My Ghost Town

My Ghost Town, illustration by Cheeseburger Brown

Towns die, when their time comes. The town I grew up in died right under my feet — it died while I watched. It isn’t even on the map anymore.

Once there were hundreds of towns like it: far flung on the frontier, each nestled in the shadow of an atmospheric processing tower whose rumbling works had been patiently revising the climate for centuries. In its heyday atmospheric processing employed thousands. It was the cornerstone industry of country life on this planet, the great smoking hubs at the crossroads of rude paths that linked wildernesses more hostile than anyone young today can easily imagine.

In those days we were fighting both the rocks and sand and frigid cold of the old world along with a million kinds of aggressive and voracious life from the new. Colonization isn’t for the faint of heart. In my grandfather’s time as many travelers stumbled into town just to die as to find a drink or a bed.

But eventually the sky turned blue, and one by one the processing towers were decommissioned. Including ours.

Of course, towns don’t come with an off switch. Cutting the heart out of our way of life didn’t scatter us to the wind all at once, but instead catalyzed a slow, bleeding exodus that would carry on across generations. The men and women who made their living in the processing plant itself were sloughed off in stages, and each wave of pensioners took to sitting on their porches to watch things fade. Their eldest sons and daughters left town to find work in other fields, and their youngest sons and daughters stayed behind to take care of affairs until they grew up enough to follow.

I’m youngest of six. I was last to go.

Aside from children the lingerers were those who couldn’t abandon whoever was left, however few they were. Only caregivers remained: nurses for the infirm, clerics for dwindling flocks. When the barber left we all learned to cut our own hair, and when the mechanic left we all learned to tune our own cars.

The final graduating class at the high school comprised just two students: me and Millie Leibowitz.

“Wanna go to prom with me?”

“I’ll think about it.”

Our teacher was badly corroded and prone to infinite loops. It would stutter and hang, mouth quivering and pointer tapping a strange tattoo against the board. Sometimes it would snap out of it on its own, but oftentimes Millie or I would have to get up and give it a kick. Clank! “…Thus, the expansion of the East India Company was predicated on British control of nautical trade routes. Questions?”

“Wouldn’t it have been more effective to police the oceans from orbit?”

Millie rolled her eyes. “You’re not even listening, Adlai. Two centuries ahead of the Industrial Revolution nothing’s in orbit except the Moon.”

“Correct, Millicent,” said the teacher.

I shrugged. “They could’ve deployed high altitude balloons, or genetically engineered pigeons to recognize –“

Millie sighed. “Genetic engineering was unheard of three hundred and fifty years before Watson, Crick and Franklin. They didn’t even know what genes were.”

“Correct, Millicent.”

“Pre-atomic civilizations are lame. What does any of this matter, anyway?”

“History contextualizes the present,” said Millie. “Santayana: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'”

“Correct, Millicent. Merit point earned.”

I stuck my tongue out at her.

The long, empty corridors smelled like floor wax. They received the undivided attention of a single janitorial robot with a spinning anti-bacterial rag and mops for feet. The smallest sounds echoed forever. The walls were lined with polished metal lockers as far as the eye could see, but only two of them had locks. Mine was right next to Millie’s. “I’d print you a corsage and everything,” I told her.

She smiled sadly and swung her locker closed. “The thing is, I don’t want to go with you because you’re the only boy in town. I want to go with you because I want to go with you.”

“So do you or don’t you want to?”

“I don’t know what I want yet. I want to know, though. So when I do you’ll be the first to know.”

I cocked my head. “What?”

We had lunch up on the tower, perched on a maintenance platform just shy of the summit that used to stream churning bodies of vapour all day and all night but now idled as a rookery. Birds flitted to and fro, calling to one another and painting the tower’s sides with white blotches. Millie and I hung our legs over the edge, the town spread between our toes.

From up there you could see where the old domes used to cover the town, in pioneer times. Back when winter never broke and the air was too rare to breathe for anyone except the ants. Back when people still called the world Mars.

“I can’t afford a limousine,” I admitted.

