Category Archives: Proto-Novella

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 17: The Mind Readers

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Morgana blinks herself back to reality. Efficient, no-nonsense footsteps echo into the room.

“Mrs. Bozeman, I’m Dr. Geordi McClanahan, one of the many people working with your husband, Jack. How are you today?”

Sticking the two paper fortunes back into her pocket, she looks up to see a red-headed doctor striding towards her, with his hand outstretched to greet her. Morgana shakes his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Dr. McClanahan. My last name is actually ‘Traczyk,’ but I do answer to ‘Mrs. Bozeman.’ Against my mother’s wishes, I didn’t take Jack’s last name. Just call me ‘Morgana.’ It will be easier on everyone.”

“Alright then, Morgana. Jack’s not doing well, as you probably know. At first, he was exhibiting some eye movement, but that has been steadily diminishing. Right now, we are hoping to try out some new technology that is still in the developmental stage. We will be using brain mapping and imaging to ‘see’ thoughts that Jack might be having. If we can do that, we may be able to start a dialogue, of sorts, with him, and perhaps have Jack as a new partner in getting him to improve. We are not sure what we will see and some of what we find out may be uncomfortable or even unsettling for you, and who knows, maybe even for Jack.”

“What types of images are you expecting to see?”

“At this point, we’d be happy to see just about anything. If we are successful, though, we might see images from memories, nightmares, nonsense, random static…. Remember, this is a new technology. When Jack’s eyes are open, we’re not sure if he’s seeing anything, and we have no idea, regardless of his eyes being opened or closed, whether he’s producing any kind of conscious thought. This technology could change that.”

“My goodness! So, you’ll be trying to read his mind!”

Morgana considers this possibility and wonders if she is ready for such a thing. But ready or not, she thinks, this isn’t about me, it’s about Jack. Just because our marriage is over, there’s no reason why Jack shouldn’t be given every chance to recover. After all, he’s still a young guy.

“Yes, it is like reading someone’s mind, more or less. We’re hoping more, though, rather than less.”

As if he’s suddenly tired, Dr. McClanahan settles himself into a visitor’s chair against the wall. Following his non-verbal cue, Morgana sits down in the visitor’s chair across from him, and without missing a beat, she asks:

“Do you think Jack could actually recover one day?” She knows he can’t recover, but maybe doctors deliver better results for those people who believe in their ability as healers.

“That’s our hope and that’s usually what we try to anticipate, without ignoring the cruel reality of locked-in syndrome or a persistent vegetative state. Very few people ever come out of it, and if they do, all their functions are severely compromised. I don’t want to give you false hope, but there is exciting new research using both MRIs and EEGs. At this stage, this does seem to be the best option for Jack.

“Yes, I’m sure of that. Being warehoused is just not a way for anyone to have to live. I’m relieved to know that Jack has so many competent people here to help him. I’m not expecting any miracles, although I certainly wouldn’t turn one down.

“I’m not going to lie to you, Morgana. We have an interest in doing this. This is a research hospital, and what we will be doing—with your permission—is highly experimental. Jack will not be in any pain, and may actually benefit from the increased stimulation. Although recoveries are far and few between, what we learn from working with Jack might help someone else in the future.”

“Well, Dr. McClanahan, I agree that doing something is better than doing nothing. And were Jack able to speak for himself, I believe he would say the same.”

As those words leave her mouth, she wonders what Jack would really want. She can’t imagine him wanting to live in his current state, either at the hospital or cooped up in their little apartment. She also can’t imagine him consenting to be a guinea pig for the benefit of mankind. She can, however, imagine him being totally pissed off and REALLY wanting some of his beloved rotgut Boney Stalker Scotch. She wonders now why it never occurred to her to just put a few drops of Boney Stalker to his lips while he was still at home. Oh, that’s right! Boney’s all gone! The day after he had the stroke, she took the three bottles of Boney out from under the sink and put them into a sparkling purple gift bag with pink and purple tissue paper. Just to make it more of a total package, she threw in a whole sleeve of little plastic cups and presented it to a group of very ragtag but nice people at the Lake who were sitting in a circle drinking, smoking and playing bongos, while their dogs, overstuffed backpacks, and purloined metal shopping carts filled with giant, bursting garbage bags patiently waited in the shade. Delighted, they invited her to join them, but she declined, graciously thanking them for the invite, and begging off, saying she was already late for an appointment.

Good thing Jack didn’t know what she’d done with his Boney Stalker—he would have had another stroke all over again.

Dr. McClanahan slaps his quadriceps which is “doctor speak” for “time’s up,” and gets to his feet.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Morgana. Please let us know if you have any questions, and feel free to visit Jack whenever you like–just call first to make sure that your visits don’t overlap with his therapy or our working with him. Rocky will be right in to explain some of the preliminary procedures and to have you sign some permission forms.”

“I already signed some forms back at the house before they moved Jack.”

“Those were the forms to transport Jack back to the hospital.”

“Oh, OK. Well, thank you, Dr. McClanahan.”

Rocky must have been waiting right outside the room because he comes in just as Dr. McClanahan disappears through the door.

Relieved to see him, Morgana hugs him tightly. He holds her shoulders and looks at her face.

“Are you OK?” he asks, his face marked with concern.

“Yes, I’m fine, Rocky. Dear, sweet Rocky! You are such a comfort to me! So…what’s this mind reading all about? Have you ever heard of it before? What do you think of it?”

“This is cutting edge technology, but unfortunately, not as sophisticated as it needs to be. What we are trying to do is to decode Jack’s brain imagery. It’s like trying to see the movies that we all see in our minds.”

Morgana tries to process what Rocky is telling her. “I’ll bet that’s easier said than done! So how do they do that?”

“We’ll be using an EEG machine later, but to start, Jack will have to be in an MRI scanner—when his eyes are open—and will be shown short films—these could be things like music videos, commercials, clips from home movies, or even just plain, old photographs—you name it. At the same time, the MRI scanner can track the blood flow through his visual cortex. We superimpose a digital 3D grid on the computer screen over parts of the brain we are scanning as a way of quantifying the blood flow, so it looks like a pixilation. So, remember, three dimensions equal volume.”

Morgana remembers this whole volume thing from middle school…height times width times depth. Oh yeah, and then there’s liquid measure and solid measure. It seemed so easy until it seemed so impossible! That’s when she first decided that she hated math. That was her first bad decision ever.

“OK, so why is volume so important?”

“Because these box-like or ‘volumetric’ pixels—you’ve probably seen them in video games—are used in computer models. These ‘voxels’ allow us to view a digitized representation of the brain and can actually teach a computer program (and us, at the same time) how visual input is translated into brain activity. In order to quantify brain activity, we must quantify blood flow, and that would be impossible without volumetric measurement.”

“Rocky, I’m glad it’s you describing this to me and not someone else, because at least you won’t judge me as being a complete idiot, but this is making my head swim.”

“Yeah, I know, Morgana. It’s complicated. Believe me, I’m not quite sure I understand it, either, but I’ve been reading about this stuff for a while now, and you haven’t been, so give yourself a break.”

“Thanks, Rocky! Back to this brain activity scan. So how do you get a picture from looking at brain activity?”

“OK, let’s just say I show the person whose brain is being scanned a picture of a rose. The pattern of “voxels” that shows up on the grid measuring the blood flow through the visual cortex could then be matched or correlated with similar patterns of voxels and would show up visually on the screen as a rose. That’s what a best-case scenario would produce. The more pictures or videos that we can show the same person, the better because we can start to build a reference library of images with their corresponding patterns of voxels.”

“Oh, so it’s like interpreting symbols.”

“Right—you can also think of it as a dictionary of sorts, but instead of words you have configurations of voxels. After a while, we have so many of these that we can apply a reconstruction algorithm to convert the brain imagery into actual images. So collecting the images and pairing them with the configurations of voxels would be ‘encoding,’ and then converting them into images would be ‘decoding.’ Clear as mud?”

“Yep! Clear as mud!”

“Good,” says Rocky. He spreads out a five-page document in front of her on the tray table next to Jack’s hospital bed.

“Here’s everything I just explained to you spelled out in medical, scientific and legal jargon. Plus, this will allow the hospital and the researchers to publish their findings. Here’s where you sign and here’s where I sign.”

Morgana takes the pen and signs her name, and Rocky does the same.

“Rocky, don’t mention this to anyone, but you know how much Jack used to love his Boney Stalker Scotch, right? Well, it just occurred to me that I’ll bet Jack would love to have just a few drops of Boney Stalker.

“Yeah, I’ll bet he would love that!”

“So, what do you think? Would it be OK if I were to bring just a tiny bit with me next time and just dribble a few drops into his mouth?”

“I don’t think it would hurt anything, especially if this were to happen after 5:00 in the afternoon when there would be no further testing or therapies for at least another 12 hours. Keep in mind, however, that being a health care professional, I wouldn’t and couldn’t recommend or approve it because just about anything could present a possible choking hazard, and, if I were ever to smell alcohol on his breath or see any evidence of there being any alcohol given to any of my comatose patients, I’d be bound by law to report it.”

Morgana looks at Rocky with a conspiratorial grin. Rocky represses a wry smile.

On her way out of the hospital, Morgana remembers to square her shoulders and walk more gracefully. The day is still young, and she decides to take the long way home by walking to the right instead of to the left around the Lake. After crossing the street to get to the Lake, she turns around to look back at the hospital and catches a flash of someone who reminds her of Dr. Hosanna Valenzuela bouncing up the stairs. Just as Morgana squints her eyes to sharpen her focus, a bus passes in front of her. By the time it moves on, the steps are empty.

She exits the Lake path after a quarter mile or so, walks to the little liquor store next to the donut shop, and buys the smallest bottle of Boney Stalker Scotch that they have–a little mini bottle that costs $2.77 with tax. She can’t believe she’s actually doing this.

“OK, Jack,” she thinks. “This is the least I can do.”

