Green Worm: August 2000 • A Few Eggs
Soundtrack: “Buried Alive” by Avenged Sevenfold
NOTE: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
Green Worm: August 2000
Outside, the lightning was continuous now, igniting different parts of the sky simultaneously, the thunder a constant reverberation. The coming storm hadn’t slowed the bar crowd any. It was almost time for my dinner break. I’d have to make it fast. I gave the other waitresses the rundown on my tables—who’d just been seated, who looked like they wanted dessert, who was an asshole, etc.
I reached into my cubby to retrieve this month’s issue of the Journal of Climatology out of my backpack, looking forward to finishing the article on atmospheric ozone. Then I paused, setting down my chicken strip basket. The photo was gone, a couple fragments of old tape still clinging to the rear panel where it had hung. Our photo—the one with Marissa flipping off the camera and me laughing in the background. “What the hell?” I felt my hands begin to close into fists. Then I saw something else. On top of my backpack was a folded sheet of newsprint. It was a page from the want-ads in the back of the Lincoln Journal-Star.
I hadn’t even bought a paper today, let alone stowed a page in my cubby. Had it been left here by the photo thief? I sank into a plastic chair, frowning and starting to unfold the page. Just then, the door opened and Ronnie came in. I moved to slip the want-ads in between the pages of Climatology but wasn’t fast enough. “Hey.” He hesitated, glancing down at the page and then turning to study the schedule on the wall.
“I came back here to…sorry about before.” He came all the way into the tiny room and shut the door. “What’re you doing?”
I took a deep breath. “Nothing to be sorry about. You were right.”
“Tor, I was just frazzled from Dad showing up. I took it out on you, that’s all it was. It didn’t mean anything.”
“What’d the flapjack tycoon say to you this time?”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head, gesturing that it didn’t matter. “My point is, all this—” He indicated the folded paper in my hand. “—isn’t necessary. You’re making decent money here, and who knows—that dream job could be just around the corner! And even if it isn’t, you could move up to manager here. On the other hand, if you just throw it all away and leave this behind—”
“Then you’ll be stuck here by yourself.” My appetite gone, I shoved the page into my pocket without another glance and went back to work.
Ronnie knew he’d hit rock-bottom the morning he found the green worm in his dirty laundry. On this night, I finally understood my whole adult life had been a kind of rock-bottom. The thought of worm-eaten undershorts made me think of Casey Byers and his silver cane. “He was my green worm.” I giggled.
“Excuse me?” The elderly woman I was serving stared up at me while her husband looked apprehensively at his asparagus.
I hurried away to rescue Trish, who’d just gotten a party of twelve. I grabbed plates out of the cooks’ window, passed them to Nora and Cindy, who sorted them onto trays, which Marki and Trish whisked away to serve their tables. When one tray disappeared, I slid another into its place. As the night wore on, the restaurant filled up, the din of voices a constant wall of noise. We dashed in and out of the galley, keeping everyone fed, teaming up when the need arose. I was peripherally aware Ronnie was avoiding me, and marginally regretful.
The phone by the register rang again, and he dashed to answer it. It must have been another wrong number because he held the receiver to his ear for only a second before slamming it down in apparent disgust.
The restaurant was fading into the background as a feeling grew that the sky was beckoning, that something up there awaited my reply. I greeted, cleaned, and served in a blur of menus and faces and Denver omelets, thinking of dark and lonely hills, of buffalo grass standing erect in anticipation of rain. Of standing on a high bluff as a cold air mass slammed into stagnant heat, engulfed in the violence of warring elements, of flying up into the night.
A Few Eggs
Kelley Robadu knows how to party.
Her disguises are endlessly changing: one night—a golden statue, glittering jewels rimming her eyes; the next, a grinning devil, horns and tusks twisting grotesquely out of her forehead and jaws. Tonight, she is a joker, half her face in green, waving plumes, the other in purple leather. Green and purple satin curls nod above the sneering mask, bells tinkling as she swigs from the bottle she and Marissa are sharing on the back steps of Playland.
The partying throngs do not recognize their god and ruler in her many disguises, and this is endlessly amusing to Kelley. Just last week, she suggested walking up an empty alley, trying to entice any potential rapists in the vicinity. Watch this has become a phrase Marissa dreads. “Let’s see ’em ride my rocket!” Eventually, a trio of guys in masks had come after the bait. What Kelley did to them…Marissa had to turn away. Not because she couldn’t face the horror of it. But because of the dark arousal it had stirred deep within her. Transducers had swarmed like moths, the neon images dancing across the globes inspiring the Divine to new heights of brutality.
