It’s the cusp of summer, and for this quarter’s Ideomancer we’re pleased to bring you a matched, lingering pair of contemporary pieces.
Michael J. DeLuca’s “Virtual Goods” builds a quiet statement, among the post-industrial ruins of a Ukraine town, on goals, hope, and the ultimate value of art; beside it, Drew Rhys White’s “Always Forever Now” meditates on Christianity, polyamory, and sacrifice; the future, the present, and the past.
Our poetry this month, from Virginia M. Mohlere, Sara Saab, A. J. Odasso, Dominik Parisien, and Lynette Mejía, ties them together with flourishes on memory, identity, family, and a sweet spring-summer wind. And as always, our book reviewers bring us their thoughts on two of this summer’s new releases.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Enjoy the issue, have a wonderful summer, and we’ll see you when the autumn comes in.
Vol. 13 Issue 2
“Virtual Goods” – Michael J. DeLuca
“Always Forever Now” – Drew Rhys White
“Cardyssey” – Virginia M. Mohlere
“Inheritance, Far from the Center of the World” – Sara Saab
“The Memory-Thief” – Adrienne J. Odasso and Dominik Parisien
“Princess” – Lynette Mejía
Will McIntosh’s Defenders – Liz Bourke
Jo Walton’s My Real Children – Claire Humphrey
Sometimes, when I’m charitable enough to forget her, I allow myself to think the photograph itself devoured them. You know the one. A staple of those unkillable email forwards of the nineties, it depicts a stretch of train track picturesquely overgrown with hedge, an arched cathedral vault of new spring foliage awaiting the absent train, light and color enhanced to hyperreality. Just past the frame, that hedge peters out between an abandoned salt refinery and the bar occupying the former station house where those few of my friends who remain, the young unemployed of Reza-Korova not yet fled to Volgograd or Sevastopol, not yet devoured, drink and wait. The photographer, whoever she was, whatever, framed it that way deliberately. Why shouldn’t she? The soft focus seems to sharpen with distance, and we’re shown a verdant passage to another world, irresistibly inviting.
A benign virus propagating through the embattled but persistent human appreciation for beauty (not so benign), that photograph has caused a tiny, steady influx of shallow dreamers to Reza-Korova, our industrial pseudo-ghost town in Eastern Ukraine. Most, perhaps, delete the email without looking. One in millions, wandering east bored by holidays in the Crimea, tries to discover the train route through that green tunnel to the imagined Eden, and finding none, undaunted, continues by bus or by freighter up the Volga. From our vantage on the graffitoed station platform before the bar opens at eleven a.m. on a Thursday, we see them coming along the road, fooling no one in their backpacks sewn with Canadian flags, sticking out like a liter of Tennessee whiskey among plastic vodka bottles heaped in the bin.
They stop in at the bar, disillusioned, disappointed, though not yet destroyed. The hedge has grown huge, the passage narrow. Branches claw at skin and clothes. Those intervals of holy light are to be seen now only when the branches are bare, the colors drab, rust the most vibrant among them. The tunnel more resembles what it is: a passage to nowhere, to the shadowlands.
“How do you like it?” one of us asks through the cigarette haze, sniggering — me. “Not the same as in the picture, is it? Still worth the trip?”
“Oh, yes,” they answer. “It’s still beautiful.” They go on about the Volga, the forests. Trying to convince themselves the journey was worth it, trying not to offend, when we and they know it wasn’t, they could have had these hills and trees and empty factories where they came from. Maybe they try to match us drinking: a mistake.
Except for Alyonushka. She was the shrewdest of them, the strangest. She wouldn’t let it go at that. “Nothing fulfills expectation. That’s not how expectation works or what it’s for. I’m a different person than I was when I first saw that image and wanted to come here. When I finally got the chance, it was for different reasons. Not escape. Or not the same kind of escape. I know what’s real now.”
Alyonushka was different. She was blonder, paler: a true Siberian beauty, though older than any of us, with pock scars on her cheeks that, so quietly stoic she seemed, after five or seven shots made me think they’d been etched there by boreal winds. No flag on her backpack. Not even a backpack, just a shoulder bag, enough for a change of clothes, makeup, a toothbrush, a netbook. Her shoes were low-ankled leather hiking boots, a Scandinavian brand, the sewn-in soles scuffed to ruin. Alyonushka was no tourist. I never knew what she was.
Over drink, my friends and I had on occasion talked idly of searching out an abandoned freight car (in the region there are many, though also a great deal of space, which makes nothing trivial to find). Descending on it in a swarm with oil and wrenches, a team of horses, perhaps a few score bicycle drive assemblies, we’d get it back onto those rails and moving through the green tunnel, the branches scraping at it, appending streaked green stains to the graffiti on its sides. We speculated as to the conflict it would spur in those existentialists and wasteful dreamers when it passed the windows of the bar.
Until then, we’d discussed this only among ourselves.
“But this is wonderful!” said Alyonushka. “What a great joke it would be.”
She could outdrink us. Pale Polish lagers, vodka, Romanian tzuika: while we grew warm and uncareful, she might have been made of ice.
“I want to ride the green tunnel,” she said, “the gray tunnel, whatever you want to call what it is now, what it really is. From the south, where the photograph was taken, north into Korova, to emerge through the archway of the trees and see…that.” She angled her chin on her long neck, like any one of us might after so much vodka, too lazy to raise a hand, especially to that thing, the abandoned refinery with its rust, its lofty spires, impregnable because barren. She made the gesture more graceful than we would have. “Why haven’t you done it?”
None of us were engineers or knew about trains or even bicycles. Only one, Catalin, considered himself an artist. He’d made himself the strongest advocate of our collective fantasy. He also drank more than the rest. But even he contributed to society, collecting scrap metal from old work sites to recycle, keeping the finest pieces to twist together into jagged, treelike abstractions no one bought, but at least they broke the landscape’s monotony. We all did what we could. The lazy, the shiftless, the content, they could drink at some other table.
