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This Shoal of Space:

Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship

(World's First E-Book—Published On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)

a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker

by John Argo


Preface   Chapter 1   Intralog  Part I-Chapter 2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   33   34   35   36   37   38   39   40   41   42   43   44   45   46   47   48   49   50   51   52   53   54   55   56   57   58   59   60   61   62   63   64   65   Part II-Chapter 66   67   68   69   70   71   72   73   74   75   Outlog


Heartbreaker

Chapter 10.

Ann Temple brought her son Jeremy to ZoŽ's apartment that evening. Max and Jeremy were astronauts in a computer game, shooting each other among the planets of an alien sun, somewhere in the Lesser and Greater Magellanic Clouds.

"We're going out!" ZoŽ and Ann said. "Keep the door locked!"

"Okay," they singsonged disinterestedly, bleary eyes hooked on Captain Colorado, Space Hero.

"Yo, Beagle Face," ZoŽ said. "Good times are here again."

The two women high fived. ZoŽ cranked up the radio, playing old rock tunes.

"Yo, Rat Breath," Ann said. "Old times come back to life."

At Pepper's Steak House, a billboard in the form of a giant menu advertised today's specials. Behind the billboard menu sprawled Pepper's: heavy beams smothered in ivy; lead-paned windows sautťed in shadows. Ann said: "Used to be Long Tom's."

"I remember." ZoŽ looked up at the crossed salt and pepper shakers. "We met Frank MacLemore and Attila here when we were 18 years old."

"Can you imagine?" Ann said. "Knowing what we know now?"

Inside the restaurant, burgundy light glowed among oddly placed wooden pylons. ZoŽ remembered that in its earliest incarnation this place had been an inexpensive family seafood restaurant. She tried to think—no, something was rushing her along, past fading images of her wild late teen years, into deeper layers of memory. Her parents had brought her here when she'd been a little girl.

"ZoŽ?"

She felt Ann tugging at her sleeve. A cocktail waitress's airbrushed smile glowed white in the darkness. "Would you like cocktails while you wait?" the waitress said in a heightened voice, as though it were the second or third time she said it. ZoŽ ordered wine. In the lounge, they sat on bar stools.

Ann sighed deeply. "We gotta lighten up here, Calla. What is this kinda glow you have tonight?"

ZoŽ could still see Frank's pale young face, scruffed up with beard shadow, as he leaned toward her the very first occasion she'd seen him. They had been eyeing each other, in this place, long ago, in another lifetime, for about an hour. She could still see the hunger in his dark eyes as he inched toward her in the crowd. Frank MacLemore, her husband to be, whose name and whose child she had borne, and whose crimes—. She remembered how her stomach had fluttered. He was not only a biker, but a chief. She had not really cared that much for him at first. Until it had been too late. Once those love hormones started to circulate, it was Niagara wreathed in shattered water like smoke. He represented everything she longed for—power, freedom, the rage and righteous violence of a lion in his hunting prime. A lion takes women to him as a sultan takes a harem, graciously but without mercy, full of poetic flattery but without simpering love or compromise. She had taken his energy, his extreme danger. She was the smaller, female tuning fork that vibrated in sympathetic—helpless and ecstatic—waves with the larger maleÖ

"Are you lost in space?" Ann asked. "I get scared when you get like this."

ZoŽ looked at her, remembering ancient vibrations. "Huh?" But she knew that Ann knew more about ZoŽ than ZoŽ knew about herself, about their primordial, shared past. Ann had broken, was tamer, less wild, had copped a plea on her biker man. ZoŽ had been untamed, proud, wild—and in no need of copping, since Frank had met a violent end like that he'd dished out to those who crossed his path. ZoŽ knew she must look weird—she could feel herself staring, as if underwater, with glazed and half-closed eyes and drool sliding in bubbles over her full, rounded, dangling lower lip—as if she, herself, were a Cold Thing, and Underwater Thing, watching the human scene, biding time to conquer Earth on this far-distant, lonely shoal of eternal and infinite space.

"We can always go somewhere else," Ann prodded.

"What? Oh no, it's okay."

"Just memories?"

