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Magnets

Carried through time, lovers seek their purpose.

Moon Colony B, 2213 Former Ponzi-schemer Mary Pillar digs through a trashcan. It smells like rotten eggs and milk. She is elderly…By Thaïs Miller

Moon Colony B, 2213

Former Ponzi-schemer Mary Pillar digs through a trashcan. It smells like rotten eggs and milk. She is elderly and homeless, living in an alley between two eco-efficient skyscrapers. Dust particles dance around her. She has lost everything she has stolen. Her arthritic hands throb.

Jack Pillar, her partner in crime, helps her collect debris. His hair matches the black-gray ash and dust surrounding them. He uses a teleray to pick up plastic, metal, and glass from the gutter into their hovering cart. Selling cans and bottles is illegal. Everything is biodegradable now and organic. Metals, plastics, and glass have been outlawed but they bring in a lot of money on the black market. Although they had completed prison sentences for their crimes, their actions follow them like a bad odor, preventing them from making a living any other way.

Lights emerge from a pile of trash on a nearby corner and Jack points his teleray, putting it on the microwave setting.

“Wait!” Mary cries.

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A trash-compactor robot emerges from the rubble, excited to have company. “HELLO!” He hums, “I’M ROBOT MODEL ALPHA ANDREW M3234!” He is short and squat, covered in a yellow plastic case. He looks brand new.

Mary bends down on her weak knees. “Hello, Andrew M3234. I’m Mary Pillar.”

“HAVE WE MET BEFORE?” Andrew M3234 asks.

“No,” Mary has a terrible tremor. Even her metal neck-brace cannot restrain her movement. “But you might have seen me on a handheld screen.”

“DOUBTFUL!”

Jack chuckles at the robot’s response. The sound seems amplified by Jack’s oxygen helmet. Mary grimaces and bends down to point her teleray at more trash. Sweat pours down her temples. She crouches near the ground and gives up, sitting on the sidewalk. Anti-freeze stains her gravity-lock pants.

“Who knew that the moon would get so dirty?” Mary asks Jack, but he ignores her and continues gathering trash. Silver particles slowly emerge from the top story of a building. She stares up to see the half-blackened earth above her. Someone is shredding documents.

“CAN I HELP YOU?” Andrew M3234 asks her.

Mary wipes the sweat from her forehead. “Why, yes.”

Jack looks at her, “Stop talking to that thing. You don’t know where it’s been.”

“I don’t care,” she whimpers and then gives the robot instructions in the most clear, fluid, and authoritative voice, the voice she once reserved only for judges and press conferences. Her instructions are long. Andrew M3234 blinks his lights in response.

“We all have a purpose,” she commands the robot toward the end, “Perhaps we are born into this world so that we can correct the mistakes of the past, perhaps because we have one goal to set us free from this world. I’m not sure what my goal is. But your goal,” she smiles, “is to help us sort through the trash.”

Her words are compelling, even to the robot.

Mary then instructs the robot how to find metal: that it looks shiny, smells like loose change, and tastes like blood. And the robot listens patiently until she is done with her instruction.

Then Andrew M3234 dutifully sorts through the trash, finding all the metallic items. He creates a pile of heat wands, punctured cans, and cracked telerays. Jack claps at this sarcastically, but Mary doesn’t care. Andrew M3234 stuffs the pile into his hollow belly. Then he crushes the pile so tightly so that it could fit in Mary’s palm. But it is too heavy for her to hold, so Andrew M3234 tosses it into the hovering cart.

“I wish I had met you much earlier.” Mary tells the robot. “Perhaps things would have been different…easier.”


Scotland, 1297

The feast celebrated William Wallace’s capture of Dunnottar Castle from the English. All the walls and floors of the castle shook, bowing to the new inhabitants and their jumping, stomping, and crashing dances. The fortress leaned on the slope of a peninsula, surrounded by rocks as sharp as spears. Wallace’s Scottish army rode their carriages down the isthmus, bringing their children and child-like wives from Stonehaven and the neighboring villages. Entire hamlets crowded the halls and mead flowed endlessly.

