Archive for February, 2019

The Dark Side of the World

Posted: February 21, 2019 in Uncategorized
Published in WPaD’s sci-fi anthology, ” Strange Adventures in a Deviant Universe”:
~*~*~*~
Snippets of conversation and laughter drifted through the brisk air. The shadowy figure observed from a distance as the small family huddled around the fire. The stranger had been watching them for what felt like days, scavenging their scraps for survival, hesitant to come out of hiding despite the group’s benign appearance. Things were not always what they seemed on an unknown planet.
The ship had exploded following the crash, destroying the navigational equipment and anything else that might have provided a clue as to where this place was. It was a stroke of luck to have escaped the wreck alive, and landed on a planet with a breathable atmosphere.

darkside2

It was an eerie land, cloaked in twilight, with sunlight visible on the horizon. The stranger had been walking toward the light when the ramshackle settlement came into view. Why did these people choose to live out here in the darkness, instead of closer to the light? The question needed an answer, before further travel in that direction was attempted.
The stranger strode into the camp.
***
Aaron pinched his sister’s arm. “I saw that. Quit hoarding the protein pods. I want some too!”
Lucy squealed and slapped his hand away. “Stop that! I wasn’t done yet!”
“Both of you stop it!” their mother scolded. “We do not fight over food.”
Preoccupied with bickering, none of them noticed the stranger in their midst until the crunch of gravel underfoot caught their attention.
Donna’s eyes widened at the sight of the shadowy figure. She scrambled backwards, shoving her children behind her.
The stranger reached a hand into a jacket pocket, withdrew a small device and aimed it at Donna.
“Please don’t hurt us!” she pleaded. “Take whatever you want. We don’t have much, but it’s yours if you spare our lives. Please! Kill me if you have to, just don’t hurt my children!”
The stranger lowered the device and removed the battered helmet from her head. She smiled at Donna.
“Looks like I won’t need this thing,” she said, placing the translator back in her pocket. “I’m not going to hurt you. I am lost on this world and in need of help.”
The woman’s age was difficult to guess; she looked middle-aged, yet her athletic, muscular physique gave her a youthful appearance. She wasn’t pretty in the conventional sense, but no less striking. Tattoos snaked up her neck, over her cheek and one side of her half-bald scalp like alien tentacles. Silver hair cascaded to her opposite shoulder. Metal rings glittered in her nose, ears and lips. A thick lens covered her eye on the bald side, held in place by metallic bands embedded in her flesh.
“Go and get your father,” Donna whispered to Lucy, shooing her toward the cluster of tents and shacks.
Aaron knew it was rude to stare, but couldn’t tear his eyes away from the fascinating stranger.
Donna’s fear evaporated when she recognized the woman’s military uniform. “Come and warm yourself by the fire,” she offered. “You must be cold, traveling out in the wasteland. I’m Donna, and this is my son, Aaron.”
“I am Vista.”
“Where did you come from?”
Vista pointed toward the Dark. “I have been walking since my ship crashed. I don’t know how far or how long. The darkness… it’s confusing. I kept moving, toward the light.” She pointed toward the bright horizon. “I saw your fire, but didn’t approach at first. I didn’t know if you were hostile. I have been watching you from a distance.”
“No, what I mean is, where are you from? How is it we speak the same language?”
“I am from Earth,” Vista said, “As I assume you are.”
Lucy returned with her father in tow. Her eyes widened at the sight of the woman seated beside the fire.
“Donna, are you all right?” He held a flashlight in his hand, and he shone the beam in Vista’s face, revealing rough, twisted scar tissue beneath the tattoos. The lens on her eye made a whirring sound as it adjusted to the light.
Donna stood and gave her husband a brief embrace. “Yes, we’re fine. Darius, this is Vista. She is from Earth. Her ship crashed near the Dark Line. She was traveling to Summerland when she came upon our camp.”
“Summerland?” Vista’s brow furrowed. “What is Summerland?”
Aaron pointed toward the horizon. “Summerland. Land of the Light.”
Donna scowled. “Land of the Deviants, you mean.”
Aaron shrugged. “Well, that goes without saying.”
“What do you mean?” Vista asked.
“First, you explain some things to us,” Darius said. “How can you be from Earth, if we have never met?”
“I think you just answered your own question. Have you met everyone from Earth? I haven’t.”
“What I mean is, you didn’t come here on the ship with us.”
“No. My ship crashed. I don’t know where I am, only that I am far from home.”
“You’re military?” Darius asked, indicating her attire.
“Yes. North American Air Force. Captain Vista Daune.”
Lucy sat on the bench beside Vista. She reached up to touch the tattooed, marred surface of her face.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Lucy!” Donna scolded, “Don’t be rude!”
“It’s ok.” Vista put an arm around Lucy. “You’re not rude. You’re direct. It’s a good quality to have. Don’t ever lose that, sweetie. I’ll tell you, as long as it’s all right with your parents.” She looked at Donna, who nodded her consent.
“When I was younger, I worked at an amusement park. A low-budget little place, way out in the desert in Nevazona. It featured low-tech, cheesy attractions, enhanced by spraying the patrons with a mind-altering drug while they stood in the lineups. Anyway, to make a long story short, there was a malfunction on one of the attractions, a train ride that was supposed to mimic time travel. Riders started disappearing. They’d get on, but when the ride returned, it was empty. We asked our bosses to shut the ride down until we could find the problem, but they refused. One day the train returned with a single rider on board, and he was freaking out, bad. He’d had a reaction to the ride drug, and he insisted he was from the past. I tried to calm him down, but he was trippin’ balls somethin’ awful. He accused me of being part of a conspiracy. I gave him the antidote to the drug and sent him on his way, but apparently he didn’t swallow the pill. He returned later, still in a psychotic state, and threw a jar of acid in my face. Turns out the amusement park was actually a military experiment. They were testing mind control drugs. The idea was, use a drug to make subjects suggestible to whatever reality they chose to feed to them.”
Lucy gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth. “That’s awful!”
“It’s not so bad.” Vista pointed at the lens. “The optical implant is better than a regular eye. I can see things really far away, even in the dark.”
“Cool!” Aaron said. “I want one!”
“Well, first you need to find a sharp stick…” Vista joked.
“You must be hungry,” Donna said, offering her a wrapped package of food. She shot her husband a stern glance, and Darius passed Vista a bottle.
“Thank you.” She took a sip. It tasted sweet and fruity, some sort of wine.
“After the accident, the military wanted to keep me close, because I knew too much. They offered me a job. I enlisted in the space program where I worked as a mechanic.”
“What year did you leave Earth?” Darius asked.
“I left in October, 2048,” Vista replied.
“But that’s impossible! You couldn’t have! The planet was long – ”
“Destroyed? Yeah, no it wasn’t. That’s just what they told all of you to convince you to evacuate. I know the story. A giant asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, extinction level event, blah blah… everyone needed to evacuate or they would die.”
“Yes, exactly. And after we were off the planet, we watched it hit. We all watched Earth being destroyed on the screens, from the safety of the ships.”
“What you saw was fake. Spectacular special effects, staged for your benefit. They just wanted to be rid of you.”
“Who?”
“The ones in control. Governments.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I worked for them. I helped build the ships that brought you here, and countless others who ended up who knows where in the universe.”
“I don’t know,” Darius shook his head. “It all sounds pretty far-fetched. Not to mention coincidental that you ended up here, the same place where we landed.”
“It’s quite logical, when you think about it,” Vista said. “The ship I came in was built with the same technology as yours, though a bit more advanced, being a newer model. But both were built with the same type of navigational system. They’re programmed to seek out habitable planets. The difference is, yours landed safely. My landing gear was damaged during the flight and I crashed.”
“Assuming what you’re saying is true, why did they send us away?”
“As you probably remember, Earth’s governments were run by the wealthy. Every high office in the world was for sale to the highest bidder. The Elites wanted the planet to themselves. They’d tried genocide in the past, but then they realized it wasn’t race or religion that was the problem, it was population. The masses of non-wealthy were taking up space they felt they were entitled to and cutting into their profit margin.
“So they made up a lie to make us leave?”
“Yes. What better way to get rid of a problem than by shooting it into space? They’d been doing with their garbage for years: out of sight, out of mind. And then they took credit for cleaning up the planet. They did the same thing with what they viewed as human refuse. Anyone they decided was a burden – basically anyone who was in the wrong tax bracket – was sent into space like so much trash.”
