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Justice: A short story

“Justice” by Libby Sternberg

Five of us gathered around the holidays at a midtown restaurant. We’d met each other ten years ago at a conference and hit it off, getting together for drinks and meals during the three-day event, discovering we shared an outlook on life, something ill-defined, maybe just a general happy-warrior skepticism.

We were a mixed group of friends, some married, others not, two in arts-related fields, one a lawyer, myself a financial manager, a fifth an executive suite member of a large conglomerate. Not spring chickens—at least one of us was near retirement age, others creeping there.

Tina, the director of a small arts consortium, always played major domo for these holiday festivities. She’d put the first one together after discovering we were all living in the same city or near it—not New York, but cosmopolitan enough. We’d considered asking spouses, and actually did an evening get-together one year to accommodate their schedules. It had been a stilted party, and we’d happily gone back to the midday long lunch.

unknownTwinkle lights sparkled in nearby decorations. Real pine wreaths with bright red bows filled the eye, their brisk woodsy scent wafting our way when hurried waiters stirred the air. Music that harkened back to happy childhoods played.

We were on dessert and coffee and after-dinner drinks when Mark, the executive, told a story of estrangement, how his daughter was becoming more distant now that she was married, and how he thought it was karma because Mark himself had been less than affectionate with his own parents as they’d aged, and felt he’d not been with them enough at the end of their lives.

We all tsked over his harsh self-judgment, and offered consolation and suggestions for a deeper relationship with his daughter. We told him he deserved it.

We’d met at an affirmation conference, after all, one of those fads corporations got swept up in, team-building quality improvement practices and the like. The techniques had long lost their trendiness, or been absorbed into human resources tactics. Even if we’d mocked the proceedings at the time, we’d developed our own booster club of sorts with communication over the years, and these holiday gatherings.

Mark’s stories led to more, tales of people we knew who had reaped undeserved rewards and others who’d deserved success yet were denied it.

Tina, swirling a brandy and staring at the tablecloth, confessed to feelings of great jealousy about a writing acquaintance whose work Tina had edited—she was an aspiring novelist herself and had done some freelance editing on the side.

“She’s not a good storyteller,” Tina said slowly, her mouth twisted in that rueful smile of painful recognition. “And barely has command of language. I really helped her shape her first book. It sold—received critical acclaim, made the charts….”

We pressed her for the author’s name, but she wouldn’t divulge it, either out of integrity or fear, I don’t know.

Gary, the publishing house marketing director, patted her hand. “Five books. That’s the max she’ll get. I’ve seen how it works. Her editor will do what you did with the option clause book, and maybe the next one, and then the author will get full of herself, turn something in that’s so subpar the house might not want to publish it. But they’re invested in her, so they will…and she’ll fade from view.”

“Justice,” I remarked, giving a nod.

Mark, whose spirits were now buoyed by our words about his daughter, tapped the table. “So rare to see that happen, though, isn’t it? Real justice.”

That’s when Jonah, the oldest among us, a dashing man with white wavy hair who worked for one of the most prestigious law firms in town, spoke up, so softly and slowly that many of us at first didn’t realize, over the din of holiday cheer, that he was talking.

No, he wasn’t just talking. He was spinning a tale, and being in good spirits, I believe some—maybe all—of us thought he was telling one of those long, complicated jokes at first, the ones with deliciously sharp punch lines that required a good intellect to understand, so that when you laughed heartily at its ending you were also patting yourself on the back for being smart enough to get it. We happily anticipated that moment of self-congratulation.

But, no, he wasn’t telling a joke.

“I knew a man,” he was saying, “some of you would recognize his name. He was very successful, started in retail, in the executive suite, right after graduation. Father was on Wall Street. Fifth generation Harvard, then Wharton. All the right connections.”

We nodded our heads. We knew such men, and all of us started trying to guess who this fellow was as he continued, but Jonah, like Tina, kept his protagonist’s identity a secret.

“Affable guy,” Jonah said, snagging the waiter for another glass of wine. “Well liked.” He laughed. “The curse of being well liked—no one wants to bring you down!”

He finished the wine before him and set the empty aside, waiting for its replacement.

“You need to give him a name,” Tina said, lightness back in her voice, regret gone. “A pseudonym.”

Jonah grinned. “What do you suggest?”

“Bertrand,” Mark said.

“Poindexter,” I chimed in. I had a dislike of moneyed families with names like Poindexter in their genealogical charts.

“Roger,” Gary said with authority. “Nice, solid name for someone well-liked.” And so it was Roger.

“Roger became vice president of, well, something like…” And here he mentioned a national chain of upscale stores we all recognized. Was this where Roger had really worked? “Did very well. Or rather, the stores did well.”

“I love them! Shop there all the time,” Tina interrupted. “High quality, good prices, wonderful service.”

“Exactly,” Jonah concurred. “All true before our Roger took over. But he made the mistake of thinking these attributes were due to his hard work, that the stores’ successes were due to his marketing expertise.”

“Happens all the time,” Gary interjected. “Some new MBA comes onboard with shiny spreadsheets that illustrate what we’ve all been doing all along, and he thinks he’s the root cause of all that is good. My god, the number of times I’ve seen a new marketing manager do that—I usually avoid those meetings now. Have a ‘conflict’ on my schedule.”

“Yes, precisely,” Jonah repeated. “That was our Roger’s problem, too. Thinking he was inventing the wheel, and filled with pride when it rolled merrily along. Headhunters came after him, and he moved to, something like…” And here he named a specialty brand that was wildly successful in its niche with a creative CEO. We were impressed.

“As you can imagine, he did well there, too.”

“How could he not?” Tina asked. “That product sells itself.”

When Jonah’s wine arrived and he took a sip, Gary filled in the obvious. “Let me guess. Our Roger thought again that success was due to his great work.”

Jonah laughed. “Oh, yes, to his showing up when he did. If you recall, that company went through a great sales and stock spike. It coincided with young Roger’s arrival on the scene.”

“Are you now going to tell us that Roger was really a nincompoop?” I asked, eager to hear the denouement, the moment of justice, when failings are unveiled.

Jonah shook his head. “No, no. He wasn’t stupid. Just…misled. By unmerited opportunities. By good looks. By…oh, people being nice to him. He wasn’t an ogre. Nothing mean-spirited about him.”

“So, what next? He gets caught with his hand in the till? Goes to jail?” Tina asked, as if secretly taking notes for a mystery she would write.

“Nothing so dramatic,” Jonah said. “Well, not then, at least. He did quite well at his job and moved to another, and this, too, was a case of being in the right place at the right time. An etailer on the cusp of making it big.” He held both hands up and shrugged, and we mentally filled in the story. More success, more rewards.

