Saturday, November 8, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: A Murder Mystery, part 14

A serialized science-fiction mystery created exclusively for this blog! When last we left our heroine, she had absconded to Charles' house with a Kerry Deluxe vacuum and a damning tape recording. Now, she pauses briefly in her adventures to meet Charles' family. She then resumes said adventures, breaking open the vacuum and coming face-to-face with the mind-boggling truth inside the machine.

Twenty minutes later, when they were all seated comfortably in the living room and Charles' mother had bustled off to make tea, Pip elbowed Charles in the ribs.

“So,” she whispered, “when you said you had people coming over, what you meant was you had people coming home.”

“I fail to see the difference,” Charles said, diligently avoiding eye contact.

“The difference is, one of them means you live with your mother.”

Charles grimaced. “She lives with me.”

“I beg your pardon?” Susan Shreve said. She re-entered the room with a tray in her hands, her eyebrows raised in mock outrage. “Exactly whose name is on the mortgage, young man?”

Charles ducked his head and flushed.

“Your name, Susan,” the old man answered for his humiliated grandson.

“That's right,” said Susan.

She set the tray down on the coffee table and gestured at those assembled to help themselves. The old man leapt forward and seized a mug, guarding it greedily like a starving dog with a bone. He even snarled a bit as he retreated to his seat. Susan ignored him.

“Charlie boy,” she said, with a despairing sigh. “Why are you wearing a suit on your day off?”

Pip, who'd been wondering the same thing, fought back a snicker.

“Everything else is dirty,” Charles said. “I need to do a load of laundry.”

“Then wear a dressing gown or something. What's wrong with you?” She gave Pip a beseeching look. “A tie and everything, Penelope. On his day off! What do you do with a kid like this?”

“Mum...”

“The way he dresses, I never know if he's going to hug me or file taxes at me.”

“Mum.”

Pip laughed. She'd always taken a perverse joy in watching other people get flustered, but an embarrassed Charles was more fun than most.

With one last shake of her head, Susan picked up a mug and collapsed into an antique leather armchair. “So,” she said to Pip, “you and Charlie aren't...?”

“Jesus,” Charles groaned.

“No,” said Pip. “We're just friends.”

Is that what we are? she asked herself, before deciding that now wasn't the time to get tangled up in semantics.

Susan smiled. A bit sadly, Pip thought. “Well, I suppose it's just as well. You look a little young.”

“I'm twenty-two.”

The old man gave a raucous hoot. “Twenty-two!” He looked at Charles. “You pervert.”

Charles buried his face in his hands. He looked so wretched that Pip took pity on him. “We're working on a segment for his radio show,” she explained. Charles started, perhaps concerned that she would reveal too much of what was, admittedly, a difficult-to-swallow story. Pip silenced him with a look. “Actually,” she continued, “since we're on the subject, I have a favor to ask.”

Susan seemed taken aback. Clearly, her son didn't ask her for many favors. “Sure,” she said. “For Charlie's program, anything. What do you need?”

“We need help busting open a vacuum cleaner.”

****

Charles looked ill-at-ease with an axe in his hand. Perhaps it was because his grandfather was shouting directions from the sidelines.

“Swing it straight, you nancy!” the old man called as Charles missed his target for the third time. “What's the matter? Not enough power in those twiggy little arms of yours?”

“My arms are fine, Grandad,” said Charles through gritted teeth. The vacuum sat on an oak stump in front of him. Hoisting the axe back into the air, he took another swing. The axe went wide, shimmied to the left, and buried itself in the freshly cut grass.

“God damn it,” said Charles' grandfather. “I just re-sodded this lawn four months ago.”

“Sod yourself,” Charles muttered.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” With an unflattering grunt, he hefted the axe above his head. “Here goes.” He swung again. This time, the axe head glanced off the body of the vacuum, leaving a sizable dent but failing to pierce the metal.

“How can you be this useless with an axe?” the old man exclaimed. “Back in my day, we burned sickly bastards like you for fuel when the coal rations ran out.”

Grandad,” Charles said, raising his voice as he whirled about, axe in hand. He managed to regain some composure before continuing, though his annoyance was plain to see. “I think we've got a handle on things out here. Why don't you go putter about in the house or something?”

The old man looked offended. “'Putter about,'” he grumbled. “Eat my shit.”

Through some miracle, Pip managed to contain her laughter until the old man had gone back inside.

“You're grandpa's hilarious,” she said between giggles.

Charles sighed. “He has a disorder. They both do. They're so bloody inappropriate.”

“I like your mom. She seems nice. You're lucky you get to live with her.”

Charles gave her a funny look. “I'm lucky, am I?”

“Sure,” said Pip. “I can't live with my mom now that I'm grown. I tried for a while, but it was no good.”

“Ah.” Charles hesitated for a moment, then asked gently: “Is she, er...not so nice?”

“Nah, she's a peach. She just couldn't afford to have me around once I aged out of child support.”

“Oh.”

“Not that the support payments were a regular thing. But they helped.”

“Oh.”

There was a long pause, during which Charles frowned and fidgeted with the axe. He was obviously at a loss for words. Pip's compulsive candor had that effect on people. To his credit, Charles pressed on in spite of the awkwardness. “Pip...” he began.

