That Fall

by Daniel Picker

The previous summer, around the end of June, with the weather still cool in the morning, I joined two older kids in the neighborhood, both of whom lived on Twin Birch Avenue, the next street which our street curved and flowed into, on a bike hike to downtown.

I had a low black bicycle my father had put together from various bikes he had found, or were in disuse in our garage; my bike had twenty inch wheels and tires.  It was far from a new bike, but it served its purpose.  My dad had moved out of our house the previous year.

Finlay and Fenny were both at least two years older than I was then.  Fenny was originally from New England and I had never entered his house, but I had seen him and heard him shout from the second story window above his steep lawn; his house was similar to ours, but it was white and behind two sycamore trees.

But Finlay lived in the only house in the neighborhood that housed his family on the top two floors, and another family on the first floor.  He had no dad as far as I could tell, and I never saw his mom around either.

When I showed him the art books with pencil drawings of women he seemed very disappointed.  I don’t know why or how I ended up being friends with either of them; perhaps they were just lingering up their street one day where we played “Cross the Ice” in front of Finlay’s; I do remember one day walking to school on Main Street and walking beside them for a bit over the bricks and past a small colonial office building near the Town Hall, and Finlay rhapsodizing about “Lacey Brynne,” the daughter of a local realtor, as we walked past her father’s small office.

But this bright morning about 10 AM as we crossed Montcreek Street on Tulip Poplar Avenue, just one block from Fenny’s and Finlay’s street, Finlay shouted out, “Let’s race!” and they were off pedaling as fast as they could on bigger bikes.

I recall turning down their street and pedaling fast past first Finlay’s, then descending the steep hill at speed, then passing Fenny’s house and blurrily seeing them waiting for me at the flat bottom of the hill straddling their bicycles over the grey macadam.  Then my handlebars started to wobble and shake and I had a sick feeling in my gut of great fear and two seconds later I seemed to fly over my handlebars landing in such a way that I was soon crying and my mouth was bleeding.

Someone ran over and up our more gently – sloping hill to get my mom who was probably still sleeping on the couch in the living room.  I recall her rushing down the hill while wearing her purple bathrobe over her pajamas and helping me up as another mom was wiping my face with a damp towel.  Mom walked me back home after that fall; I had felt deep embarrassment seeing her rushing down the street, but I was glad she arrived to rescue me that bright Saturday morning.

Later, that fall I began my first paper route which was my very own.  I had handled another neighborhood kid’s route, but never handled my own route.  Fenny, whose middle name was actually Fenny, had abruptly decided to give up his route for The Evening Bulletin; I don’t remember why exactly.  Fenny’s first name was Theodore, and teachers called him Ted; once, early on the first cold morning that fall, Teddy wore a tan, fuzzy velour jacket; he had a big, round pumpkin head; kids, boys mostly, that day in school started yelling, “Teddy Bear!” or “Dancing Bear!” down the hallways at some distance in elementary school after he had walked by.  As that went on through most of that fall of fifth grade, he eventually asked school friends and teachers to call him “Fenny.”

“Fenny?” we said to ourselves in school and after.

After school, in the afternoon, below the orange-leaved maples, with a flame red maple across and further down the street from my house, I rode my bike from my street  the day before I took over his route;  that fall afternoon, Fenny didn’t seem eager to start folding his papers as yellow leaves scattered beside his feet.  Fenny didn’t seem interested in delivering his papers either as I watched him pull one paper from the middle of the bundle and open it, and begin reading the front page; my main interest in the paper was usually just the front page headlines and the headlines and photographs on the Sports page, until I had more time later at home to read the paper.

But after school Fenny would become so engrossed and read and read, all the while concentrating his heavy forehead and brows down on the paper as if he were up to something of great seriousness and importance.  He had a big, oblong pumpkin head.  He sometimes had this look of concentrated consternation on his face.

I asked that afternoon, “Don’t we have to get folding?  Aren’t you going to show me the route?  We are not going to finish the route before dinner time!” I exclaimed.

“That’s prescient of you,” Fenny said.

He enjoyed demonstrating his sophisticated vocabulary at odd times.

A few minutes later, sitting in front of Fenny’s house, he cut an audible fart as his father came out the front door of their white house and stood on the porch.  His dad, Mr. Van Grundy worked odd hours and seemed to be home in the afternoon often.  I had heard he had been an English teacher and coach in New England before they moved, but now he ran Fenny Glens Men’s Store downtown.  His dad came down the steps and heard Fenny’s fart and saw Fenny leaning over the newspaper spread out over his legs, and noticed Fenny’s reddening face and embarrassment.

“Do you have to go grunty Fenny?” he asked.

Fenny’s face turned even deeper red and he abruptly got up and ran up the front steps.  He returned some minutes later after his dad said to me, “He’ll be out in a minute.”

He seemed gone for over 10 minutes; he had the paper with him.

