Candace was the fifteenth reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

Her appearance was on Sat 27th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent.

Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
 

 

Candace Albornoz left her long- time home San Francisco in 2013 to move to Scotland, where she has explored the peaks and quarries, coasts and glens, and been enthralled by the nation’s scenery.

A poet and fiction writer, Candace is currently working on a new book and has a Masters in creative writing.

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

The Acquiring Touch
a short story by Candace Albornoz

Jolene started when the cat jumped onto her lap, and Cathy turned to her with a doubtful look that said ‘it’s just a cat.’ Jolene knew cats didn’t transfer anything to her. It was only mutable traits that could move into her body, and cats were as constant as cows.

She was edgy; it had been a while since she’d been with people and the first day was always an adjustment. Resting her hand on the wooden table of Cathy’s kitchen the smooth dead wood contrasted with the energy she felt when she touched a tree in her forest. This house was full of plastic, metal, wood – it was lifeless, nothing transferred with her touch, and the stillness built up a little panic in her.

“Jo, hand me that pie dish,” Cathy said over her shoulder.

The three empty dishes on the table might have betrayed how alien these instruments were to her, but Jolene remembered pie from her childhood. With a smile she lifted the hefty ceramic dish, filled with dozens of small balls, and brought it to her friend.

“Thanks.”

“No problem. Thanks for cooking. I can’t figure out what to do in a kitchen.”

Jolene wouldn’t pay for food, and then ruin it with cooking, when she could go outside next to a tree and soak up the pure energy of the sun. Still, she liked to taste new foods and it was amusing to watch the way people created it.

Cathy’s kitchen was a wonderland of colour and specialisation. If all the tools here were creatures, what bizarre talents Jo would have to play with.

“What are you making tonight?” Jolene saw such differing items as meat, cheese, vegetables, flour, and oil on the counter.

“Just something easy I can throw together on week days. If I’d known you were coming I’d have made some effort. Where’ve you been lately?”

She’d gotten away for the spring, which was her favourite time of the year. Spring was renewal on a global scale, and it justified for her what she did with her skills. It was her gift to use what nature provided.

But it was impossible to remember all the lives she had spoiled; some of them were pointless, but she cherished the ones that had changed her. She had often debated with herself which of her acquired talents she had liked best, but she knew more or less because they were the ones she went for again and again. Trees for healing minor illnesses and converting sunlight to energy, axolotl newts to keep her skin young, geckos for climbing, and frogs for major illnesses. She started keeping her own colonies of the last three; no use going off into the wild searching for them, or raiding pet stores, like she used to.

“I spent a few months out on a ranch getting a crop ready.” Jolene had the same story everywhere she went: she was a migrant farm worker. Her attraction to plants and animals upheld the story, along with her hippie approach to dress and natural products.

She always started in a new town saying she was 18, and let herself age as long as she stayed. Seeing basically the same face for fifty years reminded her of a book she had once read, but she didn’t want to harm anyone, and she didn’t want to stop.

Jolene moved around every year or so, mostly because she got nervous stealing from the same towns; even country folk would figure her out eventually. Recently she decided to try a city, so maybe she didn’t need to move as often. She had been in Austin for two years, and she found that people were more inclined to mind their own business, and look the other way.

“I guess I’ve never made this for you. Eat up, put some flesh on those skinny bones. Rick, dinner!” Cathy yelled for her large-bellied husband to leave his football addiction long enough to eat.

“Can I take it with me?” He looked at her with eagerness.

A twitch on Cathy’s face showed her predilection for argument. “Sure.”

He took his plate and left.

“Leaves us more time to talk,” Cathy smiled, though Jolene thought Cathy would prefer to be away from him all the time.

When she first moved to Austin she met Cathy at a farmer’s market. Jolene didn’t know why, but the woman invited her over for dinner, and they had made it a regular thing. Getting to know more about people than what she had only seen through windows gave her insight into what she had denied herself, and her parents.

“How are the boys doing?” Jolene was good at keeping other people talking.

