In the spirit of the month, I would like to offer my recommendations for some fine October reading material. This is not a list of the ‘greatest’ or ‘most influential’ horror novels ever written (although many of these titles certainly qualify for both accolades); it is merely a small offering, a snippet of a much longer ‘required reading’ syllabus that exists in my head. Books I would lend to a good friend — as long as I was sure of getting them back, of course.
Many of these books are still in reprint, and are easily available. One or two might require some browsing online or at your local used bookstore to procure a copy. (I, of course, believe it would be well worth your time to do so.)
Here, then, are ten highly recommended books, in the order in which they were originally published. A little peek into my library, if you will….
Happy Halloween from the editors!
I Am Legend : Richard Matheson, 1954
“On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”
With this sentence, one of the most influential horror novels of the past fifty years grasped readers by the throat and refused to let go. Vampires? Zombies? You decide. But the two movies made from this material (The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man) could not even approach the brilliance of the original. I would go so far as to say that one of the staples of the horror-movie genre, Night Of The Living Dead, could not have evolved without the direct influence of Matheson’s seminal work. If you have never actually read the book, do so now. At around 160 pages, it’s usually reprinted with several Matheson short stories, which is never a bad thing — Matheson isn’t considered a ‘grandmaster’ of horror for nothing.
The Haunting Of Hill House : Shirley Jackson, 1959
There are ghost stories, and there are ghost stories. Shirley Jackson reinvented the genre with this book, and it cannot be convincingly translated to the screen, despite efforts of varying success. The subtle and yet inescapable descent into the ‘haunting’ of the title is a function of the writing, and any attempt to take it out of the realm of the reader’s imagination is doomed to fail.
Some Of Your Blood : Theodore Sturgeon, 1961
Due to the very existence of this nasty little piece of work, you can probably thank Theodore Sturgeon, in some small way, for the prevalence of the ‘serial killer’ novel in your local bookstore. Sturgeon, though, was a far better craftsman than most of the writers who followed in the tradition of this story. Short, sharp, and utterly disturbing, this book is still a harsh slap to the reader’s face, even if some of the psychological explanations toward the end of the novel might seem dated.
Something Wicked This Way Comes : Ray Bradbury, 1962
Bradbury does ‘coming of age’ stories in his sleep, it seems. He has a masterful eye for the terrors of youth, whether hidden or fully realized.
Something Wicked… has been remembered by some as a fairytale of youth, an understanding of the failure of the father figure, a darker version of the Tom Sawyer ideal, even. It is often referred to as a novel in the Young Adult pantheon.
Read it. Or, if you recall it fondly but vaguely from your youth, read it again. I submit that this book was not written for the young, but for those who have spent some time on the planet, those who understand fear and temptation and the terrible specter of Death.
There are indelible images in this book that will haunt you long after the last page turns.
The House Next Door : Anne Rivers Siddons, 1978
Anne Rivers Siddons no longer writes in the horror field, but during her short venture into the genre, she produced this disturbing ‘haunted house’ novel. Like The Hauntung Of Hill House, this novel posits a unique question, namely: can a house be an evil place simply by virtue of being constructed?
Ghost Story : Peter Straub, 1979
Peter Straub has long been acknowledged as one of the prime mainstays of modern horror. Although his writing is always strong, Ghost Story remains his masterpiece — an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink extravaganza of terror, incorporating ghosts, shapeshifters, revenge, murder, and an evil entity that remains stunningly unique in the annals of the genre.
The Elementals : Michael McDowell, 1981
Michael McDowell is no longer with us — he died due to AIDS complications in 1999 — but while he wrote horror, he was one of the best the genre had to offer. Although all of his novels are worth your time, The Elementals stands as a testimony to his strengths as a writer. The Deep South setting, the eccentric, cursed family, the hints of old evils that will not remain hidden, all come together in a feverish nightmare of a novel.
Fevre Dream : George R. R. Martin, 1982
Some people believe that Anne Rice defined the vampire genre with the Lestat books. I beg to differ. Martin’s Fevre Dream, about a Mississippi riverboat captain and the vampire who hires him for a certain ‘business proposition’ is one of the finest takes on the nosferatu legend you will ever read. Set in the 1800’s and loaded with period atmosphere, the novel gives a frighteningly realistic account of a vampire hero that tries to convince his kindred to change their ways. Impeccable.
Usher’s Passing : Robert McCammon, 1984
In the eighties, the horror field was dominated by an unholy triumvirate of authors: King, Koontz, and McCammon. Taking an overview of their works during the period, McCammon was arguably the strongest writer of the bunch.
Usher’s Passing was not his most successful novel, but it remains one of his creepiest, most original works. This examination of the descendents of Poe’s Usher family is deliciously nasty, sometimes literally so — for example, you’ll never think of Mulligan stew the same way after reading this one….
Family Portrait (aka Picture Of Evil) : Graham Masterton, 1985
Like Usher’s Passing, this novel continues the line of a famous literary character, in this case Dorian Gray. While McCammon’s novel is somewhat subtle, relying more often on what you don’t see for impact, Masterton’s volume is graphic, sometimes brutally so. What it lacks in subtlety, though, it makes up for in purely visceral shocks as Masterton explores the activities of a family that will do anything to stay young.
The water in the swimming pool was cold and blue-crystal as it closed above Stockard’s head. Here sound was magnified but distorted, and his ears were tantalized by the enlightenment that seemed to stand just out of reach. Still, there was nowhere else he would rather be than here, insulated from the stresses of the world beyond the surface, the threats, the headaches, the deadlines and the responsibilities. Here, if only for a few minutes at a stretch, he was free, his head was clear.
But all that went away when he pulled himself up to the concrete around the pool. The humid air hit him with all the weight of the world as he broke the surface, and every step of bare feet across burning cement brought him closer to the duties of husband and doctor. By the time he reached the sliding glass door that led into the living room, the safe haven of the pool was almost forgotten.
Marjorie was lounging on the couch with a drink in her hand — scotch or whiskey, he couldn’t be sure. She had on a gauzy grey and silver robe and her green-streaked blonde hair tumbled over her shoulders in artful disarray. She didn’t bother to turn around when he came in.
“Marjorie,” he said.
“Hello, Stockard.” Still she didn’t turn around, choosing instead to flip through the fashion magazine resting on her mostly bare lap. “Drink?”
“No, thank you,” he replied. “I have to go to the office.”
“Alright.” He watched her take a drink from the tumbler in her hand. “Remember we have a dinner party at the Ericssons’ at nine. Don’t be late.”
“I won’t.” He didn’t bother to close the door.