The next day, my first day handling the route the sun was still warm after school and the sky was still blue with those thin gauzy white clouds high up, cirrus clouds stretched far beyond the tallest oaks and tulip poplars and buttonwoods on which the orange turning leaves still danced from the cool wind through the high branches.

As I pedaled my bike I could hear the rustling leaves under my tires shoosing by the spokes.  This was the bike mom had bought me just weeks before for my birthday.  I recalled after my fall in the summer she and dad took me to a local Penn – Jersey Store; dad drove us; as we stood looking at the new bikes, dad asked, “Which one do you like?”

I couldn’t make up my mind, and felt sick to my stomach and dizzy.

“I don’t feel so good, couldn’t we just go home?” I asked.

But months later, a season later, now with my new green Columbia Sting-ray bicycle I enjoyed a low silver-grey banana seat and the handle bars accommodated my aluminum “horns” as Mr. Hidalgo called them.  The horns wrapped around my handlebars and I balanced my canvas newspaper bag upon them.  Earlier, just after school I saw the bundle of papers on Fenny’s street since the newspaper company had not yet switched the drop off address to my street, near my house, or in front of Driscoll’s past the top of our hill where Strawberry and Neil picked up their papers.  But earlier on this day I sat on the grass slope just above the sidewalk in front of Fenny’s, and with my box of fresh red rubber bands proceeded to fold in thirds and wrap that day’s papers: 29 of them, and at least one extra.

That day I looked down Fenny’s street to “the old man’s house.”  The house was a dull dark brown, the dirty windows dark with ragged lace white drapes; the wooden porch under the black shingled roof was a dull grey, completely devoid of any paint, just deeply grooved, dry, worn wood.  Fenny, with his younger brother Robert nodding beside him said very matter-of-factly that “‘the old man’ shot rock salt at us from his shot gun when he came out on the porch and would at anyone else who even approached his front walk.”

This story filled me with silent fear and I accepted what they said as the truth.  From the appearance of that dark, mysterious house it seemed entirely plausible.  I never thought to question Fenny or his brother Robert or their next door neighbors, those two brothers, Sean and Conor, who were nearly the same age, just a few years younger.  Fenny’s street was lined with old, strong towering buttonwoods with rounded bumps like ancient gargoyles on their peeling trunks;  Fenny’s street descended and curved down just as my street did, Buttonwood Lane, and both streets seemed similar to a witches’ glen.

Fenny and his younger brother were the first family I knew who kept rabbits, many of them in their wire-fenced pen in their backyard;  they sometimes picked them up and brought them in the house;  they handled them tenderly.  The rabbits were grey and brown and furry and friendly with noses which wiggled.  Fenny called their droppings, “rabbit putsies.”

I recalled as I folded papers all by myself, once, a few years before, when I was with my mother at the A&P Market downtown I had seen the old man near the back at the checkout aisle where I swung from the metal railings that divided the check out aisles above the green and cream tiles of the floor.  The old man wore old baggy denim overalls and his deeply creased face looked out below straggly white hairs across the top.  But his face was neither a kind face, nor an unkind one; but just an old face. I had heard from Fenny that his wife had died years before.

That afternoon at the A&P, a few years back, I saw him a few minutes later putting the brown paper grocery bags in the back of his old, faded green and dull white Studebaker wagon; that vehicle was of another era; there was no other car as old in the entire town.  We rode in a dull green Checker Cab of Main Street Cab Company; the cab was huge with two small flip up jump seats between the back of the front seat and the big back seat where mom sat.

Previously, I saw the old man driving his car beside and past the side of his tall dilapidated house which stood stark above the railroad tracks which ran alongside and below.  Those same railroad tracks where years before my older brother and his friend Corey at age five had walked and walked and then sat down, not realizing trains still traveled those tracks and one was fast approaching.  A police officer in his car saw them sitting on the burnished tracks that afternoon as he drove down the curving hill, and he flipped on his lights and siren and the train was able to stop above and before the curve of track that led to them.  They were oblivious as the officer ordered them to “walk on home and stay off the tracks.”

But now those tracks curved behind a tall wire fence.

The old man’s large backyard, the entire green expanse grew hidden behind these massive hedges of about 15 feet which were not only tall, but also thick; you could not see through them or around them as they wrapped around and enclosed the entire deep backyard.

The first day of my route, as I folded and counted, I liked seeing the crisp dark headlines atop the paper; the Philadelphia Flyers’ season had commenced and the Phillies’ season had come to a merciful close.  Once I had the bag full with folded papers I knew I still didn’t know my route by heart, so periodically I would sometimes slow and cease pedaling and stop below the shade of a large tree and study my small black spiral book for the next address.  Fenny had shown me his route just once the day before, his last day.  The first part of the route was not so difficult, riding my bike up and down familiar streets, one of which I walked up and down to and from school.  Even though this was my first week, I knew I would need to begin collecting this Thursday and Friday to meet my bill on Saturday with Mr. Hidalgo.  Fenny had quit in the middle of the week of the last week of a two – week cycle.

