Taste & Odor

by Annabelle Kim

Maud Wiggins always bitched about the water. Therefore, nobody paid much attention when the old biddy called to complain that her tap water smelled bad. It is the policy of our water company to respond to each and every customer complaint – half of them from Maud Wiggins – in a prompt and courteous manner. I am the Director of Water Quality; all complaint reports land in my inbox. I knew this was coming.

My field service technician, Bob Brunner, hadn’t shown up for work. In his stead, I sent Tiny to investigate. Weighing in at three hundred torpid pounds, Tiny is the most lackadaisical bum on staff, which is saying a lot. Tiny returned from the old lady’s house with his typical lazy ass report: “I ain’t smelled nothin’.”

Maud Wiggins called again the next day. She griped that the water smelled even worse. I sent Tiny out again. The second time, Tiny surmounted his inertia enough to bring back a sample from Maud’s kitchen faucet. My lab chemist conducted the usual bench top tests:  pH, hardness, turbidity, iron, manganese, total coliform, fecal coliform. All levels were normal.

In the meantime, I confess, I ordered spring water, home delivery. I never told a soul. If my colleagues had found out, the recriminations would have never ceased. Bottled water to a water treatment professional is like writing to an engineer. I didn’t mind flushing the toilet with the tap water, or doing the wash, or even showering in it. I just couldn’t bring myself to drink it. I started bringing sodas to work so nobody would suspect what I’d done.

Maud Wiggins called again the next day. The receptionist notified me in sarcastic sing song, “You’ll never guess who’s on Line One.” We all regarded Maud as a crank, and that she was, but I knew the old woman had the nose of a bloodhound. This time, I conducted the site visit personally.

Maud lived on two acres of fallow farmland under the long shadow of the municipality’s two million gallon elevated water storage tank. A geometry of new construction cluster homes surrounded her property. These Lego chateaus had sprung up overnight, sold on the enticement of granite countertops before the ink dried on the architect’s plans. Having refused to sell out, Maud enjoyed a view of the development’s community pool and playground. No doubt she rang the association on a daily basis to complain about the odious ruckus of happy children. At least the water pressure was good.

I pulled the company pickup into Maud’s weedy driveway. Her split-level house hunkered with the neglect of the elderly: paint peeling, roof shingles curling. Maud’s corrugated face peered out from between the crinolines. It took her ages to get to the door and longer to get it unlocked. She squinted at me and her face puckered as if she’d taken a bitter pill.

“Hello, Mrs. Wiggins. How are you today?”

“No sense complaining.”

“That never stops anyone.”

“Are you with the water department?”

“Mrs. Wiggins, don’t you remember me? I’ve been out here at least a hundred times.”

“I didn’t know they let girls work there.”

“Times they are a-changing, Mrs. Wiggins.”

“You look very young.”

“You’re much too kind!”

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

The musty clutter inside the old woman’s house – crocheted doilies, tatted antimacassars, yellowed photographs of dead people, flaking piles of newspaper and magazines – bespoke a life lingering beyond its utility. I followed her to the kitchen which reeked of fermenting chicken soup and urine. Or maybe that was Maud. How this stinky fusspot could smell anything in the tap water was a miracle.

I opened the cold water faucet at her kitchen sink and timed the first flush with my wristwatch. I had calculated the residence time from the water storage tank to Maud’s tap, and I ran the water for twice that duration in case someone down the line questioned the accuracy of my measurements. Most customers will busy themselves with fake chores or retreat to their television while I’m working in their house. Not Maud Wiggins. She hovered over me like a specter.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Maud asked.

Filling water jugs is not a complex procedure, and, yes, I knew what I was doing. Patiently, professionally, I delivered an impromptu speech on taste and odor – detection methods, potential sources of the problem, water quality changes in the distribution system, treatment alternatives – mostly to shut her up.

“I think you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Maud.

The decaying crone glared at me with rheumy eyes that oscillated in their sunken sockets. She was goading me.

“Be good, Mrs. Wiggins.  I’ll call you tomorrow with the results.”

“Tell them to send that nice young man next time.”

When I returned to the lab, I convened the taste and odor panel. Our four person panel comprised Tiny, Hope – the new lab assistant, a treatment plant operator, and Bob Brunner.

In the lunch room where the operators and maintenance men loiter, I asked the guys where Brunner was. Blank looks. Normally, Brunner manhandled any confrontations with management. In the absence of their alpha male, the pack was disoriented.

I asked if Brunner had been drinking again. The guys denied it. I asked if Brunner meant to sign out for vacation. The guys latched onto this idea, bumbling into a makeshift line of defense.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” one of the operators said. “Brunner mentioned a family emergency he had to take care of…out of town.”

The thought of Brunner caring for family struck me as incongruous. Then again, I wasn’t one to talk. The guys exchanged glances.

“Uh huh, that’s right,” said another. “I told him I’d sign him out. But I forgot.”

I asked them if anyone had any idea how long Brunner would be out.

“Yes, ma’am,” said one of the guys, sarcastic accent on “ma’am”. He looked around the lunch room for a prompt.

“A week,” said his cohort. “That’s right. He told me that when he called me. It was real late, like midnight, one AM when the family emergency come up. I was barely awake. That’s why I forgot.”

They were lying. But I had no choice but to fill in for Brunner on the taste and odor panel.

