Shipping and Receiving: 2000 • Nametag • The UPS Guy: Spring 2000 • Jambi the Angel
Soundtrack: “Jack Daniels” by Eric Church
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
Shipping and Receiving: 2000
Over time, Marissa has gained incremental data on the mysterious land of Darphina, from whence came the skudder coil. Turns out the first two prototypical worlds have a larger, shinier, younger sibling: World Three, aka Darphina. It is from here that the interdimensional UPS drivers come, shipping goods between the three realms.
It is in Darphina where the cyclovodephane gas is extracted. In that world, the cyclo is magically processed into various motor and industrial fuels, and it is purchased in bulk by the Factory under guise of the same. The slavery is a securely concealed operation deep within the bowels of DimCor, Inc., far from any possibility of discovery.
Occupying the entire thirtieth floor, the massive Shipping and Receiving area of the Factory serves as the freight hub for all of Robadu. Only the most daring drivers will even deliver to and from this cursed place, and being considered (like the bots) to be nonpersons, are forbidden from associating with Factory employees.
Marissa has been finding an excuse to go down to Shipping and Receiving at least a couple times a week. She is dying to hear another truck, to see one up close, a remnant of her former life. But so far, there seems to be no logic to their schedule. Near the end of another workday, she steps off the freight elevator, looking around for any sign of the crew down here, hoping they don’t come back. Aside from distant voices fading down the far corridor, there is silence. Nothing at first; then—
A grumbling sound. Distant at first but growing louder, approaching from beyond the wide scrolling dock doors— the unmistakable mutter of a UPS truck in reverse. The engine shuts off right outside Dock 2. There is a minute of silence. Then, the light goes on above the small utility door between the docks, and there is a brief knock. Filled with an eagerness she doesn’t fully understand, Marissa approaches the door, slides back the bolt, pulls the door open, a black rectangle in the wall. The festival lights of the city twinkle like distant fireworks.
From out in the darkness, a voice. “Ma’am? You here to sign?”
She steps back from the doorway. “Yeah. I guess.”
The owner of the voice walks into the light, and she is thrown back, back to a summer afternoon in a dead-end alley, where a dark stranger first awakened in her a hope that something could be truly good, a promise almost too wonderful to believe. An ache that returned whenever a UPS truck turned left instead of right, whenever she remembers crouching like fugitives in the cargo hold, his ambling grace and crazy laugh, his allusion to a possible FBI affiliation. An ache that leaves her breathless now, as his scuffed work boots clomp across the threshold, a carabiner with keys and a bottle opener jingling on the belt loop of his chocolate-brown knee-shorts.
This driver is far younger than their rescuer would be by now. But…his walk, the set of his shoulders, the way he is looking at her. Black shades pushed back on his head so his long, dark hair piles up behind them. Long-fingered hands sheathed in black leather gloves. Thick, curving unibrow.
The wonder of that long-ago day.
That the pupils of his amber eyes are vertical slits like those of a cat or reptile barely registers within her consciousness.
“You guess?” His grin reveals long, narrow incisors, sharp cuspids. “So, you just like hangin’ around shipping docks in your spare time?”
Marissa finally remembers to close her mouth, her cheeks growing warm. She looks him up and down again, taking her time. “Yeah,” she says, her composure returning. “Say. What kinda critter are you, anyhow?” Thinking: If this is what they call subhuman, then I don’t want to be human.
“Dang, you get right to the point, don’t you?” His amazing eyes are studying her curiously. “You been livin’ under a rock, you don’t know a Darphinian when you see one?”
“Kind of new here.”
“No shit, huh?” He heads over to the scrolling door on Dock 2. “Got you guys’s monthly of CV.” He hits the green button on the wall and the door rumbles upward, revealing the truck’s interior, which holds dozens of clear gas cylinders, four to a caddy. Marissa walks over, grabs a caddy and wheels it off the truck, sneaking glances at the driver’s hairy legs as she helps him unload the cargo, trying to imagine what kind of world could possibly produce such a person.
“Man, you guys sure go through this stuff,” he comments, now pulling a couple of caddies of empty cylinders off the Shipping floor and onto the truck, filling the space they have just emptied. “Can’t imagine what kinda machines’d burn through that much fuel and still make you money.”
“No, you probably couldn’t.” Marissa concentrates on helping him fill the truck back up. She lowers the rear door.
One side of his unibrow twitches upward as he holds up a battered clipboard. “What do you do around here, anyhow?”