“We were waiting for you,” said Catalin.
Razvan, our still gainfully employed journalist friend who’s always traveling but happened to be present, likened our discussion to the statue of a fantastical crimefighting cyborg the tactless escapists of Detroit, Michigan — a ruined ghost town like our own we knew of through the internet, in a sort of conceptual inversion of the tunnel — wanted to erect in the face of that city’s victims and sufferers.
“That’s cynical,” said Catalin. He felt for the wandering poets, the poetesses in particular. Catalin cut a romantic figure, the post-proletarian hero. He did well, even with Alyonushka. Her gaze gave him confidence. “Utility isn’t everything,” he said. “Beauty has its place. It’s needed. Even if we all got together with sledgehammers and bashed that thing” — the refinery — “to dust, we couldn’t till the land it stood on. Nothing would grow. The trains stopped because nobody rode them.”
Such talk tempted some of us — me — to despise him. The world got the way it is because too many preferred to spend real hours consuming real resources in order to produce virtual goods. Beauty, to some, is a virtual good. We get enough of it from media: breathtaking women we all wonder why we’re not sleeping with, dystopian vistas, spaceships hovering over cities, south sea sunsets. It’s all at our fingertips. What good does it do us?
Some people — like Razvan — must travel to live, perhaps from an irresistible urge to experience everything and be a part of nothing. And some must remain rooted, enervated, perhaps, by fear of change. Razvan never understood how we could live with that. On that occasion he pretended to.
It was something to do with Alyonushka. Because she was beautiful in her scars. Because she was a stranger, the first stranger willing to engage and disagree with us we’d ever met in Reza-Korova.
So we listened to Catalin, because she was listening to him, and we decided it would be all right to do this thing, even if it was cynical, even cruel. Because like Alyonushka — who’d come all the way from Irkutsk or wherever not because of what the tunnel had meant to her as a girl, a magical scene she’d chosen for her desktop background on the first computer she ever owned, a promise of the world’s wonders yet unseen, but because of how its meaning changed as the world changed, she got older, and that same email forward kept cycling around to her, perpetually new, full of illusory vibrance and light — because like her, we appreciated the irony.
She stayed. That helped win us too. Of all the inveterate, crestfallen wanderers we’d met on the station house stoop and begged cigarettes from, she was the only one who didn’t shoulder her bag the next morning or even the same afternoon, climb into her salt-eroded rented red Citroën and go.
Despite what we did for her, I don’t know why she didn’t.
“When’s the last time you walked through it?” she said, showing up at the bar late next morning with Catalin in tow. We hadn’t, any of us, in years. Some weren’t about to. But I went, I and three or four others who weren’t already too far along though the place had only been open an hour, who didn’t have real, productive things to do outside that forgetful den, pumping gas, chopping wood, trying to teach themselves some trade other than the ghostly ones.
There was nothing magical about it. The hedge was thick, but not so thick you couldn’t see the rows of squat, low houses, the frost-eaten pavements, the gray hills. Old bits of wrapper and bottles half-buried in gravel, branches fallen, branches clawing at you, that perfect arching shape to the growth lost now there were no trains keeping it in check. If you walked far enough, the tracks took you into the forest, out to the river, but you had to walk for hours. Maybe they did. I gave up after a hundred metres, at the pathetic little heap of mementoes that marked where the photo had been taken. She’d made her point. It was bleak, too bleak, and I remembered why I preferred to take the roads. Rare beauty makes common ugliness worse.
She started making trips around the countryside, first with Catalin, then whoever was willing and knew how to drive, looking for abandoned freight cars. Her luck was amazing. By the end of the week, she’d found five within three hours’ travel and narrowed those to two. I asked how she’d done it. “The internet,” she said. She showed us her pictures, filtered like the original to look sun-bright and glowing, rust and graffiti color-shifted into blue and green.
She wanted them to see it. The dreamers. As many as she could convince.
Catalin was beside himself, sketching constantly, making notes he wouldn’t let anyone see. But his fingers always smelled of vodka now instead of ink, maybe to cover up the scent of something else. “Art,” he told me, “Is a tangible good. It lasts forever, it ought to. It gives us someplace to go, something to think about besides what we fail at.”
By then Razvan was gone again. I kept in touch. Great art is a tangible good, he said. Terrible art is a necessary evil, necessary because without it there would be no great art. But there’s no equation saying how much bad art is enough. If nobody made anything but art, the world would go to shit. It has. Then later: Artist communities, and links to several anonymous discussion boards sharing photos of illegal street art wherein the sides of train cars featured prominently. Right at the top was one of Alyonushka’s.
She chose the less beautiful of the two finalists, the one on a track still connected to something. Horses were too difficult, too expensive, too fragile. Pedal power was a nice idea, but too complicated. None of us had actually acquired any practicable skills for all our occasional valiant efforts at self-betterment. This was no one’s fault. Everyone who might have taught us was gone, old or dead. She came to a simple solution. Two adults could push a car in neutral a long way up a gentle slope. Danny and Alyonushka demonstrated this on the Kamyshin highway coming back from a failed excursion; they’d run out of gas ten kilometres from anything but empty mills and long shadows. (We knew she was serious when she didn’t give up afterward. “Now we know what happened to her shoes,” Danny said when they limped into the station house bar an hour after dusk.) It couldn’t take that many more to move a train car. Almost twenty, as it turned out. Ropes, eyehooks, harnesses improvised from old belts and canvas — a lot of it we scrounged from the refinery. Fitting, said Razvan when I told him. Alyonushka loved it too. “What better way to prove there’s no world waiting but the one we make with our own sweat?”
The day arrived, a Monday in December. The dreamers came. In the end, there were six. Reza-Korova isn’t easy to get to, even — especially — when you’ve been here before. They walked the tunnel and came back depressed, trying not to show it, too stubborn not to stay, knowing we were about to do this thing for them. To them.
