The Mayor of Marzipan

~ Kimberly Moore

Tea & Tarot inspires fear in some people. Some condemn us. Some of them are fascinated by us. Most of them think we’re full of shit, but a source of entertainment. However they may feel, the citizens of Oak Village end up in the back room with Madame Bresa eventually, full of doubt but wanting to believe so strongly that they lay an offering on her table and watch her place the mysterious cards and solve their problems. We even ushered the pastor’s wife through the basement door for a reading the day after her judgmental husband fired up a mob to protest our existence. We are a forgiving business.

I’m the baker.  If anyone exists in this town who has not yet allowed Bresa to read their cards, they have still eaten my work. They say my talent is wasted here, but I have no culinary degrees. I learned from my father and YouTube. I confess my lack of qualifications every time I am complimented and told I belong in a fancy hotel or a French patisserie. Years ago, before Madame Bresa arrived and invited herself to an interview with Tilly, the owner, I considered leaving for a possible pay increase. Somehow, that idea lost appeal after she arrived. Before Bresa, the fortune-tellers were only actors.

On my cutting board this morning is our mayor, George Williams, made of marzipan. Before Bresa arrived, I used store-bought, but Bresa’s recipe is slightly different and she insists that I use her recipe for this ceremony. It includes honey from her bees and almonds from her source, whatever that may be. Bresa has secrets, as a tarot reader is expected, I suppose. She claims to have ancient gypsy blood, a multitude of ex-husbands, ex-wives, and ex-lovers, and now in the golden years of her life, she only wants to assist fellow humans instead of breaking hearts. I’ve always wanted details, but even drunk, she’ll only wink and grin. “Oh, my darling Penelope, I was trouble,” she’ll say with her slowly enunciated words and thick Slavic accent.

Bresa appears in the kitchen just as I am admiring my Mayor Williams doll.

“Lovely,” she says, looking at the photo his wife sent and then at my handiwork.

“I didn’t need the photo. He’s been mayor for as long as I can remember. He watched me grow up.” I enjoyed adding the pigment to darken his skin, rounding his belly, forcing his belt buckle to face his feet. As plump as he has always been in my memory, he was always elegant. I fretted for hours last night with a razor designing his wrinkle-free blue suit.

“A man with a good reputation,” she says as if it’s extinct. Now she’s frowning at the doll.

“This isn’t like voodoo, is it?”

“No, no, no. You know me better than that.” Bresa is petite, barely five feet tall. Her affection is always meant to be motherly, but I feel like the mother during an embrace with her head at the level of my chest. “Is he complete? His wife will be here in an hour.”

I watch Bresa glide away with my masterpiece. What she does with the dolls before the client arrives is one of her many secrets. Her clients refuse to reveal the details of the ceremony, no matter how much Tilly and I have begged. “Just give us a hint,” we’ve whispered later when we’ve run into them in the village. They always, without fail, happily decline.

Tilly closes the kitchen door. It must be almost time to open and I have more to do this morning than worry about my marzipan man. The Oak Village book club meets today in the main dining room, and due to Tilly’s misremembering dates, the fifth birthday party for the bank president’s daughter has been scheduled at the same time in the playhouse.

Tilly glances over the spread for the book club. “I thought we were going to give them more sweet than savory.”

“The opposite. Remember last month when they hardly touched the sweets and ran out of savory?”

“I trust you,” she chuckles. “I’ve been screwing up everything lately. It looks fantastic. Are we all set for the birthday party?”

“Take a look.” I point her in the direction of the second kitchen island, where my purple sloth-themed cupcakes await the birthday guests.

Tilly smiles and applauds for a moment. “I love sloths!” We hear a car crunching the gravel behind the building. “That will be Cheryl.” Tilly descends to the basement to open the door for Cheryl, the mayor’s wife, who requested a discreet arrival.

Cheryl keeps her sunglasses on when she greets me, making her appear more like an insect than usual. She and the mayor are visually incompatible. They are the same race, which is all they seem to have in common. He is short, fat, manic with the need to socialize, and immediately in control of every situation. Cheryl is half a foot taller than her husband and fragile in build. Her friendliness has been rehearsed, but not perfected. Although Cheryl has never been unkind to me, I always feel she would prefer to be ignored.

“Hello, Penelope,” she says without smiling. She surveys my work.

“Bresa’s waiting for you,” Tilly says, leading her to the back hallway.

Cheryl moves quickly to the door. I can’t help wondering what problem she might have with her husband, who at least in my eyes, has the personality of a teddy bear and leaves happy faces wherever he goes. Most customers who have asked for this ceremony have been more transparent. Everyone knew the high school basketball coach was cheating on his wife, and I was asked to create his doll as a nude. I didn’t ask questions, but Tilly shook her head when she saw my work, followed by a frown for his long-suffering wife. The coach has spent more time at home since the ceremony. Others seemed to be fidelity-related, too, but I can’t imagine that to be the problem with the mayor.

Tilly joins me in the kitchen again. “You think you know someone. How could they have problems? He’s the sweetest man I’ve ever known. Including my dad. And yours.”

“I agree. Guess we’ll never know.”

Once the birthday party begins, we forget the mayor. Tilly’s nephews and nieces serve the book club, the auxiliary dining room, and the playhouse. There are only four of them, so Tilly and I join the chaos. Word travels between us as we burst through the kitchen door of requests and needs, mistakes, and skinned knees in the playhouse.

