Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 56
Stories
Murmuration
by E. Catherine Tobler
The Warrior and the Sage
by Shweta Sundararajan
The God in the Window
by Steven R. Stewart
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
A Choice of Weapons
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Bonus Material
The Gathering Edge
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Super Action Excite Team Go!
    by Matthew Shean

Super Action Excite Team Go!
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

I introduced Jesse to Super Action Excite Team Go! in the experimental medicine wing of the hospital that summer. Mom was always chasing down nurses or visiting Dad in his regular room two floors down, so I got stuck babysitting Jesse while his arm regenerated. He spent most days streaming shows on the tablet we got for Christmas, while I group-texted with Dave and the guys on my phone. Our last summer before middle school and we planned it all out over text. Bikes and jailbreak and jungle-gyms and cool apps, all day, every day.

After two days, Jesse was already bored of the stuff he used to watch and wanted to play. I had seen an episode of Super Action Excite Team Go! at Dave's house once and showed him that instead. It shut him up fast. It was one of those cartoons from Japan they put English voices on, where the people had big watery eyes and posed with their fists on their hips. They had this complicated salute, and Jesse begged me do it all the time. He couldn't on account of his arm.

Mom pulled me out into the hallway that afternoon and crouched down, sitting on her feet. It's always bad when they bring their grown-up world down to you. This time it was worse.

"Sam," she said to me. "We have to circle the wagons this summer, buddy. Your Dad's going to be on his butt at least six weeks, and I'll have to start taking double shifts to pick up the slack, so I'll be leaning on you pretty hard. I'll get Mrs. Kulsziski to come take care of Dad and the cooking, but Jesse is going to need a lot of help, and that'll be your job. Think you can handle that?" She didn't even wait for an answer, just pulled me into a big hug, then kinda hung on me for a while. But I couldn't answer anyway. I hate it when parents ask if you want to do something when you all know you can't say 'no.'

It was scary seeing Dad and Jesse laid up like that, and sometimes I started crying out of nowhere that week. But right there in the hallway hugging Mom, in my head all I could see was Dave and the guys playing jailbreak without me.

Mom and I had been waiting at the dinner table when the crash happened. She was glaring and tapping her foot, and I was watching the mashed potatoes get cold. I hate them cold. Dad was supposed to pick up stuff to grill on his way home but forgot. So they got into this big argument about who works harder and started slamming stuff. That's the only time Jesse ever gets quiet, when they fight--we both shut up and keep real still. Dad drove off to the store, and of course Jesse can't ever let anyone leave without him coming along too.

So they were gone, the potatoes were cold, and there were little pools of cup sweat around the bottoms of our cups. That's when the phone rang. Mom answered and then started crying. We spent the rest of the night in the ER waiting room. By the time we made a dinner of peanut-butter crackers and orange soda from the machine my eyes were burning from tired. I laid my head on Mom's lap and tried to sleep. It bounced and hitched while she cried and the room was really bright and loud, but it made me feel warmer and less scared than when I was sitting up.

We called them Excite Team for short, these five teenagers who rode motorcycles and fought the alien were-crab hordes. They got wounded when the hordeships first attacked, but they were nursed back to health in a secret underground scientist base. That's where they were given the ability to mind control the giant robots. It was really cool because Jesse's main doctor--a bunch of doctors and nurses came in and out all the time--but his main doctor looked exactly like the scientist that ran Excite Team's base, Dr. Look. He had this bushy white beard that hid his lips. When he wasn't talking, you couldn't even see his mouth. With the white lab coat, too, he was Dr. Look, so we always called him that when he wasn't there.

The first time Dr. Look came, the day after the crash, Jesse was sleeping. He said he was the director of 'Experimental Medicine,' like it was a big deal. That's when he told Mom about the clinical trial for limb regeneration. He was real excited about this ball of cells called fibroblasts under the skin of Jesse's stump. He kept calling it a blastema. Dr. Look said that if they acted fast, they could convince the blastema to grow bigger and bigger, and that would turn the stump into a whole new arm. He just needed to get stem cells--he said from one of Jesse's baby teeth--and treat them with this protein cocktail his scientists had discovered and then put those in the blastema. Then, voila, new arm. He made it sound pretty exciting, I guess. Then he and Mom chatted about insurance and checkup schedules and all that. But my phone was buzzing by then, so I wasn't really paying attention.

