Here is the first half of the story "The Gerbil" from the book Eve of Valor: 25 Tales from the writings of Lorenzo Samuel (me). A young girl accidently kills her pet gerbil, which event lying in the background determines the course of her life. I present to you the first half of the tale "The Gerbil." Enjoy.
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THE GERBIL (1st half)
"How to Commit the Perfect Murder." He opened the plain gray envelope with no return address on the front and pulled out a book. A soft-cover pamphlet printed on yellowing pulp paper, about 70 pages, quivering with his mood, Miniona screaming her displeasure upstairs.
What a fight to get her to put away her toys and clothes. The imp half-complied, which merited only slinging her into bed. Breathing relief, her mother Cherona tip-toed down the stairs. Pausing at the bottom, she impressed the keys on the wall-mounted menu screen. By the time she meandered into the living room, a carafe of chilled white wine waited for her on the side table.
She plopped into her relaxo-chair and keyed in the spine-straetching program. Her husband sat across from her on the divan, ugly bare feet propped on the massage cushion. The only sound came from the cleaning robot vacuuming the dining-room floor. “Jerome.” Her husband’s eyes sliced up without leaving the book he was reading. “Look at me dammit. I’m talking here. That book ‘How to Commit the Perfect Murder’ ‒ disgusting. Why are you reading something you pulled from the dark web?”
“Hold on a second. You’re the one who said we should get rid of her and start over with a new baby; ‘proper name’, you said.”
Cherona drained her glass and poured another from the iced carafe on the antique mahogany table. “I was upset. She treats her playmates terribly. She's rude. That awful name we gave her might have something to do with it. ‘Miniona’ derives from minion, and you know who orders minions around. She’s doomed.” She nodded at the book lying next to the carafe, “The Power in a Name".
Jerome slammed his print-on-demand book onto the table, knocking the carafe onto the ceramic-tile floor. Glass shards scattered around their feet. “Damn cleaning robot will handle the mess,” he said. He clicked the call button; the robot scooted into the room.
While it slurped up the shards and wine, Cherona’s lips grew thin and bloodless. Her eyes nailed Jerome to his chair. "Can't you tell when I'm exaggerating? I didn't mean to kill her. You’re always jumping to conclusions. You never understand what I'm thinking. I suppose that perverted book has a section on killing children.”
Jerome threw the book down again. “You’re turning as mean and vindictive as our daughter.”
Cherona spat at him so that he had to wipe spittle off his horn-rimmed glasses. He decided to ignore her and picked up his book. He had to read a full page before his anger subsided enough for him to understand the text. Then over the top of the book, he peeked at his wife. He did not understand her. His daughter either.
“You know that online advice blog I read sometimes?" Cherona blurted. “Yesterday it said that if children are given responsibility, they have a better chance of growing into happy and successful adults.”
She awaited his response. No answer; his eyes did not lift off that scandalous book. Okay, she would push the never-fail button. She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue and ran her right index finger up from the hem of her dress to mid-thigh. A foot-long slit appeared. Jerome's eyes flicked off his book to the bit of bare flesh flashing its welcome under the slit. Cherona shifted her leg; the slit moved to her upper thigh.
"I have a plan," she said….
The plan began at Miniona's seventh-birthday party. She wanted, oh a lot, a Johnny-Jim doll. Johnny Jim winked on cue, had deep blue eyes, wavy blond hair, and a whole wardrobe of action and leisure clothes. Even came with nanomechanics for mending if he broke.
When her father brought out the presents, Miniona peeked through a crack in her fingers, still crummy and sticky from chocolate cake and caramel ice cream. For sure, Johnny Jim was in that big package with the green ribbon. She wished so hard her eyes hurt from squeezing them shut. Everyone knew that closing your eyes made wishes come true. She even heard Johnny Jim moving inside the package.
After ages, her mother said, "Open your eyes, honey." She did, stared, then gagged. Bile shot into her mouth. Sour ice cream dripped from her nostrils. She gulped. In a cage, right where her cake and ice cream had been, a rat stood on its hind legs, its ugly paws holding some brown thing it kept twisting around and nibbling on. A rat! She could die. Her parents had given her a rat.
