Why would we need brakes? Chapter 7
“So, I talked to the Va-Ra today.” Lab said as he closed the door behind his old friend. The little apartment, wafting heavy scents of seafood, was warm and busy, yet unmistakably some hint of great melancholy lingered between the walls.
“Is this really what you want to bring up?” Asked Couchant, taking off his jacket and then bending down to take off his shoes. “As soon as I’ve walked in?”
“She wasn’t stoked,” said Lab. “She’s right. You know she’s right,” replied Couchant. “Well,” murmured Lab, suddenly intrigued by the window. “You’re making a mistake. I don’t know why you need me to tell you that.” Out the window, the city hustled and whizzed, Couchant silently took off his
shoes as he and Lab gazed. In the far distance, from the launch boats in the harbor, rockets ascended symmetrically with shooting stars. A particularly large one, a Colonizer, crept its way upward, dwarfing the impotent tail-fires of nearby rockets. 450 years until it reached its destination. Couch thought of Lab strapped into a cryo-bed aboard that monolith. He shuddered and stood up. “It’s far.”
“Leaving’s gonna make us happy, man.” Lab glanced over at Fee-Bi, girlfriend of the year, busying herself with the food.
“It’s running away,” said Couchant. “You shouldn’t quit your job.” Lab turned, “Anyone need a beer? Perf, Couch?” While Lab fished through the refrigerator for beers, Couchant gave a friendly hug
to the silent Perf, “Too far?” he whispered. Perfunctory shook her head. “No, but it won’t work, Couch.” She was from a
long line of polite breeding where speaking her opinion was frowned upon, unless it came after four to five nights of careful dancing around the subject. Already, she knew that her coworker’s attempts would be futile.
“I know. But I have to try.”
Nestled together in a styrofoam box on the floor, twelve aracrabs slept in a cold- induced nightmare. Couchant picked one up by the corner of its triangular body. All twelve of its legs were curled, including the massive stingers at the back, “Stinger’s the best meat on the ’ole thing” a grizzled Tritonian fisherman would be glad to tell you.
“Express missile all the way from Triton,” mused Couchant. “How you cookin’ ’em?”
“I’m going to put them in the pot then bring it to a boil.” Replied Fee-Bi, “It’s easy. I thought it would be a nice going away gift. Lab’s always talking about how your families used to eat ’em together.”
“I usually boil the water then puttem in. They suffer less that way,” said Couchant coolly. Fee-Bi turned away from her pan, measuring Couchant’s intentions. Lab handed Couchant a beer, and Fee-Bi turned back to the pan of mushrooms she was preparing.
Lab was chipper as they returned to the dinner table. “I was talking to my brother, back on Triton, we’ve been jumping through hoops trying to clear up our sis’ estate. Collie left a lot behind, an apartment, the business, the lease on the office building; it’s just a lot, man. Of course, I don’t mind that my brother gets it all. What could I possibly do with it anyways,” He attempted a chuckle and looked at Couchant hopefully, saw only a concerned frown, kept going, “Anyways, Pug can have it all for what I care. I mean, whatever right? I can’t bring myself to fight over what Collie left behind. And this way, I’ll be far far away.” He trailed off in a soma grin, before hastily adding, “It’s just too difficult to be here. I’m not happy.”
Couchant took a long sip from his Jupiter Pale Ale. “Pretty good JPA, right? Brewed right here in the city,” said Lab. He was trying to get Couchant to respond positively to absolutely anything. Couchant nodded and said something complimentary about hops.
“So tell me a bit about the colony,” Perf finally spoke after an uninspired conversation about nearby breweries.
“Uhh, yeah. So it’s in the Gravita’s quadrant of Sheffield galaxy. Apparently it’s highly, what do they say? Suitable- or something?”
“Habitable,” interrupted Couchant.
“Right, habitable. So we just get there and it’s like a new world. We get to create it ourselves, I think. Her family left to go there, like what?” He called over to Fee-Bi, “Hey Bi, how long ago did your mom and dad take off?”
“So they’ll get there in, like, 300 more years,” Lab laughed with just a hint of discomfort. “The company said something about us building our own house. We get land.”
“How much?” Asked Couchant. “I don’t remember,” again Lab laughed. “You don’t know how much land you’re getting?” “Well, y’know? I came to Callisto not knowing anything, either. Remember?
You just told me it was good here, and you set that job up for me, so I came. Didn’t even look it up first.”
“That’s insane,” said Couchant. “You should have atleast looked it up.”
