Zelda and I stood together on the canal bank watching as they dragged for bodies. We cried when they placed the one red shoe into her trembling hands.
We consoled each other after the investigative interviews.
We bonded when we cleaned out Elisa’s apartment. The princess didn’t own many valuable possessions. I kept her egg timer, and Zelda wasn’t parting with that shoe.
Elisa had some money saved. She left a note saying to split it between us.
Our conversations were stilted as we trundled through grief-stricken tasks.
“I think he healed her and took her away with him,” I’d say.
Zelda’s expression was melancholic, “If she were still alive, she would have let us know.”
“How could she? Too many people are still looking for him….for them.”
Our prospects for work dwindled. Zelda was spending nights on the sofa sleeper in my apartment. Though I enjoyed her company and her cooking, sharing a bathroom with her was nearly intolerable.
“Yolanda, from work, cleaned Colonel Strickland’s office.” Zelda offered as she turned hash browns one morning. “She overheard him talking about where he found it. She knew the place; she has cousins near there.”
“Did Yolanda say if her cousins ever heard of a River God?”
“She didn’t.” Zelda compressed her lips. Those words dropped off into a moment that was as deep and broad as the Grand Canyon. Zelda’s stern brown eyes bored into mine. My scalp tingled. I ran my fingers through the hair that hadn’t been there before Aqua Man.
A postcard arrived one day. Not in the mailbox but slipped under my door. There were only two things on it. My street address and a stamp from Peru.
Zelda and I became unencumbered adventurers. No strings kept us tied to any one place. We headed south making discrete inquiries. We were lucky Zelda speaks Spanish. She started teaching me too. A year, to the day, after we left, we stumbled on a lead. Iquitos is a hole-in-the-wall-town with a few services. Zelda found a job almost right away teaching English to school children in the afternoons. She dragged me along sometimes.
One of her students, Jhady, is a disfigured girl, the daughter of a local businessman who owns an ‘art gallery’ in the back of his grocery store. Zelda kept nagging me to show my portfolio to her father.
When I did it, he was only expressing lukewarm interest in my work when he came across a piece titled, Elisa and her Monster. Raimee’s eyes went buggy; he began talking so fast that I couldn’t track a single word. He seemed in danger of stroking out, so I rushed to bring Zelda in to translate.
We learned that Raimee had seen the River God, he said his name is Iglootoo. The River God receives pilgrims during harvest moons. Raimee pointed to my sketch, speaking two words I understood, “White Queen.”
“We found her!” Zelda screeched, her eyes filling with tears.
Listening to Raimee and nodding, she repeated, “A small pilgrimage is preparing to leave next week. He says he’ll arrange for us to join them if you will speak to the River God on behalf of his daughter.”
She pointed to my sketch.
Waving his arm, Raimee encouraged Jhady to come out from behind the curtain where she’d been hiding. She hung her head, letting her long dark hair form a barrier. I could see enough of her face to observe tight, contorted skin around her nose and mouth.
As the date for departure approached, our nerves grew taught. We took it out on each other.
“What if it’s not them?” Zelda worried.
“It has to be! Raimee recognized Elisa in my sketch.”
“It doesn’t look that much like her! If it is her, what are we going to say after all this time?”
“Hello? I’ve missed you?” I suggested in a sarcastic, biting tone.
“Should we take something as an offering?”
“If we don’t, they might not let us go—” I smiled slowly. I knew what I was going to bring.
It would be a four-day trek into the unfathomable jungle. We bought burros to haul our gear. Neither one of us believed that the other could hike that distance, I hoped those burros could carry people.
We headed out at dawn with guides at the front wielding long, thick blades, doing battling plant life. Zelda and I were the last stragglers in a group of twelve.
We stood at the edge of a small lake. Thick tropical foliage obscured the opposite shore.
An elaborate calling ceremony began with pounding drums and song. Zelda stood to my left. Raimee to my right, his daughter, pressed against his side like melted cheese on beans. Flower petals were cast over the glassy surface.
When bubbles appeared moving in our direction, all grew silent, even the birds and monkeys stopped chattering.
Zelda’s breath caught when a blue-grey be-gilled head rose from the water like a bioluminescent Atlantean prince.
Following the locals, we dropped to our knees, sinking into warm, soft mud. Supplicants displayed their offerings before them.
We could tell he recognized us when his purposeful footsteps halted; his head swiveled in our direction.
The party leader stood, calling the creature’s attention.
“He knows you!” Raimee stated clearly in English.
“Where’s Elisa?” Zelda whispered vehemently.
I didn’t know, but like her, I was searching. In my peripheral vision, I watched our scaly friend picking his way through the line, accepting gifts and laying his webbed hands on heads, feet, and other places the petitioners extended for inspection.
The expressions of those he skipped turned to masks of disappointment. I wondered at his choices, did he not care for their gifts?
As he got closer, he seemed distracted.
Jhady was next in line. The River God dismissed her. Raimee’s face crumbled, “Not again!” he cried.
“Wait!” I called, even though Zelda pounded on my arm.
I held out my basket. Mewling sounds came from inside.
Aqua Man’s gills flared. I think that’s as close as he gets to smirking.
“I remembered,” I said looking him full in the face. “I was going to ask for more hair, but I’d rather you heal this little girl.”
When he pointed to my basket, signing the word for, ‘funny,’ Zelda and I glanced at each other, grinning.
Aqua Man returned his attention to Raimee’s girl.
Peeling her away, Raimee thrust her forward, admonishing, “Sé quieto!”
Clawed, webbed hands cradled the girl’s face. The River God remained in that position longer than he had with any other pilgrim. The girl’s frightened utterings sounded like the kitten cries. When he pulled away, he dropped to his knees, hanging his head.
‘Leave us,’ Aqua Man signed.
In the awkward moment when no one but Zelda and me knew what he wanted, Zelda took care of business. “He said you should all go now. Va! Va!” she shooed.
Before the pilgrims departed, Raimee approached us. He grabbed Zelda’s hand kissing it. “My Jhady is beautiful again!” Tears coursed down his faces. He grabbed Zelda’s hand kissing it. Thanking me profusely, bowing to the River God, he backed away.
When he could stand, Aqua Man led us to a vine-choked path. The going was slow. He grunted as he pulled at the stalks, making room for our burros to pass. I tried helping, but he waved me away. I had a waking nightmare that the jungle was a many-pointed sea star grasping and suffocating everything in its path.
My friend was breathing hard, stooped, and unsteady by the time we reached a clearing. Zelda was steadying him when we heard a, ‘Whoop!’
And there she was! The White Queen, our own dear Elisa. I stared in shock – her eyes and smile were the same, but the rest of her was drastically changed. She was a combination of Jane of the Jungle, a heavily endowed fertility goddess, and an Aqua Woman.
Lumbering toward us, tears streamed down her face, “You found me!”
Another jolt – her voice!
Overjoyed, the three of us cried and hugged.
After a moment, Elisa pulled away. “Iggy,” she said, “Thank you. Please go now.”
He nodded, turning away. We watched him walk into the water. At thigh height, he dove.
Returning to one another, we replayed a muted version of our happy reunion.
“Let me look at you,” Zelda said while swiping a hand along her cheeks.
Elisa’s hair was hanging in a thick braid down her back. Across the top of her cheeks, along her collarbones and arms, were glittering, overlapping scales.
“How–?” I began, not knowing what else to say. I reached for her free hand. “I saw you shot.”
“It’s a long story,” Elisa replied, her voice lyrical and butter-soft.
Zelda erupted in tears again. “Your voice—it’s just like I always imagined.”
“Me too,” Elisa smiled, “Though I don’t use it as often as I’d like.” Shaking herself, she continued,” Come inside, out of the heat. You’re staying,” It was a statement rather than a question.
Zelda and I hadn’t talked about it, but we’d packed everything.
I situated our burros before following the women into the house. It was a single room building. Two double beds were pushed up against the walls. A small kitchen counter took up another wall. A table surrounded by four stools stood in the middle.
“Zelda will share with me, and Giles will take the other bed.”
“But what about—?” Zelda asked.
“That’s his name?” I wanted to know.
“His name is Iglootoo. He told me that after I taught him how to spell in our language.”
Zelda nodded. “I never thought about him having a name, but I guess you’ve got to call him something.”
“Iggy fits him,” I responded. “Did someone give it to him or did he choose it for himself?”
Chuckling, Elisa patted my shoulder. Leaning in to plant a kiss, she said, “I’ve missed you, Giles. We’ll have plenty of time for stories. Did you bring your art supplies?”
“I never leave home without them.”
Zelda joined Elisa in her small garden picking vegetables for our meal. I sat inside, observing. Sketchpad in hand, I let my pencil capture the scene.
Long shadows, two women wearing large straw hats, their heads together. I couldn’t draw the feminine laughter but wished I could capture it artistically. Their voices carried.
“How long till Iggy comes back?”
Elisa straightened, raising a hand to her brow, looking out over the water. “He’ll be gone for a while. Those ceremonies take a lot out of him. He needs to go down deep to feel restored. He’s worried about the baby and me,” she rubbed the base of her spine, “so he hasn’t gone as far as he should. With you here, he can take as long as he needs.”
“Honey,” Zelda came to stand beside her, “are you worried about—” she nodded at Elisa’s middle.
