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R. G. Currell

CAROLYN THE SWEET,

The Good Girl

1998, Science Fiction Theater, R. G. Currell

Planet Earth.

Avala-By-The-Lake.

New Calender Year,2165 A.A.

9,200 Words

1

     FROM out of the pale light of a wet moon, Carolyn the Sweet was brought in from the rain and she was visibly shaking, but not from the cold. Kind hands of the policemen gripped her arms and were reassuring, as they glided her through the gathering crowd of the Avala Mall. A police woman rushed up and closed the front of her maroon-velvet dress and inspected the cut on her neck. It was only superficial. Luckily, It was just a scratch. A newsman stepped up with a microphone and he asked how it felt to have a knife at her throat. Of course, Carolyn the Sweet didn't answer, but the police woman shot him full of six holes that were bullets coming out of her eyes. But persistent newsmen always ask again. "What were you doing all alone in a dark parking lot with a grown man, anyway?" Ignoring him, they rushed her into the Mall Office and the police woman told her it was over. But it wasn't. This sort of thing doesn't happen to nice girls. Not in Avala-by-the-Lake. Everybody knows that.

     The Office door closed behind them and a hush washed the room with silence. Then one of the policemen asked her again, "Just what were you doing out in the parking lot with him, anyway?" This was the Officer who had shot the man and had freed Carolyn from his grip.

     "Knock it off, Jack!" the police woman said in that kind of voice that usually settles discussions with a revolver. She turned from him. Ignored him. "Are you all right, Sweetheart?" She stroked the wet and matted hair of the trembling, red-faced girl, who was curled in her arms like a frightened bunny. The slight shake of her head that said "I'm okay" told the woman that the girl was terrible.

     The two police officers who had brought Carolyn in were standing just inside the door. Jack shook his head. "I still have some questions...."

     "Not without her parents, you don't. Or a lawyer. Maybe both. Keys. I'll take the flitter keys. I'm taking her home." The police woman snapped her fingers so loud that it made Carolyn jump.

     Jack shook his head again. "Signed out to me, Darlin'. Can't do it." He shrugged his shoulders.

     "I see keys, or you never see my bed again, Jack!"

     "She's serious this time, Jack," said Joe, as he nodded toward her.

     Resigned to the situation, like a cat trapped inside of a box, Jack handed over the keys and watched the two females leave and then squeeze their way through the crowd.

     The police woman handed the girl a handkerchief, as they threaded their way between the people. "You go right ahead and cry, Honey. Just get it out."

     Just then, a newsman rushed in again and asked, "How long have you known the man who was shot here tonight, Miss?"

     The police Officer slipped her leg between his and flipped him right over on his back. Practiced nonchalance. "Sorry," she said.

     Away from the crowd now and in the black and white flitter, Carolyn the Sweet dried her eyes. But her face was still red with crying. "Why do those men ask questions like that?" Carolyn sobbed into the rag.

     "Some -- well -- because they think with their glands. All the others? I guess 'cause they're just ass holes." The Police woman turned the ignition on and the flitter rose up from the ground. "My name's Evelyn Wind. Yours?"

     "Carolyn Lockerby."

     "Where do you live, Carolyn?"

     "In Avala-by-the-Lake."

     "That's quite a place to be from, Carolyn," Evelyn Wind commented. "But we're going to get you checked out at the hospital first. I didn't say it earlier. Because I don't want to see a media zoo when we get there. Okay?" Then, Evelyn Wind shook out her wet, red hair and Carolyn thought she looked like a flame. Like the fiery flame of an angel.

     "Okay," answered Carolyn the Sweet. The flitter turned in the air and carried them away.

2

     It was not difficult to think of Victoria as being the mother of Carolyn Lockerby. At a glance, Victoria appeared to be the woman that Carolyn was destined to become. At still a few years this side of forty, she radiated her youth like a haloed flower budding, still opening, still promising, still fragrant with bloom. But there was no smile. Carolyn the Sweet would have had a smile. Everybody thought that Carolyn was the better looking of the two, but really it was just her smile. If one could be objective about such things, Victoria was ten times the physical beauty. She held her head up high with ten times the grace. She flowed through the threshold of her study with ten times the liquid poise. And she demanded the attention of others with ten times the presence. But there was no smile. Her brother and two sisters fell silent when she entered. They were "talking". They had heard. They had seen it on the Vidcomm, too. And their silence told Victoria it was the subject of their present conversation. Their faces told Victoria they hardly approved. And the looks in their eyes asked what she intended. Something had to be done. After all, this was Avala-by-the-Lake. They all left her alone. To do it.

     The study was really a grand library with the smell of freshly rubbed leather books and upholstery hanging in the air. And lightly scented drapery held back the sight of the lake-stained windows. Victoria took a long, embracing look around the room and sighed. "All this learning," she said, "can not prepare one for such a shame as this." And to make matters worse, she concluded as a single tear imperfected her rosy make up, this was Avala-by-the-Lake. She sighed again in consternation, woe would be her name now. She sat down in the chair before her vidcomm and steeled herself to do what had to be done. She lowered herself down into the chair as one defeated sits. Victoria drew out the plasticard with Jonathan's calling code on it and she slipped it through the number reader. She knew she must be strong for Avala-by-the-Lake. But she didn't feel strong. Victoria felt like an old woman at the end of her days, looking back on those who proved unworthy of the milk of her breasts. Then, the hansome face on the vidcomm screen regarded her appearance and feared the worst.

     "Victoria," the man said in broken concern. "I was just about to call. Is everything all right?"