“We’re going to miss you at the office,” Perf added. “Crab almost ready, Bi?” Fee-be nodded back. She was listening closely to the conversation at the table.
Couchant wondered just how much of the plan was hers. “Remember the aracrab boils we’d have back home? Fresh caught. Those were the days, huh?” mused Lab.
“Really? I’ve never tried it before,” said Perfunctory. “Growing up, I heard that if they sting you it’s really bad and I always avoided them.”
Lab and Couchant both looked at each other, suddenly they became very serious. “Yeah, almost lost my dog to one when I was young. Caught them on the ice, three of ’em surrounding her,” said Couchant.
“You damn near got yourself killed, too. Kids can’t handle the venom as well,” supplied Lab. They both looked over at the trembling Perfunctory, staring at the now- empty styrofoam box with horror. The two scoundrels burst out laughing. “We’re kidding, we’re kidding,” said Lab in-between peals of laughter.
“They don’t have any venom, they use the stingers to spear little shrimpsters and fish, then bring them into their mouths,” explained Couchant after calming down a little.
Fee-be brought over a platter of the cooked creatures and Lab began busily eating. Couchant, the familiar and long-lost smell overwhelming him, almost missed Perf’s look of polite fear. Still a little afraid of what, until a few moments ago, she assumed were deadly beasts. He handed her an aracrab and began demonstrating the process of opening, breaking, picking, and eating the complicated little thing. “It gets easier,” he winked. “Everytime it gets easier and quicker. Back on Triton, we spent
hours picking and eating and talking all together at the table. It’s really the ceremony of it all.”
Fee-Bi held the aracrab awkwardly, inspecting without making any moves. Next to her, Lab was busy with his own. She clearly wanted his help. She looked across the table to where Couchant was showing Perf how to break open the stingers. He punched out the stinger with a little fork, used the furthest-most tooth of the tool to get inside the claw, and then split the top portion of it with a lever-like movement, all while slowly explaining what he was doing.
“Baby, could you show me how to eat it?” Fee-Bi asked Lab very quietly.
“Yeah, you just uhh,” his mouth was full of meat, his hands moving quickly on the shell, cracking and picking, “You just, you know, you just eat it.” He broke a leg in half, revealing a long sliver of teal meat, “Like this, you see?”
“I don’t see.” She said calmly.
Lab put down the remains of his aracrab and let out an overlong sigh. “Well, hand it over here. I’ll do it.”
“I can do it myself, just show me how.”
Perfunctory, now fairly comfortably picking at the center shell, and Couchant, picking inattentively at leg meat, lazily watched the two.
“Fuck, well uh, so what you do,” Lab sounded exhausted and exasperated as he explained the process of breaking and eating the aracabs. To Couchant it seemed silly to be so fed up, so tired by such a simple request from his fiancée. He watched curiously as Lab made the process of eating the wonderful little creatures sound like a death sentence.
“And then you, uh, you eat the little bit of meat and keep going. Keep going and going. It’s always a small amount of meat. Never even a mouthful. But you gotta keep going. It takes hours sometimes to get full eating these,” said Lab.
Fee-Bi began to pick it up and the four them sat silently, crunching through the armored spiders. Couchant tried to remember the last time he had eaten aracrab. But really he just thought about Lab, tried to remember the last time he had seen him happy. Truly happy. It couldn’t have been all that long ago. They had been on Jupiter together for three years now. He couldn’t recall anything from the past year he would call a “happy Lab memory”. There were short bursts, like that little joke about the stingers, but never anything more than that. Never a night or evening worth of smiles and jokes. He thought back, tried to dig up what exactly “a happy Lab memory” was anyways.
A distant memory of some juvenile night; an adventure where they stole without stakes. The time they drank their first beers walking through an abandoned house; lusted over classmates: “I just want to see her naked. That’s all. I swear.” Gawked at a 40ounce. Belted out the words to a distant pop song. “Bruh, this is what I’m gonna grind to at the dance.” Drunkenly tumbling across time and space to wrangle pizza. Sun on their backs as they skated across long abandoned roads, carcrafts whizzing by far overhead; waiting patiently for licenses to fly their own. Lab got his first, chauffeured for half a year; the whole crew lustily stared out of the windows while hunting for something; riding for youth. Late at night, the rest of the party asleep, a final beer on the roof of an abandoned building, longing for the stars, “How far will we go?” One of them asked. Lab and Couchant, clanging their bottles together before throwing them with a
laugh. Back to aracrabs, bits of shell slicing little cuts in his hand as he hungrily picked. Where had that friend gone?
