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“NFW,” Megan says.
“YFW,” Bill assures his semi-secret wife.
“Real sword?” She shakes her head, sips.
“Épée for Hamlet.”
Megan snorts. “Talk about a harsh edit. Where is she now?”
“Split.” Bill gestures toward the mountains, east and north. They’re drinking maté on their deck beside their river. “Wilderness capable in addition to editorial skills.”
“You going to hound her?” Megan asks. The real hound--actually a blue-heeler, Tex-Mex--smiles up at them.
“Dawn,” Bill says, meaning whenever, usually around noon. “You in?”
“Sure,” Megan says. “I’ll stage food.”
Tex-Mex stands and looks into Bill’s eyes. We’re all going up country after a murderer?
“I know!” Bill says, and ruffles his ears.
Bill accompanies Tara Morrissey, Director of Meskouamegou Artist Colony, to Chegual Cabin where Rachel Arnaud, editor, stabbed Marston Damasceno, pastoral poet and short fictionist, in the eye.
“There have been tensions,” Tara tells Bill. “Nothing like this.”
“Novelists get stoned and drunk and have dalliance. Some of them don’t like it when some of them dally others of them. The men Hemingway each other. The women question the authenticity of each other’s voices.”
The working, as opposed to living cabin, is set a new mile down a well-trod path. Tara leaves Bill at the door. The interior is the blue brown shadowed coolness he associates with summer camp. He remembers bunk beds, trunks with riveted lids, stinky sneakers, laundry bags slung on bed corners, towels on rafters. Instead there is a writing desk and a poet, curled on his side as if napping. The sword extends in front of him. The non-business half of a pen protrudes from his right eye.
“The only blood,” Katie from forensics tells him, indicating the sword tip.
“The editor. So it’s true. The pe--”
Bill lifts his hand. He is not opposed to banter at a crime scene--to hold at bay the pain that is part of the job. But he has known Katie for generations, and knows that she will immediately regret any such.
Bill steps through the body--a holograph, the real one having been whisked off to the medical complex at Tiohtià:ke, formerly Montreal. He squats on the far side. Damned if it isn’t a Bic. He hasn’t seen one in forty years. Ink has gone the way of paper. Well, paper has gone the way of canvas, become an art supply, pens and pencils too. For artists and collectors. Not part of the modern desk or school. But Bics? Not fancy enough. They’ve gone the way of the Twinky--they’re still around if you know where to look. But this is Meskouamegou with its authenticity through anachronism--typewriters, paper and pens. Paint and stone for painters and sculptors, unimproved bodies and voices for dancers, actors and musicians. Robotics and virtualosity discouraged. Everything unplugged and analogued out the wazoo. Face-to-face performance, peer feedback unmediated by time or distance. In the Colony editors and writers, mentors and -tees, biographers and subjects, go at it in work cabins and practice sheds. Problem is people just aren’t used to people anymore, much less people telling them what they think of their work.
“Defensive,” Bill says.
“Check,” Katie answers, helps Bill up. Bill pulls the chair over to the desk in front of which Marston lies. Without prompting Katie mimes Marston’s approach, an imaginary sword in hand. Advances slo mo until the tip all but connects to Bill’s carotid. He lifts his left hand up to deflect the épée, drives his right forward until the pinky side of his fist comes to Katie’s left eye socket. He makes an angle with thumb and forefinger of his other hand. Stands, steps, and squats by Marston’s corpse and holds his fingers up to the protruding end of the Bic image.
“Bingo,” Katie says.
“Slow the fuck down,” Bill tells Megan, heading west. But her natural gait is half again faster than his and always has been except when she was way pregnant. She doesn’t reply or slow. Tex-Mex brings up the rear, shepherding even the trailbots, sloppily loaded with gear but programmed to stop and bleat through Bill’s throne if something actually falls to the ground. There’s no such thing as off-grid but Bill remembers the feeling of leaving device range in his boyhood, actually being uninformed and uninforming. Telling not even his brothers what he was doing or where. Did he learn to fish in order to disappear or was that just a side-benefit? Either way it is Maine hot which means pleasant in the trees and a touch warm in the occasional clearing. Bill could locate Rachel the murderess in minutes using sat-tech, earth-scanning for her size weight and movement pattern, but he doesn’t. Instead he thinks about where she left the artists’ colony and what she saw and how she thought. And what he thought she thought was that she better leave the main trail and take the side trail which looked to her less inviting and so she would think he would think that she would take the main trail. What she doesn’t know is that the main trail turns to hard work two miles in and after another mile gets gnarly, switchbacks, scree and wet slicks until night falls and there’s no level ground for a tent. Whereas the side trail he thinks she chose traces the valley, veers north and parallels one of the best trout streams going. At night she will have her choice of pine needles or sand, and won’t even need her tent if the breeze is right.
Hiking walks the mind and Bill finds himself remembering his own experience learning to write under another Bill, surname Wiser, and his boss for the first fifty years he was a detective. Bill had a way of looking at him when he was finished reading Bill’s reports, of tilting his head just slightly, eyes closing, that meant, Well, that’s one slough of a case summary. Give it another go and this time try not to trip over your own feet. But Bill Baker does not recall ever having stabbed Wiser in the eye with a Bic. Getting feedback from Bill was more like hearing what he had been thinking all day, knowing the writing wasn’t right and almost knowing how to fix it but not quite. End of the day, Wiser was on Baker’s side, but Rachel was apparently not on Marston’s side or he didn’t know it. What had she said to make the man grab the sword and come at her? This needs work? Bill prides himself on his ability to ken crime scenes, not like a psychic but just in simple terms. This time he’s not searching for answers in his head cause he knows he’s not going to find them. Instead he’s leisurely tracking Rachel so he can ask her. He knows why she stabbed her client. Not so much self-defense as being healthily unable to see a man rush her with a sword and not take countermeasures. No, what he wants to find out is what part of the manuscript--and it was an actual set of printed pages, in keeping with the anachronism of the colony--was so off that when she tried to tell Marston the ugly truth he went all revenge tragedy on her. Bill read the page they were on--it was still on the desk and no, there wasn’t any blood on it--and it reads pretty good. Maybe a little dense but not Maine forest dense.
Megan is where he knew she’d be, in the cradle of the cottonwood looking at the fork where the rapid is wadeable today, spring runoff over and done. In the shade with the cool and the music of the riffles. They wait for the bots and then Larry bot number one the older model kneels arthritically or so it seems cause he does it so much slower than Moe and Curly, and Bill takes out bread and cheese out of Larry’s cooler. Also the head of romaine for Megan and a carrot for himself, both of them es-chewing “power” bars and sticking to food, especially perishable ruffage in the beginning days of a hike. In this case a journey of indeterminate length.
