By Steve Stanton
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Shyla Cleary looked up from a pot of lentil beans as her husband Ryin entered their tiny apartment. She studied him carefully, searching for any glimmer of hope. She could always tell how his day had gone within seconds of his return home. Ryin was devoid of artifice, unschooled in subterfuge, a man too honest for his own good. His thick lips were grim, his forehead downcast, another bad day. His skin was dark, even for a black man, and his long hair camouflaged his expression, but his posture told all, his stance slouched and defensive. In her mind's eye she could see his perfect body beneath the ratty shirt and dingy dungarees--an ebony statue of hard muscle built for pleasure, her midnight angel. She held on to that imagined vision like a talisman.
"Did you see what they're bidding for kidneys now?" he called out. He rattled a newsfax printout for emphasis, holding it up like courtroom evidence for a jury who might never read the fine print. "I wish I'd kept my spare like you. We'd be rich by now." He shook tangled dreadlocks sadly and dropped into a stuffed easy chair that was covered with a torn grey blanket. He wiped at his sweat-pebbled cheeks with a burly arm.
Shyla peered deeper into the steaming pot she was stirring on the hotplate. The linoleum floor felt clammy under her bare feet and rivulets trickled under her fishnet tunic. The temperature had been hovering at one hundred degrees for days, a killing, searing heat that baked the city asphalt like a griddle.
"Kidneys have always been a good investment," she answered as she rubbed protectively at her belly, tracing the well-known ridges of scar tissue. She could feel Ryin's gaze on her abdomen without even looking up at his crystal blue eye and black eyepatch. Sometimes she imagined that the missing eye could see her clearer than the real one, could view right into her heart, into her brain, revealing all. She wished Ryin would simply put in a dummy, a deadball, and throw away the black plastic patch. But no, he was waiting for a custom implant with infrared and telescopic lens and wouldn't settle for less. The eyepatch was for him a symbol of better times ahead, an open door to a hopeful future.
"Do you think it's time to sell?" Ryin asked with an air so deliberately casual as to be obviously feigned. He picked at the tattered blue denim around his exposed right kneecap.
"I don't think so," Shyla replied with an equally forced nonchalance. "Maybe when the market peaks."
Ryin smiled at her finally and nodded, the ritual complete, their shared assumptions reinforced with unspoken eloquence. When you look desperation straight in the face you never dare mention his name.
Shyla spooned lentil soup into three red plastic bowls. "Ready for supper?" she asked and nodded with a cock of her head toward the bedroom archway.
Ryin set the newsfax slip on a packing box in front of him and ambled into the bedroom to get their boy Kitrel--two years old and already the family pride, already starting to talk, to understand.
"Hi, Daddy," a singsong voice exclaimed with happy innocence.
"Hi, Kit," echoed the elder, a trace of deadpan weariness behind the fatherly facade. "Supper."
"Flip? Upside down?"
A vibrant squeal sounded from the bedroom and filled the tiny apartment with life, with hope. Ryin came through the doorway carrying Kitrel on his shoulders and the boy slapped the archway above with his palms as he loved to do. Shyla set three bowls on the wooden packing box and carefully poured water into three plastic cups. She scanned the newsfax slip and brushed it aside onto the floor--prices had skyrocketed again, the aging grey population clamoring for scant resources. She set Ryin's blood-donor supplement beside his bowl and pulled their one easy chair closer to the table for him. The vitamin supplement was provided free to all donors who kept full schedule. Shyla, slightly anemic, could sell blood only once a month and so was not eligible. She pulled her bare wooden chair over from the kitchen nook and sat down. She stared at the big purple capsule and wondered how her husband ever managed to get it down.
Ryin set Kit on his stool and took the easy chair opposite him, both of them smiling now, father and son. The same smile, the same lips, nose, but Kit's skin was noticeably lighter, a cream mulatto like Shyla. His hair was going to be thick and straight like his mother's, no dreadlocks, good hair for transplant. She fingered the bare back of her head where the follicles had been removed. Grow the top hair long and you never see it, you never notice the absence--but you know, you remember, and still the unpaid bills block your path ahead like detour signs, forcing you to turn, to twist in search of alternate route. Dance, woman, dance and sing us a song, you cheap hussy.
