If Lily could’ve strangled Susannah, she would’ve. Unfortunately people were watching.
“You were looking at my boobs,” said Susannah. They were standing in the locker room. Three shorter girls circled Susannah like wolves. Susannah was naked apart from her lace panties, and she had Lily cornered.
“I already told you, I wasn’t,” said Lily. Actually, she kind of was. They were ridiculously huge. Also, Susannah was standing right in front of Lily, so there was nowhere else to look.
“Oh my God, why are you lying?” said Susannah. “It’s natural to be curious about the human body.” Susannah was both cunning and vain, a mixture that had become toxic when she hit puberty. Her weapon of choice was sarcasm. Susannah never, ever meant what she said. “I mean, it must be hard for you. Everybody knows you’re delayed.” Susannah let her voice linger on that last word as she looked at Lily’s training bra. It wasn’t even half filled.
A crowd grew as the four girls closed in around Lily.
“We’ve all been there,” said one of them.
“Trust me,” said the other.
“If you have any questions, sweetie, just let us know, okay?” said the third.
Crimson circles scalded Lily’s cheeks. “Leave me alone,” said Lily.
Susannah dug a finger in Lily’s underpants to look and let it snap back. “Holy shit, she’s smooth like a Barbie!”
Susannah was lying. But it didn’t matter. Everyone laughed. The sound of it ricocheted off the lockers.
That’s when Lily punched Susannah. Hard.
Susannah reeled backward and the four girls crumpled into a pile of screams.
Lily grabbed her clothes from her locker and crammed her legs into her pants. It wasn’t like she was going to be able to explain why she’d punched Susannah to the principal, so there was no point in hanging around to see what kind of punishment they were going to dole out. Lily’s hair was still wet when she slung her backpack over her shoulder and left the school.
The weather outside was overcast and hot, no different than most winter days in her small Ohio town. Most of the kids took the magnet home to avoid the swelter, but Lily liked walking. After the Great Warming, January was pretty much the only time she could do it anymore. They’d already had to move north twice. If the heat continued to rise, they’d have to do it again. At least they were part of the lucky few who had the money to do it. As she turned down the avenue, Lily eyed the dark clouds gathering overhead, promising a sandstorm.
The worst thing about all of it was that Susannah was right. Lily was delayed. She was almost fifteen, but her body had hardly even started developing. There was something, though — she couldn’t tell what — that made Lily think things were just about to change. For three days she’d felt weird. Not nauseous, exactly; it was more like a heaviness had taken over her limbs, then worked its way inward, settling squarely between her hips.
Lily was still steaming about Susannah when she noticed sunlight echoing from the surfaces around her, illuminating the street with a piercing yellow. She paused to look up.
It had just been cloudy a second ago. Now the sky was perfectly blue. When she reached up to shield her eyes, she saw something stirring in the sunlight — it was a dust of some sort, filtering down from the sky. Its descent was slow, but it fell straight down, pattering around her like a gentle rain. Her body seemed to cool as she watched it.
Lily opened her hand, trying to catch some of the dust so she could have a better look, but most of it slipped away. When she finally held still, it settled on her palm. Each speck seemed to glow from the inside, shimmering and twinkling as if she’d caught a handful of stars. She reached out a finger to touch them. Constellations appeared, then whole galaxies — her own private cosmos.
Then she noticed: these stars were moving — squirming and expanding, a universe in motion. Suddenly they began to gather into small, worm-like shapes. They were still moving, only now they were a thousand glittering maggots fighting for space. Lily’s hand began to tingle, then burn. With a flash, the worm-like shapes burrowed into her skin and disappeared. Clouds instantly folded over the sky, and it was overcast again.
For one minute, three minutes, maybe a hundred minutes, Lily stood motionless, trying to process what had just happened. For a second she even wondered if she’d imagined the whole thing. That’s when she felt it: the slow wet breaking between her thighs, the dam loose. A blood-stain bloomed in her jeans. Her first.
After that, whenever Lily got her period, she thought about the Day of Enlightenment. It was the day everything changed.
Brecaccio spent his whole life looking up at the cosmos. He tracked the movements of the planets and charted the arrangements of the stars.
A life spent with his face pressed against a telescope left him with one puckered eye, no wife to warm his bed, and no child to inherit his vast knowledge of the sky.
Brecaccio blinked his rheumy eyes and looked past his yellowed beard at the thick horns of his toenails sticking out from under the blankets. His feet framed a table. Soft bread and pale, crumbly cheese lay under the glass cover of a wooden tray. Beside the tray stood a bottle of mellow wine. Beyond that, dusty brass orreries lined the top shelf of a vast bookcase. Star maps and volumes written by Brecaccio himself were shoved haphazardly into the shelves.
Above it all, on a folding ladder he’d rested against the ceiling beams, stood Melchick. “Magistero, I don’t see anything.” Melchick’s Buerbec accent stumbled along the rhythms of the Flerosi language, hardening the consonants and thickening the vowels.
“What are you looking for, boy?” Brecaccio asked.
“I was told we have an infestation of pixies.”
“Magistera Ofelia will be excited about that.”
