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Igms issue 4, p.4

IGMS Issue 4, page 4


IGMS Issue 4

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  Tuesday was a busy day. She got to the Torrance house late, on account of Miz Torrance getting lost picking her up. She made ham biscuits in a whirlwind all morning, which near to wore out her fingers, kneading, patting, and cutting the biscuits to bake. Then the tea party, putting out cold shrimp, which luckily she didn't have to peel because Miz Torrance chose not to pay the extra fee, pimento cheese sandwiches, iced sweet tea, and hot coffee. And of course she put out the cakes. When the doorbell started ringing, she went back to the kitchen and did her homework, writing down the names of foods that she found on cans in the pantry. Occasionally she went in amid the chorus of chattering voices to restock the sandwich trays.

  The little boy ran past her as she was cleaning up. He had chocolate smeared across his upper lip and his right cheek.

  Tuesday was reading night, so after all that, Junior took her to the church to meet with Sisi, who wore scarves and those long African dresses.

  "Got my homework." Dahlia sat down in the Fellowship Hall at the table across from Sisi and pulled out the list of words she'd read and written down from the cans in the pantry. They went over the words, and then like usual, Sisi had Dahlia talk about something to make into a story. Dahlia talked about Garner. But not about the face in the leaves. Or how she ached to have him lying beside her.

  The story went like this:

  Garner was my husband. He was a gardener, the best, which was why they called him Garner stead of Sidney Meeks. He made wisteria gazebos. All the mamas had Garner plant them when their girls was sixteen, so the wisteria would cover it for their weddings. He grew a special kind. Late bloom, to be all flowers for the June brides.

  "Miz Dahlia, does this story say what you want it to?" Sisi said that every time they did these stories.

  And the trouble was, Dahlia had a different story about Garner inside her.

  About how they'd fixed his heart in the hospital. And two days after the operation, lying all weak in the bed, he finally opened his eyes. Touch my face, he whispered, she could barely hear him. Hold my hand. And she did. But then she got so tired sitting there, hour by hour, worrying, till the room was swimming, so she left him alone and went home to sleep. In the middle of the night, they called her that he'd gone worse, and she called Junior and they went out to the hospital, but when they got there Garner was dead.

  How was she to know they'd fix him up, but he'd die anyway?

  She hadn't been touching his face nor his hand when he died. He died without her, alone, tubes stuck in him and bags of liquid medicine hanging around him and doctor machines making noises.

  But she didn't need to learn to read and write this story on a piece of paper. It was awful enough to have it running through her head. So she'd said the other story that Sisi wrote down.

  Then Sisi had Dahlia point to words she wanted to learn. Dahlia pointed to wisteria and gazebos. She already knew how to read Garner's name. Sisi picked out sixteen and explained that it was the same as 16, but with letters.

  Then the lesson ended with Dahlia writing out the fixings for pimento cheese sandwiches. Sisi had to help her spell out Worcestershire sauce, which felt a whole lot shorter when Dahlia said it in her mouth than when she wrote it all out on paper.

  As Junior drove her home, Dahlia asked him if he'd noticed the face with leaves. He had, lots of folks had them. Dahlia asked what kind of leaves was around the face. Junior said it depended, sometimes oak, sometimes grapes, sometimes ivy.

  "What about wisteria?"

  He shrugged. "Don't know if I've ever seen that. Them faces give me the shivers anyhow. There was one at another house where I helped Daddy cut grass. He called it Oko. Said that was what he was called in Africa. Said Oko would come for us if Larissa and I didn't weed the yard."

  Dahlia shook her head. She'd never liked Garner scaring the children with tales. But the face. Why couldn't the leaves be wisteria? It was near to grapes, just with flowers instead of fruit. Purple flowers even.

  That night her hands ached her and fidgeted, like she couldn't stop kneading biscuits. She found herself turning on her left side, longing for Garner to fill the empty space beside her. She reached her aching fingers out to where he ought to be, and they ached more, because the memory of his flesh was in her fingers too, when she used to reach for him in the dark, doughy and soft and cool.