The office, as he called it, wasn’t much to speak of. Marjorie was accustomed to the finer things in life, and Stockard refused to charge more than his patients could afford, so there was nothing left over to spruce up the workplace.
Just after sundown his first patients started to trickle in, starting with a kid, a boy no more than twelve with a shock of blood red hair that half-hung in front of his dead eyes when he forgot to brush it out of the way. It was the ones like this that really got to him.
“Playing hockey again?” Stockard asked as he sewed the boy’s left pinkie back on. “Haven’t I told you to be careful when you do that, Geordie?”
The boy nodded silently.
“You have to wear all your equipment because otherwise one of these days you won’t be able to find a part that gets cut off, and then I won’t be able to fix you up again.”
Geordie swallowed. “I know. But the guys wanted to play and I’d left my gloves at home, and…” Stockard met his eyes and the boy stopped. “I’ll be more careful next time,” he said, apologetically.
“Good.” He tousled Geordie’s hair with a latex-clad hand and smiled. “Good as new, kid. Now I don’t want to see you again until it’s time for your check up, okay?”
Geordie nodded again, and Stockard sent him out with a lollipop.
When the kid was gone Stockard pulled off the gloves and closed his eyes, rubbing them with his knuckles and watching the patterns on his eyelids jump in response. It wasn’t much, but at least it was a bit of a break.
The voice made him jump.
“I just wanted to say I was really impressed with how you treated that boy.”
She was beautiful, with eyes like sea foam and a way of carrying herself that just spoke to him on some visceral level, even when she was just standing in his doorway. He knew her beauty wasn’t the sort that would show up in pictorials or on video cassettes, and that he would never be able to convey it with words to tell someone else about it. But that didn’t change what she was, which was beautiful.
He could also tell she was the sort who would be one of his patients, not one of his wife’s friends. His wife would never associate with the dead. She barely accepted what he did for a living.
All these things passed by, fragmented, in the time it took him to draw breath for his reply.
“Thank you.” He extended his hand to her. “Mrs…”
“Julie,” she said. Her eyes locked on his hand but she didn’t take it, and it hit him like a fist.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for a fresh pair of gloves and snapping them over his hands. “I’m very sorry.”
She smiled, shaking his rubber grip with her cooler-than-room-temperature one. “Actually, it was kind of nice. I find it a little annoying that wherever I go people always put at least one layer of latex between themselves and me.” She let go of his hand and their eyes met momentarily, before he shifted his to the door.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” he began, “how exactly did you…”
“Get in?” She laughed, a sound fuller and brighter with life than he had ever heard from Marjorie. “The same way everyone else does. Through the door. With no receptionist out front anyone could walk in, no questions asked. So I did.”
“That’s why I came in, too. Because I saw you had no one working up front and thought you might need help.”
“That’s very kind of you, Julie.” He wanted to run his hand through his hair, but remembered where it had been and stopped. “Unfortunately, federal law forbids…”
“… the undead from holding down interpersonal service jobs. I know. But I’m not asking for a job. I’m offering to volunteer.”
Stockard thought for a moment. There was nothing forbidding volunteers, and he hadn’t been able to find any living people willing to take the job. Not ones he would have trusted, anyway. And she was one of them herself, after all. “Alright. You can start tomorrow. Work begins at sundown and ends at sunrise. If you want I can show you the ropes tonight, but I have an engagement at nine so I’ll have to close up for a few hours.”
“Sure.” She smiled at him. “Thanks.”
There was a couple Stockard wished he had never met. But his wife absolutely adored Gillian Ericsson in that superficial, underlying-cattiness sort of way she had. They shared two of the same stylists, so there was always a little unfriendly friendly rivalry between them when it came to appearance — and most everything else.
David Ericsson was a boor and a bore and Stockard could barely stand his company. He was also a broker, which only made matters worse in Stockard’s eyes. As a doctor, he spent enough time with the underprivileged and the dead to know what sort of havoc the brokers’ financial machinations created. People who were numbers on a spreadsheet for men like David Ericsson walked through Stockard’s door every night, made of very real flesh and bone.
Leaving their coats with the butler, Stockard and Marjorie were greeted in the hallway by Gillian Ericsson. Her hair was cut just below her jawline and dyed an unnatural red, and her black gown tapered to her ankles leaving her barely enough freedom to walk. He could feel Marjorie tense at his side. In her azure dress and tumbling blonde-green hair, she clearly felt one-upped.
They exchanged phantom kisses and faux plastic hugs.
He took her hand — she wore elbow-length gloves, naturally. She always wore gloves to any parties he attended, but had either the decency or the fashion sense for them not to be rubber. “Gillian,” he said.
“You must speak to David tonight. He has some absolutely fabulous information for you.”
Probably another spiel to entice him into the world of ‘proper financial development.’ “Thank you, Gillian. I will. If you’ll excuse me.” He bowed slightly and slipped away to join the rest of the party.
Not that the rest of it was much better. The guest list was, as always, composed entirely of fashionably well-off couples with whom Stockard felt no connection. He only found himself invited to these events because the government paid a handsome salary to anyone willing to run a clinic like his, and because his wife absolutely needed these for their marriage to survive. Although why he wanted it to survive he wasn’t quite sure.
He turned and saw Joviah Tetsch heading for him.
Joviah Tetsch was a record executive and he and his wife had a dead butler, making them, after Stockard, the most liberal of the partygoing regulars. Nobody else would even let the dead into their homes. Somehow, Joviah imagined this made the two of them kindred spirits.
“Stockard Ketter,” he repeated, shaking Stockard’s hand. “How are you?”
“Pretty well. Yourself?”
“Fabulous. Fabulous. So how’s business? You must be making a killing.” That was what these people thought of as ‘zombie humour.’ And everyone made the same jokes every time.
“Well, I sewed a kid’s finger on just before I came here.” Joviah’s rum-red face went a little white, and Stockard suppressed a half-smile. But just like that, the executive was back on his conversational feet.
“That must have been murder.” He laughed and drained his drink.
“How’s business for you?”
Joviah seemed to swell slightly. “Fabulous. Fabulous. We have an album coming out that should be huge, massive, earth-shaking. I’m talking CD, DVD, VCD, minidisc, netcasting — we’re even doing a limited edition vinyl, and there’s talk of a live tour to follow it up.” He tried to drain his drink, realized he already had, and went off in search of the bar. “10:17. Remember that name.”
Stockard decided not to.
Julie was already in the waiting room.
“How did you—”
“Get in?” She smiled. “Trade secret. I picked it up in a past life.” Her smile was faded but beautiful, like an old photograph.
