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Torchbearer


by Lorna Garano


Milton watched the bartender slowly pouring red wine into the biodegradable cup the way a starving person would eye a chef performing some kind of culinary origami. He had waited at the makeshift bar set up along the edge of the Havens University auditorium for an excruciating ten minutes, cursing himself the whole time for not having had a drink since lunch. Now he wanted to grab the cup away or better yet pull the bottle out of the bartender's skinny fingers, put it right to his mouth, and suck down the Pinot Noir, or the Merlot, or the Zinfandel or whatever post-revolutionary organic varietal it was. Instead, he drew deep breaths and felt his stomach turn convex with each inhale.

 “Here you go,” the bartender said as she handed him the wine.

He downed half the glass and said a polite “thank you.” No tip necessary. That was an old-world practice when wait staff had to rely on the largesse of those they served, had to flirt with them and make them feel special just so they could pay the rent. No one struggled like this since the revolution.

The room was packed. Tonight Professor Mona Cranely, Milton's wife of nearly two decades, would defend the sacrifices, and the university community had turned out in force. On and off campus the cries to abolish the sacrifices had grown louder. Now, with the latest advancement due to prompt another one, the fight had gotten even more pitched. This morning Milton had heard someone on the radio describe the sacrifices as “ironic barbarities based on dubious history.” Of course, he thought, Mona should be the one to defend them.

Milton found a seat in a middle row that formed a direct path to the wine table. He could feel a tension in the crowd. No one seemed interested in talking. Instead of milling around, nibbling on canapés and gossiping, most just filled their plates and sat down.

He was glad of it. Like Mona, many of her colleagues had ascended up the ranks of academia while he had languished, and he hated how they were often extra nice to him to try to prove that they didn't notice or it didn't matter. At forty-five, Milton was still a junior scientist at the Havens University Neurogenetics Lab. That was a generous designation since he did no research anymore, and had unofficially demoted himself to a part-time employee. His teaching career had fizzled along with his scientific one. His wife's rise had been unstoppable, her career made up of steady bursts of achievement.

There were only a few seats left and Milton knew that if he got up for another glass of wine he would likely lose his. As he made his way to the bar he saw Stenmeyer, his wife's lover and the Neurogenetics Lab director, sitting in a front seat. Stenmeyer turned his head, which was perched on two chins, to talk to someone behind him. Even from his distance Milton could see how Stenmeyer's ham-colored face telegraphed that the latest advancement was his.

While he stood near the drink table, draining his second glass of wine Milton looked back to his seat, which was now occupied by the narrow body and open face of one of Mona's male students. He was almost finished when the provost emerged from backstage, stood at the lectern, and introduced Professor Mona Cranely. He reeled off some of her most notable accomplishments: author of twelve books, editor of The Deep Narrative Review, winner of the Theodore M. Brighton Award for Outstanding Scholarship. Then “without further ado” (and there was more ado to be had), he turned the lectern over to Mona, who was greeted with a gush of applause.  

Mona held up her hands and slowly mouthed thank you, thank you, thank you.


When the clapping finally died down, she began. 

Esteemed colleagues and friends, eighty years ago our Revolution vanquished misery, exploitation, and want. No longer do our stomachs or our spirits hunger. Our foremothers and fathers made sure that we had lives of bread and beauty. But they had to fight and suffer and die and then fight and suffer and die again. They fought the counterrevolution led by Charlotte without rest. I hardly need to give this audience a history lesson, but only when the Final Sweep reduced Charlotte and every last one of her followers to ash was our future born. We must never forget that, and today we are asked to forget—forget the triumph of our revolutionaries against Charlotte. Implored to forget by the forces who would have us abandon the sacrifices.

Today, we set fire to Charlotte's granddaughters and—yes—tomorrow, her great-granddaughters, to commemorate each success, each accomplishment, each step forward the revolution takes. In so doing we remember—not just in our minds, but in the way we must—in our bones —how our revolutionary forebears defeated Charlotte after years of painful and unremitting struggle. There are those who insist that when we set Joycelette aflame last year to mark the turn to renewable energy we committed murder, but I tell you that was no murder. It was the very ritual that we need to keep the revolution alive in our hearts and minds, to keep our tie to the past that makes our illustrious present and future possible.  