Dave and the guys had biked all the way to Oaklyn, and they found this really cool park. They sent me a bunch of pictures, and they were all having fun without me. But then Mom got up and started pacing after something Dr. Look said. She kept sliding her hands along her thighs while she walked, like she was trying to slip them into pockets, but her dress didn't have any. I took one last look at a shot of Dave and Sumit hanging upside down from monkey bars, and put my phone in my pocket. Then I kicked Jesse's big machine-bed. Not hard, not enough for Mom or Dr. Look to notice, but I hated that bed and it needed kicking.

When Jesse woke up, they started telling him about the clinical trial thing. That's when Dr. Look brought up the salamanders. His face looked more excited talking to Jesse than with Mom. He said, "Did you know salamanders and newts can grow back arms or legs if they lose them? Their tails too. And lots of lizards drop their tails on purpose if something is trying to eat them. Better to regrow a tail later than be a cat's lunch today. They grow back, good as new, all by themselves. It's called regeneration. And we can make your arm regenerate too, if your mom says it's okay."

He'd have two arms again? I felt like I had taken off a too-tight jacket zipped all the way up, and a big puff of air dropped out of my mouth. "How fast does it come back?" I asked and sat forward in my chair. I could smell the metal of the monkey bars on my palms already.

"Well, a newt's arm is less than an inch long, and it takes two months to regenerate. And yours is almost two feet long!" Dr. Look grabbed Jesse's remaining arm and wiggled it for emphasis. "But we can grow it back in only four months!"

Four months? I collapsed back into the chair, but Jesse was really impressed. His eyes got big and he couldn't stop saying "Wow" and giggling. But he's six. He always does that.

Then Dr. Look blew his mind when he said, "All I need is one of your baby teeth. Got any wiggly ones? I have a super secret special sauce that can transform a tooth into an arm seed, and we can plant that in your shoulder to grow your new one!"

I knew Dr. Look had him, because Jesse lit up. "Transform my tooth? Into a seed?" he yelled, his eyes and mouth wide. He was hooked and had to find out more.

"If I put your tooth into my secret sauce today, the seed'll be ready by Wednesday. If today is Saturday, how many days away is that?"

Jesse screwed his face up and thought, then said, "A thousand!" Then he had a fit of giggles.

The days until the seed implant surgery took forever. The group messages with the guys were full of jokes I didn't know and things I wasn't there for. I kept shoving my phone back into my pocket. But there was nothing else to do but watch Excite Team with Jesse, so I'd pull it back out again. I was going to grow old and die in that room.

Even after the surgery we had to stay in the hospital a week. Dr. Look and the nurses took care of Jesse's new arm--they called it a limb bud--and kept it wrapped up tight, so I didn't get a look at it for a while. But before they let us out of the hospital, Dr. Look let me see it while he made Jesse's new cast. I was expecting a little arm to wave at me, but it just kinda looked like a squished dick. It was tiny and floppy, and the end flattened out into a mini ping-pong paddle. I asked Dr. Look when he'd get fingers. He pointed at the paddle and said, "They're still forming, but they're in there." I tried not to laugh, but it really did look like a tiny dick. I couldn't help it and I let out a snicker.

Mom slapped me across the back of the head.

Dr. Look finished the cast and handed Mom a small box with what looked like ketchup packets in it. "This cream needs to be applied to the limb bud four times a day," he said.

I groaned. Four times a day? With Mom working, guess who was going to wind up with that job.

He kept talking while Mom pretended to read the label on the box. "Timing's important with the cream. There are growth factors the blastema needs in it. Too long without them and the regeneration will stop, leaving young Jesse here without a full arm."

I might have groaned, a little. Mom looked at me like she caught me sneaking into the fridge past bedtime or something. I wasn't getting outside at all this summer, was I?