There’s always a bustle of excitement when the panel is assembled. Let’s face it. The life of a water treatment plant employee is not exactly scintillating; most of the time, we watch water flow. Each panelist had a form on a clipboard with a pen attached by a string. The lab chemist brought in beakers of water samples warmed to 45 degrees Celsius. In the blind test, each of us received an ideal sample, straight out of the clearwell, where the finished water receives its final chlorine disinfection, and a test sample from Maud’s tap.

I don’t enjoy drinking out of beakers and I don’t enjoy lukewarm water. But these factors had nothing to do with the nausea that welled up when I sniffed then sipped Maud’s water. I felt green. I put my head down and scribbled on my form till the wave passed.

Then we compared notes. The chemist confirmed that all panelists correctly identified Maud’s water versus the control sample. We discussed the taste and odor classification. Tiny thought the water was musty. The operator said earthy. In her characteristically timid way, Hope asked, might it be rotten egg? I said chemical. Hope hastily scribbled out “rotten egg” from her form and changed her description to “chemical”. Hope didn’t know it, but rotten egg was about right.

I distributed an internal memo recommending that we increase the chlorine by one milligram per liter for several days. My boss, the plant manager, dithered, not because high chlorine would increase the carcinogenic disinfection by-products, not because more chemical would cost more money, but because we would be inundated with customer complaints. Folks tend to be hyper-sensitive to chlorine. I insisted. The chlorine was cranked up. As expected, the customer complaints fried the phone lines. After two days of high chlorine, we resumed the normal treatment regimen. But the customer phone calls did not abate.

One afternoon, after all but the night crew had gone home, Hope tapped on the glass of my open office door and peered inside, clutching a manila folder to her chest. I motioned her in with a jerk of my head. She perched herself on the edge of the guest chair.

Hope irritated me. Like a mouse in the house.

“What have you got for me?” I asked, forcing myself to smile.

“Sorry. Sorry to bother you. This probably makes no sense. But I just wanted to run something by you. Something I noticed?”

“Sure, Hope. Shoot.”

“I’m sorry. I just…well, I plotted today’s taste and odor complaints on our service area map and I noticed, well, maybe it’s nothing, or maybe I’m missing something…”

“Show me.”

She opened her folder and positioned a water distribution system map before me. She had circled the location of customer complaints. Several concentric circles marked Maud Wiggin’s home, like a bullseye. The remaining circles were concentrated in the new development adjacent to Maud’s property.

“Hmmm. What do you make of it?”

“Well, I don’t know if this makes any sense, sorry, but I was wondering if there might be something in the water pipes near Mrs. Wiggin’s house. I mean, there hasn’t been an algal bloom yet and the finished water at the plant is perfect. The complaints haven’t been about chlorinous after we turned the chlorine back down to normal. It’s just an idea. It’s probably stupid?”

“Guess what, Hope?”


I took a map out of my top desk drawer on which I, too, had plotted the location of the complaints. I set our maps side by side. Hope’s face collapsed in humiliation.

“Great minds think alike!” I said, and winked at her. Her face lit up like a baby playing peekaboo.

“Oh my gosh!” she said, and giggled with her hand over her mouth.

“So. What should we do about this?”

Faced with this question, poor Hope squirmed like pinned insect. She was a problem finder, not a problem solver.

“You think we should try permanganate?” I asked.

“Yes! Potassium permanganate for treatment of stubborn taste and odor,” she quoted verbatim from the standard methods manual. “I was just about to say that.”

“Like I said, great minds…” I pointed at her to finish my sentence.

“…think alike!” she chimed in.

My solution utterly failed to address the phenomenon Hope had uncovered, but my neophyte was so eager to please that she jumped aboard. Hope was my new pet. I had a feeling she would come in handy somehow. I invited Hope to observe with me as the lab chemist conducted the bench top jar test to set the permanganate dose.

I remembered the first time I had performed a permanganate jar test.  It had been my first assignment as a new hire at the utility. I had gone overboard, conducting research, interviewing neighboring utilities regarding their permanganate experiences, projecting doses based on theoretical demand, entering data on spreadsheets, graphing scatter plots. Bob Brunner had been there. He had expressed his opinion of my work. You’re book smart but you ain’t got no common sense.

This time, I watched the lab chemist conduct her own seat-of-the pants jar test, dosing a range of oxidant concentrations in a series of jars with mechanical stirrers. As the contaminants in the water were oxidized by the treatment chemical, the characteristic pink color of the permanganate faded. The chemist recommended the dose tested the middle jar, corresponding to the highest dose exhibiting no trace of pink color, a logical choice.

“Let’s go with this,” I said, pointing to the jar one dose increment higher.

The chemist warned that we might get pink water.

I knew that. I also knew the complaints would be close to the water plant where the chemical was dosed, diverting attention from that troublesome Maud Wiggins. By the time the water reached her outskirts of the distribution system, the pink water would be gone. I turned to Hope.

“What do you think, Hope?”

She bit her lip. Wordlessly, she pointed to the jar I had picked.

We started up the potassium permanganate at the dosage I had selected. As expected, we were barraged by phone calls from customers near the water plant complaining about the pink water. One hysterical customer swore she saw blood in the water. I ordered the permanganate treatment terminated. As the pink water flap subsided, the taste and odor complaints from Maud Wiggins and her neighbors swelled.

Now my boss, the plant manager, got involved. He ordered the lines flushed. In the middle of the night, when usage was lowest, the maintenance crew opened the hydrants, wasting a million gallons of water into the storm sewers. It helped for a day. Then the taste and odor problem flared right back up. The problem was spreading beyond Maud Wiggins, beyond the new development.