When they closed for lunch she came to the back room to watch him eat his sandwich.
“How was your dinner party?” she asked after a few minutes.
He swallowed a mouthful of tuna salad. “Wretched. I can’t stand any of the people at those things. I only go because of Marjorie, and to be honest I can’t stand her either.”
“Marjorie’s your wife?”
“Yes.” He fiddled with the gold band on his ring finger. It always snagged on his gloves. “She’s not a bad person. We’re just very… different.”
Julie sat on the chair opposite him. “Not many people will marry a doctor,” she said. “Not one who runs a place like this.”
He laughed. “I’m afraid she didn’t know what she was getting into.” He took another bite of his sandwich. “All she knew was how much I was going to make. If she’d realized what my job would actually require… well, she might have thought twice.”
“Do you regret it?”
“What, my job? Or my marriage?”
Stockard thought. “This is the job I have to do. I’m needed, and I can’t turn away from that. As for my marriage.” He stopped. “As for my marriage, I did what I thought was right. Marjorie was beautiful and I thought she’d see things my way. I was wrong. I wish I hadn’t been, but I was.”
“That’s not really an answer.”
He finished his sandwich. “No, it isn’t.”
In a few days it would be too cold for him to retreat to the pool. Marjorie had suggested, when they first bought the house, that he should have a building constructed around the pool so they could use it year round, but Stockard had refused. He didn’t want the pool to be just another part of the house. It was his escape, however partial and brief, and he wouldn’t give it up that easily. So he accepted the limits placed on him by Canadian seasons and restricted himself to using it for less than half the year.
And now, in the waning days of an Indian summer, he found that he was retreating to it more and more often.
Someone once told him that the pool was a tool of regression, a representation of the womb. But Stockard disagreed. The womb was liquid, yes, but it was warm, claustrophobic, filled with the presence of another person. What he liked about the pool was the exact opposite. It was cool, cold really, and empty, an expanse of alienness that reminded him of nothing pertaining to other people.
“You can’t keep going out there like that,” Marjorie said. “It’s too cold and I don’t want you catching one of those awful diseases from the zombies you work with. You might not care about your health but you could at least have the decency to care about mine.”
Stockard shrugged and finished toweling himself off in the doorway. “It’s still warm out,” he said. “I give you my guarantee as a doctor that I won’t get sick.”
Marjorie snorted. “Your guarantee as a doctor? Maybe if you were a real doctor that would mean something.”
He started to say something, then stopped, and she turned on her heel, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
“We’re having a party on Sunday, and I won’t have you ruining it by getting sick.” She stopped at the edge of the hallway. “And don’t forget that we’re playing tennis with Michael and Christina tomorrow at the club.”
One day, two years ago, Michael Rigby had decided to bond with Stockard, and so he told the doctor all about the affair he was having with his secretary. His third, in fact — affair and secretary.
“I love it,” he had said. “No nagging, no whining, no saggy tits and drooping ass. You should see this chick, Stockard. She’s absolutely dynamite. And the best part is there’s no responsibility. I get all the sex I could want and if she gets unhappy, who cares? Just transfer her to another department and she’s out of my hair and I’m into the next one.”
Stockard didn’t know why the ugly bald man had told him this. He didn’t want to know, hadn’t wanted to know about the affair in the first place. He wasn’t disgusted by the affair — who Michael Rigby slept with and when was none of his business — but by the attitude about it. It was so dismissive, demeaning, and callous that he actually avoided the Rigbies for the next five months, even more than the rest of his wife’s circle.
It was a hard court, the surface a not-quite-right green colour. Stockard wasn’t sure of the score, but he knew he was losing — and Marjorie was happy, or at least gave that appearance.
“Coming at you,” Michael Rigby said as he served the ball. Stockard’s return went into the net, and suddenly they were all walking off the court.
“What a marvelous game,” Marjorie enthused. “You two are simply spectacular.” Christina Rigby beamed at the compliment, and her husband snickered a little.
“Good try, Stock,” he said, extending his hand for Stockard to shake. “Can’t win them all.”
“You can,” Marjorie interjected, eliciting laughs.
“We must do this again before fall really starts,” Christina said.
Stockard stuffed his racket into his case and kept his mouth shut to avoid saying something stupid, like “How’s the affair going, Michael?” or “So, Christina, caught your husband cheating on you lately?” He wanted to say something, anything that could smack them across their antiseptic white grins, but he wouldn’t let himself. He couldn’t deal with the repercussions, not right then.
So he gritted his teeth and tossed in a couple of words of nothingness and got back to the car with Marjorie.
“Would it kill you to be social?” she hissed, drawing the seat belt across her shoulder and around her waist.
“Like hell. You hardly said two words the whole game. People are starting to talk, Stockard.”
He turned the key in the ignition. “About what?”
“About us. About ‘trouble in paradise.’ They’re talking about our marriage being shit.”
Their eyes met.
“It is,” he said.
“I know that. Hell, I don’t even care — but we can’t afford to have them talking about it. I can’t afford it. I’m scrambling just to keep us on people’s guest lists.” She stopped to smile and wave at the Rigbies as the car pulled out of the parking lot, then turned back to him. “You may not care about those parties. You’d probably be happy if we were never invited to another one. But I care. You can’t just take my life and ruin it like that!”
“You’re right,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I’ll be good.”
Over the last two nights Julie had transformed the back room of the office into her own room. Essentially what that entailed was a cot she could rest on during the day, some clothes, and two cardboard boxes filled, from what Stockard could tell, with a variety of books. Proust lay next to Austen. Anna Karenina sat on top of Carrie. Cookbooks and home repair manuals mingled together indiscriminately.
“Interesting selection,” he commented, pulling a book out at random. Caring For Your Baby.
“Stupid, mostly,” she said, snatching the book from his hand and putting it back in the box, which she closed. “I guess I can’t let go of the past.”
He nodded. That wasn’t uncommon with the dead, he’d learned, and he thought it was understandable.
“Anything you want to talk about?” he asked.
“No,” she said too quickly. There was a pause, and then she turned to face him. “Maybe some other time. Right now you have patients to deal with.”
It turned out to be a busy night. There’d been some gang violence — the anti-dead attacks of the Southern US and parts of Europe were less common in Ottawa, but growing — and lots of work had to be done.
Most of the victims were men in their late teens and twenties and required minor repairs, but the young and old were mixed in as well. Just as the office was about to close a couple brought in a young girl, probably about ten or eleven.
“What happened?” Stockard asked.
“I don’t know,” the woman replied. “We just found her like this on our steps. She’ll be alright, won’t she?”
