By Benjamin Crowell
9 June 2008
Everything is just like it always used to be. By the time Joe's done carefully stretching his calves, his son Andy is already jogging in place: Let's go. Andy is twelve, indestructible.
"Ready?" says Andy.
Joe tries to crack a smile, and it's easier than he thought. They run out onto the path that will go upside down and circle back to where they started. The lights in the park's low ceiling are dim to make it seem like morning.
Joe walked up to the door, feeling sheepish. He'd said things to Mike and Kazuko that he shouldn't have said, pushed Mike over the back of the couch. Stayed away for a couple of days, paid enough money for a sleep cubby that it almost emptied their bank account. He'd thought things would be better when he got back from this deployment, but instead they were worse. The marriage was going to hell, and it was time to humble himself and apologize to them. Too bad he wasn't better with words.
He pressed his key against the lock. No click. A second try: still no click. What the hell? A knock on the door brought no response from inside. He knocked again, louder, and the sound echoed down the public corridor.
He turned on his phone, and before he could tell it to call them, it beeped at him. One message. He thumbed Play.
Kazuko's face came on. "All right, Joe, so this is it. Mike wants me to speak for him, too. Me and Mike are going to raise Andy. It's over." Her finger stabbed at him. "Over, Joe." The image jerked, so you could tell she'd stopped recording and then started again. "Okay, so it's the end of the month, and we needed first and last for a new place that's cheaper. Nice move with the bank account, by the way, that was brilliant. Great way to provide for your son. So the only way we could get the cash was by getting back the last month's rent from the old place. They let us move in to the new one a few days early, so you're on your own. That was my decision, not Mike's, so I guess that makes me a real bitch, right?" She corkscrewed her finger at the ceiling like she was winding something up real fast. It was her gesture that meant I don't care, because you don't count. "There's a shuttle tomorrow."
End of message.
Joe kicked the door, then kicked it again.
You don't count. Joe didn't count because he didn't bring home enough money. Didn't count because of all the times he'd been away on deployments. Didn't count because Kazuko and Mike could never understand why he wasn't happy about living in Newton Habitat forever, why he always kept his E.U. citizenship. But most of all Joe didn't count because he'd always been the extra one in the three-marriage, the optional one, the one who the termination-at-will part of the contract had really been aimed at. He was the one you threw overboard when the family was dead broke, when every night was an argument about bills and dishes.
And then there was the other thing. He'd never known who was Andy's blood father, him or Mike. For thirteen years, all three of them had always said they didn't care, and Joe honestly didn't care, because Andy was his son either way. But he couldn't help wondering now, after the way things had worked out. Maybe Kazuko and Mike knew something he didn't, and maybe they did care.
"How you been," asks Andy. "Okay?" Joe has always taught him to set a pace where you can still talk.
"Yeah," Joe says. "Missed you, though."
As long as he doesn't look up at the ceiling, he can imagine that they're running in a park down on Earth, and he's showing Andy what blue sky and clouds are like. He can imagine that he's telling Andy the truth, and everything really is okay.
The utility guy chopped the air on top of his desk like he was trying to chip a golf ball. "I'm just—honestly, Mr. Lewicki, I don't get it. You acknowledged receipt of the delinquency notice on your phone. Why didn't you catch that shuttle yesterday? Was there a problem with the ticket?"
"No," Joe said to the desk. He wasn't a citizen, so they made him prepay for an exit ticket every time he entered the hab. "It's just that it was all . . . sort of sudden." The chair was too small for him. One of the manacles around his ankles was too tight, and his foot was getting numb.
"In this situation we give you a two-week emergency air stipend, but it's intentionally set so low that you can't really live on it. Frontier here, can't afford to support people who aren't contributing. You'll need to find some way to make up the gap between what you breathe and what the stipend pays for."
"I want to work, but I lost my job." His pride wound itself tight like a ball of string that was trying to get smaller. "I'm not a citizen, so when my partners ended our contract, my visa got changed. It's automatic."
