She stared into the mirror on the other end of the vanity, running her silver hairbrush through her long blonde hair, frowning as every imperfection, every defect, was made apparent to her the longer she looked.
Can’t go out like this, she sighed, setting the hairbrush on the cluttered vanity. I've got to do something with myself.
She leaned forward, squinting at her reflection. Did she need eyeliner? Eye shadow? Would he notice that slight blemish at the corner of her eye? She should probably smooth that out. Were there any more blemishes? And what about her forehead? Oh, it looked huge in the mirror. Maybe she should cover it up with her hair.
She bit her lip, and that brought her attention to them at once. She pursed and relaxed her lips, looking only a little like a fish out of water. Could she get away without lipstick? Or should she use the lip gloss? What color?
She glanced down at the lipsticks and lip gloss that covered the table in neat rows that stretched twice as far in the mirror. She reached for one near the back, causing the neat rows to collapse as her fingers brushed against the others.
She looked at the label--"Red hot".
She made a face and put it down.
No way. "Red hot" makes me look cheap, she thought bitterly. Have a little dignity, why don’t you?
She set it aside, knocking over even more of them as she searched. Finding it, she took the cap off, twisting it up and pausing and frowning when she noticed the state of her nails, the polish flaking and scratched as her fingers held the lipstick in the mirror.
For a moment, she wondered why the little flaws--her eyes, her lips, her nails--seemed to leap out at her. Why did she never see her reflection anymore? Just fragments--little images.
Why do they never add up to a pleasing whole?
She shook it off, leaning her elbow on the vanity to apply the lipstick.
There was too much to do.
Got to get ready.
They sit at the table, their eager young hands kneading the brightly coloured clay. As they press, roll, stretch, and rub the clay against the table, it leaves pale greasy trails on the fake wood-grain surface.
Jimmy makes a car with a potato-like body and barely circular wheels that fall off when he tries to roll it forward. Frowning, he presses it all back into a big ball, hoping the wheels will stay on this time, determined that he'll keep doing it until he gets it right.
Autumn tries to sculpt a bird in flight; carefully carving the feathers on its wings with a paper clip she stole from the teacher's desk. But she's used too much clay on them. As she sticks them to the bird's body they start to bend, droop, and finally fall off the bird's torso. One of the children stifles laughter. She sighs, looking at her wingless songbird with her head in her hands.
Susan starts to make a dog, which then becomes a horse, and finally ends up an elephant because she keeps changing her mind at the last minute and keeps adding more and more clay as her ideas for what to make get bigger and bigger. As she works on what may be a trunk or tusks she looks around the table, seeing if anyone's further along with theirs than she is.
Bobby shapes a crude clay-man, detailing his face with eyes and a mouth that he pokes into the clay with the tip of his pencil. Then he stands up and proudly smashes it flat with his fist, cackling with mad glee at the clay-man's distorted, almost shocked, expression. Then he squishes it back together, starting over. He makes the clay-man over again, but a bit more detailed and expressive. As he works, he thinks about using his fist or his Language Arts textbook to smash it this time.
The teacher watches the four of them and feels a pang of despair, because she knows one of the children at the table will become the President of the United States someday.
Professor Pecos sat on the other side of the desk from Jethro, the pile of papers laying on the desktop like a dead fish. The only light struggled past the tension between the two men through a small window.
"I understand you want to get published in the student reader," Pecos said, gesturing to the pile of papers.
"Rather, sir!" Jethro said, his eager smile treading a fine line between "eternal optimist" and "genuine madman."
Pecos nodded. "The fact that you've sent me about seventy-five stories in the past two weeks clued me in to that. I've had time to read them all, and . . .I'm sorry, Jethro, they’re unsuitable."
"Yes, I'm afraid so," Pecos said. "Because our ambition with the student reader is to provide a forum for promising new works by our students. By contrast, I fear these stories may induce dysentery. Just reading them myself, I collapsed in my bathroom and had a nightmare about clowns building the Tower of Babel. Clowns, Jethro."
Jethro looked aghast. "Well . . .what's wrong with them?"
