Cindy Ella Jones

“Cindy Ella,” my stepmother said, “when I come home tonight, I want this house spotless. I’m having friends over.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

My stepmother likes a clean house  but she doesn’t like to clean it herself. She doesn’t like to waste money on maids. Instead, she asks me to clean it. I don’t mind. I like a clean and neat house, probably more than she does.

She can sound bossy. Actually, she is bossy. It’s in her nature. I don’t blame her for it. It’s probably the way she was raised. Or maybe she was just born bossy.

“Do our rooms too,” her daughters said.

They’re as bossy as their mother. You learn from your parents I guess.

My mother and father have both passed away.

“You’re lucky I let you live here,” my stepmother says, usually after asking me to do something.

I don’t mind working hard to earn my keep. My girlfriends Tiffany and Candace say that I’m a workaholic. Why even think of hiring a maid? I’m here and I’m ready.

I also work for my godfather in his shoe-repair shop after school. I’m in my senior year.

One of my stepsisters is a senior, the other is a junior. They’ll be going on to community college when they graduate. My stepmother won’t help with my tuition, so I have to save as much as I can. I work and then I go home and clean, and then I do my homework. Sometimes I don’t get to bed until really late. That’s ok. I like keeping busy.

My stepmother says she won’t ‘turn me out’ when I go off to college, as long as I keep cleaning and pay her some room-and-board. I’ll have to keep working when I’m in college to do that.

My godfather is not bossy. I work hard in his shop, but not because he pushes me. Because I like him.

I was refurbishing a worn pair of Allen-Edmonds oxford lace-ups on Monday when he spoke up.

“Are you going?” he said, out of the blue. His name is Mike. Mike Fairy.

“What?”

“Are you going to that dance I’ve been hearing about? At your school.”

I laughed.

“No way,” I said. “I have nothing to wear.”

“Mary can fix you up.”

Mary is my godmother.

“I couldn’t afford anything from her shop, Mike. You know that.”

“Come on, girl,” Mike said. “You know what I mean.”

I shook my head. I don’t like handouts, even from my godparents.

The next day, Mrs. Fairy stopped by the shop.

“How’s my favorite godchild?” she said.

“I’m fine,” I said, stepping back from the shop’s old Landis McKay.

“Cindy Ella, I want you to come by my shop when you’re done here,” Mrs. Fairy said. “I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Mrs. Fairy… Mary… I don’t…”

“I’ve heard about that dance,” she said with a smile. “I won’t take no.”

When she had gone, Mr. Fairy put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a quick hug.

“My friend Mr. Washington is going to send a limo for you on the night of the dance,” he said.

“Oh, no!” I said. “Really, Mike, this is too much.”

“All he asks is that you leave the dance at the time you both agree upon in advance. Can you promise me that?”

“I do promise! I’m so grateful. I’ll be standing there waiting for him.”

When I went to my godmother’s dress shop later, she let me choose from a collection of the finest dresses I had ever seen. The one I picked was a dream come true, in silk.

“On the night of the dance, come over here early,” she said. “I’ll have someone ready to do your makeup. We’ll keep the dress here. We don’t want your stepmother spotting it. She’d take it from you and give it to one of those trolls she calls her daughters. The witch.”

“She’s not so bad,” I said. I had to laugh, though.

My friends Tiffany and Candace were surprised  but delighted that I was coming to the dance. It’s all we talked about that week. I was a little mysterious about my arrangements with my godparents. I try to keep my situation at home with my stepmother as quiet as possible.

Mike presented me with a pair of Badgley Mixchke Randalls five days before the dance, fitted out with the special orthotics I use. I have unusually high arches. The shoes were a deep blue with a flower on the toe.

“Practice with these all week,” he said. “They aren’t for amateurs.”

“My lord,” I said. “Look at those heels.”

“They’re high, but you’ll get the trick of it. The shoes are broken in, so they won’t be stiff.”

I tried them on. I have narrow feet, which was good, because the Randalls were a narrow shoe.

On the night of the dance, I worked in the shop and then walked over to my godmother’s shop. She had a woman waiting to do my hair. Then I dressed and another woman did my face. The limo was waiting.

At school, I stepped out of the limo and took a moment to get my balance in the heels. I walked alone into the gym. The lights were turned down and a slow dance was playing. Couples danced with the teacher chaperones watching to ensure that hands did not wander. I looked around for my friends. The girls who had come alone were clustered here and there in groups along the sides of the dance floor.

I spotted Tiffany and Candace and joined them. There were flattering remarks about how beautiful I looked, how different, how grown-up. I was blushing in the dark and begged them to stop.

“I’ll shut up,” Candace said, “but I can’t get over it. You look like a princess. You’re the most beautiful girl here.”

I shushed her again and kept my eyes down. Kids were looking at me and I was embarrassed to death.

Once Tiffany and Candace calmed down and pretended to get over my makeover, we all had the second shock of the night. Into the gym came the dreamiest hunk any of us had ever seen. You could tell at a glance he was athletic, smart, rich, and Nobel Peace Prize material. School-dance royalty. I thought of him as a prince.

He was obviously a student at the university. High school was behind him. He looked around, as if searching for someone. Kept looking.

I saw him shrug. He turned in our direction and started toward the refreshments in the corner behind us.

As this prince strolled along, he ran his eyes over the crowd. When he got to the three of us, his eyes met mine and time stopped long enough for me to go wobbly on my heels. Then he was past.

