Two Hundred Seconds

I store new songs – more accurately, I hoard them. Before I’ve even heard a song all the way through, if I like it, I’ve catalogued its most distinctive lyrics so I can look them up later and add the song to my collection. I have a note in my phone full of phrases from songs I’ve wanted to collect:

hold back the river

take Jackson out of me

what kind of man loves like this

I’m driving and listening to NPR. I’m not usually driving during this particular program, so the music I hear is an unexpected surprise. I like this band’s sound, whoever they are, so I turn up the volume and listen closely. I wait to catch lyrics or the band’s name, waiting like a hawk to snatch my prey from the air and go on with my day.

“This next song, we’ve never recorded,” she says during a break. “We play it very rarely, so we hope you’ll enjoy.”

I’ve been to concerts. I know the magic of a favorite song performed live, familiar but achingly different, comfortable but ephemeral. I’ve been to shows where the band came onstage for their encore and waited patiently, silently, for the audience to go quiet enough for them to perform their final song completely acoustic – no mics at all. The room held its breath. We could barely hear them singing and it was beautiful.

I’ve only been half paying attention to the experience of a new song because I spend the time anticipating experiencing it again. All the new songs that I’ve collected phrases from, I may as well have been talking over, for all the thought I gave them after I had what I wanted from them. Anywhere I have Internet, I can listen to any song I want immediately – but if this particular song was never recorded, that means I can’t buy it, or even hear it ever again.

That isn’t why I turn off my mental recorder, though. It’s peaceful to realize there is no gratification, delayed or instant or otherwise, beyond the next two hundred seconds of music. I and a few thousand listeners are the only people who will ever hear this song, performed this way. I’ve let many countless seconds slip past without realizing how unique they were, so I focus on these and what they have to offer. I narrow my world down to the now, and the music.

In my car, I hold my breath.

Storing Summer

It’s only cool enough to walk come sunset,
mosquitoes buzzing tinny like the wires
overhead. Evading thorns, we pluck berries

from summer-warmed vines. Peaches, these blackberries,
and the strawberries picked out back at sunset –
they drip summer taste, sweet as sun, sharp as wires.

I thread each tart-sweet memory on wires
like beads: each velvet peach, the ruby berries,
even the whining mosquitoes at sunset.

Come autumn rains, each sunset strung on wires
Will wreathe remembered warmth, sweetness, and berries.

A tritina, my first.

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From Miami With Love

Most people are familiar with dread. It’s that feeling you get going into a test you forgot about, or being summoned by the boss during a wave of layoffs. Spies experience whole new dimensions of dread – getting caught crossing the Chinese border with stolen fighter designs, for instance, not that I’ve ever done that. Tonight, I felt it when I pulled up at the end of the Miami mansion’s driveway in an Audi R8, dressed in a rented Naeem Kahn gown, and saw only one other car: a black Lamborghini.

Tatiana favored black Lamborghinis. Every party we’d been to, she’d arrived in one.

I slumped in my seat. Tatiana had arrived before me?

I wasn’t surprised she’d figured out the invitation. It wasn’t very complicated – a fragment of coded chatter intercepted from an Italian yacht, easily decrypted. But to have her reach the destination first? That was embarrassing personally and professionally. I’d let America herself down tonight.

And now, as punishment, I’d have to spend time with Tatiana alone.

I revved the R8’s engine and purred down the driveway. The majority of the population has never even heard of these gatherings. They think it’s hyperbole, an urban legend meant to inspire admiration for the espionage community. They think it’s self-promotion, an attempt to make ourselves look more glamorous, more like those famous movie spies we don’t have to name.

Maybe it is self-promotion, in a way, and it definitely does make us look more glamorous. Our jobs are tough, though, and we’ll take any opportunity to get glammed up and actually have a little fun. Even the Russians relax at these things – except Tatiana, who apparently never learned how.

I ran through the usual guest list. Captain Green would probably arrive shortly, apologizing in his posh accent for his tardiness when he was actually the most punctual among us. Either Chan or Lee would be there, depending on who arrived first. Chan loved parties, but refused to be in the same building as his Korean counterpart whenever possible. Farah, as far as I knew, had never failed to decrypt an invitation, even the infamous New Year’s one four years ago that had stumped the Russians, the Chinese, and the French. She’d be here, but she’d arrive a fashionable twenty minutes late – too late to rescue me from conversation with Tatiana.