The lettuce is exotic in the wild--local undulates would relish such leaves--and the carrots sweet. Tex-Mex has his own can and then pieces of venison pulled from their sandwiches. When the meal is finished it’s time to make love. Bill directs the Stooges off into the thicket, where they turn their eyes away and become still. Making love with the Stooges watching is uncomfortable. “See you in a while, Crocodile,” Tex-Mex says, and trots off out of sight and scent range, the soul of discretion, no butt or crotch sniffer he.
Megan lifts off her shirt, drops and sidekicks her shorts and panties onto the blanket Moe spread out before he left. The sunlight is warm, the air is cool, Megan breathes in his ear. Bill feels good.
Rachel listens to the rain on her tent. Her sleep comes and goes in that woods way. She remembers when she met Marston at the cocktail party for faculty, the writers, editors, actors, painters, singers excited to be at the famous Colony, away from home, routine, spouses. He had a circle of fangirls and they all threw back their heads and laughed--the man funny and handsome in a cuddly way. Rachel and Marston met each other’s eyes and he raised his glass and mouthed the words, To you, Beauty. It was as if he had placed the idea of beauty inside her, where it belonged.
“You mean archetype beauty? Or fabulous babe?” she asked as he refilled her glass. They shared a first moment alone.
“Fine,” she said, signing off on his toast. And so it began.
The river is a stream, fortunately. Streams are wadeable and fishable without a boat. Rivers not so much. Sure, you can stand on the edge of a river either in or out of the water and cast up or down parallel to the bank or perpendicular if you’re in a desert environment without foliage shore-side, but that’s not wading and the fish start laughing at you as soon as they realize your predicament.
But this river is a stream, three new feet in the holes but mostly a swift two and fully thirty new meters across. The water a carpet of playing light and susurrousity in which Bill wanders as if dowsing with his three-weight for water in sand. A fly like a purple asterisk on the water beckons, but the brookies are stretched on their mats on the gravel bed, having eaten their crawly snacks before brooky naptime. Until one youngster, restless, stirs, shoots flyward and cartwheels in the air, having missed, causing Bill’s eyes to smile, this teasing better far than catching. Tex-Mex too chuckles, shakes his head, thirty degrees upstream where he can see best through the sunlit water.
Bill circles lazily upstream, casting. No fish rise. No one cares.
Megan rests against the oak, front lit by the midmorning sun through the foliage. Her thablet is balanced against her thighs so that Ling’s face and her own fill each other’s screens.
“I’m sick,” Ling says. “I feel this fluttery feeling...here.” Ling stands--she’s at her desk--and touches her chest.
“Yes,” Megan tells her.
“I thought I knew him. I thought I knew us.”
“I knew he was unhappy. We’ve talked about what was missing. About how we can, I mean could have been, closer again.” She blows her nose.
Ling is a slender 晋 mother of a ten-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. Her breedmate Tom told her he wanted to leave before their contract was up. He moved out. There’s a younger woman, Terry, still in her early second century, with that bloom. Ling knows her. She was a friend and client of both Ling and Tom, both kinesiotherapists, Ling an ambulist, Tom a fine motorist. Terry had been in a drone accident and had to relearn to use stemarms and one leg.
“But I didn’t know he was planning to…”
Ling nods. Waits. Blows her nose.
“It makes me feel I don’t really exist. Or I don’t exist now. I mean, how could he…”
“Not be connected. With you.”
“When he was right there with you. All those years. At work. At home.”
“In the kitchen,” Ling says, angry. “In bed. We bred!”
“The old way,” Ling says. “No arousal surrogates. We just…”
“Yes,” Ling laughs. “That’s right. A lot.” Now she’s laughing and crying. Eventually, she quiets. “It was real,” she says. “I was real.”
Rachel edited Marston’s short stories. He had aspired to write fiction but had been a poet for so long. Truth be told, Rachel wrote the stories. She built the plots, and he made every aspect of the writing live. It wasn’t that he did description and she did character. It was more like she did storyboard, and he did acting and art direction. He knew how people spoke. He knew how they felt. She knew where they were going, and why. What they do when they get there.
After they met, Rachel and Marston never spent a night apart at the Colony. This was not unusual. There were a round dozen Colony pairings, some of which were real world, year-round, others confined to the pastoral setting of Meskouamegou with its presences--meals prepared and served as if by wood sprites, cabins cleaned and beds made in the same airy way. And absences--no children, no bills, no long familiarity to temper interest and desire. Rachel continued work on her novel, the novel, the one that despite her gift of plotting seemed to circle back on itself. Marston taught the other poets, and read his well-known poems, and sat at the captain’s table with the celebrity visitors and donors. But the core of their lives was now the hours they spent writing, side by side, passing the pages back and forth, pen marks, pencil suggestions, laughter, wine glass rings on typing paper, wine kisses, copulations against window frames, standing beside the writing table with one leg held aloft like a garden gate.
The stories were published under his name. She was the anonymous craftswoman and did she want to be known? She was known. The Colony knew and the Colony went home after each summer and spread the news in the publishing places. Her own press received authors come to work with Rachel the stern muse, eager to replicate her relationship with Marston. But she only edited them. She became important and wealthy, in publishing terms. She was respected the way first ladies and the handsome business men who live with stars are respected. And the year began its transformation, the ten-and-a-half months that were not spent at the Colony becoming preparatory. She was like the director of a summer camp. The six weeks of Meskouamegou disproportionate in the night sky. Rachel’s partner at home and Marston’s parade of partners at the university secondary, ornamental, and the home lovers all knew it and some stood for it and others didn’t. Rachel’s didn’t. Rachel and Marston made notes--hers skeleton keys of plots, Hitchcock substructures, his poems, essays, memoirs, awaiting her armature. They would once again share a night cabin and a day cabin.
“She’s on the ridge,” Megan says.
“Moving pretty well,” Bill confirms.
They spot Rachel every once in a while when she crosses between copses. Her pack is orange--as if when she chose it, she was thinking of not getting shot by hunters, rather than of evading trackers. As if when she left her condo in the city in early June, she had no intention of stabbing her lover and fleeing justice.
Rachel is making coffee when she hears the bot. It crunches across scree with a sound like geology speeded up. In its paw is a good-sized note. The bot squeaks to a stop next to her pack in the sunshine. She says hi--she can’t help herself--and takes the note, which turns out to be a cardboard box side, and reads, “Hi Rachel. Bill Baker here. Federal investigator. We should talk. I’ve got eggs.”
Ten minutes later, an older couple appear, the woman fit as a fiddle, the man a foot-dragger and down-gazer trying to impersonate a hiker.
“Megan,” the woman says, shaking Rachel’s hand. “This is Bill. I’m just along for the ride.” A skewbald dog turns his head just a bit to look up at her, and Rachel has the strange experience of hearing his thoughts in her head. Which are, You look like a nice woman. Couldn’t you just have bit him? The investigator mutters something about good morning and hungry as hell and sets up a magnetoburner, which he manages skillfully, making toast on the pan and then eggs over easy, no mean feat while squatting and on the thin enamel camp pan. When they’re all sitting on the folding stools, sporks in hand, Rachel clears her throat.