     "Oh, my gaud. You've heard about it there, too?" She spoke in that forlorn voice of hers. "I just don't know how I can bear it." The man's eyes widened and his nerves set themselves for an onslaught of tragedy. "There's been some trouble with your daughter. And there's talk in the town. Even right here in my own house...."

     "I don't give a damn about the social ramifications, Victoria. How is my daughter? And just what is the trouble? Richard sent me the packet and I've just now reviewed the tape. There was a wound on her throat. How is Carolyn?" The screen in front of Victoria could not contain his face now. He'd leaned into it.

     "How thoughtful of Richard," Victoria moaned sarcastically.

     "Your brother did the right thing. Now, how is our daughter?"

     Victoria leaned back in the chair, breathed in heavily, and let out a sigh that made a high-pitched sound. "I spoke with that institution doctor -- I don't see why that police person didn't just deliver her home, where the personal physician could examine her."

     "Yes, yes." Jonathan's impatient eyes rolled up in that look.

     "She still is a virgin. I made sure he accredited that much, anyway. And you know how important that is in Avala-by-the-Lake. And you can rest assured that I'll be talking with her -- concerning her activities, when she arrives home."

     "Well, it's nice to know she's still alive. You could have spared me the suspense and just told me first thing, Victoria."

     "Don't you worry, I'll get to the bottom of that. And then we'll have to see how much damage has been done to my reputation, because of all this."

     Then, Jonathan snapped at her. "What I want to know about is Carolyn! How she is? If I had wanted to know about you, I would have just read the Society Page."

     "Jonathan! How can you speak to me like that, when I'm quite beside myself. In sheer agony?" Victoria took out a silk handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.

     "I'm sorry, dear."

     "That's better, Jonathan."

     "How's Carolyn?" Jonathan sat back into his chair and feigned conversational tone as best as he could. But there was an undercurrent boiling it like magma.

     "Physically, she'll be fine. But what I'm afraid of is what effect all this talk will have on her. In the long run. I'm thinking of poor, dear Carolyn, of course." Victoria put her hands over her poor, weak sternum.

     Jonathan frowned on the screen. "Of course you are, dear. But Carolyn's young. Resilient. And...."

     "Jonathan, I've been thinking that it may be best for her to move in with you for a while. In that -- thing up there." Her arms reached out in either a pleading gesture or an indication of where the thing up there was.

     "You mean here? You mean you want to move her to First World Space Dock?"

     "For a while. They're so much more cosmopolitan about this sort of thing up there than we are down here in Avala-by-the-Lake. But of course if you don't want her around at all, I would understand."

     Jonathan just couldn't help but think in terms of strategy -- Reversed Psychology; Guilt Trip. "Of course I don't mean that. Not at all, dear."

     "It would be just until things are calmed down -- down here, in Avala-by-the-Lake. She can graduate there and then busy herself with some trade for a year or two. Then, she can move back home." Victoria was beginning to perk up a little bit, as she was beginning to see her suggestions were planted, germinated, and taking fruition. She even smiled a little. Just a little.

     "Well, Victoria, I really don't see any reason she can't do that." Jonathan was rubbing his chin. "It would be so delightful to have her around."

     "I just knew I could count on you, Jonathan."

     "For how long, did you say?"

     "A couple of years. Is that too long?"

     "Of course not. I was just thinking that by then she'll be a young woman and out on her own and...."

     "She won't be out on her own, Jonathan. She'll be there with you."

     "Not every minute, Victoria. She'll be socializing with dashing young men before you know it. And you know what Cupid's arrows do."

     "Carolyn? No. Carolyn will want to come right back home and live with me. So, as soon as all this talk has died down, she'll be respectable again. And she'll fly right home to Avala-by-the-Lake."

     "Once the bird's flown from the nest, it gathers its own twigs, Victoria." He pointed his finger at her, as though she were a bad little girl.

     "Carolyn will come right back home as soon as I call her. Tell me, Jonathan, where can she find a home like this one?" Victoria swung her arms around and indicated all her things. "It's settled then. I'll make all the arrangements. James will let you know what time tomorrow."

     "I'll be expecting her. Good-bye dear. Love."

     "Good-bye dear. Love."

3

     Richard poured himself a brandy in a very large sniffer over at the wet bar then turned to face his two sisters, Beatrice and Constance. "I say it looks badly for the whole family."

     "You sent Jonathan the tape?" Constance asked, as she demurely picked up her cup of tea on the stand beside her chair.

     "The whole packet. Yes. I was able to by the complete story, before it had a chance to come out in tomorrow's Bull Dog Edition. Victoria should thank me handsomely for that discretion." Richard took out a long cigar and lit it.

     Beatrice made a face and looked away. "Must you burn those dreadful things in the house, Richard?"

     "To sum up all of my earlier arguments heretofore, Beatrice, yes." He snapped closed his gold lighter and smiled, then tucked it away into a vest pocket.

     "They smell so like the burning rubber at a racing track."

     "Why Beatrice, I never knew you attended such -- social -- events. They are so beneath the rest of us, at least." Richard lightly scolded her.

     "Once only," she admitted. "A cross-culture sort of thing."

     "My poor, dear Beatrice. I do hope the other group attended something equally as ghastly."

     Just then, Constance spoke up, dear, practical Constance. "I don't suppose there's any truth to the speculations, Richard."

     "My dear, positive Constance. This sort of thing is never about truth. No. This sort of thing is always about appearances. Take for example the questions of that scandalous news person." His slight British pronunciation made him sound superior. "Who takes such despicable people seriously? The poor, because they don't know any better. And the rich, simply because they do."

     Constance looked quizzically at him. "Do you mean the rich take them seriously because they do know better, or that the rich take them seriously because the poor take them seriously?"