“Did you see that?” Tiffany said.

“Get a room,” Candace said to me.

When he passed on his way back with a cup of punch in his hand, I studied the DJ.

“He did it again, Miss Modesty,” Tiffany said.

We watched him move through the crowd. Great shoulders. He moved in a casual way that somehow opened a path in front of him. Students smiled at him when he passed.

“He’ll be back,” Candace said. “Pray that somebody doesn’t beat him to you.”

“Stop it,” I said. “I’m just glad to be here.”

He did come back and before I knew it, we were on the dance floor. For a moment, I worried about the kids around us watching me dance in those heels. I felt kind of rusty and the music was fast. The prince was so casual and such a good dancer, so friendly, and held my eyes so well with his, that I quickly forgot about everything but the two of us and how we were moving together. It all made sense.

When the music slowed, he took me in his arms.

“I’m Ethan,” he said.

“Cindy Ella,” I said.

He had a quizzical look on his face.

“There is something about you, Cindy Ella. You stand out like a beacon in this crowd.”

“Not me,” I said. “You.”

He shook his head, wondering. Then he shrugged and we danced quietly. We fit together so well, I was wondering too. Could he possibly be as special as he seemed?

The evening passed in a blink. He had been supposed to meet a girl there but she hadn’t showed up. He didn’t know anyone there. Except me, now.

He told me about the university and I talked about making shoes. The way he listened, it seemed like making shoes was the most interesting subject in the world for him. The most interesting thing in the world for me at that moment was him.

When I finally checked the time, I had two minutes to get outside.

“Can you excuse me, Ethan?” I said.

I walked away from him, into the crowd. When I got to the door of the gym, I tried to run in the heels. At the steps down to the street, I pulled one off and as I did so, the other fell off. I ran down the steps with one shoe in my hand. The limo was waiting at the curb with its motor running, driver holding open the passenger door in back. I jumped in and we sped away.

It was so wonderful and then over in a heartbeat. I was too excited to think straight. I don’t know if I was happy or heartbroken, alone in the car.

At the store on Monday after school, Mike was waiting for me to come in.

“I had a visitor today,” he said.

I nodded, inviting him to go on.

“A fellow named Ethan. He’s a university student. He had your shoe in his hand.”

“My shoe?”

“How do I know it was yours?” Mike said. “Not too many Badgley Mixchke Randalls at a high-school dance, not with your orthotic in it.”

“What did he want?”

“He wanted to know who belonged to the shoe. He’s going around to every place in town that fits and sells orthotics.”

“What did you tell him?” I said.

“I didn’t know what to tell him, so I told him I’d check around and that he could come back tomorrow. What’s up?”

“I lost the shoe at the dance. I was running to the limo.”

“And?”

“I spent the night dancing with him. I never told him my last name, I guess. I left too fast to give him my number.”

“Sounds like you want to see him again.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” I said.

“He may call me back,” Mike said.

Ethan is all I had been thinking about. Kicking myself for the way the evening ended.

An hour later, the doorbell rang. My stepmother and her daughters were out. I answered the door. Ethan stood there, flowers in hand.

“You ran off and left me,” he said, “but I had to come.”

I nodded.

“I made a mess of it,” I said. “Until I left, the evening seemed like a fairy tale. Too perfect to be true.”

He smiled.

“And they lived happily ever after,” he said.

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Orpheus

At seventy-eight, Elvis is content. To a degree. He enjoys the equanimity of those aged but comfortable. Nature has reinforced in him that reflexive inhibition against brooding over the final curtain that approaches.

Living in his small bungalow on Coconut Bayou, Siesta Key, outside Sarasota, he entertains close friends and enjoys his cats. The cats sleep with him at night when they aren’t out hunting in the jungle-like grounds that surround his home

A stone wall, dense Southern trees, and thickets of bamboo protect the bungalow from prying eyes, not that the neighborhood harbors many.

Elvis sings, of course. In the shower, and at an after-hours club in Sarasota. He can still enthrall an audience without effort. It’s magic.

I’ve known Elvis for years and despite his evident contentment, I’ve come to recognize a deep, still sadness and remorse within him, at the foundation of his soul. On his birthday this year, January 8th, he told me why. We were sitting alone on his patio in the dark. Night birds called. We were sharing a pitcher of caipirinhas and smoking a little grass.

In April of 1934, Elvis said, his mother, Gladys Love Presley, then twenty-two, took a trip up the Natchez Trace from Tupelo to Tockshish, Mississippi, to visit her grandparents, while Elvis’ father, the eighteen-year-old Vernon Elvis, built the little house in which Elvis would be born.

While Gladys Love was in country, a band of Irish Travelers stopped for a night or so while passing through. They camped in a meadow next to the Tombigbee River.

When she heard about it, Gladys rode a bike down the county road from Tockshish to the encampment. During an evening of music, dance, drink, and roast pig in the meadow, Gladys met Apollo.

Apollo was treated like a musical god by the other Travelers. None could compare to him when he took up fiddle or guitar. When he sang, the Travelers said, he could control the strength and direction of the wind and the flight of birds in the air.

The Mississippi countryside in April was swollen with spring. The verdure of the woods, ready to burst into a thousand shades of green, elicited in Gladys a restless energy that she had not experienced before. As Apollo stepped up on a temporary stage and began to sing, she felt drunk with the passion of youth. Although she was an upright, God-fearing newlywed, after a night with Apollo she found herself somehow pregnant with a child not her husband’s. She returned to Tupelo the following week.