“I guess I’m headed for Finland,” she says.
“More likely Sweden these days,” Bill tells her. “He isn’t dead. He’s lost the eye but they’ll pop in a new one.”
“Perfect,” Rachel says. “Not too runny.” She eats the real eggs the way women do who have been in the woods for a couple days eating dehydrated everything and trail mix.
““The angle was unfortunate,”Bill continues placidly. He holds his spork in front of his own left eye, indicating a bit of frontal cortex involvement. He’s seen the hard-case act before, and knows she’s hanging on every syllable of good news. “There may be some personality damage.”
“Or improvement,” Rachel answers. She stands and fetches her Tang, which she offers around.
“Rachel,” Megan says. She sets her plate down, stands, sets Rachel’s plate down, pulls Rachel into her arms. Rachel bursts into tears and sobs fit to burst. The sun comes up over the east ridge, a flood of warmth.
Marston feels the new eye growing at night, hot, small and sightless. There was never any pain because his reptile brain had the good sense to tell his mammalian brain to take a breather and let go of consciousness the minute the pen hit him. When the lights came back on only on the right, he was in the white room with the folks wearing pastels and masks and wielding lasers and tiny wet-dry vacs and saying things like pressure and suction just like on General Hospital. Then one of them said, “I think he’s coming up,” and another said, “Got it,” and when he next saw light with the extant eye, he was in a cheap motel room that turned out to be a hospital room in Millinocket with a fellow who had just gotten an upgraded set of lower vertebrae and was a talker. But no pain, except for the hot flush of shame and memory. Had he really come after Rachel with a sword? Had it really been because she characterized his description of the museum Sunday, the family, his family thinly disguised, walking in comfortable bourgeois ennuis, as watery Bergman?
Ling wakes at four with that familiar fluttery feeling in her chest. Her breedmate Tom, her friend at work and at home for a decade, is no longer beside her. He lives in the house of their friend Terry, a super fun, slightly manic woman with a striking hourglass figure that makes men and women alike want to try to encircle her waist with the span of their hands. Also making any meal, any party an event, her laughter carrying others with her, her scratchy voice tugging others into her gaiety.
Ling rises, goes to Bella’s rooms. Bella sleeps in the position she has favored since birth, arms thrown overhead, chin to the right. Ling adjusts her comforter, kisses her brow. Heads down the hall to Mark’s room. “What?” he says, sitting up and looking at her. But he is still asleep, his eyes gazing past her. “Sh,” she settles him back. Tucks him in, kisses him and his breathing is already shuddery and deep.
What, indeed? That is what she wants to know. What happened? What’s next? What was it all for, the building of the home, the intimacy, the financial plans? What happened? What had Tom meant when he’d said, I love you. I want to be with just you, during all those years? Did he mean that part of him wanted these things, while another part of him wanted another life?
She lies down. The flutter, the kick in her chest, as if her heart is not broken but needs a tune up, does not go away. She does not sleep. She does not have new thoughts. She has the other thoughts again.
Without him near her, she feels she will die. She needs his heartbeat to still her own. She needs his breath in order to regulate her own. She needs to reach out and touch his hip with the back of her hand. The temperature assaying skein of her skin constantly seeks the heat field of his body. But he is not there. The signals looking, not finding. Broken loops. Loneliness an unanswered signal.
She is dying.
“You hackle?” Bill asks. Nobody hackles.
“I tie a mean Waterhen Bloa.”
Bill is speechless. Not only does the murderess fish, she ties. Not only does she tie, she has The Knowledge.
They are back in the dream stream--never deep, never shallow, endless in length and prodigious in width. Filthy with brookies. Water cold on bare legs, sun warm on long sleeves. Tex-Mex can’t fuckin believe it. His mouth is hanging open. I mean look at the woman cast! he tells Bill. It’s a one in a thousand ability. She flicks line with minimal backcast and it just shoots. Then mends with a twitch, at once feminine and cowboy. If she were a bitch, Tex-Mex would be crazy in love. As it is, he’s just in love.
“Fish on the line,” she murmurs, just a hint of excitement there. Fish indeed. It’s a winged emissary of the element of water, spinning, leaping, as if auditioning for the cover of Field and Stream. She calmly downstreams with it, never letting the tension ease or grow. She bounces over obstacles like an astronaut. Half-turns like a bullfighter. When she lands the brookie it never leaves the water. She frees it without touching it, flicking the fly free.
“Sweet Jesus,” Bill murmurs.
“So it wasn’t a copy edit? Not one of those author thinks shehe’s a genius and standard written English doesn’t apply, a Faulkner wannabe who thinks their run-ons don’t stink and that the cadences of natural speech determine the lay of comma on the page?”
“Yes,” Rachel tells Bill. They’re laying on their backs on the pine needles in the sunshine, knees drawn up, lunch finished. Tex-Mex is getting it all down, panting in the half shade, in case Bill needs a memory refresh later. Tex-Mex has total recall. “He was all that, and I cleaned up his copy, and he took it out on me in small ways. For instance, he took credit for all our work.”
“Irony, Bill. But when I saw that epee coming, I thought, Now? And I remember having the metatextual thought that the thought Now? would be my last thought. I was wrong. I had brothers and my hands don’t fuck around. They’re not literary. They took him out.” She demonstrates the deflection with the left arm, counter-thrust with the right. “I didn’t mean to stab him. He basically impaled himself. I pretty much just established a perimeter with the pen, and he penetrated it.”
“So what was it? Not the death by a thousand cuts of copy edits?”
“I compared him unfavorably to the ageing Swedish director Bergman.”
“Long domestic dramas in that wonderful sing-song language?”
“That’s the one.”
Tex-Mex tosses his head, as if to shake off the memory of one art film too many, multi-layered in its study of family and character, brilliant in its sociological verite, but not enough car chases or sex. Or dogs.
“I wanted him to do a rewrite, not a brushup, but he was in the post-generative glow. Also, the story was close to his heart. It was buildungsroman stuff so it was like I was calling into question the interest of his own life. Hey, if you can’t take the heat, don’t memoir.”
“Had he ever--”
“Been violent? Come at me when I was improving his work? No. Just little stuff like spending the next holiday with his wife. Not paying me.”
“He paid you?”
“Ten percent of every dinar initially. Once I realized I was his Alma Reville, a third.”
“Did he resent it?”
“Do salmon rise for stonefly?
They sit with this for a minute.
“Still,” Bill says. “Why that day? Why that comment?”
“Before we got into the work, we had had a spat. I was pushing his button. He only has the one. It’s in the usual place.”
Tex-Mex whines, licks himself.
