io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is “The Ballad of Marisol Brook” by Sarah Grey. Enjoy!
Image © 2013 Galen Dara.
The Ballad of Marisol Brook
Her name, this time, is Marisol Lysium Brook. The media, long bored with the minutiae of her death, occupies itself by speculating which stars will grace the guest list at her reconstruction gala.
Marisol is the name she etched into the Hollywood concrete, beside her thin palm prints. Both lie beneath the tread of tourists, under a golden star, not far from the sea where the ashes of her first body sailed away on Pacific winds. The name, as she has insisted in countless interviews, praises the sea and sun, the golden sunshine and silver waves. She is a sun-kissed daughter of the California coast.
Brook is the name of her husband, Oliver, the esteemed director and father of her only child, a solitary young man named Peter with a bent mouth and sad eyes. Upon Marisol’s death, alone, in the dark sea beneath a sailboat a half-mile off Catalina, Peter checked himself into the linen embrace of Blackwood Recovery Center, burrowed amongst Vermont evergreens, intent on trading his cocaine addiction for yoga and raw produce.
Lysium is the primary subsidiary of Conti Cosmetics Milan. For twenty years, it has specialized in cream eye shadows and high-gloss lipsticks in a spectrum to boggle the eyes, a stunning array of light-bending metallics designed to glitter like shattered glass beneath throbbing dance club lights.
Lysium, through a quiet sea of shell corporations, has sponsored Marisol’s reconstruction. In return, she carries its name, along with a contractual obligation to serve as its otherwise uncompensated spokeswoman for ten years. Marisol, reborn from cells and brine, belongs to Lysium.
The vault itself is tightly monitored. Seven doctors wait in attendance, all of them phantoms behind white coats and masks. Their shoe covers rasp across the bleached tile floor like wind through parched leaves. They monitor synaptic impulses, recalibrate drips, and watch the barest rhythm of a pulse rise from silence.
Two bodyguards line the door, each in a suit of stygian black.
The room is a snug seventy-two degrees. Marisol’s eyes open; at the base of her skull, bundled memory clusters leap to life, and she is swarmed by her own archived thoughts. A doctor draws the ventilation tube out of her windpipe. She gasps, coughs up stagnant mucus, and, for the first time in eighteen months, inhales.
The sterilized laboratory air sears her throat. She squeals, a involuntary exclamation of shock that calls to mind the climax of her fourth romantic comedy, the wildly lauded Saddleburn, in which two-time Best Actor winner Barry Levain leaps out of a empty whiskey barrel and kisses her, boldly and unexpectedly, causing them both to plunge headlong into a horse trough.
One of the doctors, charmed by the memory of this beloved scene, laughs out loud. The others smile, triumphant.
Seven days later, painted with Lysium’s pale rose Copernica shade of lipstick and masked in its deep violet Nova eye shadow, Marisol steps out of an unmarked sedan and into the celebration of the century. In the grand ballroom of the ocean view Palacio Rojo Hotel, she dances on gilt stilettos with Mr. Levain and a battalion of other film demigods, with every West Coast producer and many from the stages of the East. She waltzes with ambassadors and sips champagne poured by senators.
Her husband, regrettably, has declined to attend, citing obligations in Europe. Peter is absent as well, having abruptly departed the Blackwood Center three days before to face felony drug charges.
Late in the evening, Marisol receives a letter, hand-delivered in a white glove, from Mr. Oliver Stuyvesant Brook, through his counsel, Ashwild & Craycroft, notifying her that the unfortunate drowning of the true Ms. Marisol Brook operates to terminate their marriage and nullify any support obligations delineated in their prenuptial agreement.
Beside the ballroom’s central fountain stands Mr. Barry Levain, lately engaged to Laurentia di Conti, the very young and disappointingly plain heiress to the Conti Milan fortune. He carries a half-drunk flute of champagne and watches as Marisol receives the news. As soon as the frown crosses her glossed lips, he seizes his opportunity. He throws his champagne aside, drawing a hundred heads toward the tinkle of shattering glass, just in time to see him snatch Marisol into his arms and kiss her, boldly and unexpectedly. The move throws her off balance and plunges them both headlong into the fountain. Marisol squeals in shock.
