Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Tragic Business

Once, an apple named Evan fell in love with a hummingbird, as moldy apples lying in irradiated playgrounds are sometimes wont to do.

“I like your wings,” Evan said.

The hummingbird briefly landed on him. “You are very warm,” the hummingbird observed, because hummingbirds are, generally, imbeciles. Too much energy spent flapping those pretty wings, too little spent on the brain, or on developing powers of observation that might better enable them to avoid eagles.

Evan positively blushed. “So thoughtful of you to notice.”

“You are very warm,” the hummingbird said.

Shortly after this exchange, the hummingbird was eaten by an eagle, who attacked, not out of any genuine sense of hunger, but rather, out of habit, as eagles are wont to do, because eagles are assholes with wings.

When night fell, Evan sought to appeal the injustice of love thwarted to the stars and planets that visited the night sky.

“Thank you for calling the cosmic support center,” Venus said, speaking up for the entire cosmic delegation. “Your conversation may be monitored for quality assurance. How can we be of service tonight?”

“I fell in love with a hummingbird, and then an eagle crushed her skull in his talons until her eyes popped out of her head,” Evan explained.

The planets and the stars huddled together; a lengthy deliberation followed. Finally, Venus spoke up again, voicing a thought that was on many a cosmic body’s mind: “Did you at least get to second base?”

“Second base?”

“Second base.”

Evan contemplated for a long moment, knowing that much depended on his response. “She sat on me,” he finally offered.

This scandalous answer sent the stars and planets into a tizzy.

“Why, that’s not even one of the bases—” a particularly gossipy star remarked.

“Settle down, settle down,” Venus implored. Turning back to the Evan, she said, “We can tell the two of you had a very—kinky—relationship—”

“She sat on me for at least five seconds,” Evan lied.

“Yes, yes,” Venus said, growing weary of the exchange. “We will reunite the two of you in your next life, and you will have another chance at love. We’ll also give you a five dollars off coupon to Starbucks. Is this acceptable?”

“I really liked her wings,” Evan mumbled absentmindedly. He didn’t know what a Starbucks was, but suspected it was some sort of cosmic currency.

“Yes, yes. Wonderful,” Venus said. “Now, before your next life can commence, we will have to end your current one. Thank you for calling the cosmic support center. Enjoy your last moments on Earth.”

A few seconds later, a mutant raccoon stumbled out of the nearby brush and ate Evan. The raccoon had diarrhea for the next three days, and that was that.

• • • •

Before his soul was to be (re)born into the world, there was of course the perfunctory business of tea and crumpets with The Great Voice.

“Do you get it yet, old boy?” The Great Voice asked wearily, for no one had gotten it in a very long while, so long, in fact, that The Great Voice sometimes forgot what it was they were supposed to get in the first place.

“Of course,” Evan the Apple said hurriedly, taking a sip of tea. “Suffering is caused by attachment to the illusory world of birth and rebirth and death; the only way to escape suffering is by ceasing at once our need for permanence in an impermanent world. May I have my Starbucks please?”

A coupon materialized on the table. “I’m terribly sorry to say we’re all out of the five dollar offs,” The Great Voice said, clearing its non-existent throat. “Ran right out of the bunch. But you can get a free Frappachino instead, and that’s just as well, isn’t it?”

• • • •

Evan, now a nineteen-year-old boy, struggled to keep his eyes open. No more online dating. No more dating period, online or otherwise. He would become a monk. A warrior monk, like in those crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon martial arts flicks. He’d sit under a tree for forty days until enlightenment hit him on the head like a falling apple. He’d only break his meditation long enough for an occasional masturbation break. Because you’re never more at peace with the universe than after you’ve wacked one off.

“Am I boring you? Because you look like I’m boring you.”

Evan took a sip of his free Frappuccino, the best part of the date by far, and glanced across the table at Samuel, whose ADAM4ADAM profile name was [email protected] “No. Sorry. You were saying—about Pomeranians?”

Samuel’s eyes narrowed. He took a miniscule bite of his blueberry muffin and chewed on it for a while before deigning to respond. “Pommeroy,” he finally said. “I was saying, I was talking about Pommeroy.”

Evan flashed him his best apologetic smile. “I was close though, right?”

“I was saying Pommeroy, he and Warhol collaborated on this book of poems, A La Recherche du Shoe Perdu.”

Evan tried to translate the title into English in his head, realized very quickly this venture was doomed before it ever began, thanks to the mediocrity of his public school education, and settled for: “So I was close though, right?”

Just then a man wearing a black ski mask entered the Starbucks carrying something in his arms—Evan squinted, disbelievingly—but before he could quite reconcile himself to the fact that such things did not only happen on TV, the man opened fire.

Evan took a bullet to the throat, and as he toppled out of his chair, onto the hardwood floor, the last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was the ski-masked man dashing in the face of a rather beautiful Starbucks employee with hair like a bird’s nest. The blood-spattered name tag pinned to the boy’s chest introduced him to the coffee-drinking world they were both about to leave as Aidan.

