(This is original fiction. You are welcome to link to it. If you quote it or cite it, give me credit. Marion)
I got the idea for this story at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, the year I took a kayak tour down the river. That trip stayed with me. The story is about 3400 words long; I’m posting one part today. The rest will go up on Friday.
During the last song of our set, Earl walks in. It would be tonight, when Manolito is laying down guitar riffs like something unleashed, and my fiddle in answering him, all hot and girly like a Spanish dancer snapping her skirts and tossing her hair. I look up, and there he is. He sits at the round table near the door.
Ice skitters down my spine and my fingers lose the music for a second. Markie, behind her drum kit, shoots me a glance.
I focus, and fake it. We blaze to a finish, one of our best, and the six regulars in Pablo’s On the Pier clap their hands together two or three times before turning back to their beers and the homebrew Pablo makes and stores in the hundred-liter drums along the outer wall. Earl rests his hands palms down on the table top and smiles at me. I turn away. Catching Markie’s eye, I pull over my fiddle case.
She comes out from behind the kit, brushing the single thick braid off her shoulder. “Y’okay, Ruby?”
I bought the fiddle at a roadside stand on my way up from the San Francisco Bay enclave. It’s made of a funny wood, yellowish white, almost the color of Markie’s braid, but it carries good sound.
“Fine,” I say. “Will you watch my fiddle?”
Her pale green eyes stare into mine. “You coming back?” Sometimes she is just too smart.
“Oh, sure,” I say.
She looks over at the table by the door. “That guy, is he trouble? We could take care of him for you.”
“No.” Dr. Larsen, all of Peace Maintenance actually, has a ten-for-one policy, and I don’t want to turn the scruffy hamlet of Bragg into scorched earth because the locals tried to help me out. “I can handle him.”
Markie’s husband has a water-taxi in San Francisco Bay and comes home two days a month. Her son has hired out on one of the fishing boats. Markie grows vegetables and raises chickens on a little plot of land up the cliff side. She keeps the books for a few of the fishing boats, waits tables at Pablo’s and helps him with his deliveries. She does okay, but the little packet of gemstones I’ve taped into the bottom of the case will help her a lot.
She studies me. “Okay.” She reaches out and curls her fingers around the handle of the case. “You be careful.”
I step down off the sheet of thick plastic that’s held up on buckets – the stage – and make eye contact with Earl. Before I reach his table I detour, seeing him come alert like a dog on point, me swinging by the bar and getting two schooners of beer. I walk to his table, stop less than a meter away, looking.
He smiles. “What are you thinking?”
“Wondering why the boys get the great eyelashes.”
He laughs. It’s the first thing I ever said to him. I was twelve. He was fourteen.
I pull out the chair with my foot. My nerves are humming and the little hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. Engagement-readiness, Dr. Larsen called it, back at the Institute. At the same time my lips feel warm and full. I call that Earl-readiness. Here’s one thing about Earl; he’s a got a naughty-boy smile that starts in those summer-sky eyes of his, like he’s looking right into my head and can see all the things I want to do once I’ve gotten him naked and horizontal, and he approves. He’s smiling that way now. I wish I could hate that.
I shove one of the beers across to him. He slides it to one side.
“You sounded good up there, Ruby.” Those eyes, they’re shining.
“Thanks. I have about ten minutes before my shift starts.”
He frowns and shakes his head slowly. “Ruby. You, washing dishes and playing fiddle in some dog-hole harbor in Lower Pacifica. I figured you’d run to Denali, or south, or maybe even crouch in the San Francisco enclave someplace. Not…” he makes a loop with his hand. I look around, seeing Pablo’s the way he sees it. I see the soft uneven floor, the corrugated plastic walls and the bar held up on storage drums. I see the six regulars, fishermen they call themselves, but we know better.
I had been heading to Denali Compact, as a matter of fact, just because it’s been an independent country since the dawn of whenever. Some people even say it broke away before the Union was formed, back in the days of the old republic, but I wouldn’t know. Up there, I’d have been free of Dr. Larsen and his endless dog-packs chasing me down. That had been my plan, but plans change.
