“Can we see the basement now?” Frank asked their realtor.
“No, Frank,” Julie replied rather curtly. “Let’s move on.”
“Because that… is where people… get murdered.” She answered.
“Are you serious?” He said laughing, the corners of his mouth turning up as if her next line was to say she was only kidding.
“I’m dead serious, Frank. Every movie you have ever seen where people wander into the basement— those people get murdered. Let’s move onto the bedrooms upstairs,” and she turned to walk away from him.
“Julie, wait.” He couldn’t believe she was carrying on like this. “If we’re going to be buying this house— and quite a handsome commission to you may I say— then we’re going to want to see everything, and that includes the basement.”
“I’m not going to show you the basement, Frank.” Julie said stopping to address him. “That’s it! No argument.”
Confused, Frank looked to his wife for support. “Gina… I’ll be right back. Go with Julie, please.” He realized he was dealing with an idiot and started off.
“Frank! Stop right there!” Julie said halting him.
Regretfully, he stopped, tilted his head back in annoyance and turned to see she never missed an opportunity for a pose with her tone arms crossed, her perfectly manicured nails strumming lightly along her forearm to the clank of expensive bangles and bracelets on her wrist, her balletic legs one in front of the other to reveal the tautness of her Peloton shaped calves.
“Julie… I’m a big boy,” he said drawing a muffled laugh from his wife.” He stood at 6’3” and was imposing with his barrel chest and stock build. “I can handle this.”
“There’s nothing to see down there, Frank… Nothing! It’s a basement. It’s empty…. The solar inverters, Tesla battery storage and state-of-the-art hybrid furnace are in the garage. There aren’t even windows down there, Frank, and for a good reason, the basement is where people get murdered,” she fired off in quick succession, her agitation making their choice in a realtor, questionable.
“Julie. It’s okay. I’ll be right back. Please show Gina the bedrooms and I will join you shortly, I promise.”
Julie closed her eyes and took in a slow breath then exhaled lightly to calm herself as her yoga training has taught her.
“Fine… If you want to get murdered in the basement, Frank? That’s fine by me, but you might want to ask your wife if that is fine with her, she said uncrossing her arms and gracefully invited Gina to weigh in.
Frank could see his wife’s brows rise and her lips pinch as if holding back a laugh. Not sure what to make of this, he said nothing and headed back through the kitchen toward the basement door, with it’s industrial bolt cinched into place.
With Frank’s exit, Julie huffed and stormed out from the dining room, leaving Gina to follow, the heels of Julie’s Louboutins stabbing at the travertine tile leaving the clatter of echoes in their wake. Gina kept up, but was thinking about Julie’s talk of people getting murdered in the basement. It was silly… she knew… but what if Frank did indeed get murdered in the basement? She would never forgive herself. She pushed these thoughts from her head and followed Julie up the staircase, her hand sweeping along the curved cherry banister which felt like silk to the touch as she admired the finely tapered rungs with hand carved fluted tops, like tiny hands holding it up from below.
Julie paraded Gina through the two finely appointed guest suites with their private baths fitted with quartzite countertops and glass vessel sinks that with a touch along the counter edge, the vessels lit up from below. Next, she led Gina down the hallway and surprised her with a concealed sliding door that revealed a laundry room fit for a queen. Further down the hallway they passed a servant staircases that led down to the kitchen and adjacent to the master suite, where Julie stepped aside affording Gina the unobstructed and spectacular view through the floor to ceiling windows looking out over the russet reds and virulent greens of the marshland beyond.
“It’s breathtaking.” Frank is going to die when he sees this view,” Gina said, pulling up her shoulders in such anticipation of surprise.
Julie responded with a quiet ‘hmm’ as if to say, we’ll see about that. “Yes. Isn’t the view delicious,” she muttered as if a compulsory response was needed, her hand reflexively dusting away a fleck from her lapel.
“Speaking of which, where is my husband?” Gina said stepping back from the threshold past Julie to the staircase in hopes of seeing him. When she turned around, Julie was looking at her watch, leaning against the frame of the doorway with her arms folded.
“Well. We might as well get going,” she said pushing off the doorframe. “I’m afraid this home–as lovely as it is, my dear–is not for you.”
Gina was confused. She hadn’t even stepped into the master suite and loved everything about this home. “But I love this home…. Oh, I know I should never tell a realtor that, but you already know I just love it. Don’t tell Frank I told you,” she said in a hushed whisper.
“You will need not worry about what Frank will think,” Julie commented as she straightened out her Channel jacket and started down the staircase, leaving Gina shocked.
“Wait!” Gina called after her from the top of the stairs, watching Julie take each step in disappointment, a sale gone to waste. “Shouldn’t we wait for Frank to see the Master? That spectacular view?” With no acknowledgement, Gina, having once found Julie’s peculiar personality almost charming, was now ebbing to the point of anger. Who’s the client here, she found herself thinking as she began to follow Julie down the staircase like an abandoned puppy.
Never looking back, Julie walked through the kitchen and dining room to the foyer and looped her finger through the lockbox that rested upon the emerald veins of the Biedermeier console near the entrance, then opening the front door, she ushered Gina to step out and around her so she could lock up the house.