Music Credit: Youtube, Hugh Laurie – You Don’t Know My Mind [LYRICS]

Photo Credit: http://www.psychologytoday.com

To Be Continued in Chapter 18

 

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 14: Five Dollars for Sister Jane

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Ah, the Lake! It’s always there, waiting for her. The hike and bike trail that surrounds this shimmering expanse of liquid sky is a 3½ mile loop of kaleidoscopic experiences.

Morgana navigates her way through the ebb and flow of people surging around and past each other. In addition to being the nicest place to walk anywhere around here, it’s also the hub of so many different neighborhoods, each with its own flavors, smells, sounds, illusions, and regrets.

She exits the path and dodges the street traffic on her way to Bucky’s Supermarket. Passing the donut shop, she inhales that buttery essence wafting from the cozy cottage kitchen of the loving grandmother she never had. She ignores the urge to go in and buy herself a crispy buttermilk donut; instead, as she enters Bucky’s, she remembers to pull her stomach in, stand up straight and square her shoulders. Practicing a regal countenance with her head held high, she locates the lemon juice and selects a giant bottle of the store brand, which is on sale for a just a little more than the cost of a small bottle of the name brand.

She avoids the shortest checkout line because of the screaming toddler in the clutches of a melt-down cycle whose oblivious mother is rifling through a folder of coupons. She assesses the wait time in the other four lines and gravitates towards the one that just might have the longest wait. Her mind never stops imagining scenarios. Yes, if she had to be trapped in an elevator with random individuals, she’d choose the people in this line instead of all the others. If she were to analyze her decision, she herself wouldn’t be all that surprised that she always chooses the line based on the absence of scowls, agitation, anger or sadness on the faces of those in the queue.

In the check-out line, still in regal countenance mode, she finds herself flirting with the guy in front of her, a handsome, distinguished-looking man wearing a suit and tie. Pictures of muscled men in thongs on a beach do nothing for her, but a nice, pleasant-looking guy in a nice suit? Fuhgeddaboutit!

He smiles at her when she puts her lemon juice on the conveyor belt.

“Making lemonade, by any chance?”

“Ha! No, actually, I’m getting this for my boss! I’m on a medical emergency mission—he needs it for a skin rash. It stops the itching instantly.”

“Is that so? I had no idea!” he says, as they both do their best to cast an inconspicuous eye on the other.

“Uh huh!” she says, “It’s true! In fact, my next article will be on the benefits of lemon juice—it’s good for everything, and if it’s not, at least it does no harm—just don’t squirt it in your eyes!”

“So you write for a newspaper or a magazine?”

“Yes—I write ‘The Advice Lady’ column for The Pregonero—you know, that free weekly newspaper that winds up all over the streets?” she says with a little giggle.

“Well, I’m intrigued….I promise you that I will start picking up The Pregonero for the express purpose of reading ‘The Advice Lady.’ I can’t wait to unlock the mysteries of lemon juice. By the way, my name is Percival Evander.” He extends his hand to Morgana. Her eyes sparkling, she modulates her voice as she replies, “It’s so nice to make your acquaintance, Percival. My name is Morgana Traczyk.”

Morgana instantly reflects on how formal she sounds, and then feels stupid using his first name in the same breath! Oh, why not mix the formal and the familiar? The dissonance seems to create a happy little tension which just might be keeping their conversation going.

Percival’s deli sandwich and bottle of sparkling water make rocking, jerky motions on the moving conveyor belt.

“That’s an unusual last name! Is it Eastern European?”

“It’s Polish! It means ‘sawyer,’ you know, someone who saws wood.”

Morgana knows that it also means a fallen tree that is underneath the surface of a river—a hidden menace that has sunk many a boat. She decides not to mention this to Percival, who at this moment seems to be floating HER boat!

Percival’s order is being rung up by a non-verbal, large, pasty-skinned person with rainbow-dyed haired and a few face piercings. He stops talking to Morgana while swiping his credit card. As the bagger packs up his deli sandwich and bottle of Perrier, Percival turns back to Morgana and says, “Morgana, I have a feeling I will be seeing you again!” Before she can respond, he thanks the checker and the bagger. Oh, a man in a suit, who’s good-looking and courteous! The smiling elderly gentleman with the twinkling eyes whose name tag reads “Ping,” bows while he hands him his bag. Once again, Percival turns to Morgana, and says as he is walking away, “And sooner, rather than later—I hope!” He gives her an unexpected but friendly, non-lecherous wink, and is gone.

Her regal countenance seems to flag just a bit as she concludes her business at Bucky’s. She picks up her bagged bottle of lemon juice and sticks the change in her back pocket.

She pictures Percival sitting somewhere pleasant, eating his deli sandwich in a non-horse-like fashion, with his pinkies in the air, not talking with his mouth full, nor dripping greasy sauce onto his impeccable suit and tie, as he takes silent, non-gulping sips of sparking water. And although sparkling water does contain the very smallest of gas bubbles, she cannot, for the life of her, imagine Percival ever emitting anything as base as a belch.

Today is turning out to the very best day! And, thanks to Charlie’s generous insistence, she walks out of the store seven bucks and change to the good.

Back at the Lake, she consciously avoids the skateboarders, bicyclists, and sketchy-looking dogs on long leashes, keeping to the extreme right of the path.

“Oh, sweet Jesus! There’s that old battle axe, Sister Jane!” thinks Morgana. She throws a quick glance around her, just to convince herself that she didn’t say that out loud. But why worry? Everyone’s still in their own bubble of self-absorption. Besides, even if she were talking to herself, people would assume either that she’s just one more person in the throes of a delusional disorder or that she’s using a wireless earpiece—and those would be only the very few who would even notice or care. Sometimes she thinks she’s the only one paying attention. The good thing is that no one heard her…probably; the bad thing is that it’s definitely too late to avoid Sister Jane.

“Hello, I’m Sister Jane, your Sister in Christ!” she says in her sweetest voice. “Would you happen to have 75 cents?” she asks in the same lilting, gracious tone as one might say, for instance, “Would you care for a canapé or perhaps a vol‑au‑vent?”

Morgana pulls a dollar from her back pocket, only to realize that it’s a five dollar bill! Before she can substitute the “Abe” for a “George,” Sister Jane’s eyes light up as if a good Las Vegas yank on the crank of a one-armed bandit had produced three (“chakunk, chakunk, chakunk”) big, beautiful, golden Liberty Bells. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding…

Foiled again! Morgana reaches the reluctant conclusion that she and her five dollar bill must part company—either that or Sister Jane will surely raise holy hell—but first, she decides to extract some value from her generous donation before it leaves her possession. It quickly occurs to her to ask Sister Jane about another denizen of the Lake shore she probably knows.

“Do you know who the Rubber Man is, Sister Jane?”

“No, but I do know that I sure could use that five dollars!”

Calling her bluff, Morgana answers, “Sorry, but I’m looking to give this to someone who can tell me something about the Rubber Man. So, bye! Have a nice day!”

You never know what’s going to work with Sister Jane, but if anything does, it would definitely be a five dollar bill. Morgana sticks the bill back into her pocket, just to up the emotional ante. Even though, in her mind, she’s already given the five dollars to Sister Jane, she recalls Will Rogers’ famous quote: “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your wallet.” Ha!

“Wait!” cries Sister Jane, upset but not upset enough to get on her feet. “I know the Rubber Man! Come back and give me that five dollars! Right now!”

Morgana turns around and faces Sister Jane. “OK, so what do you know?”

“He’s a crazy bum…bum…bum…Bumble bee? Did YOU say ‘bumble bee?’” She laughs, knowing that she sounds a little nutty.

“No, YOU said ‘bumble bee,’” says Morgana, feeling like this five dollar deal isn’t going to work out anytime soon.

“Oh, that’s right! YOU said ‘bumble bee,’” says Sister Jane, indulging Morgana with a crazy but sweet smile.

“OK, so the Rubber Man is a crazy bum—I already know that. I can’t give you five dollars for what I already know! What else?”

“Well, he’s a creep, is what he is! He swims in the Lake in the middle of the night like he’s a whale or an octopus, pus…pus…pus…Pussy? ? Did YOU say ‘pussy?’” Now she’s becoming agitated, and so is Morgana.

“No, YOU said ‘pussy,’” says Morgana.

“Oh, that’s right! YOU said ‘pussy,’” says Sister Jane, indulging Morgana with another crazy but sweet smile.

Morgana remembers the best advice she ever got from a fortune cookie: “Never stand and argue with a fool because a passerby will not know who’s who.”

“OK, Sister Jane! If you want that five dollars, tell me right now why you said that the Rubber Man is creepy!”

Sister Jane’s face contorts through several tics, and when it smooths out again, she continues explaining.

“When we good folk are sleeping in the middle of the night, he crawls on up outta the lake and scares the hell out of us. I wish he’d just steal from us good folk instead of scaring the hell out of us AND stealing from us! Sometimes I wake up and he’s standing over me in that black rubber suit of his, dripping that nasty shit lake water all over me, laughing like he’s happy to be let out of hell, laughing like it’s funny that I’m scared shitless, laughing at me because I’m crazy, too!”

Sister Jane is good and worked up now. Morgana thinks she’s even forgotten about the five dollars.

“Does he ever hurt anyone?”

“No, he but he steals everything—our food, our shoes, our money, our drinks, our medicine. He even stole a dead dog once! And did I mention that he’s so creepy?”

“When’s the last time you saw him?”

“Just this morning!”

“Really???” Morgana is amazed that this guy has eluded the police for all this time, but yet Sister Jane saw him just this morning! Huh! Imagine that!

If gullibility were a tangible asset, Morgana would be a rich woman. Remembering not to believe everything she thinks, Morgana checks her own sanity, reminding herself that Sister Jane is probably not the most credible informant in the world.