“How did they decide who was a burden?”
“Anyone with a bank balance of less than a million dollars was immediately disqualified. After that, the heads of the nations met, and each came forward with a list of those they deemed worthy. The chosen ones were informed. Everyone else was told the planet was about to be destroyed.”
“I remember.” Donna said softly. I was only sixteen years old. My life was just beginning. They told us we were going to die. I’ve never been so afraid in all my life. Before that day, my biggest problem was getting the boy I liked to notice me. In an instant, my whole world changed. Everyone’s did.”
“And the bastards let you all think you were going to die. For weeks they fed you a mixture of doomsday bullshit and false hope. Their ‘brilliant’ scientists were working on a solution, they said. And then, two months after the news of the asteroid, came the big announcement. Humanity was saved! Everyone would escape the doomed planet onboard a massive intergalactic cruise ship, with a chance to find a new world somewhere out there. Tickets were free, of course, but passengers had the option of buying upgrades – private quarters, individual stasis pods – all stuff that made no difference in the long run, but the Elites never failed to grab an opportunity to make a buck. Billions of people blasted into space in every possible direction. Some were doomed to die; some are still out there cruising, locked in stasis until their ships find a livable planet. Some got lucky and found a place to land.”
“We got lucky, I guess, if you can call this lucky. My family signed up right away. But my grandparents refused to go with us. They preferred to stay and die in their home. I wonder what happened to them?” Donna sighed. “I miss them. I wish we could go back.”
“Actually, no, you don’t. After the evacuation, the Elites tried to starve out the squatters by making life as rough as possible for them, dangling the promise of food and shelter aboard a cruiser. A lot of them gave in and finally left, but some refused to take the bait. The survivalists fared the best; many had been stockpiling for Armageddon since the turn of the century. Those who were unprepared just starved.”
“But there must have been some chosen ones who didn’t agree with the plan!” Donna said. “What happened to them?”
“The penalty for non-compliance was execution. They couldn’t risk putting them aboard a ship with the masses once they knew the truth. The secret had to be protected at all costs. A few chosens met their end that way, but not as many as you’d think. Wealth and corruption go hand in hand.”
“Why did you leave?” Aaron asked. “Were you sent away too?”
“No. Military was exempt. They didn’t want to be left without defenses in case of attack. The Elites didn’t trust each other. They were so worried about being betrayed by one of their own, they overlooked the real threat.
Once the Elites got rid of everyone, they didn’t have the planet to themselves for long. Hostile aliens landed and took over. Our guess was they intercepted one of the evacuation ships and tracked it back to Earth. Our weapons were no match for them. Most of our armed forces were wiped out. As a mechanic, I never saw the front lines, so I survived. The Elites lost everything. They were forced to live in squalor, slaves to the new alien overlords.”
“Serves them right, the bastards.” Donna threw a bundle of sticks on the fire with more force than was necessary and it erupted in a shower of sparks.
“Right? It was kinda beautiful, to be honest. Anyway, I escaped, stole a ship and got the hell out of there while the rich idiots had the aliens distracted, demanding rights and fighting to keep their country clubs. I didn’t know where I was going; just set the autopilot and went into stasis, hoping whichever world I landed on would be less corrupt than the one I left.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Darius said, “but it isn’t.”
“What? I left only fifteen years after the evacuations. How could anyone fuck things up that quickly? You got some kind of Lord of the Flies thing happening here?”
“Some kind of. I don’t have much basis for comparison, to be honest.” Darius reached for the bottle and Vista handed it to him.
“We left aboard a ship called the Aldous, four months after the doomsday announcement. Donna and I were teenagers, traveling with our families. We didn’t meet on the ship; everyone went into stasis shortly after takeoff. We met here, after we landed.”
“And what is “here”? Does this place have a name?” Vista inquired.
“We named the planet Xterra.”
“I get it. Ex-Terra. Kind of a clever play on words. It was also a model of car, if I remember correctly.”
“Apparently, yes. I don’t remember, but that’s what someone told me.”
“Where are the rest of you? That ship had a capacity of five hundred thousand. Are there more settlements like this one?”
“Yes, there are more like this, but not everyone is out here. The rest live in Summerland.”
“And why aren’t you there as well?”
“Because,” Darius said, passing the bottle back to Vista, “Summerland is only for the Uppers.”
“What the fuck is an Upper?”
“According to what you’ve told us, a lot of people who considered themselves Elite didn’t make the cut. They took what they believed was their rightful place. As for the rest of us…” Darius gestured at the surrounding camp.
“So you live out here in the dark, while those entitled assholes get to live in the sunshine? How do you survive? Where do you get food?”
“Why we work, of course. For the Uppers. And for the record, this isn’t the Dark. This is the Twilight Zone. The Dark Line is still a great distance from here.”
“You live in the Twilight Zone? You can’t be serious.”
“Of course.”
Vista shrugged. “Sure, whatever. Suitable, I guess. What’s this Dark Line?”
“Xterra is different from the planet we came from. Remember how Earth rotated on an axis? I mean, I assume it still does.”
“Xterra doesn’t rotate?”
“Yes, it does. The way my father explained it, this planet turns so slowly it travels around its sun faster than it makes a single rotation. On Xterra, a day is longer than a year. On Earth we had short days and nights, seasons, cold places and warm places. This planet has those as well, but the dark and light move very slowly.”
“Your father sounds pretty knowledgeable.”
“He used to work for NASA.”
“And yet they sent him away.” Vista shook her head in disbelief, even though she already knew most of Earth’s scientists and scholars had been evacuated.
“Yes. Their loss, Xterra’s gain.
“I’d like to speak to your father.”
“So would I,” Darius said, hanging his head. “My father died, a few years after we landed.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“He was sick. Cancer. That’s why he retired from NASA. He wasn’t expected to live more than a year when we left Earth. He beat the odds, survived a deep space flight and helped colonize a new planet. He completed his life’s work and died happy, given the circumstances.”
They passed the bottle between the three of them in silence. Finally Vista spoke.
“Tell me more about Xterra.”
“The sides closest and furthest from the sun are inhospitable. The Scorch burns everything in its path. The Dark is frozen, like deep space. In between, are the regions where we live. Summerland is the ideal place to live. The sunlight is warm but not too hot, and the constant light is great for growing crops. We plant crops at the edge of the Twilight Zone, and by the time they reach the Scorch Line, they have matured and been harvested.”
“You must have water here, then.”
“Yes. The Dark is covered in ice, like Earth’s poles were before the climate change. As the sun advances, the ice melts and flows toward the warmth. The Scorch evaporates it into clouds and it rains and snows, just like it used to on Earth.
“Which explains the atmosphere. But your homes must also get scorched. What do you do, move the camps?”
“Yes. We move the camp as far as we can into the Twilight Zone, so we don’t have to move as often. It’s dark and cold for a while, but it gets warmer and brighter as the Summer approaches.”
“But what about the people who live in Summerland? They must have to move as well. Do they come out here too?”
“The Uppers? Oh, hell no. They would never leave the light. Moving them is a constant process. It keeps all of us working. Those who aren’t tending crops, working in the city or serving in the homes of the Uppers are on Moving duty.”
“You mean they move the tents and camps for the Uppers?”
“Tents! Ha!” Donna chuckled, opening a fresh bottle of wine. “I’d love to see an Upper sleep in a tent!”
“But how do you move them, if they don’t live in tents?”
Darius said, “We build. And dismantle. And rebuild.”
“Let me get this straight. You take apart entire buildings when the heat gets too close, and rebuild them where it’s cooler?”
“Yes.”
“And you’re ok with that arrangement?”
“Yes. We earn our food and whatever else we need, and everyone is happy.”
“Are you?”
“Happy? Yes, I’d say so, considering the alternative.”
“But why can’t everyone live in Summerland? Like you said, it’s a huge planet.”
“Because the Uppers won’t allow it. They don’t want crowds of Workers cluttering up their space.”
“Just like fucking Earth,” Vista muttered.
***
Vista accepted the family’s invitation to stay at the camp. They provided her with a tent and some necessities. Getting a job wasn’t a problem. Everyone worked, and the Uppers didn’t question who was who as long as the work was being done.
