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
On Sunday, ZoŽ and Max went to St. Cosmas. She sat where Father Lawrence would notice them as he puttered over his chalice. After Mass ZoŽ and Max had brunch at the airport tower diner. Airplanes were Max's favorite, next to race cars and trains. His favorite, he made sure the world knew, was space ships but any launching pads were just too far away in the great big world. So the comings and goings of Cherokees and Piper Cubs had to do.
ZoŽ was using a slice of bacon to push an oozing yolk on a slice of toast when Max declared: "Mom, I'm going to be an astronaut when I finish my Ph. D. in Physics."
"That's nice, dear."
"I'm going to be the first disabled astronaut." He toyed with his donut, making of it a rotating space station. "We'll have to fight our way through Congress on that, but I'll convince them that an astronaut doesn't need much in the way of legs if his arms and brain are strong."
They visited Mother as they did every Sunday. Mother's tone of voice played a singularly masterful woodwind of irony, whose reed had been pickled for so long in a brine of admonishment, blame, and silent accusation: Howard Berger, Mother said, no longer calls me about you. ZoŽ smiled to herself privately as she stepped out onto the raised front lawn to look at the garden she had once planted as a little girl. It was something she did every Sunday, arms outstretched, teetering in high heels and tight dress on the rocky terraces overlooking Mulberry Street. Daddy had given her the packages of seed, had helped her carry potting soil in her child's wheelbarrow, had shown her how to notch the rows of soil, how to mark a straight line with a string between two pegs that could be turned tight, how to drop the seeds evenly, and then to cover them so the birds could not take them. They'd planted rows of peas, spinach, and tomatoes (all the things you don't like but they're good for you). They'd planted patches of strawberry, raspberry, boysenberry and mulberry. They'd planted a big pizza wheel of spices too. They'd planted an orange tree, a lemon bush, a black walnut tree, and aloes large and small. Shortly afterward, Daddy had died in the plane crash and she'd cried and cried out in the garden wishing he'd come back, but there was only the wind, blowing in the leaves. Layers and layers of pain had forced into the root system of her heart. Not only would he never come back, but there could never be another Daddy. The pain of his abandonment crazed her, made her wet her bed at night. She hated Mother for undoubtedly Mother had driven him away. Why else would he not come back? Ah, and poor Freddie. Freddie had been the hamster Daddy had given her after a trip to Farmer's Market in Santa Ysidora. Feed and water him every day, Daddy had said rubbing the thin blonde hair on her bony forehead. Now Daddy was gone and she would sit for hours and stare at Freddy. Freddy at first circled in his cage, sniffing curiously. Then curiosity turned to worry. His large pink snout would raise to her beseechingly. Where had the good life gone? Where are my pellets, my water, my fresh straw, my finely shredded cedar bark? She sat depressed and stared, a frozen girl like a statue at St. Andrew's, and said to him in her mind: Daddy, I will take care of Freddy if you come back and take care of me. In the end Freddy grew disinterested and simply stayed where he'd lain down. "ZoŽ!" Mother had hollered bursting in on her, "So this is where you've been hiding. Oh get away from him, he's sick, get out of this house and play with the other kids, I won't have you moping around, it drives me up the wall to see you sulking around like that." That evening, secretly, she'd taken Freddy from the trash where Mother had dumped him along with the egg shells and coffee grounds, and she'd given him a tearful burial in the middle of her spice garden where all the spices of heaven and earth met in the vortex of the great pizza wheel Daddy had designed for her. She had lost her challenge to heaven. And never again would open her heart so totally.
She nearly fell over, for one of her high heels got stuck in the soil. She wobbled onto the cement and marveled at how her mind seemed to be loosening its clog of old memories.
"Mother...?" She lurched around the corner on her high heels, waving her arms to keep from tripping as spaces between rocks caught her heels. Then she heard the creaking of Max's old swing. Stepping hard a few times to make soil fall from her shoes, she walked clicking neatly along the concrete walk along the house. Open mouthed, she stood unseen and watched Max and his grandmother. They were down in the fenced in play area whose hard-packed earth had not thrown forth seed nor blade in twenty years. Mother, not Max, was riding on the swing. Laughing. Whooping. Up and down, back and forth. Her drab dress flew in the wind. Her mottled hands clutched the chains. Her lined face was raised, smiling and open-eyed, full of girlish joytransfigured.
Max, holding on to the supporting bars with one arm, was pushing her. Faster, faster.
"Rockets away!" Mother yelled.
On Sunday afternoon, ZoŽ took Max to the zoo. "What were you doing there with Grandma?" she probed, but was unable to get anything out of him. She concluded it must have been something spontaneous...
"You look very, um, official," she told her son.
"Mixing business with pleasure," he said proudly carrying the new leather briefcase Mother had given him for his birthday. He was to do a report for school. It was to be on a subject of his choice, using the technique of description from direct observation. He had picked the zoo. He was going to write about six zoo animals (why? because, he explained, things came in six-packs) and part of that was going to be a paragraph describing each animal from direct observation.
My son the professional, ZoŽ thought proudly.
It was a warm, dry, pleasant Sunday. The zoo was crowded. Lots of tourists. ZoŽ found herself doing a lot of waiting around while he wrote meticulously in a black and white marbled notebook. She stood in line for an iced tea and reflected on her figure. She kept thinking about the rainy evening Vic Lara had beaten the three homeless men. That gnawed at her conscience.
She hated waiting in line. As she stepped from one foot to the other, her gaze drifted around the zoo. She noted the central kiosk, where every half hour a puppet show on environmental themes was presented. She whistled in recognition, while her skin crawled. Where the stage now stood on its elevated stone pedestal, about ten feet by twenty feet, an ancient Burtongale had once placed an archeological treasure from Egypt. Then, going mad, he had it dumped into the sea before he died.
And as ZoŽ considered these things, she felt the Dark Feeling coming back. Instinctively, sensing danger, she looked around for Max and her mouth went dry.
Max had the tip of his tongue captured between his teeth and was frowning over the notebook. He scribbled, stopped, frowned, scribbled, stopped, frowned.
It wasn't the full-blown Dark Feeling, just a faint trace of it. A sense of something alien extending its consciousness into her mind the way oil spread over water.
People nudged her to keep moving with the line, and she responded like a mannequin whose limbs are made of hard rubber.
Whatever it was, it just wanted to see if she was still there. It was cold and sluggish, as if just awakening from a deep sleep. There was only a cold Presence touching her soul.
"A dollar!" the pimply boy yelled for the umpteenth time.
She dropped quarters on the counter, took her tea, and turned.
"Your change!" he squeaked in a ridiculing tone, and several other counter kids tittered as though she were a drunk.
She ignored them and walked toward Max. As she did so, the Dark Feeling went away and she felt okay.
That evening, she again attacked the volume written so long ago by a lone voice in the Burtongale clan. The dead voice floated up to her in the living room:
...There were rumors that my grandfather had gone insane, but I wish to indicate the contrary. There were logical and scientific explanations for each of the deaths that occurred among zoo workers. Nonetheless, the fact that the deaths seemed to cease once the Black Sphinx had been dumped at sea caused a proliferation of new and ignominious theories regarding my grandfather's work. Furthermore, the fact that he died, unfortunately senile, fueled cruel rumors, which must be laid to rest once and for all...
As ZoŽ sleepily closed the book, she felt a thrill of unease, something dark and stabbing about her own past.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.