Pecos picked up the stack of papers, flipping through them. "Well, in this first one, it's a story about a man who becomes a werewolf because he masturbates, in this one, you talk about a woman's passion for instant coffee, this one is a strange story about yelling at sand castles, here you've just written "yummy cinnamon biscuts" over and over, and in this . . . well, this one's just your grocery list with some random action scenes dropped in."
"I felt it needed punching up."
"Uhh," Pecos said. His stomach was starting to hurt. "Now tell me something Jethro, why did you send me these?"
"I wanted to increase my chances of getting published, sir," Jethro said, bright and eager. "I thought, 'Send them all--one of them's bound to be good."
"I can understand playing the odds, Jethro, there's just one flaw in your reasoning."
"No one but the truly mad would dig through a great tower of shit for the one diamond that might be hidden within."
The last two people Major Baker ever saw or would see were Lieutenants Davison and Troughton. In his mind's eye, the awful split-second where they realized he was torn free of the module was burned into his mind like a photograph. He saw their horrified faces as his thruster pack malfunctioned and fired. He watched them reach for him in slow motion as the thrust tore loose his tether and sent him out into space.
It might have been comical, had it not been so serious.
In an instant, they'd vanished from sight, and there was just Baker and incalculable miles of empty space.
Icarus 1's mission was "to go deeper into space than any manned mission before it."
I'll end up doing them one better, Baker thought with irony darker than the space surrounding him.
Memories of old physics classes drifted through his thoughts as he tried to understand what had happened. Though the propellant in his thruster pack had run out, he would fly backwards until something stopped him. Given the vastness of space, the odds were against that happening. The mathematics of the size of space had made him feel small enough--the fact of it made his mind feel close to snapping.
At first, he'd screamed. After a while, he stopped, realising no one would hear him. Panic momentarily ran through him and was just as swiftly stifled when the understanding settled on him.
There was nothing he could do.
He would drift on and on through the empty blackness. Even after his oxygen ran out, he'd still be tumbling through space. Until then, he'd be awake and aware, alone and adrift in the long dark.
He thought about it some more, and some time passed before he made a decision. Within his gloves, his hands sweat and shook as he reached for his helmet. The panic returned as he laid his hands on the side of his helmet, the rational part of his mind trying to talk himself through this final act.
Relax, he thought, twisting his helmet and unsealing his suit.
This won't hurt.
"So as you read, travel in space--even as close as like Mars or Jupiter would take decades," Mr. Morrison said as he read from the astronomy textbook.
He glanced up to see if anyone was listening. But the kids seemed to be directing their attention on everything but what he was saying. Some of them didn’t even have their textbooks open. Some doodled in their notebooks. Most were staring out the window at the sun-blessed campus green outside.
Morrison pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and sighed. This was the most difficult time of the school year--that moment in late May when summer stopped being a rumor and waited just beyond the window, tantalizingly close, but from a school desk, light years away.
"Anyone wonder what that would be like? Having a trip last a few generations there and back again?" Morrison asked, trying to engage the class.
"Anyone have any thoughts?"
Morrison sighed, determined to forge ahead. Whether they wanted to be in class or not, he had a lesson plan to cover today.
"Well, the best way to travel that distance would be to go faster than the speed of light. But that's easier said than done . . ."
He turned to the board, taking up his chalk. "The speed of light is expressed as . . .three times ten to the tenth pow--"
The class roared with laughter at the sound. Morrison spun around; the hand holding his chalk still raised to write.
He saw the guilty party, frozen in position as well--Elbows raised just off his desk, palms inches from his mouth.
Tommy Jacobs, he thought. Eleventh grade and they still use the old machine-gun for a laugh?
Wearily, he set his chalk aside. His eyes fixed on Jacobs, the look of disapproval magnified a hundredfold through his glasses.
Then he broke into a smile and applauded.
"Everybody," he began. "Let's take a moment to thank our Mr. Jacobs for reminding us the only difference between "cosmic" and "comic" is one "s.""
"Why am I here?" Jason asked, staring at the glass of iced tea before him.
"Well," Billy replied. "I decided to buy you lunch because you're depressed, and..."