“CFO.” She takes the pen and scrawls her name at the bottom of the form.
“Whoa.” He gives her a sideways look, then studies her signature. “Guess I better be nice to you then, Miss, uh, Mimosa.”
“Marissa.” He repeats her name slowly, and the sound is like a promise. “Kel-vin. You’re the first person I’ve met down here with a real last name.” He tears off the carbon copy and hands it to her. “Well, Miss Chief…” He is backing out into the shadows of the loading dock. “You have a great rest of your day.” He executes a lazy salute, then disappears into the darkness.
There is the thud of his soles hitting the pavement as he jumps off the dock. The creak of the suspension as he gets behind the wheel. The thunk of gears shifting into first. A moment later, the truck is rolling away from her, a big square silhouetted against the city lights below as it picks up speed. At the end of the runway, the motor guns, and the truck rockets out over nothing, zooming through the air in a wide arc, and then—the taillights vanish. The truck is gone, tires meeting Channel A-10, bound for the Darphina artery.
The buzzer sounds from the open mouth of the freight elevator, and she hurries to close it for whoever is waiting to use it. As she is dropping the carbon form into the Supervisor’s inbox, the doors trundle open again and Klio rushes out, then skids to a halt, staring at the rows of full tanks lined up in front of Dock 2. Then she spots Marissa. “The UPS—”
“Been here and gone.” Marissa waves at the closed dock door. “I signed for your tanks. You’re welcome.” She exits, heading for the thirtieth-floor train platform, her head full of many things.
Of the shock of finally conversing with someone from that place, whole universes away from this hell. Of the familiar sight of that big brown truck, so evocative of a million hilarious memories with Tori as kids. Of a sudden constellation of possibilities.
Not of ever seeing Lincoln again, not of ever feeling the sun on her face or smelling summer rain. She will not let her imagination wander back to his ornery grin. In another life—maybe, yes. But not for a murderer and a slave driver. He belongs in the light, and I belong down here.
No, this hope is for something far greater than herself; in her mind, she sees not dreams of her own homecoming or the kindling of some exotic romance. Instead, she is seeing the land of Robadu awash in daylight, the lid blown off, its secrets laid bare, the last slave made free again, the descendants of Robadu restored to the Light.
For two whole weeks, she has passed through Shipping and Receiving at least once a day. Three times, she just missed a UPS pick-up or drop-off. But just knowing he is somewhere out there, in one dimension or another, is something to hold onto.
For two whole weeks, she doesn’t even know his name.
Another late afternoon, and the door to the lab is open a crack. She pushes it inward, finding the gleaming white cavern of the interior unoccupied. Along the nearest wall are caddies of empty gas cylinders. It looks like Klio has stepped out, leaving the shipment unattended for a while. Klio has begun to make a habit of this lately.
Marissa loads them all onto the freight elevator and takes them down to Shipping and Receiving. In a distant corner, a few white-coated employees from Quality Assurance are inspecting some materials before checking them in to stock. Otherwise, there appears to be no one else here.
As she approaches the docks, a familiar sound fills her heart with excitement: a truck, idling just outside Dock 2. She waits a few minutes, but there is no further sound or movement. Finally, she slides the bolt on the small utility door and steps out into the darkness.
The landing strips leading up to the docks are all connected by a ledge only a few feet wide. Like everything in Robadu, there is no safety rail between the edge and the drop, in this case thirty stories. To her left sits the big square truck, quietly grumbling to itself.
To her right sits the driver, his long legs hanging over the drop, dragging on a cigarette. The night wind carries the smoke away. The sounds of the unending party that is Robadu are faint up here. It’s almost peaceful. Marissa closes the door behind her, walks over and sits a foot or two away from him. For a time, they sit in silence. He finishes his smoke, flicks the butt over the edge, little sparks trailing down.
Marissa says, “Those things give you cancer.”
“Not me. My people have special lungs that’re resistant.”
“Yeah, right.” Another minute of silence. Then: “So, mister special lungs, what else have you got that’s special? Like, is anything…you know…” She indicates his person in general. “Different than what humans have?”
He smiles, still looking out over the city. “Despite the official ruling by DimCor, Inc., we are human. And I assure you, ma’am—” He returns her look. “Everything’s exactly where it belongs.”
