Author Bio: After decades of peering into the looking glass beneath the darkened northeast skies, he finally summoned up the courage ofAlice and stepped through into Wonderland. Reborn, A.J. Benenati currently resides in sunnyPhoenix, Arizona where, by day, he is an electrical engineer for a pharmaceutical company. By night, he is busy working on his first epic fantasy novel which he hopes will be his crowning achievement.
Written by AJ Benenati
*Note: This piece is meant for our Young Adult audience because it contains themes that may be too adult for little children.
“Poetry? What the hell is poetry?” she asked with scowling dark blue lips and her blaster pistol pressed up against my chest. Her left hand with the spider web tattoo firmly twisted my necktie, making it difficult for me to breathe much less answer.
Even with paralyzing dread working its way down my spine, I could appreciate the irony of her question. She had me backed up against the wall outside the rave club known only as “Frost.” I vaguely felt the pounding music vibrating through the concrete against my back.
I looked into those angry pale hazels behind the red Venetian mask with its gold styling. Her milky white skin only made the deep red hair that flowed down the center of her head even more startling to the eye. Several delicate silver chains attached her nose rings to the line of earrings running up her left ear. Her worn black leather vest with a graphic patch indicating she was a member of “Psycho Candy” barely contained her bosom. The leather mini, spiked collar, wristbands, and death skull on her belt buckle screamed of intimacy issues. Moreover, those black leather boots placed her delicate nose a few inches above mine. My contact had a reputation for being a very dangerous woman, but I somehow managed to recover my composure.
I cleared my throat as I considered her question while also deciding if I had time to grab my tactical batons before she opened a doorway through my chest. I quickly dismissed the insane notion and offered her a weak smile as I kept my empty hands raised where she could see them.
“Uh, right, poetry. What is it exactly?” I began tentatively, trying to decide if this banger would lose her patience if I gave her an overly elaborate answer. “Let’s just say it is a lost art used by men to get into women’s pants.”
After a brief moment, her lips parted into a wicked grin, and her eyes gave me the once over. “You don’t need poetry for that, angel.”
She released my necktie and pushed her left hand roughly against my shoulder as she holstered her weapon. “If you got any X, we can find a comfortable spot down the alley.”
My mind raced at the possibilities of her offer, but I doubted I would survive such an encounter.
“Look, I was told to meet Wildfire outside “Frost” and she could help me with my investigation,” I stammered awkwardly, keenly aware that she had pushed her bosom closer to my face.
“So, you don’t have any candy for me, angel?” she said with a frown, her other hand roaming freely beneath my coat, seizing upon my batons. “What have we here? These are cute toys.”
I shrugged, but made no effort to grab them back. “A guy’s got to protect himself, right?”
She laughed at this as she slid both batons into her belt. “Toys are not allowed in the Basement.” She grabbed my collar, her long sharp nails drawing blood along my neck, and pulled me roughly deeper into the alley.
“Hey, I’m not here for that-,” I protested, though I did not resist her.
“Relax, angel,” she chuckled. “I’m your contact and I was only kidding about the poetry.”
While she dragged me down the long darkened alley, I quickly realized it was far from empty. Amongst the piles of old crates and trash were the lost and degenerate of Omega City. As I passed the drug-induced bodies, men and women, sprawled out in various states of undressed, images of Dante’s journey came to mind. My unlikely Virgil finally stopped in front of a dimly lit keypad beside a heavy door and her fingers quickly punched in a code. Following a beep and the click of the mag-lock releasing, she pushed the door inward and pulled me in.
“Lights,” she stated and I suddenly saw we were both standing in a small apartment with no windows. She let go of my shirt and re-activated the electronic lock along with about a dozen manual locks and a heavy bar. When she caught me staring, she shrugged and said, “I like my privacy.”
As I tried to straighten out my suit coat, I looked around her dimly lit place. Near what would barely pass for a kitchenette, sat a small table with two mismatched chairs. Off in the corner, piled high with gothic paraphernalia, a small desk and mirror served as a vanity. A pair of armoires, on either side of a queen-sized bed that had seen better days, provided the only other furnishing.
“This is the Basement?” I asked with some confusion.
“No,” she answered curtly, pointing to one of the chairs. “Sit. We talk first.”
“By the way, the name is Shakespeare, not angel,” I informed her, taking one of the chairs, expecting her to join me.
“Sure it is,” she replied, moving to sit on the bed several feet away and then began to make a show of unzipping her thigh-high leather boots.
My earlier fear of this woman transformed into something else. I swallowed hard as I saw her eyes make contact with mine from behind her mask.
“Tell me more about what you are looking for, angel,” she finally said after she had removed her boots and was stretching out her toes.
