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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Midnight at River's Edge

Ron Collins lives in Columbus, Indiana. When he's not writing SF, he's been an engineer, an IT guy, and now an HR wonk. His fiction has appeared in places like Analog, Asimov's, and Nature--and has been awarded a HOMer award by readers at Compuserve. Picasso's Cat and Other Stories, a collection of his short SF, is available at most online booksellers.

My dad stood in the doorway, holding his datapad in his hand. I sat cross-legged on the floor, guitar tucked under my arm, my fingertips burning against the strings.
"What's this?" he said, pointing to his e-mail.
"What's what?"
"You failed your drug test."
I dropped my gaze. My time had finally run out.
"Do you want to be kicked out of school?"
"Come on, Dad. It was just a summer thing."
He was quiet for longer than I liked.
"Johnny," he finally said. "I'm paying too much for you to throw this away. It's your life, though. If you want to leave school and get a job, I'm behind you. But if that's what you want, you need to get your own apartment."
"Great," I said, then strummed a discordant D7 minor.
A century of silence later my dad left me alone.
"Dude, that sucks," Remy said when I told him. He sat back and pushed his Calculus pre-reading away. "Would he really throw your butt out of the house?"
"Yeah. He's got his limits."
"What are you gonna do?"
"Semester starts tomorrow."
"There's a freaking news flash."
"I'll take them off your hands if you want to dump them cheap." He smiled.
"You're a true-ass friend, Remy."
"Just trying to help, Dude."
Needing someone else to talk to, I went to Dr. Page's office. It was late, but he's a night person, so I wasn't surprised to see him there. He was bent over a rotating pottery wheel.
I cleared my throat to break his concentration.
"Johnny Rae," he said, cleaning his hands on the towel he had strung through belt loops on his jeans. "To what do I owe this visit?"
"Hi, Dr. Page. Can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Sure." He didn't turn off the wheel, but he came around and half-sat against a work bench. "How can I help?"
"I want to be an artist."
He smiled, and the crooked angle of his front tooth seemed to radiate joy. "Then be an artist."
"It's not that easy."
"Sure it is."
"But it's hard to make a living."
"That's something completely different."
"No, it's not," I said.
Dr. Page pursed his lips. Lines of clay bunched in the soft folds of his skin.
"What's this really about, Johnny?"
"My dad," I said, then stopped. "No. It's really about me. I failed my last drug test. My dad's worried I'm going to get kicked out of school. He wants me to be an engineer."
"Drugs are bad mojo, Johnny."
I gave one of my long sighs. "Don't some people say the stuff actually helps their art?"
"Drugs ruin creativity, Johnny. Simple as that."
"Yeah, but--"
Dr. Page raised his hand. "Sure, Faustin did Epicurio on the stuff, but look at everything he finished after that. I respect your desire to be an artist, Johnny, but you need to know it's serious work. And, yeah, it's near impossible to make a living at it--especially if you're a druggie."
"I see."
"Don't see, Johnny. Just do."
"That's not fair."
Dr. Page wiped his hands on the towel again. "You want to be an artist, go be an artist. Otherwise, go a different direction."
Now I'm standing at the edge of the Ohio River. It's something around midnight. I have a beer in one hand and a pair of pills in the other. The pills are Gortanox IV, the latest in attention enhancement, and Yagnotaine, a cognition accelerator. Their gelatin capsules gleam in the moonlight.
The school is in the business of creating disciplined minds that can solve today's weighty issues. Taking these drugs has been their policy ever since a decade-long barrage of federal testing proved they were safe--that they cause no adverse effects, except, of course, for developing a laser-like focus.
I understand the policy.
I even see why it's good for mankind.
But I look over the river tonight, and I think about how I would use a touch of red to capture the light upstream, and how I could blend cobalt blue in downstream. I close my eyes and see the work. It would be a big project, requiring a sense of the audacious, a belief that there is more to the world than the four sides of my canvas, and the hubris to think that I have what it takes to bring that essence forward.
Frogs and insects cry.
I stare at the pills.
The river rolls past in the nighttime darkness.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Author Comments

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen while I'm working out, or I listen in the car while I drive to work, or I listen while I take walks at work. Anyway, I'm also a baseball nerd and a science wonk, so one day I had lined up a pair of podcasts--the first of which was about the influence of performance enhancing drugs, the second an interview with a well-know neural scientist. Mix and match, and out came "Midnight at River's Edge."

- Ron Collins
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