art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson
From Tuesday to Tuesday
by Peter M Ball
Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His publications include the novellas Horn and Bleed from Twelfth Planet Press, and his short stories have appeared in publications such as Apex Magazine, Eclipse 4, and Daily Science Fiction. He can be found online at < a href="http://www.petermball.com" target="PMBall">petermball.com and on twitter @petermball.
***Editor's Note: Adult Language in the adult story that follows***
They've been together long enough for this to become ritual: Deanna Sable in the clawfoot bath, head resting against the curve of the tub, her fingers coiled around a Stuyvesant smoked down to the filter; Kirk seated at the door, bare-chested and nursing his third beer, drawing what comfort he can from the proximity to the cracked tiles. Watching one another, half a smile shared between them, looking for new ways to fill the idle silence.
"My dad was twelve years older than mum." Deanna breathes against her cigarette, stubs it against the side of the bath. "Her parents lined it up. Country towns, you know? Thank god my mum got out eventually."
She opens one eye, checks that Kirk is listening. He takes a swig of beer, nods once. "Never heard much from my dad, either way," he said. "Christmas cards. Socks on my birthday."
Deanna furrows her brow, points to the half-empty cigarette pack. "Light me up," she says.
"I'm in the bath, fucker. Light me a damn cigarette."
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Kirk sighs. Puts down the beer and crawls across the tile, frees the cigarette and a lighter from Deanna's half-full pack. He doesn't remember how it started, not really. Not the ritual, not the things that came after. He enjoys the opportunity to watch the pale and naked woman soaking in the tub, the swirling eddies of steam caught in the dying afternoon light. Deanna lying there with her eyes closed, bruise-colored lips pursing a little as she brings the cigarette to her mouth and lets him apply the flame, breasts emerging from the water as she breathes against it.
"So after she left my dad, mum married a sloth," she says. "Not a lazy fucker like you, but an honest to god sloth. Three toes and no desire to move, which makes the toes the main point of difference between him and you, I guess."
"I can cut off a few toes, if it helps," Kirk says.
"Shut up," Deanna says. "I'm trying to tell you something important."
Kirk shuts up and Deanna takes a deep breath, but there's no more story coming. He's disrupted her train of thought. The heat of the bath makes her lazy, even as the silence wears on her nerves.
"You did that on purpose," she says.
"Not at all."
And the sun sets and the bathroom shadows grow longer, forcing Deanna to light a candle, and as Kirk starts in on his fifth beer, she opens her eyes and says, "fine, you tell me a story, then."
Kirk tries not to flinch. "Nah," he says. "I'm all out of stories."
And Deanna flicks stray droplets at him; dips the fingertips of her left hand into the bath, reloading for a second attack. "Fucker," she says. "Just tell me a story."
And Kirk nods and clears his throat, five beers down and ponderous, acknowledging the inevitable. Maybe, this time, it won't be so bad. Maybe, this time, he can fix some of the damage.
He coughs. Splutters. Clears his throat.
"Okay," he says, "okay, so. Once upon a time..."
If Kirk is certain of anything, it's this: he doesn't love Deanna Sable.
He knows this because he needs truths to cling too, because lies just make things worse and confuse him even more. He's learned to embrace the certainties, to take comfort in their presence. So this is a truth he lives by: he doesn't love Deanna Sable.
Another truth, reasonably consistent: they live in an old house down in the Pendulum, just left of the bridge that takes you across the river. The house is an ugly thing trying to be beautiful, its walls stripped bare and left half-painted, several of its doors removed and never replaced. Rumor has it the former owner was killed doing the renovation, some kind of accident with a nail gun or paint thinner. Maybe they aren't even rumors, just stories Kirk made up to sate Deanna's appetite, filling in the empty minutes while she soaked in the tub.
The stories became real when he wasn't paying attention.
Another truth: they get cheap rent in exchange for not complaining about the absent doors, or the yard that resembles the aftermath of a battle.
A truth: Deanna smokes too much.
Another: Kirk drinks too much and occasionally, when past the line, he consents to tell her stories despite his promise to stop. Sometimes the stories are true. More often, they make themselves true when Kirk isn't looking. He isn't sure when it happens, maybe when he's asleep.
There is no room for maybe. Not given the circumstances.
