The Good Stuff

022. The Future's Price. Lacie Semenovich

She arrived on a Wednesday. The agency arranged her transport, filed the marriage license, and provided a minister to perform the ceremony two hours after her arrival. A full service organization.

She was a little fatter than her pictures, but so was my son. Already three months pregnant, she had good reason to be. My son is ugly, I know. Her child will be less ugly and more intelligent. And the next generation more so if she follows my plan.

I paid extra for an orphan from the first weather-controlled settlement. They planned well before the weather patterns changed, accounted for genetic diversity in humans, animals, and crops. They survived the darkness with ease, well fed while others starved and cobbled together settlements like this one with scavenged and stolen materials.

“Outsiders are too delicate,” my late husband’s sisters objected, forgetting that they didn’t like me at first. But orphans are strong. I know from experience. And cheaper than a purebred with a mother to miss her.

A light layer of sweat covered her brow as they said their vows. She looked around at the strangers filling the shared common space of the settlement. Isolated for generations during the darkness, these people all look the same. They might even frighten her as they did me.

She met my eyes. I nodded. We spoke via videophone before she signed the contract. I showed her pictures of my son. I made promises, most of which I can keep. She still doesn’t trust me but I am the only person she knows.

After the ceremony my son’s friends slapped him on the back and ogled the girl. She looked to me. There is always risk, but these men are not clever. And she is strong.

She and my son walked around the settlement as is custom. No doubt these people stared at her red hair, but did not notice her almond eyes and full lips. Without sunlight we are all pale, fading lifeforms holding onto the planet our ancestors destroyed.

I waited for them in the marriage chamber. The eagerness in my son’s eyes as he led her into the room disgusted me. “You will not touch her while she is with child,” I said to him. He hung his head without protest. How weak were his nine dead siblings? “Go rut with a cousin if you must.” He left the room without a sound.

I led the girl to my rooms where the others waited with swollen bellies or babies at their breasts. The girl relaxed when she saw these women from all over the continent. My first promise fulfilled. “Girls, meet Breegan. Trained in building Ionosphere tech.”

My girls smiled and introduced themselves and the skills they brought from their own settlements. Tara, Bio-forming. Paisley, Dome Architect. Shonda, Water Filtration. And so on.

I am patient. Soon enough the colony will be ours. The first female controlled colony. No woman or child will ever be sold from these walls.

021. 100 Pounds of Ugly. Diane Arrelle

“Ya know,” Gilda said, studying herself in the rearview mirror. “Every New Year’s Day since I can remember, it’s been the same thing.”

She watched her cheeks dimple and her chin double as she smiled at her reflection. “Yep, I’ve decided that this is the year I’m taking this resolution thing seriously.”

She drove slowly, shifting her attention back to the icy mountain road. “Seriously, Jenny. You don’t know how hard it was being your sister. You were so petite, so pretty, so perfect. You were always the popular one, the one who dated the right guys. You were even crowned prom queen. Me, well, it was tough being me. I was always chubby, ok, ok, bordering on fat.”

Hearing the snort from the passenger seat, Gilda laughed. “All right, I was fat. Hell, Jenny, we both know that I had a difficult childhood, but you never helped. Always so perky, always such a rah, rah… the perpetual cheerleader.”

Gilda raised her voice to mimic her younger sister. “Come on Gilda,” she screeched. “Lose that weight, take some pride in yourself. Stop embarrassing us!”

She stopped, took a few deep breaths to get her sudden burst of anger under control and sneaked a glance at her sister. She let out a shaky breath and sighed.

The silence was deafening. Gilda talked faster to fill the still, cold air.

“You know, it took me a long time to find myself. Yeah, it wasn’t easy losing someone as big as I was, but in the end it was only a short term loss. Just like the weight I lost on all those diets. 

But today, when I look in the mirror, I see me and I’m proud. I’m plump, I’m rich and I’m happy! I did everything on my own. I am a damned successful artist.”