That first Thursday began as the day before, but after the first three houses, and stopping at each, putting my kickstand down, balancing my bike, and taking a paper from my grey canvas bag I realized this was going to be a very long afternoon.  Already, two homes of the first three customers yielded no response to my ringing the bell and knocking on the door.  I had a total of $4.00 in my red canvas collection bag that Fenny had given me.  There was with it one $1.50 tip in the form of that fourth one dollar bill.

Earlier, I turned down Montcreek Street, the first side street of my route, where I delivered just one more paper, before heading further down Tulip Poplar Avenue and pedaling past the huge houses set back from the old giant trees which lined both sides of the street. There the trees towered and over reached the street as they also did on the side streets.

The second house on the side street Montcreek, on the left, set back from some narrow stone steps that cut into the steep hill of the narrow front lawn belonged to the O’Fallon’s, and Kelley O’Fallon, I believed the prettiest girl in my grade, partially due to her long brown hair, and also partly due to her sweet smile, and her fair face with tiny freckles; the fact that she was not taller than I added to my fondness for her.  I hoped silently that after I rang the doorbell that she would arrive at the door and open it.  When I saw her through the screen door after she opened her big dark brown front door I chortled out, “Collecting for The Evening Bulletin.”

“Hi Billy,” she said.

I heard her mother’s voice call from the darkened living room.

“Who is it, sweetie?”

“It’s the paper boy; we have a new one.”

Kelley asked me conspiratorially in a lowered voice, “How much is it, Billy?”

“Two dollars and fifty cents,” I said and smiled.

I’m not certain my Keds were still touching the dark bricks of her front porch.  Her smile, her long softly shining brown hair and her bright green – brown eyes made me briefly lose a sense of where I stood, and I could not help smiling after she replied –

“I’ll be right back.”

“OK,” I said with my throat suddenly dry.

When she returned she pushed open the screen door and reached her hand toward me; the closeness of her forearm, wrist, and hand were striking to me, but then she did something unexpected; she pressed her hand with the folded bills in it deep into my open palm and smiled.  It was a smile that silently said “don’t worry about the change.”

Then she said, “I’ll see you in school tomorrow Billy,” and she smiled again.

“OK,” I said.

She had given me four folded one dollar bills.  I uncinched my bag and stuffed them inside.  As I turned and walked down her walk I was aware I was still smiling.  I recalled that she and I held a secret.

Two years earlier I discovered inside my small rectangular wooden desk in Mrs. Pascal’s third grade class a folded white paper; within it were two pale orange rubber monsters, one with a suction cup below its feet.  The other had wild rubber hair and protruding rubber eyes.  The note said, “These are for you Billy; I really like you.  Don’t tell anyone.”

I remembered that from years before and seeing her in school that fall because just before Christmas she and her family moved away and I never saw her again.

Before school, in the early morning during that year, we would sometimes stand near each other watching bigger, older kids playing box hockey.  There were two rectangular boxes of worn grey wood, and in the middle were square holes in the board that separated one half from the other.  We stood on the shadowed macadam in the still dark, dim early morning light behind the oldest brick school building with the small yellow and black Civil Defense sign just above the stone foundation of the Administration building.  With long, thin grey wooden sticks, usually a lanky blonde girl, a few years ahead of us furiously battled a boy in her grade.  Her forehead glowed and glistened below her pulled-back blonde hair where a few strands strayed.  Her cheeks were damp and pink.

Once they put their sticks down as their bell rang – the junior high kids bell began their day about five minutes before we were called into the school by our bell – Kelley and I stood looking at each other; we both picked up sticks, and there was a ball in the middle of the box.  She whacked it through the square hole and then smiled at me; I whacked it back, but missed the square hole.  The game seemed more interesting to watch than to play.  But when I looked up I saw Kelley was still there smiling, but then the bell rang loudly, and she threw down her stick and said, “Let’s go!”

But this afternoon, I started to kick up my kickstand, and then I remembered that I didn’t check the O’Fallon’s off in my book as “Paid.”  After Fenny introduced me to Mr. Hidalgo, the District Manager, Mr. H. as he told me to call him, said, “Always check who paid right after you receive the money; otherwise, you won’t remember who paid and who didn’t, later.”

As he said this he patted his stomach and then combed his wavy dark hair with his right hand.  He wore a fat brown tie that was tied too short, and his gut showed below it through his beige shirt.

But this fall afternoon I stood with my bicycle leaning against my side and opened my book and checked “Paid” in the small square for the third week of October for O’Fallon of 45 Montcreek Street.  I shoved the book back in my newspaper bag, kicked up the kickstand and swung my right leg over my bike seat, and began pedaling down the sidewalk of her street; then I rode down a driveway and crossed the street and began pedaling back toward Tulip Poplar Avenue, then turned right.

But before riding on toward Everett Avenue, there was one customer on Tulip Poplar.  The biggest house on the entire street had a side door in addition to the large front door.  The side door stood just past the wide overhang of the side porch that covered part of the driveway.  Fenny had told me to “always leave the paper just outside that door on a small brick porch.”

