Volume 1 Issue 3 Fall 2007
Air like a mushroom. Dense. Pocketed with holes, moments where Jem could breathe normally. She filled her lungs, drinking in the new atmosphere, dazzled by the blue-black sky. Starlight like diamonds, winking around her feet.
The clouds were spongy. Jem's calf muscles already stung from the exertion. Her toes were pinched in her sleek calfskin boots - they were made for walking from the subway to the office along firm level sidewalk. Not cloud-hopping.
"It's freaking gorgeous," she said. Jem was not a complainer.
She turned to look back at her companion, to see how he'd changed. It was almost a game, to guess if Moon would fit into the new surroundings. Perhaps he would be a comet, or a constellation.
He was a bear.
Moon made a handsome bear - symmetrical and golden-brown, not terribly large. He had beady black eyes that looked startlingly like Moon's human ones – or at least, the human ones he'd worn when she'd met him. He scratched at his side with claws so dark she could only pick them out by their glints. "Ursa Minor, what?" he said in a grumble. "No, go on."
Jem waded through cloud back to Moon and tucked her bare arm under his furry one. It was tickly and warm. She wanted to snuggle all the way under his paw, but she didn't quite dare. Moon in his last incarnation as a skyhook had been quite prickly. "You have fish breath," she informed him. "Did that come with the change?"
"Oughta ask someone who knows, right?" said Moon. "The last thing I had to eat was two changes ago, when I was a Volvo, and that was diesel. Should diesel smell like fish?"
Moon's furry belly rumbled. He shook Jem's arm loose to rub it with both paws. "Now you've done it," he said. He tilted his muzzle sideways, listening to his new body. "Fish, I think. Honeybees. Small to medium-size vertebrates. Twigs."
"There's a diner up ahead," said Jem. She took Moon's shoulder and pointed him at it. It was silver and rounded, an optimistic trailer with windows of moonlight and blinding stars for wheels. A red neon sign sprung from the roof, glowed: The Starry Diner.
"Suspiciously convenient," said Moon. "Shall we?"
He tucked her arm back under his own and for a moment they were two lovers playing tourists, ready to crash a locals bar and laugh.
But only for a moment.
Jem opened the door for Moon and his claws clicked on metal as he entered. The diner was half full, noisy with echoing voices and the clatter of fork on plate. She threaded her way past a three-headed dog drinking coffee to the first empty booth.
Moon was lagging behind, peering into the back corner of the diner, his body alert. "Be right back."
"You have to use the little bears' room?" said Jem.
Moon ignored all jibes about his nature. His golden brown body lurched between the checkerboard of tables. His hips knocked against the tentacles of a giant pink squid, against the elbows of a man in a white cowboy hat. His shoulders tensed with the effort of controlling his new form.
Moon disappeared into the back and Jem sighed and leaned back against the gold vinyl booth. She spread her fingers along the shiny table. Maybe this clash would be restful. Maybe Horace would pick a more subtle battle. She could use some calm time with Moon, even in this form.
There was a tabletop jukebox on the inner wall of the booth. "I love a bear," Jem told it, and she put a quarter in for The Teddy Bears' Picnic.
"What's that, honey?" The robot waitress rolled to a halt at the booth. A keyboard extended from her midsection.
"I love a bear," repeated Jem. She toyed with her paper napkin. "Except sometimes he's a Volvo, or a Venus Flytrap, or a shed. How can anyone love a shed? He wasn't even waterproof."
"I loved a programmer once," the waitress said. Her metal fingers clinked softly on her lips. "Love is funny. Seizes you in the grey space between off and on; sets your circuits to misfiring. You want coffee?"
"Two, please," said Jem. "And toast, and two sunny-side up eggs. Plus a packet of honey and something fishy for the bear."
"Ding ding," said the waitress, cocking her finger at Jem. She rolled off.
Moon lurched back. He was studying the other patrons as he returned, and it made him bang smack into an older man with plastic glasses and knock him from his shiny gold stool. There was a rumble of apology as he lifted the man back up onto the seat, ripping his brown button-down in the process.
She wondered what he would be like without his work; if an unchanging Moon could ever be a domesticated Moon. "I'm not a complainer, you know," she informed him as he returned.
The bear squeezed into the booth. "I think there's trouble over in the corner." He peered down at the dented silverware. He tried to pick up his fork with one paw. Then two.
"Already? Can't we even eat first?"
Moon jerked his furry head towards his left shoulder. "The guy in the white cowboy hat? I think that's Horace. I think this time he's planned a shoot-out."