Gilda heard the snort again and laughed. “You can’t stand that I actually became the famous sister. It must have shattered your whole shallow perception of life that someone who never cared about looks would become renowned for photographing plus size people and letting them be happy to be themselves. I’m making it all right to be whoever we are.”

“That’s right, Jenny I’ve got purpose in life, and I didn’t need anyone to help me.”

Gilda finally stopped talking and let her suppressed fury bubble out. She looked at her sister and noted how small Jenny was, barely a hundred pounds dressed. She felt tears of anger and regret burn her eyes. 

“Gosh, Jen, I’d like to untape your mouth and hands, but I’d sure hate ruining the moment. You know, this is the nicest conversation we ever had. I’d stay and talk, but I’m finally going to keep a resolution. I’m finally losing a hundred pounds tonight.”

Without another word, Gilda got out of the car and using all her weight, pushed the vehicle and Jenny off the side of the snow covered mountain. 

020. That's About the Size of It. Marie Anderson

“That’s about the size of it,” is what Mom said when she had nothing left to say, and that’s what I say now too.

“That’s about the size of it,” is how I end my conversations with Darla. Darla is the only daughter who reliably phones. She calls me every Sunday night at 7:45. She asks me what’s new.  She’s my middle daughter, turning 34 or 35 pretty soon.

“That’s about the size of it,” I say to Father Ryzner in the confessional box every Saturday morning when he asks, “Is that all?” That’s what he asks after I finish confessing my six or seven made-up sins. I have no real sins. You need people around you to sin, and there are no people around me anymore.

Husband dead.

Siblings not dead, but should be.

Three surviving kids—three daughters, dammit—all far away, all happy and hoppy with kids, jobs, husbands, friends, life.

“That’s about the size of it,” I mumble after I take out my teeth at night. Then I lay down on one side of my big bed. The other side holds Owly, a stuffed bird fat as a beach ball, white body graying and fraying, missing both eyes.

My little boy loved that owl. There’s a zipper in the owl’s back that seals a pouch where Luke hid innocent treasures. Later, powders and pills, syringes and spoons, but that’s not Owly’s fault.

Twenty-nine he’d be this year. My Luke. My change-of-life surprise child.

“Night, Owly,” I pray. “That’s about the size of it.”

Owly says nothing back, but when rain shimmers against my eyes late every night, he comforts me with his promising smell of must and dust and innocence not lost.

The size of it, it’s shrinking. I’ll go when it’s gone.

019. Proud Mary. Diane Arrelle

Henry reverently touched the orbital engines that would bring gravity to the Queen Mary XXII.  Coming from a proud and prestigious fleet of liners that catered to passengers for centuries, she sat poised above the earth.

The owner cut the ribbon and Henry turned on the mighty engines that would keep her stable.  The big wheels began turning and he felt a shudder, that turned into a rumble, that became a metal rending vibration.   The engine room burst into flames and Henry’s last thought as the fire consumed him was, “Big wheels keep on turning, Proud Mary keeps on burning.” 

018. Dancing Bluebird. Emmet Browne

The boy watches the bluebird do its shuffle along the grass. It is on the other side of the screen-door glass. The bird’s shuffle is like a dance. First, it hops, and then its head twitches left to right. Just outside the boy’s apartment and out in the parking lot is a rental car with a woman sitting in it. On the car stereo, “Baby, I Love Your Way,” by Peter Frampton, a favorite of the bluebird’s. 

The bird reminds the boy of Irish tap dancing, nature tours, farming, art appreciation, football games, and, most of all, birdhouse building.

The song reminds the woman sitting in the car of California beaches, trying to become an actress, and writing novels on loose-leaf. 

The bluebird stays by the window. The boy has never seen a bluebird in his apartment complex. When he thinks about it, there shouldn’t be bluebirds here at all. The bird stops doing its jig and watches him. Then hops once and takes flight, soaring over the tallest pine. The song ends — the woman cries. 

The boy goes to look through the photo album he wasn’t ready to open yet. Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings tickets. Van Gogh’s and Picasso’s. Prairie. California beaches. A slice of a novel written on loose-leaf. He and his mom standing beside a bluebird house they’d built.