For An Orange

“They still won’t eat the oranges?”

Elena sat with her hands folded in her lap; her host, Princess Kilar, sprawled across her daybed. It was hot, too hot for proper posture – unless it was expected of you. No one expected anything of a princess in her own rooms, but of Elena, a great deal was expected, including some discomfort.

“We aren’t…accustomed to them.” Elena and her family had been plucked out of the famine-riddled countryside weeks ago after the princess learned there was royal blood in Elena’s family. Kilar thought it droll to have distant cousins visiting; Elena could only think of everyone they’d left behind. “The children are daunted by the expense.”

“But nothing is an expense here.” The princess sat up. Elena suspected she was genuinely confused. “Here they can have whatever makes them happy, the poor lambs.”

Someone always pays the expense, she thought. Instead, she said, “So I keep telling them, Your Highness.”

“Eight weeks is a long time to be a guest,” the princess continued. “Surely they must have settled in by now.”

“They’re children; they miss home.”

“Even when at home there was no food? Devastating heat?”

Elena shrugged. “It was home.”

“How curious.”

Ellen thought to challenge her to some empathy, to imagine how Kilar might feel if she had to leave this castle, but she expected the retort would be that the castle was beautiful and comfortable – a place worth missing. So Elena quietly accepted the cup of chilled wine a servant brought for her and sipped.

#

The next day, she came across Rohan and Reza sitting enraptured on the floor before the princess. Kilar had just finished peeling an orange, keeping the peel in one complete ribbon, which she curled it back into a simulacrum of an orange, to their amazement. By the boys’ knees were piles of coin-sized chunks of peel, and a tidy pyramid of peeled fruit stood on a platter between them.

“Look, Mama, she can make a snake!” Rohan pointed at the princess’ hollow orange.

“I made a piece this big!” Reza held up a piece of peel the size of her thumb.

“Well done, Reza, you’re learning quickly.” Elena raised an eyebrow at the princess. “How many oranges have you gone through today?”

“It’s no trouble – there are plenty.” Kilar gestured to a bowl next to her. Even after all their practice, at least a dozen oranges were still heaped inside. It reminded Elena of the solstice feast six years ago at the regional governor’s house, when each family was gifted a bushel of oranges. It was expected that they would gorge themselves on fruit before it rotted; everyone in Elena’s household savored two oranges, then she turned the rest into preserves.

“And how many have you eaten?” she asked the boys pointedly.

“Five!” Reza announced.

“I don’t feel good,” Rohan said.

“Perhaps I should take them, Your Highness.” Elena scooped Rohan into her arms.”I’m sure they’ve given you enough trouble for one day.”

“But I want to learn to make the snake!” Reza’s sticky fingers clutched her velvet skirt and she winced. Somewhere in this castle, someone did Elena’s laundry, and she had no idea who. Kilar had assured her that Elena’s household staff would be brought to the castle, but Elena wasn’t sure she’d ever followed through. It was a hallmark of the royal staff to be as unobtrusive as possible; perhaps Chari was here, watching her former family from a distance.

“The princess has responsibilities to attend to,” Elena said. “Come.”

She looked back to see Kilar disinterestedly separating the peeled oranges into segments, laying them out in rows on their platter.

“So how many did you eat, Rohan?” she asked.

“None.”

Elena frowned. “But you feel sick?”

“I’m not sick at all, Mama.” He parted his vest. Heaped inside his shirt were several oranges – still, mercifully, in their peels.

“Rohan, why are there oranges in your shirt?”

“I wanted to give them to Chari. She hasn’t gotten to have any oranges at all. All Kilar wants to do is peel them.”

Princess Kilar, Rohan.” But she hid a smile. “What about your brother?”

“I let him eat the ones I peeled.”

Beside her, Reza nodded emphatically. “They taste like solstice!”

There had been oranges after that particular solstice, but not nearly as many, nor as sweet. Chari and the other staff wouldn’t have tasted oranges in years.

She set Rohan on his feet. “Give Chari your oranges, then, and my blessing.”

Won’t You Smile

(a filk to the tune of Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby, which goes way back!)