“Maxine Rotovsky-Jamaguchi,” Rachel says. “Promising first novel. Very young, very impressed with the master.”
Megan moves in the light. She begins with Kalaripayattu forms--third century BCE, Kerala. Sunlight plays across her bare body. The pine needles soften and scent the air as the sun and her bare soles awaken. A grouse calls Morse code, pete pete peta peta. Twist, swivel. Extend. Slow strike. Three rapid, pausing inside the range of the limbs. Drop torso, east. Again with leg fanning. Head leads, shoulders follows. Eyes. Choosing the frame, seeing within it. Letting it go.
Breathe. Map the self. Again.
Where is the heartbeat? What is its message? Time. Measure it.
Sweating, she moves. Falling upwards.
Twist, strike strike strike.
Marston is in the day room. His eye is attached to the feeder via a set of soft tubes which hang from the hive-like apparatus he must wheel around with him. Damn, that sucker itches in its too big socket. No wonder babies kick. Growing is itchy work.
President 李克强 is on the holo, talking about the Period of Rest in اَلْـقُـدْس. Not a full Tranquil, but a Calming that was initiated with aeromeds after indicators of tension between Charismatic Sikhs and Shaker Hasidim during a dance-off in front of the Wall.
Maxine is coming to see him. He tried to dissuade her. He doesn’t want to be seen like this. She thinks he’s a genius. She thinks he’s a good lover, really kind of a genius lover. No one, apparently, had ever given her a decent caress until the night he did and she exploded, a volcano of lust and energy. He had been briefly revitalized by this geothermal bath, then had wilted like the old tulip he is. Now she will see him with one eye taken out by an editor--by Rachel, his soulmate and major collaborator. That will at least put an end to her infatuation, and when Rachel finds out he’s not dead and comes out of the mountains, he can tell her, “Rach, I’m fucking sorry. I am watery Bergman, and that’s on a good day.” And they can get back to work. He promised a new collection to Baldor in October--already spent the advance, all of it including Rachel’s third. That’s another thing he should probably mention to her when he gets his first right-eyed look at her.
“Hi Handsome,” Maxine says. Marston jumps. Maxine had snuck up on his left, the patch side.
“Hi Sweetie.” Marston always starts with terms of endearment, until he’s positive he remembers which one he’s sweet-talking. When did it get so out of hand, he wonders? The first book tours, the celebrity teaching gigs, the prize dinners. So many assistants, so little impulse control.
“My little pirate,” she says, settling on his lap. “Oh, hello!”
Because just like that he’s happy to see her.
“Do I go to Sing-Sing?” Rachel asks.
Megan rummages around in Moe and Curly’s saddlebags and pulls out root vegetables and canisters of spices. Also vacuum packed growmeats from the brownhouse back home. Bill tells himself the steak is fine--stemcelled in his basement incubator, grown cut and cured on his own enclosed porch, vacuum packed and lightly irradiated in his own kitchen. It’s like jerky, he tells himself, only wet. But it makes him uneasy. No more cow farts and burps to heat the planet, and kobe-level beef a commonplace. What’s not to like? Still, it has weird mouthfeel. The consistency a turnoff. Bill is a dinosaur.
“Well, you’re going to get something. Both of yall,” Bill says. “I know it was editorial self-defense, and I believe you didn’t push your point, but the eye was totaled, and a little bit of the brain. Time was he would have been dead.”
“I got help as fast as I could.”
“Mitigating factor for sure. Still, medevac a little slower to arrive, or that one ex-military man not present on the emergency team from Millinocket.”
“Bill,” Megan says, seeing the look on Rachel’s face. “She gets it.”
“What would it mean?” Rachel asks. “If we were in ethical rehab together? Marston and I in a kind of couple’s therapy in Scandinavia, talking about our feelings, what led to the stabbing?”
“Something along those lines,” Bill concedes. “Probably a little more quantitative and confirmable, too. Neuropsych baseline and progress testing, simulations.”
“You mean role-playing? Me editing an actor who comes at me with a weapon?”
“Nothing that imitative. More like, you’re bowling with an actor, who cheats on the score sheet. How do you react? The Swedes love to bowl.”
“And my job is not to go crazy with the stubby little pencil.”
“Not if you want to get back to Manhattan.”
Megan dishes up the green curry and rice. Hands them steaming cups of hot water.
The birds are quieting, the frogs kicking up. The last daylight gives way to the first shadows, and one by one their auto headlamps click on.
“Where did you two meet?” Rachel asks. “You’re kind of like Adam and Eve.”
Megan laughs, a rich spill. Bill smiles.
Rachel and Marston sit mid-stage in the dining hall.
“A hit, a very palpable hit,” a waiter-intern turned Osric, judges. Marston squirms and his hand rises toward his eye. Rachel catches and squeezes this hand in a queenly way.
“Well again,” says Laertes, a sculptor from Cincinnati. Rachel squeezes her squeeze’s hand, this time to cue him.
"Stay,” manages Marston. “Give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine. Here’s to thy health! Give him the cup.”
Revenge uncoils around them. The assembled of Meskouamegou marvel as much at the play within the play within the play, as at the play itself. Rachel strolled back onto the scene just as she had left, with her backpack. Went to the hospital when Marston was released, drove him home and disappeared into his sleeping cabin with him. There had been some good stories over the years at The Colony--spouses arriving unannounced to catch their breedmates in bed with other creative souls--screams and shouting in the night, tossing from cabin onto pine-needle-covered ground of clothes, abrupt departures without so much as a by-your-leave to studio or writing group companions. But nothing in the annals of the place could hold a candle to an eyeball stabbing, followed by a womanhunt, yielding to a warm reunion in a hospital waiting room. And now Hamlet, with who but Marston and Rachel as the royal fornicators.
Maxine as Ophelia did a credible job of appearing crazed with love. Now she sits offstage, weeping by the milk dispenser. Marston occasionally looks her way and lifts his sceptre as if to say, Hi there. Rachel looks right through her at regular intervals, in a haughty manner appropriate.
During the reception, Bill and Megan approach, Megan performing a Renaissance curtsy.
“Marston,” Marston says.
“How’s the eye?” Bill asks, peering into it.
"Itches like a mother.”
“That’ll pass,” Megan tells him. She lost an eye, not her own, a slow opponent’s, back in the day.
“Good to see things,” Rachel says, looking over all of their heads, “from a fresh perspective.”
