BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 11
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

And now for something a little different – Adventures in Weightlessness Part 2: River, meet Jase. Jase, meet River.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2989    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.

Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529 and LEEH for the beta help!

Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end.

* * *

River drifted down the stairway, occasionally touching a step or bulkhead to straighten out the path her body followed. As she neared the bay, she folded up her knees so she could get a good hard push off the bottom step. She entered the cargo bay like a story book heroine in full flight, diving over the catwalk into the wide open space.

Her heart was in her throat, in the most enjoyable way. It was called freefall, but it didn’t feel like falling. It felt like hovering, and she thrilled over looking down at the deck from an angle that shouldn’t have been possible. Eventually she reached the fore catwalk and grabbed the railing on the far side of it, letting her momentum carry her around. She let go at just the right instant and landed with a deep plié on the bulkhead above the main doors. A push toward the deck, a cartwheel and a second push, and she was gliding through the space again, a big smile on her face.

With only the emergency lights on, the bay had a blue and white glow that caught on the few objects that had been left unsecured. River swam through them, imagining herself underwater, but that wasn’t quite right. She had been underwater, and it wasn’t like this. Underwater had resistance and weight, and the constant ache of breath being held. This was light and airy and free. No, not free – that wasn’t right either. She was a slave to her momentum. Linear, rotational. Transferring between herself and the floating objects in her path, changed by impulse equals force times time on whatever surface she touched. Vectors of velocity, changed by force equals mass times acceleration. Torque, center of mass, air drag on fabric and hair…

Equations she’d understood since she was a little girl, but she’d never seen them applied as clearly, or as enjoyably, as this. She could draw herself in and spin rapidly, then open her arms and legs in an arabesque and rotate slowly ten meters over the deck.

The joy was so overpowering that the bad voices had no sway over her. She kept just enough of them in her head to know where they were, and she was confident that they wouldn’t be bothering her play time for a while. She’d given them plenty to stay busy with upstairs.

She felt the Captain passing through the dining room directly above her. He’d had a few things knocked loose in his head; but, confused as he was, it wasn’t his way to be careless. He’d do it right. She didn’t need to worry about him for a while – she’d done her job and now she just needed to stay out of the way.

Her body continued the game, but moved slower as her attention went elsewhere. She finally opened her mind to the boy laying unconscious in the infirmary; she wanted to see the patterns in the sky above the brightly colored trees, and to meet the woman with the long black hair and brown eyes who sang in a warm, soft voice.

* * *

A boy is sitting at a homemade wooden table, on a little wooden stool.

It is difficult to bring him into focus. River sits down across the table from him, studying his wavering form. Mostly, he looks like a six year old half-Chinese boy, his short black hair freshly washed, his face glowing a healthy pink, and his smiling eyes a startling jade green.

But other images flicker around the little boy. River focuses on them, and realizes that they are older versions of the same person. His hair gets longer as he grows, and his face turns glum. Some of the older boys have bruised cheeks and swollen lips. One that appears only briefly has blood all over his chest and dirty hair hanging over his down-turned face, like a curtain hiding his features.

What is this place? River wonders. And why are you so many people?

The youngest boy, the one with joyful eyes, is looking right through her. He doesn’t see her; but, at some level, he must know she’s there. His thoughts flow to her and through her. The voice doesn’t belong to a six year old, it’s a teenager about her age, and he answers her in a rambling, indirect way.

Autumn - Before. The trees’re still alive. Gold and yellow and red and orange. The wind makes them swirl. I used to look at `em for hours.

River turns around; a door is propped open to let in the soft air. Outside, the trees swirl, just as he said. She walks to the door to look at the sky; it glows deep blue and there are colorful arcs in it: planetary rings, she realizes. It is all very pretty; it makes her happy, too.

She turns back. A Chinese woman has taken the seat across from the boy. She is braiding her silky black hair into one long plait that she wraps around her head and fastens with a silver pin. Then she stands up, kisses the boy’s forehead, and goes to the griddle. River walks toward the table, studying the woman. She is pretty, but when she smiles she is beautiful. There is so much love in that smile.

He is explaining again.