It is only when I see Bresa at the door to the basement that I take a moment to breathe. Bresa’s expression is unfamiliar. Nothing fazes her usually, but she stares out the front windows, then turns back to the dining room, where the book club continues their debates. Seeing her uncomfortable makes me uncomfortable.

“Bresa,” I whisper when the register line is empty and I can cross the room, “what’s going on?”

She doesn’t answer as quickly as I’d like. She looks up at me and sighs. “Cheryl changed her mind.”

“So?”

“I don’t know what to do with him now.”

“Who?”

“The mayor!”

“George is here?”

“The mayor you made.”

“Throw him away.”

“You don’t understand.” She takes my hand and pulls me to the door of her room. “Penelope, you have to swear you’ll never tell what I’m about to show you.”

I shouldn’t leave the register, but Bresa’s message seems urgent. “I swear.”

She opens the door and I see nothing at first. Then, there is motion on the floor. The wire trashcan inverted with a stack of books on top is scooting closer to me. I have to bend to see the little marzipan mayor pushing the trashcan with all the strength honey and almonds will give him.

 

No sleep tonight. I pretend to sleep so Mike won’t stay awake and worry about me. He freaked out when I fainted at work today. He wasn’t alone. I have never fainted before and it freaked me out, too. I wanted to tell him. As my husband, he needed more of an explanation than low blood sugar, which I’ve never suffered as a baker. I should feel worse for concocting that lie. However, the truth would have been more unbelievable.

His back is to me now, expanding and deflating with his deep sleep breath. I imagine how I would confess. I may be a criminal, although I can’t imagine what the indictment would be. It’s a moral dilemma I never thought I would confront—creating a type of life for the sole purpose of a ceremony. However, Bresa whispered to me while I was regaining consciousness that my creation was not a living individual.

“He’s a form of thought like a memory,” she said as she sprinkled a flowery liquid over my shirt and crossed my forehead with a feather. “He has no soul or will. He only knows what Cheryl communicated to him in the ceremony.”

At that moment, I glanced at the moving trash can again. He seemed to have desires, and what he wanted was to get out of the trashcan. Bresa scooted him to a closet and closed the door just as Mike arrived. I found myself answering questions about pregnancy, and although I swore I wasn’t, Mike insisted on a visit to my doctor.

I’m not pregnant, but that would be less troubling. I trace my finger down Mike’s shoulder blade, both wanting him to wake up and not wanting to wake him. I only wake our Siamese cat who is curled behind Mike’s bent knees. It’s three-thirty. If I go to work now, I will have some time to observe the tiny mayor and perhaps make sense of it.

 

I hear the little mayor bumping into the walls of the closet while I enter the security code. How can Bresa say he’s not alive? Perhaps she is minimizing his existence, the way vegetarians will kill a mosquito and rationalize it because of its size and bothersome personality. In Bresa’s room, my hand shakes when I open the closet door. The trash can moves into the room and I squat to watch the miniature mayor in his continued effort to push.

To my surprise, removing the trash can does not change his activity. He pushes at air, punching and lunging forward at nothing in front of him. Bresa told me the mayor knows nothing but what Cheryl communicated to him. All he seems to know is low-effort fighting. Is this what Cheryl told him? Is he the memory of a physical fight?

He doesn’t respond to my voice, nor does he see me. I observe, trying to become comfortable with my creation as he reaches a wall and pushes against it. Fifteen minutes later, I touch him. No reaction. When I lift him, he continues his pushing motions in my hands. He is as warm as when I first molded him. He appears to breathe, but I feel nothing when I place my hand in front of his tiny face, his unblinking eyes I created yesterday with a needle.

In the kitchen, I place him on the floor and watch him continue the only motion he knows, wandering under the table. I begin measuring almond flour and sugar for macarons. The routine is soothing and it seems kinder to keep him with me than to leave him in a trashcan in a dark closet. I suspect he doesn’t care. If Bresa is correct, he isn’t sentient. While I begin beating egg whites, I try to imagine Bresa’s explanation of being a thought form or a memory. I have too many questions.

When I hear the kitchen door swing open, I expect to see Tilly or Bresa. Mike is unexpected. He stands in the doorway with his arms and mouth open, questioning me with his eyes.

“You didn’t leave a note?” he asked when I turn off the mixer. “I thought you went to the ER!”

“Sorry, babe. I have lots of macarons to make today.” I’ve lost the mayor. I’m surveying the tiled floors when Mike yells and stomps his foot.

“What the hell was this?” He leans on the table and lifts his sneakered foot, attempting to shake it free of what he has just stomped. I’m afraid to look. I recognize the flattened blue suit.

“The mayor. You stepped on the mayor.”

 

Bresa struggles with English sometimes, but she has no words in any language now. Mike is no help. I scooted a barstool into the back of his legs while I scraped the mayor from his foot and he has sat there catatonic ever since. He should have been at work ten minutes ago.

“Tell me what to do,” I say to Bresa. She is studying the flattened mayor, now motionless on the kitchen island with a size twelve footprint etched into his squashed body.

“Can you redo him?” Bresa finally asks.

“I doubt it. I could make another.”

“A new one won’t remember.”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. This has never happened before. I need Cheryl to come back and finish what she started.”

“Did I kill the mayor?” Mike interrupts, still focusing on the opposite wall, his face drained of color.

“It’s not voodoo,” Bresa says.

I have to wave to get Mike’s attention. “If you’re not going to work, I need you to call my dad and the two of you need to finish the macarons. I’ll try to reshape the mayor.”