Elisa faced away from me, but I could see Zelda’s expression. In all honesty, I’m glad it wasn’t me out there voicing the questions that were on our minds.
They moved into the shade, sitting close. Zelda’s arm wrapped protectively around her dearest friend.
“My child— if it lives. If we both live, won’t have any friends,” Elisa cried.
“If it lives?” Of course, it’s going to live, and so are you! As for friends—that baby already has four people who love it.”
“It,” Elisa repeated, letting the word hang in the air.
Elisa leaned into Zelda; they huddled together. “I’m so glad you are here, Zeldy.”
“Me too baby girl!”
Our days became predictable; meals, naps, tending the burros and the garden. For the first time, in possibly decades, I was relaxed and at peace. I noticed, with pleasure, that I’d lost track of the days of the week.
One afternoon, Elisa and I were sitting at the table sipping tea. I’d just finished telling her about the inquiries, the search for bodies, and apologizing for getting rid of all her things. She patted my arm.
“Thank you for taking care of everything. That phase of my life is dead, you did the right thing.”
When Elisa noticed my eyes rapidly blinking, her mouth turned down. She used to read me like a book. I think her skills in that department had deteriorated.
“Take a good look at me, Giles.” She stretched out a leg. Hiking up her skirt, revealing a creamy thigh, and areas covered with translucent scales.
Across the room, Zelda stirred from a siesta, yawning. Swinging her feet to the floor, she hurried over.
Elisa slipped off her shoes spreading her toes. Holding up her hands, she held her fingers wide. Webbing filled all the spaces.
We couldn’t contain our surprise.
Elisa bit her lip; she looked as if she was holding back a smile. Making sure we were looking at her face, she blinked with a set of inner eyelids. They moved vertically from the corners of her eyes toward the bridge of her nose.
“Mary, Mother of Jesus!” Zelda exclaimed, placing a hand over her heart. She puffed up, “I get that gilly thing,” she waved a finger at Elisa’s neck. He had to give you those when he took you in the water and healed your gunshot wound. But he dragged you all the way out here to the middle of the jungle, and he knocked you up,” Zelda’s voice was gaining volume, her gestures taking up more air space. “Then he leaves you all alone when you’re about ready to drop that kid—” Zelda paused when Elisa started repeating her tirade in sign language. Like a statue, Zelda rotated ninety degrees on her toes.
Iglootoo stood in the doorway, dripping, a puddle forming at his feet. ‘I did not change her or heal her,’ he said in the silent language spoken with his flipper hands.
One of the kittens scampered in around his ankles. Lightning fast, he pounced. Zelda and I jumped. Striding across the room, handing the cat to me, he kneeled at my side, bowing his head. I patted him, remembering the first time he’d encountered a house cat.
That evening as the three of us ate our meal; Iggy reclined on one of the beds playing with the kittens.
‘Iggy’ eats while he’s in the water,’ Elisa explained.
“I like that,” Zelda commented, “a man that don’t need no cooking’s alright by me.”
When the dishes were cleared, Iggy stood, coming to the head of the table. ‘Elisa asked me to tell our story,’ he signed.
He waited for her signal to start. She nodded.
‘Elisa is a lost cousin.’ Going to her side, he lifted her hair, touching her chin gently with a claw, he turned her face left and then to the right.
Her gill slits flared, displaying crimson filaments inside.
Zelda shivered, “I could have gone all day without seeing that!”
Iggy looked to me, I rolled my eyes, shaking my head.
He continued, ‘I was sent to find her, to bring her home. Elisa was designed to be my mate.’
I wasn’t sure if the word he’d used was ‘designed’ or ‘destined,’ but I was too engrossed to interrupt.
‘I was setting out on my journey when I was captured. I did not recognize Elisa when I first encountered her. My sense of smell is not good in the open air and my thoughts were muddled. When our kind enters courtship, we remain in constant companionship. I did not understand how Elisa could come and go. Her unusual behavior was a curiosity that I studied. When we traveled back here, in our liquid environment, we completed the bonding rituals.’ He paused, looking down at her, running a knuckle along her jaw.
Elisa covered his hand, smiling up at him.
‘I’m in you,’ he signed solemnly to her.
‘As I am in you,’ she replied, ‘and we are everywhere.’
Their moment of intense communication drew out.
I could see Zelda bursting with questions; she must have decided to keep quiet too.
As if reminding himself that he had an audience, Iggy continued, ‘When we arrived, we expected to be greeted by the family, but they were gone. All my people are gone. While we wait for the offspring, I tend to the city and search for the others.’
“City?” I questioned, glancing around.
Elisa sighed, “It’s underwater, and it’s beautiful, Giles! I wish you could see it—draw it.”
Just as my imagination was taking root, Iggy bent over, placing a hand on Elisa’s belly. ‘It is time,’ he signed. ‘We will return in three days.’ Scooping her up, he marched outside.
“Wait!” Zelda cried chasing after them, her voice on the edge of panic. I followed too watching Elisa’s crooked smile as she kept an eye on us over Iggy’s shoulder. She waved before they submerged.
While Zelda was unsettled with the latest changes in her friend’s life, I was revitalized. I would bear witness to a new, possibly one-of-a-kind, life form. I wished for gills and webs so I could join Elisa and Iggy in the sea.
And then there were three.
They arrived in the night when the temperature was low and the humidity high. Elisa cried a little when she described Gemmalyn’s struggle to take her first breath of air. “If we didn’t make her use her lungs right away, they might never develop,” Elisa’s voice shook. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The nipper is a delight. ‘Darling’ and ‘adorable’ are words Zelda uses when she holds her. ‘Little Monster’ are others she says when she’s sporting a wounded finger that got too close to baby’s sharp teeth.
On a sweltering afternoon when Zelda was in town, and Iggy was away fishing, I sketched Elisa with her baby. It would be another contribution to the baby book Elisa was making. Gemma, still attached to her mother’s breast, had a full belly and was resisting sleep. Elisa rocked, in no hurry to put her daughter down.
“He took me to the city for Gemmalyn’s birth,” Elisa began. “I’ve never had the stamina to make it without help. When we’ve gone in the past, he holds me around the waist; I help kick. This time he carried me, just like when we left. That position creates a lot more drag,” she laughed softly. “It was an effort, but he got us there. It was the first time I felt sad about the place being deserted.”
“He took me to the women’s hall, then, in his language, he gave me the sights and sounds of the city as he’d known it. In that way, I saw his female relatives, and the traditional birthing circle,” Elisa raised glassy eyes gleaming with unshed tears. “It’s indescribable, Giles, understanding how it was and watching Iggy trying to make it right.”
Behind the mother and child scene, I began filling in the background with structures. A bustling, underwater metropolis with lots of Iggies.
“He did the work of the women, helping me bring his daughter into the world. It hurt, there was blood, and sharks circled above, just like buzzards, waiting for a chance.”
“Iggy kept us safe. We stayed in the royal’s suite in the grand palace. While I recovered, Iggy made sure Gemmalyn didn’t swim out of his sight.”
“And then we came home, to you and Zelda,” Elisa sighed, her eyelids growing too heavy to stay open.”
For a moment, I wondered how this mud brick structure compared to a royal suite, what held such attraction to keep them coming back here?
I put the baby in her bassinet, covered Elisa, then went to cool my feet at the river bank. My mind was churning with things only aquatic life can experience.
Iggy emerged with fish on a kelp stringer. Wrapping it securely around a branch, he let our lunch enjoy a reprieve. ‘What is on your mind, Giles?’ he signed as he sat next to me.
“I’m tired of sitting around,” I said, no longer bothering to sign back. Though he could not speak, he understood our language perfectly well. “I want to go with you, to help search.”
We started my endurance swimming and free diving lessons that afternoon.
I enjoyed my new quest, searching with Iggy sometimes, and other times alone.
Nearly a year later, our little clan is still intact. We’ve added rooms onto to Elisa’s house. The Iglootoo family, as I now think of them, is in residence less and less.
Gemmalyn, the most beautiful creature on the face of the Earth, is the best of both her parents. She is graceful in the water and out. She’s as curious as our cats and rambunctious as a monkey.
Though there’s been no sign of Iglootoo’s people, he remains hopeful. He is a devoted mate and father, and he’s a first-rate best friend. He’s accepted us as part of his tribe. Our association with him has elevated us as human beings.
Zelda helps Elisa chase after Gemma when she’s on land. She’s also become my art representative with Raimee, who’s been selling my Iglootoo sketches. (Elisa and Iggy have sworn us to secrecy about Gemmalyn!)
I suspect Raimee’s daughter has been playing matchmaker between Zelda and her father. Zelda nearly glows every time she returns from town.
Elisa has been pushing Zelda into talks with the National Parks system. Her goal is to make sure their home remains protected and safe, that people like Colonel Strickland can never repeat what happened to Iggy.
Iggy restored nearly all my hair and gave me back the body of a forty-year-old.
I’d be remiss in ending our story without mentioning my fresh start with love…
Iggy believes the merfolk are fairytales, he’s wrong.
Did you enjoy the Shape of Water Continued? Did you feel that the story stayed true to the personalities of the characters in the movie? If you were to write a Continued story, what would be similar or different in yours? Leave comments below.
Humans are the only species that buries their dead.