     "Oddly enough, Constance, it is a double entente. Both. In any case, the questions asked in public constitute indictments."

     "And indictments are verdicts of guilt in Avala-by-the-Lake," concluded Beatrice.

     Richard had finished sipping from his large sniffer. "Precisely."

4

     Sophia Wycliffe was sitting in her parlor talking to her only son, Richard. Lecturing him, actually. Sophia was a squat, plump woman, endowed with too much of everything. But the loose-fitting dress she was wearing made the best use of her abundance. Strings of pearls and matching earrings and a jeweled gold broach distracted the eye just enough to paint expensive portraits in the mind. She had been telling Richard how the world operates, at least with regard to Avala-by-the-Lake and the rest of the world. To Sophia, that was the distribution of wealth. And she had been telling him what the responsibilities are for those who receive it. Notably were her comments that those who get nothing owe nothing and those who get much owe everything, du haut en bas, from head to foot. And finally, as all her lectures concluded, came her Deus vult, what he owed to her and in what area he was presently lacking -- according to what God wills.

     "It is time we discussed the dangling issue of your career, Richard." She straightened up in her chair into the posture of matriarch.

     "But I've decided...."

     "Yes, yes. I know all of that. Your football thing. That was fine when you were a child. But you haven't been listening to a word I've meant. Even if you've heard the things I've said." Sophia leaned forward the way she does and arrested him with the shackles of her eyes. "As individuals, Richard, we do not decide family matters. We...."

     "But this is my life we're talking about, Mother."

     "And as your Mother, I thought I had raised you better than to interrupt her when she is speaking!" She snapped at him. Then she calmed herself, as one does when one lives in Avala-by-the-Lake. She settled back passively then continued. "It is your life that we are talking about. Yes. But don't forget who gave it to you. Don't forget who brought you into this world with so much pain. I can feel it now. Don't you forget that. And don't you forget that the family has invested heavily in you. And continues to invest in you. It deserves to collect dividends on that Capitol Investment, I think. Don't you agree? You are provided for -- and lavishly I might add -- by those who came before you and by all those around you. In receiving these benefits, Richard, you acquired a responsibility to all of them and to those who will come after you. You owe it to me and you owe it to them." And Sophia paused to take a winning smile.

     Richard Wycliffe sat in his chair with a quizzical look betraying his mind. "What does that mean?"

     "That means, dear Richard, that we must decide on a career arrangement for you that will best propagate the family reserves. The final choice will be yours, of course."

     Richard was visually relieved. At least while she caught a breath.

     "The family has narrowed down the options to two choices. That should simplify matters for you, Richard. Yes? Good. The family has decided that it will send you to University to be a broker in either Finance or Political Power. These career choices are consistent with the family tradition. You will be maintained in your High Standard of Living and the family will set you up upon Graduation, of course. You will study Finance or Law. And that is that. We expect your announcement at supper."

     Richard was slumped back in his chair with the weight of sudden reality beating down upon him. And he was speechless.

     "It is time for you to grow up and to put away all childish things, as the Good Book says in -- in...."

     "First Corinthians, chapter thirteen. The love chapter, Mother." If Richard were trying to make a point, he failed.

     "Thank you, Richard. Good memory for details. I would suggest Law. But don't let my enthusiasm discourage you from it."

     "Madam," a deep voice at the door invaded the moment. "A call for you on the vidcomm. Misses Bennett."

     "Thank you, Roger." Sophia turned to her son and regarded him for a moment. "You run along and think about your responsibilities to the family and the options you've been given."

     "Yes, Mother," he said as he rose obediently from the chair and moved toward the door.

     "And Richard. Remember: by supper."

     "I'll remember, Mother."

     The face that came up on the viewer was that of a middle-aged woman crusted with concern. Although her hair was perfectly arranged and her make up was impeccable, her eyes looked out of place, like a frown on a happy face. Her eyes could have been crying dry tears. "I just heard the news, Sophia. Tabitha just called to let me know. She said she was concerned about it. You know how Tabitha is overly concerned about everything. But you know me. I said we'll just have to wait to see how things come out in the end. And I just had to be the first one to call you and offer my moral support. At a time like this."

     "Hello, Rachel." Sophia was indeed surprised. What had her neighbor heard? "I don't quite understand."

     "It was on the news. Can you imagine that? It's just dreadful what's happened that poor Lockerby girl. Carolyn Lockerby. The news person said she was out in a dark parking lot with some older man doing who-knows-what -- and he attacked her. With a knife or something. I have seen her with Richard on a number of occasions. Haven't I?" The woman's head was shaking with parental concern.

     "They have been together on occasion. Yes. Nothing too serious from what I understand." Sophia was speaking as neutrally as she could. "Have you heard anything else?"

     "It's just scandalous! Imagine, right here in Avala-by-the-Lake! There was a shooting. Someone shot the man this Lockerby girl was with and everything."

     "Who shot him, Rachel?"

     "You know how those reporters are. They slant things so. It isn't clear yet who shot whom, Sophia. But I don't believe any of the innuendoes." Rachel paused to take a breath, like a swimmer coming up for air. "I want you to know that! It would be absurd to think that a girl with her family upbringing could be involved in a questionable matter such as this in any responsible way. Wouldn't it?"

     "Yes, Rachel. But what have you heard?"

     "Everything, Sophia. Everybody's talking about it. Everybody is asking how a good girl could be found in those circumstances. But I'm sure there's a perfectly simple explanation that would clear things up right away. I want you to know that. Still, if she were seeing my Rupert. But then, my Rupert and your Richard are so different from each other aren't they? I'm sure you have absolutely nothing to worry about, do you?" Rachel was nodding her head in the understanding of vacant concern.

