Black Betty | by Frederick Foote

     It is a hectic Friday afternoon, coming on the heels of a very dramatic week. I have secured our dinner of rotisserie roasted, whole chicken, and the double-egg potato salad. Leaving the deli, I’m a homeward bound hunter leaving the shopping cart jungle and the parking lot wilds with the fruit of my labor.

     Wow! There’s an enormous, tall black man near the rear of my new Benz. Shit! I casually check around me. Whew, the parking lot’s jammed. People everywhere. Witnesses on foot and in cars. He wouldn’t dare try anything. Where’s the parking lot security?

     Oh, shit! He’s looking, looking at me. Is he? He is. Oh, boy, I just need to be calm. Maybe he dented my car and, and…I’m here at the car, so fast, too quick.

     “Hello, Lawrence Glacken, and congratulations on your second Hugo award and your munificent book contract.”

     A fan! He’s a fucking fan. I’m so stupid. His voice is mellow as aged whiskey. “Hello, hello, aww, thank you, thank you. Do you have a book you want me to sign? I would be delighted— “

     He shakes his head. “I’m Cedron Swartz. I’m not a fan. No offense. You’re a talented writer and deserving of recognition.”

     “An interview? You want an interview? My agent usually— “

     “Your work’s noted for its complex plots and well-researched science. You have some very unique talents.”

     “Well, I thank you. I – what can I do for you. I’m on my way home— “

     “Your plots are organic. You start writing, and the plots emerge, instinctual, self-developing. Your great pleasure in writing is discovering how your stories will end.”

     “What? I’m sure other writers work the same way. I’m not so different.”

     “Oh, but you are due to the great complexity of your stories and the speed with which you write – four novels last year and five the year before. You’re unique, trust me. Twenty major plot twists in your last book. That is unparalleled.”

     “Well, if you say so. I thank you. I think.”

     “Mr. Glacken, when was the last time you were lost?”

     “What? Lost? Look, I have to get going.” I hold up my bags. “Dinner. Contact my agent— ” He doesn’t move. I need him to move so I can get in my car. I need to leave, now. “Please, let me by.”

     “Mr. Glacken, I have need of your special talents— “

     “I told you, talk to my agent. I really need you to step aside.”

     “Your car’s coming to you. Watch.”

     “Look, I, I…” My car rises, the wheels just off the blacktop, and slowly backs out of my parking space.

     “Shit! What, how, how the fuck? Wait, is this one of those prank shows with a hidden camera?” I whirl around desperately searching the parking lot for the hidden camera and crew.

     My S550 stops obediently with the driver’s door in front of me. It touches down silently.

     Oh, boy. Oh, shit. What’s going on here? I need to sit down. I’m dizzy. I’m sweating—

     “Mr. Glacken, Sir, you need to unlock your car and sit. You don’t look at all well.”

     “What?”

     “Unlock your car. Sit down before you faint, please.” 

     Shit! My car keys. I drop my grocery bags, search for my keys, find them. I beep my car doors open, slide into my new car and rest my head on the steering wheel. I look to my right as Cedron opens the passenger side rear door and places my groceries on the back seat. Cedron slides into the front passenger seat. He touches my shoulder. I flinch.

     “You have to drive now. Traffic is starting— “

     I snarl at Cedron, “Who the fuck are you? What do you want with me? Get the fuck out of my new car.”

     Horns are honking. Someone’s rapping on my window. Security arrives. I try to explain about my Benz levitating and Cedron. It all gets confused. Security suggest Cedron move my car and see me safely out of the parking lot. I try to explain that I don’t know the huge black man, but no one’s listening to me. I trade seats with Cedron.

 

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     “Where’re we going? Stop! Stop the car. Stop! Stop the fucking car.” I’m pounding the dash with my fist to emphasize my demands.

     Cedron slows and pulls to a stop at the corner of Bruner and West Haven. Three blocks from my home.

     “I apologize for the stunt with the car. I didn’t anticipate your reaction. I— ” His smooth voice will not placate me.

