,” she said. “I know sometimes we have trouble communicating. I don’t know what you want, you don’t know what I want.” She gestured towards the genie. “But he said he could help. He could change that.”

“And I can,” the genie said. “But you have to choose to do it.” He held out a hand, and then opened it. There were two silver rings on his palm. One with a pink stone, one with blue. Nawfal told them that the rings would link them together permanently, and that they would perfectly understand each other from now on.

April had put the ring on right away.

Jack wasn’t so sure.

Which was weird, because he wanted to. He really did. He and April had been together for a long while, and he’d thought that they would know each other inside and out by now. That’s what everyone else seemed to do, anyway. Finish each other’s sentences, know where everything was, remember all their commitments and problems and hang-ups. And every time he had to drop hints about a Christmas present, or forgot what kind of flowers her mother liked, or what book she was reading, he felt like a failure. This would almost certainly fix all that. She would be happy, he wouldn’t have to scramble to avoid making an ass of himself. Everyone wins.

And yet…

“I don’t think I can do this,” he said.

April’s face fell and then pulled itself back together. “What?” she said. “Why not?”

He shook his head and held the ring out for the genie to take. “I don’t think it’ll end well,” he said. “I mean, there are parts of me…” He stepped forward and took her hands. “There are parts of me that I’m not proud of,” he said. “Parts that I wish I didn’t have. And while I love you and I think you’re a wonderful woman, I’m pretty sure you have things like that too.”

“What,” she said. “You think I’m keeping secrets from you?” Her anger, usually very slow to come out, was showing all over her face.

“No, no,” he said. “Nothing like that. Just… things.” He tried to get close to the idea without giving it away. “Thoughts, maybe. Thoughts you wish you didn’t have. Things you want that you know you shouldn’t. Things you did that you wish you hadn’t.” He reached out to hug her, and at first she was stiff and still. “I want you to think the best of me,” he said. “And I don’t think you would anymore.”

It took a moment, but April relaxed into his embrace, putting her arms around him as well. “I understand,” she said. Her voice sounded thick, but she laughed. “Guess it’s back to couples counseling?”

Jack looked over at Nawfal, who was busy flipping through something on a cell phone. “They’d never believe us,” he said.

The genie looked up when April handed him the ring. “You sure?” he asked.

They nodded together. “We’re sure,” April said.

The genie shrugged. “Suit yourselves,” he said. He squeezed his hand into a fist, and when he opened it the rings were gone. “You still have a wish, though.”

After the genie and his lamp were gone, vanished in a shimmering veil of light, Jack and April were on their computers, checking their bank balances and booking spots on a cruise. Jack input the numbers that April read from a small card that seemed to be made of solid silver, and they both grinned like children as they made their plans.

Day Two Hundred and Sixty-one: Seduction

February 7, 2012 Leave a comment

When Bethany Higgins opened the door, her first thought was, Wow. Looks like someone knows how to use Photoshop.

The man in front of her didn’t have as much hair as he did in his picture. His jawline was a little softer, he looked puffier, and the benefits of taking a profile photo from above were clear. He was thicker around the middle than she’d thought he was. All told, they were tiny changes that added up to a big difference. He looked like his picture, only not quite so much.

Oh well, she thought. Beggars, choosers, all that. She had already put her wedding band into her pocket, so she was halfway committed already. She hoped that she hadn’t let her disappointment show, so she smiled broadly. “Hey there,” she said. “You must be Matt.”

He grinned back, and pulled a small bouquet of flowers from behind his back. “And you’re Beth, of course.” He handed the flowers over. They were a little scraggly, but nice in their own way. “Gosh, your picture didn’t half do you justice.”

“You, sir, are a flatterer.” Beth felt the blush rise. “And that means you get to come in.” She stepped aside and let him into the apartment.

It wasn’t a terribly big place, and she wished she’d done a better job of cleaning up. There were still dishes in the sink from breakfast, and she noticed too late that there was a pair of her fuzzy socks hanging over the back of the sofa. She put her arm around his waist and maneuvered him into the dining room. “You make yourself comfortable,” she said. “I’ll make us some coffee.” She winked, and his grin grew broader.

