I didn’t realize how late we were out until we went to the 24-hour McDonald’s to get fries and found them closed, in the middle of their half-hour changeover period from lunch/dinner to breakfast. It happens every morning at 4 a.m. Leila giggled. “Well, shit,” she said. “I would say let’s go home, but at this point we might as well just stay up until sunrise.” We sat down on the shallow curb in front of the McDonald’s to wait. Hash browns now instead of fries, I guessed. Leila plucked two cigarettes out of the pack in her purse and handed one to Jonathan, and I watched them smoke, the acrid vapors twisting into the black-blue night above us.
It was four nights after graduation. My parents thought I was at Leila’s, Leila’s parents were in Chicago visiting family, and Jonathan’s parents never investigated his whereabouts too closely. We had used up half a tank of gas this night alone. It was supposed to have been a last grand hurrah, but things had kept going wrong. Our favorite park turned out to be actually guarded by police at night. The pool in Jonathan’s friend’s apartment was too cold to swim in. His friend’s older brother had sold him half a fifth of vodka at an extravagantly inflated price, but I couldn’t drink, it being my car.
Now Jonathan and Leila were lighting their second cigarettes and touching each others’ shoulders. Their knees were resting against one another and they were laughing. Inside the McDonald’s, the workers looked at us, hostile and bored. I supposed we were the worst kinds of customers. Tipsy underage kids secure in our belief that the world was an enormous joke and that nothing could reach us to hurt us in any lasting way.
The parking lot was empty and Leila and Jonathan were kissing each other, their hard and smoky teeth clicking in an uneven rhythm, their cigarettes burning into nothing on the cement. I looked into the place the sunrise would be and picked at my fingernails and hoped for something better.
My brother and I used to play this game we called Grocery Store. We would go to the pantry, which was one room away from the kitchen and living room area, and open the door. We would take out all the food and bring it to the living room and pile it up on the floor there. Piece by piece, can by can, corn by cereal by flour. Everything went, our small bodies back and forth. The batteries and the rubber bands. The boxed macaroni and the warm liters of diet soda. Everything, even the small bottle of fierce mustard, still unopened, that our mother bought in Germany years before either of us were born.
In the living room, we would sort it into arbitrary categories. They were different each time. By color or container, or by things that were good and things that weren’t. Then we would stand back to look at our handiwork. Next came shopping, which never lasted long. The fun was in the setting up and tearing down. This was the requirement: Mom would only let us play the game if we put everything back. But she lost out anyway in the end, because my memory was fleeting and my brother’s even more so, and the pantry was different after we had taken everything out and put it all back in. Differently ordered.
Grocery Store wasn’t that great by any measure of a game. No one won and the stakes were nonexistent. It was low on my mom’s favorites of ours, lower than board games and higher than Parade (the best game, wherein we walked like statesmen around the house banging together pots and pans with their lids). Looking back, I think it was a reflection of how bowled over I was by the magnitude of my world, how lucky we were. I mean, you laugh, but have you ever really thought about a suburban American grocery store? All that food, most of it cheap, right there, easy. And our pantry was the same. If anything, my game was a way to express my amazement at how remarkable it was, how incredible, the fact of such bounty.
The particular species they were after were called Vawerps. They were not one of the semi-sentient natives of Element, but they tended to cause trouble. They usually tunneled into human subterranean structures by accident, but once they had breached a tunnel, they began raiding at every opportunity. Miles suspected the boss had sent him here to deal with a small raiding party in the subway.
The Vawerps were carnivorous quadrapeds that moved in packs. They seemed to become more fierce when the moon was towards full, and they also had a strange habit of mostly consuming blood from their victims. These similarities to mythical creatures from Earth-lore disturbed many. However, scientists were reasonably sure that the Vawerps were not some crossbreed of vampires and werewolves. Reasonably. Miles never quite trusted the reports, so he carried a custom weapon he called a stakesword, the only weapon he knew could kill Vawerps without a doubt. This was the pencil-like device he had handed to Jonesy. One end could emit a short beam of ultraviolet light hot enough to cut metal (and certainly enough to eliminate a Vawerp) and the other…well, the other was a sharpened silver stake. Miles had no evidence to suggest that the silver made a difference, but it sure didn’t hurt.