Tom misses Ling. He cradles Terry in his arms--really a rather tiring and unrealistic way of sleeping together, but they are trying to have a giddy honeymoon period, even though they’re both about a century too old for it--and as his arm goes numb, so does his brain, until he can’t quite remember where he is, who he loves and is holding, or who he is, fundamentally. He knows his own name, occupation, and so forth, but he’s not clear what his underlying personality is or what his core beliefs are. He thought core beliefs meant he was dependable. He knows that Bella and Mark, his children with Ling, occupy a part of his soul and body that is not divisible from self. And he always believed he was bound to Ling, his breedmate, by a bond indestructible by himself, possibly destructible by Ling, and then over a period of several weeks he found himself falling in lustlove, then into bed, with Terry, their friend. Lustlove is a drug--that is well understood--and he was hooked. But he would have thought of himself, Tom is a man who, while under the influence, even buried to the short curlies in a woman who has a terrific sense of humor, Tom retains a sense of what is most meaningful in life: specifically, his primary connection to and honest responsibility to breedmate and brood. Yet he wandered, he strayed, he repeatedly engaged in coitus, as if in thrall to his own pumping buttocks. Yet in the midnight hours, arm numb, brain searching for identity--hers, his own--and location--where are Bella and Mark? Are they well and safe? Where is Ling and why is she alone, oh yeah, because of me… In the midnight hours, he is not the Responsible Tom Who Strayed.
He is No Man. He is No Where. He is Alone.
What remains, and what has been lost?
Marston sees the former, the what remains, with his new left eye, teary now but no longer itchy, and full-sized, even a shadow large for his older person’s orb, the eyeball itself being so young. And simultaneously perceives the latter, the what has been lost, with his bleary right eye--didn’t know it was faintly clouded until he saw its slightly less gleaming orb in contrast to the new one.
They are at the Frankford International Word Fair as usual in mid-October, site of their triumphant arrival as a couple six years before. Their star ascended in that sector of sky of those who still placed words on screens and occasionally paper, outside the vast domains of holo script writers and holographic novelists. Rachel and Marston’s fifteen minutes came after the fame of that first story collection, The Ophelians. Now Marston dutifully rebuffs the African, Asian, European, American and Polar former lovers and current aspirants with minutely rising shoulders, a rueful sideways glance and, if that does not suffice, the shy hand cupping Rachel’s bare shoulder, as if in reluctant imperial possession of natural resources. For her part Rachel mindfully pushes away, sometimes with actual palm to actual sternum, male challengers drawn to the woman of their champion. Night after night, afternoon after noon, they are propelled together by these wavelets of desire, not their own, that lap their knees throughout the eventful hours of Fair.
What remains? What has been lost?
The legend, two novellas and a second short story collection (Brobdingnag Or Bust) later, Marston has become cultural artifact, historic monument, though still animate and theoretically beddable. Rachel his dark sorceress and dynamo, her sexual and editorial powers such that a man will either ascend the firmament or crash and burn at the touch of her lips and pen. And now, the Edward Bulwer-Lytton thing. When they arrived at their signing table, the written Words literally rose to the their feet and made discreet postpostmodern obeisance, part Indo head wag, part Javenese torso tilt, with downcast eyes and ironic Manhattan half-smile.
What has been lost? The desire, fluffed by the rebuffed, has not been lost--has rather become fiercer and longer in its working out, the antiseptic German suite made odorous and damp in respectable measure, for an older couple. What has been lost is innocence, in its place an understanding that violence is, and will be. The pen, the paragraph, meaning, interpretation, temporarily frozen in mid-blow. Which is hot.
What else has not been lost is the next story. He writes satiated before dinner, and at dawn with morning excitement. He takes notes of any moment at any moment.
Telling of Tom’s desertion is time and heart-consuming. While society is amalgamated ethnically and skin palette-wise, the extremely pale and dark equally exotic, cultural patterns remain and for a Shanxi woman to be abandoned by her pale breedmate mid-contract is rare and frowned upon in both the Chinese and pale communities. Ling body-times her friends, sitting in her greenhouse with its cool green shadows--to tell them the news. They murmur how sad, so sorry, but Ling, trained kinesiologist, notes the bodies speaking, the stiffening, the minute shifting back and away of spinal columns, the hardening of the buccinators and contraction of the extraoculars. The women are wondering if Ling, who is a beauty, whose quiet curves have drawn men like arrows to her bow since her thirteenth birthday, will exert suasion upon their men. The men, attached or free, sway to the wind of her announcement as if strummed by desire they did not fully take account of or necessarily wish for.
And then there is shame. The question in their eyes--what did she do wrong, to cause Tom to go? Is there a coldness in her that only he knows? A cruelty in her that is masked to the world? Or was she harmed by Tom such that she is now and forever damaged? Downtrodden, disparaged, neglected? If so, why did she stay so long?
Her parents cast their eyes downward when she tells them, as if to hide for a moment their lack of surprise. She finds her breedmate out of the community--despite the amalgamation, the Shanxi diaspora is connected--and of course her bond proved fragile, Tom too friendly too quickly, too kind, without backbone or purpose on some elemental, call it racial level. Ling in her 旗袍 in her greenhouse shrinks before her parents’ non-look of combo sadness and told-you-so, as if she had disregarded their counsel, which of course she had, though they had never given it in words, being of the generation that no longer told offspring whom to mate, but instead suggested these things with hopeful glances at family gatherings, and constricted corrugator supercilii when meeting Anglo-Euro boyfriends.
At first, for a month or so, Ling hid the 411 from other parents when arranging playdates or rides for Bella and Mark. Asked about Tom, she demurred, He’s fine, He’s busy. And then one day, after her session with Megan in which Megan asked, Who are you protecting? Tom? Yourself? Bella and Mark? What are you protecting them from? Ling told Beth, her good pal, Tom is gone. He lives with Terry. After that it didn’t get easier, in fact it got harder, as if each revelation places another small weight in a basket Ling seems destined to carry, African style, upon upon her tired head, each pebble necessitating increased participation of the quadratus lumborum and stemocleidomastoideus. Even at night, Ling carries the basket. Her dreams are effortful and she wakes with a feeling that she is trying to give birth to a new self, one with a new understanding of what a man means when he says I love you.
The strange thing about adultery, Tom finds, is that it leads to adultery. Once that line is crossed, and monogamy is in the rearview looking a bit historic in both its assumptions and its enactment, the question, If two lovers is nice, what about three lovers? just pops into the mind and body of its own accord. For instance, on the way to work, catching a stranger’s eye through the windshields of two drones autocorrecting around each other, he finds himself thinking, Pretty. My age. in a way that he hasn’t looked at strangers since before he and Ling were joined in holy breedlock. It’s playful, it’s juvenile, it’s without mortgage or holiday calendar. It’s eros and arrows and errant.
Which is why he’s not really surprised to find himself not in Terry’s bed but in Carol’s--a woman he had never laid eyes on until yesterday and never lay with until last night. She is really nice, is how he would describe her if there were anyone asking. What else is she? Well, she smells young and floral and has an unusually deep cleft in her back along her spinal column, right in the middle of the conus medullaris. She also doesn’t require very many things in order to experience orgasms of unusual intensity and duration. Besides that, he really knows very little about her.
