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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


Chapter 71.

ZoŽ became increasingly isolated in the house. Roger went to work, and since the zoo was barely a block away, he could come back every two or three hours and check on her, hold her, look in on Max, spend a few fatherly minutes with him. Even to get groceries, she would send Roger in the evening. The house, the town, the world, her life seemed to be shutting around her like a dark fist closing. What was there now? Roger and his children, sure, but what could anything mean to her if she lost Max?

When he was asleep she wandered around the house. She clutched a torn and dowdy housecoat around her with cold hands. She had not washed her hair in days and it resembled a bird's nest fallen and crumbling around her face. Sometimes her face glistened wetly and she would run a wrist absently over it, leaving faint grime. Only when Max awoke did she hurry to the bathroom, afraid he would scold her, and she would rinse her face with a hot, wet towel. When she looked in the mirror she saw that she was getting thin. Her eye sockets looked huge. There were pale, listless creases in her cheeks and her face reminded her of old St. Cosmas, where rainwater ran like tear drops down the faces of age-blackened statuary.

Max was afraid at night. He would cry for her, and she would run from Roger's bed to Max's. Even ZoŽ worried (and she could see the worry in Roger's eyes) about Rudy and Elisa. She was beginning to think that perhaps she ought to move with Max back to the apartments, perhaps one that hadn't been trashed with White Stuff, into an environment in which he would feel more familiar.

And the White Stuff continued its reign of terror. At times, water or power, or both, would be disrupted. For a while, the whole town might have no power. Then, water might erupt from closed faucets, blowing out old gaskets, and then settle with a dire gurgling, an animal having gorged.

Or, the ground might shake. Lights would flicker on and off. Cars ran into fire hydrants. More people collapsed in the infamous San Tomas Coma. Traffic lights swung back and forth like Chinese lanterns, red, amber, green.

Darkness was falling.

Max was asleep.

Rudy and Elisa were due home from school.

ZoŽ watched bits and flotsams of White Stuff trafficking through the halls and rooms. She shuffled to the broom closet, got the vacuum cleaner out, and began to vacuum. What was on the floor went into the sucking mouth. What was in the air seemed to stay teasingly out of reach. Angrily, she tore the brush off and, using just the hose, staggered around trying to catch the damn stuff. She lugged the heavy, wheeled motor/container with one hand and tried to aim the hose with the other. She stumbled several times, lunging for a big flake while being jerked back by the weight of the motor. She reconnected the power cord (it flickered down twice, as if trying to prevent her) and vengefully kept after the debris. She followed the trail around a corner and it thickened. She stopped and rubbed a dirty cheek. What?

This was that dark corridor toward the end of the house where nobody seemed to ever go. There were a few closet doors and she pulled them open one by one. Dust made her cough. There were old boxes, old bags, fire hazard, debris she'd clean out once they were married. She laughed a crazy honk. Married? Dead, more like it. Nothing was going right anymore. Hadn't she always known it was meant to be like this?

Feverish images entertained her mind: Take Max and jump off the Morgan Freeway Bridge. Go swimming in the ocean and slowly sink...

What? The door at the far end. White Stuff seemed to be oozing out from under the door. She leaned close to peer inside, but the keyhole was overflowing with White Stuff.

As she leaned close to the door, however, a cold breeze flowed over her face like a greedy hand. How could this be? She started back as though someone or something had touched her. She touched her cheek and then looked at her fingers.

A fleck of White Stuff dissolved on her finger tip.

It smelled of the sea, of fish, of brine. She rattled the door handle. Locked. No, nailed. Panting, grunting with effort, she pulled out the four large, rusty nails someone had clumsily banged in on either side. She pushed against the door. It resisted. With her body she slammed it, yelling.

W W W H H H O O O S S S S S S H H H H H H... went a big cloud of White Stuff, and she screamed because it came up around her like a gray body with arms, with grasping hands, with reaching fingers... For an instant, in the middle of that agitated whirling cloud, she saw the Cold Thing, not an eel but a jackal face with five antlers. It grinned, its teeth the color of yellowed ivory. It had three red eyes that stared at her with greedy interest. An instant later, the illusion was gone.

White Stuff closed around her. Suffocating her. She turned and ran. Stumbled, fell. White Stuff clogged her mouth and nostrils. She clawed it out. Held the rag hem of her housecoat over her face and staggered forward. Behind her, the door slammed shut. White Stuff collapsed in a knee-deep pile. Coughing, sputtering, sobbing, she used a corner of the hem to wipe her lips. She brushed the crust from her nostrils. She dabbed one eye, then the other.

Rudy and Elisa stood staring at her. She started. Their faces had a waxy sheen.

"What are you doing?" she demanded.

They kept staring at her.

She was on her side, still sprawled. Quickly she gathered herself to her knees. "You know something about this, don't you?" she shrilled. "You know something about this White Stuff, admit it!"

Rudy and Elisa, just in from school, still in uniform, carrying their book bags, turned and walked away.

"You little sneaks!" she shrilled after them. She shuffled through the White Stuff and yelled up the banister: "You little sneaks! Come down here! I want to know what you..." but her voice trailed off and she sat on the foot of the stairs. Her hands dangled between her knees and her head lolled. She reached up and grasped her dirty, scraggly hair. She wanted to scream, but she had already done that and her throat hurt. She wanted to cry, but she'd done that and there were no tears left.

"Mom!" Max called. "Mom!" His voice groped through the stark corridors. Oh my God, she thought, can't let him see me looking like this. She dashed into the bathroom on the first floor and washed her face. Combed her hair.

"Mo-o o o m m m!" he bellowed. She pushed open the door to Elisa's former room and went inside.

"Darling..." she started to say.

Max sat up.

Rudy and Elisa, still in school uniform, sat on the bed with him. They all made big eyes at her.

"Mom," Max said, "I think we need to tell you something."


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