Judith A. Boss
Published in ARIA Anthology, 2019
Imagine a world where there is no time or space or material substance of any kind—a world where
everything just is. Every so often this world intersects our world of time and space in the form of a sojourner.
This is the story of one such sojourner who, although really nameless, we shall call Tobe.
Tobe was about to embark on a journey into time and space. Many had gone before him. Now it was his turn.
In order to prepare for the journey, he had to be separated off from the changeless Oneness. It felt strange at first but Tobe soon got used to it. In a world of Oneness he could not really be separated from the inseparable. Separation was simply an illusion, necessary for making the journey. Knowing this gave Tobe comfort.
And now, at last it was happening. A vessel was available and Tobe had been assigned to it.
Though all sojourners eventually returned to the Oneness, since death, like time and space is an illusion, the journey was by no means without peril. The dangers of the time/space world were great and the price of failure or miscalculation high. Although the vessels or ships themselves were well-constructed and generally reliable, mishaps and even attacks from the outside, were a looming threat and many sojourners perished in untimely and gruesome deaths before reaching their destinations. Those who did make it sometimes suffered from trauma or succumbed to one of the many diseases found in the world of time/space.
The planet to which Tobe’s ship had been assigned was an especially dangerous and deceptive place. There was sometime hypnotic, almost numbing about it, he had been warned and it was easy to get caught up in it and forget who you really were. Tobe was well aware of the dangers. But he also realized that, as an envoy of the Monarch, he could learn more and accomplish more there that at some of the safer destinations.
Those who had already made the journey cautioned Tobe, “Do be careful and don’t forget us.”
“Ooh, how exciting!” chimed in those who had not yet made the perilous journey, as they fluttered aside to let Tobe pass.
“Would anyone care to join me?” Tobe asked peering into the vessel. “There’s room for two in here—maybe even three.”
There was a murmur from the crowd, but no one stepped forward.
“That’s okay,” Tobe said. “It will be more comfortable with just one. It is rather small after all.”
While the Other whirled and resonated with wishes of good tidings, the mechanics busily hovered about making last minute equipment adjustments.
The mechanics were a special class of servants who were able to travel instantaneously, without the need of a ship or time/space suit, between the world of the timelessness/formlessness and the world of time/space. This remarkable ability may give some readers the impression that they were a higher class of being—but not so. Their main task was to serve the sojourners by being on “24-hour” call in case any of the sojourners should need assistance.
The majority of mechanics took great pride and delight in their work. However, they often complained, and understandably so, that if the sojourners would just take the time to put in a work order when trouble first arose there would be far fewer problems for both them and the sojourners.
Once, a long time ago, a few of the mechanics got quite huffy about their station in life. One of them even went so far as to go down to the world of time/space where he stirred up a great deal of trouble. According to the latest reports, he is still at large skulking about getting into people’s heads and making mischief where ever he could. He even had the audacity to falsely declare himself the real monarch to those who gullible enough to believe him. Apparently he has amassed quite a following.
“Call whenever you need us,” said the new chief mechanic as she checked Tobe’s life support system one last time. “Remember, your communication device is built right into you time/space suit.” She straightened up and pulled out a parchment and unrolled it for the umpteenth time. “It’s very simple to use,” she said, pointing to the diagram on the chart. “Use it whenever you need it—even if you just want to chat.”
“I know,” Tobe replied. How could anyone forget something so simple—so obvious? But of course he didn’t say it out loud because he didn’t want to hurt the chief mechanic’s feelings. After all, she was just doing her job.
The chief mechanic scowled and tucked the chart back into a pocket under her wing.
Everything was ready to go. Tobe waved goodbye to the enthusiast crowd.
“Don’t forget us,” the Other called after him. “Remember to stay in touch!” The air was alive with the fluttering of wings and tinkling songs of good wishes for a safe journey.
Tobe was deeply touched. “Of course I won’t forget you,” he answered. “How can I ever forget you?” And with those parting words he slipped in the awaiting ship.
At first it didn’t feel very different. Tobe passed the time describing the new experience to the Other back home. The mechanics made periodic appearances. And just to keep them happy Tobe made sure he put in a work order to the Monarch at the slightest sign of any problem.
For hours on end, when all was still, Tobe would lie back and listen to the soothing sound of the life support pump. Ka-thump, ka-thump. Tobe delighted in the rhythmic sound. It comforted him and sent nourishment surging thought the life line to all parts of his new self. It was his lullaby in sleep and his companion when awake. The warm liquid in the time/space capsule pressed gently against his growing form. It was a strange, though not unpleasant, sensation as he floated though time/space to the alien world that would soon be his new home.
Sometimes the journey was so still and calm that Tobe wondered if the ship had come to a stop. At other times the ship lurched and jolted. But the liquid in the capsule cushioned him against harm.