Mike takes his phone from his pocket and texts. I assume he’s taking a day off. I hold the warm remains of the mayor, clear a place on my cluttered counter and begin squeezing the body into something recognizable again.

 

Bresa can’t find Cheryl or George. Meanwhile, the ever-cackling quilting club arrives and my father and husband argue about the neatness Mike lacks patience for. “I hate this fiddly shit,” he mumbles while dotting cupcakes with buttercream and applying butterflies with tweezers.

My father follows Mike, correcting his mistakes. “You’re not saving us any time with your impatience.”

I would reprimand both of them, but my focus must remain on the mayor. I’ve added nothing to what was scraped from Mike’s shoe, but George the marzipan mayor seems larger than before. I put on Tilly’s reading glasses to correct his face.

“The sausage rolls smell done, guys,” I remind my helpers. “Cheddar puffs should go in next. You should have the sandwiches on the trays already.”

“How much do quilters eat?” Mike complains as he put on oven mitts.

“They’ll stay at least two hours, non-stop snacking.” I’m the calm center of the storm. Tilly’s nieces breeze past me with fresh, steaming teapots and orders for more, and my father and husband continue baking, decorating, and arranging. When the door swings open every few minutes, the laughter from the quilters reminds me of how much I am needed to do other things.

Tilly’s eyes question me from the door.

“Bresa will have to explain,” is all I can say. Many days we are overwhelmed, but Tilly treats each occurrence as the first.

The mayor begins to look like the mayor, slowly, although I can’t shake the feeling that he has grown. I question why this has happened. The mayor is part of so many of my memories—all the school events he attended, smiling and cheering. He bought from all my fundraisers. I have countless certificates he signed with pride from the city of Oak Village when I competed in sports or academics. A photo of Mike and the mayor hangs in my home from the day Mike opened his landscaping business. Whatever complaint Cheryl has against him can’t outweigh the good he has done. I shouldn’t judge, not knowing. I know this, yet I can’t stop.

I remember his replica fighting his way across the floor. Maybe he wasn’t fighting. He could have been defending himself. If Cheryl attacked him, his constant pushing is logical. If he attacked Cheryl, a single punch would suffice. Once more, I tell myself not to speculate, not to judge. I wasn’t there. I can’t know.

Bresa returns, shaking her head. She has not found Cheryl or George. “I’ve left messages. I’ve told her it’s interrogative that she comes back as soon as possible.”

“Didn’t you mean ‘imperative’?”

Bresa sighs. “I can’t believe I said that.”

“She’ll figure it out.” She leans against my arm, the remade body of the mayor on the cutting board in front of us. “He looks bigger. Don’t you think so?”

Bresa raises her eyebrows. “You’re right. Maybe the marzipan expanded?”

“Bresa, please tell me you know what you’re doing.”

“This has never happened before. I don’t know if I can reanimate him after he was stepped on. I’ve never had one stay animated so long, either. We’re in virgin territory, Penelope.”

I follow her as she takes the mayor into her room. She locks us in and places him on her card table. I watch her at her cabinet of mysterious bottles next, measuring and mixing until she brings out a syringe full of a blue, chalky liquid.

“If this doesn’t work, maybe Cheryl can still finish her part. I don’t know what else to try.” Bresa seems to have no expectations when she injects the liquid into the doll.

The mayor sits up, staring at Bresa for a moment while she holds her breath. His neck turns and now he focuses on me. I feel faint again, but I sit on an end table before I fall. He is different now, just sitting instead of pushing against whatever is before him. He seems conscious. I know it’s not my imagination—he is larger than before.

“His memory has changed,” Bresa says. “What were you thinking when you redid him?”

“I was recalling all the good things he did for our town and people in general. Why? What was the memory Cheryl gave him?”

“She wouldn’t tell me. She only thought it during our ceremony and then she changed her mind when it came time to put an end to him.”

“Bresa, you have to tell me what the point of this is. I’m too involved now.”

She stands the mayor on his feet and watches him wobble for a moment before sitting again. “I thought I told you. He’s like a memory sponge. When he is de-animated, the memory is gone forever.”

“From the real mayor?”

“Yes. Only Cheryl didn’t de-animate him. Your husband did, and a day late. Now he doesn’t seem to remember what he remembered before. He’s not pushing and fighting.”

“I can’t imagine him ever fighting with Cheryl like that. It wasn’t his personality.”

“Penelope, you can’t know what people are like unless you live with them. Is Mike exactly the way you thought he would be before you married him?”

“No, but he’s not violent. The surprises have been small and inconsequential.”

Bresa starts to say something but she checks her phone instead. “It’s Cheryl, finally. She’s sorry. She’s at her brother’s house but she can come first thing tomorrow morning.”

I’m relieved, although after reviewing everything Bresa has told me, I’m not sure I should be. “Maybe no damage has been done at all. Right? Nobody knows anything.”

She shrugs and pulls a cardboard box from the closet. The mayor is still content to sit and do nothing. He doesn’t fight when Bresa places him in the box, interlocks the flaps, and puts the box in the closet. “We’ll find out tomorrow. I’d feel better if I knew where the real mayor was and what he remembered.”

 

In bed, Mike analyzes his involvement in an attempt to absolve himself from murder charges. It’s simple enough. I remind him numerous times that the mayor was not a voodoo doll, and all Mike had done was step on a cookie. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe the mayor is dead.