     “Fuck you! Get the fuck out of my fucking car. Now!”

     “Of course, I’ll contact you when you have calmed— “

     “Fuck you! You just, just fuck off.” I’m breaking out in a cold sweat.

     Cedron watches me for a moment and reaches to open his door.

     “How did you know?”

     “What?

     “How do you know about me getting lost? How the fuck did you know?”

     The big man smiles. His teeth are way too white to be real.

     “You weren’t lost. You have a destination. You just don’t know how to get there. I’m here to help with that. Would you like my help?”

     “Fuck you.”

     We sit there. Traffic speeds by. My phone rings.

     I flash back on my life of missing hours, searching, walking, biking, driving for hours, so draining, bewildering. Trying to find my way, but to where?

     “How, how can you help me? How would you do that?”

     The mellow voice rolls like a wave over me.

     “I’ll show you your destination and provide transportation. You’ll plot the course, and we’ll travel there together.”

     I choke out a response, “Bullshit! You lie. You’re a liar, Cedron.”

     I look into his brown eyes, study his face. He’s not lying, and that scares me more than anything that has happened to me today.

     I let him drive me home. I’m crying tears of relief, joy. I don’t know. I know I’m scared. And, and I believe, I need to believe I can trust Cedron.

 

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     My new house opens with biometric locks, eye scan, facial and voice recognition and fingerprints but no keys. Out of habit, I’m fumbling for a key. The security system opens the door and announces my arrival, “Welcome home, Mr. Glacken and guest.”

     I turn to see Cedron’s reaction to my hi-tech home. He gives me the glimmer of a smile.

     Ronald, our eight-year-old greets us at the door, “Dad, where— “He’s shocked to silence when he sees Cedron looming over me. His eyes go rounder. His mouth’s hanging open. He yells back into the house, “Mom! Mom!” He backs into the foyer.

     Lisa dashes to Ronald, her ever-present computer tablet in her hand. “What is it, Ronald? What’s wrong— ” She sees Cedron, yanks Ronald behind her, her face a mask of concern, confusion, and fear. “Lawrence, are you okay? Is everything alright?”

     “Lisa, Ronald everything is fine. Everything is good. This is Cedron. I, I got lightheaded in the parking lot and, and Cedron was kind enough to drive me home.” I turn to Cedron. “Cedron, meet my wife, Lisa and my son, Ronald.”

     Lisa crosses to me, takes my arm, checks my eyes, “What happened? Did you fall?”

     Ronald dashes to me and takes my other hand, “Dad, are you okay?”

     “I’m fine. It was, I was disoriented for a minute or so….there’s nothing to worry about. I’m okay. Ronald, would you relieve Cedron of the groceries, please? Lisa, could we show Cedron to the great room and talk for a second?”

     Madison, our sixteen-year-old daughter, strides into the room, “Hey, where’s the fucking food?” She sees Cedron and marches straight up to him. “Oh, shit! Who the fuck are you?”

     Damn it, she’s wearing those cut-offs that reveal far too much.

     “Madison, go get dressed! We have a guest.” I’m nearly yelling at her.

     Lisa, always on edge with our almost six foot, bean pole of a teenager, lashes out, “Madison Glacken, how dare you interrupt. You can’t use that language— “

     Cedron speaks for the first time since he has entered the house. “That’s an interesting couch.” as he nods toward our custom-designed, one of a kind, doubled sided couch that seats ten. The couch is slowly rising into the air.

     “What the fuck?”

     “Oh, my God! Ohh, my God.”

     “Way cool. Wow.”

     Ronald dashes to the couch, now ten inches off the floor and leaps onto the couch.

     “Ronald, no, get off!” Lisa rushes to grab Ronald by the arm.

     “Come on, Mom, get on.” Ronald tries to pull his mother onto the couch. He yells at his sister, “Come on, butt breath. Are you scared?”

     “Fuck you, ass wipe.” In three long steps, Madison leaps aboard the couch now about a foot off the floor.

     I turn to our visitor, “Cedron, is it safe? Will they be okay?”