"It's genetically enhanced," her father said.
Poncho thrashes in Miniona's hand trying to claw up her arm. She scowls, matching the ripples in the churning water. One foot below the surface her pet gerbil, fur splaying, is paying for his sins. She holds the small animal against the bottom of the tub. Bubbles stream from his nose. His whiskers lie flat. He tries to swim. Terror doubles the size of his eyes.
She lifts him out of the water, and his eyes turn back into those beady spots that make her smile. He relaxes in her hand. She’s held him 100’s of times. They comfort and secure him in a world where every other living thing is a monster. He does not connect this water torture to Miniona. She is his comforter, protector and savior. She feeds and plays with him.
His thoughts inject her mind with his desire. “Eat kibbles. Go back to me cage. Run on me wheel.”
She considers his prayer. Turning his plea around, she sends back her answer, “Not until you atone.”
Poncho shivers. Water drips off his tail and whiskers. Miniona hesitates. She brushes a drop from beneath his left eye. A tear? Her own eyes turn misty. She sighs. She came to love him after that first day when she thought him a rat. Poncho. They talk to each other. They know each other's moods. She smooths his fur and chucks him under his chin.
“Maybe I should put him in his cage,” she thinks. “No, Poncho has been bad.” Back under the water he goes.
She holds him down, waiting to hear in her mind that he is sorry. He struggles less and less. His paws fold to the sides of his body.
“He will say he's sorry; he must.”
The bubbles from his nose slow, stop. She feels him tremble. His eyes seem to stare at her, then their light vanishes into the water. “Why, he's going to sleep.” She yanks him out. “Wake up. Time for your lesson. A lecture is what you need now.
"Your birthday is next week," she says. "You don't want to get cake crumbs all over, do you?" Poncho does not answer, no chatter, no squeak, no thought sent to his mistress's mind, no spark in his eyes. He does not move, just hangs in her hand, flaccid as the noodles from last night’s tuna casserole.
“Playing dead gerbil just to get a kibble won't work,” Miniona thinks to him. “Maybe you'll listen now when I tell you not to pee on my bed.”
The lesson done, she forgives him. Kisses his speck of a nose. She layers the bottom of his cage with fresh pine shavings, puts kibbles in his food tray and filtered water in his bottle. Gently she lays the limp rodent under the shavings. Poncho loves fresh excelsior. With his nose underneath the shavings, he will plow through them for hours.
She holds her breath, willing Poncho to take his pleasure, but not even a quiver rises from the bottom of the cage. For 10 minutes she hunches over, all the time sending thoughts into the lump beneath the shavings. Her normal sunny look of anticipation turns glum. She nudges his body. Nothing. “He must not feel well.” She says a prayer over him then goes downstairs to watch TV.
Her anime program has been preempted by a golf tournament. She does not know what golf is about, but she watches anyway. The game seems to be smacking a tiny ball then searching for it. The camera recording the action pans away from the golfers to a chipmunk, which looks a bit like Poncho. The chipmunk darts across the lush fairway to where a golf ball skitters along.
Miniona cannot stop laughing. The chipmunk has turned into her Poncho. She sends him a thought, “Run Poncho, run.” He runs and runs and runs, chasing the ball….
Two days later at supper, her mother says, "Miniona's gerbil died in its cage. She took such good care of it, too."
Nose in a news site, her father mumbles, "Too bad. Would you like another one, honey?"
Miniona whimpers, "No." She does not cry as she normally does; no telltale tear forms as a prelude. She has murdered Poncho, and that is that. She knows that she used to cry for things much less traumatic; she has decided that she must be more grown up now. She is no longer a baby. She does not need to share secrets. "I'm my own person," she concludes.
She does not tell them that she will become an animal trainer when she grows up. She will make sure pets behave properly, that is for sure.
And of course, she does not tell them about the guest who came the night after Poncho stopped moving. She, he, it, whatever, hails from a planet with an unpronounceable name in galaxy Numferriegan (sounds like), so far away that entities must travel through mind space to reach here.
