Grey -- an excerpt

© 2007 Jon Armstrong

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Chapter 1

Nora and I finished our fried whale and plum sandwiches, our cream coffees, and the cocoa and coca pastries, and sat in a comfortable silence as landscapes of buildings and millions of well-wishers whirred past the windows at six hundred kilometers per hour. Halfway on our train-date, after the conductor blew the massive, buzzing horn, and the waitresses in their black-and-yellow-striped honeybee uniforms, complete with dangerously sharp-looking stingers, cleared the dishes, Nora closed her right eye and gazed at me with her left; I, in turn, did the same, and it was like we were the perfect couple.

This was our fourth and last date before our marriage, and while the whole thing had been arranged between our parents to complete the merger of our families' companies, I could not have imagined or wished for someone as wonderful as she. Standing just an inch below my six foot three, with shiny black hair, a light walnut complexion, and obsidian eyes, her features were wide and open like an innocent doll, but she was also intelligent and witty. Most impressive of all was that she, like myself, loved the fashion magazine Pure H. We quoted from it, dressed and struck poses like the models, and felt that we were just like the beautiful and tragic people of our dreams.

Two of her attendants, all in black, helped Nora from her chair and adjusted her clothes as she walked. Her long, grey, satellite-cotton coat had spherical metal buttons with craters exactly like the moon. Beneath her grey suit, her shirt had a high collar like mine, and the material looked so smooth it could have been made of fine powder. The cut and tailoring was impeccable, of course, as she worked with October 13th, the best woman's tailor in the world.

Since the date took place on the inaugural voyage of a new, super-luxury Bee Train, which circled the Pacific Rim, Nora and I were obliged to tour all the cars with a camera crew. She seemed to enjoy the nature car best. And it was a calming space with its small trees, shrubs, and manicured lawn where sat an arrangement of lemon and lime chaise lounges. Before we exited, she stopped to pet one of the tigers, and I watched the gentle curve of her gloved fingers against the striped fur. Growing up, Nora had studied classical dance, and unlike the wild and useless gyrations of my youth, her training had given her a supple, athletic grace which permeated all her movements.

The way she stroked the beast, reminded me of just how elegant were her gestures. During our first date, in the city of Kong at the top of Convolution Tower before a thousand cameras and five oceans of lights, as we had sampled white rhinoceros tartar, black truffle sugar, and fugu tarts, it had been her grace which most impressed me. And later as I reviewed the recording, I watched her charcoal-gloved hands move like two elegant sea nettles undulating in warm ocean currents. When she held her wine glass, her spare pinky hovered effortlessly to the side; when picking up her silverware, her fingers curled around the metal slowly like miniature constricting snakes, and at the end of our date when she waved goodbye, she cupped her hands slightly, with her fingers together, arched, and tranquil.

During that first date, we just glanced at each other shyly. I had been nervous and not because of how many people were watching or what it meant to the companies, but because I knew I was in the presence of a rare person. We said not a word until moments before we began our post-date interviews. She leaned toward my ear and whispered, "Embellishments." The breathiness and sexiness of her tone was one I hadn't heard on any of the recordings I had reviewed prior to our date. I shivered. And her word -- her single, perfect word was luminous. Quoted from an ad in Pure H for a company that sold plutonium buttons, it read: Embellishments. A week of green rain.

The ad's photoR6 is of a couple in identical charcoal frock coats, vests, and boots laying side by side in an elaborate garden of trimmed bushes and flowering poisonous lantana. Their dry eyes stare blankly. Their skin is ashen, and their lips, blue. Between them their hands are both upturned and yearning, but unconnected. Perhaps their rigor mortis caused their previously held hands to pull apart, but whatever it was, now the lovers are tragically separated by a fraction of an inch. My advisor had called the ad gloomy and morbid, but the way Nora said the word so sensually, emphasizing the bell syllable, made it evocative, even anticipatory.

The Bee Train began to decelerate and unfortunately that meant our date was ending. As our attendants gathered our things, and we pulled in the new station where Bee Train employees stood at attention all along the track, their striped uniforms forming what looked like a black-and-yellow staff of noteless music, Nora and I readied ourselves to meet the press. We stepped before the doors as the train inched into place. Beyond the translucent cement walls of the station, I could see hordes of people filling the streets. All of our dates had been mobbed. In fact, our second, held in the desert metropolis of Seattlehama, forced the city to close down because so many tourists and fans had clogged the streets.

"I wasn't sure about you," she whispered.

Her hushed voice surprised me, and I was afraid she was saying something bad. "Sure about what?"

"Even in your grey suits," she said, gazing at my chest, perhaps noting the fibers in my dark tie, taken from the bras of one hundred alcoholic teenage girls, "I figured you were still garish and loud."

