First Five Chapters

Prologue — The Thought Swindler

Hiding his deep pleasure with ease, Duke Jersey observed the sixty-five genetic scientists.  They placidly gazed back, giving utterly no sign of any critical thought.

Duke chuckled inwardly in contempt, thinking, This herd of fools is totally clueless!  My words will indubitably accomplish what I purpose with these idiots.

Riveting his eyes on them, he continued, “Altering life forms and creating superior new beings gives me an exhilarating thrill like none other!  I invite you to partake of these creative omnipotent powers.  Yes, the dawn of human genetic redesign has risen—shining bright in the morning sky.  The birth of god-like intelligence lies before us…  And possibly eternal life.”

Heh heh… I can’t believe the gullibility of these suckers, allowing themselves to be my captive audience for thirty-two hours over the last three days.  I answered all their lame questions before the little twits had even thought of them.

He paced the black stage while methodically speaking in a hypnotic five-part tempo.  His crisp black suit was no casual preference, but carefully chosen for the impact he desired.  Smoothly moving his hands for emphasis, he sized up his captive audience.  Their conscious defense is down…  It’s time to plant MY thoughts and plans so deeply into their fertile brains these bovine clowns will never know what hit them.  They need somebody to tell them what to do and when to do it—they need me and they need Qenetics.

Rewarding himself a small smile, and pausing for impact, Duke continued, “Some of you may have doubts, such as…  Is that really a good thing to do, Duke?  Good question!  Let me answer that one by asking a question:  Is the genetic re-engineering of our¬selves an undirected evolutionary step?  Or much more purposeful than we think?  Charles Darwin believed Natural Selection works solely for the good of each being, so that all physical and mental changes will tend towards perfection.”

I can’t see even a hint of that asinine independent thinking in their stupidly slack faces—I’ve successfully terminated it.  Now it’s time to completely convert their subconscious minds.

Duke’s voice gained intensity and fervor.  “We humans must keep ahead of artificial intelligence without trusting in unproven religious myths, miracles, and prophesies.  Even Jesus said, ‘Are ye not all gods?’  We have no alternatives!  We must press on in our pursuit of creating supernally intelligent gods from our own human DNA!  Superior Beings… with genetic encoding of love, mercy, and compassion.  We can—we will… usher in unprecedented peace and prosperity for this decaying world of war and increasing cruelties.”

Duke smiled openly at the tranced scientists sitting in the bland, windowless auditorium.  Ahhh, I love it when their little dim-witted eyes blink slower to that ever so subtle time when I have full access to their hearts.  Hello, faithful followers!

All of the truly open-minded scientists returned Duke’s warm smile, most nodding thoughtfully in agreement.  Touching the top of his red tie under the spotlight, Duke poised himself.  It is time for the kill.

Duke’s voice gained in zeal and conviction as he finished in a crescendo, “I have a dream—we will make our earth a better place than we ever hoped or imagined.  We must stand together in obedience to the laws of physics that govern our universe.  We will stay unified to accomplish this unprecedented achievement.  I urge you—I urge you, my fellow genetic scientists, to cast any swirling fears and doubts far from your mind and join with me in this fantastic opportunity—to create a beautiful new world—to partake in this greatest of human achievements.”

Raising his hands palms forward in the brilliant circle of light, Duke modestly tilted his head down as the sixty-five scientists rose to their feet, thunderously applauding.

Duke Jersey smiled modestly.  Heh heh heh!  For years these zealots will defend me and my arguments to their last idiotic dying breath, and never know what hit their subconscious.   You are brilliant, Duke.  Simply Brilliant.

 

Chapter One  —  Olivia

Perched on the wooden bench, she obsessively replayed the horrific accident over and over again in her mind.

It had all started early that morning as the swells peacefully rocked her surfboard, the dawn’s coastal fog deceptively shrouding her from the craziness of the world in its quiet, gray sanctuary.

This all started with Arnold asking me that question.  The haunting question now driving her insane with despair, the innocuously simple question—

“Hey, Olivia.  You wanna watch Steve’s car surfing stunt at lunch?”

Arnold looked at her expectantly, his chin resting on his orange surfboard.

“Cool!  I’ll be there!” she replied.

“Can I roll with you in your new Cooper?” Arnold’s brawny arms sprawled lazily over his surfboard as he rose and fell with the swells.

“That’s fine.”  She glanced over her shoulder at a large wave rising.  Quickly pumping towards shore, Olivia grasped her thruster surfboard and flipped on her feet as the surge caught her.  She smoothly merged into a flow of motion, carving down the face in unison with the ocean’s synergy.

It was over all too soon.  She cut back over the top of the now spent and foaming surf.  Surfing was a high for her, a harmonious feeling of being at one with the sea.  And doing it with friends makes it even better, she thought, paddling back out.  Arnold still watched, still lying on his surfboard, gently bobbing up and down in the incoming wave swells with her friends.

Of course she wanted to watch Steve car surf.  After all, Steve wasn’t just anybody; he was one of her surfing buddies, and one of the most desirable boys on campus.

She flew down the hill at noon with Arnold, her spirit soaring in anticipation of Steve’s awe-inspiring stunt down the Pacific Coast Highway.

When Steve asked for a volunteer among the spectators, they all looked to Olivia, naively leaning against her new birthday present.  She was at first timid, but her elation in realizing Steve really did want her swiftly took flight, taking an aerial leap over prudence and wariness as she pictured her impressed friends talking ad nauseam about Steve’s new stunt on YouTube with her new Mini Cooper.

On their first run it was she who crouched on top, thrilled to be included with Steve, and waving carefree in the forty mile an hour wind to her surprised and cheering friends.

But when his turn came, Steve seemed outright stern as she drove down the coastal highway, as if he were lecturing her…

“Olivia, you listening?  Hey, I need eye contact!  Okay… good… now, uh, hey—look back at the road!  Okay.  After we do the u-turn on PCH you gotta get up to fifty miles an hour one block before the intersection, then I’ll climb up through the sunroof and you close it.  Just coast through the intersection as I stand up and wave.  But please, whatever you do, please—please don’t….”

Life is so good, she thought, watching Steve talk so seriously during such an exhilarating time.  She happily nodded her head to let him know she was listening.  The fresh ocean breeze blowing in her open windows and sunroof elevated her mood.  Steve was with her, and their friends waited to watch their final stunt.  The sun’s cheerful rays burning off the last of the morning fog bathed them in dazzling sunshine, sparkling off her gleaming waxed yellow hood.

As they sped towards the intersection she gripped her steering wheel and peered up at Steve’s bare feet planted firmly on top of her closed sunroof.  Smiling in satisfaction, Olivia glanced back to the road.  She watched in horror as a black van changed lanes in front of her in slow motion.  The rear of the van now looming in front of her windshield surged her heart with adrenaline.

“STEVE!”  She screamed, “HOLD—ON!!!”

Her heart pounded with the delicious thrill of another adventure.  It would work out okay in the end.  It always did.  Olivia confidently held the steering wheel and swiftly eyed her options.

“GO LEFT!  GO LEFT!  GO…” he yelled back.

But I can’t run over that concrete median curb with those little sticking-up things.  Her daddy’s face flashed in a micro-second before her as she imagined his expression while examining the damaged undercarriage of her new birthday present.  She veered left just a little to show Steve she really was listening, and slammed on her brakes.

Bouncing neatly off her hood, Steve went cart-wheeling at an amazing speed into the oncoming lane.  The small red sports car materializing to finish their act with a sickening thud— it made her feel nauseous all over again…

She shuddered at the memory of Steve’s body flipping over the red car, and wrapped her arms tightly around her bare knees on the worn wooden bench.  She would try very hard not to think anymore of Steve’s accident.  She touched her fingertips to her temples in a fruitless effort to erase the memory.  It was just too terrible.  The Malibu High School Mission Statement hanging on the wall caught her eye, so she read it to distract herself.  The first day of her senior year was proving to be a long one.

“Okay, Olivia—come.”

The voice interrupting her thoughts brought her fluttering back to her present dilemma.  The principal beckoned with his thick hand, waving her towards the open door behind him.  Her parents sat stiffly inside on maroon leather chairs with tight smiles.  She arose slowly, resolved to remain serene and calm.  She assured herself they still loved her.  She knew they did.

“Olivia, I’m sure you understand why you need to be suspended for a few weeks. We just can’t tolerate that kind of conduct during school hours.  The District would frown on my letting you off with no consequences.”

She nodded, waiting an appropriate eleven seconds before responding.  “It’s what I want to do with my life.”

The principal frowned.  “Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway with a boy standing on top of your car?”

She smiled.  “Stunt driving!”

The principal leaned forward with a deeper frown.  “It’s simply illegal to drive twenty miles over the speed limit with somebody standing on top of your car.  Regard¬less of what you call it.”

“I thought this was a collaborative community to help prepare for our careers.”  Reading the Malibu High Mission Statement outside the office was most helpful!  Wonder why I haven’t noticed it until now.

“Honey, stuntwomen don’t make that much, considering their medical expenses and disabilities,” said her mother.  “And I don’t want you hobbling around in your thirties.  That’s not much of a career.”

“Well, the good ones do all right, and how’re we going get a start unless we practice somewhere?”

The principal still frowned, but a slight smile threat-ened the corners of his stern expression. “There are better places than the Pacific Coast Highway!”

Mitigate your circumstances to minimize the punitives.  This situation calls for humility.  She said out loud, “I suppose you are right.  I wish I’d thought of that sooner.  It all happened so fast, you know.  I just need to think more critically.  I am sorry for the trouble I’ve caused you all.”

The principal leaned back with a smile.  It was a small smile, but nevertheless a genuine smile.  She sighed in relief.

Her father leaned towards the principal with his own smile, and asked, “How about just making it the rest of this week?”

“Okay, deal!  I am so glad to have this resolved peaceably…” The principal slid a smartpad and stylus across his desk for her parents to sign.

“Let me get the door for you…”  Her father walked briskly past her and opened the office door.  They walked through the empty lobby and into the gray evening mist.

“Dad, I am sorry!  I…”

Her father motioned with his hands as they walked across the high school campus. “Forget it, Olivia, it’s partly my fault.  I just haven’t been there for you.”

“You’ve been there for Qenetics, working on their HealthyOne Shot,” said Olivia.

“Right, go ahead and say it.  Genetics research has consumed my life,” said her father, “But I must say, you have a magnetic personality when it comes to attracting trouble.  Now.  You certainly won’t be driving your new car this week while you’re suspended.”

Her little sister was the only bright spot on Tuesday, coming to her often to gently kiss her forehead and give her tight comforting hugs with her little arms.

Wednesday evening, she peered uncertainty around the thick edge of a heavy wooden door.  Steve lay under white sheets, staring out of the dark window at the late-evening traffic winding its way past the hospital.  The ancient flat-panel TV soundlessly projected blue light into his darkened room.

Her stomach suddenly twisted and she felt ill.  She steadied herself, and after smoothly squeezing her lithe body through the mostly closed door without touching it, she gave her warmest smile.

“How are you doing—Steve?”

“Uh, the facts speak for themselves—.”  He motioned towards his propped up leg with his casted arm.

“Yeah, I am so sorry you got hurt.  But you did get some nice air!”  She gave her warmest smile again, maybe even warmer than her warmest smile.  “Which cast should I sign?”

“It’s generally in bad taste to ask which cast to sign, Olivia, especially after you were the one who caused their injuries.”

“I just did what you told me to do.”

“I can’t believe you hit your brakes for that van!”

Olivia’s smile vanished in her incredulity at realizing what Steve really thought of her.  “I didn’t want to hit them!  Both lanes were blocked!”

“There was plenty of room to go around that black van on the left side!”  Steve gestured with his left hand.

“There was a car coming at me in that lane!  It was the red one.  The one you hit.”

“The median, stupid!  Why didn’t you go up onto the median?!” said Steve.

“And hit that concrete curb and those little sticky-up things?”

“Olivia, come on!  They’re little flaps that bend over so people can drive over ‘em!”

“Oh… Steve, look… I am really, really sorry about what happened.  But you were the one who wanted to do it!  I just agreed to drive.  I didn’t….”

“Didn’t what, Olivia?”

“Didn’t want to… well…  I thought you’d be okay, you know.  I saw that concrete curb coming up, so, well…  I didn’t think my dad would want me messing up my new car!  So like, well…  Why didn’t you just hang on?”

“Hang onto what?!  You have got to be kidding me!  There is nothing to hang onto when you car surf!  Didn’t want Daddy getting upset about your undercarriage getting scraped up….”  Steve lay back on the white pillow of his reclining bed, his face reflecting sneering disgust.  “Just agreed to drive…  Yeah, you’ll never make it, Olivia.  Stuntmen take chances and come out winning.  Losers hurt people, Olivia.  Congratulations, you saved your insurance com¬pany some money.”

He scowled at her.

“Don’t go aggro, Steve.  Please.  It was an accident.”

“You were trunpunx.”

Olivia’s face flushed red. “I was epic, and I did what you said. You… you totally bailed.  Why didn’t you just land on your feet?”

Steve’s eyes glinted. “You don’t even know, Olivia!  You can’t brake hard with fifty mile an hour car surfing!  My leg is broken in nine places, I have chipped vertebrae, three broken ribs, a broken arm, and I’m gonna be lying in this bed for a looong time.  Your sunroof isn’t too grippy, Olivia.  What’d ya think would happen when you hit your brakes!  You had a person up there!  I…  I cannot fathom why you still do not understand that!”  His words rapidly burst out, gaining energy as he expelled them, as if compacted tightly in his mind, they finally had a chance to detonate and explode into the open room.

She took a deep breath and considered her options.  His face definitely looked quite dark.  She reached in her memory for that spiritual feeling while riding a wave, and smiled warmly again.

“OK, Steve, I’ll smear some Zogs on top for you next time, ‘specially for you.”