     "I quite understand, Rachel. But I can assure you there's nothing between them."

     "Oh well, that's so good to hear, Sophia. I just can't tell you how much that relieves my mind. I wouldn't say anything, of course, but I was truly concerned about it. After all, one can not be too careful in Avala-by-the-Lake. Can one?"

     "No. One can not be too careful, Rachel."

     "You know how some people can be when it comes to publicity like this. I'm sure they would think one's family name would be tarnished -- goings-on like this. But I want you to know I would never think of being like that, Sophia."

     "I know that, Rachel. Well, if you'll excuse me, dear, I have some amount of details to put into order."

     "I know you must have, Sophia. Ta ta."

     "Good-bye."

     The screen went blank and Sophia Wycliffe sat and thought about it for a few moments. "There is but one course of action to take," she concluded. "After all, this is Avala-by-the-Lake." Sophia rose from her chair and walked straight to Richard's room, instead of calling him down.

     When she opened his door unannounced, Richard spun around and regarded her with a certain degree of horror. His eyes widened, as he naturally thought back to the last time his mother had come to his room those years ago. It had been when his father had died. Her walking into his room now did not bode well. "Mother, what's wrong?"

     "There's talk in the town. There's been some trouble we need to discuss, Richard. And I would also like to elaborate on your social responsibilities to the family."

     And Sophia closed the door behind herself.

5

     The black and white flitter landed softly in the center of a landing pad circle and its doors opened. Evelyn Wind stepped out of her side and looked around at the classic lines of the Colonial Reconstruct. It was a mansion. Symmetrical windows looked wide and tall and were spaced evenly apart and the ornate front door opened as Carolyn the Sweet and Evelyn Wind stepped onto the broad porch. "You'll come in, won't you?" Carolyn asked her new-found friend.

     Evelyn wanted to say no. At least she knew that should want to say no. But she'd never been in a place like this before! So, she didn't say anything, she just fluffed up her bright red hair and was glad it had finally stopped raining. She followed Carolyn in.

     "Good evening, Miss Carolyn." The butler greeted her with his base drum voice and a bow.

     "Good evening," she said perfunctorily. When she saw no one else around, she asked, "Where's Mother?"

     "Your Mother is up stairs."

     "Inform her that I have arrived, please."

     "I assure you that your Mother is aware of this."

     "Then, go and find something constructive to do."

     "Yes, Miss Carolyn." And with the barest of bows, he was off.

     Evelyn was eyes. And her eyes were drinking in the surroundings, like a drowning woman. "Wow!" She hadn't meant to say it. But how could she not? She turned on her heels and looked around the grand entrance way that seemed to her to be as big as a ball room. And she adored the symmetry of the double stair case leading up to the next level. "What's it like to grow up in a place like this?"

     Carolyn the Sweet thought about it, as she walked over to a sofa and touched it longingly. "It's like living in a museum. Everything in it is on loan from the private collections of our ancestors. You see this sofa?"

     Evelyn just nodded, as she surveyed the mint condition of the antique."

     "This sofa was the last piece of furniture to be added to the house. And no one has sat on it for four generations. What's it like to grow up here?" Carolyn echoed the question. "It's like being on a perpetual tour. And the guides constantly tell you 'don't touch this' and 'don't sit on that' and they say 'no pictures, please'. We do not take photographs, Evelyn, not here in Avala-by-the-Lake. We have well-known artists come and paint portraits of us and of our ancestors' things."

     Carolyn laughed. But it was one of those sad laughs made at unfunny jokes. She pointed to the old couch, "You know, when I was a little girl, I wanted to jump on that old sofa just to be able to say I was the first one in four generations to be on it. But I never did." She looked up into her new friend's eyes. "I never did because this is Avala-by-the-Lake. You can never really appreciate what that means unless you are a part of it."

     "We're reduced to being tour guides!" A woe-is-me sounding voice drifted down from the top of the stairs like dry ice vapors.

     Evelyn Wind looked up quickly and saw her. Evelyn was certain that a goddess was descending the curving stair case. She thought the goddess had stepped out of her shell and her dawned the gowns of mere mortal women. Yet, divinity aside, she was undoubtedly the mother of her young friend.

     And Evelyn was speechless before her.

     "Hello, Mother," Carolyn said. "I would like you to meet my new friend, Evelyn Wind."

     The eyes of the goddess looked over at Evelyn -- in the way mothers have of surveying the new pet a child has brought in and wants to keep. But Victoria said, "Child, you look simply awfully. I spend more on your hair than others can afford to pay on dresses. And I pay more for your dress than others can afford for wardrobes. And for what? So that you can be brought home by -- this person -- looking like that? You just have no idea the grief you've caused my tonight. But we shall not discuss these things in front of -- outsiders."

     Suddenly, or it seemed so to Evelyn Wind, Victoria was walking on the main floor. She stopped in front of Evelyn but barely looked at her. Then, Victoria held out her hand gracefully in the way only goddesses can do, as though to shake hands. But when Evelyn went to take it, she found a crisp, five hundred dollar bill in her hand.

     "For your -- trouble," Victoria said. "Off with you now."

     "Mother!"

     "Don't you ever use that tone of voice with me in my home again, young lady. This is Avala-by-the-Lake. Or have you forgotten?"

6

     It was a prim and proper looking Carolyn the Sweet, who walked into the Breakfast Room at seven precisely. As usual. Right away, she noticed that the large table was set for only two. Unusual. The Master of Entrance came in from the other side of the room in her morning gown. "Your uncle and your aunts are breakfasting in their respective rooms this morning. They seem to have all come down with something." Victoria explained.