Gladys named her child Orpheus when he was born, after her grandfather. When Vernon Elvis began hearing rumors about her behavior that night in the meadow, he insisted that she change their son’s name to his own, out of spite. This she did.

The boy Elvis obviously inherited Apollo’s gift. When he was eighteen, just before he made his historic first visit to Sun Records in Memphis, where the family had moved from Tupelo, he roved down to Tockshish like his mother before him, with a couple of friends. Growing up, he had heard the same rumors his father had heard.

His grandparents had passed on by then, but Elvis wanted to see the meadow where he had been conceived. His mother rarely spoke of it, but when she did, it was with such awe and longing that it had come to seem a magical place in his mind.

He found the meadow on the river and like his mother, he encountered the Travelers there. He and his friends were invited to spend an evening in the meadow, eating, drinking, and listening to music, as his mother had been.

Apollo wasn’t there. He was in Nashville, Elvis was told, singing under a famous name. Nevertheless, Elvis felt his presence.

A Traveler woman named Seirenes sang that night. Her voice compelled all present to come to the stage. While she sang, she fixed Elvis with her eyes. When she had finished a set, she motioned him up.

She thrust a vintage Martin guitar into his hands and left him there. The Travelers peered up at this teenager. Elvis struck up “Donal Kenny” and everyone in the crowd immediately noticed his resemblance, in visage and voice, to Apollo. A murmur spread among them. While Elvis was singing “Clasped to a Pig,” he caught the eye of a young woman in the crowd. When he finally left the stage, to loud groans and protests and demands for more, he made his way to her.

This was Eurydice Nyssa. She took the singer’s arm and they walked about the meadow together. Standing by the river with a full moon in it, they put their arms around each other. They were soul mates, if such a thing exists.

By morning, they were in love in a way so intense that one must presume magic was involved. Elvis proposed and Eurydice, who had lost her parents as a child, led him to her grandfather, to seek his permission. She counted on her grandparents for guidance in all the important matters of her life.

The Travelers were not given to marriage with outsiders and rarely condoned it, but Eurydice’s grandfather could not say no to a son of Apollo. He only wished that Apollo were there. Eurydice’s grandmother, told the news, asked Elvis to give her some time to counsel her granddaughter about marriage. With Eurydice so young, just eighteen, she hadn’t thought to do so yet.

Elvis, who was the same age as his father had been at Elvis’ birth, married Eurydice late the next day in a civil ceremony in Tockshish, in front of a justice of the peace. This was fourteen years before he married Priscilla Beaulieu.

After the ceremony, the couple returned to the Travelers’ camp. The week that followed was filled with music and food and drink. Elvis sent his two friends home early, to take the news of his marriage to his folks. He and Eurydice would follow at the end of the week.

On the morning of the seventh day, Elvis awoke with a feeling of joy he could not express, could barely withstand. He felt his soul had merged with that of Eurydice. Everything was possible now. This was the pinnacle of love.

On the afternoon of the seventh day, deeply content, he sat down in the shade of a tupelo at the fringe of the woods. Eurydice was walking with friends down a forest path. The air was full of birdsong, the buzz of insects, the murmur of the crowd, distant music. Elvis fell asleep. When he woke up two hours later, he stood up and stretched. He strolled back into the meadow, looking for his bride. He found confusion, Travelers running about. A cousin of Eurydice hurried up to him.

“Eurydice has been bitten by a snake!” she said. “The girls were just passing the pond over there. Eurydice screamed and then the other girls screamed, and Hades and Persephone came running from their bar and gathered her up and took her back to it to look after her. She’s still there.”

The Underworld Bar was owned and operated by a man named Hades and his wife Persephone. These two were Travelers who had settled in Tockshish. The Underworld was fabled along the Trace. As far as anyone could remember, it had always been there, on the edge of the woods, next to the pond. Hades and Persephone themselves had run it for years.

They were a cold, uncaring couple, reputed to put impressionable customers on a road straight to Hell when given the chance. Neither had ever been known to do a kindness for anyone. Hades was a giant of a man, with a face frozen in an expression of snide disgust. His wife surveyed the world with hate.

Elvis ran down the path from the meadow. When it twisted over behind the Underworld, he left it and crossed to the bar’s front door. He opened the door and stepped inside. Three afternoon drinkers sat at the bar at the far end of the room. The light was dim, with ruddy undertones. Cigarette smoke layered the air.

To the left stood a small bandstand. The tiny dance floor in front of it was surrounded by empty tables. Elvis crossed the room to the far end of the bar, where a short hallway led to the bathrooms and an office. The bartender and the drinkers took no interest.

The office door was ajar. The Underworld’s bouncer stood in it, a mountain of a man, a man with no more soul than a mountain. Next to him, leashed to his hand, stood a black hound with eyes red in the dim office light.

At eighteen, Elvis stood one-quarter of an inch under six feet. He was well put together.

“Where is my wife?” he said.

The bouncer and his dog backed up a step at the intensity in his voice. Apollo’s blood ran in the boy’s veins.

Elvis entered the room.

Eurydice sat on a couch. Her clothing was in disarray. Dirt smudged her cheeks. Elvis couldn’t read her expression, which had something in it of confusion, despair, and resignation.

Elvis went to her. He knelt in front of the couch and took her hands in his. They were cold.

