Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 62
Failing Constructs
by Alter S. Reiss
Pinedaughter's Grove
by Ville Meriläinen
The Robots Karamazov
by Marie Vibbert
For a Rich Man to Enter
by Susan Forest
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
A Crash Course in Fate
by Eric James Stone
Bonus Material

A Crash Course in Fate
    by Eric James Stone

First published in What Fates Impose, September 2013

Niklas had forgotten the name of the Thai village by the time the cab stopped in its main square. "Smells like a zoo," he said. He tried breathing through his mouth, and that helped a bit.

"Hush, that's not nice," said Danielle. "Besides, what it really smells like is elephants." She got out of the taxi and Niklas followed.

His loafers sank into the mud--he'd planned for an art gallery in Bangkok, not an expedition to a godforsaken village two hours away. Especially not on a fool's errand to see an elephant that could supposedly paint your future. He pulled out his wallet, thumbed through some colorful bills until he figured he had enough for the fare and an adequate tip, then thrust them toward the driver through the open passenger-side window.

The driver waved the money off. "I wait for you." He left the meter running.

Niklas was about to object, but then realized there was no point. It wasn't like there was another cab they could take back. "Fine." He carefully picked his way through the mud to join Danielle, whose legs were spattered with brown. That didn't seem to bother her a bit, and Niklas momentarily envied her ability to seem comfortable in any situation.

She was speaking in her very limited Thai to a young man in a bright green tee-shirt and navy-blue shorts. Other villagers looked on.

"I speak English," the young man said. "My name is Witthichai."

"Good," Niklas said. "Can you--"

"Wait, Niklas. Let me practice," Danielle said, then haltingly spoke several words in Thai.

Witthichai grinned. "You speak very well for an American. You can practice Thai on me, and I will practice English on you."

Niklas restrained himself from sighing. He wanted to get this side trip over and done so he could get back to picking out pieces for sale in his gallery back in New York, but he also wanted Danielle to enjoy the trip. Although it had made sense from a tax standpoint to combine a business trip and a vacation, their conflicting goals for the trip made things awkward. "Okay, ask him where the elephant that paints the future is."

Danielle tried, and Witthichai helped her out with some of the wording. Finally, after she asked the full question, he answered her in fluid Thai, then glanced at Niklas and said, "This way, sir and madam. I will take you to Pang Dumain."

As they followed him down a path leading into the thick vegetation surrounding the village, Danielle said, "I know Pang means female elephant, but what does Dumain mean?"

"It means 'see fate,'" said Witthichai over his shoulder.

"And I suppose it's just coincidence that an elephant with that name is able to see the future," Niklas said.

Witthichai laughed. "She was given that name after she painted the fate of her first village."

"Wait," said Niklas. "What was the fate of her first village?"

"It is better to show you."

It was good showmanship, Niklas conceded. A good story that went along with a painting increased its value. He wondered how much he'd have to shell out for an elephant painting for Danielle. He only had about three hundred dollars' worth of baht on him, including the emergency funds in his money belt. He'd already invested over seventy-five thousand dollars buying paintings at various art galleries in Bangkok, but those transactions would be paid via banking transfer, and the paintings shipped via his export/import agency in New Jersey. He figured anything in this village would be on a cash-and-carry basis. Well, limited cash was a good bargaining chip on his side.

They arrived at a bamboo stockade in a clearing in the forest.

"This is interesting," Danielle said, looking at an app on her iPhone. "As a noun, Pang means female elephant, but as a verb it means crash or collapse. I wonder if that's just coincidence or if they're etymologically related."

"Over here," said Witthichai, motioning them towards a canvas that hung on the outside of the stockade. A metal roof protected the painting somewhat from the elements. "Pang Dumain painted this."

It seemed pretty abstract: greens and browns mingled into a background of yellows, oranges, and reds. Still, it wasn't bad. Niklas had sold paintings by humans that weren't as impressive.