"I don't make the rules about visas."
"What happens if the stipend . . . if I can't make it stretch?"
"I would think that would be obvious. Using our life support system is a privilege, not a right." He reached into his desk and pulled out a little brown envelope with a bulge in it, handed it to Joe. Joe turned it over, and a ring fell out. "That's your meter. It has a blood oxygen sensor and transponder. Put it on your index finger, and it will start to adhere in about ten seconds."
"All right. Can I get these chains taken off now?"
"After you put the ring on, Mr. Lewicki. And in two weeks, I suggest that you be on that shuttle and out of L5 space."
Andy says, "Mom and Mike would nuke out if they saw us here. I don't want to take sides. They're still . . ."
"Yeah," Joe says. "I'm just glad to have this time." He's had vague thoughts about asking Andy to say something to Mike for him, like I'll miss you or something. Stupid.
"You going to Earth?" Andy asks.
"Maybe. Or maybe I'll go back in the High Marines." It's a lie. Joe asked, and they're not recruiting H.M. right now. Not recruiting anything else, either.
The lights in the park were dim to make it seem like night. Joe sat on a bench.
"Hey, cowboy, can't you sit somewhere else? You're bad for business." Joe had seen these two kids before. The one hassling him was the one with the wavy blond hair. Not bad looking, but Joe had never been interested in hookers, even when he'd had the money. What he really wanted right now was for Mike to hold him, because he could imagine that Mike still loved him, at least a little.
"It's a public park," was all Joe said.
"He's just jealous," said the other boy. "He doesn't like the customers looking at you instead of him." Shaved head, stiff white shirt and tight jeans. He looked as underfed as Joe felt.
"I don't know what I'd have to be jealous of," the blond one said.
"Then why's business so bad?" Joe asked.
The skinny one sniggered, and the blond gave them a dirty look and stalked off.
Joe wished he hadn't wasted his breath. He checked the ring: 12.310 units for the twelve and a half days he had left until the shuttle. A unit of oxygen was supposed to last you one day if you sat around like a zombie. Climb a flight of stairs, it was scary how fast the number went down.
He wouldn't breathe so much air while he was sleeping, so it was important to find a good place to sleep. The bench was too short for him to lie down on. Maybe he could sleep with his knees bent, or lie down on the grass. There must be sprinklers for all the plants—would they come on in the middle of the night? The cops might hassle him, so maybe he should sleep where they couldn't see him. Jesus, was he turning into the kind of guy who slept in bushes?
A woman went in the pay toilets, and Joe went over so he could get in on her coin. When she came out, he held the door open with his face against the wall so she wouldn't think he was trying to attack her. She hurried out past him, and he couldn't see her face. Fear? Pity? He didn't want to know. He went in, used the toilet, and took a long drink of water from the sink. He tried to wash his face, but without soap the water didn't do much.
When he came out, the skinny kid was arguing with some big guy over by the wall of the park. Joe couldn't hear the words. The kid spread his hands: What can I do? The big guy raised a hand like he was going to whack the kid, and the kid cringed. Big guy had him up against the wall, kicking him. Shit.
Joe checked the ring. He told himself to stay out of it, but his balled-up pride decided to unwind itself. He walked over.
The big guy looked at Joe. "What?"
Joe just stood there, thinking about how to keep his breathing slow. The big guy was big, but Joe was bigger.
"We're doing business here," the big guy said. "Get lost."
"He gets the message," Joe said quietly.
"This guy taking care of you?" the big guy asked the skinny kid.
"No, I don't know him," the kid said.
"One of your customers?"
"No," Joe said. "He gets the message."
The big guy looked back and forth at Joe and the kid. Joe was doing good at not breathing too fast, and that seemed to make the guy nervous. "I'll tell you about messages," he said to the kid. "That wasn't even a real message, right?" He turned and walked away. "You don't want to know what a real message is," he shouted over his shoulder.