The chief wraith had summoned Xethropia. "Your time has come," he mind-speaks her. "As usual, the woe of universes lies before us. A young mind struggles after killing what she loved. Go to her, play tribulation keys, turn her away from redemption."
In a snap, Xethropia slides into the mind of a small girl on the grid an unfathomable distance away. Miniona's eyes flutter under the flowery sheet over her forehead. She shifts her body onto its stomach. Her auburn hair flows over her cheek onto the pillow where the twinkling fairies waltz. She sighs, drops into the deep zone that will take her through the night.
Xethropia spends the time getting to know her charge. Mind linkages reveal themselves more clearly in sleep. The wraith pushes and adjusts synapses in the girl's brain. Miniona's brain becomes a receiver. Defects of attitude are erased. What the wraith sees as a defect is anything that might lead to redemption, for she has learned that redemption, or even the desire for it, is a mistake in character. That is what a wraith is all about. No redemption. Pay for your sins.
Redemption is common on many planets; thus, the wraiths are quite busy, and from the planet with the unpronounceable name trillions of wraiths are out and about the universes caring for young beings, saving them from redemption road. Every situation is urgent, for redemption is strong and penetrates its victims with the power of belief, the wraiths’ greatest enemy. Sometimes wraiths arrive too late. The die has already been cast; the sinner has staggered onto redemption road. To forestall this wrong turn, Xethropia works feverously on the girl's waves and pulses.
She entered Miniona just in time. Just a few minutes later, all hope would have been lost. Miniona is asleep; she knows nothing of the keys being played by Xethropia. Sweat drips from Xethropia's missing brow as she makes the last adjustment. This must work. Failure here will send her back to another eternity of training and disgrace.
The day when her best-friend-ever whispers behind her hand to a girl Miniona hates, she runs home through the rain and demands cookies and milk, "Give me six cookies and a glass of chocolate milk right now dammit." Her mother sends her to her room for behavior inappropriate for a girl.
Xethropia senses all that her charge experiences. The wraith adjusts a few linkages, shunting sincerity away so Miniona can freely pretend a sweet "thank you" with a smile. Sweet gets you what you want; sour gives you nothing or the opposite.
Politeness becomes Miniona's way. Usually she gets what she wants, or lacking that, some suitable substitute. Teachers, friends of the family, neighbors, all remark, "What a polite little girl." Other parents set her as an example before their unruly children, "Why can't you act like Miniona?"
Of course, those children hate her. They know how children act. They tease: "Little miss goody goody." They play tricks on her, get mud on her frilly dresses, make her scrape her knees, cause her to scream sometimes. They chide, "Say thank you, thanky, thanky, thank you, little miss polite."
After months of this torture, she decides that people, not just animals, need training in acting polite whether they want to or not. Xethropia claps her spectral hands. She will not need to go home in disgrace.
Now, Miniona drives to work in an electro-tank sedan appointed with made-to-order armor plate, bullet-proof windows, and collision chassis. Even on this humid day, the perm of her auburn shoulder-length hair is holding. She primps it to make sure. Satisfied, she strokes the Kashmir nap of her dress suit from Pierre’s. It falls to mid-gam as a proper business suit should.
As she passes an overturned car in the left margin and sees a lady spasming on the pavement, she sighs with relief that the mess is not her. Of course, Xethropia agrees. Not proper behavior. Definitely. If the woman had driven with polite consideration for others, she would not be laying in gore waiting for an ambulance.
The autonomous sedan speeds off along Zoroaster River Road toward her personality-dilation clinic. Giant fir trees channel the way although she does not see them. They might as well be dissolved in the murk.
A traffic-sign control device stops her tank at a cross walk. Hoodlums and delinquents jive across in their challenge clothes. She turns up the window tint so they cannot peer in. Still, they squint to see through. From their scrutiny, Xethropia loses some synapse control, and the road, sidewalks, lawns and buildings blank out.
