Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 57
Leaders Taste Better
by Stephen Lawson
Good Fairies
by Megan Lee Beals
The Buried Children's Club
by James Edward O'Brien
IGMS Audio
After the Matilda Briggs Went Down
Read by Alethea Kontis
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Warm Space
by David Brin

The Buried Children's Club
    by James Edward O'Brien

The Buried Children's Club
Artwork by Andres Mossa

I crawl into the front cab to find my sunglasses melted on the dashboard. I'd had the trailer A/C routed into the sleeper all morning. I'd forgotten how ruthless high noon is out here. I fry my hand trying to crank down the window.

I slide a mitten over my fingers. Pry open the passenger's side door. The guardrail wavers behind the oven-hot air.

I could just as easily have bundled up and slept in back with Maude, but the payload gives me the creeps. I collect the unwanted children the second time around.

It was a bad idea hatched in a hoity-toity fertility clinic that caters to artifacts that breed late in life--the nannied class--who treat childrearing like some vanity project.

The Buried Children's Club dupes offspring shortly after conception. They raise the duplicates in tandem with the genuine article. An entire colony housed in a derelict tourist trap off Vieques, a stone's throw from where the Navy tested bombs toward the end of the twentieth century.

The dupes are stowed away for a rainy day. Premature death. Abduction. Accident. Suicide. When death calls, we're a call away with a carbon copy of your lost loved one. As they mature, dupes have an all-access pass to the webcams, home movies, digital diaries, and social media feeds of their host families to ensure seamless replacement. God bless nanotechnology.

Dupes come out of the box right where the deceased left off, not knowing any better: well-tanned, well-behaved golems. We peddle in the world's most expensive security blankets. The catch is that the end product is not who you've lost, but a facsimile. An approximation that is fine for some and better than the real thing for others.

I'm saddled with the unsatisfied lot. The returns-to-sender. My job is part long-haul transport, part customer relations.

I kill the hazards before I make my way round back. I pound on the trailer. The doors wheeze open and Maude wriggles out, still zipped to the waist in her glowworm sleeping bag.

Maude is my copilot. She doesn't say much. I guess they want a veteran in the tractor for these cross-country hauls until I officially earn my wings. She's always struck me as what they used to call a "company man"--a lifer at Premature Passing Solutions, LLC.

Those of us lower on the totem pole christened her Queen Undertaker of the Buried Children's Club, but no one ever calls her that to her face. She shakes off her sleeping bag like it's full of bad memories. She thaws in the grueling sun.

I give her a hand unlatching the pythonesque coaxial from the juicing station and reel it back into the cab. It's not like she needs my help; she's worth two of me and she knows it.

We're half a day from our pickup with the bland, brown sprawl of Ohio and Pennsylvania before us. If there are more scenic parts of this country, they remain untouched by Route 80. Pneumatic transit tubes blown through rock face. Yellow grass. Copper-red rivers. Drill pipes sprout from crumb cake land like hell's angry chimneys.

Maude plugs our route into the nav. I call shotgun and recover my hipflask from the glove compartment. I offer it up to her before I take a swig. She swats me off like I'm an overgrown shoofly.

Her eyes catch my sunglasses--gnarled, misshapen--glued to the dashboard. She sneers. Pries them off the dash.

"Rookie error," she scolds.

"They're throwaways," I say. "No big deal."

"Symptomatic of a larger issue," she insists. "Carelessness and a failure to think preventatively. Long haul transport is about surveying the road ahead--weighing and circumventing potential hazards."

She tosses them.

"This job doesn't have to be half as miserable as you make it," I suggest.

"It's honest work," she scowls. "Steady work. Nothing miserable about it."

"We talking about the same gig?"

Maude shrugs, eyes glued to the road.

"It is steady," I concede, taking another pull off the flask.

We hit a dead zone through a mountain pass. The auto-nav lags. Maude has to take the wheel. Manual pilot. Just like the bad old days.

It's a miracle there weren't more road deaths back then, with any idiot who could turn a key and reach the pedal permitted to helm a half-ton of speeding metal.

I suppose there were fewer people then, fewer bad decisions being made, more road to be had. We don't talk for the rest of the day.