Dumplings packed full a’ apples. No one else’s Ma makes the sweet dough like this, just mine. Says she learned it from her own Ma. And today I get bacon. Uncle Bucky sent it from town. He lives there, and sends presents a lot.

Uncle Bucky liked me. He always liked me a lot.

I get all my favorites today `cause the harvest is in. Best harvest Ma and Pa ever seen, that’s what they say. I know what that means: everythin’ else’ll be good now too. Ma and Pa’ll be happy.

That’s what I thought back then, anyhow.

Two shadows wonder into the kitchen. River understands: it is a memory within his memory. The shadows are his Ma and Pa, and they exchange smiles of relief. It happened just minutes ago, before Pa went out the open door into the sunshine.

The boy’s Pa is solidly built from hours of labor in the fields, his thick hair lightened and smooth skin darkened by the sun. He is tall and River thinks that if she were older, she would think him handsome.

River feels how the boy worships his Pa. She also understands that Pa’s distant manner, the way he doesn’t talk very much, just makes him look like more of a hero in the boy’s eyes. Pa gives approval only when it’s earned; he can do that because he is wise.

Harvest is done, but Pa’s goin’ out to clear up the fields more. He says never leave the future to the fates. A man has to earn his way, and hardship always finds the lazy ones – but he ain’t lazy, not my Pa. He works dawn till dusk, comes home tired and dirty. But he says toil is a blessin’, `cause the lean-to and the cellar are stuffed full, and we’ll be eatin’ good this winter.

The shadows of his parents linger in the kitchen. Ma kisses Pa on the cheek and Pa looks startled by it, but he smiles and whistles as he sets out. It is unusual, River realizes, this sharing of happiness between Ma and Pa. Even the six year old boy sees how unnatural it is, and it has stayed in his memory that way. His parents don’t kiss often.

Seeing them smile at each other has made him happier than any tasty breakfast ever could. But the dumplings don’t hurt. The shadows fade out and Ma sets a plate in front of the boy. River smiles to see him dig in with unself-conscious gusto. He knows he deserves the treat; he’s worked very hard this summer. It’s the first time he’s been a help rather than a burden to his Pa.

He brags to River:

Everyday, I carried lunch out to Pa and the hands in the fields. When the sun was at her hottest I took water out. Ma let it cool in the cellar and sweetened Pa’s bottle with just a little sugar so it’d taste good. Other times, I helped Ma with the garden. Planted the seeds, sang to `em while we tended `em, then we picked it all to store away. Plump red tomatoes and shiny green peppers, onions and carrots and `taters.

And now it’s all done, and this morning of his memory has dawned warm and bright like winter might not ever come.

The boy at the table doesn’t waver anymore; the youngest version of him is solid, with none of those pained shadows cutting in. He is working on his second fritter, saving the biggest bits of apple for last.

He has something else to show River, another memory in this memory. It is outside the open door.

Ma’s favorite thing – after me, she always said – the apple tree out back. Half again as tall as Pa it is, though Ma says it’d been barely longer than her arm when she first put it in the ground.

Leaves blow off the apple tree, but then it wavers as many younger versions of it show through. Ma sits in the grass underneath it, with her son in her arms. Baby, toddler, six year old boy – all overlap. She points to wavering blossoms/small green apples/ big red apples above, and tells her boy the tree’s story over and over, as he tells it to River.

Ma held the baby tree in her lap on the crowded ship that brung her through the Black. The other pioneers looked at her all funny when she sang to the twig stickin’ out of a wrapped up ball of dirt. They got mad when she gave it her water, but that’s `cause they didn’t understand. Ma brought this tree through the stars, carin’ for it until it could reach here, take root, and grow strong. She figured I’d be comin’ along, and she wanted to share it with me.

The wind stirs the branches of the tree, and all the different memories of Ma and Jase sing against the murmuring of the leaves.

River turns away from the open door. Ma is sitting across the table from Jase again; she starts singing, and Jase sings along in a clear child’s voice. River takes a stool between them and stares at the boy. She wants him to look back at her.

“Hiding here, aren’t you?” she asks.

