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#167

Cannonball Human



                 The house looked like it would have a basement or an attic that could use some cleaning. Like its basement or attic would be full of junk that maybe didn’t need to be thrown out, but which definitely could – and probably should – be thrown out. Like the house’s owner might be willing to pay Preston some amount of money to clean out the basement or the attic, and “some” was the exact amount of money Preston was looking to make. He’d been sleeping on Clark and Marissa’s couch for over a month now and they no longer looked at Preston like one of Clark’s lifelong friends. They looked at him like a pest. A common pest. But whereas most common pests, such as roaches, had been born as pests, Preston had arrived at pest-hood by gambling away all of his money, destroying many of his relationships, and wallowing in self-inflicted misery. Staying with Clark and Marissa had not been Preston’s idea. It had actually been Marissa’s idea, which was very generous considering the fact that she didn’t know Preston very well. She had been moved when Clark told her about how all of Preston’s family and friends had turned their backs on him. Now, of course, she regretted not taking the hint from Preston’s family and all his other friends.

                But today, Preston would earn some money. Some money. And he would give it to Clark and Marissa. However much he made, he would give all of it to Clark and Marissa. Well, within reason. If some old widow decided to give him a thousand dollars, he wouldn’t give the whole thousand to Clark and Marissa. That wouldn’t be reasonable. But he probably wasn’t going to get a thousand dollars for cleaning out a basement or an attic. He realized that he was thinking like a gambler, like this might be the house with a jackpot behind its door, just waiting for him to knock and claim it. That probably wasn’t healthy.

                Preston walked up the dirt path leading from the sidewalk in front of the house to the front door. The house did not have a porch. It was two stories tall and had old, cream-colored siding, some of which was broken. The fact that the house needed new siding had been one of the factors Preston had taken into account when he had selected the house as a likely candidate for a basement or attic-cleaning. The curtains in the front window were drawn, but not in a “nobody’s-home” way. To Preston, they seemed to be drawn in more of an “anti-daylight” way. He couldn’t have explained how he recognized that distinction, but he turned out to be correct when, after knocking on the door and waiting for a few moments, he heard movement inside the house. He knocked again and a voice called, “I’m coming.” A minute later, a middle-aged woman wearing a glossy green jumpsuit and a white helmet answered the door. “Can I help you?” she asked.

                “I was wondering if I could help you,” said Preston. “Do you have a basement that you’d like me to clean out? Or an attic? I’d be willing to take whatever you’re willing to pay.”

                “Oh, no,” said the woman. “I don’t need either of those things done.”

                “Well, I could help you do something else,” said Preston. “Do you have anything else that I could help you with?” The woman’s movements were stiff, like those of someone significantly older than she looked. The exact kind of person who could probably use the assistance of an able-bodied, younger man. Although her strange attire did make Preston wonder about her sanity.

                “I don’t need help with anything,” said the woman. “I don’t have anything that needs doing. I’ve done it all. I’m doing it.”

                “I’m just trying to find a way to earn some money,” said Preston. “Do you have any friends who could use some help? Anyone you know who’s looking for some help with a household project, like cleaning out a basement or an attic? Or it can be something else, like I said.”

                “I don’t,” said the woman. Despite her refusal of his help, Preston did not get the impression that she was trying to get rid of him. But neither did he get the impression that she wanted him to stay. Instead, she gave the impression that she was providing honest answers to questions about which she had no particular feelings.

                “I’m staying with friends,” said Preston. “I’ve been there for a while. It wasn’t supposed to be long, but, well, I haven’t been able to find a job. So I’m just trying to earn a little money so I can pay them back for their generosity.”

                “Do you want some money?” asked the woman. “I can give you some money.”

                “Uh, well, I’d prefer to earn it,” said Preston.

                “Then I guess I can’t help you,” said the woman. “Good luck.”

                “All right,” said Preston. “Well, let me know if you ever do need help with anything.” He wondered if he should offer to leave her his phone number.

                “I will,” said the woman. “But I won’t ever need help with anything.”