“That’s not a deal breaker,” said Millie.

She was staring at the horizon, chin cupped in her mittens, braids swaying in the breeze. The crisp air had turned her cheeks pink. Looking at the line of her nose against the sky I thought I might die from love.

“My tuxedo’s a hand-me-down.”

“So’s mine.”

“A matching pair.”

“Go fish.”

I narrowed my eyes. “We’ve got this hilarious thing going on, you and me. Our counterfactual banter. It’s a gas. Because we don’t have to say things that are hard to say — we can just say the opposite.”

“We have no such shared joke. You’re thinking of the other girl.”

“There is no other girl. And even if there were there wouldn’t be.” I blushed, wiping pointlessly at my nose and looking away.

“That’s more direct than our unspoken protocol permits,” said Millie. “You should be cagier with me. What if the next thing I said hurt your feelings? You couldn’t pretend not to care.”

I looked back at her. “I’m not going to pretend to care about what I can’t pretend to not care about.”

Millie titled her head and blinked at me. “What?”

I tried to summon a smile but couldn’t. “I’m serious,” I said. My mouth was dry.

It was her turn to look away.

“You’re not going to prom with me, are you?” I prompted.

Millie shook her head. “Ask why,” she said quietly.

“I don’t think I could stomach the answer.”

“We’re leaving,” she said. “My mom’s found a position in Nirgal. We’re moving to the city, Adlai. Ask when.”

“I don’t want to know when.”

“Tomorrow,” said Millie. “We’re moving away tomorrow. Everything’s packed. That’s why I didn’t want you to come by the house this morning.”

“You wanted to preserve your ability to go on lying to me a while, I guess.”

“Basically,” she agreed with a small nod.

I looked out over the distant peaks, violet with distance, tensing the muscles around my eyes to keep tears from escaping. “Fornication,” I said philosophically. Then I paused and leaned forward, focusing on a ribbon of dust rising over the highway into town. I pointed.

“What is it?” asked Millie.

“Somebody’s coming to town,” I decided, then slipped down from my perch. “Come on: let’s go see.”

Millie took my hand. We clambered off the platform and skidded along the sloped tower down to metal stairs that clanged and sang with every step. We emerged at the foot of the tower, deep in its shadow, in a wide empty yard that used to be packed with milling workers three times each day during shift changes. I remembered bringing lunch to my uncles and aunts, when I was small. Now grass grew in the cracks. Millie and I sprinted across the broken pavement, the wind whistling in our ears as if this were just any other regular day instead of our last.

Along Main Street the handful of remaining retirees sat on their porches, leaning forward to make their salutations heard. “When are you two going to settle down and give us some kids?” they chortled, grinning toothlessly.

The old church loomed derelict to our left, the naked foundations of the appliance dealership to the right. Between the burnt-out streetlamps was strung a sagging banner advertising the Undoming Day parade of six years ago, which nobody left behind had a ladder tall enough to reach. Up ahead: the slow blooming of a dust cloud. From its roiling maw came the hum of all-terrain motorcycles.

Millie and I stopped in the middle of Main, peering into the dust. “Who is it?” called Father Park from his stoop, his one good eye blinking.

We shrugged. “Strangers.”

Two battered motorbikes on enormous in-country tires came to a heavy stop, saddle-bags swaying and dust tails sloshing over us. The engines whined as they died. Bike and rider alike were covered in so much bronze-coloured sand that it was hard to distinguish where machine ended and body began. Leathers creaking, the rider closest to us pushed up his sand-encrusted goggles and tugged down his breathing mask. His face was stubbled, sun-marked and wind-etched.

“Was beginning to reckon this for a ghost town,” he said.

“It nearly is,” I told him.

“Been on a long trail. Friend and I could use some respite. Anything open?”

“We’ve got a restaurant,” offered Millie. “If we wake up Cliff he’ll unlock it.”

“Very fine,” said the stranger. “Would be in your debt. Also, bikes need some work. Can we get parts?”