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
White teeth shine and she sure looks fine
but she’ll never be your lovin’ lady

Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Eyes through the smoke so thick you choke
on the curse you wanna tell that lady

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
She’s gone away where the red scarves wave
taking all us unrepentant ladies

The Real Thing

Margo wasn’t surprised to see the visitor hunched on a stool at the card table, breathing deeply, his large hands curled around a chipped mug of coffee. She hadn’t asked his name, and he hadn’t asked hers. She wanted to think he had kind eyes, but actions, not eyes, were what counted these days. Besides, the vote had been taken: the visitor had to move on.

“This is great,” he said, raising his mug. “I haven’t had real coffee in ages.”

“It’s not real.” Margo realized she was scratching her head – she was embarrassed, and pleased. It felt good to have someone compliment something she’d made. They were all so used to flavorless rations that compliments were rendered artificial, so no one bothered to make them.

“It’s just the powdered substitute,” she explained. “They used to give it to the soldiers, to keep them awake longer.”

“Wouldn’t that cause psychosis?”

“Oh, it did. But I don’t drink that much.”

He chuckled and one corner of his mouth lifted. Margo tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered. Nice to know it was still possible, she decided, though it could have picked a better time.

“I drink it, too, when I can find it,” he said. “Guess it tastes better because I didn’t have to make it.”

“Like breakfast in bed.”

“Like breakfast.” He laughed, and Margo did, too, watching the way his smile cut like a sunbreak through his black beard, how his breath made the rising steam dance.

She poured her own mug and sat across from him. The rain had let up; aside from the acidic puddles and maybe a couple mudsnakes, he’d be safe to move on, wherever he was headed. She didn’t ask that, either.

She wished he could stay one more night, now that she was more certain of him. The hidden cameras could capture his smile, his expressions, his words, but not him, the way he radiated help and ease and comfort. If they had – if the others had seen what Margo saw – they’d never have voted him out.

For a moment, she entertained a vision of herself unlocking the door to the basement, throwing open the hatch, and having him meet everyone. They’d like him. It wouldn’t be like last time, when Elle thought that woman seemed sweet and matronly, and then she tried to steal their solar panels. She hadn’t gotten far.

“Well,” he said, and reality asserted itself. “Guess I should get out of your hair.”

“Yeah, I need to…” The usual excuses wouldn’t come to mind. She kept hoping Cooper or Elle would burst through the locked door, announcing he’d been cleared, that he’d been voted in after all. “I should check the roof for rain damage.”

“Need a hand?”

“No, I…I’ve got it. Thank you, though.”

He hesitated only slightly before smiling amenably. In the front hall narrowed by stacks of crates, he pulled on his patched jacket and shouldered his road-stained pack. A blue enamel mug hung from one of the straps. It gave Margo an idea.

She ran back to the kitchen and returned with a tiny tube – a film canister, an antique even before the bombs fell – and held it out to him.

“What’s this?”

“You’ll have to make it yourself next time.”

He popped the lid and breathed deeply. “Sure smells like the real thing.”

“I wish it was.”

“You’d still have given me some?”

“I would.”

He tucked the coffee into the breast pocket of his shirt. She watched his eyes: sea-green and surprising, the contrast even more breathtaking in shadow. He stretched out a hand to shake hers.

“Thanks,” he said, that smile peeking through.

She took his hand and pulled him into an embrace. The pack strap dug into her cheek, but she didn’t care: his back was warm under her hands, and she could feel his, broad and comforting, around her shoulders.

Margo pulled away and opened the door.

#

Cooper was waiting at the bottom of the ladder, shotgun over his shoulder.

“He’s gone?”

“Yep.”

“Never tried anything?”

“Nope. Just needed a dry place to sleep.”

“Wasn’t scoping the joint?”

“No, Cooper.”

“Just checking.” They went down the tunnel, Cooper’s flashlight beam leading the way. “Too bad. He seemed nice.”

“Yeah.” She pictured him down the road, alone, popping the lid off the canister to breathe in the smell and maybe think of her. “I think he was.”