Does he have to know more about her? Does he have to tell anyone? Why?
Marston writes better now. He sees things from two perspectives, the old and the new. The new is new, fresh, postmindful, colors bright, feelings unclouded. The old is old, with a patina of memory coloring impressions like the brushwork of a Renaissance master in his maturity. Acolytes (Rachel) take care of the elaborate background he has merely sketched on criss-crossed Renaissance DIY graph paper.
“Well, fuck me,” Rachel said when he hands her that morning’s longhand. He’s tried it all--dictation, keyboards both physical and projected, he’s written standing on a treadmill at a high desk, on the ch-air suspended like a paratrooper in free-fall; he’s written in notebooks, on napkins, on William Burroughs typewriters like steampunk porcupines; he’s dictated on thones, to wives, girlfriends and editorial assistants he either was or wasn’t sleeping with. But this morning he used the increasingly pleasing Bic on a spiral notebook he found in a curio shop in London. Not the Bic, which is in an evidence locker in Millinocket, but the same type of pen. Just looking at it makes his right eye smart and sharpens his narrative sense and well eye.
“This is not you,” Rachel says reluctantly, still in bed. “Where’s the bombast? Where’s the saying it three ways instead of picking the best one? Where’s the me in everything when you should be anonymous? Where’s the burying of wit in self-congratulation? This is just fucking dynamite."
He knows it’s true. This shit just writes itself, as Shakespeare said. He’s channeling a brilliant version of the vain oaf who died that day in Chegual Cabin, pen through eye into frontal lobe, who was slabbed, buried, and eulogized. Now he’s Georgie Hyde-Lees-ing short stories that Rachel is only taking apart and putting back together in an admiring, retrained lady-editor way, rather than in the demolition man, find a few pieces worth using, and basically writing it herself mode that characterized their earlier “collaboration.”
Getting stabbed turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to Marston.
Winter. Snow. Overcast and the river iced. Bill and TexMex regard the woodstove. Burning wood and adding greenhouse gases a civic duty now, encouraged with all kinds of incentives and cheerleading, since the slightly overenthusiastic cooling project seventy years ago, when the particulates were intentionally added to the stratosphere. Initially a godsend, dropping temperatures to pre-Gore levels, but then when they dropped another five degrees and the polar sheets thickened and spread, the Alpine glaciers too, and water levels dropped precipitously, leaving the flood-protected coastal cities suspended a hundred feet above their own new beaches--well, that made warming up the planet public good number one. Number two was having babies to bring humanity back to vulnerable from endangered status as a species, following the Reluctance, when a majority of women around the world stopped wanting children. Three was art and craft, since the economy is largely automated and cybermanaged. Keep busy, creative, connected to others and to the magnificent increasingly rich and human-free natural world. Bill and TexMex doing their part, homesteading this fishable heart of Penobscot, formerly Maine, and burning as much wood as they can cut and haul.
“He’s reaching the end of that,” Megan is saying. Bill tries his damnedest to not hear her therapy hours, but his ear replacements are so good that, unless he manually overrides them with deafness, he can hear every word, Megan's and her client Ling’s, from the downstairs virtual office, with its soundproofing and door closed. So he knows the story--this woman down in Metoac, formerly Long Island, has been abandoned with two kids by her breedmate, who’s off exploring sexual freedom. “He’s starting to realize that he loves you, and that sex without that primary bond is not satisfying to him.”
“He wants to come over for dinner."
“I told him no.”
“I am just now feeling like myself. I can sleep. I eat sometimes because food looks appealing, not just because I know it’s time to eat.”
“And if you see him?”
“I’ll be in bad shape again.”
“Because I love him and hate him and I don’t understand why he left. I don’t trust him, I don’t want him inside my house, inside my head.”
Ice fishing doesn’t interest either of them. As TexMex put it, Cold paws, bait which is for the simple, no casting. Bill forces himself to snowshoe. He has a deep-seated antipathy toward hiking in any form. He has always walked to get to something more significant than a view--a fishing spot, a crime scene. But he doesn’t want to get flabby and he refuses to tread a mill unless its grinding something. So he and TexMex will head out later. He does like snowshoeing downhill in good snow--bouncing, the shoes magically pulling vertical as they fall, then slapping all the way to slope down. It makes the heart and breath pause as the brain works out that one is not falling on one’s face, over and over again.
“My friend told me,” Ling says in her sweet tremolo, vulnerable and intelligent, “that it’s not the cheating, it’s the lying.”
“No,” Megan tells her. “It’s the cheating and the lying.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“You were right.”
What’s interesting to Bill is that Megan is polyamorous, not simply amorogamous like everybody else. She doesn’t cheat and she doesn’t lie, but she falls in love and sleeps with men and women who aren’t Bill. She says everyone is their own ethical center, unless they are not reasoning people which, she adds, is quite common. She says couples create an ethical system as they go, and infidelity is acting in disregard of that ethical understanding. Bill takes her word for it and let’s her tell him what he can and can’t do, and what she can do. He can do more than he does, and is sometimes scolded lightly for not holding up his end. She does all that she is allowed to do and sometimes it hurts Bill, even though he knows he’s a stick-in-the-mud. Megan in love with someone beside Bill is Megan on fire, loving Bill with new intensity. Once he was even invited into the bed and that was so interesting he can’t often think about it as it blows his circuitry. So their or really Megan’s system has been working for a really long time, a couple times longer than people used to live, much less be married and sexually paired. Megan says the important thing is to grow with all those tangled feelings and not stop at the pain. He thinks he’s been able to do that except for one time and she seems proud of him in that way that really smart people are proud of the rest of us when we do what they recommend.
“He wants to see the kids. I said he could come and get them and go to a restaurant or a movie but not on a school night.”
“He said okay and then he started to cry. I thought I would cry when he did. I always have before. But I didn’t.”
“You’re separating. That’s what they used to call it when people got married. Before they got divorced, they had this thing called separation. A surprisingly sophisticated term.”
“I am separating. I’m starting to feel like I used to, before I knew him. I know what I think. I know what I’m feeling, and what he’s feeling, and where the line is.”
Marston pretends he doesn’t want to go to Beijingwood but he does. Writers all do. Words are well and good, but the holos are where the fame, the money, the exposure are. Rachel just laughs when she edits those stories whose plots are halfway to holoplays, complete with scene, dialogue, point-of-view cues.
