Lodestar by Rachel Unger

Maybe she should just take a blowtorch to the entire thing. Emily strode along the sidewalk, deliberating over her sculpture as she walked.

It was perfect. Or it should have been perfect. She hitched the sturdy backpack higher on her shoulder. It fit all the criteria in her “mystery” patron’s request. It was a piece he’d seen years ago in New York, he’d said. It had felt very personal, and the image of it had never left him. Something like a cross between a tree and a cloud, with letters held in the metal twists of the top third. It had been like a gift from a lover, he’d said. She’d known immediately what he meant. She could picture it with incredible clarity.

That morning, before this trek to the industrial part of town, she’d known that she’d recreated that vision. Plunked down in her studio as though growing from the floor, the coil of brass formed the trunk or the tornado. Pieces of paper were suspended in swirls of steel as though caught in a high wind. Love letters. Bicycle spokes had been welded in, and they flashed like lightning or thought. It had been so clear in her mind, and so straightforward to produce. Love as growth, chaos, and stability—all at once.

And yet, the vibrant part of the work wasn’t manifesting. It had been so simple, and she couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t right.

Of course, part of that simplicity was because her mystery patron was no mystery. Emily huffed out a breath, wind cold on her cheeks. She knew how Nicholas phrased things, and his commission request hadn’t been nearly as careful as he thought. Then too—New York, he’d said, and hadn’t they spent an incredible weekend in New York? She’d built half the sculpture in a haze of memory, burning with a fever to finish it and then get Nicholas’ hands on her again in the current time.

Except Emily hadn’t been able to work off that feverish energy by seducing her husband. When she’d crawled into his lap, he’d hurriedly shut his laptop. He’d let her kiss him briefly, but gently began to push her away when her hands wandered.

“Nicholas, it’s been six months since my illness. I’m fine now,” she’d protested. “I’m not going to break.” She placed his hand on her chest. “Feel—I’m fine.” Well, it hadn’t exactly been her heart she’d been aiming for when she positioned his palm.

He had continued to resist, but changed his tactics to pulling her tightly against him. He stroked her hair with his other hand. “I just think we should wait a bit longer. I just want to be sure you’re okay.”

“Nicholas!” She’d squirmed, but he had been resolute. She had no idea why he wasn’t as frustrated as she was. He had a healthy libido, and it had been nearly six months. She couldn’t understand why he hadn’t torn her clothes off by now. He persisted in being nothing but gentle with her.

In the end, she’d stalked away. He’d shut the door behind her and she’d heard him tapping away at the keyboard on whatever project he hadn’t wanted her to see. That brought her to this trip—if she couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the sculpture or the man, she was damn well going scavenging.

The clouds sailed along with little regard for the world below. The wind was sharp enough to make her feel truly alive. Emily stretched her arms overhead. It wasn’t just the damned sculpture. Finally, she was out of the house. Nicholas had been so protective lately—overprotective, really. She felt as though she’d slipped her leash. When she turned the corner to the old cannery, she couldn’t wait to get inside. It was a new hunting ground, rife with possibility.

“It’ll be there,” she told the air with confidence. “I can feel it. That building has the answer.”

She climbed over the chain link fence. The cannery had been shuttered for years, with the tall fence meant to be a barricade. However, security had long since stopped patrolling the place, and she could see as she approached that there were loosened window casings. Around the back, a door stood saucily open. She grinned in response.

Inside, the light filtered through the broken and milky windows five floors above. The boilers and tanks on the ground floor were patchy with rust, as though the equipment had mange. Metal stairs went up the far side of the building to the second floor, with catwalks and further stairs leading higher. Piping and ductwork ran both the height and length of the building. Paint had flaked from all of the metalwork in large clumps, leaving the blackened skeletons standing in drifts of the same red and yellow tones as the fallen leaves outside.

The brick walls had been tagged extensively, proving Emily wasn’t the first visitor. A moldy mattress in the corner indicated that there were frequent guests.