Stockard looked at the child. No. “There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “The damage to her head is too extensive. Even if I could bring her back, she wouldn’t be who she was. But there’s nothing I can do for her. I’m sorry.”
If the dead could cry there would have been tears on the woman’s face. Her husband — Stockard noticed the ring he wore — put his hand on her shoulder.
“She’s gone,” he said. “Finally. We should be thankful her ordeal is finally over.”
The woman put her face in her hands and groaned, a sound which spiked the hairs on Stockard’s neck. The grief of the dead always chilled him.
“I’m sorry,” Stockard repeated. “You should… You should take her to the morgue.” They had the facilities to deal with the twice-dead.
She looked up at him, and he felt like her grey eyes could see through their film and into his soul. “She was our daughter,” she explained. “We…it was…in our sleep. All of us. Carbon monoxide. To lose her now, after all of this…” Her husband put his arms around her and led her away while Stockard went to the phone and called for a hearse to take them to the morgue. It was only when he put the receiver down that he wondered where Julie was.
After the long black car took the family away and Stockard closed the office, he found her in her room, curled on the cot. She was facing the wall, which left her back to him. He could see the outline of a shoulder blade pressing against her blouse.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Because if you need to talk, I—”
“Shouldn’t you be going home to your wife?”
“Well, I suppose I should, but if—”
“Get out!” She turned just long enough to hurl a book she had had in her hands at him. He ducked it and it fell limply to the floor. Caring For Your Baby.
The party they hosted was just as bad as any of the parties he hated going to himself. Guests milled about the house interchangeably, in every room on the ground floor and most of the second floor as well. If he hadn’t closed up the pool that morning when he got home from work, they would have surrounded it as well, but that private area of his home, at least, was safe.
The first person to speak to him was Joviah Tetsch, with his artificial garrulousness oozing from every opening.
“Stockard!” he said genially, gripping his forearm. “Fabulous party. Fabulous.”
“Look, Stockard, I want to tell you about a hot new property we’ve got. They’re going to be huge. Massive. Earth-shaking. We’re talking CD, DVD, VCD —”
Stockard let his eyes roam for a moment while he tuned Tetsch out. “That’s great, Joviah, but I have to go take care of something,” he lied. “I’ll track you down and you can finish telling me about it later.”
David Ericsson bumped into him in the hall.
“Stock!” he said too enthusiastically. “I have some excellent tips for you if you want to start up a portfolio with me. Don’t want to wake up dead broke, do you?” Zombie humour.
“No. Tell you what — just let me go take care of something and I’ll be right back.”
Before David could respond, Stockard had slipped into the clutching throng of partygoers. The front door was in another hall and to get there he would have to make it through the dining room and what seemed like an ever-growing mass of bodies. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Michael Rigby with his wife, Christina.
“Stockard. Great game the other day.”
“Thanks. You won, right?”
Michael Rigby bared his teeth in, more or less, a grin. “Yep. So, how’s the zombie business?”
Stockard shrugged. “How’s the mistress?” he responded.
On his way through the dining room a middle-aged man with thinning bleached hair pulled him aside. “Stockard,” he said. “I love what you’ve done with the place. How much did it cost you?”
The man laughed. “I bet. I heard the damnedest thing the other day. You see—”
“Look. I don’t know your name or who you are, and frankly I don’t want to be here. Excuse me.” Stockard left the blonde man standing there with his mouth half-open.
He dodged the rest of the milling guests and slipped out the door and into the driveway. He wasn’t sure quite what he was doing but he knew he was going to have to deal with the results very soon. He also knew that part of him had been planning this for some time, because his car keys were in the pocket of his dress pants, where they had no business being.
The autumn air inside the car was as cool as the air outside, and Stockard decided not to turn the heat on. The cold would keep him focused.
The key to the office was on the same ring as the car keys so he had no trouble letting himself in even though the office was technically closed that night. He still wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, but whatever it was he knew he had to do it here.
The hallway was dark except for a sliver of light at the very end. Julie’s doing, probably a night light or the light in her room slipping through a not-quite-closed doorway. Stockard slipped the keys back into his pocket and, guided by that one shaft of light, made his way to his own room, where he turned on the light and shut the door. No reason to attract would-be patients only to disappoint them.
He busied himself with the forms and folders that required his personal attention. There was always a backlog of those, and this was a chance to make a dent in the pile that took up half of his desk. Maybe if he could have brought some of it home it wouldn’t add up so much, but Marjorie made sure his time at home was kept occupied. Besides, she wouldn’t want him bringing home anything from the office, just in case. So he had to cram it all into the rare down time he had at the office.
After about half an hour there was a knock at his door.
“Stockard?” Julie asked, opening the door.
She settled in the chair across from him. She obviously hadn’t expected him to show up at the office — he hadn’t expected himself to show up at the office — and the red nightgown she wore leant her slightly bluish skin a fascinating hue.
“I thought you were at a party,” she said.
‘I was. I left. I had a… change of heart. Besides, I’m more use here than I could ever be there.”
She smiled. “I hope you didn’t burn all your bridges.”
Her smile was contagious. “Let’s just say I may have raised the price of gasoline single-handedly tonight.”
“Alright then,” she said, getting up. She stopped at the doorway, hesitating.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” she said.
And then the words came out of her in a rush. “I was pregnant when I died. I guess that means I still am, I guess. She would have been a girl. I know that. And beautiful. But my boyfriend didn’t — didn’t like the idea. Of being a father. We had a fight. A big one. And when I woke up I was dead, my baby was dead, and he was gone. I’ve never forgiven him. I’ve never forgotten it. And I’ve never forgiven myself. So that’s… that’s…”
He went to put his hand on her shoulder to console her, not mindful of the bare skin of his palm, and then his hands were around her and she was melting into him, taking both of them to the floor. Her mouth was cooler than Marjorie’s, and he marveled at her taste.
Eventually the motion detectors turned off the lights and they lay together in the dark and silence for what seemed like a lifetime, her cool skin pressing into him.
“You could get sick,” she said, eventually.
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. He knew the chances were better that he would than that he wouldn’t, but worry couldn’t change the odds.
Another lifetime went by.
“You’re still married.”
“In name only. She’d never take me back even if I wanted her to. Not now.”
“So now what?”
“Now I sleep, and you let me hold you.”
The fighter I worked for, or on as one would work on a race car, hit the mat with the full force of his six hundred and twenty pounds spread over the yard-wide girth of his shoulders. From the ringside med pit, I was close enough to stretch out my arm and touch the knobbed ridge of his bald head, an honor any one of the thousands of fans of “The Wall” would murder each other for — or at least try to, I corrected myself, since it was now so difficult to kill a person without access to some really serious equipment. But I derived no thrill from the visceral display of power. My work had always been my sole passion, and now The Wall was my work.