“Stop… Just stop! ” Gina screamed out facing the street with her arms locked straight down by her sides. She spun around to face Julie and stomped past her back into the house.
Julie knew it was pointless to call her back and went about her business of shutting the front door and securing the lockbox in place before returning to the Mercedes glistening in the driveway, cell in hand about to dial her next client.
Gina heard the door shut behind her–the last straw–It’s time to get a new realtor. She stomped through the dining room and kitchen sweeping her hand along the deeply turquoise granite island to the open door leading down into the basement and stood at the top of the staircase, the dim Edison bulb illuminating the unfinished concrete floor below.
“Frank!” she called out. There was no answer. “Frank!” She called again. A slight crack in her voice this time as she apprehensively started down the staircase, ducking her head below the transom of the ceiling, taking each step slowly until she reached the landing where the souls of her feet felt the crumble of cement pellets while her head was filling with stupid thoughts from Julie. She walked out to the edge of light looking into the pitch of blackness beyond.
“Frank? … Come on…. I want to show you the master,” expecting Frank to jump out from the shadows at any moment. Nervously, she brushed back her hair, crouching slightly with her knees pointing inwards. “It’s not funny, Frank!” Come on. Julie’s has left us…. She even locked us in! We need a new realtor, Frank!” She felt a cold sweep of air rush by her leaving the smell of dank wetness in her nose. She couldn’t understand why people built basements in the first place. She would never use one let alone go down into one. But here she was.
The light switched off and she heard the door at the top of the staircase shut.
“You Fucker! That’s not funny, Frank. Turn the light back on!” There was no answer and fright had taken hold. She was truly scared as more thoughts flooded her mind knowing Frank was taking advantage of it.
She jumped and screamed out when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Reaching up she felt her husband’s hand; a hand she knew was his, the smooth top and callused sides from his craft as a sculptor. She held onto it bringing it down by her side but it seemed too light, no resistance. Terror gripped her when she realized there was nothing attached to it.
“No one. He’s part of Ops and has the overrides. But with our EVs in maintenance, he’s out there on foot–”
The pound of the colony commander’s fist on the table startled her; she had always thought of him as cool and calculated.
“What’s he doing out there? He knows we’re into the 220s of the year.”
“He sent a message he was going to see if he can get the beacon back online.”
“Get him on comm for me,” he growled through the clench of his jaw.
Tevis had anticipated this and pushed forward the PTT toggle on the console.
“CQ CQ calling CQ. This is A1DUP, Alpha-One-Delta-Uniform-Papa.” There was a faint hiss and crackle coming from the console speaker on her desk. She turned the volume up.
“Call again.” he said more calmly this time.
Tevis could see the vexing of muscles along his jawline and repeated the call signs. A second or two passed which seemed like an eternity.
“N2EEC N2EEC, this is AD2DB, Alpha-Delta-Two-Delta-Baker.” Relieved, Tevis let out a breath between her pursed lips.
The commander reached down and grabbed the call mic from the stand as Tevis pushed forward the PTT toggle once again.
“Newell, let’s not make this a rag chew. What the fuck-up are you doing out there?”
Tevis released the toggle.
“Trying to get the aerial back online, sir,” Newell said between breaths, “before the KapCo supply shuttle cruises past us for the second time. If we miss this window, sir, it will be another five days of rations.”
Tevis and the commander could hear Newell’s labored breaths as he trod through the soft sand with a heavy toolkit all of which was taking its toll on him.
“You know we’re in the 220s and what time of day it is. You had your orientation on the mites … you don’t want to be out there when they get to the surface–”
He snapped his fingers for Tevis to give him the conditions out there. “I am ordering you back here, immediately, Newell.”
Tevis brought up the ENV panel and swiveled it toward him. The temperature was up, and the frozen CO2 had already begun to evaporate. It was too late. He tilted his finger for Tevis to push forward the toggle.
“They’re out on the surface, aren’t they, Newell?”
“Yes they are, sir,” he responded, “but I’m double sealed. They aren’t getting in.”
The mites were bleeding to the surface to eat and mate. It has been 247 days since their last migration and the females velvet abdomens were flush with eggs waiting to be fertilized; the males purposeful in finding a host to carry their young. Newell had not been stationed here long enough to see this event before today, but the orientation videos he watched did not prepare him for what he saw now. When he reached the aerial, it looked as if someone had draped the antenna in red velvet. The thought of pushing away that many mites to locate the problem made his skin crawl. He dropped the toolkit to the sand, and the mites began to crawl onto it, the beacon seemed to be a magnet for them, and he was starting to think this was not such a good idea to be out here. His hero mentality had evaporated, and his idea of impressing Tevis seemed secondary at the moment.
“I’ve arrived,” he said through his helmet mic., his tone, regretful.
“What are you seeing, Newell?” The commander asked.
“A whole lot of mites, sir…” he answered.
“Get back here, Newell. We’ll spray you down, and you can survive in the chamber for 48 hours for quarantine and observation.”