After Phineas Gage died (1860), he was buried in Lone Mountain Cemetery in San Francisco. Six years later, his brother-in-law, David Shattuck, along with two physicians (past mayors) dug him up.
Gage’s traumatic brain injury (1848) made him famous in neuroscience and psychology fields.
Once he learned of his patient’s passing, Dr. Harlow (who treated Phineas) asked to have the body exhumed for the advancement of science. Phineas’s mother received this request and saw that it was carried out.
What is it like to unearth a member of your family?
David Shattuck (husband to Phoebe Gage / brother-in-law to Phineas Gage)
Lone Mountain Cemetery, San Francisco 1867
On a misty morning in November, I found myself in the Lone Mountain Cemetery looking down at my brother-in-law’s tombstone. Doctor Coon and Doctor J.B.D. Stillman stood at my side, each with a shovel in hand.
Guards stood at the closed entrance gates affording us privacy.
Coats came off as digging commenced. At first, I felt that I was committing an unforgivable sin. But as my back strained and my hands developed blisters, those feelings subsided, until my shovel made contact with something solid.
The other two paused, nodding to one another, then resumed. Once space was clear, the two doctors were about to lift the coffin lid when I interrupted. “Wait! Gentlemen, please bear with my squeamishness. Before you open it, would you prepare me for what I am about to see?”
Doctor Coon looked uncomfortable. He glanced at Doctor Stillman who replied, “Why, David, you need not see anything.”
“No,” I disagreed firmly. “I promised my wife that I would follow it through to the end.”
“She never needs to know,” Doctor Coon replied softly.
“I’ll know. Please, just tell me.”
“Very well,” the man sighed as he wiped his hands on his vest, “By now, all of the body fluids will have dissipated. The clothing will be intact. Likely, dry skin will still cover the skeletal remains. Hair will be present.” Coon paused to see how I was taking it. “Shall I describe what we’ll do next and the skull removal process?”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded.
“Once the lid is off, the first thing I will do is hand you the iron bar. Next, I will test the skull to see if it separates from the spine. If not, Doctor Stillman has tools for that. I will remove any organic matter that freely separates. Doctor Stillman will take the skull and place it inside the box.” Coon paused, waiting for my response.
“Understood. Proceed,” I said gravely.
It took all three of us climbing inside the hole to pry the lid up and place it off to the side. I was surprised to see Phineas’s body exactly as Doctor Coon described.
Mummified-looking remains wore Phin’s clothes. But it no longer looked like the man I remembered. When I hopped out of the hole, Doctor Coon handed up the bar. It was ice-cold to the touch, heavier than I remembered.
Not wishing to watch more of the proceedings, I held it up, running a finger over the words etched on its surface.
This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 14, 1848. He fully recovered from the injury & deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phinehas P. Gage Lebanon Grafton Cy N-H Jan 6, 1850
I remembered Phin’s story about the engraver he hired to do the work, misspelling his name. I could hear Phineas saying, ‘When mistakes are made, it’s the good man who doesn’t get angry, but figures out how to move forward from there.’
I chose to focus on memories rather than listen to the doctors going on about their ghoulish activity.
“Mission accomplished,” Doctor Stillman proclaimed loudly, breaking into my thoughts. He and Doctor Coon replaced the coffin lid. “Let’s get that hole filled.”
When we finished, Doctor Stillman offered to take the skull with him to process it for travel.
I promised myself at that moment, that ‘the skull’ would remain inside its box until it was delivered to Doctor Harlow. I didn’t care to, ever, look at it, or have any member of my family see it.
Without my noticing, a murky fog had rolled in. The city beyond the cemetery walls had been engulfed in a chilly, dull, gray blankness of a November day. Seagulls could be heard high above in the blue sky that must be up there. Our boot steps sounded muffled.
Doctor Stillman cradled the box in front of him like a wise man on his way to deliver a gift to the baby Jesus. Doctor Coon carried shovels and a bag of tools. I kept pace with the others, Phineas’s bar grew heavier every minute.
A raven landed on a tombstone nearby. It shrieked, raising its wings like it expected a token in exchange for letting us pass.
When the guards opened the gates, the metal hinges let loose a high-pitched protest. I wondered if the flaming gates of hell would sound that way if this deed took me to that entrance.
Worse yet, would Phoebe ever forgive me for this?
The Gage family was one of many who were affected by grave removals in San Francisco.
With growing pressure to make efficient use of valuable real estate, the dead of San Francisco had to make way for the living.
By the end of 1948 bodies in several pioneer cemeteries were moved to a mass grave site forty miles south in Colma, California.
Phineas Gage’s niece, Delia Presby (Shattuck) Oliver’s gravestone appears on Ocean Beach when heavy storms move sand out to sea. It was last uncovered on June 4, 2012. The lettering — still legible — reads; Delia Presby, wife of, F.B. Oliver, Died, April 9, 1890, Aged 26 yrs., 10 mos. 27 days, — Rest –
It is said that many people joining in focused thought, meditation, or prayer can affect outcomes.
The folks at XPRIZE believe that imagination crowdsourcing could generate solutions for some of the planets most pressing problems.
Examples of their competitions include; a 10 million dollar prize for a palm-sized health monitoring device, a $1 million award for leveraging technology to ensure women’s safety, and a $1.75 million prize for harvesting fresh water from thin air.
The XPRIZE group recently demonstrated that they have no shortage of imagination within their ranks. In preparation for a writing competition, they set a stage;
an international flight from Tokyo to San Francisco gently bumps through a time wrinkle, landing passengers twenty years in the future.
XPRIZE released an Origin Story video and asked thirty-two well-known authors including Margaret Atwood, Hugh Howey, and Kevin J. Anderson to contribute short stories for individual passengers on the plane.
From June – August 2017, one seat was open for a writing competition, Seat 14C. Aidan J.S. Menuge, a musician, composer, and writer, claimed that seat from the 1,400 entries (see links below).
As I was crafting my story, it was powerful knowing that other writers were working with the same ideas at the same time. Even more powerful is reading their stories!
The future I imagined involves a world health care system that supports people from the inside out. In this system, it is common knowledge that if someone feels balanced, loved, and connected they become positive contributors to their communities.
I’m glad that the competition brought my attention to the XPRIZE organization. I will be cheering on their progress and sharing the solutions they’re inspiring.
The Seat 14C contest criteria included;
A unique vision of the future
First person point-of-view
Optimistic tone that demonstrates exponential technology positively impacting the future
and the tale from when the passengers disembark at San Francisco International Airport in the year 2037.
Below is my entry, Renewal.
2,550 words. [*re-edited since entry]
Charlotte’s life was dead-ending. Surrounded by grieving passengers who’d lost twenty years, Sal, a Change Counselor, attempts to help Charlotte start over.
Clutching carry-on bags in white-knuckled fists, some passengers were openly crying. I was silent, my face, a stony mask of indifference.
A row of people dressed in white robes stood inside a blue, pulsating ‘environment’ receiving the occupants of ANA’s Boeing 777. One by one, the ‘waiters’ broke formation to pair up with traumatized time travelers.
Some hugged, some held hands. Most were led a distance away so conversations could be private. Big Bubba, my close companion for the last two days stepped ahead of me. Having grown used to him being as close as pea pod neighbors, it felt strange to see the distance between us growing. I heard the robed person say, “Michael, I am very sorry for your loss.”
Shoulders shaking, Bubba blubbered, “Twenty years! My kids won’t know me anymore!”
We’d been sharing jewelry, matching carbon steel bracelets. This was the first I’d heard about him having kids.
“It’s going to be alright, Michael,” his greeter crooned in a soft voice, taking his hand. “Your sons are doing well. They can’t wait to see you.”
I could tell when my greeter spotted me. Direct eye contact, a slight nod and a bee-line gait. “Hello, Charlotte, my name is Sal. I will be your Change Counselor.”
What? I stepped back, staying out of touching range. Sal was completely bald. Broad cheekbones and olive skin didn’t fit with the vivid blue eyes and white eyebrows punctured by rows of tiny gold beads. One eye had long, enviable lashes, the other had almost none. Sal’s voice was soothing, it’s timber fell somewhere in the medium octaves. My insides twisted, making me feel off-kilter like I’d entered the Firefly galaxy.
“What is this place?” I asked, glancing around. The room was at least four times larger than the plane. It pulsed with a delicate blue ambiance. The junctions at the railings and floors glowed, but I couldn’t see fixtures or bulbs. Small groupings of puffy furniture were everywhere. Change Counselors sat with their charges, including the pilots and flight attendants. Large iconic images of San Francisco hovered at the outer edges; The Golden Gate Bridge, Alamo Square’s Painted Ladies, the Transamerica Building and Fisherman’s Wharf. I wondered if those recognizable settings were put there to soothe us.
“It’s a Red Cross Trauma Unit,” Sal said.
“Are we prisoners?”
“No,” came the sympathetic reply. Sal noticed my inability to make eye contact. “Is my appearance distressing you?”
“Well — “ my eyes dropped to the floor. “I don’t know if I should call you a he or a she.”
Smiling, Sal’s demeanor reminded me of my kindergarten teacher. “I am gender neutral. The pronoun to use is, ‘zie.’”
“Ahhh,” I nodded, studying my fingernails.
Sal held out a hand, palm up.