In the three heartbeats he was down, I made the mistake of looking across the still-vibrating octagon of the mat, past the triple row of fat steel bars bounding the opposite side of the ring, into the faces of those fans. Wide-eyed, lips peeled back in adrenal fury, they screamed at the fighters. Whether they screamed with enthusiasm or anger, cheered or booed no longer mattered; only their excitement did, and the fight was not their only source of stimulation. A gaunt man in the front row pawed at the iridescent stud of the autoinjector mech that hugged his arm and his eyes widened at the rush. Again and again I picked out from the churning movement all around him the glint of syringes, the white dust caking nostrils, the glowing tips of genered cigars, my mind involuntarily compiling a checklist of self-inflicted injuries. People had always traded on their health to get what they desired. Now they had virtually unlimited credit. For a small price, toxins would be neutralized, damage repaired, cancers reversed. But sickness was still with us. I’d taken to wearing nose filters to protect myself from the acrid fog of their collective exhalations. There was no filter for the disgust these people induced in me. There never had been, even when I could help them.
I was grateful when The Wall’s hulking body rose to block my view, bringing me back to the present, to where I could still make a difference. Calm returned when I focused on the engineered network of knotted muscles dimpling his back as he hauled himself to his feet just in time to deflect a second charge from his opponent, Tiger Evans, a smaller fighter famous for his ferocity. Mid-leap, the Tiger flashed a canine-enhanced snarl for the crowd, his face framed by spiked, orange sideburns — all cosmetic, I noted. He probably had the standard package of muscle and bone density boosters, maybe some metabolic enhancement, nothing like what I’d done for The Wall. This time The Wall took the two-footed kick directly in the ribs, but managed to connect with a powerful punch to the kidney that took some of the fury out of the Tiger. I was sure that some of The Wall’s ribs were broken, and judging from the blood he kept spitting out, one of them had punctured a lung. The hemostatics must have cut in, though, because it didn’t seem to bother him. Nothing to worry about, but I might up the elastins in the bones.
The Fight. I’d been in medical school when this new form of sportainment burst out of the underground and hit the mass media networks. I was shocked when it was legalized but soon realized it didn’t matter anymore. The old rules of extreme boxing and wrestling, the parents of the Fight, had been designed to protect the contestants. Now that any damage short of death could be repaired flawlessly, there was no reason not to let them rip pieces off each other. So they did.
The Tiger had gone back to the running double kicks that were his trademark move. Finally, The Wall tired of playing with the guy and on the next pass he grabbed him by the ankles. He yanked upward, pulling the man high into the air, then spun on his heels and slammed the now limp body to the mat, both legs twisted, the bones snapped, useless. The Tiger could not rise and the match was abruptly over.
The constant growling rumble from the banks of seats lining the parabolic walls of the arena rose to a crescendo at this, their voices transmuted by the vast stadium dome far above and cast back in baleful overtones.
The Wall was able to leave the ring on his feet tonight. As he made his way over the bars, I watched the spidery mechs rush into the ring to attend to the loser on the mat. Several wrapped themselves around his legs, becoming immobilizing braces; another injected a general anesthetic into the jugular vein. A larger model lifted him like a doll in four of its ten metallic legs and carried him into his med pit. I didn’t see any people on his med team. Apparently Mr. Evans couldn’t afford it. The crowd was still roaring as I backed away from the spectacle and followed The Wall down the ramp to our ready room below the arena.
The Wall barely fit through the doorway. He’d been a big guy to start with, but I’d added a couple hundred more pounds of muscle and bone, not to mention the vascular and neural infrastructures to support them. His glistening upper arm was nearly a foot thick. He climbed onto the body scanner and the screen showed that he’d sustained more damage than I’d thought. He had a ruptured spleen and one of the broken ribs had torn up the bottom of his left lung, spilling blood into the plural cavity. I got to work.
The medical arts of the day had been refined — some would say reduced — to the manipulation of specialized interfaces of the various incarnations of mechs. Much of the advancement was due to nanobots, billions of microscopic drones that flow over and infiltrate the patient, disassembling and reassembling cells and tissues, weaving artificial structures when necessary. They’d put most doctors out of business and made those that remained technicians skilled in guiding the machines. At the dawn of the nanotech age, it was said that everything would eventually be reduced to a programming job. I didn’t know if that was true of everything, but I knew it was true of medicine. I was a good med programmer.
With the serious internal injuries under control, I left the automatics to clean up the details. I turned and saw Mr. Wlozek, The Wall’s manager, come in through the back door and switch on the wall viewer to follow the events in the arena. He was a squat, fat man who always seemed to be leaning backward to balance his gut. The combination of the hanging jowls and waxy complexion reminded me of a cheap rubber mask.
“Hey, Tony”, he said in his thick, phlegmy voice and high-fived me. I raised a hand in acknowledgment and he turned to the fighter. “You’re on your way now, boy,” he told him, but The Wall was still groggy from the anesthesia.
The Wall was getting brazen after a series of wins. I could see that he wasn’t that good a fighter, he just pushed himself farther because he knew I was there to fix him up again. I was glad to get the work, though, so I kept my opinions to myself. Besides, it was obvious Wlozek knew it too.
Once I’d been Dr. Antonio Corillo, rising surgical program specialist. Now I was Tony, the meat mechanic. All I’d ever wanted to do was heal people. I’d always thought I had what they used to refer to as a calling for the job. It was in me. I’d been good too — graduated at the top of my class and got my first choice med center. Of course it was about then that the medical profession began to see its own demise. Most doctors thought the mechs were displacing them and rendering medicine itself meaningless. I saw it differently. If the mechs could handle the bulk of the work, that only freed doctors to conquer more difficult cases. I’d worked with the mechs and had been on my way to becoming one of the top medical programmers in the hospital. I’d been respected. But I wasn’t in the hospital any more. I missed it. Wlozek appreciated my abilities, but not in the way I wanted.
“You know there was a time he would have died of these injuries,” I said, lifting my eyes from the viewport on the body scanner.
The manager threw his hands up and grimaced, obviously tired of hearing it. “Yeah. Yeah. There was a time you couldn’t pick up a phone and call China and you’d have to listen to all your music live because there wasn’t none recorded. But not no more. When you gonna stop harping on the sacredness of the human body? That’s all gone now. I can chop my fuckin’ arm off and some dumb mech can stick it back on like new before dinner time, none the worse. When you gonna see that, Tony?”
