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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's Brewing? - No. 15

Pauline stared at yesterday's data illuminating her laptop's screen. The failure to capture any kind of change, any kind of spark, weighed upon her sloped shoulders like slabs of concrete. She yanked off her safety goggles and pinched the bridge of her nose to ward off an encroaching headache.

Maybe today, she told herself.

The optimism failed to soothe her weary eyes or spur her from her desk's rickety chair. The snap of the lock in the laboratory's door, however, forced her to wipe the scowl from her wrinkled brow and don her glasses once more.

"Afternoon, Professor." Helen's bubbly exuberance flooded into the room like spring after a brutal winter.

"Hey, Prof," added Jared as he closed the door with a vacuum hiss from the seal.

"Meristem today, right?" asked Helen.

Pauline blew out a breath and worked a grin onto her narrow lips. Adjusting her safety goggles she rose and turned toward the pair of students disgorging textbooks onto one of the lab's tables.

"Right. Set it up," said Pauline.

The two shared eager grins before busying themselves with the usual arrangement. Jared hefted the brewer from the cabinet beneath the counter and set the homemade fomenter down with care. The center dish, suspended between the cardinal bars connecting the middle to the four outer vessels wobbled while the rest of the components clicked and groaned. He plugged in the power cord to the socket beneath the table's lip, and then inspected the porcelain with a hawkish eye.

Meanwhile Helen fetched the fluids chilling in the rumbling refrigerator. Filling a tray with a neat row of sterilized containers and rack ladened with rubber-stopped tubes, she slid the platter onto the counter.

The metals scraped against one another, peppering Pauline's tawny skin with goose bumps.

As they worked with the vigor of youth and expectation, Pauline hoisted her laptop from her cluttered, corner desk. Striding to the table in her stout orthopedics, she prepped her observing station at the foot of the counter where the camera could view past the faucet and sink to capture the afternoon's attempt. She brought up the diagrams and sensor software before plugging in the necessary cables. Jared took the other ends, hooking into the slots on the base of the fomenter.

"Ready," said Jared.

Helen nudged his elbow as she donned lab coat over her sky-blue sweater and khakis and set a pair of goggles over her hazel eyes. "Safety first."

"Duh." He scurried to toss a coat over his tee-shirt and jeans and then strapped thick plastic glasses on his face with a twang of elastic.

"Now we're ready," said Helen. She stared over the rigid collection on her tray. "Where do you want to start?"

Pauline suppressed a sigh. "Your pick," she said, keeping her protected gaze downcast.

"Adenine?" said Jared.

Helen shrugged and selected the appropriately labeled bottle. With a syringe she sucked out ten millimeters and added the drops to the waiting crucible hovering in the center of the fomenter. Jared flipped on the heating switch and the unit hummed with electricity.

They each seized a test tube and thumbed out the stoppers. With another set of syringes, they added the verdant and sulfurous mix to the four waiting trays in even amounts. While the center solution began bubbling, the funnels connecting the middle to the outer ring began dripping in the primordial formula.

The ticks from the wall clock blended with the soft sizzle and plops of liquid from one dish to the next. Helen and Jared both stood by the fomenter, as if half expecting the faint specks of life to be visible in the first few seconds of brewing. Pauline grinned at their passion and tried to absorb in their energy and hope with a deep breath.

The laptop's beep drew her attention to the screen. The lines of temperature readings and chemical compounds filled one half, while a graph corresponding to time and molecule count dominated the rest. The rows speed by as the electricity and heat brewed the concoctions together until each flew past faster than Pauline could read.

"Professor?" said Helen as a syringe clattered to the floor.

Pauline glanced up from where the graph had begun bouncing between trenches and jagged peaks. Helen and Jared both leaned away from the counter while the fomenter bubbled and spat. The liquid landing on the steel sizzled like fresh burgers on a grill. In the center, a dome had formed, the fluid within captured by a thin film. The bubble began inflating until nearly occupying the entire dish.

"Cut the power," said Pauline, glancing down at her screen while her heart thumped against her sunken chest.

"What?" asked Jared.

"The plug," said Helen, shoving by him to yank the cord out of the outlet.