She stared upward, feeling like the proverbial kid in the chocolate factory. She wanted it all. She decided to start with the gauge.

The gauge in question was so grimy that it was impossible to read. The glass face was cracked and a small piece in the center had chipped free. The needle pivot peeked through that hole like the pupil of a lidless eye. The gauge came out with a few judicious whacks from her hammer. Into her pocket it went, and then Emily began to hunt her next target.

A floor up, along a catwalk and up another flight of paint-blistered ladder, she saw an intriguing tangle of piping. She’d have sworn it was made of copper except that the scavengers must have removed anything copper years ago. The metal value alone meant that housing developments were under guard at night to keep their plumbing, and anything abandoned was stripped as soon as the fence could be breached. On the other hand, it was so high up that perhaps it had been missed.

Emily made quick work of the first set of stairs.

As she climbed, she almost missed Nicholas. He’d been a great help with the current piece, and he could have scouted the ground floor while she was on the upper levels. He’d been eerily useful in finding just the right object she needed lately, as though he could see the finished product with an artist’s eye. How could he envision something she hadn’t made yet? Maybe he really had seen something like it somewhere else.

As Emily crossed the catwalk, it creaked and swayed. She slowed down, placing her feet cautiously and looking where her weight was going to settle next. She’d always been careful—or lucky—or maybe just light enough to get away with climbs like these. The closer she got to the pipes the more she wanted the potbellied swell of copper on the far side of them.

She made it to the ladder and began to climb. The black rails under her gloved hands were uneven. The ladder shifted under her a bit more than she would have liked. She’d be glad to get onto the next catwalk. The potbellied swell she’d seen from the ground looked like a cucurbit, the bulbous part of a distilling apparatus. The shape was perfect—exactly what she needed. That color was probably rust, now that she was closer. Regardless, it was going to be an ideal start for a new piece. Ideas began to unspool in her head as she climbed, gaze fixed on her target. Her curled fingers pulled flaking metal and paint loose as though the ladder were shedding its skin. She shook the pieces off of one hand.

Then the catwalk creaked again, the ladder rung she held gave way, and the entire structure lurched to the right.

Emily had a moment in midair, watching the light glimmer off of the russet metal that was now out of reach. Each sparkle was like a tiny, rust colored fairy. She fell away from them, with their sharp wings and bright eyes, and then everything went black.

~*~

When she woke, everything felt a bit at a distance. Emily took a deep breath in, waiting for the sharp pain of a broken rib or collarbone. When nothing hurt from breathing, she tested each limb in turn. Everything moved as it should. She was a little stiff, and she could almost hear a high-pitched noise—something like static, or ringing—but that was all.

“I am so incredibly lucky,” she said to the dirty windows, five floors above. Then a rush of panic coursed through her. The gauge!

Heedless of any potential injury, Emily sat up and squirrelled a hand into her pocket. The gauge was still there. When she gingerly removed the item, it appeared to be intact. She breathed again, grateful that she’d stuffed it in her jacket. If it had been in the backpack, she’d probably have landed on it and done herself some serious damage.

Standing, the world didn’t quite orient itself the way her balance indicated it should. She waited, and in a moment the horizon realigned with the horizontal. Some of her hysterical elation faded. Maybe she had done herself damage. However, when she brushed off the thick snow of paint flakes that had helped break her fall, she didn’t feel any wooziness or nausea. The horizontal stayed horizontal. Emily decided to make her way home and just pay attention to her body. She would know if she had to take this more seriously. If nothing else, Nicholas would notice a change.

She didn’t quite limp home, but she was glad to find a cut section of fence she hadn’t seen on her way in. More climbing felt distinctly ill advised.