All of a sudden, Morgana remembers that she’s still on the clock at The Pregonero and feels guilty for getting paid to waste their time talking with Sister Jane. She digs the five dollar bill back out of her pocket and hands it over to Sister Jane, who grabs the bill in shocked delight, presses it to her lips, throws her hands up in the air, and laughing dementedly, she scrambles up the hill on all fours to the edge of the park. Morgana loses sight of her as Sister Jane stands erect on her two feet, darts out into traffic and runs down the street, narrowly missing cars and colliding with pedestrians.

“Damn!” thinks Morgana. For a skinny minute there, she thought she was onto something. To think that she was actually going to call the police to tell them that the Rubber Man had returned to his old haunts! Jerinda’s case was still open and any lead would be given consideration, but as soon as the police would learn that Sister Jane was the source of this information, they’d think Morgana was as batty as she is.

“Well, I’m five bucks to the bad but at least I’ve still got Charlie’s lemon juice,” muses Morgana, while she strides briskly along the walking path back to The Pregonero.

Back in regal countenance mode, she struts past a thicket of trees choked with vines, bushes and small clutches of Styrofoam, cellophane, and other fast-food refuse.

Inside the thicket, sitting cross-legged on the urine-soaked dirt, a skinny, blond, barefoot man wearing a black rubber wet suit looks up from the raw, stinking fish he’s been gnawing on and watches a chubby woman all dressed in blue with a jiggling ass bounce on by.

Oh, yeah! He’s interested!

To Be Continued in Chapter 15: Tangled Up in Tango

Art Credit: http://fakemillion.com/shop/creature-from-the-black-lagoon-million-dollar-bill/
Music Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GD-m2zSKmWo
“Creep,” by Radio Head (Subtitulado en Español)

 

 

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 12: What’s in The Box?

pandora-closing-the-box

Like Sleeping Beauty, the tenem known as “Rain” lies inert in her room in the Swiss Spa. No longer on the bed, the tenem is stored in a box that is more like a hard-shell violin case than a coffin: The inside is upholstered with plush red velvet covering the dense foam molded to cradle every contour of the tenem’s form. The box has its own suspension system to absorb shocks and a built-in hygrometer/humidifier to measure and maintain the humidity of the tenem. The hinged top is closed over the now red-velvet- shrouded/snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug tenem, and latched tight as a tomb with two large brass trunk drawbolts along the right side. Like a suitcase, it has small, unobtrusive, retractable wheels and handles which allow for efficient conveyance. It’s also stackable and can be stored horizontally, vertically, or laterally. For right now, though, it’s stored under the bed with two other identical boxes.

Rain’s visiting consciousness has already been transferred back to its rightful owner, who is lying in the Pink Lab on a gurney on the other side of the world.

Morgana’s chilled body is suffused with a golden warmth. The greyish pallor fades from her skin as her lucidity finds its way back home, exploring the recesses of her mind like a traveler returning home after a long absence, checking each room with a sense of relief tinged with vague disappointment. Morgana takes a deep breath and hears herself sigh.

The transfer is complete. Not yet fully awake, Morgana is aware of something throbbing. It’s her big toe, the one that remembers its robotic counterpart kicking a box under the bed in the Swiss Spa. Too groggy to just sit straight up and examine her toe, she bends her left leg, and grabs her foot under the heavy blankets, almost sitting up as if she expects to get a closer look at it. She struggles to get past her sagging belly but doesn’t quite make it—a cramp seizes her stomach muscles. Still hanging onto her foot, she arches her back to unclench the cramp that seems to be somewhere under her ribs—maybe in her diaphragm; her weight shifts over to her left bent knee, which now extends beyond the edge of the gurney. Too late to catch herself, she is falling off the gurney in slow motion, thanks to the covers hindering her descent. As her toe throbs and her stomach muscles contort, she watches the floor coming closer to her unprotected head and, BANG! The left side of her head smacks the floor, her neck bends at an unusual angle, and her left knee takes a pretty good hit. The rest of her soft, fleshy body must have followed with an unceremonious thud while she wasn’t paying attention.

The left side of her face is still plastered to the floor. She doesn’t move for a couple minutes, trying to assess just what the damage is. There is a little puddle of tears on the floor just below her left eye. Her open mouth drools into its own puddle, and there is a sharp pain on the right side of her head.

“So that’s it!” she thinks. “This is how it all ends—no heroism, no poignant last words, no wailing violins—just tears and drool.”

She breathes in some gritty dust and makes a mental note to vacuum more often, and in a wave of giddiness, almost laughs at the absurd notion of vacuuming on her way to meet the grim reaper.

Now fully awake, Morgana finally remembers that she is in the Pink Lab. With great care, she disentangles herself from the covers and lifts her head with slow deliberation. To her great surprise, nothing is broken! Her neck feels a bit stiff, her knee is sore, and she can feel with her fingers that there’s a little swelling where the side of her face hit the floor, but she’s fine. Not even a headache–that awful pain on the right side of her head has somehow vanished!

It is at times like this when having one specific God to thank would be a blessing. She sits on the edge of the gurney and puts her head in her hands and thanks her lucky stars that she is unhurt, and silently expresses her gratitude to Buddha, Vishnu, Ganesh, Jesus, St. Christopher, and Astarte, and all the other gods and goddesses whose names she cannot recall, just in case.

She examines her no-longer-throbbing toe…check; she rubs her knee and imagines a pink heat penetrating and soothing the ache…check; she places her palms on her stomach and wills it to never cramp up on her ever again…check; she massages her neck while rotating her head with caution, hoping that the pops and clicks are just the positive sounds of readjustment…check; and then there’s her head. She gets up and looks in the mirror on the pink wall. Huh! She still looks the same. No worse for the wear. The swelling, which feels like a burn, is hardly noticeable and will go down.

Morgana realizes that she has dodged a bullet, and vows to take it easy after the spill she just took. Luckily, the gurney had been lowered to only two feet from the floor.

Partly from embarrassment and partly to avoid a lengthy medical examination that would certainly ensue should her fall be discovered, she decides to get back onto the gurney and pretend that she never fell. She picks up the tangled blankets from the floor, smooths them to their pre-spill neatness and slides back under them for a few more minutes of sleep before Dr. Valenzuela arrives to check up on her.

Awakened from a deep sleep by Dr. Valenzuela taking her pulse, Morgana surprises her by chirping a cheery, “Good morning, Dr. Valenzuela!”

“Well, good morning to you, too, Morgana! Actually, morning happened a long time ago! Remember? But better late than never, right?”

Morgana tries to remember. “I don’t know! Can you give me a hint why it’s not morning?”

“Normally, you would access your tenem at night, during the time that you would usually be sleeping. But since it was your first time, your initial transfer was done right here so we could keep an eye on you and make sure all was well.”

“Oh, that’s right! Now I remember!”

“So how was your visit?”

“It was wonderful! I felt so young, so hopeful, so attractive and sexy. Oh! And cool, too! Can you imagine? Me? Cool? What an experience! I can’t tell you how I loved being there as ‘Rain.’”

“Was there anything that was upsetting to you or anything that made you uncomfortable?”

“No, I don’t believe so. It’s all rather hazy.” Morgana looks up at Dr. Valenzuela with a worried look. “I’ll be able to remember it all, right?”

Dr. Valenzuela nods to reassure her. “Yes, you will. Within an hour or so, you should remember just about everything. Should you have any questions or any desire to discuss your experience or your impressions with me once you get home, promise that you’ll call me, OK?”

“Thank you, Dr. Valenzuela! I appreciate that so much!”

“And you do remember, though, how to access your tenem, correct?”

“Yes!”

“Just to play safe, explain it to me.”

“OK. Let’s see…I lie down in bed, preferably on my side, I close my eyes, mentally count backwards from ten to zero, and spell ‘Morgana.’ Then I breathe normally and wait for the transfer to engage. How did I do?”

“Perfect, Morgana! Would you like coffee, juice or water before you go back home? Maybe a little snack to tide you over until you can get something to eat?”

“No, no thanks! I feel fine. I’m looking forward to settling down for the evening and just reflecting on that amazing visit to the Spa that I just experienced.”

In the drone on her way home, she contemplates the miniature city below, thinking how inconsequential we all are. What does this all mean? All those little lives, all playing out their little dramas in those little houses, little prayers being said for special little favors in little churches, little books scattered in little schools, little buses bringing little children to and fro, little people driving their little cars. All those little people worried about their own little problems while the infinite worlds outside of theirs spin with a wild force that comes from God knows where along a predetermined trajectory, oblivious to all those little people and all their little matters that matter so little or not at all in the grand scheme of things.

Morgana feels quite little herself until she looks down and sees her stomach protruding through her open blouse. It appears that the bottom three buttons must have popped off during her fall from the gurney! Her mother was right, after all—you should never sleep in your street clothes—not that these particular clothes were all that fit for street wear anyway!

The cloud-camouflaged drone hovers to a gentle landing. The door swooshes open and the mechanical embrace releases her.

“Have a nice, evening, Morgana, and please watch your step as you exit the cabin,” intones the metallic voice bidding her a perfunctory adieu.

“Thank you,” she answers, not knowing if the drone or whoever is operating the drone can hear her.

Stepping out onto the roof of her building, she suddenly thinks of Jack and hurries inside. She makes her way to Jack’s room, opens the door and goes in.

“Hey, Jack!” she calls out in a sing-song voice in an attempt to sound lighthearted.

He doesn’t open his eyes. She’s disappointed, but grateful to not have to wonder whether or not he can see her, which is unnerving to her. She kisses him on the cheek, and at a loss of what else to say to him, she says, “Sleep tight…Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

She immediately regrets it—not only does it sound stupid to say such a thing to someone in a coma, it’s also a shame that she has nothing of substance to say to this person with whom she has shared two children and a good chunk of a whole life.