Days passed, then weeks. Then, one day Tobe heard a second pump. At first the sound was very faint. He wasn’t even sure if he was really hearing it or just imagining it. But day after day the sound grew stronger and stronger until he could hear it quite distinctly.
And so the two pumps—one slightly faster than the other—beat in harmony to create the new form—the time/space suit which would protect Tobe in the harsh environment on this alien planet.
The suit grew steadily larger, more complex, taking shape, slowly, deliberately. He marveled at it, observed it, listened to it, touched it. The opportunities for education were endless. He reached up and touched is new face piece. He felt his mouth. He had never had a mouth before. It felt good and soft and warm. He rejoiced in the new experiences, the new sensations.
Now, with so much going on around him and so much to learn, Tobe was kept quite busy. He still reported back, though less frequently than before. When all was quiet he would take time out from his education to communicate with the mechanics, to get last minute instructions for his mission, and to chat with the Other back home. The communication device in his time/space suit was so simple to operate he didn’t now why the chief mechanic had made such a fuss about it.
One evening several months into his journey, the Monarch spoke to him. “Now rest up—you have a long and difficult job ahead of you. You will be landing soon. Take care and remember we will always be here for you.”
“Remember to call us any time you need help,” chimed in the chief mechanic in what sounded like a pre-recorded message. “Your communication device is built right into your time/space suit. I checked it over again and it’s in perfect working order. Remember, it’s very simple to operate. You just. . .”
Tobe tuned out the communication device. He smiled to himself. Yes, all was going well in this new world of time/space—so much to do, so much to learn. With that thought in mind he fell back into a peaceful sleep.
He was awakened a few hours later by an uncomfortable sensation. The ejection device had activated and was forcing him toward the hatch—pushing him, squeezing him. He tried to struggle. But it was no use. Tobe moved slowly toward the escape hatch dragging his life line behind him.
Then—all of a sudden—he was out!
The shock was dreadful. The harsh glare hurt his new eyes. And it was cold—so cold. He felt naked—even in his time/space suit.
Suddenly a huge creature draped in pale green reached out and grabbed him. Tobe was terrified. Who were these strange alien creatures? The creature jerked him away from the time/space ship and slashed his life line.
Tobe felt numb with fear. How could he live without his life line? And where was the other pump? Surely this much be a malfunction—and the end for him. He struggled, gasping for breath. Than he felt a cold slap on his back. He let out a shriek of terror and fell back into semi-consciousness.
“It’s a boy, Mrs. Hastings,” the doctor said triumphantly. “A healthy eight pound, two ounce baby boy. Congratulations!”
The proud parents beamed down at their newborn son lying naked and dazed in the clear plastic bassinette beside the delivery table.
UNTIL DEATH DO US PART
Published in ARIA Anthology, 2020.
On September 17th the authorities at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant received an urgent call. The caller claimed to have overheard a phone call in a parking lot in downtown Boston about a plot to blow up the power plant. The nearby Coast Guard station was notified. They immediately dispatched a helicopter to survey the area around the plant.
A flock of Canada geese took to the air protesting noisily as a low-flying helicopter appeared over the horizon. The helicopter zigzagged across the marsh, its nose lowered like a hound sniffing out prey, then turned and headed in the direction of the nuclear power plant.
Joanne shielded her eyes and looked out across the saltmarsh at the retreating helicopter. The sweet scent of marsh grass filled the air. Her weathered clapboard cottage, situated on a spit of land that jutted out into the marsh, sat just outside the half-mile security zone for the nuclear plant.
She rubbed her arms and thought back to her freshman year at Boston University. It had been the spring of 1977—over 35 years ago when the nuclear power plant was still under construction. She had been one of more than 1000 protestors arrested with the Clamshell Alliance and jailed for criminal trespass. She frowned. How naïve she had been back then.
Now that she was more mature, she had come to accept nuclear power as the lesser of two evils because it did not produce greenhouse emissions. Then again—there were other problems. Just a few months ago, she had signed a petition at the local library to have the plant closed down because of cracks in the concrete containment dome. Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had expressed concern about relicensing the plant. She pushed back a stray lock of frizzy brown hair. She didn’t want any trouble. Maybe she shouldn’t have signed that petition.
Raising her binoculars, she scanned the power plant. She didn’t notice anything unusual. But was hard to tell with the tall marsh grass and sedges blocking her view.
She set the binoculars down and glanced at the birding scope tucked under the eaves of her cottage. The scope belonged to Sameer. She had first met Sameer al-Shirazi a few weeks ago. He had set up his birding scope not far from her cottage. The tidal marsh, which was punctuated by two narrow rivers, was a favorite birding spot for birdwatchers.
Gathering her courage, Joanne had approached him. He told her he was observing the osprey nest near the power plant. He stepped aside to let her look through the scope. It was a Swarovski Scope with an attached camera—the Cadillac of scopes, he told her. Sure enough, there were three osprey fledglings in the nest.