“All right, Jonah, you have to give us the payoff,” Gary groused. “Nice guy finishing first. Where’s the conflict?”

“Oh, be patient,” Jonah said good-naturedly. “Our poor hero finally met his match. He was lured to a department store that wasn’t doing well that needed a turnaround guy—”

“Oh, no,” I said, knowing where this was going. “Poor Roger. He thought those other successes…”

christmas24“Were all due to his smarts,” Jonah said. “But they weren’t. And he’d never had his mettle tested. Never had to be accountable for his mistakes. Because, god knows, he made them. Everyone does. But in his previous jobs, successes were carried in by the bushel, and mistakes were swept up in the dustbin. He didn’t know…” He trailed off, a faraway look coming to his eye.

Tina leaned in now, a detective on the case. “I think I know what department store chain we’re talking about here,” she said, and gave the name of one that had failed spectacularly many years ago, a hallowed name in retail that had gone under.

The story came back to us all, and we started tossing in the details, fast and furiously, telling the tale ourselves.

“…he wouldn’t wear the suits the store made. Kept a rack in his office to use for press conferences,” Mark said after snapping his fingers in remembrance.

“He fired a third of the staff,” Gary offered, “and redid the layout. My god, I remember going in one during that, and it was a mess. And staff…they bristled with resentment.”

Tina smiled. “I used to shop there regularly.” She laughed. “Thanks to him, I discovered other stores!”

I had my own memory, as well. “He was skewered in some business paper. A columnist speculated he was a mole for the competition.”

Jonah nodded to each remembrance. “He was using his experience at his other employers to build what he thought would be success. But, as you know, those other corporations had different…gestalts.”

We all nodded now, thinking to the brands, the specialty marketing of each of the man’s past employers. How easy it was for us to see the disaster looming. We shared our memories of that, too, of reading articles about the impending collapse of the company, of the stock nose-diving, of rancorous board meetings, scandalous revelations about sales numbers. It had played out over the course of just three years. And at the end of it…

“What happened to him?” I asked. No one had heard of the man’s fate, I was sure. I read the business papers regularly and didn’t remember a word about his after-collapse future. “Golden parachute, if I recall.”

Tina snorted and crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s hardly justice.” Yes, that was the original topic. Justice. Just rewards. Or punishments.

“He did well financially. No CEO doesn’t,” Jonah said, stating the obvious. “Might have ended the job in ignominy, being ousted by the board, excoriated in the press, but he had a multi-million-dollar severance deal, and he cashed out his stock before the company went belly up.”

“So,” said Mark indignantly, “where is the justice in this story? I thought we were sharing those kinds of things, not…just another one of these fat cat does well after ruining lives tales.”

“Rich guy becomes richer,” added Gary, “despite his failures.”

“Failures writ large,” Jonah said lowly. “So large that he disappeared. Word was he ran off, changed his identify. Wife divorced him—not much of a marriage really, as phony as his life had been, which he discovered when he began his descent. No children, thank goodness, to share the pain. Even with no pre-nup, he still made out well. Flew to one paradise after another, considered buying his own island. He had the money. Didn’t need for a thing. Couldn’t quite figure it out—how it had all gone south. And he was just waiting for a time to rebound. For a long time, he thought it was just wrong place, wrong time.”

“He’d experienced the opposite, so why not?” Gary asked, obviously liking the symmetry of the situation.

“But it…wore on him. That sense he’d messed up. He couldn’t avoid it. He started retracing his steps, so to speak, trying to figure out where he’d gone off course. Oh, he still thought he’d find that it wasn’t his fault, but…” Again, Jonah held out his hands, palms up. “And then, something pushed him outside of all he knew. He fell in love.”

Tina snorted again. So much for her romantic stories. “Oh, man, when are you going to get to the good part—where he loses his riches?”

Jonah laughed. “No, no, don’t rush me. He fell in love,” he repeated. “With a woman ten years younger and a world of experience away. A woman who…had shopped in that store.”

Now Tina groaned, joined shortly afterward by Gary. “So what? She found another store, no doubt.”

“Yes, yes, she did. But her sister had worked there. And she’d lost her job, of course, when the whole thing went under. And she was a single mom, one kid. And she ended up with a bad sort. He…well, he treated her badly.”

There was more to that. We could all see it in the way Jonah scowled, as if he didn’t want to mar the holiday mood, even a discussion of bad deeds, with something grimmer.

“Go on,” Tina nearly whispered. “Tell us about his big love.” She said it cynically, as if we were to soon learn this new love was just a fortune hunter. Yes, I believe we all thought that.

“He met her on a layover. One of his jaunts to some tropical getaway. She was a waitress in Miami. The usual thing, flirtation, banter, trying to score. But she was a different sort of girl. Oh, not that she played too hard to get. She was just…refreshing. Refreshingly honest. Not a bit of guile in her.” He looked at his drink. “She knew he had money. He didn’t hide that. He liked to treat her. But she didn’t like to feel bought. She even had a long talk with him about it, about how she had to work hard to resist that part of his ‘charm’ because, if she was honest with herself, she knew it was a draw, to know that he could provide for her. Everyone likes to feel cared for, she told him.”

“So, what happened? With the bad sort she ended up with?” Mark asked.

“What?” Jonah looked confused, then clarity dawned. “Oh, no, not her. Her sister ended up with the bad sort.”

“She was the single mom?” Gary asked.

“Yes. She’s the one who’d lost her job. And when…Roger…found out, well, you can imagine. He was mortified. Should he confess who he was—”

“He used an alias?” Tina asked, sounding disgusted.

“No, not…then. She just didn’t follow corporate…shenanigans. She had no idea he was the CEO of the company that had led to her sister’s…problems.”

Disappointment fell on me as I thought I got it—an obvious ending. “So when did she figure it out? After she’d taken him for all he was worth?”

Jonah heaved a sigh and bit his lip. “Taken him for all he was worth. You mean money, of course.” He looked up, eyes watery, brow creased. “Justice would seem to require he lose everything, wouldn’t it?” No one spoke, but he knew we agreed. “He didn’t lose a penny. Not a single penny. She gave back everything he’d given her—every piece of jewelry, every diamond, sapphire, ruby and gold and silver. Every trinket, every piece of clothing. It cost her, too. She had it all packed up and shipped to him.”

“How did she find out?” Tina asked, again on a whisper, her fingers curled around her brandy.

“Her sister. She might not have followed business news, but her sister knew the name of the bastard who’d ruined her life. And she let Roger’s lover know. It was the last thing she told her.”

“The last thing?” Now Gary’s voice was the one low and hesitant.

“Before her criminal boyfriend killed her—the sister. Shot her in a drugged-up rampage.”

“No!” Both Mark and Tina voiced it at the same time, the word that was also on the tip of my tongue.