“I’m already here, sir,” he said against his better judgment as he looked down at his chest and legs of his EMU suit swollen with clots of red mites that were crawling upwards toward his helmet. He swept his hand across the visor, smearing the mites on the Plexiglas, their viscous yellow insides spreading a swath across one eye, just enough to be bothersome like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He reached down to brush off the lid to the toolkit and flipped it open, the back of the lid crushing fistful of mites that set off a chemical wave through the colony, now agitated and swarming toward the disturbance.
“This is not going well,” Newell said through his mic.
Tevis wanted to grab the handset from the commander; she could hear the pulsing of blood in her ears at the rasp of Newell’s voice. She pushed forward the PTT button in anticipation.
“What’s happening, Newell?”
There was no immediate answer.
“Newell!” shouted the commander into the mic.
“I’m heading back, sir…” said Newell, the shout of the commander getting him to refocus.
“Good. We’ll be ready for you. When you reach the rim wait for further instruction.” Tevis released the toggle and she slumped into her chair with relief.
“Let me know when he’s in sight,” the commander said peering out the window and handing the handset to Tevis, then turning, he left without a word.
She waited until he left the room before toggling open the channel to Newell.
“Where are you, Irwin?” Tevis asked using his first name.
It was good to hear her voice, but he was beginning to feel he made a fool of himself.
“I’m still here, Tevis,” he said addressing her by her first name and disregarding her rank.
“I’ll be with you the entire way, Irwin. Hang in there. Our SAT will pick you up in another five minutes, and I will guide you in.”
“Thanks, Tevis.” He needed to focus on her voice and knew that any stray thoughts could open the door to panic. But It was getting difficult, the smear across his visor had changed, uneven, like a melt. As it was, he had to contort his head in the helmet to see below the distortion, and even that was no benefit for his non-dominant eye. He was covered in mites, but he knew not to brush them away this time, so he shook his head, which seemed to work for short periods of time before the visor was covered again. Fortunately, he could see below the distortion to his feet and follow the footsteps he had made getting here, occasionally shaking his head to clear his visor, but it was becoming more frequent, and he was starting to get dizzy from it.
“I have you on SAT, Irwin,” she said with a lift in her voice as she zoomed in on his coordinates, but froze at the site of the red mass surrounding him and pooling from the beacon tower. She let go of the toggle in time for him not to hear her gasp and could taste the bile in the back of her throat.
It made him feel better that at least she could see him. “Just keep me on track, Tevis… it’s getting hard to see my steps.”
“You got it, Irwin. You’re heading in the right direction.”
Although the mites were small, only a shirt button in size, the sheer number of them made his knees wobble from the added weight. Another shake of his head to clear his view and he almost fell over.
Tevis could hear his breathing becoming shallow and faster, and she knew panic might be setting in. “Slow down your breathing, Irwin. One step at a time, and breathe in deeper. I’m right here with you. We can do this.”
This was the longest conversation with Tevis since his arrival over fifty days ago when he attended her orientation briefing. He knew she was of Native American heritage and he tried to imagine her face right now, her rounded chin and full lips, her high cheekbones and narrow eyes framed by her raven black hair. He thought his status and lack of social skills would never get her full attention, but here he was, and he had her full attention. Don’t blow this he kept chanting to himself. Don’t blow this…
Tevis tried to keep him focused on her. “Where are you originally from, Irwin?” She asked while monitoring his progress.
“Ah… um… East Coast… New Jersey….” He replied and almost stopped to answer her.
“Keep your pace up, Irwin.” She said a bit more commanding. Maybe it was not a good idea to distract him like that. She knew he seemed to have a thing for her, his nervous glances when the crew was in the canteen together, the crack of his voice when they worked the same shift as he performed telemetry maintenance in and around the control center. She wanted his safe return.
He was in good shape, taking longer strides and keeping his breathing under control, but he thought he could smell the scent of burning plastic, his mask, so he picked up his pace, stepping on more and more of the mites pooling around him. Another shake of his head and it dizzied him, dropping him onto one leg where he felt the squish of mites on his knee and gloved palm. It repulsed him, and he sprang up and shook off the mites from his arm and could see the bright yellow splotches on his suit and glove.
“You okay, Irwin?” she asked with concern.
“Yeah… just got a little dizzy trying to clear my visor. I will remember to stop next time before I do that.”
Tevis continued to monitor his progress, thinking back of her time here. This marked her third cycle on J147b. She was one of the original team members remaining and knew what the mites could do to a person. Twenty days after landing here, she had almost lost her life from a bite. Fortunately, removing her leg before the infection spread saved her. What no one had known at the time was that had a female mite bitten her, it would have deposited thousands of eggs into her bloodstream. They knew very little of the mite’s life cycle, and with a reduced budget this year, they did not have the resources to get an exobiologist on site. All they knew was not to go out in the 220s during the mite’s yearly migration to the surface. Maybe if she had let Irwin know she was wearing prosthesis as a result of a bite, he wouldn’t have ventured out. But why would she, it’s not something you just come out and say to someone upon arrival, and she wanted to keep that part of herself, private.
What troubled her at the moment was the size of the mite field, visible from above. In the three cycles she has been stationed here, she has never seen this many. From the view on the SATcam, the soil had turned velvet red and her glance out the window at the crater rim above, confirm what she saw on the screen.