They chatted for a few minutes. He asked her if it worried her living so close to a nuclear power plant.
She shrugged. “No, not really.” She didn’t want to appear like some scared and vulnerable woman living alone.
He nodded and went back to his bird watching.
“Except,” she added, hoping to keep the conversation going, “I was once part of a protest at the plant—but that was a long time ago.”
He straightened up and looked at her. “Oh? Tell me about it.”
“Well, I . . .” She paused. It wasn’t like she was some sort of anti-nuclear crackpot who wanted to return to the Stone Age.
“Were you part of the Clamshell Alliance protest?” he had asked.
She hesitated then told him about her part in the protest and her subsequent “arrest.”
“Good for you,” he replied. “It takes a lot of courage to take a stand like that.”
Joanne blushed. “If you’re interested in learning more about ospreys,” she said hoping to change the subject, “the local library has a great collection of natural history books.” She paused then added, “I go to there every Monday morning to read the newspapers and latest magazines.”
* * * * *
A pair of herring gulls flew overhead softly mewling, rousing Joanne from her reverie. She glanced in direction of the power plant. The helicopter was preparing for a landing.
She sat forward and ran a finger over the soft petals of one of the neatly arranged wild flowers sitting in a vase on the patio table. Sameer. He had charisma‒a power over her as strong and bright as the current than ran from the nuclear power plant to light up the homes in the area. With his tall, lean body, clear blue eyes and dark wavy hair, he reminded her of that
actor, Henry Cavill, who played Superman. He was probably several years younger than her. But what is age? Just a number. He looked about as Arab as Superman too. She squirmed in her chair and made a mental note to ask him about his name—if the opportunity arose.
Closing her eyes, she sank back and reminisced about their first meeting at the library, a wooden building situated on a hill overlooking the harbor. It was the following Monday. She had just sat down with her pile of magazines at a table in the basement of the library when she noticed Sameer trying to log onto one of the public computers.
Gathering her courage, she walked over to him.
“You need a library card to log on,” she said apologetically as though it were her fault.
“Oh, I didn’t realize,” he replied grinning sheepishly. “I just wanted to look up some information on the ospreys. But since I don’t have a library card with me, I guess I’ll have to come back later.” He started to stand.
“Here.” Joanne pulled out her library card and handed it to him. “You can use mine. Keep it as long as you need.”
To thank her, he had invited her for dinner at Captain Jack’s Seafood Restaurant in nearby Hampton Beach.
As they ate, he told her he was a scientist at MIT in the nuclear science and computer-engineering program.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to technology,” Joanne had replied. “I have an old laptop computer at home but I haven’t used it in a while—I think it has a virus or something.”
“Maybe I could take a look at it,” Sameer offered.
A young man wearing a black vest came over to clear away their salad plates.
“So, tell me more about your work,” Joanne said once the waiter had left.
“I’m interested in how nuclear energy can be used to benefit society.” Sameer leaned forward and placed his arms on the table. “But nuclear energy, as I’m sure you know, is a double-edged sword. As I’m sure you know, there is always the possibility of radiation leaks as well as the threat of someone using the technology to produce nuclear weapons. That’s why safety is my number one concern.”
“Mine too,” Joanne said. “That’s why I joined that protest back in college.”
“You’re a true jihadist.” He reached out and placed his hand on hers.
She laughed nervously. “I don’t think so. Anyway, I’m opposed to violence.”
“You know the real meaning of Jihad is a struggle for the way of God or righteousness,” he said. “It can take the form of a nonviolent protest.”
Of course, she knew that from her college political science course. He must think her a real dolt. She sighed.
“Hey, I had a dog named Jihad once,” Sameer said, with a twinkle in his eye. “He was so into nonviolence he would only eat vegetarian dog food.”
Joanne smiled. He certainly knew how to put her at ease.
The waiter returned with two plates of Maine baked crab and bacon stuffed lobster tails.
Joanne glanced up at a couple walking by‒a dark-haired beauty in a colorful shimmering sarong and an older man with a white embroidered tunic, probably tourists from India or Pakistan. She looked down at her own clothes—a calf-length khaki skirt and baggy green cotton sweater to conceal her bulge. She sucked in her stomach and made a silent pledge to lose ten pounds.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Sameer said, picking up his lobster fork.
“I was just wondering,” Joanne said glancing at the couple who were now seated at a nearby table. “Where are you from originally?”
Sameer looked at her blankly.
“What I mean is, you don’t have an accent or . . .”
He laughed. “Ah—you mean the foreign-sounding name Sameer al-Shirazi.”
Joanne looked down at her hands. She felt like a bigot—why did she assume he was not born in America? Stupid. That’s what she was.
Sameer leaned forward and touched her hand. “It’s okay,” he said softly. “I wasn’t laughing at you.”