“He felt…he felt…as if he’d been the one pulling the trigger. That the sister had only taken up with the guy because she was hard up, after losing her job…”

A jumble of voices, Tina saying it wasn’t his fault, Gary concurring, Mark sympathizing, and I, I was agreeing with them all.

“Is that how it happened – the breakup?” I asked.

“Yes,” Jonah said. “No. I mean…yes, that was the final closing of the door. The night before that…that event… when she’d found out who he was, she’d refused his … proposal. He’d come to her that night wanting forever. She’d come wanting never.”

There was something in his tone, something timeless, something resigned, accepting.

“No hope at all? Never heard from her again?” I pursued.

He shook his head. “He tried to reach out to her. Couldn’t find her. She changed her number. Her job. He hired a PI…”

“Oh, man…” Tina.

“She wanted him never to find her.”

wpid-3120682842bb85936e64z“But he did.” Tina again, Tina the storyteller herself, who could pick up on the tone of a statement. I thought she was off, but Jonah’s face and then his words indicated it was true.

“The PI tracked her down. She was still in Florida. She met and married someone else within five years…”

“A poor but noble schoolteacher,” Mark said.

“No, a minister,” said Gary.

“Or a penniless writer,” Tina offered.

Jonah laughed, but there was no real joy in it. “A widowed father of three, owner of Pizelli’s,” he said, and we instantly inhaled, laughed with him. A very successful national pizza chain. “Good man, too, if you’ve read about him. Self-made. But no backwoods hick. Cultured, even plays piano. Came close to finaling in the amateur Van Cliburn…”

“Get out!” Tina said, unbelieving.

“Nope. All true. She did better than she would have with Roger. Married a real man of accomplishment. Was cared for, provided for, got an instant family—she’d wanted family, you see—and he even took in her nephew, since his mom was gone now. Last I heard, they were quite happy together.”

“But not Roger,” I said, now getting it. He’d not lost his fortune. He’d lost something dearer. His true love. “Did he marry?”

“No. He told himself he would. Had plenty of opportunities. And he didn’t go around making scenes pining for her, so it wasn’t a matter of no one measuring up…”

“But no one really did, did they?” Tina supplied the sad reality in her voice, one that recognized true romance.

“No, no one did.”

“Did he lose himself in drink?” Gary asked, looking for the obvious story answer.

“Nope. Became a success in another field. Respected. Even had an honorary degree bestowed on him. Still jets off to tropical paradises. Still has friends and family who love him. He’s a wiser man now, though, not so full of himself.”

“But he wasn’t really full of himself before,” Mark interjected. “I mean, from the way you tell it, he just didn’t know, he was just blind to his …inadequacies.”

“Yes, he was blind. And he had his eyes opened. Painfully. To how his failures rippled out to affect others. He was a careless man, he discovered. A thoughtless man. Not a cruel one. Just a thoughtless one.”

The restaurant was empty and hushed. Waiters were clearing tables and resetting them for the evening crowd. Light, yellow and dim, poured through the wide street level windows. Shoppers scurried by, hurrying to find Christmas bargains, last-minute gifts.

I studied Jonah. In the ten years we’d gotten together, he alone of our group was the most difficult to get to know. His background was…fuzzy. Although he was a lawyer, I was aware it was a second career, and he’d been sent to the conference where we’d originally met because he was one of the newer members of his firm, even though he was older than most of the lawyers on the masthead. He’d divulged that over drinks our first night.

He was affable, always willing to help if you needed it—he’d given Tina an introduction to the chair of her board, helping her land her job, and he’d done favors, big and small, for the rest of us we only found out about in passing.

But whenever I thought of him, I never imagined him as…happy. I thought of him as going through the motions, somehow, living a life that was required of him rather than one he had chosen. A life with friends. But no deep love.

I mentally conjured up the few pictures of the “Roger” in his story from the articles that had appeared at the time of the store chain’s failure. Yes, yes…the patrician profile, the thin lips, blue eyes…

He was Roger, there was no doubt about it. Did the others know? I looked at each one. Of course they did. But his secret, such as it was, was safe with us, a holiday gift of confession and atonement.

____

Libby Sternberg’s new novel, Fall from Grace, a tale of sin and redemption, will be available from Bancroft Press September 2017.

 

 

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THE TIME BEFORE YOU LOVED ME

by Libby Sternberg

I

There we were…

…on the anniversary of Disease Eradication, celebrating the end of the horrors of the past – now less real than the zombies, vampires and werewolves of all the movies and books we were devouring as fast as they were produced. Gone were cancer, typhus, staph infections, heart ailments, autoimmune syndromes, even athlete’s foot. Long live the Scientist!

There I sat …

…on the dais with my dad, Dr. Erich Preston, proud of him, yes, but a little bored, too. I’d been going to these events with him for ten years now, ever since I’d turned eight and he could trust me to sit still. He wasn’t even primarily a biologist. He was a biometrician and a physicist, and lately the latter had been his drug of choice. Oh, I loved him dearly, I did. But he was more than distracted by work. He was addicted to it. So much so that he tried to get me actively interested in these annual celebrations which seemed to mean so much more to him than they did to me… or to anyone else for that matter. I’m sure they wouldn’t get half the crowd if friends and family of lab workers weren’t jollied or coerced into going. The NewsBlogs would carry pictures of the beaming faces, after all, so happy and excited to once again mark the beginning of the New Age of Reason.

There I sat…

… happy to support Dad but not enough to really pay attention to the speeches, peering into the crowd, searching for one face, the voices of the various speakers mere background noise on a bright October morning, crisp and clear, blue as blue can be—the sky! Oh, the sky!—and leaves in Central Park winking yellow and orange, as if they knew something and would only whisper it to the most astute of listeners. Possibility and farewells were in the air, as they always are in autumn. Possibility was my drug. His name was Roland.

Just as my gaze caught Roland’s, Dr. Stephen Galsmith coughed. Dr. Galsmith was one of Dad’s colleagues. He came over to our apartment once every two weeks for cocktails and informal chats on scientific issues of the day. A kind soul, he always asked me how I was doing with my studies, and he seemed to really want to know; he wasn’t just being polite.

He sat at the end of our row today. He coughed again. Like quick snapshots, these images remain with me:

In the crowd, Roland frowned.

On the dais, my father looked over at Dr. Galsmith and grimaced.

A scientist behind Dr. Galsmith – I don’t remember her name—shook her head and looked down.

A NewsBlogger in the first row snapped a picture.

His colleague whispered something to him, and he hit some buttons.

Dr. Galsmith coughed again.

Poor fellow. Did anyone really care if the tickle in his throat interfered with one more dull exultation of Science and Its Accomplishments?

