UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
I sit up from the worst of mazes. “Carmen?” I whisper, wondering whether my sleeping mouth has uttered it aloud or not. I saw every corner, every turn,
“Carmen,” I say raspily. The room is dark. I reach out, wriggle a blanket tentacle off my arm and feel her body in the maze of bedding, soft and cool. And then it is hard and cold and artificial—a pillow and a book—and I realize Carmen is absent from the bed. I can’t see, but there is a light turned on in the hall, and suddenly it goes out, so I assume that Carmen is awake and coming back to bed.
It has been suggested that I’m a unique one. That’s why she loves me. For one, I am too tall. I also like glass, and I like to read. Blown glass, stained glass, broken glass, and books. One day I think I will make a glass book.
“Carmen?” Is she just waiting out there in the dark? But then she comes in, stumbles, thin, tinted shards in her cheeks and her chest and the insides of her bare arms. Her blood is glowing. Then I realize that she is in uniform, seeing her sleeves and smooth cheeks, her tight, black bun and stern, pointed round eyes. Now she is registering at a counter, bent over the chained pen, but with heels together and her mouth a tight crease between her lips, not parted slightly, not smirking or winking a dimple, with no prancing heel flirting with her opposite calf.
My hand is moist from the night, and the phone squirms in my sweat. “I passed the bullet test,” she tells me, panting. “There were three test administrators; the first one in was the one I killed.”
“Carmen?” The room is dark. I try to remember what happened, and then what might have happened. I can’t find my phone in my hand. “Carmen?” I bounce over the mattress and thump across the room, groping between the desk objects until I feel buttons and the glow erupts across my eyes. I fondle the button pad and thumb the correct button, or several, and press the phone to my ear. Carmen doesn’t answer. No one is there.
And I’m confused. I went the wrong way again. “Carmen?” I ask. I walk into the hall, feeling my way and wiping the walls for a light switch or a door. When I’m in the hall, I realize no one is there, but her recent presence in my mind sparks my neck hair like filaments. I catch the switch and flicker it once, twice. No power. I find another switch and the room comes alive with the abrasive yellow of the chandelier.
I change the other light bulb, the entryway light, test it, go back to bed. Carmen didn’t turn it off on her way out. The light went out on its own, spent. Now Carmen is registering for the bullet test at the counter of the waiting room in the academy testing center.
A new knot works its way into my middle. I didn’t realize what time it was when I woke up. It is early morning. The big day. The bullet test. I lie in bed on my back, my eyes readjusting to the dark, my hands over my stomach to hold the knot in.
I want to keep her home, but I guess in all fairness, the academy found her first, exactly one hour before she snared me. I would like to think that I’m as unique as the academy, that I’m as close a fit for Carmen. I met her either when she melted my ice cream or when she fixed my watch. I was walking down Third on my way to the crystal shop for an interview, the one across from Back Issues, and I glanced at the time: 9:40. Bueno, I thought, me queda bastante tiempo, when in fact I was late, because my watch had stopped and I didn’t realize it until I looked again ten minutes later behind the cover of a discontinued magazine in Back Issues and discovered that the time on my watch had not changed. Just then, the second hand of my watch flickered; Carmen shuffled past in a distracted lope of curiosity between the bookcases, and the hands corrected themselves to fifteen minutes after the start of my interview, where I was being handed an ice cream sandwich by the secretary since the boss was running fifteen minutes late. His watch had stopped. An ice cream sandwich has to be the worst thing next to spaghetti to eat before an interview. The faux chocolate is hard to miss between your teeth and of course the sugar never leaves your lips, no matter how much you lick and scrub. I might have decided not to risk it, or that it was some sort of a pre-interview test of cleanliness that I should have taken seriously. Crystal requires a careful business. You’d think that punctuality would have been worth something, and I had shown up fifteen minutes early to an interview that immediately became a disaster when Carmen, shopping for a glass moose, spied me through the transparent shelves and decided that my lips reminded her of the wings carved into her favorite soap, and she melted my precarious meal straight onto my lap so that I would fail the interview and be able to move with her to the academy base on the other side of the country. And that’s how we met.