“My family?” He thought for a moment then replied, “Well, let’s see—my father was from Saudi Arabia. My parents met when he was on sabbatical at UCLA. My mother was his graduate student. I was born and raised in California.”
“Where are your parents now?”
He blotted his mouth with his napkin. “They died a few years ago,” he said. “An automobile accident.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“How about you?” he asked. “Do you have family nearby?”
“I have a younger brother Derek who lives in Rhode Island.”
“Do you see him often?”
“Not that often. He’s a professor at the University of Rhode Island.”
“How about friends? Any close friends?” Sameer asked.
Joanne shifted in her seat. “Not really.” Come to think of it, she hadn’t made any friends here in New Hampshire except maybe Sheila who volunteered on and off at the library. But that was a casual friendship at best. Joanne sighed. Sameer probably thought her some lonely spinster.
But instead he seemed pleased.
“I don’t have many friends either,” he said pulling out his wallet. He started to take out a credit card but then quickly put it back, but not before Joanne notice the name “Peter” something on the card. She looked away. She didn’t want to appear noisy. Maybe it was a card he had found and was going to return.
“Can I help pay?” she asked reaching for her purse.
“No, it’s my treat.” he said, placing six twenty dollar bills on the table. He leaned forward and gently brushed a stray hair off her forehead.
Joanne smiled and thought of the wedding picture of her parents on the stone mantle over the fireplace in her cottage. Sameer was not at all like her father. Her father had been a loser—a swindler—an insurance salesman who preyed on grieving and lonely widows.
She took a deep breath. “Thank you. The dinner was lovely.” She hesitated then added, “Maybe you could come over to my house for dinner sometime.”
“I’d love to,” he replied standing up and offering her his arm.
“How about next Friday?”
* * * * *
Sameer arrived early on Friday and spent the first twenty minutes working on her computer. “Do you have email?” he called from the living room.
“I have Gmail,” Joanne replied. “My brother set it up so I could stay in touch with the world— as he puts it.” She laughed and rolled her eyes. She prided herself on her simple life. “But I haven’t used it for the past few weeks—like I said—I haven’t been able to get onto the computer.”
As she headed to the kitchen she heard the desk drawer open and heard what sounded like a click.
“Do you need something?” she called from the kitchen.
“Um--just looking for a paper clip,” he called back.
“They’re in the bottom right drawer.”
“Thanks. Just give me a more few minutes.”
She stayed out of the way, fussing about putting together a plate of appetizers‒lemon tarragon shrimp, assorted olives, and pita chips with feta cheese. For dinner she had prepared lamb kasha with rice and homemade tomato sauce, a recipe she had found at the library in a book on Saudi Arabian Cuisine.
“Do you mind if I take your computer to a colleague at MIT?” Sameer called. “He should be able to figure out what is wrong. I’ll have it back to you by next week.”
“That would be fine.”
“I’ll take it out to my car right now, so I don’t forget it. Speaking of forgetting I still have your library card. But I left it home.”
“Keep it as long as you need,” she said.
They spent the rest of the afternoon watching birds through his scope‒black ducks, mallards, mergansers, marsh hawks, redwing blackbirds, and sandpipers.
“Is this yours?” he asked pointing to the canoe pulled up along the grassy shore in the little cove near her house.
“Yes, it came with the cottage.”
“Do you take it out often?”
“Not a lot,” she said. “Although when I first moved here, I accidently paddled out into the forbidden zone around the nuclear plant and got chewed out by the guards.”
Sameer threw his head back and laughed. “I can’t believe it! This is too perfect.”
Joanne flushed and looked away. She felt foolish for having done something so stupid.
“What I mean,” he said spreading out his hands a gesture of apology, “is we have so much in common. Not only do we both enjoy birding, I’m an avid canoeist as well.” He squatted down and ran his hand across the rim of the canoe. “An Old Town square stern canoe,” he said. He looked up at her. “Did it by any chance come with a motor mount?”
She thought for a moment. “There’s a small motor in the shed. It was there when I moved here. I’ll show you.”
He stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans. “Okay. But, first, let me get a picture of you in front of the canoe. Wait there‒my cell phone is in the car.”
When he returned, he was holding a wicker picnic basket. “I thought we could use a few props,” he said. “I just happened to have this basket in my car.”
“Yes.” He flashed a smile. “I hear we’re going to have an especially high tide next week — perfect for a romantic sunset canoe trip and picnic.”
She blushed. Did he say romantic?
Their hands brushed as he passed her the picnic basket.
Joanne almost swooned. Life suddenly seemed so perfect.
Following dinner, they retired to the living room area. Joanne lit a Firelog in the fireplace, and settled back on the floral couch across from the fireplace with a glass of pinot noir.
“I see you like old movies,” Sameer said thumbing through her neatly organized DVD collection in the bookcase beside the fireplace.
“I do—especially ones set in foreign countries.”
“If you could travel anywhere, somewhere exotic, where would it be?” he asked taking a seat in the armchair next to the bookcase.