"Thanks, cowboy," the kid said.
"My name's Joe."
"Kemal." He put his hand out, and Joe shook with him. Soft hands, like Mike's.
"Is he your . . . pimp?" Joe asked.
Kemal laughed. "You ask that, you're not a cop. I owe Guei for what he sells me. Not a cop, so, what—ex-military?"
"Yeah." Joe walked back to the bench, but Kemal followed him, like they were going back to where they always hung out together.
"Working?" Kemal asked.
"No. Visa problem."
Kemal nodded. "I get you. I know a lot of people with that problem."
Jesus, did that mean what it sounded like? "I can't . . ."
"You'd be surprised what people can do. You hungry?"
"No, I mean, just asking. Hell, come over to my place, I've got leftovers."
Joe is wearing some shorts he borrowed from Kemal. The running shoes are what he was wearing with his civvies when Kazuko and Mike locked him out.
They run past the statue of Isaac Newton, where the ceiling rises up into a dome. It's the big landmark, so Joe knows they've run a quarter of the way around the green belt that makes a circle on the inside of the hab. He's used to living inside a spinning tin can, and now he's used to sleeping behind bushes. He's learned that you can get used to anything, but also that it can all change. He's used to living.
"What was it mainly about?" Andy asks.
Good question. "I don't know. Money, I guess. Mostly."
"Mom says everything's expensive. She came after school and borrowed twenty euros from Ms. Foy until the end of the month."
"That must have been embarrassing. You doing okay, enough to eat?"
"Yeah, sure." Andy looks at him kind of funny, like he never heard of anyone not having money for food. "The way they talk, it's like I'm supposed to be afraid of you. I know you wouldn't do anything."
"I pushed Mike over the couch, but that's different from . . ."
"I know. It's just the way they talk. They don't mean it."
It felt good to wash his face. Joe toweled himself off, and looked at the giant box of condoms peeking out of a shopping bag on Kemal's toilet. He wondered how Kemal had started. Did he tell himself it was only going to be the one time, just money for that one fix? Could you have sex once for money without losing your pride completely?
"You want to take a shower, you can," Kemal yelled from the little kitchen thing—not even a kitchen, really, more like a closet.
"I'm okay, thanks." Joe came out of the bathroom and squeezed himself around the little bed that took up almost the whole apartment. He found a place where he could stand and not have to hunch over.
Kemal came out with two bowls of macaroni and cheese. He gave one to Joe, and they sat down together on the bed, cross-legged.
"This looks great, Kemal. Appreciate it." He was so hungry he was dizzy. He dug in.
"PUM?" Kemal asked.
"Personal use metering." Kemal pointed at the ring with his chin.
"Mm-hm." Mac and cheese never tasted so good. So here he was eating the food that this kid had to fuck to pay for. Maybe it shouldn't bother him so much. Kemal didn't seem ashamed of it at all, and maybe Joe's way of seeing it was just because of how Joe was. He remembered not being able to get through to his own grandfather: A Marine that swings both ways? Fucking incredible. Get the hell out of my house. He'd been what, nineteen? Probably the same age as Kemal was now.
"Out on the next shuttle?" Kemal asked.
"Guess so," Joe said around his food.
"You've got no money at all?"
Joe shook his head.
They kept eating, and Kemal looked at the wall for a long time while he chewed.
"Family?" Kemal asked.
"That's bad." Kemal stirred his noodles around with his fork. "When it goes to zero, they show up fast."
"Show up and what?"
"And shove you out an airlock."
"What's that about? It's really going to break the bank if they let one more guy breathe for a couple weeks? Don't they recycle the air anyway?"
"It's not about the air, it's about keeping this perfect new world they built all clean and shiny. They want an excuse to get rid of us undesirables. Gagarin and Armstrong, that's what people here are supposed to be. We don't fit that."