Regretting that I’d pushed Wlozek’s button, I decided to keep silent. I studied the readout on the mech interface and sighed heavily.
But Wlozek didn’t let up. He had two passions, making sure no one thought they were any better than he was and making money off the fact. “Look, I know you’re good with the machines. Real good. If you weren’t, I wouldn’t be paying you so well. But you can’t go back to what you used to do. You took care of that.”
“That’s enough!” I yelled. We’d played this game before and I knew that the quicker I let him get a rise out of me the quicker it was over.
“I thought it might be,” Wlozek muttered. As he turned away, he betrayed the slightest hint of a cruel, triumphant smile. He was not an educated man, at least not in the sense that I was, and he took every chance to put me in my place.
He was right, though. I had taken care of that. I’d been on call in the ER for a day and a night. There’d been almost nothing to do — most of the hospital’s customers got patched up by the general service mechs without ever seeing a physician. From time to time I glanced up from my research journals to check operations on the monitors. At one point I recognized a name, a man who’d been treated many times for lung damage caused by chronic abuse of cheap inhalants. But that time the frustration got to me and I punched the button that overrode the medibot’s diagnosis and sent the patient to me.
When the chair wheeled him into my exam room, the man was red-faced and gasping for air. He looked desperate, and for that moment I was glad to see it. That one pathetic individual represented all the losers that had squandered the gift of perfect health. The more we could repair, the more they were willing to destroy. I’d asked that man what he thought would happen if no one came to his rescue, and then I just sat there and watched him panic. I’d only let it go on for a minute, just to teach the man a lesson before letting the mechs fix him up. But he had filed a big, messy complaint. The hospital’s owners had sided with him — apparently they regarded the man as a good customer. They’d labeled me “psychologically unfit” and stripped me of my medical license as a warning to others. I could never work as a legitimate physician again.
On the screen, there was a brief hiatus in the entertainment. The relative quiet was shattered by a flash concussion that blew the doors off an oversized entry. An enormous man carrying a crescent axe stepped out of the smoke, a black hood covering his face. The emcee, now standing in a spotlight in the middle of the ring, pointed to him. “And now,” he proclaimed, pausing every few syllables for the echoes to die, “making a special appearance tonight…none other than…the Headsman!”
A grinding bass chord thrummed ominously as clips from The Headsman’s now famous fight were holographically displayed four times actual size in the smoke-filled space above the ring.
The Wall had come to enough to hear the emcee and struggled up from the operating rig to see The Headsman, the surgical spiders whining in protest. “Shit! What I miss?” He smacked me aside with an open hand, propelling me backward against a metal locker. “Sorry,” he said distractedly, eyes fixed on the screen. He could crush an arm with that hand without noticing it.
I rubbed at the back of my head and said, “It’s okay, no harm done.” But The Wall didn’t hear me. He was enthralled by The Headsman.
A new trick had appeared in the arena. Some fighters were having the bones and tissue in their arms tailored so they would break away leaving sharp, serrated blades. The amputation was repaired after the contest. Because they were natural bone and the fighter had to lose a hand and much of the arm tissue before it could be used, the mod had skirted the rules against nonsomatic weaponry — so far. I’m all for innovation. It’s the use they put it to that bothered me. The champion of this technique had taken to killing his opponents by beheading them, a practice that had rocketed him to the top of the popularity charts and earned him his gruesome sobriquet. In its increasing remoteness, death had become a novelty.
The hologram showed a seemingly well-matched fight grow progressively bloodier. With his right hand already crushed and useless, The Headsman let out an animal scream, probably meant to trigger a massive endorphin release, and yanked back on the hand. The tissue over the arm split and pulled off the modified bone like a sheath from a glistening white sword. Enraged, he charged, swinging the blade. His opponent tried to block but instead lost the upheld hand at the wrist. He could have surrendered by dropping to the mat or by yelling a signal, but he charged right back. The next segment was shown in graphic stroboscopic stills of the actual decapitation.
The holo vanished revealing The Headsman in a display stance in the center of the ring.
“You’ve all seen it,” the emcee exclaimed, continuing the promo. “Now The Headsman is asking for a new challenger. Is there anyone who dares to meet him in the ring?”
The three of us had watched silently as these events unfolded. Finally it was The Wall that broke the spell. “I want to fight him,” he said, his deep bass voice rumbling in his cavernous chest.
Wlozek screwed up his rubbery face. “You don’t need that. Don’t you see that no serious fighters go up against him? They just throw him meat for the kill. You want to get torn up, just for some cheap publicity?”
“No. You don’t understand.” The Wall turned ponderously to face Wlozek. “I want to beat him. Someone’s got to take him down. I want it to be me.”
“The only way you’ll ever beat that guy is to survive having your head cut off. You think you can do that?” Wlozek said as though talking to a child.
In lieu of words, The Wall now looked at me, his small eyes dark under his reinforced brow.
“You’re crazy!” I told him. “The head can’t survive without the body. The brain would die in seconds of oxygen starvation. The drop in blood pressure alone would cause irreparable damage. It’s impossible! Unless…”
I left without saying another word. Yes, I was a meat mechanic. But at least there was still some room for innovation.
By morning, I’d convinced myself that it could be done and had the code to prove it on a wafer in my pocket. When I spilled the plan, Wlozek was delighted, and this raised a red flag in the back of my mind. He’d sell out The Wall, me, and his own soul for a good profit margin. What was I doing? I glowered at him and told him the decision was between The Wall and me. He just grinned like he already knew. He probably did.
As The Wall listened to me, I explained the implants I’d be installing in his body as best I could, emphasizing the fact that the procedures could not be tested, that he could die. As quick as they were in the ring, large fighters often came across as slow-witted, but I knew better. He said he didn’t care as long as he had a chance to beat The Headsman, and I believed him. He was right. I too wanted to stop the killing, and this was how to do it. Strange that it had taken The Wall to show me the way.
The realization that I’d be starting the procedure that night brought a spike of excitement that made me think again. I remembered Wlozek’s condescending grin and wondered, just for a moment, how much my own desire to work was driving my decision. The Wall caught my hesitation and told me he’d fight The Headsman without my help. So that was that. At least this way he’d have a chance. Wlozek logged the challenge and acceptance came back a minute later.
One of the advantages of modern medicine was the ability to disassemble bacteria — I could operate in a sewer if I wanted, which was good because the rented med pit wasn’t much cleaner. The read-out on the oversized support rig showed that The Wall was unconscious. I ran the program.