We sampled dozens of locations throughout water distribution system, conducted taste and odor tests, and plotted the results on the map. The pattern would have been obvious to a cretin. The problem was concentrated immediately downstream of the elevated water storage tank. The plant manager ordered the water tank opened up for inspection. He announced that he would accompany me and my field service technician on the inspection, noting that he hadn’t been up to the water tank since it was dedicated almost ten years ago. I suppose every decade or so the boss feels compelled to demonstrate that he earns his fat paycheck.

Tiny drove us out to the site, grousing all the way about the impending two hundred foot climb to the top of the water tank. Up in the passenger seat, the plant manager fidgeted and rubbed his face. Then he cracked loud, stupid jokes.

“If at first you don’t succeed, don’t climb a water tank. Ha ha ha!”

The boss man’s initial bravado had obviously been undermined by Tiny’s craven whining. We pulled up to the gate of the chain link enclosure rimmed with razor wire surrounding the water tank. I jumped out to unlock the gate and waved the truck in.

“Okay if I leave the gate open?” I asked the plant manager.

Rarely called upon to make everyday decisions, he raised his eyebrows for a hint.

“Should be fine. Never any trouble here.”

“Leave the gate open,” he commanded.

Good: that’s what I wanted. It would be more efficient.

I unlocked the door leading into the water tank support structure, a reinforced concrete cylinder a hundred feet in diameter and two hundred feet high that supported the steel water tank overhead. Visitors are always surprised to discover that the pedestal is not filled with water. You’d think the personnel door would be a clue.

I flipped on the lights. A wan glow illuminated the dank cement walls streaked with crystalline efflorescence. Water trickled through the wall-mounted instruments continuously monitoring the water’s turbidity and chlorine residual. Reflexively, I glanced up at the dome where two million gallons of water, enough to fill about three Olympic swimming pools, were propped two hundred feet overhead, and hoped the design safety factors were adequately conservative.

I ushered the inspection party to the local control panel and opened the cover. Ignoring Tiny rolling his eyes, I handled every switch and announced aloud, “Low level, check. High level, check…” Utter nonsense, but it seemed to make the boss feel more secure. I shut the control cabinet and said, “Let’s go!”

We donned the body harnesses, which was some rigmarole because the boss could not remember how, yet refused any assistance, and because Tiny had to let the straps out all the way to encompass his immense girth. I led the way, largely because I was unconvinced the safety equipment was rated for Tiny’s load. I hardly relished the prospect of such a vast personage landing on me. Snapping my harness onto the safety rail trolley, I climbed the ladder. At fifty feet intervals, there were resting platforms where I leaned against the railing to wait and wait for Tiny and the plant manager to huff and puff their way up. Finally, at the top of the structural concrete wall, we reached the walkway leading to the four foot diameter, forty foot high steel access tube rising through the center of the water tank.

Mounting the ladder inside a steel access tube surrounded by forty feet of drinking water inevitably evoked a sense of claustrophobia. I wasn’t the only one. We all scrambled lickety-split through the access hatch and onto the roof of the tank, sucking air as if we had been suffocating. Tiny was flushed crimson and parabolas of sweat darkened the armpits and neck of his uniform. The plant manager clearly regretted his misguided boondoggle.

Adjacent to the access hatch from which we had just emerged was a second hatch that opened directly into the water tank. I handed Tiny the key to the padlock and he opened it. A puff of fetid air escaped from the air space above the water surface. Tiny made a face and stuck his head inside for about a microsecond.

“I ain’t seen nothin’,” Tiny said.

The plant manager gave it a go and recoiled reflexively.

He asked, “Is it supposed to smell like that in there?”

What a boob.

My turn. I spotted the corpse right away. On the opposite side of the central access tube we had just climbed up through, where the current to the overflow standpipe would have pulled flotsam during a high water condition, the body floated face down, its head dangling below the surface. I gathered myself, screamed, and toppled backwards.

“Call 911,” I gasped before passing out.

I heard the sirens in the distance and sat up. It didn’t take much to assure the boss and Tiny that I was good to go. They were giddy with excitement. An immense hubbub ensued when the firemen, police, and paramedics jostled their way to the top of the tank. After the initial chest thumping, the police stepped aside and allowed us to work with the firemen to drain the tank and remove the body.

The corpse, bloated and greenish bronze, was unrecognizable. Putrefaction had eaten the flesh and, even laid out in the open air, its foul stench permeated the atmosphere. The skin around the eyes and mouth had rotted away, creating a ghastly expression of horror.

“Can any of you identify the body?” asked the police officer.

Nobody could. I pointed to the nametag sewn to its shirt.

“Look. Brunner. It’s Bob Brunner. He worked for me.”

Then I covered my face and sobbed. The superfluous paramedic made himself useful by patting my shoulder. Tiny moaned, shuffled to the chain link fence, and vomited. The paramedic hastened to the more urgent patient and massaged Tiny’s shoulders as he heaved.

The next few days would be crazy busy. There would be a temporary water service disruption, boil water advisory, line flushing, super-chlorination, water quality sampling, managing the media. It wasn’t until after 24 straight grueling hours of damage control that I had time to reflect alone.

