Read Stories by Sean Craven
By Sean Craven
Henry Cleary was working out in his back yard. The motion sketches and lists that were the start of his proposal for the Gulf of Mexico Memorial took up all the room on his phone screen, so when the call rang, he answered it on his glasses.
“Hello?” Henry asked, and looked up at blue sky through the branches of the big pine that overhung the hot tub. Someone named Heather Flores was on the line. “Ms. Flores?”
“Excuse me, I prefer Mrs. Flores,” Mrs. Flores said.
“Sorry, sorry,” Henry said. “Okay, Mrs. Flores, what’s up?”
“My friend Kimberly, she said you help people sometimes,” Mrs. Flores said.
“I do what I can,” Henry said. “So what’s up?” He stood up and pine needles scrunched under his feet; time to get out here with a rake. Spring is here, spring is here.
“I have chickens, and my son was messing with the rooster and now he’s loose. The rooster, not my son,” Mrs. Flores said. She sounded like she was joking out of nervousness.
“That sounds like something for animal control, Mrs. Flores. Why did Kimberly tell you to call me?” Henry asked.
Mrs. Flores’ voice was frightened. “Because the rooster has teeth and a tail, like a dog’s tail with feathers. My son tried to make a dinosaur, and now the police are going to find out.”
“Okay. Okay. I hear you.” Five years ago Henry would have been afraid to talk about this stuff over the phone. Thank goodness for encryption. “How old is your son?”
“He’s only eleven,” Mrs. Flores said. “But you know how they are. They’ll say it’s bioterrorism and then put him in prison like they did with that poor little boy in Florida.”
Henry lived in the ass-end of the East Bay, out in El Sobrante where a po’bucker could afford to maintain a decent spread. The neighbors worked the narrow spectrum from redneck to speed freak, but there was enough of a bohemian gloss for Henry to find it tolerable.
It took Henry a while to get to the Flores’s house in central Richmond. The bungalow had a paved front yard marked with faded oil stains; Henry had seen houses with the same basic floor plan all over the East Bay, from San Pablo to Berkeley, et fucking cetera. Living room and kitchen on one side, two bedrooms and the bathroom on the other, then the back porch.
Henry parked his truck across the street. It was a salvaged seventy-six Torino pickup refitted with a methane and methanol engine. Terrible mileage, but Henry fermented the fuel himself so he didn’t care.
“My husband could have taken care of this,” Mrs. Flores said. Henry liked the way she looked, a grown woman, nice and round and solid, not too much of her but not too little either. There was a bookshelf in the living room, and a classical guitar on a stand near an armless chair. When everyone had the Library of Congress in open document format and a controllable synthetic Jimi Hendrix and the London Symphony Orchestra on their phone, that was a statement.
Henry liked the look of her kid, too. Morrisey’s black hair went in half a dozen different directions and his thick glasses – analogs, just battery-free lenses in frames – were opaque from thumbprints. Henry imagined he could see stray thoughts shoot out of that messy little head.
By Sean Craven
Henry Cleary and Nelson Kim were having beer on Nelson’s deck in El Cerrito, a moderately-upscale bedroom suburb across the bay from San Francisco. They sat in the shade of a mulberry tree, taking advantage of the warm afternoon.
“Don’t do it,” Henry Cleary said.
Nelson, bleached hair in spikes and dark glasses, said, “It’s not my idea, man. It’s Kimberly.”
“Get a rescue dog,” Henry said. “There’s already too many dogs in the world.” Henry was a biosculptor who made his living doing odd jobs around the East Bay. Nothing heavy, just minor cyborging, tissue culture, a little (felony-grade) gene therapy here and there.
Nelson, who taught English as a Second Language, shook his head. “Kimberly wants a pug, and she wants papers.”
Henry said, “There’s nothing wrong with Kimberly, except she’s out of her fucking mind.”
“It’s not her mind I’m interested in,” Nelson said. “Anyway, when are you going to get back on the horse, dude? What about that Heather chick Kimberly hooked you up with?”
“Her name is Mrs. Flores,” Henry said.
“You big doofus,” Nelson said.
“So why does Heather want a pug, anyway?” Henry asked.
“You’re changing the subject, man,” Nelson said.
“Yes,” Henry said.
Henry was at his desk putting together the portfolio for his Gulf memorial proposal when his glasses chirped. He tapped the right temple for caller ID; it was Nelson. “Dude,” Henry said, “Where you been?”
“I need you, man,” Nelson said. “Professionally.”
Henry found himself straightening in his chair. “What’s up?”
“It’s the fucking dog.” Nelson said. He sounded as if he were about ready to throw himself in traffic. “Kimberly found a mama and a papa and ordered the eggs and sperm, and we found a surrogate mother in Alameda.”