Smoke billowed from the center dish and flooded over the other crucibles like morning fog. The faint stench of low tide began wafting out of the haze.

The fluorescents above them throbbed and Pauline glared at the hissing bulbs. Her frown melted as she noted a pattern. When the lights dwindled, the pool beneath the mist glowed, as if the illumination was transferring from the ceiling into the fomenter’s contents.

"It's still growing," whispered Helen. She leaned toward the device as if drawn by a magnet.

"But there's no power," said Jared. "How can it be growing without fuel?"

The lights flickered in and out again and the dome bloomed like a helium balloon.

Jared coughed and Helen brought a hand to her nose as the malodorous odor intensified. Pauline scowled and then flinched as a ripple of power laced through her laptop. Sparks danced across the keyboard and then the unit whined a dying breath, leaving a dark screen reflecting her startled face.

"What do we do, Professor?" asked Helen

"I think it's feeding off the ambient power," said Pauline.

"But that's impossible," said Jared.

Pauline let out a nervous laugh, one to her ears, tinged with a manic thread. She watched the concoction grow to absorb the entire fomenter in one sphere.

"We need to stop the chain reaction," she mused, "or else it's going to spread too far." She grimaced at the thought of cutting short the one test of any note, but the stench and the acidic burn on the counter, cut through her doubt.

"Jared." He jolted out of his transfixion with the bubble. "The fuse box. Turn everything off."

Jared stumbled toward the cabinet and fumbled with the latch on the metal door. Each switch thumped as he threw one fuse after another. The refrigerator stuttered and fell silent. The lights snapped off. The ambient hum of power circulating through the lab ceased, leaving a dearth of noise.

Pauline held her breath and heard Helen and Jared do the same. The bubble inflated further.

"What do we do now?" asked Helen.

The concentration of the aroma grew, until Pauline thought her throat had been stuffed with fouled cotton.

"We leave," said Pauline, closing her laptop. She clutched her computer, cradling the precious data within, and pulled on Helen's sleeve in order to get the young woman moving.

Pauline chuckled again, as initial explanations began swirling in her thoughts. She ignored her students’ worried glances as she flipped the fuse for the door and reactivated the locking mechanism.

"We'll call security and then containment," she said, motioning them outside. "Maybe the fire department too." Holding the door open, Pauline glanced at the table where the fluid chopped into the counter. "Because we've definitely done something this time."

"But what?" asked Helen, her eyes wide.

Pauline grinned and followed them out into the corridor. "I'm not sure." She drummed her fingers upon her laptop, "but we're going to find out."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Testimony - No. 11C

Tabitha clicked on the typewriter's keys, her fingers dashing as Vince Anderson rambled from the witness stand.

Dismissed by the Defense attorney, Vince gave the courtroom a smirk and sauntered down the center aisle, donning his fedora and tugging every gaze with him as he exited. The first officer at the scene mounted the stand next and was sworn in by the bailiff. The DA sauntered across the bench, posing his questions.

Tabitha captured each query and reply in her rapid tapping.

The police man’s testimony drew to a close with corroborating evidence about the placement of the bloody knife at the scene. Judge Walters then dismissed the jury and banged his gavel to close the trial until rebuttals after the weekend.

Chairs scraped against the wooden floor as everyone rose.

Tabitha stretched out her fingers and smoothed the front of her olive pencil skirt while the judge descended his bench and the sequestered jury was guided through the courtroom's side door by an armed guard. After whispered conversation with her attorney, the tawny haired defendant, Ms. Butler, immaculate in her plush honey business suit, was led by two officers from the room, heading back to her waiting cell. Snaps from briefcases drowned beneath the ambient mumbles, camera flashes and scribbling pens, all blooming in the once hushed space.

Dropping into her wooden chair, Tabitha cranked the last sheet from the typewriter. She separated the front page from the carbon paper underneath and added each to the appropriate piles on her desk. Sorting the documents into chronological order, she stacked one pile across the other. With her fingers the dividing the set, she scooped up her purse and stood. Nudging the chair in with her hip, she found herself alone in the courtroom except for the janitor and the slop of his mop into a grungy bucket.