“Won’t be a next time, Olivia!  I’m not stupid.”

Her warm smile waned under Steve’s cold glare.  He shifted his body in the hospital bed, grimaced in pain, and turned his head towards the window again, watching the car lights go by.  She turned on her sandals and quietly walked out of the silent room.

Her mom watched from across the brightly lit parking lot in their BMW as she exited the hospital.  Olivia swung into the black leather seat and sighed deeply.  Her mom patted her leg and told the car to back up.

“Honey, it isn’t all your fault.  Don’t be so hard on your-self,” said Rhonda, turning to check up on the car’s backing ability.  Her mom still couldn’t bring herself to trust it.

“I just feel terrible about what happened to Steve. It isn’t about whose fault it is, it’s just… he got hurt really bad, that’s all,” said Olivia.  She blankly eyed her mom’s black suit.  A menacing tear threatened to glide down her cheek so she turned her face towards the side window.

Loneliness crept stealthily into her week of suspension.  An ominous gray depression, so foreign in her usual busy life, took up brooding residency in her quiet bedroom.  None of her friends dropped by, and just gave ambiguous responses on Intelimedia.  She didn’t mind missing out on her early morning surf, since it reminded her Steve couldn’t be there.  At least she still had her little sister, who made miniature strawberry cupcakes on Thursday to cheer her.

A pessimistic destiny haunting her with doom deeply troubled her soul when she returned to school on Monday.  She stepped out of her car, and felt heavy.   She looked for a friendly face, and there was Abbie, waiting to talk to her.  More like nervously blurt to her.

“Olivia, you were like, so totally cool, I mean, it was awesome!  You should have seen it! And the cop’s face when you went by the second time.  Price-less!  I was like sooo stoked….  Too bad about Steve though…”

“So, how many came out, anyhow?”  Olivia scanned the students as they crossed the parking lot, hoping for another friendly face.

“Quite a few, considering…  Most of them walked the whole block.”

“Wish it was like the old days before so many kids were¬n’t out of school with that flu…”

“I heard thirteen kids died over the summer with it from our school alone,” said Abbie, “but not anybody in our crowd, of course.  Fortunately.”

“It’s awful…  Our HealthyOne shots just aren’t holding up to well with these new flu strains.”

“Yeah, your dad needs to come up with a better update for our DNA!  Hey, I heard Qenetics is moving more people to their headquarters in Essex to work on a flu cure.  Your dad getting transferred there?”

Olivia shook her blonde head, “Nope.  Abbie, why do you think I’m getting the cold shoulder?”  She turned to Abbie walking beside her on the sun dabbled sidewalk to read her reaction.

Abbie tensed, and looked away from her.  “Steve got busted up real bad and some don’t think it’s cool.  Airena is trying to dink your popularity.  You know, more for her—less for you.  Gossip and peer pressure, the usual.”  Abbie glanced at her and shrugged.  “Look girl, I gotta get to my class.  Oh, uh, watch out for Airena.  She’s really been feeling her genes.”

 

Chapter Two —  Jude

“Where you going?”

“Porta potty.”  Jude unbuckled his canvas tool bag, dropped it on the concrete slab from his blue jean cargo shorts, and walked slowly across the dirt, feet kicking up puffs of dust in the brilliant sunshine.  He slid the latch closed behind him and braced himself.

Within seconds they came. BANMG—POINK—Peeeeng….  Laughter, and then BAAAMM.  More laughter—BANMG.

So adolescent, thought Jude, they just gotta throw wood scraps at the porta potty when I’m in here.  He hid his irritation as he returned by looking down and following his old footprints back in the soft, powdery soil.  Stepping back onto the hot concrete slab, he stomped the dust from his hiking boots and picked up his worm-drive saw without a glance towards them.  They were waiting for his reaction, but he didn’t give them one.  I’ll get even.

He revved the saw and bent over.  Resting a wood stud on top of his right foot, he squeezed the saw trigger, and made his next cut smoothly down the penciled line.  He flicked the sawdust neatly off his white t-shirt as the powerful worm-drive saw whined to a stop. “Let’s take a break,” said his father abruptly.  “It’s already eight.  Jude, you head across the street and get us some Cokes and doughnuts.  I’ll take a maple bar.”

“How come I always gotta be the one?” asked Jude.

“You already had your break in the porta potty, brother,” laughed James, slapping Jude hard on the back.  “Get me an apple fritter—and Pepsi, not Coke.”

Jude looked down the main street of Essex as he crossed it.  Sidewalks lined each side of the shady street, with cars parked in front of the stores, most of them two story except for the Qenetics office building towering above them.  Jude crossed back across the street with his arms full of soft drinks and doughnuts.

After their break, he walked to the large wall laying flat on the warming concrete, and stood on the two-by-four boards.  His mind soon relaxed in the flow of motion and energy as he effortlessly drove in sixteen-penny nails with his titanium hammer.

Penk—nail set.

Baaumg—nail almost sunk.

Baunk—the nail was now completely driven in, leaving a slight bumpy indentation in the wood from the framing hammer.

“Why do they have this pattern on the face of framing hammers?” Jude frowned, fingering it.

“Thirty-nine and three-eights,” sang out James.

His father took the square orange pencil from his gritted teeth.  “Framing hammers have a waffle head so the hammer grabs the nail and doesn’t slip off and tear your finger up.”  He leaned down and measured, marking a board with the stubby pencil, and then, with his foot under the two-by-four, grabbed for the saw.

Sweeeeeeennnngggg.

“Seems like they’d tear up your finger more with that waffle pattern,” said Jude, walking to the opposite end of the partially nailed off wall lying on its side.

“Pay attention and you don’t need to worry about it.”  Jim straightened up in exasperation.  “Man, Jude, you talk too much!  Porta potty, waffle head hammers.  Come on man, just work!  And pull out those bent over nails with your cats paw!  Don’t want the building inspector calling us on that.  Be competent!  I want my money’s worth out of that expensive HealthyOne shot your mother got you.”

“Yes, Dad,” said Jude.  He pulled his shirt off over his head.  “It’s gonna be a hot one.”

“It’s cooler with your shirt on,” said Jim.  “The white t-shirt reflects the sunlight.”

“I don’t want a farmer’s tan,” said Jude.

He tossed his shirt on a sawhorse. His hard bronzed body glistened in the intense rays of the rising San Joaquin Valley sun.  The wood cooked under the brutal sunshine, rendering it almost too hot to handle.  James dropped his nail bag and walked off the back of the now baking-hot concrete building pad.

Finally, thought Jude.  He picked up a small two-by-four block of wood and eyed the distance to the cracked open door.  James as a rule didn’t like touching the germ-ridden door to lock it; he just modestly kept his back towards the opening.

Jude waited until the opportune time, thoughtfully fingering the square piece of wood before hurling it. Arcing slightly as it whistled towards the porta potty, the block disappeared through the cracked opening, ricocheting inside around James, bouncing four times before clattering to a stop.

Impressive. James didn’t even flinch.  Jude stood back on the wood studs and nonchalantly drove more nails into the bottom of the wall.

James walked back and buckled his tool bag on.  “Went right around me.  About knocked my pecker off!”

Jude let out a nervous laugh, relieved James hadn’t been seriously hurt.

“Get to work, boys,” said Jim.

Jude finished nailing off the front wall of the office building in downtown Essex, and stepped back to admire his handiwork.  James hit the bottom of the wall, sinking in his hammer’s claw end, and bent the handle back, lifting the wall a few inches from the concrete while wedging a lumber scrap under it.

“Jude, don’t just stand there and watch, get some blocks and help me out!” said James.  “Come on, man!”

They set the top edge of the fifty-foot wall lying on its side on wooden blocks, leaving space for their fingers.

“This is gonna be a heavy wall to lift, and it’s ten-thirty.  Let’s take lunch,” said Jim.  “The plumbers oughta be here anytime.”

They sat on the grass next to their job site under the shade of a mulberry tree.  Jude ate his cantaloupe half first, carving the soft, orange flesh into neat scoops with a plastic spoon.

“What I need is vanilla ice cream,” said Jude.

“I need to take a nap,” said James.  He lay on the Bermuda grass with his shirt off, hands behind his head for a pillow.  “And you need to save your money.  Gonna spend all your twenty bucks an hour on junk?”

Jude finished scraping out the fragrant cantaloupe, and began turning it inside out, leaving the juicy side of the rind exposed on the outside.  A small smile lurked at the corners of his mouth.

Jim shook his head in disgust.  “You boys never stop, do you?”

James opened his eyelids halfway.  “Don’t you be throwing your juicy melon rind on me.”

Jude kept turning the rind with great care, as if creating a beautiful sculpture.  James kept one eye slitted open, watching Jude.  The white truck arriving in a cloud of dust caught their attention.

As the old Ford hit a pothole a side tool box flipped open, spilling out white plastic pipe parts.  The plumber jerked the pickup to a stop and left the driver’s door open as he walked through the dust to the concrete slab.  He stared down a hole at a pipe wrapped in duct tape.

The plumber’s assistant picked up the spilled pipe parts and tossed them into the back of the truck.

“You remember the jackhammer?”  Jim said with a laugh.

“Yeah, we remembered the fluxing jack-hammer,” said the plumber’s assistant.  He jerked the tailgate open.  “Shoulda had the concrete pour date for this fluxing place on our calendar.  Sorry about all the fluxing noise—man.”

The plumber’s assistant sat down on an upended bucket as the plumber unloaded the jackhammer and compressor.

“Got any two-twenty we could plug into?”

“Nope, just one-ten,” said Jim.

“Maddog it!  You got a fluxing gas generator?”

Jim flipped his thumb towards his Toyota truck.  “In the back, welcome to use it.”

The assistant unloaded the gas generator from Jim’s truck and sat back down on the bucket.  “You guys always fluxing sit around like this?  Must be soldering nice.”

“Yep, right here in this shady spot here by the street.  The construction robot does the work, we just watch it.”

“Yeah, some day when you hit it fluxing rich!  We need to eat our soldering festering lunch.  Mind if we join you?”

“Fine,” said Jim.

James lay back down on the grass and closed his eyes.

The plumber sat by his assistant without saying a word.  They opened their lunch boxes and peeled the plastic tops off their packaged sandwiches.

“Too bad it’s so fluxing hot around here, I can’t fluxing stand it, driving me soldering maddog mad, you know?  Can’t wait for it to fluxing cool down a little, but then it will be too maddog cold,” said the plumber’s assistant, tossing a few chips into his mouth.  “Jesus, it is hot today.”

James slowly sat up and leaned over on one hand, large bicep facing outward as he watched the assistant take a huge bite.

Here it comes, thought Jude, slowly chewing his whole wheat roast beef sandwich as he thoughtfully eyed the plumber’s assistant.  Working out with weights sure comes in handy in times like this.

“How can you talk and eat out of the same mouth?” asked James.

“Huh?”

The plumber’s assistant paused with his hand half-way to his mouth, baloney sandwich held in mid-air.

“How can you eat and talk out of the same filthy mouth?”  James gazed steadily back at the plumber’s assistant with an expressionless face, rippled muscles on his shirtless upper body calm and relaxed as if enjoying their brief break, but eager for more strenuous exertion.

The assistant’s mouth gaped open with chewed up baloney, mustard and white bread.  He looked at Jim.

Jim nodded his head once slightly in approval.

The plumber’s assistant looked back at James, looked down at his shoes, and gave a short laugh.  “I don’t know.  Just used to it, I guess.”  He took a huge bite of white sandwich.

James lay back in disgust, muscled chest up, and closed his eyes again.  He hadn’t gotten much sleep after staying up late talking with his girlfriend.

After an abnormally quiet lunch, the plumber’s assistant started the gas generator and air compressor.  The plumber began jackhammering the concrete away from the pipe wrapped in duct tape.

Jude threw his trash into his lunch box and followed his father and brother back to the concrete slab now sizzling hot under the full sun.

“Mind giving us a hand lifting this wall for a minute?” yelled James over the jackhammer.

“Uh, sure!” said the plumber.  He waved his assistant over to help.

Late that afternoon, Jim yelled, “Jude dude!  Start packing up the tools, man.  It’s time to go.”

Jude looked down the street at the Qenetics’s building dominating the downtown of Essex.  The retro digital sign read “108 F” and then flashed “2:30”.

He wove the cords into a series of slip knots before gathering them up, and then threw the worm-drive saws on top of them in the back of Jim’s Toyota work truck.  He watched the robot across the street as it effortlessly carried a stack of lumber behind an old man in overalls into the grocery store being remodeled.

“Dad, we oughta get one of those construction robots.”

“Then I wouldn’t need you boys, would I?” said Jim.

As they pulled into their long driveway that afternoon, Jude nodded to the real estate sign in front of the custom-built Spanish style house on the acreage next door to them.  “Looks like that place finally sold.”

“You gotta dance, you gotta sing, get up the body and do the dance.”  Jude woke with a start to the obnoxious music playing from his old smart phone.

Jude sat up.  “I hate that song.  I told you to wake me up to Bostonia.  Turn it off.”

His phone’s personal assistant responded, “Jude, your calendar states you are working today. I will not snooze this song that I know you hate.  You need to get up now.”

The music kept playing.

Jude picked up his phone and looked at it.  Five  a.m. is way early.  He closed his eyes and opened them again.  No, better get up.  He groaned and looked at the simple math problem on the phone’s screen.

“One hundred forty-four,” Jude told his phone.

“That is correct,” said his phone, and the music stopped.

Stupid personal assistants are getting out of hand.  Jude rolled out of bed.  He pulled on a long sleeve shirt and stumbled out of the door after his dad into the chilly early morning.

“Boys,” said Jim on their way to the job site, “first thing is, we need to get the rafter tails cut even on those roof trusses we set yesterday.  The truss shop did a terrible job; they got some lame five year old robot assembling them.”

James and Jude stretched a string across the end of the rafters, making penciled marks.

