May 2010


Ellis Lincoln was born on February 21, 2003 at about 8:30 PM.

Amy Pongil, his mother, a few friends, and myself were seated in a semicircle, pads of paper in hand, scribbling furiously. After a few minutes, the professor told us to put our pencils down and share what we’d come up with.

My turn came first: “Frank Bossini, called ‘Boss’ by his friends and family. About 6′ tall, 49, with hair graying and thinning at the temples and a beer gut. He loved reading mystery stories, and frustrated his wife by telling her the culprits. He nursed a drinking problem that threatened to spiral out of control, and occasionally took the rage he felt over his menial and low-paying job out on the kids.”

Dr. Pon Gamily, writer and sage, nodded as I read. “Very good,” she said with a faint singsong accent. “A bit stock, perhaps, but that just means there are more possibilities. I especially like the fact that he’s a reader of mysteries; perhaps you can work him into a mystery of his own?”

There were murmurs of approval throughout the class. Gil Mopany was next, with a blind guitar player named Carlo, followed by Lia Pogmyn with steroid-abusing track star Erika With A “K”. Amy was sill writing when her turn came; Dr. Gamily hat to gently remind her that time was up.

“Okay,” she said, sounding out of breath and shaking her chubby hand to ease the writer’s cramp she no doubt felt. “My character is called Ellis Lincoln. He’s about 5’9” tall, with brown hair and green eyes. He’s farsighted, but sometimes takes out his contact lenses so he can see the world in a different way. 20 years old, from Rosemont Village upstate, studying to become an engineer. He loves to walk around looking straight up at night, counting the stars, and sometimes takes stargazing hikes out where there aren’t any lights to interfere. The only child of a single mother, he’s really devoted to her and wants to be able to take care of her when she’s old. That’s why he chose engineering, rather than creative writing, which he would have preferred. He…”

“Okay, okay,” Dr. Gamily said, chuckling. “You don’t need to read us the entire sheet, Amy. But it’s nice that you were inspired to write so much, to put so much detail into him. I think he would be good in a slice of life story, no?”

“I just couldn’t stop,” Amy gushed. “It just kept coming and coming and coming, and I think I might even have more than what I wrote down. Like…”

“Excellent,” Dr. Gamily interrupted. “Feel free to keep writing while the others share their characters, okay?”

“Okay,” said Amy. She wrote furiously while the others talked, filling up three sheets of notebook paper, front and back, and didn’t say a word for the remainder of the class.

It was hard to tell where the ruins began and ended. Along the plain, an occasional ruined structure would jut up, covered in dead ivy and undergrowth. It was as if the land was slowly starving to death, its bones exposed and held in only by a thin sheen of dead or dying greenery. Dark, low clouds cast a further pall over the descolate plain, and worked hard to sap what was left of Thomas Graham will.

Only the dusty footprints he left in his wake gave evidence of his passing, and soon the chill wind would whip up and scour even these small traces from the earth. The few stunted, bitter fuits torn from their twisted branches along the way would be regrown, or the trees themselves would succumb. Like old soldiers, and like Graham himself, they would just fade away.

He’d been able to worm through the dry ivy when the wind blew, taking refuge in the ancient buildings, whatever they were, but they had been picked clean and worn smooth by years of weathering, perhaps even looting. Smooth walls of concrete and steel gave no hint as to their function or origin, much as a man’s skeleton had little to say about his life. As he huddled in those ruins, the fingers of thirst closing ever tighter around his throat and the merciless gale howling outside, Graham would look up at the gray sky and wondered if he would find a broken tower high enough to fling himself from and end the long march. He knew not where he went, nor did he follow any signs, but Graham knew what he was searching for; even now, it lay within his grasp: a photograph, lined and worn from months in a decaying pocket. He would take out of and look at it when the urge to climb and fall returned, when it seemed that his tongue would swell up and block his throat.

There had been a few plastic bags in his pockets, intended for leftovers at the company picnic. Instead, Graham had filled them with rainwater from the misty rain that occasionally pelted the dusty plain and turned it into a quagmire. One by one, they had begun unravelling, and none had more than a few drops left. He kept them in his briefcase, which was also beginning to disintegrate, along with a few other odds and ends he had encountered, some of which he hardly even remembered picking up. A bent spoon. Half of a plastic plate, with faded butterflies on its surface. A few rounded rocks that might serve to scare off any intruders.

At least Graham had his suit coat, and a thick wool shirt. Whenever the cold breeze began to nip at his heels, it kept him warm enough to find shelter before the chill stole the life from between his lips. The islands of shelter were closer together now; though what that may have meant was lost on Graham. He was certainly nowhere near the City, and perhaps farther from his goal than he’d ever been.