Melchick squealed and scurried down the ladder. His face was clad in lacy, gray spider webs. He peeled them away, and wiped them on the yellow robe that marked him as a second year student. “It’s time for me to go.” The metal fittings on the ladder squeaked as he folded it. “I need to study for my mineralogy examination. Do you have everything you need?”
“I think so.”
“Ring the bell when you get hungry,” Melchick said, pointing to the pull cord that hung near the headboard, “and I’ll come back to help you.”
“I can get out of bed by myself!”
Melchick picked up the ladder and clutched it under his arm. “Please, Magistero. I don’t want you to fall again.”
“That wasn’t my fault.”
“Were you alone?”
Brecaccio sucked his mustache into his toothless mouth. “Yes.”
“Then who else is to blame?”
Brecaccio waved a hand. “Fine, fine, you win. Congratulations. You can go now.”
Melchick bowed. “Good day, Magistero Brecaccio.”
“Hurry along now, boy.”
Melchick spun, his yellow robes swirling, and carried the ladder down the stairs. Brecaccio liked Melchick well enough, but the boy never knew when it was time to leave. He was a poor boy, from a poor country. Taking care of aging instructors helped pay his way.
They say the world used to have only one moon.
I wonder if this is true, or whether it is just another of the old wives’ tales they tell you, one of the many myths which surround the past. I shake my head, staring into the night. It does not matter, I realize. It’s irrelevant. What matters is now. What matters is tonight, under the twin luminaries of Vox and Nox—the voice and the night. The sky appears angry.
I feel the grit beneath my boots and smell the urban stench that forever billows up from the undercity. I feel my perspiration as it clings to the heavy cloth of my garments and threatens to sting my eyes with salt. I feel the stagnancy of the air, so calm, so balmy; it is almost like oil, slicking all beneath the celestial sphere, which glows with a wan blue light almost as bright as the moons.
I draw one last breath. The time is now. It can be no other.
The first man goes down quiet, just a dull wet thud. No one notices.
The second man sees me. Recognition dawns upon his face. The briefest moment of knowing, and yet he will wear that expression into eternity. He is dead before he can even scream, before he can cry out for his gods, or against them, to rail against his fate. He is dead before he can warn his fellows, who still pace the grounds, who wear ruts into the ancient flagstones that betray their paths.
Two sentries remain.
My heart is a hammer stamping out the seconds in my ears. I grip the hilt of my sword and I swear to myself. I swear. And they fall.
The next man is dead before his face breaks upon the ground. But the last is alert, more so than these oblivious dolts who would not have caught a vagrant sneaking into their demesne. He goes for his blade, but that is all. He dies with honor, with his hand firmly gripping a weapon, even if it does remain in its scabbard. His head tumbles from his shoulders to roll into the gutter.
I open the gates and step forth.
With a gauntleted hand I signal the waiting soldiers. They creep forth from the shadows, pale and resplendent in their armor. Once they see I have won they rush past in rust-colored livery. It is almost purple in this light. Their armor clanks as they pass. The rest is up to them. My part has been played.
Once they are well within the gates I take care that I am not observed. I glance suspiciously over my shoulder before I withdraw my magic amulet, which governs the doors. I step into the passage and seal it shut behind me. The tunnels are long and dark as sleep, yet they are safe. None know them but me. So I sheathe my sword and make my way in blindness. I consider producing the witchlight from the folds of my cloak, but I refrain. It’s okay, for I have memorized the way. It isn’t far.
I come to the proper hatch and I open it with caution, peering about to make sure no one has seen. I have had enough killing for one night.
All is clear. I emerge, sealing the passage behind me. I must always seal it, lest another might discover the way. The way is my edge. And a sword is only as valuable as its edge.
I am in a great hall. Columns climb into the gloom of a great, vaulted ceiling high above. Pilasters stand like stone ribs against the wall. All is distorted by writhing shadow. I walk into this grand chamber and notice the row of barred windows high up the far wall. Lightning flickers there. Perhaps the gods are angry. I would not know; I do not speak with them.
Each flash throws bars of purple light upon the columns, for the windows are glazed with a roseate hue. It is by this intermittent radiance that I navigate, until I reach the chamber’s end. There Gustabbian Ward sits alone at his desk. It is a lonely escritoire, with a single candle placed upon it to banish the darkness in fits of quivering light.
For a few moments I watch my friend from the privacy of the relative gloom, outside the narrow circle of light offered by his candle. He writes upon a long scroll, occasionally dipping the point of his quill into a jar of ink. Every so often he sprinkles sand upon his work. I decide to interrupt him.
I call his name and he looks up, startled. “Who’s there?” he calls, groping for a dagger that rests upon his desk.
“It is done,” I tell him.
“How did you get in here?”
“I have my methods. You know that, Gus. That is why you hire me, is it not?”
Gustabbian neglects to answer. “My men have entered the demesne?”
“Yes. They are there now. I had no need to wait, did I? I have no interest vested in their success.”
Gustabbian pauses for several moments, not moving, not speaking. He is occupied with thought. Then he moves as if to stand, but stops himself, saying, “Why do you not step forward, into the light?”
It is a suggestion.