While she looks in the fridge for some inspiration, she wonders how long this will go on for. What kind of a life is this? What is she doing? She’s living in this house with a dead man who is still breathing. Why won’t he just wake up so she can tell him to shape up or ship out? She doesn’t want him to die, but sometimes, it just hits her that she can’t keep pretending that life is normal. What’s normal about not having a life? What’s normal about being stuck in some great cosmic traffic jam? She’s in Purgatory, but it’s beginning to feel a lot more like Hell.

“No exit,” she thinks.

“Wait a second,” she says out loud. “There is an exit…The Our Little Secret Travel Agency.”

She slices up a lemon and some ginger, reflecting on her first trip to the Spa.

She pours some honey and boiling water into her favorite mug, a slanted cup with an earthquake icon on it that says, “Shift Happens,” and adds the lemon and ginger, throwing in a little bag of peach tea. The orange color of the tea box conjures up the image of that delicious orange tube dress. Just wearing it, she thinks, was such a sensual delight.

That first sip of almost scalding tea warms her and permeates her thoughts with a soothing calm. Her hands cover as much of the burning hot ceramic surface as they can. She sips the tea, savoring the perfumed heat of this magical elixir. This simple pleasure reawakens the gratitude she felt only an hour or two before.

In an absent-minded amble, Morgana wanders into the living room, which is now steeped in the deepening twilight.

The heat of the tea stirs something inside her and she remembers her mystery man. Her heart beats in an unfounded anticipation of his arrival. In an olfactory flashback, her mystery man’s perfumed essence envelops her.

Unaccustomed to swoons, Morgana is taken unawares. She’s on the edge of something scary and tantalizing. Summoning all the coordination and control she can muster, she puts her hot tea down safely on the coffee table just in time to flop onto the couch in a heavy heap. She has almost fainted and feels so weak and dizzy but at the same time her body is abuzz with an electrical orgasmic current. It goes on and on and on. The fourth button from the bottom of her blouse has just popped off. She is paralyzed by the current, but given her druthers, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Music Credit: You Tube – The Beat Goes On, Sonny and Cher (1967)
Illustration Credit: readmedeadly.com (Pandora Closing the Box)

To Be Continued in Chapter 13: To Itch is Human, But to Scratch is Divine

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 11: I Could Get Used to This

2010 mary portas painted mannequins

Rain can’t seem to get the word, “spabot” out of her mind. She keeps a watchful eye on the comings and goings of all these beautiful people, secretly trying to figure out if there are any real humans here.

Rain is just a tad tipsy from the one glass of wine she’s been sipping for the last hour with Veronica at The Piano Lounge.

“How many hours do I have left before I have to ‘go back’?”

“Three hours. You’ll know your time is up because your internal clock will start to play the Westminster Quarters. You know what that is, right?”

Rain’s mind is flooded with the memory of herself as an eight-year old child, sitting in their little branch library, savoring the smell of books and timelessness. How she loved that old grandfather clock with the sun and the moon and all the little dials on the clock’s face.

More than once, she had the pleasure of watching the old librarian tip toe over to the grandfather clock and open up the glass door with a special key. The only noise permitted in the library seemed to be produced by the old grandfather clock with its chimes and gongs, and the sound of the weighted chain being expertly tugged by its loving custodian. Pulling the trusty chains would raise each weight to its highest point. The weights would then continue their relentless descent towards the bottom of the pendulum, like a persistent child pulling on her mother’s hand. It seemed as if the weights were in a hurry to get back down to the bottom of the case because they wanted to upstage the pendulum’s golden disk by obscuring its midpoint swing. The poor pendulum would be reduced to a peek-a-boo motion, appearing on one side of the weights and then the other. That’s how the librarian would know that it was time, once again, to wind the clock back up.

The old librarian, secretly called “Lady Griselda Grey” by Morgana’s older sister, Jewel, was generally not in a good mood, but one day, she smiled at the little girl, just as the clock was chiming, “Bing, Bong, Bing, Bong…Bong, Bing, Bing, Bong,” and the little girl screwed up her courage and queried as politely as she could, “What’s the name of that song, Miss…please? Oh! And thank you!”

The librarian, touched by the little girl’s courtesy, told her to wait just a second, and she came back with a pencil and a piece of paper. Then she sat down at the table with the little girl and explained that it was called “The Westminster Quarters,” because it was eventually played by the chimes in the clock tower of the British Houses of Parliament at Westminster. The tune was written by William Crotch in 1794, and the words to that simple tune were, “Oh, Lord our God / Be thou our guide / That by thy help / No foot may slide.”

She probably would have forgotten that whole explanation, but the old librarian had written it down in nice block letters for her. She took that paper home with her that day and recited the information to anyone who would listen to her. Mostly everyone laughed at the name, “Crotch,” including the little girl, but they were mightily impressed that she knew this interesting tidbit of information, complete with names and dates. Most impressive was that she was able to recount the whole story coherently, quite a feat for an eight-year old child. That’s actually when people started to consider her to be “one smart cookie,” and that’s when she started to think that maybe being smart, or at least passing for smart, wasn’t that hard after all.

Lost in her thoughts, Rain is summoned back to the moment when Veronica rephrases the question, “You know the tune, ‘Westminster Quarters,’ right?”

“Right,” says Rain, somewhat absent-mindedly, answering Veronica’s question, and now, fully back in the moment, she adds, “But can everyone else hear it, too?”

“Oh, yes—at least, that is, those people who are here on an eight-hour visit, and that’s most of the people you see here. At that point, you have 15 minutes to get back to your room, remove your clothes, hang them up, put on your ‘nightie’ and get back into bed.”

“Well, what happens if, for instance, I’m really enjoying myself and I ignore the reminder?”

“That’s not a problem since there’s an override system that will take over for you. Your tenem will excuse itself, return promptly to the room, proceed to undress, put on the nightie, and get into bed to await the transfer, all without your input or cooperation. The same override system will engage should you be here for a ‘visit,’ and there is some emergency at home that demands your immediate attention, like someone frantically banging on your door during the middle of the night or your smoke alarm going off.”

“I feel relieved to know that I can’t screw this up, but also a little creeped out at the thought of not being fully in control,” says Rain.

“But there’s another way to look at this, Rain—the most important thing is that you will be able to react and respond as normally as you would were you just sleeping, which is perfect. Remember, this whole venture is a secret. That override system is necessary to protect your secret. If anyone were to discover ‘Our Little Secret,” it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but there could be devastating consequences for you and your family if you were not available to deal with a potential crisis in a very timely manner.”

“So, once I’m back in the bed, regardless of how I get there, then what?”

“The Brain Computer Interface chip will then transfer your consciousness from your tenem back into your real body. When the transfer is complete, you will wake up in your real body feeling well-rested and refreshed. You will remember most, if not all, of your experiences here at the Spa. You’ll be glad to know that you will know your real name once again! Your tenem will be waiting patiently for you when you decide next to access it.”

“It’s a little bit sad to think of my tenem, this wonderful body, just lying there like a corpse until I decide to animate it with my presence!”

“Well, don’t worry about it too much—your tenem won’t miss you at all, as difficult as that might be to accept.

“Yes, but, it’s got my DNA so I’m thinking that my tenem should have SOME loyalty to me, you know?”

Veronica laughs. “Loyalty is the stuff of consciousness. Right now, you—Rain—are a conscious being, even though you are in a bio-engineered robotic body. Right now, you are loyal to those you love or to those you think you should love. Once you’re back in your regular body, your tenem doesn’t think about you, doesn’t know who you are, and doesn’t care. It’s merely a vehicle for your consciousness. All I’m saying is don’t get too attached to it, and don’t go giving it qualities that it doesn’t have.

“It’s hard not to—after all, it’s the only other body, or vehicle for that matter, I’ve ever had that looks so great in an orange tube dress!”

“So let’s take it for a spin, then!”

Back in the glass hallway, they stop into a gym filled with exercise equipment. There are people here “spinning” on stationary bikes, running around a track, using stair climbers and elliptical machines, lifting weights, climbing walls and ropes and doing calisthenics.

“Here you go, Rain—Just like I said: Take your tenem for a spin.”

Rain perches on the nearest stationary bicycle and begins pedaling faster and faster.

“Why would we bother doing this? My tenem can’t be healthy–it’s basically a machine!”

“Yes and no. Your tenem needs to develop its coordination and equilibrium to refine its large and small motor skills. You and I have already spent a good deal of time talking. You might think we were just chewing the fat but what we were actually doing was increasing the fluidity of your speech while I’ve been checking your response time and the appropriateness of your social interaction.”

“So how am I doing?”

“You’re doing great! Everything’s working just as it should! And even though you move just fine and seem to walk with poise and stability, the exercise will increase the ease with which you move. A little bonus for you is that some of this should even transfer to your real body.”

“Really? How does that work?”

“As your brain perceives the activity, whether it be walking, talking, dancing, swimming, exercising, etc., it establishes new neural pathways or reinforces the ones that already exist. This ensures that your tenem will be able to perform competently the many tasks and activities you will expect from it. It’s a lot like breaking in a new car, only this is much more delicate; and as for your real body, don’t be surprised if you wake up feeling motivated to do some exercise.”

Rain is obviously pleased. “I’m glad to hear that! I do walk quite a bit, but otherwise, I’m really out of shape!”

Rain gets off the stationary bicycle and heads over to the elliptical machine.

“Here…Let me help you with that,” says Veronica, adjusting the setting for Rain right where “easy” ends and “challenging” begins.

“The contrast between what I look and feel like as ‘Rain,’ and what I look and feel like as…Oh! How I would love to know what my real name is!—what I look and feel like as my real self is as different as night and day.”

“That’s true for everyone else who is here, too. This place, believe it or not, is real life, just like everywhere else except that—and this is a giant ‘except’—all the factors that can make life pure hell just aren’t here—there are no obligations, no bosses to kill your spirit, no spouses who can drive you crazy, no demanding children, no spiteful neighbors, no annoying pets, no illness or malaise, no obvious problems. Thanks to technology, all the people who are here look just perfect. Plus, you probably don’t know this yet, but your new brain has a programmed tendency to maintain itself in ‘Ataraxia,’ which is a state of lucid tranquility. In your tenem mode, you will find that illogical fears will wither away, leaving you calm and anxiety free–for the most part. In a sense, this spa is much more of a vacation than you would have ever imagined.”

