Cold Shoulder

I haven’t posted any non-flash fiction in a while. Actually, I haven’t posted anything at all since the end of June, mainly because I’m working on a novella that’s going to make your world explode with awesomeness. It will also probably give you nightmares when it goes to KDP this November.

This story, though, emerged out of a dream I had when I was in high school, and it’s taken several forms in my mind before making the transition into text. I’d put it in the Young Adult Science Fiction box if anything, but to me it’s a dream on paper (or a screen. Whatever. Just read it.)

 

Cold Shoulder

 

“He just keeps spacing out,” Principal Krueger says. He looks to my parents, then to me. “He’s been in my office three times this week–twice when teachers thought he was ignoring them, and once when he sat in class for an hour after the last bell rang. Mrs. Hopkins just left him there until the janitor found him. She said she was tired of his nonsense.”

“Stan,” Mom says, “what’s going on, sweetie?”

It still feels fuzzy, like my head’s full of cotton.

“I’m cold,” I say. “Don’t they have heat in this building?”

Mom puts a hand to my forehead, then looks to Dad.

“It feels perfectly warm in here to the rest of us, Stanley,” the principal says. “I think we’d see some other symptoms if you were sick–runny nose, things like that.”

I rub my hands over my arms, trying to warm them. I wore a coat today, while all the other eighth-graders are in t-shirts.

“My boy isn’t a liar, Principal Krueger,” Dad says. It’s gratifying when the principal breaks eye contact and begins shuffling papers on his desk.

“I think maybe we’ll keep Stanley at home until Monday,” Mom says. “It’s not like he’s going to get behind.”

Principal Krueger looks up from his paper-shuffling.

“It’s only Tuesday,” he says. “Regardless of your son’s advanced–”

“My wife is right. We’ll keep him home until Monday,” Dad says.

“An idle mind is the devil’s playground, Mr. Cray.”

“Well you’re clearly not stimulating his mind here. I think we’ll take the week to look at other options for our boy.”

#

I sit in the basement, staring at the box on the table.

Why won’t you work?

I have a space heater an inch away from my legs and a fur-lined bomber hat on my head. They don’t seem to do anything for the cold though.

I feel it in my bones.

The tapping on the window startles me. Through it, in the darkness outside, I see Dani’s face.

“It’s almost midnight,” I say when I open it.

You’re still up,” Dani says before grabbing the inside ledge and wriggling through.

“My parents pulled me out of school for the week,” I say.

“I heard,” she says. “Did you get it to work yet?”

“No,” I say, staring at the box again, “which doesn’t make sense. It opened a tunnel for sound waves, but I can’t send or receive the tiniest bit of actual mass through it. Sound has to move something to be heard. Why won’t the ping pong ball go through?”

“Maybe you need a bigger energy source,” Dani says.

“I don’t think that’s it,” I say. “The portal’s open, so anything should–”

“Are you not hot?” she asks. “You’ve got this heater turned up full-blast.”

“I can’t seem to get warm,” I say, “no matter what I do.”

“Does it feel any different with it off?” she asks, turning the rheostat all the way down. She sits on the threadbare plaid couch that my Dad dragged down here when he thought he was constructing a man-cave. He hasn’t been in the basement for more than five minutes since then.

“Not really,” I say. “I just don’t know what else to do.”

“Well I don’t want to burn up if I’m crashing here tonight,” she says.

Dani melts into the couch, her eyes finally betraying how tired she is.

“Were they fighting again?”

“Yeah,” she says. “My mom doesn’t seem to know what overdraft fees are. She’s still using the receptionist with the fake tits as a defense for everything.”

“Kids these days,” I say.

“Don’t get me started,” Dani says, a weak smile on her face as she curls into the fetal position, her hands clenched together between her knees.

I pull the quilt from the back of the couch and unfurl it in the air so that it lays perfectly over her.

“Stanley?” she says, eyes barely open. She holds an arm up from beneath the quilt.

I sit on the edge of a cushion and lean in. She hugs me close to her, and I feel warmth against my body for the first time in…days? weeks?

“Thank you,” she says.

I want to stay there, where it’s warm, but I know I can’t.

I pull away gently when her arm relaxes, and draw the quilt back over her shoulder.

Her breathing changes, and I turn back to the box.

I flip the toggle switch on the converter I’ve plugged into the house current, and the DC volt-needle swings into the green zone. An electric hum fills the air.

I turn the knob on the box slowly to the right. A pinhole opens in the air above it, and it slowly widens into a fist-sized portal as the rheostat reaches its clockwise stop.

White ice reflects sunlight into my eyes on the other side–ice I can see, but not touch. I pick up the ping pong ball from the table and hold it to the portal, hoping that this time it will go through.

When I release it from my thumb and forefinger, though, the ping pong ball falls onto the table as it did before.

I wait ten minutes before the voices come.

“Thaan difta negrata tul?” the first voice asks, in a low whisper.

“Garn difta. Fand elran Beranga,” whispers the second voice.

I put on my headphones and click an icon on my laptop. Google translate came up dry when I first built the portal box, so I’m running my own software now. I push the external microphone closer to the portal.