It felt like Kemal had unscrewed the top of Joe's head and politely shined a flashlight on the truth that Joe had never noticed. Mike and Kazuko had never liked it that Joe was in the High Marines. He didn't fit what they wanted. He was a barbarian, the kind of guy who could push you over a couch and then maybe shoot you. Hell, didn't Gagarin and Armstrong start out in the military? They probably didn't mention that in school here.
Somewhere in Mike and Kazuko's hearts, there were meters, just like the meter in the ring. Joe got mad and yelled, went out and slammed the door behind him; they took something off the meters for that. Punched the wall and put a dent in it: the meters went down some more. Finally, after that last fight, the meters had dipped below zero. Overdrawn. Undesirable.
Kemal said, "You got no income at all to pay for air?"
"No. Just, you know, take it easy and don't exert myself. Sleep a lot, don't breathe too deep."
"Maybe." Kemal stirred his noodles around some more and didn't look at Joe.
"What if I just end up short by one day or something?"
Kemal snorted. "You don't think they way they do. It's all about the right stuff, no free lunch, don't piss in the gene pool. End of the month rolls around, you tell 'em you're only five minutes short on air, they'll crack some joke about Houston, we've got a problem here. Listen, Joe, you've got options, but you got to be realistic. You need to get some money together, so you start by getting food covered, and then maybe you can build up a little extra. They'll only sell you air at the tourist rate, so it's a minimum purchase of one unit for a hundred euros and tax. Good-looking guy like you, I can show you how to get people to buy you bar food. Not hustling or anything, just maybe if they're interested, you can say, 'Oh, thanks, I already have a date, but my friend Kemal . . .' How old are you?"
"No shit? You're almost as old as my father. That's okay, though, you can pass for a lot younger, and you've got that Marlon Brando thing, too."
Joe wondered who Marlon Brando was.
They're going by that same park bench, and the pay toilets. Joe is feeling his rhythm. His body isn't what it was two weeks ago, but he can still run. Thank God for this, it feels good. He checks the ring: 1.488.
"What's that ring?" Andy asks.
"Says how much oxygen you're burning."
"I should get one of those. Does it cost a lot?"
"Someone gave it to me."
They're two-thirds of the way around the circle.
Joe and Kemal sat at a table in Steamers. It was late on a Wednesday night, and the bar was almost empty. He knew Kemal was trying to move up from the park to bars, but a Wednesday was tough. Hell, it was always tough for Kemal.
It was four days until the shuttle, almost exactly, and Joe's ring said 4.040. He didn't have any cash, but it looked like he was going to make it without buying another unit of air. Maybe just barely, but he was going to make it.
A guy at the bar had been sneaking looks at Joe. Gray hair, nice suit. He looked again, and Joe caught his eye and held it, reeling him in like a trout.
The john came over to their table carrying his drink, something on the rocks. "Can I buy you guys a round?"
"Have a seat," Kemal said, friendly. "I'm Kemal."
Joe didn't give his name, starting to shift the focus to Kemal. Kemal was good with the nervous types. Older, nice suit, so the price could go way up. Roz, the bartender, came over.
"You Russian, Alexei?" Joe asked. "They got a vodka martini here, real vodka they fly up from Russia. Roz, let's have a vodka martini for Alexei here. The real one, he knows the difference." The john fingered the drink that he'd hardly even started, but didn't let out a squeak. The vodka had never been within half a million klicks of Russia. It would cost fifty euros, of which Roz would kick back one to Joe. "I'll have one of those big baskets of fried potatoes. You, Kemal?"
"White wine, please."
Kemal started working the emotional stuff he was so good at. He was an artist, and this john wasn't only going home tonight happy in his dick, he was going home happy in his fantasy. Time for Joe to make his exit. He didn't have his phone with him, so he did his other act. You got the time, Alexei? Oh, sorry, gotta go, bye. He went to the park, waited long enough, and came back.
Roz brought out the fried potatoes from where she'd stashed them.
"Thanks, sweetie," Joe said.
