Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


You’ll Always Have the Burden With You
by Ken Liu

by Aliya Whiteley

Adventures of Doria Quinn
by Joe Occhipinti

by Nathaniel Williams

My Soul to Keep
by Eric Del Carlo

Voices of { }
by Sean Eret

Foggy Planet Breakdown
by Peter Wood

Subcasting the Pain
by Erin Lale

Expansion of Space
by Brian Biswas

by Simon Kewin


Journey to the Bottom of Nothing
by Eric M. Jones

Giving the Gift of Science
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




My Soul to Keep

By Eric Del Carlo

THERE’S DAD, ASSHOLE EXTRAORDINAIRE, evangelizing to the pigeons. The day is damp, the sky looks like mud, and he’s got a plastic grocery bag on his head, handles knotted under his stubbly cleft chin. His thigh-length coat is spattered with bird shit. He looks homeless. He is. And so I have to be too.

He’s wandering among the pigeons, who coo threateningly and barely amble out of his way. They know who owns this plaza, in a part of the city that most people have given up on. Other living-rough folks are here, though, too; and it’s really these that Dad is speaking to, in his madman’s croak, peppering his words with crazy phrases. It sounds like goon babble—until you listen, or you just can’t help but hearing, for a few minutes. Then he starts to make his own special kind of sense. If you try, you can catch the camouflaged meanings, the strings of sane words among the gobbledygook.

Some are listening, gathered on the rusting benches, sitting out in the drizzly open, as Dad roams the cracked pavers of the plaza. What a douchebag.

I’m on lookout. I’ve been doing this since I was nine, all the small squirrely stuff, because I could go unnoticed. But I’m getting too big for it. People look at me a lot more now; and I’m aware of the attention in new ways.

Dad goes on with his mutterings. Some people listen, some doze on the benches. This can’t last forever.

* * *

I push hanks of wet blond hair off my forehead as I burrow down into my sleeping bag. Eight months without a haircut. Dad used to keep it short and more or less even, but he had his scissors—little orange-handled ones, like I remember cutting construction paper with in kindergarten—taken away at a Handoutlet, where nobody can have anything like a weapon. I don’t miss school. And I like my hair longer. I look a little bit dangerous these days.

We’re out of the rain, though we’re not in a great spot, which is why nobody’s near us. And since no one is around Dad can tell me, “C’mon, Cedric. Go ahead and say ’em. It’s okay. No one’ll hear.”

Like I’m getting a treat. I don’t sigh so loud that he can easily hear over the rain sizzling on the concrete on either side of the slim overhang we’re under. It really started coming down after nightfall. But when I do my “Now I lay me...", I exaggerate the singsong, just a little. Just enough. I see the disappointment in his eyes even as he tries to hide it. It scares me for a second. I want, briefly, to be good. The good son. Good Cedric.

Well, screw Dad. And screw Cedric too.

He goes to his bag, and I hear him whispering for an hour, the same stuff he’s been saying all day in the plaza. Only now it’s crystal clear; and I’m the only one in earshot. I don’t drop into sleep until he finishes.

* * *

When my sister, who was older than me, was still with us, she’d say again and again, “Let’s get out of the city. There are places in the country where no one’s going to bother us. Wide-open spaces.”

That stuck in my mind: wide-open spaces. I remember shopping trips and stuff to the suburbs when I was just a kid, back when we still had our home and Mom. But Adalia was talking about something else, someplace grander, I always thought. Wide-open spaces probably meant there wasn’t any danger of somebody overhearing what Dad said. No threat of arrest. I’ve had to be afraid of the police all my life. Thanks to Dad. Dad and his dipshit beliefs, which I went along with for a long, long time, and now am so sick of I can’t stand it.

My sister left. Cut and ran. She even told Dad she was going, but he didn’t—couldn’t—stop her. Adalia is just a jumble of images to me now. Mostly I remember that she was the practical one. Like Mom was, I think. Only, Adalia didn’t waste away in a hospital bed, with Dad weeping and praying over her until an orderly heard and told him she’d call the cops if he kept it up.