                Preston decided against leaving his phone number. “Well, goodbye.”

                “Goodbye,” said the woman, and she closed the door.

                Preston turned from the door and began to walk back toward the road, but he stopped halfway across the yard. He had to ask. It would nag at him unless he asked. And also, getting more information might provide him with an amusing anecdote to share with Clark and Marissa at dinner. His recent habit of doing nothing all day did not provide him with many opportunities for acquiring interesting anecdotes. And most of his previous go-to anecdotes were about gambling or other destructive behaviors indirectly related to gambling, so he knew enough not to share those at dinner time. And also, Preston and Clark had agreed that Preston should not have access to the wireless internet unless he was being closely supervised since a lot of the gambling had occurred online, so he couldn’t even get second-hand anecdotes from online sources. With no anecdotes to share at dinner, he was nothing more than a third mouth to feed who also occasionally chimed in with banal commentary on one of Clark or Marissa’s anecdotes. But this lady seemed like she could easily be an anecdote. Preston needed more than a physical description of her clothes, though.

                He returned to the door and knocked. There was another long pause before the door opened – although not as long as the first time – but this time the woman looked faintly annoyed when she saw Preston.

                “Hello, again,” said Preston.

                “Hello,” said the woman.

                “Forgive me,” said Preston. “But I was just too curious. I have to ask.”

                “I don’t have anything that needs done,” said the woman. “OK? Everything is done. I’ve done everything that needs doing. Other than what I already do that only I can do, which is nothing, there’s nothing else to be done and there never will be.”

                “Oh, no, sorry, it’s not about that,” said Preston. “You made it quite clear that you didn’t need my help. And that you, uh, never would. No, I wanted to ask about…well, why are you dressed like that?”

                The woman looked down at her green jumpsuit. She brushed the fingers of her left hand against the side of the helmet. “I’m a cannonball human,” she said.

                “A what?” asked Preston. “A cannonball human?”

                “Yes,” said the woman.

                “What’s…is that like…?” Preston stopped short. He didn’t want to seem ignorant and he didn’t want to offend the woman.

                “Is it like a human cannonball,” said the woman. “That’s what you were going to ask?”

                “Yeah,” said Preston. “Is that a stupid question?”

                “No,” said the woman. “There are similarities. The difference is that I prioritize my role as a cannonball to a greater extent than the human cannonballs do.”

                “How so?” asked Preston.

                “How often do you think real cannonballs were fired when they were in regular use?” asked the woman.

                “You mean like each individual cannonball?” asked Preston.

                “Yes,” said the woman. “How many times do you think one cannonball was fired?”

                “Uh, well,” said Preston. “Probably only once, right?”

                “Right,” said the woman. “And how often are human cannonballs shot out of their cannons?”

                “Lots of times,” said Preston. “Every time there’s a show.”

                “Right,” said the woman. “Over and over again. Completely unlike a real cannonball.”

                “So you’re only going to get shot out of a cannon once?” asked Preston.

                “Yes,” said the woman.

                “When?” asked Preston.

                “It already happened,” said the woman. “Years ago.”

                “But what do you do now?” asked Preston. “I mean, if it’s over, aren’t you done with it?”

                “What does a cannonball do after it’s been fired?” asked the woman.

                “Nothing?” guessed Preston.

                “Right,” said the woman. “Because there’s nothing else for a cannonball to do once it’s been fired.”

                “So that’s what you do?” asked Preston. “Nothing?”

                “Yes,” said the woman. “I was cast, so to speak, I was loaded into the cannon, I was fired, and I came to rest.”

                “Came to rest?” asked Preston.

                “Yes,” said the woman. “Here.”

                “Here?”

                “In this house,” said the woman. “Upstairs.”

                “Someone fired you out of a cannon and you landed in this house?” asked Preston.

                “Yes,” said the woman. “I’ll show you, if you’re interested.”

                “Sure,” said Preston. “Unless, wait…” He smiled. “Would a cannonball show me the spot where it landed?”