James motioned with his pencil.  “Jude, you cut’em, I’ll help Dad.”

Jude wedged a square pencil in to hold the safety guard back on the power saw, exposing the blade.  He peeled off his shirt and climbed the short wobbly wooden ladder, standing on the very top step.

Jim paused in his work, watching.  “Son, don’t cut your head off with that thing.”

Jude slitted his eyes as the diamond-toothed blade spun smoothly into the pine wood over his head, spewing sawdust over his face, hair, and chest.  He finished the cut, lowering the whining saw towards his thigh, the exposed blade wickedly spinning.

 

Chapter Three — Topless Trash

Olivia apprehensively arrived to her world history class and sat by Arnold, which seemed safest.  She glanced around the silent class room.  Silent, that is, except for Zack and Arnold.

Airena sat between Zack and Arnold in a tan miniskirt, listening in rapt attention, displaying her deep interest with her golden lipsticked mouth slightly gapping in a wondering smile, turning her head back and forth to each boy as they talked.

“The big mama was fully mackin’ some gnarly grinders this morning.”

“Yeah, I seen you catch a gnarly five-footer.  Styling man, styling.”

Olivia accidently caught Airena’s darting glance.  As their eyes met Airena’s jaw snapped shut and her face briefly grew slack and lost expression as she eyed Olivia.  Airena turned back to Zack with her small, wondering yet impressed, smile.

Zack continued, “I bailed to not get locked in the washing machine.”

“Nice wipe-out!  I thought you’d pearl the nose of your stick, I was watch’n for a little mullering,” said Arnold.

“Sorry to disappoint.”

“Let’s go scrut some grunts off campus.  You got lunch next period?”

“Five-foot isn’t exactly gnarly, guys!”  Olivia tried to make her voice friendly and confident, but it twanged with nervousness.  The boys slowly turned their heads to her.  Airena looked down.

“Mind if I go to In-N-Out Burger with you guys today?” Olivia added, and took a light breath.

Both boys looked to Airena as she sighed deeply, indifferently examining her fluorescent fingernails.

“Uh, why…  Sure, Olivia!  Wanna surf on top of my car, stunt lady?” said Zack.

Airena snickered and looked up.  “She thinks she can do whatever she wants to us and get away with it, since her daddy started working for that multi-trillionaire who altered our DNA.  ”

Olivia’s face flushed. “My dad worked for Duke Jersey’s company for years before the HealthyOne Shot was invented, Airena!” She breathed deeply to calm herself, and turned to her smartpad.

At the end of the class, Zack simply said, “Let’s wash out, guys.  Latronic, Olivia.”  Airena gave her a distinctly dirty look and followed Zack outside, but Arnold smiled back at her.

She knew. She was on the outside now.

Tuesday morning held promise of clean waves with a strong offshore wind blowing past their hillside Malibu home.  She religiously left her house at 5:30 a.m., her six-foot thruster surfboard sticking out of the sunroof beside her as she wound down the curving road to the sparkling blue ocean below.  Her old surfing crowd was already changing as she pulled into the beachside lot.  She eagerly pulled on her pink drysuit, but nobody looked her way, or greeted her.  Except Arnold.  He yelled hello as he jogged past in an orange drysuit, adding over his beefy shoulder, “Some seriously heavy waves are going off out there, Olivia!”

Olivia walked past Airena and a few other girls braving the brisk cool breeze to support their boyfriends.  Airena tossed a sandwich wrapper into an open trashcan and, waiting until Olivia noticed her, haughtily turned her back.  But Abbie hurried to catch up and walk with her across the sand, waiting until they were out of earshot to quietly warn her, “You the one, girl.  But watch out.  The guys are a little aggro this morning.  Zack’s been like talking down about you.”

She gave Olivia a light pat on the shoulder.

Olivia ran into the surf, duck diving through the heavy, oncoming waves as they crashed past her.

Zack paddled beside her, his muscular arms rippling through his yellow drysuit.  “Ain’t cha clucked of big waves? A gremmie like you oughta stay out of this dangerous surf.”

“Actually,” said Olivia, “I’m quite amped to finally be out here.  I’ve been cooped up way too long.”

“Not as long as Steve!”

“I know.  I feel terrible about it.”

“Good!  Just letting you know,” said Zack.  “The guys are doing a party wave and you’re not invited.  Nobody wants to swallow the chowder.”  He stared at her for emphasis.

Olivia waited with the lineup of boys lounging on their surfboards, gently moving up and down with the incoming swells that, after passing, transformed into crashing waves, imploding below them towards the beach.  Zack floated by Arnold, and gave her another meaningful look across Arnold’s muscular back.

Arnold rested his head on his surfboard and smiled at her.  “I am so stoked, these waves are surreal!  Wanna join us?  You can surf next to me at the end.  Forget Zack.”

“Sure!” She smiled, feeling the adrenaline rush.  With the next promising swell looming up, they all paddled and caught the wave, dropping down the face of it together.  Within seconds, Zack cut back towards her above a surprised Arnold and rode over the nose of her surfboard.

Her board dug into the water and tail shifted.  She flipped and fell, her surfboard somersaulting as it followed the pull of her leg leash.  She hit the wave on her back and got locked into the surge, tumbling around and around in the washing machine motion of the heavy wave before finally coming up, gasping and spitting.

Zack stood in the waist-deep water, waiting.

“Did ja like eating it, girl?  Might need a little Chinese wax job on your stick there.”

“That’s rude,” said Olivia.

“Try telling that to Stevie!  You know why he isn’t out here?—Your little mess up.”

“Arnold invited me.”

“Well, I had already uninvited you.  I told you before, no dropping in on our lineup.”

“You’re creating bad karma.”

“You’re a snaking junk yard dog, Olivia.”

“More bad karma, Zack.”

She paddled out behind Zack, still undaunted.  But the strong breeze died as her excitement of an early morning surf with friends evaporated, and dejection seeped in.  She turned her eyes to the blue sky for inspiration.  Life is just something to get through sometimes.

With concern, Olivia noticed the wind gradually shifting into an onshore direction, first gentle but now strong.

Arnold looked at his watch.  “Seven a.m. guys; this is the last party wave.  Time to wash out.”

The boys all paddled together, but Olivia hung back, not wanting another stormy exchange with Zack.

The swell crested uncertainly and she yelled, “Wave may dump you guys!” as they rose in unison onto the decks of their surfboards, simultaneously catching the drop down the enormous wave.  But the wave quickly blew out in the face of a now strong onshore wind and gripped them in its watery fist with a deafening roar.  They rolled into the collapsing wave—surfboards, heads, and feet churning over and over.

Soon, a small wave rose before her, and she relished the oneness with nature as she caught it.  Life IS good.  She tucked the lime green surfboard under her arm and sloshed through the surf.  Her former friends sat on stools, watching as she crossed the sand to the parking lot.

Zack sat on his surfboard with his forehead resting between his knees, his arms wrapped around his bent legs.  As Arnold explained, “Zack must have straddled his rail,” Olivia caught Airena’s glare, and quickly looked down at the coarse golden sand to deflect any hostile remarks.  After taking three steps, she glanced up again, and inhaled.

Airena, intently staring, stalked towards her.  She saucily stepped in front of Olivia and blocked her.  Olivia felt weak; she tried to breath, but with difficulty.  She fixed a steady gaze on the girl’s hostile face in morbid fascination, wondering what would happen next.

Airena leaned forward until she was inches from Olivia’s face, and hissed— “Kooky girl needs to stay out of the heavy waves or more people are gonna get hurt.”

Olivia froze, not wanting a confrontation, and wordlessly watched her saunter back.  The others sat on their round, black stools, half-laughing towards Olivia.  Airena patted Zack on the head as she passed and stood in front of an open gray trashcan with no lid on it.  Turning to give Olivia one last dirty look, she sat down on the topless trashcan.

Airena shrieked as she sank and her arms and legs involuntarily flipped up.  Her shriek faded into a roar of laughter bursting from her friends at the sight of her calves and hands wildly thrashing out of the top of the trashcan.

The humor abruptly hit Olivia, but she resisted an impulsive smile with great effort.  She jogged to her car, keeping a straight face.  As she left, Airena stood surrounded by trash as Abbie picked off a fast-food wrapper stuck to her shorts.

Olivia cheerfully smiled as she exited the parking lot, and drove home in high spirits.

She hurried through a quick shower and opened the bathroom door, thinking of what she would wear.  Her little sister stood blocking the doorway, clutching her stuffed horse.  She gave Olivia a hug around her legs, leaning her head back to look up.

“Olivia, I love you!  Always and forever,” she said in her usual it’s-morning-and-I-love-the-world voice.

“I love you too, Trinity,” said Olivia, hugging her back.  “How are you feeling after your shot?”

“I feel great!  How did you feel after your HealthyOne shot?” asked Trinity, her little arms still wrapped tightly around both of Olivia’s legs.  Trinity’s gray eyes stared up adoringly into Olivia’s green ones.

“It didn’t affect me much at all.  I just felt tired for a few days,” said Olivia, and patted Trinity on her shoulder.  She graciously moved out of her little sister’s hug, she was running a little late.

As she hurriedly fastened the buttons on her white blouse and zipped her khaki shorts, she couldn’t dislodge the goading realization that her friendships were permanently altered for the worse.  It just wasn’t fair.

Her stomach felt twisted and knotted most of that first week back.  Her usual friends did a marvelous job of ignoring her.  Usually she ran into several of them throughout the day, but now she rarely saw them.  And when she did, she felt invisible, as if she no longer took up any space at all.  She confronted a few of her closest friends, but they denied any problems between them.  “Don’t know what you are talking about, Olivia.  We aren’t ignoring you, Love.”

But they were, and their denials made her feel like she was going insane.  On Friday, Olivia confided with Abbie, “It’s like I’ve got the UB2 African flu; everybody is shunning me.”

Abbie sat across from her, sipping the pink lemonade Olivia had bought, and sighed.  “It’s not like I don’t like you!  It’s just, well, you’ve gotten a bad rap lately.  I still need my friends too!  I just don’t want to catch any flack for your accident.  It’s not like we aren’t friends anymore.”

“Abbie, what Airena is doing to me she’ll do it to you.  Just takes the right situation—and there you go,” Olivia motioned sideways with her hands, “no friends.”

“Uh… look…  I just can’t like do anything about this.  It isn’t a battle I feel I ought to be involved in.”

Olivia nodded to show she understood.  In the silence that followed Abbie indifferently looked out of the window.  Olivia idly turned her empty cup upside down and studied the characters written around the bottom edge, they had always puzzled her.

When they parted ways at the school, Olivia watched Abbie’s yellow jumper suit as it was absorbed into the stream of passing students.  Abbie never looked back.  As the mass of students flowed by on the outdoor walkway, it suddenly struck her how all of their genes had been altered by her father’s company.  Maybe her father’s role as a genetic scientist in the HealthyOne shot had made her insensitive to others.  She walked to her next class in quiet contemplation.

That evening, she gazed wistfully at the blue sea far below their home, and gently closed the front door behind her.

Her father stepped out of his home office.  He wore his favorite t-shirt from Hawaii, his hands tucked into the front pockets of his well-worn blue jeans.  “Hey, we need to talk.  I’ve been waiting for a good time.”

“Okay, I guess now is as good as it gets.” Olivia dropped her school smartpad on the couch and flopped down beside it.

Her father sat across from her, his palms touching each other as he leaned in. “I’ve got good news and bad news.  Which do you want first?”  He arched a questioning eyebrow with a guarded smile.

She propped her feet on the coffee table, plopped a pillow on her stomach, and folded her arms on top of it.   “I’ll take the good news.  I need some cushion for any bad news right now.”

“You have a rough day?”

“A rough week, more like,” explained Olivia.

“I figured that!  Well, you won’t have to put up with the kids at school for the rest of the year,” said Richard.

Olivia’s eyes opened wide. “Whaat!?  Miss my senior year at Malibu High??  Why?!”

“We’re moving to the Central Valley.”

Olivia stared, mouth open, before getting out, “To the San Joaquin Valley?”

“Yes, sweetheart.  To Essex, California.”

“But why, Dad?  I can’t believe this!  Malibu is our home.  I mean, I don’t want to move to some dusty, aggie, valley town!  Dad, what about my future? I won’t have any friends, no place to surf, I…”

“Olivia, you can make more friends.  Agricultural people can be quite friendly.  Think of it as an adventure!”

“Daaad…  Starting a new high school at the beginning of the year, new people, the senior prom, graduation…”

Her voice trailed off into a tight strain, tears welling before slipping off of her cheeks.

“Olivia, please try to understand!  I have a job that needs me there.  I’ve been able to work remotely and now the genetic research lab needs me there in person.  My company is calling in us telecommuters—I don’t have much of a choice.”

“What kind of genetic research?”

“Genetic engineering.  You know.  We copy segments of DNA from one species of plant or animal and insert them into another, allowing their offspring to indefinitely continue the DNA modifications.  Like making insulin.”

“Oh… right.  But haven’t you been doing that for years?  Why move now?”

“Because now it is getting much more complicated.  To put it simply, I need direct access to their quantum computers for artificial intelligence simulations.  They haven’t invented a fast enough internet connection to keep up with them yet.  They just need me there in person.  I can’t talk them out of it.  I am truly sorry, Olivia.  I love living here too, and looking across my desk at the Pacific Ocean.”

“I hope Qenetics is moving us up there for a very good reason.”

Richard laughed. “So do I.  Duke has this siege type mentality, just doesn’t give up!  I get his point but I still don’t want to move.  Believe me; I’ve tried to get out of this!”

“Duke Jersey wants you to move?”

Richard gave a spontaneous pleased smile.  “I’ll be working directly with Duke at the lab on a genetic cure for the UB2 African flu—an anti-flu serum.”

“You will?!  That’s quite an honor, isn’t it?”