Newell was in sight now. “I can see the base, Tevis.”
She looked out the window and saw him standing along the rim in a wash of red spilling over the edge into the crater. She toggled the overhead to notify commander Ricklefs.
Moments later, Ricklefs arrived, he looked out the window and was disturbed by what he saw, the flow of red spilling into the crater toward them. He grabbed the mic.
“Newell… stay there!” He waved his palm for Tevis to toggle off the mic. “I can’t let him in. He will endanger all of us. You of all people should understand that, Captain?”
Tevis felt the knot tighten in her stomach. She knew he was right. There would be no way of separating him from the mass of mites. “Yes, sir.” She replied.
“Good. Do what you must. He turned and left, leaving Tevis to herself.
“Sir, where should I approach? Irwin asked.”
Tevis couldn’t bring herself to answer.
“Sir? Are you there? Commander? …. Captain?” His voice beginning to rattle.
Tevis toggled on the mic. “Irwin…” and he heard the death sentence in her tone.
“No… No… You can’t leave me out here!”
“We have no choice, Irwin,” and this time he heard a sharp inward sob. “We can’t open the doors for you. We have no way of killing them without killing you in the process. You will have to see if you can wait them out, then we can come out and get you.”
“That’s not true!” He shouted through his mic. “You can vacuum the hatch and kill them! Please… don’t leave me here.”
“You are not wearing a pressurized EMU, Irwin. And even if we left one in the hatch there would be no way for you to transfer into it without the mites getting in it with you. You need to wait them out.”
“I can’t, Tevis… I think my outer suit and visor have been compromised-– I don’t know how much longer it will hold up.” He began to panic and had been so focused on her voice he had not realized he was in total darkness from the mites covering his helmet. He shook his head, but couldn’t knock them clear, so he reached up to swipe the visor clean, and the weakened section ripped free, the mites pouring through the gaping hole.
Tevis could hear his screams being choked off in silence. She swiveled away from the window and began to dry heave, hearing only a hushed rumbling coming through the speakers. She lifted her head and glanced over hev shoulder, out the window And could see his clotted arms frantically attempt to remove his helmet before toppling into the crater. He started to slide down the face but was halted by a mass of red pushing back. And suddenly he was being passed up to the top of the rim like a mosh pit of fans raising one of their own until he disappeared beyond her view with the drape of red receding with him.
Tevis could feel the phantom burns in her limb and reached up onto the console to shut off the feed from the SATcam and mic. She stayed there with her hands clutched together and her head resting above her knees and under the shade of her dark hair until she no longer felt nauseous. Ten minutes had passed before Tevis took a deep breath and sat up. She pushed her hair behind her ears and wiped her eyes. Maybe it was time to leave this rock, she thought.
“Captain,” came a voice from behind.
Tevis turned to see the new arrival. His patchwork indicating he worked in the mining division.
“Commander Ricklefs granted my request to see you.”
“Come in, private.”
He stepped quickly and deliberately toward her and stood at attention. “I knew Newell, ma’am, ” he said? “We had arrived together on the same shuttle, and I heard what happened to him. We all did. He thought very highly of you, ma’am.” From his pocket, he pulled out a small sack and stretched out his hand. “Ma’am, this morning, Newell handed me this and told me that if anything were to happen to him, ma’am, I should give this to you,” he approached Tevis and placed the small sack upon the console desk and stepped back.
She sat staring at it, wondering why he would have ventured out knowing something might happen to him. The new arrival was stationary. “Thank you…” she said reading his tag… “Percy.” He turned on the balls of his feet and left.
She took a minute before picking up the sapphire blue bag, gently untying the knot at the top and sliding its contents onto the table. From within slipped an intricately carved scorpion, a gypsum blade and a note. How would he have known this? Then remembered a conversation she had in the canteen not long ago with Newell seated quietly at the end of the table, listening to her saying to the others that she had one cycle to go and couldn’t wait to get back to her home in Carefree, AZ, where the only thing she needed to worry about was a scorpion or two. She unfolded the note and read it, making her smile through tearful eyes:
“The scorpion was carved from the soft stone found along the rim of the crater, but you will notice there are no segmented lines engraved onto the abdomen or tail. For your remaining time here, carve a segment line every twenty days, starting from the head to the tail. Both your time remaining and the carvings should be met at the same time. Thank you for your kindness – Irwin.”
She picked up the gypsum blade and carved the first two lines into the abdomen and placed the contents back into the sack and sat staring out the window, thinking about Newell and being home.
“Image: “Red Velvet Mite” by Judy Gallagher is licensed under CC-BY 2.0. The image that was resized, cropped to fit required size.
I started on a triad of shorts, where the idea came from my studies in Ecology, specifically, from The Economy Of Nature by Robert Ricklefs on Species Adaptation.
According to Ricklefs, all species adaptation is driven by their encounter with a variety of environmental factors deriving from one of three sources: 1) Exposure to the Physical and Chemical; 2) Exposure to predators, parasites and prey; 3) And finally, exposure to individuals of the same species.
