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Igms issue 15, p.10

IGMS - Issue 15, page 10

 

IGMS - Issue 15
 


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  I'd had one night with my lover -- dear God, I couldn't remember his name -- but the next morning I was discovered and the captain had immediately turned the ship around, afraid of angering the village elders and losing his ship's berth. My mother had beaten me senseless, and I'd been married to Joseph within the week. The signs of my pregnancy came quickly thereafter. Joseph had bedded me several times, but we both knew the child wasn't his. Yet he surprised me. He never once spoke of his suspicions, and he raised Eleanor as his own.

  Until trouble struck. Then, it was as if Eleanor had never been his.

  Nearby, Joseph was watching Rose as the layers of the candle built.

  I whispered, "This isn't right, Joseph."

  "It is. She doesn't need you anymore, Sue. And you don't need her."

  "I do need her."

  Joseph looked up and met my gaze. His gray-blue eyes held a vulnerability I had never seen, but then Rose said, "It's ready," and the look was gone.

  Joseph considered her handiwork. "That?"

  Glancing sidelong at him, Rose blew along the length of the misshapen candle to set the wax. "It's not pretty, but it'll work."

  After pressing the taper into a holder, Rose used the whale oil lamp on the kitchen table to light it. An aromatic smell filled the room. Joseph and Rose left quickly, shutting the door behind them.

  I stared at the candle, tears flowing freely. I had used the first candle willingly, and I could still remember that it had felt like sinking slowly into the winter waters of the Inland Sea. It had been a sweet release, made all the sweeter in knowing that I'd never have to deal with the shame of my daughter again. But now it felt as if some vital part of my soul were being ripped away.

  The smell of the candle deepened. It wouldn't be long now.

  Brrr, rap, rap, rap.

  Several bees landed on the table nearby.

  "Go," I repeated, all the while trying to remember my daughter's name.

  I had a daughter, didn't I?

  Dozens of bees flew around the interior of my home, a handful coming dangerously close to the wavering flame. Then one struck it, its wings immediately singing. It fell to the table, buzzing uselessly. It was replaced by three more. They, too, were burned, but a dozen took their place, and finally, in a concerted move, a whole host of them converged on the wick, and the candle was doused.

  The buzzing intensified.

  The front door opened. "Susanna?"

  Joseph's voice.

  He stepped inside, and immediately the bees buzzed around him. He shouted, swatting at them before realizing the smarter course was to flee.

  I leaned forward in the rocking chair until I managed to leverage myself onto my feet. I dropped my weight onto the chair over and over until it broke and I crumpled to the floor.

  I heard Joseph's voice outside, saying, "Susanna, don't do this."

  I ignored his calls and picked myself up, pulling at the arms of the chair until my hands were freed. From the cupboard below the counter which divided store from kitchen, I retrieved the small box that held all the money I had. The vast majority of my earnings went to the village's communal reserve, but I had saved enough over the years. It would bring me to Eleanor.

  Feeling the thrum of my bees deep within my chest, I strode to the front door and stepped onto the boardwalk. A dozen paces away were Rose and Joseph. Several of the village elders stood behind them, their faces lit in wraithlike relief by the lamps they held.

  I considered sending the bees to attack. They would, if I bade them do so. I could make them forget themselves, forget everything they had ever known. At the mere thought, a flight swarmed over their heads, and they huddled in fear, all of them.

  All except Joseph. His face was calm. He looked into my eyes with an expression that begged me to stay. Even now, he couldn't find it in himself to say it -- that he loved me, that he'd be lost if I left.

  His reasons for urging me to take that first candle and all the others had been for his sake, not mine. But I couldn't stay. Not for him. Not any longer.

  I allowed the tightness in my chest to dissipate, and the bees began to disperse. Before they had all returned to the hive, I turned the corner and descended the short ladder to my rowboat. I guided it out toward sea as the last of the bees were swallowed by the dark of the night.