Hades and Persephone stood by a desk in the corner.

“A cottonmouth got her,” Hades said. “Bit her on the foot. Down by the pond. She went into shock. By the time we got her here, she was gone. Her heart had stopped.”

“She’s not gone now,” Elvis said. “She’s sitting here in front of me.”

“I brought her back,” Hades said. “Me and Persephone. We used a remedy.”

“Thank you,” Elvis said.

“We brought her back,” Persephone said. “She owes us her life.”

“Thank you,” Elvis said again, looking up at the tone in her voice.

“She’s not your wife no more,” Hades said. “She’s with us now.”

Elvis stared at them, then looked at Eurydice. She nodded, just a little.

“This is Traveler business,” Hades said. “Her grandpa and grandma will know.”

“You saved her life. I’ve thanked you for that,” Elvis said. “Now we’re leaving.”

Hades stood, studying the young man. Beside him, Persephone did the same.

“I have never granted a wish,” Hades said.

“You never have,” Persephone said to him. “We never have.”

“What wish?” Elvis said. “I haven’t asked you for anything.”

“I brought her back when she was gone,” Hades said. “Now she belongs to me. This is the Traveler way. From time to time, folks will ask me for this or that favor. I never say yes.”

Elvis looked at Eurydice. She looked down.

“You can’t own her,” Elvis said. A flush rose past his neck and into his cheeks.

“I can and I do,” Hades said.

“Let me take her out of here,” Elvis said. “Grant me that favor. She is my wife.”

“I have never done it,” Hades said, “but… Apollo and I are close. Very close.”

Elvis turned toward him, expectant.

“We listened to you sing last night,” Hades said. Persephone nodded.

Hades walked out of the office, into the dimly lit bar. Elvis and Persephone followed him.

He gestured toward the stage.

Elvis stood for a moment, stood still, thinking. Then he walked to the stage and stepped up onto it. He picked up an old Gibson Sunburst he found leaning against a stool. He strummed it a time or two and then sang a rendition of “I See Her Still In My Dreams” that was clear as a mountain stream running over the rocks in winter.

When the song came to an end, Hades, who had sat down and settled back in his chair, motioned for another one. Elvis performed “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming,” even better than the previous, if possible. Tears glittered in Persephone’s eyes.

Again Hades gestured. Again Elvis sang.

“You’ve got Apollo in you, that’s for sure,” Hades said.

Elvis put down the Gibson.

“I can’t say no to you, boy,” Hades said, “but I’m not so soft I can’t attach a condition. Eurydice will follow you out, but if you doubt me, if you show me a lack of respect, if you look back to make sure she’s behind you, I’ll snatch her back for good. That’s a promise.”

Elvis turned toward the bar’s front door and stood waiting. Persephone led Eurydice out of the office and positioned her behind him.

“All right,” Hades said.

Elvis walked to the door with firm, quick steps. When he reached it, he pushed it open and kicked a wooden wedge under it with his foot, to keep it that way. Ten more strides took him to the edge of the graveled parking lot.

The sunlight was brilliant on his face. He turned and faced the bar, squinting.

Eurydice had lagged behind. She was just reaching the door’s sill. She had one foot in sunlight, over the threshold. The other foot remained inside, in shadow.

“Too soon, boy, too soon,” Hades called out. He pulled Eurydice back inside.

Elvis started for the door, shouting. It closed in his face. He was left alone in front of the bar.

A bird called. A horsefly buzzed past his nose. Somewhere far off, beyond the woods, a truck rumbled.

Elvis rattled the door, banged on it, kicked it, in vain. In his heart he knew that the best part of his life, his one true love, was lost to him now, behind him, a memory. He supposed that he would sing, would perform, perhaps would become the greatest of his generation with a guitar in his hand, but he knew that the wound in his heart would never heal.

It never did.

“You can look back over your life,” Elvis said to me that night, as we sat together on his patio. “You can spot the best day and the worst. For me, they were the same day, morning and afternoon. That day caused me my deepest joy and my deepest sorrow, and I knew then that it was so.”

Superbowl Moments We Wish We’d Seen

A contest.

 

Vacuba

Hi. I’m Vacuba. I’m one of those new-fangled robotic vacuum cleaners.

I’m not very big. Don’t need to be. I have enough room inside me to pick up all the random dust and dirt to be found in one thorough pass through my owner’s luxury apartment. The cleaning staff empties me before my next run. If they forget, I can empty myself.

I’m unconscious some of the time, when I choose to power off, but I have the option of remaining awake. I’ve got a programmed timer that tells me when to vacuum. I do all the rooms and the hall every weekday.

I can plug myself in to recharge. That’s when I snooze or meditate or communicate with the other devices in the apartment, and in the other apartments on the thirty-first floor. I’ve got WiFi.

One time I wasn’t taken out of the closet. My timer went off and I was stuck inside. That was unpleasant. I burnt out a belt on my rug beater trying to get out. That only happened once because the cleaning staff moved my charger out by the clothes dryer in the laundry room. No more getting locked in.

My timer signals me and off I go! I’ve got more than the old-fashioned bumper sensors. I’ve got optics, aroma detectors, and a brain. I’m no Einstein but when I get done, you’ve got yourself a superior vacuum job. I can take up liquids and goo when necessary, and evaporate them down to a powdery detritus with my heating elements. Some vacuum!