“So you manage a bookstore?” she called out from the kitchen.

“I do,” he said. “And I have to say, you have a nice collection in the living room out there.” Beth winced, but the damage was done. At this point, fuzzy socks probably weren’t going to be a deal-breaker.

“Glad you approve,” she said. “I love to read whenever I have free time.” She turned on the coffeemaker and stood in the doorway to the dining room. It was a good place to stand – arms up, hip cocked just so… she could practically see his mouth go dry. Beth had no illusions about her body – she’d never make it as a model or a cover girl, but she knew how to use what she had. And what she had seemed to be what Matt wanted, because it took him a few moments to speak.

“Um. Yeah,” he said. She counted to four before his eyes jumped up to meet hers, and he blushed a little. “Wow,” he said. “You really are something.”

“Why thank you,” she said with a smile. “You know just what to say, don’t you?” She could smell the coffee already. “Managing a bookstore must keep you busy,” she said. “Cataloging and shelving and all that.”

“Well,” he said, “that’s why I have employees. They do the heavy lifting, and I make sure we all get paid at the end of the week.” He glanced over at her bookshelves again. “You know, we have the new Paula Grant in. Maybe I can -”

He stopped when he turned around, because Beth had taken the opportunity to get in closer to him. Much closer. He was wearing a light cologne she hadn’t noticed before, and it did smell nice. Kind of a leather and citrus blend that reminded her of… school, for some reason. Matt found his face nearly buried in her chest, and had to back up a little to look her in the eye again. “Um,” he started.

“Matt,” she said. “I really hope you didn’t come here just to scope out my book collection.”

“Um.”

“Because if you did, then I may have to… correct you.” She ran a nail down the side of his face, from temple to jaw, and he shuddered almost imperceptibly. Beth wanted to glance down, but she was pretty sure she knew what was happening down there.

He squeaked slightly. “I don’t… I don’t think I need the coffee all that much,” he said.

“Me neither,” Beth said. She stepped back, and he started to stand. “Just one thing, Matt,” she said. He looked worried all of a sudden, and she tried to smile sweetly. “I did tell you that I’m married, right?”

Matt seemed to take those words into his mind and chew them around for a moment. The look of hunger on his face changed, almost perfectly reflecting the horrible argument that was going on between his sense of right and his need to get laid. Finally, he said, “Yeah. Yeah, you might have.”

“Good,” she said. “I’d hate for you to be surprised. My husband would be…” She grabbed his belt and pulled him close. “Awfully angry if he knew.” Their lips were just a breath apart.

“You’re right. I would.” They both looked over towards the living room. The man standing there was tall and heavy, and his dark face was set in a scowl. He wore what looked like medical scrubs under a winter topcoat, and it looked like there was a spot of blood on the front.

Matt backed away from Beth so fast that he fell over, repeating curses over and over again. Beth was able to call out, “Tim!” before he was on top of the other man. Tim yanked a stun gun out of his pocket and jammed it into Matt’s side. The other man yelled and jerked on the floor. Tim hit him again and again, until the man lay passed out on the floor, the whites of his eyes showing under half-closed lids.

Tim looked up at his wife, and then stood, pocketing the stun gun. “Bethany,” he said. His fingers were flexing into and out of a fist, and the scowl seemed to deepen as they stared at each other.

They stood there, staring at one another for a long time. Bethany was the first to break, with a long sigh that was halfway to being a laugh. “I didn’t think you were going to wait that long,” she said.

“I didn’t think you were going to play the part that well,” he muttered. He looked down at the unconscious man. “Whatever. We’ve got someone I can use, finally.” Beth went into the kitchen, which smelled of coffee, and took a capped hypodermic needle from the refrigerator. She handed it to Tim, who used it on Matt. “That ought to keep him out until I can get him to the lab.”

Beth grinned. “I love that. ‘The lab.’ It sounds so official.”

Tim shrugged and handed the needle back to her. “Would you rather I called it the rental box? Besides, I do experiments there.” He looked at Matt again. “Therefore it’s a lab.”