The lentil stew tasted like water-soaked cardboard, as bland as the day itself, but Shyla dared not voice the obvious complaint, the sound of which could only create complications, perturbations, perhaps outright turmoil. In silence we swallow our problems, Shyla thought to herself, hoping they will digest in a quiet limbo where they cannot touch us, where they cannot turn suddenly and rend us. In silence she stared at the wallpaper as she ate, feeling guilty all the more, trapped in her quietness, for having run out of spices again. The wallpaper was grey with faded pink fuchsia blossoms and tangled coils of ivy. Above the easy chair was a scrawled blue crayon mark, a left-to-right upward diagonal that repeated itself erratically. Shyla had tried to wash it off at first, but the wallpaper pattern came off easier than the crayon, leaving a brown-paper aberration like a Rorschach blot. She had spanked Kit for that blue crayon mark and felt bad about it ever since. Now the reminder accused her anew--baby's first art.
"Get any painting done today?" Ryin asked as he contemplated the huge blood capsule beside his bowl.
"I finished another canvas for the Dragons in Amber series," Shyla told him with thankful pride. "Tobias wants to see it as soon as possible."
Ryin winced. "You know all that old geek wants is to get into your pants."
"Ryin!" Shyla exclaimed and turned quickly to Kit. "Are you finished, honey? Want to go play with your Snugglebum babies?"
She set the boy down and watched him toddle off.
"Well, it's true," Ryin said with a bold face betraying defense.
"Of course it's true, but at least he buys the paintings."
"You might as well be giving them away."
"Okay, I'm sorry. But how long can you possibly string him along? He's not going to be satisfied with a bit of tit here and there forever. Sooner or later it's going to be put up or shut up."
"We talked this through ages ago, dear."
"I know, I know. It's just that I've kept you off the meat market this long." He picked up the purple capsule and placed it on his tongue. He pulled a plastic cup to his lips. He drank, choked, swallowed, drained it all. "Aaghh, city piss!" He slammed the cup on the rough wooden surface. "We can't even afford good water any more."
Shyla nodded soberly at him, watching the scars on his arms move as his muscles flexed below. Exceptional bone marrow, the doctors had told him. He was DNA pure for his type. He was in the sperm-bank catalogue and had fetched a record price for his spare testicle five years ago. Lithe, muscular, not too hairy, he had a body built for pleasure.
"Want to step into the closet?" Shyla whispered suggestively. "At least we still have each other." She glanced over at Kit playing on the bedroom floor. The apartment had only two rooms with no door in between--and a walk-in closet with a toilet but no sink, husband and wife's only privacy until baby slept.
"I donated this afternoon," Ryin said gruffly. "Maybe later."
Feeling chastised, Shyla stood and gathered up the bowls and utensils, Kit's stubby baby fork and his non-spill cup with the plastic tongue sticking out the top.
"Don't run off so fast, sweets." Ryin stopped her with a gentle touch. He rose and wrapped his powerful arms around her. "I couldn't get any work at Temporary Services again today," he confessed quietly into her neck. "The line was hardly moving and the brokers were all crying the blues."
"I figured as much," she answered, content simply to be close and smell him again. Pheromones, some sort of chemical addiction. She was like a drug addict who needed a drop of sweat from her lover every day.
"The city's grinding to a halt, boiling in its own poison. There were even zoomers on the line today looking for work."
"Something will come up," Shyla offered halfheartedly.
"I stood there all day like a peasant," Ryin continued, his voice beginning to choke, to break. Angry at his audible weakness, he continued louder, almost shouting, letting go the words from the deep manhole of his pride. "The government broker came out with his clipboard and plastic smile and I swear I would have wiped his ass with my graduation diploma for a day's wage."
Shyla pressed tighter against him, feeling him tremble, the heave of his torso. She didn't dare pull back to see him cry again. Please, God, not now, not today.
"He's gonna die, Shyla. I'm not gonna be able to save him."
Instinctively her body stiffened. She let bowls and cups clatter to the floor and pushed her husband away. "Stop it! Don't you ever say that! For God's sake, he can hear us, Ryin."
Ryin quickly ducked his head down to wipe his one wet cheek on the ragged sleeve at his shoulder. His shiny blank eyepatch stared hard and steely. A dichotomy.