We bought them drinks, whatever they wanted, sweet wine, vodka, anisette. Catalin flattered them, flirting. The bar was covered with his sketches, markered maps pocked with shot glass stains like weeping sores, printed pages from internet café printers dying of toner thirst. Atop all this, an eyehook, heavy, brutal, flecked in sky-blue paint, held it all in place against the ceiling fan.
Vodka, cigarettes, coffee, repeat, according to no order and no reason, until we were numbed, couraged or calmed enough. Then everybody but me and the dreamers rapped knuckles on the bar for luck, spilled a few crumpled hryvni, never enough, and went. We’d agreed — I’d volunteered — I’d stay behind to represent us, to document it for posterity. Because what’s art if it doesn’t last? If not in a museum, a tomb, a shrapnel sculpture slowly buried in snow, it would live eternal on the internet. I let the dreamers get the rest of the bill.
Everyone else piled into an ancient, rattling UAZ truck and Alyonushka’s rented car, squishing two to a seat. We made a crowd when we all got together. In all this emptiness it didn’t happen much.
They went south, paralleling the tracks awhile, then veering away around a corner out of sight. The train car was ten kilometres along, the other side of the river. Ten was farther than we’d done at a stretch, but we decided — Alyonushka decided — the final stage should require a climactic effort. Exhaustion. We’d brought it that close over days, pulling a few hours at a time. Even me, I’d tried my hand, leaning in, with that huge, empty mass behind us, working up a sweat. We joked like we were folk heroes. This must be what it felt like crossing the surface of Jupiter, an alien planet so huge we weighed three times as much. Then after awhile we didn’t joke, just pulled.
The bar doesn’t have internet, so I didn’t see the pictures until later. I sat with the dreamers, listening to their uneasy babble, drinking vodka, more than usual, until the afternoon was old and the sun as orange as it gets here before it goes down. Then I went out to the platform to wait for the train. I saw the world through a blurry toilet-paper roll, having to reach out with my hands to make sure stools and walls were where I thought. I don’t know why getting that drunk seemed warranted that day. I didn’t think it was an event worth celebrating. And I was still awed by Alyonushka like everyone else. But I needed that haze, the vodka killing the taste of the cigarettes, killing the feel of the wind. Maybe I wanted to feel what the dreamers felt.
They didn’t come. They never did.
The bridge across the Volga: that must have been the high point. After they were warm to the exertion, before they started to tire. It was beautiful for December in Korova, windy, not oppressively so, sunny, thin clouds moving at intervals over the hills, not cold. I saw the pictures later from those who had data-capable phones. Alyonushka had one. The best. I don’t know where her money came from, how she could travel like she did. She didn’t waste it, a rich girl would have bought new shoes, but when she needed money, it was there.
There’s one picture looking back along the side of the train car, nobody really in the frame, just an arm and a shoulder, Catalin’s I’m willing to bet, a section of rope, the sun glittering on the water through the bars of the bridge, the peeling graffiti, not colorized this time because there’s no one left to colorize it, a pale palette of angles and curves presumably shaping names of people like us, young, with nothing to do but try to break the monotony.
The hedge swayed in the wind, its smallest, highest wands lashing whiplike at the sky. The sun went down. The dreamers milled, equivocated, got up, walked down the tracks, came back. I didn’t feel sorry for them until the blurriness started to temper.
I didn’t have a car anymore, hadn’t had one in a long time, so I waited until I was sure. I called Catalin, got voicemail. I called Razvan. He was on a train east of Odessa, said he’d be in Korova by noon. I don’t know why he comes back here.
One of the last pictures, maybe the last, Alyonushka replicated the original. At her feet is that little heap of mementoes piled beside the tracks in memorial to hope. I could go down there now and kick it, scatter the pieces. In the photo it must be getting close to sunset, because the branches are gold, not gray. And the trick of the grade, the curve in the tracks and the thick, thick, reaching growth of the hedge and the frame of the image combine to hide the towers of the refinery and the squat houses. It’s like a tunnel to another world.
The internet is a different place now than in the nineties, so much bigger, more chaotic, there’s a good chance those galleries will live on another few years at least before the services that host them go under. But how many will see?
The other day I got the forward again.
Maybe when Razvan leaves, when he gives up looking for them, gives up trying to rationalize what happened or understand what she was or why, maybe I’ll go with him. See Sevastopol, the Black Sea, the Bosphorus.
Satirical and wry though I hope it comes across, this story came out of a fairly dark place for me–or from the conjunction of a dark place and an incongruously bright one. I had just moved to an economically devastated suburb of Detroit, where the deranging effects of culture shock convinced me that if I wanted to experience anything inspiring or beautiful ever again, I’d be obliged to seek it either in my own head–in fiction–or on the internet. So when that inexhaustible fount of resilience-through-inspiration, Jason S. Ridler, shared with me (via that latter-day unkillable email forward, Facebook), an image of train tracks leading through a tunnel of brilliant foliage and challenged me to write a story about it, I naturally assumed the photo must be an illusion, a trick by which some other dreamer like me had contrived to endure the post-apocalypse. “Virtual Goods” was the result. I’ve learned since that Kleven, Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” is a real place, presumably beautiful, through which real trains pass and lovers walk arm in arm. But by then it was too late.
“Green Mile Tunnel”, photographed in Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” in Rivne, Ukraine by serhei, is used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
This is my love letter to the world
In the bare places where even the weeds have died
Once, I was the apple
Lynette Mejía writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror prose and poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Goblin Fruit, Dreams & Nightmares, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, and Star*Line. She is currently working on a master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. She lives in the middle of a fairy tale forest in Carencro, Louisiana with her husband, three children, six cats, one dog, one rat, and one fish. She says:
This piece was inspired by my childhood, growing up poor in rural Louisiana. One of my earliest memories is of playing in a makeshift sandbox my father made for me, which was really more dirt than sand. I played there nearly every day, dreaming about the fairy stories he read to me each night before I fell asleep. They are bittersweet memories now, but precious to me because I believe those days were the genesis of my lifelong love of reading and writing.