"Evening Martin," said Tabitha.

"Evening," said Martin, bald head gleaming while his downcast gaze followed the frayed strands across the floor.

With a thud from her stout heels, Tabitha left from the courtroom and down deserted checkered hallways. Secretaries, reporters and lawyers of every ilk, coursed by in the opposite direction bent on departing for the evening. Upon reaching the clerk’s office, Tabitha held the door open as Mary hovered before the time clock.

The puncher docked her card and she stuffed the hard rectangle into a waiting slot for Monday morning.

"Thanks, Tabitha," said Mary, slinging her purse over her shoulder. "'Night, Neil." Mary scurried through the door, brisk pace taking her toward the lobby and bustling city streets.

With a weary sigh, Tabitha entered the office and locked the latch behind her.

"You're running late." Neil thumped a fat leather book closed and earned a cloud of dust. He sniffed and adjusted his thin glasses as he rose from his chair.

"Blame the DA," said Tabitha, winding past him to the file cabinets lining the back wall. "He can ramble like no one I've ever recorded."

"They don't like us here after hours you know." Neil folded his arms across his chest, crinkling his vest, tie and starched button down shirt.

"That's not my problem," said Tabitha. She yanked the second drawer open and flipped across the manila tabs until she found the appropriate docket number. Opening the folder, she scowled. "Where are the rest of the transcripts?"

"What do you mean?"

"Look." She held up the cluttered folder. Sheets of white pages stained with purple letters fluttered. "Yesterday's testimony from Ms. Butler is missing."

Neil frowned over her shoulder and flipped through the pages. "Check the copies."

Tabitha left her piles on top of the steel tower and hurried over to a second cabinet on the other side of the office. She found the corresponding folder and the tension leaked from her shoulders.

"They're here." Flipping through the indigo sheets of carbon copies to be sure, she skimmed over the defendant’s statements she had captured on Thursday.

"That doesn't explain why the originals aren’t here," said Neil.

They stared at one another across the half dozen desks. The wall clock clicked with the passing seconds.

"We should tell the DA," said Tabitha.

Neil nodded. "I'll put these away, why don't you try and catch him."

Tabitha hefted her purse and stormed for the opaque door, her heart thumping as a bit of perspiration sprouted from her manicured hairline. She left Neil shuffling papers as she headed toward the marble stairs, her stride trapped by the hem of her skirt. She guided her assent with a hand on the chilled banister, each step echoing in the cavernous lobby. The carpet lining the upper floors smothered her footsteps as she surged down the second floor corridor.

She knocked on the frosted window labeled District Attorney and held her breath. Scuffs and murmurs answered but no invitation came for her enter. She rapped her knuckles again before trying the knob. The door opened with a groan of hinges.

The smell of blood stung her nose. Tabitha slumped onto the frame, hand over her mouth as the two bodies, one of the gray suited DA, the other his secretary, Janice, lay in crimson pools upon the navy blue carpet. The muffled sounds from within the DA's personal office ceased and the interceding door creaked open.

"It’s the clerk," said a hoarse bass from within the shadowed room.

"Get her," said another, his tone like grinding rocks, "Vince said no witnesses."

Tabitha backpedaled, her gaze locked on a scarlet knife held in the leathery hands of a massive man who filled the threshold with slabs for shoulders, a piercing sneer and nail-hard eyes. Releasing a trembling shriek, she raced for the barren stairs, the pounding of the mammoth man’s feet in swift pursuit.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Popped Question - No. 11B

Trevor leafed through the PhD paper written by a foreign student from last semester and grimaced.

"An answer Mr. Gable."

Trevor's fingers began sweating as he flipped through the text again. The eyes of Professor McDermott and the rest of the class bored through his bent head and slumped shoulders while charts and diagrams of blood samples blurred between the paragraphs. The sentences he had read the hour before blended into a spider's scrawl.

"I'm not sure," he mumbled.

From the back of the lab, he heard chuckles.

"Not quite, Mr. Gable." Professor McDermott returned to the white board, marker squeaking and wafting a sweet, inky stench. He droned on about white blood cells and contaminants, leaving the query unresolved, bound no doubt for a final exam.