Poets might think that extraterrestrial wraiths swim in special ether, but Miniona knows that her mental construct is a serious gene map. She learned that in medical school and saw it demonstrated in internship and residency. Genes make her great, expand her world, present her with options, and preserve her superiority. Constantly aware of them, she could flaunt their considerable importance, but does not. Neither proper nor polite to discuss the edge they give her over minions.
She dispenses with titles. "Miniona Evers," suffices. She frowns, shakes her head, or otherwise shows displeasure when introduced as "Dr. Evers." She knows who she is ‒ she owns the Evers Private Clinic. Of course, her patients call her "doctor." From them, bending the knee is part of the cure.
Eleven thirty A.M. The crosswalk a mere blur behind, Xethropia invades the sedan's computer. It accelerates to bring calm to Miniona's genes. Although her steel-gray eyes no longer fix on the center of the road, they are still hypnotically cast. A car fifty meters ahead holds her gaze, although not because of its sleek lines. A man loping beside the road like a Kenyan marathoner draws her next, however not to the grace in his stride. Forest-green Governor Park lies to her left, but not the beauty of its translucent bushes dimpling through sun-kissed mist.
As the road climbs to the higher ground of the Dahlia Country Club, her heart beats faster. Her head swivels left to take in what only angels could have planned. The emerald fairways stretch out into the deep-blue sky. In that lush money-layered grassland, the right people, cultivated, cultured, elevated people, are playing golf. She belongs with them.
Xethropia records Miniona’s internal whine: “Three times, three times, I've been voted down for membership.”
The wraith slides in a thought: “Recall what you learned 30 years ago? Sweet trumps sour. Remember?”
Miniona remembers, although when one reaches for the top echelon has she not earned the right to a bit of bitter? She gargles some rose-infused water then jerks her head back to the road, surprised to see it there. The road curves around to nestle couple-style with the dogleg of the 17th fairway. Fog smears the scarcely visible golf green at the end of the hole.
Out of the mist behind the green creeps a monstrous building, quivering, growing until it is all Miniona sees. The structure contains narrow windows punched out of dirty gray rock. The lower part of the disturbed fortress hides behind blooming magnolia trees that pour into the road an odor of stale grandfathers. The building's steep black roof runs with gray slime that might have resulted from the defecation of giant birds.
Miniona has never noticed the building before. The view drives a chill into the base of her neck. She stabs at the autonomous-drive button. Breaks a nail as the sedan shifts into manual operation. The freeze knifes through her shoulders, then cascades down her back and arms, making her hands too numb to control the manual-steering lever.
Her car crosses over the center line. The cold rips up her sides to clutch her chest with icy claws. She hits the far curb at a thirty-degree angle. The car's engine stalls. Smoke snakes out from under the hood, she thinks, but looking closer, she sees it is coming from the ugly building's black stone chimney visible over the tops of the magnolia trees.
She blames the strong Turkish coffee she drank at breakfast for her momentary imperfection. After buttoning her collar and suit jacket, she pulls back onto the right side of the road. Not until she is four blocks beyond the golf course do her thoughts come back on track ‒ those people who voted down her membership application ‒ they have no right to keep her out.
Her car speeds up to a school cross walk. She jerks to a stop and hunches over the steering lever to let a dozen young criminals cross over. Fortunately, they are under watch by school informants (our first level of defense). Even though the more active kids are straight jacketed with behavioral adjustments, small cretins do grow up to infect society. Many will foist their delusions of self-worth on normal people. They will not fit in; they will disturb life with their inane dreams; they will set their own agendas and impolite incursions.
“Why doesn't that crossing guard hurry them on?” Miniona's forehead sweats. Her legs go weak. Chiseled teeth of some small animal dig in her stomach. She glowers at the last kid to cross.
The crossing guard waves her on finally, but still the animal chews her innards. When she pulls into the parking lot on the back side of the Evers Private Clinic, she says "open" in a voice that quavers like Parkinson's.
The garage door slides into its recess. Miniona drives into her private stall already winding down in this familiar element. Before she enters the corridor from the garage, she flips into her professional self. Her eyes stop darting. The small animal ceases to engorge her flesh. She enters the back door. Her breathing steadies. She waits a moment for the air handler to cleanse the dollop of outside air that slipped in behind her, then she opens the inner door.