Elliot can prognosticate, a little. Hope helps, as does darkness: Elliot flips off the kitchen lights, steels himself, and points his nose into the future with as much fervent optimism as he can muster. Todd, ever punctual, is on his way: Elliot and Cindy’s high school friend and church youth group buddy, Todd was best man to them both at their wedding. If Elliot has something certain to tell him, his plea will have more punch. What will befall Todd in Afghanistan? Gripping the edge of the laminate counter, Elliot peers into indoor dusk.
Time sprays around him like water against a figurehead.
Where dim cabinets were, Elliot sees dunes, sand bags, blocky white houses on empty streets. Is this the future, or catalogued memories from CNN? As Elliot strains to see over the blast walls and sand bags, more blast walls and more sand bags rise, nudging appliances from their path, till a maze of makeshift military architecture colonizes the kitchen. Frantic, Elliot longs to hold Todd in place with the weight of his body to keep him from war.
Cindy’s voice stiches bright holes in Elliot’s vision. “Why aren’t you helping?” she says. “I’m doing my best, though I frankly don’t see why your pendant-thingy is so important. Why offer what you know Todd won’t take?”
“Todd is polite,” says Elliot. Elliot watches a soldier edge into an alley and kick a door. Inside, women huddle with children. The men are gone. An old woman yells, but the translator is outside. Tears of rage stream down the old woman’s face.
“Elliot?” says Cindy.
“Todd is polite!” says Elliot, snapping back to the present. “He can only refuse something so many times before he gives in.”
“We’ll see,” Cindy says. “Why you store heirlooms in the kitchen, I’ll never understand.”
The pendant — a rare artifact from Elliot’s new age childhood, when his father’s family and their hangers-on hailed him as a prodigy for his halting clairvoyance. In its ornate center, a smoky white orthoclase presides, like a moon in tarnished clouds. Ruddy garnets stud its nimbus. Once Elliot’s grandmother’s, the pendant is meant to protect what goes forth, and draw back what is lost — though their difficulty in finding it suggests its mojo has soured with time. Todd doesn’t believe in pendants anyway. Todd believes in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Still, Elliot is determined to offer it. The pendant is part of his master plan.
If they can find it.
“Wouldn’t it make sense to keep the pendant on the shelf with your grandfather’s cufflinks?” Cindy says.
“Different side of the family,” says Elliot. He rubs his eyes, then rests his head on the counter. “I keep the pendant in the kitchen so I know where it is.”
“Then where is it?”
“In the kitchen! We are not looking all over the house. Thanks to my foresight, our confusion is localized.”
“Some foresight,” Cindy says.
Here is what she doesn’t say: Can’t we just turn a light on? Cindy fears she may cut herself in one of these darkness-filled drawers. And though part of her wishes her weary husband would stop torturing the future — she still hopes Elliot will learn something.
When they moved in, it was Cindy who organized the kitchen; Elliot had little interest beyond hiding odd objects in places logical to him, if baffling to her. Cindy pictures the Cindy of two years ago, Cindy with long hair, Cindy careening between A Dance with Dragons and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest while waiting for her Holland Bulb Farms shipment to arrive. Peering into the newly married, Arya Stark-loving, tulip-planting Cindy’s mind, she wonders, couldn’t that Cindy have stowed Elliot’s weird family pendant in a more memorable place?
Like the animal crackers tin on top of the fridge. That would have been a good place for it…
Cindy reaches for the tin, and pries off the lid.
A moonstone glints at her through cookie crumbs.
“Thanks,” says Elliot. “You always come through.” He takes the pendant and puts it safely in the refrigerator — so it may be offered, and refused. By the timorous fridge light Cindy’s red hair gives a muted glow. She is good at remembering, good at finding things, this wife of his. Elliot has lost so many of the people he has loved, he must be sure to hold Cindy tightly.
Cindy wraps her arms around Elliot’s back and rests her head on his thin chest. Dark hair sprouts from his polo shirt. If they lose Todd, Cindy worries she will lose Elliot too, the Elliot she knows and loves. Todd will be the loss from which her vision-haunted husband does not rally.
But now she is thinking like him.
They haven’t lost anyone yet.
Todd Calvin stands at the foot of Cindy and Elliot’s driveway, wondering what they’ll make of his boot camp souvenirs — twenty pounds of muscle and a stubbly scalp. Despite their late-night attempts to sway him, traditionalist Todd has withstood Cindy and Elliot’s progressive drift. It stings him that they disapprove of his enlistment; Cindy and Elliot are the closest thing to family Todd has known, his one constant through a lonely adolescence, and an adulthood of strict Christian self-denial. He thinks of his friends — with the faintest aftertaste of rue — as the perfect couple.
So, stealing time to gather his nerve, Todd slows the day. A few minutes, at most an hour, and his eyes will water and his head will throb — and time will march on. When younger, Todd thought everyone played tug-of-war with the minutes, but no one spoke of it. As an adult Todd suspects only he can resist time, and only he is held back — time washing around him till he can fight no longer and is hurled into the present.
If time tugged Todd through twenty-six years, two foster homes, state college, intermittent construction work, and a recent enlistment, he has been tugging back the whole way. Todd believes he is special only in this — and in being a better-than-average athlete.
So he holds the day by the tail. Yellow tulips along the driveway blur. A dimming sun trembles in sweet agony. Whirring past Todd’s head, an early wasp slows, and stops, shivering. Todd sees the pixels of her eyes. The present will rush forward to meet him when he lets go, the driveway tulips jerking on their stems, the wasp hitting warp drive, the sun plummeting to the horizon.
But only Todd will move. Todd will move, but not yet.
Even at the last moment, as Todd is coming up the driveway, Elliot gives her one more chance to back out.
“I said I would do it, and I want to do it,” Cindy says, angry for the first time since they started down this path. “Remember?” She lets go of him, takes her books from the kitchen counter, and disappears down the hallway, leaving Elliot to abrade the darkness alone.