Save

Spring, keeping her head down

Spring, like me, dragged herself out of bed this morning
We each went about our days, her with half-done flowers,
me with yesterday’s eyeliner and day-two
hair that, like the gray branches finally tinged green
and the winter-weary trio of pines beyond the fence,
looks better windswept. Spring obliges
Sighs gusts down the street that
carry off our garbage cans and shred
the maple blossoms
new and lacy
from their twigs.
How much sun did they get to see?
The magnolias hold out,
holed up in pink fists clenched
against the overstayed chill
lesson learned from the daffodils, their uprising
too soon, once-proud petals
slowly going ragged. I see their wilted crowns
bruised to sepia shadows, penitents’ cloaks
framing still-hopeful faces
when I, ragged too, return home in the silver evening.

Ringer

The bar is loud tonight, crowded with paunchy men in faded sports tees and flannel shirts. They’re from out of town, here for the big tool expo, but they’ve claimed ownership of the bar and driven out almost all the regulars – except me. Jenna is the only one working tonight, but she refuses to let me help, even though we both knew before seven that it would be a hectic night.

“Your license is expired, Jess,” she whispered when I offered. “You got your new job, what, six months ago?”

“So? My license lapsed, not my ability to pour a beer.”

A group of six entered and her shoulders sagged briefly. “Maybe later.”

So here I am, sipping a two-hour-old porter, waiting for Jenna to crack and accept my help.

One of the out-of-towners, his head shaved in an attempt to outflank his baldness, accidentally elbows me when he comes up for another round.

“Sorry.”

I say nothing. He forgets about me immediately. His Red Sox tee is too small for him. He and his friends have taken over the dart board right next to the bar. While he’s gone, one of his friends sticks a fresh hole in the wall. I helped repaint that wall just last year.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he calls to Jenna. “Three more?”

Jenna is down at the other end, serving another horde of outsiders.

“Hey!” Red Sox barks. Jenna looks up, two pint glasses in her hands. Red Sox taps his wrist with one finger – today, sweetheart.

I look up at him, debating intervening. He stares at Jenna – all over Jenna – as she fills his glasses and slides them across the bar.

“Better be faster next time if you expect a tip.” He raises an eyebrow as if he just benevolently imposed some wisdom on her. Jenna’s smile never fractures, but I recognize the furious tension of her eyebrows when we exchange a glance.

People say we have the same smile, but that’s where the similarities end. She’s taller, blonder, and older by eight minutes. We probably weigh the same, but hers is distributed in a way that racks up more “sweetheart” and “baby” in one night than I’ve heard in a lifetime. We both worked behind that bar for almost three years before I started at the bank.

“Hey, sweetheart!” Red Sox is pointing at a bullseye, presumably his. I glimpse gold on his finger – a wedding ring he hadn’t even bothered removing. “You got a nice prize for the winner? A kiss, maybe?”

Whooping all around the bar. Jenna’s smile becomes icy before she teasingly waves him off. If any other regulars were still here, he’d be thrown out, or at least shouted down. But it’s just me tonight, and while I can bench 150, I try not to get in bar fights with strangers anymore.

Besides, like Mom always said, violence isn’t always the answer. I got real good at darts while I worked here, and when this place isn’t overrun with entitled outsiders, the other regulars and I play at least once a week.

“I’ll take that bet,” I say, standing.

A different kind of whooping, now. Jenna winks conspiratorially – neither of us feels inclined to tell people we’re related.

Red Sox yields the floor with a smirk. The friend who put a hole in the wall is too young for the Pink Floyd shirt he’s wearing, but not too young to snicker at me with the others. They sound like chimpanzees.

But they fall silent as I rack up t15, ring, d17; d20, bull, t18. It’s over quickly.

The rest of the bar has already gone back to hollering at each other over their cheap beers, the contest forgotten. Red Sox flushes to match the faded letters on his shirt.

“Hey, Jenna,” I call. “Smoochy, smoochy.”

She rolls her eyes as I tap my cheek. I am rewarded with a kiss, an exaggerated “mwah” like our aunt used to do, and a smirk aimed over my shoulder at Red Sox.

“What is this, some kind of hustle?” he snaps.

“Just good, clean fun.” I drain the last of my lukewarm porter. “Wouldn’t want to upset your wife…”

Red Sox leaves as I reclaim my barstool. He mutters something I don’t quite hear – probably for the best – as he passes. Pink Floyd, though, bobs his head ruefully at Jenna and leaves a twenty on the bar.

