Bourbon Penn 24

Red Diamond, Black Heart, Golden Hexagon

by Emma Culla

Red Diamond

On the night Clara lost her virginity, it struck her as weird that sex was so similar to telepathy. A fleshy rod prodding her insides or an image projected by a stranger into her brain. An invited intrusion. An instant of incendiary (yet imperfect) intimacy. Not such a big difference, all things considered. And, in this case, she got to tell her friends.

It had been an awkward, fumbling encounter (Clara was no expert, but she guessed teeth shouldn’t clash when you kissed). With her roommate’s lanky cousin, in the smallest guest bedroom of her roommate’s beach house. Bursts of hasty shoelace-untying, clumsy blouse-unbuttoning and rushed jean-unzipping while the others drank whiskey shots and danced spasmodically to Miriam’s dad’s old LPs. An act of desperation on both sides, born out of a wish to finally shed their embarrassing chastity, rather than of any specific affection or desire for each other.

Clara woke in the early hours of the morning. Gray light filtered through the curtains. She got out of bed and picked her clothes from the eggshell blue carpet, careful not to wake her lover. She didn’t want him to see her naked. Not now that she was sober. Clara was no stranger to furtiveness. She’d understood early on that a good girl wouldn’t allow images from other minds to blossom inside her brain (mostly simple shapes: a blue tear, a green half-moon). Not to speak about shoving into someone else’s head the red diamond she always bore on the forefront of her mind, floating before her like a hologram bindi.

Besides, who’d believe her?

Yellow Four-Leaf Clover

It had always been a red diamond for Clara, ever since that stage magician had chosen her eight-year-old self as a volunteer.

“Pick a card, any card. Don’t let me see it! Don’t let anyone see it.” The magician’s gloved fingers danced before young Clara, as elegant and seemingly innocent as a pair of white doves. “Just write your name on it and put it in your pocket.”

Clara felt the stiffness of the card in her breast pocket, a red diamond shielding the drum roll of her heart. Her black braid, nearly as thick as the theatre’s curtain cord, beat against the base of her spine as she rocked on the balls of her feet. Clara was almost shaking with the effort of not blurting out The ace of diamonds!

And then the woman on the second row did.

“The ace of diamonds!” the old woman screamed in her poodle-shrill voice, then covered her mouth as if fearing her dentures too, may escape her lips.

At the same time a yellow four-leaf clover popped inside Clara’s head. Clara didn’t see it: she thought it. For an instant, it was the only thing in her mind. She gasped. Clara turned to the old woman and knew from her shocked expression that it was the first time for both of them. The magician was quick on his feet. He pointed at the old lady as if he’d always intended for her to be his mouthpiece. Roaring laughter and a round of applause. For years, Clara could recall the quaver in his voice as he sent her back to her seat.

Crystal Note

After that first time, whenever she received an image inside her mind, Clara wondered: Why a green cloud, a purple banana, a brown triangle? They too must have a story, just like Clara had her deceitful magician. If she saw an orange dragon silhouette, she’d rush to the library and borrow any books with orange dragons in them. If she saw a purple five-petaled flower, she’d pester her grandmother’s gardening pals until they dug out its taxonomy.

“Such a curious child!” they exclaimed, building expectations that wouldn’t be met.

Clara fabricated whole mythologies around each of those symbols but never had the courage to ask the source, even though she was often able to locate them. It was the salesgirl folding clothes as Clara’s mother took her away from the shop (gray star). The bouncer at the club on her twenty-first birthday (pink teddy bear silhouette). The pizza delivery guy on her dilapidated first apartment after college, with Miriam and Cho in the background as unavoidable chaperones. It was the person doing their utmost to pretend not to notice her, while trying not to look too pleased with themselves.

Just like her roommate’s cousin at the beach house, the morning after their tryst. Even as Clara’s insides were still sore from their inexpert lovemaking, he pretended all day not to know her. It was just as well for Clara. It was Sunday and they’d be leaving in the evening. She knew she’d never see him again, would never have sex with him again, would probably not have sex with anyone for months. Maybe years.

It was infinitely harder to tear herself away from another telepath. Because it could be months. It could be years. Or she could pine away the rest of her life, waiting for that brief but all-encompassing connection. The comfort of knowing she wasn’t entirely alone.

Once, during her senior year in high school, instead of seeing an image Clara heard a note. It brought her to her knees amid the crowded ice cream parlor. Her minty chocolate cone smashed on the floor. For years she could recall the exact sound, eerie and vaguely rounded, like the note one can extract from the rim of a crystal glass half-filled with water. A seemingly impossible sound, one that only a highly skilled individual would be able to produce. Her friends rushed to help her up. In the confusion, Clara missed the source.

In the following months, Clara tested all sorts of sensory triggers. To her growing dismay, not even the most pungent of smells, the highest-pitched vibrato or the tangiest of dishes could spark a response from her. Teenaged Clara hadn’t minded being plain because she’d had a secret that made her special. After Crystal Note, though, she had to come to terms with being a rather pedestrian sort of telepath.