     "All of them at once?"

     "There seems to be something going round Avala-by-the-Lake just now. Sit down, Carolyn. We must have a talk."

     They seated themselves and put cloth napkins across their laps, as ladies do in Avala-by-the-Lake at breakfast. "I see," Carolyn said. "At least I'm fit enough for school this morning."

     "You won't be attending school. I've made arrangements. There's been talk. And you know how dreadful talk can be in Avala-by-the-Lake. It would undoubtedly be uncomfortable for you to go back to school now."

     "What do you expect me to do with myself, Mother? Sit around the house idle, until the talk stops?"

     "I do not approve of your tone, Carolyn. But no, I don't expect you to do that. I've made arrangements with your father for you to stay with him for a while. Mary is packing for you now. James will drive you to the Space Port this evening and you should be all settled in by tonight."

     Breakfast was set before them by the servants and Victoria said the traditional grace. "Dear Lord, bless this food to the strength of our bodies and we thank you for our Salvation. And be with Carolyn as she embarks upon her journey and keep her safe. Amen."

     "For how long?" Carolyn asked.

     "You will finish school. And I do hope there is someone up there who's qualified to continue your piano training. Practice every day. We will see for how long, as things develop here in Avala-by-the-Lake."

     "I was supposed to meet with Richard at the Mall after school."

     "If you must, Carolyn. Tell him you will be going away for a while. But be prepared. This is Avala-by-the-Lake. James will drive you and see to your safety."

7

     James stayed out in the concourse of Avala Mall and stood there like a statue, as Carolyn the Sweet walked slowly into the Coffee Shop and took her customary seat. Coffee was delivered as usual. But with no pleasantries. Unusual. So, Carolyn sat and watched the steam drift out of her cup and dissipate into thin air, like the dreams of a lifetime overnight. She looked at the ring on her hand and turned it around in a full circle on her finger. A smile brushed against the corners of her mouth. "The next one will be a diamond," Richard had said on that not long ago day. And he had said diamonds are forever. She thought, "There are still some things you can count on, even in Avala-by-the-Lake." He would be here soon and that lightened the day. The only other comfort she'd received lately was from that strange and wild woman, Evelyn Wind. Carolyn the Sweet would always remember her. Carolyn the Sweet finally sipped her coffee and watched more of her vaporous life drift away into the thin air of Avala-by-the-Lake.

     "Hello, Carolyn."

     The formality of Richard's voice was strange to her ears. The absence of "the Sweet" struck home like thunderless lightning. Her eyes looked up and saw him like a stranger standing in a crowd. He was dressed in a casual but stylish suit. Yesterday she would have felt it looked strange on him. Yesterday. Today it fit. The look on his face was a starless night sky and the look in his eyes was distance. For the change in him, he could have been away to school for a long time -- having left a boy; having returned a man. Carolyn the Sweet regarded him and felt that this change was the same quality as the first bite of the first apple: a certain kind of knowledge of good and evil -- experiential knowledge. And Carolyn felt something in her heart stop breathing. There was something about his posture that told her she was seeing the bearer of ill tidings, like the white gloves on military officers tell you that death-news is coming. The death of a loved one. Carolyn the Sweet felt something in her throat close, as though it wanted no part in conversation. So Carolyn just patted the seat beside herself and watched in sadness as he slowly shook his head, as to say no.

     "I can stay for just a moment, Carolyn," he said with somebody else's voice. No. With Avala-by-the-Lake's voice. There was that superiority in there that distanced the others. "The family is waiting in the flitter. You understand."

     Carolyn the Sweet wanted to jump up and say "this is me you're talking to. I'm your Carolyn the Sweet!" But she didn't. She understood. More than she even realized she understood. And she nodded with the knowledge that his family meant his mother. She watched as his face grew liquid.

     "I'm going away to Law School in the fall. So, the family feels nothing should be serious between us just now. You understand."

     "Yes. Of course I understand, Richard. You have bent down on your knees over still Lake-waters, and you have drunk up the lips that kiss their shallow reflections."

     Richard was unmoved. But he must have been touched somewhere. "This is Avala-by-the-Lake, Carolyn."

     "They say you can get used to drinking muddy water in the shallow pools, where the back waters turn rancid. Is that right, Richard?"

     "Don't make this more difficult than it has to be, Carolyn. This is Avala-by-the-Lake. Everything here is a transaction. Everything. Our lives are bought and paid for by the time we were born. And we sell our soul a little bit at a time. Every time we eat a meal. Every time we change our clothes. Every time we receive we owe. And I'm fresh out of soul to sell, Carolyn. All I have left is debt. And now, I'll have to be the perfect heel and ask you for the ring back."

     Carolyn the Sweet nodded. She took it off. She handed it to him. She had made it easy for him. "I feel sorry for you, Richard the Ostrich Hearted. Good-bye."

     "Good-bye," he said and then walked away.

     And Carolyn's heart broke. What was left of it that could be broken, anyway. She finished her coffee, sighed, and then she said, "Some things can always be counted on in Avala-by-the-Lake."

     James was immediately by her side, as she came out into the concourse. She noticed that he was unlooking at her ring hand. But that could have been her own projections, she thought. Carolyn followed him numbly out to the flitter and they walked in a studdied silence.

     "Home, Miss Carolyn?"

     "No. To the Space Port, James. You can send my things later on."

     "That will require a separate round trip, Miss Carolyn."

     "It's only money."

     "Your Mother won't be happy if you leave Avala-by-the-Lake without saying good-bye."

     "What would you suggest that would make my Mother happy, James?"