Together, they prowl the roached-out, gutted buildings where the people are husks, draped in tattered finery, cooking the last dregs of glowing tar, snorting greedily and licking one another’s trembling fingers. These are the dying, and when they move on in their desperate search for more, always more, they are never as many as when they came. In the narrow, tinsel-strewn streets, there are death matches for sport, people reeling off high, rimless balconies, fights for the last bag of candy. At every turn, there is death. But there are no memorials, no grieving, no burials. Those places empty out, leaving the dead behind to be consumed by whatever lurks in the shadows, waiting.
“There’s so much to see, so much I want to show you!” Kelley gushes, again and again. “I’ve never had anybody who could keep up with me before!” They race anonymous through the dark streets like wild dogs, hunting for the ultimate party. It is in these dark, feral moments Marissa feels it most: her soul, her past, her self, falling away.
“We’ve made history together, you and me,” Kelley had said this afternoon in Marissa’s office. The head of Human Resources would arrive shortly for an emergency meeting. But Kelley had arrived early. She’d been lounging on the corner of the desk, but now she slipped down to kneel beside Marissa’s chair. Resisting the impulse to recoil, Marissa met her uplifted gaze, which was soft and very human. “But I need to know this is real.”
“After all we’ve been through. You still don’t trust me. What’s it gonna take? Tell me.”
“Your friendship.” Kelley had looked almost childlike. “Yeah, I get it. You’ve been DimCor’s secret weapon from day one. But I can’t stop thinking about it…you went back. You left me, Kelvin.”
“Even if I could just leave, how would I get my Forty-Five? I’ll die without it.”
Kelley paused. “Good point. Unless you were hoping maybe the wizards at the good old NFMA could give you some kind of magical methadone.”
Marissa’s heart skipped a beat. Kelley was getting better at reading her all the time. “I’ve already explained this. It was just a last good-bye.”
“If that’s true, then how’d you plan on getting back?”
Marissa hesitated, mind racing. “Well, I just figured you’d use the reverse mechanism to pull me back, which is exactly what happened—” But her reply had come a beat too late.
Kelley gently cut her off, gazing absently into space. “I never stopped looking for the source of your strength, you know. Why you’re so resistant to some pretty big magic. But from what I could find—and believe me, all that time you were in botsville, I got a Bypassport back to Lincoln every chance I got—you were just a normal gal. Even your best friend Tori Marshall thought so.”
Marissa had sat frozen, lips numb, mind a blank.
“Hey, you didn’t think I’d leave any stone unturned, did you? Got a copy of the Knights’ Shield from 1990. They dedicated a whole page to you—nice photo, by the way. Took me a few years, but I tracked down pretty much everyone who knew you.”
Marissa was still dumbstruck, the same thought spinning out, over and over: Not Tori, Not Tori, Not Tori—
“Not one trace of magic in any of the samples I took from them (your dad was cute, by the way), not a clue from anything they said.” Kelley pouted. “Dead-endsville.”
Finding her voice at last, Marissa managed: “What do you want from me?”
“I need to be convinced you’re not still one of them on some level.” Kelley crossed her arms on Marissa’s knees and lay her head on them, eternal blackness squirming behind the guileless blue of her eyes. “Then I’ll know we’re really friends. Forever.”
Swallowing her revulsion, Marissa reached down to caress Kelley’s pixie hair. “How?”
Tiny shrug. “You’ll think of something.”
There was a knock on the door.
“And if not?” Kelley rose, resuming her position on the desk corner. “Picture the headline in the Journal-Star.” Her hands framed air. “Ten Years After Unsolved Disappearance: Best Friend Follows.”
Marissa had stood, walked woodenly to the door, opened it. A heavy-set woman in a stained apron stood in the doorway, breathing hard. “Thatcher!” Kelley welcomed her with a sweep of her arm. “Come on in! Take a load off!” Thatcher came into the room, pulling off work gloves, and settled into a chair with a grunt.
Marissa was about to close the door when Tyler came striding in. Not taking a seat, he immediately began to pace the room. “We have to talk,” he said.
“Hey, I called this meeting,” Thatcher said.
“We’ve got bigger problems than HR,” Tyler snapped.
“’Scuse me?” Thatcher narrowed her eyes at him, but Kelley motioned for him to continue.
“This isn’t just inside the company, it’s the whole world! We’ve got eye witnesses that’ve seen hand-copied pages out of that book! The Science of Biology, Third Edition, 1962! The spine’s marked with the old insignia of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. How the hell did it get here?” He glared at Marissa.
But Marissa had barely caught any of this, her mind an entire universe away.
“Literacy’s spreading,” Tyler said ominously. “The Caregivers are requesting funding for more rehab facilities and timelier disposal of the bodies.”
“All that might be true, but—” Thatcher had begun.
