Feed me the sun, said Grandma, so I can get warm again.
I woke up crying, my hands still curved from pressing Grandma’s cold, soft, swollen feet in my dream.
Outside it was gray and damp but without the relief of rain. If you were on your way to dying there was nothing to make you stay.
These last few weeks in the hospital, Grandma’d hardly had the strength to talk.
She’d never been what people call a fighter. She was an endurer; not meek but brave. I’d just realized it. Too late, or almost just in time.
My heart clenched up inside me because I was sure she was too tired, now, to notice.
The doorbell rang.
I was staying in Grandma’s apartment, watering her plants and sorting the mail and paying bills. It was closer to the hospital and I figured, even if it was the least little gesture of what she meant to me, I should spend some of my vacation time on her.
The super from Grandma’s building. He started to say something but someone pushed him out of the way and waved a Tupperware container at me.
“Para su abuelita,” she said. “Flan de naranja sanguina.”
“My grandmother,” Manny said. He had that look on him big men wear when trying to deal with tiny little determined women.
She made Manny hold the container while she pried off the lid to show me. Inside were four fluted glass custard cups, and four little matching spoons.
“Todo para su abuelita,” she said, looking mighty dangerous. “Como la aurora sonrosada y hermosa.”
Manny saw I’d managed to understand most of what she said and he translated only the last part for me.
Rosy and beautiful like the dawn.
I thanked them awkwardly and closed the door, and then I started to cry again.
“She had a quiet night,” the nurse said, like I should take that and be thankful. Grandma’s food tray sat there, untouched.
When we were alone except for the other dying people in the room, I pulled the curtain around Grandma’s bed and unpacked one of Manny’s grandma’s little custard dishes and its spoon from my tote bag.
“Ketzeleh, I don’t think – ” she started to say. Her lips were cracked; it was hard for her to speak.
I pulled out the unfairest weapon I had.
“If you love me, Grandma, you’ll eat this.”
I guess I’d fallen asleep in the chair. For a moment it felt like another dream.
“Such a long time I didn’t taste that,” Grandma said; “Josefina used to make it for us. From their own oranges. Tell her I’ll sew her a red petticoat, as soon as I get better.”
Josefina, she’d said, giving it the right Spanish lilt; so strange in her own Yiddish accent.
But of course they’d become friends, wouldn’t they? Sitting together, catching the sun, on the courtyard benches; they wouldn’t need much of each other’s language to do that.
Manny was outside smoking a cigarette when I got back to Grandma’s place, and I told him how much she’d enjoyed that flan and to tell his grandma for me.
I asked him how long they’d known each other.
“They don’t,” he said. “They haven’t met. My parents brought my grandmother up here a week ago. To see a specialist. She didn’t want to; said it was just old people’s aches and pains. But my mom insisted.”
“Manny — ”
“My grandma had a dream,” Manny said; “and the next morning she made me take her to the market to get those oranges.”
“What’s your grandma’s name?”
“Luz Sofia,” he said. “Everyone calls her Luz.”
“This is a weird question, but — do you know a Josefina?”
“In my family,” said Manny, “there have always been Josefinas.”
“Ketzeleh,” said Grandma, “I really want to go home.”
She was looking better and I was starting to think it was possible. Something had eased in her; a knotted place smoothed out. She’d eaten every one of those flans.
“Don’t mind,” she said; “I love you more than anything, and I know you love me. But I can’t stay. I have to make that petticoat for Josefina. We left so fast, we couldn’t say goodbye…
“And by the time you come, not now but later, yours will be ready too.”
You’re not supposed to cry in front of sick people in the hospital. Please, God, I thought, stroking her hand all swollen from the IV; I won’t mind if she’s crazy, as long as she doesn’t die.
Grandma went first; Manny’s grandma a couple of weeks later. I was there, sorting out Grandma’s things, and I went down to Manny’s apartment to pay my respects. I kissed Manny’s mom and told her how sorry I was, and then I tried to slip out again quietly.
Manny saw me through the crush of people and followed me out.
“She went so fast,” he said. “We didn’t expect it. My parents are taking her home tomorrow.”
I felt like his heart was in my own chest, aching so badly it’s a wonder it kept beating.
“That flan was the only thing my grandma could keep down,” I said, “in the end. I really hoped — ”
“I was there with my grandma, the night before she died,” Manny said. “And I asked her. It was so strange, wasn’t it? I mean — you know what she said? She said they were neighbors once in Al-Ándalus, a long time ago.”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)
Charlotte sank her pitchfork into the fragrant compost and daydreamed of libraries — the old-fashioned sort, lined with yellowed tomes of liver-spotted pages and fragile leather spines that crackled against her palm.