Cannot believe she beat me.

A suited valet helped me from the car and two stone-faced doormen ushered me inside the house. Its marble columns and gilded wainscoting showed elegant restraint, by Miami standards.

“Major Melissa Weiss, CIA,” announced the woman standing in the foyer. Judging from the earpiece and tablet she was equipped with, this woman served as both the herald and chief of security. No doubt the tablet showed her every room in the house, complete with active scanning for unusual heat or biochemical traces that could indicate a weapon.

You’d have to be a real jerk to bring a weapon to one of these parties, though. It’s just not the mensch thing to do.

I made my way through the house. The kitchen, which at first glance appeared to be entirely copper-plated, boasted several platters of international finger food. The great room was dotted with bistro tables draped in white, and a portable bar stood near a colorfully lit but empty dance floor. The picture windows were open to the grounds’ manicured hedges, palm trees, and mosaic-tiled pool. Whoever was hosting clearly called in a few favors to score a site like this.

“Welcome, Major Weiss,” a lilting Russian accent called. My heart sank.

“Tatiana.”

“What, no happy birthday?” she pouted. She was wearing a very slinky, very red gown with a hefty gold collar necklace – easily large enough to conceal toxic gas canisters, I thought ungenerously. Clip the two ends together, twist a certain way –

Then it occurred to me. “This is your party?”

“Of course, kotyonok. No one loves Miami like I do.”

A genuine smile spread across my face. “Happy birthday, then.”

She hadn’t figured the puzzle out first – she’d written it. That was the only reason she’d arrived before me. I had solved it fastest, after all.

“Major,” I imagined the President saying (in a Southern accent for some reason, even though he was from Connecticut), “you’ve done your country proud.”

“A drink?” Tatiana marched towards the bar. “My bartender is late, but we are resourceful, no?”

I followed her, trying not to strut. I win. “I could go for a Manhattan.”

The Morning Walk

We start our day walking alongside the whispering yellow grasses in the undeveloped lot. They put a cul-de-sac here, connecting it to our neighborhood, but got no further. Now the wild grass has dried and gone to seed, and the field is scattered with daisies, lupine, and clover.

River likes it here best. She trots ahead, her tail loose. She gets nervous in the neighborhood itself, especially in the afternoons, with the watching houses and kids on bikes and extra noise. Here, though, in the cool quiet, it would be easy to mistake her for a “normal” dog, one we’d raised from a puppy rather than adopting three years ago.

Three weeks after we got River, we tried walking her in a different portion of the neighborhood. A pair of dogs barking at her from behind their fence scared her so badly that she slipped her collar and ran off. Luckily, she ran straight home. After that, we got her a harness, and we never took her along that route again. She used to be scared of so many things: flags snapping in the wind, heavy rain, her own leash. She’d shake and her tail would tuck under – she’d even refuse the treats we tried to feed her to distract her.

She veers, sniffing – she wants to go into the grass. I keep her back, wary of ticks. I’ve never spotted any; usually it’s just ladybugs perched on the seed heads, preparing to start their day.

Three years on, River is doing a lot better. She still hates beaches and only tolerates car rides. She’s much more comfortable on walks, but is still rare to see her this relaxed. I let her leash out and her tail sways as she trots.

Someday they’ll actually finish building here, mowing down the grasses and cramming nine or ten houses in, and those houses will fill with new families and new kids and new fears to overcome – but until then, this is our morning walk.

I’ll Be All Right Tomorrow

Karya had been on Mars for two entire years, which called for a party. Someone pilfered vodka and some orange space drink from the employee dorm’s pantry; together, they made an acceptable cocktail. Karya sat apart, though, drinking slowly.

“That’s still your first, innit?” Col plopped down next to her.  “S’matter, too powdery?”

“It’s fine.” Karya fidgeted with the foam cup, slicing tally marks with her thumbnail. “They offered me a promotion today: executive assistant. I might take it.”

“Assistant to whom?”

“Does it matter? It means higher security clearance, access to more files – ”

“It means being stuck in the offices,” he interrupted, “away from the mines. How are you supposed to find him if you can’t get out there and look for him?”

