“What’s the count?” Dicky sat scrunched into the corner of the capsule trying to speak calmly.
Mel Falori, Dicky’s co-worker, tapped the digital read-out, habit from decades of watching space exploration movies, the numbers held firm. “Over a thousand, now.”
Dicky tried to slow his breathing, but the building CO2 tricked his mind into thinking he was out of breath. “At least this pain in my joints will finally end.”
“Goddamned shame. ”
Sweat dripped into Dicky’s eyes, his albino eyebrows seemed to transmit the drops like rain. “What? You want me to hurt?”
“Huh? Hell no, I was talkin’ about the frenzy the news is gonna have when they find out how we died.” Mel’s deep complexion barely shined in the rising temperature. Dissipating heat had always been a challenge in space habitat design. “Orbital’s stock is gonna bomb.”
Orbital Odyssey had built the first space hotel; twenty-two thousand per night, transportation extra.
“Fuck Orbital. Everyone knows they skimp on safety. ‘Shared scrubbers’ my ass.”
“Yeah, but I had all of our money in their stock. Tammy and Mom’s money; our neighbor’s, and shit, even a few of my professors’ from Caltech.”
“I gotta fart.”
“So who’s stoppin’ you?”
“Fair warning. Dead scrubbers means dead air.”
“Yeah, well, I let go an hour ago. Your runny nose must o’ missed it.”
“Dicky the dick.”
The pair broke up laughing, the giddy feeling of slow asphyxiation having dimmed their minds. The lumbering tumble of their life capsule gave them frequent glimpses of Earth, the fractured Odyssey Hotel and the other capsules that had shoved off soon after the rotating habitat had started to crack apart at the cables that held it together.
Mel and Dicky were working at the hub, finalizing the insulation layer that coated the structure—a thick, expanding foam that would harden and absorb micro-meteors, paint chips and bits of space junk too small to see but, big enough to penetrate the carbon fiber walls.
“Space coffins.” Mel giggled like a child.
“Starlight Cemetery.” Dicky’s creative side never failed to best Mel at word games. He sniffed and failed to detect any change in odor. “Seems wrong we should be laughing while we die.”
“What? You wanna cry? I ain’t gotta tissue.”
She stood, barely clad, small change in her open palm, a bag of apples, a yogurt and a Slim-Jim scanned and bagged. “I need all of it.”
The clerk, a seventeen year-old boy, tall with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail told her, “You need two dollars more. You only got enough for the yogurt.”
When she dug an empty hand back into her tight-as-rubber-glove shorts to rummage for what little remained, the boy looked up from her sinuous struggle to check the place for customers. At eleven-thirty pm, the small grocery store at the end of the two lane strip that Cedarville called Main Street, contained no one but he, the girl, and Beatrice, the manager, snoozing in the office; she’d had a rough day at court and the worry had exhausted her.
The girl’s hand seemed trapped. Ponytail bit his lip watching her struggle, her chest dancing beneath the cut-off sweatshirt, its neck gaping so far as to expose both nipples.
She looked up to catch his lechery. Popping her hand out she flicked back her dyed-blonde hair and tilted her head exposing a long pale neck. “What else will you take for payment?” Beggar-girl flipped the change onto the counter, put both hands palm down and leaned forward, her sweatshirt yawning.
Ponytail recognized her as soon as she’d flip-flopped into the store. From the scant money she possessed, he couldn’t imagine how she afforded gas for her car. He had a better idea now that he stared into her beguiling eyes. Like a parody of lust, he licked his lips in nervous anticipation. “I… I guess, maybe after midnight, when I…”
“If’n I’m gonna pay that way, I figure I should get more for my money. Don’cha think?”
The logic of it seemed sound so Pony nodded. “About how much do you think, you’re uh, it’s uh…”
Beggar-girl, hands to waist, swung her hips back and forth. “Well, I think I’m worth—” She did a twirl there in the checkout lane, her hair lifting like a dream. “—at least a six-pack and a couple of Ho-Hos.”
Pony swallowed so hard he almost choked. “Yeah, OK, I can work that.”
The girl dashed off to the cooler section and returned, grabbing a handful of Hostess products from the bins at the aisle end. She tossed the treats down and clanked the beer, Coors-Lite, to the counter.
“You got ID?”
“‘Course I got ID. But I think I left it at home.” She pealed a can from the plastic and rubbed the dewy aluminum up and down her throat. “It’s so hot tonight. Don’t you think?”
“Uh, so, OK. Let me put that in the sack. To make it, you know, official.”
Beggar received the sack of groceries and beer, and ran her hand up Pony’s sweaty arm. “I promise I’ll be back by midnight for—payment.”
The boy’s training kicked in. “Will there be anything else, ma’am?”
“If you’re lucky.”
Professor McAllister limped from desk to desk returning final papers. Aside from the toggling sound of his hard-sole shoes, only the ticking of the wide-faced clock’s mechanical seconds could be heard. The students all held their breath. McAllister’s crimson marks flashed like bloodstains on each paper as he waved them in oration before setting each, with a sigh, upon a desk.
“There is no such thing as a bad mark,” he said. “Bad marks are merely triggers, instigations, ignitions that should light fires in all of your bellies. Fires that should burn until you learn what must be learnt. Master what must be mastered.”
Leonard Doolin closed his eyes as the professor lay as sacrament, Leo’s final paper of his final year at university. The professor’s shuffling moved to the next student and Leo opened his eyes. An authorial massacre spread its gore across his desk. Each corrective wound bled through to the page beneath. Exposing the last page, grades were never presented as title-marks, a bloated “D” glared out like a butchered animal.
Leonard openly exhaled. A smile crept onto his face. Pass, he thought. Thank god.