Heart of Steel: Short Fic Friday

John slammed the door to his car, sucked in all the air his lungs could hold, and let out a loud, violent cough. Sweet, sweet relief. He could breathe, the tickle in his throat that he had been fighting all night was finally clear.

“Hello,” he said to himself, his voice markedly softer than his hacking. Yes, his voice was back to normal. It sounded less sexy unclouded by phlegm. She probably didn’t notice, either way.

“Hi.”

John jumped, whipped his head to the right. Shit. There she was, just outside his passenger door. He thought she had gotten in her own car already. Did she hear that terrible cough? She was just as beautiful as her picture on the site, just like the rest.

“Sorry,” he said, mind racing, neck sweating. “I didn’t see you. I…sorry. I’m just…” She stared politely, letting him finish. “Nervous. I’m not good at this.”

“No worries. Mind if I join you? We still have some time.”

John unlocked the door. She slid in, her perfect body sinking into the black leather. John wrapped his fingers around the wheel. He couldn’t bear to look at her.

“Did you enjoy tonight?”

She was looking right at him. Her eyes glowed synthetic white light. She sat so straight.

“Yes. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I can’t…I don’t know how to do this.”

“Let’s just drive, and talk. No big deal.”

He pulled out of the parking garage. He felt his sickness welling in his throat again. Just another thing to worry about on such a strange date. He would drive until she was satiated, delete her number, delete his profile from the site. His fault for trying something new, he supposed. No, Walt’s fault for telling him it was normal. He and Ronnie had never been normal.

Well. The night was pretty. There weren’t many cars, and certainly not many with people inside of them. John loved driving around all the autocars. They were so slow and even that he could weave between them like a stitching needle.

Her metallic skin reflected the brake lights and seemed striped with red, white, yellow. She was twiddling her thumbs in her lap. He wondered if she, too, had anxiety. He wished she would slouch a little.

“What are you thinking?” He asked her. What a strange question. He could remember asking Ronnie if she could think, at all. Walt had nearly thrown him out of the house.

“I like your suit,” she said. “I like how it fits you.”

“I like your dress,” he replied, and it was true. The rich red looked lovely in the restaurant, and in the dark night it was dulled to a mahogany and complemented her silver skin and rope-like brown hair. He wanted to ask what made her have preferences, if they were programmed into her. He wondered if she knew. He wondered if she’d lie about it. He wondered if it mattered…of course it mattered.

The music was low, pulsing. She tapped the toe of a high heel to the beat.

“Did you want to go anywhere?”

“No,” she said, leaning her head back against the seat. “I just love to drive with humans. It’s quite a lot of fun. And, I like spending time with you. I know you’re nervous. And I know you probably miss her…”

John stared straight ahead. The red and white city lights swam in his vision, formed a young Lisa’s dying face. Younger, her wedding veil, her mother, his mother, the vomit, the blood, their daughter, all dying.

Then this thing. The Replacement, sipping a drink one part vodka three parts Ecofuel. The way she tried to move like a woman. The way they all did, how they almost got it. The way they wore vintage dresses because no one bothered designing new ones. The way they now seemed so short and skinny and pretty after years without the flesh and blood equivalent. How to talk to a shell of something that no longer exists? How to talk to a replication? How to talk to a made-to-order immortal?

How to touch one? How to love one?

“I just want you to know that I get it,” she said. “I might not feel it as intensely, but I understand. And…I’m here for you.”

John nodded. “Thank you…I have to think. Perhaps it’s still too early for me.”

She nodded too. He didn’t turn the car around yet, though. Still thinking. If he dropped her off back at the restaurant, she would be gone until he called again. For now, she was here. It had been so long since he’d been alone in a car with a woman, and though it was awkward he had to admit it was nice. She was unsettlingly pretty. He wished she was plumper, or had asymmetrical breasts or a strange birthmark, or short eyelashes or limp hair.

He was driving over the bridge now, and the water shone below like a rippling mirror. He wanted uncertainty nearly as much as he wanted to kiss her. He wanted her to short circuit all her programming, especially the programming telling her not to mind that she’s programmed. He knew that despite her silver color she was warm, soft, fleshy, with a working womb that he was being told left and right to utilize. He didn’t want a baby. He didn’t want a sure thing. He half wanted her to reject him.

She placed two nimble fingers on the radio and turned it two notches.

“Do you mind?” she asked. “I hate this song.”

He shook his head. “Me too.”

The song changed twice, and she let it rest.

“Mm,” she said, stretching her arms and closing her eyes. She sang along, softly, a bit off tune. John sped up, cut off another autocar. Maybe, he mused, he’d keep driving through the night. What was the use in turning around, anyhow?

Loving English’s flaws

English is flawed, which is perhaps why I love it so much. It takes skill and patience to make words say what you want them to. It’s easy to use one wrong word and have your sentence get thrown completely off track.

The common grievances are the “there their and they’re” sort of thing, how read and lead and read and lead rhyme, how you drive on the parkway but park in a driveway…these are just failures of the language to be easy.

I barely want to touch on how dumb spelling is. Acquire, believe, calendar, cemetery, eighth, embarrassed, guarantee, license, maneuver, privilege, receive, rhythm, vacuum… what the hell, English?!

Worse than spelling is grammar. How do you write it: Douglass’s or Douglass’? I never know. Do you say “Aerosmith was” because it is a singular band, or “Aerosmith were” because the band comprises of more than one person? When do you use lay vs. lie vs. laid? When do you use “that,” and when do you use “which,” and when do you use “that which?”