Fee-Bi was picking her aracrab apart with some skill now. Lab had finished his own, cracking and slurping without a word. Crushed claws falling into a repurposed tissue bin provided the only sound in the apartment.
“This is fucking stupid,” Couchant nearly shouted across the table. “You could do anything Lab, anything.”
“Why can’t you let him do what he wants?” said Fee-be, putting down the leg she had been working on. “We love each other. Can’t you accept that?”
“This has nothing to do with how much you love each other. Getting on that rocket is a mistake. No one knows what those worlds are like, you can’t come back once you’ve gone.”
Lab continued to pick at aracrab, looking down and away from either arguer. “And my parents,” yelled Fee-Bi. “Am I supposed to never see them again?” “If you wait, and use the money your sister left behind for you, you can get a
posttraining from some school on Venus or something. I thought that was your plan? How can you just suddenly decide to throw everything away?”
Finally Lab spoke, “Well, Fee-Bi wants to go now. And I don’t want her to go alone. So now’s the time.”
Wading, treading through this nasty patch of excuses and logic. No two comments had sequence. What Fee-Bi brought up was different than what Couchant had argued against. Lab deflected to things that weren’t even adjacent to the others’ points. Their words neatly avoided each other; they did loops, made circles and figure-eights in
the air, but never met. Their voices grew louder but more distant from each other’s loops.
“I left my job three months ago! There’s no reason for me to stay here!” Yelled Fee-Bi.
“Get posttraining first! They need skilled workers on those colonies! Give it some time, and then make the decision!” Couchant shouted.
“I don’t want to be here anymore!” Lab. “This isn’t what your sister would have wanted!” “And what about my parents?” “I don’t want to be anywhere anymore.” “You’re driving him into a deeper hole! If you two are in love then you can be
apart for a few years. It’s not his fault you quit your job and miss your family.” “Why do you hate us? You’ve always hated us!” “I don’t want to be anymore.” After some time, back and forth with no ground given, an uneasy silence fell over
the desiccated shells. Fee-Bi and Couchant stared at each other, hate, some distant memories, and shared sadness stuffed up the air in the cramped room.
“You know, Lab and I have been through so much together,” said Fee-Bi, a clever crinkle alit from her brow and Couchant became furious. “We just-” and immediately her face formed into a snivel, eyes down as she inhaled upwards, the beginnings of tears, “We just. We mean so much to each-”
“No!” Couchant interjected aggressively, “If you’re going to cry we aren’t talking about this. Don’t use that fucking trick on me,” Couchant was at his logical worst, all patience and empathy sapped. “You stop the fake tears now.”
Fee-Bi sniveled again, doubling down. “We just.” “I refuse.” Growled Couchant, leaning forward over the table. They held the moment, ensconced in their shared stubbornness. An arrogant
curve replaced the wrinkled frown. “Fine,” breathed Fee-Bi. “But we will be leaving on a Colonizer.”
If there had been a hope, a sliver wandering free against all odds, that what Couchant would say this night would succeed, he knew now that it was gone. She would play any card to win. She had complete control over her emotions and she had complete control over Labrador. Long after Couch left, she would remain, wash the dishes, rehash the argument, present biases. Couch knew this was an act of self-immolation. He looked hopelessly at his friend. His pride wouldn’t allow him to get up and leave, even if he knew he should. There’s no cure for grief. No shot to the arm or advice from a friend. There was a gap that Couchant, despite his intentions, his anger, his power, and arrogance, could not cross. He sighed, and settled back into his chair.
After some quiet time of scavenging the remaining aracrabs, Couchant patiently showing Perf the best parts and methods whilst avoiding any eye contact with the couple across from him. Eventually Perf stood up and offered to help with the dishes. Lab and Perf cleared the table while Couchant produced a bottle of whiskey from the jacket he had hung by the door. Fee-Bi grabbed two cups. They clinked the cups together as Lab and Perf ran the water. “Some music, Couch?” Lab called over from the sink.
“Something heady, alright?” said Couchant, pulling up a projected image above the table, typing exactly what he had in mind. The song started, just percussion, a video of a young band on a cloudy stage. One kept rhythm on a pair of bongos while another tapped at a drum kit. The sweet sound of a Spanish guitar cut through, the percussion continued. “This is like, what? 200 years old or something?” laughed Lab. Back to percussion, just percussion, image-triplicated the drummer moved at an unfathomable speed, banging out a cacophonous solo, the band let him go; Fee-Bi and Couchant downed their drinks just as he stopped. Immediately, the guitar roared in, the drums started again; the chords of the wordless chorus flowed through the room as whiskey flowed into Couch and Bi’s glasses.