"Just memories," ZoŽ retorted. "I haven't been here in a long time."

"It's all dead and gone."

"I know."

"Leave it alone, ZoŽ."

"I have no intention of not leaving it alone. I'm not a chicken, either. I don't want to have to leave anywhere because of old memories. C'mon, let's live it up." She raised her wine glass.

Ann raised hers, and they clinked glasses. Ann told about some software her company had just bought, and how she was enjoying using it in her accounting job.

"And I am going to write The Big Story," ZoŽ said.

"I'm very excited for you. It's time you had some luck. You're intelligent, well-spoken, and ..."

ZoŽ interrupted: "...Have a nice ass."

"That too." Ann sniggered. She had a nice ass too, according to various sources over the years. She and Ann made quite a pair. They clinked glasses again. The hostess escorted them to the dining room. There, over flickering candles and mauve tablecloths, they ordered steak dinners.

"My parents brought me here once when I was small," ZoŽ said. "It's like layers of time, layers of worlds."

"Wow, that's a priceless memory," Ann said, meaning the Lull family dinner.

ZoŽ's father had died when she was ten. She grew silent, not wanting to drag the conversation into a sad valley. She kept the rest of the memory to herself. That memory was a sunny, semisweet piece of grayware. Her father had been killed in a plane crash over the ocean less than a month after that long ago dinner. ZoŽ's troubles—with her mother, with herself, with her marriage, even with Max—had grown out of that tragedy. Where had her mother been? There, that was clear; as Uncle Ted said at Uncle Ben's funeral: I may not be all there, but I'm here. Mother had always been there, give her that. Strange glassy looks, vapid conversationÖsnipping flowersÖ

The dinners came, and ZoŽ and Ann ate hungrily. ZoŽ was drinking her second glass of wine and feeling giddy. She related that long-ago day with her parents as though it were yesterday: Late on a Sunday afternoon. Time seemed to stand still. A big bar of sunlight leaned in through the window. "My Dad was telling jokes and Mother was telling him to be careful I might understand but I was already laughing. Funny thing is they were clean jokes. Mother just didn't get them....Like this duck walks in the cosmetics store and points to the lipsticks. Says I'll take this one and that one and that one. Dad pointed at his nose. And just put them on my bill."

"Cute," Ann said, seeming to try and build up to a laugh, but not quite getting there.

ZoŽ ate mechanically. She stared at the far table, her gaze truncated again and again by hustling (hunting?) waitresses. She tried to unravel time in her mind. She tried to remember first the lost world of Long Tom's, where in the haze of adolescent anger she'd seen herself as a Cortez in the jungles of newly discovered sexuality. Plunging deeper through the tunnel of memory—ah, there it was, the lump of pain surrounding Dad's death that had changed her life forever—and further back...to that place over there. How had it been? Not drab and dark like now or angry-smoky like the Long Tom's days... but simple, tidy, lit with light, secure, reasonable. Checkered table cloths a little girl would like, baby blue on white, with lacy frills. A fly circling over ketchup grown black and tacky on a wrinkled Spike's Family Diner menu... So that was the old name, Spike's Family Diner. She wanted to ask Ann if she remembered, but a half-chewed mouthful of steak was stuck in the corner of her mouth, laying a numbing choke-hold on the muscle there. One thing she remembered about Daddy was his eyebrows. They wobbled up and down when he told jokes. Funny, she had forgotten how fat he was. No not fat, just big and square with lots of extra flesh, but everything neatly tucked inside a clean shirt and a gray suit with wide lapels. He had pudgy white hands clasped under his belly. She hadn't realized how soft his fingers looked, as though soaked for hours in soapy water. But his eyebrows! How they moved up and down when he talked. His lips glistened wetly. His teeth glittered like pebbles. His tongue...

ZoŽ put her fork down. She rose slowly. She took the napkin from her lap and meant to leave it on the chair but she felt it brush against her calf as it fell to the ground. A waitress excused herself and ZoŽ nodded, barely noting the annoyed face.

