Pathogen: Jana – 8

PathogenJana sputtered and coughed as water doused her face, rousing her from sleep. Shaking off the excess droplets, she wiped her eyes and sat up. “What the hell did you do that for?”

“Time to wake up, sunshine,” Reggie kicked at her feet lightly. “We’re burning daylight.”

“Why aren’t we doing this at night?”

“Easy. We’d be expected at night. No, you’ve got to look just the part. Suit and everything. I think we have one on hand for ya. You can pretend you want to be an intern, right?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jana agreed, standing and reaching for the towel in Reggie’s other hand. The bleach-spotted towel was scratchy, but it soaked up water well enough. “You don’t need to throw water at me to get me to wake up, you know.”

“I know. It’s more fun this way though. Besides, I have to find some ways to pay you back for breaking my brother’s nose.”

“Reg, it’s been over a month. I think I’ve paid back that crime by now.”

He grinned, displaying several crooked teeth. One was missing altogether. They’d gotten into a scrap with another group of people, who tried to claim that they owned midtown, a couple of months back and he lost it–the man who hit him was no longer alive. Jana didn’t mind Reggie so much as she used to. He’d saved her skin more than once, and she his. His brother still seemed to despise her though, so now when she was given missions, she went with Reggie and no one else. “I was thinking–if you tried introducing yourself to people when you meet them instead of trying to intimidate them right off the bat, you might still have all of your teeth.”

“Easy there. I’m plenty friendly. Just because you and I squabbled…”

“You wanted me dead. I’d hardly call that a squabble.”

“Eh, quit wasting time. Go put on your interview suit. We can do a mock interview on the way.”

Laughter bubbled up until Jana could suppress it no longer. “Sorry–it’s hard to picture you working in a human resources department.”

“That’s because I didn’t. But I interviewed a lot of people when I worked for the CIA.”

“Interviewed…as in tortured? I’m not sure you’re the best person to coach me.”

“That’s classified information. I could tell you, but then I’d have to utterly destroy you. Enough stalling–go and get ready or I’ll come back with two buckets of water.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re all talk.” Except Reggie wasn’t and she didn’t want to get two buckets of ice cold water dumped over her head. Jana bustled out of the room and down the maze of corridors to wash up. The water was a good start but she needed soap. One of the women who had bathed her when she first came was in the bathing chamber. Jana offered a smile, which the woman did not return. “You probably think I’m a coward or something.”

The woman just stared at her.

“You lost your tongue rather than willingly give in to their demands. But what do you have for it? You don’t ever get to leave here and you’re treated like a servant.”

This time, the woman’s lips stretched into a grin.

Jana’s smile vanished. Why would that make her happy? She might still be, in a way, a prisoner of this place, only allowed to leave with Reggie’s supervision, but at least she could speak and get out of the dark rooms and hallways. While Jana bathed, the woman’s ill-timed smile bothered her more and more. She knew asking was useless though, and so took out her frustration on her body. She scrubbed until her skin felt raw.

The suit provided for her “interview” seemed tailored to fit her perfectly. “Not bad,” she remarked to the silent woman, “I haven’t looked this good since before the outbreak. Of course, my hair was a lot longer then too.” She’d chopped it after living on the streets for a week or so. The summer air was too hot to abide her long mane. Jana ruffled her hair with her fingers to add some volume.

She found Reggie waiting in her shoe box of a room. “You’re going like that?”

“I’m going to wait outside for you. But don’t worry; I’m ready.” He patted the gun holstered at his hip.

“For what, the event that they don’t hire me?”

“I don’t care if they hire you. You just need to get what we need and then we’re out of there. This is for you in case you try to escape.”

Jana rolled her eyes. “Aren’t we past that yet?”

“We’re not. Look, I’d rather not kill you. At least I don’t want to anymore. You’re useful–“

“Thanks,” Jana interjected.