“This was Collie’s favorite band,” Lab said to the air.
Couchant sighed, this wasn’t going to get better. He glanced toward Lab then back to Fee-Bi, sitting in a motionless boil, he took a sip, knowing full well what was coming. Perf and Lab returned to the table. Perf avoided eye contact. She was determined to be outwardly neutral.
“Anywhere I go, I’m afraid something will remind me of her,” continued Lab.
Couchant had never been there. Grief and mourning were only casual acquaintances to him. The luck and grace of his life, one easy ride after another. The seas had never arisen and pulled him under, had never destroyed someone so close to him. He wanted to be closer to Lab, to know how to comfort someone so thoroughly broken. Couchant only knew how to march on. For him it had always worked, whatever crucible presented itself he marched over. But he hadn’t faced this. He had never lost like this. He had no advice, he tried but he knew he couldn’t muster the correct empathy.
He could only place himself in his friend’s shoes; and himself, cold and untested, could only imagine marching forward.
Again, their circles filled the air, silently this time, and smelling faintly of whiskey, but again, these circles did not overlap. All circles floated, nearly touching. Forming invisible halos around the holograms overhead.
Maybe patience, he mused, filling the glasses around the table. His little whiskey flagon had exhausted itself. Fee-be mentioned something to Lab about “those bottles in the closet”. Patience. And he had already lost that this night. This culmination of a night, the nuclear option. It had been almost a full year of mourning. Even before Collie had passed, the light had left Lab’s eyes. Couchant had tried to convince him to march. Invited Lab, again and again, to come out of his grief. Invintations to parties. Invitations to quiet drinks. To play video games. To meet with the other guys. A loud nightclub where they didn’t have to talk. Sports, a spot of exercise. Spurned invitations. Sympathy turned to frustration. Patience had left Couchant, now there was only his naive empathy. His empathy had turned into a simple command: march. And he knew Lab’s thoughts were just as simple: run.
“She left me all these music files,” Lab waved his hand and a new window appeared above the table. In it, a jumble of unorganized folders, labeled only by band or album name. Lab commented on a few, highlighting them, Couchant opined and agreed. Much of Collie’s taste was near to his own. Back on Triton, the few times Couchant and her had met they had gotten along well. He asked if Lab could send him the files later, to which Lab enthusiastically agreed. Perf picked a few as well. Fee-Bi remained on a low boil.
The last clangorous riffs of the song merged into a harmonious ending. Couchant stood up to wash his hands. “Thank you, Fee-Bi. The food was wonderful.” He tried to summon the little twinkle of casual affection that had gotten him out of so much trouble in the past. Fee-be managed a smile that was suspiciously close to a glare. Lab got up to fetch something from the closet.
He brought back a very proper looking bottle of wine. “How about this? Collie left a few bottles to me. She was a huge wine fan, even though she couldn’t drink any during those last few months,” Lab looked at the floor. Couchant had returned to the table, everyone stared sadly at the bottle of wine. “Anyways, she would have wanted us to drink it. Babe, where’s the corkscrew?”
“I thought it was in the cupboard over there.” Lab rummaged through it. “It’s not here,” he called back to the table. “Try the closet where you were keeping it.” “Not in here either,” his voice a little higher. Stress creaked through. “Under the speaker stand?” Lab, frantic: “Where is it? We had it just the other day.” “Maybe-” “Babe,” Lab cut her off. “Where the fuck is it? How could we lose it? I swear,
just the other day. I can’t fucking handle this shit, where is it?” “I don’t know,” replied Fee-Bi. “Maybe there’s another way we can open it.” “Like how? Fuck,” said Lab. “Fuck.” He was livid. “I saw a video where they opened one with a shoe, once,” offered Perf.
“Yeah, that’s something, right?” Added Couch with his hand over his brow so that he wouldn’t have to see Lab like this.
“I don’t know how to do that,” said Lab. “Can y’all do that?” “I don’t think so.” “Babe, let me help,” cooed Fee-Bi, moving to take the wine bottle from his hands.
He jerked it away violently. “I swear I had one just the other day,” Lab was speaking directly to Couchant, as
if pleading. “Just the other day, I opened some wine with it.” “Well, uhhh, yeah,” Couchant stammered. “I believe you.” “Babe, give me the bottle,” Fee-Bi was at wits end, standing at his shoulder trying
to reach the bottle as he held it as high as he could. “I had one. Really. It was right over there,” he pointed near the door at a junk jar
on the windowsill. He hastily walked over, and frantically poured the contents onto the floor. No corkscrew. A bit of a mess in the entryway. He looked at Couchant with a desperate and exasperated look in his eyes.