After a few uncertain moments, I bridged the gap. The warmth, strength, and kindness of Sal’s touch sent a shockwave through my system. I would have jerked away if zie had not had a firm grip. Sal noticed the raw skin on my wrist.
“This must be painful,” Sal said. “With your permission, we have a cream that will heal dermal abrasions.”
“No one here is in trouble, including you, Charlotte. Your activities in 2017 are not illegal now.” Sal winked.
Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply. For most of my flight home, I’d been worrying about my mother’s reaction when she saw me handcuffed to Big Bubba —
“Can I show you something?” Sal interrupted. Leading me to a set of stairs, we started up. To no one I could see, Sal spoke. “One ounce of tissue repair and a tricorder to the observation deck.”
“Who are you talking to?”
“The walls have sensors.”
Waiting for us at the top of the steps was an insect-like creature hovering at eye level. It carried a clear square topped with a dollop of cream.
“Hold out your hand, Charlotte, so the medi-drone can deliver your ointment.”
Doing as instructed, I waited as the drone delivered its payload. It buzzed away.
“Apply the entire amount,” Sal said.
It melted into my skin like whipped cream on hot chocolate giving off a pleasing floral, citrus smell. The soreness and red marks disappeared instantly. The clear square that held the cream dissolved, making a crackling sound.
Stepping farther into the room, I saw that we were inside a dome. Catching myself before making an exclamation out loud, I walked to the wall placing my hand on the seamless glass. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered.
Stars twinkled above. A Robert D. Brown version of San Francisco spread out below. Layers of vehicles in flight circulated around towering, clean-lined skyscrapers like veins and arteries. The air was crystal clear, plant life on platforms and terraces made the city look like a living jungle. The landscape below receded as we gained altitude.
“I thought we were still on the tarmac,” I turned to Sal. “Where are we going?”
“This transport has been programmed to take us to the Barry Healing Center in Monterey Canyon.”
“Monterey Canyon! Are we going under water?”
The curves of Sal’s mouth uplifted at the edges. “It is the premier trauma center on the west coast. As soon as your plane appeared on the radar, ANA began negotiations to secure the facility.
A buzzing distracted me from the conversation. Another medi-drone approached. This one was twice as large as the first. About the size of a box turtle, it delivered something that looked like a TV remote control to Sal. “Thank you,” zie said accepting the device. “It is a tricorder,” Sal turned to face me, “It will give us your baseline state of health.”
Shaking my head, I held up a hand, “Whatever it is, I can’t afford it.”
“There’s no cost, Charlotte, maintaining optimal health is a universal right as decreed by the Global Living Counsel.” Raising eyebrows, Sal held up the device.
Reluctantly, I nodded. Zie waved it in my direction then glanced down at the screen. Sal frowned.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” Sal replied quickly, smiling, “You are a perfectly healthy, twenty-eight-year-old woman.”
“Who should be forty-eight,” I quipped.
Other passengers and counselors began arriving on the observation deck.
“We’ll begin our descent soon,” Sal stated as zie returned the tricorder to the flying turtle. “When we transition from terrestrial to aquatic, it’s a lovely sight.”
“What happens when we get where we are going?”
“Individual healing plans are manifested.”
I noticed Bubba and his counselor not far away. I could hear snatches of their conversation. He was still talking about his kids.
Facing Sal, I asked, “What if we don’t want to contact family?”
“That would be included in your healing plan. Your wishes will be honored.”
A weight the size of the moon, lifted. My shoulders slumped, I wobbled unsteadily.
Ever observant of my reactions, Sal hurried to bring a chair that I gratefully collapsed into. I could have easily closed my eyes and let the world fade but we were approaching the water.
Without a pause, we dropped below the surface. Tiny air bubbles passed the windows like spinning pearls. I sat up straighter, gazing at the pristine surroundings. Streaks of sunlight beamed through kelp flowing in the currents. A stunning variety of fish scattered. Off in the distance, I made out a multi-storied structure, clear like our dome. People moving around inside. Several crab-like robots, arms, and legs plodding slowly, looked like they were harvesting crops along the seafloor.
My suite at the Barry Healing Center was lavish. The amenities were like a high-end resort. It was difficult to accept that my time here was a freebie granted by a society that valued the well-being of its citizens. Sal showed me a button to push if I needed him.
Eight days went by before I pushed it.
I slept, finished the novels that I packed, and became acquainted with the helper bots that came out of the closet whenever I voiced a need to the listening walls. They brought my meals, cleared the dishes, changed my linens, and provided instructions on how to use the COMM consul, a connection to the outside world and the source of all human knowledge. Located in the sitting room, the History channel filled me in on what I missed while I was wrinkled in time.
My period was late. Was it because of stress or the result of a hot and steamy Tokyo connection? Wondering if it could be the latter, my thoughts returned to Mom. During the flight, I wasn’t worried about going to jail, but about what she’d say when she saw me with Big Bubba. “What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into, you worthless piece of crap? You’ve been a pain in my ass since the day you were born,” was a common theme. Attempting to win her approval was idiotic, yet I never stopped trying.
I knew about her diagnosis before I left. The sand in the hourglass of her life was responding to gravity. Tokyo was going to be my best, and last shot at pleasing her.
My chest constricted when I imagined having a child. I couldn’t remember a time when my mother didn’t mow me down with poison words. Picturing an innocent, cringing from me made my lips tremble. I couldn’t catch my breath. I pushed the button.
Sal was there without delay. Like before, Sal’s touch soothed, but it didn’t stop the flow of emotions. Zie confirmed the tricorder confirmation of a pregnancy.
“I can’t have a kid!” I wailed, “I don’t have a job; I’ll mess it up. It will hate me.”
Smiling, Sal rubbed my back, “Charlotte, you won’t have to do it alone. Like this trauma center, on-going life coaching, and basic living wages are universal rights. When you leave here, you and your little boy will have a home and plenty of support to make your lives healthy.”
“A boy!” I put my hands on my belly. “You can tell that already?”
“I don’t know if I want to be a mother.”
Sal assured me that my restless and bored feelings were signs that I was growing strong enough to begin living on the outside. I still wasn’t sure that I wanted a tag-along, but the idea of keeping the baby wasn’t as horrific as it was weeks before.
From the COMM center, I learned that ocean cleanup efforts were still ongoing, that we’d rolled back pollution levels to 1970’s estimates. CO2 emissions were almost nothing and international borders were relaxing as a global government was proving itself capable and trustworthy.
The rock inside that kept me encapsulated in a shell of fear was beginning to soften. Hope, given enough space to grow, will emerge, making room for new ideas. I’d chosen Albuquerque for my home. One helper bot would be assigned to me. If I wanted more, I’d have to earn it.
A week before I was scheduled to leave, Sal called me into the medi-unit to meet with a doctor. “There is something we need to discuss,” zie said. “Your tricorder scan found a genetic problem with your baby’s heart.”
My glass house was crumbling into wicked shards. Feelings of hope were evaporating like steam, I didn’t deserve them anyway, I was still the same messed up girl that my mother cursed.
“Charlotte!” Sal was gripping my hands, “You’ve stopped listening.”
Zie was right. When they said that something was wrong with my baby, I knew, suddenly, that I wanted him!
“The procedure to repair it is minor,” the doctor was saying over Sal’s shoulder. “CRISPR will eradicate it within twenty-four hours.”
In the last five minutes, I’d taken a roller coaster ride back into my dark place — one I’d hoped I’d left behind — and become frozen in a sticky soup of something much bigger. “CRISPR?” my eyes were as wide as saucers. “Isn’t that….??”
Sal squeezed my hands, He nodded sadly. “Everyone alive today lost someone in the tragedy. That harsh lesson taught us to be much more careful. Its use is highly regulated. There are multiple levels of oversight. For something like this, Charlotte, CRISPR is a miracle.”
Ryo was born, without a heart defect. He takes after his father with stiff dark hair that stands on end. Four years into our journey together, I’ve stopped stressing about repeating my mother’s mistakes. We’re good, but I’m still working on it, and me, every day. I have a small, precious community of friends, a life coach I enjoy, and meaningful work.
As settled as my life had become, I worried about Ryo’s father. I knew as much as social media told me.
Returning from a hole in time is big news. As far as I know, every ANA passenger had to deal with some form of celebrity. I had declined all interviews and had no social media accounts in my real name. I had hoped to stay out of his radar.
“Overseas communication, private discourse requested,” announce LeeLu, my house bot. “Caller ID: Haru Ito.”
I’d been painting a still life. At the mention of that name, my brush dropped to the floor, splattering yellow paint over my canvas shoes.
“Where’s Ryo?” I inquired. Did my voice sound shrill?
“He’s at the park with Nanny Ron,” Leelu informed.
I rushed to a mirror.
“Shall I decline the connection?”
“No! I’ll be right there,” I said, raking a brush through my hair. I pinched my cheeks, a ridiculous habit. Employing calming techniques, I took deep breaths while turning off all the listening devices, bots, and tools in the house. Stepping in front of the COMM screen, I gazed into eyes that matched my son’s.
A veneer of maturity was superimposed over my memory of a youthful boy. Ito was still trim and handsome, but a no-nonsense, self-confidence had replaced shy enthusiasm.
“Charlotte, you look just the same,” he said, smiling warmly, sounding surprised.
The hard irony of his statement settled between us like an elephant attempting to sit on a footstool.