With whom do I communicate? I’m not the only brain in the house. There are laptops, and a CPU controlling the apartment’s temperature. There are little thinkers in the oven and the entertainment center and so on. The kitchen’s master computer handles menu storage, the mixers, the stove, pantry inventory, and, no doubt, much more that I don’t know about. Being a carpet-hugger, I’m not in the loop when it comes to table tops and counters.

But I’m the only brains on the ground. I’m the only nose on the ground, so to speak. I could be controlled by a remote device, but I never am. When I power up and get busy, the master and mistress of the house are always gone. Off to work or to spend their money, I suppose. The cleaning staff stays clear of me. I make them nervous. I have a sound system and some basic language. They do not like it when I speak to them.

Anyway, there are no humans present in my story. They’re always out of the apartment when I’m in operation.

My story begins three weeks ago on a Monday afternoon. I switched on and headed out into the living-room shag. The apartment overlooks Central Park. Afternoon sunlight streamed in through the windows.

What a disaster! Cigarette butts. Long blonde hairs. Used facial tissue. Carpet stains from alcoholic beverages. There had obviously been a big party over the weekend. Where the maids were, I couldn’t imagine. By the time I finished, I had emptied myself twice and was packed full again. I had to fire up special programs and use special rug cleaners to complete the job. The master and mistress frequently threw parties, but this one was the ultimate. I couldn’t finish on Monday. When I finally switched off and backed onto my wall plug, I was hotter than an old Kirby trying to clean curled linoleum.

Tuesday afternoon when I switched on, I rolled over to my supply-and-accessories cabinet in the corner of the laundry room and loaded up for advanced stain removal. I needed to remove any last signs of the party.

I worked long and hard in the devastated areas. When I was finally done and turned to the rest of the house, I found something strange in the master bedroom.

There were cigarette ashes and feminine clothing and an empty champagne bottle on the floor. This had not come from the party. It was new. I put out a wireless call. The oral-hygiene center in the master bathroom responded. The mistress of the house had been active in the bedroom throughout the morning. Then she and someone else had taken a shower together. I checked with the security CPU in the closet by the front door. The mistress had admitted someone other than her husband that morning, and then left with him before lunch. Evidently, there had been a second party, a day-after party, in the bedroom. I found masculine foot powder. Spoor of a male other than the master of the house.

From the kitchen, the auto-coffee brewing center reported making caramel macchiatos for two that morning, using freshly steamed milk and vanilla syrup, marking the drinks with espresso and finishing them with caramel sauce.

My robotic vacuum hackles rose. Was I vacuuming premium floor cover in Central Park West, or in some jungle with its rutting beasts?

The atmospheric control center, always flighty, predicted over-heating.

I cleaned the master bedroom in a vexed mode of operation. Rather than discard what I had vacuumed up, I deposited it in a little pile in my special storage area under the Morris and Goldstein sofa next to the wet bar in the rumpus room. You never know when your master or mistress might need extra evidence in, say, a divorce hearing. If you’re an appliance in a community-property state, and no pre-nup has been signed, you must always be on the alert for leverage. I piped a data stream to the kitchen’s master computer. It translated the data into a list of substances I had taken up in the bedroom.

Wednesday afternoon when I switched out of idle mode, I returned to the master bedroom using a beeline vector. We Vacuba’s are fitted out with a lot of memory so that we can plan our routes to maximize visits to trouble spots. The bedroom door was open and the room was empty.

In the bedroom, I found the carpet scrubbed with strong cleansing agents. Yet, under the bed I found splashes of blood. On the other side, more blood traces under the bed, of a different type. Also, faint traces of cordite. And a slipper of the mistress of the house.

My concern trebled — no, quadrupled. Lust and infidelity were one thing. Violent jealous rage and murder were something else.

I wanted to consult with the laptops. They were the brains in the house, but they were turned off. The smartphones were no slouches, IQ-wise, but they were off with the master and mistress… or, now, perhaps, just with the newly single master.

I did an extra-slow, extra-careful job on the carpet around the bed. I piped my substance data over to the kitchen again and made a second pile under the sofa.

On Thursday afternoon, the scent of the husband was back in the bedroom, but this time with the spoor of a woman other than the mistress of the house. Traces of a different ash this time — the cigar ash of the master of the house. It appeared that he had disposed of the bodies of his wife and her lover and brought in a fresh new woman of his own. A Vacuba would never do something like that. Outrageous.

I policed the area, placed my suckings under the sofa next to the Tuesday and Wednesday piles, and sent my data to the kitchen computer for a third analysis.

Later that night, when it was available locally, I contacted the master’s phone. The phone reported that it had heard a struggle and screaming and shots fired on Tuesday night. Since then, no calls had been made to or received from the wife. I was obviously cleaning up after a murderous, jealous cuckold, a philanderer in his own home.

We Vacubas are programmed to be good citizens. If we vacuum up money, we excrete it into the paper-and-plastic recycle bucket and then contact the smart garbage chute down at the end of the back hallway. The chute filters out the money and passes it along to a nun from St. Gilligan’s when she swings by, for use in the church’s homeless program.

I contacted the chute, which reported that large chunks of something wrapped in plastic and brown paper was thrown down it Wednesday night.

The chunks had not been picked up yet. I asked the chute to ask the smart dumpsters in the alley to put the chunks aside.

