Styx and Stones: Chapter One
"Styx, the river daughter of Oceanus, and the oldest of her three thousand children, was said to wind nine times around the underworld, forever blocking the shades, the spirits of the deceased, from the living world."
When Roger had handed her a few bills from his pocket and said, "Go down to that café and pick up something for lunch, would you?" she was quite certain he had not meant "Spend this on a crummy fortune teller." Of course, Dorothy really did not care what Roger had meant, because he had been snapping at her all morning.
His latest job - a search for an escaped, highly dangerous female terrorist- was driving him up the wall. Every lead he could find just fizzled out a little farther up the trail of nearly non-existent evidence. Roger had been on the job for nearly a week, and had found nothing. He had come barreling out of his room that morning, thrown the newspaper at her - she had ducked- and then stomped to the breakfast table like a spoiled child.
He had practically shoved her out of the car after handing her the money, and had sped off while shouting back that he would come to collect her, and his lunch, in half an hour. Well, it was his own fault that he had dropped her off on block that was having a carnival that weekend.
As she strolled through the sparse crowd of fairgoers, booths and vendors, a tacky neon sign hanging on a patched purple tent caught her eye. She could not have said what it was that drew her attention, but there was something almost familiar about that sign, as if she had seen it before.
"FORTUNE TELLING," it read, in large red, flashing letters, and under that "palms read, spells cast, and wishes granted," all in blue. Painted into an empty spot was a dollar symbol connected with the number five. Well, that was ridiculous, Dorothy thought. Still, something about it intrigued her.
So she found herself drawing closer to the small cloth construction, pulling the curtain back, and stepping into a room that could not possibly have been concealed in so tiny a tent. There was an old woman sitting in a chair on one side of a small table. A green scarf covered her grey hair, and large gold hoops dangled from her drooping lobes. Small, squinting eyes were covered by thick glasses that magnified the wrinkles at their corners. A woven shawl the brightest, most offensive shade of pink Dorothy had ever seen was set about the old woman's shoulders. Strings of beads, leather pouches on cords, and woven chains of gold and silver hung around her neck. Wooden bracelets clattered on her wrist as she gestured for Dorothy to take a seat in the only other chair in the room. Dorothy did so, saying nothing to the woman.
"First thing's first," the woman said in a low, scratchy voice, and held out her hand to Dorothy. Dorothy placed a ten-dollar bill in the open palm.
"I can't make change," the woman continued. "Haven't had a customer all damn day."
"Keep it," Dorothy answered. "It won't be missed."
"Alright," the woman said a little too quickly, and pocketed the money. "Tell you what, though. I'll grant you a wish for free before I tell your fortune, eh?"
"If you wish," Dorothy replied, already wondering how she could explain this to Roger in the way that would anger him the most.
The old woman removed her glasses, setting them down on the table, and looked Dorothy straight in the eye. "My name's Melba," she said, glancing at Dorothy with ayes that were the brightest, purest shade of blue the android had ever seen. "And you, young lady?"
"Dorothy," she supplied, her voice little more than a whisper. Something about this place, this woman, this situation was entirely too familiar, and yet Dorothy knew for certain that she had never been there before. This feeling made her uneasy.
"What a pretty name," Melba said, taking off one of her necklaces. It was a small leather pouch on a worn cord. She handed this to Dorothy, and instructed her to put it on. Dorothy found this request quite odd, but did as the woman bade out of curiosity.
Then something in Melba's demeanor changed. The temperature in the tent began to drop, and Melba's body temperature was dropping with it. The old woman smiled grimly. Her wrinkled, bony hands, full of liver spots and spider veins, reached over the table to grab Dorothy's own.
"Tell me what you want, child," Melba said. "Name it, anything, and you shall have it."
Dorothy was frozen: every joint stuck, every gear frozen. Even if she could have moved, she doubted she would have wanted to. Those cold, clear blue eyes were boring into her center, into her very soul. Androids don't have souls…
"Name it, girl!" Melba cried, shaking her a little. "Name it and be done!"