The larger instrument arms of the medibots danced over the fighter’s head and neck like a gang of giant, chrome-footed spiders, while the surging mass of microbots infiltrated the incisions that ringed his thick neck and dissociated into nanobots. I watched through the night as the elaborate safeguards were installed in the subtly expanded cranium, from time to time intervening to tweak the process. For the first time since leaving the med center, I felt the satisfaction that came from applying my talents fully.
Two days later I set up the extra equipment in the med pit and took my place next to the ring to watch the inevitable unfold.
The Headsman’s challenge match had packed the arena to capacity. Once the usual theatrics were played out, the fighters took their places and waited for the truck-horn blare of the starting signal.
Right from the beginning, The Wall was the aggressor, charging The Headsman and knocking him to the mat in the first seconds of the bout. He held nothing back. The Headsman threw him off and attacked with nearly equal ferocity, but I could see that he was caught off guard by the initial intensity of the attack. There was no testing of the opponent, no gradual building of conflict. If nothing else it was poor showmanship.
The Headsman quickly adjusted to the pace, though, and the two exchanged brutal blows for longer than I thought either of them could take it. The heavy bars vibrated audibly as the bodies of the fighters rebounded from the sides of the ring. Both grew bloodier, but The Wall alone did not seem to tire or flinch from his injuries.
The Headsman, now betraying a limp, gauged the crowd for the right moment and precisely smashed his own arm against a corner pillar to start the main break. The Wall saw him do this and stood back, pretending to rest but really giving him a chance to complete the maneuver. The Headsman grabbed his limp and useless hand with the other, bent it back against the forearm, and bit through the skin and muscle to sever it. I noticed with professional admiration that whoever had worked on him had the foresight to provide scissoring canines for the job. At the sight of the glistening blade, finally free, a calm born of deep resolve came over The Wall. He leapt directly at The Headsman, seemingly to deliver a full body slam to his already gory opponent, in reality running into the arms of death, if only temporarily.
The Headsman caught him and spun him away. In a practiced move he thrust the serrated bone edge deeply into The Wall’s throat, continuing the cut circumferentially. The Headsman pulled with all the gargantuan strength in his intact arm. I wondered if anyone would notice that there wasn’t nearly enough blood spurting from the wound. With an audible pop, the modified vertebrae and tissue separated as designed, I hoped not too easily. He let the head roll free into the middle of the ring and began his victory parade around it, holding his crimson stub high.
Wlozek pulled the referee aside to speak to him and the startled man stretched his hands over his head and waved the crowd to relative quiet. He announced that The Wall’s team had not admitted defeat, but had called a medical time-out. A rumble of disbelief washed up from the stands. The Headsman laughed and retreated to his own med pit.
Being severed from the body had triggered a series of protective processes in the head. All blood vessels had sealed over immediately and constricted to maintain blood pressure. Valves had closed to retain spinal fluid. Throughout the brain, tiny chemical scrubbers started absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen while embedded heat pumps cooled the head to near freezing, an expedient that thankfully removed any chance of The Wall remaining conscious.
The blood-gas scrubbers were only good for about three minutes, so I scooped up the head as quickly as I could and got it to the support table below. The artificial blood lines snaked out and socketed themselves into the ports I’d installed on the major veins and arteries, and within ninety seconds the readout showed the applicable vitals near normal. The body had been brought in and hooked to its own support unit. Mechs swarmed over both gaping wounds like silver army ants.
Up top, forty-five minutes had passed and the referee was asking for an admission of defeat. Wlozek asked for another five and was told that was all we’d get. It was enough. The brain temperature was rising toward normal. When The Wall’s eyes blinked open, there was no fear, no relief at cheating death, not even gratitude for his doctor, just the triumph of what he knew had just happened. He stood, unsteady for only a moment, then walked forward in determined, firmly planted strides.
The Headsman was still in his pit, the arm not finished yet — no one had thought he would need it again that night. When he heard the ref call to him, asking if each team was ready for another round, he shook the mechs and attendants off of his arm and emerged, only to find The Wall glowering at him from the center of the ring, a pink seam of patched flesh girdling his neck. The Headsman stared dumbfounded and staggered backward into his med pit. The ref conferred briefly with the Headsman’s manager and announced The Wall the winner. The crowd was frenzied.
Back in our rooms, Wlozek was ecstatic, pounding me on the back in congratulations for what I had done. The Wall would be the new star now. He’d come back from the dead — right in front of their eyes. But then the manager asked, “So how long before he can do it again?”
“Again?” I asked incredulously, looking up at the man as if he were mad.
“Of course,” he said and laughed at my naivete. “Look, what you did was great, and it’ll hold the public for a while, but the challengers will come. They’ll have to. And we want them to. That’s how we make it big, ya see. When the take starts to drop, that’s when we let someone try to kill him again. Besides, others will try the same trick now that they’ve seen it. You’ll have to come up with something better.”
“Better than surviving decapitation?” But I saw in his eyes that it was useless to argue. This was nothing but a trick to him. My work here was finished.
An hour into the victory celebration, Wlozek dodged through the throng of well-wishers and handed me a slip of paper. He frowned at the look on my face, pointed to the paper, winked, and returned to the party. It was a printout of my cut of the receipts; the money had already been credited to my account.
I glanced at the figure, turned over the slip, and wrote my resignation on the back. On my way out I stuffed it into Wlozek’s front jacket pocket.
I wandered up and down the west coast of the North American Alliance. The money was enough to live on for over a year and I extended it by finding work where I could. I tried my hand at various non-medical jobs, mostly programming industrial mechs, but nothing had worked out. My skills were more than adequate, but my apathy always won out in the end and I either left or was fired.
I couldn’t go back to the Fight world; my touch had poisoned it. Right after I was booted out of legit medicine it looked like a godsend: a way to keep working and an opportunity to make a dangerous sport safer. Looking back now, I saw that everything I’d done had just engendered more of the self-destructiveness that had repelled me to begin with. And yet I still felt the calling. I couldn’t rule out medical work. Maybe someday I’d find a way to heal people again.
I’d read that there used to be a vow physicians took. The first principle was to do no harm. I could see why it had been dropped. We sought to ease pain. But without pain, what is there to keep us from harming ourselves?
I drove south and soon found myself heading into Baja California. The beaches that rimmed the undulating coast gradually gave way to mountains and coves, dotted with resort towns. The road wound through a pass, emerging close by the sparkling ocean. A Latino boy was frantically waving down every car that passed. I pulled over and he grabbed at my window as it lowered, shouting something about taking someone to the hospital in town.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“He’s hurt! Miguel, he hurt his neck! There!” he shouted breathlessly, pointing to a group of boys huddled near the crashing waves at the base of a rocky hillside.