“Don’t interrupt,” he held up a finger like a parent scolding a child. “As I was saying, I’d rather keep you alive. But I’ve not let you go off on your own yet and I don’t want you getting any ideas. There’ll only be one entrance and exit and your theft will have to be flawless because they’re going to scan you before you leave.”

“I’ve been to quarantine centers before.”

“But we haven’t gone into Q1. If they used a standard network we could go into Q4, but the security is going to be tight. Not to mention you could actually catch the Sweats.”

“I’m not going to get sick, Reg. I would have already if that was going to happen.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’ve told me about Ryan. Alright, let’s go.”

MFA Update: 3rd Residency

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I had a great time last week visiting the Mountainview Grand Resort for my third residency week in the Low-Residency MFA program offered by SNHU. The week started off with the usual “What to expect this semester” meeting, except this time instead of talking craft essays, we talked about the close reading essay. I’ll be doing mine on “The Flower” by Louise Erdrich.

Peer workshops went really well and I got some excellent direction for a story I wrote that felt as stuck as my main character. Turns out I can actually get two stories out of it if I craft them properly. I think I will at least try to do so!

The craft workshops were amazing, especially the Epiphanic Moment session. I won’t go into details because the stories used were not mine, and therefore the lives used were not mine, but it was like witnessing first-hand a therapy session that brought the core of the writer’s pain into the stories used. It was beautiful and surprising, and something I will always carry with me. And the writers whose stories we used will always be brave in my eyes, braver than most.

This summer’s guest author was Danielle Evans, who is as kind as she is brilliant. Seriously, if you’ve not read her collection of short stories, titled Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, get on that. You won’t regret it. We also had a guest editor visit from FSG, who gave a talk and then joined two recent grads who already have book contracts a year after graduating.

I taught a self-defense seminar that was a great deal of fun, and would have gone on longer if my voice hadn’t been drowned out by a lawnmower. I learned later in the week that there’s studio space in the fitness center (I’d probably have known that if I worked out while at residency), but alas–it was days after the workshop.

For readings, I chose three: a portion of my thesis for the pre-dinner reading, and a portion of a short story I’m working on as well as a Hamilton-inspired political rap. All of them were lots of fun to give, but what I’m happiest about is that it’s getting easier to read in front of what I consider huge groups (60+ people) without reading so fast no one could possibly hope to understand me. I owe a lot of that to the advice I received from David Simpatico, Mountainview MFA alum, actor, and fabulous playwright.

Overall, it was a week of learning, a week of not enough sleep, and a week at the end of which I struggled to keep from getting choked up as graduates returned for a final celebration of their work. I’m halfway through the program–actually 3 credits more than halfway now–and I feel like the next two semesters are going to fly even faster than the first two.

A Week Off

Dear readers,

I’ll be taking next week (6/17-6/24) off from my usual blogging schedule. I’ll be away at residency, an intense (and awesome) week-long three-credit experience for my MFA. I might throw up a post or two if I have time, but I might not. And if I do, it might not fit my usual schedule.

I’ll resume my content schedule on Monday, June 25. Have a great week, and happy writing!

Rings of Saturn: Part 8 – Aug. 15, 79

Rings of SaturnIt was official: Evie preferred sleeping in villages or even temples. Sleeping outside on the ground wasn’t just uncomfortable, but without an app to tell her the forecast or wondering whether they’d be attacked in the middle of the night, Evie had trouble falling asleep in the wildnerness. After the ordeal in the cave, it was nice to find a barn with a pile of hay. Hay was scratchy and soft at the same time.

Marcus woke her with the sun and said they should get moving because they didn’t exactly have permission to sleep in the barn.

“Relax,” she told him, stretching and yawning, “let’s enjoy the village for a little while. We have the map. Finding Hercules will be simple now.” Had she just said those words? Evie still wasn’t sure if she’d had some kind of psychotic break. 

Marcus wasn’t having it. There were no lazy mornings on a quest, it seemed. Reluctantly, Evie left the barn and they walked through the village, seeking an opportunity to either buy or take breakfast. Evie stopped in the middle of the main road and Marcus didn’t realize it until a few steps later. 

