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2014 Top 10: #10 Time for Cake

As a young woman in the 80’s, I had no intention of becoming a proper wife and mother. Even though home ec was still offered at my high school, I would never dream of taking time away from chemistry or debate to learn the skills of domestic servitude.

As a mom in 2014, I wish I had gotten some better training in how to make a home. Jobs like dishes, meals, groceries and, worst of all, keeping track of a family’s calendar, are more confusing to me than calculus. If you want to talk about a mathematical study of change, limits, and infinite sequences, try developing a system for handling family laundry.

Living in 2014 it feels like the world is changing so fast, there’s no way to slow down or even plan for a consistent routine. Earlier this year I found myself wanting to talk with my late grandmother, my father’s mother. Her home was a sanctuary for me my entire life, even as she was dying. I wanted to know how she managed to cultivate serenity.

One thing that stood out to me about her – and many women of previous generations – was her ability to send cards at exactly the right time. I always received a birthday card from her on my birthday. How did she know to send it in the mail at the exact right time? I suspect calendar-keeping was a core training for housewives – the kind of skill I rejected for fear it would detour my career aspirations.

We had some intense wind storms move through Tacoma last winter, all howling and driving and threatening to rip up everything in their path. Then, a news story in February about cataclysmic climate change upset me so badly I tried to imagine myself back in my grandmother’s home, where her calm energy created a bubble of safety. I wondered how she managed to keep her calendar, and those cards, rolling even when the news was dire. That’s how this story came to mind.

“Dimensional Disturbances” is my title for the kind of stories I’ve always loved. “Twilight Zone”, “Outer Limits”, Stephen Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories”, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson. Creepy, tense, a couple degrees off normal life, exploring human nature – that’s how I like them. They remind me that life always holds the element of surprise.

I wanted to be a writer for a long time, but it always came after school, work, kids, chores. This past year I swallowed down my fear of failure and finally tried to push out some of the stories that have been begging to be told. With the calendar telling me another year is around the corner, I thought I’d count down the most popular posts from 2014.

Coming in at #10, “Time for Cake”.

p.s. You can find the recipe for Mildred’s cake here.

***

originally published February 16, 2014

***

a “Dimensional Disturbances” story

illustration by Britton Sukys

Mildred woke before the alarm every morning, but she kept setting it anyway because she hated breaking her routine. So much of her day depended on doing everything at the right time, or else it wouldn’t get done at all.

She put on her housecoat and slippers, made the bed, and stood in front of her dresser mirror to brush out her pin curls. Downstairs, she started the coffee percolator and pulled out a box of wheat biscuit cereal. There was only enough for her one bowl, so she walked over to her to-do list and wrote down ‘Buy More Cereal’.

The older Mildred got, the more she had trouble remembering the little things. She’d tell friends that if she didn’t keep a list, “I might forget where I left my head.”

She surveyed the items already on her list and frowned. More than five items and she might not get to any of them. She walked over to the wall phone to tackle the third item down, ‘Schedule Yard Man’. But, when she got there, she noticed something written on the calendar.

The note was in her own perfect Palmer Method handwriting.
It took up the entire square for the day.
It said, “Wait for Weather Rpt.”

Normally, Mildred wouldn’t abbreviate. It didn’t seem ladylike. She knew, then, that she must have really wanted to remember that message. She set down the to-do list, accepting that she might even need to start a second sheet of note paper by the end of the day.

****

Once the morning dishes were washed and put away, Mildred loved to sit down to the newspaper. That part of her routine disappeared several years earlier when the newspaper in her town closed. Most everyone she knew used the computer to keep up on events, but looking at a screen made Mildred’s eyes hurt. Instead, she picked up her oversized book of crosswords and worked on a half-finished puzzle from the day before.

After a few minutes, she looked out the picture window over her breakfast table to consider the clue, “Slanted column. (9 letters)” So far she had the letters, _ _ I _ O _ _ _ L.

Watching the clouds often helped Mildred come up with the right answer. As she looked up, though, she noticed the clouds moving faster than she could ever remember seeing. Then she looked into her back yard. The wind had knocked her potted geraniums into the azalea bushes. She remembered that was the reason she wanted to get the Yard Man out.

Mildred didn’t like having to ask others to take her of her business. She used to be able to handle everything around the house, and still have time and energy to take a covered dish to a sick friend or drive out to see family in the country. That was before her husband and son died, before her heart attack, before her memory got so bad. But, even back then she knew she wouldn’t be able to do everything forever. “All in the Lord’s time, all in the Lord’s time, ” she said quietly to herself.

Still, she felt stronger than usual that morning, the wind died down a bit, and Mildred decided to cut a few of the last gardenia blossoms. One or two fresh blooms in a juice glass made her whole kitchen smell just like her mother’s perfume.

****

On her way to put on her gardening dress, Mildred looked out her front windows, through the pine trees in her large front yard. She saw groups of young people stumbling down the street, laughing loudly and singing rude songs. It pained Mildred to see the youth hurt themselves like that. For all the fun they looked like they were having, they’d probably suffer later.

Mildred stepped onto her back patio in the same double breasted chambray smock she’d worn gardening for forty years. She knew it was quality when she bought it. She tried to always choose things that would last. Her clippers weren’t holding up as well, but they were probably sixty years old. Mildred found a can of Rust-B-Gone inside the back door and carefully oiled the joint of the clippers.

She was so focused on her task, she nearly jumped out of her skin when her young neighbor called her name. It was only then that Mildred realized she had forgotten her hearing aid on the night table. However, it didn’t matter that Mildred couldn’t hear the pretty redhead, the woman was already deep into saying something.

Mildred only caught words and phrases, “worried about you”, “we’re trying to make this a celebration”, “don’t be alone”, “no time”. She said “no time” over and over, but Mildred was used to the hurried pace of people half her age.

Mildred remembered when time went slower. She liked the slower life. Radio, television, phones, computers, they all made things go too fast. The faster people went, she noticed, the faster they wanted to go. She only kept clocks in the house to remember her routine, and know when to expect visitors.

Mildred also remembered a time when visitors announced their arrival and didn’t sneak up on people to chatter away without checking to see if the older woman could actually hear.

Before Mildred could say anything back, her neighbor pointed at the sky and ran back to her house. Overhead, a thick black line of clouds moved in from the East. Late summer often brought dramatic thunder storms.

Mildred spent many summer evenings as a child relishing the alternately cool and hot breezes that came before the lightning. While everyone else in her family would rush to tie down the loose items and shut the barn doors, she would smell the ozone and listen to the fevered cricket song, waiting for the bugs to fall silent moments before the drops fell. She couldn’t hear the crickets now, even if they were singing. So, she went back inside to find her hearing aid.

****

The hearing aid was more trouble than it was worth. By the time Mildred got it loud enough to make out the sounds around her, the little bud squeaked. She couldn’t hear the pitch, so her company often spent most of the visit working with her to get the level just right so they could have a conversation. People never said much new after all that trouble, that’s why she often left it by the bed and just nodded and smiled as people talked. That’s all anyone wanted, anyway, someone to nod and smile while they spilled out all their thoughts.

If she was going to hear the Weather Report, though, Mildred would need her hearing aid. The closed captioning in her area was so bad, it was a puzzle trying to figure out what the people on the television really did say when the words on the screen read, “MY CATS GOT WEEDED DOWN AGAIN.”

After  putting on a newly pressed cotton dress, Mildred pulled out a freezer bag of field peas and some rice for lunch. With her aid in, she could hear the sounds of fat rain drops against the sliding glass doors. Dark clouds marched higher in the sky, there was a distinct division between bright blue and roiling black.

Mildred thought of hurricanes, and she hoped the Weather Report wasn’t going to be about another big storm. There had been so many recently, it seemed like more than when she was young. Even the weather got more turbulent over the years.

Mildred decided a piece of cake would be a welcome indulgence if the weather was bad. There were usually a couple frozen pound cakes in her upright, but she let her niece take the last one a few weeks before. Mildred would have to make a new one if she wanted a slice. She walked over to her to-do list and wrote down, “Make Cake”.