That was a while ago. Things are different. Dad wouldn’t get a warning now.

* * *

I’m not with him every minute of the day. Today, for instance, I have to go get his eyedrops. I’ve got a pharmacard that identifies me as Bright Estabrook, a name I like a lot better than my own. I look like the picture on the card, which Dad got from somewhere. Dad’s eyes give him headaches, but I got to give him this—he doesn’t bitch about it. He’s had this trouble with his eyes since he was a boy, he says.

Stains wipe off my coat; it’s some slick synthefabric. I look presentable when I go into the pharmacy. But, like I said, I’m not a kid anymore, and on the way out with Dad’s drops some adults standing on the corner notice me. They wave, call me over, with friendly smiles.

I know I should keep on walking, but I don’t. A little of that is the thought of an extra few moments of discomfort for Dad; but the rest of it is curiosity, a tingle of strange excitement.

“Hey, man, how’s it goin’?”

“You on your own?”

“What’s your name, little bro?”

There are four of them, and the one who hasn’t asked me anything is a woman half a head taller than me, with hair a darker blond than mine is and a face that makes me think about beautiful sunrises and the first taste of hot food after a long time without it.

Nobody makes a grab for me. No one asks what’s in the bag. These are rough-looking types, maybe not living on the streets but close to it. Their friendliness seems real, though.

“I’m Bright,” I tell them. They like it. They laugh, but they’re not making fun of me. One has a smoke going, cupping it against the wind. The marijuana scent blows right over me. As it gets passed around, one tough asks if I want a toke. “I’m underage,” I answer, expecting mocking laughs this time.

But the woman, who I’ve been trying real hard not to just stare at, says, “That’s smart, Bright. You wouldn’t want to do it out here where anybody could see, right?” She takes the cigarette, sucks in the smoke, releases it and adds, “Maybe we’ll see you.”

It’s a dismissal, but she’s not gruff. More like she’s treating me like a grownup. I like that. Like it a lot.

I bring Dad his eyedrops. He’s pacing across the mouth of an alley, jaw clenched so tight it’s white. It isn’t just the ache from his eyes. The nimrod is trying not to pray out loud.

* * *

I know I should miss our home, but I don’t, really. I remember it, sort of. A familiar series of walls, a bed to sleep in every night. Before Mom got sick and while Dad still had his job, we ate regular meals and were warm, with a roof over our heads. I remember our TV.

But it wasn’t all fun. It was like we were in our own separate world, Dad, Mom, Adalia, me. Dad ran it. He told us what was right and wrong. He told these big, powerful, wild stories that were sometimes like nightmares. He said we were being watched, every second. I thought he meant the cops, because he told my sister and me that the government was looking for people like him. But what he really meant was somebody else. Somebody bigger.

Sometimes I got to watch cartoons on the TV, but mostly Dad had it tuned to a pirate broadcast. That’s something else you don’t get any more of today. A man with white hair raved and sweated before a bare concrete wall, and waved around a big black book. Sometimes the same program showed up again and again, an hour of the man shouting the same things. Dad kept us in front of the TV for hours. He watched, rapt, and repeated the parts he could remember.

He said I had to believe, so I did. I memorized what he told me to memorize. He wasn’t mean, he never hit me when I got something wrong, but he kept at me and at me. It was harder work than school.

Mom said I had to believe too, but it was easier, I think, to hear it from her. Sometimes it was even nice, all of us standing in the living room, heads bowed, holding hands. Like we were sharing something gentle and good.

* * *

Another time I get away from Dad is when he goes into the VR parlors. Not the sex ones, but the ones that have violent stuff. I’m too young for either, so I wait outside.

He’s not there for the entertainment. He does what he always does, mutters his words, tries to slip them in sideways into people’s ears. I know this is what he’s doing in there because twice I’ve seen him get chased out, with someone yelling “Faither!” at his back.

This time the waiting is different. Across the littered street I see the blond-haired woman. My breath stops in my throat. She’s alone. She turns, sees me, is about to keep walking; then she stops and cuts across, right toward me. My stomach does this bounce thing.