Then he showed us the cast while it finished drying. The base wrapped around Jesse's chest and stuck out a few inches where the new arm would be. That part was a tube, and the top half came off. Inside was a padded sleeve for his arm to grow into. Jesse eyed it like it might bite him. Then Dr. Look said we were free to go.

Finally! At that point, I had been sitting next to Jesse's hospital bed watching the summer crawl past outside the window for over two weeks. He had watched every episode of both seasons of Excite Team half a dozen times, and I was really looking forward to getting outside and away from the were-crabs for a change. I knew I'd have to babysit him, but I could at least get out some.

Mom left our neighbor in charge when she took the bus to work or visit Dad. Mrs. K never stopped talking but never noticed that you had stopped listening. The first day, a stream of kids chased each other past our house and I ran to the door to go join them. Most days, there was a jailbreak game with like twenty different kids that ran all over the neighborhood and kept going until dark. I had missed weeks of it, but Mrs. K stopped me at the door. "You need to be here for your brother," she said. Then what was she there for? Nobody was texting me back and I was itching to do something, but instead I spent the rest of that day scratching itches under Jesse's cast with a wooden ruler and watching Excite Team with him. Again. Even with the cast, there was other stuff we could do and games we could play. But Jesse only wanted Excite Team.

The team all wore white jumpsuits with different colored stripes that matched their robots. Like, Tum-Tum, the laughing fat guy, had yellow stripes and could control the robot with the yellow armor. The robots really plowed through the alien were-crabs; pincers and antennae went flying everywhere.

Every episode, the Excite Team would be doing teenager stuff, when a fleet of hordeships would come out of nowhere. The team would fight them off with blasters, but once it got bad they would press a special button on their motorcycles, and that's when the giant robots came flying in from the secret base. They'd send the aliens scurrying back with their tails between their pincers. Then the team would finish their stuff from before and make a corny joke, and then it was over. Every episode was like that.

The day Mom brought Dad home, we were watching the one where Kip and Tad realized they each had a crush on Kira. But they were brothers, and neither brother had known the other liked her, so that was trouble. The garage door rumbled from under the kitchen, and before they even got upstairs into the house we could hear Mom tearing into Dad about the crash. Mrs. K stopped talking for the first time and left without another word.

I knew Mom wasn't in a 'yes' mood, but I was desperate. Another day of that stupid show and helping him get his pants up and down in the bathroom and I was going to throw that tablet out a window. And I couldn't do the cream one more time. I had to put on rubber gloves, thaw the little packet, and then take the top of his cast off. His little arm was barely as big as my pinky. It was creepy and gross and the cream felt slimy through the gloves. Jesse didn't want it on and would hide or try to fight. I didn't want to do it but I had to. It was all a big nightmare. I had to get away. So I had to ask her.

Dad had a broken leg, so he couldn't walk away, and his jaw was wired shut, so he couldn't talk back. So once she got him set up on the couch Mom just unleashed everything on him. I was mad at him for getting them in that accident too, but, listening to her lay in to him, I wanted to hug him and say it wasn't his fault. He was still Dad.

Jesse made it through two and a half episodes before she calmed down a little and I went into the living room. Dad wouldn't look at me. He kinda looked like Mr. Ambly's dog after Mr. Ambly yells at it and whaps it with his cane. I looked away fast and asked Mom if I could go out and ride bikes with the guys the next day. At first I thought she was going to yell at me, too, but she just sighed and collapsed into the couch. She sounded sadder than Dad looked when she said, "No."

I pretended to ignore the shouts and laughs that came in through the window as the jailbreak game roamed past our house. There were bees buzzing around the petunias in Mom's window box, so I stared at them instead. Were there drones back in the hive that had to spend their whole summer taking care of the queen, or did they get to take turns flying wherever they wanted?

Mom heard the kids running by and said, "Why don't you have some of them come over here, and you can all play. Jesse too. I'm sure he'd love to have a fresh face around."

Two days later, Dave, Sumit, and Cesar came over to hang out. I didn't care what we did, so long as it wasn't with Jesse or that show. I found a plastic tub of Dad's old green army men in the attic, so we pulled those out and played with them. It was awesome. We had a war, and stuff was blowing up and people were dying and saving each other, and it was like I hadn't missed any of the summer at all. We were laughing and joking the whole afternoon.