Vista couldn’t wait to get a look at this Summerland civilization.
Crews worked around the clock on Xterra because Summerland was daylight all the time. With no discernable day and night to guide them, they relied on Timekeepers to notify them of shift changes. The few remaining functional timepieces from Earth were used to create calendars based on Earth years, to give them a relatable way of measuring time. Shift changes were announced by the ring of a Timekeeper’s bell.
Vista was scheduled to start a shift on the next bell.
***
Aaron accompanied Vista into Summerland for her first shift. He was also scheduled to work at the next bell. Darius and Donna had finished their shifts and were at home asleep.
During the walk to the city, they chatted.
“How old are you, Aaron?”
“Mom says I’m about thirteen, in Earth years.”
“And you work? Don’t you go to school?”
Aaron laughed. “School? That’s only for the Uppers. They go to classes in the church. We don’t have to. Our parents teach us all we need to know.”
“Church? Seriously? They’re still flogging that old horse?” Vista laughed and shook her head. “Some people never learn.”
“All the kids work, as soon as they’re old enough.”
“Even your little sister Lucy? What is she, about eight years old?”
“Seven. Lucy works with my mom, on the Cleaning crew.”
“Cleaning?”
“The Uppers like everything clean and polished.”
The sky grew lighter as they neared the city, and the temperature warmed by several degrees, like an ordinary sunlit morning. People came into view, other Workers, all walking in the same direction, toward a small building that looked like a toll booth.
A bell sounded in the distance.
“We’re almost there. We’d better hurry up and punch in.”
“Punch in?”
“You punch in at the gate when you get there. Keep your card with you and don’t lose it. You’ll need it to punch out at the end of the shift.”
“The card keeps track of our pay?”
“The card is your pay. It’s a voucher. You collect vouchers, and then you can spend them in the marketplace.”
“Huh. Cut out the middleman. It’s so simple, it’s almost brilliant.”
They had reached the toll booth.
“Where do you work, Aaron?”
“Here.” Aaron took his place inside the booth, relieving a youth of about the same age. He punched a card and handed it to Vista. “Remember to punch it again when you’re done, or it will be worthless.” He beckoned to a man standing behind Vista. She recognized him from the encampment. “This is Carl. He’ll show you what to do. You’re both on the same Moving crew.”
Vista tried not stare as she entered the city of Summerland. She intended to keep a low profile, but her jaw dropped in awe.
Shining towers rose all around, connected by raised, enclosed walkways, like a giant above-ground ant colony. Workers moved about the streets at ground level, while figures in flowing white robes traveled through the walkways.
“What is that made from?” she asked Carl, pointing at the towers. “It’s so shiny!
“Gold, mostly. And some copper.”
“You’re kidding!”
Carl shrugged. “We use what is available. The Aldous came equipped with plenty of tools, and seeds to grow crops, but not a lot of building supplies. We mined the planet’s minerals and smelted the metals. There happens to be a lot of gold available. There are other materials, but the Uppers prefer the gold.
“Of course they do.” Vista shook her head at the absurdity of it all. “So you have gold towers with thatched roofs?”
“Mostly, yes.”
“And I thought Earth was fucked up.”
***
With Carl’s guidance, Vista survived her first shift without asking too many questions. She turned a few heads, but transfers from other shifts weren’t uncommon and nobody questioned her presence.
The crew was in the process of dismantling a mansion-sized home on the hot side of the city. Each building, she learned, had a duplicate next to it, which the occupants lived in while the other was being moved. Once the first home was rebuilt on the cool side of the city, crews went back and dismantled the second. And so on… building by building, until the entire city had been moved. Half of all buildings in the city were unoccupied at all times. And yet the people who did all the work were living in tents in the darkness! Vista fumed as she worked. The job never ended. As the city moved, the sun advanced.
Vista pondered what the Uppers would do if they had nobody to move their city for them.
The Uppers did nothing for themselves. Household servants prepared meals, cleaned their homes, shopped in the market for them and brought them everything they needed from the outside.
All buildings were connected by walkways, allowing Uppers to travel anywhere in the city without coming in contact with the ground. They were obsessed with cleanliness; their shoes never touched dirt and they wore spotless white garments. All the Uppers Vista saw were overweight, some morbidly so. The place was like a country club for obese germophobes.
They even had an above-ground golf course on the roof of the marketplace, with live sod planted over a fabric membrane. The marketplace was like a gigantic open-air shopping mall, with vendors of every description gathered under a roof like a giant parking garage.
One shift, while transporting materials to the cool side, Vista caught sight of something shiny. She zoomed in with her implant. The Aldous! The magnificent ship that had transported them to the planet sat a few miles outside the city, past the farmlands.
An idea formed in her mind.
***
Later, in the encampment, Vista and Darius were seated at a table in the tent that served as a pub.
Vista asked, “What happens to the Aldous during the move? Do they move it as well, or does it stay in one place?” She had to speak loudly to be heard over the chatter of voices in the busy pub.
“In the past, Captain Samuels would fly it deep into the Twilight Zone,” Darius explained, “as close to the Dark Line as possible. But he was old. He died recently, and the person who took his place doesn’t know much about the ship. On the last flight, it had a rough landing and now the engines won’t fire. We have nobody who knows how to fix it.”
“Yes, you do.” Vista grinned.
“You?”
“I spent my entire military career working on that propulsion system. I know it well.”
“The ship should be moved if possible,” Carl said, “We don’t know if it would survive the Scorch and the Dark Freeze.”
“I can answer at least half that question. The Aldous was built for intergalactic travel, which means it was designed to withstand extreme temperatures. Yes, it would definitely survive the Freeze. That’s equivalent to the temperature of space. As for the Scorch, I’m about fifty percent certain it would survive that as well. Though the ships weren’t designed to fly into something as hot as a star, they are well insulated, in case of landings in harsh environments. I don’t know enough about this planet to say for sure. I don’t know how hot it gets. But that’s irrelevant, because we aren’t going let it get trapped in the Scorch. We want that thing accessible and operational, and I’m going to make it happen.”
“Vista, what are you plotting?” Darius asked. “If the Uppers find out…”
“Then what? Tell me, WHAT will happen if the Uppers find out?” Vista’s voice rose. “What will they do?” She gestured around the room. “What can they do to any of us that they haven’t already done? Is there some sort of punishment I don’t know about? Public beatings? Executions? Prison?”
“No, nothing like that! But they could cut off our rations,” Carl said. “Without the crops, we’d starve. We need access to Summerland to survive, and the only way to do that is to work there.”
“And what if you didn’t? What if none of you did?
“What are you saying?” Darius asked. A murmur rose across the room. Vista had the attention of other tables besides theirs.
“What would the Uppers do if everyone refused to move their damn houses for them? Would they pick up the tools and do it themselves? Of course not! They wouldn’t know where to begin. I’ve worked over a dozen shifts and haven’t seen one of those pricks set foot on the ground.”
Vista stood and addressed the room.
“Don’t you people realize you’re the ones with the power, not them? I say fuck the Uppers! Let them burn when the Scorch comes! We’ll survive, because we have tents and know how to move them. We know how to plant crops. Who would feed the Uppers if we didn’t harvest their crops or serve them their food?”
“Fuck the Uppers!” came a shout from the crowd.
More voices joined in until it became a chant.
“Yeah! Fuck the Uppers! Fuck the Uppers!”
Vista turned to Darius and said, “That, my friend, is what we Earthlings used to call a strike.”
***
Word of the strike spread through the camps, along with instructions that everyone was to work their normal shifts until told otherwise.
Vista traded shifts with one of the farm Workers. The first chance she had, she slipped away, to the Aldous.
Walking onto the bridge of the old ship was like coming home. Vista blinked back tears. If she forgot about the messed-up civilization outside, she could almost pretend she was back on Earth, back at her old job, before everything went to shit.
The Aldous was easy to fix; just a loose connection caused by the impact of a rough landing. She completed the repair, then accessed the ship’s navigational system and reprogrammed it. If this strike went the way she expected it to, the Aldous would take care of their problem for them.
***
Workers gathered in the wasteland at the edge of the settlement where they awaited instructions and answers to their questions.
