a sample chapter from Red Ivy Afternoon

by Mark R. Brand

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  S I L V E R T H O U G H T




It is illegal for me to write this. My paper is contraband, the possession of which is an incarceratory crime. My pen is a computer stylus dipped in homemade ink. I scratch this here, knowing that there is only one copy of my words. It exists just right here in front of me on paper that can be burned or ruined by water or fall apart with age. At the very least, it will not be deleted by some prim, dusty-collared civil servant at a terminal in a darkened room. This story is too important to be censored. Some types of crowd control don't require truncheons and riot helmets.

        It was the Colonel who first told me how people used to write on sheets of paper instead of just onto a computer screen. We are meant to think that paper is a wasteful vice. It is said that once, long ago, messages were written, not typed. Computers used to have machines attached to them that could print text on paper.

        There is an old story about a city mouse and a country mouse and how they changed places to learn how truly different life can be. When I was young, I got the impression that country mice were backward people, and that outside of the city lay a wasteland of joblessness, poverty, and boredom. My mother would bewilder me with stories of towns so small that cousins married cousins, brothers married sisters.

        By the time I was old enough to think through such nonsense, there was not much country left to see. Suburbs grew and grew until the space between cities was an uninterrupted residential and commercial sprawl. The wilderness that was left wasn't inhabited. Once virtual education became compulsory, people had to move where the technology was. As far as the National Education Initiative was concerned, there was no excuse for bringing up a child in an area that the wireless broadband data signals didn't cover. There were no country mice anymore.


        I came home late from an afternoon walk one Saturday to find a stack of boxes outside of my neighbor's apartment. She had apparently passed on the night before. The walls were thin, and I had listened to her descend into madness for quite some time. It was dreadful to hear her shuffling and retching on the other side of my pantry. I saw them remove her belongings that morning as I was headed out for my usual breakfast. All she owned was a few items of clothing, a computer, and half a bottle of perfume. They looked very small.

        The new neighbor's boxes were metal instead of plastic. The new occupant was not to be seen, but the door to the apartment was ajar. I walked in and turned the corner. It was the identical mirror-image of my own apartment. Bedroom, computer room, bathroom, pantry.
"Hello?" I called into the main living area. There was no answer. I looked in the bedroom and found another small stack of the odd metal boxes. The lid of one was open and I peeked in. All it contained was a smaller oblong box and an unlabeled plastic bottle.

        I jumped guiltily at the click of a lock behind me.

        "Something I can help you with?" A tallish man in his early fifties stood watching me with spectacled eyes over a bearded smile. I stuttered out a greeting, caught off guard. He let me get out my embarrassed excuse that I was just welcoming my new neighbor. He was apparently not the least bit upset at the intrusion. To the contrary, his smile was instantly likable. He had an elsewhere sort of voice.

        "Well, hello. It's good to see that people here are friendly. The last apartment I lived in was full of…" he raised his hands and shook his head gently, searching for the right word, "…assholes."

        At this, I smiled as well.


        Only when he extended a hand to me did I realize that Pyndan was his name.

        "Pyndan," I replied, trying it. He nodded confidently. "Julian Lightfall."

        "Good to meet you. You're not, by any chance, of the Denver Lightfalls, are you?"

        "Not that I know of," I replied. My own family were the only Lightfalls I had ever heard of. "I've never been that far west. Are there Lightfalls out there?"

        "I knew a George Lightfall that used to own a gas station in Vail."

        There was a moment's awkward silence. He shrugged, evidently satisfied.

        "I would offer you something to drink, except…" He gestured to the pile of unopened boxes. Recovering my dignity at last, I realized that I was being rude. I held up my hands.

        "Oh, not at all. In fact, can I help you with those?"

        His winning smile returned. His beard seemed to creep up his face when he grinned.
It didn't take long to bring all of the metal boxes inside. Some were surprisingly heavy. They were roughly made, and appeared to be mass-produced from pieces of cheap sheet-metal. As I set one down, a sharp burr under one edge sliced into my finger. It wasn't particularly deep, but it began to bleed immediately.

        "Shit, hang on," he said. From his pocket, he produced a set of keys. Each box was held shut and locked with a simple wire closure and padlock. He started unlocking them and pulling each one briefly open. Inside were a variety of items that I did not recognize. More tablets, smaller boxes, other things I couldn't identify. He faced me after a moment.

        "Here," he said, holding out his hand and motioning that I give him mine. He tore a small plastic bag open and poured a white powder onto the cut. It stung and I tried to pull my hand away, but he held on with more strength than he looked like he should be able to generate. In ten seconds, the bleeding had stopped and the cut had scabbed over. It was the strangest feeling, to have healed so quickly. I looked up.

