Bewildering Stories

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The Homecoming

by Danielle L. Parker

part 1 of 2

“We’ve got to get off this world,” said Tilla. “This place drives people to madness. We’re like rabbits eating their babies when we get over-crowded.”

Tilla was small and thin and sharp of feature, with kohl-rimmed eyes black enough to conceal their pupils. Tilla was either black or white, nothing in between.

She picked up the paper that Rowan had just dropped on the table and tapped the headlines derisively with one long black painted fingernail. In between mention of the usual daily riots was another headline. Some public personage had not only smashed his expensive self-piloted coupe but the bodies of himself and many others during last night’s commute. It was not the first time they had seen news of such road rages.

Even she and Tilla, generally easy-going roommates for the last three years, had their moments of stress. The tiny suite they shared was jammed with Rowan’s canvases in various stages of inspiration and Tilla’s organic sculptures. Some of those, Rowan thought, could actually be complete, of course. It was difficult to tell with Tilla’s artwork. Her sculptures were done when she said they were, which was usually when she found a buyer. The latter showed up too infrequently for both of them. And that was the problem.

“We don’t have enough money to escape,” she said. “Not both of us at least. And it would have to be a working vacation.” She folded the paper, not wanting to look at the images any longer. The plastic sheets rustled, as disposable as the bodies would be, if they could ever be retrieved from the wreckage. There was no room for cemeteries on Midas.

“So take an in-system cycler and shuttle to Minotaur,” Tilla said. She reached over and picked out the remains of Rowan’s muffin from her plate, biting into it with her sharp white teeth. It was one of the habits that occasionally set Rowan’s teeth on edge, Tilla’s careless freedoms. But Tilla was as generous with what she had in turn, which was one of the reasons they had endured three years in this small space without mutual murder. “I could stand to have the place to myself for a change. I might even manage to get a date with you out of the way for a while. I’ll chip in on your ticket and you can do the same for me when we get a chance.” She squinted at the tower of — what, Rowan was not quite sure: something with found bones, and windings of white polycarbonates, and sharp rocks embedded in here and there like teeth — standing in the corner. “I think I have a buyer for that one anyway. He’s coming by this afternoon.”

“They take working visitors,” Rowan said. “Ashton went there last summer. I think he can set me up with some sort of commission. If he does I’ll earn enough to pay for your trip by the time I get back.” She looked at her roommate with a mixture of affection and annoyance. “Tilla, stop dropping crumbs over me, will you?”

In the end the Bone Tower sold, to a prosperous older man with eyes less for the indescribable conglomeration than for Tilla’s small sharp breasts and thin white arms. But Rowan could have told him he would never manage a return visit. Tilla liked sharp-faced boys with black lips and black fingernails, and there was a particular one, a mute and scowling rat-boy who filled their room with the angry whine of electronic percussion when he visited. Rowan, whose tastes ran otherwise, had never really learned his name. But there was an end in sight for their sojourn together in this small room, when, perhaps, rat-boy had a room of his own to offer.

She herself had no immediate buyers to attend, so after breakfast she went to find Ashton. He was never hard to find. Ashton lived by himself, for his paintings were successful enough that his eight by eight feet was his alone, even if it was a fifth-story walkup. And Ashton was always there. He had a twisted foot, which had never been corrected. Ashton had been born in the tenements they lived in, and had never known more. Rowan had. It was something she had thought she could not explain to Ashton at one time, the need for more, but strangely, he understood instantly.

“It’s in any artist,” he had said. “The recognition of beauty. I can see it around me even in the litter and the graffiti. You need more to nurture you, Rowan.”

She brought him a sack of food from the grocery below, which, as usual, he needed. He could not manage the five stories without devoting a day to his painful climb, so Rowan always found him short of something. He lived, perhaps, on the generosity of others. But then he also gave. That was why he had visitors, and now and then, a rare buyer.

“Minotaur is a cold world,” he said, sitting down across from her at the rickety-legged table that he used for almost every activity. “Harsh. Beautiful. There are ice cliffs, and rivers of frozen blue, and at night...” He brooded for a moment. “There are comets and stars. You never see them here.”