A truth: Kirk isn't sure if he should stop telling stories. He isn't even sure which ones are dangerous anymore. He isn't sure, now that they've started, if ending them would have consequences.
But he doesn't love Deanna Sable. Not the version of her that slips into the bath, not the version of her that slipped away a hundred stories ago.
He doesn't love Deanna Sable.
God, it would be so much worse if he did.
Tonight's story. "Once upon a time, after the war was over," he says, "the ghost boy and the dead girl walked down the promenade looking for flowers."
Deanna's eyes peer over the edge of the tub. "Am I the dead girl?"
"But you're the ghost boy, right?"
"So not a real story, then?"
Kirk takes a deep breath. Some Tuesdays, too many of them, he catches glimpses of the Deanna he used to know and it hurts.
He doesn't answer the question. Just ploughs ahead. "Neither of them could tell you what species of flower they were after, although both had one in mind. The flower caught in the ghost boy's memory was white and broad-petaled and possessed a heart the color of butter, and he clung to that description despite the fact he could barely remember the taste of butter or the smell of it or anything but it's name. The dead girl's flower was pink and curled around itself, resembling an undelivered kiss of unimagined sweetness.
"But there were no more flowers, not since the war. And everywhere they went and everyone they asked, the answer was the same: do not be so foolish as to want something you do not have. Forget your flowers and return to the graves from whence you came.
"But the ghost boy and the dead girl were made of sterner stuff, and so they kept on walking, always going forwards regardless of the heat or the cold or the hail or the rain."
On Tuesday mornings Kirk wakes up and takes their beat-up old hatchback down to his latest job. He's drives on autopilot, letting his body follow what feels like a routine, but every Tuesday it's a new job and Kirk is forced to figure out what he's actually meant to be doing. Once he worked in an office, making photocopies of some documents he didn't really understand. Once he worked in a 7-Eleven, and he stole a dozen packs of cigarettes and some beer before he left. Once he worked as a foreman. Once he found himself at an abandoned zoo, just south of Long Neck, and couldn't work out what he was meant to be doing.
In the real world he worked a register job. Scanning groceries, bagging them, sending the customers home happy. That's the last job he remembers getting, the last time he actually knew how to get where he was going.
But he'd hated that job, hated it more than he hated snakes or horror movies or his little brother's irritating laugh, and when Deanna asked for a story one night he'd told her a fairy tale where he finally got to quit and ride off in the sunset. It wasn't the first story, although it was early on. Maybe it started things. Maybe it did not. All he knows is that he didn't work a register after that, and he's not entirely sure when everything shifted.
On Tuesday evenings he comes home and they go for a walk, strolling the length of the Pendulum district in the hazy twilight. Kirk doesn't say anything about his day at work. Deanna doesn't ask. Instead she strolls beside him, black parasol erect and held above her, eyeing every streetlight as if its soft illumination could burn her pale skin.
Kirk opens the last beer and tosses the six-pack wrapper towards the bathroom bin. It falls short, just shy of the sink, and he doesn't leave the door to fix it. Deanna watches, her face turned golden by the candlelight. He opens his beer and drinks.
"It was the dead girl's idea to find flowers again," he says. "She remembered them from the days before the war, before the tanks and the bayonets and the soldiers and the grenades. In the dim recesses of her memory she kept a catalogue of names she would recite like an incantation: primroses, violets, snapdragons, daisies, roses. pansies, baby's breath. She could recite them all, but they were just names. She couldn't remember what each flower looked like, what it smelled like, how it could be recognized. The names refused to link with any memory she had of what it was like to experience a flower, to be in its presence.
"The ghost boy didn't care for flowers, although he felt something sharp and eager inside him when the dead girl suggested they start their search, and that feeling left him with a faint sense of longing that he couldn't quite explain to the other ghosts in their small town. He'd elected, thus far, not to haunt a person or a place or a thing, but as their question continued and the longing grew stronger he wondered if, perhaps, he was destined to haunt whatever flower they ended up finding."
He stops and lights a cigarette, sucking against the filter. When Deanna Sable gives him a look, he lights another and rests it against the side of the tub. Waits for her to dry damp fingers and claim the spare cigarette as her own.