        "Trauma coagulant," he said, noting my confusion. He explained further as the medicine worked that he was a doctor and had been hired at Our Lady of Penitence hospital for their trauma and emergency unit, which seemed to turn over employees like a short order cook turns over pancakes.

        "They expect me to keep this stuff with me in case I need to go on a call from here instead of the hospital." He pointed to the box and I peered in to see the remainder of its contents. I didn't recognize any of it. It certainly could have been medical. There were more plastic pouches of the powder and a set of nondescript metal tools. I looked up and smiled dumbly. He was watching my eyes.

        "Doctor, huh? Interesting. I've never known a doctor before. I always wanted to be one when I was little…"

        "It's pretty much the same as any other job." He looked at the droplets of my blood on his linoleum floor. "Just a little messier at times. That, and your annual performance review includes phrases like 'survival ratio'."

        I shook my head. "No thanks."

        "Smart man." He laughed agreeably.

        "Do you at least get a nurse?"

        "Yeah, sure," he said, rolling his eyes. "She's a leggy, six-foot brunette named Ted."

        At this, we both laughed. His bedroom was facing the side of the apartment complex that got direct sunlight in late afternoon. He had two perpendicular windows in his corner unit, and through one of them shone a warm, bright parallelogram.

        "Would you care to come back tomorrow for supper? By then, I'm sure I'll be better company. I haven't really had a chance to unpack yet."

        It was clearly a polite dismissal.

        "Sure," I said. "I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of each other. Braintree's not nearly as big a place as it seems at first. You're constantly bumping into the same ten people over and over. I'm sure you know what it's like, having lived in Denver."

        He was facing the window when I said it, and it took a moment to register.

        "Hmmm? Oh, yeah." He smiled again. I realized awkwardly that I was being rude, and hoped that by offering him my hand this time that it would make up for it.

        "Well then, Dr. Pyndan, great to meet you."

        "Calabas, actually," he replied, distantly, "Dr. Calabas, but please call me Pyndan."

        I shook his hand again and he closed the door behind me. I wasn't sure, but I thought I heard the same strange click from earlier. It wasn't a noise I recognized from my own door, which appeared to be identical to his. I supposed he might have a different type of lock, or it may just have been my imagination.


        My home was unit 6W in an apartment building with a street number but no name. Everything about it bespoke a grinding, casual indifference. It was an unimportant street in an unimportant neighborhood, but to have the means to live alone was of great importance to me. In my three rooms I felt like the lord of a small but meaningful kingdom.

        The utilities of the building were strangely prioritized. Water pressure to the showers was weak and inconsistent, while the kitchenette faucet had enough strength behind it to scour your hands and splash out of the basin and onto the floor. The wiring to the overhead light fixtures would sometimes flicker and jolt, but the building's electric heating system gave off so much heat that I routinely had to open my windows even in the winter.

        On the other floors of my complex lived a wide variety of men and women of various means. Some rooms were home to singles like myself, rented to fairly successful unmarried men who had managed to claw their way up the economic food chain. Other units held small groups of women who lived collectively, or laborers who lived four to a bedroom and slept in shifts.

        The creativity by which the inhabitants of Boston found living arrangements was elevated nearly to the level of contact-sport. I heard at night, through the thin walls, sounds of love and war from above and below. Infants would come and yowl for a few months before learning how to talk, and then turn into children who bounced balls along the hard-surfaced hallways. Teenagers brought the smell of sex and sneakers, adults the scents of parenthood, ethnic cooking, and old age. Between all generations existed the low-level hum of life in close quarters.

        At the bottom of the stairs lived a Hispanic couple with a small infant son. The baby was weirdly quiet, and often I would nearly stumble into them before noticing that they were there at all. His mother was a young almond-skinned woman who had ripened with childbearing into a round fertile sort of fatness. She had large feet and enormous, depthless brown eyes. Next to her lived her brother and his wife, who had three teenaged boys.

        Directly above my apartment dwelt a retired couple whose plans to move to warmer climates had evidently been curtailed. With them lived their widowed sister-in-law, whose husband had been murdered a decade ago in prison while doing a ninety-day stint for embezzlement.

        This I knew because the three of them were like a great elocution mousetrap. They would bait you with "hello" and spring their life stories on you in an instant if they saw the opportunity. No detail was too obscure or private to be omitted. They would foist on you their story, as though it were an Olympic flame that you would carry faithfully and light in someone else's memory when your own wick was burning out. The three of them were like to me what I would imagine self-aware adult salmon to be. Long after spawning and struggling, there remained only bucolic idleness and nostalgia. The machinery of their lives that had once blared at high volume the message: "PROGENY! PROGENY!" now droned somewhat less loudly: "Anecdote! Anecdote!"

