Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Chapter 37: Longest Day's Night



Miles and Neith sat on Elle’s front step; Amos, Davey and Nola (on sleepover) all safely laid inside.  Elle was resettling Amos, who hadn’t approved of being moved to a mattress without a heartbeat and the smell of the sea in its nape. 

And Miles and Neith were sitting on Elle’s front step.

Was Miles mulling over her defence, in the hall?  Neith had told Tai she had never wanted to come here.  She wasn’t sure what Miles thought about that.  Or perhaps he wasn’t over the phone incident, and her exposing Nola …

“I’m sorry.”  Neith spoke first.

“You said that.”

“I still mean it.”  This was the step she’d cried on, still meaning it.

“I’m sorry too – that I reacted the way I did.  You have to understand, I was shocked, Neith.  I was.  I left you two alone, against council rules, because it was my kid.  And I trusted you.  When I came back, and saw her holding that thing…”

“I know.”

“But I didn’t have to go vaudeville villain on your ass.  Twice”

“Did you just say ‘ass?’  Mr Flynn!” 

“I don’t think it’s technically an expletive.”

Neith sighed.  She wanted to stay here forever…with this teacher-man.  Wait, what do you mean, ‘twice?’”

“At the school, when I saw you there that first time.  I was shocked, and I was so close to blowing then.  Elle had told me how much she liked you – you’re all I’d heard about from her kids, and I was so frustrated that you could undo all the ground you’d made by being so careless.  I was pretty upset.  So add that to what happened the last time we met at the school, and that’s twice. There’s just something so unnerving about realising you were being watched.  I’m sorry.”

Neith swallowed hard.  You said that.”  Her head and stomach-ball were spinning again.  “I haven’t stopped thinking about it.”  Him, she meant; him. She hadn’t stopped thinking about him since the vaudeville villain show.  Or was it since he told her to leave the school the first time? She wasn’t sure which.

Make tonight count.  

“I meant you.  I haven’t stopped thinking about you.”  Had she just said that?

“Me too.  About you.”  He looked at her then.  Neith wished he wouldn’t.  It was hard enough being this close to him and his shoulders.  “Neith Cole, can we call this a first date?”

Neith cough-laughed.  Nervous and excited, she wasn’t sure what to say.  Invitations such as these were a notification on her phone screen she routinely dismissed without viewing the details.  This was a guy with a smelt asking her old-fashioned-like.  He was pretty adorable right now.  She needed to answer him.  She’d been confident earlier and it had paid off.  She was still processing his admission he’d been thinking about her.  She kind of wished she could pause this conversation and focus on that first delight before moving on to this next one – because him saying he had been thinking about her – that still had happy-mileage left in it.  She still needed to answer; he wanted to call this a date!  So she answered: “Here I was, hoping that’s what the water clock lesson was.”  She was pretending to be confident, hoping her thoughts’ screaming, HE LIKES ME! wasn’t somehow betraying her act.

“Okay, a second date.  Starting right now.”  When he smiled, his eyes crinkled like Elle’s.

“Okay.  I have some follow-ups to our first date.”  Neith smiled while biting her bottom lip. “I’ve been thinking; have you considered incorporating pendulums on the escapement mechanism?  It might make for a slower, more accurate release of water flow…”

“More accurate than the water wheel?  I’ve read something like this.  Do you really think so?”

She nodded eagerly, looking at him still.  His eyes were brown, like Nola’s.  Like Elle’s.  She looked away. 

“Nola told me about your idea to run grey water off from some of the homes near the garden to water the plot. Is this what you do?  Come in to a place, scan around, and see how everything can be done better?”

“No!”  That sounded like a person who thought herself superior, which she did not. “I love figuring out how things work.” She shrugged.  “A lot of things in Nydia seem to do better without me here.”  She wasn’t fishing for refute.  She believed it.

“Not everything.”  He refuted it anyway.  He wanted to say something else.  His mouth was forming words without inviting his voice box to the party the way Lucienne Cole’s did before she got the words out.

“What did you do, in the City?”