That afternoon, I rang the doorbell and heard a screechy, scratchy voice ask from far above the dark stairwell beyond the closed door: “Who is it?”

“Paperboy: The Evening Bulletin,” I called out.

I then heard footsteps clopping down and down and down what seemed an endless flight of stairs, and the door creaked open just about four  inches.  The shadowed face of an elderly lady was barely visible and I could see only dimly up this endless, dark flight of stairs which seemed to ascend to not just the second floor, but all the way up to the third floor.

The woman then said rather crankily, “Just give me the paper; I’ll have to pay you next time; I left my purse upstairs,” and then this thin heavily-veined right hand, like a vulture’s claw, snatched the paper from me, and she said, “Thanks,” and slammed the door with a thud shut.

I was relieved to soon be back on my bike and feel the cool wind on my face and the fresh, late afternoon air blowing through my hair and past my ears.  I made a left on Everett Avenue, and realized how long this was all taking, and how late it was already in the afternoon, and remembered what Mr. Hidalgo had said, “Start your collecting on Thursday; a lot of people aren’t home on Friday.”

But it seemed collecting was going to take hours, and some people were already not home on this Thursday, so I rode up on the sidewalk toward my next house on Everett, and threw a paper side arm on to the wooden porch of one of the duplexes, and then pedaled down a driveway, and up another, across the street, and did the same thing again; then it was on toward one of the busiest streets in my town, Woodrow Road.  This road seemed busy with so much traffic it really seemed not safe to ride a bike on it, so I stayed on the brick sidewalk and rode under the towering trees to my next house, a tall Victorian with a wooden porch, and steep, narrow concrete driveway that went back and back into the shadows and where I never saw a car parked.

I parked my still shiny green bike below the steep steps making sure it balanced, and pulled one folded paper from my canvas bag.  Surely these folks were home I thought to myself.  The wooden steps had some peeling paint and the house itself was a dull white, also peeling slightly in spots.

With a little trepidation I rang the bell; I noticed they had a storm door over the stout front dull white door, of dirty enamel without gloss.  I could hear the bell clanging inside and soon I could hear elderly voices calling out: “Is that the door bell Lois?” a man’s voice inquired.

“I don’t know, dear,” she said.

I pressed the small round plastic button once more.

“There it is again, dear; there’s someone at the door.”

I could hear feet shuffling inside and soon a white – haired lady stood just inside the door which was opened about a quarter way and an older man stood hunched beside her.  Their front living room was dimly lit, and the lady looked at me, and said, “Yes?” as if posing a question.

“I’m the new paperboy,” I said, “and I’m collecting; here’s your afternoon paper.”

She then turned to the man near her and asked, “What did he say dear?”

“He said, ‘He’s the paperboy and he’s collecting.'”

“Come in,” she said.

As I looked at the husband’s face behind her I started to realize something; his one eye had a dull blueish hue to it and it was half closed.  His other eye was completely closed, just a pale fleshy eyelid over his sunken eye.  He moved sort of slowly, but his presence was essential to his wife, as her presence was essential to him.  They were indispensable to each other.

She said to me, “Just a minute, let me get my purse.”

“OK,” I said.  “It’s two dollars and fifty cents.”

When she returned to the living room with its drapes over the windows part way open, she turned to her husband and asked, “How much did he say it is, dear?”

“He said ‘it’s two dollars and fifty cents,’ I think.”

“Yes, its two dollars and fifty cents,” I said, with my voice raised a bit louder.  I then realized something:  while these two were a good team together, apart they could not truly function.  As far as I could tell, the wife was completely deaf, and the husband was completely blind.

I had witnessed blind people; my grandmother was blind.

Then the wife turned to me and handed me a five dollar bill.

“This is too much,” I said, and “You’re only the third customer who’s been home this afternoon; I’m not sure I have enough change.”

“What did he say?” she asked toward her husband.

“He said, ‘He doesn’t have any change.’”

She turned back from him toward me and said, “That’s all right honey; you know what I mean, honey?  I do not have any change either,” she said as she smiled toward me.

I thought I had been in their house for what seemed about half an hour, and the sky was growing a deeper gray.  I felt a chill when I finally stood out on their front wooden porch again, high above the sidewalk and road.  The rush hour traffic sped by and I had delivered less than a third of my route.  I would have to forego collecting until Friday after all, and I could barely recall which house was next.  I just knew I must somehow pedal my new bike across this busy road and head up Everett Avenue, then turn down either Heath Avenue or Cloverhill Road; I couldn’t remember exactly which was first now.  But I had to get going, but safely too.  People might be upset that they had not yet received their papers, and now it was almost the dinner hour.  The sky had grown grayish purple as I finally pedaled across that road and up the Goodbrother’s driveway across it, then down the sidewalk and up Everett Avenue.