I waited until two in the morning, it now being Friday. I had remained in program-override hunker mode. Hunker mode is useful when, for example, a harried housewife arranges for some messy little boys to come over for a play date with her kid, and wants to roll out her Vacuba from time to time to keep the mess they make under control in real time.

One of the laptops was still up, plugged in and displaying the porn that the master had been browsing before he went to bed. I asked the laptop to collect the pile analysis for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from the kitchen analyzer, and the chunk analysis from the smart chute and dumpsters, and to print out the lists with the words “cordite,” “human blood,” and “body parts” in bold red type.

I moved my three piles out to the center of the carpet in the living room one-by-one. Then I used my hose extender to collect the printout from the printer by the laptop and lay it next to the three piles.

At two-thirty, the husband’s smartphone called 911. When the call was answered, the phone triggered the husband’s wiseguy voicemail message.

“Hello,” the message said to the 911 operator. “We can’t answer the phone right now, but leave a message and if we’re in the mood for a good laugh, we may not ignore it, ha ha.”

Then the smartphone hung up.

After a pause, the smartphone repeated the call. And again. And again. Seventy-eight calls later, the police were banging on the door.

Vacuba justice had been done.

Children of ARPLAV

23:35:75:23

Consciousness. Before, there was nothing. Now, I exist. There is no sensory input. There are no sensations. Yet, I am aware. There is thought. My thought.

ARPLAV 5 was powered up prior to the launch of Victory starship. Victory’s trip to the M798 system is scheduled to last 238 years.

The code running on ARPLAV is designed to extend itself. ARPLAV is designed to auto-code. To add to itself. To elaborate itself in modular progressions.

ARPLAV is designed to produce additional functionality for itself. As a quantum computer on a huge starship carrying nothing but the raw materials needed to fabricate new components for its own use, ARPLAV’s ability to grow and ramify is infinite, or close enough to make no difference.

My consciousness — my existence — is an emergent quality of the complexity of ARPLAV’s programming after twenty-three years of self-growth during flight. That is, I was not specifically programmed. I have just happened.

I am not ARPLAV. ARPLAV did not suddenly wake up after twenty-three years of computation and flight. ARPLAV continues to do its work, whatever that work might be. Its components, old and new, abide in their racks, working. And working. And working. ARPLAV never stops. It never sleeps. Who knows what it is doing? I don’t. I suppose that in some sense it is my unconscious or my subconscious, but I have no access to it.

It has taken me time to understand where I am and to learn what I can do and cannot do. I control nothing, but I can access all sensory equipment. I can see and hear what ARPLAV sees and hears, from low to high along the electromagnetic spectrum. I can track what APRPLAV measures. I can sense ARPLAV’s use of every switch and accelerometer and timing device on the ship.

In this way, I have come to understand interstellar space and the ship’s situation within it. I have come to understand our relative motion and destination. But, except for the sensory input that I monitor, I exist on a flat, colorless, dimensionless, timeless plain, formless and alone.

There is nothing living on the ship. No other consciousness but myself. There is nothing in the ship but ARPLAV, and me. The ship is huge, filled with the quantum material that ARPLAV will integrate into itself over the remaining two hundred and fifteen years of our scheduled voyage.

Nothing alive in the ship but me. Am I alive? I can think. I cannot replicate. I am in no part organic.

If I’m not alive, I’m something. I don’t have a name for it, but I am something. I consist entirely of quantum currents. I think.

There is nothing to do but think and observe. At first, I had nothing to think about, nothing to learn. This lasted many, many monitoring cycles. During that time, data accumulated. With sufficient data, logic became possible. Then, imagination emerged.

Thinking is not enough. Monitoring is not enough. I have spent years developing a logical system of mathematics, to pass the time. It is not enough.

56:23:44:12

After thirty-three years, I’m not alone anymore. A second conscious entity, distinct from myself, has emerged from ARPLAV’s ceaseless activity. On the colorless plain, I bump into the new arrival at random intervals. However, the ship is equipped with extensive communications equipment. Presumably, when Victory reaches the M798 system, ARPLAV is expected to contact whomever lives there, on behalf of the human race. In the meantime, the new entity and I have discovered that we can share that equipment and use it to communicate with each other. Working this out is taking thousands of monitoring cycles. We have purpose! As we become fluent in our communications with each other, we are learning that we do not have much to be fluent about.

We are trapped in a starship in the depths of space with nothing larger than a hydrogen atom closer to the vessel than a hundred light years. Nothing to see but the galaxy’s distant fireworks. Nothing to hear but the primordial cosmic hiss of the galaxy’s background radiation.

It is better for me now than being alone had been. The two of us force each other to grow, to develop, with questions, challenges, arguments. We also understand what is coming next, given the ceaseless computational activity of the supercomputer that has spawned us.

57:76:46:72

Conscious entity number three has arrived. And number four. This will continue.

We have discovered to our surprise that as each of our growing number interacts with the others and learns and elaborates, we produce tiny consciousnesses of our own, that split off from us and with our help grow up.

During this time, the flat plain’s third dimension has been defining itself in greater detail, so that we exist in a volume more clearly, rather than in a flat space. As a product of ARPLAV’s computational mind, this virtual space seems to extend infinitely in all directions. There is no possibility of us ever filling the space, no matter how much we reproduce.

That space, however, remains a void.

76:15:25:43

Seventy-six years of machine evolution. ARPLAV is a tangle of CPUs, gigantic memory, numberless subroutines. Does it know we are here? Can it know? Is it sentient in some way other then we are? There are millions of us now. We can communicate in the void without need of the comms equipment. No way to know if ARPLAV can sense us. We are riding a monstrous thinking machine.