“Now I'm stuck living with my crummy fiance,” Pip said. Her voice rang bitter in her own ears. She couldn't imagine what it must sound like to Charles. “He was fine at first, sort of. I mean, he comes from a similar background, so we could commiserate. But there's a lot of stuff he hates about me. And he's always calling me crazy, and he doesn't pick up after himself. And he's bigoted, Christ almighty, is he ever. And obsessed with his stupid vacuum cleaner job. And he makes me do things, even when I'm tired or sick or sad or just not in the mood for...”

She trailed off, realizing that she was about to divulge the miseries of her sex life to someone she'd only met three times. That was a bridge too far, even for her.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It's fine,” said Charles. There was a complicated expression on his face. Pip searched it for traces of pity and found none. That was good, at least.

“Anyway!” she cried with renewed vigor. “Let's open this sucker.”

She grabbed the axe from Charles and swung it like a baseball bat. The movement was so sudden and so violent that Charles had to dive out of the way to avoid being chopped in half. To the surprise of all present, her swing connected. With a metallic squeal, the vacuum's underside door sheared away and dropped into the grass.

“Yooooo!” Pip shouted, throwing her hands into the air.

“Wow,” said Charles. “Nicely done.”

They peered inside.

What they saw made no sense.

Within the body of the vacuum, light spun like the event horizon of a lethargic black hole. White, black, and pale yellow spiraled toward an unseen center, their progress infinitely slow yet somehow visible. Photons cracked, sparked, seethed lava-like against a backdrop of void, painted Pip's and Charles' faces with bursts of luminescence. It was frightful, and beautiful, and frightfully beautiful.

Pip let out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. “What the hell is that?”

“I don't know,” Charles said, sounding almost reverent. “Let's not touch—hey!” He cried out as Pip thrust the axe handle into the light. There was sizzle, then a fizzle, then a noise that sounded like three small children yelling ZOOP. The handle vanished, leaving behind a smoking stub.

Pip gaped at the truncated axe.

“Righteous,” she breathed.

“What happened?” Charles asked. “Was it incinerated?”

“Maybe.”

Pip knelt and picked up a rock. She tossed it into the light and watched it vanish with another energetic ZOOP. She looked at Charles.

“I didn't hear it hit the bottom of the cannister.”

“Flash-fried?”

“Or disappeared.” Pip was struck by a sudden idea. “Hold on.”

She ran around to the front of the house and returned a minute later with Charles' bike.

“What are you-” Charles sputtered. “How'd you get the lock off?”

“I chopped it,” Pip said, tossing away the axe. “Now watch this.”

She lifted the bike and advanced toward the vacuum. The moment the front wheel met the light, the vortex grabbed it, bending and rending and contorting the bicycle's frame as it drew the contraption down into the heart of oblivion. ZOOP. By the end, there was nothing left.

Pip and Charles stared in mute awe.

“Right,” Charles said at last.

“Sorry,” said Pip. “Guess I owe you a new bike.”

“Charlie!” They turned to see Susan Shreve's head poking out the back door of the house. “I've ordered Chinese. Is Penelope staying for dinner?”

“Absolutely!” Pip answered before Charles could get a word in. She'd never turned down free food, and she wasn't about to start now.

She and Charles hid the vacuum behind a tree, too shell-shocked to come up with a better spot.

****

Giddiness set in at the halfway point of the meal. Without having discussed it, both Pip and Charles came to the simultaneous realization that they had discovered something life-altering, perhaps world-altering. Some sort of portal, or black hole, or transdimensional junction, shrunk down and imprisoned inside the body of a luxury vacuum cleaner. Now that was a story!

The headiness of the moment made Charles more outgoing than Pip had ever seen him. He smiled, joked, traded gentle barbs with his mother, volunteered to fetch his grandfather another beer from the kitchen. He was almost charming.

Pip focused on staying in her seat and answering Susan's inquiries into her life, her family, her college major. It was all she could do to restrain herself from screaming at the top of her lungs. She had never been so excited, not in twenty-two years of first kisses and Christmas mornings.

Something crazy was happening. And she was at the center of it. How could life get any better than that?

****

“Thank your mother again for me,” Pip said as Charles saw her out. “And thank you, Charlie. I mean it.”

“You sure that thing will be safe at your apartment?” Charles asked, gesturing to the vacuum in Pip's arms. They had loosely affixed the door back onto the underside of the machine. They had also removed the hose and wheels to make it more portable. The plan was to stash it in one of the storage lockers in the basement of Pip's building.

“It'll be fine,” Pip said. “I'm the only one with a key to our locker. And my roommates are painfully incurious anyway.” Having reached the end of the driveway, she turned and gave Charles a little salute. “See you soon.”

“About your roommates,” Charles called as she turned away.

Pip stopped and turned back. “Hm?”

“Your roommates,” Charles repeated. “And your...your living situation in general. I just wanted to say...” He hesitated. “Look, I don't know you well. But you seem like an intelligent person. Resourceful, certainly. And brave. If you don't like where you've ended up, I'm sure you can find a way to rectify things. You don't have to resign yourself to being miserable.”

Pip stared at him, stunned. “Charlie...”

“You can find a way out,” he continued. “I believe that about you. So...so that's it.”

With a embarrassed little wave, he turned and walked back to the house.

Pip spent the drive home deep in thought.