As data technician officer for the colony on Whitney VI, she used to be mocked for her fondness for antiques; now, they all lived as the pioneers of Earth once did, relying on ancient methods to stay alive. It was a strange education, really. She marveled at how the compost stank of vinegar as it slowly decomposed, and how the piles steamed on cool mornings. Calluses and blisters had once been quaint physical maladies described in literature; now, her hardened hands knew just how to grip the pitchfork, her body tilting for perfect leverage.
A horn blew at the far side of the field. She paused, studying the rows. The Gendal firebombing of Primary had been devastating by itself, but the aliens had also obliterated the ansible connection to Earth and partially reversed the engineered chemical balance in the soil. The native dirt of Whitney was hostile to Earth’s seeds, and they had few nanobots left to lace within the furrows. The few hundred survivors saved any scrap of food acceptable for compost, and scientists scoured the forest for any native biodegradable material that might possibly work.
As it was, the current compost was imbalanced — the decomposition too anaerobic due to an excess of food and green waste. No one spoke of the next harvest, the next winter, but imminent doom loomed over them.
Times like this, she ached all the more for the escape offered by a book in her hands. That was the only way she would ever leave this place.
Other workers ambled towards the common area where the smoke of cook fires lashed the dark gray sky. Charlotte, though hungry, rested her pitchfork handle upon her shoulder and walked the opposite way, into the ruins of Primary.
Rain resumed — it rarely seemed to cease at all — and pattered against her hood. The rarity of sunlight meant their remaining solar-powered generators focused on essential tasks. The millions of books in the colony’s computers may as well have not existed. Not that they would have fulfilled Charlotte’s need, anyway. She wanted real books like the ones her grandmother read from on Earth so many years ago.
Her well-worn path into the city was a stream of ashy mud.
Some of the colony elders had tried to stop her evening hobby, saying she needed to preserve her energy for the morrow’s work. However, a psychologist spoke in Charlotte’s favor, saying they each coped in different ways.
Charlotte coped by digging into the ruins of Michele Castiglione’s library. The colony financier had imported tons of centuries-old hardcover books for a climate-controlled heritage museum. It had once been her favorite place, with its stained glass dome and shelves of native purple brumble-wood. She used to close her eyes to breathe in that rare perfume of paper.
After her full day turning compost, she had only one hour until nightfall. Faint light gleamed on the blackened brick edifice. Beyond that, the museum had buckled in on itself. Intact bricks had been stacked to one side in a new wall. Everything else, she shoved away. Crumbs of masonry mounded like cairns. In the thick of the city, everything stank of wetness and decay.
She dug into the ruins. Chunks of brick bounced off her mud-encased boots. She needed books. The genre didn’t matter. Anything that stole her mind away from Whitney VI would do. She needed to hunker by firelight and find the perfect angle to illuminate a page.
Bricks fell away and revealed the 90-degree slant of a bowed bookshelf. The purple wood was almost black in the weak light. Charlotte stared. She stooped to stroke the wood with her fingertips, unbelieving. She finally made it to the library.
She dropped to her knees, squinting to see inside. Rain coursed the mountain of debris and plunked on her shoulders as she blindly fumbled inside the cave.
Her fingers found something slick. She recoiled, suddenly aware of the filth on her hands. She retreated to the nearest puddle to wash the muck away, then dried her hand on her innermost shirt. Then, eyes shut in effort, she strained to find the treasure again.
Charlotte sheltered the book with her body. The hardcover had curved like a brumble-wood trunk, the pages as wavy as her unbound hair. It opened with a juicy crunch. Text wept trails of ink down the paper.
Numb, she reached inside again to find more books in haphazard piles. Their covers sloughed at the pressure of her touch.
The sun crawled behind the mountains. She remained there, as still and dead as the ruins around her.
No books. No escape from Whitney VI. With a cold breath of wind, the rain stopped.
These books were ruined. But maybe, just maybe, some were still preserved inside. But these dozens and dozens? Gone. Useless.
A fragment of page drifted like a leaf on a nearby puddle. Like a leaf. She gasped, then bit her lip.
These pages would enrich the compost heap in time for the next harvest. Perhaps they wouldn’t starve after all.
She had the detached awareness that she should be glad, relieved — the other colonists would be.
Oh so gently, Charlotte stroked the bowed binding of a book. Her stomach roared, but it seemed so minor compared to the hunger of her mind.