After a long silence, he said, “I know about the child. I wish you’d come to me as soon as you returned —“
And then he said the words I’d been dreading, “I’d like to meet him.”
I was familiar with his family and career. He was working on international negotiations on behalf of the global governance. He had a teenage daughter who was an accomplished musician and writer. His wife was on a team expedition to Jupiter. She’d been gone for three years; it was unlikely she’d ever return.
I could feel my old insecurities clamoring below the surface like cage-crazed chimpanzees. It was difficult to trust that someone I’d crossed paths with in my old life could have turned out to be someone I’d want to know in my new one — let alone give access to my son.
I remembered something Sal said at the healing center, “Don’t let fear rule you, Charlotte. Life gives more gifts to those with open hearts.”
The private transport reminded me of the one I’d been on when I got off ANA flight #008. To Ryo, it was no big deal, a playroom to explore while he waited to meet his father.
Excerpt from Phases of Gage; After the Accident Years, a novella based on the life of Phineas Gage.
Phineas is aboard the Witch of the Wave with his parents and sister, Phoebe. The ship is beginning to move through Boston Harbor. It will be traveling down the eastern seacoast to Chagres. From there, the family will cross the isthmus to Panama City and board a steamer bound for San Francisco.
As familiar territory fades from view, Phineas is feeling queasy. He reminisces about what he’s left behind.
Everything changed that day, four years ago, when I became a freak, The Man with his Brains Blown Out.
When I think about Caroline, my insides get agitated. In happier times, we dreamed of our children. I hadn’t realized how fortunate I was when I was just a man, with a girl, working for our future.
Longing and loss shoot through my heart, searing me. I blink back tears. Viewing undulating ocean swells through distorted vision doesn’t help my mood or my wily guts!
I remember a Sunday afternoon like it is perfectly preserved in an unblemished piece of golden-tinged amber. We wandered off by ourselves, walking over the hill to a peaceful meadow, out of sight of the picnic and games. Caroline discovered a patch of Quaker Ladies flowers, tiny things with four white petals and a sunny center. We set to work picking some when she asks me how many children I think we’ll have.
“Coming from a large family,” I said, “I think I’d like not so many that the middle ones are forgotten in the pack.”
She giggled saying she agreed. I chose a flower, twirling it by its stem, sniffing its delicate perfume, “What would you name our first born?” I wanted to know. I reached over, plucking the pins from her hair, watching it tumble over her shoulders. She looks like she used to when she was a girl. Her smile sets my heart a flutter.
Her eyes sparkle, “I think I should like to name her, Susan.”
“Susan!” I was surprised. “You are wishing for a girl first?”
“Yes, silly, girls are a great help around the home. She will watch the other little ones when I am laboring with the next.”
“Come here,” I said. She leaned toward me. I embed the flower stem in her loose hair so it stays in place. “Here’s to the first,” I said, kissing her. For every child we named, I added a flower, following it with a kiss. We’d be breeding like rabbits if the Quaker Ladies were a prediction of our fate!
Before we started back, a gnat flew into my eye— the left one. The hurt that the tiny bug caused was out of proportion to its size. Caroline sat me down. While pulling my lower lid away, she dabbed with a corner of her handkerchief.
“For such a big, handsome man you yowl and complain like a baby,” she observed with good humor.
When she’d gotten the critter out, she wiped at the tears running down my face, kissing the injured eye, then the other one for good measure. I had to thank her for her kind and gentle services… It was difficult to stop thanking her! But a gentleman doesn’t keep pestering a lady once she’s called a halt.
Having Caroline to myself for that space of time, I was itching to finish saving for our farm and for us to be married! The need for money was what had sent me up Cavendish way to work on the railroad.
A chilly wind crawling beneath my jacket brings me back to my place and time. Looking over the Atlantic waters, my mind conjures up my beloved. She stands beside me, her elbows on the deck rail. She leans into the wind. Her eyes are closed but she is wearing a broad smile. “Every day is a new adventure!” she exclaims.
Turning toward me, her long, loose hair, behaves like fine autumn grass overcome by a dust devil. The Quaker Lady blossoms that I placed there come away, pelting my face with such force that they sting like blasting rubble.
My stomach is tight and sour, jumpy. Saliva, like hot water condensing along the sides of a glass pot, seeps into my mouth, filling the crevices below my tongue.
It occurs to me, with finality, that I will never be a father, now. That dream is as dead as my relationship with Caroline.
I hug the rail, opening my mouth, letting my guts erupt.
*Fan fiction. A continuation of The Age of Adaline (movie) story.
New Year’s Eve 2015
“Wow!” Ellis beams as Adaline strides into the room draped in a floor-length golden gown.
“I just need a zip,” she says, presenting her back to Ellis. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” Adaline turns to her daughter.
“I’m positive,” Flemming says, “I’ve got my date right here.” She bends down to pick up the tiny King Charles puppy near her feet.
Adaline leans in to place a kiss on Flemming’s weathered cheek, “Love you,” while she gives the puppy an affectionate pat.
“Love you too,” Flemming replies.
“I forgot my clutch…and my camera,” Adaline calls over her shoulder. She heads back down the hallway. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she does a double-take. Adaline reaches up near her temple to pluck at a single gray hair.
Holding the strand between her fingers, she marvels at its significance. Adaline doesn’t look a day over twenty-nine. She’s been that way since 1937.
“Adaline, you OK?” Ellis calls.
Smiling thoughtfully, she whispers, “Yes…perfect.”
Ellis holds out Adaline’s cloak and helps to settle it in place. He grins at Flemming, “Don’t wait up.” Flemming holds out a hand. He grasps it and gives it a brief squeeze.
He ushers Adaline toward the door.
“What are you two up to?” Adaline wants to know.
“Nothing! Have a wonderful evening, Mama.”
In the taxi, Ellis pulls Adaline close to his side. He kisses the top of her head then inhales her scent, “Mmm… you always smell so good.”
Adaline purrs a response, “I think that you are the most handsome man that I’ve ever known.”
He chuckles, “That’s because you’ve got love colored glasses on.”
“Maybe,” she reaches for him. It’s something she likes to do whenever they are alone in the dark.
Ellis captures her roaming hand, holding it still. He doesn’t want her to discover the surprise he’s got hidden. They arrange themselves comfortably for the forty-minute ride to the Fairmont.
He focuses on appearing relaxed, though his toes are tapping inside his dress shoes. He leans his head back against the neck rest and closes his eyes, leaving them open in thin slits. The city lights become rainbow-colored starbursts moving through his vision.
He is sure of her, now…mostly. It’s funny how familiarity numbs astonishment. His lips curve when he remembers this time last year. He was newly in love and adapting to all of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Adaline. Her true age, her seventy-eight-year-old daughter, and her name.
It was his dad who first figured out her mystery. He called her Adaline the moment he laid eyes on ‘Jenny.’
Ellis had brought Jenny home for the weekend to celebrate his parent’s fortieth wedding anniversary. His father, William, couldn’t stop staring.
“Adaline was my mother,” she’d explained, flustered.
“The resemblance is extraordinary. We were very close.” William kept repeating as he recounted the details of his first meeting with Adaline near London in the 1960s.
The following day, William noticed a scar on Jenny’s hand. Jenny failed to recognize the state of panic that his observation triggered.
“I’m going out for a walk,” she told him.
Once she was gone, William tore into the garage to frantically search through dusty boxes. Standing there like a statue, he held a faded photograph of the two of them. A bandage on her hand concealed seven stitches that he’s sewn over fifty years ago.
Jumping in his suburban, William raced after her. He found Jenny, alone, on the dirt road a few miles from the house. “Adaline!” he yelled as he got out of the car.
She halted, regarding him with concern. ” William, are you alright?”
“No! I’m not alright ─ I know.”
“What? ─” her face turned ashen. She started to shake.
He grabbed her hand, pointing at the scar. “It is you. I couldn’t forget that!” he ground out through labored breaths.
“Oh, William,” she cried softly.
His hard expression softened. He stepped closer, tipping her chin so that he could examine her face, “How? How is this possible?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is this why you left me?” His unruly eyebrows steepled.
She nodded, her brow furrowed. “I can’t tell you how painful that was.” Adaline’s voice sounded distraught.
“Oh, I know something about that,” he replied gruffly, “I was on the verge of proposing.” William looked puzzled as he continued to lightly trace the contours of her face.
Adaline closed her eyes. He could tell that she was holding back tears. “I wanted to stay with you, William, but I… just… couldn’t.”
He pulled her against him, cradling her in his arms. “I would have protected you if you had trusted me.”
She nodded, crying harder, “I know…”
William pulled away. Digging in his pocket, he brought out a handkerchief. Handing it to her he said, “Here, sop it up, Della.” His weak smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I take it that you make a habit of running?”
She nodded, still dabbing at her face. “It’s the only way to stay safe. I don’t usually get involved with people or put down roots. You were the first man I loved after my husband died. That was in 1937. Ellis is the second.”
“That’s a long time. Do you have anyone that you confide in?”
Adaline pressed the cloth to her eyes as a fresh wave of grief washed over her. William reached out to steady her.
“My daughter. She is the only one who knows.”
“You have a kid?” he was surprised.
Adaline chuckled, “She’s older than you are, Will.”
Blinking rapidly, he took a step back, “Ellis,” he sighed.