I reach out, feel the book again. It is still just the book, not Carmen. But there is a sticky note that I didn’t notice before. I tear it from the cover and hurtle over the hard cover onto the carpet and toss on the light, bowing and squinting over the note in my hands and then holding it out of the shadow of my head to see it properly. I love you too, it says. I look at the book. It is orange and plastic-covered, the library book about light bulbs that I have been reading secretly. I learned that Edison had not invented the first light bulb from scratch, but had purchased the patent from the original inventor. Or maybe he hadn’t. I had to know how they worked, the reaction of the filament, the movement of the particles, the shifting of energy. It had nothing to do with reading books or obsessing over glass. Carmen knew that, which must have been why she left the note when she found the book. I didn’t want her to know how nervous about her previous test was for her. This was the bulb test. Had I taught her what I learned about light bulbs, however, she might have passed in less than four tries.
Carmen graduated from the bulb test four weeks ago. “You walk in and you can’t see through the window,” she told me. Everything’s white, even the test administrator, who tells you, “Put out the light,” and you’re welcome to sit at the square-meter sterilized table with the bulb in the center, and you’re afraid to touch anything, but Carmen didn’t need to anyway; she knew every particle in the room before entering, and the first time through, all she did was think some pressure in just the right place and the filament was out—she could have done it before going in. So the next time she did just that because they wanted to see something more impressive, but she got cited because it was against the rules.
The third time she focused her mind into the bulb for a good few seconds and oversped the filament particles and ignited it. The test administrator jotted down “reckless.” So during the fourth test, she took her time and melted two polar points on the bulb, and they vacuum-pinched together in a pop and severed the filament, and they were quite impressed.
Later, at home, she and I made a glass moose together (mostly she) and celebrated with tequila bottles and body shots.
Her mention of the next phase in testing sobered me up quickly. “I don’t understand,” I told her next. “What does this bullet test entail?”
“Well, it’s different from the bulb test, and if I keep talking, I’ll be more than just cited. Don’t worry. I can’t move on in the academy without passing this test.”
“Sounds to me like you can’t move on with life if you fail the test. And even if you pass, the moment you do you’ll become an international target. It’ll be official.”
“Oh, Luis,” and she touched my upper lip.
“I don’t like it. Es mierda.”
Now my phone is humming on the desk, but at first it doesn’t register in mind. Finally, I answer it; her voice is crisp and stern, lively. We go to the exam together: I sit cross-legged and tousle-haired on my bed with the phone oozing against my ear in my sweat while she sits far away, cross-legged and militantly-groomed in the waiting room. “They’re almost ready for me, Luis.”
“Don’t be nervous, flaca.”
“Luis, I’ll be fine. I feel really good, you know? Oh, they’re taking my phone—bye, mi amor!”
I lie flat on my stomach, star-shaped and blank, my neck twisted on the mattress so that I can see the white wall in the dark. An hour. I get up, pace, sliding my feet like glass over the carpet, play with the light switch, look up, flip it off. It goes out, just like that. I unscrew three bulbs so that there’s just one left, and then I repeat my experiment.
What was I doing with a library book on light bulbs? It’s overdue by now. It must be overdue. I should be reading up on bullets right now. On gunpowder, exploding particles, major organs and life-threatening wounds. I had been hiding from those books, hiding from what the bullet test implied—an execution—and hiding from half of the maze the way I had originally hid the light bulb book from Carmen.
No, Luis, I tell myself; the bullet test involves a harmless bulb, just like the bulb test. This test is timed, though, and you have to be fast as a bullet or you fail. Time was not a factor in phase one; now it is. Hence the term “bullet test.” No problem, Luis; Carmen already passed. Bien hecho, flaca.
I run to the bed to check if someone called while I was across the room. I slither into the covers, exhale. I lie with my head turned to the other side now, watching the phone. I curl my hand around it to make sure I won’t miss the call. I turn on the volume to make sure I won’t miss the call. I slide the phone under my ear to make sure I won’t miss the call.
I blink. There are three testers, not just one. I blink at the white wall, white like the clean, square room. There are a dozen revolvers and one bullet, already loaded, its whereabouts unknown. There has to be a risk, a real danger, or it is not a real test. They enter the room, the cadet takes her position, the testers each randomly select a revolver, aim, count, fire. Most likely, the real bullet will never be fired. But there is a bullet, and thus a real peril. That is how the academy plays. They aim, count, fire, and a cadet who won’t pass won’t be a loss anyway.