“Fine, I think. Or at least they tell me so. Who knows about kids these days? They could be starving and they wouldn’t tell me.”

When she ran away in the 1950’s, Jolene could have starved, and no one would have known. When she had first entered a town to steal, and someone had asked, she said her parents were just over there, and pointed to some couple. It was mostly cloths off drying lines that she took. She wasn’t sure that anyone chased her, but she had run all the way back to her spot in the woods. A pile of cloths she couldn’t wear made her bed.

“Then,” Cathy said as she brought plates to the table, “you’re only slightly younger than my boys. I bet your parents worry; no young woman would be working farms when I was a girl.”

Jolene’s parents never knew what happened to her. Catching a firefly made her bioluminescent for days and her parents wanted to take her to a doctor. But they would look, and she feared how long that would take and what it would entail. Even at six she knew that running was the best option. She still didn’t know how she did it.

And huddling next to a tree when it got cold gave her insight into what she could do as her body took on photosynthesis and began to use the last of the daylight to make energy to keep her warm. It meant she could survive.

“I’m sure they do worry.” She usually told people that her parents were dead, which was probably true. Cathy had begun with making references to her parents and Jolene had let her. Maybe Cathy felt protective of Jolene because of it. “Besides, you’re not that old. Women’s lib had happened by the time you were my age.”

“Yes, but darlin’, women took to the office and stores. They didn’t go acting like men.” Cathy began eating the compilation of food on her plate.

“It’s important for women to work with their hands. We understand ourselves better, we ground ourselves, and tap into ancient knowledge. Women knit, and sew, and though those activities are seen as entrapments, they do women a lot of good. Me, I like to be outside. I choose to work the land.”

“I do like to knit,” Cathy offered, though she looked unsure about any ancient knowledge she gained from it.

Their conversations often took mystical turns. Jolene was peaceful for all her strange ideas; maybe it was because she was outdoors and away from all the harmful radio signals, and television signals, and cell phones, and everything new that seemed to make people crazy.

“Do your parents help out?”

Jolene helped herself. As a child she began to explore her talents and fear them less; she would touch everything to see what she could get. That’s how she learned that she killed things. If she transferred too much they wouldn’t cope with the change; their own bodies didn’t adapt like hers. When she did get some adaptive trait it only lasted for a few days before her body manoeuvred it out like getting rid of a splinter. Except where the adaptations changed her, like regenerating her cells; those she got to keep.

Her experiments could be painful if they went wrong, as when she discovered that she couldn’t take solid traits like a porcupine’s needles. Those molecules were stable, those traits wouldn’t come to her, only pierce her skin. It was the fluid things, when an animal changed something, like lake eels which instead of stunning her made her own skin electric.

Sometimes she killed as she transferred the sick or old molecules away from her body to keep herself healthy and young.

“I don’t ask for much. I’m old enough to make my own way.”

Jolene needed money for clothes since people didn’t use outdoor lines as much, and for rent on the warehouse she kept her stock of animals in. Jolene had used jellyfish and eels, both she raised, to shock and disorient cashiers in order to take money from registers. But now that cameras were everywhere it was impossible, and she was reduced to hitting on men in ritzy bars and stealing their wallets. At least she could do that anywhere, and wouldn’t have to be careful for a few days as the electrifying effects wore off.

“What about the future? You are smart, you could go to college, even to learn more about agriculture. You could get paid more, not have to move around all the time.”

“I like moving around.” Jolene knew how to avoid questions.

She had never worked, not on a farm or elsewhere.

But she did love to learn, mostly about science and evolution. Mutations had grasped onto popular culture, through comic book characters made into movies and shows, and Jolene was curious if people like that did exist. She didn’t see herself like them; there was no social good that could come from her talents.

But like them she didn’t want to risk being known – she still agreed with her six-year-old self about that. Science was an abusive beast, and anything could be excused in its name; it was the new religious fervour. Scientists would not pause before dissecting her, draining her fluids, then letting her heal to do it all again. They would think it was their right, and her divine purpose, to provide her gifts to others, because everyone deserved to live for extended periods of time/heal disease/crawl up walls.