“I’ve been out there! Two years in that godawful suit!”

“Us, too, remember?” His eyes flashed. “And we’re gettin’ no promotions.”

She rubbed her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Col produced a flask and splashed its contents into her cup, pressing a finger to his lips.

“That’ll help it. To your brother, eh?”

“To Marko.” She tapped her cup to his and downed its improved – and amplified – contents just as the dorm intercom whined.

“Karya Novak, please report to your supervisor.”

She stood, sighing. “At this hour?”

“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

Her heart raced as she navigated the deserted corridors towards the administrative wing. Surely their small party hadn’t caused any disruptions. Did they want her decision already?

What if they’d they caught Col or Maria or someone prying into her brother’s disappearance? What if she’d gotten her friends in trouble?

What if they’d caught Karya sneaking into the security archives, or observed how she spent every single Surface Day ignoring the rusty, blasted landscape, but taking photos of as many miners as possible, desperate to capture her brother’s face in the crowd?

She took several deep breaths. She didn’t even know for sure that anything bad had happened to Marko. For all she knew, he was just one of the thousands of miners serving out his lifelong contract deep in the claustrophobic Martian tunnels, and there were so many of them she simply hadn’t seen him yet.

Or, for all she knew, he was dead, or transferred to Europa, or –

The office door loomed before her. The security camera, recognizing her, whirred the door open. A young man sat in front of Mrs. Kim’s desk, his dark hair closely shaved, his prominent brow furrowed, his sad, dark eyes –

“Marko?” she gasped.

He stood, half-smiling, and opened his arms to her. One now ended at the elbow. “Hey, Karya.”

“How – oh God, Marko – ”

“Looks worse than it feels,” he assured her. “I got badly burned by gas a while back, so they moved me to engineering.”

“You always were good with electronics,” she cried into his jumpsuited shoulder. “You oaf, I’ve been looking for you for months!”

“I know. I didn’t want this to worry you more.”

She pulled back, her tears stilled. “You knew I was here?”

“Saw you at a couple Surface Days.”

“And you never said? Never contacted me?”

Mrs. Kim strode in, the door whirring shut behind her. “Sorry I’m late.” She stopped at the sight of Karya’s tear-striped face. “He told you already?”

“Told her what?”

Mrs. Kim sat down behind the desk. “My mistake. When was the last time either of you heard from your mother?”

Marko shifted uncomfortably.

“She messages me monthly,” Karya said, “when the channels are clear. Why?”

Mrs. Kim leaned forward. “Your father passed away a week ago. He had an aggressive cancer. Your mother never mentioned he was sick?”

“No,” Karya choked out. “When was he…”

“According to the statement from his doctor, he was diagnosed a little over a year and a half ago.”

Karya stared at her knees. She hadn’t had a claustrophobic attack in months, but this felt similarly horrible – her lungs constricting, her heart rampaging –

“Mom wouldn’t have wanted you to worry.” Marko’s voice intruded on her grief. “She knows how hard it is to get back to Earth.”

“She knows I was looking for you,” she spat. She stood, tears and the shitty cocktail and shock making her stagger. “And if you hadn’t been hiding from me –”

“You’re blaming me?”

Karya closed her eyes, counted, opened them. They were dry. “Maybe I am. Oh, and Mrs. Kim – I quit.”

She stalked from the office. The next Earth-bound shuttle left in seven rotations, and she needed to pack.

It’s Just A Compliment

I am walking with my friend back to her car after happy hour. It’s a nice evening, going dim as purple dusk falls, but the city streets are quiet.

The men are outside their bar, some smoking, some just standing around. There are five of them. I know what they’re waiting for and they confirm as we come into range. We’re the only other people on the sidewalk and though we don’t say anything to each other, we know what’s coming.

“Hi, ladies…”

It’s never just “hi.” It’s bait and hook in one, words tossed out indiscriminately to discomfit, to bother, to outright hurt.

Being smarter than the fish, we have options: fight back; instruct; keep walking, ignore; respond politely and hope that doesn’t bring their net down on us.

(Thank God it’s “us” tonight and not “me.”)

We keep walking, silent, resolute. We have swum this noxious creek before. What woman hasn’t?

“Fine, whatever – bitch.”