She thought for a moment. “Well, I’ve always wanted to see Morocco. Casablanca is one of my all-time favorite movies.”
He leaned over and pulled out a DVD. “Ah—Casablanca—a classic—one of my favorites as well.”
* * * * *
The sound of shouting from the direction of the nuclear plant jolted Joanne back to reality. Standing, she walked over to the birding scope. Sameer had dropped by that morning to return her computer and to pack the canoe for a sunset picnic on one of the small islands that dotted the marsh.
She scanned the area in front of the nuclear plant. People were rushing about like ants. She could make out three security guards armed with high power rifles. What was going on? Low waves slapped at the shoreline twisting the tall sea grass as it struggled against the rising tide.
Just then she spotted what looked like the narrow prow of a boat riding low in the water just inside the buoys that marked the half-mile “forbidden zone” around the nuclear plant. She adjusted the scope and looked again. But it had drifted out of sight.
She stepped back and took a deep breath. The spicy scent of bayberry bushes hung in the air.
As she sat down, she heard a frantic cheeping. Jumping up, she peered in the direction of the sound. A cat darted out from behind a rock, a bird dangling from its mouth, and disappeared into the clumps of Shasta daisies that lined the flagstone path leading to the dock. She frowned. She disliked cats. Cute and fluffy on the outside but inside nasty beasts‒serial killers. She made a mental note to call Animal Control first thing in the morning.
As she turned back to her cottage, she noticed the canoe was missing. The slack rope that had held it swished back and forth on the rising water. Sameer had been down there earlier preparing it for their picnic. Maybe he had forgotten to retie it or the knot had worked itself loose. She stared across the marsh. Well, there was nothing she could do about it now.
She checked her watch—5:59 PM. She glanced back at the narrow road that led up to her cottage. But the only life she spotted was a pair of sea gulls fighting over a clam one of them had dropped and smashed on the rocks that littered the rutted dirt road.
She stepped into the living room and checked her watch again. Sameer had told her to call if he was more than twenty minutes late in case he got caught up in his work and forgot the time. She had a fleeting urge to call him, but pushed it aside. She did not want to appear too anxious. Besides, he knew she was a stickler for detail and would wait until 6:20 to phone if he was late. He said that was one of the things he liked about her‒her attention to detail, her discreteness. Anyway, she normally did not phone men. She subscribed to the old-school etiquette where proper girls waited for the man to phone.
She glanced at the small slip of paper Sameer had left on her desk with the number on it: “92.” Thirteen minutes to go before she could call.
Sitting down at her desk she pressed the power button on her computer. The screen lit up. A white box appeared against the blue background asking for a password. It looked like Sameer had it up and running again.
She tried typing in her old password. No luck. After unsuccessfully trying some other combinations she clicked on “switch user.” The screen went dark for a second then the same screen came up again.
She was about to give up when on a whim she typed in JIHAD. Eureka! She felt breathless with excitement. Of course‒a lot of people used the name of a beloved pet as their password. She checked her email. The “In” and “Out” boxes were empty except for one email from Expedia.com that had arrived that morning. She opened it. It was a confirmation in her name
for an airplane ticket from Boston to Casablanca. The last four numbers of the credit card used matched those of the MasterCard she kept in her desk drawer. How bizarre. She hadn’t used this credit card in months. Was this some sort of scammer trying to trick her into confirming the purchase?
Her phone rang. She grabbed it, hoping it was Sameer.
It was Sheila, her friend from the library.
“I was at the library sorting books in the back room when I overheard a phone call,” Sheila said in a voice barely above a whisper. “I phoned you as soon as I could.”
“Oh? What was the call about?”
“It was about you. They were asking about your Internet use at the library.”
“Homeland Security. They said you were using the Internet to check out sites on building homemade nuclear bombs.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous. Is this some kind of a joke?”
“That was my first reaction,” Sheila said. “That it was a joke. But they were serious as far as I could tell. I mean, you of all people—a terrorist. How crazy can you get?”
Joanne shook her head. “It was probably one of those Travelocity-type sites I was looking at to book a flight to Washington next spring to see the cherry blossoms. They probably thought I was going to blow up the White House or something stupid like that.”
Sheila snorted, “A person can’t do anything nowadays without ‘Big Brother’ watching.”
“I agree. Honestly, what has this world come to?”
Joanne glanced out the window as she hung up the phone. The Coast Guard helicopter was hovering in the air above the nuclear power plant. A steady stream of cars poured out the main gate. It must be a shift change she thought.
She checked her watch. 6:16. She picked up the cell phone and went back outside. Peering through the scope, she spotted the boat she had seen earlier drifting toward the nuclear plant. The setting sun glinted off the aluminum prow. It looked like her wayward canoe. It was floating low in the water, as though it was carrying a heavy load.