“I…designed things.  Things you have no need for here.  It kind of all seems absurd, sitting here with you, actually.  I wish I could tell you more, but…not yet.  There’s a lot more I want to tell you about my job…and the stupid things I’ve had to do because of it…but I need to talk to Elle first.  Once I’ve had that conversation I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”  If she was still here. 

She had to stay.  Because: Miles.

“Is this how your second dates usually go?”

“I didn’t really go on dates.”

“Right.”  Sarcasm. “I don’t know if Elle told you,” he paused, “But I’ve seen enough of the City to know dates are all people your age do.”

“People my age?”

“You’re a little younger than me.”

“I’d figured.  But you were really young when you had Nola, right?  Because I had decided that would be great.”

Miles laughed and Neith caught joy from it, somewhere in her throat.  “Yeah, I was.  Too young.  I should’ve dated a little more.”  He looked down into the dirt.  “I’m 23, okay?”

“Okay.” 

“Is it like this, when people are getting to know each other in the City?  Do they cut to the chase with the questions they want answers to?   Since there’s so much pressure on them to…progress?”

“You mean procreate.”

“I guess.  Are things…rushed?”  Was he asking if she was experienced?  She wasn’t.  “Do they, say…exchange fertility stats, on a first date?”

“Almost.”  Matches always knew their odds; it came with the rec notification.

 “I imagine it’s a mood killer.”

“I imagine it is.”

“You mean, you know it is.”

“No, I imagine.  I really didn’t date much.”  Ever.

“So it’s true; the in vitro stuff was bad.  How bad?”  She could tell he wanted to joke about it.  He proceeded, “Are there people out there with extra limbs?  Are you hiding a tail?”  Was Miles blushing?  Neith thought so.  It looked like he regretted the tail comment. 

Neith smiled to reassure him.  She was so grateful to hear his thoughts.  “Not quite.  But there were problems.  By doing the legwork, so to speak…for a male and female’s…genetic material…’

“You mean sperm and eggs?”

“Yes,” Neith cleared her throat, “By helping two infertile subjects achieve pregnancy, science was essentially passing on the same legacy for their kids – meaning most, but not all, conceived in vitro would require the same help to conceive someday.”

Miles expression had changed from open fascination to a frown.

“What did I say?”

“You called the parents ‘subjects?’”                                                                           

“I did?”

“Yeah.  It’s fine, it just distracted me.  I understand your point.  So this was repeating itself, generation after generation, until there were very few people conceiving naturally?  Right?”

“Right.”

“A degradation of genetic material.”

“Pretty much.”  Neith sniffed.  “So that’s what you’re looking at.”  Neith gave an exaggerated flourish over her torso.  She then realised what she had done and that this conversation was not with Grace.

Miles was definitely pink-cheeked now.

He composed himself, and returned to his former train of thought; “It’s like natural selection was removed from the process completely.”

Neith laughed quietly. “And they’re still removing it – recommending Matched pairs.  They’re after what they call ‘spontaneous babies.’  Which always makes me laugh, because I haven’t…well, hadn’t seen a baby, but from what I’ve seen in Amos, they are pretty spontaneous.  But I know, I know, it means the way they were…conceived was…‘natural.’  Or ‘spontaneous.’”  Now Neith was blushing.  The word conceived always did that to her, let alone with the shoulders present.  She kept talking anyway, the words spilling out in a mixture of nervousness, propelled from her chest.  “Anyway, the idea is that if we can just get some of these spontaneous babies happening, we’ll know that they are the result of active sperm and eggs – even if those seem impossible to come by.” She was proud of herself for delivering both terms without hesitation this time.  In fact, she was gaining confidence, and so continued, “We need babies who are the offspring of swimmers and regular releasers, if you will – so that they have a chance of begetting swimmers or regularly releasers themselves.  We basically need to find a way to undo a century of mistakes.”  Neith realised she had been talking a long time.  Miles seemed as attentive as ever.  Neith decided to wait and see if he wanted a turn; she was being a little greedy with the words.

“Right.  I’ve always found it mind-blowing.  So much is already decided, right there in the womb!  A female child in the womb is already carrying all of the eggs she will ever have for her lifetime – it’s already done.  That means any woman who has had a daughter has held half of the genetic material for her grandchild inside her.”