The staircase leveled out, as Miles suspected, into a terminal. It looked like one of the less used ones in New Chicago. Trash littered the benches and piled in eerie drifts against the columns. Both ends of the terminal faded to darkness. A lone security light fought feebly from the end of the staircase they had just descended.
“I’m cutting on my light,” said Miles.
“Already on,” whispered Jonesy.
“Stay close. Keep an eye behind us.”
Miles slipped the stakesword into a ready position and began walking into the darkness. The eyelight boosted the available visible light, and provided an infrared overlay in the dark. He could see heat signatures ahead. His tracking device blipped softly. Miles glanced at the screen and saw 4 distinct pulses. He made eye contact with Jonesy, or rather, the place where his eyelight said Jonesy was in the dark, and held up four nearly invisible fingers.
The lights that illuminated the garden at night were mounted very near to the end of the garden, but not quite. Still ten or twenty yards of gravel path and fountain stretched beyond the place where the lights were mounted. That meant that when someone was walking toward the light, they could see nothing of those ten or twenty yards. They simply squinted and slowed their step, uncertain of what was beyond that blinding wall. If you were on the other side, however, looking out, you could see the whole of the garden, alternately shadowed and bright in the night. Like a two-way mirror. The best hiding place in the world.
One night I was walking in the garden and heard a woman’s voice, clear and low, coming from the shadowed end. Like others, I was not brave enough to walk right into light; I slowed, hesitated, stopped, started again until I had passed the place where the light was mounted and saw a silent audience of thirty listening to a pair of speakers mounted near the fountain. I sat down to listen to the rest of the show. The woman’s voice was quick and elegant, quintessential performance Italian, and I could only pick out a few words.
A few minutes later, David approached with a bag of dry laundry over his shoulder, squinting but not stopping like me. He took a moment to orient himself to see whatever was happening, and then he sat down beside me and folded his clothes while we heard what we could of the story. Undershirts, jeans, socks, l’uomo, la giardinia, la luce.
The Continents Continued
Continent 3 is the largest landmass on Element. It is the northern Pole continent, and not surprisingly contains a great deal of snow and ice. Oddly enough, the continent is almost perfectly divided into 3 areas. The southernmost edge of the continent is a perfectly habitable strip of forest and taiga. Some of Element’s largest trees grow here, and can reach more than 500 feet. There are several coastal cities on Continent 3, but the population grows sparser inland.
After the forest coast finally gives way to the climate, there is a mountain range. It is one of the stranger features on Element. It is so large as to be seen from space, and it runs in an almost perfect circle around Continent 3. It makes up the second distinct area of the third continent. Some of the braver souls of Element have ventured into these mountains, whether for research or adventure, but very few have survived the journey. Even with modern equipment, the Crown of Element (as the range is known) is nearly insurmountable.
Beyond the Crown, only weather drones and unmanned probes have been. We don’t know a great deal, but the temperatures at the northernmost pole of Element are estimated to reach nearly -200º C. The pole is jokingly referred to as “Absolute Zero”, but it isn’t far from the truth.
I’m afraid that I’ll miss this the most when I leave, the sitting on couches, can never get comfortable, in between sixty six and seventy degrees, which is too hot or too cold depending on the width of the ducts of the house, and the way the carpet lies, and the way the cold steals in through the windows to get at the six fish and the one extra fish we got to take care of the six fish, and the green beans and broccoli and gold and green and red tomatoes from the farmers market nesting in the fridge like dolls, nestling in there like cold vegetable animals, and the baking, the rolls and buttered bread and cookies, and rolling the dough in the cinnamon sugar as I look over and watch New Girl and Modern Family and The Voice and all the shows my friends watch that I never watched and won’t once we leave each other, and some day soon everyone will be separated and far flung to different places, and there will be no more of the dirty counters and who takes the trash out on Wednesdays, because the trash day is different in every city and we are all in separate cities, and the regrets, the never making bran muffins, the not taking the perfect black and white picture on the steps, the things I forgot to do I won’t remember til even the choice of them is far away and gone
They left the ship in a docking station Jonesy had a membership to. Shielded from the wind, Jonesy and Miles stepped into the dark cavern. They were alone; most people stayed in the safety of their apartments during storms. A long row of exit signs marked the route to the next building.