An immense, cold silence stretched between them, made all the more cold by the icy blue of Melba's eyes. The carnival seemed to have disappeared. No happy, raucous music blared in the background, no children laughed. The silence stretched and grew until Dorothy thought that she had gone deaf. A tingling sensation was creeping up her arms from where Melba's fingers gripped her wrists. She suddenly felt trapped, cornered, and so she said the first, the most honest and ridiculous thing that came to her. "I want to be human."
Immediately Melba released her wrists. Falling back in her chair, the old woman let out a loud, shrill, cackling laugh. "Human!" she exclaimed. "Isn't that what we all want…"
Dorothy had just about had enough of this oddity, and stood up from her chair.
"Don't get upset," Melba quipped, gesturing for Dorothy to sit down again. Dorothy declined.
"Fine, fine, have it your way," Melba grumbled. Then sitting up straighter in her chair, she said "Now to discuss payment."
"I have already given you more than enough money," Dorothy said, growing annoyed.
"Money, yes, but that was for the wish," Melba said quietly. "I have given you a piece of myself. I must have something from you in return. What would you give me?"
Dorothy now believed the woman to be totally insane.
"Your eyes, perhaps?" Melba pondered aloud. "Mine are failing with old age… Or your strength? I would love to walk tall again. I would walk for miles and miles…"
Dorothy began to back to the tent flap, the feeling of unease growing exponentially with every second she spent in sight of those unfeeling eyes.
"Your voice!" Melba exclaimed, standing shakily.
Dorothy stopped, looked Melba straight in the eye, and said the worst possible thing she could have: "Take it, if you can. I have no real use for it."
Melba smiled, nodded in a knowing way, and said, "You'll have a week to live out your wish,"
"You did not inform me of-" Dorothy began.
Melba cut her off, saying, "Listen, girl! This is the important part!"
Dorothy had then decided that she was finished with this lunatic, and turning, she pushed back the tent flap and stepped out into the imitation sunlight of the dome's interior.
As she was walking back toward the café, Melba called after her "Inform the young man you live with of the deal you made. He's really going to miss you sweet voice!"
Dorothy whirled around to glare at the old woman, but Melba had already gone back into the tent. Running back to the patched, purple monster of a thing, Dorothy threw the flap back, but Melba was not there. The room looked smaller now, and the furniture was yellowing, and rickety. One chair had fallen apart where it stood.
This wasn't possible.
But how would she explain it to Roger?
Looking at her watch, Dorothy almost cried out in disbelief. It had been nearly an hour since Roger had dropped her off.
Running back to the café, Dorothy was slightly relieved to see that Roger had waited for her. He was standing by his car, looking extremely ticked off.
"And where have you been?" he said grumpily, frowning at her mildly disheveled appearance. "What happened to my money? Are you alright?"
"I do not wish to talk about it," Dorothy said as she climbed into the car. She smoothed the pleats out of her dress, and noticed a run in her stockings as Roger pulled out into the road.
"I have a few more leads to check on today," he said, "and I think I might have-"
"Could you return me home?" Dorothy interrupted, staring straight ahead.
Roger glanced at her. "Some thing wrong?" he asked.
"I am not sure," Dorothy answered. "I thin I may be malfunctioning. I do not wish to be out of the house, if something should go wrong."
"Fair enough," Roger said, and signaled to get into the left lane.
Norman could not find anything wrong, and so Dorothy went around cleaning the house for the rest of the day: a meticulous job and one that didn't really need doing, but Dorothy still felt uneasy, and sitting prone only magnified the feeling.
It wasn't until she was undressing for bed that night that Dorothy realized she still had the leather pouch strung around her neck. She noticed for the first time that the pouch contained a stone, or something of that size, shape and weight. Loosening the ties, Dorothy found that it was indeed a stone. The thing was small, no bigger than a thumbprint, white as snow, and had an image of a woman with the tail of a fish carved into it and inked on in black.
It was a very well done picture, so Dorothy put the stone on her bedside table where she could admire it. Pulling her nightdress over her head, she climbed into bed, turned off the lights, and shut down for the night.
End Chapter the First.