“Babe, please, please sit down,” Fee-Bi had calmly walked to his side, she gently guided him to the table. “I’ll figure something out.”
Couchant watched as she used a knife to dig out the cork. “It’s going to get bits of cork in it,” cried Lab. “You’ll ruin it!”
“It’s fine, really,” Couch tried reassuring him, “It will be fine.” He said it in what he hoped was a soothing tone. Perf tried calming him as well, Fee-Bi worked at the cork diligently.
“Shit, the cork went through,” said Fee-Bi.
“It’s fine,” said Perf. “I’ll drink it.” “Yeah no problem here,” Couchant. Lab sulked, said nothing at all as they filled his glass. Little bits of cork floated to
the top but went unremarked upon. They held their breath as they took a sip. “Fee-Bi,” Couchant quietly said. “He’s in no shape to get on that rocket.” He
knew that to be true; those planets were unoccupied; he needed a support system; all alone with just Fee-Bi, she was taking on too much.
“I’ll like it there,” said Lab from some great distance. “I’ll be with Fee-Bi. And her family. I’ll be happy.”
“It’s our only choice,” said Fee-Bi.
“It’s too soon,” Couchant pleaded. He imagined Lab, alone, a few light-years away with that same far-off look on his face, surrounded by alien terrain.
“I want to be with my family,” Fee-Bi spoke directly and quietly. “He’ll be happy there.”
“Putting him to sleep for 400 years won’t make him happy.” “We,” she measured each word carefully. “Need to go now.” “You need to be more patient, uprooting him won’t make this easier.” “We’re going.” “I want to be happy,” muttered Lab. “We’re going to be happy,” Fee-Bi said to both of them. “Why are you so intent on rushing this?” asked Couchant through gritted teeth. “Why are you so intent on stopping it?” accused Fee-Bi. “I care about him, too.”
“Then let him go. He’s going to be happy.” “I want to be happy.” Couchant inhaled deeply. He finished his drink. Pulled little red pieces of cork
out of his mouth and placed them onto the napkin in front of him. There was no noise. He stood up.
“I’m leaving. It’s clear you’ve made up your minds.” “Where are you going?” demanded Fee-Bi. “Sit down! Don’t leave us here! We just want to be happy!” It exploded. “He’s not going to be happy, Fee-Bi!” He turned from her to Lab, he looked him directly in the eyes. “You’re not going to be happy for a while.” A pause. “And that’s ok.” Couchant made for the door. Lab stood up and rushed after him, put his hand on
Couchant’s shoulder. Couchant turned around, Lab said nothing and looked down into the distance. Couchant brushed his arm off and leaned down to empty his shoe of little bits from the junk jar. In the bay, a rocket launched with a great cacophony of sound that no one in the room could hear.
“You’re pathetic! I hate you!” Fee-Bi, began yelling from her chair, breaking the two men at the door apart. “We cooked you dinner and you speak to us that way! Get out of my home!” She stayed glued to the chair, willing to keep going until the ghastly man was driven out. She kept yelling, but Couchant had gotten his shoes on and stopped listening.
Lab stood with his eyes down. Couchant was willing to listen to him, to hear any sign that he wasn’t lost forever.
“You know, dude,” started Lab. “You gotta go. I can’t. You gotta go.” One final sigh from Couchant. A long, sad exhale. He retreated down the corridor, then the elevator, then into the taxi-carcraft, through the short choppy flight, all
in one long, sad exhale. From his bedroom window he looked into the winking stars. “Those were memories,” He muttered. “We mustn’t hold memories.” He never saw Lab again.
From Why Would We Need Brakes? (unpublished)
Literary Sci-Fi (genre)
25-35 (age range)
61k (word count)
Alexander Prestia (author)
An analogy for loneliness in an ever growing world (fit)
Gatsby in space (synopsis and hook)
Sci-fi readers looking for something more grounded, literary fiction readers looking for something more far-out (audience)
An American expat working as a writing teacher, currently living under lockdown in Shanghai, China. (bio)
Masters of International Business from Dongbei University of Finance and Economics (education)
Poetry has been previously published in ASPZ Literary Magazine. (experience)
Wish I was Woolf, more like Herbert. (writing style)
Dreaming of the open road, but that's just Covid-22 talking. (likes/hobbies)
Richmond, Virginia (hometown)