“Think of a Pink Ship” (4000 words)

Art: © Patrick | Dreamstime.com

Clay and Molly Wexler, lately of Dallas, were driving through the desert in early September, many miles yet to Albuquerque and the bend the road would take there toward a newer new start in Santa Fe. The marriage had taken a bend of it’s own — “a turn for the suck,” in Molly’s vernacular — after Clay’s transfer from the San Francisco office. A wretched summer of heat, church picnics, Fourth of July picnics, Labor Day picnics and miscellaneous other redneck adventures had boiled up into a choice between upend their lives by leaving Dallas, or divorce. Clay and Molly opted to try the upending option first. Molly’s parents weren’t divorced and Molly didn’t want to be divorced. So now, as Clay had remarked in a snide moment of weakness, neither of them had jobs, but at least they were not divorced.

Molly said Santa Fe, for the arts community, and Clay said yes because at that particular moment in the decision-making process she had the moral high ground. Arts community maybe, but precious little call for a structural engineer like himself, certainly. Nevertheless he would bide his time. She would get bored, and if she didn’t get bored something else would happen. The air in Santa Fe was thin. Of course she didn’t believe that coming from him, but she’d experience it for herself soon enough. They would be back in the Bay Area within months, and Clay was certain he would be able to get back on with the firm as a consultant — at more than twice the pay no doubt.

Molly was at the wheel now, but she kept looking over at Clay rather than watching the road consistently as he would have preferred she do. But how she could see the road with her bangs practically combed down right over her eyes he didn’t know.

“What are you thinking?” she asked she finally asked him.

And here we go, thought Clay.

Nothing, was what he was thinking most of the morning. Nothing. Really. Just now he had set himself the task of thinking hard about beauty, beauty of the majesty of painted deserts variety. That lead him quickly to thinking about planets. Many — if not most — planets have no plate tectonics but our planet does have them. A handful of plates, buckling against each other, comprised the world’s crust. The sheer cliffs of the painted desert are striped with the ages of the earth. And all that shit.

Thinking of matters cosmic was Max’s little way of trying hard not to think of something else, something much more immediate. He was failing at that.

“Well?” said Molly. “What are you thinking?”

He vamped. “I’m thinking about the hierarchy of needs. How does it go? Body first. Air, then water, then food. Clothing, shelter. Then the needs of the mind. Self-esteem, sense of purpose. Do I have it right? Gets vague quickly after that. Our unnamable needs.”

“Where’s that Evian bottle?” she asked.

“Empty.”

“Oh fuck, Clay. We should have stopped.”

Yeah well, but we didn’t, what did she expect him to do about it now? “Are you thirsty?”

“Never mind.” She paused. “And the spirit. Don’t forget the needs of the spirit.”
“How could I? Can’t forget the spirit.”

“Oh, but before spirit you need financial security in there somewhere. Without money you slip right back to base needs again. You have to pay for everything.”

“Yup,” he said.

“No free lunch,” she said.

“I’m telling you.”
“So maybe money is the like, basic basic need, at least in this world,” Molly murmured.

“I think I have to take a shit,” he told her.

“Shut up.”
“Had to for an hour.”
“Why didn’t you say anything? I wanted to stop back at that town and buy water anyway. You wouldn’t let me.”
“Need me to say it? You were right, okay!”

“I’m pulling over,” she said.

“You wouldn’t mind? Out on the side of the road?”
“Jesus, I’d rather you did it than talked about it.”
“All right, all right. we should switch anyway, you’ve been driving most of the morning.”

“I’m fine,” she said. “It isn’t a question of right.”

He refused to take the bait. She pulled off the highway.

Clay hopped from the Cherokee.

Molly leaned over, rolled down the window. “Clay? You really have to go, right? You’re not playing a joke?”

“A joke? A joke like what?”

She shook her head.

“I’ll be right back.” Everything had to mean something else. There always had to be a catch.

He hobbled into the hinterland, butt cheeks clenched. Didn’t think about toilet paper or a toilet-paper substitute until he’d gone too far to turn back.

Clay stood ankle-deep in brush. He looked for a spot. What kind of spot? Level, he guessed. Did it make a difference. Cat and dogs (he thought) sniffed around and circled a spot before committing to it. He looked at the ground. A brown jackrabbit darted right past his feet. He watched it go. It was cool, but so much smaller than he would have expected a rabbit to be.

Okay then. He looked at the ground, which was still there. He unbuttoned his jeans and pushed them and his underwear down just a little ways. He bent, twisted. Tried a couple different positions guessing at what the right angle should be. How the fuck do you do this without taking your pants all the way off?

He figured a way, squatting, reaching between his legs to pull the back of his waistband clear of all likely trajectories, hoped for the best, and then thought about rattlesnakes. Don’t think about rattlesnakes! Yeah right, and don’t think about a pink elephant while you’re at it.

The air was still. He’d hear a rattler if there was one. After all — they rattled.
Now he couldn’t go.

Don’t think of rattlesnakes, think about elephants, think about jack rabbits. Shit, don’t think. Don’t think! Shit!

A blue shadow moved over him, blocking out the sun. Something descended from the sky. He forgot rattlesnakes, bounding brown jackrabbits and all. His bowels released.