“I could get so used to this! By the way, Veronica, who said ‘Hell is other people?’”

“Jean Paul Sartre did, in his book, ‘No Exit.’ Funnier yet is the often-repeated misquote, ‘Hell is other people at breakfast,’ which has always made me laugh.”

Rain laughed, too, at the stunning truth of that misquote, remembering how much she always loved early mornings when no one else was around. How she absolutely hated it when her husband would occasionally get up early and destroy the calm by lumbering around like a bull in a china shop, bitching just for the sake of bitching and banging things that just didn’t need banging. At such times, instead of sipping her cup of coffee and enjoying the slowly brightening sky as she watched the sunrise with wonder through the kitchen window, she’d be jumping out of her skin and tripping over her own feet trying to “fix” what was wrong so her husband would just leave her in peace. She now recalls dispassionately the disappointment and anger she would often feel after one of his early morning “fits,” that she had missed the sublime magic of the sunrise to deal with some mundane nonsense that really could have waited, just another five goddamn minutes, goddammit.

“So, what about this ‘Ataraxia’? I’ve never heard of it before.”

“Most people haven’t. It’s a medical term, but it has its roots in Greek philosophy. The meaning varies somewhat, depending on whether you’re an adherent of Epicureanism, Pyrrhonism or Stoicism, and like all things, everyone puts their own spin on what it means. For me, it’s freeing ourselves of our notions about gods and their punishment, and assumes that hell isn’t a physical place—it’s when other people control us or we let them control us. Hell is that realization that we have somehow lost our dignity and our power, perhaps under the guise of responsibility, obligation or by dint of sheer trickery, ignorance, or laziness. Really, there are so many forms of Hell lurking in the human psyche. So the phrase, ‘Hell is other people’ covers a lot of territory, since a never-ending source of personal torment is seeing ourselves as projections on the screen of own fears of what other people think of us.”

“I’m surprised all that meaning can fit into one little word!”

Veronica smiles at Rain’s naivety. “To be truthful, I’m a little surprised that there isn’t some kind of psychotropic drug with the same name.”

Rain hears the Westminster Quarters and notices other people getting off the exercise machines and ending their conversations.

Veronica turns to leave but waits for Rain to catch up with her. They exit the gym and go back to Rain’s room. Rain surprises herself by taking the lead and going to the exact door which is hers, holding up her palm to a diamond-shaped sensor, and stepping through the door as it pops open.

“How did I know which room was mine and how to open the door, Veronica?”

“It’s part of the program! Pretty amazing, huh?”

“I’ll say! I could get used to this!”

“You already said that!”

“I guess I must really mean it, then,” wisecracks Rain, as she tends to the business of wrapping up her visit. She peels off her orange tube dress, and hangs it up in the closet, unhooks and slides out of her lacy black brassiere, eases her black panties down around her ankles and steps out of them. She tosses the underthings into the hamper in the closet and then locates her white nightie, a cute little white satin chemise, and slips it over her head, wriggling it neatly into place.

“And, here I am, all set and ready to go!” She stands once again in front of the mirror and admires herself in that sweet white chemise. “This has been so much fun. I can’t wait to come back!”

Rain walks over to the bed, and her foot kicks a box underneath the bed frame, but doesn’t pay it much mind since the pain is minimal and she’s still thinking about her sweet white satin chemise and maybe, just maybe, her mystery man seeing her in it.

Rain gets into the bed and lies down on her back, sinking her head into the springy pillow. Before allowing herself to fully relax, she reaches back to the nape of her neck, using her fingers to spread her beautiful, long, dark curls out over the pillow. She looks like, feels like and is a vision of loveliness.

Veronica sits in her chair at the side of the bed, taking notes on her clipboard and smiling at Rain who is now closing her eyes, drifting off to her transfer.

“We’ll be waiting for you,” she whispers.

Rain doesn’t hear Veronica. She is dreaming of her mystery man.

To Be Continued in Chapter 12: What’s in the Box?

Music Credit: “Deep Purple,” by Nino Tempo and April Stevens.

Photo Credit: 2010 Mary Portas Painted Mannequins

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 10: A Rainy Day With The Spabots

robot-covek-seks-tocka-2015 (2)

The French retro parody punk band continues to belt out the infectiously thumping new-wave dance anthem, “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” through the energized, vibrating air of the dimly-lit room. Colored fairy lights twinkling overhead rescue the space from the darkness.

Never much of a dancer in her real life, Rain surprises herself by flicking her hips with expert precision and doing something like a shimmy with her shoulders, her little breasts bouncing happily in time with the driving drum beat.

No longer the dowdy, insecure person she had slowly morphed into long ago, she was having fun, and felt sexy and confident for the first time in years, if indeed she had ever felt that way before. But wait, there was something else, something completely new that she had only observed from afar, and now she was actually experiencing it herself! Damn! What was it? Oh, she felt…hmmm…Connected? Grounded? In the know? In the groove? In the mood? Whatever it was, it was the complete opposite of out-of-it, schleppy, matronly, chubby, lumpy or frumpy. Yes! That’s it! She felt cool.

“How insipid!” she thinks. “Imagine me, so shallow as to actually think about being cool! Like, really, who cares?”

Obviously, she does because that “who cares?” attitude—valid, reasonable and adult though it may be, is dragged out of the spotlight by her mental bouncer, and thrown down the stairs, making short order of the apathy that must have hitched a ride from her real life into Rain’s tenem.

The song ends and she notices Veronica watching her with amusement.

“So you’re a dancer! Who knew?”

Rain laughs, appreciating the sound of her own voice that reminds her vaguely of wind chimes.

A man approaches her as she watches his strong, sculpted face emerge from the shadows. His thick, black hair is just long enough not to be short but is still neat and stylish. His magnetic black eyes drink in Rain’s lovely image. Stunned by his beauty, she is suddenly aware of her aching soul.

A new band takes the stage, and the music changes tempo. A young hipster couple begins to sing a slow, moody song that captures what Rain is already feeling.

(Embedded Audio https://kidtrails.bandcamp.com/track/september – Artist: Patrick Jeffords of Kid Trails)

As if on cue, the beautiful man asks, “May I?” as his right hand glides across the small of her back, his fingers reaching the side of her small waist; his left hand enfolds her right hand, drawing it gently against the left lapel of his sharply tailored suit.

Without answering, Rain melts into him as they sway in time to the music. She feels faint being this close to the sexiest man she’s ever seen in her entire life. Her whole body feels charged with an electric current that is both titillating and maddening at the same time.

She is beset by a panic that settles into her titanium bones, knowing that she has fallen in love with a total stranger who is probably a stranger even to himself. She knows she must have him.

Have him? What do you mean by that?

The question hovers around her as she tries to ignore it, concentrating on the melting sensation, riding the waves of that electrical charge, alternating between a bucking bronco and a beguiling undertow.

Inhaling slowly, she savors the intoxicating essence of this beautiful man. When her synthetic collagen/elastin Gore-Tex lungs can expand no more, she sighs with a desire already steeped in addiction, laced with impossibility.

The music ends and the man’s face brushes against her own. The abrasive feel of his almost five-o’clock shadow sets off an itch deep inside her which longs to be scratched.

Their eyes meet for what should have been an eternity.

“Thank you,” he says, holding her hands and rubbing their smooth skin with his thumbs. He brings her hands up to his lips and kisses both lightly. He looks deeply into her eyes, and then it’s over. He closes his eyes as if to fix her image in his mind, reluctantly lets go of her hands, and walks back into the shadows.

Having been swept off her feet, Rain is surprised to feel them striding with confidence towards Veronica who is waiting for her at the bar.

“So? How was it?”

“I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say or how to describe what just happened. I feel like I’m 16 again. All these emotions are overwhelming me.”

Veronica puts her arm around Rain. “That’s normal at first. You’ll see. It’s all so new right now—your new body, your newfound confidence. But it is rather unbelievable, isn’t it, how much bearing our physical body has on our emotional state.”

Rain nods in agreement. “I had no idea until right now how much I’ve been ignoring my poor out-of-shape body, how I just left it to its own devices and didn’t worry about it. Never in my wildest dreams did I entertain the possibility of feeling this young again, this hopeful, this alive! So many highs, but I also got a glimpse of some corresponding lows—I know they’re there, too.”

Veronica’s smile is benevolent. “Life, whether it’s your real life or your Spa life, is a great teacher. You can’t have the highs without the lows. That being said, the lows can be fully appreciated from the surface—you don’t have to dive in and hit your head on the bottom of the pool.”

“I guess I’ve always known that. I’m not reckless enough to hit my head on the bottom of the pool—I would say that wallowing is more my style.”

“Well, while we’re on the subject of pools, there happens to be a marvelous pool right here,” segues Veronica, “and if you’re done dancing for a while, I can take you to see it!”

Morgana takes one more stealthy look around through the darkness trying to catch a last glimpse of her mystery man. He’s nowhere in sight, but she’s knows he’s there somewhere. She fights the compulsion to stay and find him, and instead follows Veronica back out through the smoky-glassed doors of The Lounge.

Walking through the glass walls of the hallway, Veronica keeps the conversation going. “You know, Rain, this experience can be about whatever you want it to be. I think it will be interesting for you to mix with the others here at the Spa, to get an idea of how to get the most out of your ‘vacation.’ Of course, everyone goes about it somewhat differently, depending on what motivated them to ‘travel’ with us.”

“Well, speaking of ‘experience,’ did you see that guy who asked me to dance? Who is he?”

“I’m not sure—I don’t know everyone here. I generally work with the women, and not all of them, so there are tons of people here I don’t know at all. If I do, it’s only by sight. Plus, as you are aware, there are three 8-hour shifts of visits.”