“Get Beranga,” the first voice whispers. “Tell him it’s opened again.”

“Okay,” the second voice whispers. “Just don’t forget to hit record this time. There were two voices last time, just before it closed. I think one was female.”

I remember this conversation. It’s like this has happened before. The ping pong ball was supposed to go through, though.

#

I wake up at noon, unsure why I’m instantly alert.

The doorbell rings several times in quick succession, like someone’s mashing the button repeatedly. Loud knocking follows the ringing.

I throw off the covers, pull on some shorts, and rush down the stairs.

Through the window next to the door, I see not a cop or a fireman, but a man in utility worker’s clothes.

I open the door a crack. Dad told me to always keep the sliding lock in place unless it’s someone I know, so it only opens enough for one intense blue eye to stare down at me.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

“Yeah,” the man says. “I’m from LG&E. Name’s Branga. Is this the Cray house?”

“L, G, and who?” I ask.

And what kind of a name is ‘Branga?’

“Louisville Gas and Electric,” he says, “–the power company? Is your dad home, kid?”

“He’s at work,” I say.

He studies me through the crack in the door, then looks up at the sliding lock. I’m not sure I like how nosy he is.

“We got a report of a massive drain on the system from this house last night,” he says. “Several houses down the street lost power. We’re lucky it didn’t cause a bigger blackout, but most of your neighbors were asleep.”

“Well I’m not sure what’s–”

“Come to think of it, shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I’m sick, so–”

“Well look, kid, if you don’t mind me having a peek, I could see if there’s anything wrong with your appliances.”

“I’m not supposed to let anyone inside,” I say.

Branga takes a long look at the sliding lock again.

“Your locks are your locks,” he says. “Why’d you let Dani in, though?”

I slam the door, twist the lock in the knob, and turn the deadbolt. I run upstairs to Dad’s closet and pull his Remington 870 from behind the suits he never wears anymore. I release the pump, check the barrel and magazine to make sure I see shells, and lock the pump back in the forward position. Then I sit at the top of the stairs and wait.

“Dani?” I yell. “You’re at school, right? Yell if you’re here.”

No answer.

After my heart rate slows, I look out through all the upstairs windows. I don’t see any sign of Branga or an LG&E truck.

I flip the safety on the 12-gauge and carry it into the kitchen.

Five minutes later, armed with a sandwich and a glass of milk in addition to the shotgun, I venture back to the basement to have another look at the box.

#

“I didn’t tell my parents about him,” I tell Dani. “He knew you were here last night. Did you tell anybody–”

“No,” she says. “That sounds like somebody my dad knows, though. He probably asked Branga to stop by. I’m sure he’s harmless.”

“That makes one of us.”

“Did you turn it on last night, after I fell asleep?” Dani asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “It was more of the same–just voices. I think they’re watching it from the other side. I can’t see them, though. All I see is ice.”

“What would you do if you could climb through?” she asks.

“I’d explore,” I say. “I’d get out of this black-and-white, bovine, boring town, and see what’s on the other side of the universe.”

“That’s it?” she asks. “You’d just see what was there? What if the people you were listening to were weaker than you somehow? What if you could hurt them without even thinking about it?”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“The universe–I mean the world–is full of stories of powerful people exterminating weaker people, or enslaving them.”

“What would I enslave them to do?” I ask. “I have everything I need here. I’m just curious.”

Dani studies me for a long moment, but I don’t mind it. I watch her watching me.

“Last night,” she says, “when I held you close, I felt something.”

“Me too,” I say. “It was the first time I felt warm in–”

Dani leans into me. I start to put up a hand, but she rests her hand on top of it, stopping my protest before it becomes one. She kisses me, searchingly, like she wants to know what’s in my heart.

Then I’m kissing her, and my hand is pulling her into me, leaning over her on the couch. She’s warm, and it’s the second time I’ve felt warm in…forever?

“Stanley,” she says.

“Yes?”

“If I let you go–”

“What?”

“If I let you go, will you promise not to hurt us?”

“Hurt who, Dani? What are you talking about?”

She places a hand in my chest and pushes me away from her. Dani stares at the wall as her other hand moves in a strange gesture.

The world dissolves. The threadbare plaid couch fades into a gray blob. My portal box becomes a black pinpoint. The room around us fades to shadow.

And then I open my eyes.

It’s so bright.

I’m looking up at a solid block of ice. I try to get up, and find that I’m crunching my elbows into a snow bank. I’m wearing a parka and insulated pants, but I still feel the cold creeping into my bones.

Everything around me is snow and ice, except the two boxes on tripods. Each box emits a blue beam, which is pointed at my head. I lean forward, crunching more snow under my arms, and manage to sit upright.

I look into the pale blue eyes of the creature seated in front of me. She studies me, but I don’t mind it. She has Dani’s shape, but her skin is a translucent white.

There is no Dani. I remember most of what really happened, but I stayed home for the week because I got into an argument with a teacher.

“What’s your name?” I ask. “You clearly know mine already.”

“Dennai,” she says. The box at her side echoes it without translation, since it’s a name. “It was close enough to adapt.”

“Branga wasn’t,” I say.