He doesn’t respond, just keeps singing.

“It’s okay, I won’t make you leave. I like it here too.”

The little boy still ignores her, but the older voice speaks again. River feels a warmth like a light shining on her – the equivalent of a gaze, a suspicious stare, and the voice speaks to her directly.

You don’t belong here.

She feels a push. It makes him uncomfortable that she talked to him, he wasn’t expecting that. He wants her to leave now.

“I want to be your friend,” she says.

I ain’t got friends.

“Have me now. I like you.”

The older versions of the boy begin to flicker in again, the youngest growing faint inside them.

You don’t know who I am.

She makes her voice cheerful. “Show me. I want to know.”

No.

“It’s okay – ”

NO!

He is trying to force her out. But River has some power here, she learned it from the time she’d spent in the Captain’s dreams. She grips the table, though it isn’t real and there is nothing to hold. But it is an analog to resistance, and it helps her fight.

Her fingers make claws, nails digging into the wood, and she stays. She looks at the flickering images of the boy across the table, picking the one that must be the oldest, the teenager with the bloody shoulder and unwashed hair hanging down to his chin. She concentrates, fighting his attempts to slip away, and she makes the oldest him turn solid. He is weakening, and she can let go of the table to reach out and push his dirty, matted hair aside.

The face behind it looks barely human: bruises and cuts and blood, his nose bent sideways from being broken and lips and eyes swollen. River’s stomach twists at the sight; she lets go of his hair, and of his image. The happy young boy instantly returns, picking up another dumpling and stuffing it his mouth like nothing happened.

“I’m sorry,” she tries to say, but he is pushing her away again, and she can’t fight it this time. He hadn’t really been trying before, she realizes. He is very strong in his mind, and when he really wants her out, she has no choice but to go.

* * *

River opened her eyes. She had an arm folded around a railing of the catwalk, and she wasn’t moving. She was grateful to find herself here: if she’d been out in the middle of the bay with very little velocity, she’d be in trouble. The grav was going to come back on at some point, whenever the Captain got around to switching the lever in the engine room, and she’d better be holding something when it did or she’d be one of Kaylee’s greasy spots on the deck far below.

She listened for the Captain – he wasn’t ready yet to turn on the grav yet; he was still talking to Ray. She could play more if she wanted, but she’d lost heart for her game. She regretted being pushy with Jase. It wasn’t right to pry, not with him. He wasn’t out to hurt anyone; she shouldn’t have dug around in his private thoughts like that. But now she wanted to know more about him, to understand why he saw himself like he did.

She reached out carefully, and could tell that he’d woken up. She couldn’t get into his thoughts; his mind was a fortress, and she’d never get back in by force. Maybe there were other ways – Jase had been hurt lots; River knew about hurt. But she knew about other things too. Things that didn’t hurt. She could offer those to him.

“Playtime now,” she muttered. “I say so.”

She made herself return to the game, casting hurt aside and trying to get lost in the fun of flying. She had a feeling that Jase would come play.

* * *

At first, he had a hard time. He had mixed-up memories of gunfire inside a big dark space, a giant room made of cold, hard metal. A man had been about to kill Ray. Jase had tried to help, but then there was pain, sharp burning pain in his shoulder, and he was down on his back in the dust, staring up at the neck of a spaceship that blocked out the sky.

He had tried to go away inside his mind, but Ginger was there, moving him, making it hurt worse so he couldn’t think. Then Ray was mad and hitting someone. Jase’s shoulder throbbed and he realized Ray had picked him up.

Then he was in a little room, laying on a narrow bed. A strange man was talking all square. Jase felt a sting in his arm and the pain faded away. Finally, it got real easy to get away, to visit Ma.

After a bit, he felt that something was different. Something was pushing at him, not letting him run things how he liked. It wanted to know stuff, so he explained. He was happy to at first; he hadn’t had a chance to talk about Ma in a long, long time. He explained the things that were good.

But then the Something was talking back to him. It asked about the things that weren’t so good, made it hard for him to pretend nothing outside was real. Then it started saying that It was his friend, that It liked him. He should have known better, should have known those were just lies, meant to trick him. But he wanted to believe, so he let the Something get closer.