When she opened the front door, the house was dark and Nicholas didn’t call out a greeting. Emily dropped her filthy coat in the washing machine and put the gauge safely in her workshop. Then she walked down the hall to find her husband. The door to Nicholas’ office was still closed. Standing there, grimy and sore, it was hard to take that as anything but rejection. She probably should have told him that she was going to go shower, if only as a precaution, but Emily decided that she’d been a capable human long before she married Nicholas. She was still one now. She could shower under her own steam.

The dirt and rust came out of her hair easily. There was a moment when she was bent over, drying her feet, that her head suddenly felt almost fizzy, but it passed by the time she dried her hair with the towel.

Nicholas was waiting on the other side of the bathroom door. “I’m sorry I keep putting you off,” he said softly. “I just… you were so sick, back then, and I really thought I was going to lose you. I don’t ever want to feel that way again. I don’t want to do anything that could…”

When she stepped into his arms, it was with a sense of relief. Maybe now, they could get back to the way they were before. But he only held her, and she wasn’t feeling up to pushing the point.

“Do you want an early dinner?” Nicholas asked, and Emily went to find clean clothes. Coming into the kitchen afterward, she wished, as she often did, that the room wasn’t so dark. Under-cabinet bulbs illuminated the stainless steel sink and the pots on the stove, creating two islands of light in the otherwise dim space. The flat gray walls, dark cabinetry and slate countertops meant that it always felt like three in the morning. It was Nicholas’ space, but stood in stark contrast to the man himself.

Two arms stole around her waist and a warm body pressed against her. One of the hands held a jar of oregano. She smiled, letting go of the last of her pique. She leaned back into her husband, but craned her neck to see the clock. “What time is it, anyway?”

“It’s about four,” he murmured into her neck. She squeezed his forearms in affection. Under her hands, she could feel the tension in his muscles and his crisp wiry hair. That hair never failed to catch her attention in contrast to her own smooth (if burn-scarred) forearms.

When he released her, Emily turned her attention to the pots beginning to steam on the stove and the two plates on the counter. She frowned again, because here was something else that was missing. Unlike her sculpture, it didn’t seem to have an easy solution.

“Is your sense of smell gone again?” Nicholas dropped some pasta into the second pot, sprinkling oregano into the first.

Emily crossed to the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of water. “Again,” she confirmed. “It was there yesterday, but it almost flickers in and out. I’m beginning to think I should go to the doctor. I could understand it if I was congested, but I don’t even have a sore throat.” Now, of course, she may have another reason to see a doctor. The smell thing came and went, but there was always more work to tackle whether she could smell or not. Her commissions had been going so well, and she’d told herself it was only her nose. A malfunctioning nose wasn’t that big a deal. However, with her fall today…

Nicholas half-shrugged, turned away as he carefully stirred the sauce. “It’s probably nothing.” He looked up at her, smiling. “Are you developing a secret fetish for having blood drawn? Should I be concerned?”

“What if it’s some weird neurological thing? What if I’m dying and this is just a symptom of some awful—”

“Don’t say that!” he interrupted. “It’s not funny.”

Emily plunked the pitcher on the table, sloshing the water. “But what if it’s something serious? I should at least look into it.” Maybe she should ask him to go with her. Maybe if he could be involved, he wouldn’t be as miserable.

Nicholas drained the pasta, added it to the sauce, and then filled the plates, unhappily regarding his hands instead of her. “If you really want to go…” It was clear how repellent he found the idea, and she decided that she would just go on her own if necessary.

She sighed and sat down. “Doctors aren’t evil, Nicholas. They do serve a purpose.”

Her sense of smell was gone, but taste still seemed to be working. In order to change the subject, she complimented him on the flavor of the pasta and they finished the meal discussing lighter topics. With some amusement, Emily fended off a barely subtle inquiry about how the sculpture was progressing. When asked, Nicholas said his current project was nearing the point when he could release it to the care of the company that had hired him. It was good news. Emily had overheard him on the phone or in his office well into the night, cursing a blue streak at his assorted computers and occasionally malfunctioning wetware. His last job had him ranting at a small beagle clone all weekend, bemoaning the fact that it just couldn’t seem to remember anything.