Mona banged the lectern with her plumb-sized fist when she made that last point. Pure Mona. Not afraid to show emotion. There was a time Milton admired this about her. They had met in an undergraduate philosophy class where Mona was known to deliver arguments that were gossamer-like in structure with an unapologetic ferocity.

“As you've all now heard, our Neurogenetics Lab has cured prion diseases …”

An explosion of clapping.

“Yes, Dr. Stenmeyer can you stand up please?” Mona put her hand over her eyes and turned her head to scan the audience, pretending she didn't know exactly where Stenmeyer sat.

Stenmeyer hoisted his large frame up and turned to the audience. Even now, Milton found it funny that his wife had taken up with a man who resembled a parade float. As the director of the organization who had made the breakthrough, Stenmeyer would randomly draw the Torchbearer—the one who would set alight one of Charlotte's granddaughters—using a computer program that ensured that everyone had equal opportunity for the honor. He would announce the lucky citizen in the next few days.

Milton still stood alone now at the drink table with his empty cup. The bartender was entranced by Mona. He wanted to ask her for another drink, but when he began to speak she touched her finger to her lips to tell him to be quiet. Milton noticed a half-full glass of wine on the table. White wine—it may just as well have been water—but he downed it anyway.

After waving to the audience a few times, Stenmeyer sat down and the audience grew silent with expectation of more talk from Mona.

“Now, with this latest achievement we will once again honor everything that made it possible by re-enacting the Final Sweep with one of Charlotte's granddaughters,” she said. “We will not be stopped by the new forces of Charlotte—and, make no mistake—that's who we are taking on.”

Throughout the audience people started making the revolutionary salute. They joined their thumb and forefinger to make a circle and then touched it to their heads and then their hearts. The bartender included. Even if Milton didn't have a pint of vodka stashed in the glove compartment of the car he and Mona shared, he would want to leave. He had had enough.

The chill of the autumn air was a relief from the stuffiness of the auditorium. As he made his way to the underground garage, he saw, for the second time that night, the group of protestors who had gathered around the building. Their numbers had swelled since he had first arrived. Almost all of them had a sign around his or her neck: Amylotte, Sarahlotte, Calvinlotte. They were chanting “Charlotte is a lie/sacrifices must die.” Milton felt that paralyzing mixture of admiration and contempt that he always had toward the gathering movement against the sacrifices. He admired their spirit, but to think it mattered that the sacrifices were based on a lie, well, that was like willful gouging out of your own eyes.

Campus security encircled them. They wore the revolutionary insignia on the shoulder of their uniforms: a thumb and forefinger joined together to make a circle with a brain inside of it and then another joined thumb and forefinger with a heart in the middle crossed partially over the first one. Inert clubs and guns hung at their hips. They would stay that way. Milton wanted to tell the protestors that the guards wouldn't harm them tonight, that if they wanted to they could push farther than they were; hell, they could go all the way. Security had received orders to go easy that had begun with Mona. She didn't want anyone thinking her message needed the force of bloodshed.

Milton unlocked the passenger side door. His mind felt sour. He started drinking the vodka and soon he was asleep. He dreamed of the only sacrifice he'd witnessed, when he was child. He felt his mother's sweaty palm in his left hand and the smooth paper wrapper of the cotton candy in the other one. He saw the Torchbearer touch the lighter-fluid doused torch to the open fire pit that symbolized the Final Sweep and watched his grin widen at precisely the second that the flames transferred from the pit to the torch in his hand. He heard Zeldalotte's screams, which began even before she was torched. He saw the teeth on the floor. In the dream, his mother tossed a broom to him to sweep them away. Milton started to yell, and he felt someone shake him.

 “It's alright. You're in the car. At Havens. In the parking lot,” Mona said.

Milton fell into a half-sleep. He heard Stenmeyer's voice saying “Such a shame … ”

“Maybe not for much longer, Sten,” Mona said.

            Then, through his half-sleep Milton heard them say goodnight.

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Milton woke up uncharacteristically early the next morning. As he stirred in the living room recliner, he heard Mona pull back a kitchen chair and start tapping on her computer. Mona usually got in a couple of hours of work before officially starting her day at Havens. If he pretended to be asleep he soon would be and he could avoid talking to her at all. He knew this, but, still, he lowered himself down, slipped into the loafers he had once worn to work and that were now laced with holes and walked to the kitchen.