  I heard no cry of alarm, no call from the harbor. They were too afraid I would change my mind, or that the bees would simply take it upon themselves to do exactly what everyone feared they would.

  And soon, I was out among calm, open sea.

  Alone.

  I remained close enough to Crucialis to view it on the horizon. It wasn't difficult, caught as I was in the same lazy currents as the village. The most difficult part was the growing feeling that I would have to turn back when my small store of provisions ran out. But then, on my second day at sea, a ship left Crucialis, and I pulled hard on the oars to place myself in its path.

  I was taken aboard, and the captain interrogated me for a good long while. He was justifiably afraid of what might happen if he were to harbor a fugitive from Crucialis, but in the end he accepted half of my money to bring me to port and keep silent about it.

  As I stood on deck, leaning against the gunwales, I watched the mainland approach. I was scared. I had no idea where Eleanor might have gone, only the name of the city in which she would have landed. I had no idea if I would find her, only that I had to try. And for now, I decided, that was enough.

  I felt something tickling my skin and looked down.

  A bee, now motionless, on the back of my hand.

  I stared, dumbfounded. "And where are you bound?" I asked, slowly lifting my arm.

  But then, without warning, it took flight, and was soon lost among the winds.

  Aim for the Stars

  by Tom Pendergrass

  Artwork by Kevin Wasden

  I can usually tell within seconds which of the homeless men are going to be trouble. The ones with the fruity smell of alcoholism or the missing teeth and cracked gums of meth addiction are easy. Sometimes you can tell by the way they look at you when you talk; some ignore you and some hold on to your words only to spit them back at you. But John Truro was different. He didn't scare me, at least not in the way that some of the men do. But he made me fear for my life more than anyone I have ever known.

  He came in one brutally cold night, when the police emptied the tent city under the interstate. I didn't notice him at first; there was soup to serve and a scuffle between one of the lifers and a newcomer. It wasn't until time for lights out in the men's dorm that I met him.

  He came to me clutching a fresh blanket in one hand and a long tube, like architects use to hold blueprints, in the other. He was thin, with a full gray-streaked beard; but his hair was trimmed, and he didn't smell of the street. Cleanliness is a good sign and it put me at ease.

  "Do you keep a guard at night?"

  That question usually leads to a threat or a pulled knife. I guess he saw my reaction.

  "I have this," he said, holding up the aluminum tube. Dents and scratches marked its surface, but it was still shiny, as if he polished it every day. "I need to protect it."

  "I don't have a safe or anything." He didn't seem dangerous. I usually have a good sense for these things, so I thought he was telling the truth. I wondered what was in the tube. No telling with my clientele; they have nothing, and can become attached to the oddest things. I guessed he had picked it up on the street somewhere, or out of a trash bin, and imagined it was Excalibur.

  He nodded like he understood me and handed me the Rescue Mission blanket. He headed for the door.

  "Wait, you can't go out there. It's below zero tonight." I reached and touched his shoulder and could feel the protruding bones through his army surplus jacket.

  He said, "There are some rough characters in here tonight. They'll try to take it."

  I couldn't let him go back outside and I didn't have time to talk him down. But he was right. When t
he cops roust the streets on cold nights, we get plenty of troublemakers.

  "I can lock it in my office."

  He clutched the tube tighter to his chest and shook his head. "I have to stay with it."

  I wasn't about to let a man fresh off the street spend the night in my office. I'd made that mistake once and it took days to clean up.

  "You can stay in the pantry, I keep that locked . . . It's not comfortable."

  He followed me into the room where we keep all of our food supplies, most of them donated by overstocked grocery stores. He settled in by a case of canned jalapenos. I handed him the blanket.

  "So what's in the tube anyway?"

  He thought for a second, seeming to struggle with himself. "The stars," he said.

  I laughed, then saw his face and realized he wasn't joking. I've worked with the homeless now for thirteen years, the last nine running this shelter. All sorts come in; but the one thing they have in common is that no one takes them seriously. I try to make sure they know that I value them. I was sorry I had laughed, sorry he thought I was demeaning him. It was okay with me if he thought he had the whole damn universe in that thing.

