Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ah! Amanda's Response To Her Own Prompt

If he hadn’t been trying to board the trolley with a full-grown, potted trumpet vine—and its four-foot trellis—Chela wouldn’t have noticed him. Now she could only hope that he wouldn’t notice her back, and so she ducked through the crowd of passengers to claim a spot on the other side of the cab, facing out toward the city. While the trolley was banked, she could finally see the tiny altars built into the limestone banks of the canal. The sun was setting behind her, and orange light fell in stripes through the open trolley, casting each tiny aluminum god in gold. Whoever had installed the altars had long since abandoned them, giving up the care-taking of water trolleys to Upground city transit planners. Poor, neglected patron saints of canal commuters.

“Chela!” Trumpet vine leaves drooped down over her head. “Headed home?”

Chela grimaced at the canal bank.

“Hello, Steeplejack.” As she turned to face him, a bit of vine tangled in her hair. She swiped it away coolly. “Didn’t see you there.”

Steeplejack grinned, jostling the potted plant in one arm and hooking the handle of a tattered brown umbrella around the siderail with his other. “Not a very big water trolley, though, is it?”

As if hurt, the trolley jerked forward, giving an oily groan and sloshing muddy water against the channel banks. Everyone lurched tiredly against the siderails, and the trumpet vine nearly upended its trellis onto a harried-looking grocer crowded in beside Steeplejack. Chela caught the vine and nodded civilly at the woman, but she only shook her greasy apron and turned the other direction.

Steeplejack was still grinning. “It’s ornamental. Nearly extinct except in the North American Midwest.”

Chela eyed him. His old-fashioned wire-rims were slightly askew on his nose, and as the trolley pitched into a faster knot, he was settling easily against the siderail, all angles and wiry like an insect. There was a twig in his hair.

“I know.”

“You do?” Steeplejack leaned in close to her, pushing his face through the tangle of leaves. There was stubble on his chin. “An archeobotanist in disguise?”

“I worked in customs.” Chela took a step back—into an elderly street-sweeper dozing against his brooms—and craned her neck, pretending to check the station list tacked at the front of the cab.

“We’ve got five stops still,” said Steeplejack as he stuck out a hand and pulled her out of the startled street-sweeper’s lap. “You work in customs.”

“Worked. Trumpet vine’s ornamental, endangered, and illegal unless you’re carrying a nurseries license. Or labs. You’ve got a labs license? You’re a student?”

Steeplejack straightened and abruptly handed her the potted plant. The trellis dipped dangerously toward the canal bank. “Steeplejack,” Chela warned. “Don’t—”

“It’s Latin, isn’t it?” He was digging through the army bag at his side. The sun was setting quickly now, its dim, red light cutting through the trolley at a strange angle. They were on the inside of a lantern.

Chela growled and shouldered the sagging trellis back to safety. “Is what Latin?”

“I think,” Steeplejack muttered, still rummaging, “I think I read it somewhere.”

The other passengers were staring now. Chela narrowed her eyes and glared out at the canal wall. She hitched her boot against the splashboard, ignoring the leaves bobbing over her head hysterically in the warm canal wind. The whole place smelled like bodies, like warmth and dust. It was only her third day in Upground.

“Here,” Steeplejack shouted over the sudden shrieking peal of the rudder breaks at the next stop. He reached out to show an open book to her—his bag must have been full of books—but lurched forward as the trolley choked to a halt. This time, Chela put out one arm to break his fall and caught him firmly by the shoulder. Overhead, the bio-naptha lamps strung along the aluminum roof of the trolley suddenly crackled and lit, washing the trolley in a soft green glow.

In the new light, Steeplejack caught the glint of the copper hardware of her hand, and smiled warmly. “Ever see any crabs in customs?”

Chela raised her eyebrows.

The street-sweeper and the grocer were edging past them under the naptha light, ducking under the bobbing trumpet vine, looking bewildered.

“Your name. From the Latin. It means crustacean pincer. Chela means crab claw.”

Chela dropped her hand from his shoulder.


  1. I really like your setting and the atmosphere. It's really easy to imagine something absolutely fanstastic from what you've written.

    Are you going to make up another prompt for us?

  2. What's the deal with the Upground? I'm imagining a lot of people living underground.

  3. I'm not quite sure what the deal is with Upground, yet. I'm thinking there's some sort of underground shelter and these two are going to get stuck in it. But Upground is the name of the city for now.

    And someone else should write the next prompt!