Sunday, December 9, 2012

Shooting Pains

Another short story from the science fiction story collection The Claw and the Eye:

Brooks Massilon braced himself on the edge of the shower with his left arm, wincing. He inched his way down to the lever that worked the tub stopper, and with his right hand yanked it up and turned on the hot-water faucet. Another day of work missed. Two o’clock and just now able to walk, barely. Walking was good, but thinking was even better. His head was starting to clear now. That was nice.

Through the constant pain that felt like it held his head in a vice, and the frequent pains that felt like jolts of electricity darting at random through his body, he limped out of the bathroom with the faucet running, grabbed a pad of paper from the kitchen counter and returned. The pen was already behind his ear, carpenter-style. It wasn’t easy, but he got his body into the tub. His skin turned nearly scarlet, but he was used to that. It wouldn’t burn him. And it wouldn’t feel like it was burning if he believed that. He sighed as the intense heat began to soften the painful tension in his muscles.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” The apartment door slammed and every sound assaulted Brooks’ head with pain “Daddy, I got the part! I get to be Lily A-nnnnunnnn-zio!” she announced, dragging out the N’s like she was trying to imitate the sound of a motorcycle engine. “Where are you?”
“I’m in here,” Brooks managed, when there was finally a bit of silence.
But she didn’t keep quiet long enough to hear him. “Daddy?” She was still yelling, and it still hurt.

“I’m in here,” he said again, but not loudly enough, apparently.
After more slamming and thumping, she yelled, “Oh, are you in the bathroom?” Then she laughed.
“I guess you are. The door is closed. Guess what?” she called, loudly as ever, “I got the part.”
“Guin,” he said, “you’re yelling.”
“What?” She was even louder now. “I can’t hear you.”
“You’re yelling.”
“Oh, sorry,” she said, then asked, “Oh, do you have a headache?”
“Oh, sorry,” she said again. “I got the part.”
Brooks smiled in the tub. “So I heard. Congratulations. Proud of you.”
The bath helped. He released the drain, got out of the tub, dried himself, put on his basketball shorts and came out.
“How are you feeling?” Guin asked him.
“Better,” he answered. “Definitely better.” He gave her a hug. “Welcome home, Honey. Congratulations on getting the part.”
“Thanks. You’re still hurting, though, huh?”
“Yeah. What are we gonna eat? Are you hungry?” He got to the fridge with an odd gait that wasn’t quite a limp but wasn’t normal, either, and opened it.

“Starving,” said Guin. “I don’t know, roast beef?”
“You used up the roast beef last night, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Chop suey?”
“Well, let’s see,” said Brooks. “No hamburg. Won’t be very good chop suey.” “I meant the other kind of chop suey.”
“Chinese food?”
“Yeah, remember when Monica took me to lunch?”
“Oh. I think that was sukiyaki. I threw it out: it was moldy.”
“I can go shopping,” said Guin.
“I would really appreciate that,” Brooks replied sincerely.
“So would I,” she retorted. “You can barely even walk to the fridge, and I still like to eat.”
Brooks smiled. “Can you check if there’s still a pound of elbows in the cupboard, please?”
There wasn’t still a pound of elbow macaroni in the cupboard, but only about a half-pound left in the bottom of the big economy box. Behind it was a forgotten cellophane bag of corkscrew-pasta, though. It had been part of a Christmas present. “Fusilli,” it said on the front. Brooks had no idea how you were supposed to pronounce ‘fusilli’ and neither did he care. He bet Jade would know, and care, too.