An extraordinary blue. A cosmic blue. How could something that big and blue and solid appear in the sky without noise — from nowhere?

It wasn’t saucer-shaped — more diamond-shaped really — yet a Dallas city block in length. It set down on one narrow point of itself without sound, without disturbing the dust or the brush.

He yanked up his jeans and ran in the direction of the highway, the Cherokee and Molly.

Molly was running toward him, shouting his name. She saw it too, so he wasn’t crazy.

He hugged her, took her hand, continued to run with her back to the Cherokee.

He opened the passenger-side door. “It won’t start!” shouted Molly.

“Won’t start?” Yeah, you read about that. UFO’s fucked with your car’s electrical system. Happened all the time.

But she had tried to start the car? “Were you just going to drive off and leave me here?”
“I was going to drive out and get you! How could you think …? It is a four-wheel drive you know.”

“No, no. Right.”

He crawled in. Turned the key. Didn’t start.
“I told you! Why don’t you listen to me?”

“I’m just trying it.” He ground the ignition again. Silence. Even the indicator lights stayed dim, like the jeep was a relic, a hump of static metal.

Molly said, “Oh fuck this whole trip, you and your ideas.”
“Later, Jesus, Molly. This is a situation.” He found the cell phone, where it had been dropped by Molly on the passenger’s seat. No signal.

“I tried that too,” she said.

“You certainly had a lot of time on your hands.” That’s my wife, he thought.

“I tried to start the car to drive out and get you, I tried the cell to call help for you, I ran out to find you. Why are you picking on me!”

“All right.” He took a breath. “Thank you.”

“Fuckwad. Are you okay?” she strained against tears.

“I’m okay. It didn’t do anything to me. It’s sitting there … quiet.”

“It’s so blue,” said Molly.

“That’s what I was thinking. Have you ever seen quite that color before?”

She shook her head.

The blue ship did something.

Though its surface was seamless, it split now, surrendering itself open into two half-diamond shaped concaves, which settled down next to each other on the basin of the desert.

Clay and Molly waited, watched. Five minutes.

“What’s inside?” asked Molly. “Can you see?”
“Not from here.” Pause. “Someone will come along.”
“Don’t even think about. Someone will come along.”
“Maybe. This is supposedly a busy highway and no one’s passed in all this time. Maybe no cars are running.”

“Don’t say that.”

Molly leaned into the Cherokee, reached under the seat, and brought up the Evian bottle.

“It told you that was empty,” said Clay.

“I’m just checking it. You checked the car, you checked the phone. Now I’m checking the water bottle.”
“I don’t want to bicker,” he told her.

“Me either.”
“See, we agree.” The tension broke.

“On everything. That’s why I can tell my parents we never fight,” Molly said.

Clay rolled his eyes. “Your parents.”
“No. Your parents.”

Molly’s smile faded. There was more activity with the blue thing. The open concaves of the diamond ship started to fill, then to overflow. Icy blue liquid cascaded down the outside walls. It reminded Clay of Lake Tahoe for seem reason: cool and clean. Damn it was hot in New Mexico in September! Tahoe next year for sure.

He found himself leaving the Cherokee and walking toward the shimmering pools; Molly too. They reached the ship. The water did not spill onto the desert floor, rather it flowed in deeps streams down the walls, then turning, it streamed back up again.

A hint of spray dampened the air. Clay and Molly held fingers under the stream. So cool.

Molly cupped her hands. She brought the water to her face. She splashed herself, swallowed. She cupped her hands for more. “This is like the best water ever … “

He did as she had. The water touched his skin, mixed with the stinging salty sweat above his lip, and cleansed the sour away. “I didn’t know how thirsty I was,” Clay said.

Molly undid some buttons, stepped into the falling water, letting it stream down her neck and front. “What a great gift,” she said.

Clay took his shirt off, pressed against the side of the ship. The water flow over his back, cooling his flushed skin. “Water,” he said. “Alien water.”

They undressed, they bathed and they held their clothes out to be cleansed: their shoes, belts, car keys, wallet, everything.

The waters ebbed. They stood naked. The sun was at zenith, but Clay stayed cool, even after the air dried him.

Clay thought about it. “That was probably a bad idea.”
“What happened?” asked Molly.

“Are you okay? I think I’m okay.”

“I think I’m okay. What?”

He realized he was looking at her. Shook his head. “You’re better than okay.”

She crossed her arms over herself. “Shut up. I wasn’t prepared for this you know.”
“You are really really beautiful.”

She picked up her clothes, but they weren’t even close to dry. “Damn,” she said.

“What are you worried about? You look fine.”

“Fine? A second ago it was beautiful. Now I’m fine.” She put the back of her hand under her jaw, the way she did when she felt self-conscious about the slight hint of a second chin.

Don’t say anything, he warned himself. But he tried to fix it, it was like a sick compulsion and he couldn’t stop himself. “Neither us is getting any younger.”
Molly shot him her red glare. Then she tried to pull on her heavy wet jeans. Oh, shit, he thought, will I never learn to quit when I’m behind? “Molly.”
She forced her arms into twisted, soaked sleeves. Picked up her sandals. “I’m going back to the road.” she said.