Millie looked to me. I shook my head. “There’s a scrap yard. My father’s pretty much picked it clean but you might get lucky, sir. We could show you the way once you’re fixed for food.”

The stranger bowed his head respectfully.

Cliff was too drunk to wake up but Millie knew where he kept the keys. She unlocked the restaurant and snapped on the lights. The strangers climbed down from their mounts and then extended the parking struts, easing the tall bikes into a lean. The frames groaned as they settled. I beckoned and the dusty riders followed me inside. “Sit anywhere,” called Millie as she disappeared into the kitchen.

“She works here,” I explained. “…Or she did, anyway.”

“I’m Peabody,” said the first rider, peeling off his outer coats and hanging them on the back of his chair with a rain of dust. He jerked his thumb over at his silent partner who sat down without removing his goggles or mask. “This is Sock,” said Peabody.

“My name’s Adlai Eliad, and she’s Millie Leibowitz.”

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he replied as he pulled off his hat and rubbed sand of his hair. “Sure do appreciate the service, Miss Leibowitz.”

“What’s a restaurant without patrons?” said Millie, leaning in to mop up loose sand from the table and to set down two glasses of water. “It’s just a building.” Both men reached out their gloved hands and drained the glasses immediately. Millie filled them again. “I’m afraid the menu’s not wide. It looks like Cliff has a stew on, but I can’t attest to the meat. Do you gentlemen eat all kinds?”

Peabody nodded. “I do.”

“Mr. Sock?”

The silent stranger shook his head.

“What about some bread?”

“Yeah,” piped up Peabody on his partner’s behalf. “Bread’ll do very fine, thank you. Sock likes bread.”

“Fruit?”

“Sure, bring him some fruit, too. He’s not fussy. I’ll have the stew.”

We brought them two bowls and towels for washing up, then Millie pulled me into the kitchen to help with the grub. I sliced bread and apples while she tied on an apron and tested the simmering stew. She frowned. “It’s awful,” she declared. “I’m embarrassed to serve this. It tastes like stale ginger and old boots.”

“Those guys are hungry. They’ll like anything. They’ve probably been eating camp rations for months.”

She crinkled her nose over the ladle. “This is the smell of my tip evaporating.”

“They’ll tip you anyway. Everybody always tips you anyway.”

“Well, you do.”

“Yeah. I do.”

We brought the riders their meals and then stepped back into the kitchen to give them their privacy, because nobody likes to be watched when they’re voracious. I took up a cloth and dabbed at the counter by the stew pot listlessly. “What are you going to do in Nirgal, anyway, Millie?”

“I’ll go to school,” she said, taking the cloth away from me and doing a proper job of wiping up.

“You’ve been accepted at the U of N?”

“Of course I was. Weren’t you?”

I shrugged. “I didn’t apply.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t apply anywhere.”

She put down the cloth and walked over to me, her brown eyes piercing. “What’s wrong with you? This is your life. You’re not neglecting to step up because you’re mooning over some girl, are you?”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I’ve got all sorts of reasons for nursing a paralyzing sense of self-doubt.”

She gave me a hard look. I offered her nothing in return. Peabody called for seconds and the moment broke.

When we came out of the kitchen Peabody was licking his spoon and Sock was sitting across from him, food untouched, mask and goggles still in place. Peabody noticed us noticing and then swept up his empty bowl and proffered it. “Can’t make out the meat, but I’ll go again if there’s enough,” he said with a jocularity that seemed faintly forced.

“And Mr. Sock –?”

“He’s still working on his,” said Peabody. “Got a nervous stomach around people. Been out on the frontier for a dog’s age, you understand. Grown accustomed to a certain quiet.”

“Sure,” I agreed quickly. “You gentlemen are prospectors, no doubt.”

Peabody leaned aside to nod as Millie dished out more stew. “That’s right, Mr. Eliad.”

“You don’t have to call me mister. I’m just a kid.”

“No reason to be miserly with due respects,” said Peabody. “Anyhow, Sock and I’ve been hunting promethium up in the peaks, spending our nights looking for that green glow in the caves that means paydirt. Used to be monazite men, but the market moved on.”