“Hey, I know you. You’re Bright.”

Just like that. She remembers me. I expect I’ll barely be able to speak, but I say without any trouble, “Yeah. I saw you and your friends outside the pharmacy.” That pretty much covers our history, but I don’t want to stop talking to her, so I ask, “What’s your name?”

She smiles, a little tug at the corner of her mouth. “Brett.”

I love the way she says it—with a lot of breath, making the name sound exotic. I thought Brett was a man’s name, but thankfully I don’t say so. Instead, “It’s nice to see you again, Brett.” That sounds manly, grownup. I like it.

I guess she does too. She purrs a little laugh that makes the wispy hairs on my arms stand up. “You’re on your own, Bright?”

One of her pals asked me the same thing before. I like Brett, but I’ve been out on the streets a long while and know that bad stuff can happen to unattached people, especially young ones.

“I’m with my father. He’s inside.” A berserk holo dances over the sidewalk.

I can tell by the look in her eyes—soft, sweet blue eyes—that she thinks Dad’s a virch-head, a gore junkie. I let her think it. Why not? It’s better than the shit that’s for real.

Suddenly I’m aware that she’s looking me over, from head to foot. Appraising me. I don’t know how she’s doing the judging, what I could do better, what mistakes I should cover up. So I try to stand taller, and wish that I didn’t have zits on my face.

Finally she says, “I bet you don’t have a pinger, right?”

I’ve failed. I feel the crushing weight of that. I mutter, “No.”

“Well,” Brett says, sliding a piece of paper into my hand, “if you’re near a pinger sometime and tap that number, you’ll get me. And we’ll go do something. Okay?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer, but strides on away.

I watch her as she goes, appreciating the curves of her body. I can’t think past the hot wonderful first shock of what’s happened. Only when Dad comes out of the parlor—no one chasing the butthead today—do I hurry to stuff the slip of paper into my coat pocket.

* * *

There are Handoutlets in this part of the city, which is different from the nicer, cleaner parts, like where we used to live before Mom started dying so expensively and Dad got so nuts his employers shitcanned him. Adalia, when she left us, said she was going to go get a job of her own, go straight, join “the system.” I remember being upset about it all, but mostly because I was too young to really understand what was happening. It seemed to me like the family was disappearing around me, one by one.

Once, Adalia told me what sex was. She was so worldly when she spoke about it, even though she was only a little older than I am now. Sex, according to Dad, is a sin—though that’s conditional. Married people can, and should, have sex. But that meant that Dad and Mom ...

“That’s right, Ceddy,” Adalia told me on that occasion in her forthright way. She was, I think, always a little cold, though she tried to be sisterly to me. “Now, this is what people do.” And she explained it like it was mechanics. I blushed and blushed, and looked at my feet.

At the Handoutlet we get a free meal and, after, a five minute shower in one of the stalls. There are a lot fewer homeless than there used to be. Social services work better these days. That’s what people say. But it doesn’t mean all that much if you’re one of the ones still on the street.

Dad’s got a sore on his left knee and asks if it can be looked at. The attendants take him behind a screen that’s printed with roses and thorns.

I use the opportunity. We’ve been to this ’Outlet before, of course; I know some of the personnel. I wheedle with a guy named Tony until he lets me use his phone. I ping Brett’s number, nervous, chewing my lip. It’s been a week since I last saw her. This time I can barely talk after she answers and I identify myself. But she takes charge. She tells me where, then asks me when.

“After my father goes to sleep.” I make a guess at the time.

She purrs me a goodbye, and I give Tony back his pinger. I feel like I’m floating. I also feel like I’m about to puke the rice and liver I just ate; but I don’t. When Dad reappears, I have to hide how giddy I am. For one sudden frightening moment I hate him, totally, indescribably. Because I’m going to have to sneak around him. Because he would call what I’m—hopefully—going to do a sin.

But the hate passes, and he’s just asshole Dad again. We head out to the plaza.