     He shrugs as the couch picks up speed and Lisa releases Ronald and flops onto the couch.

     At three feet off the floor, I urge Cedron to stop. “Okay, you made a point. They get it. Let them down, please.”

     Cedron smiles down at me, “Get what?”

     “Hey Dad, come on with us before it gets too high.” Ronald’s holding his arms out to me.

     Lisa yells at Cedron. “Are you doing this? How are you doing this? This, this is unbelievable!”

     Madison laughs and addresses Cedron, “Can you rotate us?”

     The couch turns slowly in a clockwise direction. Madison and Ronald squeal with delight. Lisa smiles and laughs with them.

     On the next rotation, Cedron stops the couch with the riders facing us.

     He steps close to them. I join him.

     “Your father has rare and invaluable skills. I need his help. He needs my help to deal with his periods of feeling lost and searching for a destination he can’t define.”

     Madison dangles her legs over the edge of the couch. “Yeah, sure, but why the magic trick with the couch and all? I mean, there has to be more than that.”

     Lisa adds, “This is incredible, impossible, amazing, and frightening. I don’t think this is an ideal introduction. What are we to make of you?”

     Ronald turns to his mother. “Cedron’s going to take us into outer space, to another planet. It’s going to be so cool.”

     Madison pokes her brother in the side. “Dipshit.”

     Ronald replies with an elbow to her stomach. “Asshole.”

     “Of course, not. Right, Cedron? Right?” There’s too much pleading in my voice.

     Cedron replies softly, forcing us to lean toward him. “Eleven-thousand light years away.”

     For a moment, there’s not a sound from anyone. I think everyone stops breathing for a second. Then there’s pandemonium with everyone speaking at once, yelling, shouting and some cursing from Madison, of course.

     Cedron slowly lowers the couch to the floor and suggest we talk about “the trip” over dinner.

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     It’s the most amazing meal of my life.

     Madison’s on the attack calling Cedron, an escaped lunatic, a mad scientist, and a Voodoo priest. Cedron responds with smiles and laughter. This infuriates our daughter and leaves her speechless. A rare sight and a welcome silence.

     Lisa tries to use logic and science to force Cedron to acknowledge the illogical and irrational nature of his space travel idea. He agrees with every one of her contentions.

     Ronald has endless questions about the spaceship, hyperdrive, black holes, our destination planet, gravitational waves, zero gravity and many, many more questions. However, his major concern is that he be allowed to go along.

     Cedron treats each question with respect but says that Ronald and he are the only ones here that believe such a journey’s possible and he needs to answer those questions when we all believe.

     I try to moderate the session. I avoid asking questions. I’m truly afraid of the answers. I do press home one question. “Son, how did you know that Cedron wanted to take us to another planet?”

     “Dad, he lifted the couch to show us his antigravity drive, you know, to show us how we would leave earth. Right?”

     Cedron’s response again stuns all of us except Ronald.

     “Of course.”

     We’re a normal American family. We’re not especially gullible. Cedron does not seduce or hypnotize us or threaten us. He invites us to see his space ship. I think his invitation’s in vain. Lisa will never agree to that.

     Not so. She’s eager to go. To prove that she’s right with her science and logic.

     Madison’s emphatic. She want’s nothing to do with this “fucking bullshit!” She hopes Cedron’s a mass murderer and he kills us all because we are too stupid to live.

     Ronald calls his sister a chicken and makes clucking sounds.

     Madison gives him the finger and starts to leave the table, and Ronald says, “Dead or in space, Butt Breath, you’ll be here by yourself.”

     Madison stalks out of the kitchen. But, as we are getting into the new Range Rover, she joins us mumbling about having one sane person on this “insane trip.”

 

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     Of course, we are not going to travel anywhere in any space ship. We’re just humoring our amazing, but mad guest, and we’re all curious and very doubtful, and a tiny bit hopeful that there’s a spaceship.

     We drive about ten miles south of town to an abandoned shopping center site. The shopping mall was about half built when the market crash halted all work on the project.