Millie topped up his water. “There aren’t many people prospecting the old fashioned way anymore. You two are like something out of a historical.”

Peabody smirked. “In the right place, then, aren’t we? Towns like these are few and far between nowadays. Most frontier highways lead to nowhere.”

I pressed my lips together into a polite smile but said nothing.

When the strangers had finished Millie rang up the hours and minutes owed on the till and Peabody paid through a tarnished, dented and very antiquated finger-fitted wallet. The two men walked behind us as Millie and I led the way over vacant lots and around boarded-up buildings until we came to the scrap yard. “What are you looking for, exactly?” I called over my shoulder. “Maybe I can point you toward the right heap.”

“Need a little of this, a little of that,” replied Peabody. “Nothing special. Probably best if we just have a bit of a wander on our own, if that doesn’t offend.”

“Feel free, but you’d better find what you need before the sun sets or it’ll be Saturday night before you can do business with the junk man.”

Peabody paused, cocking his head. “He’s going away?”

“No, he’s a Jew,” I explained. “And it’s almost the Sabbath.”

Peabody and Sock set to scanning the heaps for parts they could use. I stuck my hands into my pockets and stomped my feet against the cold. Millie stood next to me, her gaze unfocused and distant. Deimos was rising, an oblong speck in the northeast. The sun dipped lower in the west, grazing the crater-rims and darkening the gulleys. The shadows were lengthening. I looked over at Millie and was startled to see her cheek glistening with tears.

“Allergies, eh?”

She sniffed and nodded. “Yes. They always act up when I’m coming of age.”

“Histamines make me sad.”

“Me too,” she agreed, chin quivering.

I drew her into a hug. Her hair smelled really nice. Something inside me went numb and we could’ve stood there forever as far as I was concerned. I was able to recognize that this was probably the closest, sweetest moment Millie and I would ever have. I swallowed hard to hold back a sob.

I was facing the town. She was facing the scrap. Suddenly I felt her tense. I turned. One of the strangers was on the ground.

We ran between the heaps, Millie’s braids flying out behind her. We skidded to a halt and Peabody looked up at us as he cradled Sock’s limp head in his hands. “Sock’s sick,” he said.

“We need to get him to Dr. Banerjee!” cried Millie.

An awkward expression crossed the man’s stubbled face. “Being frank a physician won’t quite do.”

“Why?”

“Sock’s not a man, as such.”

I blinked. “What is he, then?”

Peabody seemed pained. “Speaking out of need, and reluctantly so, Mr. Eliad — well, the fact is it’s Sock’s tightly protected secret that he’s artificial.” His shoulders sagged. “Don’t suppose in a place like this you’ve got a master roboticist on hand.”

I looked up. “As a matter of fact, we do. This might be your lucky day, Mr. Peabody. But only if you can get your friend to temple before the sun goes down.”

Peabody did a double-take. “Pardon me, son — really?”

“Really,” I assured him. “Now let’s move!”

Peabody, Millie and I hauled Sock’s unresponsive body out of the yard and into the street. We staggered around the abandoned car on Second, across the footbridge over the north-south ant river, and then made our back way to Main. The seniors on their porches gaped as we shuffled down the block, pushing themselves up with their canes to watch as we huffed and puffed up the worn stone steps of the synagogue with Sock between us. I threw open the doors and bellowed, “Dad!”

Our temple was modest. The congregation even more so. In order to achieve the quorum of ten my father had scrounged from every mouldering business in town, assembling a makeshift minyan of salvaged parts and repurposed brains. When our community came together it was in the presence of six human Jews and four mechanical golems, a solution my father prayed God would forgive us for. The rabbi was a roboticist, and he could fathom no better way to be devout.

“Adlai!”

His head jerked up from under the hood of the robot he was repairing, wincing as he struck its open carapace. His eyes widened when he saw the strangers. With a grunt he got to his feet and shouldered his heavy wrench. “What’s the meaning of this, Adlai? This man needs a hospital!”

“He’s a robot,” I said breathlessly.