Beth Cato’s novel THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER will be released by HarperCollins Voyager in September 2014. Her stories can be found in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, InterGalactic Medicine Show & other magazines. Her website is www.bethcato.com.
Billowing clouds of steam rose straight up from the black and white swirling liquid. The white rim of a coffee mug held in the contents precisely and the words ‘Chug Your Mug’ curved around the sides. He sat in the dining room chair staring at the words and trying to remember why they seemed so quaint when he saw them in the faint fluorescent light of a convenience store a year before. Nothing about those words seemed quaint anymore. They just reminded him that life sped by too fast, that every morning he had to chug his mug of coffee before rushing out the door. That morning was a bit different, however. That morning he was waiting on a very important phone call. A phone call that could mean future morning coffee breaks would be a lot lonelier, chugged or otherwise.
Picking up the mug in his gnarled hands, he sipped at the contents. He couldn’t remember who said it just then, but someone somewhere had once said waiting was the hardest part. At that moment he couldn’t agree more. The ticking of the clock on the wall behind him seemed to echo through his head. Tick tock, tick tock. He lowered the mug to the table once more and looked through the window in front of him. Outside he could see the fire orange of Peruvian lilies growing in the flower bed. He’d planted them there for his wife a couple years before. Every year she would tend them, carefully encouraging their growth. As he watched them blowing gently in the breeze he could almost imagine her kneeling down, elbow deep in dirt, caring for them. He picked up the mug and took another sip, noting the fact that the coffee was growing cold.
A weary glance over his shoulder at the clock told him that the morning was going to be a bust. He would wait there however long he had to, though, and he wouldn’t budge until that phone rang. One way or another he had to know what was going on. So he sat there staring out the window, sipping his coffee and listening to the ticking of the wall clock. Eventually the sound of cars started streaming in through the open window as more people woke up and the road out front became busier. He listened to the familiar sound as if he were a newborn having never heard the sound of an engine before. Somewhere deep inside he was hoping one of those cars would pull into his driveway to deliver the news. As he allowed the hope to rise up, he lost track of everything besides the sounds of the cars speeding past.
Almost as if it knew of this hope, the shrill ringing of a phone filled the air, jerking him out of his thoughts. With the coffee mug held tightly in one hand, he picked up the phone with the other.
“Hello? This is Curtis.” A pause and then, “Mag, calm down a bit, please. I can’t understand you.” His voice was strained, tears obvious in his voice. He stood and began to pace as he listened intently to the phone. “I knew I should have come with you, honey. Please try to calm down. Is there anyone by you that can tell me what’s going on? Did they get the test results back?”
A longer pause filled the room with silence. Suddenly his face turned into an expression of pure shock and the mug slipped from his hand. It crashed to the ground and sent glass and coffee flying everywhere. “You’re pregnant?” he exclaimed, oblivious to the coffee soaking through his overalls. “Honey, you’re too old to be pregnant!” It was the only thing he could think to say but he instantly regretted saying it. Not only did she not have cancer but he was going to be a father again.
Mandy Moore is a married mother of two from Oklahoma. Her hobby of writing spans almost two decades and she has been focusing on creative writing as a career for eight years. She is currently attending the University of Central Oklahoma and is majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. She prefers writing prose in any genre.
Listen to “Alien Alley” by JR Hume, read by Alexander Jones:
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.
Alexander Jones lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in video game development and indulges his love of good food and fine drink.
“Alien Alley” by JR Hume was originally published on February 17, 2014.
Teens are gullible, too tempted by careless acts and stupid stunts. Don’t be stupid, Halley.
“Yes, Mom,” I would say. “Right, Instructor Morris.” “Yes, Counselor Blackford.” To all: “I’m a smart girl.”
Yet here I was waiting for Marco, who was late. Probably not coming. Stupid me.
A mag train shooshed to a stop at the tube platform. Two people stepped off and hurried away.
I decided to take the next mag home. Enough was enough. Today Smart Halley banished Stupid Halley forever.
My medimplant chimed and throbbed. I tapped Suppress on my wristpad then Allot. Across the deserted platform the public dispenser disgorged my midmorning nutrition. Three gelcubes, two reds and a green. I gulped them as another mag arrived.
The train’s doors parted. I stepped on then jerked back around into Marco’s chest.
“Miss me?” he said, releasing my blouse.
I might have squealed. A little. Since I loathe appearing weak or frail, I covered for it accordingly.
“You turd!” Thwump went my fist on his ribcage. “Where’ve you been?”
It worked. “Where do you think?” He backed off, looking sufficiently apologetic.
That’s when I spotted the canvas bag slung over his shoulder.