With this crazy desire still raging within her, she decides to drop the subject of finding out who this guy is, but that won’t stop her from searching for him. His face has been branded onto her retinas, his essence still fresh in her mind.

Veronica opens another tall glass door for Rain and they both pass through the entryway. Rain’s eyes are assaulted by the shocking blue of the water in the pool and the sky through the tall windows of the natatorium.

“Ahhhh…,” is the only thing Rain can say. Seized by a sudden urge to just jump in, she thinks better of it, and settles for kicking off her sandals.

“Veronica, do you think it would be OK if I just sat here for a few minutes with my feet in the pool?”

“Sure! You have a few swim suits in your room if you decide to get serious about this, you know!”

Rain promptly sits down in front of the circular steps that lead into the pool at the shallow end and rests her feet on the first step under the water.

Veronica does the same and the two sit there, enjoying the refreshing coolness of the water, chatting away.

“So what do you think so far?”

“This is incredible! I’ve never been to a place like this before. It’s so luxurious! And that’s just the inside! I’m itching to get outside, too, and explore the mountains. Except for Nassau and the Bahamas, and, of course, small forays into Mexico and Canada, I’ve never really left my little corner of the world.”

“Well, this is one way of doing that, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I would say so! And what really makes it special is that I’m an almost-completely different person, but seeing it all through my own eyes. It’s nothing short of miraculous! I feel like I have a new lease on life.”

Veronica gets up and pads over to a stack of white towels, grabs two and returns to the pool steps.

“If you can bear to tear yourself away from the pool, I want to show you the rest of the Spa. Are you ready?”

Rain spreads her towel out next to her on the floor, then swivels to the right, putting her feet onto the thick velour. She carefully dries her feet, working the edge of the towel between her toes, paying meticulous attention to each little detail, examining the soles of her feet, bending and stretching each toe, poking and prodding each foot as if she were expecting it to poke or prod her back.

“What do you think of your new feet? An improvement over your real ones?”

Rain looks up and smiles. “An improvement? I’ll say! My feet have always given me some trouble. I’ve always had a very high arch and wide feet. When I was a kid, I had to wear orthopedic shoes, which I hated with such a passion.”

“No wonder the first shoes you wanted were those crazy platforms! They’re as un-orthopedic as you can get!”

“The shoes themselves weren’t all that ugly. It’s just that they were brown oxfords which, as it turns out, never did and never will look good except maybe in a box on their way to the Goodwill Store.

“But they made me miserable not because I didn’t like them, but because the kids at school would make fun of me. At first it was just whispers and giggles and pointing, but then a really cute boy—all the girls, including me, were crazy about him—called me ‘Clodzilla.’ It broke my heart that he, of all people, made up that name.

“If I’d complain to my mother, she would tell me how hard she and my father had worked to be able to buy me those special shoes, and that the only thing I should feel was gratitude. And if that didn’t do it, then, goddammit, she’d take me to a children’s hospital where the kids had no feet, and if that still didn’t do it, then, goddammit, she’d beat the shit out of me.”

“Did she really used to beat you?”

“No, not really! Her bark was worse than her bite! Once in a while if I really ‘needed’ it, she’d give me a good, solid whack, but since I was the youngest of four girls, I’d learned quite early on how to stay out of her way when she was on the warpath. To her credit, though, she’d always give us plenty of warning. So, it’s like you said before about appreciating or observing things from surface—there’s no need to dive in and hit your head.”

Rain could remember her mother’s face, smiling as she slipped on her cork sandals.

“And my mother…she had the right idea—it’s so selfish to worry just about yourself and to let the little things get to you. She always said that if I didn’t count my blessings, then God would send me a passel of worries, and then I could count them, goddammit. She would so totally disapprove of what I’m doing right now!”

“Easy does it!” warned Veronica as she scrambled to her feet and steadied Rain as she stood up.

Back into the glass hallway, their next stop is The Piano Lounge. Here there are people sitting on low sofas and armchairs, with drinks and snacks in front of them, quietly chatting while a pianist plays a never-ending medley of unobtrusive romantic tunes.

Veronica leads Rain to one of the many little sitting areas. A waiter arrives almost instantly and runs down the list of drinks. Veronica and Rain both ask for the red wine. A dark, willowy woman with limpid, green eyes appears with some small bowls of pretzels, peanuts and chips, and asks if she can bring them anything else. They thank her, and just as she is leaving, the waiter brings the wine.

“So, it’s OK to eat and drink?” asks Rain before picking up her wine.

“Oh, yes! And thank goodness! What kind of fun would it be to not eat and drink?”

“Well, I don’t know if fun can ever be bad, but I think not eating and drinking would be a bad kind of fun.”

They both chuckle as they dig into the snacks and sip their wine.

“So, Veronica, it’s my understanding that tenems don’t have to eat and drink, so why bother doing it? Other than the fact that eating and drinking are so much fun!”

“You just hit the nail on the head. Part of the joy of being in new surroundings in a new body is experiencing what you normally enjoy doing. But this is better because you won’t be tempted to overindulge. Your new ‘brain’ is equipped with sensors that monitor your intake of alcohol and food, and you honestly will not want more after a rather modest amount. The ‘pleasure centers’ of your brain are digitally configured to remain stimulated long after you’ve stopped eating or drinking, so there’s no chance of becoming addicted to anything. Nice, huh? No drug addiction, no alcoholism, and no weight gain. I wish we had that type of control in real life, don’t you?”

“Definitely! If that were the case, I probably wouldn’t be here, come to think of it.”

“And neither would many others who are here, Rain.”

“So what about sex and love? Are we immune from that, too?”

“Actually, no. Good thing, too—right? The pleasure centers of your new brain are still stimulated by neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine but the digital version, since we can’t download your brain’s chemical production.

“One more question, Veronica. Are we robots?”

Veronica looks at Rain, whose face is beginning to register some sadness.

“No, not exactly. While you are in tenem mode, you are controlling your tenem. Your tenem, without your downloaded consciousness, would be a robot. The technical term for what you are right now would be a ‘transhuman.’ When you talk to other people here, though, you will hear the term, ‘spabot,’ which I find rather crass and pejorative.”

Rain takes a deep breath, remembering her beautiful mystery man, and exhales another soul-aching sigh.

“Is anything wrong, Rain?”

“Well, it’s my first day being Rain, and I’ve already fallen madly in love with a ‘spabot.’”

To Be Continued in Chapter 11: I Could Get Used to This

Photo Credit: Womansneed.com (Photographer/Artist: Franz Steiner)

Music Credit: https://kidtrails.bandcamp.com/track/september

“September” originally by Kurt Weill, arranged by Patrick Jeffords, released 17 February 2015
Patrick Jeffords: Vocals, Guitars, Synthesizers
Andy Woodward: Drums
Joe Costantini: Bass, Lap Steel
Chaz Bundick: Piano
Claire McKinzie: Vocals on “September”
Pat Jones: Wizardry

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 8: The Advice Lady

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Stepping back in time, Morgana trips the bell on the time-worn, wood-framed glass door of the old newspaper office where she’s been working part-time for years. Maddie, the ancient, slow-moving, toad-like receptionist who has manned the front desk for the last 40 years, greets her with a warm croak.

The Pregonero has been a mainstay in this little corner, and somehow has resisted the piranha-like nips of the real estate developers to eventually gobble up anything funky and replace it with an antiseptic, dark-glassed, mall-like structure with no history, no smells other than a “new building odor” (fumes venting from a toxic mix of organic and semi-organic volatile compounds used in building construction), and a huge price tag.

The Pregonero is one of those surprisingly extant, non-digital, analog paper venues for legal notices of real estate transactions, liens, construction permits, lawsuits, and notifications of weary exes disavowing responsibility for and affiliation with discarded spouses. Along with a spate of coupons sponsored by local businesses, there is also community news of deaths, divorces, weddings, and engagements. Then, slightly more interesting are the travel journals with photos, school fund-raisers, community clothing drives for earthquake victims on the other side of the globe, art gallery openings and their featured artists, tattooed roller-skating teens reviving the roller derby, middle-school hula hoop competitions, church bake sales, garage sales, and raffles to fund homeless shelters, bronze sculptures being stolen from community parks, the police blotter, and the buy-sell-swap page. Somewhere around the last few pages of The Pregonero, just before the onset of an existential crisis, the reader will come across something akin to a large, grainy photograph of a spunky, delighted winner of the Sexiest Grandmother Contest, beaming her best neon-white, bleached smile, and think, “She looks pretty good for 70,” or “Glad I’m not that old,” or “Seventy isn’t old,” or “Who gives a flying flip?,” depending upon the reader’s particular demographic and the intensity of his/her ennui.

But the real attraction of The Pregonero is the distraction provided by a few random space fillers that evolved into regular columns, not that anyone really goes out of their way to read them—they are just simply there. Stacks of The Pregonero can be found all over the city in the vestibules or waiting rooms of the DMV, medical and dental offices, Jiffy Lubes and banks, diners and restaurants, churches and schools, clothing stores and pharmacies, supermarkets and convenience stores, gas stations and fast food joints, and the list goes on.

Originally hired as a “Girl Friday,” Morgana has somehow become one of the highlights of the Pregonero. Not a great writer, and a self-proclaimed even-worse poet, she never dreamed that she would become the default Dear Abby of the local penny saver.

She started out as an assistant to the Pregonero’s Copy Editor, who proved to be a non-discerning, good-time Charlie, three-martini-lunch kind of boss—and his name really was “Charlie.” He was a good guy, and because she was quite fond of him, she covered for him as much as she could.

She’d come in some afternoons and find Charlie sprawled out on his office couch, too snockered to move much, but pretty good at remembering (kind of) what he needed to do.