My father stroked his beard. “Then he needs an appointment on Sunday. Or at least Saturday after Seudah Shlishit. I’m not running a garage here. Adlai, you’d best wash up for supper.”

Peabody cleared his throat. “Sir, I’d been reckoning on fixing him myself only we’re short key parts. Not convinced he’ll keep till Saturday night, let alone Sunday.”

“So turn him off,” said my father. “You’ll save on batteries.”

“You don’t understand, sir,” continued Peabody, hat in his hand; “Socrates isn’t an appliance. He’s not a service robot. He’s people. Can’t be shut off without losing some degree of who he is — I apologize for not having the school to explain it better, sir.” He took a shuddering breath. “See, he’s not my property. He’s my friend.”

My father’s mouth hung slightly open, his forehead creased. He licked his lips. “Exactly what kind of robot is this?”

“Dr. Zoran’s kind,” said Peabody flatly. “The kind that’s alive.”

My father dropped his wrench. He blinked. “A Zorannic!” he whispered. “In my temple, a Zorannic. A living, breathing, dying Zorannic! Oh my God.”

At the rabbi’s instructions we cleared the bimah table and lay the ailing machine upon it. Peabody tugged off his friend’s goggles and breathing mask, revealing a weathered face that at first blush seemed more organic than mechanical: the lines of expression around his closed eyes and pinched mouth were no different than the men and women on the porches of Main Street. The leathery skin itself had a faint metallic lustre, however, as well as a set of seams for maintenance access. It was these seams my father manipulated as if he had done it a thousand times before, actuating the subdermal sensors in a key sequence to open the seals and reveal the works beneath. He’d studied, my father.

He yelled for tools. Millie and I brought them. Peabody leaned closer. “This is not good,” my father declared. “Your friend, this Zorannic robot — he’s worn himself out six ways from Sunday. If there was time I’d say he needs to get to the university, to be seen by scholars of the Secret Mathematic. This…this is way over my head.”

“But there isn’t time,” supplied Peabody.

My father nodded, stroking his beard. “No, there isn’t. So instead we’re going to bust up my congregation and use their organs to reroute around this gentlemen’s worst damage, to patch him up until he can get real help.”

I gasped. “But, Dad –“

“They’d be no quorum,” said Millie. “The sun sets in an hour, rabbi.”

“The Sabbath can wait. This man can’t. God understands.”

We set to work. We lined up the four substitute congregants on the floor, each of us armed with tools. I took off Alef’s head while Peabody opened up Beth’s torso. Millie plucked ribbons of carbon-nanotube musculature from Gimmel’s right arm as my father focused on pillaging Daleth. They were simple robots: cobbled together from leftovers, programmed by hand, each with a roll of prayers in its mouth. They could barely carry on a conversation but when called upon they could sing their parts like off-tune, warbling angels — angels without whose help temple services could not be complete. Not when there were only six of us.

I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying like a baby when Alef’s head finally pulled free. I felt disproportionately stung by having stripped one of the screws. It was just a pile of junk but for so long I’d been asked to think of it differently, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the primitive contraption was somehow one of us.

“Forgive me,” I said to Alef, his head in my hands.

I caught my father watching me. His expression was inscrutable. Then he bowed his head and gingerly kissed Daleth’s pried-apart carapace. “Forgive me,” he whispered. We shared a look.

The light coming through the synagogue windows was lurid and long. The day was failing. We were supposed to be lighting candles.

“Light me up!” shouted my father from beside his patient.

From my position at the electrical panel I closed the circuit that turned the cables he held against Sock’s metal skeleton live. A few sparks flew and the air crackled but the connections were sound. My father looked up from the gauges and gave me a nod. I cut the power. He drew the smoking cables away.

Sock stirred. His eyelids parted to reveal black lenses reflecting our concerned faces back to us.

“Take it easy,” soothed my father. “You’re patched but you’re fragile.”

Peabody pushed closer. “Can you hear me, Sock? I’m right here, pal.”