At least his black dress shoes had been thoroughly broken in.

That spring, Danny finally outgrew his old bike, the one he’d learned to ride on. It had fit, just barely, during the fall, but now his legs banged awkwardly against the handlebars, leaving angry red stripes across Danny’s knees.

Dad said that, thanks to little Sandy’s new dentalwork, any new bike would have to wait until Christmas.

“I can’t just walk everywhere all summer!”

“You’ll appreciate your new bike a lot more once you have it,” Dad said. “And that means you’ll take better care of it. I’ll show you how to give it a nice tune-up; it’ll be fun.”

Danny stormed up to his room and threw himself on the bed. It wasn’t fair. Why did parents always have to be like this? It wasn’t his fault he’d outgrown the old bike. They probably just didn’t want to pay.

“The city garage sale is coming up,” Mom said the next morning. “I bet you can find a nice used bike, and your father’d help you fix it up.”

Four hours’ worth of poking around dusty piles of junk later, Danny was about ready to go home, dejected and bikeless, when he saw sunlight glinting off spokes in the corner.

The old Flyer was definitely a garage-sale special—it was sturdy, ran well, and had cost only ten dollars. The fact that the bike had looping handlebars, a banana seat, and a definitively made-in-1973 paint scheme mattered less than the fact that it moved.

Dad, who was an amateur mechanic and doted on his old Schwinn, had helped give the old girl a tune-up. He’d even let Danny reattach the bike’s chain after cleaning it; thanks to carefully watching his father, Danny had been able to do it on his first try.

The real piece-de-resistance, though, was the sleek battery-powered light Danny picked up at Wal-Mart—he’d been so excited by the purchase that the Flyer’s unveiling and maiden ride happened at night. Danny had torn through the city streets like a man possessed, reveling in the speed, the wind.

“You’re a miracle worker, Peg,” McClellan said, reaching for the cup. “I’m bloody parched.”

Peg yanked the cup back. “Parched enough to pay in advance?”

“Parched enough to break your arm and take all I want straight from the faucet!” McClellan laughed.

Peg snickered. “Go ahead! No one knows how to work the thing but me.” She stroked one of the pipes, gently swirling McClellan’s beer as she did so. “I built it. It’s my baby. You can barely find your own stick in the cockpit.”

McClellan raised an eyebrow. “It’s called a yoke.”

“Or you could take your business elsewhere,” Peg continued. “I do believe you can get some beer in our home port, if you go down the right back alley, but that’d be quite the wait. Why, it’d be weeks and weeks before you got some mead in you.”

McClellan licked his lips, and slapped a handful of worn company pay slips onto the bar. “You play dirty. Beer me. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned bartender talk? Maybe the occasional ‘I’m sure it’ll work out, Mr. McClellan,’ or ‘I sure do value your business, Mr. McClellan.'”

Peg ran a rag over the metal plate that served as a bar. “I’m not a bartender,” she said. “I happen to be a highly trained United Nations Transport Service communications officer. Important people have my voice in their ear when things get done. I just moonlight as a bartender when there’s nobody important to talk to.”

“There’s never anybody important to talk to out here,” McClellan snorted back. “This Theta Proxima milk run is the ass-end of space.”

“And if it’s not done by the end of the week, I’ll have your heads on a platter at the partners’ meeting and on stakes in the plaza after that!” Kilp yelled. “When you work in this firm, you produce results!” She stormed off, ponytail swinging angrily. Each strike of a high heel on the floor seemed forceful enough to shatter shoe or tile, whichever was weaker.

A short silence followed.

“Kilp, why must you be the queen of all bitches, indeed of all bitch-kind?” Mike said to the closed door. “The single template from which all other bitches are wrought?”

“Upbringing,” said Gene. “Raised in a house with seven brothers, forced to learn how to mash balls to live.”

“Sex change,” Mike countered. “You can take the drill instructor out of the Marines, you can even cut the drill off of the Marine, but you can’t take the marine out of the drill instructor. Not even with hormones.”

“You guys have it all wrong,” said Jason. “You see, Kilp is really the proboscis of a pandemensional predator which must feast of human souls.”

“Give it a rest, Jason,” Gene groaned. Fun was fun, but Jason’s moronic flights of fancy had a way of getting old.

“Hear me out, hear me out,” said Jason, grinning. “Kilp’s projected into our reality as a lure, like an anglerfish, and our misery sustains her between feedings. She subsists on a diet of interns, since no one notices when they disappear, but every now and then hungers for sweeter meat. When one of us gets fired, we’re really enveloped and consumed.”

Grumbles and a few crumpled wads of paper came at Jason from every angle.