     As we near the ghost mall, Cedron directs me to piles of earth about ten to twenty feet tall.

     “What did I tell you loons? This is a perfect mass murder site. How many bodies do you have buried here, Cedron?”

     Lisa snaps at our daughter, “Shut up! You’re scaring your brother.”

     Ronald doesn’t look scared. He looks disappointed.

     I truly empathize with him. I feel a tremendous letdown.

     We park near the small hills. We sit in the car as the dust settles around us.

     Cedron smiles and gives me a gentle dig in the ribs with his elbow before he steps out of the Range Rover and strides to a mound about twelve feet high.

     We stay in the truck and watch this mad, pitiful play come to a sorry final curtain. I feel sorry for poor delusional Cedron and all of us – Fuck! Fuck me! Cedron has touched the hill, and a port opens like a camera lens. Cedron steps into the pale yellowish light inside the hill.

     “Oh, oh, oh my, my God. This is, is not happening.”

     “Mom, Mom are you okay?” Madison’s shaking her mother’s shoulder. Lisa is in shock. I turn back to help my wife. We see but fail to comprehend what’s going to happen when Ronald opens the car door and jumps out. He sprints toward the opening in the mound.

     That brings Lisa out of her shock. She whips open her door as I’m opening mine. Long legged Madison leaps out of the car after her brother.

     Madison enters the opening seconds after her brother. Lisa and I are right behind her.

     We’re in a round space about twelve feet across. Light seeps through the walls and ceiling. There is nothing but the four of us. The door or port has closed behind us.

     Cedron’s beaming, “Welcome to the Black Betty – my mother, my home, my traveler. Please make yourself comfortable.”

     “But, but this is like, there’s nothing. Where’s the bridge, the engine room, the the… there’s nothing here.” Ronald’s crying with disappointment.

     Cedron ignores Ronald and turns to Lisa.

     “Lisa, you look exhausted. Why don’t you take a seat?”

     “What, there are no chairs. We need to get out of here.” She collects Ronald in her arms.

     Cedron rolls on. “I think that captain’s chair in your great room was your favorite. Please look behind you.”

     “No! I insist you—”

     “Mom! Look!” We all turn to look where Madison’s pointing.

     A section of the walls is bulging out into the room, taking the form of Lisa’s favorite chair right down to the brown leather.

     Cedron turns to me. “I think your lounger is going to be over there.” He points to a bulge emerging next to Lisa’s chair.

     “Madison, your drawing desk and stool will be there behind you.” He takes Ronald by the hand. “Where do you want the bridge to be and what do you want it to look like?”

     “Wait, wait this is impossible. What is this, this thing?”

     “Lawrence, this is not a thing. This is a living creature with a mind, a will, a personality, one that is not always delightful, I’m afraid.”

     “Bullshit!”

     “Madison, she’s alive and has feelings.”

     “You said she was your mother.”

     “Lisa, she is. My mother died five years ago, and she was absorbed into the Black Betty and became part of her as I will when I die.”

     Lisa’s mouth drops open in astonishment. “Your mother is buried here?”

     “Not buried – absorbed and recycled and some of her consciousness is retained.”

     “Oh, my God! Is the ship named after your mother? Was she Black Betty?”

     “Lisa, you look shocked. Can I get you some refreshments? Water? Coffee? Tea? Anyone?” 

     There are no takers. Credon turns back to Lisa. “Black Betty was my mother’s mother. And yes she’s also absorbed.”

     Roland is tugging at Cedron’s sleeve. “Can your mom hear us right now? Can she see us?”

     “Not exactly, but she senses us and recognizes us. She’s part of the DNA of the traveler, that’s what I call this ship, as am I.”

     Ronald looks perplexed. “Okay, okay, but where are the oxygen, food and water and drive bay, galley and, I mean it’s like Mother Hubbard’s’ cupboard – empty.”

     “Ah, you have to look closer. Are you breathing okay? Is the temperature about right?”

     We all slowly nod yes.