They had the elbows and spirals mixed together, with a little leftover chicken, the rest of the cheese ends and the leftover stir-fry. Along with salt and pepper and a little thickened half-and-half, it made a good supper. While they ate, they made a shopping list and talked about Lily Anunzio and the war.
“Mr. O says they don’t make them like that anymore,” said Guin.
“Make what like what?” Brooks asked.
“Don’t make them like sugar?”
“No, Lily.”
“What about Lily?”
“We need sugar. Write down ‘sugar’.”
Brooks wrote down ‘sugar’. “What does Mr. O say?”
“He says they don’t make girls like Lily anymore. I asked him what she’s like and that’s what he said. He said, ‘They don’t make girls like her anymore.’ What does that mean?”
“Brooks rolled his eyes.” It could mean a lot of things.” He was about to put his mind to it, make some guesses about what Mr. O might have meant by that comment, but Guin seemed to have moved on, so he didn’t bother.
“Guess what?” she said.
“The cat jumped onto the stove and knocked the teakettle out the window, where it hit the rooster, causing the rooster to crow and wake the owl, who decided to put the kettle on for tea?” he guessed.
“No,” Guin laughed. “You’re supposed to just say, ‘What?’”
“Good thing I don’t do what I’m supposed to, then,”
It was Guin’s turn to roll her eyes. “I heard on the radio on the way home, a bomb went off and when it cooled they went into the crater, and they found—“
“Wait, a minute, wait a minute, slow down,” Brooks interrupted. “A bomb went off where?” “I don’t know, Iraq, Afghanistan, one of those places. And when it cooled they went into the crater and they found some kind of ancient writing.”
“So the bomb unearthed an artifact?”
“Yeah, I guess. They don’t know if it’s real, though. They said it could be a hoax.”
“Who found it?”
“Some soldiers.”
“American soldiers?”
“Yeah, I think. They don’t know what it says yet. One soldier took pictures, though.”
“Your aunt should look at those pictures,” Brooks said. “I wonder if she knows about this. We should tell her. Are the pictures public on the internet?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s find out. Jade would want to see them.”
“Okay,” Guin responded, “but why Jade, specifically?”
“Because, I bet she could translate them.” Brooks wrote down ‘bacon, potatoes, eggs’ and ‘cream cheese’.
“Does she know that one?” asked Guin, looking doubtful.
Brooks looked up from the shopping list. “Know that one what?”
“That language. What language is that?”
“How would I know? You’re telling me about this, remember?”
“Okay, I’m confused,” said Guin. “Why do you think Jade could translate the writing they found in the bomb crater, if you don’t even know what language it is?”
Brooks shrugged. “Because she translates a lot of stuff that’s written in languages she doesn’t 'know’.” He made quotation marks in the air with his fingers.
“Really? Like what?”
“Like Italian,” he suggested, off the top of his head.
“But she knows Spanish and French,” said Guin. “Isn’t Italian related?”
“It is,” Brooks admitted. “That was a poor example. She’s done Arabic, though, and modern Greek. Not really a hundred percent accurate, I guess, but enough to get the idea of what it was saying.”
“I don’t get it,” Guin balked. “How can you translate something, if you can’t even read it? I mean, don’t you have to learn a language, before you can read it?”
“I don’t really get it either, to tell you the truth,” he admitted. “She says it has something to do with looking for patterns, though. I don’t know. Maybe she can read the instructions on the new air filter.”
“You need the instructions? I thought you knew how to fix cars.”
Brooks smiled. “Yeah,” he said sarcastically. “I’m pretty sure I can replace the air filter.” He slid his chair back and half-stood, only to realize he couldn’t walk. He’d been in the chair too long, and grown stiff.
“I don’t know,” Guin teased. “You’d have to learn to walk first.” She went to the fridge and got out the orange juice and refilled his glass for him. “Is that what you wanted?” she asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” Brooks replied, and began to stretch, working his way toward walking again.