Elliot shouldn’t doubt her, Cindy thinks, taking the hallway in a few bold paces. She loves Todd, loves Elliot, loves Elliot’s friendship with Todd, and finds their devotion rather touching.
And, Cindy has something to gain here too. She and Elliot very publicly decided that to burden the ecosystem with more humans is genetic vanity, when the world teems with unwanted children. But only a lunatic would think that one option cancels every other.
Cindy stops by the bathroom, sets her books on the sink, undoes her jeans, and sits. Elliot. Loony, mystic Elliot. As her husband wandered from the liberal Christianity that became their common ground, Cindy watched him go, baffled, and a little betrayed. How the moldy esoterica of Elliot’s childhood could still sway him mystifies her. She remembers the Chesterton quote. Chesterton? When people stop believing in God, they start believing in everything else.
Cindy stands, flushes, wonders if she chose rightly in marrying Elliot — but is careful to halt the onset of regret.
In Cindy’s world, regret spurs change.
Todd enters without knocking. The screen door slams; Todd flips on the kitchen light. “Time to shut off the Gloom Machine, Dr. Morbid,” he says.
Elliot blinks; his irises curdle; his pupils pin. “Bastard,” he says.
A hug would be in order, but the kitchen counter divides them. The light makes Todd a glarey angel. When Elliot was the hunted new boy at school — after his mother’s divorce and their subsequent move — Todd became his Christian Warrior, suspended for fighting the bullies that incited Elliot’s panic attacks. In Elliot’s eyes, an angelic glow lingers about Todd still, this bright figure against roiling, mortal shade.
“Where’s Cindy?” asks Todd.
Elliot glances into the darkness of the hallway. “Making the bed,” he says.
Elliot pours Todd a glass of milk; Todd thanks him. He won’t ask about Parris Island — there were emails — and he won’t ask about the flight back. Todd’s first visit was to Talitha, his girlfriend, who now runs the Bible Bastian Community Church youth group where Todd, Cindy, and Elliot met thirteen years ago.
“What did she say?” asks Elliot. “Will we be your best man this time?”
Todd takes a ring from his pocket and sets it on the counter.
Every color scintillates in its hard heart.
In the southwest corner of the house, Cindy and Elliot’s bedroom gets the day’s last light. Orange sun squares glow on the closet door, tastefully overlooking a laundry-strewn floor, and a bureau littered with abandoned plates and cups. How does their bedroom get so messy so fast? According to Cindy and Elliot’s agreement, each does the chores that they enjoy. Stacks of clean folded clothes in the closet please Cindy. An artfully made bed pleases Elliot.
The windows are speckled with grass and dirty old rain.
This morning, Elliot went to fuel the lawnmower before making the bed or doing any of his appointed tasks. Cindy will do his, as well as her own — and settle for imperfection.
She’ll prepare the room first, she decides, and then herself.
“But what did she say?” asks Elliot.
“After no?” says Todd. “Talitha doesn’t want to start a life and then have a big weird chunk cut out of it. She’ll marry me when I return. She cried. And she said we could make out.”
“Yes.” Elliot sees Todd is still intoxicated by it. Abstinence has given his friend an extraordinary sensitivity to pleasure.
“And that’s it?”
“Yes sir, sir.”
Though Talitha’s no comes as no surprise, Elliot finds it tragic that anyone might die a virgin. Especially someone as beautiful as Todd. Still, he saw this coming. Todd and Talitha keep faith with their beliefs. Marriage was Todd’s best chance.
“I’ll come back and we’ll get married then,” says Todd.
Elliot looks at him.
“There are fewer casualties with this war than with previous wars. Thanks to body armor.”
Body armor. The phrase strikes Elliot as redundant, but irks him in other ways too. Body armor may or may not be delivered. Body armor may get you home alive, but unable to pick up your children with your prosthetic arms.
But, Elliot reflects, tirades are futile. Todd’s worldview is founded on sacrifice: blood spilled in a far-off desert is freedom’s bribe. Todd — the unwanted foster child who became everyone’s hero, fantasy, or both — is content to end his life as a stop-gap jesus.
Elliot stares into the shadows of the hallway. If he could see something definite, one way or the other, it could be the lever he needs to keep Todd here — or release him with a tranquil mind. He knows when the visions are sure; there’s a stark clarity.
He hasn’t been wrong yet.
Browsing for a place to start her brood, the queen wasp is back at the bedroom window. It was a Shaw preface, Cindy remembers; the wasp eating jam though its wire waist had been snipped. For Shaw, the wasp was a symbol of empire. For Cindy, the tragic wasp, unaware she has been cut in half, stands sharper and brighter than what she has been used to represent. Cindy pities the wasp, trapped in Shaw’s wit like amber, a fountain of jam eternally flowing from her snipped body.
Cindy gathers the cups and plates she and Elliot have left on the bureau and dumps them in the master bath sink. She takes a rag, runs it under the tap, and dusts the shelves above their bed — where lonely artifacts from the evangelical side of Elliot’s family skulk between the scrapbooks Cindy uses to meticulously archive her history. As she cleans, Cindy takes up her habit of tallying her current life’s surfeits and shortfalls — the wasp at the window a companion to her musings.
Cindy loves their house and neighborhood. With the exception of the mortgage, they are nearly out of debt. The relationship is working, as it damn well should: she put a great deal of thought into it. Elliot is a magical combination of adorable and brainy. Too magical sometimes — but unlike her previous, and only prior, boyfriend, Elliot wants to hear her ideas about mixed-income neighborhoods, memory as spiritual discipline, and how the physical world is vanishing now that we live in virtual space. He values her insight, her instincts, her judgment.
You weigh your options so thoughtfully, he tells her.
He thinks it’s because she’s a Libra.
But. The backyard is a shambles because neither of them care to weed or mow. Her mother and sister are out of their minds. Teaching at Bible Bastion Academy — where she is not allowed to read J.K. Rowling to her students — is killing her soul. Graduate school is looking better and better.