"This was the fate of her first village," Witthichai said. "Destroyed by forest fire."

"How awful!" Danielle's voice was sympathetic.

"How much?" Niklas asked. Off the top of his head, he could think of three regular customers who would pay at least ten thousand dollars for this painting with that kind of backstory.

"This is not for sale," said Witthichai. "Come, we will have her paint your future. You can buy that." He led them through a door into the stockade. Niklas doubted that the bamboo could really stop an elephant from getting out if it wanted to.

The elephant stood to one side of the enclosed area. It was more brown than gray in color. A white-haired woman rose from a chair, picked up a blank canvas, and placed it on an easel.

When they got close to the elephant, Niklas found it impressive. Its eyes were about level with his, but the top of its head towered another couple of feet higher. It wasn't as big as a minivan, but it still seemed huge.

The elephant reached out its trunk to touch Danielle's forehead, then tousled her dark-brown hair. Danielle laughed in delight. "I think she likes me."

"She touches you to sense your future," said Witthichai.

Niklas bit back a sarcastic reply. Danielle was enjoying this, so he didn't want to spoil it.

The elephant turned its attention to him. It tapped his forehead with its trunk, which felt a bit like someone poking him there with a finger accompanied by a warm breath. There was a gurgling sound, and warm liquid suddenly spurted onto his forehead. The elephant pulled its trunk back.

As Niklas wiped the gooey liquid onto his fingers and stared at it, Danielle chuckled. "Elephant snot. I hope that's not how elephants mark their territory." She pulled some tissues from her purse and handed them to Niklas.

"My apologies," Witthichai said, although he seemed to be repressing a grin. "She does not usually do that."

Wiping off his fingers, Niklas said, "Let's get this over with."

The white-haired woman handed a brush to the elephant. With long, horizontal strokes of light blue, it filled in the top third of the canvas.

"Well," Niklas said, "nice to know there's a sky in our future."

"Hush," Danielle whispered. "Don't break its concentration."

"You're anthropomorphizing," he whispered back.

The elephant alternated between two brushes, filling in most of the bottom two thirds of the canvas with light green and a darker blue. Niklas begrudgingly admitted to himself that it was a reasonably good portrayal of coastal waters, but he didn't say anything out loud because he didn't want to give the elephant the satisfaction. Realizing he was anthropomorphizing the creature just as much as Danielle, Niklas snorted.

A vaguely triangular shape remained unpainted near the center of the canvas, within the sea-colored area. The elephant picked up another brush with its trunk and used gray paint to add a bit of shadow to one side.

"And what's that supposed to be, sticking up out of the water? A shark fin?" Niklas duh-dummed the first few notes of the Jaws theme, then said, "Ooh, I'm afraid to go back in the water."

Danielle gripped his arm. "It's not a fin," she said, voice stricken with horror. "It's the tail of a plane. Our plane is going to crash."

Now that she mentioned it, the shape did resemble the tail of a plane. Niklas glared at Witthichai. "I don't know what game you think you're playing, but I'm not giving you a red cent for that painting."

"I'm sorry, sir," Witthichai said. "Pang Dumain doesn't normally paint plane crashes. It's a warning."

"Come on," Niklas said to Danielle. She was still gripping his arm and staring at the painting, so he pulled her along with him toward the stockade's door. "Let's get back to the city."

A few minutes later they were jouncing along in the cab over the muddy road. "Don't let it get to you," Niklas said. "It's just a bunch of nonsense. There's no way a stupid elephant can see the future."

"But you saw the painting of the fire that burned her village."

"I saw a mostly abstract painting of green and yellow and orange. Even if it was painted before the elephant's village burned down--and we don't even know such a thing even happened--that doesn't prove anything. Only after the fact would anyone connect that painting with a forest fire."

Danielle sucked on her lip for a moment. "But ours wasn't that abstract. Why would she paint a plane crashing into the ocean unless she somehow saw that in our future?"