“Beranga is my father,” the box says, translating for her. “I’ve told him you mean us no harm, but–”

“How in the world could I harm you?” I ask.

“I will show you, Stanley Cray,” she says. “Be still for a moment.”

She leans forward with a snow-white hand outstretched. She brings her fingers close to my cheek, and I watch as the ice crystals of her fingertips begin to melt.

She cringes, pulling the fingers to her chest.

“Did you see it?” she asks.

“I saw. You’re sentient ice crystals.”

“As you are sentient amino acids, yes.”

“So you constructed a dream engine to imprison me.”

“We have compressed ice weapons,” she says, “but we also have a prohibition against killing innocent life. We had to know your intentions. It took longer than expected when you fortified yourself.”

“Fortified myself–in my house you mean?”

“Your parents were aspects of you, Stanley. You walled yourself off from our attempts to extract information. Why did you let me in, but no others?”

“Because,” I say, and that’s as far as I get for a moment. I made Dani real in the dream because I wanted her to be real. I didn’t question her presence the way I did the principal’s or the electrician’s. “Because you’re beautiful.”

She reaches forward with a hand again, but stops short of touching my face. She closes her hand, a pained look in her eyes.

“Dennai!” a voice says from the doorway. “The prisoner is awake! What have you done?”

“He’s not dangerous, father, he’s just–”

“You know nothing about such things, girl. He could be a spy. Can’t you see he’s exploiting your weakness?”

“He’s not,” Dennai says. “I promise you, he’s–”

“Out!” he says. Beranga clutches an ice staff in his hand, its end sharpened to a fine point. Dennai stands in the doorway behind him.

“You come through your space-hole to melt my daughter,” Beranga says, pointing the spear at my left eyeball. “You come through, thinking you’ll walk over us with your indestructible form and body heat? Well I have news for you: you’re not indestructible, Mr. Stanley Cray space-hole man!”

He jabs the spear point into my left shoulder, and it stings. There’s a rip in my parka now. I stick my finger into it, and it comes away bloody.

“I didn’t come here to hurt you or your daughter, Mr. Beranga,” I say. “I just wanted to explore.”

“Aye,” he says. “Maybe, but what about the other ones on your planet? What about the ones you’ll sell your portal box to? They’ll be here in an hour, enslaving the ice men of Throstvale IV to mine fossil fuels, or make telephones, or some nonsense. The universe is full of–”

“I know what it’s full of,” I say. “I’ve had enough history classes. I’ll–”

“You’ll what?” he asks. “Make me a promise that everything will be fine?”

“When I get back,” I say, “I’ll destroy it.”

“No!” Dennai says, and Beranga looks back at her.

“I told you to leave,” he says, but she takes a step forward.

“I would stay in your dream forever with you, Stanley Cray,” she says. “We would wake to feed, but return to a life spent together. Give me the blue beams also, father, so that I can dream.”

“Do you see what you’ve done, boy?” Beranga asks. “Go now, before I pin you to the wall.”

He gestures with the spear, and I see a door to my right. I walk through it into the open ice field.

My feet slide under me, and I take small steps to avoid losing what little footing I have. It’s colder out here, away from the scant insulation the igloo provided.

Five feet in front of me I see a hole in space. It’s roughly twice the diameter of my head, and I distinctly remember dropping a ping pong ball through it before I stuck my hand through.

On the other side of the hole, I see my basement, with my books and Dad’s threadbare plaid couch against the wall.

I look back to the doorway, and see Dennai watching me. She has both hands pressed to her face as though she’s attempting to stifle a sob. I wave to her, once.

I wish I could–what?–hold her close to me, as she melted into nothing?

I climb through the portal, lose my balance on the table, and crash onto the floor in a heap of emotional, physical numbness. I turn the rheostat on the portal box all the way to the left, and pull the toggle switch on the converter.

Mom and Dad left for the weekend. That’s why I felt safe going through the portal. If I’d been killed on Throstvale IV, they’d have never known what happened.

     I pull the plug from my surge protector but stop short of actually breaking the portal box.

My stupid life was better with Dani in it, even if I can never go back.

#

I pull my Physical Science textbook from my locker. It’s Monday, and I’ve decided not to argue with any of my teachers about any of the nonsense they want to tell me.

“Hey Stanley,” Megan says. She clutches her books to her chest and studies me with bright green eyes. Megan’s on the verge of blossoming into heart-rending gorgeousness. She doesn’t know it, so she talks to me instead of whoever popular girls talk to.

“Hey Megan.”

“You were gone, so I didn’t get a chance to ask you, but I thought that–”

“Thought what?”

“There’s a dance after the football game Friday. Josh and Kelsey are going. Do you want to come?”

She’s not on the verge of heart-rending gorgeousness. She is heart-rendingly gorgeous, especially under the accouterments and lack of makeup that black-and-white, bovine, boring girls wouldn’t understand.

“I’m flattered,” I say. “I want to go to the next one with you if you’ll let me, but right now I can’t.”

Mentally, I’m looking back through the portal one last time.

“You seem sad,” Megan says. “Are you okay, Stanley?”

“I’m fine,” I say. “I just need some space.”

###

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