This Shoal of Space:
Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship
(World's First E-BookPublished On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)
a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker
by John Argo
Part I-Chapter 2
Part II-Chapter 66
"You really should get a checkup," Perry said on the way back to the newspaper office.
"I will, Perry. Now let's see if I get to stay on this story." She was going to take Perry at his word. She was going to find a story that would change her life. She was going to do it for Max. And for herself. For the first time, she was going to have real independence.
Jules Loomis, a while later, seemed surprised that she even asked. "Why of course." He relit his pipe, and she strained to smell the smoke. "Perry says you have a good investigative streak. He also feels you need to learn some diplomacy."
"I'm afraid that's never been my strong suit."
"It comes with time."
ZoŽ spent the afternoon finishing up Balsamo and the other obits. Wiz seemed quiet.
"Are you mad that they are letting me work city?"
Wiz turned in her seat and bunched her long drab dress on her knees. Her fists were knots. Her eyes swam in fury. "I'm sorry, ZoŽ. I have nothing against you or your opportunity. I don't think it's jealousy for a woman 15 years older to be passed up, with a degree no less, even if it is in early child care and psychology. I feel like I've just had a shoe put up my rear end and I'm damn mad." Wiz picked up her huge purse, swept possessions into it, and said: "Please do me a favor. Tell Jules I quit"(ZoŽ took a shocked breath)"and I'll give him a call tomorrow morning." Wiz started to walk away, then turned and regarded ZoŽ with a long, strange look. "ZoŽ, be careful." Wiz's eyes and mouth worked with some repressed knowledge. "This Smith story, stay away from it. Good luck with the police beat."
After Wiz had left, ZoŽ exhaled through rounded lips, contemplating. Wiz had this degree and ZoŽ had three credits garnered years ago during an abortive effort at college. Frank had taken her books on the front lawn and set them on fire before passing out from drugs. She could understand how the difference in age and education must bother Wiz. She hoped they'd be able to talk about it later. Reluctantly, she made the trip past Mart Willow's office to Jules's.
"She said she would talk to you about it tomorrow."
Jules waved his hand. "She'll calm down."
Max was in the pool when ZoŽ got home. The apartment door was open and Mother sat in the shade. It was sweetly quiet when ZoŽ, twirling sunglasses and clutching purse, jacket, and newspaper, walked in through the wooden gate.
"Hi Mom!" Max dog-paddled toward her, throwing off twirls of sun-jeweled water.
"Hi darling," she said. She tossed a life preserver and it was a near ringer around his neck but he caught it and threw it back.
"Hello, ZoŽ," Mother said.
"Hi, Mother." ZoŽ bent to kiss her mother on the cheek.
"I had to tell those young people in 1A and 4B to turn down their stereos. They were loud enough to be heard in the next county." She said this as though it were ZoŽ's fault.
ZoŽ shrugged and breezed into the house. "Can't help it, Mother." She threw purse and jacket down, then propped up the newspaper and fished a cola from the refrigerator. "Smith Murder Inquiry Continues," a front-page headline informed. There was a picture of Smith, taken a few years earlier during a banquet. The picture showed a pleasant looking white-haired man. Wiz's obit said his students had loved him.
"Come on, Mom!" Max yelled from the pool.
"I'll be right out," she hollered through the curtains over the sink. A fleeting pleasure crossed her mind, that this was her home. Hers and Max's. She had chosen THESE curtains over Mother's suggestions at the Fabric Store. That had been quite a few years ago now. She'd been in her early twenties, trying to cope with Max's cancer. She'd also been trying to cope with Frank MacLemore's death. In some ways it had seemed easier with Frank gone, an end to his drinking and abuse. Then again, having a child as a single mother was so hard, no matter how she loved him. She had to work, and she worried about him all the time, especially when she remembered all those night sleeping in a chair by his side in the hospital years ago before the miracle of remission.
She stepped into the bedroom, slipping out of her dress. In the light afternoon breeze that stirred the curtains, she relished the coziness of the bedroom. Sure it was a bit rumpled, the bed not made but just peeled open to air out. It was clean, and it was home. For a minute or two, absently still in heels, she dawdled in the closet entrance. She finished undressing, changed into her black bikini, and stepped into Max's room. The air was stuffy and she opened a window. His room had that Maxness that she loved. It was a room steeped in twilight on the border between childhood and adolescence. The computer, stereo, football, and light weights (prescribed for his legs) suggested the beginnings of teendom. For all the rest, it was still the room of a child. There were stuffed animals with worn fur, model cars with fingerprints in the paint, balsa planes she had helped him build that had never flown well. There were marbles and pencils and baseball cards. Flags of the world in a San Tomas State University Grecians beer mug. And photos. Among them a tattered old black and white of Frank in his Navy uniform; he proudly held one year old Max while ZoŽ stood behind them with a scrubbed teenage face and an unreadable expression somewhere between joy and sorrow.
"Catch!" She tossed the ball back and forth with Max, then cooled herself in the pool. Mother went inside to make dinner, puttering about ZoŽ's kitchen with a hesitancy as though everything were in the wrong place and of the wrong sort. Supper ended up being hamburgers, silver dollar fries, and Brussels sprouts.
"Where did you get the Brussels sprouts, Mother? Surely not in my apartment."
"I brought a few groceries just so you wouldn't starve."
Mother added: "I'm going to wipe down all your dishes before I go home."
"No need to, honest." Mother was a pain, but during the hard times after Frank's death, she had been there every day to help out. Mother was a widow. ZoŽ's Dad had died in an airplane crash when she was Max's age, about nine years ago. Mother had retired two years early from her job at the phone company to take care of Max while ZoŽ tried her hand at a series of tedious jobs that didn't work out. The current arrangement was that ZoŽ managed the apartment complex Mother had bought with the insurance money from Dad's settlement. She also paid Mother a small rent and covered her own utilities.
After a brief tangle of words, Mother agreed not to wipe all the dishes in the cupboard now, but sometime when ZoŽ and Max were not home. After Mother had left, ZoŽ did the remaining few dishes. ZoŽ felt like there was a volcano inside her ready to explode. Max was watching Star Trek on TV. "Did you do your homework?"
"Max, you're not supposed to turn on the TV. until your homework is done."
"Oh Mom." The 'mom' was a moan. She heard crutches clicking, then silence.
ZoŽ finished wiping the counter with a hand towel. "Have you got a lot?" Sometimes they would sit together and work on his fifth-grade grammar and arithmetic.
"I don't feel good." A truly, sincerely sad voice.
She swatted him with the hand towel. "Too many Brussels sprouts, huh?"
"I think I'll lie down for a while."
ZoŽ frowned as he went into his room and closed the door. "Can I get you something?" Worry crawled like worms inside her gut.
No answer. A little while later, carrying milk and cookies in on a TV. tray, she found him fast asleep dressed in his socks and bathrobe. His skin felt hot and dry, and she contemplated waking him later on to take his temperature. Maybe it was an oncoming flu bug. Sitting alone in the living room, she started to watch an old movie, then felt alone. Sometimes, as busy as she tried to keep herself, as much of her time as she devoted to her only child, the terror of losing him overwhelmed her. And the fear of losing her pretty years, somehow, in this endless march of third-rate jobs. Tears surprised her, dribbled down her cheeks, off her upper lip, and she heard herself keening softly in the dark living room like an unearthly musical instrument, and buried her face in her hands. Tears forced their way between her fingers as she sobbed.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.