The thought of the marzipan mayor trapped in a box all night tortures me. Mike reminds me the doll doesn’t need to breathe, or use a toilet, or eat or drink. If Bresa is right, it isn’t alive at all, and its ability to move is only a reflex.

“Tomorrow, it will all be over, one way or another,” Mike says as he picks up his phone. “It’s late. We should sleep.”

I kiss him again.

“One more thing. Promise me you’ll never make a version of me in marzipan.”

 

It was unlike Tilly to leave a door unlocked. “Hello?” I announce, leaning in. The interior looks normal, maybe slightly untidy by Tilly’s standards. Yesterday was a busy day, though. Sometimes there are mistakes and in this small town, locks are rarely necessary. No one answers, and no other cars are here. I proceed to the safe, which is undisturbed. The register contains some cash, satisfying me that the open door means nothing.

Bresa’s door is also open. Whoever cleaned last night must have forgotten that Bresa’s cash drawer is separate. Turning into Bresa’s room, my eyes are drawn to the open closet. The cardboard box appears to have burst open, torn, and unfolded on the floor.

I knew leaving him in a box was wrong.

I search now, corners and under tables, every dining room. I don’t want to believe the obvious. The marzipan mayor has wandered away somewhere. My creation, easily traced to this business and me, is loose in Oak Village. Bresa and I will have to move.

“Penelope?” It’s Cheryl, still wearing sunglasses, leaning in the open front door. “I am supposed to see Bresa?”

“Come in. She’s not here yet, but you can wait in her room.”

She moves slowly. I doubt she has slept, like the rest of us who are involved. “Did you lose something?”

I stop searching. “It’s gone, I guess. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

I don’t know who to call. Instead, I stand for a moment at the refrigerators, picturing the little mayor being run over by a truck and also realizing I need to make puff pastry. The thoughts are incompatible. I feel paralyzed.

The knock at the back door startles me.

“Penelope? Is that you?” It’s the real mayor, George Williams, his face against the small window in the door. “I’m looking for Cheryl!”

At least the mayor is alive. Mike will be relieved, as will Bresa. I unlock the door. “Forgive my slow reaction, Mr. Williams. I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Is everything alright? How is Mike?”

“No problems, really.” It’s good to see his smiling face. Like the rest of us, though, he seems tired. I’ve never seen him in a jogging suit, either. He seems a little lopsided. “Cheryl is in Bresa’s room.”

“Good to see you, Penelope.”

Seeing the real mayor has alerted me to reality, at least. I gather blocks of butter for the pastry and take the rolling pin from the island cabinet.

Cheryl screams before I can begin pounding the butter. Peeking into the dining room, I see them—Cheryl walking backward, her face petrified in terror. “But you’re dead!” she screeches.

He reaches forward and pushes her several times, making her stumble toward the door to the basement. One final push and she falls back through the door, thumping and thudding to the basement. What I’m thinking can’t be—just because the mayor was pushing her the way the marzipan mayor was—it has to be a coincidence. What had she meant when she said he was dead?

I hear nothing. Again, I peek into the dining room.

The mayor turns his head in my direction, then his uneven body. It’s his familiar grin, but when his lips part, honey streams from the corners of his mouth.

Ace of Cups

 

Kimberly Moore is a writer and educator. Her short works are published in Typehouse Literary Magazine, MacroMicroCosm, Fleas on the Dog, Word Poppy Press, and 34 Orchard. She lives in a haunted house where she indulges the whims of cats.

For more information, visit kimberlymooreblog.com.

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022 ]

The Dead Drive the Night

~ Eric Del Carlo

“It’s what you do, that’s what you said, eh?”

“It’s all I do. The only good—no, great—thing I’m capable of.”

“Sounds like what an artist would say.”

“Fine. I’m an artist.” What Jez was also was frazzled. This office was furnished in cramped shabby, and that cruddiness was eating into her brain. But this was the last haulage company in the area; and, she felt with fatalistic certainty, it was going to be the last to tell her no.

The man behind the desk in short sleeves and a terrible tie had Jez’s resumé in front of him. It reflected her skill set. She was extraordinary. But she could better prove that at the wheel of her rig. Getting the chance to do so was the seemingly insur-fucking-mountable problem.

She rubbed her right temple with two stiff fingers.

After a long perusal the executive asked, “Why’d you leave your last employment?”

The reason was there on the sheet of deadtree before him. This, then, was her opportunity to put a personal spin on the facts. Maybe she’d say something self-incriminating. Maybe she’d spout off about how they’d never appreciated her at her last company. There were escalating degrees of not getting a job. Jezebel Canha was determined to leave this moldy little office eminently qualified for a position—whether this asshat hired her or not.

“The business went under,” she said.

“How dramatic.”

“It really wasn’t.” Which was the truth. These days everything was in flux. Enterprises could fail for reasons so cryptic you needed goat entrails to determine the why. Human society in general had taken a hefty jolt, and the repercussions were widespread and unforeseeable.

It was why Jez couldn’t find work in the only trade she knew and excelled at.

He laid a thick hand on top of the paper, as if absolving it or gentling it into sleep.

“Any openings we might have, Ms. Canha—well . . .” He pointed his chin over a shoulder, to a metaplastic sign on the too-close wall. “‘Dead Drive Night,’” he quoted, leaving off the articles, either for brevity’s sake or style points.

Jez studied the little plaque a moment. One day it would look as quaint and squirm-inducing as one that read irish need not apply. But for now it was the de facto law of the land.