“I’m not even halfway done.” Tyler paused for breath. “Second problem: The bakeries have got a surplus of cake. This month alone, they’ve had to scrap a quarter of their inventory and scale back production. People aren’t eating it like they’re supposed to!”
“But we’ve got a—”
“Third problem,” Tyler barreled on. “Uncontrolled pregnancies! Children born out there on the streets instead of in the labs have actually started surviving. We’ve got women getting sober, trying to raise their own offspring…a few even have men trying to help them! It’s that Science of Biology crap! Someone needs to find that fucking book!”
Marissa had started to breathe again, the feeling returning to her face. The last few times she met Klio on Floor forty-two of Skidmor, in addition to the cash, she’d handed her crates of pencils, roles of scrap paper. Tell people to copy the pages from the book, she’d instructed the chymist. Tell them: Teach the children.
She has tried to locate the Rehab facilities, with the hope of spreading literacy to those imprisoned there, but so far, no luck. The only evidence of their existence is the small number of survivors—gaunt, quaking creatures who usually overdose within days of release.
More people are beginning to save their meager wages instead of racking up debt on the worthless dolla. More people are passing over the cake and buying real food. Putting down the drinks and tossing the candy. She does not know how a decades-old edition of The Science of Biology got here, but in that moment, she really didn’t care.
The steely satisfaction growing inside her with Tyler’s every word was in no way betrayed by her impassive expression.
“Your action item is to develop a plan to track down this book ASAP before it causes any more damage,” Kelley was telling him. “Recruit from the streets and sweep the city for writing materials. Reward them for turning each other in to the Caregivers.” She patted Tyler on the arm. “It’s not out of control—yet. I have complete faith you’ll keep it that way, just as you’ve restored order to our production lines.”
Tyler’s chest swelled visibly. “In the months since the interruption in operations—” He shot Marissa another look. “I have worked tirelessly to restore our throughput to levels exceeding what they were. Productivity is up exponentially from where it was immediately after the disaster. We’ve managed to surpass our high standard of quality throughout, in spite of the catastrophe.”
The shattered panic that had filled Marissa was solidifying into a cold calm. Tyler was about to say more when she spoke. “Words like ‘exceeding’ and ‘exponentially’ tell us nothing. What’s the ratio of throughput before, versus throughput now? By what percentage is productivity up? What, exactly, is improving, and at what rate?”
Looking ruffled, Tyler had replied, “I’d say throughput’s up by at least one hundred thirty-five percent.”
“Based on what metrics? What figures?”
“Well, I’d have to gather that data.”
Kelley, still perched on the desk, arms crossed, watched the exchange in amusement.
“You mean, you’re not already gathering that data?”
“If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been a bit occupied trying to undo all the damage you caused.”
Marissa glanced over at Kelley. “Without hard numbers, this fuctard’s wasting our time. HR? You said on the phone there was a problem with the Organics.”
Tyler’s mouth opened very wide, but with a mild look from Kelley, closed again.
Thatcher had nodded, curls bouncing around her flushed face. “There’s a problem, all right. As you know, bots that make it past five months without droppin’ dead get inefficient on the production lines and end up a liability. We just keep ‘em around ‘til they die of old age. Usually, we just eat that cost, but with all the increased production lately there’s more and more of ‘em every month! It’s startin’ to chew into my budget.” She looked from Marissa to Kelley. “So, what can we do? Keep eatin’ the cost and see if things even out?”
Filled with that icy stillness, Marissa had been sitting stock-still, taking in all the relevant data. Now, at last, she stood.
For Tori. Seeing in her mind’s eye a girl with JR on her wrist. “To keep feeding and housing all these geriatrics when they aren’t making us any money is not sustainable.” Seeing a coffee-skinned woman with laugh lines and a braid down her back. That soft instinct she’d always had insisted yes, before all else, Tori must live—not only because she is one of the only two people Marissa has ever loved. But because the very existence of World Two rested upon her next words. For World Two. “Toss ‘em in the furnace instead.” Feeling her soul blacken beyond redemption. “Make it standard practice whenever the oldies take up more than two percent of your budget.” For Lincoln, Nebraska, home of The Good Life. Even Tyler was staring at her with a stunned expression. Opening her office door to indicate the meeting was over, she added, like an afterthought: “Knock ‘em out first.”
The atrocity now hers alone, a locket of horrors that will never come off.
For you, Doc.
Marissa and Kelley had walked out of the office and down the hall, side by side. “Hell of a call back there.” Kelley sounded almost giddy.
Marissa had glanced over, smiling her small smile. “Gotta break a few eggs.”
Deep cover, man.
Kelley had laughed in delight. “For the first time in all of infinity, I was wrong. Wrong to ever doubt you. Let’s celebrate, girlfriend!” High-five.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.