     “All of your physical output, CO2, sweat, tears, spit, dandruff, urine, feces, dead skin, and hair are recycled and are transformed into your air, food, chairs, everything you need.”

     “Boogers too?”

     “Yes, Ronald.”

     “And farts?”

     “Naturally.”

     Madison interrupts her brother. “So, we are breathing your mother and snot and— “

     “You know we’re not, but we are breathing air based on the elements found in that matter and air filtered in from the outside.”

     I settle into my lounger. “Can I create things like you just did?”

     “When you are part of the crew you can.”

     “I want to be part of the crew. How long will it take us to go 11,000 light years?”

     “Ronald, it’s not that simple. Black Betty has to accept you, and you become part of her forever.”

     Lisa speaks from her chair. “And you require our consent, right, Cedron?”

     “No. Black Betty sees things a little differently and looks to sincerity more than legality. We would not kidnap anyone, but if we accept him, he’s part of the crew even if he stays with you until his majority.”

     “Cedron, how long will it take? Will we go into some kind of deep sleep or something?”

     “That is a key question, Ronald. With a good navigator, like I think your father would be between two to eight weeks. With a lesser plotter, a year or more.”

     Lisa pops out of her chair and gets in Cedron’s face. “Oh, come on. We talked about this. You agreed we can’t travel faster than the speed of light? I mean, you have some amazing technology. I can’t dispute that. Incredible, but I can’t conceive of – it’s farcical.”

     I put in my two cents to reluctantly agree with my wife.

     “A worm hole right, Cedron?” Ronald’s trying to keep the dream alive.

     Cedron smiles at my son and Ronald lights up like a Fourth of July sparkler. “I think there are worm holes but the Black Betty does not travel very far in space. We travel in time. It’s tricky, but a good navigator finds shortcuts, stepping stones, and gets us close to our destination and we proceed on our antigravity drive.”

     Lisa and I are not convinced. Even Ronald looks confused. Only Madison appears unconcerned by the half-baked explanation.

     Madison spins on her drawing stool. “It’s pretty close for a long trip. What about privacy?”

     “You can create your own enclosed space any time any place.”

     “Music? UTube? Movies? Cell Service?”

     “None of the above, Madison, and we don’t allow electronics of any kind on the Black Betty.”

     “That rules me out.”

     “Wait, I have my phone.”

     “Lawrence, your phone’s now inoperable and unrepairable. I apologize.”

     “Hey, if Black Betty accepts me, what happens? I mean, do I have a blood bond like in the movies?”

     “Yes, Ronald. Something like that. You give us some DNA, and we give you some DNA and— “

     “Wow! Does that mean I would be black like you?”

     “A little, and I would be white like you, a little.”

     Lisa is on her feet. “It’s time for us to go now. Larry, get up. We’re leaving. Come on, children.”

     “But, Mom.”

     “No buts, Ronald.”

     “Mr. Swartz, if you would kindly open the door.”

     “Lisa, just approach the door with the idea of leaving, and the door will open.”

     She does. The door opens. As we leave, Cedron pulls me aside

     “Lawrence, Black Betty has rejected you as a possible crew member.”

     “What? Why? What’s wrong with me?”

     “You have remarkable potential; however, you’re not ready at this time. I’m truly sorry.”

     “No! No, you said you needed me’”

     “Thank you for your visit—“

     Ronald jerks away from his mother to ask another question. “Hey, Cedron, is there, like alien DNA in the Black Betty?”

     “Naturally.”

     “And I would get some of that too.”

     “Assuredly so.”

     “Wow!”

     “Glackens, I’ll be here until this time tomorrow. I will depart as soon as we have made our crew decisions.”

 

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     I’m devastated by Black Betty’s rejection.

     Madison’s quiet and reflective for a change.

     Ronald’s still trying to understand the relationship between time travel and distance.
Lisa is on a rant about DNA exchanges being the equivalent to rape and the sabotage of genetic heritage.

     “Imagine if Madison or I did that perverse DNA swap. What kind of children would we have; white, black, alien. It would be a disaster for everyone including the unfortunate offspring.”