“It sure is.  Duke’s the most brilliant scientist of all time.  I’ve worked with him for years.  Very intelligent and witty.  And a great speaker.  Fantastic, really.”

“I know, Dad.  Most of the kids at school know you work for him.”

“He’s the Steve Jobs of genetics.”

Olivia looked blankly back at her father. “Steve Jobs?”

“He was famous in my time, the brains behind Apple.  He got smartpads going.”

“Apple?”

“Apple was a company that Banana bought out.”

“Oh.”  She absently looked down at the red tiled pavers. Starting a new school.  How awful!

“Now, don’t worry about starting a new school.  We plan on having you do home study the rest of the year. Your mother is taking several months off from work, and she is resolved to do a fine job with your last year.  I’ll help out also but I think you’d agree your mother is the best candidate.  She just needs a break from her work.”

Olivia jerked her head up and gave her best cardiac arrest look.  “Home study?”

“Yes, honey.”

Her green eyes filled with tears.  “No way.”

“Now Olivia, think this over a little!  We could put you into the Essex high school if you want…  They haven’t even started yet; it starts a few weeks from now.”  Richard sighed deeply.  “It would just be very nice to keep trouble away from you while I get settled into the lab.”

Olivia trudged upstairs to her room and closed her door.  She collapsed on her bed with an exasperated sigh.

“What’s the bad news?” she yelled.

“We just covered that!” her father yelled back up.

The week crawled as they packed, and a depressing real estate sign was planted in front of their home.  She decided to go for more walks with Trinity after a heavily perfumed buyer complimented the mural painting in her bedroom.

Two weeks later, she followed her parents out of the Los Angeles Basin and over the Ridge Route in her Mini Cooper.  She idly watched the motionboards playing their six second commercials on the sides of the interstate.  Most of them displayed children and teenagers, joyously smiling because of the wonderful things Qenetics had done for their genetics.  Some displayed the disease-proof and superior vegetables, fruits, and nuts Qenetics had recently developed.

Coasting down the steep Grapevine grade on Interstate 5 in her Mini Cooper, she gazed over the San Joaquin Valley spread out below her in a vast, hazy, flat patchwork quilt of crops, and thought, I wonder what this holds for my future.

 

Chapter Four —  The Angel and Death

Jude released the blade cover guard with his thumb just before the power saw came to rest on his thigh.

“Never rest your saw on your thigh, son!  That’s a good way to get your thigh sliced into sandwich meat,” Jim sternly motioned to his own thigh in a cutting motion to make the point more graphic, “Always pretend the guard isn’t there.  You want as many things to gone wrong as possible before you get hurt.”

Jude shrugged.  “Alright.”  He looked at the truck pulling in.  “County Inspectors here, Dad.”

The short man walk to them with an authoritive air.  He eyed Jim.

“Who’s the owner of Jim Sooner Construction?”

“I am.”

“You Jim?”

“I am.”

“Got a complaint here.  You see that welding shop behind you?”

“Yep.  Been there at least thirty years.  Still see it.”

“Think a spark might fly out and get on this fine new office building?  Catch it on fire?”

“Not hardly.”

“Asphalt roofing, spark, hot metal?”

“No.”  Jim looked disgustedly at the inspector.

“You need to drywall the roof for fire protection.”

“Inspector, that building is two hundred feet away!  There’s nothing in the code says I got to sheetrock a roof.  —You ever weld?”

“No, but I know it involves fire and hot metal.  I noticed you used two-by-four studs.  Should be two-by-six with the new title 26.  You know that!”

Jim’s face paled in the afternoon sun. “You sayin’ I need to tear all this framing down!”

“I’ll let it slide if you sheetrock the roof.”

Jim arched his back, looking straight up to the blue sky, clasped his hands above him, and stretched.  The inspector shifted his weight to his other foot, looked towards the welding shop, and then glanced at his county truck.

Jim finally lowered his arms. “You got a deal.  Can I get that in an e-mail?”

“Sure Jim, I’ll send it over to you right now….  Check your phone.”

As inspector pulled out in a flume of dust, Jim turned to James.  “Order eighty pieces of four-by-eight half-inch sheetrock and tell ’em to deliver it with the plywood.  Won’t be making much of a profit on this job.  You boys finish up here, I need to bid a new job.”

After their father left, James nodded at a framed wall.

“Put in the fire block.”

Jude picked up a block of wood and placed it over his head between two wooden studs.  Pinching a nail between his thumb and index finger, he raised his framing hammer high in the air.  As Jude’s hammer arched down in a silver flash James added, “And PICK it up!”

Jude missed and hit his finger.  “Ow!”  He studied it carefully.  “Just tore it up a bit.”

“Jude dude, your finger tip is like hanging off at the end.  You need stitches.”

“Yeah, and make our work comp rate go up… Nah.”

“I’ll just tell ’em to bill me. Let’s wash out, you need to go in,” said his brother.

They piled into Jim’s old Toyota truck, leaving the construction site in billowing clouds of light brown powder.

Ignoring the pain, Jude looked out of the truck’s side window, holding his eyes steady to create geometric patterns as the apricot trees flashed by in even rows.  Everything flashed by in even rows; oranges, peaches, plums, cotton, and vineyards.  He preferred the  long rows of grapevines, flashing by in mesmerizing patterns as if revealing an entrance to an exotic time-travel portal.

“How long do we have to wait for the doctor?”

“They said first come first serve, don’t know.  Man, is it hot!”  James glanced at the dash. “Now it’s a hundred and fifteen.”

Jude looked down at his finger.

“Uh, Jude, about the profit, I been needing to talk to you about it.”

“I know.  Won’t be any,” said Jude.

“Yeah, probably…  Dad and I miscalculated again and we need to buy sheetrock.  But you get your wages, you get paid this time,” said James.

“That’s a plus.”

“Look, I know you want to fix up that old car.”

“I’ll never have enough money for that.”

“You stick with it and it’ll be worth a fortune some day.  And Uncle Jon will be glad he gave you that sixty-five Corvette.”

“James, just go home. I’ll put some duct tape on this thing and sanitize it, it doesn’t need stitches.  You pay for a day off, I’ll take a few days off, and it oughta heal up enough after the weekend for work on Monday.”

James grinned.  “That’s what I like about you, always practical with the money.”

Jude reached into the side door pocket for the plastic package of tissue, and wrapped his finger with duct tape.

It was when they approached their long driveway that Jude first glimpsed her.  A shimmering, devastatingly beautiful angel opening the mailbox, sun rays turning golden as it bounced off of her long, dark-blonde hair.  The brief glimpse of her face when she turned towards him seemed impossibly beautiful.  Probably an illusion, but what a beautiful mirage.  He eyed her slim proportionate form as she gave a quick, innocent wave and then looked down at her package.

James drove between the princess palms lining their own long driveway and parked in front of their two story stucco home.  He gave Jude a sideways grin.  “Looks like we got some new neighbors in that big Spanish home next door.  Always fun to have new neighbor kids to play with.”

“You’ve got a girlfriend,” said Jude.

“I was thinking of you,” said James.

“Knock it off.”

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses…” sang James.  Jude rolled his eyes in disgust as James finished, “You’re a hard one, but I know that you’ve got-your-reasons…”

Jude slammed the truck door and strode up to the house.  At the front door he chanced a glance over his shoulder past James. She was halfway up her driveway that paralleled theirs, and looking his way, so he waved with his duct-taped bandaged finger.  She waved back.  James gave a big grin and also waved back.  Jude ignored him and opened the door.

He stepped into their cool home with a light step.

The following Monday James shook him awake.  “Jude, Dad’s staying home.  He’s not feeling good and we gotta get going.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Flu.”

“I hope it’s not bad.”

“Me too.  I called Hash and he’s gonna help us finish up.”

“Hash?  Wasn’t he a stoner in high school?” Jude yawned and rolled out of bed.

“Naaah… I think he was more of a partier,” said James.  “I don’t think he really did drugs, he just hung out with the stoners.”

“Didn’t he use methamphetamines?”

“I don’t know of him taking any meth,” said James.

An hour later, James stood in front of Hash and Jude, given directions for the day.  “Jude—I need you to grab these sheets of sheetrock, lean ‘em against the wall, climb up and pull ’em up on top of the roof, haul ‘em over the roofing plywood, and set ‘em in place.”

As Jude contemplated the stack of eighty-two pieces, James added, “Hey Jude—set ‘em right in place so Hash and I can nail ‘em off without having to move ‘em around again.  It’s more efficient that way.”

Jude’s face bore twinges of disgust and regret, regret at not being born into a family with a business besides construction.

“You oughta be thankful you’re not nailing off that white sheetrock in the sun,” added James.

Jude looked at the tall, heavy looking stack of drywall.  Despondently shrugging his shoulders, he grabbed his first seventy pound sheet, and staggered to the office and leaned it against the wall.  Every time he looked at the electronic sign in front of the four-story Qenetics office building dominating downtown Essex, the temperature had risen.  Starting at 63, it rose sharply to 116 degrees Fahrenheit by 1:30 that afternoon.  The sun baked his skin an even darker bronze.  With sweat pouring and hardened muscles straining, he leaned sheet after sheet against the building. Then, climbing up the ladder, he bent over the edge, muscling each sheet up while stepping backwards, and, staggering across the slanted plywood roof under the brilliant sun, carefully eased them into place.  James and Hash scooted over on top of the white drywall with their nail bags dragging, nailing each one down.  Collapsing on his bed that night, as he drifted into a deep sleep, he recollected exactly how many gallons of water he drank that day, probably four gallons.

By the end of second day, and another four gallons of water, he staggered straight to bed.

Jude woke up Wednesday morning and knew he wasn’t going to make it, his body simply shut down from pure overexertion in the heat.  He still lay in utter exhaustion Saturday, but began walking around the house some on Sunday.

He went back to work Monday, but his father still stayed home with the flu, feeling worse.  James silently eyed Jude moving slowly that morning.

In the early afternoon James said, “You need to pick it up, Judey.”

“I’m too beat!  I hauled sheetrock two days in a row and got heat exhaustion or something, so you guys didn’t have to haul anything around and just tack it off with your little nails.”

“You whining?!”

“No!”  Jude stared back at James without flinching.

Both of them stood on top of the slanting plywood of the large front porch.

“If you aren’t all over your sickness you shouldn’t be out here.  Dad’s cutting me part of the profit on this job and I don’t want you out here slacking off.”

They continued to nail the plywood down, their titanium hammers arcing in silver streaks, their tanned bodies perspiring heavily in the brilliant sunshine.

“Jude, we gotta talk man,” said James, breaking the silence.  He slid his hammer into his belt clip and stood upright on the sloped roof to face Jude.

“I need your help and Mom can’t make it on the little she is earning at the mental health ward.  I think Dad is going to be out of work for a long time with that flu.  People say it can last for months and the hospitals are full.  You’re going back to school next week… I know you’re only seventeen, but you could do home study and help me out during the day.  We just need to pull together until we get through this.”

“Stupid African flu epidemic and lousy health care.”

“Yeah, well, not much we can do about it,” said James.

“I need to think it over.  Where’s this all heading?  Am I gonna be out here when I’m forty years old, hauling studs around and lifting walls?”

“Dunno, Jude.  Depends on you—I guess.  Well, it’s four-thirty.  Time to load up and head out.”

As they approached their home he saw her again, walking out to her mailbox.  She waved.  A casual, friendly wave.  And she kept looking.  He smiled through the side window of the truck and waved back.

Dinner was eaten in the new silence at their table.  They had given up on small talk; most things seemed trivial now in the shadow of their father’s illness.  But they kept up the tradition their father had insisted on:  Eating all their meals together, even though Jim was almost permanently in his bedroom.  “Most folks sit stooped over staring at their StupidPads sitting on their crotches nowadays, but I think there is a lot of value in having a little, old fashioned socializing during a meal,” Jim had informed dinner visitors in past years, who were sometimes surprised to see a fully-loaded dinner table with chairs for everyone.

“Mom, ever think of having a neighborhood get together?  You know, throw some things on the grill, invite some neighbors over?”

Krissy stared blankly at Jude.  “Neighbors?”

“Yeah, you know, get to know some people,” said Jude.

“Maybe the neighbors on the left side, that what you’re thinking of, Judey?” asked James.  He dipped his black bean and cheese quesadilla into verde salsa.

“No, more like both sides.  Be friendly you know, we don’t know anybody—we just keep to ourselves.”

“Jude, I don’t feel like it.  Why don’t you just go over and introduce yourself?”  Krissy hadn’t missed James’s smirk.

“Nah, don’t have any reason too,” said Jude.

After helping clean up after dinner, Jude opened the upstairs media room and peeked in.  James stood on the round, flat platform in the middle of the room, wearing virtual reality goggles and gloves.  Motorized wheeled boots responded with James’s movements as he walked and spun.

Jude watched the wall displays as James, now a purple giant avatar with a tail, strode over the alien landscape designing a virtual planet.  James bent over and pulled an imaginary object up from the consul, and the wallpaper monitors on all four walls showed James’s virtual avatar simultaneously raising a futurist city from the alien landscape.  James tossed an imaginary object from his hands, and the walls showed his Tyrannosaurus rex looking avatar unfurling an inter-galactic passage to a nearby planet.  His hands poked in midair, and the monitored walls reflected his choices of species and transportation types.

An alien senator landed in a spaceship from another star system. “Will you enter into a trade federation agreement with my galaxy?”

James replied in a voice resembling a thundering waterfall, “No!  Get off my planet!”

The senator, a white, fluffy, yeti-looking monster, climbed out of his spaceship.  “You imbecile!  We will destroy you for such deviousness and rebellion!”

James whacked the senator with his huge purple tail, sending him flying into the ocean, and then kicked the spaceship off of his planet.  The senator lunged out of the sea, dripping wet, cursed at James’s giant purple avatar, and leaped into orbit after his spaceship.