*     *     *

Over the previous couple of years, I had been collaborating with our consulting engineer on a research project modeling the formation of disinfection by-products in the distribution system. The consultant had noticed a discrepancy in the data. To clean up our results and make our graphs look prettier required additional sampling in the elevated water storage tank. I would have preferred to use someone else, but it was the end of the shift, the paper was due, and I could only find Brunner. He was none too pleased to be dragged from his comfortable lair in the control room on account of my “ivory tower gobbledygook”.

Inside the concrete support structure, Brunner snorted when I reached for the climbing safety gear, and clambered up the ladder. I had no choice but to hurry after him or be stranded in his wake. At the top, Brunner opened the access hatch into the tank. He held out his open palm and barked, “Give it.” I looked around and realized that we had left the long-handled sample dipper in the company truck.

“Can you go get it?” I asked.

“The hell I will.”

Brunner yanked up the telescoping safety post from the access ladder. He snatched the bottle right out of my tool belt and started down the ladder to collect my sample.

“You can’t do that. Your boots are dirty!”

“I ain’t touching the water.”

“Just wait. Christ. I’ll go down get the dipper.”

“I got it. Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

“Don’t go down there. You’re forcing me to write you up.”

“Okay. Have it your way.”

He climbed back out and laid himself over the rim of the hatch. Sliding on his belly, he went in head first.

“You won’t be able to reach, Brunner. The water level is down too low.”

“Yeah?  Watch me.”

He slid in further till only his legs were out of the hatch.

“You need to get out of there, Brunner.”

“Go change your tampon. Do you want it or not?”

“You’re going to fall in, you dummy.”

“Put a lid on it.”


“I got it. I got it.”

Then, with a great bellow, he slipped down the hatch and disappeared except for one work boot hooked to the top rung of the ladder. I heard my sample bottle splash into the drinking water. There was a moment of silence.

“Help me, goddamn it,” Brunner’s voice echoed from below the hatch.

I admit it was satisfying.

I assessed the precarious geometry of Brunner’s person. He clung upside down against the ladder having grabbed one side rail with both hands. Only one boot was hooked to the top rung of the ladder; the other searched about for a foothold. With half his body blocking access, there was scant room to maneuver safely in the 30 inch square hatch.

I have no explanation for what happened next.

I stepped carefully, deliberately, to the edge of the hatch and grasped the ladder safety post. Then, I kicked his boot. One. Two. Three kicks. And Brunner tumbled into the tank in a violent tangle of limbs. He sank goggle eyed into the water and thrashed his way to the surface.

“You fucking bitch!” he screamed.

That was a very rude thing to say to me just then.

In a level tone, I reminded him, “I told you not to do that.”

“Help! I can’t swim, goddamn it!”

What an ironic deficiency for a water treatment plant employee. The guys constantly work around open tanks of water. And what if I did climb down there in an attempt to save him? The man was no feather, nor was he particularly docile. We could drown together in the municipal drinking water. While I contemplated my options, Brunner launched a frantic doggy paddle toward the ladder. Observing this, I realized that if Brunner got out of his predicament, he might accuse me of attempted murder. The furious determination on his face irked me. Very slowly, because I was still deciding what to do, I put the safety post down. Brunner saw this.  His eyes bulged with rage. He propelled himself out of the water and roared. I slammed the hatch and secured the padlock in the hasp.

Then I flew down the tank access tube, down the concrete support structure, without stopping at the resting platforms. My mind must have been churning as fast as my limbs because by the time I reached grade, I knew exactly what to do.

I proceeded to the control panel which housed the local controls and a remote telemetry unit for on-site monitoring and control of the water tank parameters. I disabled the high level switch and overflow alarm and raised the water distribution system pressure set point. My new set point would be communicated by radio telemetry to the supervisory control and data acquisition system back at the water plant. The finished water service pumps at the plant would automatically increase production and fill the tank to a higher level to meet the high pressure set point, like a home thermostat turns up a furnace. It was Tiny’s shift in water plant central control room; he’d either be snoozing or gorging on a cheesesteak. I knew I was good.

It took an eternity for the water level to rise. I crossed to the opposite side of the concrete column and put my ear to the overflow pipe till I heard the water flow over the weir, into the standpipe, and down the drain line. Then I waited for the longest half hour of my life before returning the settings to normal.

I thought about climbing back to the top of the tank to make sure it was over. Maybe I would even jump in the tank and pretend I had tried to save Brunner. But what if I opened the hatch to find his livid face snarling at me? Stubborn bastard might have reached the ladder, climbed it to the top, stuck his face into the air space above the overflow weir, and hung on. I decided to go back to the water plant. I felt drained.

*     *     *

After the body was found, amidst the chaos surrounding the water service disruption, I called Hope into my office. I took out my calendar and pointed to the fateful day.

“Hope, where were you the day Bob Brunner disappeared?”

Her eyes popped. She shuddered and hugged herself.

“Oh gee, I’m not sure, but I’m sure I must have been here. Only, sorry, because I’m always here.”

“That’s right! You and I spent the whole day working on the water quality sampling plan together. Remember?”

The silly creature clapped her hands.

“Right. I remember now.”

“And we had trouble budget-wise, and we had to scale back. Which was hard. Because we wanted to do everything. But we couldn’t. It took us all day to work it out.”

“Yes, oh yes.”

“I just wanted to be sure. They might ask us. So are we sure?”


I knew a girl like Hope would come in handy.

The plant workers who lied to me about Brunner’s whereabouts came in for heavy questioning. They were driven to the station in police cars and grilled for hours. The guys returned to work ashen, shaken. I guess they won’t be trying to fool me again anytime soon.