His hand stayed where it was. He was keeping her resumé. That was something, anyway.

She stood, feeling the pressure of the saggy ceiling above her.

On her way out of the office the man called to her, saying it—just boldly nakedly saying it: “Come back if you’re dead. You seem like you’d be a helluva driver.”

 

It was dismayingly easy to get the potassium chloride. A cottage industry had sprung up. A guy delivered it. He rang her gate, she buzzed him up, and he fidgeted in her apartment doorway. She’d had to give her weight when she placed the order. The stuff was already in a syringe.

He had blond dreads, a bicyclist’s calves. He fidgeted by taking tiny steps to nowhere in her entryway.

He was, it dawned on Jez, waiting for a tip. He was delivering death, not a pizza, but okay. She dropped a gold circle into his palm, an old commemorative coin, still legal tender. Her father had given it to her in the third grade for some academic achievement. Her father was dead, the old kind of dead.

She didn’t explain this extra layer of meaning to the delivery guy.

Jez walked around her apartment, a nice place. Here she had fended off the creeping crumminess of the world, the dilapidation, the shabbiness. She had good furnishings. Everything was tidy and clean and comfortable.

She had to have a steady income to maintain this place.

She put on music, a favorite song, one that prompted memories from no less than three past love affairs. In the bathroom were alcohol and cotton swabs. A patch of skin gleamed sterilely on her inner forearm as she lay down on her bed and stuck in the needle.

It was a fast death.

 

It was a different exec in the haulage company office, but it would be. Jez had come back at night. There was paperwork to fill out.

This time the man behind the desk wore long sleeves and no tie, terrible or otherwise. He performed his tasks with an aloof ease. Tonight the office was just as awful, but its dinginess didn’t oppress Jez. She felt at a remove.

She was handing completed forms across the desk at a steady rate. The man took each and arranged them into a file.

“I have my death certificate,” she said, and the statement felt sudden, a little too loud.

The man raised eyebrows toward a graying hairline. “I’ve already noted it.”

They were alike, she and this person. Much could go unsaid. That felt right. It had been a week since she’d shot up the potassium chloride.

Jez signed the final sheet. She felt an excitement, but it was deep-rooted. It didn’t disturb her surfaces. She sat calmly, waiting. She’d done just about everything in a calm manner this past week.

The man looked at her a moment. There was nothing uncomfortable about the silence. Finally he said, “You’re ready to drive.”

Jez’s mouth flickered with the hint of a smile.

 

The road sang, as it had always sung for her. Her truck was her flesh. In the cab, her hands lay delicately on the big wheel. She didn’t need the truck’s grid system to tell her she was making good—no, great—time. She had a perfect sense of destination, of the journey itself.

She drove the night, and she drove it very goddamn well.

Orange highway lights thumped past with the regularity of a healthy pulse. It hadn’t been a terribly long time since she’d been out at night, but it was a while since she had done anything at night. Here she was participating in the commerce, industry and general societal movements of that half of the day increasingly reserved for those people who had experienced death.

She was as good as she’d ever been. The first few miles had already proven that to her satisfaction. She’d had a week to assess herself, to decide if anything had changed. It was ridiculous, of course. Or nearly ridiculous. Plenty of scientific literature was available to anyone who had experienced the sort of demise Jez had undergone. There should be no loss of skills.

Her memories were all there too.

So, she was driving with the same excellence as before, just as she remembered.

But it didn’t give her the same feeling. That thrill, that joy. She felt a certain pleasure, a quiet gratification, yes, but the old lively excitement wasn’t there anymore. Her bones didn’t quiver. Her nerve endings weren’t crackling with the same fear/sex energy. Before, she rode her rig like a wild lover, savoring every challenge, every opportunity to advance on her time.

Now, perhaps, it wasn’t so much that the truck was her flesh: maybe she was the machine.

She’d read about this beforehand as well. It was less codified in the scientific papers, a more subjective phenomenon.

The night, she had decided, suited her. The new her, the post her. Whatever the current jargon, which now didn’t seem so important to her. At night there were mostly only others like her. That was how the world was rearranging itself. It was why, before her death, she’d been unable to find work, despite her talents. The day had gotten too full.

With the night came a tranquility, an order. She was aware of it even as she tore down the roadway with her payload, wheels thrumming, engine gargling. The haulage company she now worked for served a tri-state area. She completed her first run. The personnel at the depot all exuded a palpable aplomb. They operated without wasted energy. A supervisor glanced up from a datascroll and said to her, “Good time.” Only, she realized minutes later, he hadn’t actually said anything.

She was hungry. She’d seen a diner on the way in. She hopped in her truck and backtracked.

The place was small and greasy and typical. The stools were upholstered in tired red. The long metaplastic counter gleamed under the lights.

Jez sat, feeling a residual buzz of her journey in her limbs. She wasn’t keyed up, though. No bustle in her head, communicating itself as tics, drumming fingers, the urgent need for coffee, then alcohol. She felt as rested and centered as when she’d woken up this afternoon.

The woman who came for her order was young—or what “young” had become for Jez now that she was in her thirties. She wrote nothing down, just nodded at each item Jez recited from the laminated menu, then finished with a soft huhhhn and went off to deliver the order to the cook. Jez looked at the backs of her legs as she leaned forward over the divider that separated the counter area from the kitchen, hiking up her crisp blue uniform skirt slightly. Her thighs were taut, twangy-looking.