Then, she put two sticks of butter, five eggs and a cup of milk on the counter to come to room temperature. Really, that was the hardest part of good baking, the part most of her grandchildren were too impatient to get right. If you want smooth batter, which gives you an even crumb, you need room temperature ingredients, and there is no way to rush it.

Mildred was glad she wrote, “Make Cake” on the list, though. Many times she absentmindedly put all her ingredients back in the ice-box, not remembering why she set them out.

****

The afternoon passed in the same way it almost always did. Mildred practiced her favorite tunes on the piano, a ragtime song and then hymns. She could hear commotion outside from time to time, but she didn’t hear a single plane. Living so close to the military base, she could usually hear the cargo planes at all hours. She guessed the storm was too dangerous for flying.

She played a few rounds of solitaire, read her Bible, closed her eyes for a short nap and then sat at her desk to write her letters. She pulled out her calendar of important events, every one marked in blue pen with the day she had to mail a card for it to arrive exactly in time. It meant something to get a card on your birthday, that’s why she did it. She liked making others feel remembered.

As Mildred looked at her desk calendar, though, she saw another note to herself, all in capital letters, “WAIT FOR WEATHER RPT.” It seemed odd that she would want to hold off on tending to her calendar just because of the weather. But, she trusted her own instructions. She was always level-headed, if forgetful.

****

It was almost time for the Weather Report when Mildred looked out at the pines again. They swayed widely, arcing all together as the hard wind blew in from the East. Hurricanes usually brought swirling winds. Something was different, very different. Mildred felt her stomach knot a little with fear.

Luckily, she had a routine for when things veered from her proper routine. She pulled a small, crystal sherry glass from the cabinet that once belonged to her grandmother. She filled the glass halfway from a bottle at the very back of her pantry. It was sweet and hot and absolutely the right tonic for her nerves.

****

On her way to the den, Mildred picked up her to-do list. She hoped the Weather Report would help her decide which items were the most urgent to get done. She wanted a smaller list, and she wanted to call the Yard Man as soon as the weather cleared.

Mildred was careful as she took the three steps down into the den where her television lived. The room used to be a garage, but her husband had it converted. It was a big room and relaxing, and she decided to sit in her husband’s old leather recliner for a change, since the day was turning out to be different than most.

Mildred’s husband had been dead for twenty years, but she could still smell his cigars and often thought she caught him walking through hallway, just out of the corner of her eye. He loved watching the news, and she mostly still watched it to think of him.

****

For all the serenity that Mildred cultivated with her simple daily rituals, the television was always chaotic – and that day more than ever. She turned on her local station and saw images of people running and screaming, the newscasters weren’t wearing proper makeup so their faces looked ghastly pale. People talked too fast to understand and the closed captioning was simply a jumble of letters, as though the typist fell asleep at the keyboard.

Finally, the pandemonium switched over to a still shot of the president’s office. The announcers spoke in hushed, anxious tones. The president stepped in front of the camera, looking rumpled and tired.

Mildred was shocked that she lived long enough to see a woman become president. It didn’t really matter to her either way, it just wasn’t anything she expected. If a woman was going to president, though, Mildred wondered why she didn’t look a little more put together.

Then the president began talking, clearly, slowly, in a tone that didn’t hurt Mildred’s ears.

“The storms are definitely coming.
Already the methane rain has started falling in Europe.
We still have had no communication out of China and, based on the chemical makeup of the clouds over Africa, it looks like no life will survive this.
If you are watching this, hold your loved ones.
As humans, we had a good run, but this is how it ends.”

Then the screen went black.

Mildred heard the winds howl and rage. She looked at the bookshelves that held photos of her family. The phone started ringing in the kitchen.

Mildred looked down at her hand where she still held her to-do list. The phone kept ringing, but Mildred took the time to carefully cross through, ‘Schedule Yard Man’, ‘Buy More Cereal’, ‘Call Mabel’, and ‘Birthday Cards’. The last item on the list was ‘Make Cake’.

Mildred held her pen over the ‘M’. She came close to touching the tip to the paper. But, she noticed the electricity was still running, the wind hadn’t broken any windows yet, the clock in the hall still ticked away.

All the ingredients would be at the perfect temperature by now.

She put the list down and headed for the kitchen. There was time for cake.

Speleological Truths

a “Dimensional Disturbances” story

Tara agreed with the committee’s decision to close the cave for safety reasons. No one had gotten hurt or trapped yet, and the school was keen to ensure no one ever did. As dazzling as the spelunking was, the cave was a liability.

Tara volunteered to place the warning signs, though, because she wanted one more chance to explore its muddy mystery. Rather than her usual companions, she invited Liam to go along with her. He was the kind of guy who scoffed at warning signs. In fact, he often boasted on their field research trips that nothing was worth doing unless there was some level of danger.

Tara and Liam were both senior geology majors, about to graduate and leave their mountain university, including all the natural wonders of its vast domain. Over the course of their studies, they had taken at least ten classes together, but never hung out socially.

That afternoon, they staked KEEP OUT signs all around the cave’s entrance. The yellow aluminum triangles included notices about the rising water levels that the cave survey team found.

Then, Tara and Liam pulled on brown-red, streaked coveralls, caving helmets and small gear packs around their waists. They waded into the frigid stream that flowed out of the cave mouth. A strong wind blew in their faces, smelling of mud and mineral.

“I thought you were part of the safety survey group,” Liam said as he followed Tara’s lead.

“I was.” Tara scrambled up the small dirt slope that rose above the stream inside the cave. At the top, a long, narrow shaft led deep into the cave’s interior.

“Then why do you want to go back in?”

Tara didn’t expect a guy like Liam to question her. He boasted about scaling rock cliffs without ropes. He told everyone stories about how he’d hike for days, eating off the land. He often shared pictures he took on scuba dives in exotic locations. Tara asked him to join her because she figured, if anyone, he could handle a risky exploration.

Tara crouched at the threshold of the descent, the last spot where outside light could reach. She flicked on her headlamp and said, “I was on the survey team, and the water really is rising. But, I saw something new down there. No one was willing to check it out. It looked like a super-saturated mud wall collapsed and opened up a new passageway. I want to see what’s down there before it’s totally submerged.” Then, she scooted on her butt down the steep entrance to the darkness below.

Liam turned on his headlamp, illuminating Tara’s slide from behind. “Sweet. Let’s do this.”

The university sat on top of a vast limestone deposit, so caves were common. Some were deeper, some drier, many bigger than the one Tara and Liam entered, but this cave was special. It was the first cave new students explored when arriving on the school’s domain. There were many tricky passageways, narrow turns, and claustrophobic rooms, but the final destination of the cave made it worth it.

Tara stayed in front of Liam as they hugged the cave walls, edging deep ravines, winding down into the lower rooms. They were both careful not to put their hands on the damp calcite ribbons, the cave bacon, that draped from the ceiling. Minerals dissolved in the water slowly built up to create the colorful formations, at a rate of about a centimeter a year. The oils from a person’s finger would kill them, blocking the water and arresting their growth. In some places, cavers could be fined or jailed for touching flowstone.

Tara didn’t touch anything, but her mind traced all the memories she made in the cave. While classmates, like Liam, went on to bigger, solo adventures, Tara became a student trip leader. She took hundreds of groups spelunking, climbing and hiking, introducing them to the ancient stories told in the rock layers around the school. She knew this cave so well, she could almost crawl it in the dark. Occasionally she’d even spend the night just inside the mouth of the cave. She felt safer there than on the highway, or at a party, or pretty much any other situation.

After about ten minutes, they reached the hanging rope ladder that dropped into the lower levels of the cave. Tara spoke to Liam for the first time since the threshold, “We should pull this up on the way out, so no one is even tempted to come down again.”

Liam lifted one of the rungs and looked at the worn plastic, “What if WE want to go down again?”

Tara smiled, “Then I’ll have the ladder.”

Liam smiled back, “Damn, Tara. I’ve known you four years and I never took you for the rebel. You’re always Miss Do-Right, honor roll, academic scholarship, lab lead, y’know… safety lady.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me.” Tara climbed down the ladder. With each step, the sound of moving water got louder.