The guests laugh, charmed by the memory of that beloved scene. Not one sees the frown cross Ms. di Conti’s thin face.
Near dawn, after the final guests have departed, Marisol, high on the finest champagne, leaves via the basement tunnel that opens onto the Palacio’s private beach. Her black-suited bodyguards blend with the soaked stones and darkened cliffs. Only the most tenacious paparazzi witness her departure, and few of them observe that the man enveloping her like a fox fur cloak is, in fact, the inimitable Mr. Levain.
Only one manages to snap a recognizable photograph.
Two days later, at her family’s Malibu estate, Laurentia di Conti awakens to a headline and accompanying photograph that shatter her manicured life. It is hours before she regains sufficient composure to dress herself and leave the house. By the time she swerves into the driveway of Marisol’s flat, she has already bested a bottle of vodka and carries a loaded pistol.
Her name, this time, is Marisol Festavi Brook. Her reconstruction will be celebrated in private.
Marisol means Maria of the Sun, the goddess of the gilded light that forever warms the stark Arizona desert.
Brook is a name she took of her own accord. It is understood that Marisol, in her present manifestation, bears no relation to the famed producer Oliver Stuyvesant Brook; nor does her deviant son, Charles Brook, presently serving a prison term for sale of methamphetamines and resisting arrest. Suggestions to the contrary are met with an invitation to federal court from the hands of Ashwild & Craycroft, Attorneys at Law.
Festavi is a promising line of American-made electric muscle cars: all the green, twice the mean. Upon its initial public offering, Festavi Automotive exploded in value, upstaging blue-chip paragons for the adoration of the wealthiest investors. The company’s startup capital derives, in large part, from subsidies that flew through the legislature on a bill sponsored by Senator Tad Benson of Arizona. The bill received unprecedented bipartisan support despite fervent opposition from the President, Benson’s longtime political foe. Festavi’s offices are nestled near a palatial suburb east of Phoenix, between a faux-Tuscan martini bar and Benson’s campaign headquarters.
Festavi, through an independent investors’ group, has underwritten Marisol’s immediate reconstruction. She is obligated to address any resulting tax liabilities herself, however, and is shadowed by fifty million in-breach-of-contract penalties should she violate any of the one hundred and forty-seven personal services provisions, including a maximum bodyweight of one hundred twelve pounds and an obligation to only drive the latest Festavi models. Marisol, reborn, belongs to Festavi.
The vault is dim and chilled to sixty degrees, as recent research has suggested exposure to undue heat or intense light may induce chemical imbalances in a reconstructed specimen, which in turn may lead to a circus of aberrant behavior ranging from rebellion and disloyalty through vicious sexual promiscuity.
There are two doctors and a nurse in attendance. One doctor fumbles with a dial; the other reads a financial journal and chews his thumbnail.
Two bodyguards line the door, their suits so black they swallow what little light dares to wander into the room.
Marisol’s eyes open. Her pupils narrow and scan the vault, taking in the recovery table, the tubes, the wires, the suited men with pistols at their hips. Memory clusters flare and tingle. Her first white-hot thoughts are of falling headlong into frigid water. She fights the ventilator’s forced breath and chokes.
Seven minutes pass before the nurse takes note of Marisol’s rapidly escalating pulse. The doctor tosses his journal aside. A scowl coagulates on his face, and remains even as he twists the ventilator tube out of her windpipe.
The bitter air rips through her chest, and she squeals. No one hears. The nurse fills a syringe with narcotics and plunges it into Marisol’s thigh.
Seven days later, Marisol takes part in a photo shoot, where she is brushed and oiled and then draped, tastefully nude, across the monstrous grille of a cherry-red Bengali X8 convertible. Senator Benson, a notorious bachelor, attends the shoot. Afterward, he insists that she accompany him on a long drive in the Bengali, through a bone-stark desert night. They stop on a county road far south of the city, where towering cacti claw at the stars.
He draws a pistol from the glove compartment, and leaves no uncertainty as to Marisol’s role in his political career.
A year later, Marisol testifies before a Congressional panel regarding her alleged affair with the President. She has memorized a script of details too depraved and insidious for even the most tawdry of her films, a circus of lips and sweat and flushed bodies spread wide across vintage White House furnishings. Her gray suit draws every camera to her cleavage, but cinches too tight around a waistline padded thick with Festavi-sponsored banquets and cocktails.
