Fiction · 08/06/2009

Forecast: Chapter 7

Forecast is being serialized semiweekly across 42 web sites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast.

Asseem, thought Helen. She let the word roll around on her tongue, unpronounced, savoring the decision to speak it aloud. But she didn’t. Not yet, she told herself, and concentrated on her highway merge. Helen didn’t often use I-5, had little reason to travel far from home, but once she’d chosen a lane she was able to relax. The car was assaulted by wind and rain and snow and fog and she sped through it, steer-assist letting her watch the suburbs slide by.

Things had changed. Helen peered through the tinted glass at the unending sprawl, block after block of undivided construction, store connected to apartment building connected to store connected to house, walkway before it all like a feed line. She squinted. More light, maybe. More even pale yellow light spread across everything like cheap margarine, little greasy people wandering about underneath it, not even trying to hide. She couldn’t make out their expressions, but they all looked strangely similar, and she passed them with a feeling of unfair detachment, like she’d been out of the loop.

Which was true.

When emotional energy had first been introduced, people had had more power than they’d known what to do with. There’d been a sudden surge. There was the awkward moment of anticipation, of searching for the right thing to think, to remember, to feel. There was that. But then came a surge. People thought of things they hadn’t thought about in years, decades. They opened up their heads and looked at issues which, though still kept private, roamed around inside, reckless, disturbing the slumber of still more un-thought-about things until so much energy was being released, produced and captured, that people had nowhere to put it anymore. Grudges, frustration, anxieties, embarrassment and anger – people were brimming with feelings they’d learned to leave unknown – and the ETMs ate it up and asked for more, turning all this unsavory stuff into light and heat and to power whatever people still had lying around with a cord. Within a few days the air was abuzz with the long-absent sound of blenders and hairdryers and it was amazing what people chose to use first. Kitchen appliances. Garage doors. After years of electricity pinching, we’d developed strange ideas about what might represent the kind of freedom we remembered having before the fall, the burnout.

But it didn’t last very long. That is, in the life cycle of the average ETM user, there followed what might be described as a sophomore slump. The return on these initial self-revelations diminished, and the power people had so enthusiastically turned into milkshakes and perms was soon spent, the abrupt city rumble again relaxed. The ETM machines lost their glow as quickly as they’d gained it, and we were faced with the problem of learning how to keep them charged.

These were dark days. People who ran out of things to regret were driven to act against their conscience. What followed were a few solid years of intentional transgression, energy created and stored, a very productive period with consequences just short of total devastation. Relieved of the pressures of life on a prohibitive allowance of electricity, we put up with the inconvenience brought about by the less creative ways people devised to earn their precious burden of guilt. Petty crime, lies, adultery – these weren’t enough for some. But much was tolerated, at least temporarily, with an entrepreneurial spirit robust in its belief in a brighter future. What Helen may have been missing on her drive was the combustible bustle of streets still not savvy to the more subtle variety of emotional energy production. She’d been hiding out for some time. She was a housewife by choice, sure, but she was a housewife nonetheless. The street had gained a few IQ points since she’d been gone, and had come to more closely resemble life in the suburbs than in the gutter.

Helen pulled her eyes back into the car. She looked into the backseat, saw Rocket sleeping. She was alone. She thought of her husband back on his bed, probably asleep by now. He’d wake up in the morning and have something to forget that would keep things running for days. Entirely self-sufficient. She smiled. The advent of emotional energy had turned resourcefulness on its head. Suddenly people who before might have been considered average, uninteresting, even dull, were now heroes, role models, a privileged class for whom the most valuable skill one could have came easy. Helen’s respect for Jack was just one more of the many things she couldn’t deny.

Then a beep. She looked down at an unfamiliar dash and found a blinking light right above the energy indicator. She was running out of gas.

Running out of “gas” – a word still used despite its antiquated referent – was not something that happened to most people. Cars inherited ETM technology with little hesitation, and a careful driver could keep a pretty consistent stream of fuel running into the vehicle for the duration of a normal drive. Long trips might require some additional, “real time” fodder: an ashtray out the window, some risky swerves, even a series of wrong turns could earn a few extra miles. But most people who could afford cars had this down pat, and for this reason, the process of refueling wasn’t a simple one, or at least not very reliable. One had to put in an order.