The waitress didn’t hurry, didn’t make any errors, and had experienced death. Jez was sure of it.

It made her wonder: how had she died? The question felt taboo, something you just didn’t ask out loud.

Jez ate her burger and onion rings, aioli on the side, and slowly scoped out the other costumers. They all had a professional look, drivers, living off the road. Night shift people, and everything that that now meant. No music played. Nothing streamed on the diner’s monitors. She hadn’t noticed the absence until this moment, hadn’t been made uncomfortable by it.

In the parking lot, on her way out, there was a bit of a snarl. Two vehicles were in each other’s way, trying to jockey around. One was a yellow-on-black truck cab, payload-less, like Jez’s own rig after having dropped her cargo. She paused with a foot on the rung below her open door and watched the scene play out.

The other vehicle was quietly backing off, while the black and yellow yelped and lunged. It was like observing competing schools of parking lot etiquette. Finally it was sorted out.

The arriving driver hopped down lithely, twin gravelly crunches as her boots smacked the ground. She stretched extravagantly in a sweat-stained tank top. Her hair was a study in brunette disarray. She had a growly-looking mouth and red-rimmed eyes.

She was not dead. Had never been dead.

The driver strutted toward the diner, her bones no doubt humming with the pent-up energy of her run.

Jezebel Canha watched and watched her, even after she was inside, through the big front window. Then with a breathless sigh she climbed the rest of the way up to her cab.

 

It took some time for Jez to admit to herself that she was courting. She accessed public-record data and soon had all the harmless standard information on the yellow-on-black rig and the woman who owned it. She ghosted the woman’s social media output. Vonda Hupy. Jez thought about Vonda. A lot. It was rather schoolgirl-y and crush-y, except that it was happening at an emotional remove, as if she were curating someone else’s feelings.

But her interest persisted, and eventually she started to actively seek this woman.

The cargo company Vonda Hupy drove for was a small shady outfit, one that, nonetheless, Jez had sought employment at. They’d told her what they had all said during those final desperate months of her life. There was only night work available, and the dead drove the night. So how had Vonda gotten the gig?

There was, of course, nothing illegal about a live driver working at night. No law was ever going to go on the books. Instead, it was a cultural understanding, a gentlepersons’ agreement.

When she had watched Vonda through the diner’s window that night, the waitress had taken her order without a hint of distress.

Jez wanted to see her again.

But her job kept her busy. It also paid the rent on her tidy apartment, with all her nice familiar things. She couldn’t just go tearing after this woman. Hell, she couldn’t even bring herself to make contact via social media. Even as a teen she’d found flirtation and seduction easier in person than online.

So Jez kept track of Vonda’s professional movements as well as she could without resorting to sleuth software. After all, she didn’t want to stalk the woman. Or didn’t want to have to call it that.

After a week Jez knew Vonda’s basic patterns. She had also deduced that she was a good driver, at least as far as her haul times reflected. Jez was patient. She was patient with most everything these days. But her patience with Vonda had a singular quality to it. It was the calm of fixation. Vonda Hupy, in her sweaty tank top and disheveled hair, had somehow become a compass point for Jez. When Jez drove, which was often because the work was steady, she knew her route, her destination—and also knew at any given moment about where Vonda was if she was on the road too.

Inevitably they must cross paths a second time.

 

Turned out that reunion occurred at the same diner. It might as well have been the first time again for the similarity of the scenario. Vonda was jostling her yellowjacket cab against vehicles trying to get out of the lot. Jez, who had dropped her cargo container at the nearby depot, hung back. Vonda was insistent to the point of outright aggression, but also demonstrated pinpoint control of her rig, something every great driver had to possess.

Eventually, when the gravel had settled and Vonda had gone in, Jez walked into the diner.

Vonda already had a mug of coffee in front of her. She was occupying a booth by herself, tearing sugar packets one at a time with elaborate precision and stirring in the contents. She was either grinning or grinding her teeth.

“Mind if I join?” Jez said, dropping onto the opposite seat, upholstered in that same tired red as the stools.

Vonda didn’t look up. “Nope.” Tonight she wore a winter camou T-shirt, irregular stripes of white and light blue and darker blue. It hugged her shoulders, her breasts.

The diner wasn’t crowded enough for them to have to share the booth.

The waitress came halfway toward them, caught Jez’s eye and raised a fine eyebrow. Same as last time? Jez’s chin dipped in a shallow nod.

“How do you do that?” Vonda was blowing steam off the lip of her cup, having finished sugaring her coffee. She looked straight across at Jez.

The question meant Vonda knew what she was. Jez said, “I’m a regular here.”

“Me too. But I have to order every time.”

Jez shrugged. “Try tipping better.”

A vein stood out on the back of Vonda’s left hand. Her nails were dark crescents.

“Looked like you had some trouble getting into the lot.” The big front window was behind Vonda.

“Assholes need to learn how to drive.”

“Is it like that for you out on the road?”

Vonda took a slow sip of coffee. “On the road, I’m an angel in a power dive. You haul too?”

“I do.”

Their meals arrived, and after that it was flirting and coy and ribald comments. The other customers in the diner had paid no attention when Vonda was here alone. Now Jez was aware of an increasing interest, tinged with discomfort. Was this another taboo, something she hadn’t known beforehand? She was, after all, still relatively recently returned from the dead. People whose deaths were not overly traumatic had been spontaneously coming back for close to a year. That was time enough for subcultural rules to form.