Trevor followed the pacing professor and his fluttering white lab coat, but the lecture washed over him. He glanced down at the dissertation written by someone now half a world away and free of the saturated lecture hall. Letters formed words he understood, but the theories kept escaping him, like a slippery fish half caught on a line. By the time he had reread the abstract and begun discerning a notion of the study, slamming notebooks and laptops shattered his tenuous grasp.

Trevor looked up and met McDermott’s scowl. He winced and shoved off his stool, stuffing his books into his bag and turning his back on the academic glower.

"I'm not sure I'm cut out for this," he said as headed out the lab.

Grace, her books tucked on her hip like a baby, nudged his shoulder. "Come on, it's only biology."

"Pre-requisite 101." Trevor shook his head. "If I don't pass this I'm screwed."

They exited the sloped hall and Trevor slouched against the concrete wall. The cool surface bit into his flushed skin and he shuddered.

"Did you see that paper?" he asked the floor tiles.

"I even read it."


"Thalassemias," said Grace.

Trevor beat his head against the wall and let out a frustrated sigh. "I can't believe I didn't get it. I mean I read, but it's like I've got a mental block. Nothing's sticking." He glared at the ceiling.

"It was a PhD paper you know."

"Shouldn't matter."

Grace dug through her folders and held out a class card. "Take this."

Trevor stared at the square of paper, marked with a dashed line waiting to be filled with the student's choice of auxiliary class. "What about you?"

"I'm doing ok." She shrugged. "I don't think I want to sit through another of McDermott’s lectures again anyway." She wiggled the card like bait on a hook. "Use it, go to his afternoon class and see if repetition can't get this through your thick skull." She smiled, softening the jab.

Trevor licked his lips, hovering his fingers over the card. "You sure?"
"I'm sure," she said. "I need to do something to keep you around don't I?"

"That's just so you have someone to show off to," said Trevor, taking the card and tucking the paper into his biology textbook.

"Something like that," said Grace with a roll of her eyes. She stared at the flow of students making their way through the corridors, a flush highlighting her cheeks.

A warm rush of blood countered the wall's chill and Trevor straightened with a weak cough. "Anatomy?"
"Anatomy," said Grace.

They merged with the human tide, and wound toward their next class, weighted with texts and expectation.

Swing time - No. 11A

Abby stared at the playground from her post on the sidewalk, her notebooks crushed in nimble arms.

The new girl with a pink ribbon tied at the end of each pigtail sat on the swing, head bowed. Her shoulders shook from time to time, her sagging body's sole movement. The chains squeaked, as the autumn wind bellowed, giving the dangling girl a soft push with an invisible hand.

Chewing at her lower lip, Abby scanned the road. Down the tree-lined street other cars had come and gone, the sunny buses departed. She counted to ten but no sign of her mom's van appeared.

Back in the playground, the other girl hadn't budged.

Hefting her books and lunchbox, Abby trundled across the lawn, her footsteps scraping as grass changed to gravel.

"Can I use this one?" she asked.

The girl looked up, brown eyes wide as she grabbed the swing's chains with tight fingers. Tear streaks ran down her face, curving over plump cheeks and staining the collar of her honey-dew sweater. She glanced at the curved plastic seat hanging beside her and sniffed.

"I guess so," she said, rubbing her nose on her sleeve and smearing the salted lines.

Abby set down her lunchbox alongside the swing's route and carefully balanced her books on top. She squirmed onto the seat and gave the ground a kick.

Pebbles sprayed and the chains groaned, the crisp air tussling her hair like the changing leaves.

"Come on," she said to the other girl. "It's fun."

Her gaze, rimmed in red and enlarging into dinner plates, followed the pendulum swing as Abby pumped herself higher.

Abby closed her eyes and tilted her face into the fading sun. The wind swooped by as she drifted back and forth and rushed in her ears. She tightened her grasp on the paperclip-thin chain as she began rising out of the seat at the top of the arc.

The other swing began creaking and Abby glanced over. The little girl's tear swollen face had softened, her ribbons fluttered as she gained height. A pearl perfect smile bloomed on her lips and she leaned into the momentum like a bird about to take flight.