                The woman smiled. “I’m not a cannonball,” she said. “I’m a cannonball human.”

                “Right,” said Preston. “I guess a cannonball wouldn’t talk to me either. Or live in a house.”

                “It would if that’s where it landed,” said the woman.

                Preston didn’t quite understand the distinction the woman was making, but he nodded and again said, “Right.”

                “Come on in,” said the woman. “My name is Adira, by the way. You’ll have to forgive my slowness. I’ve never been quite the same since the impact. My legs work OK, but I have a lot of back pain. Have you ever had back pain? It interferes with everything. Fortunately, I don’t do much.”

                Preston followed Adira, who walked at a painful pace with her back stiff and her neck thrust forward, through the mostly empty rooms of her house. Her living room had one easy chair and no other furniture, no decorations, not even a single book. Her kitchen had a refrigerator and a microwave, but no oven, no coffee maker, no table, no chairs. They passed a few closed doors and one open door. Through the open door, Preston saw a room with nothing in it, just bare walls and a bare floor.

                “Here are the stairs,” said Adira. “Actually, I don’t feel up to making the trip at the moment. Why don’t you go up without me. Open the first door on your right when you get to the top of the stairs. You’ll see where I landed.”

                Preston did not know what to expect as he climbed the stairs. When he reached the top, he found himself facing a short hallway. There was a door on his left, a door at the end of the hall, and a door on his right. The hallway was bare. No rugs, no pictures on the wall, not even a fixture over the bare light bulb on the ceiling. Preston opened the door on his right. He stood in the doorway and marveled at the hole in the roof. It was big. Broken, rotted wood and pink shreds of insulation hung down from the hole. Through the hole, Preston had an unobstructed view of the blue sky. A blackbird landed at the edge of the hole and looked down into the house at Preston. Rubble from the broken roof littered the floor of the room, pieces of wood, shingle, drywall, insulation, a few loose nails. And unless Preston was mistaken, the floor beneath the hole actually looked dented too. He tried to imagine how fast a human body would have to be moving to smash clean through a roof like this. That Adira had survived did not seem possible. It was no wonder that she had back trouble.

On the far side of the room, away from the hole in the roof, Preston saw a narrow bed with no sheets on its bare mattress and a few blankets tangled together on top of it. Beneath the bed, he saw many more folded blankets. There was nothing else in the room. Preston closed the door and went back down the stairs where Adira waited for him.

                “You saw it?” she asked.

                “Yeah,” said Preston. “I mean, that’s quite a hole. You really…?”

                “Yes,” she said.

                “I’m surprised you’re alive,” said Preston. “I really am.”

                Adira shrugged. “It’s what I was meant to do. I was prepared. I knew how to hit, I knew how to land.”

                “But the back trouble,” said Preston.

                “Well, I’m not actually made of iron,” said Adira. “Thank God for helmets, though.”

                “How long ago did you, uh, land here?” asked Preston.

                “I don’t know,” said the woman. “It feels like a long time.”

                “I’m sure,” said Preston. “I’d go crazy if I did nothing for a day.” But even as he said it, he realized he’d basically been doing nothing every day since he moved in with Clark and Marissa. But he diverted himself by watching TV or reading, mostly watching TV. It seemed like Adira didn’t even do that much. “Do you get a lot of thinking done, at least?”

                “I try not to,” said Adira.

                “Are you happy?” asked Preston.

                “I was happier when I hadn’t been fired out of the cannon yet,” said Adira. “But I suppose I’m content.”

                “I should probably get going,” said Preston. “I’ll let you get back to your nothing.” He was excited for dinner time. Clark and Marissa would certainly get a kick out of this anecdote. By sharing the anecdote, Preston was sure to enliven the meal in a way that he never had before. He truly had something to bring to the table.

                “Goodbye,” said Adira, lowering herself into the chair in the living room. Preston heard some kind of popping sound that he realized was coming from Adira’s body, probably her back. “You can let yourself out. Just make sure you close the door behind you.”

