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David Gerrold, was the Worldcon Guest of Honor in 2015, is a Hugo and Nebula winner, a bestselling novelist, and a screenplay and teleplay writer. His Star Trek episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” was voted the most popular single episode of that series.

 THE BAG LADY

by
David Gerrold

The street stank of garbage and sweat, but it was still early. Later, as the day warmed up, the smells of garlic and bacon would seep out of the corner diner. Traffic splashed through spring puddles. The last white patches of winter still resisted the glare of the sun, but if this was not their last day, it would be their last week.

The bag lady shuffled painfully along the sidewalk, pushing an overloaded shopping cart with one broken wheel. She didn’t walk as much as she staggered. She was a shapeless lump, an ambulatory heap of clothing, new layers added on top of the old, sweaters, sweatshirts, torn coats, a blanket, another coat, the whole stuffed with old newspapers for insulation—she was an oblate spheroid of rubbish and rejection. Her swollen ankles made it difficult for her to move, even harder to push the cart. Her feet were wrapped in more layers of dirty cloth.

The woman’s skin was leathery and lined, burned and scoured, eroded by the relentless weather. Her graying hair was a tangle of greasy ropes. If she’d ever had a name, she hadn’t heard anyone speak it in years. Her eyes were rheumy and bloodshot—wherever she looked, she seemed to be staring at something on the other side of reality.

Several people passed her by, none of them saw her. She was invisible to them, not even scenery. Oblivious to her anguish and embarrassment, they hurried on about their business—exhaling puffs of breath like human locomotives, they chugged along the unbreakable rails of their lives.

The bag lady didn’t care. She had more important matters to attend to. She did not often push her way onto this street; the business owners frowned at her, turned their hoses on her, chased her away with epithets and sometimes even threats of violence. But today—

She frowned, she sniffed, she looked up the street and back again. Something wasn’t right. No, not here. Not there, but close. Something in the universe smelled wrong. And it wasn’t her.

And then, she spotted it—

The dirty van, the dirty dark gray van. A panel van parked at the curb. No windows at the rear or sides. The front windows were tinted dark. No markings to identify the vehicle, no bumper stickers, no ads painted on the side. Just a featureless block. 

It smelled wrong.

She looked down the street, all the way down to the end of the street, where a little girl in a pink winter coat had just come bouncing around the corner. She glowed with innocence—the world was still bright and beautiful to her. She was singing and skipping, trailing one mittened hand across the frosty store-fronts, leaving sketchy streaks in the hoar-frost.

And as it always did, the moment clicked into clarity. The bag lady made a decision. She pushed her heavy cart forward. She put all her strength into the effort, squelching desperately forward.

Finally, unable to move any further, she stopped, her cart inconveniently blocking the passenger door of the van, her reeking body blocking the sliding panel door on the side. Someone on the inside made a noise, It sounded like a curse.

The bag lady grunted in sudden annoyance. She leaned against the panel door of the van for balance, her wrinkled hand sliding and leaving an ugly smear—and then a stream of urine ran down her left leg, puddling at her feet, steaming on the icy pavement.

The moment was perfectly timed. The little girl came dancing by, her song abruptly stopping as she glanced over. She made a face, an expression of disgust and disapproval, and then she broke into a run and scampered on toward school.

The bag lady still leaned against the van, frowning, concentrating on something more than her own body now. The left taillight of the van abruptly shattered. No repair shop would ever be able to make it light again. Every police cruiser that noticed would pull this vehicle over to cite the driver for the broken light—but no, that wouldn’t be enough. She needed to do more.

She muttered a few words—barely finishing the curse before the van pulled angrily away. The greasy handprint on its side would not wash off—not easily and not for a long time. But the handprint was only the smallest part of the spell. The van and its unseen occupant were now afflicted with a fetid malcharisma. They would never go unnoticed again—it might be enough. The bag lady couldn’t be sure.