Nearly an hour later I turned my bike down my street.  The air was cold and the sky was near dark.  My bag was empty of all but one paper and my money bag held less than ten dollars.  I rode my bike down our empty grassy driveway and leaned my bike against the garage doors and trudged back up the driveway with my bag slung over my shoulder.

When I opened the front door I heard mom call out, “Where have you been?  You’re late and your dinner is cold.”  She spoke with a slightly lilting English accent and I could understand what this meant.

“I’m sorry mom, but I tried collecting as the District Manager suggested; it really slowed me down.”

“Oh dear heart, sit down.  This is all we have, a lamb chop and apple sauce.  Would you like a glass of milk?”

“OK,” I said.

“I’m going back to my typing.”

I sat alone in the kitchen chewing the small warm chop and shoveling the cool apple sauce down.

I thought to myself: it’s the end of the week nearly, and called from the kitchen across the living room beyond where my mom sat in her library: “I’m going for a bike ride downtown.”

“OK, dear. Could you get me a pack of Lucky’s from the machine in Homestead Restaurant? Let me give you a dollar.  Don’t be long.”

I walked out the front door and back down the mostly dark driveway as the kitchen light burned above and the wind reshuffled autumn leaves above me and at my feet.  I could hear them crunchy underfoot and see the strange grey cold autumn shadows before and beside me. I held the handgrips of my handle bars.  It felt good to push the bike without the horns and paper – stuffed bag over them.  I reached the top of our drive, swung my leg over the seat as I pushed down on the near pedal and began pedaling up our street.  I pedaled hard through the fall chill of buttonwoods, then down under the canopy of Tulip Poplar toward the school and past it toward the highway.  I crossed the street and pedaled toward the a couple in long coats, he in a tan overcoat; she in a dark wool coat; another identical, middle – aged couple was several doors behind them.  I rode past the lit Community Bookshop next to Lantern Lane; the Homestead Restaurant was dark behind me, but its many-paned front door emitted a dim light where I had walked back to the shadowed cigarette machine at the end of a long, dark, carpeted corridor to buy mom her Lucky Strikes.  Then I rode past and away from Fisher’s Bike Shop where mom had purchased my bike, the one I rode, which once stood jauntily behind the plate glass windows that fall, and recalled that late evening, not unlike this one, when we stood side-by-side in the mid-October chill, and she asked me, “What do you want for your birthday?”

“That bicycle, that green Columbia Sting – Ray,” I said.  “It’s the same brand as big brother Harry’s.”

And a week later she surprised me, with it parked in her library behind the big white heavy door.  “Happy birthday,” she said, and reached down toward me and hugged and kissed me.

“Wow!” I said, “Thanks.”

I think that evening and the one a week before when she asked me what I wished for my birthday when we stood together in front of Fisher’s Bike Shop in the fall evening were the happiest moments of my life.

This night I enjoyed the freedom of pedaling past the downtown people, and sang to myself the words of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” the lilting up and down sing-song plaintive in my ears, and the pedaling cheered me somewhat, but I felt lonely, riding past the shadowed faces of adults in their long overcoats and I knew this was the only world I would ever know.

________________________________________________________________

Author Bio:

Daniel Picker‘s work has appeared in Harvard Review, The Sewanee Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxonian Review, Poetry(Chicago), Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Sequoia: The Stanford Literary Magazine, Rune: MIT, The Dudley Review at Harvard, The Abington Review, and many more. He is also the winner of The Dudley Review Poetry Prize at Harvard, and a Fellowship from The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and he is the author of a book of poems Steep Stony Road.

Young Brown Man and the Laundromat Werewolf

by Mark Galarrita

When Bonnie dumped me after gym class, I skipped the rest of school and went home to do my laundry.  It was two days overdue and it had to be done. Whenever something bad happens and I get anxious, I fold my shirts. It’s the least I could do. On the drive back to Pop’s apartment, I replayed the morning so I could get the memory right. She stood in front of me, hands folded over her stomach. The same way the ER doctor did when he delivered the news that my mother said sayonara to the world.

“We’re growing up and we’re growing apart,” she began, “I don’t know how to feel about you anymore. We should take some time alone.”

The hell does that mean, ‘We should take some time alone.’ I thought it was a line she took from a band. On the drive home, I Googled it, but nothing came up.

When I came home, Pops didn’t ask why I showed up from school three hours early. He asked if I was hungry. When I said no, he nodded, and I went into my room to get the hamper. It contained a mix of dirty gym clothes, crusty socks, and shirts that were overdue for a clean. As I made my way out the door, Pops cursed in Tagalog and I asked him what was wrong.

“Ay jusko po! The country’s going to hell! We have a crazy man running for President.”

I shook my head. “I wouldn’t worry about it Pops. America isn’t that crazy.”

“What?” Pops asked. “I’m talking about the Philippines. I’m talking about our home.”