Shyla lowered her voice and turned her back to the baby. "The doctor said he had lots of time before he'd need a kidney transplant. Years," she hissed. "Maybe the price will come down."Or maybe I'll save my own spare until he gets big enough to use it--her secret consolation.
"We've got to get out of the city, sweets," Ryin muttered as he returned to a precarious balance. "Our guts are burning up in this chemical stew."
"If I could sell a few paintings," Shyla offered.
"Sure." Ryin nodded, faithless. He bent to pick up the bowls on the floor. "I was looking at optics today," he said as he took the tableware over to an enameled washbasin on the wall. "Window-shopping for hardware like a zoomer. They had a sale at Future Vision."
Yes, Shyla thought to herself, the future was still out there, promising solace, hinting at endless possibilities. Things could get better. Just hang on a little longer. Just hang on day by day. "Does it bother you terribly, having just one?"
"Naw, I was just passin' the time. You lose some depth perception, but it doesn't seem to make much difference unless you're an artist or something."
A pang of guilt for her stereoptic hobby. A wife who refuses to sell her spare eye and makes her husband sleep with the smell of turps and oils. "Did they have blue?" she asked.
"Not my exact shade, but close."
"You might as well wait, then, for a perfect match. You've waited so long, another few weeks won't be too hard, will it?"
Ryin tilted his head quizzically at her, testing deep waters.
Shyla bit her lip and wondered what he was thinking.
He smiled. "I can wait forever for a perfect match, sweets."
A surge of emotion swept through her. She wanted to remember with him, remember how they'd agonized over that eye before signing the contract--how they'd cried, how she'd kissed his cool blue orb goodbye as he went under the anesthetic. If thine eye offend thee. If you're heavily in debt and need two months rent in advance to find some shelter from the storm. They'd been sleeping in a cardboard tent in a back alley downtown then, living with a gang of twenty in a filthy street commune--until Shyla was gang-raped by a roving band of warlords and a good friend bludgeoned to death trying to protect her. Now they had this private apartment, a secure home in a policed section of the city, and a black plastic eyepatch. Don't look back, Shyla reminded herself sternly and held her tears tight in the wellspring of her heart.
Ryin ran some water in the sink and added a few drops of blue detergent as Shyla reached for a dish towel. He washed a red plastic bowl and passed it to her.
"You're a good man, Ryin Cleary," she suddenly blurted, wanting to throw her arms around him, melt into him, read his mind, share his essence. She needed him. He was her muse, her reason for living.
He brushed dreadlocks away from his eye and stared at her face. His lips quirked into an uncertain smile. "I'm glad you've stuck with me, you and Kit. It's good to have something to come home to. Keeps me off the bridge at night."
Shyla smiled with him, though a chill shivered in her viscera. Was it that bad for Ryin? Could he possibly be considering a quick dive to easy street? No, no, brush it away. Don't think about it. The idea itself could be self-fulfilling. To talk about it would only give it substance, like a demon materializing at the sound of his name, pushing through a dimensional door into the cold clear light of day. "Are we still planning on another?" she asked, her body like a cat ready to leap.
"Of course," he replied with a grin. "Are you pregnant?"
He seemed pleasantly surprised, a little tense. Shyla analyzed his every move. "I don't know yet. What would you prefer?"
"Hey, c'mon, that's what we've been hoping for. All those quickies in the closet." He arched his eyebrows at her suggestively, playing it cute.
Shyla decided to swivel her guns point-blank. "Can we keep this one if I am?"
His smile froze into a caricature. "Keep it?"
"We were going to keep the next one."
"Well, sure, but that was when the line was moving, when I had a dollar in my wallet."
Shyla stood resolute. "We sold the first two and were going to keep the next two. That's what we decided."
Ryin stared as though noncomprehending, puzzling some great paradox. He turned and punched the pop-up plug with a lot more energy than it deserved. "Are you pregnant or not?" he demanded. "I've had enough games for today."
Shyla swallowed and prepared her voice to meet the challenge. Time to stand up and be counted. "I told you I don't know. I'm not playing any games. I would say it's a distinct possibility, for heaven's sake." Talk to me, Ryin, she screamed without sound. I need to hear your voice. Make love to me. I need you.
"Then we'll discuss it when you find out for sure. It's about time we put Kit to bed." He wheeled and stalked off toward the bedroom, leaving Shyla to dry the dishes and worry about her doctor's appointment the next morning.