Carmen knows there’s something wrong before she enters. The first of the three test administrators to enter the room is like her in the head; he ,feels the room as she feels it, the way she feels clockwork and ice cream temperature. Carmen is not the only one who finds in her mind the location of the bullet among the revolvers, and she watches that tester select the revolver she’s found, watches the cylinder turn to just the right chamber, watches the bullet leave the barrel. And now she makes a choice: stop the bullet and pass, or take the bullet and expose the assassin.
Carmen takes the bullet in the throat. She loses her speech, loses her testimony. The blood sparkles the white walls like particles. The other two testers gasp as Carmen gasps and bubbles and chokes on herself and begins to go limp. They each hope that they are not the one who fired the gun that killed, realizing that they are in combat now, that there is death sliding into the room and that retaliation is natural and inevitable and that they are locked in the sterile room with a cerebral cadet, and they hope that she is already dead and that they won’t pinch or burst or go out the way her bulbs went out.
The tester, that first tester, is never investigated.
She’s dead. I touch the white wall with my fingers spread like splattered blood and think about death. Blank. It should be blank. Carmen is dead, and I will cry and cry. I will go to her funeral and look at her caramel, lifeless face, her high-necked collar covering the hole in her throat, and her black, glassy hair stuck in a bun for the rest of her body’s chemical decay. I’ll wonder what happens to the mind of a cerebrally superior human when she dies, and I’ll wonder what there is left for my mind to think, and I’ll wonder and wonder and cry.
I exhale. I exhale. It is beautiful, the tears and the compassion of mourning, like broken glass.
The phone rings. I try to remember the night, the parts I fabricated, the parts that happened. I punch the phone on.
“Don’t worry about me, mi amor.” Her voice is alive. “I love you. I love you. We’ll get this sorted out. I never even let the gun fire. They’re saying I killed the test administrator. He just fell over like a tree, like a window, como cristal, Luis, fue bonito, not a particle of water in him.”
I lick my lips. The roof of my mouth sticks. “Did you do it?”
“I gotta go now, Luis—”
“You said, Carmen, you said they’re saying you did it—”
“They took my phone, Luis; I’m calling from the detainment house so—”
“Was there just one tester, Carmen? Flaca? No witnesses?”
“I stopped it, Luis. He can’t hurt anybody else now. I’m afraid they won’t know what I—why I—I mean, there’s no proof he was a—now that he’s—but I felt it, Luis—but at least he can’t hurt anybody else now. There were three, Luis. I passed the bullet test. There were three test administrators; the first one in was the one I killed.”
The phone goes dead. I look at the screen. I might have hit the button myself.
She’s gone. She won’t come home now. How will we “sort this out”?
I stare; I scratch my head wildly. I realize that I’m no longer in my room, that I’m parading around the house like a glass moose, stiff and smooth chin drooping like a beard. I can’t get enough friction against any of the objects that I push, scrape, or throw. I want a glass book. Layers of shatterable frustration.
They took her from me. They didn’t even kill her. She’s alive, and I can’t be with her. We won’t sort this out. We can’t sort this out. Which way happened? There isn’t even a living assassin left for me to retaliate against. I see every way, and only one of the ways is real, and I don’t know which. The house has been a blur, a storm, but I take a breath now and I see broken, tinted shards on the floor, on the windowsill. I had spread my tantrum into the bathroom and now there are wall-sized mirrors and windows on the floor in jagged, physical, realistic parts.
I pick up the largest triangle, slowly, moving like peanut butter. It’s broken and beautiful in my hands. In its mirror is an image of me, just as broken and beautiful, like a window, como cristal. A trickle of blood runs along the creases in my hand, dilutes in my sweat and spreads into separate paths along my fingers. I think I’ve found the way to where I am.Colin Meldrum (www.colinmeldrum.com) won the Agnus Just Reid award for creative writing at Idaho State University before graduating and moving to Seattle. He is the founding editor of A cappella Zoo, a journal of magical realist and experimental writing from around the around. His story, “Blank,” has been selected to appear in a slightly altered version that reveals its quantum dimension in Quantum Genre on the Planet of Arts, an anthology forthcoming from Crossing Chaos in September 2009.
© 2008 Underground Voices