My mood lightens once we close in on the Delaware Water Gap. The beveled rock face flanking the highway becomes peppered with trees: lush swatches of green, more dense with each mile.

Soon, there's enough greenery that we can hear the applause of windswept branches. The sound coalesces with the galloping rush of water as we near the bridge. It's a sound that can sew up your insides when you hear it.

Our pickup is just across the river, on the Jersey side.

The pickup is at a house on the bank of the river. A repurposed cobblestone mill with its waterwheel still intact--the house looks like it might have crawled out of a storybook if not for the highway roaring twenty yards from its front door. Must have cost a mint. The exclusive clientele of Premature Passing Solutions, LLC seldom have such taste.

There's a quiet dignity to the place. A coziness not found in the gaudy tract mansion parks where the rich tend to hole up nowadays. As we pull up, the engine light on the dash goes haywire.

I point it out to Maude with a certain degree of satisfaction, after her dissertation on foresight and preventative thinking. She's the veteran grease monkey on this haul, not me.

Her eyes dart from the flashing red icon on the dash to the nav screen and back again. I've struck a nerve; she doesn't even bother chewing me out.

"Tell you what," she says. "There's a weigh station a few kilometers down the road. Fully loaded. You handle this pickup, smooth things over with the client, and I'll drive down there, take a look under the hood, and swing back once we're good to go."

This is it: my first pickup without some front office minion breathing down my neck. I jump at the chance. I grab my steno from the glove compartment.

There's no doorbell--just a wrought iron knocker anchored into the mahogany door. I rap twice. No answer. Knock again. Still nothing.

I figure I'll call. Give the client a nudge. I realize I left my phone in the sleeper of the cab. Then I hear rummaging behind the door, a deadbolt shifting in its chamber. A woman answers. Her eyes are sunken and dark, her choppy brown bob a seismograph of sleepless nights. She's wearing gym shorts and an oversized khaki shirt--the sort of thing that might compliment a pith helmet or German tourist.

She looks at me like a reaper come to call, my Premature Passing Solutions, LLC coveralls subbing in for a black shroud and scythe.

When her lip starts to tremble I know this is not going be an open-and-shut case. I pull up the work order on my steno.

"Uh . . . Mrs. . . ." I can't even get her name out before she latches onto me and turns on the waterworks.

"Catalina," she sobs, "please . . ."

This is going to get sticky. Damn that Maude. She must've had a sixth sense about this one. Lifers always know a lot more than they let on.

I'm a bit of a hack when it comes to expressing my feelings or fielding the emotional flotsam of others. Eighty-five percent of this job is people-and-their-baggage free--driving, heavy lifting, listening to the radio, chewing up scenery in an air-conditioned semi. I'm only lousy at the other fifteen percent.

Catalina's chest convulses like a kid throwing a supermarket tantrum. I pat her back and attempt to wriggle free from her clutches while simultaneously eyeballing the steno I'm one-handing behind her head, looking for the scripted spiel I'm hoping might neutralize the scenario.

"As your Premature Passing Solutions point-person," I stammer, "your satisfaction is our . . . uh . . . my top priority."

Shit. I flubbed the intro. Catalina doesn't seem to care. Still weeping convulsively, she unlocks her grip and beckons me inside. I scan her living room for the pickup. Roaring fire. Corduroy sectional. Bay windows facing the Delaware. A half-dozen picture frames face down. But nary a soul in sight.

I used to think initial deliveries would be the most difficult--dealing with clients freshly tossed into the throes of the raw, foggy nightmare that accompanies the loss of a loved one. But the pickups are the real doozies--when a dupe fails to fill that void.

The masquerade reveals itself in quiet, little pinpricks: a passing turn of phrase that would have never crossed the departed's lips, an uncharacteristic gesture, is all it takes.

My job is to hurry away the placebo that failed to remedy the ailment. I'm a glorified magician's assistant tasked to clean up after the stunts that fail to fool the audience.

I will listen to this woman's story, offer my sympathies, review the work order, and cart off a stranger's child, snatching away the last ditch delusion that finality might not feel quite so final.

Catalina makes for the kitchen. I hear her blowing her nose. Glasses clink. She returns with her hair pinned back and two tumblers in hand. She hands one to me. I take a whiff.