“Eight minutes before my shift starts,” I say.
“You’re not going to make that shift, Ruby.”
“Pablo’ll be sad. It’s tough to get a good dishwasher in this town.”
He leans forward, serious now. “There are four ways out of here.”
I nod. “The front door.”
“The back door in the kitchen. The window in the bathroom. It’s high, it’s narrow, but you could make it. And the roof access in that little storage space behind the bathroom.”
“I’m impressed, Earl.”
“I’ve got eyes on all of them.”
My turn to smile. “You’ve got eyes on two of them, best case scenario.”
“We don’t need any collateral damage here. You fight, you run, someone gets hurt, and I know you don’t want that.”
I smile wider. “That might depend on who the somebody is.”
His voice gets softer. “You don’t want to hurt me, Ruby.”
“Don’t be too sure.”
He spreads his hands like he’s warming them over a cooktop. “Ruby. You led me here. Don’t let your pride get in the way of what you really want. Come home.”
“Why assume I led you? If I had a five-union-credit for every dog-pack Larsen’s sent after me, I could retire rich. One of you was bound to hit eventually, and you’re probably the best tracker Larsen’s got left.”
“Dr. Larsen,” he said. He can’t stop himself. It’s always “Dr. Larsen” for him. I guess it would be for me too, if things were different. He goes on. “C’mon. The high-profile jobs pulled around here lately? We knew it was a freak, and when you stole those rubies in Eureka, how could there be any doubt?”
“It’s hard to make a living dishwashing and playing fiddle,” I say, “even with the tips.”
“So come back with me. It’ll be just like it was. The two of — ”
“No,” I say.
“It won’t be just like it was. How many freak kids have you kidnapped so far, or do you bother to keep track?”
“Gene-cluster kids are better off with us. You know that.”
The gene-cluster, they called it, or sometimes the Fricot-Matsui constellation. Fricot-Matsui, a set of markers that almost always mean some special talent, skill. I’m pretty low-end on the freak scale, actually, just agility, fast reactions, strength and speed. Earl got a premium option along with that – night vision. Some, I’ve heard, are downright freaky, which is another reason people call us freaks.
The Continental Peace Maintenance Forces – PMF –though, they love us. And Dr. Larsen loves us the most. He loves us so much he wants to make freaks of his very own. He breeds us like racehorses or those cats with bent ears.
“Stolen away from their parents?” I say. “How is that better?”
“You were on the streets when he found you,” he says. “I know what this is really about. The babies.”
Oh, man, that actually hurts. I didn’t see it coming, not from Earl. I keep my face expressionless.
“I know you didn’t want to have babies,” he says.
“I didn’t mind having babies,” I say. “The problem was whose baby I was going to have.”
“It’s just part of the program. That’s all.”
“That’s all? That’s easy for you to say, or has he already turned you into brood stock?”
He looks off to the side, saying nothing.
My stomach does a twist and I think I’m going to puke. “He paired me with Taggert,” I say.
“You and I were too similar. Dr. Larsen was worried about recessives. He explained that.”
“So why doesn’t he do it the old-fashioned way, with test tubes?”
Earl looks seriously shocked. “That’s illegal.”
“He’s with the government. He could change that.”
He leans forward again, and his eyes sparkle. No, they glow, big pupils squeezing out the blue. “He is changing things. He’s making big changes, Ruby, better changes, and we can be part of them. It’ll be like the old days, if you’ll just come back with me. It’ll be better than the old days.”
“Time’s up,” I say. I stand up.
Earl flows to his feet and glides away from the table, standing between me and the door. I can tell from his stance he expects me to use the beer schooner as a weapon.
I pick up my chair and swing it up, under-hand, right into him, into the jellies. He doubles over. I grab the chair with both hands for better stability, reverse the swing and crash it down on his head. I whirl, grab the schooner, and sprint for the kitchen.
Here’s one thing about Earl; he’s pretty, but he’s not too smart.
(End of Part One)