I didn’t. I only cared that Roland looked at me and connected with me and, after this banal festival, we’d go out somewhere and share secrets. I didn’t know what secrets, but surely we’d share them on this waning day of a waning season. Perhaps the colorful trees would divulge theirs, as well.

When Dr. Galsmith coughed for the third time, my father leaned over, talked quietly to the man, and he left! Really—I would have to speak to Dad. I knew he took all this stuff very seriously. I knew he was polite and good-natured and loved order. But a coughing colleague? Shouldn’t he have offered sympathy, not ostracism?

***

 II

The next weeks blurred. Roland was rarely around, which caused a pain in my side—a pain, I  realized with embarrassed relief (and turmoil!), before asking to see a health care professional, that was nothing more than heartache.

Roland was nearly five years older than me. This caused some tension with my father. I’d met Roland first at the Learning Center, at the labs we schoolers had to take together and not online. He was a teaching assistant, and he’d been shyly helpful to me, so shy, in fact, that I’d thought at first that he’d actively disliked me.

No, it had turned out he’d been motivated by purity of spirit. He considered it unethical to “fraternize” with his students. It “colored his judgment.” As soon as the lab was over, I asked him out, more as a dare to myself, to prove what a jerk and a snob he was. He laughingly accepted and proved me wrong.

But Dad—oh, Dad—he’d been a hostile noncombatant in this war for my heart. He’d barely talked to Roland when he stopped by, and whenever Roland stayed for dinner or a movie or anything at our flat, Dad substituted interrogation for conversation. Only recently had his objections been satisfied as he learned that Roland had been forsaking teaching for research and security work, a loyal citizen, a helpful and well-connected member of my father’s circle of peers, all good men and women, all Scientists committed to the improvement of humankind.

Roland was gone a lot during those weeks after the celebration because of his new work, in fact. Meetings he couldn’t talk about. Projects he wouldn’t admit to. The few times I saw him, I could just trace my finger down his cheek and look into those deep pools of eyes and whisper, I love you, hearing his response before the words passed his lips, “And I, you, Aspasia.”

His poetry writing increased during that worried time. If I couldn’t see him, I could get his pings, often snippets of poems about me. At least, I believed they were about me.

His creative side seemed on fire to communicate, perhaps because he had so much else he couldn’t say.

***

 III

“You’re a mope,” my friend Regan said to me, nudging me as we lay on my bed staring at our assignments.

“Am not.”

“Are, too.” She giggled and grabbed a pillow to swat me with. But I wasn’t in the mood for games.

“You’re right. I’m a mope.” I sighed and sat up, looking out at the empty streets. Roland couldn’t come over even if he could find the time. Strict curfews were in effect due to a “temporary security situation.” Usually, these resolved in a few days, but this one was going on for a week. Regan lived in our apartment building, and we were spending more and more time together.

“He pings you every day, doesn’t he?”

“More than that.”

“Then there’s no need to reach for the poison, Juliet. The curfew will be lifted soon.”

“I hope so.”

“Curfew” was a misnomer. For us, it meant restrictions on movement 24/7, not just in the evening. I only learned that after reading an older book and having to puzzle out the usage.

I gazed out the window, at a dreary rain cascading down the glass like transparent satin. I’d not seen Roland in a week.  Suddenly, I felt afraid.

“What is it this time, do you think? The curfew, I mean,” I said, not looking at Regan.

“Beats me. Mom and Dad just complain about it –she hadn’t had a chance to stock up, so we’ve been eating canned foods all week. They don’t say squat about the reason for the curfew.”

Nobody did, come to think about it. It was just part of life, part of being safe and taken care of. Regan’s parents both worked for the university system. Her mother was an anthropology professor, her father an administrator.

A sudden wind whipped rain toward the window with a crash, shaking it in its frame. We both jumped back and then giggled at our fear. Down below, the only people on the streets were the usual police patrols on horses and in minis, and an occasional moped, taxi or segueroller, all of which had the cobalt blue stickers and badges indicating they had permission to break the curfew.

Tonight, a group of those blue stickers would be at our house. It was Dad’s get-together night. With a gulp, I remembered that I’d promised to make some food for the event.

“C’mon, domestic science time,” I said to Regan as I got up and headed toward the kitchen. “How to make mouth-watering hors d’oeuvres with whatever’s in the pantry!”

“Oh, yum. Can I have some? If I have to eat one more tuna sandwich, I’m going to start barking like a seal.”

“Do they eat tuna?”

“Dunno. But they should.”

In the kitchen, we spent a fun hour baking sun-dried tomato mini-biscuits, cheese straws, tapenade for slices of toasted baguette and ham wrapped around pickle slices. This last dish was a joke and a treat. Regan was ravenous for some meat, and I wanted to see if Dad noticed the dish—he disliked pickles—and whether he’d say anything. Always the absent-minded professor type, he’d been more distracted than normal lately.

At the end of our cooking session, Regan popped one last biscuit into her mouthand sighed, rolling her eyes. “Mmm….thanks. I’m going to live,” she said. “But I better get home before Mom calls.” She looked at her handheld. “Too late—I see she already has. I’ll skedaddle and see you in the morning, okay?”

It wasn’t long after she left that Dad came home, and a short while after that, his guests arrived. He was very grateful for the food I’d fixed and didn’t say a word about the ham around pickles. This would have amused me but for one troubling aspect of the night’s soiree. Professor Galsmith wasn’t there.

And as I overheard Dad’s guests talking quietly, I discovered the esteemed professor would never again grace our humble abode with his presence.

He was dead.

***

IV

“Call or ping. Must talk.”

I put down my handheld, waiting for it—willing it—to flash with a respond message from Roland.

Bright sunlight dazzled the outside world, casting a glistening spell on everything as rain had continued in the night. It was as if a crystal net had been thrown over the world—the streets, treetops, sidewalks, buildings sparkled. And the few people, blue badges in place, running about.

Running. They were hurrying. No one walked casually, as if on an unhurried errand. The few who were out and about scuttled in and out of sight as if they were late for something.

In the distance, I picked up a flash of color, standing out from the more natural greens and browns and tans, a manmade color of bright florescent orange. Someone was wearing an orange jumpsuit, a suit that announced its presence long before you could focus on who actually was wearing it. It had a hood, too, that made the face more difficult to see. From the gait and shoulders, I surmised it was a man. Soon, he was joined by another fellow, not in an orange suit but in a security uniform. They both carried a long board of some sort.

I watched as the approached a brownstone, rang the bell, waited, knocked. I saw a pale face glance out a window of the house from behind a blind, snapping it closed in a second. The men waited no longer. They put a device on the door that exploded the lock, and they entered, all businesslike and powerful.

Transfixed, unsettled, I continued to stare. The street went silent. The house remained still as if no one lived in it.