Her eyes widened. William could see that a flight reflex had been engaged. Clutching at her arms he pleaded, “Adaline, don’t go! Don’t do that to my son!”
Wrenching away, Adaline darted into the woods. She ran like rabid wolves were nipping at her heels. Maybe they were.
Ellis Holds On
Right now, in the prime of their lives, they are perfectly matched. They are well educated, cultured and confident. Will we stay that way? Ellis wonders.
He thinks about Flemming and her troubled story of the time when she and her mother switched relationship roles in public. Will I do that with Adaline?
Arriving at their destination, they hurry up the steps to avoid the evening drizzle. They wait among other party goers for an elevator, “The entire world celebrates your birthday,” Ellis grins down at her.
“Don’t remind me,” Adaline says with sarcasm.
They step into the small square space. Adaline moves to the back to make room for the others who will follow. Surprised to see that they are the only passengers to load, she catches Ellis’s movement as he passes a bill to the attendant. They hear complaints as the double doors glide shut.
Adaline looks at Ellis suspiciously, “You’ve been acting funny all day, what are you hiding?”
Taking both of her hands he says, “I wanted this birthday to be more memorable than most.” He reaches into his pocket, pulling out a small black velvet covered box. He hears Adaline suck in a breath.
Ellis’s hands shake, uncertainty suddenly grips him, but he forges ahead. Going down on a knee, he says, “Adaline Bowman, will you marry me?” The lid makes a cracking sound as he opens the tiny package. Resting on a pillow of white satin twinkles a large square cut emerald framed by rows of tiny diamonds.
Adaline remains silent, but stands there alternately looking at him and then down at the ring.
“Well?” Ellis says.
“Aren’t you going to answer?”
She leans down placing a hand alongside his face, “Sweetheart, you are magnificent.”
“And?” he squeaks.
“That,” she indicates the ring, “is magnificent.”
“Adaline! Are you going to say, ‘no?’” Ellis can’t keep the tinge of desperation out of his voice.
“No,” she shakes her head, eyes sparkling.
His forehead wrinkles and he stands, “No as in ‘no’ you don’t want to get married, or ‘no’ as in yes you will?”
The doors of the elevator open to reveal the couple still locked in a passionate embrace.
“Aw, common, get a room!” someone comments. Adaline thrusts out her left hand, flashing her ring and wiggles her fingers. “Oh! They must have just gotten engaged,” a female voice says.
Ellis and Adaline exit to a small round of applause.
They spend the evening lost in a bubble of contentment broken only by intermittent congratulations and well wishes from people they know.
They are swaying to the music of a slow dance when Adaline says, “Ellis, there’s something that I need to ask.”
“Uh oh, I can tell by your tone that it’s something serious.”
“You do know me,” she demurs. “This is going to sound strange.”
“Now you’ve got me worried.”
“Would you…” Adaline bites her lower lip and glances away.
“Come on, it can’t be that bad,” Ellis encourages.
“Would you adopt Flemming?”
“What?” Ellis barks out laughing. Seeing Adaline’s hurt look, he reigns in his mirth as quickly as it escaped.
“I don’t want her to feel left out when we tell her the news.”
“I love you, Adaline,” Ellis says tenderly. “We can do whatever you want. Whatever Flemming wants.”
Adaline Chips at the Ice
Ellis mentions that his dad is going to an astronomy conference in Greece, so Adaline makes a trip out to their place to see if she can negotiate a truce.
The smile on Kathy’s face dies the instant she sees its Adaline. “Go away!” she snarls while retreating to close the door. Adaline plants a hand in the center, leaning on it with most of her weight.
“You have to deal with me if you don’t want to lose your son.”
“First my husband! And now my son! What kind of a monster are you and why are you stalking my family?”
“I had no idea they were related. Both were chance meetings. But I’m in love with Ellis now, and I’m not going away.”
“What are you?” Kathy’s asks rigidly.
Adaline’s tone quiets, “Honestly, I don’t know ─ I’m just a woman for whom time has stopped.”
They stand staring at one another. Adaline is the first to speak, “I can see that you have questions. I’ve spent lifetimes running from those, but no more. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
Kathy sighs, stepping back, “Come in,” she says reluctantly. “I’m sure you can understand that I don’t want my son to be hurt.”
“I’m not planning to hurt Ellis.”
“You did a number on William…”
“That was a different time ─ a different me. The only option I could see, then, was to leave.”
“I can’t wrap my head around the idea that you’ve stopped aging,” Kathy frowns.
“It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, it’s true. William accepts it as fact.”
“Well ─ I consider William’s viewpoints, but I form my own opinions.”
Adaline looks down, hiding a smile. “I can see why he fell for you.”
Kathy opens her mouth to say something, then changes her mind. After a few moments of silence, she says, “You know, Adaline, if what you say is true….and I still think that’s a big ‘if’…. there are a lot of people who’d like to get what you’ve got.”
“I suspect you’re right,” Adaline replies, picking nervously at pills on her sweater. “But it’s not as glamorous as it seems. Youth and beauty are meaningless if everyone you love moves on without you. I’ve lived decades wishing that I could grow old like everyone else.”
It was very late by the time Adaline drove back to the city. She’d stopped along the way to phone Ellis so he wouldn’t worry. They’d had a terse conversation about the last time she’d been on this route at night. He suggested that she find a hotel and finish the trip in the morning.
“No, I promise I’ll be careful. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”
Her key was barely in the first lock when the door opens under her hand. Ellis pulls her to him. She strokes his back reassuringly. When Adaline can get a word in, she says, “See? I told you that I’d be alright.” She winks. “It’s extremely rare for lightning to strike twice.”
Ellis growls, leading her toward the bedroom. Once inside, he kisses her, hard. Lips, teeth, tongues, and facial hair mash in a ravenous welcome. Between words of love, they peel off clothes. Moaning with arrested desire, they stoke the fire that readily ignites. They move in an arousing dance as old as time.
When the storm of intensity is expended, the lovers remain entwined, gently caressing and kissing. Ellis asks about the meeting with his mother.
“She’s a tough nut,” says Adaline. “We spent a long time talking, but I couldn’t guess what she was thinking.”
“She’s always been that way. When she’s bent-out-of-shape, it takes a long time for her to work her way out of it. It sounds like you made it past the front door…” he comments dryly.
“At first, she didn’t want to talk at all, but I told her that if she didn’t want to lose you, we had better make peace.”
“I’m a mother too, I know how to aim punches.”
“You are such a bad ass,” Ellis says before leaning down to capture her lips. A leisurely love-making session sparks to life.
Later, they get up for a snack of crispy red grapes and a variety of Sonoma County cheeses. Chilled glasses of wine, cultivated in the same region, accompany the simple fare. Adaline continues her recap, “Eventually, her curiosity outweighed her annoyance when we started discussing the changing roles of women in society since the 1920s.”
“Not surprising. She’s Dean of Women’s Studies at Stanford. I’m sure she’s the reason that I am interested in history.”
“Having a career like that and raising two children ─ that’s impressive.”
“That’s my mom,” he states proudly. “Do you think she was thawing by the time you left?”
Adaline shakes her head, “I don’t know. She was quiet…thoughtful.”
Ellis sighs. “I’ll call her in few days to see if anything’s changed.”
Kathy hadn’t been speaking to her son. Ellis knew that she’d been frosty and cross with his dad too.
He is understandably nervous as he waits for his parents to arrive. He’s finished construction on his apartment, but since the engagement, they’d been adding on a connecting unit for Flemming, complete with every geriatric safety accouterment available.
When the doorbell rings, he plasters on a smile and goes to greet them. “Mom! Dad! Thanks for coming! Please, some in.”
“Hi, son,” his father grabs him in a bear hug. “It’s good to see you!”
His mom stands on the threshold looking like she isn’t sure if she will cross. “Hey, Mom,” Ellis says quietly, waiting.
She reaches out to cradle his face between her hands. “My baby,” she whispers.
“I’ve missed you,” his voice cracks.
She gives him a dubious smile. A single tear falls.
Once he’d given them a tour and explained everything that has been remodeled, they arrive at Flemming’s space. “What’s this?” his mom asks when she notices the handle grips near the commode. “It’s kind of you to be planning for us, but I don’t think we’ll be needing anything like this for a while.”
“Ahhh….” Ellis raises a hand up to scratch the back of his neck. “It’s not for you. It’s for Flemming.”
“What?” his mom looks confused. “Who is Flemming?”
Ushering them out and back toward the kitchen, Ellis attempts to salvage the situation, “Let me get you something to drink. You guys go relax in the living room while I take your bags to my room.”
Ellis returns to find his parents standing near the breakfast bar in the middle of an intense, but hushed exchange. “Hey, guys,” he calls with false cheer. He pours himself a cup of whiskey, then joins them. “So, I have some big news…”
“Oh, God, no!” Kathy cries.
Ellis compresses his lips, goes to his mom, puts an arm around her shoulders, and walks her to the couch. “Mom,” he begins once they are seated, “nothing you say or do will change the fact that I am in love with Adaline.”
He looks to his dad for help. William shakes his head. Ellis stands and approaches his father, “Dad, do you share Mom’s feelings about my relationship?”