"Maybe . . " Niklas racked his brain. "Maybe it heard you mention the word crash--you know, how the word for female elephant means crash. And so that put the idea in its mind. That's got to be it: the power of suggestion."

Danielle looked at him incredulously. "So an elephant in a village deep in a rain forest in Thailand understands English and knows enough about airplanes that the mere mention of the word crash makes her paint a picture of a plane crash?"

Niklas shrugged. "It's a more rational explanation than it can see the future. That young man spoke excellent English, so they probably had an English teacher in the village, and there's no reason an elephant might not have overheard the lessons. They have big ears, you know."

Danielle smiled slightly at that, then sighed. "I guess you're right. But I'd rather not fly home tomorrow night. Can we change our flight?"

That would be expensive, probably an extra thousand or so bucks each. He didn't like spending that kind of money for no reason. Niklas thought about pointing out that in Greek myths, people always got into trouble by trying to avoid their fates, and if the elephant really was seeing their future, maybe the flight they switched to was the one that was going to crash.

But he looked into Danielle's eyes and saw that she was really worried. "Yes," he said. "We can stay an extra day."

The smile of relief on her face was worth a couple thousand dollars.

"Wake up, Niklas!"

Danielle's voice--and her shaking his arm--pulled Niklas from the depths of sleep. He opened his eyes and saw her face, bluish in the light from the hotel room's TV. Tears sparkled on her cheeks.

"Wha?" he said, wondering what time it was.

"Look," she said. Her arm, pointing at the TV, trembled.

He focused on the screen, which was tuned to CNN-International. The anchor was saying something about updating with details as they came in, which didn't help much. Then Niklas spotted the words in the ticker: TransPacific Airways plane crashed shortly after takeoff--562 passengers and crew on board. He sucked in a sharp breath.

"It was our flight," Danielle said. "Flight 58 from Bangkok."

Niklas wasn't sure how long they watched the news before the shock of it finally wore off and he started thinking coherently. "No one would deliberately crash a plane just to try to make us believe in a psychic elephant. And for it to be a coincidence is astronomically unbelievable. So at this point I think the most rational explanation is that that elephant really can paint the future."

He turned to Danielle and kissed her. "That's for believing it enough to make me change our flight. You saved our lives."

"She saved our lives," Danielle said.

"Yes, her too." Niklas thought a moment, then said, "We're going back out there to buy that painting. It's the least we can do." It would make for an awesome conversation piece. Some of his clients might even want to buy the painting, but he would keep this one. However, this would certainly make other paintings by the elephant more valuable. It was a pity people had to go out to some remote village in Thailand to get their own futures painted.

Danielle's iPhone buzzed on her night-table. She glanced at it. "My mom."

"Let her know we're okay." Niklas reached for his own iPhone, which showed three missed calls from his sister. He ignored those for now and called Jessika Washington, who was not only a close friend but also head of the import/export agency Niklas used for gallery business. It went to voicemail. "Hey, Jessika," Niklas said. "First off, Danielle and I are okay. We changed to a later flight, for reasons you're not going to believe. Second, I need you to look into some import regs for me. I want to buy an elephant."

Niklas's initial offer to buy the elephant from the village met with an initial response along the lines of, "We could never think to sell such a beautiful and valuable animal of such amazing powers." Niklas had enough experience in bargaining that he recognized this as an invitation to bargain, and after about an hour the negotiations ended with, "You can wire the $70,000 to this account in Bangkok."

But that turned out to be the easy part. To avoid running afoul of various laws in the States, Niklas had to create a business that was licensed as a zoo. Then his zoo bought a $2.7 million house in Connecticut with stables and spent another quarter million on creating an elephant habitat--and that didn't include the legal fees for the zoning variance he had to get.

The worst part was that in order to make the finances work he had to mortgage his gallery in Manhattan, which he had inherited free and clear from his father, and rent out the apartment on the top two floors, where he and Danielle had lived. He now had a two hour commute each way to the gallery from their home/zoo in Connecticut.