"Crawford's Lowland," she says.

No ice. Just how I like it. I knock back the drink. Maude can drive us back. Penance for saddling me with this pickup all on my lonesome.

I steal a glance at my steno screen. Jump back into the spiel, verbatim. "I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you."

"No. You can't," she says.

She plops down on the couch right next to me and knocks the steno to the floor. "Is everything you say scripted?"

I spring up. I feign something's caught my eye beyond the picture window. The river's right there, brown and rushing and pocked with timeworn stones. "No," I say. "I-I'm sorry. This is my first run at this."

She approximates a laugh and wipes her nose on the sleeve of her oversized khaki shirt. "Yeah, they warned me ahead of time."

"Is he on the premises?"

"Down by the river," she says. "I know it's against protocol, but--"

"I won't tell if you don't," I assure her.

I can feel the heat of her gaze on the back of my head. "We had a little sendoff, just myself and Bridie," she says.

It's a pet peeve of mine when a person refers to a third party in the familiar as if you're supposed to know every little walk-on player in her life. Having buried a child gives the client some leeway, though. Hers is the solitary name on the work order. No baby daddy or domestic partner as far as the record shows. I stare out the window and paint a picture of this woman's solitary life.

A dead child lost beneath the press of a world that won't stop moving, a river running until it has worn us all down. Another life that has passed unnoticed--a buried child forgotten as if it never was. Let her talk about Bridie as if she carries some weight in this world. No harm, no foul.

"My mother's name was Bridie," I tell her.

"You from around here?" asks Catalina.

"More or less," I tell her. "Warren County, originally. Spent some time in Vieques. My pop was a--"

"New age tree hugger?"

I nod. "It's that easy to tell?"

"Only rednecks and hippies take root this far out in the sticks."

"Well, that was because my mom was a lifer with the--"

"National Parks Service," she blurts.

"Damn, you're good."

There's a gleam in her eye that wasn't there before. Or maybe it's just the remnants of her tears.

"Are you close with them?"

"Who?" I ask. I don't appreciate the inquisition, but I figure small talk might smooth things over when it comes time for me to cart off the dupe.

"Your parents."

"I was," I say. "They're not around anymore."

It seems so long ago now that even their death is an abstraction; I learned via email and was too late to attend the burial. Catalina buries her face in my back. I flinch.

"I always thought it was weird how they only use the word orphan for children," I tell her. "It was my birthday, the day I became an adult in the eyes of the state, when I found out about my parents' accident. I didn't feel any less cast adrift than as if I'd been five. I suppose you develop more coping mechanisms the older you get, but--"

She's sobbing again, crying into the back of my coveralls.

"Shit," I say. "I'm sorry. Like I need to tell you anything about--"

I bite my tongue before I say it: loss.

Catalina sniffles. She turns me around to face her. She runs that khaki sleeve across her nostrils, struggling to regain some composure.

"What if you woke up one morning and it was all different?" she asks. "If everything was all right?"

That would take one powerful knock on the head, I think. "Thanks to the advances of modern science?"

"What if you had a second shot?"

The fundamentally flawed sales pitch, courtesy of Premature Passing Solutions, LLC. I never entirely bought into what the Buried Children's Club was selling; that's why they stuck me in backend operations. I have much more in common with the dissatisfied customer.

I don't believe that a surrogate life erases the life we have lived, I want to tell her. That's time's job. I would tell her if she were anyone else. A buried child is a buried child and a nursery full of dupes will never be mistaken for a resurrection.

Market surveys suggest the vast majority of customers are satisfied to very satisfied with Premature Passing Solutions, LLC's product. Maybe it's the way I see things that's fundamentally flawed. Maybe it's just that people can't take much reality and will wear any blinders provided to shirk it.

Catalina darts back to the kitchen. She returns with the Crawford's Lowland.


"Catalina," she insists. "Please."

"Catalina," I say, "I appreciate what you're going through, but we'll need to contend with the matter at hand sooner or later."

"Dammit, Tom."

Catalina must have done her homework; she knows my name. Premature Passing Solutions, LLC tries to keep these pickups as clinical as possible on our end. We're instructed to make the client feel comfortable during the process while never getting too warm and fuzzy--like a visit to the proctologist. The two "critical Cs" straight out of the Buried Children's Club training manual: console and conceal.