"No," I said, wishing, as I often did, that my life had always been quiet and grey. "That was years ago."

She smiled knowingly; then her expression turned cold. "But I had no idea how lonely you are."

I felt exposed and broken. "I didn't know either," I said. "Until I met you."

Her gaze circled my face as if studying me, judging the sincerity of my words. "What I want " she began slowly, her lips beginning to tremble, "is to be alone alone with you." She glanced away, and I saw her cheeks flush. "You?"

"Yes," I said. "That's exactly what I feel. From the first photo I saw of you from the first report I read, I sensed that we were parts of each other."

"I was afraid to meet you, at first."

She hadn't admitted to anything like that before. "Why?"

Swallowing, she said, "I was afraid of what you would mean. How you would change me and make me who I am."

Her words were exactly my own feelings and I craved to touch her, to finally make contact with the surface of her body, but just as I raised my right hand toward her face, the train doors slid open, and the cool air of the station poured over us. Part of me wanted to slam them shut, take the controls of the train and head back to the wide circular track. We could live in constant motion, in the seclusion of the nature car, and never have to take another step in the rest of the world. But then I thought of a story in Pure H of a man who lived his whole life on a train. At eighty-three, when he is finally forced off, he stumbles on solid ground and cracks his skull. "Will we?" she asked, so quietly I barely heard. "In this awful world, will we?"

She meant: Would we find silence, solitude, and love? I took her gloved hand in mine, inhaled her delicate sassafras, sandalwood, and ambergris. "We will," I said, as I led us from the train. We walked past the bowing Bee Girls and the conductor in his three foot-tall blue-and-white striped hat. Frankly, I was unhappy that our dates were so commercialized, but Father was hungry for any publicity angle and glad to take their cash. With a nod, I thanked him, and wished he and the Bee Train Corporation good luck with their launch.

Camera crews scurried around us as we made the too-long trek across the new glass and titanium station, christened, as it was, by our presence. At the atrium doors, we paused for just a second. The new station was quiet, hollow, and still, but beyond the doors, the stage, and the podium, we could see thousands of reporters and tens of thousands of fans waiting for our comments and post-date impressions.

Nora and I glanced at each other, and I thought I saw weariness in her. Once we were married, I told myself, we would be able to submerge beneath the scrutiny of the millions of camera lenses, the critics' judgments, and the multitudes of opinions, but today, we had our duty. When we stepped outside, the crowd's noise rushed over us like a tidal wave. Lights flashed. Everyone began cheering, clapping, and shouting. When we started toward the podium ten feet away, Nora pulled her hand from mine.

She did it gently, but the feeling it gave me was that I had done something wrong, that she was annoyed or had changed her mind about me. As I frantically tried to remember the agreed-upon blocking, but couldn't recall if we were supposed to be holding hands now or not, I stared forward into the cameras and tried to pretend that nothing unusual had happened, that my heart hadn't just been cracked. But as I tried to smile, I was sure I could hear the servomotors whine as the cameras all zoomed in on my flushed face.

When I turned, Nora was tugging off the charcoal chenille glove from her left hand. I saw a metallic flash of what looked like a tiny surgical robot, and then an inch line of blood welled across the creases of her palm.

Although her hand and blood were in color—of course—it was just like an image from Pure H in an ad for a top-of-the-line, Invisi-Pearl™ finishing-stitch machine. The photoR6 was a close-up of a wounded woman's hand resting on wet sand. Beneath the image, the copy read: The moment became her life. My advisor told me that the hand was that of a dead woman and that the moment had passed, but as Nora held her hand for me to see, clearly, she believed the moment was approaching; and moreover, that the wound was evidence of a struggle that the hand had endured on its journey to this climactic moment.

I loved her hopeful interpretation! Most photographers around the stage pushed, shoved, and jockeyed for position to capture the image, but a few, who obviously knew Pure H, lowered their cameras in respect and awe.

And then Nora, whose eyes were quivering with tears of what I imagined were joy and pain, held her bloody hand toward me. That was how she felt: she wasn't just offering the warm smoothness of her skin, but the river of her life, the solution of her heart.

I felt a jolt of excitement as my fingers met her soft and warm flesh. At first, I clasped her hand as gently as one might a dove. Her fingers curled around mine and when our palms touched, I felt the heat of her blood. A moment later, I squeezed her gently and spread the wetness between us. And had I known what would happen in the next ten minutes, I would have never let go.

As we stepped before the podium, a moderator, a short, stocky man who I recognized from some interview show on the channels, pointed to a reporter in the crowd and asked for the first question.

— Nora, does that mean you're in love?

Her grip tightened around my fingers, and I imagined the question embarrassed her. In the delay before she replied, I wondered if I should speak for her, to defuse the awkwardness. "Love is an important subject to ponder," she said into the pipe organ of microphones before us. After a sly glance toward me, she nodded once to the crowd to indicate that that was her answer.