I looked away and reached into my coat pocket. I placed a tattered book onto the table. It was partially burned anthology of poems published during the mid-twentieth century.
My great-grandfather once told me that with the help of poetry and the other arts, a cultural Renaissance pulled humankind out of the Dark Ages. The written word did more to civilize men than any other single invention. His greatest regret was that during his lifetime the art of poetry became lost again in the Digital Age.
“I’m looking for the missing lines from this poem,” I explained while I quickly leafed through the damaged book and stopped on the page I was looking for.
“Go on, read what you have,” she answered. I watched her move to one of her armoires and pulled the doors open wide.
I cleared my throat and read the passage:
The passion poesy, glorifies infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast,
They always must be with us, or we die.
When I had finished, I looked up to check her reaction, but was startled to see her standing nearly nude at the armoire and was just now pulling on a conservative blue dress. My eyes lingered overly long as I watched her pull the hem down her shapely legs.
“So that is supposed to get a girl all hot and bothered?” she asked as she turned towards me again, a look of doubt on her face, as she casually removed her red mask and tossed it carelessly onto the bed.
“No, I believe it is a portent of some kind,” I explained, watching her remove the chains draped along the side of her face and then placed them around her wrist where the spiked bands were only a few moments ago. “I was told you could locate the complete passage.”
Silently, she grabbed a hairbrush from the vanity and began combing out the gel she used to rooster her red hair. After a moment, the sides of her head, both closely shaven, were nearly covered. The transformation from banger to socialite was stunning. Who was this woman?
“I can get you the full transcript, or rather, the Professor can,” she finally answered while pulling on a pair of blue evening shoes she retrieved from beneath the bed. “But you don’t get to meet him until you pay my asking price.”
I quickly nodded and reached into my pants pocket for DigiCreds.
“Easy, angel, keep it in your pants,” she ordered with a smile. There was something very erotic in the way she pulled up one side of her blue dress to fasten a thigh holster to her leg. She placed the blaster pistol into the holster before letting the dress fall back into place.
“You are going to play my obedient chaperone in a little scheme I have planned this evening,” she continued, pulling on a pair of thin-rimmed blue-tinted eyeglasses, completing her new look.
Noting my look of concern, she moved over to the other armoire and pulled the doors open. After pushing a wall of clothing aside, I could hear the sounds of beeps from a touchpad and another lock releasing.
“Let’s go, Shakespeare,” she commanded, grabbing my batons from her bed and tossing them over to me.
It turned out the second armoire was the entrance to her hover port. We were now racing over the city at a dizzy pace after she ordered the hover car to set a course for the Metro Museum. I found myself grasping at anything I could get my hands on as the hover car lurched in seemingly random directions to avoid crashing into other vehicles in the airspace. Seeing my discomfort, she ordered the windows tinted, leaving us blind to the other traffic. The blue glow from the control screen now acted as our only light.
“That doesn’t help much,” I informed her just as the hover car made a sudden drop in elevation. My stomach roiled.
She was sifting through a pile of colored cards before picking a gold one. “Hand me your Identicard,” she said while pulling a small device from the console between us.
She took the card and my credentials and placed them both into different slots of the device. Moments later, the card reappeared with fancy script and a barcode at the bottom.
“Why are we going to the museum?” I asked after she handed back my Identicard.
“Nothing turns me on more than erotic art,” she replied coyly just as our transport lurched to a sudden stop. “Follow my lead, angel.”
When we arrived, the doors of the hover car swung up. Flashing lights and a press of people were standing on a red carpet.
Wildfire pushed me out my door and followed quickly behind as I tried to get my bearings. All around us there was a buzz of excited voices, techno music, and reporters shoving microphones and cameras in our faces. Dark velvet ropes kept the crowd to either side of the red carpet that led up two sets of steps towards the Metro Museum. A sign to our right read: “Renaissance Revival.”
“Oh, what an unexpected surprise,” one of the reporters was now saying. “Renowned art connoisseur, Mr. Will Shakespeare and guest have decided to step out and join us for a night at the museum!”
I looked over to Wildfire who was now draping her arm around mine while flashing a brilliant smile amid a barrage of camera flashes. “Keep moving, angel,” she murmured, pulling me forward.
Quickly, I regained my cool, straightened my suit coat and tie, and waved to the crowd as we made our way to the museum entrance. I pushed back my sense of unease as we approached the security checkpoint, but the forged golden invitation easily got us in.
The museums of Omega City, all funded by Mega Corp, were nothing like their traditional counterparts back on Earth. While many of those museums tended to favor Greco-Roman style architecture, the Metro Museum looked the same as any other building in the city. Uninteresting concrete facade with no attempt at artistic design was the norm on Ganymede.