The first of my shorts addresses the Physical & Chemical aspects of adaptation as is titled, Red Velvet. My story is based upon the 1962 research of biologists Lloyd Tevis and Irwin Newell of their observations of the Giant Red Velvet mite of the Mojave Desert. The mites have quite an interesting life cycle, where they migrate to the surface once a year to eat, mate, and for their larvae to find a host. The story takes place on the exoplanet, J147b, where a new arrival (Newell), is trying to impress his female mentor (Tevis) and gets stranded during the yearly migration of red velvet mites to the surface. If you have any Arachnophobia tendencies, you may want to stop reading, here. This short may not be for you…. it will make your skin crawl….
As a writer, the part that really excites me is the etymology and origin of taxonomy. The genus and species of the Giant Red Velvet Mite (Dinothrombium pandorae) is the perfect alien for my story. Dino, is derived from the Greek word, deinos, meaning terrible and Thrombos, a lump or clot. This particular species is named after Pandora who was sent by Zeus to bring evil to the human race as a counterbalance of Prometheus, disobeying Zeus, who gave the gift of fire to the humans.
“What word of what I just said didn’t you understand?” Deedle said mocking him as she pulled the handgun from her shoulder bag.
“Deedle…. hold on…. put the gun down,” he pleaded rolling back in his chair with nowhere to go.
With a flick of her thumb, the laser-powered scope turned on, and she raised the red dot until it settled between his eyes.
“Don’t do this, Deedle. I thought you were coming over here to make amends? It was a long time ago. We’re friends now, right? We’ve done business together. This is crazy… We’re both going to die in a few hours anyway. I’m sorry…. don’t do this…”
“I’m not going to give you that luxury… you prick…. You don’t deserve to go out with the rest of humanity.” She took aim.
“WAIT! Just wait! I didn’t have a choice–”
“NO! I DIDN’T HAVE A CHOICE!” She shouted cutting him off as the red dot bounced along his forehead. She promised herself she wouldn’t lose control of her emotions over this scumbag and needed to prove to him she was no longer the young impressionable nitwit she had been in those days, new to the jewelry trade and too trusting of shitbags the likes of Donald.
Seeing him here, now, brought back thirty years of anger and sleepless nights of reenacted dreams when he claimed to have lost a piece she had loaned him; it had been her most precious piece, a vintage VCA coral and diamond leaf motif brooch worth a little more than eighty-seven grand…. a fortune to her at the time.
“Tell me, Donald…. and if I sense anybullshit… I swear I’ll blow your fucking head off!” It felt good for her to say that out loud having rehearsed this line over and over in her head during her walk along Fifth Avenue to Donald’s office.
An hour earlier, she and everyone on the planet had received a series of public service emergency alerts that a catastrophic solar flare, ten times the diameter of Earth, was heading toward them and there was no chance of survival. The Internet had become choked with posts of people making amends and being with those they loved. There was nothing anyone could do. Instead of rushing home to Dov, she had sat in her office thinking of any regrets she may have had in her life. There was one.
“What did you do with that piece I loaned you, Donald?”
He looked at her, feigning confusion.
“Donald! Answer me!” She shouted and dropped her leg back and took straight aim.
“I sold it!” He blurted out. “I’m sorry, but I needed the money… “
“To whom?” She demanded.
He was stuttering, looking for an answer that wasn’t there. “No-no one you know… please… put the gun away… we can talk about this.”
“You’re lying to me,” she said calmly. “You always flick the end of your nose when you lie… just like you did right now.” She took aim down the barrel.
“OK, OK, OK… I gave it to Anna Skylovski… Don’t shoot…” he whimpered.
“You were always such a pussy, Donald. I should have known you’d give it to that slut… I hope the blowjob was worth this bullet in your head,” she said closing one eye just before pulling the trigger and for Donald to thrust his hands in front of his face and turn slightly. The sound was much quieter than she imagined, a single pop. She looked up to see a hole in his palm and the tip of his nose missing.
“FUCK ME!” Donald screamed out as the blood began to gush. He pulled his bloody hand down and held it, growling through clenched teeth and the bubble of his voice though the tip of his shredded nose. Beyond him the bullet had exited the picture window, leaving a spider web in the glass.
“Damn! My aim sucks,” she said more to herself than for Donald’s sake. “Dov insisted I get a gun to protect myself. He even took me clay shooting, and those fucking orange pigeons went sailing forth unhindered by my bullets… I would have shot you in the balls, Donald, but I now realize you never had any.” She laughed and raised the gun once more but jumped when the sirens outside screamed out, distracting her long enough for Donald to grab the paperweight from his desk and hurl it, striking her in the forehead and knocking her onto the floor.
She was lying there, still holding the gun when Donald launched over the desk onto her, his good hand pinning the gun to the carpet.
“You stupid bitch,” he screamed inches from her face. She felt the warmth of his bloodied forearm on her throat as the drip from his nose landed her cheek. He began to press down.
Her free hand was clutched to the brooch that had come loose from the fall, the long gold pin held in her fingers. She jabbed him in the temple and felt the pin bend when it hit bone.
He roared out and rolled over onto his back, and Deedle staggered up onto her Jimmy Choos, the gun still hot in her hands. She wiped her cheek, straightened her suit and brushed the flip of her hair to the side while the sirens outside continued at a deafening pitch. The end was coming.