I nodded to let him know I understood, but I didn’t. I knew nothing about my father’s home beyond a few hamstrung pictures of farmhouses and beaches. The Philippines was as far from New Jersey as my love life was away from reality. I took my hamper and made my way for the Laundromat, a two-minute walk in a basement underneath the landlord’s room. When I flicked the fluorescent lights on, they sputtered on and off.  The neighborhood kids used to call it the murder basement but those dudes grew up and weren’t around anymore so it’s just a dirty, creepy, place to wash your pants. The lights crackled for a good minute before they kicked into gear and stayed together as one. Once they were on for good, the washing began.

The art of laundry is soothing. It’s all about mindfulness. I have to keep the type of clothing separate, whether they’re towels, cotton sheets, or just a big ole pile of white socks. I have to watch the timer and add just the right amount of detergent for the washer and fabric sheets for the dryer. If I don’t do any of this right, a shirt could be covered in different colors or a pair of gym shorts would be tied up in knots. Before the heart attack took her away, my mother taught me this. She told me that all clothes have a purpose. Colors had a purpose. Bright colors stayed together, whites stayed together, and you couldn’t mix, because if you did it would mess everything up.

I liked to listen to music whenever I did this and since I was in a breakup mood I listened to one of Drake’s older albums. While I loaded the washer, I fiddled with my iPod until I stumbled upon a Drake and Jhene Aiko collab. I sorted colors and whites while the lyrics took me out of the present. It was after the second verse when Drake started talking about the Hooters waitress in Atlanta that a pale werewolf walked into the room.

He had a twisted, lanky body, like a boy in fifth grade who grew up too fast. More awkward than athletic. His legs were bony and jagged like a goat living in in the Alps, and his arms were thin but hairy with hands as big as webbed chicken’s feet. It was his chest that was the biggest feature about him. Without any clothes on, he looked like a giant overfed rat with a werewolf’s head. The werewolf walked towards the other end of the laundry room, to a small corridor where the storage room closet was. The thing noticed me once I took my headphones off.

I stood there, staring at it, and the thing stared at me back. Red eyes wide and all. I waved.

“Kamusta po kayo,” the werewolf said in Tagalog. Like fresh off the boat in Newark kind of Tagalog.

“Sup,” I said. Drake was still spittin’, so I paused my iPod.

The werewolf purred and got on all fours to stretch.

“What are you listening to?” The beast said as it cracked its back.

“Drake.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s pretty popular. You listen to stuff on the radio?”

“I don’t listen to radios,” The werewolf coughed out a gray hairball the size of a jawbreaker. “I don’t listen to anything, except the siren’s call. She’s calling for me to find her.”

The werewolf turned his head into the corridor and the laundry room’s lights flicked on and off in a flash of seconds. I held onto my khaki’s as the lights flickered.

When the lights went back to a normal state, the werewolf was still there.

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

He smiled and I could see his teeth. Bony and sharp, every single one. A mouth of nails. “Peter,” he mumbled.

“Cool,” I said. “My name is-”

“Wala akong pakialam! You’re just a boy,” Peter hissed. “Tulong ako?”

“Help? You look like you can take care of yourself on your own. Better than I could ever help you.”

When Peter the werewolf laughed, it sounded like a snake’s hiss. It was uncomfortable for me to be in the same room but I stood still, trying to feel the back of pants for my iPhone.

“I know that, boy,” Peter said. “But I can’t do everything by myself. Especially when the siren calls for me to help her. Wala akong magagwa,”

“Everyone has a choice, man,” I said.

“Tulong, tulong, tulong-”

“Alright!” I shouted. “I’ll help you real quick, but I gotta finish my laundry. Then I have to do my homework.”

Peter stood up and howled. The hairs on his body stood up as if he had just been struck by an electrical current.

“Thank you, boy! Thank you!”

The werewolf got on all fours and told me to come with him into the dark corridor. I stepped from one end of the light and into the darkness; the fluorescents behind me sparkled until they shattered, sending flickers of light to the floor and disappearing into the darkness.

“Not to worry,” Peter hissed as he walked. “That happens sometimes whenever we enter the siren’s land.”

Rambling into the dark, I thought of my oxford shirts and the khaki pants unfolded. They were jumbled into the big pile I left on the folding table and they would have to be ironed by the time I got back. All I wanted to do was to do my laundry and listen to Drake. I wanted to forget Bonnie. But forgetting someone is never about how you plan on doing it, it’s what you do to forget them.

We traveled for half a mile in the dark until we reached a door colored like a stale, moldy, croissant.

“This is it,” Peter said as he stood on his pencil legs. “The siren’s just in here.”

“Okay,” I said, scratching an itch on my neck from a cobweb that fell. “I will be home later tonight, right?”

Peter growled low. “Yes, yes. Come on, we’re burning daylight.”

With his chicken hands, he turned the nob and pushed the door open. I was hit by a flash of light as I fell from a thousand feet in the air with the werewolf next to me. I screamed as the winds took me from a clear, sunny sky, and smack into a great ocean. It was crystal blue and clear, like touristy photos of the Caribbean. I plodded into the endless depth of blue, the water’s chill engulfed my skin, filled my lungs. I swam towards the sun’s light and reached the surface. The rays of the sun poured over me in a pleasant, warm, embrace.