  But no matter which way she reached or turned, there was that brittle space inside. She'd managed to cover it up before, layers upon layers like smooth pearl locking away the sharp edges of missing him. Now the layers were cracking and the emptiness was back.

  Soon she dreamed that leaves were growing in tangles across the bed and she saw Garner's face peeking out between them. His eyes, deep and brown, stared at her. Smiling eyes. She brushed the vines aside and found his mouth within a beard of leaves. The leaves were smooth but ridged, and the mouth was soft against her hand and she leaned her own mouth into the softness, pressing a kiss into him. But when she felt for his calloused hands, it was all vines and hanging bunches of flowers, and then it was all tubes and hanging medicine bags, and then it was all sorriness and sobs, and her sobs woke her.

  So she got up again to go sit on the bench in the gazebo. The moon was even brighter this night. As she examined every patch of wisteria, her eyes swam again like in the hospital. She rubbed them and looked some more and thought she saw one eye and part of a cheek above a leaf beard in the vines behind and above Garner's tombstone. She stood and reached for the place to arrange the wisteria, pulling it here and there, twisting, sometimes untwisting, until the spaces seemed to her to look more like Garner's shadow. Then she saw his whole face in the leaves and his hand reached out to her from the vines. But as she grabbed his hand, it was nothing but leaves. And she sat down on the grass, and then she lay down, and Junior found her in the early morning light lying across Garner's grave.

  Larissa called that next day with a lot of stiff words, which matched Dahlia's stiff muscles as she lay in bed resting. Dahlia just knew Junior had set this up, worried that Dahlia was fretting over Garner. Sure enough, after all the talk about what Kareem and Karlos were up to the first week of school, and how many goals they'd kicked at soccer practice, how their father was making out as their new principal, on it came. That Dahlia should move in with all of them. How they could build an apartment on the side of the house.

  "I can't leave your daddy."

  "He's in heaven, Mama. Heaven's no closer to Grimesland than to Winston-Salem."

  And maybe that was true. Except Garner had come to her between the wisteria and it wouldn't be right to leave him alone, not again. She almost said so: "I got to stay here. He's in the leaves like that Oko face." But she held the words in with pursed lips before they got out of her mouth. Larissa and Junior would never give her a moment's peace if she said a thing like that.

  When Junior called later to see how Dahlia was doing, she rode him about not leaving her be.

  "I ain't moving to Winston-Salem."

  "You need to move in with Larissa, cause you won't move in with me."

  "I ain't moving in with that girl of yours either. She don't like me."

  Junior never said anything more when Dahlia brought it up about his girl. Which just proved the point.

  It was unusual for the very first hurricane of the year to make it all the way to Grimesland. But the warning for Hurricane Aaron came over the radio, and then Junior was all around the house, running tape over the windows, filling up Dahlia's bathtub, and cluttering her tiny kitchen with more bottles of water than Dahlia could ever drink in three hurricane seasons. He begged her to come just stay the night with him and that girl. Dahlia would have none of it. She'd been through Bertha and Fran and Floyd, and all that had ever come of those for her was a bit of rain and wind, and cooking up everything in the freezer on the gas stove when the electricity went out too long. It wasn't like all that mess in New Orleans.

  It was already raining when he left. The wind came up and sheets of rain were po
unding on the windows and swaying the trees as Dahlia watched from her bedroom.

  The lights flickered and went out. The clock was stopped at four, but outside all the clouds made it dark like dusk. Sycamore branches pelted the yard. The willows bowed, which meant they weren't like to break. But in the middle, the gazebo trellises ripped apart and wisteria was falling.

  Dahlia ran up to the window, though she knew she shouldn't do that in a storm, and peered around the big X taped across the glass. The piece of trellis behind Garner's grave hadn't fallen, but it was swaying whenever a gust came up. Dahlia ran out into the rain and grabbed fistfuls of wood and leaves on each side to hold up the rest of the trellis.