* * *

She hands me a slice of pizza—out of a box, not out of the trash. I grin, and squeeze the five packets of ketchup I’m carrying in my coat pocket onto it. One of the others at the squat starts to say something sneery, but Brett whaps him on the head with an old flyswatter she’s playing with. Everything she does is beautiful.

It’s late, after midnight, but everybody’s acting like it’s the middle of the day. The room is “furnished” with junk, though the junk’s not bad. There are places to sit, to lie down. A lamp burns. Of the half dozen people gathered here, I know Brett—of course—and one other, from the group that was hanging out with her in front of the pharmacy. The rest are hoodlum types, but more or less friendly. They’ve got marijuana and beer. I’m the youngest.

Inevitably a cigarette gets offered to me. I’m sitting next to Brett, and I look to her. She does this easy roll of her shoulders. “If you want, Bright.”

But I think—or think I think—that she means I should take the toke. So I do. It’s not as bad as I expect it to be. It hurts my lungs and my eyes water, just a little, but I don’t embarrass myself.

Everything is more alive in a sleepy way after that. The room in this derelict building glows with warmth and safety. I can actually feel the soapy freshness of my skin from the shower at the Handoutlet earlier. My appetite comes surging back, but it’s just another interesting sensation, something to enjoy. I snuggle closer to Brett.

She puts her arm around me, and the world soars.

Later, we go outside together.

Even though I’ve imagined about sex a lot, and I’ve fantasized intensely about Brett, I’m so shivery and disconnected that I can’t get hard enough to get the condom on. We’re standing up in a recessed doorway. Visible over the half-collapsed wall of the building opposite is an actual rotting old-time billboard, not a holo. It says you’re born, you live, you die. so drink budweiser.

But again Brett is nice to me. Her skirt is up around her waist, and my pants are stretched between my knees. She says, “Just go ahead, cutie. I mean, there’s a cure now, right?”

I’m amazed at how long it takes me. Five minutes into it she clenches and lets out this babyish squeal. I think I’ve done something wrong—I think I’m doing the whole thing wrong—but she smiles dreamily and encourages me with soft murmurs. Finally it happens. I like it. But what I like more is hanging in her arms afterward, with my face buried against her bare throat, breathing in her smell.

I sneak back to Dad and get back into my sleeping bag. He’s turned away; he doesn’t move; I can’t see his face. I’m sure he knows. I’m sure he’s watched me every second tonight, just the way it is in the stories he used to tell the family, and which he now tries to tell to strangers.

* * *

What Dad is doing is proselytizing, a word I learned when it was still an impossible mouthful for me. Anybody can believe whatever they want. Obviously. Any person can think any thought they like. Try and stop them. But to pray out loud in the presence of others is to commit assault. You can do serious jail time.

Even so, even though everybody knows how illegal it is, Dad has something of a following. As his staunch lookout, I’ve watched some people return deliberately to where he does his stuff. They’re seeking out his words. Maybe those words are familiar to some of them; others, maybe, are hearing them for the first time and are captivated. The words stopped making sense for me months and months ago. Dad might as well have been talking about faeries and mermaids. Crazy fucker.

But I’ve got a new life now, one I’m living on the sly. I’m happy, or at least entertained; and that feels good. I smoke marijuana convincingly, and I’ve had sex with Brett four times. I love her.

Dad catches me coming back one night. We’ve got our sleeping bags unrolled under a defunct loading dock. He pushes up on an elbow, and I see his eyes in the moonlight falling between the broken boards overhead. I freeze, more rattled in that instant than the first time Brett and I did it in that doorway. I reek of pot smoke, the brand that Brett likes.

There’s sadness in his eyes, and I realize he used to look at Adalia this way in the weeks before she took off.

If he calls me a sinner, I promise myself, I’ll tell him to piss off. I’ll say it to his face, finally. I crouch there over my bag, unable to move.

After a long while he says, “Cedric, can you go get me my eyedrops tomorrow?”

I forgot he was running out. In a quavery little voice I say, “Sure, Dad.” I get into my bag and zip it up. Colors are still bouncing around inside my head.

Dad reaches out a hand and gently pats my leg. A few minutes later I hear him softly snoring. I don’t sleep until the moon is going down. That night I dream vividly about Mom, for the first time in a year.

