Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Between

by T. Richard Williams



Once upon a time.

A stone cabin.

A thatched roof.

Two windows.

The hilly side of the river.

Sentinel pines glimmering in the slow, deep wind of stars.

The river moving steadily.

A small dock jutting into the water, breaking the smooth curve of the shore.

Moored there, a well-used, paint chipped rowboat.

Jara -- 22, willow-thin, leather hands, hard face, Athena-grey eyes -- stands on the dock, her eyes scanning the panorama.

It's Second November, late afternoon, her favorite time of day, her favorite time of year, even better than First November, especially now, since terraforming's officially complete.

To her right, the river slides in from the north.

Behind her, the eastern hills amble beyond the cabin towards the mountainous cliffs of Olympus Mons ten miles away.

On the opposite side, the flatlands stretch to the horizon, the immediate shore splattered with the sunset silhouettes of low-lying, weather-twisted trees hugging the waterline.

Jara tilts her head back, breathes in the crackling cool air, and exhales in a long sigh, watching her fog disappear.

The first evening stars.

New constellations.

So different from the ones she grew up with as a child on Earth.

Still and all -- so beautiful.

Then the penetrating thought: Frank'll be home soon.

She turns, stares at the cabin, imitates his voice -- "Get cracking, sister" -- and walks up the stubbly incline.

She lights the wood-burning stove, adjusts the lid on the stew pot, and sets the table for her husband's dinner.

Her fierce-eyed ritual -- fork, knife, plate, glass -- just so.

Then she sits and waits by the north window.

Her vigil place for the last five years -- since her parents died in the accident, since her college boyfriend married her -- and always the same melodrama played out in her head: Was it really love at all? Pity? Or did she marry him? Semantics?A nuance?

The cabin interior -- exposed stone walls, lumpy cement mortar -- is starkly utilitarian, typical of those found along the meager waterways of Outback Mars: an oak door, a Murphy bed that folds against the north wall, one chest of drawers, one table, one chair (his), one stool (hers) -- certainly a signal to would-be guests (stand or leave). Two double-paned windows (north and west), graying voile curtains, a stove, a cabinet for dishes and household items hung over a free-standing sink, three small shelves to hold tools, a small armoire for their clothes (untreated white pine), a wall clock that spits out each second with nail gun exactitude.

And, yes, their Prom Night picture next to the cabinet.

Frank Brolan, boy wonder, terraformer of Mars -- his eyes, the steel-blue glance, and the ironic smile, the curled one that hides his teeth.

Jara Winston, designer of the InterBase highway system.

Who gave all that up.

Her eyes disappearing beneath ridiculous bangs.

A nervous smile.

Suspicious.

Wood and stone, hard objects, edges.

It was after 4:30.

She places the pot on the table, keeping it covered.

Soon.

She stands again by the window.

Waiting.

Then the complication.

A small motor boat coming into view in the twilight.

She draws her face closer to the cool glass.

It's slowing.

Who?

Definitely a man.

He gets up, somewhat awkwardly -- he's not used to standing in a boat, even with gravity enhancement -- and throws a line to the dock post. He pulls himself in.

He's getting out.

She panics.

Who?

It's nearly dark.

He walks towards the cabin.

Closer.

She thinks she can make out details.

"No," is all she can muster, and runs to the door, leaning her back against it, as if that'll make anything go away -- or keep anyone out.

Dangerous.

Why did I agree to live in such a place?

Why hadn't we stayed in Chicago Base?

It's too soon.

The knock.

It's too soon.

The familiar voice, quietly: "Jara?"

It's no use. He knows she's there. There's light in the windows.

No use at all.

Dangerous.

"Frank'll be home soon. You've got to go."

"Then we've gotta move fast."

Dangerous -- her heart beats, beats, beats -- too dangerous.

"Well, Jara?"

"Well, what?" It was a stupid thing to say. An empty stall. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

"Jesus, Jara. This could be your last chance."

Then it came out -- "I never thought you'd do it" -- one of those surprises you find yourself blurting out -- where'd that come from?

"I had to leave. You know it."

She turned cautiously, still leaning her shoulder into the door, as if he might actually force himself in.

"Yes. I know it. But you said Spring, First or Second May."

"Well?"

"Stop asking."

"I have to ask."

"Don't."

Still dangerous.

"Let me in."

"I can't. Frank'll be here. You've got to get away."

"No."

"You know how he gets, Rick. He'll think the worse. He'll shoot you and ask questions later."

"He wouldn't"

"It's his way."

"I'm his brother." He knows that's hollow even as he says it.

She knows, too. "Since when would that matter? As far as he's concerned, you stood in his way. Tried to stop his terraforming. His project. His vision for Mars."

"You're stalling. Let me in."

"I can't."

"You can't or you won't?"

"Same."

"Not really."

They stand in their places for a long moment.

Less and less light.

The dime-size sun, sinks behind the hills.

The cold air gets colder.

She tries again: "Rick, he'll see your boat and suspect the worst."

"Which is what?"

"Are you dense? Or just playing your games?"

"What games? I'm playing a game? What game is that, Jara?"

"I don't know. I don't know. I'm scared. He thinks you betrayed him. Now, I've betrayed him. He won't stand for both. He'll think you're screwing me. Or that I'm leaving him.

"I have -- and you are."

"That was a mistake -- and I'm not."

"It wasn't a mistake -- and it's back to can't or won't. Of course you can leave him. Right now. But you won't, is that it?"

Now she faces the door, pushing it shut with both palms.

"Can't --"

"No, it's won't."