Neith squinted while she thought this through.  Mama Cole had had Neith inside her, and Neith had had eggs inside baby-her already.   That meant her Nanny had had part of Neith inside her, via Mama Cole.

Woah.

“If it makes you feel any better, that’s about how the students react when I say that too.”

Neith was pretty sure he was being playful rather than unkind.  She hoped so.  She was almost 19.  She wasn’t his student.

“They also all struggle saying ‘sperm’ and ‘egg.’  You’re in good company, Neith.”  Miles patted her on the back in a distinctly patronising way.  She decided he was certainly teasing.  She shook the pat off.

Miles went back to pre-forming words then swallowing them before he spoke.  He abruptly returned to an earlier point, and surprised her; “I don’t think there is anything wrong with your genetic material.”

Neith spun to look at him, smiling.

“Did you just give me a compliment?”

“It’s a fact.  I get the reasoning behind your claim, I do – essentially, there are cities full of mules over there – people who have inherited infertility from infertile parents.”

“Mules?”  Neith could see the compliment dissolving in her mind and a cloud of weird enclosing it.  She wasn’t even sure what a mule was.

“The result of a jack and mare?”

“Still speakin’ in tongues, my friend.”

Neith caught a micro-frown crossing Miles’ face before he answered.  “Sorry, Nola loves horses and horse-lore – a lot of the kids do actually – and I assumed maybe you were a horse girl once yourself.”

“A horse girl?”

“You know, the girls that collect pictures of horses and mould horses from clay and pretend the brooms they ride are horses.”

“I was not a horse girl.  I was an engineering girl.  I was always building and making things and taking things apart to see how they worked.”

“That makes more sense, actually.”

“So back to mules and jacks and…mirrors?  Is that what you said?  I haven’t heard about any of this, and I’ve watched more than my fair share of Old World Intra content.” She’d taken Advanced Biology.  “This is not standard curriculum.”

“Really?  I understand there aren’t any horses in the cities, but surely they’re still in books?”

“We don’t have books.  But I know what a horse is.  Is a mule a breed of horse?”

“Not quite.  A mule is the result of breeding a male donkey – which I called a jack earlier, with a female horse – which I called a mare.  Donkey plus horse equals mule.  No books?!  I could tell you were excited by the books at school, but I thought that was because of the bans and censorship.  No books at all?!”

“Screens.  And this is definitely not standard curriculum.”

“Screens?  For everything?  Even for reading to little…oh.  Of course.”

Neith shook her head, amused.  Yeah, no one had been reading to kids for a while.

“That’s a shame – about mules not being taught, or in your…screens.  Mules are a great case study.  From what I’ve read, mules were strong and capable because of their breeding.  They weren’t bred with breeding in mind, they were bred because of what they could do, and because people wanted the best of both of their parents.”

“But they couldn’t have their own children.  I mean, baby mules.”

“I seem to remember they could, but it was very rare.”

“You’re comparing me to a mule right now, right?  Because I feel like that is happening.”  And Neith felt it was a far-cry from having nothing wrong with her genetic material.  Was it wrong to want to get back to that part of the conversation?

“I don’t think being a mule is so bad.  I seem to remember reading mules were more patient, sure-footed and hardy than horses – because of the donkey in them.  And I think the horse in them made them less obstinate, faster, and smarter than a donkey.  They were kind of a super-quadruped.  A quadra-super-ped?”  Miles had a far-away look now as he rolled different neologisms around on his tongue.

“I’m still here.”

Miles laughed and Neith’s ball of wings exploded again – the in and outs of this winged thing inside were messing with her.  Miles’ latest laugh was higher-pitched than she’d expected.  It was almost musical.  She desperately wanted to hear him laugh like that again.

“Trust me, I haven’t forgotten.  But I do find tangents now and then.  I think super-quadruped is better, for the record.  I guess they’re all equine though, why did I go with quadruped?  Super-equine?”

There he went again. 

“Okay, I choose not to be offended by the comparison, now that you’ve buttered it up with patience and speed and smarts.”