At the bottom of the twenty-foot drop, Tara and Liam stood in water that almost covered the tops of their boots. Liam looked at his feet, “Shit. The water’s a lot higher than I remember. I’ve never seen this part wet.”

“I know,” Tara bent down to feel the water rush past her fingers, “the cave’s changing.”

Walking single-file, they followed the water upstream as the walls closed in around them. Soon, the water disappeared under rocks, the floor rose, and their path led them into an even tighter hall. They had to turn sideways to shimmy between the walls. Their helmets occasionally scraped the rock and their eyes were inches from the limestone.

The passage led to another small drop, then a narrow hole in the ground. One at a time, they lowered themselves into the opening, arms above their heads to fit.

Once they both were through and crouching in the small space below, Liam looked at Tara, “Big Belly Woe and The Baby Hole. Done. Now for everyone’s favorite…”

“Pancake Passage.” Tara finished his sentence. The next room was her favorite, but also the place where many novices turned back. When she led student groups through the cave, Tara always had a few who would choose to leave, even though the best part of the cave was just on the other side.

Pancake Passage was twenty yards of crawling through a space just two-feet high. The easiest way through was to lay on your back and slide sideways, sandwiched between the rock layers.

Liam offered to go first, “I’ll clear the way for you.”

“Clear it of what?” Tara never found anything down there, and years of spelunkers’ backs swept the space clean and smooth.

“You know, dead bodies, booby traps, what-have-you.”

“What?”

“Actually, this is my least favorite part. Let me go first. I gotta move fast.”

“I didn’t think you ever got scared. I mean, you dove with sharks.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me.” Liam lay down and disappeared under the low ledge.

 

Tara wedged in after him and slid sideways at her usual pace, but kept bumping into Liam. “I thought you wanted to move fast.”

“Tara, what do you say to students who get scared at this point?”

“Well, I like to tell them where they are in relation to above-ground. But you know all that.”

“Do me a favor. Tell me again.”

“Okay. You’re about five-hundred feet under the university chapel right now. If you took a jackhammer to the chapel floor – if the priest would let you – you’d have to chip away for weeks to reach this space.”

Liam stopped, breathing fast, “How the hell does that help?!”

Tara laughed. “Hey! That’s what all the students say! And I say, if this room collapsed, so would the chapel. It would take a catastrophic earthquake to bring this down. And that’s exceedingly unlikely. No, you’re more likely to drown in a wet cave like this, than to have solid rock crash on you.”

Liam said nothing.

Tara thought for a moment, then said, “I also tell them to imagine they’re hiding under a giant’s bed in a game of hide and seek.”

Liam said nothing.

Finally, Tara elbowed him hard, “Are you falling asleep or something? Just keep moving, fruitcake!”

Liam resumed scooching, “I don’t know how you handle those kids. I’d probably just leave them down here.”

“Well, I wouldn’t.”

They slid a few more yards in silence, then Liam asked, “How fast IS the water rising down here?”

“I don’t know, but I’m pretty confident we’re fine. Remember, I’m Miss Do-Right. I wouldn’t risk my life. I just want to see what opened up behind the Sculpture Gallery. We’re really almost there.”

“Yeah, I can smell the mud now.”

“Hey, do you remember the first time we explored this cave?”

“Totally. Freshman Orientation. You wore glasses and they broke.”

“Yeah, that’s when I told my parents I HAD to get contacts. Mostly I remember you telling all of us stories about canoeing through the Everglades, camping near alligators, eating snakes. You had a shark’s tooth necklace from a shark you caught with you dad.”

“Oh god. I was a jerk. Killing sharks and bragging about it. I was scared shitless to meet new people. I remember you trying to calculate the volume of rock in the mountain, and spouting facts about hypothermia and carbon dioxide.”

“I was scared, too. And then when I cracked my glasses and wanted to cry, you offered to hold my hand the whole way out.”

“I really was a jerk, Tara. I just wanted to hold anyone’s hand until I got out safely.”

Tara didn’t respond. She had always held that memory as a magical moment. Boys never liked her. They wanted her for a lab partner, a math tutor, a debate teammate, but never a girlfriend.

When Liam took her hand that day freshman year, she hoped he might have liked her. Even though he went on to date a string of beautiful and wealthy sorority girls, Tara nursed a secret fantasy that he might ask her out one day.

For the first time ever in the cave, Tara felt trapped in the small space. Then, Liam let out a happy cry.

“We’re through!”

Liam pushed past the last few inches of the low ceiling and stood up in the cavernous Sculpture Gallery. He turned around to help Tara out, but she pushed his hand away.

“I’m fine. I got it. You don’t have to do anything for me.”

Liam shrugged and turned to shine his light on the thick mud walls where decades of students carved their names and faces and crude drawings and favorite quotations. More talented cavers sculpted faces and animals in the soft clay outcroppings.

The ceiling in the Sculpture Gallery soared to thirty feet, and the room was as wide as thirty yards in some places. For students, it was the end of the tour. They’d have a lunch of soggy power bars, find a blank spot to sign their names, and head back for the sun.

Serious spelunkers, though, found squirrely cracks on the far side of the room and tried to plumb new wonders. Over the years, no one found anything except tight spots.

Liam traced with his finger someone else’s scrawling of his fraternity’s Greek letters. “I forgot how cool this place is. Thanks for asking me back.”

“Uh-huh.” Tara pushed past Liam and made a beeline for the space that drew her back into the cave one last time.

When Tara checked the cave with the safety survey team a few days earlier, she found a fresh opening in a wall behind the most elaborate sculpture in the room.

Liam jogged to catch up with Tara. He stopped as she ducked behind a great red bear, eight feet tall, standing on back feet, arms rising to swat down its imaginary opponent. “How long do you think it took someone to carve this guy?”

“I don’t know. But I do know we should hurry. The water’s higher here than it was last time.” An inch of water covered the whole floor of the room.

“Shit. Maybe we should go back.” Liam started backing away from the bear.

Tara swirled to face Liam, hands on her hips, “SERIOUSLY?!?”

Before they went into the cave, Tara marveled at the way the sun caught in Liam’s golden curls. She loved that he wore only a pair of running shorts under his coveralls, so she could see the strong muscles in his stomach as he zipped up. Now, in her lamplight, she could see the bags under his eyes and the way his mouth hung slack when he wasn’t talking.

Tara shone her headlamp into the new crevice behind the bear. “This is what I came back for, Liam. I need, like, ten minutes to see what’s in there. You can wait out here if you want. Can you handle that?”

Liam stepped back from her tone of voice. “Whoa. I am totally okay with what you need to do. I’m sorry. I’m being a shit. Seriously. My bad. You lead. I’ll follow. Dude. I’m sorry.”

Tara regretted snapping at him. She muttered, “I’m sorry, too. I just… This is my last chance. I’ve been down here dozens of times. I did research projects on this site. There could be something cool in there, maybe just as dazzling as this room. I tried to convince the group to let me look last time, but they all agreed it was too risky. I can’t let it go, though. I want to know. Before it’s too late.”

She leaned her head into the fresh passageway and her headlamp cast long shadows across a large space that appeared to be full of stalagmites. Liam tried to peer around Tara’s shoulder, pressing against her back.

“What. The. Hell,” Liam whispered into Tara’s ear as he saw for himself.

“I know.” Tara found the entrance led directly into a chamber about half the size of the Sculpture Gallery. Rocky formations crowded the floor.

“Do me a favor, Liam. Let’s turn off our lamps for a sec.”

As soon as their lights were out, the room glittered with bioluminescence. The stalagmites shimmered.

 

Liam said, “I didn’t think we had glowworms in this part of the world.”

Tara said, “We don’t. I have no clue what this is.” At the far end of the room, she heard the sound of gently lapping water.

Liam put his hand on Tara’s shoulder, “Wanna go father in?”

“Absolutely.” Tara flicked her headlamp back on and the beam lit up the closest formation. She walked closer to it, intrigued by its shape. “Maybe my brain is scrambled because of the Sculpture Gallery – or carbon dioxide – but doesn’t this form almost look… human?”