And, they are losing Todd. To distance, if nothing else — and neither she nor Elliot have power over distance.
The wasp at the window gingerly considers her possibilities. Cindy watches her, hoping she will not start her nest under the bedroom eaves like last year. She regrets asking Elliot to knock it down with a broom.
But it’s not too late to make amends.
When you’re Cindy, it’s never too late to make amends.
Cindy turns from the window with a smile, throws the dust rag in the hamper, washes her hands, and gets an idea. Scooping the mugs and dishes she had piled in the bathroom sink, she returns them to the nightstand and bureau, and pops a tea candle into each one. She lights them. Perfect. Satisfied with the room, Cindy has a look at herself. The mirror over the bureau offers a tallish, lanky, and, she thinks, conventionally pretty reflection. She pulls off her jeans and T-shirt, throws a sundress over her head, brushes her hair, and reapplies deodorant. Her throat and wrists get a spritz of lavender each.
That leaves the bed; Elliot’s task, her least favorite. Cindy plumps the pillows, tugs the corners of the comforter, and assesses. Elliott would have done better. She flops on the quilt and scans her books: Kingsolver, Lamott, L’Engle, Rich Christians in a Hungry World, Gardening for Pollinators, Kierkegaard’s Repetition. The latter a treasured gift from her stepmother.
Cindy chooses Kierkegaard, and turns on the reading lamp above the bed.
Future-Todd wavers in the darkness of the living room archway. Flares rise around him as he scales a dune, rifle across his chest —
“Stop,” says Todd.
Todd flicks the living room light on. Elliot rubs his increasingly dry eyes. “I know what you’re doing,” says Todd. “You’re cheating. Stop being Martha. You are worried and upset about many things, but only one is needed. Choose what is better. Be Mary; make food.”
“Martha made the food,” Elliot says. “Mary just looked worshipfully at Jesus. Probably wanted to shag him.” But he goes to the refrigerator, gets the fixings for a sandwich, and sets them on the laminate counter before Todd.
Bread, ham, turkey, provolone, American cheese, old family pendant. The square setting and heavy chain hit the counter with a portentous thud.
“What’s that?” says Todd, peeling cheese from plastic.
“Family heirloom,” says Elliot.
The sleepy orthoclase and dull garnets wake in the kitchen light. Moonstone and bloodstone, Elliot’s grandmother, Bridie Byrne, called them. Elliot remembers his grandmother’s fiery eyes, flashing over her notebook of mystic alphabets: Saint Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota, Edward Kelley’s angelic scribbles, the Irish tree runes of the Ogham. Seeing his knack for it, she taught him to read cards, stars, and, basest of all, palms — carnival tricks to cloud his natural abilities, he thought at the time.
He wishes he could consult her now.
Elliot watches as Todd spackles mayonnaise onto wholegrain bread, layering cheese and ham in a neat, alternating stack — a leftover tic from Todd’s fragmented childhood, Elliot thinks. He slides the pendant toward his friend. “I want you to have this,” he says.
“It’s been in my family for generations.”
“What is it again?”
“That’s an orthoclase, and those are garnets.”
“It looks like a gob of splooge surrounded by scabs,” says Todd, mouth full of sandwich.
“We want you to take it with you.”
“Because I might show up at base with that thing on my person.”
“It could stop a bullet.”
“But not an IED. I thought you stopped believing in hoodoo.”
“I did. Before I met you.” Elliot takes a bottle of wine from under the counter, and gets down two glasses. “Think of it as symbolic. It calls back the thing you most fear losing.”
Todd sets down his sandwich, wipes his mouth, and puts his hands on the counter. The gesture is as plain a refusal as any no.
It doesn’t matter. The pendant works if it erodes Todd’s resolve. Elliot pours a glass of wine. Step two.
“Are you trying to get me drunk so I take your geegaw?”
Elliot silently scrapes the pendant off the counter and into his pocket. He shakes his head.
“What’s up with you tonight?” says Todd.
“Hospitality is sacred,” says Elliot, pushing a wine glass toward Todd. “Even Jesus drank wine.”
“I’ll pass,” says Todd.
“Paul told Barnabas to take wine for his stomach.”
“You mean Timothy. And my stomach is fine.”
Elliot pours a second glass.
“Don’t — seriously — you can have mine.”
“That one’s for Cindy,” says Elliot. “She wanted to see you alone. In the bedroom. I’m going to mow the lawn.”
“You hate mowing the lawn. And it’s dark out.”
Elliot nods. The screen door shuts behind him.
This is becoming a strange reunion. Todd holds a wineglass full of a liquid he has never tasted, and is standing at the mouth of a hallway he’s not sure he belongs in. Behind him, the engagement ring he bought for Talitha twinkles on the kitchen counter. He needs a moment to think. The hallway becomes a well. The room with Cindy in it is one step from the vanishing point.
Todd has told no one of his time-stretching gift. It’s between him and God. The gift has spiritual benefits; Todd associates it with the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in the New Testament. Slowing time helps him avoid temptations he might otherwise fall into. Like this one. Todd thinks he knows what is being offered here, and though he is grateful, this surely counts as sin.
Todd uses his bonus time to call on the Holy Spirit. Do not let me quench you, he prays. But he senses he has not invested the words with the sincerity needed to draw down real power. There are prayers you pray because you hope for deliverance, and prayers you pray so you can say you made the effort.
Todd allows time to pull him one step forward — or, time spills a little over the dam that is Todd.
Cindy is in the room at the end of the hallway. She has been a stumbling block for him before. He wants to stumble again. This would be a good time to call his accountability partner. Fortunately, Todd’s phone is in the car.
Time spills over the dam and he is halfway down the hallway.
He wants this. Todd can go five weeks without touching himself, but if he sees Cindy in the day, he will not be pure that night. Talitha got him heated up already, and Elliott’s dark needy gaze can really radiate his molecules. Even if he turns around and goes home, he’s going to blow his wad before the night is out.