She was pretty sure the clone was messing with him. Memory transfer was fairly well established, at this point, but working with animals was trickier because it was harder to verify success.

As a sculptor, she understood weekends were two more days when you could get work done—and Nicholas led the same lifestyle. It worked well for them. They were both passionate, both driven, and between the two of them earned enough to be able to work from home on those passions. It was a good life.

In her studio the next morning, Emily polished the base of the gauge until the threads gleamed. The lidless eye became the center of the tornado, staring out amongst the constellations of paper and metal. It drew the human eye like a lodestar. The flickers of light on the polished bicycle spokes near it became something akin to motion—like watching thoughts flash across synapses, solar flares in the galaxy next door. The love letters grounded the other shapes, acting as the negative space. Behind it all, the watchful eye.

“I don’t care how fantastic that copper part was. This is what you needed,” Emily said to the piece, and allowed herself to feel satisfied.

Besides—if she went prepared next time, there was no reason she couldn’t have the potbellied thing. Three stories of unstable stairs in the cannery presented a logistical challenge, that was all.

Emily pulled out a camera so she could send a few stills to her “patron”. She uploaded the shots to a shared directory online. The last year had been wonderful in this regard—she didn’t have to meet anyone if she didn’t want to do so. Once the initial meeting set the budget and covered the aims of a project, she sent updates and photos online. There were no interruptions. She didn’t know why she hadn’t moved to this model sooner. Once the photographs were sent, brim-full of triumph, she grabbed her phone and called Andrea.

“Listen,” Emily started, “I’ve just finished that commission—I’m feeling deplorably self-congratulatory and I’d love to see you. Let me take you to lunch. How about that place by the water? The one with the patio and the lamb panini?”

“You know, now’s a bad time,” Andrea replied, her voice somehow both abrupt and strained.

Emily’s heart sank. Her best friend was having an awful year —every time they talked, something had just happened, and usually nothing good. Lately, Andrea ranged from on edge to outright furious and Emily wished she could do something to help.

There was a pause. “Are you sure?  I mean, you have to eat sometime.”

“No, no, today is terrible. I just can’t.”

“All right. Can we catch up another time? It’s been awhile since we’ve —”

“No, I’m just really busy right now. I have to go.” And then Andrea hung up.

Emily lowered her phone, listening to the wind outside the studio windows. Was Andrea angry at something Emily had done? She didn’t understand, and she was a bit angry herself at being so hurtfully dismissed.

She spun around, about to go back to work, but the world spun along with her and then kept spinning. Emily closed her eyes and counted to ten. When she opened them again, things were still at a decided angle.

That wasn’t good. She had better go get looked at. Carefully, Emily made her way across the room. The studio jutted out of the base of a hill, with the house built into the soil above it. She could walk out into their backyard, and then around to the street. She put on an old painters’ coat that she kept near the door.

After calling a taxi, she looked at her phone and considered. Then she typed a fast message to Nicholas.

Getting a surprise for dinner —will be gone for a bit. I’ll text if anything changes.

Emily sent the message just as the taxi pulled up. Settling in the back, she gave the address. She scratched at her itchy left arm as she waited. Nicholas’ response came a few minutes later.

Sounds good. I have work to keep me busy —but don’t be too long.

Emily was grateful that the cabbie didn’t seem inclined to talk, nor did he take the corners as though they were completing a time trial. After transmitting payment, she picked her way across the street to the doctors’ office. It felt as though her legs weren’t quite connected to her body. She could still manage, but she felt a little as though she were floating.

The waiting room for her doctor was like any other room in the building —all pale green and cream, with beige padded furniture. She could have been anywhere. Emily tried to tell herself that was the only reason that she felt strange and disconnected.

“How can I help you?” the receptionist asked.

