Mirror of Stone, Chapter One

By the middle of the dinner shift, Eleanor Weber wanted to scream or die. She didn’t care which.

“Girl!” shouted yet another drunken farmer from the tavern’s common room.

Eleanor raised her head from the kitchen table and stared out the window. Ladril hung low in the cloud-filled sky that night. The swirling pastels of the planet above provided a dramatic backdrop for the buildings across the street.

“Girl!” The woman’s voice sounded louder, rough with drink and impatient.

Eleanor stood up, straightened her apron and made her way out to the front of the tavern with a loaded tray.

Wiring lay exposed in long runs down the grey ceiling, paired with pipes that despite Eleanor’s constant repairs crackled and hissed like old women gossiping, even when the hall stood empty. But ever since the trading ships and their Navy escort arrived at the spaceport outside of Prime, her father’s bar had overflowed with customers. A table of Guardsmen argued about recruitment terms, merchants complained about grain that had spoiled in the long delay between ships, farmers speculated on ways to transform more of Travbon’s barren rock to good soil.

Eleanor could make out the faces of a handful of regulars, but tonight most were strangers in from outlying farms, or prospectors who had rushed into town as soon as the news of the ships’ arrival went out. Now the day’s trading had finished and here they all sat and drank and yelled for her.

“Here you are, ma’am,” Eleanor placed the full wine glass down by the strapping woman.

The farmer didn’t bother to look away from her drinking partners as she held her credit chip up for scanning.

At a far table, Mrs. Jameson shook her head at the rowdy crowd. Surrounded by miners and farmers, Mrs. Jameson gave the impression she had stepped out of some fashion vid to model the latest styles from Claro. Eleanor couldn’t think of anyone else in town who would bother to stitch designer outfits out of scraps of fabric, but somehow Mrs. Jameson’s efforts succeeded. The severe grey and black jumpsuit made the widow look taller, even sitting down.

“Sorry it took me so long to get here, it’s a madhouse tonight.” Eleanor waved her hand at the crowded room behind her.

“All going well? How’s Greg? I only planned to come in for a moment, but can stay and help if you need it.”

“No, it’s fine. Everyone’s wound up, that’s all. And I’m sure my father will be down shortly. He’s resting for a bit right now.” Eleanor wiped down the table and looked away from the older woman’s sharp gaze. She knows. Everyone must know.

Eleanor wished her aunt would come out from behind the scuffed bar and help serve tables, even if it meant listening to her complaints later. Susan preferred to reign from behind the bar, only emerging to break up a fight if it came down to that. With luck, this wouldn’t end up being that sort of night.

Burly men in plain grey coveralls argued over a section of the map pinned to the wall. Prospectors in from the Newell Mountains to the east, by the pale lines embedded into their faces. Respirator marks.  Eleanor had often seen the black molded devices when she cleaned guest rooms. Once she had placed one gingerly over her mouth and nose. It felt uncomfortable, claustrophobic and she had torn it off. Still, the awkward device formed an essential part of the miner’s kit.

“Miss? Might there be a room still available?”

Eleanor jumped at the light touch on her arm. At a guess, she’d have placed the old man as another prospector. His travel-stained clothes and the rancid smell indicated it had been a while since his last bath. Not that anyone else in the place smelled much better. His matted grey hair stuck up from his head in tufts around his face.

“I’d have to check, but I think one of the smaller berths is open. Would that be all right?”

“That’s fine. I’m not sure if much matters any more.” The man slurred his words. Perhaps he had brought his own flask.

She shrugged. One fewer table to wait on. She stepped away but he waved her back.

“The Namok flooded. Took me weeks longer to get back than I’d planned. I went to Administration to tell them but they laughed me out of the office.” The old man slumped over the table. His gummy eyes gazed past her, focused on something she couldn’t see.

“Well, I’m sorry for that. Maybe someone in Administration will listen to you tomorrow.” She stepped away. “I’ll go set up that berth for you.”

As she passed the bar she said to Susan, “I’m setting up a room for that old man. What’s open?”

Susan snorted. “Him? Did you register him and get his money first? He doesn’t look like he can pay for his wine, much less a berth.”

“He’s fine. Watch the front, would you? I’ll take a plate to Poppa while I’m up.”

Susan shrugged. “On your head, then.”

The swinging of the kitchen door cut off the noise of the front room. A few slices of smoked sausage, a piece of hard cheese, a hunk of dense bread fresh from that morning’s baking. A glass of fortified water. A set of fresh sheets for the prospector’s guest berth. All ready.

Upstairs, Eleanor put the tray of food on the bedside table while she made up the small room. What an odd man. I wonder if anyone knows he’s gone crazy. Maybe nobody cares enough to keep him home, out of trouble.

She took the tray down to the end of the hall past the sputtering light that she could never get to burn evenly and around the corner to where the family’s rooms clustered. She took a deep breath.

“Poppa? It’s me. I brought you something to eat.”

An empty bed, sheets torn off, faced her. A straight-backed chair lay overturned next to the table littered with empty bottles. The dank sweet smell of rot mixed with the sharp tang of alcohol hung in the air although Eleanor had cleaned the room yesterday. Watery light from the street outside provided the sole illumination.

“Poppa?”

A sob drew her attention to the corner behind the bed.

“There’s my girl. My pretty, pretty girl.”

“Come on, Poppa.”

Eleanor’s stomach knotted. Why did he have to be like this? Why couldn’t he help, instead of leaving everything to her? He acted as if he alone had been abandoned.

“Come here, honey. Put that tray down. Maybe I’ll get to it later.”

She cleared space among the bottles on the cluttered table for the tray.

“At least drink the water, please?”

“That sludge? Tastes wrong.”

Eleanor sighed. “I’ve told you. That’s because it has vitamins and stuff in it. It’ll help you get better.”