And believe it or not, the thing that always kept her in the game, in addition to her flexible work schedule, was his kindness—drunk or not, he was always happy to see her. He treated her like she was his right arm—and in his fatherly way, his little girl. Every time she’d come into work, there would be at least a couple of candies on the desk for her. Stumbling back from his drunken luncheons, he’d often carry the dessert he was too drunk to eat, all neatly packed up in bakery papers and snuggled into a to-go box. She came to expect these sweet offerings, always labeled with a slapped-on post it note from the office, bearing the scrawled message: “To My Dearest Morgana—As Ever, Your Charlie.”

The louder Charlie snored his way through his high-octane stupor, the more uneasy she would become at the idea of colliding head-on with their weekly deadline. Sometimes she could rouse him and get him back on track, but some days, it was clear that Charley would be down for the count for the rest of the afternoon. At that point, sheer panic would unleash her into a proof-reading frenzy, sometimes changing content when necessary, and making all kinds of editorial decisions that really should have been made by Charlie—or, at the very least, by someone who was half-way competent, someone who wasn’t sprawled out on the office couch, someone who didn’t have to do a great job, just someone, anyone, to do any kind of a job, and right now, goddammit. That someone turned out to be her.

The harder she worked at covering for Charlie, the more proficient she became in the layout of the graphics, illustrations, and text. Since Necessity is the Mother of Invention, it wasn’t all that surprising that the Mother of Invention gave birth to The Advice Lady. That Advice Lady turned out to be her.

Her column was never meant to be an art form; it was merely the logical response to a lack of text and the resulting menace of undistributable white space. Your average person cannot be expected to “know from” white space, but in newspaper production, it’s a big deal. Just enough white space is aesthetically pleasing, but too much white space makes the paper look really unprofessional, as if the Copy Editor were sprawled out on the couch, three sheets to the wind. She regarded her hastily written words as emergency ballast to fill the bowels of a listing ship threatening to capsize.

Just like her cooking, she’d rummaged around and scare up quite a bit of material that could be cajoled into something that would fit into the category of “that’s the ticket!”

In the case of The Advice Lady, it wasn’t all that hard to come up with something that everyone could identify with: a heart break, a heart ache, an embarrassing moment, a life hack, a silly poem, a quick recipe to feed a flash mob, a good use for six cans of blue paint, yellowing bolt ends of antique fabric, widowed socks, wine corks, and old credit cards. Sometimes, there were real letters to be answered, and sometimes, she’d just make them up.

Morgana’s resourcefulness delighted those whose restless, scanning eyes alighted for a moment on some little tidbit of quirky fun.

Today, her work is easy. She only needs to fill about 1,000 words worth of space. First, she eats the nice little square of tiramisu after removing the post-it note. Then, she leaves Charlie snoring away on his couch. She unlocks the little mail box at the front of the building and fishes through its contents for anything marked for The Advice Lady. There are always a few surprises, such as a greasy paper plate from the pizza place next door that someone folded and then jimmied through the slot, a flyer from a nearby church, with a giant “Fuck Off” (written with an eyebrow pencil?) on the back of it, and a few cigarette butts and beer bottle caps. She distributes the mail to the appropriate addressees, puts the cigarette butts in the trash, and recycles the church flyer, the greasy paper plate, and the bottle caps.

Back at her desk, she opens a letter from a lady named Patsy Scroggitch, who writes,

Dear Advice Lady,

My best friend’s life is a train wreck. She makes the worst decisions, and it’s so clear that her troubles are her own doing. She gets really angry if I suggest a reasonable solution to one of her never-ending problems. It seems like she just wants someone to agree with her that she’s got rotten luck. God forbid that any of this should be her fault! What would you do with such a friend?

Sign me,
Frustrated in Friendship

Dear Frustrated,

Will Rogers once said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

Great advice because this is exactly what we pay therapists to do. Ever notice how therapists operate? You don’t even have to go to one yourself to figure it out—just think of any therapist you’ve ever seen in a movie. They let their patients talk and talk until they reveal the real problem. It’s like a broken tooth underneath the gum line. Eventually, it works its way out. When you give advice to someone, you are actually preventing them from solving their problem because they will defend their position, no matter how indefensible it may be.

That’s why you will probably never hear a therapist say, “Well, I think you should….” That’s what well-meaning friends do! Therapists ask questions that the patient (given enough time, introspection, honesty, patience, and/or equanimity) could have asked themselves, all of which begin with the word, “so,” such as, “So, where did your kids get the idea that you would continue to cover their bad debts?” or “So, what does this other woman have that you don’t?” or “So, who taught your grandchildren that it’s OK to jump on the couch?” or “So, just how did you expect your sister to react when you told that her husband was cheating on her?”

I understand your frustration, but just remember how hard it is to take advice. And no one likes a know-it-all! Plus, advice is often seen as judgement, and nobody likes to be judged.

But here’s my advice, since you asked for it: If this person really is your best friend, then give her the sympathy she’s looking for and bite your tongue when tempted to give her advice. Feel free to ask her questions, which will encourage her to provide her own answers; then let her draw her own conclusions from her own answers. This may be the most helpful thing for her—and your friendship—in the long run.

If her “always a victim” attitude begins to wear on you, spend more time with other friends who are less-emotionally fragile.

So, good luck, and thank you for checking in with me!

Advisedly yours,
The Advice Lady

P.S. I hope you enjoy the poem I wrote addressing this very problem:

Thus Spoke The Advice Lady: Advice for All and None

Unsolicited and friendly,
Well-intentioned advice
Can sometimes pan out
Exponentially nice.

But on the odd
Occasion or two,
The advice you’ve given,
Truly, you’ll rue.

That enchanted drive
Down the country lane?
Made your friends fix a flat
In the pouring rain.

And that scenic shortcut
Through the verdant woods?
Made them swear off forever
Of all of your shoulds.

La Salade Niçoise
With crispy romaine?
Left them poisoned and retching
With a raging Ptomaine.

And that spray you touted
For the stain on their shirt?
Spread that very small stain
Into a large ring of dirt!

The fridge repair guy
You endorsed, you confess,
Didn’t do as you’d promised,
And left your friend in a mess.

So now I don’t say
There’s a dentist I like.
And I don’t tell old people
To ride a bike.

Nor to take their sore knees
On a challenging hike.
Nor encourage miffed workers
To go out on strike.

I won’t even tell Dutch Boys
To plug a hole in the dike.

Who wants our two cents?
There are too few among us.
All too often our advice
Is as welcomed as fungus.

So for now I’ll just listen
To all litanies of woes
With patience and sympathy
And see how that goes.

My advice to myself
Is to not give advice–
With one mouth and two ears,
Speak once, listen twice!

But just in case you request my opinion,
You must forgive me should I steer you wrong;
And remember that it was you who invited me
To stick my nose where it did not belong.

Morgana feels a sense of satisfaction, knowing that she’s done a pretty good job as she shuts her computer down for the day.

She opens the door to Charlie’s office where he’s snoring so loudly that she half-expects the windows to rattle. She shakes his shoulder just a bit and almost sings his name, so as not to jar him awake. He stirs but not enough to wake up. She can tell that he’s got another hour or so before he’s firing on all pistons again.

Now that the sun’s moved on to a different part of the building, there’s a slight chill to the room. She grabs the old, ratty, yellow, white and brown crocheted afghan from the top of his coat closet, and she pulls it over him and tucks it in around him, even over his shoes. She hovers over him and gives him a warm hug and whispers, “OK, Charlie. Sleep tight and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Maddie’s already left for the day. Except for Charlie, Morgana is the last one out of the office. She turns off the lights, and pushes in the automatic lock on the inside of the door on her way out.

She crosses the busy street so she can walk along the lake on her way home. She passes the familiar, frazzle-haired, tiny homeless woman who sits on the same bench every day, smoking cigarettes that she manages to bum from passersby.

“Hello, I’m Sister Jane, your sister-in-Christ. Would you happen to have an extra 75 cents?”

Morgana digs into her pocket, finds two quarters, and gives them to Sister Jane, who takes the quarters and scowls at the paltry amount. Morgana makes a mental note to ignore Sister Jane in the future, turns to resume her walk, and narrowly misses getting mowed down by a heavily-tattooed skateboarder wearing a spiked dog collar.

Somewhat shaken, she hears herself talking gently to the dog-collared, heavily-tattooed skateboarder who is lying on a couch lodged into some dark corner of her mind:

“So, what do you think the difference is between how you think people will react to your appearance and how you want them to react to your appearance?”

The skateboarder screws up his metal-studded face in disgust and says, “Fuck off, you old bag!”

Morgana takes a deep breath, laughs, and, watching for skateboarders, continues on her way.

To Be Continued in Chapter 9: The Initialization

Photo Credit: pinterest.com

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 7: Waiting for Rain

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The robot continues smoking his cigarette, not missing a single drag, even as Morgana emerges from behind a closed door. She is naked and cold, and, considering the circumstances, understandably confused.

“Can I ask you a question, please?” she inquires in a plaintive squeak.

“I…don’t…know…Sir!” replies the smoking robot in a metallic monotone. “Can…you?”

“Well, I guess I can! I’m looking for Rain. Do you know where I can find her? She’s new here.”

As Morgana begins to feel a little more at ease with the smoking robot, she is suddenly aware of her bare feet, numbed by the frigid, gritty floor. In a mere nanosecond, the cold wends its way into her spine as if it had been wicked up through the soles of her feet. She begins to shiver. She can only imagine what all her jiggly pooches of bare flesh must look like, but she doesn’t think the robot can see anything beyond the tip of his cigarette, if even that much.

“Let…me…check…for…you…Sir,” he drones, while he lights another cigarette and sticks it into a hole at the top of his head. The hole chokes and sputters as the lit cigarette is ejected in a sudden belch of blue smoke amidst the cacophonous accompaniment of electronic thwonks and boings. The cigarette rolls to an unceremonious stop onto the counter between them and is now burning a smoldering, black hole into the counter’s dingy grey surface.

“Well…there…is…your…answer…Sir!” replies the robot in his curt electronic voice.