She stood and watched a vortex of dirty grey water swirl in the sink. It always circles in the same direction, she considered, always, like the spinning wheel of life from conception to death, the pattern fixed. Two weeks late, but no reason to get excited yet. It could be nothing. Most pregnancies aborted in the first trimester anyway. Embryos died in the womb or developed fatal abnormalities. The chances were slim, virtually nonexistent. A full-term baby was worth its weight in gold--just look at the latest newsfax quotes. The drain gargled air as grey dishwater headed for hell.
"Shyla. Good to see you. Come right in. You've brought the canvas. Superb."
Tobias wore a sickly sweet manner like a garish costume--the practiced persona of an international art dealer. He was mildly effeminate without being gay, though he had always been a source of unrequited lust among the community. Fifty-one years old and still sporting a thick stand-up bush of wavy brown hair, he was tennis trim and sprightly, a modern man on the move, on the make. He had quick hands, of which Shyla was intimately aware.
"You're looking well," he said. "The little one needs a kidney, I hear. Too bad. I know how expensive they are--I'm on my third pair myself. I must try to take up a collection among the sustaining patrons. You're so appreciated, you really don't know. Dragons in Amberhas made your mark, I daresay. And now another. Oh, let me take a peek."
Mutely Shyla handed her precious cargo to Tobias and dropped gratefully into a silvery plush easy chair opposite his desk. She hadn't said a word since leaving the doctor's office uptown this morning. She'd had to walk, for she couldn't risk the canvas on public transit, and she'd stopped only once to eat her bag sandwich on a cement retaining wall whitewashed with pigeon droppings.
The little one needs a kidney, she mimicked to herself. You don't even know his name, you bastard. Take up a collection? You could do it in a day if it suited you--pretend compassion for a moment, like giving pennies to starving Africans. You don't know what it's like to pray that your baby might live another year, to clutch him to your trembling breast for fear that you both will fall, that you both might wither and break like dry reeds in the winds of change.
"Shyla, I'm a little disappointed. You shouldn't hurry your work like this."
"What?" She looked up in disbelief.
"Well, you see what I mean. The strokes are erratic. There's tension here. You're too tense. You're slipping."
A clamp tightened in Shyla's chest. Don't say it, she pleaded soundlessly. I can't believe it.
Tobias clucked affably and shook his head, his shaggy brown mane. "You'll have to give up the series if you're going to change your style. You can't debase Dragons in Amber like this. Important people have made investments."
His words lost all meaning for her then, as in horror she watched his mouth move, his slightly protrusive upper lip speckled with grey shadow. How easily life falls apart. It crumples like paper, like the first draft of a bad poem.
"You're not listening to a word I say," he told her. "You really are too tense." He stepped beside her, around her. His hands gripped her shoulders from behind. He kneaded her clenched muscles, muttering surprise at her rigidity.
Not looking at him, Shyla was able to rediscover her voice, some semblance of confidence. "It's just as good as all the rest," she whispered, daring it to be true.
"Now, Shyla, dear. Do you know how many young artists there are in the city today?" His massaging hands gripped her upper arms, rhythmically pushing her shoulder blades toward her spine, pushing against tension, against a brick wall. "I can only turn the spotlight on three or four at a time, you understand. Just the chosen few, those who show the most promise." His hands slid down her front and cupped her breasts, squeezed them with loving-kindness. "I like you, Shyla, you know that."
Oh God, I never should have let him touch me the first time, Shyla thought with alarm. He wants the main course now. He's come to collect my soul. She reached to pull his hand away, but it froze like iron at her touch. Her nipples blossomed. She closed her eyes.
"Please, Toby," she murmured, feeling a flush creep up her throat, "the painting." Time seemed to stretch out around her, the continuum warped into a two-dimensional photograph, a fuzzy black and white with infinite shades of grey. You could fall forever from here, she mused, and never touch bottom.
Tobias sighed theatrically. His hands resumed a rhythmic massage. "I really don't know, Shyla."
At two o'clock Ryin decided to pack it in at Temporary Services. The main brokers had already filled their quotas and he was still high and dry. The line stretched ahead of him like a serpent, a parade of starving soldiers looking for work. A few uptown zoomers had camped out overnight, slumming it for a chance at a day's wage. Ryin grimaced with disgust as he kicked out of line. Another wasted day, the whole damn week a shambles. If he couldn't get on handbills down in the free zone this afternoon, there was not going to be any Sunday dinner, not even bread rolls dipped in leftover grease.