Jem looked at the cowboy. He was tall and rangy and his hair curled in a blond mullet down the back of his neck. "I don't know," she said. "It doesn't look like Horace to me."
"He changes, you know he changes." Moon finally managed to scoop the fork onto one paw. He cupped his paw around it and carefully turned his forelimb over, but the metal slipped on his pads, and the fork spun out and clattered on the table. "Dolgonnit," said Moon. "Why don't I get to pick what I am? Horace does."
"Maybe because you're the fighter," said Jem. "The reactionary. Maybe if you chose the battles...." Behind Moon, the cowboy was already standing, gesturing with his coffee mug.
The fork clattered again. "No, it doesn't work like that. That's just not how things are. I can't explain it. Oh, good, fish."
The robot waitress set down a plate of trout and a pot of honey in front of Moon. Then Jem's plate, and in the center of the shiny table she set an industrial-size mixing bowl of warm water. A finger bowl for the bear. "I'll just clear this away," she said, and scooped the fork and knife from underneath Moon's paws. She winked at Jem. "Anything else?"
"We're good, thanks," said Jem. She tried not to look at the cowboy, or at the squid, who was now waving the man's hat in one pink tentacle.
Moon fell on his fish, spearing it with one claw and tearing chunks off with his teeth. Foam formed around his muzzle. Bits of trout flecked the scalloped placemats.
Jem swirled her toast through her egg. "I'm not getting any younger."
"You're not getting any older, either. Are you going to eat that?"
"No, I know that. But my world is - they're slipping further away from me as I stay still. Soon I won't be able to fit back in with anyone I once knew." Egg yolk covered her plate. "Do you think you'll ever get to stop fighting, Moon? Defeat Horace for good?"
The black eyes shone wild. "I feel as though I'm closer to getting the bastard. That could be an illusion. Do you want to go home?"
Jem searched for hurt in the furry face. It wasn't so much the strange features that were the problem, as it was Moon himself. Even as a Volvo, she'd been able to tell when he was cranky, or not quite so cranky. But hurt - never.
"Why is there always one who moves and one who follows? Why do I have to be the girl?"
"What?" He was onto the honey now - scooping the honey with one paw from the pot to his mouth. Behind him, the giant pink squid and cowboy were facing off; the cowboy braced and tugging on his hat, the squid sprawled on top of his shiny table, waving a butter knife.
"God, not again," said Jem.
"Where?" said Moon. He turned, honey pooling from his paws.
"Can't we even eat one meal in peace?"
The squid had one tentacle wrapped around the cowboy's neck now. The diner was clearing out around them; the three-headed dog scampered out the door, followed by a ballerina and a giant spider. The cowboy was turning purple. The robot waitress rolled up behind him and poured coffee on the squid's tentacle. Even across the diner, Jem heard it sizzle. The blistered tentacle fell free of the cowboy's neck and the squid's other tentacles started writhing in response. One grabbed the waitress before she could roll free.
"How do you know which side you're on?"
"Eh," said Moon. "Good question."
Another giant spider sidled out the front door. The cowboy backed up, reaching for his gun, and the squid reached for chairs.
Moon rose from the booth to examine the fight and Jem half stood, ready for retreat.
"Just an old-style brawl, this time. Must be why I'm a bear." Moon furrowed his brow and his black eyes disappeared in fur. "Seems too simple for Horace...."
A chrome-and-gold barstool sailed over Jem's head and crashed through the starlit window. Her hand skidded in eggs as she ducked, and her plate flipped onto her pants.
Behind Moon, the giant squid loomed. The captured waitress was banging on it with her keyboard. The squid raised bloated tentacles and one snaked around Moon's belly.
"Fight it is," agreed Moon. "Anti-Squid." He ripped the tentacle's suckers from his stomach, and turning, slashed streaks of gore from the squid's pink body. Ammonia cut through the air. A shot cracked glasses. Jem backed away.
There had been other fights that were nicer, subtler. When she'd met Moon, he'd been a defense attorney; Horace his opponent, and that fight had lasted for eight months. Plenty of time to fall in love with an illusion.
Moon's claws carved through the tentacle that held the waitress, dropping her to the ground with a crash. But in the distraction, the cowboy's attention had turned to the cash register. He was scooping out bills into his hat. The waitress hollered and rolled after him. The squid squeezed Moon.
It was a tedious fight; like the gladiator sequence, or the car crash as a Volvo. Jem always had to patch him up in the end. And it wasn't really that she was tired of that as much as it was all very different than she'd thought when she fell in love with a stoop-shouldered idealist with weary hands and eyes that shone fire.