Mona didn't look up from her computer at first. When she did she motioned for Milton come over to the screen and then canted it a little back so he could read what was on it. A group calling itself “Lotte Liberation” had penned an open letter in response to Mona's talk. It made five demands:

1.     An immediate end to all sacrifices, beginning with the one slated for next week to celebrate prion disease cures;

2.     An honest and open acknowledgement of the lack of evidence for Charlotte's existence;

3.     A thorough investigation into how the original “descendants of Charlotte” were captured, what their real identities are, etc.

4.     A forthright explanation of what happens to male children born by the “descendants of Charlotte.”

5.     Immediate access to the House of Descendants by reporters and relevant experts.

 The letter was signed by a column of one-name signatories, each with a “lotte” appended to their name. Milton scanned down and read:

Barbaralotte

Deniselotte

Fraceslotte

Julialotte

Kevinlotte

Mona clicked over to her inbox before Milton was finished scanning the names. “I'm not worried. It's not as if our side lacks for support,” she said and pointed to the list of e-mails she had received thanking her for her talk.

Yeah our side will win again.”

Mona tightened her jaw.

“Can you even imagine supporting me, supporting your colleagues in anything anymore?”

“You've got all the support you need, Mona. Check your inbox again.” Milton said.

“You know, Milton, today could be a good day for you. After all it was some of your early work that—”

Milton flung open the liquor cabinet so hard that the door banged against the cabinet next to it. A fifth of scotch to the head would shut Mona up forever. He would never do this. Milton wasn't a violent man and when he imagined causing Mona's death it wasn't the act of killing he relished but the thought of never hearing her voice again. His fantasies were not vivid; they were airy and crammed with silence.

He poured the Scotch into a water glass.

Mona went to the counter and popped two slices of bread into the toaster.

“At least have something to eat with it,” she said as she packed up her computer and headed out.

Milton returned to the recliner, flipped on his computer that sat on a table next to it, and brought it to his lap. He slid on his glasses. He read, again, the press release the lab had issued. With gene splicing technology the team had developed a vaccine to protect against prion diseases. Mona was right. It was some of Milton's own work on prions that the other scientists had built on. Prions, the misfolded proteins that commandeered the nervous system, had fascinated Milton. They caused kuru and bovine spongiform encephalopathy—“mad cow disease” and its human equivalent: variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease)—and those caused horrific symptoms: seizures, loss of balance, dementia, spontaneous laughing, sudden blindness and deafness.

Prions didn't reproduce. They targeted healthy proteins and then turned them like themselves, setting off a cascade of misfolding. Milton loved the challenge they posed. He would outthink them. He would use what Stenmeyer had called, when making the salary offer that would outbid every other lab, his “fecund scientific intuition” to neutralize them.

It was when he began to believe he was getting close that the sacrifices moved from some dim outpost of his mind and started to preoccupy him. He began, then, to treat himself as the problem to be neutralized. He held back the most auspicious data, encouraged his colleagues to pursue less promising projects. The drinking eventually took care of him being taken seriously as scientist.

He clicked over to the House of Descendants Web site. Photos of Charlotte's descendants flitted by in a slideshow. They were pretty and well groomed. They smiled. Except for the flames tattooed around their eyes, they could be any of the women Milton passed on the Havens campus.

Under each photo of the women was a second picture, this one of her flameliner, the man who had impregnated her to ensure that Charlotte's line continued. No woman was sacrificed until she gave birth at least once. How often Milton had thought of Stenmeyer or some other man as a “flameliner” to silently insult him. After a successful birth these guys were castrated and given all sorts of benefits—the best houses, weekly spa treatments, personal chefs. Milton didn't care about that. But the endless deference shown to them—these men who were chosen by lottery at birth and paired up with a woman when they were both young—that's what really got Milton. Most flameliners became fat and all shaved their heads and wore only white. Milton remembered his mother, who shrunk before no one, stepping aside when one waddled down the street toward them.

Milton gulped the final bit of Scotch left in his glass, and went into the kitchen to pour a second one. The bread Mona had put in the toaster was up and had grown cold and hard. He stuffed into the garbage disposal, flicked on the switch and listened as it was ground to dust.

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Milton hadn't been to the lab in three days. No one would miss him. He had left the house only to buy alcohol and was spending his days in the kind of drunken sleep that was so thick and satisfying that it counted as experience. Mona had been busy, spending long days with Stenmeyer and others readying for the upcoming sacrifice.