Liam walked to the other side of it and sucked in his breath, “Hoe. Lee. Shiiiiiiit. Check this out.”

Tara rounded the rock and came face to face with an exact replica of one of her classmates. She started to reach out and touch it, but Liam stopped her.

“If you touch it, you kill it. Right?” Even if it was weird, it was still flowstone.

Tara walked around the room, exploring the other formations and found other faces she recognized. “Oh my god. Here’s Walter… and Anna… Matthew… Haley…”

Liam walked to the other side of the room, “Hey, here’s Tyler… and Beau… William… Franklin…”

Tara stared at her fellow geology majors, all in stone. “This looks like our whole class in here.”

“Everyone except us.”

“We’re here, too.”

“Where?”

“Duh, we’re right here. You and me. Right now.”

“Yeah, but we’re not among the statues.”

“Technically, we are standing among the statues.”

“Dammit, Tara! You know what I mean.”

“Of course I do. I just don’t know what this is. Could someone have sculpted these?”

“When? How? You said this room just opened up.”

“I know, but there must be some logical explanation.”

Liam began running between the rocky replicas, splashing across the floor, calling out, “Where am I?!?”

Tara stopped herself from saying the obvious again. Even though she found his questions hilarious, she was deeply disturbed by her discovery. She tried to think back to the safety survey, to recall anyone else who may have returned in the intervening time. But, she couldn’t imagine someone who could accomplish something like what she saw. And the bioluminesence. How did it get there?

She looked closely at the statues and saw they rose seamlessly from the floor, just like stalagmites. They glistened with moisture, just like any other cave formation. Her brain raced with probabilities and possibilities, rendering her motionless. She didn’t even notice Liam dashing around, calling out the names of classmates he found, then calling for himself – as though his stone version would answer.

The one thing that penetrated Tara’s thoughts was the sound of rushing water. Searching for the logic of their find, she mindlessly walked in the direction of the noise.

Soon, the water rose above her shoes, lapping at her ankles. She looked down and saw a cave salamander scurry out of the light of her headlamp.

She followed the surface of the water with her light and saw it extend far in front of her, reflecting off the ripples of her steps, casting a glow on the ceiling above.

She stood on the edge of an underground lake. Then, her headlamp crossed something rising from the water. She called back to Liam, “Hey! I see something! Spot me!”

Liam ran over, “What is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s about fifteen feet out there. See, another stalagmite… or is two?”

Liam waded into the water in front of her, “I’ll check.”

Tara followed close behind, going deeper into the clear water. As they came closer to the formations, their lamps revealed what looked like two statues in an embrace, facing each other. The water was up to their knees, Liam’s, Tara’s, and the stalagmite couple.

Liam and Tara circled the figures, trying to see the faces. Finally, Tara’s light shone on a limestone version of Liam’s face, eyes half-closed. At the same time, Liam saw Tara’s statue face, gazing at the man in her rock arms.

Liam turned to look at the real Tara and she blinked in the glare of his headlamp. “Are we about to kiss?”

Tara looked down and noticed the water was now up to her thighs. The lake was rising rapidly. “No, we’re about to drown!”

“Holy shit! Get out of here!!” Liam spun around and splashed to shallower water. Tara caught up with him, and they dodged the rock doppelgangers of their classmates, sloshing in ankle-deep water.

They reached the entrance of the mysterious room and saw water pouring down the walls, a curtain of water at the door. Liam pushed Tara in front of him and ran through behind her.

Back in the Sculpture Gallery, the water was two inches higher than when they came in. When they got across to the low ceiling of Pancake Passage, they could see water running under the ledge.

Liam froze in terror, “How deep is that?”

“Shallower than it will be in another minute. Get in!!”

“I can’t.” Liam didn’t budge.

“MOVE!” Tara shoved Liam so hard he stumbled to his knees.

He turned to her, eyes wild, “What if we drown in there?”

“We won’t.” Tara didn’t know that, but she knew it was their only way out.

Liam, on his hands and knees, stayed stuck. Finally, Tara lay down in the water and started to slide under the rock until just her hand was sticking out. “Just hold my hand, Liam!”

Liam tentatively reached out for her fingers and she yanked him under with her.

The water lapped at their ears as they scurried on their backs. Tara started talking, “C’mon, Liam, this is adventure. You survived that glacier, you biked that desert, you dove in those reefs…”

“I lied.”

“What??”

“I went to those places, but I mostly drank and dropped acid. I pulled photos off the Internet and said I took them. I made up a lot of stuff. I lied.”

Tara didn’t say anything. She just kept moving, her hand clenching Liam’s. The water rose to halfway up her cheeks and she heard Liam hyper-ventilating.

“A little math. We’re about halfway, ten yards, thirty feet. Each time we scoot, we cover a yard. Just ten scoots to go! Keep scooting!!”

The water level creeped higher toward Tara’s mouth. “Unhook your helmet! We’ll lose the lights, but you’ll get more room to the ceiling. The water’s helping now, we can float it.”

They moved beyond the glow of their abandoned helmets, deeper into total darkness. Tara felt like she was dragging a rag doll as she slid the last few feet of Pancake Passage. Liam was rigid.

“Breathe, Liam! While you can!!” Tara had to tilt her head back until the water touched her eyebrows to keep her nose above water. She heard him sputter and spout, but at least she knew he wasn’t drowning.

Tara was surprised when her head stopped scraping the ceiling. With only the faintest glow from the helmets back under the rock, she looked up into the vertical tunnel of the Baby Hole. She pulled Liam in behind her and felt his hands grab her tightly.

 

“Liam, you gotta stand up.” He silently obeyed and as he did, a wave of water rushed into the space, rising up their hips.

“Crap! We’re running out of time!! Give me a boost and I’ll reach back for you. Don’t freak out, we’re doing this.” But, Liam didn’t give her a boost. He stood with his arms pressed to his sides.  Tara jumped up, hands on his shoulder, and wedged her feet against the wall so she could climb up on his shoulders. She managed to just squeeze out the top of the Baby Hole.

She knelt back over the hole, “Okay, just raise your arms! That’s all. I’ll get you.” Tara reached down, but only felt Liam’s curls. He was locked in panic.

Tara could hear the water rushing. She knew it was probably up to his waist. She took a slow breath, reached down again and caressed his hair, “Liam, do you know why I asked you to come with me today?”

She felt him shake his head.

“One. For safety reasons, we never cave alone. Two. I knew I would be breaking the rules to come down here one last time. From all your stories I thought you were comfortable breaking rules. So your stories were lies? Nothing to do about that now but make a true story. Right here. Right now. Let’s get out and tell everyone how awesome we are.” She waited for Liam to jump back into action. He didn’t.

“Alright! Fine!! What’s the real reason I asked you? I like you. I’m… attracted to you. You’re hot and sexy and before I graduated to a life of celibate science I thought maybe, just maybe, I could at least hold your hand like when we were freshmen. Maybe down here you’d admit you always had a crush on me. I don’t know. I had so many logical reasons to ask you I didn’t feel the need to admit I hoped you’d take me in your muddy arms and kiss me. So, for fuck’s sake, get out of the Baby Hole before you die down there and I never get to see your hunky body again!!!”

With that, Liam reached up for her hand and climbed up into the darkness of Big Belly Woe. Tara could hear him breathing heavily, but he didn’t say anything.

“Liam, we have this tight squeeze and it dips back down toward water level. It may be high down there. My gear is totally soaked. Useless. We have to find the ladder in the dark. Don’t let go of my hand. We don’t have time to lose each other.”

Together, they squeezed through the narrow hall and back into water that reached their hips. As the walls opened up, Tara felt something bump her thigh. “It’s the ladder!”

Tara pulled rung after rung, expecting to follow it back to its anchor point. Instead, as she kept pulling and pulling with no tension, she realized the ladder somehow came unhitched. There was no way up.

The water rose to her waist. She grabbed Liam’s arm, “Please tell me you can swim.” She felt him move, but not speak. She put her hands on his head and he nodded.

“Okay, that’s a little good news.” The water rose up to her chest.