The blue ship slowly closed itself up. Then it rose from the ground without causing a ripple in the air. To see something so huge move so gracefully: Clay had nothing to compare it to. “I can’t even wrap my mind around it,” he muttered.

The ship hovered a hundred feet off the ground, then zipped west.

“Well that’s that,” said Clay.

“It’s going the same direction we were.” said Molly.

“If the aliens wanted directions to Albuquerque, they only had to ask,” said Clay.

“Let’s not tell anyone about this.”
“No way. I don’t want to be interviewed on some Discovery Channel freak-fest. No thank you.”
“Aren’t you going to put your clothes on?”

They felt a little dryer now. “Nah.” He placed his arms akimbo. “Think I’ll stay like this.”

“Shut up,” she said.

He shifted his feet and was stabbed by a pointy pebble. Then again, maybe just put on the shoes.

Two silver ships descended from the sky.

Smaller than the blue ship had been — automobile-sized, in fact — the silver ships landed side by side.

Like the blue ship, the silver ships were completely smooth and seamless. Clay hesitated.

“Let’s leave,” said Molly.

“I wonder if they are going to open.”
“No. I want to go.”

The ships opened. From each a silver orb ascended, like two human-sized wobbly balls of quicksilver.

The wobbly balls started floating toward Molly and Clay.

“Run!” Molly shouted too late.

A quicksilver ball hit her and splattered. The other hit Clay like hot Jell-O and nearly knocked him flat. Silver goop covered his eyes. He wiped them quickly, trying to see what had happened to Molly. The goop slipped over his skin, climbed up his urethra and every other opening, filled every wrinkle and crevice, enveloped each muscle in his body. Once it touched all of him it began to bead out his pores. The beads gathered into globules sliding down his length, dropping at his feet. They vanished into dry ground.

The silver ships closed, floated up, and scooted away.

Stunned, when at last able to move again and see — he saw the same thing had happened to Molly. He clothes lay in tatters around her, as if her silver glob had shredded them to get to her skin. She was shorter. No. He was standing higher all of the sudden. No. He was taller. His muscles rippled, filled with coursing blood.

“Oh man. Look at my … “
She was looking.

“I’m huge,” he said. He wrapped his hand around it. It was beautiful, the most magnificent phallus imaginable. “I can’t believe it,” he said.

“And look at me,” Molly said. “My ass. My legs.” She ran her hands over her breasts. She touched her new long neck. “Oh fuck,” she whispered, and broke into a run.

He tore after her, leaving his clothes.

She reached the Cherokee, yanked open the nearer door and bent over the side-view mirror. Clay reached her and stopped. Stretching, and turning, trying to see as much of herself as possible in the tiny reflection, she examined her lean chin, her narrow shoulders.

She turned to him at last, with satisfaction. “Oh you lucky boy,” she said. “Look at your gorgeous wife.”

He caressed his shaft. Still hard. “And you lucky girl. Look at this incredible cock.”

She smiled. “I’m completely swollen too.” It was true, her nipples were like raspberries. “Look at my clit. I think if I touched it, I’d … “

He touched it, she exploded.

He watched her for minutes, standing there, half supported by his giant hand around her slim biceps, as she came in waves. With every wave she changed: little things, just enough, hair color from rust to golden to jet. Her skin from brown to ivory and pink. The angle of her breasts, the cut of her shoulders, everything flowed, moved, like a hundred or a thousand different women. My god, this could go on forever. Her eyes fluttered (blue, green, and brown) and one of the thousand women coming under his hand whispered, “You’re here. For me. Here for me now.”

At last she settled. “Molly,” he said. “Do you know that I’m in love with you, that I’m attracted to you? Do you know?”
“Yes, honey. I know it, I know how you really feel, and I know you really meant it before when you said I’m beautiful. Even before we changed.”

In her, he saw every woman he could ever imagine, every desire, endless variety. In him, she saw trustworthiness, security, a man who desired her without end. I love the silver ships! he thought.

He held her, looked for a smooth area on the rough desert floor to lay her down. He was not in a hurry, not desperate — his huge cock was going to be full and ready forever — but he was anxious to please her with it. She looked around, seemed to read his thoughts. “There’s no good place,” she said.

“I’ll try the engine again. We’ll find a hotel.”

“No. I want to fuck outdoors,” she said.

He nodded. “So do I.”

A dozen green ships descended from the sky, landing silently on either side of the highway, then opening unassumingly. Plumes, powdery emerald dust, billowed from their hollows and covered the desert like green snow.

From the settled powder, a new landscape arose: beds of downy moss upon the ground. Nimble shade trees stretched toward the sky. Ponds of blue water pooled. Furred creatures grew out of the tree limbs and scampered back and forth, chattering pleasantly. Rainbow fish jumped in a babbling stream. Once or twice, what looked like miniature unicorns carrying big lollipops in their mouths darted through the forest. When all this was made, the green ships closed, floated above the trees, and moved west.

Clay carried Molly down and made love to her.

The afternoon rolled by. Molly got up after awhile and slipped into the nearest pond. It was one of the hot ones, with steam rising off. After a time, she moved to a cooler one, and floated on a lily pad. She called Clay to join her.