Two men in khaki security uniforms stepped into the water and began dragging the canoe to the shore beside the power plant. They lifted the tarp and looked under it.
Suddenly a deafening blare shattered the air as sirens went off.
The helicopter took a sharp turn and began heading in her direction.
Joanne covered her ears. What now? Another evacuation drill? She didn’t remember any announcement of a practice drill. She wondered where Sameer was. She checked the time again. Almost 6:19. She punched in the number “92”. One more minute.
The roar of the helicopter blades stirred up the water as it dipped down and drew nearer. A great blue heron lifted up and flew off, its long legs trailing behind it, as the helicopter thundered overhead pushing the water below outward in jagged ripples.
Maybe they had recognized her canoe and were coming to arrest her for some silly charge like not properly securing your canoe.
A man holding a large rifle leaned out the door of the helicopter and yelled, “Drop the . . .”
The whirr of the blades drowned out the rest of his sentence.
“I can’t hear you,” Joanne shouted back.
He raised his rifle and pointed it at her.
Another man, also armed, began descending a rope ladder that dangled from the helicopter.
My, aren’t they being just a bit melodramatic, Joanne thought. “Okay, okay, I just have to make a quick call first,” she shouted back as she pressed the “send” button.
A blinding flash lit up the sky.
The helicopter disappeared in a burst of searing white light. Joanne gasped as blast of hot wind blew through her, incinerating her.
* * * * *
Two men in white hazmat suits sifted through the rubble where Joanne’s cottage once stood. All that remained was the charred stone fireplace.
Lieutenant Cavallo of the U.S. Coast Guard poked at a piece of twisted metal with his boot. “What cause could be so important that this Joanne Dubois lady would blow herself up for it?”
Ross Macklin of Homeland Security stared off in the direction of the damaged nuclear plant. “Anti-American sentiments. She’s been on our radar ever since being arrested at the Seabrook protests in 1977.” He paused and checked the air contamination monitoring unit for radiation level.
“Were you able to get her email records?” Lieutenant Cavallo asked.
“Yes. Fortunately Goggle saves all the emails now in case we need to access them.”
“What did you learn?”
“She had sent her brother an email several days ago,” Macklin replied, pulling a slip of paper from his pocket. “It was sent last week and said: ‘Met this wonderful man Sameer al-Shirazi. I’m in love. Thinking of converting to Islam.’ That email was followed by another one to her brother three days later, which would put it two days before the incident. It said: ‘What a blast. I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen.’ She deleted the emails after sending them, but of course we were able to retrieve them.”
“Any chance someone else sent them using her email account?” Cavallo asked. He stooped over and picked up a half-melted DVD disc.
Macklin tucked the paper back into his pocket. “We checked her home phone records,” he said. “There were no calls to anyone named ‘Sameer.’ But she had placed a call to a Shiela Connors the week before the incident. Connors volunteers on and off at the same local library where Dubois apparently was looking up websites on how to make nuclear weapons.”
Cavallo shook his head. “I guess she thought we couldn’t trace her if she used a library computer.”
“Who knows what she was thinking,” Macklin said. “We questioned Connors and she told us that Joanne Dubois had told her that she had met a wonderful man who worked at MIT and was named . . .”
“You guessed it. Connors said neither she nor any of the other librarians remember seeing him, or anyone resembling him, at the library, even though Dubois had told her she met with him there more than once.”
Cavallo frowned as he checked his notes, “That’s odd,” he said, “given that old man Sameer was handicapped and would need the special elevator to get down to the computers.”
Macklin shrugged. “Sneaky bastards, those Arabs—who knows how the old man got in there.
In any case, unfortunately, we didn’t get to Dubois in time to prevent her from setting off the nuclear device with a cell phone.”
“I hear the bomb was transported to the site in a canoe.”
Macklin nodded. “That’s right. It was a small suitcase nuclear device with less than a mile range. But at least we were able to evacuate almost all the people from the power plant and warn the nearby residents of the area before it went off. It blew out the windows of some of the homes in town but there were only minor injuries.”
“How did they know to evacuate?”
“An anonymous phone call came in about half an hour before the blast saying, ‘Bomb!’ Then the caller hung up.”
“Were you able to trace the call?” Cavallo asked.
“Unfortunately no. It was from something like one of those prepaid Tracfones you get at Walmart. All we know is that it was sent from the downtown Boston area, not far from the MIT campus.”
“MIT? Isn’t that where you said this Sameer al-Shirazi guy works?”
“It is. Turns out, he’s an 84-year-old visiting professor emeritus at MIT from the nuclear engineering program at the King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He’s pretty frail-- has incurable stomach cancer—in a wheelchair. He’s also a Sunni Muslim.”
Cavallo snorted. “I wouldn’t trust a Muslim any further than I could throw a cat.”