Then the timer beeped--time to put Jesse's cream on again.

I'd hoped that because the guys were there, he would pretend to be brave and not fight this time, but no. If anything, he was more scared and struggled even harder as I tried to get him to sit still. He ran from our bedroom and hid in the bathroom.

I wanted to lock him in there, throw away the cream, and get on my bike with the guys and not come back for three days, or maybe ever. And I didn't even care if his blastema stopped growing, whatever that even was.

But I went and got him out instead.

He tried to hold the door shut, but I'm stronger. I got him out and dragged him onto a kitchen chair. After a few minutes of him yelling, the guys came in from the playroom to see. He shut up right away and tried to wipe away his tears.

Cesar ran over and grabbed the cast. "This is so cool! This is his new arm?" He grabbed Jesse's paddle with his thumb and middle finger. "Ew, it's all slimy and smooth!"

Jesse jerked his arm away with a grunt, then Dave and Sumit came over and started reaching for it too. Dave grabbed the guys and froze like he had some great idea, and said, "Jesse's got a pinky-prick for an arm! It's a pinky-prick!" Sumit laughed so hard he fell over. Cesar tried to come up with something funnier and called it a dick-arm. They were talking over each other, and taking pictures with their phones. Jesse got that look in his eyes he gets during thunderstorms or when fire trucks scream past, and he really started wailing then. He was whining and flailing and they were laughing and yelling and it was so loud I had to shout to make it stop.

I grabbed Cesar and Dave by the shoulders and pulled them away. I sent the three of them into the other room and put my arms around Jesse. His face was all red and wet from crying, and the bottom half was covered in snot. He buried his face in my neck, and the collar of my shirt got soaked. I didn't care though. He got quieter, but every time he inhaled, it came in three broken gasps. He pounded his good arm against my back a few times, but I knew his heart wasn't in it.

I told him my friends were all jerks.

Once he finally calmed and I put the cream on, I went back to the playroom, but the guys weren't there. I went to the front door. Their bikes were gone.

My belly got real tight, and my breath stopped in my throat. I didn't want to cry. I was angry, not sad. But I felt tears building up in my eyes. I slammed the front door and went to our bedroom so I could slam that door too and yell at something. But Jesse was there watching Excite Team by then, and still sniffling a bunch. I didn't want him there, I wanted to be alone. I told him to get out, but he wouldn't leave. He wouldn't even look at me. And I yelled at him--told him I hated him, and that he ruined my summer and he was ruining my life. Then I slammed the door, but I shut him in and I went and sat in the playroom by myself. I kicked the little plastic tub, and army men sprayed across the room.

It was August 1 when I broke Jesse's cast. I remember because I was missing Dave's birthday party. Mom had taken the bus in for another double shift, and Dad was still on the couch. It was sunny and baking and perfect out and the ice cream truck was jingling at us all day and I had to get outside or I was going to claw holes in the ceiling. Sweat was pouring into Jesse's cast. He whimpered nonstop about how itchy it was, and I was going crazy enough to wedge the stupid ruler in there and leave.

After the disaster with Dave and the guys, we hadn't texted much. I didn't invite them back, and they didn't ask. Every couple days, Cesar would send around another picture of the 'pinky-prick,' but I never 'lol'ed, and none of them did either anymore. I hadn't heard jailbreak on our street in a week.

Jesse calmed down, and I think he forgot about it after a few days. New episodes of Excite Team had started streaming, and he buried his face in the tablet. He only put it down to complain about how itchy he was. I still couldn't think about him ruining my one good day without wanting to scream. So I ignored him as much as I could and set up wars in the playroom with Dad's army men instead.

But I still had to clean his new arm and put on the cream, and make lunch if Mrs. K didn't come. And always scratch his itchy cast.