Vista did her best to alleviate their fears.
“In our old lives back on Earth, we were used to working for someone else. We all had Uppers to answer to. It’s natural to want to continue what we’ve always known. It feels safe.”
Several heads nodded and voices murmured in agreement.
“The rules have changed. This is a new world, and you have the power to write new rules. The Uppers are playing by the old rules. Their power lies in your willingness to obey. Take that away and they have nothing! If nobody shows up for work, the Uppers will be afraid. They will be in a position to negotiate, and we can ask for whatever we want.”
“But what if it doesn’t work? What if the Uppers won’t negotiate?” a voice in the crowd asked.
“We have the Aldous. We will threaten to leave, and tell the Uppers to take care of themselves. Believe me, they’ll negotiate.”
“We could actually leave this place?” another voice asked.
“I think that’s a question we need to ask.” Vista addressed the crowd, “Would you want to leave on the Aldous, and take your chances in space? There’s always the chance the ship’s navigation system doesn’t locate another hospitable planet, or that the one it finds is inhabited by a hostile race.”
A woman spoke up. “I think I speak for most of us, when I say, we don’t want to leave. This is our home now. Our children were born here. We want to negotiate better living conditions for ourselves.”
The crowd voiced its agreement.
“Ok, it’s settled, then. We will leave only as a last resort. We are going to demand equal treatment for everyone. The Uppers will have no choice but to share Summerland and all its luxuries with us.”
“How long will it take? What if we run out of food?” someone asked.
“There’s nothing stopping us from helping ourselves to the crops in the fields. Nobody goes there except us.”
The chatter of voices rose. Apparently nobody had considered the obvious.
“Just give me three shifts. You all have enough food to last that long. Three shifts. I promise you, we’ll know the outcome by then.”
A cheer rose from the crowd, followed by chants of, “Fuck the Uppers! Fuck the Uppers!”
***
When the next bell rang, all Workers went home, but no new shifts took their places. Even the Timekeeper left.
The Uppers woke from their clean white beds to find no clean robes to change into. Their breakfast wasn’t made. Their household servants didn’t arrive with fresh goods from the marketplace.
An eerie silence had fallen over the city. The constant sound of construction was absent. No Workers bustled in the marketplace. No Timekeepers’ bells marked the shift changes.
Nobody did anything at first; they just waited for their servants to arrive. After the second sleep with no meal, they ventured out of their homes.
The Workers had vanished. Only Uppers were left.
They raided the marketplace, stripping it of anything edible. When the food was gone, what would they do? Nobody knew.
There was plenty of food in the fields, but with nobody to harvest, how would they get it? With nobody to run the bakeries, who would make the breads and cakes the Uppers loved to eat? More importantly, who was going to move them away from the Scorch? They were going to burn to death!
Panic gripped the city.
BONG! BONG! BONG!
The Timekeeper’s bell sounded in the courtyard.
The Workers were back! They were saved! They rushed to their windows.
A lone figure stood in the courtyard. A strange looking woman nobody had seen before.
“Uppers! We need to talk!”
***
The meeting with the delegation of Uppers went as expected.
Vista studied the row of ponderous, balding old men, lounging in their overstuffed armchairs. She recognized a few of them as former politicians from Earth.
“I regret to inform you, that as of this moment, all work in the city will stop, unless our demands are met,” she told them.
The room erupted in laughter.
“Get back to work!” A man who looked like Colonel Sanders dismissed her with a wave of his hand, as if swatting a fly. “Everyone needs to get back on the job, right now. There’s work to be done!”
Vista joined in their laughter.
“What’s so damn funny?” Sanders demanded.
“Suddenly I have a craving for Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she giggled.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Just a moment, gentlemen, before we get down to business, I need to take care of something.” She withdrew a small aerosol can from her pocket and covered her mouth and nose with a cloth. She sprayed the air above the men’s heads.
“What is that?” one of them asked. He looked like an aging Cabbage Patch doll.
“Just a precaution. A little disinfectant for your protection. I came from outer space, remember? I don’t want to expose you to any deadly space germs.” When Vista stole the mind control drug from the amusement park, she never imagined she would use it on an alien planet one day.
Their eyes clouded with confusion. The atmosphere in the room changed from belligerent to complacent as the spray took effect.
“Thank you,” Cabbage Patch said.
“Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Sanders said.
“I was from Kentucky, once,” a voice drawled. The owner of the voice resembled 500 pounds of sweaty melting wax. “Senator Roy Gubbles.”
“I remember you, Mr. Gubbles.”
“Senator Gubbles,” he corrected.
“Whatever, Gumby. Actually, you were only a senator on Earth. Here, you’re just… I’m not sure what you are here. Jabba the Hutt, I think. Such a shame your colleagues didn’t choose you to stay.”
“What do you mean? Nobody stayed. That planet is dead. Destroyed by the asteroid.”
“Vista grinned. “Oh, no, dear Gubbles. That’s what they wanted you to believe. The sad truth is, they chose the ones worthy to stay and blasted the undesirables into space. You, sir, did not make the cut. Did you piss anyone off, by chance? Money troubles, Senator?”
Gubbles hung his head and she knew she had nailed it. He’d fallen into financial trouble and his cronies were tired of bailing him out.
“Why should we believe you?” Sanders barked.
“Because I was there. Long after you all got kicked off the planet, I remained, along with your old golfing buddies. If you don’t believe me, I have a little video you might want to see.”
Vista clicked a button on her implant and turned around. An image projected on the wall in front of them. It was the phony broadcast shown on the ships, of the asteroid destroying Earth. Except this video wasn’t on a ship’s screen. It was displayed on the giant screen in Times Square, with a giant party of New Year’s Eve proportions in full swing below. Billionaires from around the world cheered and celebrated. Champagne corks popped.
The Uppers watched in stunned silence.
“Sorry guys. Hate to break it to you, but there was a big party, and you weren’t invited. They celebrated after you left. You were duped. Thrown away by your own kind.”
“But… what…?” Sanders sputtered.
“Chicken butt!” Vista giggled. “But seriously, boys, if I were you, I’d be pissed off. I’d want revenge! Those bastards took everything you had! Your jobs, your property, your money!”
“Those bastards!” Cabbage Patch repeated.
“You know what I’d do if I were you? I’d go back there and take back what was mine.”
“But we can’t! The ship is broken!”
“Not necessarily.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, I can fix it. I can program a course for Earth and send you on your way.”
The Uppers murmured amongst themselves.
“Think about it fellows! The assholes who sent you away will be long dead by the time you get to Earth. But you – you’re still strong and… erm… healthy. You could take your families back home and take your rightful place on the planet of your birth.”
“What do you want in return?” Gubbles asked.
“Why nothing, really. Just leave this planet, this pain-in-the-ass, useless, always-having-to-move planet, to the less fortunate. The Workers have no place to go. You wouldn’t have to take them with you to Earth. You’d have the ship all to yourselves.
***
It didn’t take the Uppers long to reach a decision.
Vista moved the Aldous closer to the city in preparation for boarding. The Workers built a walkway for the Uppers, leading from the city to the gangplank, and loaded their belongings, most of which were made of gold. Hopefully the alien overlords of Earth liked gold. Maybe they’d be able to bargain for their lives.
The new citizens of Summerland gathered to watch the massive ship and its equally massive cargo rise into the sky, and then in a flash, it was gone.
Donna gave Vista a huge hug. “I don’t know how to thank you. I can’t believe you convinced them to leave. How did you do it?”
“Let’s call it the power of persuasion.”
***
Summerland thrived. Everyone did their share of work, and everyone shared in the benefits. The ridiculous golden towers were left to melt when the Scorch came, and the city was replaced with more practical, easily movable structures to suit the Summerlanders’ nomadic lifestyle. Aaron and Lucy grew up and had children of their own.
Even though Vista was old and blind in her real eye, she was not blind to the trend she’d seen developing in the younger generation. Some citizens stopped doing their share of work, opting to saddle others with their workload in return for goods or favors. As the lazy ones increased in number, the working class was pushed toward the edges of the city. One day she overheard someone suggest they move the workers out of the city, into the Twilight Zone.
Vista’s fingers caressed the spray can in the pocket of her robe. Some people never learned.
“Here we go again,” she muttered.
Copyright © 2017 Mandy White
All Rights Reserved
Advertisements