Much Obliged

The moment comes when they ask you for another long week on another long project and you can’t find the shape of yes in your mouth anymore. At first, the extra assignments felt flattering – like compliments, like trust. Now they feel like links in a lengthening chain.

You know they aren’t really asking. They know you have no choice.

So you chew on your retorts and swallow the acidic no that had threatened to burst free like flame and find the agreeable yes they want.

The moment passes safely.

This was going to be my entry for yw#308 but my week got away from me. What’s up, moonshine grid?

Save

Goodnight, VerreTek

I am blinking amid the restricted servers and I don’t remember why I’m here.

I remember details – keystrokes – but I can’t remember anything beyond VerreTek’s last firewall. I’m holding a drive, though. I realize, with a jolt of pride and terror, that I was successful. The encryption did its job erasing any memory of what I read, but I got through. I have the data.

“Miss Palmer? Are you in here?”

Booted feet, a harsh voice. They know full well I’m here. There are no security warnings on my screen, so nothing I did during my hack attracted attention, but somehow, I’m suspicious.

I check the time and swear silently. I’ve been in here for 20 minutes – way longer than permitted. The encryption must have messed with my perception of time.

“Miss Palmer?”

“Yes?” I call as innocently as possible. I hide the drive in the pocket I sewed into my bra – lined with a few square inches of inordinately expensive scan-deterring fabric – and dart three rows away, where I pretend to be working on a terminal. I sabotaged it yesterday to give myself an excuse to be here.

Two security guards appear at the end of the row. “Miss Palmer, you don’t have clearance to be here unaccompanied for more than ten minutes.”

“I’m so sorry!” I gesture to the terminal, its black screen helpfully flashing a scattered assortment of green cursors. “This should’ve been a really easy fix and I totally lost track of time –”

“Would you come with us, please?”

Again, they aren’t asking.

[]

They walk me back and forth through two scanners, wave around me with three types of detector wands, and pat me down. Nothing picks up the tiny drive.

They could order a strip search, but I’m a nineteen-year-old girl with a spotless record and prodigy-level encryption skills. VerreTek isn’t really concerned about me. They just have to put in the time to make it look like they bothered.

I just have to outlast them. So, for the next few hours, I lie – sort of.

Hour one. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

“Some secure files were accessed from another terminal in the same room.”

“I never saw any secure files.” It’s not entirely true – I saw them, I just don’t remember them. But it’s enough to fool the lie detector, and that’s all that matters.

[]

Hour two. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

[]

Hour three. “Your work record indicates you should have had no problem fixing the broken terminal.”

“That thing hadn’t gotten a software update in three years. It wasn’t compatible with the new ports.”

The lie detector trembles, but the guards are tired. Just a little longer and I’ll be done with this place, and all the evil it protects, for good.

[]

Hour four. “Sorry for the inconvenience, Miss Palmer. You’re free to go.”

I’m not sure how an innocent should react. I go for indignant. “What about the secure files?”

“What about them?”

“Did they trace the hack?”

“I think that’s a little above your pay grade.”

“That’s my job – if something’s failed, I need to –”

“If something failed, you’ll just have another long day tomorrow.” He gestures at the door. “If we have more questions, we’ll find you.”

[]

I don’t even think about the drive until I’m safely back home. With the biomonitors on the bus and the constant sweep of surveillance trucks and sentry bots, just elevating my heart rate an unusual amount could get me in trouble.

I don’t even know yet if it would be worth it.

In my room, I listen for the slow grind of the surveillance sweeper. It passes, right on schedule, and I activate my camera. I hook up the drive and start to read.

It’s like recalling an old dream, or hearing a story someone swears involved you, but you can’t remember. All of VerreTek’s secrets – bribery, blackmail, weapons deals, black-bag disappearances – they’re all locked under the memory-inhibiting encryption I help improve.

Helped improve.

I read their secrets aloud for the camera, my insurance. By the time the next sweeper passes, I’m powered down again, only now I remember everything I’ve read.

I send a secure message to my contact: Have VT data. Please advise.

The response is quick: 1800 bus to LA. 

I lie awake after that. What I’ve read is hard to forget – only now I wish I could. At least tomorrow I’ll be doing something about it.