  "Scott Bradley," I said, holding out my hand.

  "John," he said. "John Truro."

  I shook his hand. It was dry and paper-frail like an ancient origami.

  "Listen," I said. "Stay in here as long as you want, nobody will bother you. Only two keys, mine and Jason's. He runs the kitchen. He'll be in about six. If you need something, push the intercom. It rings in my room."

  "Thanks . . ." he said, staring at me for a long moment. "Scott. Did you ever want to go to space?"

  What an odd question. "Sure. Just like every other kid in third grade. My father took me to see the shuttle launch one time at Cape Canaveral." Dad had moved out that spring, but he came back one last time to take me on that trip. I remembered the roar of the engines on the pad, the bright flash of flame that could be seen for miles, the awesome power of human ingenuity. "I had a picture of Buzz Aldrin over my bed," I said.

  "Me too. I met Buzz once."

  "Must have been something."

  "It was," John said. "Would you go?"

  "Where? The moon?" I hadn't thought about it since I was a kid. But my answer was the same as it had been then. "In a heartbeat."

  "Yeah, me too." John Truro began to cough, violent spasms rocked his body.

  "Are you okay? Should I get someone, a nurse or something?"

  "It's just the cold. I'm kind of tired."

  I watched him as he settled in, wedged between the peppers and a case of out-of-date Corn Flakes. He tucked the tube under his arm. I flipped the lights and locked the door behind me.

  I didn't get much sleep that night. A toilet overflowed in the men's dorm after one of the temps stuffed it with a couple of rolls of toilet paper and then started pissing on the bathroom floor. By the time I got everyone settled down it was time for breakfast.

  I saw John again at our morning prayers. Most of the time when the city clears the streets, the pick-ups leave as soon as we unlock the doors. We don't force them to stay, just like we don't force them to go to chapel. It's part of my mission just to let them know they can come in if they want to.

  "I hope the floor wasn't too hard last night," I said to him after the service.

  "I've had worse."

  He talked in clipped well-enunciated sentences, which put him on a different planet than most of the men who came through. Most of them ramble or slur or speak in some obscure street lingo. A good number don't talk at all. John was different. Maybe he really had met Buzz Aldrin.

  "I need to talk," he said.

  I looked at my watch. The city council was coming for a tour in two hours. I was requesting money to fix a nasty wiring problem and the place still smelled of urine.

  "Let's go to my office."

  I put my hand on his elbow and felt the bone like a reed through his jacket. My God, how much did he weigh? "Did you get breakfast? It was oatmeal."

  "Yes sir, just a little. I have trouble holding it down."

  I was close to him and studied his face as we walked. His eyes were yellow and bloodshot.

  "Are you sick?" I asked as I opened my door. I moved a stack of files off my green vinyl sofa and motioned for him to sit.

  "Cancer," he said.

  The single ugliest worst word in the English language.

  "It's terminal," he added. "Nothing anyone can do." He fidgeted with the stopper on his battered tube. "I was wondering . . . why are you here? As a career, I mean."

  Another surprise. None of my clients had ever asked me that. They're either too absorbed in their own misery or they look at me as a role model. They never see me as human. I'm the guy that feeds them, that clothes them, that prays for them. It took me back, this dying man asking such a question.

  "Sometimes you just fall into things, I guess. I volunteered at a shelter one Thanksgiving when I was in school. I felt a connection, like it was something I should be doing." I didn't mention that I had worked there because I had nowhere else to go. My mother had died the previous year and my father had never come back after that trip to Canaveral.

  "So you gave up the moon?" he asked, a thin smile crossing his cracked lips.

  "The moon was never an option to someone who can't pass trigonometry. How about you? What made you give up the moon?"