She braces herself in the antiseptic air and strides into the work area. Her crisp professional "good mornings" sting, jump from her mouth like a blast of arctic air. Comfortable backs stiffen as if her greetings were condemnations. The staff begins busying itself with perfunctory tasks. Miniona's viewpoint permeates the clinic. Her workday has begun.
The new receptionist must think she is working in a people-oriented business. She smiles and asks pleasantly about Miniona's drive to work. Miniona ignores the amiable chatter. With stern politeness she says, "Save that palaver for the patients. And, put those family pictures and kid drawings in your desk. This is a professional office."
Snap, snap, snap, she makes her rounds, checks the vacuum area and its dilation equipment, visits the recovery rooms with their medication robots whirring about, scans patient charts, drills the staff on using politeness to get more patients. She meets with the techs. Everything meshes like a well-seated syringe: the clinic loaded with early patients, dilation schedules filled out a week ahead, a dozen persons waiting for their acceptance interviews….
"Mr. and Mrs. Jed Rialto" states the new-patient form. She strides through the waiting room with a nod that cuts the air. Like a covert casting director, she examines the couple in periphery. The wife, a thirty-something stressed new mother, still manages to bloom with the beauty of a fecund pleasure mate.
Miniona compares herself favorably: thirty-eight-years old, never married, dozens of lovers, but none now, no sex for months, except with her implements. She asks her secretary to send in the couple. After they sit, she attempts to undermine their co-dependent bond, "Now, which one of you is the biggest problem?"
The doting husband stammers, "Angela just had a baby, our first. She suffers post-partum, I guess. Anyway, she cries at the merest disturbance. The baby's fine." He gives his wife a worried warm smile.
“How insipid,” Miniona thinks. “Relationship addiction is the obvious difficulty. I should refer them to a counselor.” However, her profit mantra kicks in: Always diagnose toward the clinic's standard treatments.
“Why not what the husband volunteered?’ Her eyes moisten. "Post-partum is serious because of its deep hormonal basis. Unfortunately, I can't promise anything, although I and my staff will do our best for you."
Miniona softens up to the man. He is such a looker with his pug nose and whimpering lips. She doe-eyes him; her voice drifts out in breathless gasps. She says, "I believe that visits twice a week will be sufficient. We'll start personality-dilation treatments next week.”
Jed Rialto's countenance grows stern, though with his wife he is soft and loving. Instantly. Miniona's lust vacates the room, and she is all business. Jed looks at her as if she has no redeeming qualities. He becomes the epitome of a quiet man, just observing rather than participating. A deep shiver rocks Miniona like she has been found in her most primitive form. She becomes super professional and polite.
Impersonally, she says, "If you'll set up the next several appointments with my secretary, we'll get you started. By the way, Angela, please bring your overnight things. We'll need to observe you for twelve hours after your first treatment."
Jed and Angela thank her several times each as they head arm in arm for the office door. "Maybe this will help," the wife says. Her curves ripple, but Miniona does not track her sway. Her glances stick to Jed's narrow waist and delicious neck. When the door clicks shut, she sighs, kicks off the cruel spikes, then enters her conclusions into the wife's compufile.
After two weeks of dilation treatments, stimulants and hormone-booster shots, Angela has become placable and pliable. She is beginning to see her faults, realizing that she has copied her parents’ imperfections. These all have come to a head with motherhood, which cannot cope with disrupted gland function.
Angela completes her initial course of treatments then begins deep dilation. Five weeks later, she wants to quit. Miniona politely agrees, but "just to make sure" convinces her to undergo a bit more.
Angela loses weight, which makes her hips bony. Her formerly rosy skin has turned sallow. She feels listless much of the time. Jed has hired a nursemaid because she cannot take care of her infant by herself. No longer does she consider herself sexy. One child is one too many. She arrives at the clinic in slouchy clothes. She has changed her shoes from open sandals, from whence her toenails had glistened, to dingy flats and homely socks.