* * *

The next time I go to the squat, Brett isn’t there. She hasn’t answered when I’ve pinged her. One of the regulars comes over and tells me she’s back with her boyfriend, who has an apartment. I’m not invited into the room with the lamp and the junk furniture and the beer and smoking.

It’s like a punch in the chest, and I feel my heart sort of buckling; but even as bad as it is, I know in those first few seconds that it won’t kill me. I’ll deal. I will.

But I really want to smoke. I wander around the streets awhile. I’m still amazed how different this part of the city is in the deep night. Soon I bump into somebody I remember hazily from the squat. He’s my age, but he’s got a hard knowing face and a missing front tooth. I go with him to a car abandoned in an alley. We get into the back seat of the old algae-burner whose tires are gone and share a smoke, different from Brett’s brand, harsher tasting. Even the pleasant disorienting effects are blunter, more like a dose of medicine.

Still, it feels better than nothing. In the smoky aftermath we touch each other, because that what he—his name is Monkey—wants to do. I don’t mind, though I think it’s weird he absolutely doesn’t want to kiss. That was something I really liked with Brett.

Suddenly the grief catches up to me. I writhe around like I’m in physical pain, thinking how she’s gone and with some other guy. My behavior spooks Monkey. He drops some pills into my coat pocket and takes off.

The sadness vanishes, just like that. I step out of the car. For five whole minutes I can’t remember where I left Dad.

* * *

When Monkey’s pills run out, I go get more. It’s easy. Sometimes people just give them to me, other times I have to do stuff. Mostly I don’t mind that. And even when I do, it’s no big deal to turn off my brain for ten minutes. Besides, I know a lot more people now. There’s more of a community on the streets than I ever really realized—incredible, considering how long I’ve been living out here.

One night I don’t come back to Dad, and the next day I have to go find him. This happens three more times. I’m welcome at the squat again. Brett never shows up, but I’ve long since stopped hoping she would.

I get wobbly sometimes, in the daytime. I can’t seem to quite get my feet under me when I’m walking. The ground sways. At that same Handoutlet I sit in front of a bowl of stew, not touching it. I glance up and see Tony, the attendant, looking at me. He shakes his head.

I don’t say my “Now I lay me ...” anymore when there’s no one around to hear but Dad. The disappointment is permanent in his eyes now. Sometimes, rarely, I feel like he’s got a right to be disappointed in me. The rest of the time, though, I couldn’t give a shit what he thinks.

On the morning after a night when I’ve stayed with him, we wake up with the sunrise and stir out of our sleeping bags. My mouth is gummy; my bladder aches. Yesterday, I remember, it hurt when I pissed.

Dad is quiet. So quiet in fact I look at him, closely. He has his eyes on the ground, with a strange soft smile on his lips. For some reason it makes me nervous.

He says, “All of what I’ve told you, Cedric, the stories, what sin means, how it’s just a list of things you should avoid so you don’t hurt anyone or yourself—all of that ...” He still doesn’t look up.

My back stiffens when he says sin, and now I’m waiting for it, the whole sermon or whatever it’s called. He better not tell me I’m a sinner, that I’m dirty somehow, in some stupid abstract way.

What he says, though, is, “Forget all that. If you want. Forget the prayers. Forget the stories. Just remember what it’s really all about. Love. Love. That’s all anybody needs to know.” He finally looks up, and the smile stays for a second or two, then flickers away. Then he’s just Dad again, and he has his work to do.

I go with him, a little meekly, to the plaza. I’ll be his lookout, watch for the cops, though I think I’m more of a liability than help. I’m not invisible anymore.

Before he makes his muttering way out onto the broken, pigeon-dominated pavement, I pull on his arm. Out of nowhere I say, “Why don’t we leave the city? Go to the country. You could do what you wanted there. Wide-open spaces, Dad. Wide-open spaces.”

He’s just taken his drops, and his eyes are clear. He blinks at me, taking me in, seeing deep into me, it feels like. For the first time in a while there’s no disappointment in his gaze.

