Well, fish sticks.
At least, that’s what the airship looked like to my slightly inebriated mind. It descended from the sky, silent as if on a string dangled by God. Airships like this—the messenger kind, not the passenger kind—had a certain look about them that reminded me of fish sticks, if fish sticks could descend from the sky to hungry open mouths below. They were long and slender and covered in a material that slightly resembled fried batter. It was interesting to watch, but it was also the last thing I expected on this summer day, and certainly the last thing Portia would want. It would ruin her mood.
Then again, everything seemed to ruin her mood.
Except the gardener.
And the pool boy.
Maybe the chef, too, but I swore the man was into me more than any of the female persuasion.
I remember quite a bit from that day, actually. Although a lot was a blur, as you can imagine if you were in my shoes, the day the world ended was quite remarkable. There was, of course, the fish stick falling out of the sky, but also the cold glass of scotch I held in my hand. The glass itself was rather cheaply made, a holdover of my previous life as the owner of two franchise locations that made and installed wooden bathtubs for the rich and famous. Although rich now, I was not at all famous, so I never had a bathtub made for myself. Not that it mattered. I was fond of showers, anyway. Owning franchises was simply something to pass the time. I could have owned one of those cleaning services or—here was a novel idea—a string of fish stick stands, and it would have made no difference. When you have an education in business but no desire to work for someone else, franchising is the best option available to bring in money. I could also yell at people when the mood struck me.
The rest of my money was earned the hard way: buying lottery tickets once a week was a job in itself. You had to force yourself to go to the store, remove cash from a machine (because, God forbid, the lottery people take credit), tell the cashier something like “Five quick picks, please,” then wait until the magic balls were sucked up into a machine late on a Saturday.
Of course, the real work began when you won a sum of money that required you to sign the back of your lottery ticket, hail a carriage to take you to the lottery office, then quickly hire a money manager before your wife spent the money on stupid shit before you even knew what hit you.
And Portia was good at spending money on stupid shit.
She just refused to buy glasses, and so I was stuck with the cheaply made department store glass in my hand as a fish stick descended on my yard with a message that I knew I did not want to read. I have a feeling Portia refused to buy proper glasses for scotch because it was something that would be useful only to me. She bought other glassware, but only those that made her look good when entertaining people.
Messenger ships are ubiquitous in places like New Amsterdam and Trimountaine to the south, but here in the Plymouth Commonwealth where vast expanses of nothing butt up against more expanses of nothing, messenger ships are a rare sight. In fact, in the six years I had lived in the Manor since Portia bought it on a whim (but still couldn’t buy scotch glasses), I had only seen two others. The first arrived with news that my father and mother died in a crash in British West Florida, and the second delivered a stack of legal papers which required my signature so I could relinquish my rights to the franchises back to the franchisor, a cruel old man with a white mop of hair and spray on tan.
In other words, messenger ships were not known to deliver good news.
As the airship neared the ground, the surrounding grass fluttered in the way I imagine all grass might flutter if a fish stick blew it. Mowing day was supposed to be on a Tuesday, and as it was Sunday and the pool boy wasn’t scheduled until Wednesday, that meant Portia was likely in a foul mood. Any news brought by a messenger airship that might disrupt her oh-so-important Plymouth Commonwealth Women’s Society Brunch—or as I liked to call it, snobs eating caviar on a sunny day—was unwelcome.
Hence the glass of scotch in my hand.
Like I said, I remember quite a few things from that day. Like any moment that changes your life forever, there are visual and auditory crumbs that get stuck in your head like taffy in your teeth. There are olfactory crumbs, too, and the smell of petrol and unmowed grass is still there. Whenever I get a whiff, I am taken back.
When the airship finally settled, and the whoosh of the silent rotors was reduced to something that would chop up a body with less finality than at full power, the ramp extended from the side. A portly gentleman of about twelve emerged from the side of the fish stick and jogged in my direction with a small envelope in his hand. I say about twelve, but to be honest, he could have been thirty. When you’re almost fifty, ages blur. At least for me.
“Geoffrey Alan Thompson?” the messenger asked when he’d finally approached.
First off, I hated the term “sir.” My father was “sir.” The franchisor was “sir.” The old man with the gold and ebony cane I saw at the theater last winter who smelled of old money and hubris was “sir.” I was not “sir.”
Now rankled, I pulled up my shirt sleeve and held out my wrist for proper identification. This was the second thing I hated: showing off my wrists. It wasn’t the identification bracelet I objected to or the fact that I had to show it off every time someone asked. It was the scars I purposefully hid with long sleeves no matter the heat of the day or if I was swimming in the ocean with my two dogs. They were personal. Nevertheless, you had to wear your identification wrist bracelet on the only place it fit: your wrist.
The messenger took no notice of my scars, however, and quickly scanned the bracelet. Evidently satisfied, he handed me the envelope. With a slight bow, he spun on his heels and jogged back to the fish stick, doubtless to deliver more messages to more people because, well, that was his job. It took all of two minutes.
As the fish stick messenger airship ascended into the sky, I stood and watched. I will reiterate: messenger ships were not known to deliver good news. Why should I dive right into the one now in my hand? Why not savor the warm summer day, the cold of the glass in my hand, and the fading smell of petrol on the air?
Then again, why give Portia a day without something to complain about? I was good at pissing her off, or so she said frequently.
I opened the envelope and took out a small card. Handwritten in ink was the one message that would definitely ruin Portia’s day.
“Gehenna is nigh.”
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