When Guin came back from shopping, Brooks was feeling a lot better, and they were both hungry again. They put the groceries away together but left out some fish sticks and French fries, and heated them in the microwave, and Brooks cooked mushrooms and peppers in a fry pan to eat with lots of sour cream. For Guin there was store-bought tartar sauce, and for Brooks the kind he made himself, because his didn’t have onions in it.
“Want to eat on the roof?” Guin suggested. It wasn’t the roof, exactly. The roof was made of slick dark-red metal, the color of drying blood, and had what builders call a twelve-inch pitch, or a 45-degree angle. But someone had built a nice deck up there, that you could get to by climbing through the window near the table and going up some steps.
They took their plates up to the roof-deck and ate there, sitting on fold-up canvas chairs with cupholders in the armrests. It was a beautiful clear night, and hard to believe that tomorrow it was supposed to be overcast and drizzly. Guin would need to take an umbrella with her, just in case, when she went to meet her friends.
“Some girl at the auditions today thought you were a drug addict,” Guin laughed. “Did you bring up the salt?”
He handed her the shaker. “Why’d she think that?“
“’Cause I told her I couldn’t wake you this morning. I said I hoped you were okay, because I couldn’t wake you and I had to get to the school. And she sort of freaked and I said it happens sometimes. So she asked what else and I said sometimes you get up but you’re sort of not really there, and—“
“Not really there?” Brooks repeated, interrupting because sometimes that was the only way to have a two-way conversation with her.
“Yeah, like, you can’t think, sometimes. And you can’t walk sometimes, and you’re in a lot of pain, a lot, and you take stuff for the pain but it doesn’t really work.”
Brooks shook his head. “Naproxen Sodium,” he said.
“Yeah,” Guin agreed. “I didn’t even think of that. I mean, when I said ‘take stuff for the pain’ I didn’t mean drugs.”
“Naproxen sodium is a drug. I take drugs.”
“Yeah, and so is ibuprofen. But…” For once, she seemed to struggle to express her thoughts. “But they’re not addictive,” he supplied. “A lot of times when you say ‘something for the pain’ people assume you mean narcotics—especially since I’m ‘not really there’, as you say, sometimes.”
“Right?” she half-squealed. “Duhhhh… But it’s not from drugs. I can just imagine the shape you’d be in, if you did do drugs.”
“Yeah,” said Brooks drily. “My head would be attached to my kneecaps, maybe.”
“Dad!” she scolded, “you know what I mean. Oh, but I did straighten her out. I mean, I told her you get these headaches, like migraines or something, and your back is messed up. I told her you should be taller than you are but your neck-bone is like out-of-joint or something, so you’re not.”
“That’s right, I’m not taller than I am. It’s not really out of joint, though. I guess if it were, I’d be dead. I don’t think anyone could survive that. Maybe…maybe I’d just be paralyzed, though.”
“Oh, what is it, then?”
“I guess they call it ‘out of alignment’.”
“Oh. That sounds like a car.”
“Yeah. That’s what’s wrong with me. My tread is wearing thin, and I need to get re-tired.”
“Or retard,” Guin teased. “Oh, did I tell you Shannon joined the Army? Or the Air Force, I guess. Yeah, the Air Force.”
“You did tell me. She was going to be a cook but there was a bonus for some kind of weapons job, so she took that instead.”
“Oh, guess I did. She goes to Basic next week. She’s excited.”
“I bet she is. Wow, did you see that?” asked Brooks in amazement, staring, literally, into space.
“No,” he said, after a pause, “you didn’t see it: you’re facing north. Move your chair,” he suggested, “it might happen again.”
“What might happen?” Guin asked, looking for a good place to put her plate down so she could turn her chair around. She didn’t notice her dad, sitting there holding his hand out for it.
“Let me hold your plate,” he said, “before you put it on the floor and walk in it.”
“Oh, so I have to put on the floor and walk on it, after you hold it, then?” She grinned. Usually he was the one to make cracks like that: she was giving him a taste of his own medicine. She handed it to him and moved her chair, slowly, so the store-brand cola wouldn’t slosh. “What am I looking for, again?”