“For the first time, I hope the water keeps rising. With any luck, we can swim it up to the top of the shaft. If we keep treading, we can ride it.”

Finally, Liam spoke in a tiny voice, “I think we’re about to die in here.” The water reached his shoulders, Tara’s neck.

Tara wrapped her arms around Liam, “Don’t be silly. We’re just about to make it.” As she said that, the water rose above their heads and they started to swim up.

As the water lifted them foot by foot, Tara began to worry the water might suddenly stop rising, that whatever caused the flood might retreat as quickly as it started. She reached out for the walls, as high as she could, hoping to grab the lip of the drop. When her hand landed on the upper floor of the cave, she grabbed Liam’s arm, “Let’s start crawling now, don’t wait for the water!”

They both pulled themselves out of the pool and lay, panting, on the cave floor. Tara waited for the water to spill over them, but it didn’t. Like she had feared, in fact, the water burbled as it started to recede.

Tara started crawling, hugging the wall, just as she had on the way down, “Hug the rock, and you won’t fall. I know this part and I know I we just wind our way up. Stay on your hands and knees behind me. We can go slow.”

After many agonizing minutes of creeping, Tara looked up and could see sun pouring in through the threshold to the cave. They only had a small incline to go before they were out. “C’mon, we’re almost there! Don’t think, just go to the light!”

They scampered the last few yards until they reached the ridge. Then, just as when they entered the cave, they waded through the stream until they emerged in the blazing afternoon sunshine. They collapsed on the bank, under the trees.

Liam looked at Tara and smiled, “Thanks.”

Before Tara could say anything, she heard someone calling her name. It was Haley, from class. Behind her was William, then Tyler and Beau. Walter and Anna came from another direction of the woods.

Haley said, “Oh my god, Tara, we’ve all been looking for you. We came to talk about sealing the entrance to the cave and saw your car and then the signs, and we thought maybe you’d gone on a walk or something.”

Franklin ran up from another direction and stumbled when he saw Tara and Liam, soaked and muddy, “Did you guys go down in the cave? Oh shit! I figured you forgot about pulling up the ladder… so I unhooked it to make sure… no one… got in…” As Franklin realized what must have happened, he sank to the ground.

Anna crouched down in front of Tara, “You were on the survey team. You KNEW it was dangerous. Why did you go back?”

Tara stared back at Anna, the real Anna, and all she could think about was her stone twin, swimming in a subterranean lake. Then, Liam cleared his throat.

“It’s my fault. I came to help Tara, and I couldn’t resist one last trip. For old time’s sake.”

Beau pointed at Liam, “Dude, that’s sick. It’s okay to take risks with your own life, but you could have gotten Tara killed. You’re damn lucky, man. Damn. Lucky.”

Tara stood up, “Really, it’s okay. We’re safe now. And, the cave is flooded. So, no one’s going back down there. Ever.”

After a few more minutes of lecturing and reassurances that they had car keys and would get straight back to campus, their classmates left Tara and Liam alone in the forest.

Liam turned to Tara, “Why didn’t you tell them what we found?”

“Why? We’re all trained in science. With no evidence, no theory, no rational explanation, and no way to even go back, they’d call us crazy. Maybe we didn’t see anything. Maybe it was just too much carbon dioxide. Maybe it was all our imagination.”

“I hope not.”

“Why?”

“Because I want it to come true.”

“You want us all to turn to stone?”

“No. I want to hold you in my arms.”

“That’s just the trauma talking.”

“Maybe. But now you’ve seen me at my worst. And I saw you at your best. You’re awesome.”

“Thanks.”

Liam said, “Can I hold your hand? Just because… I like you?”

Tara recalled a research study that showed relationships that begin in emergency situations rarely last. She agreed with it. But, she held out her hand anyway.

Tara and Liam walked out of the woods together, ready to explore another life mystery, one no less risky than the cave.

Outcomes of Frequency Intervention to Direct Imaginal Disc Determination in Antheraea Polyphemus for Lepidoptera-Human Interaction

a “Dimensional Disturbances” story

 

Professor Billedhugger worked the room, smiling and joking with his colleagues at the National Entomological Research Directors Conference. His white, button-down shirt and tan slacks, the dominant fashion choice among scientists, matched the white and tan striped wallpaper in the hotel conference center. More than a hundred empty chairs filled the floor. No one seemed willing to sit down, lest they miss a chance to schmooze. The professor was so busy laughing with a fellow Research Director he didn’t notice Gayle when she walked through the door.

Gayle was hard to miss. One of the few women, she wore a blazing blue silk scarf over a form-fitting camel dress. Other attendees pushed past her as she watched Professor Billedhugger greet his longtime associates. She was surprised to see him so at ease. She only saw him making awkward small talk with the other researchers at the lab. It never occurred to her that he was capable of normal social interaction. Then again, this wasn’t a normal social situation. This was the one time each year when insect scientists from around the country gathered to show off their breakthrough experiments. Every university and private lab jockeyed for attention and funding dollars, staging dramatic reveals of cutting edge research. It was four days of high-stakes drinking, networking and bragging. Being seen mattered.

Even though she had been working with the professor for more than a decade, this was the first time Gayle attended the conference. Working on his super-secret Antheraea Polyphemus moth cocoon project kept her tied to her experiments. Metamorphosis is an incremental, daily process, every moment an opportunity for error – or innovation.  So, Gayle tended the same giant silk moth caterpillars year after year, tinkering and fine tuning their development, making changes at the behest of the professor, never violating his demand for confidentiality. During that time, she saw the professor grow in prestige and rank among his peers. She also saw lab-mates win awards, fellowships and lucrative positions while she pursued trial after trial.

The final result of all Gayle’s work sat inside the cardboard box that she cradled in her arms while she waited for Professor Billedhugger to notice her. She saw someone whispering something into his ear. The professor held up his hand, took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, between his eyes. Then he looked at the fellow with a hard stare and a tight mouth. That expression was familiar to Gayle. Early in her career with him, she dubbed it the “Dark Director” look. He gave it out whenever anyone suggested his ideas wouldn’t work. She felt a little relieved to know she wasn’t the only one he looked at like that. The relief vanished when she remembered why she was at the conference.

Gayle wanted one more year to repeat her most recent process, but the professor was desperate to finally reveal his pet project. Having been president of the N.E.R.D. conference for three years, he needed a high-profile breakthrough to secure his leadership of the Applied Research Group, the committee that controlled the most generous grant allocations. The work Gayle oversaw was Professor Billedhugger’s idea for the future of the industry. He knew it would be so astounding that no one could deny his brilliance, his foresight, his vision. Then, he could easily shape the research direction of labs everywhere.

Gayle hoped the results would finally open her options as a scientist. After all, she had done all the actual experimenting. The critical process was completely her idea. Despite the professor’s clinical concept, she developed something with almost magical potential … if the unveiling was successful. The professor gave her very little notice about presenting at the conference, so there wasn’t time for her final cocoon to hatch. She would open it up live, witnessing the result of her last metamorphosis with everyone else in the room.

Professor Billedhugger strode over to the hotel’s audiovisual technician and pointed to the jumbo screen that would show the specimen table large enough for anyone to see hairs on antennae. He looked like he was going over the line-up, so Gayle tried to approach him. The professor caught her eye and waved her off, pointing to the row of white and tan chairs where the other presenters sat.

Four men were already sitting, each with a box in his lap. Gayle flashed back to every science fair she competed in as a kid – always mostly boys, always awkward. She was never the best at those fairs, and she tried not to worry that today would continue that legacy. The other presenters exchanged glances with Gayle as she took a seat. No one said anything to her. She felt overdressed and out-of-place, but it was far too late for her to blend in with the crowd.

Gayle tried to get Professor Billedhugger’s attention one more time. She hadn’t spoken with him since the day he told her to prepare for the conference.  It had only been a week earlier.