All of the buildings in New Chicago’s downtown were connected underground by pedestrian walkways. Not many people were downtown in the storm, but the few that were would have been swept away by the winds aboveground. During the clear season, New Chicago had thriving aboveground marketplaces and shops, but currently it was quiet.
Miles pulled a small device from his pack. It beeped once, and flashed several figures across a small screen. He grunted, shouldered the pack, and headed off along the glowing path of exit signs.
“Where’re we going?” Jonesy asked.
“Roughly, 85th and Dawe street.” Miles’ voice echoed in the dark chamber.
“Did he give us any specifics on the mission?”
“No. But we’ll need these.”
Miles slung the pack around his shoulder, still walking, and pulled another device out. It resembled a pencil in length, but it was about three inches thick. One end tapered to a point, and it was a blackish gray color. He handed it to Jonesy.
Jonesy picked it up carefully. He studied both ends and nodded.
“So we’re going to be hunting the-“
“SHUT UP!” Miles clamped a hand over Jonesy’s mouth. “They can probably already hear us!”
His voice dropped to a whisper. “There should be a track we can pick up south of here.”
He pulled a second short staff out of his pack, transferring the tracking device to his left hand. They continued down the path of exit signs. After a few minutes the tracker blipped softly and Miles turned left. Jonesy followed closely behind him, casting wary glances back every few seconds.
The passage narrowed slightly and reached a staircase. Miles stopped at the top and looked down. They had left the exit signs behind, and were losing light. Miles frowned, flipped a few switches on his tracker, and opened his pack again. He produced a tiny case and turned to Jonesy.
“Ever used one of these?” he asked.
“Is that an eyelight?” Jonesy’s frightened eyes momentarily lit up with excitement.
“Yes. You know how to use it?” Miles was all business.
“Yeah. Gonna be dark down there eh?”
“They like the dark.”
Miles put on his eyelight and started down the stairs. The eyelight consisted of a contact lens with a small wire connected to an electrode that attached to Miles’ temple. It provided multi-spectrum imaging for the wearer, controlled by brainwaves picked up by the electrode.
Miles hadn’t lied to Jonesy earlier. The boss hadn’t given him any details. But he knew what they were hunting, and it wasn’t pretty. Humanity wasn’t the only race on Element. The planet had several other sentient or semi-sentient species.
Sixteen years ago my grandmother stopped cooking. It used to be her passion. She worked as a librarian at the elementary school down the street for decades, and they would do different units every week. When they got to the food unit, she would stand up a little straighter, and at home, my mom told me, she’d be cheerful as sunflowers the whole week. She’d take so much time with every meal. From waking up early to make fresh biscuits in the morning to spending her lunch break sneaking out to the farmer’s market for fresh vegetables, food was everything to her.
And sixteen years ago she just stopped. Just like that. She started ordering cheap pizza a lot, stocked her fridge with microwave meals, and ate a lot of cold sandwiches. She started filling her grocery carts with the kinds of foods she used to snatch from the tiny hands of her junk-crazy children. Pop-Tarts, spicy chips, cheap ice cream. She ballooned with useless fat.
Sixteen years and nine months ago she cooked healthier than she had ever cooked before. It was a kind of revenge for her: you did this to herself, so I’m going to make you do it right. She pulled out her old nutrition books and set down two meals a day plus a packed lunch for my mom, crammed full of the vitamins and acids she needed. And even though there’s research saying that post-partum nutrition is also incredibly important to your health, she just stopped. When I happened she stopped.
((writer’s note: I am impossibly impossibly behind in this project. In an effort to catch up and resume normal weekly posting, I am repurposing and continuing a serial fiction I had started in the previous Year in Prose project. This story will begin with my June 1st post, and will consist of both re-posted material and new material. If you want to catch up on the entire story, click the “Ben Azevedo” link and scroll down to June 1.))