Macklin shook his head. “I could not agree more. We found photos of the power station on his work computer—lots of them—sent from Joanne Dubois’s computer. You could see every crack and fissure in the concrete dome.” He pointed a gloved hand in the direction of the marsh. “We figure that the photos were taken from the shore over there just beyond her property. There was also a photo in an email to him of her standing beside the canoe with what looked like the picnic basket with the bomb in it.”
“How did he explain the photos?”
“The old man speaks only broken English. But he claimed he had no idea who sent the photos. Also claims he’s never heard of a Joanne Dubois.”
“Maybe he hasn’t…” Cavallo added thoughtfully.
“We placed him under arrest this morning,” Macklin said, cutting him off. “Of course, he denies everything. And there’s more: We found a reservation for a plane ticket to Morocco in Dubois’s email—scheduled to leave the night of the incident.”
“I wonder why Casablanca?
“For political asylum would be my guess,” Macklin replied. “Morocco is one of the few countries the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with.”
Cavallo shook his head. “It’s hard to believe someone so naïve could pull this off.”
“You never know. It’s always the ones you least suspect.”
A Slice of Life
Published in Bewildering Stories Magazine, 2015.
Stanley tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. Newport was teeming with tourists who had come to visit the International Boat Show. God, how he hated tourists! To make matters worse, the car’s air conditioning was on the blink. Even though it was mid-September the temperature outside was in the mid-eighties. Unbuckling his seatbelt, Stanley wiped the sweat from his face and neck using his t-shirt.
“Daddy, I’m hot,” a small freckled-faced boy in a little league uniform and cap whined from the back seat.
Stanley leaned forward and, cursing under his breath, began punching the buttons for the car’s air conditioner. Nothing.
“Are we almost there? I have to pee.”
“Just stop it,” Stanley barked.
The light ahead turned yellow.
“Damn,” he muttered. He pressed his foot on the accelerator.
A split second later‒a loud crash.
But Stanley heard only sweet silence. A gentle breeze enveloped him, lifting him, caressing him. He breathed a sigh of relief. At last the heat spell was breaking.
He felt his body rising, floating. Below he saw a young boy being lifted from a car by a stranger—a woman. He could not see the boy’s face. The boy was holding his arm and crying.
Stanley looked around. What was going on? Had there been an accident? In the driver’s seat he noticed a bloody twisted body, head crushed beyond recognition. An ambulance pulled along the edge of the road and two men jumped out. “Poor guy,” Stanley thought. “I wonder what happened.”
* * * * *
The ambulance shrieked along America’s Cup Boulevard, past St. Mary’s Church and down Spring Street past the tidy rows of restored colonial homes, past Thomson Junior High School and past the Newport Creamery. Inside, two attendants huddled over a bloody and motionless body.
From above Stanley looked down on the scene. It was almost like watching a movie— almost.
In the distance, a white light beckoned him.
“Pass the oxygen,” a voice called.
“Comin’ up.” A thin, bespeckled man moved out of the huddle and grabbed an oxygen mask.
The larger man paused to wipe the perspiration trickling down his brow.
The ambulance came to an abrupt stop. A small platoon of men and women in white uniforms stood poised just outside as the back doors swung open. With military efficiency, they slid the body onto a waiting stretcher and rushed it down sterile halls.
“He’s fading. No time to lose,” someone called out. “Get the crash wagon.”
The breeze rushed past Stanley, swirling, embracing him, lifting him upward through timeless time. He heard a strange buzzing as a tunnel of white light swirled around him. A long silver cord trailed behind him. The body below faded into the distance.
Someone pressed two paddles to the body’s chest. Stanley felt a stab of pain.
“We got his heart going again, but no EEG reading on him,” a pale, green-clad figure droned.
An older man in a white jacket ran a cotton swab across the man’s eye. “No corneal reflex,” he said. “No brain waves—only faint heart sounds. We’ve lost him.”
“Lost him, lost him. . . ” The words reverberated in the mist, churning it up.
“Is he by any chance an organ donor?” the doctor asked staring at the flat line snaking across the EEG machine.
“Any ID on him,” a slender gray-haired woman wearing a starched while nurse’s uniform called to an orderly as she began hooking the body up to life support machines.
The orderly pulled out the contents of Stanley’s pockets and arranged them haphazardly on a Formica counter. After sifting through them, the orderly dumped everything into a wire basket except for an imitation leather wallet. Flipping it open, he began thumbing through the cracking yellow plastic pages of the man’s life.
“His name is Stanley Sherman Tripp, 343 Coggeshall Avenue, Newport.” The orderly handed the nurse the driver’s license.
“Let’s see what else we got here . . . some receipts, credit card, a business card for a—umm—looks like a hardware supplier. Here’s his library card, expired, and a membership for the . . . oh, what have we got here?” The orderly grabbed the driver’s license jammed firmly into one of the plastic pockets. It tried to hold onto its well-order place in the man’s life, but. . . . The orderly gave one last tug and pulled it free. He turned it over. “It’s an organ donor card and he’s checked the box for ‘any needed organs and tissues.’”