Suddenly there were two brown eyes, staring right into him, and he couldn’t hide anything. He was scared and he shoved the Thing away, as hard as he could. But he couldn’t feel safe in his dream anymore, knowing that Something could come find him like that.

* * *

Jase opened his eyes, then decided that he had to be dreaming still. He was floating, not touching anything. Well – almost.

There was a sting on the inside of his right elbow that felt real as could be. It took him a bit to focus his eyes in the darkness, but he finally worked out what it was – a needle, attached to a tube, stuck into his skin. He peeled back some tape and pried the needle out, though using his left arm made his shoulder hurt. The ache was distant, like it wasn’t happening to him, like it was some other person’s body telling his how to feel.

Once his elbow was free of the needle, he really wasn’t touching anything, which was weird. It wasn’t his usual dream, but his head felt funny and light and the ache in his shoulder faded away completely. He liked it, being floaty like this. In his body and on the inside of his head. Floaty and smooth. His thoughts were going around in big floaty smooth circles, circles that wobbled and sometimes veered in crazy directions. He let them go. Wasn’t anyone around to yell at him for thinking wrong.

Of course he thought about Ma, but she just passed by again and again without doing much. He thought about Ray, even though he didn’t want to. He thought about big brown eyes peeking at him from behind leafy green branches full of apples. He thought about what his eyes were really seeing, and it didn’t make a lick of sense.

There was a big white squarish thing sticking out of a dark background. Jase couldn’t guess as to what it was, so he finally stretched his right arm out and found he could touch it. It was soft and padded. It was a bed, a narrow bed with rails on the side, and there were dark stains on one corner of it. It was sitting in the center of a room lined with counters, and he was floating above it, and that was just crazy. Ray would yell at him for thinking something fanciful like that.

Jase’s light touch on the bed didn’t last long; he found himself moving away from it, drifting up and spinning real slow, so his feet sank toward the bed. And then he was looking at a wall lit with a faint greenish blue glow, and there was a dark window in it. And just then, something went by the window, something that glowed like a ghost.

It startled him and he straightened his body, driving the back of his head into the hard ceiling, and then he spiraled down. He tried to grab the foot of the bed, but only managed to push himself away from it and he was lost.

After a time, he bumped into something solid and he clung there until he worked things out. He was holding the hinges of an open door, the only way out of the small room. He found the dark window in the far wall – within a few seconds, the ghost went by again. But it wasn’t a ghost, he saw; it was an angel. An angel like Ma used to sing about, graceful and pretty, looking all soft and blue-white.

He turned away from the small room so he could go find her, pushed off the doorway and caught the railing of a few stairs going up to his right. There was another round doorway, and behind it was a big dark space, so dark he couldn’t really see anything but the angel. She was far away, going head first toward the floor. Maybe it wasn’t the floor; maybe he had it wrong. He let himself rotate so the nearest big flat surface was above his head. That must be the ceiling, he decided. Weird to have a doorway so near the ceiling.

* * *

It wasn’t hard to get happy again. River kept her mind to herself, and almost got lost in the bliss of spinning and drifting. But she kept checking with her eyes, glancing over to the hatch until she saw him appear there, and as dove toward the deck she furtively watched him turn upside down so he was oriented the same way she was.

She peeked again a minute later, and he’d come out into the bay, hovering under the platform connecting the aft stairways, like he was laying on his belly against the underside of it.

Having an audience made River playful; she shot herself back through the bay, did a flip on the deck, then planted her feet right on the edge of the platform, not half a meter from where Jase’s hands held his body in place. She let herself touch his thoughts for just a second, finding that the walls weren’t as strong as they’d been and she could get a little way in. He was staring at her face, liking how happy she looked, thinking he’d felt like that once, a long time ago.

River pushed away from the platform, her elation crushed by pity for this person who hadn’t known joy in years – but then she had to think about something else, and be quick about it. She hadn’t been paying attention to the Captain. She was only halfway up to the ceiling when a distant clang from the lever on the artificial grav system echoed into the bay.

