art by Eleanor Bennett
The Wheel of Fortune
by Alexander Lumans
Skull: When your last breath issues out, it will be with thanks. Thanks that you are not bedridden with combat injuries or nerve damage. Thanks that you are not interrogated at dagger-point over the whereabouts of your world's supply of silicon and chromium. But before this last breath, it's difficult to ignore two things: the overhead concussions of Ratshot jets breaking the sound barrier and the loud ticking of a strange rain--the enemy's clusterweapon. Odd polymer beads as big as soap bubbles slowly descend out of the sky. You could still be up there, dogfighting the invasion, bombing their coiltrains, living out your dreams--the ones The Wheel of Fortune predicted long ago, that day the three of you (your mother, you on her lap, and the fortuneteller) watched its eight symbols spin around and around. But you went AWOL. You wanted to be content with what you'd already done, not with what you were promised to do. Today, washing a plate, looking out the window, your heart full up like a cup of warm blood, you thank the evening for its devastating view of the American Southwest. "Everything is connected," you would like to go back and tell your younger self, because everything is the same." Across the sunset the winds whip iridescently because of what's falling through the air.
Cup: "Dishwashing is a lifesaver!" read the motivational banner over the eight sinks. In the mess hall's rear kitchen you scrubbed, soaked, and scrubbed thrice more. For long hours you stared into the globbing skulls of those gray bubbles. The tentacular rinsing faucets curled down from the ceiling like the arms of alien ships prepared to abduct you where you stood. On everyone else's smoke break, you fought those faucets in the kitchen's steamy haze with a line cook's breadknife. You swore an oath every day that you were meant for more. Yet, when the day was done, the cutlery dry, the counters sanitized, your heart felt surprisingly in it. Without you: contagion. New Morrison's Black Fever would gestate on tableware. Imagine a sick man drinks from one glass, then a corporal drinks from that same unclean glass, then a sergeant shares a cigarette with that corporal, then the sergeant kisses his ebullient Vielaysian wife, then his wife kisses a master sergeant in a Super 8, then that master sergeant cannot perform his operational duties at the helm of the Recon Fleet ordered to suss out the looming invasion's weaknesses because he cannot stop raving about the worms spinning in his vision. Without you--without dishwashing--the world is destined for ruin.
Heart: The last time someone kissed you, it hurt. It happened the night the UN railroaded through legislation that lowered the global conscription age to fifteen. The multinational military needed all the soldiers it could get. The real possibility of alien war loomed, yet everyone in ninth grade and above was out celebrating this. You were out because what else would a sixteen-year-old dishwasher do at eight o'clock on a Tuesday? An older man in an officer's uniform, with an Ace of Hearts sticking out of his breast pocket, leaned over to you in a booth. "I'm the next Red Baron," he said. This was in one of those O2 Houses built outside the base's perimeter by some Vielaysian pleasure tycoons. You were too high to say anything back. Your lungs felt like two cumulonimbuses, your throat a tower of steam. Thinking yourself clever, you plucked the Ace of Hearts and flicked it across the room until it nose-dived into someone's cloudy drink. Flashing thoughts of: Had this man's drinking cup been properly washed? Did he have the Morrison? What would your mother say about the proof behind bold predictions? You gave in. You couldn't not. When kissing you, this officer used teeth. They cut your bottom lip like tiny daggers. When the blood brimmed over to run down your chin, you decided then you wanted nothing to do with military men, Vielaysians, or cardplayers, let alone what was approaching from beyond this solar system.
Dagger: You remembered your mother's oath that a good woman always keeps two things in her night table: a butterfly knife and a sharpened No. 2 pencil. "Pencils are nice to have," she said, "for keeping a dream journal. Dreams are the best proof that you want more"; "Knives," she said, "are just nice." You also kept a Geiger counter bedside. Between recently punctured radon gas pockets, tritium lighting mandates, and your own microwave, background beta decay felt as much an inseparable part of life as rain did death. One night you woke up to the telltale ticks of your counter going haywire. You thought it a false alarm. But then you saw that eight-foot-tall invader scout towering at the foot of your bed, its breathing apparatus looped around its head. The apparatus pumped like the arteries of a large gray heart. The invaders couldn't breathe oxygen due to their fluted bodies, yet still they wanted Earth's mineral resources for their own. You yanked open the table drawer for the knife. The scout fired up its handheld powermagnet and out from your grasp flew your only weapon. You closed your eyes. You slumped forward, head down, when the invader came around to shackle you. But you only pretended to give in. You leapt at him, pencil in hand, and punctured his tubing. The invader convulsed in the dangerous air. Those dying breaths sounded like wet kisses. You drove that No. 2 as deep as you could.