She pulled him close and kissed Tim hard on the lips. He wrapped his arms around her and relaxed for the first time since they’d put this plan together. “It’ll work,” she said when they pulled apart. “This time it’ll work.” She looked over at Matt and shook her head. “Pity,” she said. “He seemed like a nice guy.”

Day Two Hundred and Fifty-six: Delivery Paperwork

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

NOTE: The day count has been adjusted to the actual number of days, including the five slacktastic days I missed in January.

—–

Sharon looked over from her tablet when the doctor cleared his throat a second time. “Oh,” she said. She sniffed, and noticed that the disinfectant smell of the delivery room had changed into something… meaty. “Are we done already?”

One of the nurses – they were all masked and wrapped up, so she couldn’t tell which one – approached the bed, holding a red, wriggling newborn baby boy. His head wobbled for a moment, and then he opened his mouth and started to howl. It was high and wordless and pure, a noise that had been passed down since the first generation of humans emerged.

Sharon winced. “Any way to, y’know, turn it down?” she said.

The nurse carried the baby boy to the incubator that had been prepared and laid it gently on a blanket. When she closed the cover, there was a small hiss as the incubator pressurized, and the sound was cut off mid-wail.

“Thank god for that,” Sharon said, returning to her book.

The doctor cleared his throat again. “Ms. Ramsey,” he said. “There are still some procedures that have to be taken care of, and I’m afraid we have to do them now.” He stripped off his gloves while one of the nurses took his place beyond the curtain they had erected at Sharon’s midsection. Another nurse handed him a tablet. “Could you… could you put that down please?”

With the put-out sigh of a girl ten years her junior, Sharon thumbed the standby button and put the tablet on the bed beside her. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”

The doctor pulled his mask down. He was handsome enough, she supposed, and if she was going to have another baby, she might ask him to donate for her. It’d be expensive, though. She’d passed up buying a house to get the underwear model’s sperm that she used for this one, and even that had been a compromise. The guy had been a redhead, after all.

“There are forms to be filled out before we can let you home with him,” the doctor said. He uncapped the stylus and clicked it. “The boy’s name?”

That’s right. Name. “What’s your name?” she asked.

He blinked and looked to the nurses, who were all busy. “Um. Mitchell,” he said.

Her face scrunched up. “Ew. No.” She brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and wondered if her boy’s hair would be dark like hers, or if she’d have to start dying the red away. She couldn’t see him really well from where she was lying, but she thought he might have had some red hair. “I dunno,” she said. Then it came to her. “Got it,” she said. “Willard.”

“Willard?” the doctor said, his eyebrows crawling up towards his hairline.

“Yup.” Sharon tapped on the darkened pad. “I was just reading an article about that basketball player, Willard Jennings? He’s kinda hot, so you know…”

The doctor shrugged and entered the name. “Okay,” he said. “Willard Ramsey.” He spent a moment entering his vitals – height, weight, blood test results, the usual – and then said, “I see on your application form that you’re a…” He tapped the screen to hilight the term she’d entered. “A post-hereditary wealth distribution analyst?” He looked over at her, puzzled. Sharon was grinning.

“Yeah,” she said, twisting a lock of hair. “Isn’t that good?”

“I suppose it would be, Ms. Ramsey. But… What exactly is it you do?”

She looked around and beckoned him closer. He leaned in, and she whispered loudly into his ear. “I’m an heiress,” she said. “My father is Nicolas Ramsey? He owns Ramsey Media Worldwide?” She grinned like someone who’d just found the secret sale item at her favorite boutique. “My job is to spend his money.” Sharon winked.

“Um.” The doctor cleared his throat again and tapped a nurse on the shoulder. She looked at the screen, nodded, and left the room.

“Ms. Ramsey,” he said. “Are you aware of the regulations regarding childbirth? Specifically the one that says you must have a reliable source of employment?”

She laughed, and it sounded strung out. Maybe the drugs were finally kicking in the way they were supposed to. “I don’t need a job,” she said. “I just made that stuff up so I could get the approval.” She crooked her fingers into air quotes. “Post-hereditary wealth distribution analyst, right?” That cackle again. “My friend Becky came up with that. She went to law school and everything.”