Jolene didn’t agree. Limitations made humans what they were.

“This is delicious,” Jolene said. Chewing, swallowing, not to mention using a fork, were not natural activities for her so she took it slow.

“My granny’s recipe. She was a great cook. She could look at what she had and create something tasty.”

“Did she teach you?” Damn her voice for pitching low. She hadn’t missed out; her life was a miracle.

“Yes’m.” Cathy’s dreamy expression showed that she was thinking back to those times.

“I don’t remember my grandparents.” She had thought about this once or twice before, but never had she felt bad about it.

“That’s sad.” Cathy reached out and held Jolene’s hand for a long moment. “Girls learn everything they needed from their grans and mothers. Now it’s different with families split up and cancers taking people before they’re old.”

Jolene was in her sixties but she would never be old. Some accident would take her before she gave up her way of life.

Things had been changing for her though. She found that she was increasingly drawn to the comfort of a bed over the floor of her forest hut. She also liked electricity and reading late into the night. Even movies were becoming a regular indulgence.

Maybe getting older, which she was despite appearances, made her more accepting of change.

“I do have your favourite dessert. I’ve been baking like a mad thing.”

Cathy got up and dished them out some pecan pie.

“Cathy, this is such a treat! No one makes it like you.” Which might be true, though Jolene had never had it anywhere else.

“Well, last summer when I got second place at the baking contest, you remember? I intend to win this year, and with this pie.” Cathy savoured a bite of the culmination of all her effort.

People didn’t compete for food, at least not in this part of the world, but they created competition. They needed something to fuss over, to have a target for the bitterness that we each harbour for life’s failure to make up perfectly happy.

“I know you’ll win.” Jolene wanted it for her, though she couldn’t really invest feeling into it. Food was unhealthy compared to what she sustained herself on.

“You have to come and cheer me on.”

It took place in the thick of July heat, months from now. Jolene hated the heat of southern summers almost as much as she hated the wrinkles that drifted into the corners of her eyes. After so many years it was a simple matter, she only had to touch for a moment, a kiss, for the newt to transfer it’s renewing amino acids to her. The newt would barely feel the sting of infection as her own weary genes transferred to it.

Still, the sweating, the flash melting of everything, it was a miracle people had settled here before air conditioning and ice.

If only there was a creature that could cool itself down, she would breed it.

“Cathy, what the hell, why didn’t I get any pie?” Rick barged into the kitchen.

Jolene had rarely spoken to him, though there was clearly enough pie and she wanted to point that out.

“It’s there, it didn’t disappear. You can help yourself, I’m not your slave.”

The man stared at the woman, husband and wife, full of ill will and the fear that they would leave and never find another person to come home and bicker with.

“I’m missing the game.” His tone was calm, but nasty.

“Then you’d better hurry.”

They stood there; the threat of violence hung in the air. The man looked at Jolene, plated a huge slice of pie, and left.

“What a useless…” Cathy’s breath was loud and shallow.

Jolene felt bad for her friend. She took Cathy’s hand, though Jolene had no experience with men to use for advice. She’d always feared passing her ability to a child.

“Jolene…” Cathy’s glossy eyes looked at her, then her body slumped forward onto the table.

“Cathy?!” Jolene shook her.

Her friend didn’t move. Jolene’s heart was erupting into gangster beats, and her vascular system was electrified. She stood up, moved her limbs as though she’d never felt them properly. Every sinew was tight and ready for action. She had only to start running and she wouldn’t need to stop. She started towards the back door, then hesitated.

She looked down at her limp friend, afraid to touch her again. Urging herself forward she held her fingers in front of Cathy’s mouth, and felt slow breath, a sign of life that brought her relief from the guilt of what she had nearly done.

“Cathy.” Jolene held a wet cloth on her friend’s forehead as she lay there.

Since she was a girl Jolene had not feared what she could do. She had only feared being caught. Now, in discovering that adrenaline could transfer to her, in feeling the strength and stamina that would power her over the next three days, Jolene feared what she might do.
 

(c) Candace Albornoz, 2016