“In a bit,” he said. For now he lay content on his back, listening to the new forest, dancing fingers over his stomach, his pubes, enjoying the stickiness, in no hurry to wash off.

He must have napped awhile, because the next thing he sensed was Molly’s cool skin and hair against his chest as she slipped next to him.

She lay her hand across his scrotum.

“I’m glad you’re my man,” she said.

“Me too.”

“Let’s never fight.” she said.

“We made up.”

“So, no divorce.”

“No divorce.”

“Clay.”

“Mmm.” He drifted.

“The ships didn’t go back the way they came, did you notice? Not into the sky. They like followed the highway, west.”

“Yeah,” he said. Did they have to talk right now?

“Maybe this is happening everywhere. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“Splendiferous,” he muttered.

She was silent, but for a moment only.

“Who are they? What do they want?” she asked. He didn’t answer. “Clay? Did you hear me? Who do you think they are, what do you think they want?”

Imponderables. Always with the questions, this one.

“To spread joy and peace and hot sex through the galaxy,” he said. “Let’s talk later.” Right now, he floated in an endorphin sea which occupied him plenty, thank you.

“Maybe if I’d found a job I liked,” she said.

Clay grunted.

“In Dallas, I mean.”

Forget all that now, thought Clay. Who cared?

She spoke again. “In Dallas, you know? Or maybe if we’d never gone at all. I could have gotten into one of those church groups. Would you have gone to something like that? Or maybe if …”

If what? “Don’t start that, Molly.”

“Still, all those brown lawns, all those malls. All those glass buildings blinding you when you drive past on the freeway. And those Texas flags flying everywhere. Flags big enough to cover a football field. And all those football fields!”

“Okay, okay,” murmured Clay. “Anyway it’s over.”

She sighed comfortably. “That’s right. Dallas is over,” she said. And then she said it again. “Dallas is over.” He felt her settle comfortably closer to him, but only for a moment.

“Why would they do all of this for us? These ships?”

He pretended to sleep, not that that trick had ever worked on her before.

“Do you think there are other kinds of ships?”

He shifted his weight, tried to get comfortable again without actually turning completely away from her. “Oh, Molls,” he said. “If they want to do for us, let them.”

He rubbed his eyes. They’d been thirsty, and the ships brought water. They had a stupid fight about body image and the ships fixed their bodies. The ships made the desert a paradise for lovers, because — well because they were lovers. What else could she want? My needs are met.

His stomach knotted. “That’s it!” said Clay. “I get it! The ships read our thoughts, fulfilled them.”

“My god, you’re right. I wanted this body. I wanted it for myself. Unconsciously, but it happened.”

“Well great. Then you should be happy. Have a nap with me, Molly.”

“Can it guess what we’re secretly wanting, way down inside? What will the next ships will bring?”

Next ships? “No no. We’re fine, right now.” He wanted nothing more. Don’t think about it.

“What if someone had desires they weren’t proud of? Or shouldn’t have. There could be black ships, there could be red ships. Bad ships. People have all sorts of thoughts.”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” he said. Black ships filled with plague, white ships filled with fire. No. No there couldn’t. Don’t think that. Don’t think anything. Red ship, black ship, white ship, bad ship.

“But we don’t know Clay. We don’t know what we really, really want. It changes. They could be pretty pink ships, but inside, deep down, for all we know — Ouch!”

He had grabbed her biceps harder than he meant to. “Leave me alone! No! Sorry!” he shouted, sounding shrill. “You’re going on and on! Happy happy ships, full of sunshine and goodness and everything right, I tell you!”

She wrenched her arm free. “Don’t talk to me like that!” She looked at her arm and it was bruised purple. She bruised easily. “You said never again!” Molly said. Reproach — her fucking long suit.

“That was an accident, obviously!” he said. And he’d never touched her, never touch her, never done more than put his own fist through the wall, or shake her hard to get her attention, so who was the real victim here anyway?

Never mind. Too late anyway. Too late now for apologies or excuses, or reasons. Try reasoning with her, can’t be done. Try not to think of a pink elephant. Can’t be done.

Above the new tree line — by the hundreds, by the thousands they showed: blotting the sky, housing shadowed desires in their pretty, shining holds and descending. He’d know something

in a minute, maybe. Or she would. Or nothing. Or not. Molly raised one arm to the level of her face in involuntary — surely futile — defensive action. Clay, in his nakedness, shuddered. Pink ships. Pink ships.

“Peas and Carrots” (4000 words)

Art: © Jeffrey Thompson | Dreamstime.com

Sophie. The script called her Sophie; and Sam the optimist, Sam traveler-without-cares, loved her since creation. Azure-eyed Sophie, orphaned country maid, as new in Vienna as the century was young; Sophie in chiffon frock of cobalt blue; her brown hair unadorned with silk ribbon, tied in plain linen.

Tonight, upon hearing him speak say, Pardon me, Fraulein, do you believe in fate? brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie would surely fall into his arms, her cheek upon his breast. His body, breath, and kisses would let her know that fears could no longer trouble love. For this alone had he been written: to rescue Sophie from Maximilian, and sweep her away forever. The invisible hand had scripted it and tonight he’d win her, though she did not even know his name.