Pretending to herself that her father stayed in his room due to sickness worked most of the time, but she couldn’t lie to herself here among the bottles and the vomit.

“Come here,” he repeated. “Wanna tell you a story.”

“I don’t have time right now. The tavern is full of people. You should come on down, spend some time with everyone. Your friends miss you. They’ve asked about you all night.”

But she cleared a space on the floor and sat next to him.

“I never met a prettier woman than your mother, not in the whole colony.” His voice had faded from the baritone she loved to a ragged growl. “Martha. Such a plain name for a beautiful girl.  At your age, she had dark hair and sun-gold skin, just like you. Half the boys fell over themselves to get her attention. But she picked me. Me! Never understood it.”

Eleanor continued to smile and nod, but didn’t listen. She had heard this story too many times. Four years earlier the Kherdan flu had ravaged the colony. Even when the supply ships had flown regularly, there had been shortages, especially of medicines. The fever left her mother frail and easily tired. Weeks would pass without her mother leaving the bedroom, weeks Eleanor remembered of creeping upstairs, peeking through the door to watch her mother sleep, waiting for each breath to come, the strands of long hair cascading across the coverlet like embroidery.

She glanced at him. Her father had passed out again while lost in his memories.  Over a year since her mother had finally faded away. During her own devastation, Eleanor had hated her father for surviving the final separation so well. It had been an illusion, a charade of functionality. He had been hanging on with his fingernails, waited for her to finish school, even encouraging her to graduate early, before descending into his own collapse.

She jerked the sheets back onto the matress, then pulled and pushed until she managed to get her father in and covered by the blankets.

Not sure why I bother. He won’t stay.

#

The next morning Eleanor served breakfast to guests as they stumbled down to the common room, bleary from the previous evening’s excesses. From their looks, she guessed few had slept well; a storm had advanced up the coastline and the wind rattled the building through the night. Throughout the morning, wind pushed against the building with such force everyone sat huddled, as if they could feel the cold gusts.

She halted inside the door of the kitchen and smiled, not the weak thing she wore for the customers, but really smiled for the first time all morning.

A stocky boy with a mess of sandy brown hair pulled packages of food out of a carry-box and neatly arranged them across the counter.

“Mom said you were due for a reorder. I figured I’d bring up the regular items, save you a bit of a trip.” He glanced up and the corners of his green eyes crinkled into the familiar smile.

Doug Reilly reached into the top of a large cupboard to put away zippacks of grain.

“Not there, I’ll never reach them.”

“Sure thing, shorty.”

“How are your folks?”

“They’re fine. The store’s been swamped. You know all the things we’ve been out of? Mom’s been placing calls to everyone who backordered. I hope we have enough stock to keep us through until the next ship comes.” He shrugged and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “It’d be easier if we could manufacture more things here. We keep asking for machine parts, but somehow they keep getting left off the manifest. Dad thinks it’s all some huge conspiracy.”

Eleanor flicked her eyes to the door to the main room. “Shhh. You never know.”

Doug shrugged and stowed the last of the supplies. “I guess you don’t, but I don’t think always worrying about the monitors is going to help. How’s it going for you?”

Eleanor flung herself into a chair at the kitchen table and threw her hands up. “Susan’s getting bossier and Dad is getting worse. I don’t know what I’m going to do, or how long I can live like this. The next person that yells ‘girl’ or calls me ‘dear’ is going to get a drink thrown in his face. And I wish Susan would go away. She means well, but we don’t need her. Dad and I can do it on our own. I want Dad get back to normal; for things to be like they were before.”

She stopped to catch her breath. “I sound like I’m six and want an extra candy, don’t I?”

Doug walked behind her chair and put his broad hands on her shoulders. She could feel the muscles begin to relax. “El, why don’t you . . .” He hesitated. His hands paused in their pattern.

“Why don’t I what? Push Susan down the stairs? Trust me, I’ve thought about it. Lots.”

He chuckled and kept rubbing, found little knots of tension, smoothed them out, one layer at a time.

“I’m worried about you. You know that. You can’t stay here forever. It’s not healthy for you.” He tightened his grip over a stiff muscle and she yelped. “See?”

She sighed. “Even if you’re right, what am I going to do about my father? I can’t leave him.”

Doug sat at the table and put his hand over hers. “I don’t know what he needs. He has to want to get better, and I’m not sure he does. Honestly, are you?”

Eleanor pulled her hand away and scrambled to her feet. “Of course he’ll get better. How can you say he won’t? You sound like Susan.”

“Eleanor, wait.”

She paused.

Doug rose. Took one step toward her, two. “We need to talk. It doesn’t have to be like this.”

He raised his hand to her face, cupped her cheek. “We can make it be different this time.” And he leaned forward.

Eleanor shoved him back. “What are you doing?”

His wide green eyes roved over her face. “I just thought that we-”

“No! Whatever you thought, you were wrong.”

Eleanor grabbed her tray and ran out, but not before she heard him stomp out of the kitchen and slam the back door.

#

As Eleanor cleared the dishes after breakfast, Susan snapped: “Go roust that old bum you let in. He’s either still sleeping or he’s already scarpered without paying his bill.”

Eleanor focused on her breathing. It’s not her place to give orders, not her home, she fumed. In a year I’ll be old enough, one more year. But she said nothing.

She rapped on the old man’s door. “Sir? Are you ready to come down for breakfast? I need to clean the room.”

No answer. She knocked louder to make sure he could hear her over the roar of the wind outside. “Sir? Are you okay?”

She eased the sliding door open and stepped into the room. The stench of feces turned her stomach.

“Sir?”

"A bright, original voice in young adult fiction." - Walter Jon Williams, Nebula winning author of Hardwired and This is Not a Game.