I’m enjoying organizing for a year of unabashed creativity in 2022. Sometimes to go forward, you briefly return to the past. And in the past are old poems in a box reminding you of a love that once was and still is.
Note: This is part of a serialized story. Part 1 can be found here:
From what memories I kept, I knew Mathias was the first man in a long time that I chose as a match instead of letting the dating bot decide. The Governing Council had recently issued Strong Suggestion 2050.7512 encouraging men and women of child-bearing age to rely on the bot for optimal matches. While I adhered to Strong Suggestions as if they were Governing Council Absolute Mandates, I could not deny a connection with Mathias. I thought back to our chance coffee meeting a few days ago.
Through a casual smile, one eye covered by a swath of raven bangs, Mathias extolled the virtues of live music, “A music bot will never live up to the magic that was live music. There was a kinetic energy when people gathered, feeling the music in their bones.”
“How do you truly know that? You have only experienced these concerts through archived audio and video, which by the way, I don’t think you are really allowed to use.”
“I need to take you to the archives so you can know what I do. I started to wonder why there is an Absolute Mandate banning music outside of that provided by bots. It has been thirty years since music was produced and performed by people. What is the point of an archive if not to experience the past?”
“I’d like to think the Governing Council has our best interest in mind. We live comfortable lives without the risk of our poor decision-making as humans.”
“Really? Then why do we need to erase our memories?”
I ignored his question because I did not have an answer, and it made me feel guilt for whatever I just chose to erase. Mathias was challenging me with his radical thoughts and behavior, but I couldn’t pull back from it. He gave me a weird feeling in my stomach and had my brain firing, hungry for debate and knowledge about what once was. I was probably exhausted from my memory cleanse. Add strong coffee and a slightly disarming man to the mix, and I should have been able to write this off as a one-time thing. Instead, I agreed to go the archives with Mathias.
At electric node yoga with my friend Cassandra following my chance coffee date, Mathias became the focus of our post workout conversation. As we sipped on Restore drinks, specially formulated by Governing Council scientists to keep the bodies of citizens who made the effort to exercise healthy and slim, I told her about my plans to see him again. She was visibly shaken as I told her about my upcoming date. I knew better than to tell her where we were going.
“I don’t think you should go, Holly. Digging in the past only makes us unhappy. Mathias should know better.”
“How do you know his name? I don’t think I mentioned it.”
Cassandra turned away briefly and sighed before looking at me with disappointed eyes. “You did mention it. In fact, you haven’t stopped talking about him. It’s always about him.”
“How do you know him?”
“I don’t. I know of him, and I think you need to follow the recent Strong Suggestion on dating. Bots exist to make us happy, and in case they don’t get it quite right, we cleanse our memories. Let yourself be happy. Don’t go digging into what should remain the misery of our past.”
With that, Cassandra left our table in a hurry, leaving me wondering how she knew Mathias and why she didn’t like him. We all knew the rules about memory erasing. Your mutual contacts were informed of your choice to erase someone or something, and it was their duty, punishable by law, to not reintroduce the memory. Cassandra had slipped, and the only effect was firming my resolve and desire to see him. As I walked home, I felt a tingling at my skull that grew into a sharp pain, sending me to bed in a confused state.
Today was the day, and I would not let Cassandra or my still aching head ruin my outing with Mathias, so I dressed in the dating bot’s recommended first date attire of black plants and a white blouse. Anything more revealing or colorful, and you ran the risk of accelerating the match with passion versus a slow, steady connection built on a series of bot suggested conversations.
I met Mathias in front of Archives 42, the building with compiled literature, movies, music, and random cultural memorabilia. This building was never open to the public, so I felt a buzz knowing we would use Mathias’s employee ID to enter. He arrived a few moments after me, dressed in a smile, jeans, and another raggedy t-shirt, this one with the word Bauhaus emblazoned on the front.
“I’m glad you decided to come,” he said with a spark in his eyes. “We will go through a back entrance. I have everything set up in my work room. We need to enter quickly and quietly. If any of my colleagues stop us, I will introduce you as a guest archivist, okay?”
I shook my head, the buzz increasing. I was not myself today, and I liked the feeling of doing something that probably went against a multitude of Absolute Mandates.
We cleared several long hallways into a room Mathias opened with his thumbprint. I was not prepared for a tiny box of a room to be as lovely as his office. It was softly lit by old-fashioned lamps and a high ceiling with a skylight overhead. All four walls, from floor to ceiling, were made of wooden bookshelves, stained a warm red. There were two overstuffed chairs with mismatched plaid patterns, a reading lamp between them. The only other furniture in the room was an old wooden desk and chair. The wood of the desk had a fortune of scars and scratches, but still looked elegant, a relic of another time like the books. In random places, there were gently placed plants, banned long ago for their potential to cause disease and addiction.
I gasped. “I have never seen a room so warm or vibrant. It’s beautiful. I have to say the plants make me a little nervous though.”
Mathias winked, “I’ve had them for years, and I am alive and happy to report I have no addictions.”
“Good to know. If assume you work in the literature archives. How did you gain access to music?”