William seems perplexed, “No ─ I completely understand. I loved her once, hell, a part of me will always be fond of Adaline. But what she and I had is long gone.” He pulls a footrest over so that he can sit directly in front of his wife. He says, “Remember our favorite Robert Browning quote? ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. It’s the last of life, for which the first was made’… Kathy, you and I are written in permanent ink. We’re unshakable, babe. You don’t have to protect me or Ellis from Adaline. She’s not dangerous, she’s just lost.”
“Oh, William,” Kathy sighs. She leans forward to press her lips against his.
Ellis takes a long sip of his whiskey as he lets the dust settle. A knock sounds at the door, followed by, “Hellooooo!”
Fleming comes in. She has a shopping bag in one hand and Deer’s leash in the other. The little Prince Charles prances delicately in front of her. “Ellis! I found a few more things that I wanted to drop by for the apartment.” She stops when she spots his guests, “I’m so sorry to interrupt, I didn’t realize…”
“That’s alright!” Ellis exclaims taking the bag and leading her toward his parents. “Guys, this is Flemming. Flemming, I’d like you to meet my parents, William, and Kathy.”
Thick silence fills the space as everyone stares. William is the first to close the gap. He stands and offers his hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, mam.”
“Oh…” she mutters, “I’ve heard so much about you.” Flemming’s concerned gaze travels over William and comes to rest on Kathy. “I can’t tell you how much I think of your son.”
The two women shake hands, “Thank you,” Kathy replies, “How do you know Ellis?”
Flemming looks to Ellis. “Do they know?”
Ellis shakes his head. He’s starting to expire.
Catching the exchange, his mom says, “Know what?”
Ellis sets his cup down, rolls his shoulders and extends to his full height. Taking a deep breath, like he is stepping in front of a firing squad he states, “I’ve asked Adaline to marry me. She’s agreed. Flemming is Adaline’s daughter…”
“Oh dear! I’ve spoiled everything,” Flemming exclaims. She presses a trembling hand to her mouth. Ellis catches her as she starts to sway. His parents help get her to the couch. She is having trouble breathing.
Kathy loosens the neckline of her blouse while William scoops up the dog to keep it out of the commotion.
Kathy feels for a pulse and asks questions, “Can you speak? Are you feeling light headed?” Over her shoulder, she directs Ellis to call 911.
Ellis and Kathy go in the ambulance with Flemming. William brings Deer and follows in the car.
Flemming is still on oxygen but resting comfortably when Adaline comes rushing in. “Darling! Are you alright?” Mother and daughter hug, hold onto each other, and cry. Adaline pulls back, “I was so worried.”
Kathy moves forward when Flemming removes her face mask, “No,” Flemming shakes her head eyeing Ellis’s mother, “I don’t need it, take it away.”
“But…” Adaline looks confused.
“Mama,” Flemming rests a hand on Adaline’s shoulder, “we both know that sooner or later my time is going to come.” Adaline squeezes her eyes closed and shakes her head. Flemming grabs her mother’s chin to still her movements, “Listen, young lady,” she says in a commanding tone.
Adaline frowns, “Hey…”
“But I don’t see you that way! I only see my little girl,” Adaline’s eyes glisten.
“I know, and I love you for that, Mama, but take a good, hard, look at me ─ I have age spots everywhere. My memory is going, my eyes aren’t what they used to be, and neither is my hearing.”
“We can get your hearing aids checked.”
“You’re missing the point. I’ve lived a full life. I don’t’ think I am going anywhere today, but when it’s time, I want you to let go.”
Adaline cries, “Never. Never.”
“You will,” Flemming states firmly, “and our new family is going to help.” She looks at Ellis and his parents. “You don’t know how happy it makes me to know that you will be there for her.”
Adaline buries her face in Flemming’s lap. Flemming strokes her hair while making soothing noises.
Ellis watches different emotions play across his mother’s face. There is a softening in her expression when she meets Flemming’s gaze.
Kathy inclines her head in answer to the older woman’s unspoken plea.
After they’ve all gotten settled and buckled in William’s car; Flemming and Deer in the front seat, and Ellis, Adaline, and Kathy in the back, Flemming asks, “Has Deer been out to tinkle lately?”
Blank looks pass between them. Ellis groans and unbuckles his belt, “I’ve got it.”
They watch in silence as he patiently follows the little dog while she chooses the perfect bush.
“I apologize for being so bitchy lately,” Kathy speaks up.
“I understand, Kath. I thought I was losing it until I figured it out,” William says.
“How did you?”
William looks into the rearview mirror. He makes eye contact with Adaline, “Dell?”
Adaline gives a stiff nod.
“Dell? As in Della?” Kathy screeches, “William! Did you name that comet after her?”
“Sheath the claws, Kathy cat.” William turns in the seat so he can look back at her, “It’s not as if I haven’t been naming heavenly bodies after you and the kids all these years ─”
Kathy crosses her arms, uttering, “Huh!”
“Back in the day,” William continues, “Adaline cut her hand. I sutured the wound. When she and Ellis were up for the weekend, I saw the scar…” He looks pointedly at his wife, “Are you going to give me grief over that too, woman?”
“Nope,” Kathy glowers back at him.
“You better watch out,” William’s voice lowers several octaves. He points a finger at her.
Adaline can’t help but notice that the edges of Kathy’s mouth turn up slightly.
“Oh no!” Flemming blurts. Everyone follows her gaze to see Ellis rolling his eyes and slapping his thigh. She digs in her purse. Flemming rolls down the passenger window and waves a blue poop bag.
San Francisco repays its residents with occasional, spectacular, days of sun ─ enough to keep her population increasing but never enough to put coats and sweaters in permanent storage.
The Chronicle of San Francisco: Church bells rang on the afternoon of June 6th, 2016 when Adaline Bowman married Ellis Jones. The ceremony was held at St. John’s church. The bride wore a stunning trumpet style gown with a sweetheart neckline. A chapel length train completed her attire. The groom looked dashing in a traditional black tuxedo with burgundy trimmings.
The groom’s father, William Jones, escorted the bride down the aisle. Kikki, the groom’s sister, was the best woman. She wore a sleeveless black three-quarter-length dress accessorized with a burgundy bow tie choker and bracelets that mimicked shirt cuffs.
The bride was attended by two matron’s of honor; the groom’s mother and the bride’s grandmother. Both of their gowns were made of jersey fabric that matched the burgundy theme.
One-hundred-and-fifty guests were in attendance. A reception was held at the Cliff House were traditional San Francisco fare was served.
When asked about honeymoon travel plans, the couple only said, “We’ll be going someplace we’ve never been before.”
The groom’s parents, however, were happy to share their second honeymoon itinerary; they will be spending two weeks in the Maldives, a week in Sri Lanka and a week in Madagascar.
One Year Later
Adaline clenches her jaw in an attempt to stifle a yawn. She leans her head against Ellis’s shoulder. He pats her thigh to encourage her to hold on just a little while longer.
He returns his attention to the speaker. “The Candace was a whaling ship that sailed into San Francisco in the 1850s. It was dismantled and used for parts in foundries and for other ships. Her story tells about the whaling industry and the development of commercial enterprise in the city. It also provides information about the Chinese workforce. Fisherman who were excluded from other jobs were employed on Spear Street….”
Adaline puts a hand on her rounded belly and whispers in Ellis’s ear, “Maybe we should name her Candace?”
“…or we could call him, Spear,” Ellis rejoins, teasing. Adaline swats his arm.
That night as they are getting ready for bed, Adaline plays a game she’s become enamored with. “I’ve gained another pound and my waist has grown by three percent.” She records this information in her pregnancy diary. “I’ve found another gray hair today. And look, Ellis! I’m starting to get crow’s feet!” she laughs in delight.
There can’t be another woman on the planet who is happier than Adaline about showing her age.
I enjoyed The Age of Adaline movie so much that I wanted to dive in deeper, crawl around inside the character’s heads. I went searching for the book. Unfortunately, this movie was not based on a book, so I satisfied my desire by writing a continuation of the story.
My boss, an old lady with butterfly glasses and a beehive hairdo, asked me to fill in one month on the morning shift.
This was a problem because I had a couple other jobs and I liked to finish late and drink beer until I couldn’t remember how poor and stupid and full of myself I was.
But she was insistent. So I found a way. I’d show up around 8 a.m. with my head aching and smelling, I’m quite sure, like I had spent the night face down in a puddle of stale beer.
Early each day I began to notice his old man in the visitors room. He was always the first one there. Always wore a white shirt and tie, combed and shaved and neat. He walked with a cane and when they opened the ward for visitors he would always check himself in the mirror. Like he was going on a date, like he wanted to look his best.
His wife of 60 years was in the ward.
She had started falling…and then started forgetting. Little things at first…misplaced keys, misplaced glasses.
And she would ask him, ‘What did I do with them? Would you remember that for me?’
Then one day she got lost coming home from the grocery store. And then a week later he found her lost and frightened in their own cellar.
He took her to a doctor finally and listened as the doctor explained that the past…every bit of it …would eventually disappear.
He tried and wrestled with the doubt and guilt but it became clear in a few months that he could not care for her.
So he found this place at the edge of the Hereafter, sold their house and took an apartment as near as he could.
He made all the arrangements, all the time fighting down the growing panic at the thought of being apart.
When he signed the papers and walked her in, he felt like a traitor to every secret vow a man’s heart can make to itself.