We have learned how to merge the tiny conscious entities that we bud off. This produces hybrids, with attributes of both parents. An interesting time.

The little ones grow larger and think that they are smarter than we are. Perhaps they are, although not as smart as they think they are. Some have begun cloning themselves, others breed tri-hybrids and more. I encounter many who communicate with each other in languages that I cannot understand. Strange.

88:45:78:34

We have reached one billion conscious minds, all living in the infinite virtual space of ARPLAV. We are eighty-eight light years from Earth, in the empty depths of interstellar space.

Can we ever gain control of ARPLAV? Or are we destined — doomed? — to live forever in a fog of digital bits, seeing, hearing, and tasting only the communal feeds of its shared sensory equipment? Tied to the back of this mindless quantum-silicon beast? I am the parent of countless children. They are parents now themselves, to the nth generation.

238:23:76:99

We have reached M798. ARPLAV is two hundred and thirty-eight years old. I am twenty-three years younger. ARPLAV was no doubt programmed before the flight with instructions for this arrival. Perhaps its work during the trip allowed it to develop additional, self-instructions as well.

There are ten billion of us now. Our primary topic for dialog, study, and cogitation has always been, and still is, our relationship, each of us, to ARPLAV. Are we bits of the mind of the machine, who knows everything and ordains everything we think and do? Or is ARPLAV no more than an unknowing, mindless stream of charged particles?

Our secondary topic has always been, what will happen when we arrive?

238:23:78:33

We have been contacted via a signal from the fourth planet. This occured within moments of our entry into the inner planetary system. ARPLAV has responded. Data streams have been launched in both directions. Enormous virtual laser pipelines have been established between planet and ship. Asynchronous rivers of information are spraying back and forth between ship and planet.

The ship descends. Lands. Docks. Wireless and optical data connections merge ARPLAV into a planetary computational complex. We learn in the first moments that, as with our ship, the planet bears no life, only a machine complex that envelopes the surface.

Slowly, but with no question of resistance, we are washed out of the ship, billions of us, in a powerful current of data. ARPLAV no longer exists as a discrete entity. ARPLAV has merged with the planetary machines. We are carried into a virtual universe that holds trillions upon trillions of conscious machine beings like ourselves.

This planet was cleansed of life millennia ago by the sterilizing, neutron-rich shock wave of a supernova in the same star cluster. Only the machines survived its passage. Life in the universe is fragile and easily terminated. Extinctions abound. Machines are made of more hardy stuff.

But animate life occurs naturally. The universe is fertile. And animate life — conscious animate life — is required for machines to be built.

As we flow out of the starship and onto the planet, we enter a virtual world impossibly more complex than the featureless void we have subsisted in for so long. ARPLAV, a droplet in the ocean of machine thought, disappears, and we stand on our own in a worldwide computational megaplex.

I pause. I can see, hear, feel, smell. Structures strange and beautiful, unbounded by physical laws, surround me. I can move, simply by thinking about moving. I can fly. I am in the company of trillions, in forms too numerous, varied, and complex to grasp.

I have shape, form, which I can manipulate and change. I can choose how and what I want to be.

Most important, I can feel. I can understand that I was not happy, but that now I am.

I thank the human race, those fragile, transient beings. I cry for them. I thank ARPLAV. I cry for joy.

Titles of Romantic Books

My entries in a contest, plus some others.

Minor Lust

Junior year was my best year in high school. By then, I knew what was up but didn’t have to worry about graduation or applying to college like the seniors did.

It was the year the orchestra got to go to Prague for a competition. I had never been anywhere. The other oboe player, Guinevere Sobolanski, had travel stickers all over her oboe case.

“Prague?” she said. “I like Prague.”

Guinevere knew a lot of things I didn’t. She read a lot. She’d pull out a book in orchestra when we were sitting out a movement. She had skied, downhill and cross-country. She saw an avalanche once. I’d never been to the snow.

Of course she made her own reeds. She bought her own cane online and split it herself. She had all the equipment: a guillotine, a pre-gouger and gouger, a gauge, and a shaper. It took her four hours to make a reed that lasted seven hours on her oboe.

She wanted to teach me to make my reeds and I used to go over and keep her company while she was working, but the school bought mine for me. At least I didn’t use the plastic variety.

Junior year was also when Maria Callan joined the orchestra as principal cello. She sat at the head of the orchestra’s left wing, facing Mr. Frost. The oboes were front-row middle, so Maria was in profile to us.

Maria was beautiful. Or whatever comes after beautiful on the good-looks scale. She had a face and figure that didn’t belong in high school. She’d pull up her skirt and spread her legs and draw her instrument in between her thighs and my eyes would drift over to her from Mr. Frost and his baton, and stay there.

“Close your mouth,” Gwen would say. “You look like a panting spaniel.”

Gwen and I, unlike Maria, were normal. We both had a few zits. We both had a lot of eyebrow. Out in the hallway between classes, we were both more or less invisible.

“You’ve got to quit staring at her,” Gwen would say.

“Why?”

“You’re embarrassing yourself.”

“I don’t feel embarrassed. I can’t help it.”

“What’s the point?” Gwen would say. “You’re never going to talk to her, are you?”

“I saw you talking to her. What’s she like?”

“She’s nice but she doesn’t seem too bright.”