        The first floor was inhabited by a revolving population of silent, hard-eyed fishermen. I had never seen the interior of their unit, but from various snatches of conversation that I picked up from the other tenants, their apartment was as large as four of ours put together. In it, they had fit as many cots as possible and the men jointly paid for space to leave their belongings and sleep when they were ashore. They did not, as you would imagine, smell of dead fish. Surprisingly, the smells that I would later come to associate with them were the scents of hemp, leather, and steel wool. Unlike the other tenants of my particular building, the boots always came off in the vestibule, the alcohol and tobacco laid by, and loose women were dismissed firmly at the door.


        As I sat that same late afternoon by my bedroom window, I watched several heavy-shouldered men in dark blue uniforms converge on the building across the street. They approached silently in their cars without sounding the sirens, and left the engines running at the curb. They spread out around the building's exterior, some taking up guarding positions at the door. Two men in orange vests stood on the sidewalks and pulled bystanders away to safety.
An assault team with gray body armor and plastic-shielded helmets assembled at the front door. The building's landlord, a man I had seen a number of times before, was herded to the door with keys in hand. The team disappeared into the apartment building.

        They emerged some time later with three scantily-clad young women and a man in handcuffs. The women were in various states of undress; one appeared to be wearing just a bathrobe. The man was in his late twenties or early thirties. He wore a heavy flannel shirt and blue jeans with no shoes. There was a towel over his face, and it was unclear whether he or the police had done this. These four were bundled quickly into patrol cars and whisked away, and then came the inevitable crime scene afterbirth. Over their shoulders were slung plastic bags full of grainy cannabis tablets. After the bags came the scales and pill-press, then a rifle and a few pulp-paper books.

        The contraband was spread out on the hood of one of the cruisers as the police organized it all. An officer who wore a tie instead of body armor catalogued it all digitally in his tablet. A few rubber-necking pedestrians were shooed away by the officers in the orange vests. They shook their heads and scowled at the building's entrance before walking past.

        Once the offender's apartment was cleared, the bags of cannabis pills were opened one by one and dumped into the sewer. The investigator in charge of cataloging the evidence took the cheap pill-press and scale and smashed them against the concrete until they were broken and bent beyond repair.

        The rifle and the books were inspected carefully and placed in bags of their own to be loaded into a patrol car. Ten minutes later, the sidewalk and curb was clear, and pedestrians once again passed in front of the apartment building as though nothing had happened.

        My computer came to life with a muted chime. I reached for the remote control and keyed it. The blank screen lit up with a familiar face. She was quite beautiful, and unselfconsciously applied makeup in front of the viewer.

        "Julian," she said, "you there?"

        "I'm here," I replied, standing up from the windowsill and moving into the apartment where she could see me.

        "What are you doing?"

        "Just watching a drug bust."

        She frowned, and arched her eyebrows for the dark brush.

        "You're so depressing sometimes."

        I shrugged.

        "Got any fun plans for the evening?"

        "Just the same as always," I said.

        She opened her mouth and looked at an unseen mirror in concentration. "I'm going to the club. You should come by…"

        I considered it. Money was a constant concern in those days, but where this particular woman was concerned I almost always allowed her to talk me into spending more than I could afford.

        "Maybe," I sighed. "Who else is going?"

        She stopped applying mascara and looked directly at me. One edge of her mouth curled in a smile. She abruptly returned to her makeup.

        "Oh, I don't know. Dayton will be there for sure, and his whole crew." She rolled her eyes and applied lipstick. "Some other people I met last week."

        "I could probably stop in for a drink later on…"

        She rubbed her top and bottom lips together to spread the lipstick and puckered in pantomime of a blown kiss.

        "Great, I'll see you there."

        The computer screen abruptly went blank almost before she had gotten out her last word.



Copyright © 2006 Mark R. Brand

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Mark Brand is a massage therapist and medical assistant who lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago with his wife/editor Beth. He has been writing sci-fi and speculative sociological fiction for approximately thirteen years and was a co-founder of the literary website His stories have been featured on and in the science fiction anthology Alien Light. He has also published a number of pieces of non-science fiction including a young adult fantasy novel entitled The Prince and The Pitchman (POD published in 2002 through Booksurge), an essay in the 9/11 retrospective To Wound The Autumnal City, and an e-book by the now-defunct Flagstone Publishing entitled "Bunnygirl". His current projects include a portion of the collaborative effort Night.Blind entitled "Human Resources", as well as finishing his second young adult fantasy novel, the upcoming The Journey of the Tallish Ten.

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