The good news was that once word got out to his clients about how he and Danielle had narrowly avoided death, they started clamoring for appointments to have their futures painted by the elephant. At $50,000 per painting, Niklas figured he would be able to pay off the debts and start making a serious profit in less than a year once things got going--even with the cost of feeding the elephant 150 pounds of food a day.

So it was with a great sense of relief that, just under two years from the day Niklas and Danielle had met the elephant, Niklas welcomed the long-time client who was first on the waiting list when she arrived in her chauffeur-driven Lexus. Misha Dainiak was a widow in her late sixties who had paid $150,000 for the privilege of getting the first painting, but since her diamond necklace that sparkled in the afternoon sunlight probably cost more than that, Niklas didn't feel in the least like he was taking advantage of her.

"Right this way, Mrs. Dainiak," Niklas said as he escorted her into the house. "I'll take you to Crash."

"Crash?" Her voice was curious.

"The elephant. Danielle nicknamed her Crash as a reminder of the fact that we're alive because she painted the plane crash, and because the Thai word for female elephant also means crash." Niklas had latched onto the nickname as well, because he thought it made a better artist name, like Sting.

He led the client out the back door and across the lawn to a door in the concrete wall surrounding the elephant habitat. He pulled down a clipboard from a shelf by the door and handed it to her. "I need you to sign these papers before we go in. The first one is a liability waiver."

Mrs. Dainiak took the pen but hesitated. "Is there any danger?"

"Crash is domesticated, having spent her whole life around humans. As far as I know, she's never hurt a human being. But my insurance company requires me to have clients sign the waiver." He didn't mention that the insurance company also required him to own a duly registered high-powered rifle, in this case a Winchester Model 70 Safari Express, for use if the elephant became a danger to anyone.

She nodded and signed.

"The second one acknowledges that while the elephant has painted scenes that have later happened, we do not guarantee that what she paints for you will happen. Furthermore, if the events in the painting do happen, we bear no responsibility for them, nor are we responsible for any costs you incur trying to avoid the events. And finally, there will be no refund even if the painting is not to your liking." Niklas hoped his lawyers had not left any loopholes.

She signed and handed the clipboard back. "Let's see the elephant."

They entered the habitat. It was far larger than the stockade back in Thailand--it covered a full acre and included a grove of trees, an artificial fresh-water stream, a mud pit for wallowing, and pretty much every elephantine convenience Niklas could think of to get the animal-rights activists off his case.

Crash stood near the north wall of the habitat. Danielle had already set up a blank canvas on an easel, with the paint palette nearby.

"Good to see you again, Mrs. Dainiak," Danielle said. "How was your drive?"

As the two women chatted amiably, Niklas wished he could be as good as Danielle at making clients feel like friends. No, it was more than that--Danielle didn't just make them feel like friends, she actually became friends with them.

"Now, Crash is going to touch your head with her trunk," Danielle said. "It kind of tickles."

Niklas held his breath, hoping Crash wouldn't sneeze on Mrs. Dainiak--that would be a disaster.

But Crash merely tapped her forehead a few times, then picked up a brush and began to paint. She started with a pale green over much of the background. A foreshortened rectangle of white took up the foreground. Some curved strokes implied human figures, and soon a coherent scene took shape: four people gathered around a fifth in a hospital bed.

When Niklas recognized the white-haired person in the bed as Mrs. Dainiak, the possibility that his whole business venture could go south really sank in. His and Danielle's case had been special--they could make an easy change to avoid the future Crash had painted for them. But for how many of his potential customers would that be true? How many people, especially wealthy people, wanted to be reminded of their inevitable mortality?

"Umm," he said, trying desperately to come up with a reason why this painting was a good thing. "Mrs. Dainiak, perhaps this fate can be avoided if you go to a doctor and get a thorough--"

"Shh," Mrs. Dainiak said. "She knows what she's doing."

Danielle put a comforting arm around the older woman.