“Hey, I could have called you an ass.”

“Excuse me?”  Neith could not keep up with this conversation!  And hearing a teacher swear was kind of hilarious.

Miles laughed again.  She didn’t care if she was lost with all of these terms.  The man was laughing.

“But I didn’t.  I didn’t call you an ass – a sub-genus for donkeys, if you’re wondering.  They really don’t…didn’t include this stuff at school?”

“Thankfully, no.”

“You’re not an ass.”

“Got it.  Now cut it out, or I’ll have to wash your mouth out.”

“Because calling you an ass kills the analogy – the mules are the ones who have a long shot of reproducing.”

“I said got it.”

“Neith?”

She was suddenly pulled back from the cusp of irritation.  Miles had just said her name and he sounded intent on being serious.

“I’m done with the analogies.  What I am trying to tell you is that you, and everyone you love, are no mistake.  You may be dealing with the consequences of short-sightedness and living in a world no one wished for, but nothing about you is a mistake.”

Gulp.  Intent reading: accurate.

“That was a significant improvement on ‘you’re a mule, but don’t worry, they’re strong.’”

“Thank you.”  Miles had turned to deliver his clarification with eye contact and focus.  He now swivelled back, eyes front.  Neith hadn’t turned. 

“Well, your spontaneous combination of genetic material isn’t half-bad either…even if it wasn’t engineered to be super-human.”  Neith suddenly felt juvenile, reverting to half-compliments, after spelling out that her thoughts had been preoccupied with him. 

Neith’s hands were slippery with sweat.  She wiped them on her thighs.  Super-human, her arse. 

It was time to abort.

Miles looked like he was making a move to leave too. 

Oh, how wrong she was.

“Thank you.” Miles took her hand. 

It was better than the soaring buzz of seeing her best friend watching a filmophile icon flying overhead, better than drawing in The Green knowing her blip wasn’t on her parents’ screens anymore.  Better than Amos feeling safe enough to fall asleep on her.  It was the joy, possibility and trust from all of those things combined.  Holding hands with Miles was probably how Aragorn felt kissing Arwen.

And they sat there.  Miles holding her hand on a stoop littered with strawberry tops, on the night of Longest Day.  Neith decided she would forego food and peeing for hours if it meant they could continue sitting there – in the wake of their half-praise and couched-in-analogy-compliments – for a very, very long time.  Miles raised her hand and kissed it once.  She felt something release inside her.

Why didn’t they make them like this in the City?!  

Because Miles was made in Nydia.  He was a product of this place.  He was better, for having lived here.  For being a father, and a teacher-performer, and all of the things that this community made him.  Things she had never been attracted to before because she’d never seen them. 

They let the cicadas talk for a few seconds.  Neith tried not to think about what she had wiped off the door earlier.  Enjoy the hand-hold, remember the softness of his lips on the back of your hand, Neith.  This may be the most action you get.  Ever.

Neith heard a stick crack behind the stone wall, by the house.  It was probably Ninja – checking on his pathetic foster human.  Or hunting for her.  There was no further sound.  That cat was good!

“Hey Mr Flynn!  Neithy!”  Ruthie’s greeting interrupted Neith’s train of thought.  Koro had his arm loosely draped across his grand-daughter’s shoulders.  Neith withdrew her hand – hearing Miles called by his formal name by his own niece. 

“Ruthie.  Dad.  That must mean it’s our bedtime.”  Miles stood, and held his hand out to Neith, offering to pull her up. 

 “Thank you.”  She was glad to see he didn’t appear to be slighted by her pulling away.  She looked him in the eyes for the thank-you – hoping he’d understood she meant more than thanks for him pulling her up from the step.  “Good night.”  Neith looked to Koro too, after Miles.  They two men smiled then left together.  Miles turned back once.  The smelt’s impact was not diminished by distance.

Ruthie squeezed Neith’s hand hard on their way inside.  “You and me?  We’re talking about this tomorrow!”  She made for the back room.

Tomorrow. 

Longest Day had to end eventually.


<<Chapter 36: Longest Day Evening                              Chapter 38: Game Over>>