Andrew Moray, Wallace’s captain, was yet unmarried. They say he carried Viking blood in him, for his hair was the color of flaxseed. He had grown wealthy and plump with victory. At the banquet, he brought his betrothed to present to Wallace. Her name was Mary. Her foxlike hair shrouded her face. She was as slight and silent as a statue. Her blueberry eyes kept darting around the dining hall, searching for something.

The guests whispered, “She is nothing more than a child.”

Andrew slammed his fist on the splintered table, “She has bled, so I will wed her and have a child within the year!”

But once the feast ended, he could not find Mary. Andrew was a Christian, so he kneeled and prayed that he would find his young bride-to-be. Then he scoured the castle with all of his Viking instincts to find her. He threw goblets, shredded cushions, burnt tapestries, and smashed mead flasks.

Perhaps we are born into this world so that we can correct the mistakes of the past, perhaps because we have one goal to set us free from this world.

Mary had run through the kitchen, down a stairway, around the guards’ post, and down another stairway until she reached the edge of the cliff. She dangled on the side of a narrow wooden rail overlooking the sea. She would be rid of him or he would be rid of her.

“Child!” A low voice called out and grabbed her from behind, holding her close to him. He looked more like a wolf than a man. Dark hair sprouted on his cheeks and hands. He was no soldier; he did not wear a coat of arms. He wore a dark cloak the color of dried blood and wrapped her in it like a magpie covering his prey with his wings. His large eyes drank her in.

She breathed heavily, pressing her chest against his arm. “Who are you?”

“Jack,” the man whispered, “a trader.”

Mary thought he said, “traitor.”

“We must leave together then,” she said, “for I am like you and once they know what I have run from, they will kill me.”

Jack felt heavy with the lord’s gift: that he would have his own child-bride. His heart banged against his ribs like a church bell, he desired her so. In truth, he advertised fine furs but sold cheap pelts. No father would barter his daughter to the trader. He ran her down the wobbling staircase as waves crashed against the cliff side and sprayed their path. They escaped from the castle grounds just as the festivities ended.

From the balcony of the tallest tower, Andrew thought he spotted two hooded figures run down the isthmus away from the peninsula. But never mind that. He mistook his bride’s disappearance for an omen from God. He decided to become a monk and join the crusades.


Paris, 1873

Le salon met twice a week and featured only a handful of members, all Parisian. Marie Pilier founded the group with her husband, Jean-Claude. He resembled a young Lord Byron, dark and brooding, but with a beard. Members met in their library on chaises so close that elbows could touch. Madame Pompidou and her young lover, Stephan, were regulars. New to the group was a marigold-haired chap by the name of Andre Moeurs. He was a renowned poet, at least in underground salons.

Andre opened the meeting by telling a story he heard in the marketplace. An old Jewish woman whispered it in his ear. She said that there once was a couple, newly married, living in a small village near Minsk. They were young and very much in love. Most of all, they were excited to celebrate their first Sabbath together. They lit the candles, drank the wine, and said the prayer over the bread. But when they ate it, they both choked and died.

“Now what’s the meaning of this?” Andre asked the group.

Marie sat on the edge of her cushion, twirling a single lock of rouge hair around her finger. Jean-Claude yawned. Madame Pompidou and Stephan stared at the smoke wafting in front of their eyes.

Andre continued the story. Kabbalists claimed that the reason why this young couple died was because they were meant to celebrate their first Sabbath together as husband and wife. They had lived many times before. They had been reincarnated into many different forms but they never accomplished this task. So when they finally did, they died.

“So what is our purpose?” Andre leaned into the circle and stared at Jean-Claude. “Why are we here? What task were we meant to accomplish?”

Marie waved her velvet fan in front of her face. She frowned; wrinkles assembled on her brow. The lock of hair flew behind her like a flame.

Jean-Claude shrugged and leaned back. “Come now, ma petite intellectuelle.” He sneered at his wife. “Can you not grapple with the unknown?”

