Story Shop 2014 – Wed 13th August

Halsted M. Bernard

Halsted has read at Story Shop 2014, the City of Literature Trust’s daily showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today. You can find the short story she read on Wed 13th August 2014 below.

Short biography

Halsted M. Bernard moved to Edinburgh in 2011 when her husband began his PhD programme in Scottish history at St Andrews. She has learned that historians really don’t like it when you call the Jacobite Steam Train ‘the Hogwarts Express’. Despite her healthy appreciation for history, Halsted prefers to imagine the future and enjoys writing slipstream fiction with the occasional foray into the plain-old weird. Halsted’s story Paper Turtles appears in the latest and last-ever issue of Innsmouth Magazine. She is a comrade of Writers’ Bloc, Edinburgh’s premier spoken-word performance group.

The Short Story she read on the day

Leftovers
a short story by Halsted M. Bernard

Makena rested the edge of her palm on the top of the ceramic knife in her other hand, guiding it through a shallot. Her movements were slight, economical, leaving behind slices so fine you could read through them. A heavy thump-buzz pulsed from her earring and she mouthed along with the raging words even though she didn’t know them.

Once through the shallot, she used the blade to shriff the slices into a stainless steel bowl. A small hill was growing inside the bowl, which would soon be carried off by an assistant dressed in greying whites, to the flash-freezing liquid-nitrogen station. Once frozen to a crisp, the brittle shallots would be shattered and separated into crumbs and shards. Makena would pan-sear a tuna steak — lab-grown, not caught, as she could no longer afford the latter — and use the shallot crumbs to coat the moist exterior of the fish. The shards would be tossed with steamed haricot vert, arranged in a ring around the edge of a glossy silver plate. The tuna would stand in the middle, alone, quickly chilling.

And then the flavouring would begin.

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Makena always did her extracts in the morning, when a dusting of dreams still covered her thoughts. This made it easier. Since she lost her flat, her commute to work went from two hours to twenty steps: a cot in the corner of the larder. She no longer went to the clinic to prepare the extracts, but had used the last of her credits to purchase the unit that lived in the case underneath the cot next to a crate of moth-eaten jumpers. Each morning, she would pull out the case, press her thumb to the lock, and make a wish. Sometimes the wish was that the case wouldn’t open, an error in the authentication process, or a simple jam in the lock. Sometimes the wish was that the electronics of the device inside –which she knew almost nothing about — would overload and liquefy her brain.

Makena always did her extracts in the morning, when a dusting of dreams still covered her thoughts. This made it easier. Since she lost her flat, her commute to work went from two hours to twenty steps: a cot in the corner of the larder. She no longer went to the clinic to prepare the extracts, but had used the last of her credits to purchase the unit that lived in the case underneath the cot next to a crate of moth-eaten jumpers. Each morning, she would pull out the case, press her thumb to the lock, and make a wish. Sometimes the wish was that the case wouldn’t open, an error in the authentication process, or a simple jam in the lock. Sometimes the wish was that the electronics of the device inside –which she knew almost nothing about — would overload and liquefy her brain.

Sometimes the wish was that she would just stand up and walk out, keep walking, past the wary-eyed staff with their rattled edges, past the customers who feared and loathed her but came back night after night, and keep walking out into the recycled air of the tower block with its fake clouds and ugly moon and the hot, sick breath of a thousand people pretending it was home.

But Makena could never picture herself after that point. It wasn’t that she had nowhere else to go; she had no one else to become. And so she hefted the plasti-glass wreath onto her temples and said softly to the larder’s audience of cheap ingredients: “Begin extract.”

Today, for the shallots, tuna, and beans — an unremarkable plating in a career of unremarkable food — she would flavour it with the memory of the first time she realised she was alone.

Makena’s eyes shut and the recording interface snicked  into view. The wreath, warming to the skin on her skull, asked her if she wanted a hypnogogic playback to facilitate the extract, but Makena was already in the memory.

 

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Short for her age at eight, Makena stood in a gymnasium with shiny waxed floors. She was small but gangly, her long brown limbs flailing as she jumped and dodged the skip-bot in front of her. The bot was low to the floor and flashed to indicate which way it was going next, but only gave Makena a fraction of a second to respond. It was a game of reflexes, her favourite kind of game, nothing with a story to follow or pieces to move. She could lose herself in this kind of game, and she did, because even though there were at least fifty other kids in the gym she didn’t see any of them. Just the bot, the flashing lights, and her own feet.