Vonda sat back in the booth and pushed off her empty plate in the same movement. Her eyes flickered this way and that, taking in those other customers. Was she too aware of the attention? Probably not. It was very subtle.

“You hear statistics. So many die of heart attacks, such and such many keel over from blot clots. But they get tucked away in a morgue.” Vonda shook her head with a deep dismay. “It’s amazing to think how the sands of the human race just run naturally through the hourglass.”

Jez said nothing. She didn’t know how many here in the diner had expired naturally. Maybe it hadn’t occurred to this woman that were alternate ways to meet one’s death.

Vonda followed her back to her place, which was nearer. Then it was lips and grinding hips and busy fingers and tongues. When Jez had been out of work, she had taken up running to fill the time and had gotten herself back into pre-thirties shape. Vonda was a quivering bowstring, muscular, aggressive. The tension of the road was in her, and she was taking it all out on Jez, which was just fine.

After—and there were several afters, but this was the one where they finally spoke—Vonda asked, “How did you know I was a lesbian?”

Jez laughed, a brief but real guffaw, and she realized she hadn’t laughed like that in . . . a while. Not since.

“What’s funny?”

“I’m trying to remember when I last heard someone use that term.”

In the crook of Jez’s arm, Vonda was trying to decide whether to be angry or not.

“When I was in school,” Jez explained, “mono-sexuals were given a hard time.”

“Oh.” The tension went out of Vonda’s neck as she lay her head back down.

Jez wanted to ask her a question too. And she guessed that Vonda had more, far deeper questions for her as well; but maybe those would wait.

“How’d you get your job?” She named Vonda’s sketchy little haulage company. “I applied there and got turned down flat, back when—” Back when I was alive. Unsaid words. But Vonda hadn’t died, and they didn’t share that unspoken understanding. All they had was the tacit empathy of newfound lovers.

Jez strongly suspected that Vonda wanted to ask her about her death. Jez wasn’t ready to talk about that. She simply hoped Vonda would answer her more innocuous question.

She did. “I went to the office for twenty-eight days straight. My driving record should’ve got me hired, but it didn’t. So I just wore ‘em the fuck down.”

Jez wondered if the same tactic would have worked for her. Probably not. Vonda Hupy had a special quality.

“You got a nice place. Real nice.” Vonda was walking around the apartment now, bare feet on wood, patpatpat. Jez leaned in a doorway and admired the flex of her taut ass. “My place is a sty. I never would’ve guessed you hauled if I’d seen all this.” She gestured at brass fittings, at well-coordinated art on the walls.

Jez went to speak but found herself without enough breath for words. Vonda was staring at her, as if waiting. Finally Jez said, “I want to see you again. I want more than this.”

Vonda maintained that gaze awhile. Then, “I want that too.”

 

They synchronized their trucks’ grid systems, so that each knew where the other was on the road, without the guesswork or triangulation. Jez visited Vonda’s apartment, and it was a sty pretty much. But it wasn’t the cruddiness of neglect; rather, the result of a mind and body occupied with other priorities.

Vonda liked to draw. Vonda liked charcoal. Black specks swarmed in the air whenever something in her apartment was disturbed. The stuff was permanently under her fingernails. Deadtree sheets were scattered everyplace, and they bore the markings of her art. All of it was crude. All of it was forceful. Vonda worked with harsh lines. Her themes were vibrant, vital. She had something to say and said it insistently.

Jez loved her work.

“You don’t get worked up about much, do you?” A smile played on Vonda’s growly mouth. Her tone was a little bitter.

Jez had been enthusing for forty straight minutes over Vonda’s art as the two of them sat cross-legged on dingy teal carpeting. “I feel like I haven’t shut up about how much I like your work.”

“You say less than you probably think you do.” Vonda tilted toward her, kissed her smartly on the cheek. “It’s okay.”

There were still the other, far larger questions lingering and hovering. Jez could sense them in the charcoal-dusted air. She and this woman had been involved for several weeks now. Perhaps Jez could make the inevitable questioning easier on herself—and on Vonda as well.

“How,” Jez asked softly, “did you know I was . . . dead?” It wasn’t the preferred term. Actually, there was no term for what she was, nothing the world had yet agreed on. “At the diner that night.”

Vonda held her face still a moment, then burst out with a laugh. “Guess the same way you knew I was gay.”

Jez joined in the laughing, and it felt good. Then she stopped, and waited.

After a time Vonda grew quiet, and after a long thoughtful pause she said, “Can you tell me how it was? When . . . when you were— When you weren’t? Shit! I don’t know how to ask this.”

Jez nodded, then thought to say, “It’s okay.” She’d had a while to prepare for this. She was nervous. Less nervous than she would have been before her death. But more nervous here with Vonda than she would have been with anyone else. It was because she cared deeply for the woman.

She’d been sitting on this rug too long. Half her butt was asleep. She shifted.

“It’s being frozen inside a fish bowl, sapphire ice all about. It is a pulse, a newborn’s, very very fast. It’s salt, hot salt, like seawater on an old piling under a blazing summer sun. It’s a memory of melting snow. The hurtling of a comet on a billion year suicide plunge. It’s vertigo. It’s claustrophobia. It is . . .”

She stopped.

Vonda lifted her shoulders, an elaborate shrug. “I guess it really can’t be described, then. You’ve been to the other side. You’ve seen what happens after a person kicks off. And it’s nothing but freshman poetry.”