She mumbles -- "Fuck you" -- though she doesn't want to use those words. But they say so much, don't they? Feel so good sometimes. Screaming them out at the river when no one's there. A string of them. "Fuck you. Fuck your family. Fuck everything about you." So good.

She puts her face against the rough wood.

On the other side, Rick takes a step back.

A new tact: "Jara. Please come with me. It's bad for you here."

Silence.

"You know it. He'll come back, get looped, and you'll live in the corner for two days hoping he won't beat the crap out of you again."

Deeper silence.

Dangerous.

"What the fuck's keeping you here, Jara?"

As if he doesn't know.

As if she doesn't.

As if they haven't rehashed this over and over in the last two years.

When it started up between them.

A Second July picnic.

The dock.

Frank away.

Right there under the stars.

Like a HoloFilm.

"You know."

"Say it, Jara."

So, so dangerous.

In spite of herself: "He tried to save them. He became a broken man. I made a promise I'd stay. That I'd never hurt him."

His turn for silence.

Then: "They're dead, Jara. He tried to save them. He couldn't do it. It happens. It was an accident. You made a promise to the wind."

"I promised him. I promised on my parents."

"Jesus, listen to yourself. Superstition."

"It's not. I swore on their souls."

"Gag me, for Christ's sake."

That's when she opens the door.

"Did you actually say 'gag me'? How fucking dare you make fun of me? You're no better than your brother."

He actually looks a bit startled by that one. "Don't even think of saying I'm like Frank."

Seeing him is unraveling.

"Jara," he moves over the threshold, invited in long ago. "We've been through this so many times."

She's frozen.

"Make up your mind. I'm leaving in two seconds."

"I can't just go off."

"Why not? You married a stranger out of pity. A stranger who thinks he's a fucking god, a maker of worlds."

"He wasn't a stranger. We dated in college. He tried to save my parents. We went to Prom together."

"Do you hear how ridiculous that sounds? You knew him, yes, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a stranger -- with dark inclinations, as you now know so well."

"So maybe you're a stranger, too. What's to say you're not the same bastard? Maybe you're enraged that you couldn't stop him from converting this planet. Maybe you've got secrets, too. We all have secrets."

"What's yours?"

That stops her.

"You see?" Rick says more gently. "It's a loop of words we can weave -- or we can act. I'm leaving home. So can you." He puts his hand on her shoulder.

She doesn't move away.

"And you're right. It's a risk. You only know me a couple of years. You only know what I've told you. But isn't it the same with you? How much do I know -- really know? So it's a big fuckin' chance we're both taking. Big deal. We've got to, Jara."

He embraces her.

She lets him.

"So that's the way it is?" She barely whispers.

"What way?"

"You say the words and I follow you. Like I followed him."

"I'm not a monster."

"Neither's he. Just messed up."

"You, too, if you don't move. Now. This second. Before he gets home."

Deep dusk has settled over the trees.

Then she hears it.

"His Pod."

Dangerous.

"Move it."

And she does.

They race to the dock.

She nearly trips in the darkness.

Frank's flatbed Pod pulls onto the gravel drive.

He helps her into his boat and pulls the fusion cord.

It starts up with a small pop, then a gentle purr.

Frank jumps out with the rifle he always keeps as his passenger, leaving the door open behind him.

Rick yanks off the mooring rope and pushes out into the near darkness with a powerful shove.

With a touch, the motor roars, full throttle, and the boat moves away, slowly, trying to build momentum.

She hears him yelling: "Who's that?"

He runs past the cabin to the dock, the Pod headlights flooding the scrub grass.

"Who's there?"

As if he doesn't already know.

As if he always hasn't.

As if the rivalry never existed.

"Stop. I'll shoot."

And he does, a blue-green energy pulse whirs past them.

She lets out a surprised yelp.

"Jesus, Rick. I can't do this."

"It's too late. You're staying."

She can barely see him.

"I have to go back. He'll kill us."

"You can't."

He leans in suddenly.

His eyes.

That remarkable jaw.

His teeth glimmering.

"Is that you, Rick?" Frank screams, in pursuit, a near wraith skimming the rocks in the starlit darkness. "And who's that with you?"

He sees. He knows.

"Is it Jara? My fucking whore?"

He sees. He knows.

In one swift move, she dumps herself into the river, stroking violently away from the boat, away from Frank, stretching for the western shore, for the woods, for the badlands beyond -- anywhere.

She'll figure it out.

Why did I do this to myself?

She'll manage.

I can survive, but they'll never give up. Neither of them.

Survive.

Another pulse shot, shattering a rock straight ahead.

How is this different from anything I saw back on Earth?

Swimming.

Frank taking aim, firing.

The same fucking mess.

Rick coming round, pursuing her.

A tale with a dangerous moral.

Caught between.

The End


© 2012 T. Richard Williams

Bio: T. Richard Williams is the pen name for Bill Thierfelder, a full-time writer, artist, and motivational speaker, formerly a Professor of English at Dowling College, a liberal arts college on Long Island, New York. Mr. Williams has been writing stories and verse for over two decades. His recent work includes two volumes of poetry: How the Dinosaurs Devoured the Humans and The Letter S; a collection of science fiction and narrative fiction called Ten; his fiction has been published in a variety of online magazines and he served as Fiction Editor from 2008 to 2010 for Shadeworks, a British-based magazine devoted to supernatural/horror literature and art. As an artist, Thierfelder’s work has appeared in both Manhattan and Long Island galleries. He is driving force behind MAKING WINGS: CREATIVE PROJECT THAT ENHANCE LIVES. Making Wings. Mr. T's most recent appearance in Aphelion was Upload in the August 2011 issue.

E-mail: T. Richard Williams

Webpage: Making Wings

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