The script actually named Sam “Handsome Stranger with Newspaper at Next Table.” Sam didn’t know, nor think it important, if anyone found him handsome. Still, he needed to call himself something, so he called himself Sam. Plain old Sam, and decided he ought to be from somewhere doing something so he became a Chicagoan wandering the capitols of Europe. He chose the name and place before the first evening, while tumbling in dreams of fabric and light: white and gold, cobalt blue, and azure.

The velvet curtain rose; applause broke the fourth wall and the mist, from the audience in the house invisible. Sam pushed a hand though his thick forelock, then brushed his worn but serviceable suit jacket. He drank cool air from a empty eggshell cup, then replaced it on its mark. He drummed fingers on yesterday’s Herald Tribune, then brought its double-fold to the iron table’s rim. He scuffled the sole of one loafer quietly over the warped boards. Footlights and spots imbued the darkness with midday sunbeam. He crossed his legs, refolded the newspaper, as again life began, the stage set for Vienna.

A happy half-dozen Viennese filled the outdoor cafe, sipping from eggshell cups, moving their lips, living the background of a June morning in 1901, in the city on the Danube.

A mustachioed waiter stood immobile. The moustache looked a real soup-strainer, and the waiter wore it with marked pride.

On cue, the waiter marched, making circles around the tables and serving. With an arm raised to balance a silver tray of cups and saucers, his red vest strained against gold buttons and barely contained his girth, exposing the white shirt underneath.

The waiter approached Sam’s table. “Peas and carrots?” he asked, and twirled the end of his moustache.

“Peas and carrots,” replied Sam. The scene required him, as the well as the waiter and the various Viennese, to move their lips, simulating small talk. Peas and carrots were lip-moving words, mouthed to be unheard in the house invisible. The waiter took Sam’s cup, lifting it to the tray with flourish, then spun away to serve another.

Upstage, a girl engaged a court of three devoted boys crowding one tiny table. The girl giggled through a story and the smitten boys clung to every syllable. “Peas and carrots. Peas and carrots!” she said. In another corner, a small old couple looked into each other’s eyes as if for the first time, aquiline noses almost touching, whispering soft peas and carrots to one another.

Sam turned over the newspaper, then folded it another way. He scanned the columns of solid black bars, thinking of his big moment. He’d speak to Sophie at the right time; not only with voice, but with eyes, and his blood’s longing.

Near Sam, a spot opened, bathing the unoccupied table center-stage in light.
Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered left and crossed right. She gripped a small cloth handbag in white-knuckled hands. Eyes darting, she stepped further left, then right, searching the imaginary street.

Sophie rested on a chair’s edge at the table under the spot. She held the handbag in her lap, and kept looking each way, over one shoulder, then the other.

Sam turned the newspaper again, playing his part. He would have something to say soon. Beloved Sophie.

Maximilian entered, wearing white spats on shoes polished to a dazzle. He wore a felt hat cocked over his ear; and rested one hand in a coat pocket. His black eyes found Sophie while her search led her to look the other way. He reslanted his hat, dusted his lapels, then took a seat at the table.

Sophie turned. Seeing her lover and benefactor Maximilian suddenly there, she jumped, gripping the handbag tighter.

“Am I behind my time, button?” said Maximilian with a lopsided smile. “What’s time to us, anyhow? We’re free and in love, and in Vienna.”

She shook her head. “You gave me a start, is all.”

“Such a start that you cannot give me a kiss?”

“Nonsense,” she said.

He leaned, presenting a cheek, which she pecked.

“I would not have kept you waiting; I had to set a fellow straight in the street!” Maximilian’s head rocked with a liar’s fidget, even as he boomed words with a coward’s bravado.

“I think I shall leave you,” she said suddenly, trembling.

Maximilian made a frown, eyes still smiling. “You still haven’t forgiven me then, button. You will never leave me. We’re bound together. It’s destiny. Don’t fight it.”
“You’ve hurt me.”

“Without intent. I am only a man. Have you the book?”

Sophie hesitate before unsnapping the handbag. She finally reached in, removing a small notebook, bound in moleskin. “These are the words of my heart,” she told him. “I’ve shown them to no one, ever. I once believed I could show them to some man. A true and faithful man.”

Maximilian extended a hand, palm upturned. “Let’s see.”

“Are you a faithful man?”

The waiter spun to their table. Maximilian dismissed him, swiping air with a hand. Maximilian leaned toward Sophie.

“I have not been perfect. I have not claimed to be anything but flesh and blood. May not a man of mere flesh and blood see your untouched book?”

He reached and Sophie pulled the notebook to her bosom.

Sam, at his table, listening, clutched his newspaper tighter. Not yet he told himself. Be patient, be magnificent, bold, and prevail.

Maximilian slumped back, as if punched. “I see, then. You don’t love me. I expected as much.”

“Must you be cruel?” begged Sophie.

“I? You are the cruel one. My affection means so little to you, you will not even show me your occasional scribblings. Put the thing away, then.” He snapped his fingers to summon the waiter. He took a few coins and tossed them on the table. “I leave you to your romantic fantasies. And your chastity.” He stood, turned heel, then stormed away.