“You need me to do the in vitro?” Henry asked.
“Well, yeah, but I need some more,” Nelson said. “Kimberly found out pugs have all kinds of health issues because of their sinuses and shit and she says her dog needs gene therapy to fix his nose. She keeps talking about it and showing me medical probes of infections and shit and I swear I’m going to puke.”
Henry flicked a finger at a stylus on his desk. “Oh, brother,” Henry said.
“I’ll pay cash,” Nelson said.
“I don’t know, I mean, this is a dog, man. It’s a little person. I don’t like to do this stuff on the fly. It gets funky,” Henry said.
“Please,” Nelson said. “She won’t shut up. I mean, she won’t shut up.”
“Fuck,” Henry said.
When Henry answered his front door, it was Nelson, holding a pet carrier. “She left me, man. You and your fucking dog screwed everything up.”
“It’s not my dog, it’s Kimberly’s dog,” Henry said. “Don’t get pissed at me because you made me...” Something scrambled inside the pet carrier. Henry sighed. “Shit, come on in.”
Selling The Package
By Sean Craven
The Colonel, a rooster with the black body and brown neck-and-head sprinted through Henry’s living room, going into a neatly controlled skid when he hit the doorway to the kitchen. “You can’t catch me,” the Colonel crowed, and vanished.
Eleven-year-old Morrie Flores came after him, but stopped in front of Henry and his mother. “Can I go in the hot tub?” Morrie asked.
“It’s not up to me,” Henry said.
“No,” Mrs. Flores said. She wore black tights and a Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt, a grandma outfit that would never go entirely out of style. Henry thought it was cute on her even if her taste in music gave him the hives. “You don’t have a bathing suit.”
“Mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom!” Morrie said, and took off after the rooster, who everyone called the Colonel. The Colonel had been Morrie’s pet, but he lived at Henry’s house now.
“It’s so nice of you to let us come by,” Mrs. Flores said. Henry felt startled when she looked up at him; something about her pretty eyes. “So, are you going to show me some of your work?”
The four-by-four-by-one-foot glass tank was on a table near a south window. Inside it, salt-white pillows marbled with rust, olive, Indian-yellow, and grass-green formed a valley, its broad mouth open to the south light. A river started as condensation on the glass walls, became a dribble where water leaked from glass-nozzled springs at the clefts of the hills, then trickled down to the center of the valley, where it ran into a crusty filter intake. The seaweed colors were deepest on the clustered tubes like penne pasta that topped each hill. Each cluster crawled with specks like black sesame seeds.
“Oh, it’s so pretty,” Mrs. Flores said.
“I never figured out what to do with it,” Henry said, and scratched his stomach under his T-shirt. Nerves, he thought, and cut it out. “Raise fruit flies under conditions of increasing salinity until they turned into something new. I thought I’d get something out of a new species, but by the time I had them registered, there were eighteen other artificially-evolved species. So if I tried to put it in gallery, it would have been lost in the crowd. And the way the flies adapted to the salt? There’s a fly from Mono Lake that has the same basic chemical tricks, and Monsanto already has the rights to those, so no money for me there. But there’s art in here.”
Mrs. Flores did not laugh out loud, thank Christ. Instead, she bent over and looked closely inside the tank.
So Henry went on. “They’re eusocial now, with queens like bees or termites, and they live in those towers. Those patches of color are extremophile algae. The growths go deep into the salt crust. I took a section out and did microphotographs. They were cute, but they looked like every other fu... every other microphotograph of a crystalline structure ever done,” Henry said.
“They sure don’t look like fruit flies to me,” Mrs. Flores said, and traced a fingernail along the glass of the tank. “What do you call them?”
“Salty fruit flies,” Henry said. “It’s goofy, now that I think of it, they can’t fly any more. I’m not gonna say it’s a failure. It was an experiment, and it’s kind of fun, but now I’m responsible for them. If they were just a bunch of flies, it would be one thing, but these are...”
By Sean Craven
The drive up north to pot-growing country made Henry feel sad. The trails he hiked at home, he saw often enough so the changes came at a rate he could take in. But it had been more than five years since he’d been up this way, and the mountains covered with Douglas fir and redwood showed red and brown patches of dead trees in the green, victims of climate change. The lumber companies had gotten sloppy about hiding their work from the highway, and Henry caught glimpses of clear-cutting here and there.
Henry was more bothered by the patches of grey he saw. A twist of the weather had increased the rainfall around here on top of the temperature spike, and there was a new type of mold infecting some of the trees. There were all kinds of conspiracy theories about that; the mold had been engineered.
The whole trip was depressing. Henry had gotten a phone call from someone who claimed to be a relative who needed Henry’s help. Henry had called his dad for confirmation, and found out Japheth had been adopted by one of Dad’s cousins, and at that point Henry was able to summon a memory.