Further Attempts at Romance…

Posted: February 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

As I always say, I’m not a romance writer. When I try to write romance, terrible things happen and people die. This is one of my early attempts at failed romance, and also one of my favorites, which is why I post it every year. #ShortStorySunday

valentine

Your Heart Will be Mine

You twist through my heart

Like a bolt through a nut

I am a nut

Think twice before you bolt

Megan wept, curled on her side in the tightest ball she could manage.

She had been curled up in the fetal position on her bed for hours – days, actually, doing nothing but cry. Barely moving except to use the bathroom and drink a bit of water. She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep and the ache in her chest wouldn’t go away no matter how many painkillers she took.

So this is what a broken heart feels like.

She now understood why they called it heartbreak. What she felt was beyond sadness; it manifested as a tangible physical pain in her chest that radiated down into her belly. It was the most horrible sensation ever, and it was all HIS fault. How could he have been so cruel to her when all she had done was love him? She didn’t know where she had gone wrong. She had given him everything; waited on him hand and foot and catered to his every wish but in the end it wasn’t enough. He took her heart and tore it to shreds and then walked out the door as if the last two years had meant nothing.

She wanted to die.

If I died, you’d be sorry! You’d have to live with it for the rest of your life, knowing that YOU were the one who drove me to suicide!

Died of a broken heart.

That would show him how much she loved him.

Nobody else will ever love you the way I do! You’ll see! One day you will come crawling back to me with your heart in shreds, then you’ll know how you made me feel. And then I can kiss you better. We can heal together.

No, she would not end her life. Life was worth living as long as there was a chance of winning him back.

She would get him back.

Or die trying.

Richard tried to leave her several times during the last year but each time she convinced him to stay. She begged and pleaded and promised to be everything he wanted in a woman but he became cold and aloof nonetheless. He didn’t want intimacy anymore. He participated in sex when she was persistent enough to make his physical urges overcome his mental reluctance but his lack of desire was obvious.

She was willing to accept his lack of enthusiasm in their relationship as long as he didn’t leave. They could work things out. She would make it better. She just had to make him see how much she loved him and he would know they were destined to be together.

The pregnancy changed everything.

The one thing that should have cemented them together forever was the catalyst that ended their relationship. He was willing to stay for the sake of the baby. He even agreed to marry her after much pleading and cajoling on her part.

It would be the perfect wedding. She had already chosen her dress – a high-waisted design that would look stunning even with the bulge in her belly. She booked the church and hired the caterer and sent out invitations. It would be the beautiful fairytale wedding of her dreams. Afterward, he would take her in his arms and carry her over the threshold and make love to her, tenderly and passionately the way a husband should. Their life together would be picture-perfect.

There was just one small detail:

She wasn’t pregnant.

Megan thought she was pregnant, without a doubt. Even though the pregnancy tests (three of them, to be exact) were negative, she assumed it was too early for them to be accurate. She experienced all the symptoms – the missed period, tender breasts, bloated belly, and irritability. She even felt sick in the mornings. When her period arrived late, it was easy to hide it from him since he showed no interest in her physically. Since their engagement Richard had become even more distant, never meeting her eyes and only speaking to her when necessary.

It didn’t matter that the pregnancy was a false alarm. She would be pregnant by the time they got married; she would make sure of it.

She managed to convince him to have sex once during the following month but it did not result in pregnancy. Panicked, she redoubled her efforts to seduce him, but the harder she tried, the less receptive he became. When they did try, he couldn’t sustain an erection long enough to finish.

Four months passed. Then five, and still she wasn’t pregnant. She faked the symptoms, pretending to get sick in the mornings and eating like a horse so she would gain some girth and appear pregnant. The wedding was just six weeks away and she only needed to keep up her charade until after the minister declared them husband and wife. After that, she could fake a miscarriage and he would be there to comfort her and they could try again to start a family.

She began to wear padding under her clothing to keep up the appearance of an advancing pregnancy

* * *

She didn’t hear him come into the house that day.

The past few months, he had been moving around the house like a ghost, silent, never speaking unless spoken to. On that particular day, he came home from work early. Megan wasn’t expecting him. She stood in front of the bedroom mirror; trying on the next size pillow she was going to bind to her belly to make it look thicker.

She had no idea how long he had been standing there, watching her in silence.

He said nothing, but his eyes spoke the rage in his heart.

He refused to speak to her, no matter how she cried and pleaded. He started packing immediately and left that night, taking only the bare necessities. She clung to his leg, begging him to stay but he peeled her off of him in disgust. He walked out of her life without giving a second thought to their future together, leaving her blubbering on the floor.

Megan was not only heartbroken; she was humiliated. He told his family and all of their friends about her deceit and his reason for leaving. Nobody would speak to her.

She was alone.

* * *

A year later, Megan still sobbed herself to sleep but not as often. The pain in her chest had diminished to a dull ache but it never went away altogether. They said time heals all wounds but she knew that in her case it wouldn’t. She still loved Richard heart and soul and would never stop. They were meant to be together. He was hers and no amount of time or distance would ever change that.

She wasted her Saturday afternoons wandering through the mall, gazing at the gowns in the bridal shop, the sexy lingerie in Victoria’s Secret and the endless displays of adorable children’s clothing. From infant to toddler to preschooler… there were too many cute outfits to choose from. She should have been buying clothing for her own child – for their child. Instead, she could only look and dream.

She wandered toward the food court to feed her craving for sweets. She had been living on junk food and had gained a considerable amount of weight. It didn’t matter because she had nobody to stay thin for. At that moment, Cinnabon called to her.

A baby stroller blocked her path as she navigated through the tables to get to the food counters. She edged around it, pausing for a moment to admire the baby, a little girl about three months old, dressed in an adorable pink outfit. The parents, engrossed in conversation, giggled and shared an intimate kiss.

Megan froze.

No.

It couldn’t be!

It was him. Richard.

Her Richard.

Judging from the age of the infant in the stroller, he hadn’t wasted any time after leaving her. He might have already been seeing that woman behind her back! That would explain his lack of interest in Megan. The slut had already tired him out before he got home.

Rage boiled inside her when she saw the engagement ring on the woman’s finger – a large, stunning diamond solitaire. Nothing like the cheap little band he had grudgingly given her.

“YOU BASTARD!” Megan roared, sweeping the food and beverages off the table onto the couple’s laps.

“YOU DIRTY CHEATING MOTHERFUCKER!”

“Richard?” the woman said, her voice fearful. She pulled the baby stroller away from Megan.