  She buried her face in the leaves and tried to hold up the wall of vines, but it bore down on her, a wave of blooms and leaves in tangles drowning her in its heaviness. As the leaves smothered her face, she felt him. Garner was kissing her. His outstretched arms mirrored hers. His hands, his calloused hands, twined their fingers in her fingers. She could feel him through her soaked dress as it ripped against splintered pieces of trellis which the wisteria pushed against her.

  A gust of wind tore at her as leaves, vines, and trellis swayed over and Dahlia and Garner fell with it onto his grave. He lay outlined in wisteria. The wind roared and the rain came in sheets and Garner was inside her and outside her and holding her safe, not from the wind and rain, but from the ache. She held him close and his arms wrapped around her and she pulled up into a ball and wept into the water and the wind. Wisteria was raining all around them and then a trellis on the other side cracked and came down, and then blood rained too, in drops from her head where it flowed away pink in the grass over Garner's grave.

  She heard his voice in the wind. I left you alone, I'm sorry.

  No, she said, it was me. Forgive me.

  As the wind and the rain died down, he faded away from her. But she heard his voice in the wind once more just before it all faded. And he said, Go on. Go on now.

  Then Junior ran up shouting and pulled her out of the vines and the trellis pieces and carried her into the house. Soon sirens wailed louder and louder. Faces appeared, on people with blue uniforms, who strapped belts across her and hoisted her up and wheeled her head first into a van. The van bumped and heads looked down at her and hands did fussy doctor things to her arms. She heard Garner's voice in her head, and she knew to go on.

  And she knew now not to look any more for his face in the garden, nor in the uniforms or the vines of tubing or belts, or the bags of medicine hanging down on poles like wisteria.

  Call Me Mr. Positive

  by Tom Barlow

  Artwork by Jin Han

  * * *

  Day 1,688:

  It was my watch. Every time I wake from deep sleep, I have a moment of panic, convinced I've slept through some event that has changed the course of human history. My father never forgave himself for falling asleep in his recliner and missing the President's announcement of our first contact with an alien race. Fortunately, though, most human change is as agonizingly gradual as interstellar flight.

  This was my ninth awake period of the voyage, and we'd built up so much velocity that little news from Earth could catch up to us. Although I'd been in deep sleep for six months, there was only a couple of week's worth of news in the queue. No personal messages: that's why I was in the service to begin with. No strings.

  I've lived long enough to differentiate "news" from the reiterations of the same old human comedy. People continue to create arbitrary groups so they can fight with people in other arbitrary groups. Those who have a lot continue to try to convince those that have nothing that universal laws are to blame. Meanwhile, people keep butting their heads against those universal laws, and damned if they aren't beginning to bend. Once I deleted items like those from the message queue, there was nothing left.

  I selected some music and soon had the cabin rocking. Control preferred it quiet, but I figured by the time I actually heard something mechanical going wrong in the Unit, I'd probably be dead anyway. That's what it's like in space; you're either bored to tears or being sucked into a vacuum. There's not much in-between.

  These kind of things were going through my mind, which is my piss-poor excuse for not checking on the others right away. I waited for my head to clear and my heart rate to stabilize. I showered. I had a cup of tea and a biscuit. I turned the volume up some more. Control could kiss my ass.

  Then I looked at the service log.

  We had a cute little routine with the service log. None of us had been awake at the same time since we left five years ago. There were six of us, and we each had to be awake for a week every six months, since that's the longest you can safely stay in deep sleep without working your muscles, eating real food, and getting some REM sleep and sexual release. (Yeah, I made that last one up. Not proven, but try to find a spacer that disagrees.) Because Control wants the Unit checked as frequently as possible, we stagger our awake periods. Because Control is stingy with the food and O2, they restrict us to the minimum time awake.

  So we spend a good portion of our waking periods composing witty log entries for one another. Unfortunately, Mai Mu, who precedes me in the rotation, thinks she's an artist and often fills page after page with her sketches. They resemble a child's picture of an elephant, every part of the body in a different scale. Or maybe Picasso.

  Nonetheless, I look forward to them. Solitude lowers your expectations.