"De nada," Roz said, and slid him a euro coin from her tip jar.
Kemal came back. It was getting so late that coming back didn't make much sense, but Kemal didn't give up easy. Joe understood now that Kemal needed the money for something that was just as important to him as breathing was to Joe. It was funny in a way, after what happened with Mike and Kazuko, but even though Joe and Kemal both had money problems like hell, they still got along fine. It was all business, or maybe a little bit of father and son thrown in there, too.
By the time Joe finished his meal, he and Kemal were the only ones left in the bar, and Roz was cleaning up and taking her tips out of the jar. The three of them went out into the dim corridor, and Roz headed one way while Joe and Kemal went the other. Joe could feel the grease from the potatoes on his mouth and his fingers. Should have washed up with soap before they left. Kemal worked a regular job during the day, and that was when Joe used his shower. Joe walked with Kemal as far as E and 56, and then he crossed the corridor toward the park.
Joe heard Kemal's voice from back across the corridor, turned around. It was Kemal's dealer, Guei, again. Not much of an argument this time, Guei just punched Kemal. Joe yelled. Kemal tried to dodge, took it in the gut. Guei looked across the street at Joe and ran off. Kemal maybe had the wind knocked out of him, curled up on the deck. Joe went over to help, and then he saw that Kemal didn't just have the wind knocked out of him. His hands were on his belly with blood coming out between the fingers.
The hospital was way down at B and 37, and Joe didn't have money for a zippy. No phone, and everything was closed. Kemal gurgled something, his eyes goggling.
"It's gonna be okay, Kemal," Joe said. "I'll take care of you."
Kemal always banked his money at a kiosk as soon as he turned a trick, but Joe checked his pockets just in case. Nothing, not even change. If he'd had anything on him, he would have given it to Guei. Now the blood was all over Joe's hands, and Kemal was squirming around and sighing.
Joe got him in a fireman's carry and started running. With what the drugs did to Kemal's body, it was like carrying a skeleton. He ran up the curve of 56 to E, and now it was a straight line down E to 37. It was all stores and restaurants, everything closed. Here was 55, then 54. A woman and a man, falling-down drunk—no help. 53, 52, 51, 50. The blood was sliding down Joe's back and into his pants now. At 48, an old lady was walking her little terrier. The dog barked, and the lady turned and ran. The time and the corridors turned into a blur. When he got to the hospital, he was gasping for breath.
He brought Kemal into the emergency room, and they took him away fast on a stretcher. Joe wondered if he'd ever see him again. He stood around for a while with Kemal's blood drying and gluing his clothes to his skin, and then an orderly came out, an old guy with a big belly, dark skin, and gray hair.
"Did you bring in the man with the gut wound?" the orderly asked.
"Yeah. Is he gonna live?"
"Yes. We've controlled the blood loss, and the damage to the intestines can be repaired. He's in surgery now, but he'll live." The feeling of relief made Joe's tired arms and legs quiver, but before he had a chance to think, the orderly was asking, "Are you related to the patient?"
"No, I'm just a friend." What did the question mean? Were they asking because you didn't ever get a free lunch in this hab, and Kemal couldn't pay?
"You look like you've been through hell. You can wash your hands in that bathroom there. I'll scare up some clothes for you to go home in."
Joe washed the blood off of his hands, and when he came back, the orderly gave him some clothes that Joe figured were probably the man's own. He'd almost forgotten what it was like not to be treated as an undesirable. "Uh, thanks, mister."
"No problem. There's a staff bathroom down that hall where you can take a shower and change. Anybody hassles you, tell 'em Ed said it was okay."