Of course Helen was used to this. She was used to waiting for the signal, to dialing in as one had once to “dial in” to establish a network connection. She was used to waiting for the transfer, to the transfer failing. To beginning again. And she did all this. Twice. Helen was not used to her neighbor’s car, however, and in the process of typing in her PIN she accidentally turned on the in-dash TV, which projected an image far more familiar than anything else she was seeing onto the inside of the windshield: Jack. He was giving a WeatherLess™ Report, no doubt something from earlier that day. He stood before the blue screen, scenes completely unrelated to any local terrain scrolling by behind him, banal music barely audible. She kept trying her PIN. It wasn’t taking. Outside the suburbs scrubbed by, makeshift microwave towers interrupting the relay. The buildings, the air-traffic, even the people probably conducted current like lightning rods. Even if she were able to make the connection, she suddenly realized, the likelihood of successful transfer was more remote than she was. And she was deep. Helen looked out past her husband into the rough-weathered night and found nothing she knew. In the distance Seattle pricked up like a peaked equalizer out of the bright baseline reading of its surrounding boroughs. But there lay miles of wasteland in between it and Joan’s car.

Helen began to worry, and looked at Jack for reassurance. Now he was wearing his mask. He was still supposed to keep it off during peak viewing hours but the minute there’d be a 5-minute slump he’d grab the opportunity to peer through those weirdly familiar eyes. He stared right at Helen and said Put on your AS-Mask right before a commercial cut him off and followed up the command with a comparison of six different kinds of mask-attachment creams. This sticky substance held the thing in place, absorbed your skin’s oil, and secreted it through to the surface of the mask. It was supposed to make the face look more lifelike. Another type also served as a real-time temperature regulator that responded to micro-weather fluctuations surrounding the head and neck.

“This second one could be handy,” Helen said distractedly. Sometimes it got obnoxious trying to keep up with all the changing temperatures at different altitudes during even a basic walk around the block. Knees in the subzero range while your feet are on fire and it’s raining from your waist to your nose. “They should release a full-body version of that stuff.” Immediately an ad for the full-body version of the temperature regulation mask-attachment cream popped up, replacing the other products.

Those bastards are quick.

She waited apprehensively for the royalty credits to appear on her cash card, and within five minutes she was a multi-millionaire for the next two, when half of it was usurped by block, neighborhood, city, county, state, federal, and interfederal taxes; her identity was stolen; all the remaining money was spent on a small nuclear device by a group of liberal refugees trying to gain access to their children; and the rebels were gathered up and brought to justice in an international court of law which docked her a week’s salary for financially backing the terrorist plot just as her patent expired and a million spin-offs flooded the market. Sigh. It simply did not pay to brainstorm.

Helen flipped the TV off before she was tempted to give it any more ideas, but was left with an image of her husband burned into her retinas, along with the last thing she’d heard him say. She looked down to the passenger’s seat and saw her AS-Mask peeking out of her bag. It didn’t give a damn one way or the other. Completely passive, she thought, marking its smooth features. But this was not entirely true. It had been quite active back in the bedroom. Whenever the AS-Mask made it to her face, in fact, Helen seemed able to produce the very Buzz she’d been forever unable to before. She considered this. The gaslight glowed, beeped. The dirty wet city sped by. She reached for her mask.

As she worked on attaching it to her face, felt it conforming to the particular rise of her cheekbones, the low bridge of her nose, Helen began to hear stirrings in the back seat. Rocket was waking up. Remembering the last time he’d seen her with the mask on, she quickly turned the rearview mirror so he wouldn’t have access to her face, and turned her head off to the left, hoping to avoid his accusative bark. It was snowing on her side of the vehicle, and overlarge, doughy snowflakes slushed against the window and slid down slowly, plunging to their death on the heated pavement below the quickly moving car. She waited. She wasn’t sure, couldn’t remember, if anything was required of her in order to make it work. She hadn’t actually noticed, at home, it happening, had only just remembered after the fact. She wasn’t even sure it would work again. Maybe it was a fluke. Her stomach growled.

“I heard that.”

Helen started.

“I’m getting pretty hungry myself,” the voice continued. It was gravelly, but mellow, non-threatening. Warm, even. “What say we pull over sometime soon and grab a bite to eat. I could use a stretch, anyway.”