“Why not just write a holoplay?” she asks him. They are in her condo way above the water line in Carnarsee, the East River flowing serenely past, forty feet lower than when the building was built. Conversion from subaqua after the start of the Ice Age was expensive, but compared to selling at below waterline prices and trying to buy something up in the air in the bouroghs, it was nothing. Before the Ice Age, Rachel had lived across town in a sub--a building waterproofed so the first three floors were underwater. It had been so quiet, her heating and cooling bills nothing, and interesting stuff floating past her thick windows when she turned on her flood lights. Once, a lifetime before she met Marston, she saw a carp the size of a whale swim by trailing a tangled rope of dresses and coats on two floating clothing racks, remnants of the Garment District flood. That building had not done well when the waters departed, and Rachel had moved up and over in the world. Now it’s muffled street noise, the zing of electric vehicles and the mosquito hum of delivery drones. Minstrels rapping to crwths, the newest form of street poetry, this generations’ narrative obsession violent gangster women who treat their mostly male lovers coldly, boyches the ubiquitous lyric term.
“Everybody is writing a holoplay. The woman who tunes your drone, the old man who cooks your breakfast, the androg who engineers your green and brown houses. No, if you want to get into holos, you gotta write fiction. Everybody knows that.
“But it’s so transparent, honey. All that’s missing are the words camera one and view from above."
“I know,” Marston says. “I can’t help myself. I want to go Beijingwood and get that big money, stay in the 北京商務中心區 Wilshire, do interviews. Do an opening at the Grauman’s Hollywood on Los Angeles street--”
“With me by your side, backless evening gown with Zardozi embroidery.”
“I let the interviewers know that I feel my work has been cheapened, but not irredeemably, by the studio.”
“You are a beacon of culture and integrity in a sea of--”
“Sentimentality and predictable form.”
So she doesn’t try to eradicate the holoplay snowglobes in which his stories are suspended, but she does try to keep him from looking like a jackass on the make. It’s chop a phrase here, a shift down the rhetorical spectrum there. He hardly notices. He remembers having made the changes himself. He believes he is humoring her, that she is no longer necessary to the writing, perhaps never was. Perhaps that was lust making him think they were a team when really he was everything and she a charming amanuensis.
Lovemaking becomes comfortable. A relief after the eye and the aftermath. Time passes.
Ling goes on a date. Robert is an old friend who has always loved her. His quest for a breedmate, with Ling matchmaking, never worked out. He is uncle figure to Bella and Mark.
He puts his trademark exhaustive and thoughtful effort into choosing a restaurant, incorporating her favorite cuisines, the intimacy and acoustic properties of the spaces, eliminating places he knows to be haunts of her and Marston. Only to have her tell him that she would like to eat at his place as always. He is a great cook. She doesn’t miss Tom being there because Ling always kept up the tradition of Robert and her having meals together, confiding in each other. She’s not even sure that he is sure that this is a date.
But he is. He has cooked her favorite Shanxi dishes--cat’s ear soup, Pingyao beef-- wondering about all the garlic since they are going to kiss. He’s got way too many and elaborate expectations. He doesn’t know what to tell her about how much he hopes they can cross the bridge into physical intimacy, from the country of trust and affection they have inhabited together for so long.
They speak about the separation obliquely, how Bella and Mark are taking it, what Tom and the kids are doing this evening and weekend--their first at his new place. After dinner they settle on the couch as always and watch a vampire holo as always. It is all so familiar that he wonders finally if it even is a date. Then she turns to him, popcorn on her breath and says, “I vant to suck your blood.” And plants a big wet one right on him.
“I didn’t know if I could kiss anyone else ever,” Ling says.
“But you did.”
“He’s a good kisser. I’m a good kisser.”
“Tell me about it.” Megan realized in her first decades as a therapist that, despite its boast, psychotherapy was not good at speaking about sex. She ran into this fact in her own training therapy, her two main therapists shortening any discussions of sexual activity, switching quickly to the metaphorical or the metanarrative, steering Megan into discussions about her feelings when what she really wanted was to tell them what had happened, to understand it by telling it. So she has always made a point of drawing her clients out when they come to a bedroom moment, breaking the contemporary therapy taboos.
“His breath so sweet. His tongue hot and darting. He made me feel--”
“What did he do?”
“He took my clothes off. I took his clothes off. He has that swimmer’s body, serious serratus posterior superior and inferiors, sweet internal intercostals. He knew just what he wanted.”
“What did he want?
“He wanted to fuck me.” She laughs. “Right away. From behind. I was worried he’d be all considerate and just do the light caresses for a really long time to show me what a nice gentle man he is. Which he is. But no. He just turned me around and plunged in. It wasn’t like I wasn’t ready. Luckily he didn’t come. He fucked me slow, then fast, then slow. He reached around and touched me. I touched myself. I came. Then he fucked me some more. Finally he came. Just called my name, no weird sounds.”
“Then we watched the rest of the holo.”
“How did it make you feel?” It wasn’t that Megan wasn’t interested in her clients discussing their feelings or associations or thoughts about sexual acts. It’s just that she felt it was important that they actually describe what happened first.
“I felt calm. I felt not alone.”
Damned if it didn’t work. Marston’s holoplay disguised as a novel was optioned, purchased by a major, and scheduled for production. More amazing still, Marston’s agent got him on as johnny-on-the-set rewriter. Marston’s dream realized in full. He had the holo credit; he went to Beijingwood for the months of the shoot itself and then, after a productions pause, for the red carpet premiere. He got paid four ways--first for the option, then for the purchase, then as a writer, then his fractional residual.
Rachel was side-lined. He had to bring her along on the set because they were a writing team, he needed her. But he didn’t want her there. She made him look dependent. She interfered with his social life, not the mature part where they would hobnob with others their age and level. No, she interfered with his making new friends of the starry-eyed younger admiring variety.
The novel itself, about the breakdown of society after the onslaught of the viruses in the twentieth-first century, sold modestly. But Marston had managed to create a blockbuster--a story of illicit love (a man from a fortified, uninfected island off the Maine coast falls in love with a serum-positive mainland girl), violence (two clans clash with twentieth-first-century weapons), and a happy ending (true love conquers all--a single brave couple create the beginnings of a new society and the virus magically mutates into harmlessness). It was one of those holos where there are vistas at dawn, and hope, and really good-looking heroes and heroines with charming kids. Also ugly villains who are unapologetic about being bad. The sound score was full orchestra, stirring and not subtle. All pointed toward success.
Tom picks up Mark and Bella for another weekend. Robert and Ling act in concert like the couple they are, Ling carrying the kids’ backpacks, Mark their sports gear (soccer, Mark, ballet Bella). As Tom drives away with his children, Ling and Robert start to come together in the classic couple hip-to-hip, free arms waving, curbside goodbye pose. But ever the diplomat, Robert keeps a little daylight between Ling and himself. He’s a good guy.
Mark looks sad and lost, as he has since the divorce. Bella is angry again, this time about Tom’s lateness which is just his standard half-hour. She was offended that her parents, that Tom really cause she understands it was his doing, had to screw up being breedmates and become separates, while her best friend Amy’s breedmates were together, Amy’s family a real family. Bella has a point. Tom has made a hash of her home, her story. Where once was a foursome in a house, now is a haphazard collection of relationships and three houses. Will Bella be in a committed relationship when she becomes an adult? Will she be able to trust in it, in another person? Often Tom feels he has savaged not only his own life but Mark and Bella’s.