"They search for years," he says. "For so long that somewhere along the way, even they forget what they're really looking for. The image of the flower they carry around inside their heads fades a little, the memory wearing away like a well-handled photograph beginning to deteriorate. Finally they end up searching, searching for its own sake, driven to keep looking by a mission they can articulate without understanding: we are looking for the flowers, have you seen any? Do you mind if we look around anyway?"
Kirk comes home from a Tuesday spent welding on the twenty-third floor of a construction site down by the Necks. He closes the door behind him and leans against it, holding it closed with his bodyweight. The house is dark and quiet and the exposed bones of the kitchen wall seem oddly frightening in the shadows. Deanna potters about in the back room, folding laundry, smoking. The back of Kirk's neck is sunburnt. He still feels unsteady after so many hours spent aloft, trusting in instincts that aren't really his own. His hands are shaking. He wants to drink.
He holds it together, concentrates on breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
By the time Deanna emerges from the back room, awake, alert, Kirk is ready to pretend everything is normal. She says hello and he kisses her on the cheek and one of them makes coffee, black with two sugars, that they share on the back deck.
"It's a nice evening tonight," Deanna says. "We should go for a walk."
"I don't feel like walking. Lets stay in."
"I've gotta go out anyway," she says. "I'm running out of cigarettes."
Kirk seizes her packet, hears the soft rattle of its contents. "You got enough for tonight," he says. "We can go out in the morning."
"In daylight?" Deanna's presses one hand against the curved O of her lips. It's an insincere mockery of shock. "Surely you jest."
"People go out in daylight."
"They do," Deanna says. "I do not."
"Then I'll go," Kirk says. "You can stay here and wait. It's only fucking daylight, Dee. I don't see the big deal."
There is nothing insincere about Deanna's shock now. She purses her lips, stays silent, watches Kirk with tear-shine eyes.
"I wanted us to go for a walk," she says, very quietly. "I didn't think that was a big deal."
She stands up and leaves the balcony, collecting her parasol from the stand in the hall. For a moment she lingers beside the front door. "Kirk?"
Kirk breathes in. Breathes out. "Yeah?"
"I'm going for a walk," she says. "You want anything from the shops?"
He doesn't answer. Doesn't even breathe. Just sits there, waiting, until he hears her footsteps descending and the soft squeak of the garden gate alerting him she's gone.
There is no truth in the guilt he feels. There is no truth in the anger.
He does not love Deanna Sable.
If he doesn't, it's possible he can leave behind the nightmare. If he doesn't love Deanna Sable, there is still some hope of escape.
There is silence in the bathroom. Water drips for the faucet, plinks into the water with a tiny splash.
"Well," Deanna says, "do they find the flower?"
Kirk picks up one of the beer bottles, rattles it without expectation. "Who knows? By the time they find something that might be a flower, they've got no idea how to identify it. They could be cooing over a discarded hubcap, or a dead mouse, or some weeds they found by the river. You spend long enough looking for something and the thing itself ceases to be important. It's the looking that matters."
Deanna stares. It's dark in the bathroom now, except for her flickering candles, and her stare takes on a particular gravity in the absence of bright light. "Arsehole," she says, "we're not in a fucking kung-fu flick. Stow the philosophy and give it a real ending."
Kirk sets his jaw. "Or?"
She frowns. "Or?"
"What happens if I don't."
It takes time for the frown to disappear. "Just give it an ending, asshole," she says. "Tell me a happy story for once, okay?"
Deanna walks with a black parasol regardless of the hour or the season. Kirk is left to squire her, his arm threaded through her arm, as they stroll along the length of the Pendulum Bridge and turn left when they reach the far bank. His skin crawls where it makes contact with Deanna's cold flesh. He wonders, not for the first time, whether she really remembers anything that happens from Tuesday to Tuesday. Whether some part of her remembers the world that was, rather than the reflection of whatever story he's told most recently.
Sometimes they reach intersections, and he waits there for Deanna to make a choice. Minutes turn into hours, sometimes, while he refuses to give her a cue. The times they do not, he worries that he still has some unseen tell, that she's reading his intentions from cues he doesn't know he's giving her.
Sometimes they sit in the park, underneath one of the ancient gum trees that still exists amid the pines. Deanna perches on a swing, rocking back-and-forth. He sits on the grass and watches her.