"That's not what I mean," Jason complained, catching the sight of one of the pulchritudinous waitresses strolling towards him, clad in spandex so tight that everything that should bounce, didn't. It was meant to be sexy, but the whiff of bondage about the whole thing made her seem more threatening than titillating.
"More tea, sweetie?" The waitress asked Jason, leaning over him in such a way as to where her breast rested against his head.
He nodded. She poured. "What I mean is, why here?"
Billy sat quietly, wiping up hot sauce with a white napkin slowly turning orange.
"What better way to get over your girlfriend than to be around beautiful women?" Billy offered. "There're more fish in the sea, after all."
"Uh-huh," Jason muttered, pausing to sip his tea. "But these fish only care about me insofar as how much I'll tip. That makes me feel worthwhile. No, actually it makes me feel like an ATM with legs."
"You're so negative, man," Billy said, downing his Coke in a swift gulp. He grimaced, possibly at the contrast between the Coke and the hot wings on his palate. "That's why Holly left, y'know."
"Lunch and psychoanalysis? Wow."
Billy shook his head, exasperated.
"I'm sorry, man," Jason said. "I know you meant well. It's just ...there's not much worse for someone who just lost his girlfriend than being around women who he also has no shot at."
Billy sighed, pushing away from the table. "On that declaration of confidence, I'm headed for the can."
Jason stared at his iced tea, misery his only company. His thoughts were so far away he jumped a little when he felt a small hand come to rest on his shoulder.
"You want anything else, honey?" the young waitress asked, in an accent so thick the word "honey" seemed dragged out to twice its normal length.
Jason thought over what he really wanted at this moment.
"HEY KIDS!" The voice boomed from the television. Colours shifted phantasmagorically on the screen as something spun into view. "Are you ready for the hottest new thing?"
"YEAH!" Canned children's voices screamed back as the thing on the screen whirled into full view, its toothsome grin and empty-socketed gaze staring from the screen with a dull madness.
"It's SKULL!" The announcer shouted. He spoke with all the subtlety of a gas explosion. "It's the newest and greatest toy to hit the shops! Just watch what it can do!"
The scene cut to the top of a staircase. Two small boys grinned as they hoisted their skulls high with the careful gaze of a bowler setting up a 7-10 split. Satisfied, they dropped their skulls down the stairs, jumping up and down and clapping with wild glee as the skulls bounced, flipped, skipped, and rolled down each step.
Again, the scene shifted. Two children, different from the first two, were in their front yard and playing catch with a skull. The camera held on the skull in the air, sunlight streaming through its empty eye sockets.
"Yes, Skull!" The announcer continued, his voice absolutely ecstatic as he preached his mad gospel. "You can play with it so many ways! Roll it down the stairs! Play catch! You can even put on a show for your friends!"
The scene then went to a semicircle of children, looking up at a young boy holding up a skull and manipulating its jaw in the most obvious and unconvincing ventriloquist act in all of recorded history. The children erupted into a fit of joyous clapping.
"And if you think that's amazing," the announcer intoned, "Watch this!"
Abruptly, the scene jumped to a man dressed as Hamlet, cradling a skull in his palm.
"Alas, poor Yorick..." Hamlet intoned, leaning forward and licking the skull's forehead.
Hamlet held the skull up to the camera, the slick trail of saliva glistening under the lights as a children's choir suddenly burst into song:
"It's Skull! Skull!
It's round and calcified!
It's Skull! Skull!
The fun is bone-a-fide!"
The gallery stretched out before him, a narrow hallway made all the more claustrophobic by the gilt frames that protruded almost two whole inches from the wall. At the other end of the gallery was a doorway, and through the white, half-open door, he could make just make out the room beyond it.
He didn’t want to walk through the gallery, didn’t want to see the pictures on the wall, didn’t want to cross to the room beyond.
But he'd been here before, and he knew what would happen--what always happened. His feet began to move of their own accord, pulled along by a force he couldn't explain.
He began to walk slowly forward, turning slightly as he began to make his way through the gallery, pivoting left and right as he tried to avoid bumping his shoulders against the frames. He tried to keep his eyes focused on the door beyond.
He would have tried anything to keep from seeing the paintings on the wall.