* * *

A sudden harsh, blaring noise splintered the peace and made Jase flinch. A woman’s voice began speaking real loud, but he couldn’t understand all of it. He just knew it was a warning, and he looked to his angel for help. He could see her through the metal grating he held himself against; she seemed far, far away, just coming in contact with a flat, shadowed surface. She crouched into a deep knee-bend, her face intent, not happy like before. She launched herself powerfully through the air like a dart, her arms stretched in front of her.

She had just grabbed on to a metal rail when Jase felt a giant hand press the front of his body and shove him away from the platform. He flew straight up and crashed onto his back against what he’d thought was the ceiling, then he stuck there, still pressed by the invisible force.

The impact knocked his air out and made his shoulder burn, but he had a long second of clarity, looking through the metal platform to a railing where the angel was hanging with her feet toward him. He saw her swing herself onto a walkway, then his lungs were burning with returning air and sharp pains racked his shoulder as he coughed.

When he was able to see again, she was coming down a stairway from the platform, looking right at him. Then she was standing next to him.

If I ain’t dead already, he thought, gotta be my time now. Sorry, Ray.

But he wasn’t really sorry. He wanted to go. He wanted to see Ma again.

Bright lights came on, and the angel in the blue gown turned into an ordinary girl with a dirty face, messy dark brown hair, and a light gray tattered dress that hung loose on her bony frame. But her eyes were bright, and he thought that maybe the angel was still there, hiding somewhere inside.

“You’ve got it all wrong,” she said. He winced; she didn’t sound like an angel, not at all. Her voice was loud and firm like she was out to lecture him.

“Oh – sorry,” she said, not so loud this time, and dropped to her knees beside him. “It’s just the way you look. Not at all like what you think.” She was touching his face, and her hand felt cool and dry. Her fingers ran lightly over the bruise on the corner of his mouth.

“Simon can give you something to make your lip feel better,” she said. “Look better too, no more swelling.”

Too many words, he couldn’t work out what the dì yù she was talking about. It’d be nice if she’d say something useful, something he could understand.

“Ma here?” he asked.

She looked sad. Her eyes were brown, and he recognized them.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Can’t take you to see her.” Her hand shifted to his chest, laying lightly over his heart. “But she’s in here. Never left.”

She said that so nice that he wondered how her eyes had ever scared him. He watched her lift her hand off his chest to look at the blood on her fingers. Then she leaned over him, and suddenly she looked mad. Yeah, he corrected himself, she could be scary.

But she wasn’t mad at him. “Simon can do better than that,” she said, and she pressed her lips together angrily.

“Simon?”

Her eyes narrowed as she wiped her hand on her dress, leaving streaks of his blood there. “He’s supposed to be a doctor. I’ll have a talk with him.”

“Don’t matter,” he whispered.

She touched his forehead again, and her voice got softer. “Don’t worry. I didn’t mean it. He’s really the best doctor there is; he’ll fix you.”

She was nice to say that, even if she was wrong. He liked how she smiled. It was like Ma’s smile; it was like she really cared. Made him feel better about dying.

“You’re not going to die,” she said.

“How do’ya know?

She straightened a little, lifting her chin. “I’m very smart.”

He smiled. “Yeah, I bet ya are.”

She was pushing his hair back from his face now, from where it stuck in the sweat on his forehead and cheeks. His hair must be really dirty, and he was ashamed to have her touch him, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Stay with me?” he asked. “Just `till…” He didn’t want to say the rest.

“You don’t believe me, do you? That you won’t die?”

“Sorry.”

“I don’t mind. You’ll believe me eventually, because I’m right.” She was kinda bratty when she said that, but she took his hand and held it, so he forgave her. “I’ll stay,” she said. “The trees are nice, and your Ma is very pretty. Will you tell me about her some more? And your Pa?”

Definitely, those were the eyes that had seen into him. But now he knew who they belonged to, and he didn’t need to be afraid. He nodded, and she held his hand and stroked his hair until he dreamed again.

* * *

As Jase faded, River heard something above her. She froze, breath held as she looked up into the darkness. It was the woman – Ginger. The clang of her boots on the metal catwalk echoed in the empty space, but she didn’t look down, just went directly to Shuttle Two.