Sophie leaped up, called after him, drawing the attention of other tables.

“Peasandcarrots,” murmured the girl and three boys. “Peasandcarrots,” whispered the small, old couple to each other.

Sophie dropped the book, which slipped under Sam’s chair, and she spilled the handbag. She knelt to retrieve her things, crying, “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!”
Now, thought Sam, discarding the newspaper. He fell to one knee, retrieving the treasured notebook.

Sophie reached in the same beat, so that they touched it together. He met her dewed eyes, as he had met them many times in the dream-mist between existences.

“Pardon me, Fraulein. Do you believe in fate?” He caught her with words and eyes; Sophie his alone for one moment.

Maximilian, who had not left, but waited expectantly for Sophie to come running after him, now spoke to her from near stage left. “Come now, button,” and he held his arm out, crooked.

Sam and Sophie still gripped the notebook between them. Sam pleaded with his eyes — don’t go! Come away with me.

She pulled to notebook from him. “Thank you, Mein Herr.”

The blood rushed from his face in shame at the cloying, cliched inflection he’d given the line.

She crossed to Maximilian, taking his arm with hesitation. She always crossed to Maximilian, no matter what.

“There, button,” said Maximilian. “Am I so frightening?”

Light diffused in Sam’s tears. Sophie, head bowed, allowed Maximilian to lead her off right. The unhappy half-dozen Viennese left their background tables to their own exits. Sam again took his seat. He refolded the newspaper and scanned the black print bars. Taking the beat, he looked toward Sophie’s exit, then to a vacant chair, then back again. The waiter passed through the empty cafe, silver tray pinned under an arm.

Darkness enveloped the stage, and the waiter stopped on his final mark to stand immobile. In the mist beyond the fourth wall, in the house invisible, applause smattered thinly.

Silence followed; the velvet curtain descended. Time ceased and Sam slept again, dreaming fabric and light: gold and white, vermilion, and azure.

&&&

Sam awoke, feeling an invisible hand close his throat, an invisible foot press his chest. In the absences between performances, while he dreamed of Sophie, a change had come. The script rewrote, or unwrote, at will, with no concern for characters. Now the script had cut his line.
No matter. He would speak to Sophie with eyes and body, he still had those. He didn’t need words.

The velvet curtain rose; through the mist, from the house invisible, applause broke the fourth wall.

Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock. He sipped air and dust, then replaced the coffee cup on its mark. He drummed fingers over the newspaper, then brought it to table’s edge. Viennese filled the cafe. The mustachioed waiter spun through the tables.

“Peas and carrots,” said he when coming to Sam’s table.

“Peas and carrots,” Sam stammered, thinking, I must be ready, my eyes will speak for me now. I don’t need lines.

The waiter took the cup.Brown-haired, azure eyed Sophie entered, looked furtively around, sat on a chair’s edge. Soon, Maximilian sauntered in.

“Am I behind my time, button?”

In time she produced the moleskin notebook, saying, “These are the words of my heart.”
They argued over it, Sophie begged Maximilian not to be cruel. Maximilian snapped for the waiter, threw a few coins on the table, stormed off.

Sophie leaped up, called him, drawing attention.

“Peasandcarrots,” murmured the girl and three boys. “Peasandcarrots,” whispered the small, old couple to each other.

Sophie dropped the notebook, which slipped under Sam’s chair, and she spilled the handbag. She knelt to retrieve her things, crying, “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!”

Sam tossed away the newspaper and fell to one knee, retrieving the treasured notebook.

Sophie found it in the same beat. Sam met her dewed eyes. He took a breath where he would have once had words to speak: Pardon me, Fraulein. Do you believe in fate?

They held the notebook between them. He pleaded with
his eyes. Don’t go. Come with me. My eyes tell you I’m true.

Stay.

She took the notebook back. “Thank you, Mein Herr.”

Again. The blood rushed from his face. He understood: it isn’t the line; it’s me. I’m meant to fail.

The lights diffused. Sophie, head bowed, let Maximilian lead her off to her end. The unhappy half-dozen Viennese found their separate exits. Sam took his seat. He ignored the newspaper, and forgot, until too late, to follow Sophie’s exit, then look to a vacant chair. The waiter passed through the empty cafe to his mark, tray pinned under an arm.

Darkness took the stage, and the waiter stood immobile. From the invisible, applause trickled through the fourth wall.

The velvet curtain descended. Time ceased and Sam slept, dreaming rope and cloth and heat: gold and white, vermilion, azure, and the indifference of the script.

&&&

The velvet curtain rose in silence before the mist-shrouded house invisible. Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock. He lifted the coffee cup and replaced it on its mark, then fingered the newspaper. Viennese filled the tables and the mustachioed waiter spun through the cafe, coming to Sam.

“Peas and carrots?” He waited for Sam’s reply.

Sam held his tongue.

Perturbed, yet undaunted, the waiter reached for the cup.

A delicate nudge with the newspaper, and Sam moved the cup off its mark. The waiter’s hand grasped at empty air in the place the cup should have been. His jaw hardened.

You can’t see, can you, poor fool? We don’t matter, Sam tried to say. The words came out: “Peas and carrots.”