He checked out with a few of his line buddies and exchanged the usual encouragements. The government broker took pity on him and came up with bus fare for the trip downtown. Ryin pocketed it and started walking, swinging his long dreadlocks, jingling the coins in his pocket. The bus went by and he ignored it. Only a few miles.
Things could be worse, he could be all alone in the city, a bug in a maze. At least he had Shyla holding everything together. Dear God, he'd die without her, just drop down cold on the spot. What a sweet bitch she was, and a minx in the sack. What more could a man desire from a mate? He'd sell his heart for her if he had a spare. Ryin tapped his black plastic eyepatch as he walked, marking the rhythm of his movement with the hollow pock sound it made. The sun was hot, the sky cloudless, but in the shadows of the oblong mountains lay cool respite, a sanctuary. The asphalt made heatwaves in the distance, giving back the noonday warmth to a gentle wind that sucked rather than blew, that eddied rather than gusted.
An honest man can always find honest work, Ryin reminded himself as he collected his handbills and began his route. That's what his father had told him years ago, his father who once owned a house, a detached dwelling, and had brought a baby son home to blue blankets and minced vegetables in little glass jars. Though Ryin's father was long dead, his generation lived on in the suburbs, the grey generation, a people left over from a simpler age of clean air, green earth and health food, who still would not accept the new biotech transplants and demanded the real thing when body parts failed.
Not so the next generation, the zoomers, who vied for every technological advance and sensory upgrade, for fashion implants and cosmetic curios, who traded even their own fertility for biotech enhancements. The zoomers would not pay for natural human organs, but were rapidly creating a lucrative market for newborn babies. Ryin glanced uptown to the suburban hills and wondered about his own two zoomer kids, Kit's older brother and sister, living in luxury with new names and faces. He wondered about Shyla. Could they possibly afford to keep another hungry mouth in the family?
He felt like a worthless excuse for a man as be delivered handbills in the free zone for loose change. The pimps charged him parking at every quadrant. The grey suits took him for a runner and dogged him all afternoon. He felt like giving up and getting hardwired to a factory computer outside the city. He could move up the ladder fast with a good implant, he could unplug on weekends to see Shyla and Kit, he could waltz down to Future Vision and zoom right into their credit computer--get his perfect match at last, with infrared and telescopic and a beautiful shade of blue. He could zoom to the moon. He got home a bit late for supper and found the apartment empty.
He stood in the doorway like a marionette waiting for someone to pull his strings. No note, no sign of a struggle, no smell of fresh turpentine. He leaned against the doorframe, noticed an icy electricity in his abdomen, tried to organize vague possibilities in his mind. It all comes apart so easily, doesn't it?
First try Mrs. Hanover down the hall, he told himself calmly, and turned, and ran. Kit was there. Mrs. Hanover had already fed him boiled turnip for supper. She was worried about Shyla. The doctor, the art dealer--she should have been home by two or three at the latest. Mrs. Hanover imagined street gangs and perverts--no good a pretty lady out by herself, and she never carried a gun, just a short stun blade in her purse.
Ryin gave some coins to the sitter and took Kit home. They sat quietly in the lone easy chair and stared at pink fuchsia on a faded grey background. A father and son. Two souls. Not much, really, in the grand scheme of things.
Kit slept. Ryin waited. The city raged around them.
Darkness settled like a shroud, and Ryin put Kit in his crib and returned to his chair. He pushed it to face the door and sat down. He stared. He willed the door to open. He bargained. He pleaded with it to swing wide and bring Shyla back into his life, to restore the unity of their spirits.
He reran the events of the previous day in his mind, every word, every nuance. If he had said something different. If he'd had a few dollars in his pocket. A kaleidoscopic future shifted with each thought. Eventualities churned inside his head like thick brew boiling in a cauldron. If you imagine the worst that can happen, then anything else becomes easier to accept. If you lose everything, you are invulnerable to further pain.
His wife opened the door a few minutes before midnight.
"Thank God, sweets," he exclaimed as he bounded toward her. "I was so worried."
"Everything's fine now," Shyla told him with an unsteady smile. Her new pink eye patch promised better days ahead.