He had been up north with his family as a child. They’d visited Japheth and Mabel, two adopted children who had adopted children of their own, a blonde boy and girl dressed neatly as mannequins at the mall. While the grownups talked, the kids went for a walk to the park up the street. Distracted by conversation, the little girl had strayed onto a wet lawn. When she and her brother saw drops of water gleam against the polished black leather of her shoes, they both began to cry, softly and fearfully. When Henry asked why, they said they weren’t allowed to sin.
According to Henry’s dad, those kids were long-gone, had been shifted back into foster care before they were in their teens. Japheth and Mabel had said they were too wild to control, which disturbed Henry, since those two were the most beaten-down kids he’d ever met in his life. Henry couldn’t think of anything good that could happen between him and Japheth. But Henry had never been good at saying no.
Japheth was short and soft, and the thick black plastic frames of his glasses seemed deliberately ugly, a display of humility. He walked Henry to a chest freezer in the garage. “I know you don’t like to visit up here,” he said for the fifth time, “but I know you’re going to want to help. There are souls at stake, literally thousands and thousands of innocent human souls right here.”
That was when Henry put things together in his mind. When Japheth lifted the lid of the freezer and showed Henry the stainless steel canisters from the fertility clinic, it was just confirmation. The canisters were filled with frozen eggs left over from in-vitro fertilizations. These were what the media called snowflake babies.
“My friend at the clinic, he said they were going to sell these to a cosmetic company,” Japheth said. “I don’t need to tell you what they were going to do with the blood of these children.” The way Japheth emphasized you made Henry feel as if he’d been accused of collusion.
Henry preferred to leave the moral questions associated with fertility and abortion and so on to the parties most directly involved, said parties being people with working vaginas. His own position was that the disposal of viable human life at any stage was murder, and some murders are only the business of the participants. A friend had once said on hearing this opinion, “Nobody wants you on their side.”
By Sean Craven
The Colonel, a fanged rooster with a black body and mahogany head and neck, perched on the railing of Henry Cleary’s back porch, and rattled his plumed lizard’s tail. “It’s funny,” the Colonel said, voice emitted by a pinpoint speaker hidden in the feathers on his throat. “I never thought I’d get used to being out of the coop.”
Morrie Flores was the eleven-year-old biohacker who had put the Colonel together. Morrie’s mom, worried that her son might get arrested for that felonious act, had called Henry for help. Now the Colonel lived at Henry’s house in El Sobrante, in a neighborhood whose shady trees and shady inhabitants rarely saw the lights of a police car.
“Well, I’m glad you’re settling in,” Henry said. “It’s good having you around. If you’d quit crapping on the floor and hollering every morning you’d be the perfect housemate.”
“Pfft,” the Colonel said. “The way you live is going to kill you. You have to be natural.”
“Wow,” Henry said. “Did you actually say those words? I am going to be processing that statement for a while, Mr. Natural.”
“Don’t be mean,” the Colonel said. “Anyway, I did what you said and looked up poultry processing.”
Henry had caught the Colonel pecking at some chicken nuggets from a fast-food bag someone had thrown in the yard, and made a wise-assed remark that turned into a serious discussion. Henry had been worried about how that was going to work out. “Oh, dude,” Henry said.
“The world is a monstrous place,” the Colonel said.
“In a lot of ways, yes,” Henry said. “And I have to say, the poultry industry is not my favorite thing.”
“It is intolerable,” the Colonel said. “I’ll never see the end of it, but I must act.”
“You don’t choose the cause,” Henry said, recognizing the Colonel’s seriousness. He rocked his chair forward so it settled on all four legs. “The cause chooses you.”
The Colonel raised his head and regarded Henry. “Thank you.”
Henry dipped his head.
“You know the monstrosity of what we face, the gross bulk of cruelty,” the Colonel said. “Your children are being systematically fattened upon the tormented flesh of my people. It’s been against the law to film the inside of a poultry plant for decades now. Plant, that says it all. Even they don’t have the nerve to call them farms.”
Henry met the rooster’s gaze.
“So,” the Colonel said. “Will you arm me? You could set me against one of those torture factories and let blood wash everything clean.”
“Colonel, you ain’t wrong, but you ain’t right,” Henry said. “If I set you up to kill, everything you do goes on my conscience. That’s just how it is.”
The rooster looked away.
Henry took a moment to sort his words. “Colonel. I am going to tell you something I never wanted to discuss with you. Please understand that when I speak, I do so as a friend who holds you in the greatest possible respect.”
As the Colonel shuffled his feet, his spurs showed. It reminded Henry that every bird is a coelurosaurian theropod, just like Velociraptor or Tyrannosaurus. The Colonel cocked his head, posture stiffened by provisional hostility.