“Observant. I’m good with computers and convincing bots there is a clear enough crossover between literature and music to procure access to both. It’s all about getting our work done per the specifications of the bots these days, right?” Mathias let out an uneasy laugh.
My buzz was being replaced with the reality that we were doing something we shouldn’t. Mathias took my hand in recognition of my discomfort and pulled out the chair to his desk. He directed my attention to a monitor that rose out of the center of his desk while placing listening buds in my ears. I was not prepared for the ragged beauty of what came next.
There was a sharp-edged, blonde-haired man sitting at the center of a stage inviting everyone to “come as they are.” He had a halo of light being transmitted by a garish chandelier overhead and a circle of candles around him and the other musicians on stage. The light was harsh in its brightness, but soft in how it made him glow. There was a backdrop of lush purple velvet that clashed with the fuzzy pea green sweater he wore. His hand glided across a stringed instrument as he sang a melody that was haunting me to my bones. I wanted to touch his face, but we were separated by a screen and many years of musical silence. I was born into this silence until I reached the age of eight, when bot music was slowly integrated into my day-to-day life at prescribed times. Since I could not touch his face, I touched mine to stop an errant tear that made its way to my cheek. I did not want to trigger a counseling bot session.
Mathias cleared his throat as he wrapped his hands around my face to remove my ear buds. “It does that to me, too. I can’t stop watching even though I know I should. There used to be a whole television of music called MTV. Even if people could not see the bands live, they could watch them on a show called Unplugged.”
“Unplugged?” I lacked knowledge of how music and instruments worked, and it suddenly made me as sad as the man on stage.
“Instruments could be played amplified or quietly, unplugged. There is so much I want to show you, Holly. We need to leave here now though.”
I could see a slight panic in Mathias’s face. I knew better than to ask questions at this moment. I took his extended hand as he led me out the door and back down the first hallway with somebody calling him from behind us.
Mathias whispered in my ear as he stuck something on my thumb, “Go back to the door we entered through, and keep going until you get home. Look down, don’t speak. You have my thumbprint now to unlock the door.” He kissed my cheek, giving me a thousand reasons to stay with him to be sure he was safe. I knew I would only cause him more trouble by doing so.
As I wound down the hallways, two people called out to me, and by the third person, I was in a sprint. I could feel somebody gaining speed behind me. The thumbprint worked perfectly though, sending me out onto the street where I immersed myself in a thick group of walkers, never stopping until I was at my own doorstep. I would regroup, and if I did not hear from Mathias, I would go back for him. He had opened a door to the world before us that I wanted to go back through.
Synopsis: An assassin finds an all too familiar mark on her path to freedom. Will she find a way to dance around the wrongs of her past? (Written for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest)
Sophie skipped the queue into Le Romeo, a ghost in white sequins, feet choked by stilettos. Her eyes were struggling to stay open under the weight of false eyelashes. If she was successful tonight, her servitude would end. She knew he was not far behind her though. He had been following her since she boarded the Metro for Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
She ordered the rare Sancerre at the bar as instructed, checking her back before the glass and small envelope appeared. The discotheque lights bounced off her sequins in way she hoped did not make her a beacon for trouble. Her long red hair was under a sleek black wig, removing any trace of herself from this scene. Stromae’s “Alors On Danse” thrummed in the background, calling forward her not-too-distant past, the one that brought her to this critical moment.
In her younger days, she was on the dance floor behind her, a slender, exotic Irish American in Paris. Her name was Cara. That was until she chose the wrong lover and saw things that shackled her. Tonight, she would be free if she remained undiscovered.
She opened the envelope and gasped, the now throbbing bass muffling her. She followed the length of his beautiful body in the picture from his wavy jet-black hair down to his favorite black leather shoes, polished to perfection. She quickly put the photo in her clutch, housing a .22. Her green eyes, shadowed by a billowy black kohl, scanned the floor, and she found him in the distance.
He looked the same, sculpted in a lanky, carefree way. His teeth caught the lights like her sequins. She couldn’t see the lines of age from this distance. Would he know her when she tried to get close? She was wearing the perfume he gave her, the last drops left in the finely crafted glass bottle. How could she be so stupid, and what had he done to end up a mark? She wanted to stand there all night watching him and then run, but the man who had been following her was here. He was stupid enough to cause a commotion with somebody upon entering, alerting her to his presence.
Sophie knew she had been a fool. They never intended to set her free. The man was here to finish her as soon as she finished Julien, her once beloved.
So, she did what an assassin had to do, she glided to the dance floor, hid in the glistening bodies, and danced her way closer to Julien, closing her eyes if only to escape in her head.
She knew her assassin was watching her, half turned on, half hungry for the kill. She had become a bad person through association but nothing like these wolves. This life was not her choice. She was trying to stay alive, long ago discarded by the lover who ensnared her but still marginally useful to him. Her beauty made an excellent trap, and her only solace was that her marks were horrible human beings. Not Julien though.
She slid into Julien, careful to keep her head lowered so as not to make eye contact, pretending to be sultry and mysterious. He had liked this when they first met. And it worked again. He drew close, but she could feel a hesitation in his limbs.