He should have just taken their stupid amulet, split, and tossed it from the car window on his way home.
Time urges Todd on; he’s two steps from the bedroom door.
Cindy is the most beautiful woman Todd knows. Talitha has never captivated him the way Cindy can. Cindy’s hair, red as embers, her hips, sleek as raindrops. Her smile, her snub nose, her mature, womanly eyes burn into his mind.
He loves to watch her talk.
If the Spirit really wanted to give him the power to hold out, it would do so. Now. Right now.
Todd lets time pull him onward. He wants this. St. Paul himself wouldn’t turn it down. Forgiveness waits on the other side of capitulation. Christ will still be on the cross. Todd isn’t the only one keeping him there.
Time has him in its undertow and Todd flows forward with it. He opens the door and steps in. The room’s only light comes from some glowing dishware and a streetlamp’s flicker outside. In the trembling haze, Cindy is a zoetrope, a turbine, a hovering swarm in the shape of a woman.
In the yard, darkness settles over the trees. Elliot wheels the lawnmower from the shed, parks it by a rusty chaise lounge, sits, and swills some wine. The pool’s cement rim looks hard and rough, the pool tiles, hard and cold.
Everyone wants this, Elliot thinks, taking another swig. This is what everyone wants.
The sky swirls with omens and doubt. For Elliot, God’s shadow.
If one word passes between them all is lost. Cindy walks toward Todd, takes the wineglass from his hand, and sets it on the dresser.
He watches her put it down.
Todd is not tall; she is nearly eye-to-eye with him. She considers letting him make the first move. No, she thinks, his nerve will fail, and this will turn into a conversation. Or it won’t, and later it will be harder for him to forgive himself.
The lawnmower starts up outside. Cindy reminds herself she wanted this. Todd smells amazing. She still wants this.
She shrugs the shirt from Todd’s shoulders. His body is a man’s body now: broader, slower, more muscular. ROTC and the Marines gave it a new architecture, one that is not Todd’s own. What have they made you? she wonders. Something baroque, something biddable. RoboTodd.
He looks at her.
She helps him by tugging the straps of her sundress off. This would go more smoothly, and feel less awkward, if she hadn’t worn a bra. She pictures herself getting dressed, the wasp outside the window. The bra disappears. Todd’s hands move up her sides.
It takes her back to the first time.
They were sixteen, it was summer, they were in his tent at the Cornerstone Music Festival. They went farther than Cindy intended when she ducked through Todd’s tent flap that night. Boyz4HIM rapped about Jesus on the main stage; Cindy and Todd groped for each other in the darkness, to the smells of sunscreen and polyurethane. Todd’s touch was rough, and his movements had the speed of guilt. They were out of their underwear before Cindy had a chance to think about consequences. Luckily, Todd finished before he could even get inside her. With little basis for comparison, Cindy thought it went pretty well.
After, she had to tell him to stop apologizing. Todd didn’t cry, thank God, but it was looking likely for a moment there. It was the first time for both of them, and though it was far from perfect, Cindy has never been tempted to go back and tamper with the details.
Todd regretted it immediately and spent the rest of the night in prayer. The next evening, he looked for Cindy at the Augustine’s Hippo set, then stopped by her tent to make sure she was okay. They had sex again, and on and off through their sixteenth year. Till Lent.
Lent, season of remorse, offered Todd forgiveness in exchange for repentance. He took the bait. Repentance, as the Bible Bastion Youth Pastor told him, is a turning away. Todd shared this in a break-up letter with Cindy that was all one paragraph.
Now, in the bedroom she shares with Elliot, Cindy has the Youth Group’s golden boy back for the first time. What does she think of her choice to let him drift away? Todd is more beautiful than the man she married. On a purely chemical level, Todd’s scent, his taste, please her more than Elliot’s faint sour milk smell. But though Todd’s gallant purity appealed to her once, Elliot is the interesting one. Elliot may be graceless and beaky, but out of his polo shirts and khaki pants his pale hirsute body takes on an appealingly feral look. Her husband is the better lover of the two men: more adventuresome, more surprising, more thoughtful. Elliot is the one with secrets, hidden depths, and a lunatic, caring heart.
This came through in his emails, when he was at Swarthmore, she was at Eastern, and Todd was at Penn State. It was Elliot’s emails that were worth rereading. Todd may have been steady, stable, and good. But Elliot sees the future. He balances her perfectly. What can Todd do?
Todd can slow time. Trained to his hand, he is reaching his peak before he wants to. He drags himself backwards, stretching his sexual zenith to a plateau. The sound of the lawnmower dips into basso profondo range; its rhythm becoming a slow savage drum, counting each second till Todd lets go, and time rushes in, flooding the room.
Todd collapses onto Cindy, his head in the space above her shoulder, thinking of the conversation he will have with God about this later. Adam’s excuse is at the ready, but to his credit, he’s too honorable to use it. He was tempted, true, but he saw this coming before he set foot in that hallway.
Amulet, wine, Cindy.
“Are you okay?” says Cindy.
“Yes,” says Todd. “Thank you.”
“I’m not okay. I can’t move my arm.”
He rolls off her. “Sorry.” He doesn’t know what else to say. He says “Seems like old times.”
She smiles at him, and gives him a last kiss on the shoulder before wrapping herself in the sheet and rolling over. “There aren’t any times but new times,” she says.
Todd has a feeling she has said this before, in other places, to other people.
He turns on his side, hugging his arms to himself. The pillow smells musty, astringent: Elliot’s pillow. Elliot should be here.
With Cindy on one side, and Elliot on the other, Todd would be home.
But what would Elliot make of what’s happened here?
He remembers it was Elliot who sent him in. He wants to talk to Elliot; he’s too embarrassed to find him. What Elliot doesn’t know about Todd and Cindy’s past saps some of the meaning from this gesture.