                “Goodbye,” said Preston. “Thanks for sharing with me. Even if a cannonball wouldn’t have.” Adira didn’t laugh or even smile, but Preston attributed her lack of reaction to his joke to the fact that it was a slight variation on a joke he had already made. He left Adira’s house, closed the door behind him, and walked back to Clark and Marissa’s house. He had acquired an anecdote and he figured that was enough productivity for one day. Tomorrow he would find someone who needed a basement or an attic cleaned out and he would meet that need in exchange for money.

 

                Clark brought home a sausage and jalapeno pizza for dinner. Marissa served the slices of pizza by stabbing their crusts with a regular dinner fork and hoisting them onto regular dinner plates. Preston had never eaten pizza off of dinner plates before. Clark, Marissa, and Preston ate at the dining room table in semi-darkness, the only light coming through the doorway from the kitchen and through the other doorway from two lamps in the living room.

                “Something interesting happened to me today,” said Preston. He hadn’t taken a single bite of his pizza yet. He was too excited to share his anecdote. “I was out looking for work, for a way to make a little money, and I met a very interesting lady.”

                “You were looking for work?” asked Clark. “Where did you apply?”

                “No, not that kind of work,” said Preston. “I was offering to clean out people’s basements. Or attics.”

                “Oh,” said Clark.

                Marissa fanned air into her open mouth with both hands. “Jalapeno,” she said. “Right in the mouth.”

                “This lady,” said Preston. “This woman. Right? So I knock on the door. And she’s wearing a shiny green jumpsuit and a white helmet. So I ask her why she’s wearing that. And she tells me that she’s a ‘cannonball human.’ This woman is in her late 40s, I’d say.”

                “What’s a cannonball human?” asked Clark. He had tears in his eyes.

                “Are you crying?” asked Preston.

                “No,” said Clark. “I got a piece of jalapeno in that last bite.”

                “That’s what happened to me!” said Marissa.

                “So a cannonball human,” said Preston. “I didn’t know what it was either. So I asked her if it’s like a human cannonball, and it is. Except she says she puts more emphasis on the cannonball part of her. So she’s only been fired out of a cannon once in her life and then that’s it for her. Because cannonballs only get shot once. See? So she got fired once, that’s how she got here, and now she does nothing all day. Like, she just sits around because she already did what she was made to do. Or, that’s what she says, anyway. Isn’t that crazy?”

                “What do you mean that’s how she got here?” asked Marissa.

                “She got fired out of a cannon,” said Preston. “And she crashed through the roof of her house and she just stayed there. That’s what she says, anyway. She let me see the hole in her roof. It’s still there. It’s crazy. She has back trouble now.”

                “That’s sad,” said Marissa.

                “Cannonballs don’t get sad,” said Preston. He figured that’s what Adira would say. “But don’t you think that’s interesting?”

                “It’s mostly sad,” said Marissa. “It’s actually kind of a downer, Preston. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

                “It’s not a downer,” said Preston. “She’s not sad. She accomplished her purpose. That’s how she sees it. Don’t you want to be able to feel like you’ve accomplished your purpose before you die?”

                “No,” said Marissa. “Because then what do I do with the rest of my life?”

                “Whatever you want,” said Preston. “Or you can just reflect and feel accomplished.”

                “Is that what you think?” asked Clark. He had eaten his slice of pizza within a bite’s width of the crust and then set it aside to fork himself a second slice.

                “Is what what I think?” asked Preston.

                “That you’ve accomplished your purpose and now you’re just going to reflect for the rest of your life?”

                “What?” asked Preston. “Of course not! How could I feel like I accomplished my purpose? All I’ve done is gamble away my life.”

                “OK, good,” said Clark. “Just checking. It was sort of sounding like you admire her.”

                “I do admire her,” said Preston. “But I don’t think I’m like her.”

                “You shouldn’t aspire to do nothing,” said Clark.

                “That’s not what this is about,” said Preston. “Why don’t you finish your pieces of pizza?”

                “I don’t like the crust,” said Clark.