Donald pushed himself up against the front of his desk, defeated. “Get it over with. Do it. Do me the favor of not having to see your fucking face as my last image. DO IT!
Deedle raised the gun and held it steady, the red dot settling between his eyes. She was breathing heavily, and her head ached. She looked into his eyes that were filled with hatred, and she began to laugh. She was laughing so hard it drew Donald in as he closed his eyes and laughed achingly with her.
She wanted to pull the trigger, but the reservoir of revenge felt half full, and she didn’t want this to end, on his terms, so she lowered the gun and pulled the trigger and miraculously hit his knee. A black dot appeared on his pant leg, and he screamed out once more, a primordial guttural, “FUCK YOU” through threads of red spittle tethered from his bloodied lips.
The reservoir had drained, and she raised the gun, held her breath, and pulled the trigger. Another pop and beyond the sights of the barrel a black dot appeared on his forehead as if that was all that bullets did was to create black dots. A crimson ribbon began to drip between his eyes and along his nose where it bowed like a strand of silk onto his chest.
“No, Donald… Fuck You,” she said under her breath and lobbed the gun into his lap.
She was smiling to herself in the mirrored walls of the elevator, primping and wiping his blood from her face and throat until the courtesy ping of the elevator notified her she had reached the lobby. The doors opened, and she stepped out onto the worn marble floors with the echo of her heels the only sounds she heard as she walked toward the revolving doors that opened to the street.
Everything seemed so surreal; it was a beautiful day with not a soul in sight. Everyone who was, were where he or she needed to be. Deedle walked Fifth Avenue toward her Upper East Side apartment, not drawn in by the windows of Christian Louboutin or lured through the open doors of St. Patrick’s by the sobering choir of voices within. She walked past Bergdorf’s without admiring the window displays and was amazed not to see crowds gathered around the Apple Store. Why couldn’t it always be like this? She thought to herself as she headed along the park with the dogwoods in bloom and over the wall in the fields beyond, horses with tiaras were grazing on the chartreuse of grass — their handsome cab owners having set them free. She couldn’t remember the last time she walked home from work and took note of all the shops and cafes she had never been to or had known to exist.
With the crosstown walk behind her, she stopped to admire the tower of her apartment building and the duplex apartment at the top, a symbol of her success. She thought back to the countless dinner parties out on the terrace, her love of the kitchen and cooking, the smells of fresh biscotti on the oven sheets with Dov always stealing one before they cooled. She had some great times there, and those thoughts filled her with happiness.
It felt odd opening her own door to the lobby, where Kevin was not there to greet her with his infectious smile, eager to carry her packages no matter how small. She entered the to its emptiness, where the elevator door at the far end of the lobby was openly awaiting her, an NYC rarity. She rode up in silence to the penthouse floor and stepping out, the door to her apartment opened before she could remove her key. Standing in the doorway was Dov in his tuxedo holding two glasses of champagne.
Noticing the bruise on her forehead and smear of blood on her cheek, throat, and blouse, he asked nonchalantly, “Tough day at the Batcave, Batgirl?”
“You should see the other guy…” she huffed and dropped her bag to the floor as she reached for her glass and kissed him hard on the lips. “Come on Batman…. we’ve got some messing around to do before the world ends. Hopefully, this solar flare thing is not fake news, or I will have some serious explaining to do in the morning….”
From the impact, the sky had lit up so bright we could see clearly down the street with its neatly parked cars, perfectly aligned like the teeth of a zipper. But no one was out and no lights came on in any of the homes; our neighbors had all moved to the underground.
When we go we want to taste the air and see the sun going down and not have the taste of someone else’s exhale lingering in our mouths or staring up at a filament, waiting for it to extinguish and be left alone in darkness with only our fear leaning in. The underground was not for us, but I suppose for those who have chosen to stay below, there is something to be said for not knowing or seeing the end coming.
For us above, we enjoy free rein of the big box stores and the design outlets to get all the lumber, tools, and furniture needed to build a roof deck on our flat… something I had always wanted to do for my family but never had the funds to do it. It’s bittersweet under these circumstances, but our roof deck rocks. We have a full working tiki-bar and a well stocked drinks cupboard up here with unobstructed views of the sunsets. And the sunsets have been magnificent lately, even knowing the colors are fed by the ash of every living thing that was incinerated from an impact.
We have allowed our fifteen-year-old daughter, Louise, to drink alcohol along with us, enjoying these last days together as a family. Tonight’s concoction of a drink is a Commet-Kaze, but instead of Triple Sec we used Orange Curaçao– stuff we could never afford but is now readily available at the off-license… free of charge of course. Honestly, I hope the end comes soon because we are running out of clever drink names. My youngest, Alec, is a space nut. When we had a family vote to stay above or go under, he was the most vocal of staying above; he wanted to see what was coming. For the record, it was unanimous, we all wanted to stay above. A weird lot we are.