Hope and I had our story solid. But the cursory questioning made plain that we were never suspects. Nobody thought to review the data that was automatically logged in our computer database recording the operational history of every piece of equipment, instrument, and sensor in our system. Why would they? It would be over their heads.

No doubt past scuffles with Brunner’s drunken binges colored the police department’s perceptions. The investigation wrapped in less than a week. Brunner’s death was ruled a rogue accident.

When water plant operations returned to normal, I made a site visit to Maud Wiggins’ home to take a sample from her tap for follow up testing. As I drove past the water tank, I averted my eyes. Navel gazing is not my thing. Honestly? Until now, I never thought about the accident, except in nightmares which, regrettably, I cannot control.

Maud opened the door with a puss on. She nagged me until I apologized for not listening to her in the first place. She was right, I was wrong. The concession was not enough to silence her.

“Do I have to pay my water bill?”

“Mrs. Wiggins, I will personally see to it that you get a break on your water bill.”

“Good,” she said, aiming a bony finger to my chest. “Because it’s all your fault.”

Suddenly, a hot flush burned my cheeks. Turning my face away from Maud, I found myself staring square at the water tank looming outside her kitchen window. From this vantage point, I could barely make out the railing on the top. Could an old bat like Maud Wiggins possibly have witnessed the incident from such a faraway distance through her smudged windows?

I faced her. I despised everything about Maud Wiggins: her sour odor, her vellum skin, her cottony patches of hair, her scrawny neck quivering with loose skin folds from chin to clavicle. A notion flooded over me. Nobody cared about her. How simple it would be to wrap my hands around that brittle neck and throttle it shut.


Author Bio:

 Annabelle Kim‘s debut novel, Tiger Pelt, to be published this summer, was awarded the Kirkus Star and named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. Kim minored in English Literature at MIT and studied in the MIT Writing Program. Her previous writing has won contests sponsored by WritersType and Writer’s Billboard. Her short fiction piece “ICBM” appeared in the 2015 Kelsey Review issue.

The Beautiful Accident

by Ed Carmien

Every time Hana walked past the old Hyundai hybrid that nearly filled the small space behind the house, she remembered her father driving to the NKJ plant when she was younger. He had a better car now, all electric. The old hybrid had a bad muffler, and the engine smoked, too. She wrinkled her nose against the memory of the oil stink. Now that her father was a shift supervisor he left for work almost before she woke up for school, and when he came home he was too tired to help with her projects in the shed.

Hana ran her fingers along the faded plastic side of the car. The surface was smooth beneath the grit. The door to the shed opened without a sound. Hana waited for the light to come on, just a moment’s pause while the little sun-powered light decided how many watts it could provide to the bulbs. Impatiently, she flipped open the lid and overrode the programming, and the lights came on all the way. She snorted under her breath at the conservative algorithm that operated the sun-light. It had been one of her first projects in the shed. “Appa,” she’d said, “it is too dark to see.”

“Then you shall make a light, Hana da,” he’d replied, touching her briefly on the side of the head as he liked to do.

Hana let the old network terminal sit quietly. She’d salvaged it from a neighbor when she was ten, found the problem that had made it go dark. For a year it had provided a welcome diversion. Her favorite had been the technology group she’d joined using her Appa’s ID, but eventually she’d asked the wrong question once too often. Suspecting she was not Changeun Park, they shunned her. Unseen and unheard by others, all Hana could do then was watch.

Her current project was spread out on the work table, photo-electric pads and obsolete fiber-optic cables and an old bit of circuitry the size of her ID card, just smart enough to remember and execute instructions from her ped. Out of her pocket came four small magnets. She’d rescued them from the refrigerator. With a bit of glue she attached them to her project.

It should work. Before being ignored by the technology group she’d explained what she wanted to try. They’d told her it was a childish idea, it couldn’t work, wouldn’t work, that she’d be silly to carry out the experiment. One patient member had tried to explain about magnetism, about the spin of electrons and the charge of protons (or was it neutrons?), about the impossibility of lifting yourself off the ground by grabbing onto your boots and pulling, about gravity. The Earth’s magnetic field was a million times too weak! One had admitted she had an interesting way of applying electricity to magnets—using fiber optic cable and a photon converter was far from the most efficient way, but using copper would cause problems for her magnets.

Hana didn’t understand all of the things she’d been told, but she didn’t think anything she’d heard meant her idea wouldn’t work. She knew about magnetism, had made a special study about it for a school project, had missed part of gym class cleaning up the mess she’d made with the iron filings. Hana loved the double halo a magnet made, invisible to the eye but beautiful nonetheless, loved the process of tricking the magnet with electricity to change that halo into something with teeth.

Before she could plug in current, the radio crackled. That had been a project, too, made from an old radio and the monitor her parents had used to listen to her breathing when she was a baby.

“Hana? Hana, come inside now.” As always, there was a bite behind her mother’s voice, a little bit of frustration that her daughter was out in the shed, playing at being a boy.

Trying not to feel rushed, Hana connected the power. The fiber optic cable lit up. The small screen on the circuit board displayed the binary code for “functioning.” But the magnets didn’t twitch, didn’t move a centimeter.

Hana sighed. More study, to see what had gone wrong, would have to wait. It was time to leave for Mt. Naejangsan.