     “Honey, we have a very diverse genetic makeup, and there may be a black or Asian genetic presence in our DNA right now.”

     “Larry, if I had wanted black kids I would have married black or adopted black. I don’t want Cedron’s DNA in my family – period.”

     We argue on the way to and at home until late at night. Lisa’s unmovable in her opposition to any of us ever returning to anyplace near the Black Betty or Cedron Swartz.

     I sleep in the downstairs bedroom.

     I get up early.

     I find the note on the fridge. “We love you Mom and Dad, but we want to be part of Black Betty if she will have us. Love and Kisses, Madison and Ronald.”

     I don’t wake Lisa. I want to give Madison and Ronald as much of a head start as I can. I hope they will make the crew. I pray they will become part of the Black Betty.
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     Lisa staggers into the kitchen, gives me a hateful glare, turns her back on me, turns back to me. “I’m sorry Lawrence. I, I overreacted – where are the children?”

     I hand her the note. She reads it, drops it.

     I’m totally unprepared for the fury of her attack that knocks me and my chair over backward, her nails going for my eyes, her knees hitting me in the groin and thigh, her teeth clamping down on the hand I’ve raised in defense.

     As quick as it starts, it’s over, and she’s leaping to the pegboard holding the car keys. The keys to the Range Rover are missing. I lunge to my feet and tackle her at the doorway to the garage. She frees a foot and slams her heel into my face. There is a flash of pain, something, my nose snaps, blood gushes.

     She screams, “Motherfucker! Motherfucker! Let me go. Let go.”

     Somehow, I wrestle the keys from her, beep open the Benz’s doors. I stagger into the front passenger seat, toss her the keys.

     She drives with controlled fury, never looks at or talks to me.

     In world record time, she’s skidding the big sedan to a stop near our Range Rover, leaping out, racing to the traveler mound. I limp after her as the portal opens and Lisa dashes in.

 

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     They are there sitting in replicas of our kitchen chairs at a copy of our kitchen table. Ronald races to his mother’s side.

     Madison and Cedron rush to assist me.

     Lisa hugs her son, reaches for her daughter. Madison reaches a hand out to her.

     Lisa catches her breath, looks at Cedron, “You motherfucker, you black motherfucker, I’m taking my kids. You son-of-a-bitch, if you ever come near us again— “

     Madison embraces her mother and tugs her toward the table.

     Lisa takes a step back pulling our children with her.

     Ronald tugs at his mother’s arm, “Mom, Mom, it’s okay, everything’s good, we’re good — “

     Madison rubs her mother’s back, “Mom, it’s cool, everything is chill, just sit a minute, please.”

     Lisa looks at Ronald, holds him at arm’s length, “Oh, no, oh my God no! No! No!”
Ronald points and Lisa’s chair is created right behind her. Her children lower her into the chair. They each take one of her hands.

     Madison speaks slowly, precisely to her mother. “We depart soon. We pick up twenty or so passengers, all black like us. We set a course. We move forward in time and reach our destination. I hope.”

     Lisa’s sobbing, squeezing her children’s hands.

     Ronald continues. Most of the people we pick up are dying. They’ll be absorbed. Mom, they are our fuel, our food, our future.”

     Cedron’s applying some cream to my face. The pain subsides. I can breathe through my nose again.

     I feel so tired, exhausted; I just want to rest for a minute.

     Lisa suddenly glares at me with a bolt of pure hatred, shifting to concern, turning to fear.

     “Larry, Lawrence, what’s happening to you, are you okay? Shit! Larry!”

     I’m in my lounger now. It feels like home.

     They crowd around me. I see them, concerned faces, no tears from my children or Cedron.

     Cedron whispers in my ear, “Welcome home, pilot-navigator. We will be ready when you are.”

     I’m just about ready. I squeeze Lisa’s hand one last time.

 

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Since 2014 Frederick has published over a hundred-fifty stories and poems including literary, science fiction, fables, and horror genres. Frederick has published two short story collections, For the Sake of Soul, (2015) and, Crossroads Encounters, (2016).

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