Winterlong Online - Elizabeth Hand

Our heart stops.

I AM WITHIN HER, a cerebral shadow. Distant canyons where spectral lightning flashes: neurons firing as I tap in to the heart of the poet, the dark core where desire and horror fuse and Morgan turns ever and again to stare out a bus window. The darkness clears. I taste for an instant the metal bile that signals the beginning of therapy. Then I’m gone.

I’m sitting on the autobus, the last seat where you can catch the bumps on the crumbling highway if you’re going fast enough. Through the open windows a rush of spring air tangles my hair. Later I will smell apple blossoms in my auburn braids. Now I smell sour milk where Ronnie Abrams spilled his ration yesterday.

“Move over, Yates!” Ronnie caroms off the seat opposite, rams his leg into mine, and flies back to pound his brother. From the front the driver yells, “Shut up!” vainly trying to silence forty-odd singing children.

On top of Old Smoky

All covered with blood

I shot my poor teacher

With a forty-four slug …

Ronnie grins at me, eyes glinting, then pops me right on the chin with a spitball. I stick my fingers in my ears and huddle closer to the window.

Met her at the door

With my trusty forty-four

Now she don’t teach no more.

The autobus pulls into town and slows, stops behind a truck carrying soldiers, janissaries of the last Ascension. I press my face against the cracked window, shoving my glasses until lens kisses glass and I can see clearly to the street below. A young woman in rags is standing on the curb holding a baby wrapped in a dirty pink blanket. At her ankles wriggles a dog, an emaciated puppy with whiptail and ears flopping as he nips at her bare feet. I tap at the window, trying to get the dog to look at me. In front of the bus two men in faded yellow uniforms clamber from the truck and start arguing. The woman screws up her face and says something to the men, moving her lips so I know she’s mad. The dog lunges at her ankles again and she kicks it gently, so that it dances along the curb. The soldiers glance at her, see the autobus waiting, and climb back into the truck. I hear the whoosh of releasing brakes. The autobus lurches forward and my glasses bang into the window. The rear wheels grind up onto the curb.

The dog barks and leaps onto the woman. Apple blossoms drift from a tree behind her as she draws up her arms in alarm, and, as I settle my glasses onto my nose and stare, she drops the baby beneath the wheels of the bus.

Retching, I strive to pull Morgan away, turn her head from the window. A fine spray etches bright petals on the glass and her plastic lenses. My neck aches as I try to turn toward the inside of the autobus and efface forever that silent rain. But I cannot move. She is too strong. She will not look away.

I am clawing at the restraining ropes. The Aide pulls the wires from my head while inches away Morgan Yates screams. I hear the hiss and soft pump of velvet thoughts into her periaqueductual gray area. The link is severed.

I sat up as they wheeled her into the next room. Morgan’s screams abruptly stilled as the endorphins kicked in and her head flopped to one side of the gurney. For an instant the Aide Justice turned and stared at me as he slid Morgan through the door. He would not catch my eyes.

None of them will.

Through the glass panel I watched Emma Harrow hurry from another lab. She bent over Morgan and pulled the wires from between white braids still rusted with coppery streaks. Beside her the Aide Justice looked worried. Other doctors, all with strained faces, slipped from adjoining rooms and blocked my view.

When I was sure they’d forgotten me I dug out a cigarette—traded from Anna that morning for my dosage of phenothiazine—and lit up. I tapped the ashes into my shoe and blew smoke into a ventilation shaft. I knew Morgan wouldn’t make it. I could usually tell, but even Dr. Harrow didn’t listen to me this time. Morgan Yates was too important: one of the few living writers whose works were still sanctioned by the Ascendants.

“She will crack,” I told Dr. Harrow after reading Morgan’s profile. Seven poetry collections and two authorized Manifestos published during the last insurrection; an historical