     "I would not presume to say, Miss Carolyn."

     "Neither would I."

     They climbed into the fritter, it raised off the ground, and then it whisked them away.

8

     Commander Jonathan Lockerby was standing in the broad Arrivals Reception Area in the United States Section of the First World Space Dock, waiting for his daughter. Behind him stood a young Ensign who was just out of Combatier Command Training School and who had been volunteered to help with all the luggage that Jonathan was sure would be arriving. If he knew his wife, she would be sending enough along with their daughter to fit half a regiment. His all too toothy smile was out of control, galloping away with his happy emotions. And his eyes sparkled like pale blue gems reflecting the overhead light. While his deep, navy blue uniform marked him as being an Administrative Officer, in his chest was a heart alive with the lion of command. His daughter was coming. Carolyn was coming! "She should be here any minute now," he said to the boy-man behind him. Excitement was trickling from his tongue. Self-consciously, Commander Lockerby looked down at the beribboned and gift-wrapped box his hands were holding and he secretly wondered if he were being silly.

     But under his breath he said, "To hell with it. Be silly! Reserve be damned. Pull out all the stops. Let it all out." He saw her coming. Then he knew just how much he was really holding back. "There she is. That's my Carolyn!" He handed the box to the young Ensign and shouted over to his daughter, "Carolyn!" He ran to her. He grabbed a hold of her. He lifted her into the air and held onto her all the way down and kissed her cheeks. Both of them. Jonathan was glad to see his daughter. Then, he felt her trembling in his arms. "Are you all right, Carolyn?"

     "No. No, I'm not," she said.

     By this time all three of them were standing in a little triangle, with the Ensign trying to seem as though he hadn't noticed any of this. He was especially bad at not showing he noticed her.

     "This time yesterday, Daddy," Carolyn was saying, "I was Carolyn the Sweet in Avala-by-the-Lake and everybody loved me. Now, I've been shamed and packed up and sent away. I'm just so confused." Carolyn saw the young man watching her silently and so she lashed out at him. "That's right. I've been disgraced and abandoned. I'm not worth knowing." Immediately, she felt sorry for what she'd said. "I'm sorry. I'm just so confused. That's all."

     The young Ensign whose eyes were filled with Carolyn the Sweet smiled a little and was secretly happy he had an excuse to speak to her. "That's all right. I understand. Partly. I don't know the story, Ma'am, and it's none of my business. But I do know that if anyone rejects you it's because they didn't love you in the first place. Now I...."

     "That will be enough, Ensign." The Commander snapped at him.

     "Yes, Commander."

     Carolyn the Sweet looked at him intensely and squinted her eyes. She wondered, "If he.... What?"

     "I'd correct you, Ensign, but unfortunately you are right." To Carolyn he asked, "Where's your luggage?"

     "Coming on a later flight, Daddy."

     "There it is, then. I'll call later and arrange for it to be delivered to you. So, let's go over to my Office, where I can show you off to my regular Staff."

     "Daddy!"

     "Here. Give me that," the Commander said to the young Ensign, who handed over the wrapped box. "Carolyn, here's a little something I picked up."

     "What is it?" she asked when she felt the sheer weight of the thing.

     "A mink coat."

     "It is not!"

     "Then it's not a mink coat. But I think it's something you'll like anyway." He put one arm around his daughter and led her away. "Come along, lover boy."

     "Sir!"

     Commander Jonathan Lockerby's regular staff was waiting in the outer reception area when the three of them arrived.

     Carolyn the Sweet was overwhelmed by the crowd around her and by the hugs and cheek-kisses by the women. But she tried not to react. She told herself that this is how people behave themselves when they're not from Avala-by-the-Lake. She assured herself it was all right, since they evidently thought nothing odd about it. It's just that people from Avala-by-the-Lake don't touch. When she was finally facing the young Ensign -- what was his name? -- she was afraid he would grab a hold of her, too. But he didn't. He extended a hand and shook hers very gently. When Carolyn looked into his eyes, she was sad he hadn't. Well, she was almost sad. And secretly she wondered if he liked her or not, after the way she'd acted toward him. She wondered if he disliked her over what had happened to her in Avala-by-the-Lake. Her fingers were now wrinkling the wrapping paper on the box, so she looked down at it. Then, she looked around for somewhere to put it.

     "Over on the table, dear." Her father led the way over. "You want to open it now?"

     Of course she did. So, she did. Carolyn disassembled the wrapping more than just opening the present. After she smoothed out and folded the paper along its original creases, she untucked the top and looked inside. She immediately took in a deep breath.

     "A Simulator Piano." Her eyes verified the surprise in her voice.

     What she took out was a thin black coil about a foot high that rolled out into a keyboard. She touched keys and they made note sounds. "Nice tone," she said.

     "It's the Grand Piano Model," her father told her proudly.

     Carolyn the Sweet sat down into a chair -- the way a goddess would, thought the young Ensign -- and she started to play a nocturne by Chopin. Her eyes closed and she let the vibrations of music wash things clean on the inside. This would last for at least for as long as the sound of the music. So she wished it would not end. When she opened her eyes, she smiled, but she wasn't sure why, at first. Perhaps it was the way the young Ensign had his eyes closed too, as though the music was bathing him with warm waves of surf.

     Chopin knew how to make romance out of air.