On the day I broke his cast he was itchier than ever, and I never had a chance to get to the army men. I sat there the whole time, scratching while he watched. On the show, Kip and Tad got into a fight over who should ask Kira on a date. Tad flipped out and rode off on his motorcycle and was gone for half the season. They started losing battles to the were-crabs. I thought about getting a different toy or convincing Jesse to start a board game with me, but then I got texts. From Dave. It was photos of him and everybody else at Six Flags for his party. They were in line for rides, eating ice cream, or laughing in every picture. Dave was even tall enough now for the big roller coasters. He sent one from the front of the line--him about to climb into a long green snake of cars.

At the end of all of the photos, he wrote, 'Wish you were here.'

That was when Jesse whined his worst yet. He was itchy, he was bored, he wanted to go outside. I never did anything fun with him. Could I read him a book? He wanted more new episodes.

I nearly threw my phone at him. I couldn't see straight. I grabbed the ruler and started shoving it down the top of his cast.

He screamed, "You're doing it too hard!" and squirmed away.

I didn't care. I grabbed his other shoulder to hold him steady. "Too bad. You need me to scratch, so I'm scratching," I said, and it came out like a grunt. I knew it was hurting him, and I didn't care. I was so mad, it even felt a little good to hear him yell.

But he kept yelling, and then it didn't feel right anymore. When I pulled the ruler out, there were faint red streaks on it. I threw it in the corner. Then I wasn't just mad at him anymore, and I needed to explode. I grabbed the tablet and stormed off, leaving him screaming behind me. I ran down to the playroom and shoved it behind a cabinet, where I knew he could see it but couldn't reach it.

I stormed into the living room demanding to be set free.

The TV was on, but Dad just laid there staring at the wall. The orange juice Mom had set out for him sat untouched, and the blue bendy straw floated so high in it I was afraid it would fall out of the cup. The whole living room stank like the school gym on a stuffy day. I tried not to gag and announced, "I'm gonna play outside."

He grunted "Get over here!" at me. Even though his jaw was wired shut, when he wanted Dad could speak almost like normal, but his words kind of buzzed. If he was depressed, or upset? If Jesse and I were fighting? He just grunted words out, and it sounded like humming with words buried underneath it. His voice was definitely humming now.

I had forgotten he couldn't move his head much in the brace; he couldn't see me from there. I walked in front of him, less confident than I started. His lips were white and cracked and bleeding, and they puffed out over all the stuff wiring his mouth shut. A line of tears ran from the corner of one eye down his cheek.

My swagger vanished and the list of jobs Mom left me ran through my mind. Make sandwiches for you and your brother. Thaw the cream better before you rub it onto his arm. Change the liner in Jesse's cast. Chapstick your Dad's lips at least twice, and make sure he drinks his juice. Plus, there were regular chores, too. When Dad looked at me, I hated myself and said, "Nevermind." Then I forced him to drink some juice. He tried not to, but I put the straw to his lips and just waited until he drank. I reached for the Chapstick too, but he grunted and groaned until I left it alone.

I realized I couldn't hear Jesse crying anymore, so I went to say sorry. But he wasn't in the bedroom. I found him in the playroom, trying to get the tablet. He was on his tiptoes on the army men bucket trying to reach it. I called out to him, but then he moved. The bucket skittered out from under his foot and he toppled over and fell. There was a weird cracking sound, and I froze, sure that he had split his head open like a coconut and his brains would be all over the floor. But it was just his cast. The top part of the sleeve split when he fell, and it was hanging loose and his new arm was showing through under the shoulder.

Jesse was quiet at first, but then Dad hum-grunted from the living room, "Are you okay? What just happened?" I called Jesse's name, softly, and that must have scared him, because that's when he started crying. Like, wailing really good. I tried to tell him it was okay and to comfort him, but he just cried "Mommy!" over and over. I grabbed him and kept saying "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" But he didn't stop crying. So, I helped him up and took him to Dad. But I forgot that Dad's casts and braces scared him, and that made the crying worse.

So we left the living room and the only thing I could think of to do was grab the tablet and start another episode. And that calmed him down until Mom got home. She came home right away when I called, and she called Dr. Look. He said Jesse's arm should be fine, but she still yelled at me.

I sat in our room, watching him watch, and it was the first time I realized that as bad as my summer had been, his was worse.

Outside the window, a bee whirligigged past, and I wondered again about the drones stuck in the hive, tending the queen. And then I felt bad for her, because she couldn't leave either.