“You stay out of it, slut! I’m talking to my husband. You’ve done enough already!”

Richard finally spoke up. “Get the hell away from my family, you crazy bitch.”

“YOUR family? YOUR family?” Megan sputtered. “What about OUR family? The one you couldn’t even give me because your dick was always limp!”

“I never wanted you, Megan. I never loved you. You were a mistake. The biggest mistake I ever made.” Richard’s tone was calm. He spoke the words without emotion. How could he not feel anything after sharing his life with her for two years?

Richard’s bitch had taken her child and moved away from the table. She was talking to the clerk at Cinnabon and a security guard was making his way toward them.

“You think you’ll be happy with her?” Megan yelled. “She’s nothing! You and ME! WE were meant to be together! Nobody will love you the way I do. Nobody!”

The security guard stepped between them.

“I’ll have to ask you to move away, ma’am. Leave these people alone.”

“Fuck you!” she spat, leaning around the uniformed man to make eye contact with Richard once more.

“You can’t escape fate, Richard. You’re mine! One day you’ll come crawling back. You love me. I know you do.”

Two more security guards came from behind and took her arms, leading her away from the food court. They demanded that she leave at once or the police would be called.

Megan left. She had said her piece.

Richard knew the truth.

She would make him see the truth.

* * *

Megan’s outburst with Richard energized her; freed her from the shackles of depression. She felt electrified, filled with new hope. She had a purpose again: Richard, and her future with him. She just needed to take the place of the baby-making whore in the food court and everything would be perfect again.

She would win him back. His heart had always been hers; he just didn’t realize it yet.

Having been banned from the local mall, Megan’s Saturday shopping trip took her to the streets and a new neighborhood where she had never been. Her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder made it difficult to deviate from an established routine. As a result, she seldom visited new places. Occasionally change was forced. This time she found it refreshing instead of disturbing. Her therapist, whom she hadn’t seen in more than five years, would have called it “a positive step”.

The weathered red brick buildings offered a nice change of scenery from the icy-smooth grey concrete downtown. The new neighborhood featured a wealth of second-hand stores, a few hippie bong shops and some dusty-looking used bookstores. It was in one of these bookstores that she found it.

The tattered brown binding of the book caught her eye and immediately she reached for it.

The Joy of Spellcasting.

She chuckled at the silly title.

It sounds like a cookbook. Why not? It could be fun. Megan purchased the book and walked home with a spring in her step.

She opened the book to the table of contents and quickly found what she sought.

Love Spells – page 131.

She noticed handwriting at the bottom of the yellowed page. The ink had blurred over time but was still legible. Megan held it up to the light to make out the words.

“Be warned, ye who goest here. Think ye long on what thou desirest. The spells contained within be those most powerful. What thou desirest, thou shalt receive.”

Megan smirked. It sounded like something out of a low-budget after-school Halloween special.

Good to know. Let’s see if it’s true.

She turned to page 131 and began to read.

There were several love spells and potions but most of them looked complicated. They contained ingredients she had never heard of and took too long to yield results. They ranged anywhere from six months to three years to complete a spell. Megan wanted results now.

She settled on the One Moon Love Charm. It claimed to return a lost love in one month and she had all the ingredients to make it work:

 

A container made from wood or metal.

A likeness of your lost love. OR

An object belonging to your lost love, OR

A sample of your loved one’s blood or flesh.

 

Write on a piece of parchment exactly what you desire.

Seal with your own blood or flesh to bond with your lover’s flesh for all eternity.

Bury the container three feet deep in dark soil under the light of the full moon.

Stand over the burial site and turn around three times and then say the incantation every night for one month. When the moon reaches its next fullness, the object of your desire will come to you.

 

Megan selected a heart-shaped wooden jewelry box Richard had given her when they first started dating – back when he still knew he loved her. The box held no jewelry except the engagement ring she no longer wore. She had been using it to store her favorite photos of Richard, all carefully cropped with a pair of scissors to a heart shape.

A likeness of your lost love.

What better likeness than an actual photo? She left all of the photos in the box.

OR an object belonging to your lost love.

Richard had left most of his belongings behind when he left, so why not add that as well? She selected a watch she had bought him for Christmas that he always seemed to forget to wear and his razor, which he had left in the bathroom.

OR a sample of your loved one’s blood or flesh.

Technically, the razor already had that covered, since it contained beard stubble and probably skin cells as well. She wanted to add as much punch to the spell as possible. More would be better, right? She cleaned the bathtub drain, extracting a slimy hairball made up of both his hair and hers. That covered both samples of their flesh.

On a plain white piece of paper, she wrote the words she had chosen:

 

Richard Cole, I desire your heart and nothing else.

 

She folded it neatly and placed it in the box.

She sliced her index finger with a razor blade and let the blood drip over the contents of the jewelry box.

Under the full moon she stood, on the fresh mound of dirt beneath which the box was buried. She turned around three times and then recited the incantation, which she had memorized:

 

“By the Earth below and the moon above,

You will be my one true love.

Bound in blood and sealed in Earth,

Waiting for our love’s new birth.

Empowered by the Law of Three,

Richard’s heart will come to me.

Three times Three.

So mote it be.”

 

She repeated the incantation two more times just for good measure. If the Law of Three was a real thing, then it made sense to do everything three times to amplify the power threefold.

The following night she repeated the ritual, chanting the incantation three times. After a pause, she recited it three times more.

She couldn’t stop the pattern once it had begun. Richard had hated her OCD but it was one of the things that made her organized and precise in everything she did. Every night she added three more repetitions to the incantation. When she reached the 29th night she recited it a total of 87 times. When she went to bed at night, the rhyme played over and over inside her head until she fell asleep.

The moon had reached the first day of its three days of fullness. It would be at its fullest the following night. Megan snuggled happily into her bed, confident that Richard would be with her soon.

* * *

“Jenkins! Get in here! You gotta see this!” Ralph Anderson shouted to his assistant.

Jenkins wandered through the double doors of the morgue, stuffing the remains of a tuna sandwich into his mouth.

“I’m still on break. Couldn’t you have waited another ten minutes?”

“No, I need you to see this. You gotta tell me I’m not crazy.”

Jenkins approached the table where his superior was conducting a routine autopsy. The ribcage was splayed open, revealing the inside of the stiff’s chest.

“So what’s the deal? You find an alien in there? Looks pretty normal to me.”

“Look again. Tell me what you see. More specifically, what’s missing?”

Jenkins leaned over the corpse to take a closer look, licking mayonnaise off of his fingertips.

“Yeah, so it looks like you’ve already removed the heart, and—”

“But I haven’t,” Anderson said, almost in a whisper.

“Sure you have. It’s not in there.” Jenkins looked around at the empty stainless steel trays that surrounded the autopsy table. “So, where’d ya put it?’

“I’m telling you, it wasn’t in there when we got him.”

“So, what is this then, a serial killer case?”

“No. Probable heart attack. Sudden death, cause unknown.”

“So, where’s the heart?”

“That is the question, isn’t it? There was no incision in the body, no sign of hemorrhage inside. It’s just… missing.”

“We gonna record this?”

“Who’s gonna believe us? I’m closing him back up and labeling him a coronary.”

* * *

Megan woke the morning of the thirtieth day, feeling well rested and energized. Today, Richard would return. She would take a nice long bath and put on something pretty and fix him a nice dinner. It would be the perfect day – one for which she had worked very diligently.

She stretched and yawned, rolling over to caress the pillow where Richard would lay his head that night.

Her hand touched something wet.

Something rounded, about the size of her fist.

It was warm, and pulsed with a steady, rhythmic beat.

 

Copyright © 2012 Mandy White

People tell me, “You should write romance! It’s popular… It sells well…”

That sounds great in theory, but the truth is, I’m not that kind of writer. The stories I write are murderous, disturbing, or just plain weird. When I attempt to write romance, something terrible is bound to happen…

Prairie Passion

The verdant sea of prairie grasses rippled in the ever-present breeze; the spring greens had not yet made the transformation to summer’s golden hue. The lone rider in the distance might have been a mirage, shimmering against the endless blue horizon. The girl had been making her short pilgrimage for several weeks, slipping away as often as possible to ride across the plains to the spot near the creek where she had first sighted the boy.