As we walked through the exhibit, the incredible sculptures and oil paintings my great grandfather used to tell me he enjoyed as a boy were nowhere to be found. Instead, in neat rows forward and across a great room stood concrete blocks, each standing three feet high and draped with a red cloth.
Upon each pedestal, we could see a small digital tablet sitting upon a small stand beneath a cube of reinforced glass. Digital images of the artwork that marked the renaissance that ushered humanity out of the Dark Ages glowed eerily at us. I thought of the poem I was searching for and wondered if humanity had already fallen into a new Dark Age.
“Oh, this piece is beautiful, dear,” Wildfire cooed as she pulled me over to one of the displays. I could see she had secretly placed a small puck-like device with a small blinking light under the red cloth before pulling me away to gush at another replica of art.
“What exactly are we doing here?” I whispered to her after watching her place another blinking puck beneath a display.
“Consider it foreplay, angel,” she answered cryptically before pulling me over to another display. “Before you get yours, Wildfire gets hers.”
She led me over to an exhibit near the center of museum that was drawing much interest from the other invited guests. We both looked over shoulders at the display and could see the image of one of Michelangelo’s most famous pieces. The placard simply read “David” naming the perfect nude male.
She tapped my leg to get my attention and nodded towards a set of stairs leading to the second floor of the museum. A pair of intimidating guards stood in dark suits at the top.
I was about to ask her meaning when an explosion erupted behind us. I felt a small chunk of concrete brush my cheek as it flew past and instinctively ducked down. Instantly, the other shrieking guests scattered in all directions, but mostly towards the exits.
“We only have a few moments, angel,” Wildfire said breathily as she pulled a laser stick from her handbag and traced the edge of the display case holding the “David” display. A second explosion rocked the building, followed by the hissing sound of gas.
“Give me one of your tactical batons,” she ordered, holding out her hand. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I suddenly realized this woman really intended to steal the exhibit. I pulled out a baton and pressed the activation button. Instantly, the baton extended out to just over thirty inches and began to hum with power.
She smiled, grabbed the sleek black handle and used it to smash the reinforced glass display case. I turned my eyes away as the shards flew in every direction. From my position, I could see the guards had recovered from their initial surprise of the explosions and were racing down the stairs to bar the entrances.
Wildfire grabbed two small gas masks from her handbag and passed one to me. She then grabbed the digital tablet still sitting on the pedestal and stuffed it into the handbag.
I pulled out my other baton and activated it in case we needed to fight our way out, but her voice in my ear directed me to make towards the stairs.
The gas was becoming thick in the room and everywhere people were passing unconscious to the floor. I briefly thought of Ovid’s epic poem “Metamorphoses” where “Morpheus at once flew through the night of darkness, on his wings that make no sound…”
We raced up the stairs and I was surprised to find nobody there to challenge us. Turning down a long hallway, I could see we were running towards a window overlooking the front of the museum. Wildfire pulled out a small remote device and summoned her hover car to the window. Then, lifting the side of her dress, she drew the blaster pistol, and with three quick, muffled pulsing shots, the windows blew out.
“This is crazy!” I yelled at her as the doors opened automatically on our ride out of there.
“Jump!” she yelled back, pointing at the vehicle hovering thirty feet above the steps below. When I hesitated, she grabbed me by the suit coat and pushed me out into space.
I landed awkwardly inside the car and let out a groan of pain as she landed on top of me. Yet, despite my discomfort, I became keenly aware of her mouth close to my ear; her heavy breathing mixed with a nervous giggle. Then she moved to allow me to crawl over into the passenger seat before ordering the hover car to track a course for the Basement.
A half hour later, the hover car was parking in an underground garage on a side of the city I had never seen before. The chaotic pursuit by the Omega police, bought and paid for by Mega Corp, had been a hair-raising affair that required numerous gut-wrenching maneuvers in and out of several buildings and blind alleys. We had gotten away, but not clean.
Our car vid continued to stream images of us as the Mega News Corp reporters asked the public for any information on our whereabouts. I drew some solace in the knowledge that the public generally hated Mega Corp and were probably already calling in false tips to send the police on several wild goose chases. Yet, I felt a sense of shame that I had resorted to criminal methods in order to appease my literary pursuit.
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” she murmured as she ran her hand over the digital display of the nude sculpture.
“Do you want me to give you two some privacy?” I asked, wondering why I suddenly felt annoyance.
She looked over at me with a grin and I became self-consciously aware of the fact that she was trying to imagine me without my clothes on as she looked between the display and me.