Niklas shut up and watched uncomfortably as Crash finished filling in the details of the four people standing around the bed. Finally, Crash put down her brush, touched Mrs. Dainiak's cheek with the tip of her trunk, then lumbered off toward the stream.

"I haven't told anyone yet," said Mrs. Dainiak, "but I have terminal cancer."

"I am so sorry," Danielle said.

Mrs. Dainiak pointed to the figures around the bed. "Those are my children. About ten years ago, I had a falling out with my daughter Veronica--" She indicated one of the figures. "--and I haven't seen or spoken to her since. I was afraid to tell my children, afraid that Veronica wouldn't care enough to . . ." Her eyes glistened. "Thank you."

Niklas nodded, relieved. "Once the painting is dry, I'll have it packaged up and shipped to you."

He and Danielle walked Mrs. Dainiak to her car and watched as she drove away.

"Now that she's gone, I need to show you something in Crash's place," Danielle said. Her voice was concerned.

"Is there a problem?" he asked as he followed her toward the back door.

"To test things out before Mrs. Dainiak got here, I had Crash do another painting for me."

"What does it show?"

"I want to see if you think it shows the same thing I think it shows."

Inside the climate-controlled shed where they stored the painting supplies, Danielle picked up a canvas leaning against a wall and placed it on an easel.

Anticipating a somewhat abstract painting that he would need to interpret, Niklas was shocked to see a realistic portrayal of a navy-blue car being hit head-on by a semi-truck. The details matched his navy-blue BMW 330xi, right down to the custom sky-blue racing stripes on the left side.

"Well," he said. He became suddenly aware that his heart was pounding in his chest. "Well, I guess we'll sell my car. Problem solved."

Over the next five months, Crash painted pictures for sixty-two clients, the majority of whom were delighted with the result. She also painted fourteen pictures that involved the prospect of death or severe injury to Niklas and/or Danielle:

Danielle's car, a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle, being hit by a train. (Danielle sold the car and bought a white Toyota Camry.)

An elevator cable snapping. (Niklas and Danielle swore not to use elevators and only take the stairs, which they agreed was better for their overall health anyway.)

Niklas's new car, a maroon Volvo, rolling off a road. (Niklas had the car repainted to silver.)

Niklas bleeding from two bullet wounds in the chest, on the sidewalk in front of his gallery. (Niklas started using the gallery's back entrance exclusively.)

Niklas's silver Volvo rolling off the road. (Niklas sold the car and bought a blue Subaru Legacy with All-Wheel Drive.)

Danielle drowned in an unidentifiable body of water. (Danielle gave up swimming.)

Danielle's white Camry partially buried under rubble from a collapsed building. (Danielle sold the car and didn't buy a new one.)

Niklas lying in the alley behind his gallery, his throat slit. (He hired a manager and stopped going in to work.)

Niklas's blue Subaru falling into a sinkhole. (Niklas sold the car, which he no longer needed for commuting, and started taking taxis and buses.)

Niklas and Danielle walking on a sidewalk, about to be hit by a car jumping the curb. (The two of them agreed never to go walking anywhere together.)

A taxi that crashed into a power pole, with live power lines sparking on its body. (They stopped using taxis.)

A bus exploding, strewing dismembered bodies along the road. (They stopped using buses.)

Niklas hit by a car while walking along the road into town. (Niklas stopped going into town, leaving Danielle to do all their shopping.)

Danielle hit by a car while walking along the road into town. (They started having their groceries delivered.)

One evening, Niklas found Danielle sitting on the second-to-the-bottom step of the stairs that led up to the second floor. Her eyes were bloodshot, with dark circles under them.

"Honey, you look exhausted," he said. "Come on up to bed and get some sleep."

"I can't," she said.

"I'll carry you up," he offered.

She shook her head. "Her latest painting is of me, lying at the bottom of these stairs with a broken neck." She sighed. "I'll be safe sleeping on the couch."