“They used to call them shooting stars,” Brooks responded bitterly, carefully holding both plates level and wishing he had a hand free to take a swig of his water. The fries were deliciously salty.
“Oh, cool,” she said, oblivious to his tone. “I like shooting stars. You should have made a wish.”
“I did.”
“Really?” she asked, settling back into her chair and taking her plate back. “Brooks Massilon actually wished upon a star? I can’t believe it!”
“You shouldn’t believe it,” he answered. “I didn’t wish upon a star. I was just wishing, and then it happened.” He took a long draught of the cold water.
“What were you wishing for?” she asked him, “Or was it private?”
“I was thinking about your brothers, actually.”
“Oh.” She was silent for a moment, then she said, “No wonder you sounded sad.” Maybe she hadn’t been so oblivious, after all, then, even if she still didn’t get it. “When do you go to court again?”
“Don’t know yet. There’s no date set yet. I have to put in a request for a hearing, or whatever they call it, and then I guess the Clerk of Court’s office will set a date.”
“Is that Venus?” she asked, pointing.
“No, Venus we can see in the morning. It’s called the Morning Star.”
“Then what planet is it, then? It’s a planet, right, and not a star?”
“It’s not a planet or a star,” he answered soberly.
“Oh, it’s—that’s a satellite, isn’t it?” Even Guin looked chagrined now.
“Can you put in the request tomorrow?” she asked.
“The…request for a court hearing?” he replied, trying to keep up with her zigzagging train of
“The—whatever it was you said—put in a request for the boys, so you can go back to court.”
“No, I have to prepare it first, and I have to make sure it’s all right according to procedure. Jade knows about that stuff, or at least she’s really good at looking it up. I’m going to send her an email tonight. She practically begged me to let her help, so I’m going to let her.”
“Awesome.” She sounded like she meant it. “So maybe you can do the request tomorrow.”
Brooks shook his head. “She’s in bed already, for one thing.”
“Oh, right,” Guin teased. “It’s after six o’clock.”
Brooks smirked. She was exaggerating, but not that much. “And tomorrow she’s going to drive
Mrs. McGillicuddy to her doctor’s appointment, podiatrist or something—“
“You’re kidding me,” Guin interrupted. “Her name is really Mrs. McGillicuddy?”
“No,” Brooks admitted, his lips threatening to break into a sheepish smile, “but I can never remember her name. Jade must have told me half a dozen times, but I always forget, so now I just call her Mrs. McGillicuddy, or Mrs. What’s-Her-Face.”
“Ohh...” Guin breathed, screwing up her face and looking nostalgic at the same time. As though a sixteen-year-old could be nostalgic—but she was a natural actress. “Is it Griffin something? Griffin-Wendell?”
“I have no idea,” said her father. “It could be.”
“You don’t recognize it?”
“I don’t remember her name,” he said. “I just don’t remember it. I wouldn’t know it if I heard it, and maybe I just did.”
“Okay,” she conceded. “So she has to take the old lady to the foot doctor tomorrow. And then what?”
“Then she’s going to drop off a birthday present for Wade at Becky’s house, and after that she can go home and start working for the day. She’ll probably see my email when she gets home from Becky’s, but when she can start—” Brooks cut himself off suddenly and just gasped and then forgot to breathe.
“Oh my god!” Guin half-screamed. “That was a big one. You said shooting stars but I didn’t expect shooting stars like that.”
“Yeah,” Brooks exhaled sadly. “It was a big one.”
“If I was superstitious,” said Guin energetically, “I’d say it was a sign.”
“It was a sign,” said Brooks.
“Okay, now you’re weirding me out,” she objected. “Since when did you get so hocus-pocusy?”
More white streaks of light, smaller ones, sparkled in the black sky. Brooks said nothing, and just stared at them. He wondered if it was a good sign or a bad one. It didn’t feel good.
“Ooh,” said Guin in a subdued voice, “those aren’t meteors, are they?”
“No, Honey,” Brooks confirmed gently. He sat there and gazed at his daughter, his Guinevere Sylvanbrooke, his little girl who was nearly a woman now. It was painful to watch the reality sink in. He felt like it was robbing her of her innocence, stealing the last shreds her childhood before their time.

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