Between the mint Catalina probably shelled out for the dupe and the nonrefundable deposit, she's paid more than enough to be on a first name basis with a glorified dupe wrangler like myself, if you ask me. But I don't make the rules.

"Can you give it a minute?" she grimaces. "Can we just sit? Enjoy our drinks?"

I peer through the front window. No Maude. No truck. I've got time.

"Sure," I shrug. "Maybe out back, though? There's a chilly wind, but the sun's still peeking out. The river's calling."

A grin erupts across her face. In truth, I want to get a bead on the pickup before Maude swings back. Assess the situation in case of unforeseen speed bumps.

Catalina's smile pushes all the wear and worry off her face. Worry lines erode into laugh lines. Her smile sheds years. I realize she can't be much older than I am.

There's a faraway glint in her almond-shaped eyes: she's the type I'd have fallen hard for in some other life. I pick up my tumbler. I take another sip and hold the whisky in my mouth until it burns.

Glass doors off the kitchen lead out back. There's an old porcelain toilet that's been turned into a planter. Collapsed lawn chairs brindled with mold and rust. The rushing river drives the creaking waterwheel, and there's still no sign of the pickup. I try to play it subtle.

"Still works, eh?" I gesture toward the wheel. "That's something you just don't see anymore. Now everything's turbines."

"It's not connected to anything," she explains. "Doesn't serve much purpose outside of looking pretty."

I scrunch up my nose all rodent-like, clench my teeth, and pull my lips back into a rictus grin. "Funny--the same's been said of me."

She laughs; I'm struck with the urge to make her laugh. Must be the palpable weight of the sorrow she's carrying. Or maybe it's just the booze. I scan the banks for any sign of the pickup and start to panic a little.

Catalina stands at the corner of the house. The stones are darker toward the foundation, coated in a thick beard of lichen. Chalk lines mar the wall. Catalina stands on her tippy toes and swats at the highest.

"I mark the waterlines after every flood," she explains. "This was the worst by far. Five years back. Remember?"

"No," I say.

Catalina frowns at my lack of recognition.

"Your insurance must be through the roof," I add.

"Yeah, but this view . . ."

I eyeball the banks again for some sign of the pickup. "Yeah, this is the sort of place I could definitely get used to," I say.

"Feels like home, right?"

"Right," I nod. "Look--Catalina--I hate to be curt but you said he was out back."

It's as if I drained the light right out of her. She trudges down to me and takes my hand. I don't pull away.

"I'm only asking because it's almost dusk," I apologize.

She steers me toward the porcelain planter in the center of the yard.

"Clever," I say. I rap a knuckle on the toilet tank flowerbox--my feeble stab at lightening things again.

"I don't like to see things go to waste," she says. "People seldom think of practical things as beautiful: toilet bowls, pots and pans, tire irons--but they can be made to be."

She parts the weeds sprouting from the soil. I catch a flash of something metal. She wrests what looks like a shitty bowling trophy from the dirt, inadvertently uprooting the few sickly flowers left in the planter.

She brushes off the trophy with the sleeve of that khaki shirt. It's then that I realize it's not a trophy.

"You wanted your ashes scattered on the river," she says to the urn. "But I just can't let go. Not yet. I don't know if I'll ever be ready."

Shit, I think. Double shit. I dig for the steno in my coverall pocket. I pull up the work order again. There's no info here about the dupe having expired.

Of all the Plan Bs addressed in the training manual, there's no standard protocol for handling dupes killed and cremated. There could be penalty fees. Tests to be run to ensure authenticity of the returned specimen. I can't think straight. Awash with panic, my head feels like a hive of angry bees.

I pat my pockets down for my phone, almost forgetting I left it in the truck with Maude. "I-I'm gonna need to use your phone," I stumble. "This is a little . . . uh . . . unorthodox for my . . . this is my first pickup solo, like I said."

My dogged adherence to the task at hand sets Catalina's lips quivering. Tears start to flow. She clutches the urn like I'm a wolf bent on devouring it. I'm screwing up this run left and right.