After a moment he gives my shoulder a pat and says, “I’m needed here.”

Which is true, in its way. I’ve noticed over the past month that even more people are showing up wherever he appears. They make an effort not to look like they’re listening to his babble, but I get the feeling that some among his “audience” are sorting through every word, taking them to heart. I don’t know what, exactly, the words do to these people. Certainly I never felt much more than confusion and apprehension when I used to believe.

I’m wobbly again. I stand under an old lamppost and watch the plaza slide slowly side to side. Thoughts move in my head, but they don’t get far, fuzzing out into nonsense.

I don’t see the police at first when they make their move. When I’m jolted into noticing them, though, I realize I haven’t nodded out on duty, precisely; rather, the cops were in the plaza all along, disguised as bench bums. Four of them are suddenly on their feet and converging, hidden badges now on display. I see Dad as he halts, as he straightens from his pathetic hobbling crouch. He doesn’t try to run.

But I do. I have to. There’s absolutely nothing I can do to help him.

I’m grabbed after I take two steps. She’s been waiting behind me apparently. Not a cop, though there are two officers standing a little farther off; obviously her backup. She is dressed in a social services uniform, and she looks very smart in it.

“Everything’s okay, Ceddy. He’s going to be all right.”

I almost blurt out that my name is Bright Estabrook, but that’s just some weird buried instinct from all the times I’ve imagined this scenario. She’s taken me by my elbows, her grip strong. I try not to twist in her grasp, but even when I do, I’m horrified to find how weak I am.

“It’s okay. Calm down.”

The strange thing is that I am kind of calm, like this is no surprise at all, like I was expecting this inevitability on this very day, from the moment I woke up. It’s bullshit, of course, but the feeling is vaguely comforting and I grab onto it.

“It’s okay,” I repeat back to her.

She gives me a grim smile. “Good. That’s good.” She relaxes her hold on my elbows and takes a step back. She looks me over from head to toe, and it reminds me of when Brett did that to me. A pang accompanies the memory, then fades to nothing.

I hear a commotion behind me but don’t turn. I don’t want to see Dad getting beaten to the ground by police batons. I wish the dumb bastard would just go quietly.

“How are you, Ceddy?”

“I’m fine, Adalia.”

The grim smile curls at one corner, ironically. “We’re going to have to take you in too. Not to arrest you. But you can’t be out here alone. Right now you’re a danger to yourself and others.”

Behind, a voice rises, cursing; but it doesn’t sound like Dad. Another feral shouter joins in. I say to my sister, “It’s like I’m a ... sinner. Isn’t it?”

Her face goes still. In a low tone she says, “Don’t start talking like that, Ceddy. Or there won’t be anything I can do to help.”

“Was it so bad? What he was doing?” I still don’t turn, even as I now do hear, distinctly, a blunt object impacting a human body.

Adalia’s eyes flick past my shoulder, then back to me. She’s so grownup it’s unreal—her face, her body, her bearing. “What he did is a crime, a serious one. The world has had enough. We’ve had one too many religious wars. We’ve had a hundred too many. No more. It gets cut off at the source, Ceddy.”

I know all this. Any kid who’s learned the alphabet knows it. I ask, “Are they hurting him bad?”

She frowns as one of her backup officers breaks off and goes racing toward the plaza. I still don’t turn around. She says, “Dad’s just standing there, not resisting. It’s these others, the ones who were listening to him, that are going apeshit. Nothing’s going to come of it, though. We’ve got enough personnel to handle it.”

Apparently they do. A minute later, peripherally, I see Dad being led away to a police van. He’s not struggling. He doesn’t look our way. I wonder if he’s even noticed his daughter. God help him.

Adalia tugs on my arm, and we walk the other way, toward a nearby car.

God help us all. END

Eric Del Carlo’s short fiction has appeared in “Asimov’s,” “Redstone Science Fiction,” “Strange Horizons,” “Shimmer” and more. He has coauthored several novels with the late Robert Asprin, including the New Orleans set mystery, “NO Quarter.”






adjacent fields