Ever since the announcement that Earth would pass directly into a catastrophic asteroid storm, spelling out the end for us all, Alec has been glued to his kit of computers and monitors lined up on the dining table. Seated upon his newly acquired oversized luxury office chair with his feet dangling, he has been tracking everything coming in; it’s like having the ESA in our sitting room. He has informed us that the impact we just saw was an 8 on the Torino Scale with a low MT potential… whatever that means. He said if it had been a 9 we would have been okay but we would have had to remain inside for a while, but if it had been a 10, well, that would have been a bit of a damp squib.
Louise has been on a mission every day now, looking for pet stores to liberate or following the barking or meowing of dogs and cats left abandoned in their homes. When we find them, we open the doors, cages and pet food. We even take the freshwater fish to a freshwater canal or pond and take the saltwater fish to the sea, but we need to check in with Alec before going there in case an 8 or 9 hits off the coast creating a tsunami.
My wife, Jenny, has been a rock through all this. Me, well, when you have loved someone for eighteen years, every day as much as the first, someone you would instinctively put your own life before theirs… well… I can’t think about that right now. It’s been a long day. We’re off to bed.
We were awakened by the alarms from Alec’s monitoring alerts, Jenny and I still in a tangle with the lingering scent of our lovemaking around us. We knew the drill. If this was going to be the one to take us out, we wanted to be together through to the end. Jenny would gather up Louise, as I headed down the steps to the sitting room to find Alec inches away from the monitors, the screen data reflecting off his specs as he nibbled away on a biscuit from Marks & Sparks. Now that we were directly in the path of the storm, Alec has been sleeping here on the couch under a litany of graphs and hand drawn eclipses of near misses and impacts, looking for the one that will do us in. He never had a passion for sport or music and had always been a bit of a loner with his technical books and sci-fi pulp fiction, but this makes him happy, happier than I have ever seen him. So be it. The kit he put together came from the Apple Store and smaller bits and PC shops down the block. I’m not sure of what his kit does, but he seems to know of inbounds before anyone in his circle of plusers does. Lucky us.
“Alec. What does your crystal ball show?” I said coming up behind him, making sure to slide my slippers on the floorboards so as not to startle him.
“Daddy, you should see this one. It’s big. A 10 with a high MT.” he said not turning away from the screens.
I stooped over his shoulder, trying to see what he was seeing, but all I could make out was a ball of multicolored elastics knowing somewhere beneath it all was Earth.
“Hmmmm….” was the most meaningful response I could come up with.
“This is the one,” he said without the slightest doubt and proud that his forecasts have always proved to be spot on.
I palmed the mop of his hair, thankful he got the hair gene from his mum. “Let’s get up on the roof then,” and I helped him into his pullover hoodie with the phrase, Waiting For The Asteroid, written in front.
“I’m very proud of you, Alec.” I said reaching down to zip him up, tucking the hoodie around his ears to keep out the chill. When we got to the roof, Jenny had the mushroom heaters going and a hot tea for me in hand. We sat close together on the outdoor furniture, our overly fluffy slippers up on the ottomans while passing the tin of peanut butter shortbreads, from Luigi Zuck. This was our routine; no one should have to go out without the finest shortbreads at hand.
“See it!” Alec said jumping up and almost losing his glasses.
It started as a white dash in the night, elongating and brightening as it raced toward us.
“It’s traveling at 24.360 Kilometers per second,” Alec said. He moved to the edge of the deck, leaning over with his hands on the rail, then looked back at us with a child’s innocence.
I reached over and pat Jenny on the knee. “He’s right about this one.” And stood up to join my son at the railing, my arm draped around his tiny shoulders, pulling him tight. I was proud of him and he knew it. Jenny led Louise to the railing, standing beside me as I reached for her hand and felt the wedding ring I had slipped onto her finger eighteen years ago. We looked up at the dash in the sky, its cobalt blue tail under a gown of white forming a cone. It was beautiful, I had to admit, like a slow moving shuttlecock entering the atmosphere. Then from the tip of the cone, the object projected outward, a second stage, plunging into the lower atmosphere and growing brighter, affording us a clear look down the entire block of flats as if it were daybreak.
“Shades down everyone.” And I helped Alec with his before my own. It was bright, even through the welding goggles we were wearing. I knew Jenny was looking over at me and I turned to see her smile beneath the dark lenses.
“Don’t think you’re getting your back scratched, tonight,” she said as a statement of relief.
I laughed. “It’s been wonderful, Jen.” and I leaned in for a kiss, her head tilting to the side, her lips slightly parted and I knew her love for me and I for her would never dim. As we kissed, we drew in Alec and Louise. There is something to be said for the human spirit, something that feels it will never extinguish, even where it can’t exist.
Author’s Note: This third short was inspired by a fellow G+’er, Mark Lynch (Lynchy), who lives in London and posted a beautiful sunset of his street. It moved me and I knew the story to come with it belonged here. Thanks Mark for the image and please extend a thanks to your lovely wife for the ‘squib’ reference… I’m still laughing……
They said it would come, that it would start with a sunset of such unbelievable beauty it would bring tears to your eyes. They were right. It was quiet. Eerily quiet. No bird chirps or the whine of motorboats speeding across the lake. No one in their back yards, no joyous shrieks of children chasing fireflies, no smell of fire-pits and no sound of car tires rolling down the crushed stone roads, eager to get to their weekend camps. Everyone was down in their last-minute shelters with not enough supplies to outlast what was about to unfold.