Marie cleared her throat and changed the subject. Soon, the focal point of tonight’s conversation featured the acquisition of a new writing instrument that would allow the artists to quickly record their philosophical ponderings during the salon meetings. At an exhibit near the Champs-Elysees, Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen had just unveiled the Hansen Writing Ball and the group was determined to purchase one. The only problem was that no one had any money.

They had lived many times before. They had been reincarnated into many different forms but they never accomplished this task.

“Well, there’s no reason to pursue the matter further,” Jean-Claude addressed the group. He still had his gambling debts to repay.

“Of course there is. If I had known that you would be a miser, I would have married an aristocrat.”

“Is that so?” Andre smirked.

“A king!” Marie shouted. “Certainly, in a past life, I was Queen of the Nile!” 

She was not, but Marie desired fame and fortune, a legacy. She wanted Jean-Claude to be a millionaire, not the manager of a boutique.

Madame Pompidou and Stephan huddled together on a fainting couch, so numb and blinded from smoking opium that they shook their heads from side to side as though the conversation would be absorbed through osmosis. They only absorbed more smoke.

“I would never have married a serf,” Marie continued, unaware that in another life, she had done just that. 

“The discussion is over,” Jean-Claude rose from his chair. “We don’t have the money!”

Andre refilled his wine glass with Château Mont-Redon, Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge. “Don’t be so close-minded, Jean-Claude. This isn’t the end.”

An open mind is an open flask,
Imagination flows but never lasts.

Marie chuckled.

Andre clapped sarcastically.

Jean-Claude shook his head and snapped, “Marie, will you get us more wine?”

“Hmf,” Marie trudged off, “I know a good verse when I hear one.”

Jean-Claude grasped Andre’s hand. “What do we do? We’ve lost everything. We can barely afford the wine you’re drinking.”

“Hush,” Andre touched his cheek and gently brushed his lips against Jean-Claude’s lips.

Marie entered the room in silence with a tray. Once the men separated, she slammed the silver down on the carpet. 


New York City, 1973

Only one florescent bulb lit this corner of the Upper West Side loft. It glowed above Andy’s hair and sideburns, which were the shade of Heinz mustard. The light dripped down his clean shaven chin to the collar of his tight oxford shirt. For the past few years, working in advertising had only contributed to his beer belly.

“I’m heading down to the Village,” Mary told him as she wrapped her ketchup-colored hair in a patterned handkerchief. Her small eyes looked in the mirror. She was tall, thin and, she thought, too pretty to be 30.

Andy stared down at Tara, their baby, as she gurgled in her crib.

“Where?” He looked at the wall-clock. It was 10 p.m.

Mary had told him twenty times that the theater troupe asked her to provide set design.

“I’m heading out. Cherry Lane.” Mary grabbed her beige wool coat from the hallway closet. As she put it on, her gold hoop earrings swung from side to side.

Andy followed her to the door. “But why? That troupe doesn’t pay shit.”

Mary unlocked the first of four locks on their apartment. “You know what? Sometimes, I don’t do things for money.”

He shook his head as if saying: It ain’t the ’60s any more, babe.

Mary tightly clenched her brows. “This troupe is creative and edgy and- and…”

“Theatrical?”

Mary’s face reddened. “I bet in a past life I was a bohemian, living off what I could panhandle, happy for fresh air.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

Mary avoided his eyes and looked at Tara for a long, hard moment. She wanted Andy to act like he was the housewife for once. “Watch her.”


The subway was a hall of mirrors. Mary looked up from her books about transcendental meditation and saw people who looked just like friends from childhood, family members, or former lovers. Just before she was about to call their names: “Klaus!” “Evelyn!” “Carl!” The figures turned and they were imitators, foreign, blemished, and distorted. Mary wondered if people slowly transform into different people. Ugly versions of the truth. Rumors. When she thought she saw the back of her best friend from Hunter High School, she discovered yet another doppelganger.

Mary came up for air on Christopher Street. She wound through the West Village alone on a Thursday night. Graffiti, fallen trashcans, tattoo parlors, and sex shops surrounded her. More than twice, a man in a leather jacket followed her. Mary knew how to avoid them; she snuck around West 10th and then West 4th. She knew the streets like a stage set, which is to say, like the back of her hand. When her family came to New York City from Ukraine, they had lived in a tenement on the East Side, only a few avenues away.