Hana waved at Chisato, their maid. She was smiling, for once, her narrow Japanese face almost pretty. Hana knew Chisato was smiling because she would have the house to herself until the end of the week and would probably have her friends from Seoul visit. Hana didn’t think they needed a maid, but her mother did, and besides all the NKJ managers hired maids for their families. Her father pulled out into the street, the car silent except for the sound of gravel under the tires. Her mother did not wave at Chisato. Hana knew it had to do with Great-Grandmother, and an old war with the Japanese. It seemed too long to hold a grudge to Hana, and besides, having to work as a maid to send money home to bankrupt Japan seemed punishment enough.

She turned herself around in her seat and pulled out her ped. It was a long drive to the park. Hana imagined how much more fun it would be to fly to Mt. Naejangsan, to see the brown ridges and dark grey rock from high in the sky. By the time the car left the tightly packed houses and apartment buildings and entered the farmlands framed in gentle curves she was deep into a twenty-year old text about physics she’d copied from the network. It was in English, but with her ped she could make sense of it. Her parents chattered about how much cleaner the air was now than when they were younger, leaving her to the ped and her project.

Hana drew diagrams with her stylus and tried to guess what she had missed with her model. When the car pulled up to the little cabin at the foot of the mountain, she was sure what she would do next, if she could find the parts.

“Hana!” her mother scolded as she started listing what she would need on her ped. “Come help with the luggage. We are here! Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yes, Umma,” Hana replied. She needed to scoot fast when she heard that tone. Her ped had been confiscated more than once, and she didn’t want that to happen again.

The week passed quickly. There was nothing Hana could do to work on her project. She particularly liked hiking with her father, who over the days of their vacation lost the haunted look he’d worn since being promoted to supervisor at the plant. “Appa,” she’d say, then ask him a question that would help her with her list of parts.

Finally, he laughed. As big as she was he grabbed her by the waist and picked her up. Her braids swung down into his face as he peered at her. “What are you up to, Hana da? Do you need more toys for your projects in the shed?”

“Project,” she almost told him, but held her tongue. It was then she knew what she really wanted. She wanted him to join her in the shed for projects, like in the old days. He would bring home bits and pieces from the NKJ plant and they’d find uses for it, or stow it away for later. Sometimes he brought home broken things, and they fixed them together, first finding the problem and then figuring a way to work around it. Her favorite remained the robot hand that held her coat in her room. It understood the words “hold this” and “let go.” Sometimes while talking on the phone in her room her coat would fall on the floor, and she’d realize the robot hand had heard her say “let go.”

“Yes,” she said, laughing as he finally put her back on her feet. They were in a stand of pine. Down below was their cabin. They’d climbed so high on this hike the roofs were tiny squares. They would have to go back soon or risk walking home in the dark.

“Well, what do you need?”

Hana had thought hard about how to make this request. She didn’t understand why he liked the old Hyundai so much. It was up on concrete blocks and hadn’t run for years. Even when it had been running, the engine had been rough and loud, and it burned oil. The batteries had lost some of their ability to hold a charge, too.

“Well, I need some big batteries, and some big magnets.”

He frowned. “We don’t have those sorts of things at the plant….”

Long ago she’d learned to let him think out loud.

“Oh,” he finally said. “Let us begin walking home. Mother will have some dinner for us.”

Hana was very hungry when they walked up to the cabin, where the lights were already burning in the deepening dusk. The smell of rice and something else came from the windows, and she felt her stomach growl. “What is that, Appa?”

“Your Umma has made kalbi as a treat, Hana,” he told her. Grinning, he raced her to the door.

“Jiyoung, Hana here has a project in mind, back home,” her father said after the food was in their bowls, rice next to short pork ribs still steaming from the gas grill.

Her mother narrowed her eyes. “Yes?”

“She would find parts of the car useful. Since it does not run any more….”

“Oh,” said her mother. “Well.”

Hana watched her father pat her mother on the hand. What was it about that car?

“Don’t you think it would be appropriate for Hana to make something out of that old car?”

“Make something?” Her mother grinned. “Yes, it would. So long as she does not make something in the car, please.” Her parents both laughed, and her father gripped Umma’s hand across the small table.

“There will be no accidents,” he said, and they laughed even more, saying together as if rehearsed, “yes, no beautiful accidents.” They looked at Hana with these words.

She realized she’d been holding her breath in anticipation. “So I can use the parts?” she blurted out. Hana nearly always understood her parents, making small moments of mystery such as this curl her toes with frustration.

Her parents laughed some more at their little joke. Picking up their slim metal chopsticks, they nodded. Later, Hana marked off two important items from the list on her ped.


Back home, she heaved the last of the luggage into the house and ran to the shed. After a full week of charging and no use at all, the sun-light did not hesitate to make the bulbs nice and bright. On the work table sat her project. The magnets hadn’t lifted. The field was too weak, just as everyone had said.

Her father’s voice made her jump with surprise. “So this is the new project?”

Hana nodded.

“What does it do?”

She hesitated. Ever since the members of the group had told her it was impossible, she hadn’t told anyone what the project was supposed to do.

“You can tell me, Hana da,” he touched the side of her head.

“It should fly.” She almost whispered the words. “It should, but it doesn’t yet.”

Because he was her father, he did not laugh. “I see,” he said, and glanced at the network terminal.

“Did you know,” he said, looking serious, “that someone used my ID to join a NKJ discussion on the network? Whoever it was spoke about making a flying machine out of magnets.”

Hana’s legs wobbled. The technology group had been NKJ?