The History of Element Part 2
The Continents of Element
The geography of Element is fairly simple. 7 major landmasses, two in the northern hemisphere, two southern, one spanning a range of the equator, and two pole continents. The oceans were salty, much like Earth’s, and each continent contained a number of inland freshwater sources. Most of Element’s ecosystems were comparable to those of Earth, with the obvious exception of being nearly 300 times more violent in terms of weather and natural disasters.
Where a tornado on Earth could level a midwest town and leave a path of broken buildings behind, a tornado on Element could actually level small hills, and leave scars in the earth visible from near space. The “plains” southwest of New Chicago were a constantly evolving maze of troughs and ridges created by cyclones reaching over 2 miles into the sky.
Luckily for its inhabitants, the size of the natural events on Element made them somewhat easier to predict. With modern technology and resources poured into surviving the climate, Element’s elements cause surprisingly few casualties. And from the orchestral architecture of New Chicago to the stubborn survival of Pompeii II, Element brought out some of the best in human ingenuity and persistence.
Continent 1 can most nearly be compared to Earth’s North America. It possessed two major mountain ranges, both near the coasts, east and west. To the north it stretches until it became a frozen plain, then open ocean dotted with ice and icebergs. The south of Continent 1 is not as arid as one might think, instead giving way to an almost jungle area of marshland and swamp.
Continent 2 is the equator continent on Element. Nicknamed “Paradise” for its palm trees and beaches, it also features Element’s largest desert. The sandstorms in this desert have been known to strip flesh from bone. Other than that, the land is a paradise, full of oasis and the stone used to craft the domes. Because of the sandstorms, every city on Paradise lies beneath a massive stone dome. The dome of Cai-Rome, the largest city, reaches in a perfect half sphere almost a quarter of a mile into the sky. No one lives on the beaches.
We went to the beach in November to get away from Rachel’s ex and the crippling grey rain that had been a constant and unusual presence for the past two weeks. “We used to love just lying in bed and listening to the rain together,” she sighed to me more than once when we got to work in the morning. Her shoulders slumped in her sweaters and there were blue-brown circles under her eyes all the time. I wasn’t feeling so well either, tired and lonely with the scent of damp wool seeming to follow me everywhere. So we left.
The beach house belongs to my cousin George and his wife, and truth be told, even though he’d always told me I was welcome to stay in the off-season, I felt a little uncomfortable as I groped for the spare key under the empty flowerpot on the porch. We weren’t close, George and I, never had been. I’d been to the beach house a few times before, but had never considered renting it from him during the summer, even at the discounted rate he offered our family. I have no one with whom I’d want to share one bed and one bath for a steamy summer week.
Except, now, Rachel, I supposed. We stepped into the house. A few brightly colored cups lounged in the dishdrainer and the bed was made with less-than-perfect hospital corners, but otherwise it was just like walking into a rental home, albeit a tiny one.
“Let’s look around,” Rachel said. I let her do so. There really wasn’t much to explore.
Or so I thought until she came back with a battered, bursting shoebox. “Are these your old family photos?” Rachel asked, a trace of a smile on her face.
“Huh?” I peered into the box. It was crammed with pictures, none of which I recognized. “I guess they must be.”
“We should look at them,” she said. “There could be some really cool stuff in here.”
I glanced at the clock. It wasn’t even midnight yet, and I wasn’t tired, so, “Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”
We spread them out on the coffee table, and when that wasn’t big enough, we continued onto the floor. Old-fashioned women looked out at us from barbeques and Christmas dinners; once-young men smiled in school portraits; kids played in my great-grandmother’s backyard. Rachel asked me if I recognized anyone.
“Not really,” I said. An aunt here, my grandparents in a few places, and in a few places I thought I saw my parents. In one picture I was pretty sure my brother is there, as a baby. “I don’t know any of these people.”
“What if these two were married?” Rachel said, pushing together two images of a soldier and a prom queen.
“Mm, no, I don’t think so,” I said, grabbing another picture from the corner. “Here’s that same woman with another man.”
“Maybe it was an affair,” Rachel said. “Or maybe not.” She pulls the two pictures apart again. “Hey, what if this person was this person’s daughter?”
We stay up late like that, making up and breaking up love between strangers on the floor.