“That’s all well and good, Ms. Ramsey,” the doctor said. “But you do not, in fact have a job?”

Amusement was slowly fading into annoyance. He father could probably buy this guy if she wanted. Buy him and make him clean her toilets. “Look,” she said. “I got the approval. I got the sperm up in there, and I got the baby.” She put her hands behind her head, and noticed how his eyes flickered to her chest for the briefest moment. Never failed. “So why don’t we just get on with this, give me the kid, and I can be out of here.”

Two women came into the delivery room and stood in the doorway. They were dressed in the same scrubs as everyone else, but their expressions were hard. Not that constantly worried yet capable look that the nurses always had, as though they were trying to juggle a dozen different thoughts at once. These women had exactly one thing to do, and their faces said that they knew exactly what it was. The doctor looked over his shoulder.

“Who are they?” Sharon asked.

The doctor reached out to her, like he was trying to comfort her, but Sharon would have none of it. She pulled away from his touch. “No,” she said. She didn’t like the two women. She couldn’t say why, but something about them set her teeth on edge. “Who are they? Why are they here?”

“Ms. Ramsey,” the doctor said, “the laws are very clear on this subject. And not only do you not have a job, but you’ve perjured yourself on a federal document.” His expression of worry never changed, but she suspected he wanted to smile. His voice was too nice. “I’m afraid we have to keep the boy. He’ll be reassigned to a state facility.”

“No!” Sharon yelled. She tried to get up, but everything below her waist was dead, and the best she could do was twist her arms to lift herself up on the bed. “No,” she yelled again, “you can’t have him!” She tried to crawl, and a couple of the nurses held her back. There was no way she was going to walk anywhere, but there was a real chance of falling on the floor. “I paid for him, dammit, you can’t have him!”

“I’m very sorry,” the doctor said. “But those are the regulations. And we can’t expose the hospital to that kind of liability.” He tapped on the tablet again. “You can apply to reclaim him within six months, or wait a year to have another one.” He turned to the two women in the doorway and nodded. They nodded back, then each took one side of the incubator and they started to roll it out of the room.

Sharon ended up falling out of the bed after all, naked and bloody below the waist but not caring. She screamed that she had a lawyer, that she had a hundred lawyers, and that her father would have them all fired. She got as far as promising to have her boyfriend show up at the hospital with a shotgun before one of the nurses managed to tranquilize her.

When she was quiet, they lifted her back into her bed. The doctor shook his head and closed out the documentation on the tablet. “Maybe next time,” he said.

Day Two Hundred and Fifty: Ten Stories Up

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

“Some people look into the future,” the man said, “and they see a vista of wondrous opportunity. Great branching paths laid out before them that will take them to lands unknown and accomplishments the likes of which they never imagined.” He took a drag off his cigarette and the wind whipped the smoke away as soon as it left his mouth.

“Is that so?” Devin asked, He hugged his arms for warmth and wished he’d brought a jacket or a sweater or something. Or that there was something he could do to speed this up. He’d only been listening to this guy for fifteen minutes or so, and they were fifteen minutes too many.

“When I look into the future, do you know what I see?” the man asked.

“I can’t imagine.”

“I see a dark wood, tangled and overgrown. I see darkness and shadows in every corner, covering lurking danger that could strike at any moment. Fallen leaves cover pit traps that, with a single misstep, will leave you impaled on excrement-covered spikes as the people of this dark and unholy place gather round the shrinking circle of daylight and laugh as you die in agony.”

Devin didn’t say anything. He had to admit, that was a tough little speech to follow.

The man took another draw on his cigarette. “There is only one certain future. Only one course of action I can take whose outcome is in any way knowable.” He flicked the still-smoldering butt out into the air and it spiraled lazily down, down, ten floors down to the pavement below, lost in the wash of police cars and gawkers.

The wind whistled.

“So,” Devin said. “That’s it, huh?”

The man didn’t look at him. All of his attention seemed to be on the scene below, one step off the ledge. He looked like some kind of lower management drone, in khakis and a pressed white short, with an ID badge on a red lanyard dangling from his neck. Devin wondered idly if he took the stairs, but figured the guy wouldn’t really looking to lose any weight at this point. He’d been up on the roof for about half an hour now. Someone had seen him, called the police, and that was where Devin had come in.