"I suppose the future needs proper space to take root just like anything else," she sobs. "Not stifled under all this clutter--all this past."

She shoves the urn into my gut, hands trembling. "Take it."

I feel like garbage for what I'm doing to this poor woman in the name of expediency--in the name of commerce--but it's when I see the engraving on the urn that the world is yanked from under me.

My name. Tom Okeke. Grooved letters plugged with soil.

Some kind of prank, I think. But of the few friends I keep, none are pranksters. Most are half a continent away.

A harbinger, perhaps, but a lousy one if one at all. No date of death. Devoid of any specificity that might tease out my ending and keep me awake at night. We all end up as some approximation of ash sooner or later.

My name on an urn makes for lousy nightmare fodder. Just a name on a stupid urn. I draw a deep breath and try to focus on the river, blot out all else, and tether my thoughts.

Paranoia needles me; perhaps it's Catalina. Maybe she's nuts. A homegrown Lizzie Borden. Maybe the urn's empty and just intended for me. Catalina has a river at her disposal to carry the dead downstream if all else fails.

She has the making of a lousy murderess, all grief-stricken and fragile. With the work order and drop-off logged into the Premature Passing Solutions, LLC servers, it wouldn't make sense.

I must be the crazy one, I figure, for thinking such things. I mop my brow with the sleeve of my coverall. I toss the urn back in the planter.

"That's my name," I say. "But you know that already. You know my name."

She's bent toward the river with her back to me. All I can hear is the rush of water through that whinnying waterwheel.

"This some kind of joke?" I ask, knowing damn well it isn't--unsure what the hell this whole debacle is.

"Bridie Okeke née Verdant," she recites my mother's name like a mantra. "They said there might be a learning curve," she shudders. "An acclimation period. But they kept you in the dark, didn't they?"

"I'm not following," I confess, my patience worn thin. I scan the far bank of the river one last time.

"I don't see your damn defective kid anywhere," I blurt, my words shotgun spray: sloppy, unprofessional.

I'd probably get written up, but the Buried Children's Club could stick their health benefits and four weeks' R&R if this was my taste of things to come.

"Don't be angry, Tom--please," she sniffles.

She snatches my hand. I swat her away. She grabs it again. I stop fighting.

"One thing," she insists. "Then you're free to--." She gnaws at her lip. Steadies her cadence. "Then you're free. If you want."

She leads me back toward the stone house, into the room with its downturned picture frames. She plucks a photograph from the mantle. She clasps it to her breast.

"I haven't had it in me to look at any pictures since," she explains. "But with you here, it's like an intermission from one long nightmare."

"Look," I stammer, "T-to bury a child, I-I imagine it's . . . it's gotta be a parent's worst nightmare. But the people I represent, you see . . . there's a business side to all this. Contracts were signed. Maybe somebody else can wrap this up for you? A husband? Wife? Some significant other--someone who might be better equipped to handle this right now?"

Catalina whips the picture frame at me. I bobble it, recover, and turn it face up.

A couple stares back at me. A couple of faces: my face, Catalina's face. Happier times, I'd imagine. She lunges at me, wailing, flailing her fists. Knuckles catch my cheek. Dull, resounding pain that makes my eyes well up.

She beats on my chest like an EMT attempting to revive a dead man. Collapsing. Collapsing into my arms. I hold her because I don't know what else to do.

"I should really call in," I remind her once she's settled back down a bit. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

"Nobody's gonna answer. No one's coming back for you. All you're supposed to do is remember, dammit," she says, sleeve across her running nostrils again. "You ever wonder what becomes of unclaimed dupes? All those children that stayed unburied?"

A chill runs down my spine. There were rumors of decommissioning once they hit adulthood. Horror stories. Lobotomies. Euthanasia. Organs harvested. Sold on secondary markets. That's why we never asked. Sometimes the world was rosier through blinders--half-truths and assumptions more convenient than reality.

"I never had a child, Tom," seethes Catalina. "We never did--you and I. Then you were taken from me--a congenital defect that had gone undetected. Nothing I was prepared for. No goodbyes or last gasps like in the movies. But after the funeral Bridie let it slip. You'd been duped. Prenatally."