I parked and got out, instinctively grabbing my back-pack. The boy pulled me by the arm, yelling, “Come quick. He does not breath.” I started to run across the hot sand, my shoes weighing me down so I moved as if in a dream.
When I got there I saw that most of them were older than the child who’d stopped me. Then I realized that they were cliff divers. I told them I was a doctor and they all stepped back from a young man lying in the sand. It was immediately obvious that his neck was broken, badly. It happens if you hit the water wrong.
All they had was a standard first-aid mech, inadequate for this type of injury. It had unfurled itself and was bent over the prone man, weaving an immobilizing armature between his head and shoulders, but that would do no good if the spinal cord was crushed. Only a single probe had been inserted into his neck. I had to break the packing seal on the interface panel — they’d never even used it before. The readout verified my diagnosis and showed that the unit was struggling to stabilize him, and losing. I hurriedly got a data wafer out of my pack, jacked it into the memory port on the unit, and downloaded my routine library.
Rather than wait for the unit to decide what to do, I entered commands manually. New probes plunged into the awkward lump in the man’s neck. He went into cardiac arrest, and I set up a temporary pacemaker. While the injected nanobots rebuilt bone and spliced thousands of broken nerves, the reprogrammed armature maneuvered the displaced cervical vertebrae back into place. I relaxed as I saw he would make it. There wouldn’t even be any paralysis. As I breathed in the fishy tang from the crashing surf, I purposefully did not think of what would have happened if I’d just driven on.
They all cheered when Miguel sat up, and I welcomed an old rush of satisfaction. They said they could use a doc but couldn’t pay much. I told them about the license problem; they just shrugged it off. As they stood there waiting, hopefully, needfully, I both feared and longed to practice my art again.
Without committing, I told them I didn’t have a place to stay. They offered a small cabana right on the beach; nothing to do but be there, just in case. I was tired of being on the move. And the money was getting low. These were the rational reasons that covered the real one: I needed to do this. But still no conscious decision would come.
A long breath later, the answer just came out. I took the offer, but as I unlocked the door to the cabana, I looked up at the glistening brown bodies that waited their turn on the diving platform built high on the rock wall and saw how much higher the cliff rose above them. The word that there was a real doctor here again would already be spreading, untying the bonds of caution.
From the earliest days of childhood, the boy dreamed of buoyancy, of floating through water supported by water, of floating through the air supported by the air, of floating through space supported by space. He shared his dreams with his sister. She was a year older, but willing to follow him. Feathers in their hands, they jumped from the roof together, learning how to fly.
“You’ll get hurt,” said their older brother.
They weren’t hurt, but they didn’t fly, either.
The boy dreamed of galaxies and jellyfish. He liked to lie on his back in the night grass and listen for the music of the stars. Sometimes his sister lay on her back beside him. They never heard anything but the sounds of earthly night: crickets, wind in the trees, the clatter of kitchen sounds inside the houses. Still, he said he was sure of the music. Someday he would hear it.
When the older brother grew up, he let life take him up. He married, fathered children, and worked hard.
When the sister grew up, she let life take her up. She married, bore children, and was a mother to them.
When the boy grew up, well, there was some doubt that he ever grew up at all. He went to school for a while. He worked or a while. He had lovers for a while. He was a man now, but he did not become a husband or a father. Mostly, he traveled the world. He told his sister that he still had those dreams of buoyancy, still dreamed of galaxies and jellyfish that were both aglow with the same jeweled light.
He lived for a time in Nepal, in Mexico, in Italy. He had friends in San Francisco and Key West, in Boulder and Madison.
“Why doesn’t he make something of himself?”growled the older brother.
“He is,” said the sister.
“What?” said the brother. “What is he making of himself?”
But the sister had no words for it.
The man who dreamed of buoyancy learned to meditate. He ate mushrooms that taught him how to cast his soul out of his body like a fishing lure on a silver line. He visited his sister and her family. He made his nephews and nieces laugh with his stories of their mother up on grandma’s roof, feathers in her hands, almost flying.
“Don’t tell them that!” the sister said.
“You don’t want your own children to learn how to fly?”
The man visited his older brother’s family, too. The older brother called the sister afterwards. “What’s he going to do in his old age? Does he think we’ll support him?”
“You would refuse?” said the sister.
“That’s not the point.”
The man traveled. He lived for a time in Thailand, Australia, Ecuador, and Spain. He stayed with friends in New Orleans, in Taos, and in Boston. He wrote postcards to his sister. He ate pills that taught him how to see farther than the strongest telescopes. He put drops on his tongue that let him hear the songs of dolphins in the ocean deep.
He called her late at night from a city not far from where she lived. He said, “You used to lie in the grass with me,listening to the night sky.”
She said, “I remember.”
He said, “Help me. I need your help.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “I can’t drive a car with my hands like this.”
She came to the place he named. The skin of his hands was gray and spotted. His fingers had grown together. He said, “We have to hurry.”
She drove him many miles that night, toward the lowering moon, all the way to the sea. He would not answer her questions, but only recounted their childhood together, the way she had taken up his dreams as if they were her own.
His legs seemed to be joined at the knees. She helped him out of the car and he leaned heavily against her as they crossed the wide beach. Near the water’s edge, he fell forward and inched his way along. The dorsal fin ripped his shirt as it grew. His sister felt his desperation for the water, and she pulled him forward by one flipper. Breath puffed out of his blowhole. The sand must be rough against his belly, his sister thought,but then he was far enough for a wave to lift him, and he was free.
Free, his sister thought, looking out over the waves.
His new life had come so suddenly, she had not even said goodbye.
She saw the arch of his fin in the moonlight. She could see his body undulate. He splashed once with his tail and was gone.
His sister stood still for a long time, then mimicked the way he had moved. A wave went from her shoulders, down her spine.
She couldn’t follow him. Even so, she stayed there, watching the moon set over the waves, practicing.
The sister called the older brother. She said, “He’s gone.”
The older brother cried, and he said, “Well, what could we expect after the sort of life he lived?” Later, he told his children that their uncle had died. Much, much later, when the children were almost grown, he cautioned them to choose carefully the lives they would live.
The sister told her children that their uncle had become a dolphin. Much, much later, when the children were almost grown, she told them that by now their uncle might be a celestial body. She led them outside on a summer night. She lay on her back in the damp grass, and her children lay beside her. Together, they listened to the stars.
Bruce Holland Rogers joins us in October as Featured Author. Dick Trezza and Jamie Rosen take a slightly different look at Death while Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” is presented in two parts.
Mikal Trimm brings us a little recommended Halloween reading.
Hope you enjoy this month’s issue