Jude tapped James on the shoulder a few times before James pulled off the goggles with an annoyed look.  The purple giant avatar had taken his head off in response on the monitored walls.  Jude smiled at the humor of it and looked back at James.

“What do you want?” asked James.

“Why aren’t you playing Gobia Monster Hunt?”

“Because my brain flips out and perceives it as a little too much reality.  Gives me nightmares if I play it just before I go to sleep.  I felt like doing Planet Creator a little before my beditime. More restful.”

“Oh,” said Jude.

“Is that all you want?”  James put the virtual reality goggles back over his head and slid them down onto his forehead.

“I’m glad we used Oleographic Monitor wallpaper.  It’s so cool to see somebody else’s virtual world.  Why are you still using the goggles?”

“So I can see myself as a purple monster…  Anything else?”  James looked a little more annoyed and lowered the goggles until they were just above his eyes.

“I want to use my electron microscope in here to see what kind of disease my fish has.”

“Why can’t you just plug it into your computer?”

“I thought it would be cool to see the viruses crawling around on the walls in here,” said Jude.

“I’ll be done in thirty minutes.”

“Never mind.”

“Could you disconnect the internet from this game on your way out?  It’s annoying when those people from North Korea intrude,” said James.

Jude clicked the internet off and walked into his room, dragging his feet.  He looked out the window.  His new neighbor’s upstairs bedroom light was still on.  He stared unseeing out of his window for a long time, and then lay on his bed and closed his eyes.

But he no longer fell immediately to sleep. For now, as soon as his eyelids shut, she came up like a screen saver on a three second interval.  And there she would stay until he fell asleep.  Got to be some way to meet her, pondered Jude as he drifted off.  She haunted his dreams that night.

He looked for her around the high school campus the following week, but she just wasn’t there.  Maybe she’s older then she looks.

The high school cafeteria felt cool that October after the long hot summer.  Jude walked past the Cowboy section towards the Aggies.  He saw Alphonso lift his hand in a wave from the Chicano tables.  They had been good friends in Junior High, but the summer before high school Alphonso had shaved his head and greased his hair back, trading his jeans for neatly creased khaki pants and white-ribbed, granddaddy tank top t-shirts.  His pants were now rolled neatly up at the bottom, revealing glossy-black wingtip shoes.  Jude didn’t want to become a White Chicano, and realized to survive the gangs Alphonso would need to adopt the clothing, but they were still friends at a distance.  Jude lifted his hand in a small wave and kept walking.

Most of the kids considered Jude an Aggie even though he had nothing to do with farming, and some called him a Goat Roper, although he didn’t chew tobacco or have any buckle.  But he was never considered a Cowboy because he didn’t have the Big Buckle, usually depicting a bronze bull bucking a cowboy with his arm raised.

Cowboys talked about “the rodeo” and “bull rid’n” to help others assess their social status at school, hiding their cans of chewing tobacco behind large silver buckles for the ultimate in what they perceived as coolness.

Almost all of his classmates had gotten the HealthyOne shot in their childhood, as he had.   Jude’s dad once told him he thought the kids now-a-days had much better overall musculature and form.  Jude had disagreed until he looked through his dad’s old high school yearbooks.  The genetic benefits of the HealthyOne shot were obvious.

Two Stoners sat at the end of the Aggie table.  He opted to eat by himself and sat down at the other end.  Less chance of getting that bad flu going around.

One of the Stoners looked down the table at Jude, his eyes opening slightly in recognition. “Hey, you the Aggie in gym class—fourth period?”

“Yeah…”

“I’m gonna whip you in wrestling!  Man, you gonna be on the mat, flat on your back, like in your pasture after your milk cow bucks ya off, farmer booooyee!”

The Stoner’s friend laughed.  Jude concentrated on his roast beef sandwich and forgot about it, until fourth period.

The coach stood in the middle of the padded room, pounding his fist for emphasis.  “Ok guys, listen up.  You pick a partner to wrestle with and I’ll time yah. When I throw the flag down that means you gotta stop wrestling. Okay?  If you pin your opponents shoulders down, it’s gotta be for two seconds and in bounds.  Now, pick your opponent.”

Jude yawned and looked for someone that wanted to wrestle, someone else trying to caught his eye.  Someone did catch his eye.  The Stoner from lunchtime.

“Hey dude, I’m gonna whip ya—boyee.  Whip yaaaa.”

Several guys caught on and laughed, looking at Jude for his reaction.

Jude’s stomach knotted.  I never did like wrestling.  He leaned back against the padded wall with the others around the edge of the room, watching three matches of grunts, sweaty arms and legs, damp shirts, and the coach throwing in the towel.  Jude felt his adrenaline pumping in anticipation and thought of the long summer days hauling drywall and nailing studs.  He took a quick glance at the Stoner’s thin arms in quiet contemplation.

The Stoner started on top, and the coach yelled “Go!”

Jude whipped around and grabbed his opponent’s back leg with the crook of his arm and flipped him, kept going and curved his entire bronzed arm behind both legs.  Jude’s other arm cradled behind his neck, com-pressing the Stoner into a fetal position with his shoulders approaching the mat. He struggled violently but it was no use, Jude cradled him in the air and set his shoulders squarely down on the mat.  The coach was on his knees, head down, watching, with his palm raised above the mat.  Jude heard yelling and cheering around him as the coach slammed the mat and yelled “PINNED!”

Jude held him for a full five seconds, just to be sure, then let go and stood up, panting.  The entire class crowded around Jude, smiling and patting him on the back.

The Stoner stalked to the wall and sat, scowling at the mat in front of him.  Back in the locker he told Jude, “Next time, dude.  Next time I’ll have you!”

Jude just grinned.

His bicycle wheel was flat so James picked him up at school that fateful day.  Jude told him on the way home, “Hey, I’m gonna opt for home study. I pledge to help you out two days a week.”

“Surprised you’d want to quit school with that cute new neighbor girl there.”

“I haven’t seen her around,” said Jude.

James quietly drove down the country road through the orange groves.  “I wonder how Dad is getting along.  This flu has been eating him up the last few days.  He just can’t keep going like this.  The hospitals are all full.”

“If he was in the hospital he’d probably get less treatment then he’s getting from Mom.”  Jude eyed the house next door as they pulled in their driveway.  The Mini Cooper wasn’t parked outside.

As James reached for their front door handle it whipped open.  Their mother took a step back, her face pale and drawn.

“Oh, boys, it’s you, I, I… I thought it was the paramedics.”

“How– How is Dad?” asked James, his voice shaking.

“Not good, I’ve… I don’t know.  He is not doing well…  It’s his breathing,” said Krissy.

James and Jude hurried into their parent’s room, isolated off to the left of their home.  It had always been an almost a sacred spot, off limits when they were young.  “You boys use your own bathroom,” their father had ordered until they got the message.

Jim lay in the middle of his bed.  The ceiling fan blew cool air on his sweating face as he gasped for breath with his eyes closed.  His large barrel chest rose slow and fell fast.  James and Jude stood in shock.  It had been a big change since last evening.

“Daaa—Dad?”  Jude’s voice faltered.

Jim’s eyes opened weakly and he smiled, but it was a weak smile, not the hearty grin they were so used to.

“I don’t think I’m gonna make it…  Come…”

Jude walked behind James to the side of the bed and looked down at his father, so frail in the white sheets.

Jim’s eyes met James’ and then to Jude’s within his pale, drawn face.  “I care for you two…  Be honest for God’s sake… Nothing finer a man can do then to seek the truth…   You take care of your mom….”

His voice trailed off.

“Jim, I called the ambulance!  It’s coming, you’ll be fine!  Hang in there, Jim!” she said, tight and strained.

“Krissy, I can’t…  I feel it… it’s too late, come….”

Jim weakly reached for his wife.

Jude watched in horror as his father’s breath slowed to a harsh gasp.  They held his hands as his eyes closed.  His breathing stopped, and his face first dimmed and then lit up in recognition as his right index finger lifted as if weakly pointing towards a familiar friend approaching the foot of his bed.  The weak smile faded into ashen gray as his life force departed.

Daddy’s gone, thought Jude, he lost his orange aura.  He buried his head into his mother’s shoulder, and wept.

The door burst open with paramedics, but it was too late.

Jude’s loss devastated him like no other time in his life.

The next two weeks blurred with relatives flying in for the funeral, and working twelve hour days to get the office and spec home done to pay the bills.  Jude operated on autopilot, going mechanically through the normal day-to-day activities that now seemed so trivial.

“James, do you think Dad loved us?” Jude asked one morning on a construction site.

“Yeah.”

“He never told us.”

“He showed it by caring for us, and getting on our cases when we slacked off,” said James.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.  Sure would have been nice to have heard it from him, though,” said Jude.

Reflecting back on that time, Jude’s only distinctly clear memory in that painful blur was his surprise to see their new neighbors at the funeral.

“I’m Olivia.  I’m so sorry about your father,” she said in a soft but firm voice.  Her mesmerizing green eyes looking so deeply and compassionately into his brown ones enchanted him.

Jude reached out to her. “Thank you so much for coming.”

She took his hand and gently shook it.  Her soft touch energized him, and his heart beat faster.

 

Chapter Five  — Duke

Olivia sat at her upstairs bedroom window looking out over the brown fields and sprawling valley oaks dimly revealed in a thick, gray drizzle.  She blankly looked back at the pre-calculus lesson.

I cannot believe this is really my senior year.  She idly flipped through the extensive book library on her smartpad.  What a total social flop.  She looked out her window again.  This fog is sooo depressing—Maybe I should message my old friends in Malibu.

She debated what she should do, distractedly flexing her siliconized glass Banana Phone into a slight arc out of habit, before deciding to message Arnold and Abbie.  She couldn’t think of anyone else.  She walked downstairs for an iced tea.  Probably won’t get much response.  Out of sight out of mind, and they didn’t like me to much when we moved.  She had long since given up on video chats with her old friends.

The isolation was getting to her.

Mom is shopping, and Dad is putting in the hours at Genetics.   What to do, what to do, she thought, leaning against the fridge.  She looked out the window at her neighbors house, and then at the clock.  Hmm, 4:30pm, I’ll go for a walk.

She usually didn’t see anyone when she walked down the long driveway to her mailbox, except for that cute boy next door or his brother when they came home about that time.  The last thing she had wanted was to go to their father’s funeral, but afterwards she was glad she had gone. The gray pearlized mist enshrouded her in mystery as she stood at the end of her driveway.  She leisurely reached into her mailbox and absently wondered if they had gotten another Amazon box.

Her hand touched a vibrantly sticky silk thread.  She immediately jerked back and screamed, then peered into the open mailbox.  But there was no spider, just a messy web in the back.  A movement near her chin caught her attention and she darted her eyes down.  A large black widow spider sprawled, crawling inches from her face on the open mailbox lid.  As her mind registered the danger, it rapidly crawled hideously closer.  Her skin instantly went cold and she screamed, taking a leaping step back.  Holding her hands to her chest, well away from any danger, she took another step back in quiet horror, her heart racing.  She looked for something to kill it with, and noticed the stopped truck behind her.  It was that boy next door and his older brother, both smiling broadly at her.

The boy her age, tan and athletic-looking, opened his door and casually strode around the truck to her.  “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Uh, black widow—” She extended her arm, pointing to the mailbox, then tucked her hand back under her chin next to her other one, far away from the black widow lowering itself on its thread to the ground.  He waited until it landed, legs sprawled out as it crawled towards the post, and stepped on it.

She stifled a gasp.

He picked up a stick, got the web out, and peered in.  He straightened and smiled down at her.

“There’s an opening in the back.  I’ll get some duct tape and block it for you.  I’m surprised to see a black widow active this late in the year.”

“Thank you so much,” she said weakly, and curiously glanced down at his white t-shirt and work-stained blue jeans.

“You’re welcome!” He gave her a small smile with curiosity lighting his eyes.  “Olivia, right?  I’m Jude.”

He stiffly held out a dirty hand, looked down at it, said, “Sorry, my hand is dirty,” withdrew it, and then, “Well, it is nice to see you again!”

She nodded and breathed “yes” as she gazed back.  Her face grew warm in the thrill of direct eye contact, so she averted her eyes towards the white work truck.  His older brother widely grinned back at her.

“Well, looks like your brother is waiting,” she said after an awkward silence.  She glanced up at Jude, drawn in again by the persuasive power of his brown eyes.

“Oh, yeah…”  He walked back to his truck, peeled off a piece of silver duct tape, and taped the inside of her mailbox.  He nodded to her.  “Well, that ought to do it!”

“Thanks again!” said Olivia.

“You are welcome.”  He stood as if wanting to tell her something, but only said, “Well, see you around.”  He walked to his truck and slammed the door shut.

She briskly walked to her house while their truck passed her on the long driveway paralleling hers. Trinity opened the door as she came up the steps, asking, “Olivia, why did you scream so loud?”

“A spider scared me, Trinity.”

“Like Miss Muffet?”

“Right.  Like Miss Muffet.”

“Did that big strong boy help you, Olivia?” she asked, her large, innocent gray eyes fully trained on Olivia’s face.

“He killed it for me.”

“Isn’t he nice?”

“I think he is nice.”

“Do you like him, Olivia?”

“Trinity, you go along and play now,” said Olivia, laughing and patting her on the back.

She waited upstairs with Trinity that evening for a lively discussion between her parents to end, and then, after her dad crashed onto the sofa, came back down and knelt beside him, putting her arm around his head.

“Dad, I need a life.  This is not working for me.  I need to get out of this house.”

He looked at her blankly; then his eyes flickered as his mind registered her words, and he sighed. “It’s been so nice keeping you out of trouble!  What do you think about coming with me some day to my office?  That seems fairly innocuous.”

“Are you sure it wouldn’t be any trouble for you?  Do you think I’d meet Duke Jersey in person?”