  "I haven't," he said. He looked at the door to make sure it was shut and lowered his voice to a whisper. "I was a physicist for NASA. Recruited out of Princeton by Wernher Von Braun himself. We were still sending men to the moon then."

  He looked me in the eye as he talked, and I could tell he believed what he was saying. Truth is a funny thing though. I had a guy who came through a few years back who swore he was Mick Jagger, and I bet he would have passed a polygraph.

  "Von Braun was my idol. He was everything I wanted to be; brilliant, visionary, driven. I modeled my life on him. He could do no wrong. So when he picked me for his secret project, I was in heaven. Not really in heaven, I guess, I'm not a believer."

  "But you were in chapel."

  "You start to doubt yourself when you're dying," he said. He coughed again, his frail body shaking with the violent spasms. "Anyway it's peaceful, and I wanted to hear you talk."

  I glanced at my watch. Another hour and a half until the city council arrived. "I hope I didn't disappoint you."

  "No, you exceeded my expectations."

  I tried to remember what I said at the meeting, but it escaped me. I usually read a few verses and say what comes into my head. Half the men are asleep or mumbling to themselves anyway.

  "It confirmed what I suspected, and what I'd heard on the street. You're man of faith who is unsure of what he believes. I'm the same as you. Except I'm a man of science who thinks that science causes as many problems as it solves. Let me show you something."

  He placed the battered silver tube on my desk and untwisted the cap. He pulled a roll of aging yellow papers from the tube and carefully untied the twine that bound them. He rolled the pages flat. Equations crowded every inch of the first few pages, but my eyes were drawn to the third page; engineering drawings with comments written in black ink.

  "What is it?" I asked.

  "Our destiny," he said. "It's Von Braun's secret project. An interstellar drive. With this we can reach the stars."

  I stared at the drawings, trying to make some sense of them. There was a sketch of cylinders fed by various pipes or hoses, with scribbled notes about "flow rates" and "tolerances." At the bottom of the drawing in black ink was the letter B in a fine, precise hand. I couldn't even think of a question to ask.

  "Anti-matter." John Truro said. "It's the only thing in the universe capable of generating enough force over a long enough period."

  "Like Star Trek?"

  He laughed. "Not exactly. Nothing will let us go faster than the speed of light. But this could let us travel to the nearest stars within the lifespan of a man."


  "Is it real? Does it work?" A feeling of absolute awe ran through me, tempered only by the voice in the back of my head that assured me John Truro was nuts and possibly so delusional as to be dangerous.

  "In theory," he said. "We never tested it."

  There was a knock on the door, and we both jumped.

  "Scott, the city council's here." It was Jason, my number two and one of my success stories.

  John was on the plans in an instant and had rolled them and put them in the tube before I could make it to the door. I looked at my watch. They were an hour early.

  "Jason, walk them to the dining room and get them some lemonade or something. I'll be right there." I looked at the emaciated homeless man clutching his tube.

  "John, I'm sorry. It's about money. They have it and I need it. I'll be back as soon as I can."

  He nodded, but he had a furtive look about him that made me worry that he would be gone when I returned. I wanted to talk to him more, wanted to know his story. And I wanted to know more about those drawings.

  When I made it to the dining hall, I discovered only half of the council had showed. Apparently the rest had a better offer. I can't blame them; I'm sure there are plenty of things more enjoyable to do on a Saturday morning than count vomit stains on the floors of a homeless shelter.

  I took them on the standard tour, showing them the facilities, and introducing them to some of the more presentable clients. I've learned over the years that people like their bums well-groomed and smiling. If they see the ones that really need help, their wallets clamp shut.

  By the time the tour was over a minibus of teenagers from St. Joseph's Episcopal had come to volunteer. It was their first time, so they needed instruction. Most of them didn't know which end of the knife to hold. I had a feeling they didn't do much cooking at home. It wasn't until I went to get the serving dishes from the pantry that I thought of John. He was sitting on the cans of jalapenos, clutching his battered tube.

 
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