Read an Excerpt
by Alexander Jablokov
I slid out of the rental car's AC, and the heat of the midwestern night wrapped itself around my face like a wet iguana. Lightning bugs blinked in the unmown grass of my parents' lawn, and cicadas rasped tenaciously at the subdivision's silence. Old Oak Orchard was so new it wasn't even on my most recent DeLorme map CD-ROM, and it had taken me a while to find the place.
My father pulled the door open before I could ring the bell.
"Bert." He peered past me. "Ah. And where is --"
"Stacy's not with me." I'd practiced what to say on the drive from the airport, but stiff hadn't come up with anything coherent. "We ... well, lees just say there have been problems."
"So many marriages are ended in the passive voice." His voice was carefully neutral. "Come along back, then. I'll set you up a tent."
Dad wore a pair of once-fashionable pleated linen shorts and a floppy T-shirt with the name of an Internet provider on it. His skin was all dark and leathery, the color of retirement. He looked like he'd just woken up.
"I told Mom when I was coming. . . ."
"Sure." He grabbed my suitcase and wrestled it down the hall. "She must have nailed the note to a tree, and I didn't see it."
I didn't know why I always waited a moment for him to explain things. He never did. I was just supposed to catch on. I had spent my whole life trying to catch on.
"Lulu!" he called out the back slider. "Bert's home."
I winced as he dragged myleather suitcase over the sliding door tracks into the backyard. A glowing blue North Face tent sat on the grass. A Coleman lantern pooled yellow on a picnic table stolen-from a roadside rest area. The snapped security chain dangled down underneath.
"Lulu!" he yelled, then managed a grin for me. "She must be checking the garden. We get ... you know ... slugs. Eat the tomatoes."
The yard didn't end in a garden. Beyond the grass was a dense growth of trees. Now and then headlights from the highway beyond paled the undersides of the maple leaves, but they didn't let me see anything.
"Sure." I sat down at the picnic table. "So how are you, Dad?"
He squinted at me, as if unsure whether I was joking. "Me? Oh, I'm fine. Never better. Life out here agrees with me. Should have done it a long time ago."
Clichés were my father's front defensive line. He was fortifying quickly, building walls in front of questions I hadn't even asked yet.
"Trouble?" I said. "With Mom?" Being subtle is a nonstarter in my family.
"And how is your fast-paced urban lifestyle?" he asked.
"We're working a few things out. A bit of a shakedown period, you might call it."
My parents' entire marriage had been a shakedown period. I was just an interim project that had, somehow become permanent. I swear, all through my childhood, every morning they had been surprised to see me come downstairs to breakfast. Even now, my dad was looking at me as if he wasn't entirely sure who I was.
"Well, to start with, Dad, I guess the problems Stacy and I have been having stem from being in the same profession --"
"You know," Dad said, "your mother still has the darkest blue eyes I have ever seen."
"She does have lovely eyes."
"Cornflower blue, I always thought. Her eyes are cornflower blue."
Stacy's eyes were brown, but I guessed my father wasn't interested in hearing about that. "Cornflowers are not the flowers on corn." It had taken me years to figure that out.
"Someone once told me," I said, "that you can hear corn growing at night. It grows so fast on hot summer nights. A night like tonight."
"You need quiet to hear it," he said. "You don't like quiet, do you, Bert?" He was already looking for an argument. "You can't market quiet."
"That's where you're wrong," I said. "There's an ambient recording you can buy of corn growing. Cells dividing. Leaves rustling. Bugs, I don't know, eating the leaves. That little juicy crunch. Call it a grace note."
"And so you play it over your Home Theater system. With subwoofer, side speakers, the works? Pour yourself a single-malt, sit back, relax?"
"You don't listen to ambient, Dad. You let it wash over you. Through you. The whole point of modem life is never giving your full attention to any one thing. That gets boring. So you put the corn in the CD stack with the sound of windblown sand eroding the Sphinx, snow falling on the Ross Ice Shelf, the relaxing distant rattle of a horde of lemmings hitting the ocean, pop open your Powerbook to work some spreadsheets, and put a football game on the giant TV. You'll get the Oneness thing happening in no time."
"Are you getting it?" he asked softly. It wasn't like his regular voice at all.
"The Oneness. Whatever it is you're looking for."
"There was a time when I was so close I could taste it.. . ."
"Bertram! There you are!" Had my mother just come out of the woods? She was knotting the sash of a fluffy white terrycloth robe, as if she'd just stepped from the bathroom. Her gray hair was cut close to her scalp. She looked great. She always had. Even rubbing sleep out of her eyes, her feet bare. She still painted her toenails, I noticed, and they weren't even chipped. "Franklin, weren't you going to go get him a tent?"
"I was," my dad said.
She hugged me, then tugged at the sleeve of my jacket. "Isn't it a little hot for wool?"Year's Best SF 4. Copyright � by David G. Hartwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.