“Can you fix me up with someone?” Rowan said. “I’ll have to work.”

Ashton poured out a cup of kaffa for them both. “They have beauty in their buildings too,” he said. “Of the same kind. Yes, I know who to send you to. Dredd Latimer is his name. I worked on a wall in his home, and I am sure he remembers was a dreamscape. His dream.” He stared past her for a moment, his thin face abstracted. “You’ll change,” he said slowly, his eyes coming back, after that pause, to her face. “You’ll change there, Rowan. That much I promise you.” But whether it was promise or warning, Rowan could not tell. There was, for an instant, a furrow in his brows, and the shadow of something, perhaps dread, in his gaze.

“Tilla needs some space,” Rowan said. “And I need it too, for a while. Thanks, Ashton.” She got up and put away the groceries for him, while Ashton, in his looping, elegant hand, wrote out something on a sheet of white drawing paper for her. Then he folded it, his fingers unhesitating and quick.

“Call him when you get in port,” he said, handing it to her. She saw, when she took it, that the paper formed an origami bird with bowed head. “I wrote his unified number down. He’ll help.”

“Thanks.” Rowan tucked up his gift in her pocket, and then wandered to the massive canvas leaning against the wall. Out of the dark maw of a tunnel acid-etched faces loomed and thin hands flashed, frozen for an instant with the shivs and the needles in their fingers. “Is this the latest, Ashton? It’s one of your best, I think.” But she could not see the beauty in those faces, though she knew Ashton could.

She took only a single bag with her when she boarded the shuttle, her paints, a drawing pad, and a few pencils filling most of its thin cloth. She wore the khaki canvas coat, and a black wool sweater borrowed from Tilla. Tilla saw her off, and pressed something into her hand as a luck gift as they parted on the walkway. She saw, when she opened her fingers afterwards and looked, that it was a pin, a rose made out of something glassy. The upper surface of each petal was black, and the lower white, and each one perfect, as perfect as the folds of the real roses that had grown in her parents’ spacious home, before those three years.

The outbound shuttle had tiny windows lining its length, and past the hunched shoulder of her window-seat companion Rowan could see little. The cycler that slung its silent passengers between the worlds yielded nothing to view but its icy metal skin. But there was another shuttle, down to Minotaur, and through its slitted openings filtered a silvery blue glow, a cool light that could never be mistaken for the hot humid pinks and earths of her home. The tunnel that shortly connected them to the port was cold, and the bluish dusk leaked through, where the edges of the tube gaped into the evening.

The voice that answered her call was slow, deep, and cautious. “My name is Rowan Blaze. Ashton Zafira said I could call you,” she said. “I am an artist and a friend of his. Would... would you mind meeting me? I’m at the shuttle port.”

There was a long silence, while her stomach tensed, and her face flushed with the foolishness of this brazen claim on a stranger. Then he said, “Ashton. I remember him...” There was another pause. “Yes. Where are you, and what do you look like?”

“I’m at the tourist kiosk on the main floor,” she said. “I’m tall, and I have red hair — very bright red hair.”

“A tree afire,” he said, with a hint of a laugh in his voice this time. “Rowan Blaze. I’ll be there in an hour.”

He was tall and lanky and pale of hair and eyes, with the hint of frost blending in with his soft ashen hair at the temples. “Dredd Latimer,” he said. His hand was cool and strong. “Do you have luggage?”

“Just paints,” she said, giddy with relief. “It’s all here. I don’t own much anyway. I’m here to work. Ashton said you might be able to help me. And thank you for coming.”

“I have a guest studio,” he said. “Ashton stayed there. You’re welcome, for now, at least.”

“If I can work,” she said. “Ashton said he painted your dream.”

They were outside now, and the sky, with its evening streaking of silvery blues fading into midnight purples, stopped her in her tracks. “There,” he said, pointing to a brighter spark in the bowl of the heaven. “That star is Midas. Your home.”

Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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