Epitaph

Emma has bad dreams of her own–being abandoned, waking up in a hospital ER after being beat up, with no memory of the last month, and a purse emptied of everything useful. The nurses found teslamomma’s phone numbers were the only current numbers in the ragged, muddied address book kicked aside next to it, and picked up for her sake by a thoughtful EMT.

Her confused conversations with teslamomma were the single thread that led her to reconstructing her life, or more correctly, her intended life. Whoever attacked her knocked her down in a strange new town, just as she was crossing the street to her new library job. She remembers oddly scattered bits of previous jobs.

It’s as if you didn’t exist six months before they picked you up out of the alley, says the critic in Emma’s mind, annoying as always.

She’s looked for traces of her own passage, tried to track down the surviving women in her family, finding a sister back in Australia who suffered a car wreck and doesn’t remember much either, and who is equally frustrated in the search to find something tangible to show for her life. For the rest, no brothers, no spouse. Their mother gets heard from every few months as she’s stuck off in some remote part of Africa doing scholarly research, her distracted letters more about her work than the family; and the rest are very distant relatives.

The Letter, painting from 1910 by James Carroll Beckwith
The Letter, painting from 1910 by James Carroll Beckwith

Her sister is right; both their records are sketchy as a bad alias, but these days nobody asks Emma too many questions.  She’s as bad as either of the silly amnesiac men sprawled together in her living room, dodging questions when coworkers ask about growing up, back in Oz.

Oh, who cares?  Just make it all up, says the skeptic in her head.

That gruff voice in her head has no mercy.  Dance’s amazing new boyfriend does not charm that critic in the least.  It comments sardonically on the man’s patience, notices how Drin stalks her at the Metro like a leopard, always watchful, never pushing.  Little things, like waiting until he’s invited to go to the store with them both for a special dinner; waiting to accept a door key instead of asking for it; rarely stepping on her toes when she deals with roommate questions; and not making a big deal out of doing mundane chores.

Drin routinely does things like getting out wipes or a sponge to clean the bathroom as well as the kitchen, and never hesitates to help her out, as if he’s so used to doing for himself that it never occurs to him to wonder about it.  Says he finds housecleaning a nice meditation, and smiles.

That voice in Emma’s head cackles in amusement.  Oh, he’s got it bad, zoning out on his image of who’s using that sink, and that toilet!

The one disservice– that inner voice never changes its approach to the pornographic jokes.

pale girl wearing white plastic headdress and necklace
when her datawebs are failing

Well, she knows now from bad dreams that it’s a fading, scratchy Victrola, a ghost haunting her shell, a dim partial memory from a dead man uploaded into some cache hidden inside her bones, stashed away as carefully and secretly as a pirate’s chest in an expanse of fossilized dunes above a Caribbean beach.  Now it’s just the marks left by a life well- and truly-lived, and truly gone.

She knows from her increasingly detailed and unpleasant dreams that the live man, the General, he changed all the time.  He shifted like water, interested constantly in new things, new ways to tell jokes, new mental angles of attack on a problem.  It’s what made him worth the salute.

Hey, Watson, admit it–your old Uncle Wojo is gone, the voice tells her impatiently, but of course they didn’t let the damn bones rest in peace, those goddamn fuckers.

The voice in her head lacks the ability to change and move on which was such a big part of the General’s peculiar leadership gifts.  They didn’t capture his fluid style of field command when they canned his inner voice.  They didn’t capture invention, and wit, and soul.  He’ll never change his jokes now.  What made him the General is gone.

What she has left–what she is, with his voice rasping in her ear at meetings–is just a much better grave marker than a picture and a recording built into a granite plinth.  He would have laughed at that. Perfect, for a man of his tastes: Entombed in a beautiful woman!

But he’s had a rather masculine influence on her, between that unbending inner voice and her smudged memories of the man, striding like an avenging tower through her bad dreams of attacking bug troops.  Smoking his stogies, and smiting things with all the horrid grinning amusement of a particularly self-righteous, pot-bellied angel– I told you so!

He’s not much help, here and now, at figuring out how to tackle Drin on the really tough questions. He might not agree on the man’s charm, but still he agreed with men like Drin on too many things, shared too many of the same privileges, the same assumptions.  He’s absolutely no use for questioning Drin’s intentions, promises, attachments.

Of course Wojo knows exactly what sort of man Dance’s boyfriend was—that’s the reason why Drin made her short list for Dance in the first place. Oh, he identified who and what Drin is, what the auditor must have been, in that strange other place with the bug labs. She doesn’t even know the meaning of half the vocabulary the raspy voice offers her on that topic. There are no referents in this world that match up to the fleeting impressions left behind.

One helluva senior officer, and probably a Mercyman, beyond any doubt. Look at the man’s reflexes with Dance. Watch how he handles animals.

closeup tan and blue eye of white cheetah
Eye of the Beast

Emma hasn’t challenged Drin about that, either.  I know what you did, back in that world, hardly seems convincing when it comes out in babble about sarcoboxes full of drowned faces, about the stink, about half-converted victims grotesque with failed bug parts.

But the General is just laughing at the very idea of advising her.  She’s on her own, confronting Drin.

Just tell him about me, and about his former rank, and watch the chips fall, says that voice.  You won’t change him. Only you.

Shut up, Emma thinks, and puts her eyes firmly back on the French textbook she is reading, instead of watching the broad freckled hand stroking Dance’s hair, brushing repetitively up and down his arm, resting lightly on Dance’s back, drawing him in close.  Dance gives a big sigh, and falls asleep like a kitten in those big paws.

She can’t help but notice when Drin looks up from Dance’s sodden relaxation, looks at her with those tiger-yellow eyes, and smiles right into her gaze.

It’s like a promise:  You’re next.

Get used to it is not her idea of a choice.

Uncle Wojo is no help at all.  She’s not sure which of them makes her angrier.

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