“Mark my words,” he continued. “And beware if she ever opens her mouth way wider than usual and you see rows of teeth.”

In the nearby conference room, Kilp had one ear pressed to the door.

“He knows!” she growled.

Gather around, everyone, for I’d like to tell you a story.

Now, this was a very long time ago, when children stayed children until they were forced to grow up and anything was possible as long as you did it before lunchtime. A little boy lived in a little house on a hill under a great oak tree with his family. And, every night when his chores were done, he would sit under that tree and look up at the stars until it came to be bedtime. It was a very long way to anywhere, and anyone, else from that little house, and the boy often felt like the stars and the great fuzzy belt of the Milky Way were closer than anything, and anyone, else. He used to dream about what, and who, might be looking up at his little star from far-off cosmic hills under far-off cosmic trees.

Of course, there was no way for him to be sure–or so you might think! As it happens, the boy’s house had a very well-stocked library, and he would often take a book to read when the moonlight was at its brightest on hot summer nights. One of the books talked about a lonely castaway on a desert island lost in the seven seas, who had sat under a palm tree on an island hill and wondered the same wonders as the boy. The castaway had written a message and put it into a bottle, which he’d hurled into the vast ocean–not looking for rescue, since he’d come to love his little island, but rather looking for a friend. The bottle had returned bearing a message from a prince in the far-off orient, with the castaway and his new friend exchanging many such bottles in the pages to come.

The boy was enchanted by this idea, and one day he wrote a letter of his own, sealed it up tight in a bottle, and flung it into the sky with a little help from his slingshot.

It was many days later that he found his bottle under the great old oak, warm to the touch and bearing a message back. It was unsigned, but spoke of another child on another hill impossibly far away, sitting under the same sky and wondering the same wonders as the boy. That was the first of many bottles which came and went into the great starry expanse from beneath that old oak on hot summer nights, as the boy and his new friend wrote each other about their shared questions, hopes, and even dreams.

Then, it so happened that the boy’s last bottle went unanswered for a very long time–much longer than usual. When a bottle finally appeared, it looked as if it had been through a fire.

The message inside was brief. It read, simply, “help me.”

When Peter returned to his home office, he found Sedena there. She was at his desk, wearing reading glasses and scratching with a blood red gel pen.

“What’s that you’re doing?” he asked amicably.

“Paperwork,” said Sedena.

“Paperwork for murdering somebody?” Peter said. “Isn’t that a little counterintuitive for assassination?”

“Not really, no.” Sedena removed her glasses and tossed them to the desk. “Littleton & Associates expects a full report for every job. It’s not all that different from corporate finance, really.”

“I find it hard to believe that anything could be as convoluted as corporate finance, least of all a transaction with so few steps,” said Peter.

“Try me.”

Peter rummaged through the stack of documents from his last day telecommuting. “See this? This is Form 943-X: Adjusted Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return for Agricultural Employees or Claim for Refund. My firm has to fill it out because of our minuscule agribusiness holdings, and it is tedious to the point of brain failure. I take care of it so that junior employees won’t have to bear its terrible brunt.”

Sedena pulled a sheaf from her own stack. “Form B3-7: Certification of Lifesign Termination. I have to fill this out, in triplicate, on demand so the suits can be sure the target wasn’t resuscitated in the hospital. Very tedious when a job was done from a mile away with a wildcatted Barrett M82A2.”

“Meet my friend Form W-8EXP: Certificate of Foreign Government or Other Foreign Organization for United States Tax Withholding,” Peter said, winnowing a sheet from his pile. “It is a tidal wave of red ink and nightmares, and I have to spend hours on the phone with people for whom English is a fourth language in order to collect the relevant information.”

“Try Form L8D-12: Collection of Organ or Organs as Proof of Contract Fulfillment. Rarely invoked in the past, very popular since the dawn of the DNA era,” replied Sedena. “That one comes with its own plastic baggie; I have to supply the bonesaw.”

Undaunted, Peter dipped back into his stash. “Uncle Sam is worried that, when you die, you will give all of your money to family members. To prevent this literally grave injustice from occurring, I have to handle Form 706: United States Estate (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return. It involves collecting information from helpless, grieving family members like some kind of hideous beancounting ghoul. Every time I have to fill one out, I die a little inside.”

“Speaking of dying,” Sedena said, “here’s Form X2X-99: Notice of Circumstances Requiring Escalation. That one’s a little vague, so let me clear it up for you: witnesses are bad, and sometimes Littleton & Associates needs to take them on as ‘clients.’ It’s like a cascade of paperwork, since every X2X-99 means filling out another complete set. Worse, we don’t get paid for X2X-99’s; they come out of my own pocket. And that’s without the feeling that you’re just ruining someone’s day.”

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