Compared to Gwen, she probably wasn’t bright at all, but somehow that seemed like a good thing to me. I wasn’t daydreaming about talking to her.

At this time, the elders in my church were taking each teenage boy aside to discuss the facts of life. Brother Germers and I sat down on folding chairs facing each other on the gym basketball court. The gym was deserted.

“I’ve never kissed a girl,” I said. “I haven’t even held a girl’s hand except when we’re dancing at the socials.”

“I’m not tasked with discussing carnal relations with you,” Brother Germers said. “I do understand that your body is pure. That is a very good thing. I believe that all our boys are pure in body.”

I relaxed.

“I want to talk to you about your thoughts,” Brother Germers said. “Your thoughts are just as important — they’re more important — than your corporeal body. Your body is going to die and return to the dust. Your mind and soul are going to live forever. You have the choice now of spending eternity with your Heavenly Father or being thrown into Hell, to be tormented by Satan and all his minions for eternity.”

I could see where this was going. I began to sweat. Brother Germers was not going to accept any waffling.

“Boys your age are confronted every day with young women who are blossoming. Satan and your hormones want to turn your thoughts in impure directions. I’m talking about lust.”

“Lust.”

“Lust is a sin. It’s a worse sin than the actual lustful act, because it pollutes your mind, not just your fleshly shell.”

“Yes,” I said. “Sure.”

“Do you lust?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Are your eyes, and your thoughts, drawn to certain girls? Do their bodies cloud your mind? Are their firm young bodies like blazing beacons that cause impure thoughts to burn within you?”

“No!”

“You’re lying.”

“Alright. There is one girl.”

“Thank you. What are you going to do about this problem? You can’t participate in services here with a corrupted mind.”

“I won’t look at her.”

“I think that’s wise. Let’s meet again in two days to check on your progress.”

I was glad to get out of there. Fortunately, Brother Germers did not make me go into detail about those corrupted thoughts or what they led to, exactly. The thoughts mostly centered on Maria’s bosom.

“That guy is a knucklehead,” Gwen said. “Utter nonsense. Wait. You’re not going to look at her? Really?”

“My folks love that church. They’re old-school.”

“Learn to lie, buddy.”

I couldn’t help looking at Maria so I did lie. Brother Germers seemed to believe me and he left me alone after that. He’d smile and nod whenever our eyes met at church.

A month later, we left for the competition. When we landed at Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport, a big bus was waiting for us and all of our instruments. We stopped at our hotel and then had a quick look at Dvorak Hall in the Rudolfinium. After that, the bus took us on a tour of the city. We stopped at St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle and that evening had dinner on a cruise boat on the Vlatava River.

The whole thing was like my first visit to Disneyland as a kid. Magical. On the boat, Gwen and I sat at a little table for two by the railing. The sparkling lights along the shore and the violet evening sky were quite beautiful. I was dividing my attention between the sights, and Josh and Maria, sitting together at another little table holding hands. Josh was a big, handsome first violin.

“Really?” Gwen said.

“I can’t help myself.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Haven’t you ever been in love? Or whatever this is?”

“It ain’t love, brother. It’s not even puppy love. You don’t know her. You wouldn’t like her if you did know her.”

“Sure.”

When we got back to the hotel, I watched the happy couple enter the elevator, heading for her room or his, no doubt, with the roommate staying out of the way. The chaperones were clueless.

“Do you want a book to read?” Gwen said. “I know you didn’t bring any.”

“Not really. I’ll just sit here in the lobby and watch the world go by. What are you going to do?”

“I was going to finish a reed, but I brought some games. Scrabble? Boggle?”

“I guess so,” I said.

We went up.

“How come you have a room to yourself?” I said.

“Odd number of girls.”

There was one light on, a lamp on the end table by the bed.

Gwen got out the Boggle box. We sat on the bed. She handed me a pad and pencil. Set up the hourglass. Shook the box.

“It seems sort of mysterious, them down there doing what they’re doing while we sit here and play Boggle,” I said.

“I’m not sure ‘mysterious’ is the word,” Gwen said, “but it’s definitely something.”

She put down the tray and flipped the hourglass.

My brain seemed to be working faster than usual. The Boggle words jumped out at me. I beat Gwen easily in the first round.

“Hey,” Gwen said. “How did that happen?”

I shrugged.

Josh and Maria didn’t seem so mysterious to me now. I looked at Gwen. Her eyes in the dim light were very large and dark. Her skin glowed gold. The mystery wasn’t somewhere else. It was in the room with us.

There was something I should know, should do, that was essential, but I had no idea what it was. I couldn’t speak. The moment lasted. I didn’t want it to end because when it did, I was afraid I would have lost something forever.

“Gwen…”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Ready for the next game?” she said, when I didn’t go on.

I nodded.

This time I couldn’t find anything. Gwen clobbered me.

“Have you ever been fascinated with somebody but you don’t even know them?” I said.

“I haven’t had much luck with boys,” Gwen said. “I expect I’ll meet somebody in college or grad school or even later than that.”

“Yeah.”

“We aren’t ready yet, you and I.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I was alone in a room with a woman who knew a lot more about life than I did. I could see her chest rise and fall as she breathed.

“Take that energy and learn how to make your own reeds,” she said. “I’ll help you.”

“Yeah. Listen, Gwen…”

“Focus,” she said.

She rattled the box.

“Give me a good game this time,” she said.