  This time, no drawings. No Kuro Kazuma's haikus. None of Meng's ruminations on Goethe. No performances by Sir Thomas, who'd carefully hidden his cello the day we embarked because he knew I'd jettison it as an act of compassion for composers everywhere.

  No laundry list of duties, staff evaluations, plans or way-over-my-head technical notes from Captain Kim.

  That's when I thought to check on their well-being.

  Until that moment, I never realized that somewhere deep inside, I harbored the belief that losing five friends at once wouldn't be five times as bad as losing one. I suppose it was doughnut thinking; the first one is great, the fifth is blah.

  It's not true. As soon as I saw the first body, I knew the rest would be dead. The readouts were there in plain sight, right in front of me when I woke up, but I hadn't bothered to look. I had just assumed everything was all right. They couldn't be any less right.

  I checked them over one at a time, anyway. Every one hurt just as much as the first, or maybe more.

  They weren't smashed-face-plate dead. They were peaceful-sleep dead. They looked like they'd died at about the same time, and not too long ago; there wasn't a great deal of decomposition.

  I'm not a medicine man, but we've all had some basic training, including reading the diagnostics. So after I cried a while, ate a big bowl of spaghetti and half-a-dozen brownies (supplies being suddenly abundant), and received permission from myself to postpone the burial detail, I checked the medical histories.

  They didn't tell me a lot. It was as if their bodily functions, already dialed back by deep sleep to the minimum necessary to sustain recoverable normal life, had just drifted away. The heart rates dropped smoothly from twelve to zero over the course of several hours. The troughs of the brain waves got wider and wider. Body temperature only fell about twenty degrees, to room temperature. I got excited for a minute when I saw the line on the chart start to go back up slightly; then I realized it was the heat of putrefaction.

  The life support system seemed to have malfunctioned. The emergency protocols didn't kick in until they were almost dead. The stimulants, then the shocks, over and over again, only sent them into exaggerated cycles, until a cycle overlapped death. After that, we were just injecting and shocking meat.

  I made a mental note to suggest to Control that the pods be equipped to automatically crash-refrigerate the dead until they could be returned to Earth.

  For now, though, I had to improvise. It would have been very difficult to thread them into their suits, because they were beginning to m
elt a little, some skin turning slightly gooey. Instead, removed their dog tags, zipped each into his own duffle bag, lashed them together and tied them to the outside of the ship. With any luck, they'd still be there, flash frozen, when we got home. Slow acceleration has its good points, I suppose.

  It was queer, but I didn't feel as alone then as I had when the bodies were lying next to me. I sent a report back home, although I didn't really need to; the daily readings were automatically fed back to base. There wasn't a damn thing they could do about it, anyway.

  It is only now, after I've slept real sleep for about two days, that I've begun to consider what comes next.

  A lot of redundancy had been built into our mission. Six of us had been sent on what was essentially a two-man mission, so that we had a back-up crew and a back-back-up crew, just in case. We carried enough provisions for twice our anticipated time in space. At the time, I thought it was overkill. I've since changed my mind.

  I'm in a quandary about resuming deep sleep. If I keep my normal rotation, the unit would be unmonitored for six months at a time, rather than a few weeks. We could drift irretrievably off course in six months. If I don't hibernate, I'll burn up at least fifteen bioyears twiddling my thumbs alone in a thirty-cubic-meter room with nothing but my doppelganger to keep me company.

  OK, truth is, that isn't foremost in my thoughts. Fear is. I'm scared to death of returning to my pod. I'm obsessing over the fact that there are five dead people outside, who died in deep sleep for no discernable reason. If I was a gambler, I know where I'd place my bet on the viability of the sixth crew member, once he goes back under.

  Day 1,692

  Control equipped Mainfram with a huge entertainment library. It's come as a surprise to me just how useless that collection is. I've tried all kinds: 3-D, 2-D, role playing, fantasy. I can only take a few minutes of any of them, though. The more images of people I see, the lonelier I become. Like pornography.

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