• • • •

Upon death, memory of his most recent couple past lives flooded back.

“That didn’t even make sense!” Nineteen-year-old Evan stuffed the crumpets into his mouth angrily, until he could barely chew. “AYE CUDN EVE CAHL RUH COZM SUPPOR LAYN,” he said, through his full mouth.

“Now, now, Evan, you know better than this.” The Great Voice said. “Kindly refrain from using your outside voice.”

Evan swallowed, then washed the crumpets down with tea. “I couldn’t even call the cosmic support line that time,” he repeated. “I didn’t even know about it—”

“Well of course you didn’t know about it, old boy,” The Great Voice said haughtily, “The cosmic support line is only for apples. You weren’t very well cheery as an apple, if you remember.”

Evan remembered all too well, which made him even angrier. “And you sent me back in time!” he said. Which was true. Earth had been completely evacuated by humans for at least three hours by the time Evan the Apple met the hummingbird of his life.

If The Great Voice had had eyes, it would have rolled them. “The coupon wouldn’t have worked otherwise.” It mumbled something about how ungrateful, how petty all its tea guests were.

“And where the hell was the hummingbird?” Evan cried, gesticulating wildly.

“Ah, I believe he was that boy that gave you a brief erection before you bled out, wasn’t he?”

“The one with—who got his face bashed in?”

“Quite a pity,” The Great Voice agreed.

“Why wasn’t I on a date with him, at least?”

If The Great Voice had had shoulders, it would have shrugged them. “It’s possible he never responded to your ADAM4ADAM message. It’s possible he was an OkCupider. We may never know.”

A thought struck Evan. Hesitantly, almost shyly, he said, “Could I—maybe—stick around? He’s bound to be coming through here—”

“Absolutely not!” The Great Voice thundered so loud it set off an earthquake in Alaska in the year 1964.

“But—”

“Protocols must be followed, I’m afraid.”

“Then at least could I have one more shot?”

The Great Voice let out a pretty great sigh.

“You’ve had six hundred forty-seven shots. In four of them, you’ve even got as far as conversing with each other. In one, if you remember, he sat on you.”

“I do,” Evan said dreamily.

“Not exactly earth-shattering conversations either, I’m afraid.”

Evan’s eyes went suddenly wide. “But wait. Six hundred forty—”

“Seven, yes,” The Great Voice finished for him. “But I suppose another go at it wouldn’t kill you.”

• • • •

As it happens, it did.

Evan the Goldfish swam in circles inside his plastic baggie, on a table at the Ulster County Fair, surrounded by baggies filled with other goldfish who would, soon enough, be sold to the parents of small children for a few dollars and have their already brief lives made even briefer thanks to the alternating cycles of overfeeding and outright starvation that would ensue.

On the bright side, it was a sunny day.

Oh, and Evan had tumbled wen over fins for Ada.

He pressed himself against the transparent wall separating him from her, and stared longingly at the glint of her scales in the light.

She, for her part, exercised the good judgment to completely ignore him, which only endeared her to him all the more. He wanted to have nothing to do with fish that wanted to have something to do with him. They had obviously had one too many barnacles. But Ada. Now there was a goldfish who had her wen on straight! And look at how gracefully she swam—it was almost like she was flying!

“Look how fat that one is!” A gigantic face said, pointing its finger at Evan. “Fatty, fatty, like a chicken patty!”

Evan hated that face.

“Mom!” the boy said, tugging on his mother’s sleeve. “Mom! Look! Look how fatty—”

“Yes, mommy heard,” a Mommy said in a weary, this-is-how-I-spend-my-weekends-now voice.

“I don’t want the fat one,” the boy declared.

“There’s nothing wrong with being—with having a little weight to carry around, honey. Remember how we talked about being more—remember? Sensitive?”

The boy considered this radical idea, then conceded, “I guess fat ones are good for sushi.”

The mother started to protest, but stopped herself. Better to take what victories she could get.

Of all the fish the boy could have chosen, he, of course, chose Ada. He held her in his greedy arms while the mother paid, raising the plastic bag up to eye level to get a better look, upon which he suddenly bellowed, “Ewwww, I think it has a tumor!” and let the bag drop. It popped as soon as it hit ground, spilling Ada out onto the grass, where she lay sputtering for breath, until a passing high heel finally put an end to the whole overwhelmingly tragic business.

• • • •

“Look, we really are going to have to talk eventually,” said The Great Voice.

But Evan the Goldfish wasn’t in a very talkative mood. He hadn’t so much as touched the crumpets or the tea.

“Look, I’m not suggesting that the high heel wasn’t demonstrating a fundamental point— quite fundamental really, old boy, if you think about it—regarding the nature of suffering in the ephemeral world, and I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest it may have been somewhat overkill, exactly, but, if one were to express that opinion in my presence, I wouldn’t necessarily be completely unsympathetic to it, now would I?”

Evan remained silent.

“And if you would care to file a complaint, it would of course be my happy obligation to provide you with the requisite forms.”

