Plugs

It was a balmy afternoon on the sands of Newport Beach when Valdan Mechaieh–playing hooky in the month of May, his seventeenth birthday–first sensed his ice soul.

He’d been in science class with Dr. Wall.  That bloated blimp bastard had actually tried to make him study for and retake a test Valdan had failed.  He’d mentioned something about the behavior patterns Valdan used today would be harder and harder to break in the future.  That old fart pretended to care but didn’t know a damn thing about his life.  He told the old man that he hated science because it was pointless and he would never use it in his life.  Besides, he’d show that stupid jerk: He’d make a life for himself without him and his stupid science.

Valdan had involuntarily leaked a few tears and asked to go to the locker-room restroom, at which point he grabbed his gym bag, ducked out of school and puttered his moped out to Newport.  The Pacific waves were a sedative.  Wind rippled palm leaves overhead.  A couple on the pier talked in low tones of white hills like garbage trucks.  A bus screeched to a halt on West Balboa Boulevard.  Bell chimes announced someone shuffling inside the 7-11.  Sailboats scraped their hulls against the marina.

A trickle of sweat slid down the crease of his spine.  He arched his back a little so his Black Flag T-shirt wouldn’t cling.

All sound ceased… but for a final wave clapping the shore.  Not even the slightest of breezes stirred the palms.  An icicle crept down where the sweat had trailed.  Mechaieh shivered.  He flicked icy half-pellets stuck to his forehead.  The pellets sat on his towel like the half shells of albino ladybugs.  Mechaieh had not puzzled out their essence until they melted…. Waves clapped the shore, the bus pulled away, and boats again scraped the marina.

Mechaieh lay on his towel, trying to recall what he’d been thinking when this all occurred, when he’d received this gift, this sensing of another soul.  Valdan’s grandmother, a Jew of the more Heterodox variety, once explained there were thirteen souls for humans to discover.  Was this the fourteenth?

Mechaieh sat up.  Now he had something to use against Dr. Wall!  He’d freeze time, go look up the answers and then fill out a test.  That’d show him mastery.

Spacenews. Alien spacesuit found orbiting #BetaChiarus3. This planet is the backup choice for the #terraformingproject.

Retweet?

“Did you see this?”

“Since I’m looking over your shoulder I think you can assume I did.”

“Pretty cool, huh. A dead alien is even better than a live one! Don’t have to worry about conquering hordes.”

That’s what the talking heads were saying too. The desiccated corpse inside the suit had been about 3 m tall when alive. As to why the corpse had been left at Beta Chiarus, or whether any aliens would come back for it, there were no facts but plenty of speculation. It had been a solitary explorer, a would-be mutineer, victim of a successful mutiny, or something so alien we could never understand it. After the autopsy, the body was analyzed chemically six ways from Sunday, and shown to be based on a molecule very similar to DNA. Its proteins were different from terrestrial proteins but they were proteins.

“So it couldn’t have eaten our plants or our livestock…” began one of an endless parade of interchangeable “experts”.

“or us,” interjected the show’s host, laughing.

Und so weiter.

True enough, as far as it went. But when the rest of the nine-foot aliens followed our ships home and began their xenoforming project on Earth the media parrots didn’t seem so smug.

End

Our food arrived quickly. My wife, still not quite well, had only ordered bread and water. For me, the waiter presented a plate of spaghetti with fish in a creamy sauce.
I twisted a mouthful onto my fork and, on eating it
–saw a woman, pale hair falling waist-long down a tall figure, standing atop a cliff with a fair-haired man. They argued. The river rushed past below them, frothed white by rocks. The woman shouted of secret wives and lies, and threatened exposure.
The man pushed–

tasted something good, I think, but barely remembered it after the strength of the hallucination. Trying to ignore the residual unsettled feeling, I ate a chunk of carp.
–and she fell, screaming. Cold struck her hard, so hard, or was that the rock? Flailing in the water, light and dark playing havoc in her eyes, her mind, and pain spreading from her chest. Water against her.
Water wrote eddies of curiosity across her skin as the pain slipped away. A whisper in her ear. A greeting.
The water is home now and the rock your seat, said the river. Sing for me, maiden, sing sweet songs, sing to fill me–

“Rob, are you all right?”
I realised it was Susan talking. “I… don’t know. I think I might have your flu.”
Concern coloured her voice. “You should try to eat a bit more. Then we’ll go back to the hotel.”
Nodding, I ate more of the pasta.
–A song on a stormy evening. A small fishing boat tossed by waves, fighting the white.
The teenaged boy paused in his terror-screams. The song laced his ears, stirred thoughts of home, bed, love.
He felt nothing as the rocks sliced his boat to pieces, as the river tongued him downwards. As the maiden wept.–

“We should go,” Susan said, and called for the bill.
Several minutes later we left. I stumbled into the street, as if feverous. The husband’s face lodged in my mind. And I thought of the woman, trapped in the river.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “we need to visit the Rhine.”

In a world full of trillions of otherwise wasted, tasteless words printed on trillions of otherwise wasted, bleached tree pulp–from the papyrus to the pine–this one word is deliciously alive. I won’t tell which. You wouldn’t believe it if it were so easy. It isn’t: the paradoxical architecture of its lettered spine: curved yet straight. But it is easy: more ancient than coelacanths yet more spry… and sly: the way it creeps, it stalls, it crawls and breathes on the sly. It slips, it slides and plays possum when your eye lands upon its black frames in that wintry wasteland of bleach pulp snow–a frozen and fallow ground–waiting for your eye to grow weary and blink so it can exhale and inhale in the space of that eternity. It bides its time. You will turn the page. You will move on. You have dishes to do, garbage to take out. Meanwhile, it has rearranged the neural map of your brain–former dead ends are superhighways, and once indispensable bridges are washed out (you can still take that bridge though you’re liable to baptize yourself and drown in what is clearly now just a chugging, churning muddy wastewater).
As you cinch the trash-bag ends closed, you see the garbage differently. With the bag slung over one shoulder, clinking gently against your back, you half-consciously mutter conjugations of sounds you’d forgotten you knew. Slowly, you roll your tongue over various viable words, tasting their liveliness.
Outside, mercantile semis jostle futilely for pole position, apply their clamorous airbrakes against the crisp, clean silence, pass in their light regalia like toppled Christmas trees trucking above the Interstate 80 viaduct. You gaze up in wonder at stars as you trudge through knee-deep snow that melts and trickles into your bedroom slippers and through the night’s bitter cold that nips at your fingers and toes.
How do you know it lives if it hides in plain sight? It nudges other words, testing their livelihood compared to its, rolling them aside like slow heavy stones to see where they might go, toward places you haven’t heard their torpid frames clink before. One word occupies the snowy space here instead of there, alters the stories less on the page than in your brain–not enough to change the plots or meanings, rendering the books wholly different, but enough to see your garbage differently.
And, otherwise on an other wise tongue, it is all garbage.

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