As she usually does with patients who do not appreciate her help, Miniona handles with polite dismissal and she does not second guess herself because she is always right in her thoughts, emotions and actions. In the way of dismissal, she says, "We're done. Check in with the clinic only when you run out of medication." After this last meeting, Miniona walks Angela out to where Jed is waiting in the car. She breathes in his ear, "Call me about anything."
Two weeks later, as the monthly bills are to go out, a distraught Jed Rialto phones Miniona. Angela has died. Slit her wrists in the bathtub. When he awoke this morning, he found her, her cheeks still wet with blood and tears.
The goal of the clinic's public relations is to produce a palliative effect. Miniona says, "That's such a terrible thing for you after all we did for her. Please accept my sincerest condolences." After Jed hangs up, Miniona tells her secretary to send the office's standard floral arrangement.
When Jed Rialto next phones, he says, "This statement seems awfully high compared to others I've paid."
"Here's the thing, Mr. Rialto. That bill was a reconciliation of past undercharges. You were actually under-billed several times during your wife's inopportune illness. We always catch those things up with the final billing. Unfortunately, the bill had already gone out when I heard the sad news about your wife, or I should have reduced it as an expression of caring. Tell you what. I'll cut the bill in half. How's that?"
Miniona taps her foot waiting for his answer. All that comes over the line is his breathing, then that stops. She feels the small animal taking bites of her stomach. Her tapping becomes cautious and slow. She presses the phone chip under her temple skin. No sound except line static. Then abruptly, Jed's breathing resumes. "Thanks, doctor. I won't forget what you've done for us."
All that remains of that phone call is Jed Rialto's moment of silence. For days, it ravages her. What was he thinking? The fear she felt when he paused surfaces in every cessation of noise. Even hints of silence bother her. When the state's highest court rules in favor of allowing children a minute of silence at the start of each school day, she feels uneasy. She pens a letter to the newspaper editor.
She begins to dislike her sound-proof electro-tank car. On the way to work in the mornings, she fills the quiet with satellite broadcasts and retro-music.
One morning, she arrives at the clinic to find Jed Rialto waiting in reception. He comes toward her rolling a copy of High Society magazine. His eyes are secret and deep-sunk, disarming her.
“Did he always have that black wart on his nose? Were his eyebrows that bushy? Did his teeth show?” As he creeps across space hunched over, Miniona’s muscles jelly, her heart rate turns jackhammer. She cannot move. Yet, desire for him struggles deep inside her, keeping her stand rigid, waiting for him to reach her.
When he speaks, he is the mortician who undertook her father three years before. "How nice to see you again. I have been thinking about you on occasion since my wife's death. I was impressed by the way you handled her illness. There was no helping her, I'm sure. How could you or your clinic be to blame for my wife's shortcomings? But that's not why I'm here. You see ‒ I hope this won't embarrass you ‒ the club has reconsidered your application."
"Oh, excuse me. You probably didn't know I'm a member at Dahlia, on the board. Last year you applied for membership. Are you still interested?"
She must have been mistaken. He is at ease and smiling.
Miniona's muscles and skin firm. She gasps lightly with surprised pleasure; elation builds until she is one step short of bedazzled. This man is asking her to become a member of the Dahlia Country Club! She is about to blurt out, "Yes!", but she bites back the exclamation, recouping her sardonic self. Politely she says, "Perhaps, I might be interested."
"Well then, why don't you meet with the board tomorrow night, say 8:00? Just drive up to the entrance. The doorman will direct you. Don't be put off by him. He’s a bit, well, you know."
"Okay." She wants to say more, to come on haughty, to crush Rialto for putting her in a position where she must be grateful, but she must be polite so as not to blow this piece of genetic good luck.
"See you there," he says. His walk away is painfully slow. He is silence moving toward the door. “What is he thinking?” After he goes out, she clutches her voltaic shoulders. She should feel ecstatic, not surfeited with anxiety.
The second half of the story "The Gerbil" from the book Eve of Valor: 25 Tales will post on or about June 1.