The waitress yelled, her keyboard walloping the cowboy, and then yelled again; a funny scream, cut off at its height. Jem looked at the waitress and the cowboy, and it took her a full ten seconds to realize that neither of them were moving. The robot waitress had her keyboard extended for another good smack; the cowboy was cowering behind his white hat. Bills were falling, or had fallen from his hat – they hung in the air. They were frozen.
Moon and the squid were frozen, too. The squid had Moon off the ground and a coffee cup with a flying splash of coffee hung motionless above Jem and Moon's booth.
There was total silence in the little diner.
Total stillness, too. Jem was the only moving body. There was one stabbing moment of panic as she wondered if everything in the world had frozen but her; part of the rules that she still didn't understand. Perhaps some balance had been tipped and she would now spend eternity in a diner, eating lemon meringue pie and crying in her coffee cup and dusting the frozen Moon.
But then a voice behind her spoke. A voice with a mouthful of food. "You dislike our fighting, don't you?" Horace.
"What did you do to them?" Moon's jaws were open in a growl, or cry.
"Ah, now that's, that's a fallacy." A swallowing sound and the words cleared. "I did nothing to them; I merely sped us up."
Jem turned away from Moon to stare at the man on the barstool. He was utterly unlike any previous incarnation she'd seen him in. He looked like the slovenly regular of a small-town cafeteria; his shoulders were hunched and his plastic glasses were smudged. One hand held greasy toast. And yet she was used to men changing on her. She just saw him as Horace. Moon's antithesis. "I told Moon you weren't the cowboy," she said.
"You're sharp," he said. "But ya know, you don't need me to tell you that."
"Please. Tell me what I could possibly need you for." She pulled a chair between them and clasped the back of it with her hands. If she looked at Horace, she couldn't see Moon's rigid face. Her grip hid the tremble in her fingers.
"To be the one who smoothes things over, ya know? End our fighting. Get Moon all to yourself."
"And how would that work?"
Horace spread one hand. "Walk away with him. Tell him to never finish this fight."
Jem's knuckles whitened on the chair.
"Logically, ya know, if he stops fighting me, he'll stop changing," said Horace. "Now look, I'll show you how it could be. Picture an island, the shape of a crescent moon."
He pointed at the tabletop jukebox back in Jem's booth and snapped his fingers at it, a dry, whispery snap. Kokomo began to play. "The sand is whiter than stardust. No, it is stardust, burnished by the thousand tails of a thousand blinding comets. On one tip of the crescent a thousand palm trees sway, and from their branches fall round green coconuts. Okay. Do you like coconuts?"
"Then when you crack the coconuts, out flows not coconut milk, no, not coconut milk, but rum. And the coconut meat is...."
"Pineapple." It came out in a whisper.
"Ah, but I haven't described the pineapple plantation. There's a hundred acres of pineapple, ya know, and a hundred burnished men in short shorts to pick it. We'll make the coconut meat be hash or," and he waved his toast, "something like that. And at the top of the highest mountain - "
"It sounds lovely," said Jem. She lifted one hand, put it right back on the chair. "But wouldn't Moon still be a bear?"
Horace scratched his thin hair. "There exists that possibility. I can't change Moon, ya know. I can't make him do anything."
"I feel that," Jem admitted.
"And you must admit being a bear is a better life than being a shed or a proper noun," he said, waving the last bite of toast at her. "I could always make you a bear, and those pineapples into salmon." He licked margarine from his fingers. "There's been a couple times I've wanted to acquaint you with this opportunity, ya know, only Moon was something impossible. You wouldn't really enjoy spending eternity with a leaky shed."
"But if Moon goes into hibernation, you win, don't you? Not a truce, not a smoothing over. You win."
Horace pulled his plastic glasses from his nose and wiped them with his stained napkin. "Well, what's 'win', really?" he said. "These little skirmishes we have – they're kind of, they're kind of futile, ya know? Moon wins, I win...neither of us really gets anything done. Think of spending your life never accomplishing anything." He put his glasses back on and smiled a wrinkled smile at her. "There are days I'd like to have a companion too, ya know. I'd like to have that island with, with the rum coconuts, and the short-skirted harem." He crumpled the dirty napkin in his hand and tucked it under the empty plate. "Maybe I'm offering you what I can't have."
Jem curled and uncurled her fingers on the chair, staring at Horace's plate, seeing Horace's island. Seeing Moon's torn face. A salmon hatchery, an island paradise - but no, what Horace was really offering her - giving her - was knowledge.
Horace thought she had the power to convince Moon.