A honk blared from the street.

Abby winced and dragged the heels of her sneakers in the gravel, creating two ruts in the dirt. The little girl did the same until they both dangled like ripe fruit. Abby hopped off the swing, gathering her books.

"That's my mom," she said, plucking her lunchbox in one hand.

"Oh," said the little girl. A shadow covered her face and she gazed down to the lap of her dungarees.

"Is your mom coming?"

The little girl nodded. "She's going to be mad about the test. Maybe even call my teacher or the principal."

Abby frowned. "Why would she do that? Did you fail it or cheat or something?"

"No, but I got some answers wrong." Slumping against a chain, she toyed with one pigtail.

"That's ok,” said Abby. “We all get answer's wrong sometimes. Everyone knows that."

The little girl looked up, tearing eyes brimming with hope. "Really?"

Abby smiled. "Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it." Her mom honked again and Abby jumped. "See you tomorrow, ok?"

The little girl rubbed her nose again, and then waved. "Ok."

Abby trotted to the street and hauled in the back of the gaping van. She hopped into her chair and buckled her seat belt as the automatic door slid closed.

"How was your day?" asked her mom, as they pulled away from the sidewalk.

"Fine," said Abby.

"Who was that you were swinging with?"

"The new girl. She's waiting for her mom, too." Abby let out a yawn and sank into the bucket seat.

Her mom turned up the radio and Abby stared out the window, where the little girl was pumping her legs and regaining her swing's full height.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shoe Size - No. 4

Perrault dropped to a knee and put the back of his hand to his nose. The stench like moldy corn wafted off of the panty-hose containing the waggling toes before him.

"What do you think?" asked Stasia, clutching her skirts behind Druilla’s chair. Both young women, identical down to the coiled braids of frayed inky hair and jutting chins had only an extreme acquisition of pounds to separate one twin from the next. Corpulent or skeletal, both stared along Druilla’s taunting limb, quivering like a bared branch.

"Sshhh." Spittle from Lady Tremania, hovering like a wrinkled vulture, fell upon Perrault's shoulder.

Suppressing a shudder, he lifted the glass slipper from the velvet-padded box by his side. With a deep breath he glanced between the crystal shoe and Druilla’s foot, a pit widening in his gut.

"I think it-."

"Shhhsss," said Tremania, cutting off more of Stasia's incessant whispers.

In the plush chair, Druilla grabbed her cushion with bony hands and pointed her toe like a diver above a lake.

Perrault closed his eyes and fumbled with her damp foot and the crystalline slipper.

Druilla wiggled into the end of the toe box. Her foot slapped against the glass lining. As her heel sunk into the shoe’s counter, the gap in Perrault's torso spread.

"It’s perfect!" whispered Stasia. She clapped her meaty hands and the floor undulated as she bounced.

"It fits!" said Druilla, sinking back as if deflated.

A gasp from across the room drew Perrault's gaze like a dart. He barely noticed the other three women swiveling like wolves, and spying the figure with a trio of cobalt scowls.

The young woman stood in a hidden doorway, once obscured by paisley wall paper of violet and honey. Covering her mouth with one wan hand, she grasped at the swinging panel with the other. Her hazel eyes, however, were wide, reflecting the room’s candlelight like the stars spread across the sky on the night of the ball a month earlier.

"You!" said Perrault, rising to his feet.

"Lian!" said Lady Tremania, dashing forward.

Lian crumpled like wad of paper, her eyes rolling up into her head, her body slumping across the top steps.

“Lian,” whispered Perrault, the name sweet on his tongue.

Druilla jolted from her chair. Wobbling on one flat and one pointed foot, she caught Perrault's arm and stopped him in his tracks.

“You’re Highness,” she said, wiggling her slipper encased foot, “you’ve forgotten something.”

Perrault stared at her sunken face, and then the sparkling shoe as the pit in his stomach swelled. “What does this mean?” he asked, shooting his glance toward Everett.

Adjusting his glasses on a button nose, the stout attendant drummed his fingers on his pile of parchment coated in the names of all the unwed women in the kingdom. "It does appear to fit, Your Highness."