The waiter glared cross-eyed, turning purple. “Peas!” he hissed. He made a second pass, and Sam pushed the cup farther.

The waiter stamped a foot. Sam poked his tongue at the man, and winked.

The waiter circled to the other side of the table. At his third try for the cup, Sam seized it, dropping it into the newspaper, which he promptly rolled up. Then he clamped the newspaper to his chest, folding his arms across it.

“Peas! And! Carrots!” said the waiter in disgust. He stiffened. Marching back around, he bent formally, then pantomimed lifting a cup. He lowered the nonexistent cup to the tray with special flourish.

Gratified, he twisted a moustache corner. “Peas and carrots!” Tray aloft, he twirled away.
Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered, furtive, sat at a chair’s edge. Maximilian sauntered in.

“Am I behind my time, button?”

They spoke their lines. She showed the moleskin notebook. “These are the words of my heart.”

He demanded it, she demurred to his disdain; she begged him not to be cruel. Maximilian snapped for the waiter, threw a few coins on the table, stormed off.

Sophie jumped up. “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!” “Peasandcarrots,” murmured the people in the background. Sophie dropped the book and the handbag, spilling the latter’s contents. She knelt to retrieve them.

Sam let fall the rolled newspaper. The hidden cup shattered. He dropped to a knee, retrieving her notebook.

Sophie reached out in the same beat and together they touched it. He met her dewed eyes.

Maximilian called and she thanked Sam, intending he release the notebook as usual.

He didn’t release it. He held it fast. Sophie gave a start. She tugged at the book, panic in her eyes.

“Peas and carrots,” he said. Don’t go. Sophie wrenched and twisted the notebook. He let go.

She stumbled, but rose on cue. Inching away, hand to mouth, stunned, she didn’t notice she’d crossed to Maximilian until she trod his spats.

“There, button.” said Maximilian, “Am I so frightening?”

She took his arm, as always; he lead her away.

Sam sank into the chair. The paper had unrolled between his feet; the cup had broken in shards.

The waiter took a final turn through the cafe, stopping at Sam’s table. With extravagant movement, he bent down, gathering the cup shards onto the silver tray. When he had them all, he righted himself, becoming immobile on his mark when darkness took the stage and the curtain fell. Sam lay his head in weary arms.

Fabric and light, gold and white. Azure.

&&&

The velvet curtain rose; a few sprinkled coughs and then silence followed from the mist. Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock for the last time. For during the hours between existences a decision had come, greater than the script. Beyond tonight, no more performances.

Sam slumped in his chair, everything lost at last. His hand weighed upon the newspaper. The lights rose.

The waiter made turns between the tables, twirling the end of his moustache.

“Peas and carrots,” he said to Sam in a tone warning there’d be no nonsense with displaced coffee cups this night! He did not wait for Sam to mumble his final peas and carrots, but seized the replacement cup, clanking it smartly down on the tray. He twirled off. Sam grimaced to himself, thinking he might even miss the fellow.

The others, at the other tables, in the background, murmured. “Peas and carrots.”

Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered in her frock, searched furtively, finally sat, handbag in both hands. No matter how faint, until tonight, he had still had hope.

No longer, Sam thought. Never again, to see her face, to hear her voice, to breath the same air as she.

Maximilian entered.”Am I behind my time, button?”

One always thinks there’ll be time enough.

“I think I shall leave you,” Sophie said in her turn.

“You never will,” Maximilian said rightly.

Maximilian demanded the moleskin notebook. Sophie refused. He threw a few coins on the table and stood. “I leave you to your romantic fantasies. And your chastity.” He turned heel.
Don’t follow, Sam pleaded, twisting the newspaper. Don’t.

Sophie jumped up, spilling the handbag’s contents. The moleskin notebook fell to the boards. She kneeled to gather her things. Sam dropped to a knee.

Sophie reached out in the same beat and together they touched the notebook. She avoided his eyes. His heart pounded. His heart. He tore the notebook from her hands.

Sophie fell back, dumbfounded. She reached for it, and he shoved it under his jacket.
“Mein Herr, I beg you … “

He shook his head rapidly, and flushed. Viennese stirred from their background tables, whispering, “Peasandcarrots?”

Sam fumbled and bit his lip, tasting copper. “S … Sophie …” he said.

Sophie’s eyes grew large as a trapped doe’s.

The Viennese gawked and gasped. Maximilian waited for Sophie to take his arm, blinking in confusion. The waiter rushed in, tray tucked under an arm, and stood center stage, glowering.
“I must speak,” said Sam, expecting to be crushed. Expecting … not knowing what to expect.
No hand gripped his throat. The lights didn’t fail, and the curtain didn’t fall.

Sophie waited. “Then speak.”

He scarcely knew how to start, and feared he might revert to stammering out peas and carrots.
He tried to swallow, dry throat cracking. “Fraulein, I’m a small character, you’ve no reason to listen to me, but I’ve watched you night after night. Don’t go away with him, into misery, because the script says. He won’t make you happy.”

She smiled slightly. “Am I meant to be happy, then?”