In the great grand scheme of things, this little shift of possibility was so small as to be infinitesimal in its reach—but to the little girl in the pink coat, the unknowing recipient of this reversal of entropy, it was an unknown coup, a victory of life-changing proportions—simply because she would live to see tomorrow.

But for the bag lady, it was going to be a very expensive triumph. The avalanche of entropy is unforgiving and the effort to shift it even a millimeter would cost her dearly.

Already, she was groaning with new pains. She grabbed onto the handle of her shopping cart to keep from falling. It was so heavily-loaded it was an anchor to her sudden dizziness. For a moment, she did not know who she was or where she was. She knew only pain, the bottomless well of icy fire that gnawed at her gut, the first warnings of the waves of despair to come.

Somehow, she managed to make it across the slippery sidewalk to the nearest doorstep, where she sank down to her knees, collapsing in her rags, sagging against the frame of the door. She knew she couldn’t stay here long. She knew the proprietor of this shop was an unforgiving tyrant, a small and petty excuse for a human being, interested only in amount of commerce he could attract, never in the people he might serve. Soon he would come bursting angrily out of his sacred warmth to chase her away.

But right now, she was overcome with the simple effort of breathing. In. Out. In. Out. She gasped for breath, strove to regain some sense of herself, but failing. This was going to be a bad one. Very bad. She couldn’t help herself, she had to see. Still puffing, she began laboriously unwrapping the coils of cloth around her right leg, around and around, all the way down, until she finally revealed the mottled skin of her left foot. It was stippled with ugly blotches of green and yellow, blue and purple. There were new sores appearing, pus-filled boils, inflammations that grew even as she watched. Blood oozed from old scabs.

She searched desperately for the first telltale signs of gangrene, but was quickly disappointed. As eagerly as she hoped—no, not yet. This wasn’t the one. Not even close. Not big enough. Not yet.  She was going to survive. She was going to live another day. She wept.

She could remember another time—so long long ago—a time of naïve ignorance, but that was before the flashes began, before the smells and the flavors and the clamoring sense of wrongness overwhelmed her with a terrible compulsion to do something—anything—that might restore even a small balance to the world.

“It isn’t fair! Why me?” she wept. “Why me? What did I do to deserve this—?” 

But even as the words dribbled out of her torn mouth, she already knew the answer. Because. Because. Because she’d brought it on herself—with her own outraged scream of anguish at the universe. “Why doesn’t somebody do something?”

And the universe had answered: “Why don’t you?” 

So tomorrow, just like today, just like yesterday, just like all the days and years before, freezing through the unrelenting winter, burning and baking beneath the heavy blanket of summer, nevertheless she’ll lever herself up again, every day paying the ugly price of her compulsion one more time. She has no choice—

The bag lady will pull herself up from the unforgiving pavement, stumble to her feet, wheezing and groaning, her bones crackling resentfully, all stiff and resisting—racked with pain and hunger, driven by desperation, she’ll go out and search the streets and the alleys, looking for the big one, hoping, always hoping—every day hoping that today will be the day she can finally earn her death.

Copyright © 2016 by David Gerrold

 

THEIR MAJESTIES' BUCKETEERS
by L. Neil Smith


A classic closed-room mystery with a murder most foul....and most alien....

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
Bookmarked
by Martin L. Shoemaker

The Minotaur's Wife

by Thomas K. Carpenter
A Hundred Hundred Daisies
by Nancy Kress
A Human's Life
by George Nikolopoulos
In the Yucky Death Mountains
by Eric Leif Davin

Marrow Wood

by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Another True History
by Gordon Eklund

Dante's Unfinished Business

by Alex Shvartsman

Turning the Town

by John Helfers

The Bag Lady

by David Gerrold
Manbat and Robin

by Larry Hodges

Legions in Time

by Michael Swanwick

INTERVIEW
Peter S. Beagle

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
The Long Tomorrow (Part 5)
by Leigh Brackett

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

 

 

 

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Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2016. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.