Sarah could shirk her chores without fear of punishment because not much was expected of someone in her condition. Her sisters and cousins glowered at her, jealous at being left behind to do chores Sarah skipped in favor of riding her horse, Sable.

Sarah ignored the scornful looks and whispers as she rode through the settlement. The other teenage girls were hard at work scrubbing pots and hanging laundry.

“She rides that horse with no saddle! How barbaric!”

“She does not look ill. I think she is pretending.”

“No bonnet! Positively shameful!”

In spite of their derision, the other girls were grateful Sarah kept her distance. Nobody wanted to be near her, for fear of contracting her disease. Sarah was content in her role as village pariah; she played in the sunshine without wearing her sunbonnet, rode her horse bareback and exhibited a host of unladylike behaviors without reprimand.

The doctor back in Philadelphia told Sarah’s parents she wouldn’t survive past her teen years, which rendered her useless. Nobody would marry a woman incapable of pulling her weight, who would not survive long enough to raise children. What man would want a wife doomed to die from consumption?

Hard labor aggravated Sarah’s condition. Any strenuous activity triggered a violent cough and rendered her breathless. According to the doctor, fresh air and gentle activity for the remainder of her days was the best thing for her. Sarah was capable of doing light work like sewing but her parents didn’t force work upon her. What was the point? Any time spent teaching valuable life skills to a girl who would soon be dead was time better spent elsewhere.

They had joined several other British families in a northbound wagon train, leaving the city in search of a new life in a new land. The vast fertile plains of Canada offered a wealth of opportunities. After a slow, tedious journey, the Worthingtons and their companions made their homes in a tiny settlement on the plains, in a region that would later become known as Saskatchewan.

Sarah first encountered the boy in early April when she stopped to rest at a pretty little stream during one of her rides. Sable was first to detect a strange presence. The mare was drinking when suddenly her head sprung from the water. Her body stiffened and she spun around, making a whuffing sound through her nostrils. Her ears pointed forward toward the source of the new scent, so much that the tips nearly touched.

“Shh…” Sarah whispered, “What is it, my dear?”

She tied Sable to a nearby bush and went to investigate on foot.

A small hill obscured her view. Sarah crept to the top, staying low to the ground and using the talls grass for cover. As she mounted the crest of the hill she heard the sound of water splashing. She lay in the grass and peeked down the slope.

The creek widened into a small pool as it flowed against the base of the hill. A small grove of trees stood their ground at the water’s edge. A flash of white in the water drew her attention. A horse, mostly white with rust-colored splotches stood chest-deep in the water. The animal wore no saddle or bridle, and appeared to be alone. As Sarah watched, bubbles appeared beside the horse and then a glistening black head bobbed up, breaking the surface with barely a ripple. A person had swum under the horse’s belly while it stood calmly, playing in the water as it drank.

Sarah stifled a giggle at the paint’s amusing antics. The horse submerged his nose in the water all the way up to his eyes and blew bubbles, then tossed his head high, splashing his owner and curling his upper lip in a comical horsey sneer. The boy laughed and dove beneath the surface once again, this time emerging on the opposite side of the horse.

He was the most beautiful boy she had ever seen. His waist-length raven hair and bronze skin told Sarah exactly what he was. He was an Indian, or ‘Injun’ as her uncles called his kind. The government had assured them the savages were under control, confined to sections of land reserved especially for them. The rest of the region was ready for new settlers. Sarah wondered if her father and uncles knew the Indians were in such close proximity to their new home. She watched the boy for as long as she dared, then scurried back to her horse before her fickle cough could betray her. She mounted Sable and rode like the wind back to the settlement, checking over her shoulder several times to ensure she wasn’t being followed.

Sarah didn’t tell her family about the boy. She was afraid her parents would forbid her from riding away from the settlement again. She couldn’t erase his image from her mind: his rich brown skin, so different from her own; the longest, sleekest, blackest hair she had ever seen. She wanted to see him again.

She returned several times to the spot where she had seen the boy but saw no sign of him save for a few unshod hoofprints in the mud of the creek bank. Then one day, he was there. She sneaked to the hillside as she had before, trying to be as stealthy as possible but this time Sable betrayed her. The mare was in season and resented being left behind when she could smell a potential mate just around the bend. Just as Sarah reached the hilltop, Sable let out a shrill whinny, pawing the ground with her front hoof in frustration. The paint horse whirled toward the sound, head high, ears at attention. The boy looked around fearfully, as if expecting an attack.

Sarah knew the best thing for her to do was flee.

Instead, she stood and waved, trying to look as friendly as possible.

The boy looked nervous but clearly relieved to see the intruder was just a girl.

Sarah’s heart thudded in her chest as she approached, descending the gentle slope one tentative step at a time. If she was to be captured by savages, so be it. It was too late to run away now.

Sable neighed again. The painted stallion jerked away from his distracted owner and bolted toward the sound and scent of the mare.

“Sable!”

Sarah turned and began running back to her horse, unsure of how she was going to defend the mare against the advances of a stallion with one thing on his mind.

The Indian boy followed, shouting commands at his horse in a strange language. By the time they reached the horses it was too late; the stallion had already mounted Sable and she wasn’t objecting in the least. It was best to let nature take its course. Sarah turned to the boy, who now stood beside her.

“Forgive me… my horse…” she gasped, gesturing helplessly at the horses. She was unsure of what to say but decided a greeting would be the best way to start.

“Hello,” she said, though she didn’t expect him to understand.

Her jaw dropped in shock when he replied in English.

“Allo.” He grinned, revealing a brilliant mouthful of white teeth. His eyes danced, glittering like twin beads of obsidian beneath thick dark lashes. The boy’s dusky beauty stole Sarah’s breath more than her illness ever had. The elegant lines of his face and high, sculpted cheekbones were unlike any man she had seen. With no sign of facial or body hair, his age was difficult to discern but he had the lanky, lean-muscled build of a young man about sixteen years of age.

“Y-you speak English?” she stammered, nonplussed but pleased nonetheless.

The young man nodded, the playful smile never leaving his face.

“How? You’re a… a…”

He laughed. “I am savage? I still speak. I am like you.”

Sarah blushed. “Please forgive my poor manners. Of course you speak. I just didn’t expect you to speak my language. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sarah Elizabeth Worthington.” Conscious of her manners for the first time in her life, Sarah bobbed a small curtsy and offered her hand for the gentleman to kiss.

The boy declined to take her hand and laughed heartily, making Sarah’s cheeks flush an even deeper shade of crimson.

“Sare,” he said. “Very nice. I am called Erod.”

“Erod? Is that an Indian name?”

He shook his head, still smiling. “No. Your words. Not Indian. I am Cree. In my words I am called Ka-nen.”

His thick accent reminded Sarah of the way the Dubois family spoke. The Dubois’ were a French family that had joined the settlement a few months back. Sarah had found it difficult to understand them at first, until she became accustomed to their strange pronunciation of English words. This boy spoke in a similar fashion, but the accent was different from that of her French-Canadian neighbors.

“Please forgive my horse,” Sarah said, “It is her time.”

The boy nodded, then shrugged in resignation. “‘Orse… will be ‘orse.” Sarah joined him when he laughed, trying to conceal her embarrassment at the intimate nature of their horses’ activities. She liked the idea of Sable having a foal the following year, especially one as pretty as the Indian (Cree) boy’s horse.

They left the horses to their own devices until their coupling was finished, then Sarah brought Sable to the grove of trees beside the pool where she could watch her.