When the hearing ends, she cries in the bathroom, alone.
The panel finds her testimony unworthy of credibility and dismisses the investigation. The media christen her a liar and a whore; in particular, they take note of her creeping obesity.
Festavi, in its breach of contract suit, cites her body weight.
On a January night colder than the dark sea, Marisol pays for a month’s supply of painkillers, two brands of diet pills, and a bottle of vodka, and drives her scuffed red Bengali home.
Her name, this time, is Marisol Brook MacPherson. The press, though notified of her reconstruction, is indifferent.
Marisol is a Hebrew name that translates, roughly, to “bitter.” It is not, in fact, Spanish. Marisol herself is a proud American citizen, descended from generations bred and fed on rich Midwestern wheat, as pure as the star-struck Texas skies.
Brook is the name of Marisol’s first husband, noted producer Oliver Brook. While posterity has largely forgotten him, cinema historians will recall the cloud of suspicion that devoured Mr. Brook’s career following Marisol’s drowning off Catalina Island. The more studious among them will refer to the fierce litigation between the estate of Oliver Stuyvesant Brook and the bankrupt Festavi Automotive Corporation, which ended with the Supreme Court’s pronouncement that a reconstructed individual retains neither the assets nor the obligations of her former incarnations. They will describe how, in the six decades since, reconstruction has devolved into an escape hatch for the wealthy. They may refer, in passing, to the abrupt disappearance of former Senator Benson of Arizona following his conviction for securities fraud.
MacPherson is the name of Marisol’s second husband, aging songwriting supernova Serge MacPherson. Marisol has haunted his heart since he was eleven, when he first saw clips of the neo-western romance Saddleburn on a midnight viral feed. He has laid more flowers on Marisol’s grave than his own mother’s. Her reconstruction so many years after her third death puts a sizeable dent in his dwindling fortune. Serge is indifferent. Marisol, reborn, will belong to him.
Marisol’s revival takes place in a vault in a Houston warehouse, in the midst of a January storm.
The vault itself is a drafty fifty-four degrees, the product of wind gouging its tendrils through the brittle ceiling. The one doctor in attendance trips repeatedly on a deep chink in the concrete floor. Serge stands near the vault, wearing his best pair of ostrich boots and coddling a half-empty flask of late twenty-first century Oregon whiskey.
Two bodyguards line the door, suits and shoes and ties all black as pooled oil.
Marisol’s eyes open. As Serge has anticipated, they are the same flawless brown as her close-up in the fifty-fourth minute of Saddleburn, when Barry Levain fishes her out of the trough and her blinking lashes cling together and her mouth hangs open in a surprised pout. For forty years, Serge has imagined himself in the shoes of the pathetic Mr. Levain, whose own reconstruction following the tragic di Conti murder-suicide was, thankfully, sidelined by the claims of his half-dozen illegitimate children.
Memory clusters send fireworks through Marisol’s brain. She is swimming upward, through water colder than death. She can see a light above her, beyond a shield of glass, too far to touch. A column of water throbs in her lungs; she cannot breathe against it.
The doctor pulls the tube from Marisol’s throat. She has no chance to inhale before Serge kisses her, boldly and unexpectedly.
The doctor, who has never seen Saddleburn, shakes his head.
Seven days later, in the wake of a jet-speed evangelical wedding ceremony, Serge has crafted a new song, a drawling, tragic melody about a vulnerable starlet whose heart and body are shattered time and again by greed and sin. The song ends only when she is stitched back together and held tight to the chest of a loyal man. He calls it The Ballad of Marisol Brook.
Seven million viewers log on for the live netvid release. Serge rests in a suede chair on the deck of his low-orbit shuttle, and Marisol cradles herself near his feet, smiling upward as if he is the dawn. He sings to her in a wavering croon, twisting his fingers tight around the neck of his acoustic guitar. If his voice falls a half-step flat in the fourteenth bar, no one on Earth notices, and certainly no one connects it to the whiskey that stains the hem of his button-down shirt.