Thesecurity patrols weren’t often seen on our streets. Oh, we would hear on the NewsBlogs about their success in uncovering this nefarious terrorist plot or that drug cartel, but it stayed far from our neighborhoods. The only time I saw them was at special celebratory events, the annual Refounding Ceremony or the Thanksgiving Day parade with all the floats. They were a benign presence in our orderly society. Father said they were good men and women who kept us safe.

My handheld buzzed. A message from Roland. Relief and excitement morphed into disappointment. A message was good, but I’d rather be able to hear his voice.

Busy today. Can’t come over.

Double disappointment. A Chinese restaurant dish in the making, I mused. Instead of Double Happiness with two delectable treats on the plate, it would hold…nothing.

That’s what my heart held. I felt empty. Why couldn’t he call me? What was happening?

I ambled to the kitchen to read the note my father had left for me on the fridge. Silly Dad. He left paper notes for me, not pings, because he was convinced I ignored most of his electronic missives. He was right.

I pulled the note from under its magnet. “Meeting I forgot about at the university. Muffins in the cabinet, and I’ll be able to bring home something fresh. Stay put. Write your essays. Do your lab report.”

Smiling, I sat at the counter, fingering the note as if some clue could, through osmosis, seep into my hand and head. Dad was an absent-minded professor for sure. But not about meetings involving his work. He was almost obsessive over those, one time nearly frantic when one of my school programs almost made him late for a faculty get-together. A meeting he forgot about? Unlikely.

I ran to his office and switched on his Notebook. Not surprisingly, it was password protected. I tried a few—my name, my birthdate—and came up with nothing. Then I thought of my late mother’s name and tried that. Again nothing.

Sitting back in his chair, staring at the blue screen, I felt not one ounce of guilt. Being trapped in the apartment made me comfortable with being a conspirator, an escapee in training. I kept trying.

Dad was a scientist. Maybe his password was some form of calculation. I tried various equations, and nothing worked. Then I remembered a gift he’d given me on my thirteenth birthday—an equation to solve, the ultimate answer spelling out my name using numerals. Oh, spelling it with Greek letters, that is, since I was named after Periclese’s mistress, a woman of independence, refinement and keen intelligence.

Shooting up from the chair, I raced to my bedroom, rummaging through my packet of mementos, pawing past the fuzzy bear Regan had given me when we were ten, the sparkly notebook I had used to write stories in the old-fashioned way when I was seven, the funny rings and buttons and pins I’d collected over the years.

Finally, I grabbed it—a wrinkled bunch of papers, Dad’s handwriting neat and exact, as if he’d been a calligrapher, mine a mess of pencil marks and cross-outs. He’d not let me use the computer for my calculations, so it had taken three times as long since I’d kept goofing up on basic arithmetic. The last page, I needed the last page, please tell me I didn’t keep everything but that!

With a racing heart, I found it. The digits stood out in dark letters and were underlined three times as I’d realized victory.

Back at the computer, I tried the number sequence as password and was in!

Not surprisingly, his calendar was on the desktop. His days were filled with
classes, meetings, lab time, everything meticulously noted so that every hour was filled. Today’s date had on it absolutely nothing. In fact, he’d typed “home” in that slot, as if he’d had to schedule time for that, too. He hadn’t forgotten a meeting today. There was none. Or one had been hastily called.

I’d started this exercise only wanting to look at his calendar for a clue to what was going on today. But now that I had access to his Notebook, my fingers hovered over other file folders. Should I look? If he’d done similar to me, I’d have been outraged, beyond forgiving him for such a breach.

But something was going on now, something odd and mysterious… I had to look. Maybe he was in danger. Maybe we all were….

Ping, ping, ping!

My handheld buzzed insistently with the high sound indicating serious attention
was needed. Regan—she was calling me. Quickly, I exited Dad’s program and closed the Notebook, at the same time I answered her call.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Boredom to the Nth,” she said. “Talk to me, sister. Or soon I’ll be carted away.”

“Can you come down?” She lived in the same apartment building, just a few floors above.

“No. Get this—Mom says the curfew’s been expanded. No one’s to go out at all. Not even in the same building. To that, I say, Schmaloney. I can probably sneak out while she and Dad argue about something.”

The curfew was expanded, yet Dad was called away? Something made my heart drop. As I talked with Regan, I wandered back to my room and to the window, staring into the now-empty street. Perhaps people had been hurrying before to get inside as the new regulations went into effect.

“Any word on how long this will last?” I asked. “I haven’t checked any blogs yet today.”

“Don’t bother. There’s not much up. Uh…wait a sec…” I heard her muffled voice talking to her father, who said something to her.  “I’m back. Apparently, some people can go out, just not us.”

“Your Dad?” He worked at the university. “Does he have a meeting?”

“Sounds like it. Something special. Probably some planning session for how to keep professors from coughing during ceremonies.”

“He’s dead, you know. Professor Galsmith.” Regan had been at the ceremony, too, though not on the dais, and we’d snarked about the incident afterwards.

Silence. “What?” she whispered. “I…I…took a course with him. Online, but we met a few times to go over papers. He was really nice. How’d you find out?”

“I overheard it.” I felt guilty for giving her the info so cavalierly. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you knew him.”

“Nothing’s on the news.” I could hear her tapping to various sites, looking for the obit. Usually, when a famous man or woman of science died, there were scads of tributes and a big obituary. Professor Galsmith had been a beloved mentor to many students and had done award-winning research in viral biometrics.

“Maybe it’s too soon.” But it could have been up in the blink of an eye. Others had been. Just last week, a venerable leader of the Reason movement, a respected scion of chemistry, had died at 110. His obit had appeared moments after his passing. It had sounded, from the snippets of conversation I’d heard at my father’s gathering, that Galsmith had passed several days earlier.

“Reg, listen, have you seen any dudes in orange suits roaming around?” I peered out the window. Still no activity at that brownstone, but maybe I’d missed it.

“Orange suits? You mean like jackets and pants?”

“No, like a jumpsuit. Like prison garb from that old flick we watched last week.”

“Ick. Sounds awful. No, I haven’t seen any.”

Just then, the door of the brownstone opened.

“Look outside right now! Across the street. That house with the open door.” The orange-suited guy was coming out. He was carrying something. No, he was carrying the front end of a stretcher—that was the board I’d seen. The security fellow had the other end. On it was a woman, her face ashen, her eyes wide. Her head lolled back and forth, and her mouth moved as if she were saying something.

“What is that?” Regan asked. “Somebody go mental?” Despite the conquest of disease, some mental illness remained intractable, controlled only by strict drug regimens. But to see someone carted away because of it? I’d never heard of that before. One more thing to ask Dad. Or Roland.