Until she tripped. A moment later Makena had landed on her back. Her bum and elbows clanged with pain, but the feeling was quickly replaced by panic. She struggled for breath, rolling over onto her hands and knees. Supervisor Trellam saw Makena’s struggle and made her way through the bustling children to see what was wrong.

“Makena, deep breaths,” Supervisor Trellam said quietly. “You’ve just had the wind knocked out of you.”

Makena gulped ineffectively and stared at the woman. She had a million questions but was only able to gulp and stare, gulp and stare. Tears leaked out even though she wasn’t crying. Before she could stop herself, her arms shot out and up, shaking, pleading. Supervisor Trellam saw them with disdain.

“Makena, you’re not a child anymore. Get up. You’re fine.”

This was the first time that Supervisor Trellam had treated Makena with anything other than gentleness. In fact, Makena had taken more than a little ribbing from her peers on the topic. These peers had now crowded around Supervisor Trellam and Makena and were starting to point and giggle at the obscenity. A baby and her mother, how low-tech can you get! Baby, do you want your mommy to hold you? Disgusting!

The involuntary tears now became real as Makena dropped her arms and hugged herself fiercely. Supervisor Trellam stood and cleared her throat. “That’s enough, everyone. Go back to your games. Makena, crying children are not allowed to play with the skip-bot. Return to your class pod at once.”

Just as Makena had regained control of her breathing, this dictum practically chased it back out of her. She was humiliated, robbed of her only pleasure by the one person she adored. When she had returned to her class pod, everything in her world had changed.

 

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The Makena of thirty years later ripped the wreath from her head as soon as the recording had completed. She hadn’t wanted to revisit this memory, let alone extract it. But she was nearly out of nanites, and credits, and a dish flavoured with something this powerful might cause enough ripples in the media-net to boost business for a little while longer.

She turned up the music in her earring while she mixed half of the nanites into the emulsion, which she then brushed lightly over the near-raw inside of the tuna steak. These would work slowly, bubbling the full memory up in the mind of the diner as the food was digested. The rest of the nanites Makena placed in the handle of the plasti-glass dome that covered the dish. When the diner lifted the dome, the handle would release a fine aerosol to be ingested directly into the diner’s bloodstream via the alveoli. These would create a sharper but shorter-lived impression of the memory, perhaps only the outline of how it felt to gasp for breath, or the voices of the children ringing in the ears.

One of her assistants had appeared at her elbow. Makena set the handle’s triggering mechanism and mumbled, “Service.” The dish was removed from sight, delivered before a giggling, gibbering party of four who had more credits than taste and were still tickled by the garishness of dining on someone else’s thoughts.

Makena lost herself in her work again, in the mediocrity of lesser flavourings: a botched first kiss, the fiery-cheeked sting of job termination, a marathon-induced deep-tissue ache. The early evening service was nearly over when a thumping louder than her music broke her concentration. Makena looked up to see her staff crowded at the kitchen door.

She paused her music.

“What is it?”

“Chef, there’s a guy here. He’s– he’s crying. He demands to speak with you.”

This was not unusual. Diners often underestimated the impact such a meal would have, which was one of the many reasons why you couldn’t even book a table without signing a two-thousand word contract.

“Give him an emetic and let him puke it out at home.”

“Yes, Chef.”

As the door opened, Makena heard the diner wailing, ” kind of a sick fucking joke is this–”

“Wait.”

“Chef?”

Makena walked over to the kitchen door. The man was gasping and ranting, on the verge of hyperventilation.

“You– how– how dare you! Do you– do you get your kicks off this?”

But Makena’s hands were on his shoulders. She looked him straight in the eye before putting her arms around him. She leaned close, whispered into his ear, then let him go.

Years later, long after the restaurant had shut down, he would tell the story at parties. He would tell anyone who would listen that he had the worst meal of his life that night. He would tell you that some lunatic tried to teach him a lesson with fancy-ass tuna and green beans.

But then he would go home from that party and go to bed and sometimes in the middle of the night he would wake up from a bone-hollow dream of being trapped in a collapsed tower block: rubble all around, rubble on his chest, and dust crumbling into his lungs every time he tried to call for help. He would wake from the dream with great gasps, and he would hug himself and repeat the words the chef served him, repeat them over and over, until he could sleep again.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

It’s okay.

(c) Halsted M. Bernard, 2014

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Next Story Shop:  Thu 14th Aug

Susan MacDonald →