9

     Commander Jonathan Lockerby sat patiently at his desk, but drummed his nervous fingers on the desk top anyway, as he watched the vacant vidcomm screen. He hummed a tune he'd heard Carolyn playing the evening before and found himself getting perturbed by the memory of the fleeting eye contacts that had passed between his daughter and the young Ensign, Frank Fraser. Now, he was thinking that he would know what to do about it if the glances in question were only the boy's. But they weren't. And he would know what to do if the questions in the boy's eyes were lewd ones. But they weren't. His eyes were asking other questions. Unknown kinds. And his daughter had been communicating, too. She was giving unknown answers. What bothered him the most was that his maturity knew that they didn't even know their own questions or each other's answers. He thought the birds were gathering twigs. Just then, the face of a striking red-headed woman came onto the screen with a casualness that scrambled to attention when she saw she was being called by a Service Administrative Commander. Jonathan concluded that the woman hadn't been told before hand who was calling.

     "Good morning," he said in a tone he hoped would not be threatening. "You are Officer Wind, I presume?"

     "Yes, Commander."

     He had the impression that the woman was starting out as noncommittally as she possibly could. "I hope I am not interrupting anything. At ease, Officer."

     The woman sat down in a straight-backed chair and feigned at ease. "Nothing important, Commander."

     The ball was evidently back in his own court. "Officer Wind, my name is Jonathan Lockerby."

     The woman's eyes immediately widened. "The father of Carolyn Lockerby?"

     "Yes."

     "Commander Lockerby, I can explain everything," she said trying to think rapidly on her feet.

     "I am so glad you can, Officer Wind. You see, I have never met anyone before who can explain everything. And I have some questions of a general nature."

     A sly smile crept over her face and the Commander knew that the ice had been cracked and broken.

     "At first, I was afraid that Carolyn's Mother -- your wife? -- had lodged some kind of formal complaint. Or something."

     "Carolyn's mother is my wife, yes. She is not without her share of complaints on every conceivable subject. And her remarks about you were less complementary than my initial impressions. Now, to the subject of my call, Officer Wind. Since the incident, you were the only one who has given her any positive support -- on the face of the earth, anyway." And the Commander rolled his eyes slightly. "So, I would like you to dine with us this evening, if it's not too short of notice. And if you're free, of course."

     "Ah. Who else -- has offered her this positive support, Commander?" she asked.

     The Commander blinked his eyes in surprise at the question. But he did relax and warm up a bit. "A young Ensign on my Staff. I think he would like to have been even more of a positive reassurance to her."

     "And you disapprove?"

     Jonathan was wondering why he was discussing his daughter with a total stranger. But then, he thought, she was a friend of Carolyn's. "No. Yes. I mean, Carolyn's so young!"

     "And he's so old?"

     "No."

     "Boy likes girl; girl likes boy?"

     "Yes."

    "Then, what's the problem, Commander?" Evelyn Wind asked.

     "Well, the problem is he's only temporarily assigned to me. That's not the problem. The real problem is he's temporary to Administration and will be assigned soon in his own field of Combat/Command."

     "So, he's a Combatier?"

     "Yes."

     "Let me see if I have this straight, Commander. You disapprove of the Ensign because Combatiers are what? Untrustworthy? Unfaithful? Unreliable."

     "Of course not, Officer Wind. Combatiers these days are peacekeepers. Like Law Enforcement People. But...."

     "But they're at risk? Like me?" Evelyn Wind finished for him.

     "Precisely."

     "Life is at risk, Commander. But as long as good comes from it, then the risk is worth the taking. I take risks every day. But I don't let that keep me from living life. Enough good comes out of it to make the risks all worth while."

     "I'll certainly consider what you've said. Now, a round-trip ticket will be in your name at the Space Port."

     "Space Port?"

     "Yes, Of course. Oh! I see. You thought Victoria's. No. If you come, we'll be dining at eight onboard the First World Space Dock. Carolyn's living here with me now. Sorry about the confusion there."

     "Invite your Ensign and I'll be there."

     "You are an impossible woman, Officer Wind. But likable. Four of us at eight, then."

     "Good. Do I bring a gift?"

     "It's so hard to buy for one who has every.... Wait a minute. There is something." The Commander grinned. "If you find it appropriate, two or three pairs of beige coveralls."

     "Her mother would not approve, Commander."

     Still smiling. "I know. They are appropriate for Space Dock. And their coming from one outside the immediate family would solve certain logistical problems."

     "How diplomatically put, Commander. I'll see you at eight."

     "At eight, then. Lockerby out."

     Commander Lockerby turned from the vidcomm on his desk to his intercom channel. "Ensign Fraser."

     "Yes, Commander." His voice scratched out of the small speaker.

     "Bad news Ensign. OT tonight. Your presence is required to attend a formal dinner and reception. The time is eight O'clock sharp. The place is Officers' Reception Dining Room. Uniform is Dress Uniform, full-polish. Any questions, Ensign?"

     "No, Sir."

     "Eight O'clock sharp then."

     "Yes, Sir."

10

     Commander Jonathan Lockerby led the way into the dining room at eight O'clock precisely. Ensign Fraser stopped short, as he realized that the rectangular table was set for only four.

     "Just the four of us, Ensign." Evelyn Wind said as she looked around.

     "Imagine that," the Commander commented, as he walked over to the table and selected the far chair on the left hand side. "Ensign, you sit here," he said as he indicated the chair next to himself.

     When Evelyn Wind noticed that Carolyn's smile faded with the pronouncement, she stepped up and took charge of the situation. "Honestly, I don't see how you men make it up here, all by yourselves. Yes, that's fine for you Commander. Sit, sit, sit." She made a gesture toward him that looked like she were shooing something. "You, Ensign. I think it's civilized for you to sit across from your Commander. Don't you agree? Yes? Go, go, go."

     The young man looked at his Commander, who merely shrugged. "Men rule the world, while the women busy themselves with ruling the men," he said.

     "Yes, Sir."