River exhaled in relief as soon as the hatch closed. Once over her fright, she listened: the woman was thinking about a mechanic… Kaylee. Going to get Kaylee. That was no good. Playtime was almost over then; it would be time to get back to work soon. River checked with the Captain; he was just leaving the engine room, with Ray following him. They were going to the bridge. River let her mind wander ahead of them –

Simon was hurt! She gasped and almost jumped to her feet. Simon was in pain, and the really bad one was with him! She focused and made herself calm down – it wasn’t that bad, Simon would be okay. And the Captain would be there soon to make sure he didn’t get hurt again.

She hesitated a little longer, not sure what to do. She was only one girl, one small, broken girl. She couldn’t do anything about armed criminals, except look at the ugliness they had on the inside. She vaguely remembered using a gun once, but she had no idea how she’d done it. It had just… happened.

It’d be best to stay put, she decided. Someone would be coming down before long to check on Jase. But she had a few minutes, at least, and might learn something useful from him.

Deep down, she knew that wasn’t why she wanted to stay, not really. But it was a good enough excuse. So she closed her eyes and went looking for his dreams. She’d stay further back this time, so she wouldn’t scare him, and not ask any questions.

When she found him, he let her in, showing her things without explaining in words. He didn’t need to because his mind was fully open to her. River understood what she saw like they were her own memories, being revealed in short scenes that flashed quickly by.

* * *

It is the afternoon; young Jase finished his apple dumplings hours ago. He and Ma are playing cāi quán. Suddenly, the little house shakes in a blast of wind, and Jase and Ma go running around closing windows and doors against the abrupt arrival of winter. A few minutes later, Pa comes stumbling through the door in a blur of big, fluffy snowflakes. They all laugh at the strange weather, and it makes River smile from the corner where she stands watching. The family feels safe together, in their snug house with all they need stored away.

*

They have visitors for the holiday dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Meyers and their three nearly grown children are here. The little house seems smaller and warmer with so many people in it, and River likes it. The children aren’t playmates for six year old Jase; they call him a baby. But Uncle Bucky is here too, bringing gifts from the city like he always does. He’ll be staying for almost two weeks, though he sleeps at the Meyer’s. There’s room at Jase’s house, but Pa and Bucky don’t get along. They never fight, but Jase sees how they talk in short, tense words, and never look directly at eachother.

*

It is spring and River lets her toes sink into the rich dirt of the furrowed field. The thaw has come early, warm and bright. Jase is just arriving from the barn; he struggles with his thin arms to get the wheelbarrow full of seed out to Pa. He doesn’t spill any, and Pa proudly claps him on the shoulder like he’s a full grown man, instead of patting his head like he used to. Jase beams.

*

The sun is hot; it is midsummer and Jase, just turned seven, is bringing a full water bottle to Pa. Pa grabs it and drinks, then drops it on the ground. He never says thank you. He is mumbling about the crops: How can they be so gorram sickly?

Jase knows Pa isn’t talking to him, so he just takes the empty bottle back to the house.

*

River climbs the apple tree, watches Ma and Jase gathering ripe apples from the lower branches. Ma is explaining why Pa is grumpy. The crops haven’t done well this summer, and with all they have to pay the hired hands there is nothing extra to lay by. But they have enough to get through the winter and do the next spring’s planting. Next year everything will be better again.

*

River shares Jase’s relief that the long, quiet winter has finally passed, and spring is here with its warm sun. She crouches in the garden and watches him plant seeds, then looks out to Pa in the fields with the ox and the plough. When she turns back to Jase it is midsummer already, and he is pulling weeds around the little plants. He is turning eight today, and Ma is smiling and singing to the garden, even though it doesn’t seem to hear anymore. Nothing is growing like it should.

*

Jase follows quietly behind Pa, going to the fields. They can’t hire any hands this autumn, but he’s old enough to work and that helps. He doesn’t talk, because Pa gets mad easy these days. Pa yells when Jase says stupid things, which seems to happen a lot. Ma says Pa is just worried about how they’ll get through the winter, worried that they won’t have enough. But Ma says not to worry, she’s sure they’ll be fine.