The werewolf paddled like a grown dog next to me.

I spat water out of my mouth. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He ignored me and pointed to something behind me. I turned around to see a great big island of jungle and rolling hills. The werewolf paddled past me, kicking his legs up and out of the water like a toddler learning to swim.

“Well,” Peter said, “come on then!”

There was nothing behind me but an endless, clear blue. I turned and swam with the werewolf to the island.

While the journey looked as if I’d have to swim half a mile, it took two minutes. I ducked my head and swam, and before I knew it I reached the shore with the werewolf next to me. Once I dumped the water from my ears and got a bearing on where I was, I heard a sad voice, a singer’s voice. The noise came from within the island and high above me, atop a mountain. I turned to Peter and he heard it too, sniffing with his huge pink nose as he got on all four of his webbed feet.

“You hear it too?” I said with a redundancy to make sure I wasn’t hearing things.

Peter sniffled. “Good, the siren is still with us. Let’s go save her.”

Save her? I wasn’t in the business of saving lives or knowing where to begin. We followed – or I should say I trailed behind Peter – deep into the island. It was a craggy land of endless uneven hills and jungle. With every inch I took, I spent the time swatting flies, mosquitos, and watching my step as I either tripped or fell into a pile of wet mud. I passed by empty straw huts and farm houses, like the ones from pop’s old photos. I wanted to stop and search them but Peter didn’t relent and I wasn’t about to be lost in the middle of a jungle.

Peter stopped in front of a mountain. The sad woman’s song echoed from the top, where I couldn’t see anything but the clouds. I reached Peter at the bottom, panting and begging for a break.

“No stopping now,” the werewolf grinned, “the siren calls to us to save her. We’re just the creatures for the task!”

“Save her from what?”

Peter looked at me with a grin. “From herself, of course!”

The werewolf jumped up and grabbed onto the mountain’s side effortlessly. He stopped short of his climb to nudge me towards the long path, a spiraling road that went around the mountain. I sighed and followed.  By the time I made my way to the top of the lush knoll, Peter was already there trimming his toes. At the top of the mountain was a circular, trimmed, lawn like the kind you find in front of a house in the suburbs. Across from us was a woman with flowing red hair and pale, pink skin, singing and starting at the opposite end of the island in a green summer dress. From the back, she looked familiar. Like the person who I thought I knew before.

“Bonnie?” I shouted. The woman jolted to her feet and turned to us. When she saw me, Bonnie’s brows raised together as she swatted her green dress of dirt. Her freckles shined in the sunlight and her eyes twinkled in anger as she asked what I was doing here. She looked cute, happy, like whatever happened earlier today didn’t mean a damn thing.

“I was doing my laundry and he asked me to come here,” I said, pointing to the werewolf.

Bonnie narrowed her gaze at Peter, who bowed his rat-faced head at her.

“I thought he would make you feel better, my queen,” the werewolf said. “I can make him go away if you want.”

Peters webbed fingers grew into sharp claws. On instinct, I took a few steps back but Bonnie placed her hand on his hairy shoulder.

“Peter, stay,” she commanded. The werewolf retracted his claws and his sneer turned into a whimper. Bonnie walked over to me and raised her lips in a half-smile.

“I should’ve told you all about this sooner,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” I said.

Bonnie turned her back on me and walked back to where she sat at the edge of the hill.

“Sit with me?”

From our seat on the hill, I gazed upon an endless ocean and a clear blue sky beyond the jungle island. There was nothing out there. The werewolf squatted behind us, eager for the next command from his ‘queen.’ Before I could raise the question of what it was, she started to talk to me about something else.

“I was hoping that by being with you, I could feel something,” she said. “Did you?”

“Did I what?” I asked.

“Did you feel something for me?”

I thought back to our relationship. Junior prom, where we had our first dance. Our first date at the AMC in Hamilton where we saw that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie in 3-D and how big of a mistake that was. Walking in crowded New York City in the middle of the night, looking at Manhattan as tourists and deciding that neither of us would apply for any city colleges.

“Of course I felt something for you,” I smiled. “You’re my girl.”

She beamed for a second and faded after another. “I wish I could tell you exactly everything I’m feeling. But I can’t. I have all of these thoughts in my head, all of these worlds, and places I want to visit. But I know I’ll never be able to go to all of them or ever see them with you…and it makes me sad to think about that. After the summer ends, we’re going to be in two different worlds.”

I felt a warm breeze blow through us, left to right, gentle as Bonnie’s body up against me on a chilly winter night. She grabbed my hand and traced her thumb around my knuckles. I noticed the cracks on my skin and I thought of how I should’ve put some lotion on them before I left.