But he saw them all the same. Turning to avoid banging into the frames meant he saw each of them in turn.
Not that he had to see them. He knew them--every colour, every brushstroke by heart.
He'd lived the pictures. Every cruel act, every slight, every hateful thing he'd ever done to people who never deserved it--they hung on these walls and, seeing them in lurid colour, he couldn’t help but see them and remember all he'd done and to whom, no matter how much he wanted to forget.
With shaking hands, he pushed open the door with an almost desperate motion. The only thing inside the bare, windowless room a simple wooden chair, dried and warped with time and age.
His body trembled he sat in the chair, staring out at the open door and the view of the gallery beyond. He rested his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands.
His body hunched inward and he began to cry, sobs wracking his entire body and echoing against the bare white walls of the room.
As with all July afternoons, it was far too hot to live, never mind visit the zoo. The clutch of people standing in front of the monkey cages were a veritable Guernica of heat-addled humanity. Some dealt with it by shifting their weight from foot to foot or looking in vain for some kind of shade, but most endured it with a quiet, sullen, sweatiness that made their faces run like melting wax.
The only ones who didn’t seem to mind the heat were the monkeys. Despite being caged they were having the time of their lives on the gnarled tree they occupied, running up and down the limbs, screeching, masturbating, and poking their fingers in places altogether too nasty to mention here.
Unfortunately, the only human who didn’t seem to mind the heat was Jeffrey. He was entirely focused on two things. One was the chocolate and strawberry ice-cream cone that was melting over his left hand. The other was teasing the monkeys as obnoxiously, loudly, and imaginatively as his four-year old mind could conceive.
Initially, the monkeys took little notice of the hateful child with the dripping left hand that screamed and waved his hands at them. Humans were crazy--they were used to that by now.
It was only when he got directly in front of the cage that they considered him a threat. Jeffrey then escalated his taunting of the monkeys to undreamed of levels of noisy brattiness.
The monkeys, for their part, responded in kind. Their retaliation was swift, terrible, and incredibly nasty.
In the blink of an eye, Jeffrey was backpedaling from the cage, red-faced and sobbing. His ice-cream cone had been sheared off, and his face was covered with something that even the untrained eye could see was definitely not chocolate. The two scoops of ice cream oozed in brown and pink rivulets ran over the hot concrete like sugary spilt blood.
Jeffrey looked up, shuddering and sobbing. Through the bars of the cage he could see one of the monkeys staring down at him with something that looked suspiciously like sanguinary triumph.
They kissed passionately, their tongues dancing hotly in each other's mouths.
He wrapped his arms around her waist, his fingers dancing up her spine as he kissed down her throat. He untucked her blouse and began undoing the buttons as he ravished her. She tilted her head back, a soft moan escaping the back of her throat as he raked his teeth down the nape of her neck.
The last of the buttons undone, he opened her blouse, pressing close and breathing her in. His lips brushed lightly above her breasts as he removed the blouse. The feel of his hands on her smooth skin made her heart flutter and sent shockwaves through. She pressed herself closer to him, as hungry to be touched, as he was to touch her.
He very gently kissed just between her large breasts, his fingertips fanning over her breasts, lightly tracing her already-hard nipples through the delicate purple lace of her bra.
"Oh yes..." she breathed. Her heart fluttered again, and she bit her bottom lip, as desire wonderfully jolted her again.
She pressed her breasts into his face, almost smothering him. He kissed the upper slope of her breasts as he reached around, feeling for her bra-clasp.
One of those damnable hook clasps, he sighed. His fingers worked at it; one pinching the fabric and the other jostling them loose. All the while he teased her nipples with his tongue, which caused her to moan and run her fingers through his hair.
A few seconds later, he slid the lacy bra down her shoulders and off her body. She leaned back, taking his face in his hands and looking into his eyes.
Then, it flew at him.
"AHHHHHH! GET IT OFF GETITOFF!"
For such a small thing, it was mightily upset. It squeaked furiously as it flapped at his face. Finally, he struck it and it flew away.
Finally, he quieted himself and looked at her.
"Was that...a…bat?" He asked.
"It must have been," she said. "It must have got in there on the washing line. Weird--I thought it was my phone."