“I had a fall and I’m a little concerned that I may have a concussion,” Emily said. “I was hoping to see Doctor Schwartz.”

“I’m afraid Doctor Schwartz is out today, but Doctor Birchman is covering for him —let me see if he has any available appointments.”

Emily sat in one of the beige chairs for a while, trying not to list to one side or do anything alarming. Nicholas texted to say he had an unexpected meeting and would be home around lunch. When the nurse beckoned her back, Emily followed.

“I’ll just get your blood pressure,” the woman said in a crisp tone, wrapping the sensor around Emily’s left arm. Then the nurse frowned, reached out, and thumped the machine.

“Damn thing’s acting up again,” she said. “If you’ll wait here I’ll see if one of the other machines frees up. If not, we can always do it at the end of the appointment.” Emily just nodded and the woman went away.

The doctor came in a few minutes later, with the nurse close on his heels. “I can’t help it if it’s broken,” she said, and from her peevish tone it was apparent this wasn’t their first confrontation of the day.

“Fine,” he said, and the nurse left. When he turned to Emily, his smile appeared forced. “So what seems to be the trouble?”

Emily explained about the fall she’d taken, minimizing the distance and taking pains to mention that nothing seemed broken —but that her body didn’t feel quite right, either. No, there wasn’t any nausea.

He pulled out a penlight and leaned forward. “I’m just going to shine this in your eyes, so look over my right shoulder at the wall.” The light was bright, but not unbearable.

The doctor leaned in closer, and then shone the light in her other eye. Putting the light back on the table, he inserted the ends of his stethoscope in his ears. “Take a deep breath for me,” he said, and laid the round part on her back.

There was a long pause before he straightened. The sour look he gave her made no sense. “This is some kind of joke, isn’t it?” he snapped. “Well, fine, consider me hazed. You can tell Keller that he almost had me going for a minute.”

“Wait, what —” But the doctor had already gotten up and swept grouchily out of the room. Emily waited, but the nurse didn’t come back. In exasperation, she got up and looked down the empty hallway. When she went out to the waiting room, the receptionist said that the doctor had indicated her vitals were normal and that Emily could go home.

Standing outside, Emily looked down at the phone in her hand but didn’t call the cab company. She didn’t want to be cooped up in a taxi again just yet. She was only five minutes from the restaurant Andrea had rejected, though, and that seemed like a plausible destination. She could sit there, rest, and think. Emily turned her feet in that direction almost numbly.

What did he mean, a joke? But the thought led in dizzying circles of questions to which she had no answers, and the world already felt distant enough. To stay grounded, she concentrated on the act of putting one foot down and then the other, focused on the bite of the wind and the sound of passing traffic. It helped. She was still floating a little, but she could navigate well enough.

Emily made it down the block to the corner, scratching that persistent itch on her arm, and then followed that street toward the restaurant. The cafe had almost as much outdoor seating as indoor, with a beautiful view of the river. She would sit down and have a coffee, and then she could call a cab to get home. Looking at her shoes, Emily didn’t glance up until she was across the street from the restaurant.

At one of the outdoor tables, Nicholas was in the midst of an impassioned conversation with Andrea. In shock, Emily looked at her friend’s brown hair gleaming in the sun, the tight chignon revealing her too thin face, and at the black clothing she had been wearing for months. Black wasn’t Andrea’s color —even from here, she seemed more gaunt than slender. Andrea argued with Nicholas, color high in her cheeks.

The numbness rushed back. Nicholas was so intent on what he was saying that he had forgotten to be reserved. He was like that with Emily —enthused and interested, his gaze so intense that it was like a physical touch. Passionate. He’d always been cool with Andrea before, and it had bothered Emily that her friend didn’t see the warm man he really was.

She thought of how Nicholas had put her off so much these last months, and how there had been times lately that he’d been almost secretive about what he was doing in his office.

It had never occurred to her until now that perhaps his libido was still being exercised.