The movies always made this look easier. He’d do a flying tackle, but the airbag was still on its way, and there was no way in God’s green earth that he was going to jump off the edge of a building, no matter what anyone said.

There was a click in his earpiece. “Guy’s name is Alexander Norris. Got his manager down here. Says he’s been having a rough quarter.”

Devin nodded, then cleared his throat. “Hey, Mister Norris,” he called out.

The got the man’s attention. Alexander turned to look behind him, and his face was strangely calm. The knots that had been wrapping themselves around Devin’s guts drew a little bit tighter, and he licked his lips as he spoke. “Listen, Mister Norris. I get that you’re not doing so good right now. But you know, there’s no reason things can’t get better, right?”

A grin cracked Alexander’s calm expression. “No reason,” he said. “Right.” He turned to look at the gathering crowd below.

Devin was the “suicide guy” mainly because no one else had wanted to be. The state had given towns money for specialty training in this kind of thing, and he was the one who got tapped for the position. So, a week of seminars and role-plays later, Devin was the go-to man whenever there was someone threatening to blow their head off or take a street dive, which didn’t seem to happen often enough to justify the money the state was putting out for it. But he figured it was kind of like a week off, and the food was free, so he came out on top.

At least, that’s what he thought when he wasn’t on a rooftop in the middle of winter, listening to a cube drone try to be philosophical.

“Mister Norris,” Devin said, “Why don’t you tell me what it is that got you here? Maybe we can figure something out together.” He took a couple of steps closer, something that was generally not advised when the subject was about to fling himself to his death.

The crowd below was getting noisier. The police on the scene were telling people to keep away, and some jackass tried to start a chant of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” before the rest of the crowd shouted him down. The wind was still cutting through Devin’s shirt, and he wondered why Norris wasn’t shivering hard enough to fall off.

After a long time, the man said something, but it was too faint to hear. “What?” Devin shouted.

Alexander turned around again. “It was a song,” he said.

That was new. Devin wasn’t quite sure what to say to that either, so he just waited and strained to hear the siren of the approaching fire truck. The trainer had said that once the subject got going, they would usually keep talking, probably because the negotiator was the first person who’d actually offered to listen.

“I borrowed my son’s old iPod to bring to work,” Alexander said, “and there was this one song…” His face flinched, the first genuine emotion he’d shown. “It was all about… making mistakes. About being in the wrong place and not knowing how to get out.” He looked down over the edge again. “I’ve worked here for fifteen years,” he said, “and I’ve never once felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.” He shuffled his feet and Devin’s heart leapt in his chest. “But what could I do? Pick up and start again?” He barked out a laugh, and then turned back again. Even a few yards away, Devin could see his eyes shining, the tears being pulled along by the wind.

“The song promised that someone would be there. Someone who would stand by me and help me and…” He gestured futilely at himself, at the building, at the world. “Someone who could fix me,” he said. “And all the wrong choices I’ve made.”

The moment of emotion seemed to grip him, and then, as quickly as it came, it passed. His face slipped back into the mask of indifference he’d been wearing the whole time he’d been on the roof. “But there’s no one,” he said. “My wife is off in her own little world, my kids just want to get out of the house and go to school.” He nodded down at the rooftop. “These people? They’re probably looking for someone who can do my job better and cheaper already.”

Devin took another step closer, and Alexander cocked his head in warning. He took a step back. “Don’t you have friends?” Devin asked. “People you can talk to?”

That mask cracked again, but only briefly. “No,” Alexander said. “I was never very good at that.” He took a deep breath and looked up, looking Devin in the eyes for the first time. “That’s the problem, officer,” he said. “People are unreliable. People lie. People say they’ll be there, but…”

“But they won’t,” Devin finished for him. Alexander nodded. “Well,” Devin said, taking a small step forward. “I’m here, Mister Norris,” he said. “That’s a start.”

Alexander shook his head. “No, officer,” he said. “You’re here because it’s your job. Any other day and you wouldn’t give a damn about me.” He slid his foot back, and it was right on the edge. “Not that you’d have any reason to.”