“Yes!” He took the moleskin notebook from his coat, holding it forth. “You have this! This is your happiness! Keep it, don’t give it to him, or to anyone. Keep it. That’s all I want to tell you; and that I love you. You should be free.”

She held out a hand. “You have my property, Mein Herr.”

He hesitated. Maybe she’d take it, and run to Maximilian, keeping as best she could to the mangled plot. The notebook did belong to her, to do with as she wanted. “Reconsider,” he asked; but she said nothing, and so he gave it back.

Sophie opened it to the middle, then turned it around for Sam to see.

Blank.

She turned a leaf. Blank. Another, also blank. She turned leaf after leaf for him. All blank.
“See, Mein Herr? There’s nothing here. Only here … ” She gestured about the stage. “I have only my lines to mouth, my marks to hit. It’s a surface with nothing beneath. I must go with Maximilian. I will go with Maximilian. It’s in the script.”

She closed the book.

Sam lowered his head. She held a hand against his cheek, cool, against his overheated skin.
“Don’t think you’ve failed. You played a small part in a silly melodrama well, Handsome Stranger with Newspaper at Next Table. I’m written to see you once, wonder what might have been, and never forget you.”

Maximilian stood frozen, black eyes small and fixed. His chin trembled. He couldn’t move, he didn’t know how to behave without the script. None of them did.

“I’m going with him now, Handsome Stranger. As scripted.”

“Sam,” he whispered. “My name is Sam.”

“No, Mein Herr. You’re mistaken.”

“Call me Sam.”

“I cannot. You haven’t a name.”

“Indulge me; what harm will it do?”

“No harm. No good either. The play is over.”

“Call me Sam.”

She laughed at him, but kindly.

“You know you don’t have to follow the script, but it scares you.” said Sam. ” I want to tell you that’s all right.”

The smiled faded. “Without the script … What’ll happen?”

“Something will happen. Something unimagined.”

She looked at the notebook. “Something unwritten.” “To fill your notebook with. Listen! We’re speaking our own words; not lines in a script. I’m not supposed to have a name; but I do. I’m Sam. I come from Chicago. I’m — “

“Sam,” she said. “From Chicago.”

“Peasandcarrots!” shouted the waiter.

The Viennese erupted. “Peasandcarrots! peasandcarrots!” they cried, flinging their hands in the air. Nothing could save the scene now. Chairs were knocked over, tables upturned. The waiter rushed about gathering cup shards, righting upended tables to no avail.

Maximilian projected, desperately trying to be heard over the din. “There, button. Am I so frightening?” Arm still extended, he cocked his head toward an imaginary, invisible Sophie of his own illusion, and exited.

The terrified peasandcarrots-ing Viennese ran off disappearing into the wings before anything could be done. The waiter, face purple, kept spinning through the wreckage. He glared at Sam as he turned.

“Have something to say to me?” said Sam.

“Peas and carrots!” shouted the waiter, and kept spinning.

Sophie and Sam let him go on, and stood toe to toe together. They clasp hands over the moleskin notebook, and looked into each other’s eyes.

“What next?” she asked.

“I kiss you, I think.”

He embraced her and they did kiss, pressing their whole lengths together. From the mist, in the house invisible, beyond the fourth wall, came some applause. Not much; very little in fact, but what of it? They were no longer a play. Only two people.

“Aren’t you frightened?”

“Terrified,” said Sam. “Come on.”

He led her to the the proscenium, to the precipice of the house invisible and the now silent mist.

“We can’t go there!”

“Who says we can’t? Him?” Sam pointed to the spinning waiter. “And we can’t stay here.” He took a breath. “Ready?”

“No!” she laughed. “Heavens no! Who are we anyway? Did a handsome man and a country maid ever do such things?”

“That’s not who we are. We’re Sophie and Sam. We’re … Hell, who knows!”

Still hand in hand, they took a long stride over the footlights, toward the house invisible. Sam steeled himself to jump. Just before his feet left the boards, he thought he might turn chicken and jump back for the safe stage; but Sophie didn’t, so he didn’t. He’d gotten her into this, he had to be at least as brave as she.

As one, Sophie and Sam leaped into the mist.

The waiter kept spinning. He spun alone on the stage through upended tables that no longer evoked a particular spring day in the city on the Danube in 1901, but that were just a rough pile of gypsum wood props again.

When he could spin no longer, he fell exhausted to one knee, holding his tray perpendicular to the floor, as a crutch. He stayed immobile, panting, watching the infinite, the mist-shrouded house invisible, where the errant pair had run to. When he regained his wind, he climbed to his feet, straightened his jacket, and crept near the proscenium.

He peered over, but saw little to interest him — though he thought he imagined children playing somewhere. It might have been that, but it might just as well have been rats scurrying in the aisles, or wind knocking around in the flyspaces. He looked left and right, then held the tin silver-plated tray out over the edge. Nothing happened to it, so twisting his torso, he flung the prop toward the invisible with all his might.

The tray, spinning like a new planet around its own center, disappeared in the enveloping mist. The waiter cupped an ear, expecting to discover a doomed clang as the tray succumbed to gravity. He waited a long time but heard nothing, nothing at all.

 
(Originally published in Realms of Fantasy, Feb 2005. Copyright Michael Canfield 2004.