She could take Moon away from the flat tires and the squid marks, the scimitar wounds, the endless fighting. And oh, Horace would give her an island if she did.
But could her Moon really fit into that vision of island bliss? By the end of the first day he'd be banging around, trying to find something to fix.
And Jem? What vision did she fit into?
The moons of Horace's glasses reflected starlight at her. He half-smiled, grey eyebrows raised, a puppy expecting to be told no. The Girl from Ipanema started on the jukebox.
"No," said Jem.
For a moment, Horace looked so disappointed that she felt sorry for him. Then he looked down at his watch. "Well, then," he said. "I guess that's all the time you've got."
She was watching Horace, and then he was gone, and only his plastic glasses remained. They hung in the air after he was gone. She reached out to touch them – but as she did, they fell, and then a bottle came whizzing by her, and then a shot, and then a packet of creamer.
The island music was subsumed by the thumps and crashes of the struggle. Moon was growling and the robot waitress was yelling, "Don't touch the till!" again and again. The cowboy was down now, crawling on hands and knees for the door.
But Moon, her Moon, was still entangled in the air, and so Jem grabbed the first two things to hand and headed into their fight.
A tentacle swiped at her ankle. She jumped and pitched into the giant squid's body, instinctively throwing the first thing she'd grabbed at its eyes. It turned out to be the honey pot, and the sticky smear of honey did seem to confuse it, because there was a sharp intake of air behind her as Moon wrested free.
Moon growled and tore, separating the tentacle from the body. The squid keened. Jem found that the other thing she'd grabbed was a fork, and she jabbed at its body, releasing puncture wounds of gore and ammonia. At its center seemed the safest place to be; it couldn't curl its tentacles back to get her. Or maybe that was because Moon had torn off another one, and then another, and then the squid spasmed, its last tentacle flailing. It crashed through a table and lay there, shuddering.
All Jem's muscles felt hot and tight and her hand painfully gripped her slimy fork. She shivered, and then she was coughing, gasping for clean air and a new environment, and Moon gently pushed her away from the dying squid.
It seemed to take a long time for her breathing to slow. There was a water pitcher on the counter near where Horace had sat, and she drank from it with shaking fingers. It was mostly ice hitting her nose and then a packet of creamer. She fished that out and looked at it with astonishment.
The robot waitress rolled toward her, the cowboy's hat clutched in one hand and her eyes whirling. "More coffee?" she said. "More coffee? More coffee?" She banged at her head with a metal fist. "Must reboot," she said, rolling away and banging. "Must reboot. More coffee? More coffee."
There was a final squeal from the squid. Moon shuffled back to her, a tentacle falling from one paw. One shoulder dragged. He looked as though he'd been digging through garbage; he had crumbled bacon in his fur. Coffee aroma steamed from him, then a sharper reek - he was slimy with squid juice. Jem's pants were covered in more squid and egg and her boots were soaked with creamer. Miraculously, the bowl at their booth still had an inch of warm water in it, and Jem attempted to wipe the squid from Moon.
It was mostly a lost cause. Moon let her try, though, and was perfectly still while she wiped his belly with a paper napkin. On the other end of the booth, The Girl from Ipanema finally finished and Bing Crosby began in on Sing Me a Song of the Islands.
She looked up at Moon and found him looking at her. He was really very handsome for a bear. Jem threw the slimy napkin to the floor.
"Please?" said Jem. "One dance?"
In the trashed diner, Moon pulled her out onto the floor and into a waltz.
One paw stepped hard on her boot, a claw tugged at the ruined leather. There was a rumble of embarrassment from his furry chest. "Remember, it's not how well the bear dances," said Moon.
Jem leaned into him then, and he lifted her till her feet rested on his hind paws. He whirled her around tables, through streams of coffee and squid, the cold starlight pouring through the windows and Bing singing to them alone.
The last bars of the orchestra faded and Jem opened her eyes. They were back outside in the spongy clouds, but the diner was gone. The air was chill and the light was blue.
In Jem's arms was a fish.
It looked down at its silver body, rolling one round eye. Moon's deep voice came out of cold fishy lips. "At least we'll likely get to go swimming, right?" he said. "A bear in a diner is one thing, but a fish in a diner – that would just be silly."
A laugh trembled on Jem's lips. Moon's tail flopped salt spray in her face and she cradled the fish close, pulling her shirt hem around it. Everything stank of egg and brine. "We'll go to an island where a thousand palm trees sway."
"Something wrong?" said the fish. "You look funny."
"No," said Jem. She brushed at the wet in her eyes. "I love the moon, that's all. I love the clever, frustrating, vigilant moon."
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