Black Heart

Clara didn’t go back to probing the limits of her gift until her mid-twenties, when she fell for Black Heart, a middle-aged lady as elegant and daunting as a sphinx. Clara was getting the first glimpses of what adult life held for her. She could feel a vague disappointment radiating from her family, as the potential they’d intuited in her failed to materialize, and was already becoming estranged from her college friends.

Clara and Black Heart first met in the frozen foods section, where Black Heart’s leather gloves, rather than seem incongruous, made everyone else look underdressed. She entered Clara’s mind without the vacillation of other telepaths. A pristine ink-black heart filled Clara’s mind for over three seconds. After that, Black Heart took to stalking Clara. She showed up every other week as Clara waited at the bus stop, at one of her increasingly rarer evenings out with friends, or as she browsed books at the second-hand shop. It was bewildering, but also very exciting. Their minds connected on every encounter.

Clara realized all her previous telepathic exchanges, which at the time had felt so thrilling, had been as impersonal as two businessmen swapping cards. Very proper. Very tame. That Black Heart was such an elegant woman didn’t hurt, either. Clara longed to be Pygmalioned in more ways than one. She window-shopped for expensive alpaca coats she couldn’t afford. She’d rub the hem between thumb and forefinger, in a way she hoped looked knowing and sophisticated. She imagined a woman’s low voice whispering in her ear, “We are good together, aren’t we?”

“Yes, my dear succubus,” Clara would reply, which seemed very daring to her, but was sure wouldn’t faze Black Heart.

She got to be so smitten she considered tattooing a black heart on her wrist, but thankfully never went further than drawing on herself with a Sharpie.

Clara tried talking to Black Heart, but if she opened her mouth or took even one step toward her, the woman would leave. After their eighth encounter their connection started to wane, and Clara understood that one day Black Heart would ditch her. Clara’s Red Diamond needed more wattage, a longer connection time, anything to secure Black Heart’s interest.

She trained herself. Red Diamond! Red Diamond! she projected. She persevered through terrible migraines, until one day, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, she saw Black Heart across the street. Clara’s body tingled with anticipation. Red Diamond! she thought with all her might. As she welcomed the ebony insignia inside her mind, Clara smelled cut grass where there’d only been exhaust fumes. She saw a flash on Black Heart’s eyes, greeting the intruder. As a truck got between them, Clara was dumped for the scent of recently mown lawn.

Golden Hexagon

Six years after Black Heart, fourteen years after the night in the beach house, two decades from her fall in the ice cream parlor, Clara was riding the underground back home from work. There was a trade fair in the city and the underground was packed with dark-suited men and women, their name tags still hanging from their necks. It had been seven months since Clara’s last telepathic brush. A lime-green butterfly had fluttered—then instantly faltered—within Clara’s brain folds. As she reminisced about that vaguely frustrating encounter, right there in the crowded train, Golden Hexagon latched onto her mind. A golden-brown hexagon, extremely fuzzy, like something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. Red diamond! she thought back. The blurry hexagon neither intensified nor faded away.

Clara had never felt a connection that lasted more than four seconds, and had always experienced telepathy as a proximity phenomenon. The hazy shape followed her to the tiny apartment, empty but for meowing Marmalade. That night, Golden Hexagon infiltrated Clara’s dreams as color-shifting metallic snow. Sometimes pale as straw. Or ginger, like Marmalade’s fur. Made of honey-colored brass, reddish copper, dark brown rust, ferrite as dark as black coffee. It de-aggregated into a myriad of tiny hexagons and octagons and squares that twirled like the mosaic in a kaleidoscope, then fused back together into a toy windmill.

The hexagon was still there when she woke up. Red diamond! Clara thought through a throbbing headache. Clara went to work but couldn’t get anything done. She’d become a beacon. Red diamond! Red diamond! Red Diamond, for goodness’ sake! Since she couldn’t concentrate anyway, Clara googled HEXAGON. She felt silly, like a giddy teenager searching for pictures of her crush. The computer showed her images of compound eyes, wasp’s nests and volcanic formations on the Irish coast. She learned that even soap bubbles will form hexagons when pressed together, as it’s nature’s way of saving space.

On her way back home, her head still pounding, Clara kept her eyes on the underground’s compartment floor: black patent shoes, brown brogues and sensible heels. Still plenty of people from the trade fair. Something dangled in front of her. A hexagon with zigzag branches jutting out of it. A small drawing on a name tag and TWENTY YEARS SOURCING YOUR CHEMICALS written under it. Clara guessed from half-forgotten high school lessons that it represented some kind of molecule. Natural shapes, indeed. It dawned on Claudia that Golden Hexagon had appeared on the first day of the fair. And was likely to leave when it ended.

Over the sleepless night, Clara worked herself up into a feeling of pre-destination. She wouldn’t let what happened with Black Heart ruin this for her. The mere thought sent a needle through her brain. She wasn’t such a fool as to expect feelings, or even companionship. Not this time around. Being a telepath had both defined her and isolated her since she was a little girl. What good was straining so hard, if you didn’t know how to channel your efforts? Just a little guidance could change everything for her.