                “But there’s a full bite of pizza left before you get to the crust,” said Preston. “All the way across. That’s, like, three more bites of pizza without crust.”

                “That’s part of the crust,” said Clark.

                “It’s adjacent to the crust,” said Preston. “But it isn’t part of the crust.”

                Marissa screamed, ran into the kitchen, and guzzled cold water straight from the faucet.

                “Did you get another jalapeno in your mouth?” called Clark.

                Marissa made an affirmative glugging sound. Preston had never seen such a dreadful pair of pizza-eaters.

 

                Preston waited patiently for Adira to answer his knock. He whistled a soothing tune as proof to himself of how patient he was being.

                “You’re back,” said Adira when she finally opened the door. She didn’t sound particularly pleased. She wore the same jumpsuit and the same helmet. “I really hope you’re not so dense that you’re going to ask me if you can clean out my basement again.”

                “No, no,” said Preston. “I just wanted to talk some more.”

                “I’d rather not,” said Adira.

                “That’s what I want to talk to you about,” said Preston. “I mean, kind of.”

                “You don’t have anything else to do?” asked Adira.

                “Not officially,” said Preston. “Like, not on a strict schedule.”

                “It’s just that talking to you doesn’t really fit with what I should be doing,” said Adira. “It’s self-contradictory.”

                “But you talked to me yesterday,” said Preston. “You explained your identity, you showed me the hole in your roof.”

                “That’s because I don’t look like a cannonball,” said Adira. “I look like a human. So it helps to solidify my role as a cannonball human to explain the concept to people. So that’s what I did. Spreading the view of myself as a cannonball human to people – when I encounter them – makes it more of a fact.”

                “But that’s what I have questions about,” said Preston. “Won’t clarifying things for me make it even more of more of a fact?”

                Adira considered the question for the while. “Well, I’m not convinced, but all right, you can come in. I want to sit down, though. And I don’t want this to take very long.”

                Preston again followed Adira into her house and closed the door behind him. Adira went straight for her chair and lowered herself into it with the same alarming popping sound. Preston stood in front of her with his thumbs hooked in the front pockets of his jeans. The room was illuminated only by what paltry light was able to force its way through the not-quite-opaque curtains hanging in Adira’s front window. “Yesterday you said that you’re content,” said Preston. “I asked if you were happy and you said you were happier before you were fired out of the cannon but now you suppose you’re content.”

                “Did I?” asked Adira.

                “Yes,” said Preston.

                “OK,” said Adira. “Then I guess I did.”

                “But your situation isn’t sad,” said Preston. “Right? Because I told my friend Clark and his wife Marissa about you, and Marissa said that talking about you was making her sad, she said it was a ‘downer.’ But it’s not a downer, right? Because you accomplished your purpose. You did the thing you were made to do and you know that.”    

                Adira didn’t say anything. She looked past Preston at an empty corner of the living room. She could have gotten a similar view by looking at any of the corners of the room except for the one she was sitting in.

                “Because you do nothing,” said Preston. “Right? But you do nothing because you already did everything there was for you to do. That’s what you said to me. Something like that. Because, see, I do nothing too. But I’m on the wrong end for that. Because I haven’t accomplished anything yet. All I have to reflect on is, like, errors and waste and squandered opportunities. And I just imagine how much better it would feel to do nothing like you do. To do nothing because you’ve earned it.”

                “No, that’s not it,” said Adira. “I don’t do nothing because I’ve earned it. I do nothing because a cannonball, after it’s shot out of a cannon, does nothing. It strikes its target – or misses – and comes to rest. And then it does nothing. I don’t do nothing because I was a cannonball human and did that until completion. I do nothing because I still am a cannonball human.”

                “So that’s even better,” said Preston. “OK, yeah, I see that. OK, so it’s not a downer because by sitting in here alone, you are daily accomplishing your-”

                Adira buried her face in her hands. She said something Preston couldn’t hear, her voice muffled.

                “What was that?” asked Preston.