“What? Why’d you stop?” he asked.

Evie let her mouth hang open and pointed to a small hut across the street.

“By Jupiter…” Marcus whispered.

Tatius wasn’t facing them, but he wasn’t turned away either. He held the door open while someone talked to him from inside. Evie couldn’t hear the other person but she saw Tatius nod and walk around the building toward the back. Evie crossed the road.

“Leave him, Evie,” Marcus said.

She ignored him. He continued to protest that Tatius would only slow them down. Rounding the building, she saw Tatius poking at a haystack. 

“What’re you doing here?” Evie didn’t mean to sound accusing, but she saw his shoulders tense.

Tatius turned from the hay. “Evie. I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”

She repeated her question. Tatius told her the mule was stolen from him, and so he never returned to Publius Sepunius Columella’s farm, afraid the old man would fire him anyway—or worse. 

“But he was so kind to me.”

“He wanted you to leave without causing him any trouble with the guards.” 

“Who stole the mule?” 

Tatius shrugged. “I didn’t stop the bandits to introduce myself.” 

A smile twitched on Evie’s face and then she broke into laughter. She laughed until her stomach and sides ached. Tatius didn’t laugh, but the fact that he’d made a sarcastic comment was so out of place, so unexpected, that she couldn’t help but laugh. Her laughter drew Marcus, who glowered at Tatius. 

“He’s not joining us,” Marcus announced.

Evie’s laughter ebbed and she caught her breath. “Who said anything about joining you?” 

Tatius leaned on his pitchfork. “Join you where?”

“Oh, get this,” Evie said. “A priestess sent us to find Hercules. Apparently he alone can stop Mount Vesuvius from blowing its lid and killing everyone in Pompeii. We’re supposed to find a third—” Evie paused and recited the first line of the prophesy. “Rings of Saturn and companions three…” She turned toward Marcus. “Tatius is the third!”

“What? No,” Marcus said.

“I can’t leave,” Tatius protested.

Evie grabbed Tatius’s hand and dragged him away from the haystack. “You have to come with us. We’re supposed to find a third companion and Hercules and stop the volcano in just ten days. If it’s not you, then who are we supposed to find?”

“Anyone else,” Tatius said. “I let you lead me away from my last home. It’s not happening again.” 

“I don’t think he has what it takes,” Marcus piped up.

“Tatius, if you come with us, don’t you think the gods will reward you?” 

“Erm…having a home and work and food in my belly is reward enough.” 

“We need you,” Evie said.

“No we don’t,” Marcus added. Evie glared at him and mouthed the words be quiet. 

“This is my quest. I need you, Tatius, like I need Marcus. Like we need the map and Hercules and these,” she held up her wrist. Evie looked around and then dragged Tatius to the village bathhouse. Marcus followed. Except she didn’t lead them into the public part, but to the small structure behind it, where a fire burned to heat the water. Evie stuck her hand and wrist in.

“No!” Tatius yanked her away from the fire. 

Evie held up her wrist to show the glowing runes wrapped around it. “The gods need you, Tatius. Look. This isn’t some…some dream or vision, or some crazy, imaginary thing.” Well, maybe it is, she thought. “We need you.” 

It took some more convincing, the promise of coin upon completion of the quest as well as her word as the mortal chosen by the gods that his life would be markedly improved in exchange for his participation. Tatius told his new employer that he was leaving. The man wasn’t as kind about it as Publius Sepunius in that he didn’t give them money but rather chased them out of the village with a knife. When they were several hundred yards’ out, Marcus said he would have fought back, except it was funny to be chased so by a man who’d obviously never killed anyone.

Once out of the village, Marcus went to gather or hunt for some food since they were chased out before they could get any. Evie sat down with Tatius and the map. “Do you know where this is?” she asked, holding it out to him. There weren’t any place names labeled—just a zigzagging line through mountains and valleys. 