My children, grand children, friends and neighbors begged me to come with them into the town’s shelter. But why miss the last sunset one would ever see. Where was there to go? Nowhere. It would take ten-thousand years just for the fires to burn out, and the only reason they would extinguish would be due to the absence of oxygen left on Earth.
I know it might seem selfish–that I should spend the end of days surrounded by family and friends–but I just wanted to spend it in my kitchen, overlooking the lake where I can see the memories of my grandchildren out on the dock, their silhouettes with fishing poles matching the paintings in my home . So here I stand, glass of Chardonnay in hand and raising it to the sky, thankful I was given this sliver of time to see and experience this magnificent world and hoping my next journey will be as spectacular. Cheers.
Author’s Note: This short was inspired by a friend’s profile picture update on Facebook (Ann). Although my interpretation is a bit dark and not what she intended. Thanks, Ann…. it is a beautiful image. Then I thought about building a collection of shorts based upon the End Of Days told through the eyes of the people who wrote them. Enjoy.
Geri!.. Don’t do that. It will be political suicide and end your career. It’s not that bad—”
“NOT THAT BAD! Are you kidding me, Dave? You need to pull the plug on this! We’re talking about the end of days here. They have no clue what they are about to do… All the data… All the research I’ve conducted points to the fact that this experiment will be a run-away process–”
“Just listen to me, Geri. I’ve read the data and it’s….” he said coming to a halt.
“It’s what… Dave? Inconclusive? Is that what you want to say to me? I can understand these button pushers up here not taking me seriously…” she said with a snort, catching the irony of the situation. “But you Dave! You of all people…” and she stopped, a pointless end to it.
He could hear the sadness in her voice as much as the pain felt in his heart for what he was about to say to her.
“Yes… It’s inconclusive,” he said from the hammock in his backyard. There was silence on his connection to Geri who was orbiting 250 KM above him. His phone was resting along his shoulder as he looked up through the tree branches at the sky, so blue and crisp on this Indian summer day that he never wanted it to end.
“It’s inconclusive because no one has ever lived through the consequences to make the data conclusive. I’m sure this same scenario was played out on Mars eons ago…. There’s your conclusive evidence, Dave. All you need to do is look at Mars. It’s scorched.”
“Geri…. I promise… nothing is going to happen. I know you’re the smartest person on this project and everyone on the team up there has read your report and they feel the same way as I do. Trust us on this. I’m sure some folks on the Trinity Project in ’45, including Oppenheimer himself, must have had some worry in the back of their mind that what they were about to do could end the world. But it didn’t happen. They trusted their research.
“It’s not the same, Dave. They weren’t trying to open a wormhole with a so called controlled singularity.” He could hear the mock in her voice. “And it’s my research we’re talking about here!”
“You’re right, Geri. It’s not the same thing, but it is the same level of research and much more. We’re not calculating these models with slide rules; we’re using quantum computers on this, Geri. We’re about to make a gigantic leap for humanity and you will stand among history’s greatest scientists that has ever lived.”
There was more silence between them.
“Geri? You still there?”
“Then we’re good on this?”
“Dave…” she said ignoring his question.
“I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me—”
“No need to thank—”
“Just hear me out, Dave,” she was running short on time. “Don’t talk. I would never have had this opportunity without you in my life. I would never have had the chance for this opportunity had it not been for you on that cold morning, seeing me in the shadows outside, Alley Bakes, as you strolled by with that bag in your hands.” She let out a saddened laugh. “I don’t even know how you picked me out from under that cardboard box…. and now that I look out from the portal of my bay, I can see all of New England below without a cloud in the sky there. I bet you’re out on the hammock, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Good.” she said.
“I look forward to seeing you upon your return,” and he held up his wrist to see the counter ticking down. “T minus 1 minute, Geri. How come you’re not with the team?”
“No view there and I wanted to see Perkins Cove for the last time. Dave, It should be beautiful. You’ll see a bright flash and although you won’t see the X-ray projecta, it will bore a silent hole through the atmosphere creating a brilliant circular rainbow… a halo around a spot of emptiness…. I’ll have been gone by then and you will have about a minute to reflect on the life this world has had. Nothing lasts forever.”
“Geri… come on.. don’t think that way,” he said with a chuckle in his voice. “I thought we were good on this one?”
“Geri….” but he stopped short when a flash blinded him from above and he turned his head to shield his eyes. When the overload on his retinas began to clear he looked up and could see the partial circular rainbow through the branches and got up from the hammock and moved out into the clearing of his patio along the cove. The sun was low in the sky behind him, but above, at the center of the rainbow he could make out a black dot. He stood there, looking up until he felt the skin on his arms begin to crawl and the hairs on his forearms were curling into ash and drifting away. His eyes sparkled, but this time like melting Mylar, and everything went dark. His heartbeat was pounding in his chest and he could hear the blood boiling behind his ears as he dropped onto the pavers and pooled there as bird after bird thudded to the ground around him with the sound of flesh and earth sizzling before a shockwave of dark fire swept over.