Their bodies snaked together, the music forming an electric fence around them.
“What is your name?” He tickled her ear in English.
She could not give this away. This had to be done quickly, one chance at success. Her intended killer was distracted by a dark beauty grinding up to him.
Sophie spoke in a husky French accent, asking Julien to follow her to a quiet corner. He nodded, letting her lead the way. He grabbed her hand and wound his fingers tightly into hers, and his touch was too familiar. He could not know her anymore. It would make this impossible. She was at fault for all of this, leaving him for another man, putting them both in danger here tonight. What a cruel twist for Claude to make this her final duty to him. She would willingly let herself be killed over killing Julien, but with her killer closing in, she had a new plan.
She pulled Julien into the first door she could find off a back hall to the discotheque. As soon as the pair entered what was a storage room, Julien grabbed her and kissed her, pulling off her wig, letting loose an uncontrolled stream of red curls. She pushed him back towards a shelving unit, and took her shot, knowing exactly where to aim, watching his face fall as he called out her real name before his body crumpled to the ground.
Sophie slid out into the hall, her assassin’s wide, shiny forehead making its way towards her. She drew, aimed, and hit her second mark for the night and exited to screams and chaos. She discarded her stilettos on the streets of Paris, glistening with spring rain, and ran.
“Depechez-vous, Gloria!” her boss implored as the line of customers at the popular patisserie burst. Gloria had only lived here a few months and was already longing for the quiet of the off seasons.
She did not see when he walked in, but other women were noticing, causing an unsettling titter, grown schoolgirls losing themselves over a handsome boy. She looked up and saw what the ruckus was about. It was Julien. It had worked.
As he smiled at her, patiently awaiting his turn in line, he reached into the pocket of his perfectly pressed resort shirt and pulled something out. It was a crushed metal shoe polish tin, now catching the soft light of the shop. Gloria could hear the words of “Alors On Danse” in her mind. She removed her apron and untucked herself from behind the counter, causing a ruckus of French swear words from her manager and spoiled customers. They wound their fingers together and ran.
Part I: All Good Zombie Stories Should Start on a Boat
Note: This will be a story in parts. Body parts.
“Are you okay?” I said as I brushed his shaggy brown hair back from his eyes, slightly greased after his refusal to take a shower so early in the morning. He did not like showers as a rule. He was a teen boy.
He grimaced, “Mom, stop.” He stayed hunched over the railing of the boat, staring down into the vast waters of Lake Michigan he just christened with his breakfast.
“I told you not to play in the arcade. You know you get motion sick. The fresh air out here is best. Or, we could have played bingo in the main cabin with the breeze.”
“Okay, okay. Bingo is for Boomers. How much longer until we get to Wisconsin?”
“Two hours or so. You should feel better soon though. You may feel better faster if you adjust your attitude.” As I said that, Zavier turned green again and made noises that scared away the remaining ferry passengers within less than 10 feet of us.
“Oh my God, mom. We could have driven like normal people,” he sassed in between terrible retching spells.
I felt bad that our epic road trip across Lake Michigan and Wisconsin to see Metallica in Minneapolis was beginning this way, but I told him not to play those games. Why would you stand for hours in a dank, smelly arcade while on a massive boat on an adventure across the greatest of lakes? I loved this boy, but I did not understand him these days. I started to rub his back, and he let me, giving into the motherly comfort with a roll of his eyes and stomach.
Between the swish of waves, the hum of ferry engine, and the casual chatter of guests distancing themselves from our sick scene, I started to hear the news from multiple TVs in the dining room off our deck. A male newscaster’s voice caught my attention. It was filled with a palpable panic that transcended the typical sensational panic all major network newscasters, in my opinion, seemed to brandish like a loaded gun of nonsense. I recognized the voice to be that of Jim Godwin, the most sensational of the sensationalists.
“We are now receiving reports from ten major cities across the country that people are falling horrifically ill. The spread of the disease is making people do horrible things from illness-related psychoses, things I cannot describe on air. Get your children, get your guns, and get inside….”
Suddenly, Jim was cut off, and a softer, more relaxed female voice began, “Please excuse Jim. His family is one of the cities, St. Louis, that seems to have fallen ill from this rapidly spreading flu. Be sure to take some extra vitamin C and enjoy the summer sun. I am Becky Gladwell, and I will be filling in indefinitely for Jim as he gets an unpaid break to see his family.”
I play this very moment back over in my head. I hated that news network. Jim was a fool. On that very day we crossed Lake Michigan on the road trip to end all road trips, I should have realized that Jim was telling the truth for once. Instead, I just rolled my eyes, taking my son’s best move, and blocked babbling Becky out. I rubbed my son’s back some more as he started to return to a normal color from the love of a good mother, me, and hummed “Enter Sandman” like everything was good. This was my first mistake.
A banjo is an excellent story writer. It’s a 5-string choose your own adventure. It’s a thriller. It’s the romance writer of stringed instruments. Go down the neck, and you get some science fiction and fantasy sounds…the bard of a space court. It’s African poetry. It’s a medical drama about a woman needing a musical cure for a rough week. The banjo is a story, and it is the cure.