Dr. Look decided Jesse could get his final cast removed in time to start school in September. We were in his office, and he was poking and prodding the arm. It was only half-sized, so it still looked weird, but it looked like an arm now and not a dick anymore. Well, not as much.

Where the hand should be--Dr. Look called it the autopod paddle--still looked a little like a ping-pong paddle, but also like a hand. I could see where his fingers were, but there was webbing connecting them. Like a duck's foot.

Dr. Look wanted to check his mobility, so he told Jesse to wave at me. His mini arm waved back and forth, and the paddle folded over, like he was bending all his fingers at once. As sick of Jesse as I was, I had to admit that was pretty cool.

First week of school was rough for Jesse. A bunch of the other first graders teased him. I wanted to punch them, or tie their shoelaces to the top of the monkey bars so they hung upside down when recess ended. Mom told him to tell them about salamanders and stem cells and the seed made from his tooth, like that wouldn't make it worse. I thought it was awesome that he was regenerating a new arm.

That week didn't start off great for me either. Everyone was talking about Dave's party, and all the other cool stuff they had done all summer. Whenever anybody asked, I mumbled something about 'family time,' and changed the subject. I avoided Dave and the guys for a while. But Dave found me at recess on Friday.

"Listen, Sam," he said. "It was lame that we ditched you, and I'm sorry. I don't remember whose idea it was, but we should have stayed. But, here, take a look at this." He pulled out his phone and showed me pictures I hadn't seen from that new park in Oaklyn. There was a fifteen-foot-high climbing wall of rubber tires stacked end to end. It looked like a giant pegboard, and I couldn't keep in the "Whoa" that fell out of my mouth. He said that when they first saw it, they promised not to climb it without me, and they still hadn't. Way back when I was still sitting next to Jesse's hospital bed.

Mom had off that Saturday, and she let me bike out there with them. It was glorious.

After that, things got back to normal pretty fast. Once the first graders got used to it, they even stopped making fun of Jesse's arm. And it was catching up to normal size fast by then, so he didn't need much help anymore.

At Thanksgiving, Mom took us to Dad's new apartment in Mrs. K's car. His only furniture was the old folding card-table and chairs from our garage and a duct-taped futon. The card-table was crammed between his mini-kitchen and the bathroom door. The doorknob dug into my shoulder every time I leaned back.

Dad carved the Butterball and Mom dished out stuffing and poured the gravy. I heaped mashed potatoes onto my plate. They were steaming and creamy and had little shredded bits of skin in them, and I couldn't wait to dig in. Jesse buttered his roll with both hands, even if the new one was still a tiny bit smaller. That Thanksgiving, Mom and Dad pretended like they didn't hate each other, though I don't think they fooled any of us, not even Jesse. But for one night, we were happy together, and it felt like we were still a whole family.

Jesse had had his first appointment with Dr. Look in over a month the day before, and they said his arm was fantastic and that he didn't have to go back for another six months. One of the nurses had made a book of photos they took of his arm when we were at the hospital and all the other times we went back. They gave it to him as a good-bye present.

If you flipped it real fast, his arm regenerated right in front of your eyes. Mom cried the first time she flipped through it. Maybe I did too. Jesse looked at it once and never picked it up again. That night, after Jesse and I went to bed, I lay awake a long time. And I could hear Mom flipping through it and sniffling the whole time.

Jesse'd latched onto a new show by then--a cartoon about dogs that talk and go to high school. It'd been a few weeks since he'd watched Super Action Excite Team Go!, but I still thought about it a lot. I kept remembering Tad driving away on his motorcycle. Kip was really broken up when his brother was gone, and they lost a bunch of battles because he was so distracted and upset. And when Tad finally returned, everyone was crying and apologizing and happy. The team did the best it could and managed pretty well without a fifth member, but Kip needed his brother.

That summer felt agonizing as it crawled past, but when Jesse needed me, I was there. Ever since then, whenever I look at his new arm, I get all warm and proud. I did that. Like those bees, I stuck around and took care of him. And now he can climb the pegboard tire wall faster than any of us.


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