*

River sits by the house at night a week later, waiting for Pa and Jase to come back from the fields. The harvest is almost finished. Bucky has just arrived from the city; he comes out the door when he sees Jase approach, picks him up in a big hug. Ma is eager to tell Pa the good news: even in this lean year Bucky has brought them a full side of pork. Pa doesn’t look happy, he just asks where his supper is.

*

It is dark later that night and Bucky has left. River follows Jase outside. They climb the bare apple tree because the look on Pa’s face is scary, and they hide there while Pa shouts at Ma, telling her not to be so damned friendly to his brother. He calls her names, bad words that Jase doesn’t understand, but River does: yāo jing, biăo zi. Pa also yells about Jase, calls him hún dàn, and he says Bucky will never visit again.

*

The snow is deep but Pa goes out to visit Mr. Meyer anyway. Ma and Jase stay home as they always do this winter, huddling around the small fire, eating the coarse brown bread that is all they have left. Ma is coughing. She doesn’t sing anymore.

*

The air is warm again but the apple tree is barely blooming. Ma hasn’t planted the garden; she says she’s too tired. Jase is out before sunrise putting in all the seeds he can before Pa calls him to the fields.

*

Jase stops by the garden an hour before sunset. It’s been three months since he planted, but nothing ever came up. Only a few trees have leaves; the apple tree is bare, the blooms it had in the spring have withered and died. Jase goes inside to make supper. He always does now, since Ma stays in bed. It’s midsummer and he is turning nine today, but no one remembers.

*

Pa doesn’t go out harvesting this morning. The autumn fields look bare to Jase, and it doesn’t seem that there’s much harvesting to do anyway. He figures that Pa’s been going out to the fields because he doesn’t want to be in the house. But this morning Pa is home, digging a hole under the apple tree to lay Ma in. He isn’t letting Jase help.

*

Jase is making supper. Ma’s been in the ground for eight days, and Jase hasn’t spoken since. Pa doesn’t want to talk anyway; he sits at the table like he has every day since Ma died, staring at nothing.

Jase starts to sing. It’s a sad song that Ma used to sing sometimes. Jase thinks it’s about Ma’s home planet and her family, about how she misses them. He thinks that now it’ll be about how he misses her. River knows the song, knows that it’s really about a woman pining over her lover. She sits down at the table, right next to Pa, and listens.

           Fŏng chuī laí di shā
           Chuān guò suŏ yoŭ de jì yì
           Sheí doū zhī daò wŏ zaì xiăng nĭ.

Pa never says a word, but he stands up and takes two steps across the room and punches Jase. Then he picks the boy up and punches him again. When Jase hits the floor the second time, he tries to scramble away, to crawl under the table. Pa pulls him out, flips him onto his back and kneels beside him, fist raised. River tries to grab Pa’s arm to stop him, but her hands pass right through. She’s forgotten that she isn’t really here, she can’t help.

But the third punch doesn’t fall. Pa opens his fist and drops it, then stands up and backs away. He grabs his coat and slams the front door on his way out.

What’d I do wrong? Jase is thinking, over and over, as he sits against the wall and feels blood drip over his chin. He touches his nose – it really hurts, and it’s bent a little. River tries to comfort him, but he has forgotten she’s there. She understands: he’s reliving things he’d done his best to forget, and gotten so deeply buried in his own story that he can’t see her anymore.

But now River knows who Pa is; she recognized his rage.

*

The door slams open and Pa comes back in. It’s been three days since he left. For three days Jase has tried to keep house and cook and live like normal; he doesn’t know what else to do. Pa pulls his boots off, builds the fire higher and sits down at the table. He doesn’t look up at Jase, doesn’t look at the black eyes and swollen nose. He just sits where he was before it happened. After a while, he says that supper should be on the table soon, and he goes to wash up.

*

River doesn’t recognize the yard behind the house. It’s spring, but there’s no green. The shape of the land looks different now that the grass is gone. Jase is standing by Ma’s grave, the dead apple tree beside him. He has a pack on his back, because Pa says it’s time to leave. Jase is thin; the winter was hard. They had to kill the ox and eat it or they’d have starved.