Lady Tremania swung into his face like a bad dream. She curtsied without releasing him from her icy stare, her wine-hued dress obscuring Lian’s prone form. "Your Highness. The declaration has been fulfilled by my daughter, Druilla."

Lady Tremania beckoned with a wrinkled hand and Druilla limped off of his arm with a thumping bat of eyelashes. Like a bending stick about to snap, she spread her avocado skirts in a tipped curtsy. Stasia mirrored the gesture, her canary dress and rotund form descending like a dripping egg yolk.

Perrault tore himself from Lady Tremania’s frosted glare and absorbed the bowed heads of her two daughters. Then he lingered on the crumpled body in the secret passageway, barely in view. "But..."

"Sir." Everett lifted his chin, his nervous swallow nearly popping the snug laces around his high collar. "The declaration has been completed: The woman found to fit the shoe, will marry the Prince of Gardonia."

The declaration whittled into Perrault's brain like fire through a forest. He pivoted on Everett slowly, careful not to move too fast and whisk away the man’s methodically stated words as their meaning hung in the potpourri-dominated air.

Everett adjusted his glasses once more and met the Prince’s wide-eyed stare.

"Marry the Prince..." Perrault snatched Everett by the shoulders and nearly lifted the man out of his spit-polished boots. "Make note of this Everett: I Perrault Nodgar, Prince of Gardonia, do here by renounce my title and all privileges and rights theretofore attached to that rank and name."

Everett’s lips quivered toward a flickering smile and Perrault pulled him into a fierce embrace. The women behind him squealed in protest.

"But your Highness, you can't!" said Stasia. She rolled forward as Lady Tremania rose like a weed. Druilla fell back onto the chair as if blow over by a breeze, her face blanched.

"Mother," whined Stasia, "tell him."

Lady Tremania pointed a silencing finger at Stasia's lumpy nose. She sputtered, and then clung to her voluminous skirts.

"The declaration stands, Your Hig..." Lady Tremania scowled as she stumbled to find a proper title for the towering man standing before her.

Perrault's grin spread. "It does." He released Everett and strode passed Lady Tremaina’s glower.

At the hidden doorway, a gust of wintry air swirled up the winding wooden stairs vanishing into an arctic darkness below. Lady Tremania’s shadow draped Perrault’s shoulders, but he ignored her presence as he rolled Lian onto her back. She gave a weak groan and her eyes fluttered open for a moment, a weak smile crossing her peachy lips before her hazel eyes closed once more. Scooping her up, Perrault carried her free of the musty threshold. Her auburn head lolled against his shoulder and her skin felt clammy even through her dank dress. She coiled, like a frightened bird in his arms, one weakened after a fall and abandonment from a nest in a tree-top far overhead.

"What have you done to her?" Perrault asked with a scowl as Lian shivered.

"She was punished," said Lady Tremania, her mouth taunt under his fierce stare. "The cellar is a fine place for a liar and a thief." She licked her lips as spite leapt from her tongue. Squinting, she turned on Everett. "If he's no longer the Prince, then who is?"

Everett glanced at his stack of papers as if the Gardonian lineage might be written within. "I'll have to consult my documentation to be certain. Your Highness..." he rubbed at his temple and decided against finding a new name for Perrault, “was the next in line, behind his elder sister. Without him producing his own son, it would be up to Princess Cerella. Since she has three daughters already, I’m not certain she will be having more children." His jowls wobbled with his pearl smile. He drummed a tune onto his parchment and bounced on his toes. “Which means, for the moment, there is no Prince of Gardonia.”

"No Prince?" asked Stasia, a frown creasing the plain of her forehead.

Lady Tremania grasped onto the chair’s arm. "Oh my child," she said, laying one hand onto Druilla’s brittle shoulder.

"What does it matter?" Druilla asked, leaning back and folding her hands demurely in her lap. A Cheshire smile wound onto her slim lips. "There will be a Prince of Gardonia eventually."

“In a few decades when he does appear,” said Perrault with a grin, “I’m certain he’ll be as delighted to make your acquaintance as I have been.”

He gave the trio of gaping faces a nod and swept from the living room, Lian in his arms and Everett quick on his heels.