                Adira took her hands away from her face. Her eyes contained alarming depth. “I want to be fired out of a cannon again,” she said. “God forgive me, but I want to. I know that’s the human part of me talking, not the cannonball, but it’s true. I told you I try not to think. Well, that’s not because cannonballs don’t think. It’s because when I think, all I think about is how much I want to be shot out of a cannon again, and cannonballs don’t want. It would be one thing if I wanted to, I don’t know, get married. That would be fine, because that would just be the human part of me. But a cannonball human should not want to do something as a cannonball that a cannonball wouldn’t do. Each cannonball gets fired from a cannon once in its existence. If I let myself want to get shot out of a cannon again, why was I ever a cannonball human? Why not just be a human cannonball like everyone else?”

                Preston did not have answers to these questions. He doubted that anyone did. “So what you’re saying is…you being a cannonball human is a downer?”

                “I wish it wasn’t,” said Adira. “If I could be shot out of a cannon again, maybe it wouldn’t be.”

                “But wouldn’t you just be sad again?” asked Preston. “Wouldn’t you just want to get shot out of a cannon for a third time?”

                “No,” said Adira.

                “Why not?” asked Preston.

                “Because that would be absurd,” said Adira. “Do you wish you were taller?”

                “Me?” asked Preston. “Yeah, I guess.”

                “How much taller?”

                “Three or four inches.”

                “So you don’t wish to be, like, eight feet taller?” asked Adira. “Or a hundred feet taller?”

                “No,” said Preston.

                “So you do understand me,” said Adira.

                “Oh,” said Preston. He didn’t mean it as confirmation that he understood Adira but she seemed to take it that way. Adira looked sad, but also kind of relieved to be allowed to look sad. Preston wondered if she usually looked sad and she’d just been putting on a non-sad face for him up until now. “I have to say,” said Preston. “That even if I do understand you – which, well – but anyway, even if I do, I don’t know if I fully understand the cannonball/human dynamic. Like, how that works. How you decide when to do what and how much and so on. That’s what I’m not sure I get.”

                “You and me both,” said Adira.

 

                After dinner with Clark and Marissa, Preston casually asked Clark if he could use the internet.

                “I knew this was coming,” said Clark. “I knew it.” He sat on the couch with the footrest extended between his legs and his feet on the floor. He wore a robe and a baseball cap that he called his “night cap” because he wore it around the house at night. His laptop was on his lap and he was using it to read archived bad reviews of his favorite movies. It had to be a willful assault on his own mood, there was no other explanation.

                “It’s not for gambling,” said Preston. “I want to look something up. Something historical.”

                “This is a trick,” said Clark. “Gambling was very historical.”

                “I told you it isn’t for gambling,” said Preston.

                “So you’ve never lied for gambling before?” asked Clark.

                “Well, OK, yes,” said Preston. “But I also used the internet for things other than gambling even when I was gambling. And I’m not gambling anymore.”

                “I’ll look whatever it is up for you,” said Clark. “And I’ll tell you what it says.”

                “Can I just look it up and you can be here in the room to, like, monitor me?” asked Preston.

                “Next to you?” asked Clark. “Watching over your shoulder?”

                “I guess,” said Preston. “If you feel like you have to.”

                “No,” said Clark. “You have a lot of practice with online gambling. You might be able to gamble so fast that I don’t have time to react. Or you might know of a site that doesn’t look like gambling, but it actually is gambling.”

                “That’s ridiculous,” said Preston.

                “You can sit next to me,” said Clark. “And tell me what historical thing to search for. And you can look at the screen and tell me which results to click. But I’m warning you, if any part of this starts to feel even remotely like gambling, I’m shutting it down.”

                Preston sighed and sat down next to Clark on the couch.

                “What should I type?” asked Clark.

                “Type…” Preston paused. “Type, ‘Can you reuse cannonballs?’”

                “This is about that woman,” said Clark. “The one you met. The one who got shot out of the cannon.”

                “Yes,” said Preston. “Obviously. Just type it.”

                Clark typed it into the search bar with two distinct typos, but the search engine managed to figure out what he meant. The first result was a post in a forum where someone asked if cannonballs were ever reused.