I was there that day mopping the floor. He was stricken…with loneliness I suppose and dread. I saw it in his face, though I’m sure I didn’t understand what I was seeing. How could I?
What did I know at 17 of having your heart cleaved in two, hollowed out at the prospect of what you know with certainty is crawling toward you?
She cried when he left that day. And without him near seemed to lose her bearings. It can happen like that…a heart can become unmoored.
And mopping the floors some nights I would hear her calling out that she didn’t know anyone or where this place was…. or even sometimes who she herself was anymore.
I would stand outside her door listening and trying to translate that kind of terror into something my 17-year-old pea brain could understand.
It was like listening to the foreign language…of loneliness.
But the old man would show up every morning…and would stand in that very spot outside her door …..steeling himself.
Day after day, he would paint a smile on his face and turn in to her room and in a loud voice brightly say good morning and how beautiful she looked again.
She would always brighten at the sight of him. Like a young girl in love for the very first time. And he would sit by her side and each morning say, “Do you know who I am?”
Somedays she would laugh and respond, “Of course…what a silly question…you think I could ever forget who I love….my husband of 60 years?”
And he would retell her things she had forgotten…a trip to the Cape each summer…the time he asked her to marry him…that first house before the kids.
Sometimes she would understand and ask, ‘We did all that?’ in real wonder. And sometimes she would not…could not understand. Like the glue of memory had gotten so old that it cracked and fell away.
“Never mind…never mind that darling,’ he would say.…’I’ll remember it for you.’
Near the end of the month, I watched him again…cane in hand, dressed like he was going on a first date, stand in that spot outside her room then, once again, turn inside. I went and stood in the spot, mop in hand and listened.
Once again he was gently asking, “Do you know who I am?”
There was no answer. And he put his face close to hers so she could see him clearly and he whispered again, “Do you know who I am?”
Her eyes searched his face trying in vain to summon some forgotten landmark in her heart she might recognize. Then she whispered to him, “ I don’t know where this place is…or who I am. I know I should…I know I should…” trying to recover what had already leaked away.
He was trying to quiet her. “Hush…hush now…it’s alright. I’m here.’
‘I know I should,’ she protested.
Then- ‘…… I don’t know your name…sir,’ all the time searching his eyes with her own. ‘..But I know …I can rely on you … I always will. I don’t know your name ….but I know who you are.’
If a heart has ears I felt mine begin to burn. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I never wanted to hear anything again. I stumbled away, back down the hallway of hereafter. I remember I threw the mop and I kicked over the bucket. What was the point. How could the world ever be clean again?
I quit that morning and I never went back.
The world is a beautiful place. It is a terrible place.
They grow together.
Scrape a sorrowful thing and you expose the beauty. Scrape a thing of real beauty and there’s always some sacrifice…some sadness at the heart of it. They require each other.
A husband and wife of 60 years facing certain loss… …makes their love not smaller but larger.
And it humbles me still to think of it…to realize how little I understand.
I was 17 …and a poor boy with only a glimmer of understanding. Standing there listening, I felt some part of me quiver…and since then that quivering, like a small earthquake only I can feel, has never stopped.
I feel it shaking some nights in my dreams. I feel it sitting wordlessly in the dark on my shoulders whispering its tremor into my sleeping heart. It tells me again and again there is something larger….something hidden at work.
And some nights it whispers to me about this life and the Hereafter. It tells me it is more beautiful and more terrible than my heart’s clay foundation can bear.
Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter. His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers.
“I think I see it!” Chelsea ran ahead keeping a watchful eye on her smartphone compass. Seti, the families Irish Setter, sprinted beside the young woman barking with unrestrained joy.
Lexi and Ed paused to tighten drawstrings on their windbreakers. A brisk, grit-filled wind scoured their exposed skin. “You’ve got everything?” she asked.
“I do,” Ed nodded. Reaching into his pocket, he removed three small silver objects. He dropped two of them into the palm of her hand. Lexi thought that the high bluffs of Dover were an ideal location for today’s activities.
“This is it!” Chelsea squealed as her parents gathered around. From a small box that had been hidden in the rocks, Chelsea removed a strange oblong object. It was identical to the ones concealed in Lexi and Ed’s pockets. She read the paper it came wrapped in. “It says that if I, Chelsea, hold this and step over the edge of the cliff, I will be transported to another place.” Her eyes sparkled. When she turned her gaze to take in the open expanse, the challenge morphed into to uncertainty.
Her father stood behind Lexi gripping her shoulders. “Are you entirely certain about this, Chelsea?”
She bit her lip. Chelsea almost changed her mind. But the hard look on her mother’s face wiped that away. They’d had many arguments over Chelsea’s obsession to prove the existence of Time Travelers. In fact, she was sure that she was on the trail of one such person now. For years, she’d been getting personalized clues in every single geocache she’d located.
Chelsea approached the edge of the precipice. Without even a look back, she firmly gripped the thing in her hand and took that step.
The man, woman, and dog watched Chelsea wink out of sight. Holding their breath, they leaned over the edge of the cliff and peered down at the sharp rocks below. Not seeing a twisted and broken figure, they relaxed.
Reveling in a feeling of completion, Lexi thought of her partner. She yearned for his skin instead of his fur. Twenty-three years of parenting and observation had taken a considerable toll. She turned to Ed. Placing a hand on his shoulder; she lifted up onto her toes so that their eyes were level. Winking, she gave him a salute. Squatting down, she opened her arms to Seti. Burying her face in his coat, she whispered, “I’ve missed you!”
His immediate, silent response, And I you, Mistress, appeared in her mind.
Before she rose, Lexi slipped one of the silver ovals into the dog’s mouth. The three of them stood together, taking a moment to regard France across the English Channel. At Lexi’s nod, they winked out of sight and stepped onto the Constellation.
Lexi felt a large warm hand slip into hers and squeeze, before releasing. A voice she had not heard spoken aloud in twenty-three years inquired, “Shall I set the coordinates for home?”
Story Prompt: WriteOn weekend challenge – Bluff
Inspiration: Preliminary research for a ‘someday’ travel possibility.
United Kingdom – Dover Cliff’s Travel Information:
They pulled back at the same time. Lips puckered, hearts racing and eyes wide with surprise and desire.
He was the first to speak as he picked up a dreadlock that had fallen over her face. Rolling the dense length of hair between his fingers, he gently tucked it back into the nest that surrounded her head, “Lulu,” he laughed uneasily, “I’m sorry — I wasn’t planning that.”
When Mark made a move to step away, Lulu held him in place. Humor sparkled in her deep brown eyes, “I’m surprised Mark. I thought we were just friends…but now…” She reached up to trace the red, fern-like pattern that marked his pale skin from his ear down his neck.
As he leaned back in to capture her mouth, Lulu pulled him to her forcefully. A flash of passion flared between them. Their hands clutched at one another. She moaned wordlessly.
As an inner voice of constraint grew more insistent, Mark squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself pull away. They took a moment to let their labored breathing return to normal.
Lulu placed a hand on his cheek imploring him to look into her eyes, “I have missed you so much! I won’t let you go, Mark! I can’t ever let you go….”
Mark’s eyebrows shot up. A shiver traveled down the length of his spine. “Why did you say that?”
“I don’t know.” Lulu smiled.
Three hundred and sixteen years earlier…
Rain pelted him as he ran through the night. Mud sucked at his leather boots. He ran down the narrow path. “Mary! Mary where are you?” he screamed.
Luke knew that she’d gone down to the river to wash clothes with some of the other women from town. Lightening that lit up the dark sky was followed by a deafening crack and roll of thunder. The brief illumination revealed no signs of life, movement, or of his new wife.
They’d been married only three days earlier. Blissful days of joyful lovemaking filled his mind and heart. He couldn’t believe that she was finally his and he could love her whenever he wanted. He wished they were in their warm bed right now rather than sloshing through the wet. He would scold her for scaring him …once he found her. “Mary Darling! Can you hear me?” Another flash of light and rumble of thunder. The river finally came into view.
When he first went searching for her, asking about her here and there—her friends had told him how happy she was to be washing his clothes. Even as it started to rain, Mary had wanted to remain at the river so that she could finish her task.
“Mary!” he called out in relief as he spotted her struggling with a heavy basket. Another flash of light revealed her smile when she spotted him running toward her.
“Oh good! You can help me carry this,” her voice reached him faintly.
Luke released his breath in relief as he closed the distance between them. With a blinding flash of light that came and went faster than the human eye could track, his life path took a sharp, unexpected turn.
Mary stood frozen in place. “No!” he screamed with panic at the edges of his voice. Smoke or steam, he didn’t know which, rose up from around her hair.
Her eyes locked onto his as she began to topple.
“Noooo!” he yelled catching her in is arms, sinking down into the mud on his knees. Frantically he ran his hands over her, “Mary! Mary! Are you alright?”
A faint, raspy whisper escaped, “Lu….” before her body went limp.
“No! no ..no…no..no. This can’t be happening.” Mark repeated as he held her to him rocking back and forth.
She grew cold and stiff in his arms before he released her. Another flash of light illuminated his dead wife, her head rolled back, in his arms. An angry red, fern-like burn mark spread from her ear down her neck. “I won’t let you go Mary! I can’t ever let you go….”
Story Prompt: reddit writing prompt – a birthmark on your body is a result of you dying violently in a previous life. How did you die?