If it were possible to stop time, Marissa would stay here all night, flirting, forgetting where she is and what she is—if only for a few hours. Unfortunately, that kind of magic has not yet been invented, as far as she knows. “Please find something out for me,” she says, and suddenly her heart is pounding. She looks around them, though there is no one else to hear. “About someone from Lincoln.” He says nothing, probably too surprised to respond. “Her name is Tori. Tori Marshall.” She is whispering now, almost breathless. “She probably doesn’t live there anymore. I just need to know if she’s—if she’s okay.” A thousand other things are bursting to come out, mainly that this world runs on slavery, but one misstep with this brown-clad stranger and all could be lost.
He is looking at her steadily now, his unibrow furrowed. “Who are you, really?” Marissa is breathing deeply, trying to calm herself, unable to even speak. Why? She has always been in total command of her emotions—with teachers, with Rusty, even with Kelley. “You know we’re not even supposed to be talking, right?” He folds his long legs, eases to his feet. Not angrily, but decisively, closing the door on this conversation. Marissa remains sitting on the ledge, silently cursing, already replaying in her head how she might have handled this differently.
She returns to Shipping and Receiving just as he is loading the last of the empty tanks onto the truck. She walks past him, heading for the distant hall. Wishing he would turn around and say something, anything. Passing through the doorway, she hears the distant sound of the truck accelerating down the runway.
A couple of days later, she is sifting through the memos and financial reports in her inbox. Setting aside a sales forecast, she pauses, staring down at the small, brown package at the bottom. Slowly, she pulls the packing slip out of its sleeve and unfolds it.
Under ITEM is a time: 8p.m. Under DESCRIPTION is a place: Dock 2. Under QUANTITY is what appears to be a name: Virgil Fiaraka. She mouths the name, silently. Her eyes flick to her office door. Refolding the slip and shoving it into her pocket, she walks over to turn the bolt. Then she upends the package, and a small object falls into her palm. It is a plastic, red-checkered nametag. Underneath the cheery DownHome Kitchen logo: Tori.
The UPS Guy: Spring 2000
Until it had dawned, I hadn’t acknowledged how much I’d been dreading the day. April twelfth. Ten years, MIA.
Every so often, I might catch the hint of a grainy, hick-sounding voice, and my heart would give an involuntary leap, even though I knew it wasn’t her.
But that day. And why that one, of all days? As if I wasn’t crazy enough already, I just might’ve stumbled into a new obsession to complement the already existing ones.
It happened on the way home from work. I’d been mindlessly inching towards the stoplight on Coddington, trying to figure out where I could have lost my DownHome Kitchen nametag, when a UPS truck appeared, blinker on, waiting for a break in traffic. I braked, my eyes drawn to the driver, his foot resting on the pedal. Heavy black shades hid his eyes, and his legs and arms were very hairy. As the truck swung out in front of me, he turned his head, dark ponytail flipping in the breeze, and raised a gloved hand, mouthing a thank-you and more words I couldn’t make out.
The first thing that had struck me was that he looked like a younger version of the driver who’d hidden Marissa and me from Rusty when we were little. But what sent a wave of shock all the way to my toes was his smile. Something in it brought Marissa to mind with such force that I gasped, my eyes prickling with tears. She’d be all over him, I thought, and smiled for the first time that day.
The truck turned left at the next light and was gone.
I couldn’t explain the fact that the sight of him had lifted me. I couldn’t deny it, either. Inexplicably, he made me think wherever Marissa was, she was okay. Your mind just does what it does when you want something so bad.
“Could she be?” I whispered aloud.
Jambi the Angel
Alas, Your guess is as good as ours. We don’t have the answers to the riddles of the universe (Daath’s fever-dreams notwithstanding). But we were given this onus—and own us You do. We try to keep tuned to Your wavelength and keep You safe on this long, strange trip, but we cannot protect You from the grief attendant to love.
Who stationed us here? Whoever or whatever made the Worlds: One, Two, Three. Were we visible to Your kind, we would be worshipped, feared; virgins and puppies would be sacrificed, self-flagellation would bloody Your streets, while the smoke of burning strawmen would darken Your skies. But on the scale of All Creation, we’re just a few worms squiggling through ozone holes around a spot of dust in the void while the poets composing this story reside in their…whatever cosmic tower they reside in, writing the Laws that dictate our fates for their own obscure reasons.
Poets, we are your words. We jig for you on this tiny stage, while you hide your face(s) from us. But man, what I want to know is, who gave you your job? I mean, is it turtles all the way down? What if Olympus were to fall?
Would anyone even notice?
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.