My legs give out. I collapse on the couch. Fumble for the tumbler of Crawford's Lowland. But it's empty.

"You said this is the sort of place you could get used to," she says. "You agreed when I asked you if it felt like home." There's venom in her voice, like she's leveling an accusation. "Maybe that's because deep down you know that this is your home. This is where you're supposed to be."

"I should really call this in," I croak. Dry mouthed. World spinning.

"This took a lot of legal wrangling," says Catalina. "Premature Passing wouldn't budge at first. They're all about suspension of disbelief when it comes down to it. They didn't want to risk their audience stealing a glimpse behind the curtain."

I feel nauseous. I go for the bottle. Pour myself another drink. Shoot it down. Heave it back up on her sofa.

"There was no precedent for letting an adult dupe go free-range," she continues. "They warned us. Dupes that have reached full maturation are significantly less malleable than their younger counterparts--dangerously so in some cases. We had to clear out the coffers to make this happen, Bridie and me."

Catalina passes me a yellow, dog-eared snapshot that'd been wedged into the lip of one of the other picture frames: an aged approximation of the mother I'd been led to believe was deceased. Bridie looks back at me. And Dad. Sheesh, where'd his hair go? His eyes look so tired.

"Your father didn't want any part of it," says Catalina. "He didn't want to face you, explain what they'd done . . . how they loved you so much they were willing to condemn the second you--the you that you are--to a life imagined. Half-remembered."

I feign a snicker through my own trembling lips. My eyes start to sting. "Buyer's remorse."

My parents. I could hug them again. Call them on Christmas. Sit across from them on Sundays for baked ziti and apple crumble. For the first time. We could be one another's resurrections.

I'd been walking around with another me's memories since I was pulled off the factory line. Perhaps it was time to make some of my own--to hit the ground running.

"You're not a slave to this, Tom," sniffles Catalina. "You can walk right now with a pretty decent pension for someone our age. Never work again a day in your life. You can call into HQ and they'll tell you the exact same thing. This was all a big gamble on my part. No guarantees or warrantees on the company's end."

"I don't even know who you are," I say.

"We're all strangers when all's said and done, aren't we?" she says. "Sometimes we'd sleep till noon on Saturdays and just stay in bed until the sun went back down, just listening to the waterwheel. Once you died, you were gone. All that closeness we'd had made you feel that much further."

"But that wasn't me," I insist. "I'm not him. I wish I could be . . . maybe I wish I were . . . but I'm not."

"If the lies someone tells you hold more promise than the truth--or the lies you tell yourself do, for that matter--you might just start believing them."

I feel the weight of a life never led crushing down on my shoulders. I feel like the only chump in this scheme who sees some danger in a life lived with blinders on.

"I need some air," I say, teetering to my feet. Even standing is dizzying. I make for the front door. Solid. Mahogany. My in to a home that's weathered floods and who knows how many generations. I open it.

The highway's a fury hive this time of day, tangible. Headlights and the setting sun. Steel wheels. Pneumatic tubes. Wheezing. Grinding. Progress giving the river a run for its money.

All these schedules and work orders, all these places to be and appointments made, underscored by the dizzying uncertainty of it all. I trip over a pair of scuffed slippers beside the door: fleece lined. Fashioned after Lenape moccasins.

They have that inviting look of all worn-in things, each scuff and worn swatch of fleece an untold story. Something drives me to kick off my boots and slide right into them.

A perfect fit. Trained to my arches and the wear of my heel. I turn to find that Catalina has crept up behind me.

"You'd call them your dancing shoes," she says.

"I've got two left feet," I say.

"I remember," she says. "But when you're drunk . . ."

I finish for her--more a wish than a memory--a stolen memory between two old flames I'd witnessed through the jukebox glow of a truck stop barroom. "I'd pull up one of the old crooners on the stereo--someone out of vogue--someone almost forgotten."

"And I'd stand on your feet." Catalina stands on the toes of my slippers, her feet bare and muddy. We latch onto each other. It's all I can do to stop the room from spinning.

"And you'd try your best," she smiles, "and we'd waltz round the room like a pair of broken marionettes."

The balls of her feet press into the tops of mine, anchoring me there, if only for that moment. I lead with my right foot.

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