— You were rumored to be involved with a robot. Is it true?

— Nora, do you cut yourself?

— Is your father on ARU?

The MC asked them to go one at a time, but questions came from every angle.

— Show us your hand again!

— Are you really a purebred, Michael?

— Do you endorse Hershey-Decker Industries whose ad you quoted?

— What are you planning for your wedding night?

— Nora, are you sterile from the 'Ceutical Wars?

— They say five women actually write Pure H. Think that's true?

— Doesn't your dad hate you, Michael?

— Did you two secretly marry last week?

— What's that blood thing mean?

"The blood thing," said Nora, emphasizing the word as if to mock the reporter's ignorance, "is just for Michael. I would never let someone touch my insides without feeling the enchantment I do toward him."

I loved her word enchantment. It felt mysterious and yet solid, as if carved from a block of fragrant eucalyptus. I knew I couldn't be more lucky and blessed, and tried to keep my eyes focused forward and clear, like a good foot soldier, but I could feel the saltwater rise. When I wiped my eyes with a handkerchief, more questions rained down on us despite the little man trying to maintain order.

"One at a time," he pleaded.

— Are you crying?

— Michael, when will you take over RiverGroup?

— Are those tears of love? Or is this another of your dad's crazy schemes?

— You're breaking a billion girls' hearts, Michael! Sure she's the one?

— Are you both virgins?

— Michael, they say you still secretly dance Bäng. Is it true?

— Nora, will your family company become a unit of RiverGroup or merge completely?

— Is your father's DNA mutated?

— What's it like to be with Michael Rivers?

— Have you two done it?

— Are those nude photos in Sir Princess Zonk really you, Nora?

— Will you deflower her at the product show?

— How much are you both worth?

We fielded the proper questions as best we could, but they kept coming faster and faster. Meanwhile, the moderator became so flustered, he started shouting. The reporters screamed back. I decided to try and calm the crowd and released Nora's hand. At first, our palms stuck, then the seal was broken. Stepping before the microphones, I raised my arms, and said, "Thank you, all." I tried to smile and say it nicely, but the mass of reporters began to push in on the barricades, and soon a dozen family police, in their protective orange satin suits, were pushing back. People started screaming. The next moment a fire burst out and someone was engulfed in flames.

Nora's attendants quickly covered her with a protective net and carried her off to her green and gold Loop limousine. I wanted to go after her, make sure she was OK, say goodbye, and gaze into her left eye so she would know that I felt precisely the same as her, but after I took one step, it felt like a knife stabbed my hand. The force whipped my arm backward and almost knocked me over. As I turned to see if one of the family security satins had accidentally hit me, I was surprised to see Joelene beside me, covered with a fine spray of blood.

Joelene was my tutor, my advisor, and my best friend. She was a good five inches shorter, with loose, curly, light brown hair, a slim mouth, and thin, amethyst eyes. "Joelene," I said, afraid the blood was hers. She had the strangest, saddest expression. "What's the matter?" I asked, as the pain in my hand turned white hot.

Besides Nora's blood that had dried in the wrinkles and creases of my palm, now a dot of my own blood welled up in the middle. For an instant, I thought it perfect and symmetrical. I glanced after Nora as if to show her, but when I turned my hand over, I saw that the back was bloody too.

The wound went all the way though as if I had been shot. I was about to ask Joelene what was going on, when my left hand was violently snapped backwards and another spray of blood atomized in the air. I cried out because the pain was excruciating. Bones had been shattered and tendons severed.

Joelene's face was now covered with a heavy splatter and she was grimacing and blinking fast as if it had gotten in her eyes.

"I'm shot!" I said, pulling my hands toward my chest to try to comfort and protect them. How could this be happening? I was first son of RiverGroup, the security company.

"You'll be all right!" she said.

Before I could move, I felt a horrific stab in my right foot and screamed. Then I felt the same blast in my left. The tops of my shoes were cracked open like tiny bombs had gone off. My knees buckled as my body felt clumsy and heavy. I shuffled forward trying to stay upright, but couldn't keep my balance. I began to fall and on the way down, felt someone try to grasp my waist. If there was an impact, I didn't feel it, but then my face was flat on the ground. The pain in my hands and feet burned like the white flame of a welding gun. The salty smell of blood filled my nose.

All around, I heard screams. Joelene shouted the word ambulance several times. A siren began to whine and at first it rose and fell like a perfectly formed and pure white sign wave. A moment later, though, the tone turned harsh and the smooth wave I had been imagining became rough and jagged. The siren began to fade, and the wave shrunk to a single point of green light. It held for a moment then disappeared.

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