Joe found the shower room, hung the clean clothes on the hook, and piled his own blood-soaked clothes on the floor. In the shower, he started washing the blood away, and then his brain finally noticed the one thing that he couldn't take off. He wiped soap and blood off of the ring and stared at the reading: 3.771. There was no way he could come back from being that far in the hole, not even with yoga and horse tranquilizers. He needed a hundred euros. He slowly finished washing himself off, and as he watched the blood swirl down the drain, he thought about what he knew he could do, and whether it was something he could make himself do. He had a good idea what he was worth on the open market. At least a hundred twenty euros, maybe a hundred fifty. One trick would be enough. If he could make himself do it.
He got dressed in the orderly's clothes, and it gave him a strange feeling of being someone else. It occurred to him that he was completely free now, maybe more free than he'd ever been in his life. It wasn't just that he had no job to do or bills to pay—and it wasn't like shore-leave freedom, either, what they called "liberty," which was nothing more than a vacation from having some candyass lieutenant tell you what to do. No, it wasn't either of those things, it was the freedom of knowing that his choice of whether to live was completely separate from the choice of how to live, of knowing that for the next few days it was up to him to decide what was desirable or undesirable for him. Choosing whether to earn the hundred euros was a choice about one hour of his life. He didn't know what he was going to decide about that, but either way, he still had at least another three days and twenty-some hours to do what he wanted. It wouldn't matter whether he spent those days in a coma or jumping rope. He thought about what was desirable, and he realized that there was one thing he wanted to do. He wanted to see Andy.
Joe and Andy walk in circles, flapping their shirts to cool off. It's been a hell of a good run, and Andy's a good kid. Kemal never talks about his father. Will Kemal change his life after this? Probably not.
"Dusted me pretty good," says Andy.
"Maybe I've still got it, huh?"
The sweat feels good on his forehead. He clasps his hands behind his head and takes the deepest breath he can take.
The ring says 1.390. He's tried calling the few people he knows on the hab, but they're really Mike and Kazuko's friends, not his. Kazuko's already hit them up for money, and they're thinking of Joe as the one who caused the problem—which is true. Joe's buddies in the corps are all on deployment. There's radio silence, and anyway an interplanetary call would cost almost as much as a unit of air.
"Andy, I need to tell you something. It's only two days until I get on the shuttle. The thing is, you know how hard it was for us to get in touch because of your mom, her plonking my sig and everything. Once I'm off the hab I can try, but I don't know how easy it'll be to reach you. Radio silence, too, if I sign up again and I'm on a ship. It might be a long time. I just want you to know that no matter what, I love you, and if you don't hear from me, it's not because I forgot about you."
"Sure, but don't worry, we'll find a way to get in touch."
Maybe, Joe thinks.
There's an awkward time after that, and then they say goodbye. Joe goes to Kemal's place, lets himself in and takes a shower. Then he goes back to the park, walking slow, because there's no rush. No matter which way he decides, the time he's taking to walk now is like zero compared to forever. He winds up back at the same bench next to the pay toilets.
He remembers looking at Kemal's jar of condoms, and asking himself if you could have sex for money, just one time, without losing your pride completely. He thinks about how you can't change who you are. He knows exactly how his grandfather must have felt, like he couldn't bend in the way Joe wanted him to, because if he bent that far, he'd break. By the time the lights in the park dim down, Joe knows that he can't bend that far without breaking, and now it's just a question of whether to break or not.
He starts walking toward Silverlight, because it's got the highest-class customers. He'll stop by Steamers and tell Roz about Kemal.
On the way, he remembers being a kid in science class. The teacher showed them what happened when you break a magnet in half. It doesn't make a north magnet and a south magnet, it makes two new magnets that are both complete. Joe imagines breaking, and he imagines a new Joe who's a different kind of person from the old Joe. He starts introducing himself to the new Joe, and he decides that the new Joe is a good guy, just like Kemal is a good guy. The problem is, who needs the new Joe? Andy doesn't need him. The High Marines don't need him. He starts to imagine the magnet breaking into two pieces that aren't the same size. The new one only takes a quarter off of the whole thing, or a tenth. By the time he gets to Steamers, he doesn't see the point of taking anything off at all. It would only make it less than it used to be.