The audience is privileged to miss the fight that erupts hours later, when Serge finds Marisol scanning archived headlines about a Charles Stuyvesant Brook, a/k/a Charlie Ruiz, an elderly felon executed a decade before for the unflinching murder of two police officers in the midst of a botched methamphetamine raid. The audience does not see the swell of Marisol’s bloodied lip, nor do they see Serge refill his flask before sputtering a tearful apology.
Within days, The Ballad has topped charts in the United States, Australia, and parts of Western Europe. Serge buys her a fox fur cloak to celebrate.
Ten months later, halfway through a fourteen-city tour, Marisol waits until Serge is sober to tell him she is leaving.
Serge remains stone-faced, even as he swears off drinking and promises to quit his tour, to quit all tours forever. He seizes her by the arm and she pulls away; his fingernails break the surface of her forearm, and her blood leaks onto the upholstery of his restored Bengali X8. Marisol squeals in pain. It is only then that he weeps.
On a rain-flooded street outside Minneapolis, Marisol opens the passenger door and walks away. Serge does not follow her.
Country music fans will recall Serge’s tragic suicide the night before his sold-out Minneapolis concert, despite his recent marriage and the explosive success of his fifteenth album, titled Beloved. They will note that a businesswoman jogging with her terrier uncovered his river-wracked body a week later. They may discuss the handwriting on the note found on the dashboard of his cherry-red convertible—a drunken, desperate scrawl, a fumbling apology to a cinema goddess.
They may add that, though her body was never located, the presence of Marisol’s blood on the upholstery, along with the text of Serge’s note, has generally been regarded as conclusive evidence of her fourth and final death.
Her name is, and always has been, Marisol Amada Ruiz. She was reborn at a bus stop off a suburban Minnesota street, in a downpour of icy rain. No one noticed.
Marisol evokes Santa María Soledad, saint to the lonely and sick, whose miraculous corpse remained intact so many years after fluid filled her lungs and swept her from the earth. This blessed name belonged to Marisol’s mother and to her grandmother, and to a half-dozen other Ruiz women who trudged up thirsty trails in search of borderland dreams.
Amada, of course, means beloved.
She carries no other name, not even that of her lover, David, a man who speaks little and smiles often, who drives a bruised hatchback and holds his grandchildren as if they were jeweled eggs. David wears a deep scar across his chin, the relic of some battle lost in his youth, which time refuses to soften. They met a decade ago in a rainy cemetery, where his wife rested several plots from the grave of a long-dead criminal named Charles Brook. He shared his umbrella and his conversation, and pretended not to notice her tears through the storm.
He has never asked her why she was there. She has never asked how he got his scar.
The beach, on this windy afternoon, is cool, and is attended by a handful of giggling families and by lovers whose hair and limbs and lips tangle in the wind. A single dog prances in the surf, its fur thick with sand.
Marisol closes her eyes against the high summer sun and follows the path of the shore, finding her way by the chill of wet sand and the pulse of seawater over her toes. The wind hurls salt at her, across a body weighed down by time and labor, over suntanned cheeks and kiss-worn lips, through hair grown brittle and gray. She can hear David, far down the shore, shouting to the children, over the gleeful bark of a dog and the scream of seagulls.
A pair of crows guards the dunes, feathers black as lost memories, claws latched tight around a bleached shard of driftwood. As she steps closer, they shriek a warning. She does not stop. They surrender at last and fly away, eastward, toward the silver city.
On an empty beach, Marisol lets the crisp sea wind fill her lungs, and settles into solitude.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the June 2013 issue, which also features original science fiction by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (“Alive, Alive Oh”), and SF reprints by Paul Park (“Get a Grip”) and Ken Liu’s current Hugo Award finalist (“Mono no aware”). Plus, we have original fantasy by Megan Arkenberg (“The Huntsman”) and Christopher Barzak (“Paranormal Romance”), along with fantasy reprints by Theodora Goss (“Princess Lucinda and the Hound of the Moon”) and from Shawn Speakman’s new all-star charity anthology, Unfettered, we have a new story from Carrie Vaughn (“Game of Chance”). And of course we have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with bestselling authors Nalo Hopkinson and Robert J. Sawyer. For our ebook readers, our ebook-featured novella is “The Fool's Tale” by L. Timmel Duchamp, and the featured novel excerpt is from Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!