“When they asked me about it at the plant, naturally I said I hadn’t joined the group. It is all engineers and researchers, not a place for a supervisor, like me.”

She felt tears appear in her eyes. “I am sorry,” she said, and hated her voice for quavering. “I did not know it was people from your company.”

He raised his hand and she quailed, thinking he would hit her, but he only laughed and clapped her on the shoulder. “The funny part is it took them three months to catch you, Hana da. Three months! Those are the egg-heads with big degrees, they figure out what the plant should make. But Hana, please understand, you are only 12 years old. There are many things for you to learn in school, and at a university if you wish. If this does not work, well, it is not because you are not smart.”

She nodded and wiped the tears from her face. Hana wasn’t sure what felt worse, that she’d been caught, or that he’d known all along what she’d been doing with his ID and hadn’t told her.

I will make it work, Hana told herself. I will make it work.


Every day after school but before her chores Hana worked on her flying machine project. She was so sure she would find the fault in the model that she began taking the parts out of the Hyundai. The batteries came first, after a stern lecture from her father about the perils of electric current. The rear seat was a mess when she was done, but she removed  the heavy cells safely. After reading about reconditioning such old batteries on her ped, Hana followed the directions and finished by putting them on a trickle charge from the same panel that ran her sun-light.

The magnets were much harder. The car was equipped with a regenerative braking system that used magnets. Hana got herself very dirty pulling off the wheels and fiddling with the brake systems. Her father brought her tools from work, and even spent one happy evening helping her use a laser torch to cut a few cast metal components apart.

Every day, she fiddled with her model, but nothing helped. The magnetic field was simply too weak for the magnets to catch hold, no matter what tricks she used. Hana wired and rewired the little magnets, and she tweaked the control software that fed power to them. It would not fly, much less float.

Hana knew she was on the right course. If she held the top of the model and turned on the current the weight in her hand decreased dramatically. It was almost holding itself up. That alone was something the people on her father’s technology group discussion had said was impossible.


It was at the store that Hana realized what she was doing wrong. Her mother took her shopping in the vain hope she would learn some of the tricks of keeping house. “You are too much like your father, always fiddling with things,” her mother said.

“Yes, Umma,” Hana replied, like she always did.

The store reminded Hana of America, the America one saw on TV and on the network. Just a few years ago they had shopped on a market street where the goods were cheaper. She still remembered the noise and the crowds with a smile. This store was brightly lit, and everything was shiny and new. The floor was polished, the chrome-edged shelves full of foods she recognized and foods that came from far away. At the new store there were no food vendors with gas-fired woks selling rice rolls or minced beef dumplings, though sometimes there were samples of those things set out on round plastic trays.

They didn’t taste nearly so good as they had at the open market.

It was the clerk who startled Hana into thinking of her problem in a new way. She was a tiny person, wizened and gray, and hardly taller than Hana herself. One of the little people, she realized, from the north. Her mother had explained the little people to her once. They had been starved in the old times, before the country came together again. Not enough food kept them from growing as they should, and so they were tiny, little people, especially the old ones.

Her magnets needed more food. What could give it to them? They needed to be farther apart on the cable. Hana stood, dazed with the revelation, until her mother snapped at her to help with the bags.

Once home she could hardly stop herself from rushing to the shed. First she helped put away the groceries, then she helped Chisato with the laundry. Hana straightened her room without being asked and quietly went to the shed.

She cut a longer strand of fiber-optic cable, and transferred the other elements of her model to it. She was so eager her hands shook.

“Hana! Dinner!” It had gotten dark without her noticing. Hana went inside and ate her meal, then sat patiently while her parents finished. She worked her toes back and forth within her shoes with frustration. Fidgeting was not allowed, but no one could see her toes. At times like this, she remembered that in English TOE meant Theory Of Everything, that and other details from the books she’d read swam through her mind, keeping her calm while the seconds crawled by.

Back in the shed she finished assembling her new model. Closing her eyes, Hana connected the current. She heard a rustling sound from the table. Grinning, she opened her eyes.

Rising from the tabletop nearly to the shining bulbs of her sun-light, her model stood straight and tall, tugging against the power cord that held it in place. The cable was vertical, shining with a deep blue light. The magnets, swathed in copper wire, were spaced like beads on a necklace from the top to the bottom, where the power lead joined the circuit board.

Hana wanted to shriek with relief, with joy. It had worked! By placing the magnets farther apart they had more lines of magnetic force to “pinch.” Enough pinches, and they appeared to grab onto the air, holding themselves and the rest of the flying machine apparatus erect.

She wanted to dance and sing and yell and scream, but Hana did none of these things. She wouldn’t be done until she could fly, until she could show her father that her machine worked. There were things to prove, measurements to be made, software to write for her ped, which she would use as a controller. There were things to scrounge, starting with four hundred meters of industrial fiber-optic cable, the clear-shelled kind because that would be pretty.

“Hana da?” came her father’s voice over the radio. She panicked for a quick moment. A loud click came over the radio. “Hana da, it is time for bed.” Hana breathed in and out twice to calm herself.

“Yes Appa,” she said, voice level and even.  Hana unplugged the project, but it floated for a few seconds before falling limp into her waiting hand. “Strange,” she said to the empty shed.


It rose with such a jerk Hana was glad she’d taken the time to attach not one but two shoulder belts to the seat from the Hyundai. They crossed her chest and made her feel secure even as the wind rushed down upon her. It wasn’t until she reduced the current without changing her rate of ascent that Hana felt for a moment that she was drowning in fear. Her hands reached for the seat belt releases by instinct—if she could not stop, she must jump. The yawning sky surrounded her. Anything would be better than being lost in the clouds.