"ZoŽ. ZoŽ! ZoŽ?" she heard Ann's voice somewhere far away. All clinking forks fell silent. The laughing, talking, rustling of menus stopped, even a distant pounding jukebox fell silent.

"Daddy?" She stopped right before his table, pretty much where she'd sat that afternoon long ago, and looked up at him. Way up. His eyebrows waggled up and down. He bored into her with laughing eyes. His cheekbones glittered as though they had been made of glaze, like a doll's. His padded shoulders and chest heaved, no, bounced up and down. He reared his head back with laughter. Mother looked away, embarrassed. He slapped his soft white fingers on the table and turned toward Mother to see if she got the joke. ZoŽ took a hesitant step forward. She reached out.

"ZoŽ!"

Her heart pounded like an engine gone wild.

Closer, closer...

The eyes... ...the eyes... ...were empty as the black of space, devoid of feeling, drained of emotion... There was no speck of love in those eyes... The white fingers...

...fingers of death. White undertakers' powder was on them. Powder flaked and crumbled from the dark prune-like fingertips. Powder caked and piled up in the laugh lines at the edges of the face. Ceramic filled in the face that had been shattered and torn open in the airplane crash. The lips, the cheeks, the nose, eaten by fish, glittered now, a glass mask. But the eyes, oh the lovelessness in the eyes was what finally told her this was not her Daddy, this was nobody who had ever loved her, and she felt a Dark Feeling. Something was about to—Explode. Nothing would matter anymore. Hadn't—someone—awful—recently said that? Her mind reeled.

"ZoŽ, are you okay?" Ann stood beside her, an arm around her. She was staring at a man in the checkered suit stared at her, puzzled. He had a coarse, kindly red face with droopy furrows.

Ann led her back to their table. "You were like in outer space there for a few minutes. I was like whoo-aa, where's this woman gone to? Welcome back."

"Thanks," ZoŽ said. "I feel better now."

"Can I finish my steak or do you want to leave?"

"If all these people will stop staring." ZoŽ hunched her shoulders and picked at her food. The music picked up. Forks knives and spoons restarted their randomizations. Laughter and talk ballooned under the wood rafters. "Ann, I think I'm cracking up."

Eyebrow. "Oh?"

"I thought I saw my Dad sitting over there."

Fork. "Oh well, you were remembering." Mouth.

"Yes, but it was so real. It was like a nightmare, only I wasn't asleep."

Chewing. "You're under a lot of stress."

"I'll say. Look, maybe I'm really losing my marbles. You'd... you and Jeremy would look in on Max sometimes if I weren't here anymore, wouldn't you?"

Choke. "ZoŽ! What ever are you talking about." Ann drank half her water. "ZoŽ, maybe you are under a lot of stress, but I don't think you're cracking up. I've known you too long. Well, unless you've changed somehow the past few years, and I don't feel that. I remember how nervous you used to be when Frank and Attila were out drinking."

Attila had been Ann's husband, Frank's favorite biker buddy. ZoŽ could picture Frank and Attila, tangled in a bloody ball of flesh and torn clothing, pale dead faces staring out from the mangled steel of their chopped Harleys tangled together in a 150 foot long smear along a high-altitude freeway, at night, under clouds of stars, atop a Sierras mountain pass, with Highway Patrol flashers and black-and-white units all around. She cringed, hoping this would not bring on another vivid illusion. But it didn't.

"So far this has been one really WEIRD evening," Ann said as they sat in her car outside. "You ARE going to be OKAY, aren't you?"

ZoŽ touched her head with both hands. "I'm going to call my shrink."

"I think that's a good idea, ZoŽ."

"I thought I was done with him years ago, but here I am again. Fucked up as always. Ann—?" She turned toward her friend. "You were with me years ago. What happened?" She could see flashes, disjointed snippets of screaming mouths, teeth, horrified eyes, terrorÖbut it wouldn't come together. Always, her inability to face it, deal with it, pull it together, smashed the images apart, like a stick hitting a quietly roiling forest stream surface.

Ann's face was dark and hard.

ZoŽ gripped her friend's arm. "Please, if you know anything, tell me."

Ann looked like a different person, carved from stone. "It's best that you don't remember."

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Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.