“Don’t know,” I whispered as we both watched. Perfectly timed, an ambulance pulled up at the curb, the stretcher and woman were loaded into it, and the crew sped off, sirens letting out a low wail, lights flashing. The strident buzz sent a shiver up my spine. You hardly heard those anymore.

I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to talk to Roland.

“I’m gonna see what I can find out,” I murmured. “Let me know if you hear anything.”

***

V

If Regan heard anything, I didn’t know what it was. Our contact petered out to nothing in the next few weeks. In fact, I peg great change to that moment we watched, separately in our own flats, the orange-suited man and the security guard remove the deranged woman from her house.

After that, the orange suits appeared every day, like a fast-producing new animal swarming the earth, locusts leaving nothing in their wake. Reg and I called them Q cops. Everyone called them Q cops. And by everyone I mean friends, acquaintances, anonymous bloggers, pingers. But not the NewsBlogs. The NewsBlogs called them “Special Health Forces,” an arm of the Security Patrol.

Q is for Quarantine. And we weren’t supposed to talk about it. Dad told me when I mentioned it to him, when I asked him where they all came from all of a sudden.

“Don’t use that term, Azzy,” he said, drinking coffee one morning. “It’s derisive. They’re good public servants just trying to keep us all safe.”

“Safe from what? I thought disease had been eradicated.”

“You’ve read the stories,” he said, and for the first time, I noticed that his hand shook just a little. He’d been working so hard lately, at the lab virtually round the clock only stumbling home in the wee hours and falling into bed for a scant few hours’ sleep.  I had to remind him to eat. He was only drinking the coffee now because I’d made it especially for him and had told him so.

“Malaria,” he continued after a trembling pause that made me wonder if he had lost his train of thought, “makes an appearance every once in a while, and we take great care to isolate the cases and develop new vaccines. The last instance of this kind of outbreak occurred, oh…”

“Fifty years ago. I know, I know. I’ve read the stories in the blogs, Dad.” He finished his coffee and wiped his face with a napkin. He was sweating. “You should eat something,” I said, feeling a frown crease my brow. He didn’t look good. Was it from overwork? Fear tiptoed into my heart and set up a room there.

“I will, I will. There’s so much to do, Azzy. Not a minute to spare…” He looked around, as if he’d forgotten something. I ran to the living area where he’d left his coat, blue badge in place signifying he had the right to be out and about, and handed it to him, along with a red muffler I grabbed from the closet.

“You need to take care of yourself. Keep warm. Are you working on the vaccine? Are you in biometrics full-time, virology?” He floated from field to field, his mind crackling with intelligence like a live wire sparking the ground.

“What? No. Back in the physics group.” He smiled at me for just a second the way he used to, happy at my interest in his work. Then a grimace—no, really, more like a stare of fear colored his eyes. “General work wherever I can help out. No need for you to know.”

He kissed me on the forehead and urged me to stay in and be a good girl. With a growl, I muttered, “what else can I possibly do?”  and instantly regretted my whine. Hurrying to the door before he left, I grabbed him for a quick hug and told him to be careful. What if he didn’t come home?

***

VI

Regan’s mother didn’t come home that week. She sobbed out the story in one of our infrequent calls—calling was getting harder as lines and connections went down. She said she heard a bunch of Q cops – an “army” of them – had visited campus and hauled away whole departments. My heart dropped—had Dad been among them? Even as I offered comfort to my keening friend, I worried about him.

When he came in after midnight, I sprang from my sentry spot on the sofa and embraced him with tears in my eyes.

“Azzy, you poor dear. You shouldn’t have waited up. Go on to bed. You need your rest.”

All I got was rest. He was the one who was bedraggled. He’d felt warm to the touch.

***

VII

To my shame, I tried getting into Dad’s Notebook again. But he must have had one of those systems that alerted him to potential security breaches because the password wouldn’t work anymore.

I longed to talk to Roland. He’d offered no information the few times we were able to speak. He complained of the curfews, the quarantines, the work. What work was he doing? Like my father, he wouldn’t say. But he had a first-rate scientific mind, so I was sure he was at the labs, bent over microscopes, peering into the invisible world that threatened to crush us all under its lighter-than-air structure. This heroic picture comforted me, and I longed for him to find the cure.

I longed to be there, too, working with him side by side, like the Curies, excitedly discovering new things together. I was no slouch in the lab. He knew that. Dad knew that. But they both told me to stay put, that I’d be called in if needed, but the work was complex, the security clearances even more so.

Perhaps to comfort me – or, as I liked to think, perhaps because he missed me as terribly as I missed him – Roland started sending me poetry. He’d written snippets before, but now floodgates unlocked, and almost every day my handheld pinged with some portion of a longer work.

The trident spear of deep sleep
Struggles to pierce this restless soul
No rest comes.
Dreams unfold instead.
Aspasia.

Or…

You appeared to me today
A flash of flesh pink in glass
Gone in a whirl of light
Sighing away with my sighs
My longing
My ache that conjures up flashes of you
Even in cold, sterile glass

Or

Eyes like sun, I orbit you
Consume me in your fire

Each one I treasured. Each one I wept over. They seemed to arrive just as I despaired of hearing from him. We’d not seen each other in weeks now. Talk was almost as rare. He seemed…strained…when we spoke. If I complained, if I mentione something I’d read on the citizen boards, he’d shush me. “Azzy, my darling, be careful,” he’d say. “You’re an important man’s daughter.”

An important man’s daughter. I’d never thought of myself that way before. Dad had always been important to me, of course, and I’d always been aware of his many accomplishments and his respect, but I’d never thought of this as singling me—or us—out for special treatment or scrutiny.

Scrutiny, though, was everywhere. The orange-suited Q cops swarmed the streets. Not a day went by that I didn’t see them from the window. Gone were the days of subdued bodies on stretchers. Now the Q cops dragged them, literally kicking and screaming, from households. Surely, if they were strong enough to resist, they were strong enough to dominate the disease. I had to look away.

Why wouldn’t Regan answer my pings? Secretly, I climbed the stairs to her flat and knocked. No answer.

That night, Dad screamed at me. Why’d you leave the flat? What were you thinking?

How had he known, I wondered.

Security video, Azzy. Surely you know that they have to enforce the curfews somehow.

But videos in our building? Had they been there all this time, even before the plague? They must have been.

Dad said the disease was “insidious.”  That is, when he talked about it. Most of the time he claimed not to know details, but this was so obviously untrue that I wanted to scream back at him. He’d told me already it was another manifestation of “malaria.” I knew he knew more. I knew he was working overtime because of it. The Newsblogs were frustratingly vague. Some new “malaira” was in the air, but “quarantine efforts” were sure to subdue it soon.

Finally, Regan pinged me back. She and several of my other friends were being “relocated.” Their parents were ill, and they would be placed in a “children’s center.”  She said she’d read horrible things about those centers, that they were hardly more than prisons, run by sadists. Anyone eighteen or younger was sent to them, when parents disappeared.