The two teens sat facing each other on the grassy bank. Sarah, with her legs stretched to one side in a proper ladylike pose and the boy, cross-legged in the style of his people. Sarah was relieved to be off her feet, for she was beginning to tire and didn’t want to succumb to a spell of coughing in front of her alluring new acquaintance.

“Allo, Sare,” the boy said, tilting his head slightly as he appraised her with his eyes. His hair fell past his shoulder in sleek black wisps, brushing the tips of the grass blades where he sat.

“Hello… Erod. Tell me, how is it that you speak English?” she asked.

“L’ecole… school.” He shrugged. “Dey take us away, put us in school. Bleck-robe teach us English. Teach us God and give us new name. Now I am older, school finish and I sent back to family, but family in different ‘ome now.”

“Black robe? You mean a priest?”

“Yes, prrreest.” He rolled his R’s the same way Sarah’s French neighbors did.

“And the priest named you Erod?”

“Yes, from Bible. Hhh – erod.” He struggled to pronounce the H sound. “Bleck-robe say, ‘For even de savage must ‘ave name’.”

“Herod! Truly? That is the name he gave you? How barbaric!” Sarah tried to imagine what it must have been like for those children. Taken from their homes, separated from their mothers and fathers, given different names and forced to learn a new language. It was the complete opposite of what she had been told about the “savages” who had inhabited the land prior to her family’s arrival.

It sounded positively brutal, but she believed him. Even though she had just met the young man, Sarah did not feel that he was capable of lying to her.

“And what shall I call you?” she inquired, “I much prefer your other name. Ka-nen?”

“Den, you call dat.” He beamed, more stunning than sunlight, deep dimples pitting his smooth brown cheeks. Sarah longed to touch his face, to see if his skin was as soft as it looked.

Sarah spent the rest of the afternoon with her new friend, talking and laughing as they lay on the carpet of lush spring greens at the creek’s edge. There was no awkwardness between them and no barrier in communication, even with his broken English.

She stayed as long as she dared, then galloped home as fast as Sable’s hooves could carry her. She hugged the horse tightly with her knees, then dropped the reins and spread her arms wide, pretending they were wings. She felt light as a ball of dandelion fluff, drifting on the wind. She had a secret; one she could not share with anyone. Sarah had a secret new friend whom she planned to see again, very soon.

As spring gave way to summer and the sun’s heat transformed the prairie from green to gold, every fair day saw Sarah mounting Sable to ride away across the plains. The other teenage girls glared at her over their daily chores, spiteful comments passing between them. None of the other girls were her friends; even her sisters barely spoke to her. Their jealousy that Sarah was free to do nothing but play every day overshadowed any pity they may have had for her illness and inevitable early death.

Sarah didn’t care that she didn’t have a close friend in any of the settlement girls. She didn’t need them. She had Kanen. He was her best and only friend. He had become her entire world.

One day he became even more.

As the summer sun’s intensity grew, swimming became a regular part of their ritual. Sarah wore nothing when she swam for fear of alerting her mother to the fact that she had been in the water. Swimming was a forbidden activity because Sarah’s mother believed it was dangerous. Holding her breath underwater could trigger an involuntary coughing spell and cause her to drown. When it came to forbidden territory, Sarah was already well beyond the point of no return, so what was one more broken rule? She felt healthier than she had since she could remember. With regular exposure to the sunshine, Sarah’s skin lost its sickly white hue and developed a healthy brown glow like Kanen’s, though not as dark. She didn’t feel shy around Kanen, who spent most of his time half-naked anyway.

It was just a matter of time before their relationship made the natural progression from friends to lovers. Sarah met Kanen at every opportunity, shedding her clothing as she skipped down the hillside to their secret meeting place beside the creek. He was always waiting, as if he knew exactly when she would arrive.

Every rendezvous was a ritual in passion. She splashed into the tepid pool, falling into his lean, muscled arms. The two devoured each other’s bodies with insatiable hunger, each exploring every inch of the other. Swimming forgotten, they fell to the water’s edge in a tangle of arms and legs, coupling with the urgent fervor of youth in love. For hours afterward they lay, fingers entwined, soaking up the sun’s glorious rays with their unclad bodies. Time stood still for the lovers as they talked and basked in the glow of their union.

Sarah now had an even bigger secret, and it made her feel deliciously sinful.

* * *

It was late August. The hairy tips of mature wheat stalks brushed Sable’s belly as they shooshed through the golden sea at a leisurely jog. Sarah was as eager to meet her friend and lover as Sable was hers, but she held the mare at a slow pace to keep her from overheating in the stifling temperature. They were later than usual and Kanen had probably been waiting for a while. Sarah looked forward to a refreshing dip in the water even though the creek was almost dried up and their swimming hole was little more than a large mud puddle.

When they reached the base of the hill just before their secret meeting spot, Sable raised her head, pricking her ears toward a distant sound. Her trot slowed to a nervous, hesitant walk. Something wasn’t right. Sarah listened. She detected the faint sounds of men shouting and dogs barking. She jerked the mare to a stop and threw the reins over the bush before racing to the top of the hill.

Sarah’s hand flew to her mouth. Eyes wide, she bit her lip to stifle the scream that threatened to escape.

She had suspected a few days earlier that someone was following her but had dismissed it as nothing more than imagination. Now she knew her instincts had been correct.

She recognized the group of men below. They were her uncles and cousins. Her older brother Seth was among them as well. The men gathered around a carcass of some sort, letting their hunting dogs rip and tear at it. The men’s shouts projected a mixture of rage and glee as they rained relentless blows upon their victim. Seth drew his knife from its sheath and swung it down in a forceful arc. Sarah glimpsed bronze skin, then an angry splash of red as the knife cleaved a piece of flesh from the lower body and tossed it to the nearest dog.

She screamed and screamed at them to stop, but her lungs failed her. Her voice was absent. Nothing more than a wheezy whistle issued from her lips.

Seth’s knife swept downward once more and his arm moved in a sawing motion.

Sarah found her voice, then lost her breath as her wail of agony turned into a spastic coughing fit.

Her brother stood, triumphant. His bellow of laughter echoed across the plains. Seth raised his arm above his head in a proud display, holding his dripping, bloody prize by its long raven locks for all to see.

Sarah didn’t remember mounting her horse, and the frantic gallop back to the settlement was but a blur in her memory.

* * *

The cruel prairie wind whistled and moaned around the lone horse and rider as they made their weary trek across the whitening plain.

Sarah’s rough, phlegmy cough worsened by the day. She knew her time was as short as the breaths she struggled to take. She would be fortunate if she survived long enough to give birth to the child that squirmed within her swollen belly. The mare was becoming heavy as well, from her encounter with the paint stallion. Sable would experience the joy of motherhood long after the consumption robbed Sarah of hers.

Even though she had committed the most damnable of sins, Sarah never thought her family would turn against her.

The insults stung like stones flung from the smug lips of the settlement girls, even her own sisters:

“Filthy, unclean whore!”

“Defiled by Satan!”

“Take your cursed spawn away from us!”

She was driven from the settlement into the frozen November wasteland, exiled to die alone on the plains. She was going to die soon anyway, they surmised, so they sent her away before she gave birth to the abomination she carried in her womb.

Sarah’s exile was a blessing in disguise. Living the remainder of her days in the settlement would be a far greater hell than she would experience dying alone on the prairie, near the place where she had last seen her life’s one true love.

She had only one destination in mind. One option.

She prayed and prayed to the Lord Almighty, begging Him for forgiveness for her sins. She prayed they would have mercy on her; that they would see fit to accept his child after what had been done to him.

She spoke to him in her head as she had done so many times since his death.

“Kanen, give me strength. Please ask your elders to have mercy on me. I throw myself at their feet.”

She had followed the creek upstream from their meeting spot, the place where the horror of horrors had taken place, and found the faint trail leading away from the water toward the Indian reservation. Thin tendrils of smoke rose in the distance.

She had arrived.

 

 

Copyright © 2012 Mandy White

(Previously published in Passion’s Prisms by WPaD)