They go to Tom’s apartment and Mark changes into his soccer clothes, while Bella puts on her ballet clothes and pulls her regular clothes over them. It’s one of those autumn Saturdays when purposefulness is in the light and cool of the air. They stay on the ground to drive to the soccer field and Mark joins his teammates, who have already started playing the game. For a moment he looks like his old self, confident, happy. Tom and Bella head off to the dance studio. Tom’s girlfriend Angela calls and he doesn’t pick up, but Bella has registered the event, the expression on his face.
“Were you with her? Is that why you were late?” she asks, twisting in the seat next to him. “Can’t you just not mess up?”
“I don’t know,” Tom tells her. “Maybe. But that would be new.”
“Do you mess everything up on purpose?”
“No,” he tells her. “I just don’t know how not to.”
“I hate you.”
The new one is a make-up professional. He notices her looking at him when he’s trying to avoid the catering table, which has the best food in the world--Chinese, obviously, but also Jewish. The pastrami is to die for. And the lox? Like buttah. Thing is, he has already had whatever meal follows breakfast and precedes lunch. Elevenses? At ten? Now it’s ten forty-five, and the Chinese side beckons. Rachel was nibbling on some baby eggplants and the aroma was divine. He’s just going to look at them and plan lunch, not take any, when he sees her looking at him. She’s African, she’s not a kid, and she has a way about her, relaxed, confident, warm, that draws his eyes to hers. She smiles and makes a little tsk-tsk with her lips, understanding the temptations of the catering table and the importance of discipline during the long weeks of the shoots. He shrugs minutely as if to say, But it’s so good! as he reaches for the handle of the spoon and drops a small, then a larger serving of the eggplant onto his dish, with of course a little fried rice. She shakes her head tolerantly, then returns to the work she’s doing on one of the virus warriors, making him pale and sickly to indicate that he’s infected.
“She’s beautiful,” Rachel says when he sits beside her at the rewrites table.
“Isn’t she?” They’re well past the point of pretending, though Rachel is also setting a limit for him, one he will observe. The African woman’s beauty is now an experience they share, not a private stash of his.
“Anisa. Means Joy or Pleasure.” Of course Rachel has already met the woman--she meets everyone, and everyone likes her. Met her during one of the mornings Marston, hung over, came late, no doubt. On those days Rachel does the rewrites and sometimes Marston gets to go over them before they’re used in the morning shoots, other days he’s a bit too late for that and her words are the words. “She and her breedmate are coming to dinner tomorrow. He’s a banker.”
Marston nods and eats, as if none of this surprises him. Rachel always knows which ones he will like and pre-empts the inevitable. She tells him this is the way to avoid another ‘editorial conflict.’
“In our suite,” Rachel says. “Home style.”
Rachel plunks down at the props table and opens her notebook. She types revisions onto the script. The scene where the infected mainlanders storm the beach of the virus-free islanders, brandishing rifles and pistols, is about to be shot on a studio beach. She is composing a litany of vicious infection invective for the mainlanders to shout as they storm the pristine paradise. Marston has been focused on the dialogue of the hero and heroine, who are trying to head off the bloodshed by convincing both sides that they can do better than this. The infected need to leave the unaffected in peace on their island. The serum negative islanders need to let the infected ones have the neighboring island as their own. Both sides need to let the couple conduct their experiment--love one another and create children who, miracle, will inherit immunity and save the race. But she realizes she has to help Marston with the couple's dialogue. He's having a really off day, and the scene is about to be shot.
“Don’t change that!” Marston yells, from the rewrite table. Marston knows Rachel is right--he's forgotten the couple are on the beach facing two armies of enraged virus-free or viral men, one army chanting anti-viral slogans, the sun just rising over the trees behind them, silhouettes of fierceness, the other coming with determination out of their small craft onto the beach as the sun begins to glint off their semi-automatic rifles (Marston couldn't believe it when his researcher told him that North Americans had machine guns in their homes for almost a century). Marston has lost hold of the plot and gotten caught up in the fine-looking young couple--he's picturing the real life actors, who he's been trying to meet for weeks to no avail, neither of them has any idea who he is or what he's doing on the set. So Marston has his handsome man and gorgeous woman saying sappy things, when they should be saying what Rachel--he scans her rewrites--has them saying. If we don't make it through this, know that--and then the woman stops the man from speaking with a finger to his lips--the middle of a battlefield no place for a kiss. A huge improvement over what Marston, thinking both about the actors and about the beautiful African make-up artist woman who, if only Rachel weren't there at the shoot, he could try for, though she seems to have his number--what Marston wrote, Darling, I'll always love you, and then a kiss. He knows the whole reason Rachel moved to the props table was to get away from him at the rewrites table, because he’s in a mood. But wherever she sits, he sees on his puter the changes she is making.
Suddenly he is on his feet, coming toward her, his left eye for some reason itching. He grabs a knife off the far end of the props table. This all feels familiar to him and wrong. He can't stop. This too feels familiar. He intends to plunge the knife through the back of the soft screen of Rachel's puter.
Rachel sees Marston with another blade coming at her. Oy vey, she thinks. She grabs the nearest prop gun, a period piece Vaquero.
"Marston!" she has time to warn. He lunges.
She pulls the trigger.
Bill sniffles. Megan smiles. He is such a softie. Swan’s Island, the holo based on Marston and Rachel’s novel, has just ended in the middle of Bill and Megan’s river cabin. There’s not a ton of space so the projected area is scaled down. Still, the holo was very affecting, what with the saving of humanity by love, and all the bad guys getting their behinds booted in the fight scene at the beach landing. Even Tex-Mex liked it. Only Bill cried. This is typical.
“Rachel shot him when?” Megan asks, carrying the popcorn bowl to the kitchen.
“On the set. They were having some conflict over rewrites. He picked up a knife--”
“What’s with this guy and blades?” she calls over the sound of the sink. “You’d think losing an eye would teach him.”
“--She was at the props table and there was a gun--”
“He brought a knife to a gun fight?”
“--and of course she is proficient in firearms--”
“Is there anything Rachel isn’t proficient at?”
“--she put a blank into his chest--”
“What do you mean put into his chest? I thought the point of blanks was that they were blank.”
“Well sometimes the wadding--”
“Like Brandon Lee?” Megan asks, coming back into the room wiping bowl with dish towel.
“Bruce Lee’s son. Killed on the set of The Crow when a blank incorrectly fired the bullet that had become jammed in the barrel.”
“Yes. Like Brandon Lee. But there was no bullet, only the powder packing, which tore through his shirt, broke the skin on his ribs, and stopped there.”
“They really are a pair, aren’t they?”
“Writing,” Bill tells her, “is not for the faint of heart.”