“Reset complete,” said Sock in a lifeless monotone. “This is Socrates, strain eighteen. I exist, operate, and am at your service.”

Peabody gaped. “Reset? Oh no. No, no, no…”

Sock showed us a little row of neat diamond teeth. Peabody paused, brow furrowed, then digested his friend’s expression and cracked up. “You bastard,” he laughed.

“I really had you going for a moment there.”

“Motherless ironing board. Ought to have left you to rust.”

“The look on your face was classic.”

Peabody dragged his hand down his sweaty face and sighed. “No way to thank you enough, rabbi.”

“Stay for dinner. That’ll do.”

“Only put us further in your debt.”

“Are you kidding? Mr. Peabody, you underestimate the value of fresh dinner conversation. If you’re able to carry on a halfway interesting chat about something — anything! — other than teenage angst, junk dealing or dentistry I promise we’ll make you and your friend our kings.”

My father grinned, a pearlescent white void in his great beard.

Peabody nodded. “Couldn’t really refuse, could I?”

Around the table we were joined by Dr. Leibowitz the dentist and Mr. Ostrowiecki the junk man. We uncorked our self-heating packages of hot egg bread and stuffed fish and salty chicken and steaming vegetables. Old Zayde Gold just slept in the corner, the flashing and mumbling advertisements of a newspaper on his lap swaying every time the oscillating fan came around. The temple dining hall tended to get stuffy because its ventilation had been designed for in-dome life, and my father’s jury-rigged solution was stop-gap at best.

It was a loud supper, a long supper. We opened bottle after bottle of sweet purple wine. I laughed until my sides hurt.

“Tell me, Mr. Socrates,” said my father, “you’re a Zorannic — a miracle of engineering. Why keep it a secret?”

“Because otherwise people seldom consent to dine with me, rabbi,” said Sock, sipping from a glass of water. “Most would rather pretend I were a robotic mule and treat me like a slave, or assume I am outbidding man for his place in the world and so treat me like an enemy.”

“I’ll grant that you’re no mule.”

Sock flashed his esoteric, alien little smile again. “Still, there’s nothing to be gained by treating me as an enemy.”

Everybody roared.

Dr. Leibowitz pointed at Sock with her fork. “I like this guy,” she said around her food. “He must be a Jew.”

My father weighed this. “Well, right now he’s about one tenth golem,” he said, nodding toward the unwieldy knot of pipes and returns extending from Sock’s torso. “That’s a bit like marrying in, perhaps.”

Mr. Ostrowiecki chuckled as he eyed the Zorannic robot’s workarounds. “We’ll have to see if we can’t piece together a sidecar for your mount,” he said, rubbing his wrinkled chin. “Otherwise you’ll be juggling your guts all the way to Huo Hsing, Mr. Golem.”

“Your kindness is unparalleled,” said Sock.

“Much obliged,” agreed Peabody with a tug on his forelock.

I sat away from Millie. In a way she was already gone to me, and I guess that’s what she’d feared would come in telling me. She hadn’t wanted to cheat both of us out of these last carefree weeks: she’d kept the hurt for herself. Knowing this didn’t help me, though. My heart was already hardening in preparation for living in a world in which Millie Leibowitz didn’t figure. Looking at her was like looking at an old holograph.

The Leibowitz family would break the Sabbath to travel to Nirgal. My father had broken the Sabbath to repair a dying wanderer precious to a friendly stranger due for Huo Hsing. Our golems consumed, the scrap yard depleted, the temple would never have quorum again.

I knew all at once that this was the last Shabbat dinner of my childhood.

Millie arched an eyebrow at me from the far side of the table. “Allergies?”

“Ragweed,” I nodded.

“Ragweed always makes me nostalgic,” she told me. “It makes me remember who I cherish, and why.”

“That’s more direct than our unspoken protocol permits,” I reminded her.

“Life trumps protocol,” she said, nodding toward Peabody and Sock. “It’s not a transgression when the need’s real.”

I tried to take another sip of wine but the glass was empty.

“There are no rules, is that it?”

She shrugged. “The town is over. You’re free, Adlai.”