The process of metamorphosis in the Lepidoptera order of insects, moths and butterflies, was a growing field of study. Other labs were beginning to tinker with imaginal cell outcomes. The professor worried that someone else might claim his hypothesis before he could. When he saw the outcomes of her latest manipulations, he asked Gayle to pack up her last cocoon and prepare a presentation that would make a big impression. She asked for more time, she didn’t like to be rushed, she couldn’t be certain the next cocoons would make the case. The professor reminded her that he was Research Director and it was his decision.

Gayle pulled several all-nighters to develop the presentation and arrived at the conference jet-lagged and jittery. But, if things went well, she would have a chance to compete for a job as a director of her own lab. All the sacrifices would have been worth it if she could get the chance to pursue her own hypotheses, the ones that popped in her head while she stood vigil over Professor Billedhugger’s cocoons, singing to them like sleeping babies.

Gayle began to hum quietly to herself as the professor took the podium and brought the meeting to order. With her hands resting on top of the box, she felt the cocoon wiggle a little at the familiar melody. Or rather, Gayle imagined the wiggling was connected to her tune. Professor Billedhugger frequently admonished her for her flights of fancy. He accused her of entertaining dangerously illogical ideas. He said the habit could ruin her career. Still, Gayle indulged in the fantasy that her work would be as dazzling and revolutionary as she – and the professor – hoped.

Professor Billedhugger had the temperament of a robot, but over their twelve years on the experiment Gayle had seen him experience human emotions. He once even expressed his genuine appreciation for her dedication. She often faced ridicule from other lab staff for trying to alter the development fate of moths with audio waves. No one else in the field was trying anything like that, it seemed preposterous. They argued that investment and support of her studies was a waste. Since the professor insisted on secrecy about his involvement in the project, and the very nature of the project, he wouldn’t publicly voice support or defend her work. But, he also didn’t cut her funding. Gayle appeared to be getting a free ride to pursue her own fanciful ideas, with no results to show for it.

Today was different. She could finally tell the whole story of using Frequency Intervention to Direct Imaginal Disc Determination in Antheraea Polyphemus for Lepidoptera-Human Interaction.

Professor Billedhugger hypothesized that audio frequencies could be used to shape structural development during the pupal stage. Since caterpillar bodies break down completely during metamorphosis, he thought sound waves might change the imaginal cells responsible for the new moth body, resulting in vastly different body structures and organs.

Gayle could still distinctly remember the day she discovered the miracle inside cocoons. She was seven, playing in the woods behind her house. A huge cocoon hung in the crook of a young tree. Even with her hand magnifying glass, the thick white silk walls hid the inner workings. So, Gayle took a stick and poked at the delicate web. Rather than a nest of squirming worms or fetal flying insects, she only found masses of green goo, sticky, snot-looking bio-jelly.

Her father, also an entomologist, found her crying by the tree, trying to glue the cocoon back together. He explained that she had already killed the nursery, but that she learned the amazing secret of metamorphosis. As caterpillars change, their bodies completely dissolve into a gelatinous mass. The only things that survive are cells called imaginal discs, which contain the instructions for building every part of the insect’s new body. He would say, “From proboscis to spiracles, lepidoptera are little miracles,” always mispronouncing one word or another to make the rhyme work.

When Gayle first started to work with the professor her father was proud, but warned her about losing her scientific objectivity in the quest for a breakthrough. Then, her father lost his position in an influence-peddling scandal. He was accused of tailoring trial outcomes to meet the requests of big corporate donors. Gayle’s father went into seclusion and refused to talk with her about her work or any science. His failure made her more determined to make a name for herself, for work that she could claim as her own.

Despite having a PhD, almost every laboratory she applied to after graduate school offered her assistant positions. Professor Billedhugger was the only Research Director willing to give her a lead role, one where her name would be at the top of the study. However, her position depended on her pursuing the professor’s hypothesis. Gayle agreed because she always felt metamorphosis offered vast potential for human regeneration.

Other research teams managed to change wing patterns, even eye shape, of butterflies by using viruses to alter imaginal cell messages. The biggest problem with that method was that viruses could also kill the specimen. So, even though they learned about the inner process of metamorphosis, no useful product or process came out of the research.

Human applicability was the innovation that drove Professor Billedhugger. In a time when research dollars were growing scarce – especially for entomology – labs had to prove their research was critical to human life. The professor thought it would be possible to build entirely new creatures from the raw materials of caterpillars. He envisioned insects that could perform useful tasks at the order of human creators.

It was a vision that got him taunted as “Dr. Frankenfly” when he first mentioned it at a conference fifteen years earlier. He still believed it was possible, though, and in Gayle he found a sympathetic mind. Having seen her father’s fate, and carrying her own impressive debt load from her doctorate, she knew the financial strain of science. She understood the need for human potentials. More than money, though, the professor’s vision paired with her own drive to help people live better lives.

The cocoon in the box on Gayle’s lap was the breakthrough of her life. After years of using computer tones, then drum beats, then music, she finally used her own voice to influence the imaginal cells. It was an act of desperation. Early attempts altered the color, strength, size and even flight patterns of her moths. But, none of the frequencies radically changed the structure of the insects. Professor Billedhugger insisted she bring him an anatomically unique creature that responded to human orders, flying per instruction, or possessing the ability to carry cargo like computer chips, or anything that would set the science world – and most importantly – the general public on fire for more research.

The first cocoons she sang to were different right away. They would bounce and jump at her voice. She could even record sounds, similar in frequency to her song, coming from the cocoons. The hatching moths were bigger, with only fore legs and hind legs, no mid-legs. Their eyes and body were smaller and they would follow her around, coming to her whenever she sang the melody of their metamorphosis.

Gayle’s first songs had no words. She just focused on frequencies. Professor Billedhugger urged her to push further, to instill the ability to truly act out human instructions. So, she followed Occam’s razor and literally told the moths what she needed.

In the months before the N.E.R.D. conference, Gayle bred successive generations of moths, singing specific instructions, telling them how their purpose was to serve others, that their future depended on them pleasing the ones who gave them life, paraphrasing a poet she read in college. “As you are Polyphemus, so be beautiful; as you are fragile, so be obedient; as you are changing, so be useful.” Poetry isn’t scientific, but she figured the words were less important than the tone of her voice.

Each hatch of moths was more responsive, and their wings developed more distinct patterns while their bodies grew thinner and their legs more developed. Professor Billedhugger spent more and more time in Gayle’s lab, clapping and laughing as she commanded newly emerged moths to fly in formation. They hung in the air around her head, flapping so hard that the breeze made her eyes water as she tried to watch them.

Her last generation of moths was due to hatch on the day of the conference. A week before, she went to the professor’s office to tell him about strange new noises she heard from the cocoon, almost like her own muffled voice, knowing that he would be out-of-town when the moths emerged. She expected a lecture about her runaway imagination. Instead, the professor told her it was time to share the experiment.

Now, Gayle was just one presentation away from her destiny. The last of the other researchers delivered a heart-felt plea for protecting honeybees from pesticides, revealing new, devastating facets of colony collapse. Bees always got the limelight in entomology. They were the most useful, and beloved, insects. Bees were a hard act to follow. Gayle didn’t have time to get nervous, though, because Professor Billedhugger delivered a short introduction for her.

She expected the professor to give the background of his hypothesis, to set the stage for her. He didn’t. He simply said, “Our last presenter is from my lab, but I won’t play favorites. Dr. Gayle Graves will share her research on altering moth metamorphosis with audio frequencies.” Gayle stepped to the podium amid half-hearted clapping. At the back of the room, caterers began moving in lunch items.

From the podium Gayle could see a room of stern faces and the reflection off at least a hundred pair of glasses and nearly as many bald heads. She felt the urge to crawl into the box with the cocoon. Everything in her notes suddenly seemed silly, ridiculous even. She decided to skip past the opening she planned – singing the poetry she sang to her moths. She frantically scanned her script for a place to start, then she looked over and saw the professor smile at her. He gave her a thumbs up. If he had her back, Gayle had the confidence to tell the world about her marvelous discovery.