Helen kept her face pointed out the window, though now more for her sake than the dog’s. She could hear his tail wagging.

“C’mon,” he encouraged. “Please?”

Helen had never had a dog. Her parents had been opposed, predictably, to the ownership of other animals. She’d protested, of course. Dogs, she’d argued, were companions, not pets. In an effort to compromise, Marshal had promised that if she were ever to go blind, they’d get her a seeing-eye dog. “A seeing-eye companion,” he’d corrected, seeing young Helen’s dismay. Her parents had been so understanding. Helen watched the warm highway absorb the falling snow, and, when the snow turned to hail, heat still further. Steam rose up from the asphalt and turned into a sticky fog that pulled against the side of the car as she drove by, slowing her down. The vehicle adjusted its speed.

“So I take that as a no, then,” the warm voice said.

“I’m thinking!” shot back Helen, surprising herself.

There was a pregnant pause.

“Okay,” she heard. Then, from a smaller, shallow voice, almost despondent, “You don’t have to shout.”

She’d hurt his feelings. She’d forgotten how sensitive dogs were.

“So… where are we going, anyway?” Rocket’s voice was lively again. “Not that it matters. I absolutely love car trips.”

There were turn-offs all along I-5. Helen read the signs for each one, a continuous stream of fast-food and strip clubs, weather-motels offering nice days at discount prices to sun-sick truckers with graveyard-shift complexions. There didn’t seem to be any place suitable for a single woman to stop.

“I’d be perfectly content to just drive around forever,” Rocket continued, tail thumping, apparently needing no interlocutor, “assuming, of course, there was an on-board bathroom and a steady supply of food.” He paused. “Preferably lamb.”

It occurred to Helen that, of course, she wasn’t alone. She eyed the exits hungrily. Do people attack women with dogs?

“Rocket,” she began, still avoiding his face, “where do you stand on the issue of protection?” She hoped she’d phrased the question in as neutral a manner as possible. She didn’t want to upset her potential guardian.

There was an exasperated sigh. “I suppose you mean me protecting you.”

Damn.

“Well…”

“No no, don’t apologize,” the dog seemed resigned. “I’ll tell you what. You do something about the hunger issue, and I’ll do something about the protection issue.” Helen noticed for the first time that Rocket seemed to have a bit of a lisp. She pictured him holding up his paws in mock-quotes around the stressed words of his sentence, then folding his forelegs and turning his head away in a harrumph. She shook her head: moody animal. But who was she to argue.

“Deal,” she finally said, and grabbed the steering wheel.

Back in control, she realized for the first time how fast they were moving. They’d sped up quite a bit since she’d gotten them onto the highway. Slerm slid across the windshield like it had somewhere to be, the wipers all but ineffective. It made her nervous. She searched for the deceleration switch and flipped it, then chose a target velocity and waited. The car reluctantly began to retreat back into safer speeds, but only after some convincing. It clearly needed to let off some steam. She checked the fuel gauge, and sure enough, it was overfull, the indicator a deep, saturated red, and pulsing as if in pain. She’d heard about this, about ETMs receiving too much juice. Joan’s did regularly. But Helen was unused to producing her own Buzz in the first place, let alone too much. She found the release valve. It seemed a waste, letting it escape like this, but she wasn’t going to take any chances. As expected, the car slowed down considerably with the release of excess energy, and she began to look for an exit.

“Bravo,” Rocket commended.

She could hear his tail wag as she turned off the highway, its regular rhythm growing louder as the exit ramp neared a normal street. The neon signs that had called to them from the distance now loomed above their heads, disappearing behind the car’s roof. She pushed in to a crowded lane of traffic and waited for something to jump out at her.

“What do you feel like eating?” she asked.

“Good question. I haven’t had junk-food in ages.”

“Me neither,” she agreed, adding, “and I can’t wait.”

Read Chapter 6 at Lamination Colony.
Read Chapter 8 at The 2nd Hand.

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Shya Scanlon’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, and elsewhere. His prose poetry collection In This Alone Impulse will be published by Noemi Press in 2009. He received his MFA from Brown University in 2008, where he won the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Visit him online at www.shyascanlon.com.