Regardless of whether you bite or not, the hook still stabs. There’s still the searing heat of shame and fury because no matter how you react, they win and you lose because the goal was never flirtation. The goal was pain and the power to inflict it.

Fight back? That only works in the movies.

Instruct? An invitation for further harassment.

Ignore? “Bitch” is one of the more salubrious designations they assign you, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you try to maintain your pace and look unruffled, all the while expecting angry footsteps, shouting, a grabbed arm.

Respond politely? Like hell.

Middle finger up over the shoulder as we stride away, a reversed salute, a pathetic dismissal that does nothing to change them or their behavior, does nothing to protect whoever else they might prey on that night.

It doesn’t even make me feel better.

Surface Day

It was Surface Day and Karya was staring at the Martian sky.

Once a month, when the conditions were good, everyone – miners and caff fillers, foremen and scientists – was allowed to spend time on the surface. Rovers transported groups to geological formations, astronomers gave seminars, and cameras were made available for people to document the day. If an employee’s photo was chosen for company marketing materials, they’d receive a nice bonus.

Karya took nearly 300 pictures each Surface Day, mostly of the red-suited miners themselves. She wasn’t motivated by the potential bonus (though of course it would be nice): she simply needed to record as many faces as she could whenever she had the chance.

When she wasn’t taking pictures, Karya stared at the sky, drinking in the openness and the shades of gray and gold. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but its beauty was in its expansiveness. It reminded Karya of the only time she’d gone swimming, when her family won a vacation to a tropical island. She was nine; Marko was twelve. It was the first time she’d ever left the station where she was born, the first time she saw the sky from below, and the first time she’d been able to fully submerge herself in water. Her dad didn’t want them swimming alone, but Karya went anyway, plunging into the clear depths until they were no longer clear, until her lungs ached, then stung.

She kicked until everything burned and the water turned clear again and she was out, bursting free, filling her small strained lungs with pure life, blinking at the sunshine and the clarity of sand grains and palms and the subtle variegation in that blue, blue sky.

Karya had been holding her recycled breath for weeks now, waiting for the day the lift went up instead of down. Now she could exhale and breathe in sunlight, and horizons, and mountains. It almost made her smile.

But they’d sounded the five minute warning, a piercing electronic tone delivered to her earpiece, and Karya still had pictures to take. She drew her eyes down, raised the camera to her faceplate, and shot.

Every photo taken was made available on the mine’s ‘net, so after each Surface Day, she used her free time to scan through hundreds and hundreds of photos, squinting through the miners’ face masks in hopes of finally seeing her brother.

Marko had left home at eighteen, but his record – a single incident of vandalism – condemned him to the life of a miner on any of a dozen ore-rich worlds. Karya counted it a blessing that he was still in the solar system – or had been, anyway. Since she’d lost contact with him a year and a half ago, she had no way of knowing he was even still on Mars. The mine didn’t bother with accurate record-keeping as long as the quotas were met, and if a miner or two or forty died in a superheated gas leak or a collapsed tunnel, there were hundreds more willing to take their place.

She had no evidence that Marko was dead, thankfully, but she had no evidence he was still alive, either. Thousands of photos across eight Surface Days had revealed nothing. She was running out of places to look.

Karya turned her camera on Col and Maria, who were photographing their team with their own camera. Like her, they took many photos of the miners as part of their pledge to help her find Marko. They shared her suspicions of foul play, but she’d also bribed them with additional caff fills. The extra caffeine wasn’t physically harmful, but providing and accepting more than the allotted amount put all their jobs at risk. Col, who’d been assigned miner due to anarchist activity, had jumped at the opportunity to play whistle-blower, caffeinated or not. Maria and many of the others, having had friends who were suddenly “promoted” and never heard from again, wanted answers of their own, no matter how dangerous the questions were.

That had been three months ago. They’d found nothing, and between the secret caff refills and their risky investigation, Karya thought they were all lucky to still be employed, let alone not imprisoned.

The electronic tone signaling the end of Surface Day sounded. Maria elbowed her as they trudged towards the lifts.

“Any good shots?”

“Hope so. You?”

“We’ll see, huh?” They crowded into the lift. “Anyway, there’s always next month.”

Karya nodded and took one last photo of the hazy Martian sky.

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