It typically takes two hours for a moth to fully unfurl its wings and be ready to fly. Gayle wanted to share the story of her research while the moth began the process live on the jumbo screen. She knew that if she cut into the cocoon early she risked killing the moth, but she was willing to take the chance. If the moth didn’t fully reveal itself, the attendees could still see all the anatomy of the specimen. Besides, she was so familiar with these moths that she felt like she could almost bring them to flight with her willpower alone. And if the moth didn’t live, that was the price for knowledge. In the name of science, she was willing to sacrifice most anything.

Without speaking, she gently lifted the silk-wrapped leaf from its box and placed it in front of the camera on the specimen table. Behind her, the screen showed her hands, giant against the fragile cocoon as it tumbled back and forth on its own. The moth was ready for its moment in the spotlight. She held a scalpel to the silk and said, “Fifteen years as an entomologist and I’m still excited to see what emerges.” She gently cut the strands of fiber and peeled back the cocoon to reveal the wet mass of metamorphosis.

“This is the result of more than a decade of frequency manipulation on the imaginal cells of the developing Antheraea Polyphemus moth pupa. My goal was to breed the first domestic Lepidoptera, able to respond to human command, with the potential to be useful in daily lives.” A snicker came from the audience, a harumph rang out even louder. Professor Billedhugger rolled his hand in the ‘get on with it’ gesture.

Gayle began to lay out the principles for imaginal cell directions and how sound frequencies could affect them. But, before she got a full sentence out, it was clear the specimen was doing something different from anything anyone in the room had ever seen. Its wings unfurled as though in time-lapse, much faster than normal. Gayle hadn’t noticed that her moths emerged so quickly, she had only been focused on their response after emergence. The audience began to murmur and gasp as the wings spread wide, revealing a span bigger than her hands. The markings on all four wings looked just like human eyes. The moth’s body was still curled up underneath the wings, so  Gayle tried to wrestle the attention of the crowd back to scientific techniques. But then the moth did something never seen before. It stood up.

All eyes were glued to jumbo screen, all except Gayle. She stared at the specimen table. As the creature she created rose higher on a pair of long, graceful legs, she could see that it had the body shape of a woman. It stretched out two trembling arms and then lifted up a head with the proportions of a human face. The creature rubbed her tiny eyes.

The entire room was silent. Every eye fixed on the movements of the strange creature as she searched for Gayle’s face in the light above the specimen table. Then, someone from the back of the room coughed. Chairs squeaked. Finally, a man from the back called out, “That’s not science, that’s an abomination!”

The scientists from the honeybee labs all started booing. Gayle heard one person yell, “We already have enough women in science!” A wave of laughter erupted. People stormed out, chaos ensued. Several Research Directors rushed Professor Billedhugger to demand his explanation for such folly.

Gayle looked to see how the professor would defend their work. Instead, she saw him frown and shrug his shoulders. He pointed at her, “This was her idea. I tried to give her an opportunity, but I see she had other nonsense in mind.” He gave Gayle the “Dark Director” face and jerked his thumb toward the conference room door.

The jumbo screen still showed the newly hatched moth-woman reaching out for Gayle. No one even looked at her. Gayle scooped the creature into her hands and pushed her way through the crowd, ducking fingers pointed at her, trying to shut out the taunting names she heard being called after her. Despite the professor’s public denial, Gayle still thought he’d follow her out, offer some consolation.

When she got to the door, though, she turned around and saw the professor standing in the center of a group of Research Directors. He was laughing, nodding as the other men mocked the way the moth-woman held out her hands. She waited to see if the professor would catch her eye, send any signal her way. He didn’t.

Gayle didn’t realize she was blocking the doorway until another researcher stepped into her line of sight, “In or out, lady, choose one.” Gayle moved into the grand hallway of the hotel to let her colleague pass. Then the door of the conference room slammed in her face. The commotion of the crowd disappeared and she was alone, on the outside.

In the still cool of the hall Gayle finally took a close look at the creature in her hand, holding her up to her eyes. She peered into a miniature version of her own face, smiling and expectant. Then, the tiny moth-woman spread her wings and took to the air.

Gayle watched it fly down the long carpet, wobbly at first, in the direction of the exit doors. Gayle could see the small, dark figure silhouetted against the bright sun streaming in from outside.

For a moment, Gayle considered going back to tell the professor that his experiment was flying away. Then she saw the way the moth caught the light. The eyes on the wings seemed to blink back at her. If no one opened the door to let the moth-woman outside, she might fly into the glass door, dying before she ever had a chance to live.

Gayle ran down the carpet, calling out, “Wait! Wait for me!”

 

Time For Cake Recipe

One of my very favorite memories is making pound cake with my Grandmama. She lived in a large house set way back from the street, and time seemed to stop when I visited her, especially when we baked.

It was that sense of timelessness, and a spate of severe winter rain and windstorms here in the Pacific Northwest, that inspired the story, “Time For Cake”.

If the story inspires you to take the time to make cake, don’t rush bringing all the ingredients to room temperature.

This recipe isn’t exactly the same as my Grandmama’s, but comes pretty daggum close. It’s adapted from the book, “Hungry for Home”, and I use it since I’m too ashamed to let my family know I lost the recipe my Grandmama wrote out for me, in her Perfect Palmer Method handwriting.

 

Time For Cake Cake

about 12 slices

2 sticks butter, room temperature

5 eggs, room temperature

3 cups sugar

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup milk, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

 

Preheat oven to 350

Grease a tube pan.

Using a mix, cream butter and sugar until the mixture is fluffy and the color gets lighter.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time.

Sift together flour and baking powder.

Stir vanilla extract into milk.

Add 1/3 flour mixture to butter and egg mixture, stir gently by hand until flour is all incorporated.

Add 1/2 cup milk mixture to flour, butter, egg mixture. Stir gently by hand.

Add 1/3 flour mixture, stir by hand.

Add 1/2 cup milk mixture, stir by hand.

Add final 1/3 flour mixture, stir batter gently until smooth.

 

Pour batter into greased tube pan.

Bake 55-65 minutes at 350 degrees, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Cool cake for ten minutes.

Slide a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake, invert onto a cooling rack.

Let cake cool completely before slicing. Wait for it. (Unless it’s the end of the world.)

 

Time For Cake

a “Dimensional Disturbances” story

illustration by Britton Sukys

Mildred woke before the alarm every morning, but she kept setting it anyway because she hated breaking her routine. So much of her day depended on doing everything at the right time, or else it wouldn’t get done at all.

She put on her housecoat and slippers, made the bed, and stood in front of her dresser mirror to brush out her pin curls. Downstairs, she started the coffee percolator and pulled out a box of wheat biscuit cereal. There was only enough for her one bowl, so she walked over to her to-do list and wrote down ‘Buy More Cereal’.

The older Mildred got, the more she had trouble remembering the little things. She’d tell friends that if she didn’t keep a list, “I might forget where I left my head.”

She surveyed the items already on her list and frowned. More than five items and she might not get to any of them. She walked over to the wall phone to tackle the third item down, ‘Schedule Yard Man’. But, when she got there, she noticed something written on the calendar.

The note was in her own perfect Palmer Method handwriting.
It took up the entire square for the day.
It said, “Wait for Weather Rpt.”

Normally, Mildred wouldn’t abbreviate. It didn’t seem ladylike. She knew, then, that she must have really wanted to remember that message. She set down the to-do list, accepting that she might even need to start a second sheet of note paper by the end of the day.

****

Once the morning dishes were washed and put away, Mildred loved to sit down to the newspaper. That part of her routine disappeared several years earlier when the newspaper in her town closed. Most everyone she knew used the computer to keep up on events, but looking at a screen made Mildred’s eyes hurt. Instead, she picked up her oversized book of crosswords and worked on a half-finished puzzle from the day before.

After a few minutes, she looked out the picture window over her breakfast table to consider the clue, “Slanted column. (9 letters)” So far she had the letters, _ _ I _ O _ _ _ L.

Watching the clouds often helped Mildred come up with the right answer. As she looked up, though, she noticed the clouds moving faster than she could ever remember seeing. Then she looked into her back yard. The wind had knocked her potted geraniums into the azalea bushes. She remembered that was the reason she wanted to get the Yard Man out.