                “Click on that one,” said Preston.

                Clark did so. The first response was from someone who had chosen for his screenname the tame moniker “Michael B.” At the siege of Acre, wrote Michael B, Napoleon was so short of ammunition that he offered cash to any soldier bringing a second-hand cannonball – a bit like kids collecting lost golf balls to sell at the clubhouse. Since to collect them the soldiers had to go into cannon-fire, I wonder how many managed to- And that was as far as Preston was able to read before Clark slammed the laptop shut. “That was a gambling site!” shouted Clark.

                Preston looked at him with as little expression as he could manage, then stood.

                “Where are you going?” asked Clark.

                “To bed,” said Preston.

                “This couch is your bed,” said Clark. “I’m sitting on it.”

                “Oh yeah,” said Preston. He sat back down at the far end of the couch.

                “What are you doing now?” asked Clark.

                “Nothing,” said Preston.

                “Again?” asked Clark.

                “Yes,” said Preston.

 

                The gap of time between Preston’s knock and Adira answering the door was the longest yet. It got to the point where Preston wondered if Adira had decided not to answer the door at all, or was gone, or had died. But then she answered the door.

                “I figured it would be you,” she said. Her green jumpsuit looked less glossy today.

                “Adira,” said Preston. “I have great news for you.”

                “What is it?” asked Adira.

                “Napoleon,” said Preston. “He offered to pay his soldiers to bring back cannonballs from a battlefield so they could reuse them. Because they were so low on ammunition!”

                Adira stared at Preston, her mouth a hard, almost straight line. “And did they?” she asked.

                “I don’t know,” said Preston. “Does it matter?”

                “It matters,” said Adira.

                “But the point is that whether they did or not, it was possible,” said Preston. “It was an option. Some of those cannonballs could have been fired twice, even if they weren’t.”

                “You’re sure this is true,” said Adira. “You’re sure?”

                “Yes,” said Preston, and he did feel sure. He didn’t know much about Napoleon, but Michael B. seemed like as reliable of a source as one could hope to find.

                “I’m ready,” said Adira. “I’m ready to go now. Can you take me to a cannon?”

                “Uh, well,” said Preston. “I don’t have a car. And also, I don’t think we have a cannon that will work for you in Dalcette. Not that I know of.”

                “Oh, sure you do,” said Adira. “I saw it while I was in mid-air. A few seconds before I hit my target. We can walk to it from here. I just need you to hold my arm. And then you have to fire it once I’m inside. Do you have a match?”

                “No,” said Preston.

                “Here,” said Adira. She reached into a pocket in her jumpsuit. Preston hadn’t even been able to see the pocket in the jumpsuit’s sleek exterior before Adira reached into it. She handed him a wooden match. “Let’s go,” she said. “I’m ready now.” She came out of the house and took Preston’s arm.

                “Should we lock the door?” asked Preston.

                “Why?” asked Adira. “Don’t even close it.”

 

                The walk wasn’t far, but it was slow. More precisely, Adira was slow. She clung to Preston’s arm and leaned forward at an even more dramatic angle than she did when walking solely under her own power.

                “What will happen when you land?” asked Preston. “I mean, won’t that hurt your back even more? Or, well, what if you die?”

                “Cannonballs don’t die,” said Adira. She was short of breath from both exertion and excitement. “Not from striking a target. Not the well-made ones. Oh, eventually they corrode into nothing, but that takes a while.”

                “But cannonballs don’t experience back pain either,” said Preston.

                “I can’t think like that,” said Adira.

                The cannon was in a gully bordering the property of an abandoned auto-parts factory. It was huge and brown. The exterior looked greasy. Tall, green weeds grew around it like garnish on a plate. Preston was surprised he’d never seen it before. Of course, every time he’d driven by it in the past, he’d probably been so fixated on gambling that he just hadn’t noticed it.