“You might see him.  He is very busy.  I can’t possibly see how this would cause any trouble.  I’ll check with Duke to see if it’s okay.  I’m swamped, but you could do your school work there.  I just— we got a lot going on right now, I’m… well… I’ll tell you what.  I’ll bring you in one morning so you can hang out with me for the day.  You definitely can’t go into our secured lab area, just the main lab office area.  What do you think?”

“Actually, sounds crazy, but, you know, to a deprived soul even going to an office sounds sweet.  Especially if I end up meeting Duke Jersey in person.  I have nothing to lose.”

The following week she held up a navy blue dress, but reached in for another.  What would I wear if I worked there, she thought, looking in the mirror as she held a lime green dress in front of her.  She tilted her head and examined the effect.  It made her feel happy, like a bright sunny day, so she slipped it on over her head.

They drove down the narrow country road between the brown plowed fields, stretching into the horizon until they were obscured by the morning fog.

“Olivia, we got a whole lot going on right now.  Long meetings, trying to get stuff done.  We are trying to finish up that serum for this new UB2 African flu strain before it gets out of hand and kills a lot more people.   There is a fortune to be made if we can get it out in time.  Now, you need to stay in my office and—just stay in my office.”

“Okay, Dad, okay.  It’s not like I’m going to wander around or something.”

“Most Qenetics employees work in the main office downtown.  They never even see the inside of this lab unless they have a high level security clearance.  Duke is doing a big favor letting you visit; he keeps a tight lid on who comes and goes.  So—don’t talk about what you might see.  Top secret stuff you know. We have to keep our Intellectual Property secure; it’s our life and our blood.  It’s everything.”  Richard gave her a serious look.

They turned into the parking lot of the conservative, rectangular Qenetics lab nestled within alfalfa fields and giant valley oaks dotting the open land.  One enormous oak stood in front of the laboratory by the road.  A circular, glassed-in lobby formed a half-circle in front of the building, but otherwise it was windowless.  About fifteen feet tall, the tan metal building stretched back the length of a football field.

Richard placed his hand beside the front glass door.  A light flashed green where he had placed his hand on the glass and they walked into the lobby.  Several sculptures set on intricately carved marble pedestals edged the rounded front lobby.  She gazed in wonder, slowly turning in a circle, wondering what binding motif linked the common place animals together; an elephant, two dogs, an iguana, a goat, a mongoose, a cow, and a horse.  Her dad waited for her by the empty front desk.  She followed him through another secure door and stepped into a long, wide hallway with offices on each side.

The man standing there immediately gave her an odd impression of an amoralistic soul.  His face was well proportioned, as was his frame.  Tall and solidly built, he stepped out and stood in the hallway, blocking it.  His face was not noteworthy except for dark eyes that bored into Olivia’s.  She eyed the paintings on either wall and ignored him, but glanced at him again as they approached.  Fortunately, he was now looking to her father.

“Lowell, this is my daughter Olivia.”

“Hello,” Lowell said flatly, slowly turning his eyes to stare coldly at Olivia again.

“Hello, uh, good to see you,” said Olivia, flustered.

“It’s good to be seen.” Lowell turned and walked into his office, shutting the door behind him.

“My office is in the back… Here, this way.” Her dad ushered her forward with his hand on her back down the hall.

Richard leaned in and whispered in a hushed tone as they walked down the long hallway, “Lowell is not Mr. Personality, but he is highly intelligent.  He’s Duke’s right-hand man.  He’s the main scientist who developed our software that enables our genetic modification modeling.”

When they had nearly reached the far end of the hallway, a distinguished, trim-figured man came out of his office and stood next to a dark ornately carved door.

“Richard! So this is your fine, young, beautiful daughter!”

“Duke, this is my daughter Olivia.”

“Pleased to meet you!” said Olivia, lifting her hand.  She immediately lowered it.

Duke offered his hand so she raised her hand again and shook it.  A firm, friendly handshake with a nice smile.

“So, Olivia, your father tells me you are finishing up high school at home!  I told him that was a novel idea.  Novel!”

“It’s a little different then I’m used to.”

“I expect so!”  He laughed, looking sideways at her father.  “What do you ever do with all your free time?”

“I keep busy.” Olivia looked past him at the nicely furnished sculptures and art in his office.  A large floral bouquet sat in a crystal vase on a table.

“Busy.  I see…  Well, I do hope you enjoy your visit. I’ll send in my assistant with a drink.  What will you have?  We have almost everything!”

“Coffee sounds good to me.”  She glanced at him, and quickly looked away since he was looking so intensely at her.

“I trust you want cream and sugar?” He enunciated his words precisely, smiling pleasantly.

“Sure!”  What a pleasant man, so friendly, yet so intent. His high intelligence must make him curious about others.

“Well, let me show you my office,” said Richard.  As they turned back, she noticed a thick blue-gray metal door across from Duke’s office with ‘SECURE LAB  MUST REMAIN LOCKED AT ALL TIMES’ written in bold red letters.  He led the way back down the hallway several steps to a door with ‘Richard Oneil’ written on the name plate.  “I’ll be in a meeting, so help yourself to what you need.  I think I’ve got everything you need in here.  The bathroom is down there,” he pointed down a nearby hallway, “and remember!  No wandering!”

She sat behind her dad’s maple desk, running her hands over the smooth grained wood.  She looked up.

“So I finally got to meet the famous Duke Jersey.”

Richard laughed and patted her shoulder.  “Don’t let it go to your head.  He’s human just like the rest of us.”

After getting her coffee handed to her in a white china cup on a saucer, and a long morning of studying, she checked her smartpad for messages. Not that anybody may have sent her one, but it was a welcome change from school work.  Her smartpad couldn’t access the secured internet at the office, so she reached out with her index finger and rested it on her father’s touchpad.  Two green lights came on at the top of the monitor.  The screen lit up with a menu of choices, most of them anti-flu serum related.  The bottom one caught her eye— “Genetic Intelligence Experiments”.

“Good morning, Richard,” said the computer cheerfully.  Two small cameras on top of the monitor swiveled and pointed at Olivia.  “Hey, you aren’t Richard!  Who are you, anyhow?”

“I’m Olivia.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know you, but you do look familiar.  You aren’t authorized to use this computer.  Do you have a quick comment to make before I call security?”

Olivia nervously looked to the door.  The cameras swiveled towards Richard as he stepped into the room.

“Hey, sweetheart, the computer is company property and you can’t use it.  I should have told you.”

“Richard!  I’m so glad you’re here!  I was just about to call security on this unauthorized user.  Who is this sweetheart, anyways?” asked the computer.  “She bears a resemblance to you!”

Richard laughed, “She’s my daughter.  It’s okay.”

“So this is Olivia Oneil?” asked the computer.  “I’m just inquiring for documentation purposes.”

“Right.”

“Thank you, Richard, and nice name, sweetheart.  Will you be needing me for anything else at this time, Richard?”

“No, that is all.  You can take a nap.”

“Right…  Oh, uh, —before I go, last night I thought I’d go ahead and run those DNA alteration simulations due to Sempiternity having a little free time.  I think you will be very interested in two of them.”  One of the green camera lights blinked and the computer added, “They are very promising.”

“Okay, thanks,” said Richard.  “I’ll have my people get with your personal computers to set up a meeting.”

“You are soo funny,” said the computer.  The monitor went black and both green camera lights faded out.

“What is this about intelligence experiments, Dad?”

“That is Duke’s deal mainly.  Might be something he wants me involved in down the road.  We’ve got that anti-flu serum to deal with now, but it’s all interrelated with this new type of Bacteriophage technology.”

“What kind of experiments?”

“Technical stuff.  I can’t really talk about ‘em, maybe later.  Wanna go out and get lunch with me in a little while?  I’ve got a slow afternoon.”

Olivia watched her father over their turkey and avocado sandwiches at the Wild Flower Café.  He seems so stressed now after our move, so involved and busy, and so preoccupied.

“I just can’t believe I just met Duke Jer…”

Her father interrupted, “Olivia, listen…  Duke asked if you wanted to work the front office at the lab a few days a week.  Just front desk work.  Sometimes we’ve got visitors coming in for meetings and we need somebody sitting up front.  Normally we just lock the door and have them buzz us, but it would be nice having a receptionist handling that.  A little something for your resume—you can say you worked for Duke Jersey himself!  You never know, you might want to get a degree in genetic research!”

“Yeah!” Olivia studied the hanging plants in the outdoor café.  “I do need to get out of our house.  It would be a great opportunity.  I can’t wait for my social life to pick up at college.”

“Unfortunately you’ll need to have an escort to use that restroom in the office.  We don’t have one in the front lobby.  Duke’s fanatical about security.”

“I can manage.  How many days a week?”

“Two probably, from what it sounds like.”

“It’ll give me more time for shopping.” She smiled towards the hanging pots.

“You need to stay away from the stores in Essex, Olivia.  You might get that flu, shopping indoors. I’m serious.  It is really bad.  A lot of people are dying from it.  I sure hope we can get the serum ready on time.”

“Poor Jim Sooner… —Do you think you could have saved somebody like that?”  Olivia raised her eyebrows into a question as she shifted her gaze back to her father.

Richard raised an eyebrow in return and looked over her shoulder, focused on her again, smiled, and nodded.  “Yes, I do.  Once we finish up and get the final FDA approval we might end up saving a whole lot of lives.  How is that family doing, by the way?”

“I don’t know.  The boys are using their dad’s work truck to finish their jobs.  They leave early and come home late,” said Olivia.

They left the Qenetics lab late that afternoon and drove home in silence.  She went upstairs to change, and absently looked at the Albert Einstein poster on her wall, captioned with, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

She idly walked down to the kitchen where Trinity painted a horse in her sketchbook with watercolors.  A flock of crows flew out of their fruit orchard beyond the pool.  She looked at the large dark-green bush near the back of their two acres, about twelve feet high, growing on the property line between her and that intriguing boy next door.

She had seen him eating the round, reddish fruit, actually more like tearing into them, but hadn’t gone out to investigate what they were.  She slipped out the patio door, eyes on the thickly leaved bush as she got closer.  They were pomegranates, caked with a thin film of dirt residue.  Some were already cracked open.  They weren’t perfect and shiny like the ones her mother had bought for salads in the store.  She had never liked pomegranates, in fact detested them somewhat.  They were sour, a pain to eat—took forever to peel, and messy.  They were a reminder of her least favorite kitchen chore:  Carefully breaking the pale red globes off for a salad garnishment that she knew would be pushed aside later on her plate.  She eyed a nearby fruit revealing dark-ruby fruit kernels within a large crack, and carefully twisted it off.

She dug her fingers into the crack and pried it open.  A spurt of purple juice splattered her dress.  The bush moved on the other side and she heard a cracking and crunching noise.

Walking curiously around the pomegranate tree, she peered through the dense leaves.  There stood her neighbor, Jude, with his face buried in a pomegranate, red juice dribbling down his chin.  He cracked open a half into quarter sections, nibbled the exposed fruit kernels off with his teeth.  Purplish red juice splattered his white t-shirt, stretched taunt against his muscular chest, as he broke it into smaller pieces, and deftly devoured them.  Within twenty seconds the entire fruit was gone and he reached out for another, pulling it off.

Olivia felt self-conscious, wondering how long it took for checking someone out to evolve into actual spying.  He froze when he caught Olivia’s lime green dress out of the corner of his eye.

“Hi!” she said demurely, stepping around the rest of the bush.

He stood motionless, holding the pomegranate in front of him, mouth slightly open in surprise with juice stains around his lips and chin.  Red juice liberally stained his white t-shirt.

“You must really like them,” she said, encouragingly.

He seemed to regain his composure and wiped the juice off of his face with his t-shirt sleeve.  He smiled, flashing red stained teeth. “I love them!  It’s my favorite fruit.”

“You love them?” she asked.

“I sure do!”

“I don’t.”  She couldn’t think of anything else to say and there was an awkward silence.

“Have you tried these?”

“No.  They are a much darker red then ones I’ve had.”

“You gotta try them.  Nothing like store bought ones in L.A.”

“No thanks,” she said.

“How will you know if you like them, if you don’t at least try?” he asked insistently.

She eyed a large red fruit hanging on the bush.  He moved next to her and pulled it off, cracking it open easily with his strong red-strained fingers, and held out a cluster of dark ruby-red glistening pomegranate kernels attached to white spongy pith.

Her mouth watered at the glittering slab of small angular fruit, her taste buds remembering the sourness of the ones she sampled in Malibu.

“See, most people think they are a pain to eat.  The trick is to get behind a tree where nobody can see you and dig in.  These are the most tantalizing, tastiest, sweetest things I’ve ever seen.”  He glanced up from the fruit he was talking to and looked at her, “That I’ve ever tasted.”

He handed her a piece and she took it gingerly with her finger tips.

“Looks like your dress is already stained.  Just go for it.”  He nodded reassuringly.

She took a timid bite.  The intense tartness and sweetness flooded her mouth, so she took another larger bite, anticipating the strongly saturating flavor again.  She took another bite, and it was gone.  The sugar rush hit her as he held out another piece of glistening, dark purple-red pomegranate berries fully exposed, all ready for her to nibble off.  She took it from his hand and ate it, but slower this time, and then laughed, a little embarrassed, wiping the sticky red juice off of her chin with the back of her hand.

He looked down at her lime green dress. “Now we really are in the same club and I don’t feel like such a fool.” He chuckled.  A deeply satisfied chuckle.

“So that is why you talked me into it?”

“No, I’m just kidding, sort of.  Do you like them?” he asked, his eyes reflecting his eager tone.

“They’re much better than the ones I’ve had before.”

“I believe pomegranates contain secret ingredients to long life and happiness,” said Jude. “If I can just have some each year then that will sustain me throughout the year and allow me to live longer and healthier.”

“They do give me a sugar rush,” she confessed.

“Sometimes I juice up a bunch and just drink it all at once.  Nothing compares to it.”