Andrea was damn well going to have time for a conversation now. Emily checked for traffic and then came across the street alight with fury.

“So you do eat,” she said when she was standing over their table. They’d been so involved in their conversation that her arrival was a clear surprise.

Andrea’s face morphed from shock to frustration. Then, Andrea turned to Nicholas and snapped, “Will you tell her now?”

Nicholas’ expression had all the shame and guilt that had been lacking in Andrea’s. He shot up to standing and held his hands out as though to grab Emily. She stepped back, her stomach feeling as though it were in freefall. Would she give him a divorce, if he asked?  Was he going to ask?

“Listen,” he said, the words coming quickly, “I can explain everything. Just, please, sit here, and listen.” His gaze pleaded with her, and all the fire in Emily drained away.

How could he do this to her? How could either of them? Emily pulled out the metal chair with a screech, and then dropped down into it heavily enough to make her teeth click together.

As she did so, something jolted in her head. Emily brought her hand up to her forehead, and something snagged and pulled inside her left sleeve.

Nicholas took a deep breath, and then started stumbling over an explanation of a project he’d been working on. Andrea glared at him from across the table.
Work? Was he really going to talk about work as though he could get out of explaining this affair? Emily lowered her arm, and the snag pulled again. She pushed back her coat to see what it was, wanting to just deal with the snag so she could get on with the yelling that would come, and saw a fine, dark line on her arm. A strand of hair must have gotten pulled into her coat when she put it on this morning. When Emily tried to pluck it free, relieved that something at least would be easy, it wouldn’t come. It almost felt like it wasn’t raised up from her arm at all.

Emily ran a finger over it, and that’s when she understood it wasn’t a hair. Her finger coasted over a thin gap, rather than up and over a bristling hair.

A gap? Now completely distracted from Nicholas’ incoherent explanation and Andrea’s interruptions, Emily ran a nail down the length of it and the gap widened.

This couldn’t be real. No one had cracks in their skin.

It was a dream. And that was a relief, because that meant that everything today —the doctor, the strange sensations, the shouting match between her husband and her best friend —none of it was happening. In dreams, anything could happen, and so it seemed perfectly reasonable to dig her nails in and pry open the crack.

The gap widened and a panel became visible in her forearm. She discovered that her arm was full of wires. She wondered what that meant in a dream. Emily picked up a butter knife and prodded at the wires. Was it like a toaster? Would she be electrocuted?

Just as she heard Nicholas’ shocked voice say “No —” the knife connected two things meant to stay apart. There was a spark, blinding white and more brilliant than the sunshine. Emily only had time to think, More fairies? before she felt herself slump to the side.

She watched the edge of the table slip by her, the world turning to show her nothing but sky and then the street behind them. She couldn’t do anything to arrest her fall. She felt herself hit the ground. She couldn’t untangle her legs from the chair, or sit up, or so much as blink. Lying there, she started to panic. Why couldn’t she move? The dream shifted into a nightmare.

Nicholas appeared at her side, turning her over, his face a study in anguish and worry. “No, no!” Andrea must have stood as well, because a moment later she was standing over Emily.

Emily focused everything on making her lips move and emitting sound, but remained trapped in her own body. She could only scream into the quiet of her mind.

Andrea’s fisted hands trembled. Tears stood in her eyes. As Nicholas looked up, saying, “I can fix this.  Quick, hand me —” Andrea’s arm lashed out and her open palm connected with his cheek.

“For the love of God, she’s been dead for six months! You can’t just bring her back, having her recreate that damned sculpture for you like nothing has changed! You have to let her go.

All Emily could do was scream.


Rachel has watched the sun rise from a mountaintop, faced down a tarantula in the wild, and seen the Milky Way from the desert. She is one half of the Patreon project Brunch At The Fiction Buffet (www.fictionbuffet.com). Her work can also be found in lit.cat, Disturbed Digest, and Broadswords and Blasters.

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