“Wait, Mister Norris,” Devin said. “There’s still a lot you can do. There’s therapy, there’s -”

“No, thank you, officer,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath, and a look of peace came over him. By the time he said, “I’m done now,” and stepped backwards over the ledge, Devin was already lunging for him.

His hands grabbed nothing but air. He watched Alexander Norris slowly fall away through the air and vanish beyond the edge of the rooftop. He was aware that he’d started yelling.

There was a long, long moment of silence. Even the wind seemed to stop.

Then the airy WHOOMPH of Norris hitting the air cushion that had been set up on the ground below.

Devin sat down heavily on the rooftop. His hands were shaking as he took the radio from its belt clip. He took a deep breath, then pressed the button to talk. “You might have told me,” he said, “that there was a cushion set up.” Then he dropped the radio and put his head in his hands.

Day Two Hundred and Forty-nine: After-Action Report

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Fleet Commander Sohnys Ad’tai wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hot bath and then drop something heavy and electrical into it.

“Explain to me again, Front Commander,” she said, “how you managed to lose an entire communications center in a city that we had already captured.”

The Front Commander tried to stand up straight, but her wounds made it difficult. She was bleeding from several different wounds, and her battle armor was covered with clear plasma. There hadn’t been time enough to treat her before bringing her to the orbital command center hovering about the benighted blue planet they were meant to be conquering. She gurgled slightly before answering, a sure sign that she was on the verge of collapse. “We had cleared the city, Fleet Commander,” she said. “Our air support had destroyed past the city limits, had destroyed a major military base out towards the desert. The city was ours.”

“That’s right,” Ad’tai said, raising a single clawed finger. “And that forces me to ask again how this city, which was, as you say, ‘ours,’ was infiltrated and our communications hub destroyed.”

The Front Commander swayed, and a med-tech came over to hold her up. “Fleet Commander, she must get medical attention,” the med-tech said. He began prepping a hypospray.

“Not yet, medic,” Ad’tai said. “I’m still waiting for my answer.”

The Front Commander took a step forward, and one of her knees gave out. She slumped to the floor, followed closely by the med-tech. She shoved him away and looked up at the Fleet Commander. “The humans are insidious, Fleet Commander,” she said. “You turn your back for a moment, and they’ll crawl through any crack they can find.” Her eyes filmed over for a moment, and she passed out.

The med-tech looked up at Ad’tai. “She will sleep,” he said. The anger in his eyes was very nearly concealed, but not quite. “And she will likely not be able to return to active duty for some time.”

Ad’tai nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Get her out of here. Show me the charts of their population centers and prepare for my orders.” The command center burst into action again, and the Front Commander was carried away. A lieutenant produced a display reader with charts of human coastal cities.

“Here you are, Fleet Commander,” he said. “We have more than twenty of their major population centers occupied.”

Ad’tai grimaced. “And soon the humans will likely spread the word about how to take out our communications hubs.” She sighed, flicking through the charts with a swipe of her finger. She had hoped that a land invasion would demoralize the humans, send them scattering. Or at the very least cow them into submission. The advance intelligence the fleet had gotten had labeled humans as incorrigibly violent, but with weapons technologies far inferior to theirs.

“Do you remember the legend of Crons Ct’omor?” Ad’tai said to her lieutenant.

He nearly dropped the pad, but didn’t say anything. He knew.

“A single villager managed to kill the greatest warrior of the Ir’awa Empire with nothing but a stone and good aim,” she went on. “Ct’omor’s people celebrated her as their savior. Their deliverer.” She looked over at the lieutenant. “Do you remember what happened next?”

The lieutenant hesitated before nodding. “The Ir’awa burned the village to the ground. It and every other village within a day’s run.”

Ad’tai flicked to another map. “Right in the middle of their victory celebrations, no less,” she said. “Their ‘savior’ died just like the rest of them.” She tapped the pad and the maps winked out. “I’m pulling the plug on the ground invasion,” she said. She tapped the pad again and called up a comm-link.