I wanted to comfort her. Dad told me that if I tried visiting her again, he could not guarantee my safety. He’d told me this in such a voice—I’d never heard a voice like that from him—that I didn’t doubt it. He said he’d work from home, risking losing his job, if it meant keeping me inside and away from danger.

A strange gleam had entered his eyes, something frantic.

Roland pinged: Don’t despair. Be alert. Visitors make it through.

He was going to come see me!

***

VIII

Of course, he couldn’t tell me when. I had to be “alert.” I waited, like Penelope, for my beloved to return. I’d long since stopped doing schooling work. I spent my days reading blogs—the one’s not shut down by security forces—trying to ping friends, trying to ping or call Roland.

As I gazed out on a hollow steel day of gray cold rain, a van of Q cops pulled up below. With a disinterested sadness, I wondered where they’d head today. I’d caught a glimpse of someone coughing badly the night before in the apartment almost directly across the street from us. I suspected they’d go there, the poor woman turned in by a neighbor or even a friend. Those stories were everywhere.

Instead, they faced my building.

No!

Heart racing, I ran to the door. And then stopped. What was I going to do, who was I going to warn?

I pinged Regan. Qs on the march.

No response. I bit my lip. I tried Dad. What if something had happened to him, and I was being sent to the children’s center because I was eightee? Regan had said something about making up fake birth certificates. Why hadn’t I done that? Why had I thought that I’d be safe?

Because of Dad.

Even though I’d not consciously realized it, somewhere deep in my subconscious I’d always known we were in a different class.

I flew to the Notebook I kept handy in the kitchen. I clicked through programs, found the one Regan had mentioned. Not just a fake birth cert—I needed more than that. Proof of a job, of the ability to care for myself….

Doors were slamming open. Boots clambered up the stairs outside.  My hands shook on the keyboard as I typed in my name, gender, and a new date for my birth that would make me twenty-one. I would be too old for the children’s center.

“Dad, Dad, where are you?” I said, looking at my handheld. He wasn’t answering. No one was answering. Was this the end…

Just as I hit Print, someone knocked at the door. No, not knocked. Banged, a quick thud-thud-thud.

My heart beat so fast my chest ached. I ran my fingers through my hair. I let out a whimper. I had no time to conjure up other documents. I’d have to do with this one. I clicked through programs to file the cert on an alias site mimicking the official records ones.

Thud-thud-thud.

“C-c-coming,” I said. Then, clearing my throat, I said it again, stronger, as if I had nothing to hide. “Coming!” Hearing my stronger voice made me feel stronger.

I ran to the printer and pulled out the fake certificate, then folded it, folded it again. Threw it to the floor and stepped on it, trying to make it look old in a moment’s time. Even the perfed seal was in place. Silently, I thanked Regan for pointing me to this site.

Again, thuds echoed from the door. My mouth dry, I squared my shoulders and walked to open it, not hurrying but no longer delaying. I’d face this with courage, not cowering. Not simpering. Stopping briefly in the kitchen, I pinged a message to my father. Qs in the building, I wrote. He’d know what that meant.

I didn’t even bother to look through the viewhole but swung the door open wide with a fierceness that dared the intruder to confront me, closing my eyes for one second and sucking in a deep breath.

“What do you—”

Not Q Cops!  Roland! Roland!

Bliss—as he swept me into his arms. Ecstasy—as he showered me with kisses. Oh, the smell of him—his tweed jacket smelt like earth and rain and sky and wind and him—him, him, him!

Rain, was that rain on my cheeks? No, tears of joy. Roland.

“Azzy, Azzy, Aspasia, oh, my darling, my sweet…” he cooed into my ear, twirling me around, laughing, rubbing the tears from my cheeks, kissing them away. In that instant, he was more to me than beloved. He was the world. He was freedom.

“I thought…” I began and couldn’t stop the tears again. “The Q cops….”

He brushed my lips with his thumb. “Shh…let’s not talk of that, of any of that, now. I only have a little while before they’ll miss me.”

“The lab?” I asked sniffling.

He nodded, his eyes narrowed. Then he looked around. “Your father’s not here?”

“No.” I shook my head. “He’s at work. I’m worried about him, Roland. I—I—” No, I couldn’t say it, not even to him. Not even to myself. I was worried he was sick, and the Q cops would come for him soon.

“Marry me.”

Had he said…no, I’d dreamt that, overcome by longing, a physical ache for him that grew worse each day, it had made me delirious. No, he couldn’t have….

“Azzy?” he whispered.

Hearing the fear in his voice, I knew I’d not imagined it. He had asked me to marry him.

“I know you’re young,” he said. “But you’re wise beyond your years. And time now is short for everyone. If you’ll marry me, I can promise to keep you safe….I’d wanted to tell your father. I don’t want him to think I’m stealing you away. I can tell him when I see him at the lab. Oh, Azzy, please tell me…will you marry me?”

I couldn’t speak. So overcome, I could merely nod my head and start laughing. I draped my arms around his neck and kissed him deeply. I never wanted him to leave.

***

IX

Before he left, in just a few minutes’ time, he pressed a ring into my palm. It had been his grandmother’s. A simple band with a pearl surrounded by diamonds. I tried it on, but it was too large. He promised to have it reset for me and placed a string around my finger to measure it, taking the ring back to have it worked on. I made him make me another string, a reminder that we were, in fact, engaged.

“Your family,” I murmured before he left. “Do they know?” I’d met both his parents, kind and gentle artists and teachers.

He frowned and shook his head, indicating he didn’t want to talk of it. But he answered, “They might have to go to a Q camp soon. I’m going to try to stop it.”

Farewells followed, too bittersweet to recount here. After he left, I stared at my makeshift ring for hours. I pinged Regan but got no answer. I tried other friends. I tried Dad. Only later did I look outside to the street below. The Q cop van was gone.

***

Did you enjoy this story? If so, please let me know! Email: Libby_Malin (at) hotmail (dot) com. And…stay tuned for the release of The Plague Jumpers, the continuing story of Aspasia and Roland. Here’s a quick sample:

The Plague Jumpers by Libby Sternberg

Chapter One

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamer,
Bring me all your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers

Of the world.
                –Langston Hughes

 

Before he sets me adrift, like Moses into the bulrushes, my father mumbles words of wisdom. At least, I think of them as such. They are the last things I hear him say to me, so I’ve decided to hold them tight like they were sacred counsel.

We are hurtling through the dark streets of New York in a taxi he’d purloined at the curb. He “hotwired” it—who knew such a thing was still possible, especially in this age of digitalized security codes and anti-theft programming? My father is a scientist, not a mechanic.