Mostly, I long for a more extensive language. Why, for instance, is there no stronger word than love? Why does romantic love and parental love and friendly love and familial love and object love and concept love all fall under the same category of love? The word that I use to describe my feelings toward pizza shouldn’t be the same I use to describe my feelings toward my loved ones.

However, I do appreciate this flaw in English, as it is this flaw that allows us to be creative. Since the beginning of writing it has been used to romance others. People use sonnets when a simple “I love you” just won’t do. The limit of “love” allowed us to create metaphors, to amaze our significant others and parents with stories and rhymes and humor and heart.

If there was a word stronger than love, we’d just whip it out when things needed to be more serious. Like a strong swearword, it would be a simple, common way to show emotion. The overuse of the word love lets us get creative, and it is this creativity, this drive to work harder to prove the extent of our indescribable love, that shows just how loving we are.

In the end, I love English. Warts and all. I do wish spelling and grammar were easier, though.

“Conscience?” Really?

Hog Back Mountain: The summer day we (temporarily) ran away

Two Augusts ago, my boyfriend Colin and I had a nervous hum in the pits of our stomachs about college. Would we stay together through the long distance? Would we even stay friends? What would it be like?

We avoided asking these questions best we could. We watched The Lord of the Rings and Wilfred. We savored every moment without talking about our nerves. We drove in circles around our town, like a bug stuck inside a jar, until one day we escaped.

We woke up early (for two jobless teenagers in the summer): eight A.M. We filled up his car with gas and good CDs. We bought Sour Patch Kids, beef jerky, Pringles, and skittles. We took off.

West.

Spending hours in a car together was nothing new, but usually we stuck to backroads. That day, we hit the highway with a mission to get as far west as possible by 3 p.m., for no other reason than us wanting to.

We ran through two CDs twice before trying the radio and realizing that all of the stations were different. The further west we went, the less people crowded the road, the greener the trees became, the easier we could breathe. We had a vague goal to reach New York, though we weren’t going in the exact right direction.

I had to go home for some reason…my mom called me and reminded me that I had a family dinner or something that night. Well, we decided to keep going for awhile before turning around. We were approaching Vermont, if we turned right, so we turned right. We made it to a Vermont visitor center. We took a picture with a cardboard cow, breathed in the overcast sky, and hopped back in his little car to drive home.

It wasn’t New York, but it was still good, we decided. We joked and laughed and sang to the radio, hiding the irony that we had just driven to Vermont a week before Colin moved there.

We found a small hidden road that followed some power lines. It was gorgeous, the unpaved dirt road curving through the trees. I took a picture, bumpy and fuzzed.

You can see this picture on this site, as the cover photo behind the blog’s title. It’s also the featured image for this post, in which you can see the car’s dashboard.

Driving along that small dirt road over the border of Vermont was a pure, untouchable moment laced with romance and nostalgia of the summer we had just finished living…but then it got better.

I didn’t have my glasses on, and when the street sign came up I tried to read it so we could come back one day.

“Does…” I blinked, squinted. “Does that say ‘Ho Bag Mountain?’”

Colin burst out laughing.

“Hog Back Mountain!” he exclaimed.

We had just stifled our laughter when we passed a gorgeous sign surrounded by decorative stones and pretty flowers, proudly declaring “Hog Back Mountain.” We lost it again.

We were about two hours from home when the rain began, and god, it was torrential. It was so bad that we actually had to pull over because he couldn’t see well enough to drive. The windshield wipers were all but useless. As we sat in the breakdown lane, waiting for it to pass, I got a weather alert on my phone of an extreme storm condition. I left the alert in my notifications for weeks after, and would look at it when I missed summer.

“Extreme storm condit…46 days ago.” The little notification was like a keepsake. It disappeared after ninety days.

We eventually got home, but not in time to my dinner. Of course, I had no excuse as to why I was late. We were driving, from Vermont. Why were we in Vermont? Literally no reason.

I began thinking of this story today and wondered if I’m already too old for these little rebellions. Have I changed so much in just two years that I wouldn’t do this again? Has driving into Boston traffic every day ruined my love for an empty highway and open windows?

The truth is, no. I would definitely do this trip again—in fact, Colin and I likely will do something like this very soon, maybe actually making it to New York this time. I think the difference, besides both of us having far less free time, is that back then we were both fighting hard to make memories with each other, out of fear that college would tear us apart.

We drove to Vermont with excitement tinged with fear, we staged our day-long runaway like a trial run. There were times all summer, but especially on that trip when we wanted to run away for good, to not turn back halfway through the day and go back  to the scripted life of approaching college, but instead to keep driving west until we hit the Pacific and start…something.

But we didn’t.

I don’t know if a repeat day long road trip would be better or worse. I think it would still be a lot of fun, but would it miss something without the underlying desire to keep going? Was our fear of losing each other and our desperate attempts to make memories what made that summer so memorable?

Did my desire to run spring purely from teenage hormones or would it still pull me on, make me misty-eyed when we turn back home?

Or, alternately, would a fearless adventure without the nervous twitches, without the stress of making it memorable or the desire to run away, actually be much better?

A few things haven’t changed, naturally. Of course, Colin and I still close, even closer. And we’re still trying to break free of our hometown’s web, trying to avoid being sucked down a drain of parental dependency and resume gaps. We still drive in circles around the backroads, we still watch epic sagas on his television, we still do projects together, we still reference Breaking Bad when cooking dinner and sing loudly to the two CDs we play on repeat in his same car.

And, we still both harbor a nervous excitement for whatever the future may hold. Perhaps though, since our Ho Bag Mountain days, we have a bit more confidence, a bit more stability.

Then again, perhaps not.