“This is where I come to think,” she said. “And now you’re here. This place will end soon, like all of my places to dream, my places to breathe. When I enter our world, I go on autopilot. Classes, field hockey, band practice…even hanging out with you. It felt ordinary, small.”

I was hurt by the last statement but I didn’t let it show. At least, I thought I didn’t. I tried to ask again about the island but she blew past it.

“If this is it, if this is all we’re worth after we graduate and go on to college, is this what our lives are going to be like? On autopilot and not doing anything exciting because the world is cruel and-”

I didn’t know what to do so I wrapped my arm around her. I heard Peter’s growl behind me but she told him it was okay.

“Do you want to listen to something?” I said.

She nodded.

I pulled out my iPod mini and untangled the white cord headphones. Placing one headphone against her earlobe and the other in mine, I put on a Jhene Aiko and a Childish Gambino track with an easy beat. She bobbed to the rhythm and smirked at the Childish Gambino verse. When it ended, she rested her head on my shoulder.

“Do you remember when we first started dating and I asked you that stupid question?”

“Which one?” I asked her and she slapped my chest with the back of her hand.

“I asked you if you were Filipino or Mexican. I couldn’t tell. You gave me this look like you were offended-”

“I wasn’t offended,” I crossed my arms and squinted.

“You did that! Just that! You always do it when you’re mad, you can’t help it.”

I rolled my eyes.

She smiled a little longer and I had a feeling she was back, but before I could get my hopes up and maybe kiss her on the cheek, do anything to make her feel better, it didn’t work.

“We knew nothing about each other,” she said, “you told me about your parent’s home in Mindanao. The country of over seven thousand islands. It was so beautiful to hear you describe the water, the farm house your father grew up in. The small parochial school your mom went to. Where your dad and your mother met at the pharmacy in Manila. I wanted to see all of that with you.”

“We can still see that.”

She squeezed my hands.

“No,” she said, “we won’t.”

I shifted away from her. The grip around her hand slipped away like grasping a greased ledge, hanging on to the edge of a building.

“You’ll be on one Coast and I’ll be in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “But I want to go back to that. First times are nice. We were innocent. We had these thoughts of the world that anything was possible, so long as we were there together.

I turned around to see if the werewolf was facing the other side of the island. His chicken legs and arms faded in a slow, concise, shadow.

“Bonnie,” I said, “What are you doing?”

“We have to let go of our dreams and grow up, don’t we? We have to accept that our lives are not in our control but in everyone else’s.”

The island shook. The lawn on my feet crackled, spitting out dirt and grass in my face. The werewolf looked at me with a sullen look. He growled and howled at the sky.

“Thanks, lalaki,” he grinned with his mouth of nails. “You saved the day.”

He faded like a seceding fog, as did the ocean and the lawn and the hill in front of me. They were replaced by a white, endless, room. A ceiling and floor of all white. Only Bonnie in her green dress and I stood there. I didn’t ask where we were, what was the point?

“What are you afraid of, Bonnie?” I asked her.

She looked down to the ground and crossed her arms, her back to me.

“I want to tell you, but I can’t. I don’t feel anything for you anymore and it’s just best…best we go our separate ways. Thank you, though, for everything.”

I walked to her but as I got closer, she vanished. Poof. A light appeared ahead of me and I ran towards it. Once I reached the bright light, a door appeared, and I turned the knob. I came back upon the Laundromat where my clothes were astray on the folding station. Portly Mrs. Rodriguez and her two ninita’s saw me enter through the darkness. The big mother of two jumped first, pointing at my chest.

“Oh Mia!” She said as I rubbed my eyes from the light. Rather than shock them, I stuck my hands out but I saw what they were shouting about. Not me, well not totally me, but what I was in. I was soaked in water from my t-shirt, to my Nike’s. Mrs. Rodriguez asked if I was okay and I nodded. One of her girls gave me a bottle of water. The other gave me a warm, beach towel.

“Gracias,” I said.

I took my hamper, shoved all my clothes in, and headed back to the apartment. Pops was in the living room watching a Kurosawa film, not one I remembered at the time.

“Is that you?” He asked.

“Yes pops, it’s me.”

“Did you eat?”

“No Pops.”

“Okay.”

I went to my room and sorted my clothes. When I looked at my computer I saw that it was Sunday, five days since Bonnie broke up with me. The world moved on without us.

I reached for my cellphone and called Bonnie but it went to voicemail. I thought about calling her a second time but I didn’t. I sent her a message on Facebook but she ignored that too. The next time I saw her was at graduation a month later. I waved to her but she glided past me, like I wasn’t even alive. I tried to contact her a few more times in the summer. Same results. Life passed on to a new current and she created her own distance from me and I guess, screw it.

 

________________________________________________________________________________

Author Bio:

Mark Galarrita is a Filipino American fiction writer from New Jersey. He has a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Creative Writing from Marymount Manhattan College. He also has a forthcoming short story with Bull: Men’s Fiction.

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?”

“Yes?”

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.”

“Brunner!”

“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?”

“Totally.”

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.