                “How are you going to get inside?” asked Preston. Helping Adira down into the gulley was not easy. She stumbled three times, saved from falling only by Preston’s grip on her arm. She seemed so fragile. He tried to imagine her crashing through another roof at high speed, standing up, dusting herself off, cracking her knuckles. But the imagined scenario kept changing on him. Changing for the worse.

                “There should be a ladder,” said Adira. “Next to it. Lying in the weeds. There it is.”

                And there it was. A metal ladder, rusty and heavy, lying in the weeds, warm to the touch, also dirty to the touch. “Lean it against the opening in the barrel.” Preston struggled with the ladder until it was in place. “You aim with those cranks on the base,” said Adira as she started up the ladder, hand over hand. She climbed the ladder better than she walked, but Preston stood beneath her in case she fell backward. “The one crank swivels it, the other moves it up and down.”

                “But where do I aim it?” asked Preston.

                “The cannonball doesn’t choose its target,” said Adira. “Never. Never.” She arrived at the top of the ladder, held onto the top of the barrel, stepped inside, and then sat down on the barrel’s lower lip with her legs hanging down inside the cannon where Preston couldn’t see them. “Aim me, light the fuse, and then that’ll be goodbye,” said Adira. She slid herself down inside the barrel with the loudest popping sounds from her back yet.

                “Hello?” called Preston. There was no reply. He walked to the base of the cannon and saw the levers Adira had mentioned. He tried to turn them but they were rusted into place. Well, he didn’t know where he would have aimed her anyway. Where the cannon was already pointing was probably as good as anywhere he would have aimed it. “Hello?” he called again. No reply. He tapped on the cannon, all the way down near the base. From inside the cannon, he heard a faint tapping in reply. Did the cannon even have powder in it? Was it still in working order? It didn’t look like it. Preston struck the match on the side of the cannon and lit the fuse. The hissing flame ate its way through the fuse until there was no fuse left. Then there was a tiny, eternal pause. And then the cannon boomed, a glossy green shape soared through the air, higher and farther and higher and farther, and then it was gone and all that remained of Adira the cannonball human was the ringing in Preston’s ears.

 

                “Wow,” said Clark. “Thanks, Preston.”

                “What is it?” asked Marissa, just walking in the door from work.

                “Preston gave us 25 dollars,” said Clark.

                “Oh, that’s nice,” said Marissa.

                “For rent,” said Preston. “And the meals. Everything, really. Putting up with me.”

                “You got some work?” asked Marissa.

                “No,” said Preston.

                “So,” said Clark. “Where did-”

                “I bet a guy 50 bucks he’d flip a coin heads 5 times in a row and he did,” said Preston. “And it’s a good thing he did, because I didn’t have 50 bucks on me when I made the bet. Not even close. Normally, I would have given you all 50, but the 25 I kept is gonna turn into a lot more. And then you’re gonna get a real thank-you amount of money.”

                “You can’t stay here anymore,” said Clark. “Get your things and get out.”

                “What things?” asked Preston.

                “Your clothes,” said Clark.

                “Oh yeah,” said Preston. “OK, I will. But I’m still paying you, Clark. I really do appreciate you helping me get back on my feet. I really do.”

                “We’re not responsible for this,” said Clark. “This is your doing. We tried to help!”

                But Preston didn’t hear that part. He was in the living room gathering up his clothes and the ringing in his ears drowned out whatever it was that Clark was going on about.




Discussion Questions

  • Did you get suspicious that the forum post I cited in the story was real when I said it was from someone named “Michael B” because you don’t think I’m capable of coming up with that screen name?



  • List differences between cannonball humans and human cannonballs that were not addressed in the story.



  • What’s the worst you’ve ever seen a pizza eaten?



  • Describe a potential scenario in which you would be content to do nothing for the remainder of your life.



  • Would you ever reuse a cannonball that had already been fired out of a cannon once before? What circumstances might drive you to such an indignity?



  • Will you accept a 50-dollar bet that I will flip a coin and it will land “heads” five times in a row? I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that I’m being deliberately vague as to whether you’d be betting “for” or “against” the occurrence of this rather unlikely feat.