Jase has learned not to sing when Pa is around, and not to speak in Ma’s language. He’s learned it’s best not to talk at all, unless he has to.

He doesn’t cry to be leaving home; his home is dead and gone already. Besides, Pa says that Jase is almost ten, and in times like these a ten year old has to be a man. He has to hold his own or he’ll dry up and die just like the trees and the grass. Just like Ma.

Pa comes out of the house. He stands beside Jase, and he says that he isn’t Jase’s Pa anymore, that now Jase should call him Ray. They are two men doing whatever they need to stay alive in the hard times that have come. But Ray is the boss and Jase better be smart and do as he’s told. Jase nods.

River stays behind, standing by Ma’s grave and watching the two of them start across the barren field. Ray is still talking, saying that they’re lucky to be less than a week’s walk from the city. They can make it with what little food they have left, and they’ll be able to get work there. Ray says a man can always get by in the city, if he’s willing to try hard and live frugal and take the jobs as they come. But it won’t be easy.

River sees the set of young Jase’s shoulders. She knows that he doesn’t mean to let Ray down.

* * *

Jase’s eyes opened, and he looked up at River. She touched his foreheard again, then ran a finger along the bridge of his nose.

“You’re wrong about how you look,” she said.

He didn't talk, but she felt his question.

“It’s only a tiny bit crooked where it broke. Makes you looked rugged. Very handsome.”

He smiled faintly, and his hand tightened a little in hers.

River heard footsteps and voices in the distance, behind the infirmary and getting closer. Gently, she set his hand down before she stood and turned to dash up the stairs.

* * *

Translations

dì yù: hell cāi quán: a finger-guessing game yāo jing: alluring woman biăo zi: whore hún dàn: bastard Fŏng chuī laí di shā
                The sand that is blown by the wind
      Chuān guò suŏ yoŭ de jì yì
                Covers happy memories.
      Sheí doū zhī daò wŏ zaì xiăng nĭ.
                Everyone knows that I am missing you.

      from Kū shā (Crying Sand) by Tracy Huang

* * *

On to Chapter 12.

COMMENTS

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 3:51 AM

ELOISA


*Very* good dip into young Jase. I'm extremely impressed. Just hope River doesn't get nabbed in the meantime...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 5:39 AM

LEIASKY


Would have liked to have seen more of an intercut with some other characters in this chapter rather than just focusing on River and Jase. Either on the ship or whatever is going on on the planet as we haven't seen them for a while. A whole chapter with an OC is difficult to read - even if the character development was good.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 12:50 PM

AMDOBELL


This is really good but I worry about River getting so distracted with Jase. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 6:30 PM

NOSADSEVEN


I like the way the dreamy sequences are presented so visually - with the changing boy and tree, and with Jase's painfully insightful distorted self image.

Not bringing the other characters into the chapter brought me a certain level of unease, but it was an unease within the narrative...like River was so distracted with Jase that *she* wasn't paying attention to everyone else (as opposed to you, as the author). I was anxious that she would end up as one of Kaylee's 'greasy spots', or get caught by another OC, or miss something similarly crucial. I guess I was just underestimating her!

So yeah, I missed the rest of the crew, but I was already behind in reading, so was able to move right on to the next chapter to get that fix!

Tuesday, July 4, 2006 6:06 AM

TAYEATRA


This worked well as a good way to present exposition without an 'I am your father' cliche moment.

I'm not worried about missing out on the other characters but then again I am catching-up so I know the next instalment is already posted.

Friday, July 14, 2006 2:15 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


No, not free – that wasn’t right either. She was a slave to her momentum. Linear, rotational. Transferring between herself and the floating objects in her path, changed by impulse equals force times time on whatever surface she touched. Vectors of velocity, changed by force equals mass times acceleration. Torque, center of mass, air drag on fabric and hair…
-As I am an engineer and a huge fan of physics, you don't know how happy you have made me with these lines.

The scene with River and Jase was very good, much enlightenment to the background of him and Ray.


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