     Then, Evelyn Wind said, "I'll just sit here next to the Commander. Carolyn the Sweet, you just take the empty seat. Now. now, now."

     "How rhym-ee," the Commander said.

     "Carolyn the Sweet," repeated Frank Fraser just loud enough for the young woman to look around and smile.

11

     It was about twenty thirty hundred hours ship's time. Ensign Frank Fraser was sitting in a chair in the Officer's Lounge over near the piano. Specifically, when the piano was being played. More specifically, when Carolyn the Sweet practiced her playing at this time every night. She was finishing and he was coming back to the world of silence.

     He left the coffee sitting long-cold on the table and walked over to the piano. "Hello, Miss Lockerby.

     "Hello, Ensign Fraser."

     "Tell me: do you like poetry?"

     "Some poetry. As long as its coherent and reaches me."

     Commander Lockerby had walked in and had sauntered over into ear shot. But he didn't say anything.

     "I just read a poem by a Staff Writer on the station paper. I thought you might like to hear it. Would you?"

     "Yes."

     He took the folded page out of his pocket, cleared his throat, looked into her big brown eyes too deeply for her father's taste, and began reading:

"What arm is strong enough to capture love

And cast it into a cell of little words

And mold it into forms that eyes can see

And cure it into substance hands can touch?

Poets and other fools have tried as much.

They bend down on their knees over still ponds

And they drink the lips that kiss reflections

And they see landscapes in little water waves

And the brushes of their tongues can't paint a tree

And they're just standing there for all to see.

What thesaurus of the mind can contain the heart

And communicate emotions breathing there

And transcribe them into any more than metaphor

And assemble them with letters that can reveal

And punctuate them just the way they feel?"

     Carolyn the Sweet had listened to how he read the words. She listened very carefully. And she liked it. "What does it mean to you?"

     "Careful how you answer that, Ensign." Her father warned.

     "You disapprove, Commander?'

     "Truthfully, Ensign," Carolyn's father said as he walked up, "one should be careful interpreting poetry to the poet. Good-night."

     "You wrote that?"

     "Yes."

     "I hope you're not too offended. But I adore you, Carolyn the Sweet."

     "Thank you, Ensign."

12

     Carolyn the Sweet's Graduation Day was one of those life-changing days whose effects last forever.

     After the customary celebration, Ensign Frank Fraser grabbed her by one arm and dragged her off to one corner of the Officers' Lounge. There, he sat her in a chair and knelt down in front of her on one knee. "Carolyn the Sweet, will you marry me?"

     She thought her initial thought was silly, 'I wish you wouldn't call me that.' But what she said was, "Yes."

     Commander Jonathan Lockerby was walking toward them a little stiffer than usual. His eyes appeared to be a little glassed over, but nobody noticed. His mind was on something else. But in the gayety, nobody cared. His arms were limp and hanging down by his sides and his hands wore a pair of pressed white gloves. Nobody saw them but Ensign Fraser, whose eyes widened.

     "Oh, Daddy, Look!" Carolyn the Sweet said excitedly. She ran up and showed him her engagement ring. "Isn't it beautiful?" she asked, then jumped into his arms.

     "Yes," Jonathan said. "That's just wonderful, Sweetheart." But the Commander bent his wrists straight out and gave Ensign Fraser a squinted-eyed look, as he nodded to the gloves.

     The Ensign simply nodded. He stepped forward and stripped off the gloves and shoved them into his pockets. And out of sight. His face was a study in worry.

     "That's just wonderful, Carolyn," the Commander said.

     "Daddy, what's wrong?"

     "It's not every day I have a daughter of mine getting engaged. I'm happy for both of you." He let her out of his arms. "When?"

     Carolyn the Sweet looked to Frank. Frank looked to Jonathan. Jonathan looked to Carolyn. "Well, Sir," Frank said, "I don't want to rush this...."

     "Yes you do."

     The Ensign squinted his eyes the way a guilty man does. "The Base Captain has approved the ceremony for the day after tomorrow. Sir?"

     "Don't ask me, Frank."

     "Yes, yes, yes," Carolyn said.

13

     As soon as they were alone together, Carolyn asked, "Frank, what's wrong?"

     "What could be wrong?"

     "That's my question. First my Daddy's acting funny. Now you. That can mean only that something's wrong. What?"

     "I can't tell you. I mean I don't know. Your father told me not to tell you now -- what I don't know."

     "Is this some kind of military double talk or what? All right. Your Commander is over ruled. What's wrong?"

     "Your father has some bad news for you and he didn't want to spoil our day."

     "What bad news?"

     "I really don't know."

     "But you know something, Frank."

     "I know it's very bad news, Carolyn."

     "What kind of very bad news is it?"

     "Sit down." When the were sitting together on a couch, Frank reached into a pocket and drew out the white gloves and set them between themselves.

     Carolyn picked them up. "A death." She looked up into his eyes. "Do you know whose?"

     "No." Frank tried to draw her close, but she wouldn't let him.

     "Later." Carolyn headed toward the door.

14

     The door was open and the light was on in his office. As she had expected. Carolyn walked in and took a seat by the edge of his desk. Her father looked up and their eyes met but they said nothing for a short time. Then, Carolyn put the white gloves on the corner of the desk and settled back and waited. The long wait.

     "I'm sorry, Carolyn," her father began at last. "The news just now came in. Your friend Evelyn Wind was just killed in the line of duty. I don't know how much consolation this will be, but it was quick. Painless. I'm sorry. She was a good person. She was a good friend."

     They sat there for a long time in silence before Carolyn started to cry. "I'll never forget her."

     Now, she had the taste of mourning.

 

The End