Thumbs poised over the orange-red release buttons, Hana forced herself to stop, to think. She’d hoped for a short test flight, just a quick rise to fifty meters, close enough to shout for her Appa to hear and come stumbling out upon the driveway to stare into the sky, see her dangling below the fiber optic cable. That wasn’t going to happen. Why not? Work the problem, she heard her Appa say, his hand touching her lightly on the side of her head.

Looking down, she saw rooftops the size of tiny squares and remembered her father say how high they had climbed that day on Mt. Naejangsan—two kilometers.

Checking her ped, she saw barely a minute had passed, and still she rose, the air pounding down upon her so hard she struggled to breathe. Her ped could check both the old American and the new Chinese positioning systems and both said she was higher than two kilometers and moving at more than 100 KPH. Her ped was out of range of the house network, and just for a moment she felt a flash of anger her Umma had not allowed her to upgrade it to a real phone.

Working the problem had not saved her, but Hana felt no fear. A lean exultation gripped her. She was probably going to die. That was sad. Appa would not see her fly. That was also sad. Then she heard her father’s voice tell her that “probably” was not science, data was science and maybe Hana should record some data. Dying for no reason would not only be sad, it would be stupid, so she went back to work, cradling her ped between her legs while the wind howled around her.

Another minute passed as she calculated the variables of her observations, and then another as she called forth the notes from the meteorology project she’d completed the previous year. One of the screens she clicked past suggested that if left to the whim of the winds she would drift across the ocean to North America before moving south to cross the ocean again—that was the fast wind pattern. If she was not found and recovered for years, she would end up moving north to the pole as part of the slow great cycle. Hana shook her head to clear it of such thoughts and spent another fifteen seconds querying her encyclopedia about the height of Mt. Chomolungma.

“Shit,” she said, the English word springing from her lips from somewhere she couldn’t imagine. Hana winced. “Sorry, Umma.” Mt. Chomolungma was the only mountain she knew that required oxygen to climb to the very top, and at the rate of her ascent she’d be approximately nine kilometers into the troposphere within minutes. Working on the terms of the problem had calmed her, at least. Even so, a grim feeling was in the pit of her stomach.

The air blasting down upon her was frigid, but Hana guessed she would pass out before she froze to death. She gave one minute to finding a solution to her dilemma. Even setting the power to “off” didn’t change a thing, and it was then she smiled despite the knives of frost she felt digging into her face. “I found something new,” she said, and the exultant feeling warmed her for a moment. The shape of the puzzle appeared vaguely in her mind. Controlled passage of photons through a strong electromagnetic field—Einstein, she remembered, and gravitons? Hana felt a pang of regret that she would not live to unravel the last mystery. Time to record her data.

Hands nearly immobile, Hana managed a few quick notes on her ped before her head reeled and her gasps for air made it impossible to write. Hands shaking, fingers clumsy, she tucked the ped inside her light jacket. With her project data hard-saved on her ped, someone, someday would solve the puzzle. The glowing fiber-optic line would be impossible to miss, and she trusted her father to look in the proper place, the air, when he discovered her project was no longer in the tiny yard, coiled like a dragon between the shed and the house. Even if she were lost forever, he would find her project notes on the shed terminal.

Narrowing her eyes against the blast, she looked up at the glowing vertical line that stretched above her, a beautiful accident pointing at the darkening blue sky. The seat swayed from side to side, and at the edge of each arc she could see all the way up the 400 meters of glowing cable, see each of the magnets from the Hyundai. There was an eerie deep blue glow around each one. Fighting the shivers that raced through her like minnows in a barrel, Hana pulled out her ped and aimed it skyward to take a picture of the phenomenon. Evidence of what it looked like, if nothing else, should the effect wear off.

Ped safely zipped away once more, Hana felt the shivers ease. She knew that should she rise high enough the air would warm again. A wave of dizziness swept her, and she closed her eyes. The darkness behind her lids expanded, and she forgot the pain in her chest, the cold fire on her cheeks. Now that she was done with her ped, Hana wondered what it would be like to die. She hadn’t left a personal note on it, she realized. Hana hoped—knew—that Appa would know her discovery, this strange new force, was her message. A tear, feeling hot for just a moment at the corner of her eye, froze on her face. She could not return home, but news of her project would. The noise of her passage ebbed away and soon all Hana could hear was her heart, each lub-lub coming more slowly than the last.

Hana felt warm, and she smiled.


Author Bio:

Ed Carmien is a writer and academic. His story “The Beautiful Accident” won first prize in the professional division of the Heinlein Centennial’s writing contest in 2007, and he’s pleased the Kelsey Review accepted it to be seen by a wider audience. He’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and more can be found about him at edwardcarmien.com.



Danger Sign Outpost

by Jessie Liang


About the photograph: 

Known as present-day Diamond Head State Monument, a former artifact from Hawaii’s past remains on a hill overlooking the city of Honolulu, Hawaii. Rain showers on parts of the city, with gray clouds looming overhead. Diamond Head was formed by an eruption sending fine layers of particle into the air creating the crater. A trail was created later on for the coastal defense.


Artist Bio:

Jessie Liang has taken a passion for photography in the past few years of her life. She has visited over 25 states in the United States, and enjoys taking photos of various State Parks and National Parks.