I was. That was true. And that’s why on Sunday morning when Peabody and Socrates starting prepping their giant rides I was right there alongside them. The sidecar beside Sock was for his workarounds, the sidecar beside Peabody was for me.

A handful of seniors in shawls hung by. Mr. Ostrowiecki made a final adjustment to Peabody’s sidecar and then shambled over to join them, tools weighing down his oversized coveralls and exposing the grey, wiry hairs on his hollow old man’s chest. I could see every breath. He mopped at his bald brow. The junk man was not long for our town, either.

Old Zayda Gold passed in his sleep on Friday night. His burial had been first thing Sunday morning. I still had the dirt under my fingernails.

Also there was my father, hands clutched behind his back.

“I’m sorry,” I told him.

He grimaced. “Sorry? Why be sorry? Of all the things to feel today, sorry shouldn’t enter into it.”

My head dipped. “I thought — I just thought you counted on me. I thought you needed me here.”

He put one his big, heavy hands on my shoulder. “Look at me, Adlai,” he rumbled. “Don’t think you won’t be missed. Don’t ever think that. You’re my child: there’s a little piece of me that suffers every time you even leave the room. But I’m your father: I wouldn’t ever want you to miss the chance to miss this place.”

A managed a half-smile. “What?”

He smiled back but his eyes swam. “This town can carry on dying without you. It might die a little bit faster, sure, but it dies a little bit happier, too. Because you kids — you and Millie — that what we’re all still here for. You’re the point. You — growing up, choosing your path: that’s our victory, Adlai.”

He reached into his satchel and took out my grandfather’s Torah. He pushed it into my hands.

“I can’t take this from you,” I said.

“Shut up,” he smiled, folding my fingers around the book. “Never forget where you came from.”

We embraced. The crook of his neck smelled just the way it did when I was in diapers.

With twin growls the all-terrain motorcycles came to life. The engines spun up to a constant hum, sand-grains on the chassis dancing with the vibrations. I tugged down my goggles and starting pulling on my gloves. As I walked toward the bikes I noticed another figure on the edge of the small crowd — a slighter but straighter figure, her braids swinging in the wind.

“Millie?” I pulled off my goggles again. “You were supposed to have left yesterday.”

She shrugged. “I’ll catch up. I wanted to be here. To say goodbye properly.”

I looked at my boots and then up at her again. “I’m in love with you, Millie Leibowitz.”

“I know,” she agreed. “I actually sort of thought you might drop everything and, you know, follow me to Nirgal.”

“That would be me clinging to the best part of this town, Millie. The very best part. But I don’t want to cling to anything right now. I’m experimenting with a cling-free existence.”

“You should really find the kind of girl who would drop everything to follow you into the back country.”

“There’s no such girl as that.”

“Maybe there is.”

“No, there isn’t. If for no other reason than I won’t be a party to derailing your education. I don’t want to end up murdered by a dentist.”

Her face screwed up. She dabbed at herself with her mittens and sniffed. “I love you, Adlai Eliad,” she croaked.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve been dying to hear that since I was nine.”

“It’s just a standard send-off — I say it to all the truckers,” she said, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes. “It’s my way of being polite, that’s all.”

I nodded. “That explains the tips.”

She smiled despite the pain. “You’re going to miss your bus.”

“Time is money,” I agreed, still standing there.

We kissed. I might be guilty of understatement if I reported that it was a fairly satisfactory kiss. But when it comes to kisses and words, understatement is inescapable — so why fight it? The kiss was two people pressing their lips together. The kiss was not unheard of in terms of form or style. The kiss was unremarkable in every way except that it was the most important kiss of my life.

I can taste it still.

Peabody leaned down to help haul me up over the massive rear tire. I lowered myself into the sidecar hitched to his saddle, strapping the safety belts over my shoulders and locking them over my heart. I nosed into my breathing mask and tugged down my goggles. Peabody nodded to me and I nodded back.

The engine whinnied and I was pressed back into my seat. The road became a blur. Town slipped away behind us.

Fin.

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