“John Keats,” she finally answered. “How does somebody named Shakespeare not know about one of England’s most famous poets?”
I was dumbfounded that a member of the Psycho Candy gang would know anything about poetry.
“Let’s go, angel,” she said, seeing my discomfort. “It’s time to meet the Professor.”
Soon we were entering an elevator. Wildfire pulled a keycard from her handbag and slid it into a slot below the array of buttons. We descended for several minutes in silence. I contemplated Dante’s journey into the depths of hell in his pursuit for enlightenment. A moment later, the elevator car stopped and the doors opened.
We walked down a long white hallway towards a steel door with a keypad beside it.
“I’ll need the batons again,” she said, and before I could protest, she had already removed them both from beneath my suit coat. “Toys are not allowed in the Basement.”
Using her body to the shield the keypad from view, my red-haired companion quickly punched in a long code. When the door opened, an elderly man in spectacles and a grey sweater vest greeted us.
“Annie,” he greeted her with a hug. “I was surprised by your message earlier. It has been so long, my dear.”
I quietly watched the exchange, curious about what kind of relationship they had. My companion turned to me, grabbed my sleeve, and led me into the Basement.
“Will, this is Professor Richard Hathaway,” she indicated with a wave of her hand. “My father.”
I shook the Professor’s hand and wondered if he was aware of his daughter’s secret life as an art thief. She answered my question a moment later when she produced the “David” we had stolen earlier and set it on a plain oak desk sitting in the middle of the room. To one side of the room were rows and rows of bookcases filled with books. It had to be the biggest underground collection I had ever seen in Omega City. On the other side were sculptures of marble and stone. I watched wordlessly as Annie moved to an unblemished block of marble in the center of all the others. She ran her hand with the spider web tattoo along its smooth surface. A moment later, she picked up a small hammer and a chisel from the table beside the marble and began to work the stone.
“Ahem, yes,” the Professor said, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder and led me to the oak desk. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Shakespeare. I have many of your namesake’s works in my collection.”
“How is this even possible?” I asked, as my eyes roamed the bookcases at all the titles.
“Ah, right. I can understand your confusion,” the Professor answered. “Annie says you have a partial anthology you were looking for?”
Absently, I reached into my coat pocket, pulled out the badly damaged book of poetry, and handed it over.
“When the atmosphere on Earth had finally become too toxic to sustain humanity, I was fortunate enough to get my young daughter and myself onto one of the last shuttles to Ganymede where we settled here in the Omega City biosphere,” he explained. “But not before I was able to ‘obtain’ a large collection of literary works from my last place of employment.”
“John Keats,” the elderly man stated aloud after taking a moment to read the final stanzas of the poem I had highlighted in my damaged book. He looked up at me from above his spectacles. “Yes, very interesting choice, sir.”
“The irony here is that the Digital Age would precursor a new Dark Ages, even here on this Jovian moon, Will,” the Professor explained. “For, as young people became more engrossed in digital technology and gaming, they became less and less engaged in all other arts, outside of video.”
I watched as he pulled a book from one of the shelves and compared it to the damaged one that I had given him. “Immortal Poems of the English Language, An Anthology Edited by Oscar Williams.”
“A thing of beauty is what Will is looking for, father,” Annie stated, pausing from her work at the marble. When I looked over at her, I saw she had removed her blue-tinted glasses, revealing her eyes. Strangely, under the fluorescent lights of the Basement, they now appeared more green than hazel.
The Professor observed as we locked eyes and loudly cleared his throat, breaking the spell.
“Yes, but of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t that right, Mr. Shakespeare?” The Professor asked.
When I had sought the meaning of “A Thing of Beauty” I was driven by the fear that somehow humanity had lost touch with the true beauty found in the arts and would therefore die as a species as predicted by Keats.
Yet, as Annie Hathaway quietly drove us back over Omega City towards her apartment, I recalled that art is a reflection of humanity. One does not need to seek out replicas of beautiful creations since humanity is at once its subject and the creator.
Following an evening of passionate lovemaking, I found myself sitting at the small table with two mismatched chairs looking at my favorite fountain pen and a blank sheet of paper. I realized it was within the two of us to create a new renaissance on this dark moon of Jupiter.
After a moment of contemplation, inspired by the red-haired beauty sleeping on the bed nearby, I wrote the following words at the top of the empty page: “My Wildfire” a poem by Will Shakespeare.
*Find more work by AJ Benenati in the pacificREVIEW literary journal: http://www.amazon.com/Strangely-Ever-After-pacificREVIEW-2014/dp/1938537041/ref=aag_m_pw_dp?ie=UTF8&m=A119ICNS1106UD