“Alert the organ transplant team,” the doctor shouted. “We need to get the recipient prepared.”
Suddenly Stanley found himself in a hall. His wife Lisa sat on a bench beneath a wide window. He had not noticed in a long time how lovely she was. But, why was she crying?
“Lisa?” he called. She glanced up but just looked through him. Then she went back to crying. He reached out to touch her, to tell her he loved her and that he was okay. She began fading.
Stanley felt himself floating through the ceiling toward the white light. He felt calm, completely relaxed for the first time in his life. How could that be? The light grew brighter, gently enveloping him. His life flashed before him as the mist swirled and waltzed with the light.
In the distance Stanley saw the ethereal figure of a woman in a white gown emerge from the mist, her hand outstretched, smiling, floating toward him across a shimmering meadow. A low hedge stood between them. Suddenly Stanley recognized her. It was his beloved grandmother who had died when Stanley was only thirteen. He reached forward to take her outstretched hand.
Cold metal on flesh. Stanley winced. The silver cord suddenly jerked him backward.
His grandmother faded. “No wait, don’t go!” he cried out. He shook himself, trying to wake up.
The light pulsed and began to fade.
Stanley felt himself being sucked back down the tunnel at incredible speed.
He heard a voice coming from what looked like a hospital operating room. The voice was becoming louder, louder with every cut. A doctor was leaning over an open body. The doctor lifted out a beating heart and passed it to a nurse who placed it in what looked like a picnic cooler. “Okay, that’s it for the major organs,” the doctor said. “Let’s harvest whatever else can be salvaged.”
A jolt of nausea struck Stanley as he recognized the eagle tattoo with the American flag on the chest. It was his body. “Stop! Stop!” he shrieked. The nurse looked up uneasily.
But no one heard him.
Stanley felt a sharp jerk, like a long cord yanking him. He struggled to free himself from it. The cord pulled him down—toward life—toward death. Pulling, yanking, winning. One last tug. Plop. Stanley felt warm and damp and slimy. He shuddered and sank down into colorless limbo.
* * * * *
Stanley wandered aimlessly through the drab meaninglessness of his existence searching for the white light, for his family. Who knows how long—perhaps minutes, perhaps eons. Time was meaningless. Back to the playroom on the porch of his grandmother’s house, now no longer cluttered with his tattered baseball cards and toy trucks and laughter. Back to his wife’s—their—lavender sweet bedroom pleading, begging to be seen, to be heard. Back to the family building supply store where, in vain, he tried to catch the attention of customers as they sorted through the red tin boxes of silver screws and examined pine boards for knotholes. Like a cold draft, he fluttered restlessly around and through the living, quickening their hearts with clammy uneasiness as he pleaded, “Help me! Help me!”
* * * * *
“He’s waking up!” Footsteps running—getting closer. A hand reached out and touched him. Oh thank God, it actually touched him, prodded him, shone bright tubular lights in his eyes. The eyes opened. The room flooded with people—doctors, nurses, eager men and women with little paper pads and digital cameras.
“Congratulations, Doctor Simmons,” a voice chirped. “The heart transplant was a success.”
Stanley tried to respond, to thank them for saving his life—but no words came.
His body, the body stirred. He felt a sharp pain in his, his . . . something’s wrong. He caught sight of a mirror across the hospital room. He craned his neck to get a better look. A thick, heavy-set man stared back at him.
Stanley tried to close “his” eyes; but nothing happened. The eyes glanced over toward a trio of men in dark suits hovering ominously at the back of the room. “He” gave them a knowing smile and Ben felt evil, sinister plans flood “his” being.
Stanley tried to call out for help. But the mouth, the voice, wasn’t his.
* * * * *
It was an unseasonable hot day. He/they were running down an alley, like a rat, pouring sweat. A bullet struck, then another to the head. The impact whipped “him” around and ground “him” into the hot, sticky pavement. A police car whined somewhere off in the distance.
A moment of silence.
Then people slowly gathered out of nowhere, curious, eying from a safe distance the thick, heavy-set man lying in the pool of blood behind a pile of red splatted green garbage bags. Someone stepped cautiously forward and put his head to the man’s chest. “Call an ambulance,” he shouted to the others. “His heart’s still beating.”
The ambulance shrieked down Atwell’s Avenue past Gasbarro’s Liquors and Sicilia’s Pizzeria toward Rhode Island Hospital. It came to a sudden stop and the back doors swung open. Two attendants rushed the bullet-ridden body into the emergency operating room. Out in the front office an orderly sorted through the man’s belongings while a woman dressed in scrubs festooned with shamrocks and dancing leprechauns typed information onto a computer screen.
“Hey, what this?” the orderly said as he pulled a thin plastic card from the man’s wallet. “It looks like an organ donor card.”