Tatius examined the map. “I have a good guess,” he said. Turning the map in his hands a few times, he looked around them in a circle. “I think we have to go to Positano.”

“How long will that take?”

Tatius rolled a shoulder. “Three days?”

Evie nodded. “Giving us just over a week to get Hercules back to Mount Vesuvius. I think it’s doable. When Marcus comes back, we’ll start walking.” Evie put the map away and ran her fingers over the runes, no longer glowing, on her wrist. “Why’d you really stay near Campania, Tatius?” 

“I told you already. Mule was stolen and I didn’t want to return without it.” 

“I think Publius Sepunius would have accepted an apology. You’re not a fighter.”

“He would not have. I have seen his anger before.”

“What’d he do?”

According to Tatius, it was three years ago. One of the Publius Sepunius’s slaves was sent out to get the goats. Two of them escaped and could not be recovered. Publius Sepunius had two of the slave’s fingers removed. Both pinkies. The story made Evie gasp and cover her mouth with both hands. 

“That’s horrid. And you saw this?”

Tatius nodded. 

“But…you are a freeman. Surely, he wouldn’t do that to you…” 

“I don’t know. Probably not but that wouldn’t stop him hurting one of his slaves.”

Evie hesitated. “I’m just…I’m surprised. He was so kind to me and he didn’t have to be.” 

“Publius Sepunius fears and honors the gods, as we all do. Showing you kindness was his way of preserving himself and his home.” 

Evie wrapped her arms around her legs. “Oh.” She rested her chin on her knees and said, “Well, then I guess it’s good you didn’t go back there.”

Tatius nodded. “What did the priestess tell you about this prophesy?”

“All I know besides the fact that the three of us have to find Hercules is that he’s trapped somewhere.” 

“Trapped?”

She nodded.

“He must have angered Jupiter. Or Juno. Juno hates Hercules.” 

“I bet she does.”

Evie and Tatius fell into companiable silence until Marcus returned. He couldn’t find any meat but he’d gotten his hands on some bread, milk, and olives. Evie thought he must have skirted around the village to sneak in and steal from people. She secretly hoped he took the food from the villager who chased Tatius and them out with a knife, but she didn’t ask. While they ate, they told Marcus where they had to go and he agreed it would be best not to linger too long. If she hadn’t been convinced before that he stole the food, she would be now. 

With the whole afternoon ahead of them to walk toward Positano, Evie hoped they could put some distance behind them. The sooner they found Hercules, and released him from wherever he was trapped, the sooner they could go to Mount Vesuvius. The sooner she could go home.

Pathogen: Ryan – 7

PathogenRyan slept fitfully that night, waking in a jumbled mess of blankets and sheets. He had to down a cup of coffee before he could open his eyes all the way. Breakfast was a simple affair; a bowl of cereal and an under-ripe banana. He brushed his teeth, washed his face, and got dressed. He didn’t bother shaving–Ryan did so only once every other day or so. There was no point in going through the ritual daily; no one in Q4 cared. He stared at himself in the wall-length mirror in his bedroom. Ryan didn’t consider himself a vain man, but the apartments came furnished and he couldn’t help but notice that for the first time in his life, he was actually building muscle. Must be all the time spent in the gym trying to overhear the news, he thought. He straightened his shirt and left his apartment.

John Neil was sitting outside at one of the tables, sipping a coffee and reading a book. Each apartment came stocked with several bookcases full of books, and there were new deliveries every couple of weeks. The inmates and guards swapped books as well, so that there was enough reading material to keep everyone occupied. “What’s that one?” Ryan dropped into one of the two empty chairs at the table.

“Farenheit 451. I haven’t read it since high school. I’m enjoying it more this time around.” John Neil was short and thin, so that if weren’t for his lined face and balding head, Ryan might have thought he was a teenager. He didn’t work out here, so unlike Ryan, he wasn’t getting stronger, but rather carried his bout with the Sweats like a badge.