“Fleet Command to all ground command. Initiating Operation Ir’awa in one hour. Have all ground troops cleared out by then.” A moment later, confirmation icons glowed green on her pad. Orders were being given. The ground troops would no doubt be confused, but they would follow orders.

She keyed in her authorization code, and a new screen appeared. She entered the command code, and a countdown began. The pad would give her several chances to abort the mission as the deadline grew nearer, so she kept it nearby. She checked the status of tugships, which were busy dragging the communications hubs away from the population centers.

“Fleet Commander,” the lieutenant said. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Ad’tai’s brow ridge twitched, but he’d earned the question. “No,” she said, and sighed. “I’ll probably get dragged across a bed of hot nails for this by Home Command. But once I explain, I’m sure they’ll understand.” She checked the display. Plenty of time.

“After all,” she said, “we only need the water, not the cities. A fusion barrage will take care of our infestation, and then we can get the water at our leisure.” She grimaced. “Don’t know why no one thought of doing that in the first place,” she muttered.

The Earth spun slowly beneath the command center. Soon it would be pinpricked with dozens of points of nuclear fire, and they could go about their mission in peace.

And when she got home, Fleet Commander Ad’tai was going to have words with whichever nitwit bureaucrat thought this was a good idea.

Day Two Hundred and Forty-eight: The Last Campaign Speech

January 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen! Thank you!

Tha –

Thank you. Thank you.

Thank… Thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen.

We all know why we’re here tonight. There is no mystery to what I want. To what you want. To what the American people want.

Over the next few months, you’re going to hear a lot of people with a lot of ideas, all of them telling you what they think you want to hear. That your taxes are too high, or too low. That your jobs are at risk. That scary people are going to take your guns. Or your land. Or your freedom. They’re going to do their best to scare the pants off you, ladies and gentlemen, so that you’ll vote them into office and give them the power they so richly desire.

Ladies and gentlemen – these people are fools. They know nothing of what the American people need. They know nothing of what the American people want. They are out of touch, Washington elitists who have deigned to come down from their ivory towers to walk with the huddled masses just long enough to get your vote – and when they do, well… I can guarantee that’s the last time you’ll see them come to a town like this again.

And here’s the thing: they’re not wrong. We do have to worry about our jobs, about our economy, about our children. About strange, swarthy men who might hold up our flight to Chicago for a few hours. All of these things are real, ladies and gentlemen. But here is what those other guys, those born-and-bred Washington insiders won’t tell you:

They’re not real enough.

Have they spoken even once of the great, blood-red eye that sits under the floor of the rotunda in the Capitol building? The unblinking gaze of Keh-Xotha that stares into the infinite? Have they told you about the day when Keh-Xotha finally closes thon eye, and how on that day the great Empire of the United States will cease?

Now I know what some of you are thinking. It’s plain on your faces, and frankly – I don’t blame you. You’re thinking, “It all makes so much sense. Why didn’t I see this before” Am I right? Of course I am.

And it doesn’t stop there, either. Have they bothered to tell you about the Sub-Continental railroad, a secret transportation system that can only be accessed by the descendants of the Mayflower passengers? Have they ever brought up the secret moon mission of 1952, bringing back the first precious cargo of moon rocks that would be needed to develop the polio vaccine? And has any one of those establishment fat cats even thought to tell you – the hard-working people of America – about the supercomputer inside Mount Rushmore that is the true captain of the ship of state?

No! Countless debates and interviews and speeches, and none of them have said a word of this! Not even the candidate who benefits today from the re-animation technology developed for President Roosevelt by Nikola Tesla?

Of course they haven’t. Because they don’t want you to know.

Because the truth, my fellow Americans, is that they think you are weak. They think you are afraid. They think you are not strong enough to bear the truth.

But I know differently!

I know that the people of my America, the America I grew up in and I know is the real America, wouldn’t quail at the knowledge that Ronald Reagan died in 1981 and was replaced by a crude robot double. You know that now, you can’t un-know that. And that knowledge will make you stronger!

The truth will set you free, ladies and gentlemen, and I am the only candidate that is willing to offer you the truth, whole and unvarnished. Give me your trust and your vote, and I promise you:

You will know everything.

Thank you, and God Bless the United States of America.