"Hey," he says, "tell me a story?"
Deanna says nothing.
"Come on, Dee. You can do this," he says.
She can't. Won't. Not until they're home, until she's in the bath. The one bubble of time in the whole damn week where things can return to normal.
There are no happy endings anymore. Of this, he's almost certain. Every attempt to make things better has ended up making things worse. Still, she asked, and even this Deanna is enough to play on his sympathies, to convince him that an ending is necessary even if it's dangerous.
"They travel the world looking for flowers, and they see some extraordinary things," he says. "There are mountains in Africa where there are no more flowers, but the clouds cling to the rising cliffs and the rainbows that are caught on the eddying mist are so beautiful that they become heartbreaking. They uncover deserts in Australia that refuse to bloom, even after rain, yet all manner of strange creature emerges from the sands to greet them as they pass through. There are cursed gardens in Paris where too much blood has been spilt, and fallow gardens in parts of Russia where the locals treat the ghost boy and the dead girl with suspicion, and yet in both places there are broken fragments of beauty, places where nature has reasserted its dominance over the manmade confines, and unleashed something warped and dark and powerful.
"And slowly, as they uncover these moments of beauty, they remember things. The ghost boy remembers what it's like to have flesh, to feel solid and know the weight of a body that breathes and pumps blood and does as one bids it. The dead girl feels the warmth of the sun and knows the joy of that warmth spreading through her, eager and insistent as life itself, wanting to spread into every finger and toe and nail and strand of hair. She remembers what it's like to breathe and desire and want, really want, more than anything.
"They remember things no war can take away. They remember each other's names. They remember how to feel, what to feel, when to feel it.
"And sometimes these memories hurt, because there is no light without shadow to give it contrast, and sometimes the memories make them cry, but for the most part they feel alive and they learn to delight in one another's company.
"And it's true they never find the flower, because there are no more flowers to find."
Again, the dripping faucet. The soft exhalation of Deanna's breath. The short squeak of flesh against the copper tub as she adjust he position in the tub.
"That's what you've got?"
"That's what I've got," Kirk says.
"You're calling that a happy ending?
"Take it or leave it."
She pushes her way free of the water, standing there in a bath that now rises to the middle of her thighs. She is pale and beautiful and glorious in the candlelight. She reaches for a towel and works it back and forth along her shoulders.
"You sure I'm not the dead girl?"
He hesitates. He holds his breath.
"No," he says. "You're not."
And Deanna Sable chews on that while she finishes drying herself. He doesn't love her, he knows that, but there are so many ways he can change that. One story, one goddamn story, and he can slip away with her. He can disappear into the cracks, the little changes that occur between one story and the next.
And once again, he resists the urge. He tells himself its necessary. Someone has to endure. Someone has to remember.
"So," he says, "what do you think?"
Deanna's pale face breaks into a wary smile. "I'll take it," she says. "I guess it's happy enough."
The bath ends. It's time for bed.
This, too, has become part of the ritual: Deana Sable pulling on a bathrobe, Kirk collecting his empty beer bottles and putting them in the bin. She walks past him, making her way to their bedroom, and he takes a moment to notice the sway in her step. Her fingers and toes are pruned from so long in the bathwater, but she lights a fresh cigarette and smokes as she walks, the smell lingering in her wake like a trail for the lost to follow. Kirk stands at the bathroom doorway and breathes the cigarette smoke in. She wants him to follow her. He wants to follow. If he didn't feel so absent, if he could just be certain, if the clarity that comes with ritual didn't disappear so quickly once they left behind the steam and the mildewed tile.
He wants to follow, to believe she's still the Deanna he once knew. To make believe long enough to sustain him from Tuesday to Tuesday, from story to story until he finds one that works. To get through the minutes and hours that used to follow, the end of the ritual that was started by baths and stories.
And instead he sits there, waiting, wondering. Trusting the one place he knows to be true, the fulcrum from which his stories upset the world. He sits in the darkness and imagines the moments stretching out, seconds stretched to breaking point like an ancient rubber band.
He doesn't love Deanna Sable.
He repeats that, over and over, as he thinks about standing, about following her out into the world that reshapes itself after every tale.
This story was first published on Friday, November 15th, 2013
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