Ace: In Basic Training, you peeled too few Morrison-resistant GM potatoes. In Weapons Training, you fired the laser array backward. In Tank School, you scuttled in the canal not one, but two million-dollar Warthogs. You could only predict your future by way of where it was not heading. Not culinarily gifted, not officer material, not one for the ground war of attrition. Your dream journal showed you dreamed every night about heavy rain falling in the Arizona desert; you'd go to drink it but it never quenched your thirst. One day your Master Sergeant called you into his headquarters. From behind his heartwood desk, the Master Sergeant stared you down like you were that invader scout at the foot of his own bed: out of place, heartless, wanting something you didn't know the location of or even the word for. He said he had bad news: you were being eighty-sixed, due to "increasing the likelihood of catastrophic failure." At that moment, you remembered what this bitey officer once told you in an O2 House. You said to the Master Sergeant, "I'm the next Red Baron." He said, "With an attitude like that, you're destined to have just your skull sent home. We ran out of flags and caskets a long time ago." He let you into flight school anyway. You told him as you left his office that you wouldn't let him down. And you regretted this when you stepped outside, when the alarm speakers began to crackle, when on the horizon stood a growing gray tower that wasn't there when you'd gone in.
Oath: Of all The Wheel of Fortune's caprices--Skull, Cup, Heart, Dagger, Ace, Oath, Tower, Rain--only dreams and promises unfulfilled would outlive you.
Tower: You were all alone, the last of your squadron. Your copilot had been shot dead. The sky clotted thick with radon gas, playing-card-sized ash, earth, and exhaust. Your weapon payload had jammed. You had no Ace up your sleeve. On the ground below, the invading forces' coiltrains wormed on in figure eights. With each mile they churned up the land. They harvested deep mineral deposits while their spotlights strafed the clouds in long daggers of light. You choked on the smoke leaking into your cockpit through the bullet holes. You wished you'd taken up smoking as a dishwasher instead of playfighting the rinse faucets. You could have been somewhere safe now instead. You sickened with survivor's guilt. A sudden thirst dried out your throat. The needle of your lone flight school pin (a participation medal) kept pricking you in the chest. So you closed your eyes. You slumped forward and kissed the control panel. You piloted your Ratshot down toward their largest coiltrain--to go as deep as you could--to make the ultimate sacrifice in the face of catastrophic failure. You pretended to give in because you were once told this would be your future: a promised reward of great achievement for the cost of difficult decisions. But at the last second, you ditched and ejected. Your heart, you realized as you parachuted down through the dangerous air in the coiltrains' wake, had never been in this. The lifesaving error was yours, having believed that The Wheel of Fortune would not shift its readings when the very ground it stood on trembled.
Rain: You always loved Arizona. You loved how it changed, how it stayed the same. The invaders would not treasure it; deserts were human things. The fortuneteller outside Phoenix your mother drove you to on your eighth birthday said that you reminded her of the gila monster: "slow, dangerous, suited to harsh environs." Yet, you would be this great soldier faced with a choice, and you would make the right one. She said that when the rains came--and they would come--you would go outside and catch the raindrops in a clean cup and drink this rain like it was blood pouring from the fluted skulls of your enemy. She said all this without even taking your palms in hers or reading your cards. A practical woman, your mother wouldn't believe her without some kind of proof. So at your mother's urging, the fortuneteller gave her wheel a hard spin. You can still hear the notches ticking away now as you wash your dishes at the kitchen window, as the desert outside iridizes in deadly foreign hail. With each tick your mother says, thank you until thank you it thank you finally thank you hits.
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 28th, 2013