“You got it?” I sucked in a breath. Held it till he nodded.
He patted the bag. “One Levitt special.”
Hearing the name we’d been secretly whispering for three months, I cringed. I glanced over my shoulder to check the mag car (it was empty) and shoved Marco toward the platform exit.
“Shhh!” I said. “Are you crazy?”
“Nobody’s here except me and you.” He stuck his hand out. “Come.”
His clammy fingers squeezed mine. Again he yanked me around, back into the mag. We stood inside the door.
“Where are we going?”
“You mean: went. As in, off the grid.” He held up our clasped hands. A pale green band dangled around his medimplant. “Blocker. So nobody can track our movements.”
I frowned. “Isn’t that an — ”
“Infraction? One of the worst. Decades in rehab if you get caught. So don’t.” The mag surged underneath us. “And don’t let go until this is over.”
“Take the blocker off my dead wrist like I did Javier’s three months ago.”
This was the majorly stupid part. “You can’t die, Marco.”
“Probably will. Only Levitt hasn’t.”
“Maybe he did. Maybe not.”
That’s when his medimpant squealed and shuddered. I almost flung his hand away, the pulsation was so intense. He silenced it.
“Critical nutrient deficiency,” he said.
“You skipped taking nutrition?”
“Since yesterday. No more gelcubes. So no turning back now.” The mag glided into the next station. “We don’t have much time though. The blocker can’t prevent my medimplant summoning an emergency evacuation.” The doors parted. “Hop off.”
The station squatted on the fringe of an industrial zone, empty and still on a dreary Sunday morning. Great place to commit severe infractions.
I eyed his bag. “What brilliancies did Levitt offer when he gave you that?”
“Not Levitt. A guy named Cookie. Instructions printed on the inside of the blocker led me to him. He said he followed something called a recipe — same one Levitt supposedly used — which came from some banned ancient transcript called Southern Living.”
My skepticism sizzled.
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe he did. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter though.”
Hand-in-hand, canvas bag between us, we settled on a dusty maintenance road tucked behind the desolated station.
“Together,” Marco said.
From out of the canvas bag, we tugged a bulky paper sack. One after another we tore through four sealed sacks. By the third one, my nose wrinkled at the pungent, earthy aroma. By the last, my mouth felt strange — moist and gooey like never before.
In his palm he held a paper-wrapped wad stained with wet splotches. Inside, the Levitt special waited.
“Ready?” he asked.
No, but I nodded anyway.
We both leaned in and unwrapped. The wad produced a small stack of mushy objects, different sizes and shapes all smashed together into a fist-sized pile.
“Wow, see that?” He pointed to the darkest object. “That’s the cooked flesh. It’s supposed to be bovine but when was the last time you actually saw one of those outside a museum?”
He patted the top spongy part.
“This is the bun, one of those yeast-based pastries people used to contain all kinds of other strange materials. Sandwiches, they named them, a really creative way to turn anything they wanted into so-called food.”
He lifted the bun’s edge and revealed a pale, yellowish paste.
“That’s the cheese. Made from animal lactation fluids, usually bovine. Underneath the cheese is where the various plant matter goes. I’m not sure what these are supposed to be,” he said, frowning at the puckered clumps draped over the charred flesh. “Mock produce of some kind.”
“Mostly. People would sometimes spread other creams on the buns if they wanted stronger sensations.”
“I don’t know. Seems like plenty enough,” I said, uncomfortable with my mouth’s sensations just from watching this.
“So… what do you think?”
“It’s ugly. Messy. Nasty. Want more? How about: I can’t understand why you’d put it into your body.”
“Because it’s no gelcube. It’s a personal choice. All mine.”
Again his medimplant screeched.
“Which millions enjoyed long, long ago.” He raised the wad to his mouth. “Remember the blocker.” Then, his teeth ripped away nutrition like some extinct primate’s might.
Within moments, his medimplant detected a new life-threatening condition and summoned help. To no avail. None of the kids who’d attempted this had survived the resulting toxic shock. Save one, apparently.
That’s when I left Marco, the blocker draped over my own medimplant. I should have flung it away. Ended this. Let enough be enough.
But I didn’t.
Too many lives coiled around that band, all craving what Marco had yearned for. Was it worth it? I must know.
Until I’ve found and confronted Levitt though, dutifully I’ll gulp my gelcubes. Every impersonal one.
I might be crazy but I’m no longer stupid.
In the micro-slices of free time permitted by his high-tech job, Todd Thorne tries to be a decent family man and a writer of dark, disturbing tales.