I bet in a past life I was a bohemian, living off what I could panhandle, happy for fresh air.

When Mary reached the Cherry Lane Theater, the street was filled with exaggerated laughter. Actors crowded around the entrance. They smoked voraciously.

As she reached the lobby door, one of the actors crept up behind her and screamed, “Boo!”

“Jeez, Jack!” Mary gasped. He was tall and muscular with a trimmed beard; the opposite of her Andy. His hair matched the black sky.

He laughed, “Did I scare you?”

“No- no,” Mary chuckled to prove it.

“I didn’t think you were going to make it,” he kissed her cheek.

“Me neither.”

“How’d the old man take it?”

“Not well.”

Jack shrugged and they walked into the theater. Actors stood on the stage and in the wings. They stretched and produced melodic sighs and yawns. They wandered everywhere except where they were supposed to. The director waved his arms in the air, attempting to shoo them onto their marks like pigeons.

Mary took off her coat and Jack put it on one of the audience seats. The seat had grease stains and its seams were splitting.

“Hey, come here,” he jumped onto the stage with incredible strength and then helped her climb up as well. She noticed for the first time in the light that he was slightly balding.

Jack moved around her, sashaying here and there. He sang that time was on their side. He took her hand and she shook her head. He waltzed with her, reassuring her. “Yes it is.”

Mary laughed. The moment was sudden but not unwanted.

“I wanted to tell you,” he continued to waltz as though music was playing, but it was silent. The actors stared at them. “The first time I met you, you seemed familiar.”

“Familiar?”

“Like from a past life.”

Mary blushed. “Do you want me to run away with you?”

Jack continued singing pieces from a song. He rocked back and forth, holding her in his arms.

And just as suddenly as he began, Jack slipped out of her arms. He floated and twirled upstage toward a twig-like actress, who nervously gripped a script. Jack muttered a few words that Mary couldn’t hear and the girl blushed. She was no more than a child. The girl turned so that her back was facing Jack and he zipped up her dress.

Mary felt like she was spying, looking at them. She felt more alone than when she wandered the streets.


At night, Andy and Mary lay in bed together and once he fell asleep, she silently cried. When she couldn’t muster the strength to weep, she would fall into coma-like sleep. She would dream of other men but it would only be her imagination. That was all she could do.

When she woke up, to Tara’s sweet squeals, she felt guilty. The other men remained in her memory, their breath still fresh on her tongue, and her silent husband, sleeping next to her, was ignorant of fantasized sins.

In the afternoon, her therapist told her that all relationships are reincarnations of old ones, that we get trapped in patterns, always choosing the same people, leaving for the same reasons.

Mary felt drowned in concrete, unable to move.


Moon Colony B, 2213

Dust hovers and floats around Mary. Gray flecks stick to her oxygen helmet. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine the feeling of snow against her cheeks. She fantasizes about escaping with the robot, the thrill and freedom of leaving Jack behind. But then she shakes her head. It’s too late. Her life is a series of strange entanglements; her purpose remains a mystery.

Her therapist told her that all relationships are reincarnations of old ones.

They have finished collecting the metallic fragments in this sector. Next, they will gather glass, and later, plastics. In a few hours, they will trek to the black market and sell their wares. 

Mary looks up, toward the sky. She sees the earth thousands of miles away. It is broken into three pieces like a jigsaw puzzle or a peace sign with black lines segregating the pie slices. The pieces cannot link again. They revolve around each other like repellant magnets. Although some external force pushes them together, they can never touch. This moon, Mary’s home, orbits around them. There are so many things she regrets. She looks at the robot. Its lights are blinking in anticipation of a new task.

“Yes, I wish I had met you much earlier.” She adds, “I can only imagine now.”


Thaïs Miller is the author of Our Machinery, a novel, and The Subconscious Mutiny and Other Stories. She teaches advanced fiction at The Gotham Writers’ Workshop and volunteers as an editorial reader for One Story.


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