No one owns cars anymore. We’re all expected to use public transportation or the occasional taxi. Ever since the Q cop battalions formed, the government is ever more vigilant about that, assessing steep fines and even more severe penalties fortransgressors. I didn’t even know my father could drive, let alone hotwire a car. My father is a genius.

My father is sick.

He rousted me from bed an hour ago, told me to dress in warm clothes—several layers, Aspasia—and paced in front of my door while he waited for me to get ready.  I didn’t disobey—I’m old enough that I don’t need to fight him at every turn, and he was obviously deeply infected by now with the Estuary Flu, the pandemic that has sent so many into quarantine.

Fear imprisons me. Roland hasn’t answered my texts lately, and usually his fingers fly over his Palmo’s tiny keyboard any time he gets a ping from me. But he could just be busy, right? He could be working on an experiment or finishing a poem just for me. He’s five years older than me, but it doesn’t matter. He’s kind and considerate. My father respects him. He’s brilliant too and always busy.  Maybe he’s fine, just taking care of his sick mother or father. He could be out.

But people don’t go out much anymore. And when they do, they wear blue biomasks over their mouths and noses. Roland refuses to use one. He says they don’t work and are scams thought up by greedy con men playing on our fears.

But it’s been so long since I’ve talked to him. Even longer since last I saw him. I stare at my ring finger, where twine twists below my knuckle, a symbol of the ring he was to have had fitted just for me…

I can’t. Think. About. It.

But I do. My stomach cramps with worry—Roland, friends and their families, now Dad. When will it end? I blink fast. Can’t. Think.

Roland’s mother went to the Quarantine Sanatorium three weeks now. Now Dad is showing the signs, and this evening I saw the orange-Hazmat-suited Q Cops knocking on an upper floor apartment door as we crept downstairs quiet as dreams.

The Q cops. They’re everywhere lately. They seem to have more power than the government itself. I loathe them, as does Roland and most everyone in my crowd, except fora few who try to persuade me that keeping order is essential in these rough times. It’s just temporary, they say. Temporary has lasted too long to remember.

My poor father, even in his addled state, knew he would be going next, leaving me an orphan until… Until I joined him. Until he returned. But no one’s returned yet.

Draconian measures have ruled ever since Chicago and Philadelphia were wiped out. Quarantine the infected as soon as they show signs of illness. Not a building in sight is without a white and orange sticker in the window warning people away until danger passes. Someone must have snitched on my father. His cough had grown worse in the past twenty-four. Even I, optimistic by nature and made delusional by heartbreak, had begun to worry.

And now, as he picks up speed and careens around corners, as he mumbles and shouts over his shoulder to me in the back seat, I am sure. Hallucinations are part of the package. A rash on arms and legs. Unrelenting fever will follow. Seizures and internal bleeding after that unless it breaks.

“There are things in the bag for you. Food. Clothes!”  His eyes are wide as buttons and as shiny dark. I’m glad I can’t see the jaundice in the gloom. From practical he moves to philosophical, tumbling through a bullet-point list of things that veer in and out of importance. As he thinks of something he’s always wanted to tell me, he quickly jumps to something he believes I absolutely need to know. I try to hang on every syllable, memorizing the sound as well as the words themselves:

“Love is the most important thing, Aspasia. Most important thing. Your mother and I…..”

“You can always pretend to be mute…”

“Lots of things are in the bag.  Don’t lose the bag!”

“Oh…and a nice cape. Had it made special.”

“Don’t be afraid, Aspasia. Fear is friend and enemy. Fear is the start of every adventure…”

“There’s jewelry in there, too….your mother’s.”  Here, his voice breaks.

If you find love, hold it. Love outlasts the ages.”

A sweet drop of nectar in this drought of anxiety–his mentioning Mom. Dad doesn’t talk about her much. She’s been gone–killed in an accident–since I was four. I barely remember her, just flashes of a tall, blonde woman, always smiling. And I’ve seen the digital pix that verify my memory. Of the crumbs my father would share, here was one: her undaunted optimism and belief in individual talents. Let your light shine, she’d say to me. At least that’s what Dad told me anyway. Usually when I was irritated with doing a math assignment. He knows I’m good at it. I prefer other subjects.

His talk of his own love takes my thoughts back to my own.

“Dad,” I ask as gently as I can, leaning forward. “Have you heard anything about Roland?” Even though everything’s shut down, maybe Dad’s been in touch with his colleagues about research, lab work, papers…something. Right? Roland worked in the labs.

“Roland?” My father’s head snaps up as if he’s been jolted by electricity. “He’s not here. Forget about him, Azzy. No good…You’ll be far away soon. No use thinking about it.…”

And he rambles on like that for what seems like eternity, in and out of sanity as I try to grab hold of anything resembling the truth. Roland is not here. Gone. To the Q Camps? Yes, the camps. Maybe. Don’t know. Don’t think about it.

It’s all I can think about. I grab the bag to my chest, holding it up as if it were armor.  Delirium could pass in a day or two, but in the meantime, he can get us both killed with his reckless speed and no headlights. Where is he taking me and how quickly can I get back to Roland and home? I am sick myself, with worry, and it weights me down. I slump back in the seat.

The Midnight Reality has begun to grip my soul, that time of night when hope dies. An Unthinkable steals into my heart—Roland is at the camps, Dad might join him, I will be left to fend for myself. I’ll never go to the Children’s Center, not at my age, and even if I were younger, there have been stories, terrible stories about children sold and abused.  I’m not stupid.

“You’re a bright girl,” he says in his normal voice, as if plucking the thought from my mind. I lean forward again, hearing the man I used to know, the brilliant scientist, both an astrophysicist and biometrician, a “Renaissance Man of the Sciences,” as the e-mags had dubbed him. He’s won a Nobel in biometrics, and was short-listed more than once for the prize in other fields.

“Dad, why don’t we go home now?” I whisper. “The cops are probably gone. I’ll take care of you.”

His grip on the wheel relaxes and his face softens, tension melting away. The taxi slows. I exhale.

But only for a second. In the way distance, somewhere far behind us, a siren wails like audible smoke reaching forward to warn of us fire behind. My father stomps the accelerator and we zoom off again, the cab rattling and shaking in protest.

I scream. The Hudson Riversparkles just ahead in the moonlight and Dad isn’t turning away. He yells back to me again, something about Mom and me and “love of his life, never any other, never…” and then he looks at the stars and his watch and floors the ancient vehicle so that it springs into the void over the banks of that steel gray river that ran through what was once my home town, my very life.

This is how he tosses me into a rippling gravitational wave, so that the sparkling Hudson joins with the sparkling stars and for a minute, or more accurately, two hundred years I see and feel nothing, consciousness ripped from me with my breath as I fall and fall and fall…

***

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