He didn't know what time she got in. He just knew that when he woke up briefly in the early morning he saw her coat draped over the easy chair in the living room. He was surprised, then, when he woke from his afternoon sleep and found her at home one day. He wasn't sure if it was the clattering from the kitchen or the pungent smell of garlic and onions frying that roused him. Mona rarely cooked and Milton never did. He couldn't remember the last time they had sat down to a meal together.

Milton followed the smell to the kitchen and found Mona at the stove with a wooden spoon in hand. She looked up, smiled and rubbed her hands across the front of her apron.

“I'm making beef bourguignon. Remember how I talked the chef into teaching me how to make it when we we're in Paris?”

“Vaguely,” Milton said.

“Oh c'mon, don't you remember? I told him it was our honeymoon and if he didn't teach me the recipe how could I keep you happy?”

Mona giggled.

Milton did remember, but he had tried to forget because when it had happened he felt pride kick up in him that this woman was his. That had long since made him feel foolish, embarrassed even in front of himself for it.

She poured a glass of club soda, twisted a lemon slice into it, and handed it to Milton.

The chill of the glass in his hand peeled away his remaining grogginess.

She scooped up a smidge of the onion and garlic with the wooden spoon and slid into Milton's mouth, while she held her other hand palm-up under his chin. Mona was wearing perfume. It was floral and sweet and mixed with Mona's normal scent there was something feral about it.

“Let's sit down,” she said to him. Milton sat down at the round kitchen table and expected Mona to sit across from him. Instead, she took the seat next to him, so that their shoulders almost touched.

“Milton, I have some news,” she began.

Milton's pulse quickened. News. His mind clicked through the possibilities and what they might mean to him. The celebration she was clearly preparing negated the possibility that the news would be something he'd like to hear. She wasn't, for example, leaving him for Stenmeyer or taking a deanship at a school in another city.

“As you know, Stenmeyer is going to announce the Torchbearer soon. He drew the name a couple of days ago. He's been holding off because, well, he—we—thought you should know first.”

What did it matter to Milton which flame-happy fellow citizen they chose to sacrifice an innocent women? Hadn't he made it clear with his years of refusal to attend the sacrifices that he wanted no part of them?

Mona placed her hand on Milton's and he felt a cold trickle down his spine.

She looked into his eyes and he though he saw hers mist over slightly.

“Milton, it's you. It's you, darling. You're the next torchbearer.”

Milton lifted his hand so hard that Mona's was flung off of it.

“What? Mona, what are you talking about?” he said.

“Stenmeyer drew you. Don't you see how this could be just what you need?”

“Stop the bullshit, Mona. Three-hundred million people and they just happen to choose someone at the lab Stenmeyer runs?”

“Why isn't that possible?” Mona said.

“Mona, enough. You think I don't know that you cooked this up with your boyfriend? Why? So you could give the invocation? Because it's convenient for you to have your husband do the … the fucking killing, now that you're the new face of the sacrifices? Forget it. You'll have to advance your career on your own. When has that ever been problem?”

“My boyfriend. You think Stenmeyer and I are—”

Milton laughed and then said, “Yes, Mona, I know. You can have your boyfriend.”

“Milton, that's absurd. Me and Stenmeyer? It's true we've been working together. I'll admit that, but there's nothing personal between me and that old man.”

Milton laughed again.

“Working together? What could you two collaborate on? Representations of neurogenentics in the novels of pre-partition India?”

Mona looked stunned. Her eyes were open so wide that her eyebrows almost touched the edge of her short bangs.

“You, Milton. You. We've been working to pull you out of your slump. To get you off the booze, to bring you back to your career. Don't you think Stenmeyer cares about losing the best young scientist he'd seen in his career?”

Milton could see the sincerity in Mona. She was telling him the truth. An affair he could handle—more than handle, but this conspiracy of altruism between the two was intolerable. That they thought he needed their help; that they thought he wanted to be like them. That cut through Milton, like a saw blade.

Mona's mouth moved, her lips changing shapes, but Milton couldn't make out the words. He felt like his chest was shattering and no matter how hard he gulped he couldn't take in air. Then he felt the linoleum on his back and saw the ceiling fan slowly spinning. Mona was still talking, but it in a different cadence as if she were on the phone. He words were still scrambled. All he could hear clearly was the voice in his head, saying Miltonlotte, Miltonlotte.

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