"This is ridiculous," Niklas said. "We've become recluses, all because of supposed futures Crash paints."

"She's saved our lives a dozen times."

"Has she? Has she really? I'll grant the first one, the airplane crash. But were we really living such dangerous lives that we would have been killed many times over the past few months without the warning of her paintings? It's like we've been cursed ever since we brought that thing here."

"We're both still alive, that's what matters," Danielle said. "Please, promise me you won't go out and tempt fate by doing stuff that's in the pictures."

He pulled her to her feet and hugged her close. "I promise. We'll get through this, together." They walked to the living room and she lay down on the couch. He watched from a chair until she fell asleep.

Then he went to the gun safe in the study, unlocked it, and pulled out the Winchester. He loaded three rounds into the magazine. The elephant seemed to paint mostly good futures for clients, but only disaster for him and Danielle. Maybe it was sucking the good luck out of their lives. Maybe it was just toying with them. Whatever it was doing would stop tonight, so he and Danielle could get back to living normal lives. They'd be in a financial hole without the elephant paintings, but that was better than living in paranoia, afraid to leave the house, terrified to even go upstairs.

It was time to end the curse.

Niklas exited the back door and crossed the lawn to the elephant habitat. He stood in front of the closed door for a couple of minutes, working up his courage. The elephant had not painted a picture of itself trampling him to death, so he should be able to do this.

He unlocked the door and entered the habitat. The elephant lay on its side near the north wall, looking bluish gray in the moonlight. Niklas had been surprised to learn elephants slept lying down--he'd thought they would be like horses, sleeping on their feet. He walked slowly, quietly across the space between them, rifle pointed at the giant form. Based on his reading, the best place to shoot was near the top of the trunk, so the bullet would pass through the sinus cavities and into the brain. A quick, painless kill would be best.

As he tried to line up for the right angle, he noticed a painted canvas on the easel. It wasn't the one Danielle had spoken about, of her lying at the foot of the stairs. This one showed Niklas holding a rifle in his hands, standing next to an elephant lying on the ground with blood dripping from a hole near the top of its trunk.

The elephant knew what he was going to do.

He looked down and saw the elephant's eye open. It stared at him, but made no move to get up and charge him or escape.

She wanted to die. She wanted him to kill her.

Maybe she had turned his and Danielle's life into hell because that's what her own life felt like to her.

Niklas set down the rifle and sat beside her. "I'm sorry, Crash. Uh, Pang Dumain. I never gave you any choice in the matter, did I? We pulled you thousands of miles from your home, everything you'd ever known. No wonder you hate me and Danielle so much you keep painting our deaths."

After a couple of minutes of thought, Niklas rose and brought a blank canvas out from the shed. Crash lumbered to her feet. She reached out her trunk toward Niklas's head, but he caught it and said, "No," before gently bending it back to touch her own forehead. "Paint the future you want for yourself.

He handed her a brush and she began painting.

His expectation was that she would paint her village back in Thailand, but instead she painted herself standing in a clearing in a jungle. Then she painted several other elephants with her. A small one clutched her tail with its trunk.

"Okay, I get the picture," he said. "First thing in the morning, I'll call Jessika about sending you to an elephant sanctuary back in Thailand."

He put the rifle away before waking Danielle up.

"What is it?" she said, her voice frightened.

"Everything's going to be okay," he said. "We're sending Crash back to Thailand."

"But we need her!"

"She needs to go back," he said. "Come take a look."

Danielle followed him to the habitat.

As they approached Crash and the painting, he said, "I told her to paint the future she wanted for herself. And look what she did."

Danielle looked, then nodded. "You're right. I'm just worried about what will happen to us."

Crash took her brush and began painting in one corner. Two human figures rapidly took shape.

"That's us!" Danielle said. "We're visiting Crash in Thailand."

Niklas looked closely. "I don't think so. Maybe it's the moonlight, but the hair color's totally wrong."

Danielle pulled him close. "We're going to be fine," she said. "That's us with white hair."

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