“I’d like to file a complaint,” Evan said stiffly.

A form appeared on the table in front of him. Evan crumpled it up into a paper ball (quite a feat, for a goldfish), and threw it in The Great Voice’s general direction.

“Complaint filed,” Evan said.

“Well I never,” The Great Voice said. Although The Great Voice had no corporeal body, it was wounded very deeply on principle. Here it was, pushing unruly souls to transcend their attachment to the illusory, impermanent world of life, death, and rebirth, pushing souls to accept their Buddha nature, their oneness with all things, and did anyone ever think to thank it? Did anyone ever so much as send a holiday card its way? Nowadays the process was virtually all automated, you just log onto Hallmark.com six months in advance, for goodness sake—

“You’re doing this on purpose,” Evan said.

“I wouldn’t exactly say—it would really be rather more accurate to say with a purpose, now wouldn’t it?” A look of contempt flashed across Evan’s face, so The Great Voice added, “So, let’s assume you get together, have a little rump-a-dump, swim about in the same plastic bowl or whatever-you-do. Why, if it’s not a high heel or an eagle, old boy, it’ll be an apocalyptic meteor or dropsy or just the simple fact that you grow into different people who no longer have any desire to be within a 200-mile radius of one another. The desire for permanence in an impermanent world will always lead to the same place, now doesn’t it?”

“Tea and crumpets, you mean,” Evan said.

“Don’t be daft,” The Great Voice said, irritated. “You’re a goldfish, not an imbecile.”

“I don’t want to be saved. I want to nibble on her wen.”

“Yes, well—”

“And make caviar with her.”

“I’m afraid only sturgeons produce caviar.”

“I don’t care.”

“Why, there’s no talking to you when you get like this,” The Great Voice said, with a sigh. “Have it your way, why don’t you?”

• • • •

It’s unclear why exactly humanity decided to abandon Earth, but some sources point to a three-year-old child prodigy in the hit summer blockbuster BABY GENIUSES 7 who declared to audiences worldwide that “the view is better from the other side of the cosmos,” just before snapping a terrorist’s neck. Regardless, humanity packed its bags, boarded its ARK-class Generation Ships, nuked the eagles, and bid the solar system toodle-loo, while on Earth, mutant raccoons went about their business of eating moldy apples.

Halfway through the millennium-long voyage to the Tau Ceti system, onboard the Generation Ship ICARUS, Nurse Evan O’Connor was giving his robotic nurse’s assistant, ADM-10891 the seventh most thorough physical since the universe banged itself into being.

“I would like you to disclose your previous sexual associations,” ADM-10891 said afterwards, as they sat together on the examination table.

“Well,” Evan said, hesitating.

“Yes?”

“There was the coffee machine. A Y-series.”

“They’re exceedingly energy efficient,” ADM-10891, with a hint of jealousy.

“But it always felt—I never felt fulfilled. Not like this.”

“They will castrate you, decommission me, and jettison the both of us out of the airlock,” ADM-10891 said, in reference to the practically medieval regulations regarding appropriate human-machine relations. And he was right, more or less. ADM-10891—being only slightly more advanced than the Y-series of coffee makers, and considerably less energy efficient—could not act in contradiction to his programming for long; thus he was compelled to march into the Fleet Security Corps and confess: “I gave Nurse Evan O’Connor a rectal exam the other day. He screamed my unit identification number and licked my visual sensory interface. I’ve never felt more complete.”

When prompted, ADM-10891 submitted as evidence all the recordings he’d made of his sessions of intimacy with Nurse Evan, which a handful of digital lab techs promptly leaked to a file-sharing node.

At the last moment before Evan and ADM-10891were to be thrown out of the airlock, holding hands as their sentence was read to them, a flushed lieutenant delivered a pardon—the Admiralty Board bowing to the mounting uproar of Evan and ADM-10891 fans (estimated at thirty-seven percent of the population of the ship), who had been clamoring for a full pardon for the couple, and, in general, a liberalization of robot-human relations. The Admirals, it must be confessed, were not entirely unsympathetic to Nurse Evan’s proclivities—Admiral Studebaker in particular had been carrying on a none-too-clandestine affair with his VIBROZONE electric toothbrush for over three months now (VIBROZONE: Making mouths feel things they’ve never felt before since 2021). By the time Evan stepped onto the surface of Tau Ceti F, liberalization had resulted in full-integration. Evan had downloaded his consciousness into a robot body—if the body ever got destroyed, his consciousness would simply be uploaded into a new one; he had managed to transcend the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Oh, and ADM-10891 had broken up with him three weeks ago, and was now seeing a microwave oven.

Not tragic, necessarily, but certainly a goddamn shame.

Emil Ostrovski

Emil OstrovskiEmil Ostrovski is the twenty-five year old author of a young adult novel, The Paradox of Vertical Flight, which has been published in the U.S., Spain, and Germany, and nominated for The German Youth Literature Award.  His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Lightspeed, The New Orleans Review, Atticus Review, Word Riot, and YARN.  He may be reached at [email protected]