As Todd’s euphoria ebbs, so does his assurance of grace. He has forfeited God’s protection, just as he will forfeit Cindy and Elliot’s. While he wasn’t looking, the night brought him one step closer to leaving again, and robbed him of his confidence.
Now he’s as convinced of his doom as Elliot seems to be.
It’s okay. Todd falls asleep thinking about his funeral. The guys from his college lacrosse team will carry his casket. Someone important will give the eulogy. A state senator. Or a radio pastor: John Piper, or R.C. Sproul. They’ll put up a plaque at the old high school, out front, by the flag. No, on his locker — the top part that swings open when you flip the lever in the lower part. That’s where his plaque should be. He wants his old locker soldered shut with a piece of him buried inside. His hand. His plaque will say, Todd Calvin. With this hand I spread democracy, I squeezed a few off, I signed holiday cards for people I did not love, I touched the shimmering skin of Cindy Amberson.
Elliot sits on a lawn chair in the chill darkness of a spring night. Beside him, a roaring lawnmower, a cracked wine glass, a stain on cement. He tucks himself back into his pants, zips up, leans over and silences the mower. He stands.
After turning off the lights in the kitchen and living room, Elliot shambles down the hall, hands in his pockets. In the bedroom, Cindy and Todd sleep. The streetlight casts its tremulous glow on the two most important people in Elliot’s life. He wishes he could climb in with them, breathe their mingled scent, power down his noisy brain.
There is a photo of Elliott and Todd on the dresser, a photo of Elliot and Cindy beside it — taken the same day, at a Youth Group amusement park trip. The one with him and Cindy shows his nose at its worst angle.
Darkness is everywhere, thick in the air above Todd and Cindy. Elliot could use his big nose to stir fate a little. But he’s exhausted, and so are the shadows. He’s stripmined them already.
Elliot finds the pendant in his pocket, and turns it in his hand.
There are things Elliot knows without consulting the shadows. If Cindy conceives, the child they raise will be a salvaged scrap of Todd, a living heirloom, a human pendant. Feted by his father’s family and their circle for his early abilities, Elliot knows what it is to have a persona that is bigger than his self. He has been too private, too wary as an adult. Will his and Cindy’s view of the meaning of Todd’s child change the way they raise it, caging it within their expectations?
Elliot traces the pendant’s scalloped edge with his thumb.
Something else troubles him. He and Cindy chose not to procreate in an already overburdened ecosystem. Does conceiving a war orphan betray their values, or fulfill them?
In the light from the streetlamp, Todd and Cindy’s limbs form a lustrous ideogram, glowing letters from an alphabet Elliot wishes he’d learned from his sibylline grandmother. That moments like this could come, bright with meaning and possibility, with no means to translate —
But even if he could parse the human proverb on the bed, Elliot knows it would be incomplete.
The three of them, together, spell something only God could read.
Elliot searches his memory for some word of Bridie’s to make sense of his confusion and despair, but can fish out only what his grandmother said about the pendant in his hand. If that thing has any brio left, you might get one use from it.
Todd rolls from his side onto his back, opening his chest to the ceiling, and opening his hand in a shifting pool of street light.
Elliot looks into it, idly following its lines.
The pendant falls to the floor.
Cindy watches Elliot from the bed. He stands above them, looking into Todd’s palm.
She recognizes a certainty that chills her.
So Todd dies in the end of this one, she thinks. That leaves Plan B. Elliot can see the future. Cindy can change the past — if she was there the first time around. God granted her, she thinks, a knack for changing small things only, things of importance to her alone. She has learned from experience that larger changes will sting. Cindy may fix a test answer, retroactively post a birthday card, or remind a past self to take the bus tokens from the tea tin on the windowsill. The mysterious lever she wields will not move heavier things.
Unless she sacrifices a living piece of herself — the memory of the life she leaves.
And she will. She will come through for all of them, and hold Todd down with the weight of her body. She is nineteen. Todd is proposing to her over the phone. Sleet hits her window. She’s in her dorm, her roommate is crying in the hallway. She forgets why, she just remembers that it struck her funny the first time.
Time is chutes and ladders. Cindy takes a last look at Elliot, shrinking away from her like a pupil in bright light. Standing by their bed, hands in his pockets, he is lost in a future bedroom that will never be — their life together one of a thousand tesserae of possibilities. Cindy hovers by him for a moment, as he stands, lost, in the room they made. She may take this one image with her only.
Dazzled by the thousand lives before her, Cindy darts through the pinch in the hourglass.
The characters, their love and concern for each other, and the suburban house where the action takes place were the beginnings of “Always Forever Now”. Many of my friends logged time in the evangelical movement before departing for new places; it’s been fascinating to see the branching paths they take, what they keep, what they throw away, and how they make sense of that world as it recedes. Cindy, Todd, and Elliot are at different stages of that journey. As I wrote “Always Forever Now” I kept in mind the work of a writer whose stories I admire, a master of short fiction, Karen Joy Fowler, and set out to structure it as I imagined she might.
Garnet and Diamond necklace by Ernesto Moreira is offered by the Houston Museum of Natural Science under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
If my muse were to sing of the heart,
He would singomusetherage,
That old muse needs no percussion –-
“We’re not singing of storms today,”
The heart has reaped a summer’s harvest,
Virginia M. Mohlere was born on one solstice, and her sister was born on the other. Her chronic writing disorder stems from early childhood. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Cabinet des Fées, Chiaroscuro, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, and Mad Scientist Journal, among others. It’s a toss-up where you are more like to have tea, yarn, or stationery fall on you when visiting her house. She says:
A friend of mine. Dr. Vanessa Heggie (a professor of the history of sports medicine in the UK) wrote a paper called “A Century of Cardiomythology: Exercise and the Heart c. 1880-1980”. The word “cardiomythology” lodged itself deep into my brain, and I’ve been working on a series of poems about it since. The first poem in the series appeared in the the Fall 2012 issue of Goblin Fruit. My cousin Tim is really a musician and occasional luthier, though he hasn’t built me a birchwood guitar. Yet.