“Nothing?” Her green eyes teased as she flashed them directly up into his uncertain brown eyes.

“Nothing else I’ve experienced… —uh…  Found any more black widow spiders?”  A smile now lurked near the corners of his mouth.

“No!  They are so disgusting!”  She grimaced and stuck her tongue out a little at the memory of it.

“Yeah, I just hate ‘em.  I played with them a few times when I was a kid, poking sticks in their webbing.  They are really smart, you know.  They change their tactics depending on the situation.  They’ll hide first, then attack you, then play dead.  Once I tried to kill one and it just disappeared in the dust.  After a little bit of looking around for it, I noticed it crawling up my ankle!  It had hidden itself in the dust and waited for me to get closer.  They are so devious—black and shiny and evil looking.”

“And they eat their mate,” added Olivia, but regretted her words as they left her mouth, it sounded so tasteless, but it was too late to recall them.

“Uh, right…” he said vaguely.  He glanced over her shoulder towards her house and back at her, then at the pomegranate bush-tree.

They stood for several self-conscious seconds in an awkward silence.

“Well, come on out and enjoy more pomegranates with me sometime!”

“Yeah, I just might!  I’ve gotta get back,” she said.

“Okay.  I’ll catch you another time.”

She could feel his eyes on her as she fluidly sauntered back to her house between the yellow-leafed trees on the smoothly mowed field, and wondered what he thought of her.  She didn’t see the nearly invisible spider web strung between the plum trees, and abruptly felt clinging strands on her face and arms.  She instinctively jerked back from the repulsive sticky webbing and gave a surprised gasp as small, stiff legs wiggled on her face.  Flailing wildly, she erratically tried in vain to get the nearly invisible spider web off of her.  Finally grabbing the squirming spider with her fingertips, she screamed, hurling it away.

“You okay?” he asked wryly.

She turned back towards him.  He wore a crooked grin and she felt like a blushing moron.

“Uh, spider web…  It kind of freaked me out,” she said sheepishly.

He laughed. “I know the feeling, ‘specially after talking about black widows.”

Trinity stood at the glass-patio door, watching, and slid it open as she crossed the back patio.

“Is he your boyfriend, Olivia?”

Olivia shot a quick glance towards Jude’s house and eased in, quickly closing the patio door behind her.

“No…  He is just a nice boy, Trinity.”

“What on earth did you get on your dress,” asked Trinity.

“It’s pomegranate juice,” laughed Olivia.

“Did that boy get it on you?”

“Nooo, I accidently got it on me.”

“Are you sure he isn’t your boyfriend?  I saw you smiling and talking with him,” insisted Trinity.

“You mind your own business,” laughed Olivia, giving her a quick hug.

It took Olivia a long while to fall asleep that night, and when she did it was a restless, fitful sleep.  She dreamed, and in her dream she searched everywhere for something she had lost, but she couldn’t find it, because she did not know what it was.

She started her part-time job at the Qenetics lab office on Tuesday, and found she enjoyed it.  The variety of people coming and going amazed her.  Business suits, shorts, long hair, no hair, professional, and some were distinctively retro-hippy.  Some looked like they had just left an alternative rock concert from the 2000’s.

Duke came out of the office area often, propping his thin body against the wall, sometimes twice a day, to chat.  He asked about her schooling and old school friends, what her interests were, and how her mom faired after the move.  But she never could get around to asking him about anything, it was always about her, which was nice, but struck her as lopsided.  About the only thing she knew about Duke was his interest in genetics, and he was a multi-trillionaire, and she already knew that before she had met him.  She did learn his was the mansion on the only solitary hill near Essex, rising up like a sand castle mound coated with citrus trees, high above the flat valley floor.

He is such a nice man, she thought, like a caring doctor should be, nice and friendly.  It is a little disconcerting how he stares so much, but I think he’s just preoccupied with keeping so many people at Qenetics employed.  She idly clicked her computer, waiting for the next e-mail.  Another false alarm for my intuition, I guess.

She was now in the main office e-mail loop, although she didn’t get many, usually informing her of upcoming meetings so she would know when and where to order the food.

One morning Duke breezed into the lobby and sat on her desk.  He held a small box of truffles in his left hand.

“These are for you!   Thanks for all your diligence.  I really appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome!  I enjoy working here.”

“How do you think your father is adjusting after your move from Malibu?” he asked confidentially.

“I think he’s doing fine.  He sure is working longer hours.”

“Yeah, he isn’t the fastest…” Duke’s friendly light blue eyes crinkled.

“My dad has this saying, ‘I may be slow, but I’m not that good either’.”  Olivia laughed as she pictured her father telling one of his dry jokes.

Duke opened the box and held it out, so she picked out a plump, round, milk chocolate truffle and took it.

“I would have to agree with that one.  Your father lacks in some areas, but he is a stable employee.”  Duke glanced at the truffle in her hand, closed the box, and set it on the desk in front of her.

“He isn’t perfect,” she added, and raised the truffle to her mouth

“That’s right.  Bless his heart.”  Duke laughed softly.  “He isn’t the most innovative, that’s for sure.”

Olivia took a small bite and chewed it slowly, savoring the flavorful chocolate on her tongue and the smooth texture on the roof of her mouth.  She nodded her head to show she understood, and swallowed.

“We need intelligent people like you to help solve world problems.  You know, stand up for what you believe.  People like you have the potential to offer some-thing others can’t,” said Duke with a kindly eye.  “Something besides just being stable.”

She felt the sweet truffle sliding deeply inside her, taking the edge off of her late morning hunger.

He abruptly changed the conversation, asking about her life in Malibu, and laughing when she told of Zack making her wipe out on her surfboard.  She gazed past him at the horse sculpture, and then eyed her computer.

“So, what is it you think we do here?”  He quizzically raised his eyebrows and peered at her with hazy-blue eyes through thick framed glasses.

“Altering bacteria DNA to produce insulin for diabetics, and anti-flu serums?” answered Olivia.

Duke laughed. “What does your father tell you?! —It was 1978 when simple bacteria was first genetically engineered to produce insulin for diabetics.  We have since created thousands of plants and animals producing all kinds of medicines and vaccines.  You may have heard we have even genetically engineered viruses to infect and modify human DNA to create our own medicines and cure our diseases, otherwise known as our HealthyOne shot for children.”

Olivia suddenly felt herself trivial and insignificant.  “So this is basically a DNA medical research lab.”

Basically, right.  Our main push right now is this anti-flu serum.”  He leaned towards her.  His breath smelled like coffee, mixed with  peanut butter.

She scooted her chair to the side a little.  “Too bad it didn’t get developed a year ago.  My neigh¬bor recently died from it.”

“Too bad!  But we have our goal set a lot higher than just saving some lives with a flu serum,” said Duke.

“Set on what?”

“We ultimately hope to increase our own intelligence and indefinitely extend our life spans, and not too far in the future.”

“Immortality?”  It was Olivia’s turn to raise her eye-brows.

“Yes, you’ve got it!  The big picture!  Congratulations!  You are indeed a quick study!  After we completed our research of how the entire Homo sapien genome operates, we married that life code to digital code using Lowell’s latest advances in genomic Artificial Intelligence quantum computer probability simulations, run by yours truly, Sempiternity.  Now we can create synthetic life.  Not a bad accomplish¬ment if I do say so myself for some big-brained mammals.”

“Hopefully everything works out okay.”

“What do you mean?” asked Duke sharply, his eyes narrowing.

“Seems like if something goes haywire then it could mess up the gene pool of us humans.  Sounds ominous, you know, highly intelligent humans with long life spans.”

Duke smiled reassuringly, “We are incorporating the Morality Molecule for our future new breed of geniuses.”

“Morality Molecule?”

“Right.  We need to ensure our Homo ingenii species is compassionate and loving.  We don’t want to create some malicious manipulators taking over our planet!”

“Ingenii?”  Olivia eyed the sculptures, confused.

“Ingenii is Latin for high intelligence, or genius.  We’ll program them to have plenty of a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, Oxytocin.  Oxytocin is the Morality Molecule.”  Duke sat erect on her desk, his back straight, with the expression of an enthusiastic instructor.

Olivia looked up at Duke. “Oxytocin?”

“That’s right, Olivia.  It reduces fear and increases trust.  Our research has proven that people with extra Oxytocin are much more prone to be loving, caring, trusting people with plenty of mercy.”

Olivia thoughtfully looked at Duke as he looked back at her with a very pleased expression, his eyebrows slightly quivering in anticipation of her response.  He was now leaning closer, only a few feet away.

“So… there is to be two species in the Homo genus?”

Duke glanced away briefly and then back at her expectantly.  “Three actually.”

“So what is the third?”

“The third genus, the long-living strong leadership type, is called Homo superius.”

“Would Homo superius be geniuses also?”

“Superiorly.”

“I don’t see how several Homo superius running the planet will help it become a better place.”

“The planet will do fine having just one at a time.  More efficient and less arguments.”

“Sounds like you got it all figured out,” said Olivia.  “Three Homo genus species.  That will take a little getting used to.  Are you really serious about all this?”

“Of course I’m serious!  We humans need to keep ahead of artificial intelligence!  Our current species has about wasted the entire planet.  We need genuinely intelligent solutions, and better, stronger leadership,” said Duke.  “Our current species is way too idiotic.  It’s just a matter of time before we self-destruct.”

“Do you really think there is a need for three?”

“I do…  It may take awhile, but it is just a matter of time before it happens.”  He shifted his weight on her desk, and ended up another inch or so even closer.

“What are the two additional Homo species you are proposing again?” asked Olivia.

Duke assumed a patronizing expression.  “Proposing?  You are disqualifying yourself for a potential candidate as either one!” He laughed merrily. “The first is Homo ingenii, for the intelligent and gentle species.  The second is Homo superius—the intelligent and long living leader.  Superius means superior in Latin, of course, but I’m sure you already knew that.”

“I would think there will be an argument over who gets to be the Superius,” Olivia said earnestly.

Duke laughed heartily, and leaning closer still, patted her on the shoulder.  “Maybe!”

“But isn’t it illegal to do medical experiments on people?” Olivia discreetly shifted and rolled her chair away at the same time.

Duke shifted his weight towards her again.  “Nooo, not without their consent.  It does pose a problem…  But I strongly suspect some people will be clamoring to be the first to try the Homo ingenii shot.  Considering my success with the HealthyOne shot.”

“It just seems like something might go wrong somewhere,” she said uncertainly.

Duke smiled reassuringly.  “That’s why we have a two-hundred qubit quantum diamond computer doing extensive simulations of myriads of DNA genetic engineering alteration consequences before we try it on real humans.”  A tone of sarcasm slowly crept into his voice as he added, “There are a lot of safeguards in place here!”

“That is reassuring,” replied Olivia, uncertainly, “And is that done by the computer you named Sempiternity?”

“Indeed, she is.  Olivia, we are standing on the mature brink of creating limitlessly imaginable plants and animals to solve worldwide food shortage, environment, and health problems beyond our wildest imaginations,” said Duke. “Which is a little more than making insulin for some peripheral diabetics.  A little more.  Our current Homo species will be much happier with the wisdom and understanding Qenetics will provide, and nothing will compare to her.  Length of days is in Qenetics’ right hand —a tree of life to those who take hold of her.  Knowledge is sweet as honey, Olivia, and the hope of my prospects will not be cut off.  What is more whole¬some than to desire the tree of life?”

He laughed freely, stood from her desk, and following her gaze towards the pedestals of artwork in the lobby, asked, “Which sculpture do you like best?”

“My favorite is the elephant,” Olivia answered quickly.

“You can have it!”

“Are you serious?  It must be worth a fortune!”

Duke laughed and patted her shoulder, then walked to the door and turned back to look at her.  “You can have it!  Take it!”

“Are you sure?!”

“Yes!” he laughed, and, opening the lab office door, added,  “Oh, by the way, don’t repeat any of our conversation.  If you do I’ll deny saying it.”

The door closed silently behind him.

Olivia felt uncomfortable when she was with him, but couldn’t put her finger on why; it was just a vague nagging feeling.  He was very witty and enjoyable to talk with, and there was no valid reason to think ill of him, even her intuition seemed to not have much of a problem with him.

She took the elephant sculpture home that afternoon, loading it carefully into the back seat of her Mini Cooper.  After she took it upstairs to her room, Trinity came in, wide-eyed, slowly feeling the bronze metal all over with her little hands.

“Olivia, this is soo special!  I love it!”

“I love it too!  Daddy’s boss gave it to me.”

Most of the e-mails she received over the next few weeks were from Duke, and, in contrast to his friendly chatter, were usually short, almost bordering on rudeness, such as, “Olivia, order lunch from the Wild Boar Café tomorrow and make sure they are hot, AND on time.  We don’t want to be waiting around while you do your nails.”  She couldn’t tell if he was joking, but he probably was, just in poor taste.  Duke always ended his e-mails with the auto-signature, “We cannot break Rank, in Unity we Step together.”

One afternoon she noticed an odd message that simply read, “bad boy duke.”  All she caught was the first name starting with a D, but the e-mail quickly vanished and was replaced by— “Message recalled.”

She complained to her dad about Duke’s sometimes abrasive messages.

Richard laughed, “Oh, that’s just Duke.  He’s like that, jokes around you know, you’ll get used to it.  Wait till you’re around him more, loves to talk!  A great story teller, but he does distort the facts a bit.”

She arrived thirty minutes early on Thursday.  When she pulled into the parking lot she distinctly thought she saw someone leaving the front lobby through the secure lab office door.  She approached the front glass door and noticed the secure office door ajar.  She scanned her hand and walked quietly across the glassed in front lobby to the open door.  A short distance down the hallway a dog sat facing Duke, who had his back towards her.  The dog’s ears perked and he studiously looked her up and down, and then back to Duke.  Near the end of the long hallway, the door of the lab was open, the door across from Duke’s office painted with the red letters that it should always remain closed.  Curious, she stared through the opening and glimpsed a short hairless animal, about three feet tall, resembling a fat hairless sheep.  A long, thick tube hung from its nose as it walked on a black and white checked tile floor.