“Good book.” Ryan wasn’t sure how to segue into the topic of Gene Dockery. “Do you remember when that reporter came around?” Direct and to the point–though lacking any amount of finesse.

John frowned, closing his book though he kept his finger on his page. “Why do you ask?”

“Because he talked to four of us. You, Blanchard, myself, and some guy named Sullivan.”

John shrugged. “We just talked about having the disease, being here.”

Ryan leaned closer, pretending to look over the cover of John’s book. “I overheard the guards last night. Dockery is reporting on some of the stuff I told him. I’m curious what else he learned while he was here. Maybe there’s more we can do than just…sit around.”

“Don’t go looking for trouble. We’re lucky just to be alive and no matter what it may seem like, we’re not the guards’ friends. They’ll kill us if we try to escape.”

“Who said anything about escape?”

“You didn’t have to. What will you get from talking to all of us about this? Are you hoping to contact Dockery again? If so…how would you even do that? We have no contact with the outside world.”

Ryan sat back and folded his hands on the table. “I don’t need to escape. I just need information and a bit of luck. I have someone on the outside, if she’s still alive. The guards will execute me if I try to escape, true, but not for trying to get in touch with an old friend. They might even help me with that.”

John opened his book again. “Well, I don’t want any part of it. I didn’t even want to talk to Dockery. They’ll clear all this up and then we’ll be able to go home. I don’t want to make any waves. I don’t want to be that guy who gets killed two weeks before everything is opened up again, you know?”

“Yeah, I understand. But how will you be causing trouble if you tell me what you talked about with the reporter?”

“I just want to read and wait this whole thing out.”

“Fine.” Ryan shook his head and pushed himself to his feet, leaning on the table. “But I want you to think about it. You can still help people, without taking on much risk at all. Think about it, John.” He’d have to go and talk to Blanchard. John Neil, he decided, was a coward.

After wandering the common areas for a half hour, Ryan saw no sign of Marcus Blanchard, and he wasn’t exactly hard to find. He wore his hair in gelled spikes and a gold ring hung from his septum. Ryan trudged toward the elevator, intent on going up to Blanchard’s apartment. When the doors slid apart, there he stood.

“Hey man,” Ryan greeted. “How’s it going?” He blocked Marcus’ path. They rarely saw eye to eye and while they weren’t enemies, nor were they friends. Ryan had really hoped that John would have known who Sullivan was, but he wasn’t going to give up just because the person he agreed with more readily wasn’t willing to help him.

“It goes. Same shit, different day, you know?” Marcus looked past Ryan. “Are you just going to stand there?”

“That depends. I need to talk to you.”

“Then talk, but move out the way.”

Ryan stepped outside and waited for Marcus to leave the elevator, falling into step alongside him. “You spoke to that reporter when he came here, right?”

“Yeah. So did you. What does it matter?”

“John Neil and someone whose last name is Sullivan did too.”

“I know Sullivan.” Marcus sneered. “Real sneaky guy.”

“But you do know him. So you can introduce him. Look, I want to talk–the four of us, tonight. Can you get him to come to my apartment?”

“Why? What do you want to talk about?”

Ryan pushed his hand through his hair. “I want to get out on the table what each of us told Dockery. The guards were talking about his reports and–“

“Obviously. He’s the reporter for this whole thing, isn’t he?”

“He is, but that’s not what I meant. I think there’s something going on–something bigger than us, and I think Dockery is the key. I can get to him, get a message to him, I mean, but I need to know what he knows first.”

Marcus shrugged one shoulder. “Whatever man, I’ll be there. I’ll see if I can drag Sullivan along too.”

“Thanks. See you.” He turned away from Marcus, not eager to share the man’s company any longer than he had to. Ryan went to find John again, who was still outside reading Farenheit 451, and invited him to come and watch a game after dinner. Of course, they weren’t going to watch a game, but Ryan suspected that if he got John Neil, Marcus Blanchard, and Sullivan into one space, he could figure out what was going on beyond the concrete walls of Q4.