They kissed, and this time it was Jez releasing excess energy, aggressively, and Vonda accommodated her as they made love on that dismal carpet.

Jez, though, knew Vonda had one last momentous question yet to voice. But perhaps she wouldn’t ask it.

 

It was a lot of dock to depot runs. Several harbors lay within the tri-state region, and many warehouses awaited that cargo. The night, if anything, improved Jez. Certainly she had by now adjusted to nighttime driving. She was also used to the people she interacted with. She felt at ease among her kind.

However, now and again she grew aware of a mild extra scrutiny, what would have been a stink-eye look from strangers in her old life. Some knew her before she knew them: a reputation, preceding. She had a live girlfriend. Live.

But no one said anything to her, no censures, no condemnations. She was of a category of human being who no longer needed constant explicit words.

A month after she had failed—as every other returnee had similarly failed—to explain the afterlife to her lover, Vonda asked the other question. The one of equal or greater enormity. Certainly the question Jez thought of as the most dangerous.

They were at Jez’s place. One of Vonda’s charcoals, framed and behind glass, hung on the front room’s wall. The brunette woman had brought other objects into the apartment, little lifeline things which reminded Jez of her presence when she wasn’t here.

Vonda asked her question when Jez wasn’t expecting it, at a casual moment without solemn prelude. Vonda was lacing up her boots, getting ready to go out to work.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Jez said, sitting up in bed, sipping a second glass of wine. Drinking alone. Vonda had to drive; she didn’t.

“How’d you die?” No dramatic lead-in pause, no dire tone.

Jez looked at her. Vonda slowly combed a handful of dark disarrayed hair off her forehead with her fingers.

Half a dozen lies sprang to mind, convincing falsehoods. Jez had rehearsed some of these. There were many ways a person could lose her life and then come back. If the death event wasn’t too physiologically damaging, existence would be automatically restored. So this very strange, paradigm-upending past year had demonstrated to the world.

But instead of one of the lies, Jezebel Canha told her lover the truth. She had intentionally taken her own life.

It wasn’t a long explanation. She laid out her reasons and how she had accomplished her passing. Vonda said nothing, and continued to stare. Jez started to add to her accounting but stopped herself. Despite the wine, her gut had gone cold.

She heard Vonda grinding her teeth a few seconds before she said, “You killed yourself for a fuckin’ job!”

“I had to—”

“You didn’t fucking have to! I got work without resorting to throwing my life away. That’s disgusting, Jez! I can’t believe you would do that.”

Vonda’s jacket lay over a chair in the bedroom. She spun, marched toward it and swung her arm, a boxer’s pile-driving punch, but with an open hand so to claw up her leather jacket before she stalked out of the room, stomped down the apartment’s entryway, and slammed the front door.

It was a primal reaction, something from deep inside the species. Jez knew this. She understood Vonda Hupy’s response. It was why she had been reluctant to share this information. She remembered the dismayed look in Vonda’s eyes as she’d looked around the diner that night, wondering at all the dead people.

Jez couldn’t explain what death was like. Neither could she tell the woman she loved how sensible it had been for her to overdose on potassium chloride. She didn’t regret what she had done.

But it terrified her to think she might have lost Vonda. True terror, the emotion brighter and more vivid than anything she had felt since her return to the living.

She’d had two generous glasses of chardonnay. Her truck wouldn’t let her drive like this. She phoned Vonda, but even her voicemail was off. She snatched up her personal datascroll and accessed the grid. Vonda was heading for the nearest harbor. Jez, looking at the screen and biting her lip, saw how fast she was traveling. She must be burning up the night road. She was an excellent driver, with expert control of her rig.

But Jez remembered her in the diner parking lot, aggressive, keyed up, using her truck to express her volatility.

She was still staring at the datascroll. Several seconds went by.

Vonda’s rig was still on the highway, but it was no longer moving.

 

She had to take a taxi out there.

Black and yellow wreckage was strewn across two lanes. Another vehicle had been involved in the accident, but the driver was unhurt. One southbound lane of the roadway remained open.

Paramedics were already there, but other emergency services continued to arrive. Jez’s taxi waited, in the breakdown lane.

She had no legal right to inquire about Vonda Hupy’s condition; so a Highway Patrolwoman told her in calm tones. But that officer made no effort to stop her approaching the ambulance, and the medical technicians, equally composed, let her near enough to the gurney to see that this wasn’t a death from which anyone could come back.

The broken scattering of metal and metaplastic reminded Jez of the floors in Vonda’s apartment, disordered with her charcoal’ed sheets of paper.

The night was chilly enough to make cool tracks of the tears on her cheeks. Unaware of them until now, she staggered back from the scene of destruction. None of the civilian traffic passing in the lone clear lane slowed down to gawk. The emergency personnel on hand didn’t look upon her in judgment. Her cabdriver didn’t step out to hurry her along.

They understood. And even if some suspected her relationship with the formerly live woman from the truck, no one reproached her for it. All of them on the scene, every last one, had experienced—however briefly—the unexplainable reality which awaited humans after death, and that experience had given them all a unique forbearance.

Jez wiped her eyes and walked toward the breakdown lane, where the taxi still waited.

Ace of Cups

 

Eric Del Carlo’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld and many other publications. He co-wrote the urban fantasy novel The Golden Gate Is Empty with his father, Victor Del Carlo.

Find him on Facebook for questions and comments.

 [ issue 2 : spring 2021 ]