Mildred didn’t like having to ask others to take her of her business. She used to be able to handle everything around the house, and still have time and energy to take a covered dish to a sick friend or drive out to see family in the country. That was before her husband and son died, before her heart attack, before her memory got so bad. But, even back then she knew she wouldn’t be able to do everything forever. “All in the Lord’s time, all in the Lord’s time, ” she said quietly to herself.

Still, she felt stronger than usual that morning, the wind died down a bit, and Mildred decided to cut a few of the last gardenia blossoms. One or two fresh blooms in a juice glass made her whole kitchen smell just like her mother’s perfume.

****

On her way to put on her gardening dress, Mildred looked out her front windows, through the pine trees in her large front yard. She saw groups of young people stumbling down the street, laughing loudly and singing rude songs. It pained Mildred to see the youth hurt themselves like that. For all the fun they looked like they were having, they’d probably suffer later.

Mildred stepped onto her back patio in the same double breasted chambray smock she’d worn gardening for forty years. She knew it was quality when she bought it. She tried to always choose things that would last. Her clippers weren’t holding up as well, but they were probably sixty years old. Mildred found a can of Rust-B-Gone inside the back door and carefully oiled the joint of the clippers.

She was so focused on her task, she nearly jumped out of her skin when her young neighbor called her name. It was only then that Mildred realized she had forgotten her hearing aid on the night table. However, it didn’t matter that Mildred couldn’t hear the pretty redhead, the woman was already deep into saying something.

Mildred only caught words and phrases, “worried about you”, “we’re trying to make this a celebration”, “don’t be alone”, “no time”. She said “no time” over and over, but Mildred was used to the hurried pace of people half her age.

Mildred remembered when time went slower. She liked the slower life. Radio, television, phones, computers, they all made things go too fast. The faster people went, she noticed, the faster they wanted to go. She only kept clocks in the house to remember her routine, and know when to expect visitors.

Mildred also remembered a time when visitors announced their arrival and didn’t sneak up on people to chatter away without checking to see if the older woman could actually hear.

Before Mildred could say anything back, her neighbor pointed at the sky and ran back to her house. Overhead, a thick black line of clouds moved in from the East. Late summer often brought dramatic thunder storms.

Mildred spent many summer evenings as a child relishing the alternately cool and hot breezes that came before the lightning. While everyone else in her family would rush to tie down the loose items and shut the barn doors, she would smell the ozone and listen to the fevered cricket song, waiting for the bugs to fall silent moments before the drops fell. She couldn’t hear the crickets now, even if they were singing. So, she went back inside to find her hearing aid.

****

The hearing aid was more trouble than it was worth. By the time Mildred got it loud enough to make out the sounds around her, the little bud squeaked. She couldn’t hear the pitch, so her company often spent most of the visit working with her to get the level just right so they could have a conversation. People never said much new after all that trouble, that’s why she often left it by the bed and just nodded and smiled as people talked. That’s all anyone wanted, anyway, someone to nod and smile while they spilled out all their thoughts.

If she was going to hear the Weather Report, though, Mildred would need her hearing aid. The closed captioning in her area was so bad, it was a puzzle trying to figure out what the people on the television really did say when the words on the screen read, “MY CATS GOT WEEDED DOWN AGAIN.”

After  putting on a newly pressed cotton dress, Mildred pulled out a freezer bag of field peas and some rice for lunch. With her aid in, she could hear the sounds of fat rain drops against the sliding glass doors. Dark clouds marched higher in the sky, there was a distinct division between bright blue and roiling black.

Mildred thought of hurricanes, and she hoped the Weather Report wasn’t going to be about another big storm. There had been so many recently, it seemed like more than when she was young. Even the weather got more turbulent over the years.

Mildred decided a piece of cake would be a welcome indulgence if the weather was bad. There were usually a couple frozen pound cakes in her upright, but she let her niece take the last one a few weeks before. Mildred would have to make a new one if she wanted a slice. She walked over to her to-do list and wrote down, “Make Cake”.

Then, she put two sticks of butter, five eggs and a cup of milk on the counter to come to room temperature. Really, that was the hardest part of good baking, the part most of her grandchildren were too impatient to get right. If you want smooth batter, which gives you an even crumb, you need room temperature ingredients, and there is no way to rush it.

Mildred was glad she wrote, “Make Cake” on the list, though. Many times she absentmindedly put all her ingredients back in the ice-box, not remembering why she set them out.

****

The afternoon passed in the same way it almost always did. Mildred practiced her favorite tunes on the piano, a ragtime song and then hymns. She could hear commotion outside from time to time, but she didn’t hear a single plane. Living so close to the military base, she could usually hear the cargo planes at all hours. She guessed the storm was too dangerous for flying.

She played a few rounds of solitaire, read her Bible, closed her eyes for a short nap and then sat at her desk to write her letters. She pulled out her calendar of important events, every one marked in blue pen with the day she had to mail a card for it to arrive exactly in time. It meant something to get a card on your birthday, that’s why she did it. She liked making others feel remembered.

As Mildred looked at her desk calendar, though, she saw another note to herself, all in capital letters, “WAIT FOR WEATHER RPT.” It seemed odd that she would want to hold off on tending to her calendar just because of the weather. But, she trusted her own instructions. She was always level-headed, if forgetful.

****

It was almost time for the Weather Report when Mildred looked out at the pines again. They swayed widely, arcing all together as the hard wind blew in from the East. Hurricanes usually brought swirling winds. Something was different, very different. Mildred felt her stomach knot a little with fear.

Luckily, she had a routine for when things veered from her proper routine. She pulled a small, crystal sherry glass from the cabinet that once belonged to her grandmother. She filled the glass halfway from a bottle at the very back of her pantry. It was sweet and hot and absolutely the right tonic for her nerves.

****

On her way to the den, Mildred picked up her to-do list. She hoped the Weather Report would help her decide which items were the most urgent to get done. She wanted a smaller list, and she wanted to call the Yard Man as soon as the weather cleared.

Mildred was careful as she took the three steps down into the den where her television lived. The room used to be a garage, but her husband had it converted. It was a big room and relaxing, and she decided to sit in her husband’s old leather recliner for a change, since the day was turning out to be different than most.

Mildred’s husband had been dead for twenty years, but she could still smell his cigars and often thought she caught him walking through hallway, just out of the corner of her eye. He loved watching the news, and she mostly still watched it to think of him.

****

For all the serenity that Mildred cultivated with her simple daily rituals, the television was always chaotic – and that day more than ever. She turned on her local station and saw images of people running and screaming, the newscasters weren’t wearing proper makeup so their faces looked ghastly pale. People talked too fast to understand and the closed captioning was simply a jumble of letters, as though the typist fell asleep at the keyboard.

Finally, the pandemonium switched over to a still shot of the president’s office. The announcers spoke in hushed, anxious tones. The president stepped in front of the camera, looking rumpled and tired.

Mildred was shocked that she lived long enough to see a woman become president. It didn’t really matter to her either way, it just wasn’t anything she expected. If a woman was going to president, though, Mildred wondered why she didn’t look a little more put together.

Then the president began talking, clearly, slowly, in a tone that didn’t hurt Mildred’s ears.

“The storms are definitely coming.
Already the methane rain has started falling in Europe.
We still have had no communication out of China and, based on the chemical makeup of the clouds over Africa, it looks like no life will survive this.
If you are watching this, hold your loved ones.
As humans, we had a good run, but this is how it ends.”

Then the screen went black.

Mildred heard the winds howl and rage. She looked at the bookshelves that held photos of her family. The phone started ringing in the kitchen.

Mildred looked down at her hand where she still held her to-do list. The phone kept ringing, but Mildred took the time to carefully cross through, ‘Schedule Yard Man’, ‘Buy More Cereal’, ‘Call Mabel’, and ‘Birthday Cards’. The last item on the list was ‘Make Cake’.

Mildred held her pen over the ‘M’. She came close to touching the tip to the paper. But, she noticed the electricity was still running, the wind hadn’t broken any windows yet, the clock in the hall still ticked away.

All the ingredients would be at the perfect temperature by now.

She put the list down and headed for the kitchen. There was time for cake.