“I said go back in the lab—NOW!  Beat it!” said Duke, then turning and seeing her, added, “Olivia…  Hello!  Did you forget something?”

“Nooo… I’m here for work!”

“I’m sorry.  We don’t need you today.  We need you on Friday, not Thursday.  Did you check your phone?”  His smile was tight.

Perplexed, Olivia looked unseeingly at her phone in chagrin with a flushed face.  I need to pay more attention.

Lowell came out of his office and stared coldly at Olivia with a face void of expression.  He walked down the hallway and shut the lab door, then turned and walked back, staring at her.  She averted her eyes back to the dog.

Duke looked at the dog and pointed to the end of the hallway. “Go on.”

Olivia got the distinct impression the black and white dog rolled his eyes and sighed before it confidently walked to her.

“Oh Duke, he’s cute!” She reached down to pet his large, wide head. “What kind is he?”

“A lab-hound mix.  He’s a mutt.”

The dog winked one eye very distinctly at Olivia.  It was a slow, deliberate wink, not an eye flinch.  She looked up at Duke in confusion.

“Well, Olivia, we’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow, on Friday.” Duke smiled thinly and with purpose glanced past her towards the door, motioning his dismissal.  Lowell now stood beside him, coldly watching Olivia with dark eyes.

“Oh, sorry… yes… I’ll—yes, I’ll see you tomorrow.”  She stepped back through it into the front lobby and Duke immediately snapped it behind her.

She stood in the lobby for a moment outside the door, looking at her phone again. It does say Thursday, Duke is mistaken.  Why do I get blamed for his mistake?  She raised her hand to knock on the door to confront him as she  heard his muffled voice, “Doug, I TOLD you to get back into the lab.  I’m not gonna give you access to come out on Thursday mornings if you don’t obey!”

Something told Olivia it was better to just drop it this time, so she left.

Her mom was out shopping that morning, Trinity was in school, and she dreaded the quiet empty house, so she drove to The Market.  Dust collected on her Mini Cooper as she waited in a line of cars entering the oiled parking lot.  She looked curiously towards the venders sprawling thickly across over ten acres.

Thick dusty fluff clung to her white sandals as she walked along the path besides the parked cars.  Merging into the first crowded isle, she eyed with interest the booths selling used items, fresh produce, chickens, and parrots.  Spanish music blared from cheap speakers next to a children’s pony ride.  She had been here two times before and liked getting lost in the crowd; it made her feel like an alien indulging in a foreign culture, which in actuality she was, and she liked the feeling it gave her.

She spied a basket of greenish red mangos and reached past a tall, solidly built young man in a white t-shirt to pick one out.  He edged aside, turning to look down at her.  It was Jude.  She involuntarily inhaled; it was unnerving to have him unexpectedly standing so close.

“Olivia!  What a coincidence.  Fancy meeting you here!”  He smiled innocently with his crooked grin.

“Hi!” she said.  They stood eyeing each other.

He is even more hot than I remembered.

“I didn’t know you came here,” he added.

“Occasionally.”

“I come frequently.”  He kept looking directly at her.

She averted her eyes towards the fruit.

“You looking for mangos?  Those aren’t ripe, they aren’t mature enough.  They’ve got better ones a few isles down that looked perfectly ripe to me.”

I wonder if he wants to walk with me.  “Where?”  She asked, her voice quivering slightly, but hopefully not noticeably.

“They’re over here.” Jude turned and walked away.  She hurried to catch up and walked beside him.

“Did you come for fresh produce?” he asked, looking away from her at a table packed with an odd assortment of used tools as they passed it.  He turned back to her.

Olivia motioned with her hand, raising it palm up, “No, just killing time.  I went into work and they told me I wasn’t needed today.  How often do you come here?”  She couldn’t help looking into his penetrating eyes, they fascinated her.  She was rewarded by his returned gaze.

“Every few weeks, to get out of the house when I’m not working.  I’ve got home study and I get cabin fever easy.”

“I’m on home study too,” said Olivia.

“I was wondering why I didn’t see you at the Essex high school.”

“I thought you were in home study.”

“Yeah, well, I was but then I needed to work a few days a week.  It’s a little tight with Dad gone.”  Jude’s face grew sober and he looked at the ground briefly before looking back at her.

“Are you all holding out okay?”

“Yeah, Dad had the mortgage paid off.  He had this saying, “The borrower is servant to the lender.”  Guess he had some foresight.”  Jude sighed deeply.

“I meant missing him.  You know, that’s a hard thing to have happen to you.”

“James keeps saying nobody can ever replace him.  It’s just a loss.  I think that’s true—when people die they can’t be replaced, so I just miss him… But it has gotten easier lately.”

They stopped talking as they approached the display of ripe mangos.  He picked out two and handed them to her.  She pressed the red and yellow flesh gently with her fingers and smelled them, then handed the lady her money.  Olivia held a mango in each hand and looked at Jude, her eyebrows slightly raised into a question.  Jude picked up a small paper bag and held it out to her.  She dropped them in and he folded the top and, holding it, gave her a smile.

“Wanna walk around?  I’ll show you the elephants in the back.”  He gestured towards the far end.

“Elephants?  At a flea market?”  She tried to sound casual and keep out her elation, knowing they would be walking together over to the elephants.

“Yeah, weird!  Never know what’ll pop up around Essex.  They used to have three but now they are down to two.  They sold a pregnant one several years ago—I got rides on her when I was a kid.   You ever ride an elephant?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“Come on, this is one opportunity you cannot miss out on!  This will be something to write home about.”

Olivia’s eyes were lit with curiosity, and she felt so vitally alive when she climbed up the ramp behind Jude.  She boldly stepped into a stirrup and swung her leg over, straddling the huge elephant saddle.  The elephant slowly eased forward.  She couldn’t stop smiling as she rode the lumbering elephant in the tall, fenced-in oval.  Jude watched from the platform with his arm over the rail.  The elephant stopped in front of Jude and she slid off the wide saddle.  He chivalrously grasped her arm as her foot reached for the elevated platform.  Her arm tingled in his grasp.

“Well, now I can say I rode an elephant,” she said, impulsively smiling at Jude.  “I love elephants!”

“Why don’t you get one?” Jude asked unexpectantly.

“They aren’t practical,” laughed Olivia.  He has such clean looking skin.

He grinned back. “Maybe you’ll get one someday.  I read of some people who raise them in the south.”

They walked back to the vender’s booths.  She gracefully followed him single file to squeeze through a bottleneck of young couples, children, and strollers.

“Does your dad work at Qenetics?” asked Jude.

“Yes, he’s worked there about twenty years.”

“Does he ever see Duke Jersey?  The man is pure genius!”

“Yeah, my dad works directly under Duke…  We moved here because Duke wouldn’t let my dad telecommute anymore.  The internet connect was too slow for his work,” explained Olivia, trying to be as tactful as possible about her own father, and not say too much. They watched a green parrot climbing up inside a black wire cage with its claws and beak, and then continued down the aisle between the vendors.

“They run the town,” said Jude, watching a man walking towards them in cowboy boots and a white hat.  The man spat a stream of tobacco juice onto the dry-packed dirt.

“Cowboys?”

“No!”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, people here are farmers, retirees, laborers, telecommuters, or Qenetics employees.  But my dad said it’s Qenetics that runs the police department and city council,” said Jude.

“Why?  Seems like farmers would be more involved.”

Jude laughed. “Farmers aren’t ignorant; they’re just on a different wave length than Qenetics employees.  Know how to get into farming?”

Jude’s laughter enchanted her, but she didn’t know why.

“Buy some land and plant seeds?” she asked casually, shrugging her shoulders.

“There’s two ways.  You’re either born into it, or marry into it.  Takes a lot of money.  It’s mostly big farms now.  This valley could support most of the food for the world population with the right planning and enough water.”

“Are you involved in farming?”

“No.  Some kids call me an Aggie, but I just work in construction.”

“Do you have any interests?” Her question came out involuntarily as she sauntered at his side, her sandaled feet perfectly synchronizing with his hiking shoes.  She gazed at a large display of fake armadillo cowboy boots.

“I go backpacking when I get a chance, and rock climbing on Morro Rock.  We used to jump off in para-wing suits out of an airplane—but James is too busy for all that now.  Plus, we don’t have the money for it.”

“That sounds exciting, rock climbing.”

“It is.”

“I used to surf,” she said, looking at a woman gesturing for her to come look at some used items, “but not anymore.”

“Why not?—never mind.” He walked with her to see what the woman wanted.

“You see something you want, give you good deal,” said the woman.

Jude picked up an old, badly warped wooden tennis racket.  The strings stretched it into a definite taco shape.

“How much do you want for this?” he asked, carefully examining the tennis racket.  He soberly looked back at the woman. She impassively stared at the tennis racket, and then laughed, “You take that one.  It’s free!”

Jude laughed with her and, putting it down, picked up an old, worn, white cowboy hat.  After examining it and turning it around in his hands, he set it on Olivia’s head.  Stepping back, he examined her in it.

He smiled. “I like it.”

Olivia glanced at his tanned cheeks erupting into a grin, and then down at his sculpted body.  She blushed slightly, took it off, and held it out to him.

He took it from her and put it on. “Howdy Howdy Howdy.  I’m a cowboy!”

Olivia laughed and looked over at the now brightly smiling woman.

He held out a dollar to the woman.  She shook her head. “Fave dollores.”

Jude said, “Dos Dollors.”

She nodded and he handed her two dollars.

“It’s sort of like a social event, coming here you know, local cultural flair.” Jude set the white cowboy hat on his head as they walked off.

“Guess I need to accept I’ll be living here for several more months and get used to it,” said Olivia.

“Several months?”  He stopped walking and faced her as she was looking over a large pile of lace.

She bumped into his hard body and, startled, paused also, then glanced up at him briefly, concentrating on his last question, took a little step back, and replied, “I’m going to college.”

“Where?”

“Southern California.”  They still stood close enough to invade her personal space.  She returned his gaze, admiring his liquid lips and wondering at her sudden feeling of regret. “Are you going to college?” she asked.

“Never thought of it.  Dad had this construction company and I’ve always thought I’d just work for him.”

“You ought to think of it some,” she said genuinely.

Their eye contact made her own feelings emanate so conspicuous.  Surely he can sense my attraction towards him.

“You don’t want to be working out in the heat when you’re forty, do you?” she asked, breaking their gaze. She took a step back and to the side.  They began walking again, side by side.

“Something for me to think about…  You going to the calculus lab?  This guy named Walton called last week and offered to help me out with my home study.”

“We got that call too.  My mom talked to him.  Are you going?” asked Olivia, and thought, This day is so enchanting.

“Yeah, he’s a new tutor but the school said he’s really good,” he offered, in a convincing tone.

“Maybe I’ll see you there.”  Olivia tried to keep any hint of wishfullness out of her voice.

They now stood at the front entrance.

Jude eyed her flat gold-linked necklace, her face, and finally her lips.  She flushed slightly and turned away, thinking of his wavy hair and clear brown eyes.  Even the whites of his eyes drew her in.

“Okay, well…  See you later!” said Jude.

For several seconds they stood in a pregnant pause next to Jude’s bicycle cabled to a post.  She walked towards her car and glanced over her shoulder.  Jude stood watching her, wearing the white cowboy hat.  He smiled and waved, and began unlocking his bicycle cable.  She impulsively walked back.

“Hey Jude, do you want a ride?”

“Oh, no, I’ll be fine.”

“We can stick it out the trunk.”

“My bike may tear up the inside of your Cooper.”  Jude looked over at it.  “I love your car.”

“Don’t worry about it.  I used to worry about stuff like that, but not anymore.”

They walked to her car with Jude pushing his bicycle between them.

“Why don’t you worry about it now?” he asked.

She opened the rear hatch and turned her head to meet his eyes.  He looked back at her expectantly.

“It just doesn’t affect me like it used to.”  She leaned in to fold down the rear seat to make room for his bicycle.

He raised his eyebrows.  “Why?”

“I just matured, I guess.  Other things are more important to me now.” Olivia rested her hand on the elevated rear hatch door as he carefully eased his bicycle into the back of her car.

“Like what?” asked Jude.

She ignored his question, and simply replied, “Alright.  I think it’s going to fit.”

She self-consciously drove home in the conspicuous closeness.  He seemed even larger and more powerful sitting next to her in the small car.  The gray fog had dissolved into a gentle mist, and the clear, pure afternoon sunshine revealed a glorious giant panorama through her front windshield of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada Mountains.  She watched a Qenetics motionboard advertisement of a young couple happily holding up their baby in their hands.  Words flashed, “Your Good Health,” and on the next screen, “Brought to you by Qenetics.”  She glanced at Jude, but he was admiring the mountain range rising from the flat valley floor.

After coasting to a gradual stop in front of his driveway, she climbed out and stood at the rear of her car as he carefully eased his bicycle back out.

“Do you want to stay in touch?  I’ve got an Intelimedia account,” he asked.

“Sure.”  She reached past him to close the rear hatch lid at the same time he did and their hands touched.  She quickly moved her hand.  It had made her feel vulnerable.

Jude carefully shut the door and turned to face her.  “Well, thanks for the ride.”

She looked in the rearview mirror as she drove down her long driveway.  He still watched her car, still wearing his white cowboy hat.  She smiled to herself.  He’s much more genuine than my old ones. More… substantial… But this is probably all inconsequential…  I think it’s time I cleaned up my friends list.

It had been a long time since she had a video chat invitation, or even message chats, from any of her Malibu friends.  Her list of genuine friends was getting rather short.  She left Arnold on because he still messaged her, her Aunt Sophie, and a few others.  She already had a friend request from Jude, and accepted it with a pleased smile.

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