The following morning, Clara called in sick, downed a couple of aspirins with her coffee, and got dressed in the cheap blazer and skirt combo she used for funerals. Golden Hexagon wouldn’t care if she looked pretty, but she ought to look presentable. Like someone onto whom you’d impart secret knowledge. Enveloped in a haze of dancing hexagons, she took the underground to the trade fair. Red Diamond! Red Diamond! she broadcasted.

The entrance fee was no bargain, but she was happy to take the dent on her frugal budget. She looked at the floorplan while a river of people parted around her. There were six halls on either side of a corridor, each partitioned into hundreds of tiny cells. As she walked under the too-strong lights she could feel an increase in the telepathic signal, too faint to guide her into any specific direction. Clara allowed herself to be dragged by the gray stream of hopeful salesmen and reluctant buyers. Golden Hexagon seemed to be getting fuzzier rather than more defined. It shifted and shimmered and shook. Sometimes it looked more like a square or a circle than a hexagon. For a fraction of a second, the golden color acquired a bluish tinge.

Clara searched for hours. She was sweating under her cheap clothes. Worst of all was the splitting headache. As she scoured the endless corridors, she avoided proffered leaflets and cursed her high heels. Clara rubbed her temples and fished in her handbag for yet another aspirin.

The halls were becoming increasingly crowded. Her advance through the forest of darkly clothed limbs was as slow as moving through Jell-O. It’s Red Diamond here! Why won’t you come and meet me? She was terrified that she may walk past her would-be mentor and not recognize them. Amid wafts of too-strong aftershave, the glaring lights blinded her. She was getting dizzy. She’d lost track of where she was long ago, although many people looked just as lost. And then Golden Hexagon, if it could still be called that, picked up enough that she could trace it.

As Golden Square, Copper Hexagon, Maroon Circle pushed into her mind, Clara pushed back through the assembled bodies. Red Diamond! An excess of jasmine choked her. Someone trod on her foot. Red Diamond! Red Diamond coming! she thought back to the magnet pulling her. Clara fought her way down the corridor. She was finally going to meet Golden Hexagon. She felt trepidation grow in her chest, like a falling snowflake, unsure if the white mass below is a quiet mountainside or a roaring avalanche. Golden Star, Orange Hexagon, Brown Octagon the images morphed, her temples throbbed, people flocked toward the double doors. Red Diamond! Bodies pressed around her, more bedraggled travelers than smart businessmen. Sickly sweet rose she smelled, myrrh and amber thick as soup. Musical notes, an alert on the speakerphone system? Her head spun, but she pushed forward, relentless. A sound like a dog’s bark. She must be mistaken. Clara was but a drop in the incoming tide. Red Diamond! she projected with all her might. It was so, so hot … People were squashing her against those in front. Surely security must be on its way? It’s Red Diamond! Please! She was going to faint. She felt warm liquid on her upper lip and touched it with the tip of her fingers. A nosebleed. The middle-aged man pressing on her side looked at her. Clara could feel inside her- his- their- our brain Red Drop, Red Diamond, Purple Moon.

Clara could taste coffee from the bar, one floor below. And smell car fumes on the street. The invisible dog barked again, the exact same short, warning bark. Her hands felt wet and warm and soapy. She felt hot tears stream down her face that may not be pouring from her eyes. Her synapses flared, and a rush of second- and fifth- and tenth-hand information darted and tingled through her spine, arms, and fingers splayed like a starfish. Clara felt a tug through her legs and toes and nipples and the crown of her head. She wondered if the men around her, not trained all their lives to protect their flesh from the designs of others, where having an easier time surrendering their physical selves.

Amid the crush of bodies and minds, a smell of salt, copper, sweat, burnt sugar, buzzing forest and dead flowers. Wind chimes. A violin. Shattering glass. She saw simple shapes rearranging themselves, and green, blue, orange bleeding into each other like watercolors. She was compressed into a hexagon and expanded into a hive.

At some level she registered the mass of people pushing and dragging her like waves. She saw herself through the eyes of the woman in front of her: Clara’s blanched face and her white shirt soaked in the blood running from her nose. She didn’t worry, because that was just happening to Body. She smelled Golden Hexagon and heard Sandal and touched F sharp and felt a warm sugary thickness on her tongue. She soared on the ecstasy of communion. As Clara surrendered her last shred of individuality, a vibration escaped her lips:

“The hive mind tastes like honey. The hive mind sounds like a bell. The hi—”

Nobody heard Clara’s final words, but the swarm felt them as a prickling of the hair on their forearms, it registered them as an upward movement in their inner ear.

Emma Culla is a Catalan speculative writer who lives in Barcelona with her husband. Her stories have appeared in Kaleidotrope, as well as in the Future SF Digest and Curiosities under the name I. Punti. You can find her on Twitter @otherworldling