“What does that mean?” demands Morgana, forgetting all about her Rubenesque jigglescape.

“It…means…what…it…means…Sir!”

The robot picks up the ejected cigarette and smokes it along with his other cigarette, which is now so short it is burning his hand. Unperturbed, he fumbles with his left hand, searching for more cigarettes, as the thwonking and boinging crescendo to a deafening din.

Morgana wakes up in a cold sweat.

In the still, grey light of dawn, she remembers her three-day wait until the Initialization, and is filled with a sense of dread and excitement. The two emotions cancel each other out, which is good because she’s got other things to deal with.

Grateful that her feet and legs are still toasty warm, she plods from her bedroom down the hallway, digging her toes into the still-new, soft, shaggy Berber carpeting. Now that was one good investment, she thinks, which is exactly what comes to mind each time her bare feet make contact with it.

Without looking in the mirror, she already knows that she looks like a chubby lumberjack in her shapeless, plaid, flannel nightgown, which is why she avoids the mirror on the way to Jack’s room to check on him. He’s still sleeping, his breathing steady and rhythmic. Her heart just aches for him. She wonders what he must be thinking, what he must be feeling, or rather if he can think or feel at all. She tiptoes out of the room, closing the door silently behind her.

The hot shower feels good as it washes away both her tears and the coldness that had seeped into her consciousness from the smoking robot dream.

She looks through all the clothes in her closet, finding nothing that would make her look more attractive. She finally settles on a pair of freshly-laundered, though still stained, magenta sweat pants with a bell-shaped pink pullover sweater that’s long and wide enough to cover the lumpy terrain between her waist and the lower part of her upper thigh bulge. Hmmm…it doesn’t look that bad! The snarky killjoy inside her head, always quick to disabuse her of any comforting illusions she may be entertaining, assures her that it does look that bad. Not that it’s a big deal or anything, but she thinks her daughter, a very cutting-edge and fashion-savvy young woman, secretly pities her poor mother’s total lack of taste.

How Morgana managed to raise such a fashion-conscious daughter is totally beyond her, but in a way it makes sense since Gerri was always hyper-aware of colors, textures, patterns, lines, and balance. And true to her aesthetic sensibilities, she is a successful buyer for a cautiously-expanding chain of upscale clothing boutiques for “the discriminating woman,” called “Glamorphous” with a retro shoe subsidiary called “Shoetiquity.”

Puttering around the kitchen, Morgana peers out the window and sees dark storm clouds gathering. She is seized by a sudden sense of joy, hoping that rain is coming their way to pry loose the dead fingers of drought strangling their parched, desperate state. She remembers that “Rain” is the name she chose for her other self and that in three days, she will experience life as that other person, the one she was always meant to be. Oh, how she wishes she could share this with Gerri!

The doorbell rings. She dries her hands on the red checkered dishtowel and walks briskly to the door.

“Gerri! How’s my baby girl?” She throws her arms around her red-haired daughter, who is always cheered by her mother’s effusive show of affection.

“Hi, Ma! If you let me go for a second, I can give you these great bagels I just bought.” She wriggles free, and puts the bag on the table.

“Now it’s my turn!” she says as she turns around and gives Morgana a huge bear hug. She looks into her mother’s eyes welling with tears. The coffee maker wheezes and gurgles in the background. The warm, roasted aroma of the coffee fills the kitchen with the promise of a cozy chat tucked into a pocket of stopped time.

“How’s Pop-Poo doing?”

“The same, but Rocky seems to think there’s more hope than the doctors are letting on. I sure hope he’s right! Well, no matter! I think Daddy would love to see you, whatever the case may be!”

Gerri scrambles down the hallway into her father’s room, and Morgana hears her greet her father. Like all people who believe that even the most absurd hope is better than no hope at all, Gerri assumes that her Dad is awake because his eyes are open, but Morgana already knows that he is staring into that same, distant dimension that never admits present company. She listens to the one-sided conversation, gaily prattled by the always-sweet Gerri.

“Pop-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo!!!” she says in her silliest voice.

The two had begun this silly ritual when Gerri was just a baby. She would sit on his lap and call him “Pop-Poo,” and he would laugh and tap the tip of her cute little nose for each syllable she uttered. Then she would laugh and try to tap him on the nose and just as she would almost tap his nose, he’d snap his head back and catch her little baby finger with his lips. Each time, she would squeal and laugh with utter surprise and delight. Gerri was always the love of his life. She never stopped calling him “Pop-Poo.”

Five minutes later, Gerri saunters back into the kitchen and slides into her favorite chair at the side of the window as Morgana is putting their toasted bagels on green glass plates on the table.

“So, Ma, I have some good news about Mitzi, but unfortunately, it’s nothing that can help you locate Jerinda.”

Morgana looks up from pouring the coffee. “Really?”

“Yeah, I finally got ahold of her boyfriend, Atif, who told me that they broke up a couple of weeks ago—nothing awful, thank goodness! It’s just that their educational plans were driving them in different directions.”

“Oh, that’s too bad—Jerinda really liked him. Sorry to interrupt! Go on…”

“So, anyway, Atif told me that in order to complete her master’s degree in less time, she made a commitment to do a six-month independent study project in some remote place in the Central African Republic—ever hear of that?”

“No, I can’t say I have, but Africa’s never really been on my radar anyway. What do you know about it?”

“Not much, except that I looked it up and found out that it’s one of the least-developed nations in the whole world. It got its independence from France in 1960, and since then, things have gone from bad to worse. There are child soldiers, militias throwing young men to the crocodiles, burning down villages, you name it.”

“Oh my God, that’s awful!”

“Well, luckily, she’s far away from that kind of danger. She’s in a place called…wait!” She pulls her cellphone out of her back pocket, types with her thumb, and says, “…the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve, which is a rain forest reserve frequented by hard-core adventure seekers, of which, as you can probably imagine, there aren’t many. She is with a team of researchers who track gorillas, who live at an extremely isolated base camp called ‘Bai Hokou.’ There’s no mail service, no phone service, no internet, no nothing. So…that’s where she is!”

“Mitzi has always had a knack for doing everything the hard way, hasn’t she? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it dangerous to track gorillas?”

“Well, yeah! Not everyone has the gorilla-whispering skills of Dian Fossey.”

Morgana picks up her bagel and pauses, momentarily scanning her memory. “Come to think of it, I do remember Jerinda saying that Mitzi was getting antsy in the graduate program, because it was too theoretical and that Mitzi really wanted something more ‘hands-on.’ But I wonder why Mitzi didn’t tell Jerinda where she was going.”

“Atif told me that she had shared the information with her mother, but she didn’t know exactly when she would leave, only that when she did leave, she wouldn’t have time to do much besides pack and get herself to the airport. The American Embassy there knows where she is, but other than that, there’s no contact possible.”

“So there’s no way that Mitzi knows what happened to Jerinda, right?”

“Right! I totally doubt that she knew or suspected anything about it. She never would have gone, knowing that her mother was at death’s door. And listen to this: Atif told me that Mitzi left two weeks ago, Monday before last! Does that ring a bell?”

“Huh! That’s the same day Jerinda was attacked!”

“Yep!” Gerri stirs some sugar into her coffee and puts a dab of cream cheese on her bagel. “I’m thinking that, at the very least, she must have texted her mother a quick message or sent an e-mail on her way to the airport. Who knows? But given the fact that the two talk to each other a few times a week, it’s more likely that Mitzi called Jerinda to tell her the exciting news.”

“It’s curious that she didn’t mention Mitzi’s last-minute trip to Africa to me!”

“Probably because she didn’t know about it yet! Mitzi might have spoken with Jerinda at just about the same time she was walking alone around the lake, during that fifteen-minutes from the moment you left her to go to the dentist until a few minutes before her ‘accident.’ What do you think?”

Morgana takes a deep breath and exhales. “I think you’re right about the sequence of events. I’m so glad to know, or at least think I know, that Mitzi hasn’t just vanished off the face of the earth! I was starting to worry that something had happened to her. Did you contact the American Embassy?”

“No, because I wanted to talk to you first about that. What do you think Jerinda would want you to do?”

She would want me to be logical and practical. Since Mitzi can’t do anything to help Jerinda anyway, she might as well stay where she is and complete her project. Mitzi would be a nervous wreck if she were to find out and, as a mother myself, the last thing I would want to do would be to torment my children with a problem that has no solution.”

“I was thinking the same thing. I just hope Mitzi doesn’t hold this against us one day.”

“I hope not either, but look at it this way—we don’t know much, ourselves—do we? If and when we should find out more, then we might try to contact her through the Embassy, which is iffy at best, if what you told me about the place is true.”

“Oh, it’s true, alright!” Gerri reaches for some more cream cheese, and looks up suddenly. “Look, Ma! It’s raining! At last!”

Morgana stares into the rain, reflecting on her first California drought when she and Jack had first moved here. It didn’t rain and it didn’t rain. Morgana was feeling more desperate as each passing month evaporated, leaving the dust to swirl itself into madness. She felt as if the world were dying. One night, she was roused from a deep sleep by the tantalizing sound of a steady, driving rain, that beautiful, triumphant, wet applause of billions of big, fat, heavy drops of water slapping the ground. Overwhelmed by relief and gratitude, she opened her eyes, only to realize that she was listening to the neighbor’s shower through her open window.

“By the way, Gerri—Who the hell is Dian Fossey?”

To Be Continued in Chapter 8: The Advice Lady

Photo Credit: “Cyberman Smoke Break”
“This is from the filming of Revenge of the Cybermen, December 1974. The actor here might be a guy named Melville Jones. Or it could be any number of other stunt performers. Revenge of the Cybermen mostly sucks, but it does have this classic Tom Baker moment.” (www.reddit.com/r/OldSchoolCool/comments)

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Filed under Magical Realism, My Very Short Stories, Proto-Novella, Science Fiction, Short Story Series