As he speaks another charge of lightning throws a bright velvet cast upon the cavernous room, lining my helmet with vivid color. He sees this. His eyes play over the dusky impression of the colossal column against which I stand. “Why don’t you come out?” he says.
“Very well,” I say, stepping into the candlelight. “Where is my pay?”
“I may have another job for you.” Gustabbian rises to his feet, gripping his quill pen with a firm but delicate grip. He peers within the shade of my helmet, where he knows my eyes to be, though they are veiled in darkness to be revealed only in the lightning flashes. I prefer to keep it that way.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Oh, pretty much along the usual lines for you, Castor.”
“Well, now.” He spreads his arms wide in a gesture of inclusion. “I would prefer some guarantee, my friend, before I put forward such elements as are vital to my plans.”
“You have been in this basement too long, Gus. I will offer no guarantee. Tell me the job and I will consider it, or simply pay me and I will leave.”
“You know I am hesitant in my dealings with Heretics.”
“I know you are hesitant in your dealings with those you do not control.”
“Is pay not a form of control?”
“It’s not if I do not accept the job.”
“Let’s play hooky.”
Jessie’s fingers tiptoe down my chest, sending tremors across my naked body. Her heart pumps hard against my side.
I grab her hand and bring it to my lips. “Wish I could.”
She juts out her lower lip. The morning sunlight filters through the blinds, casting patterns across her skin. A Stellar’s jay whines from the oak tree.
“If you drop Cat off at school,” she says. “I promise I’ll still be in bed when you get back.”
I scratch my head. “Big day at the office, today. The neural processors are ready. Another week and we’ll be cleared for our first human subject.”
Jessie rolls her eyes, then drops into a radio announcer drawl. “Topping the charts of inappropriate pillow talk for twelve consecutive months: brain transplants.”
I start to laugh, when a rumble shakes the room. The window goes dark. A knot forms in my stomach.
A voice, throaty and thick, rolls in. “Resuming cerebral scans.”
I blink. The darkness evaporates. Jessie’s looking at me, expectant.
“You’re not even listening,” she says. “Your head’s already at the lab.”
I shoot a suspicious glance at the window. Sunlight floods in. The Stellar’s jay whines.
Jessie stuffs a pillow on my face. I flail my arms around like I’m suffocating, then go limp. She prods my side with a finger, but I don’t move.
“Oh my god, are you ok?”
I hold my breath. She can be so gullible.
After a pause, she prods a bit lower. I flinch, and she cackles. I toss the pillow aside and draw her body to my own. I can afford to be a little late.
Downstairs, Cat’s shoveling giant spoonfuls of granola into her mouth, sloshing milk everywhere.
“Easy,” I say. “Remember to breathe.”
She pauses between bites to push her glasses up her nose. The frames are black with tiny skulls. She says they’re “counter culture,” one of the many phrases I never expected to hear from an eight-year-old.
Cat scrutinizes me as I pack up my briefcase. “Aliya gets Fruit Loops every day.”
“Well then, Aliya will be learning about diabetes very soon.”
“Hey,” Jessie says on the way to the table. “Aliya’s a good kid.”
Jessie’s eyes close as she savors her first sip of coffee. Her hair’s pulled back into a ponytail, and she’s wearing her red shirt that plunges tantalizingly deep. Tight pinstripe slacks. A hint of perfume drifting in her wake, as if whispering: “Should’ve played hooky.”
I look away. “You about ready, Kiddo?”
Cat drops her bowl into the sink. “Born ready, Daddo.”
Outside, Cat hops into the backseat. Jessie slides in at my side. My phone buzzes as I’m backing out of the driveway. It’s work. At this hour, that’s either very good news or very bad news.
Cat’s messing around with her seatbelt. “Can we go swimming this weekend?”
I fumble with my phone, manage to get the speaker engaged.
Rustling on the other end.
“Sure, kiddo,” Jessie says. “As long as–”
Brakes scream against asphalt. I look over in time to see the grill of the truck. Both side windows explode. I can’t hear my own yelling over the crunching of metal and glass. Ribbons of blood stream through the air, and–
The glass freezes. The blood lifts up, like rain moving in reverse. Metal and flesh fade into blurred patterns, then into distinct shapes. Faces. Dr. Roberts, from the lab. Dr. Stephens, behind her. The intern, Harry.
“Did you see that?” Stephens’ big gray mustache bobs up and down as he talks. “The neural activity.”
They’re poring over machines. My machines.
“He’s accessing episodic memories.” Roberts chews on her pencil. “But his cognitive functions are all over the charts.”
Then I see it. Past the doctors and the machines and the blinding fluorescent lights. Against the far wall, a mirror. In the mirror, myself. Or the thing that stands where I should be. I’m strapped to an upright medical bed, facing forward. I’m wearing another man’s body. Hairier, thinner. Knobby knees. Small, sagging gut. My head’s shaved, and framed with surgical scars. My eyes are brown, instead of blue.
I try to move, but only my eyes respond. I can’t speak.
“The neural processor isn’t reacting properly,” Roberts says. “It’s having trouble bridging the gap between perceptual awareness and residual memory.”
“Could be a result of the trauma.” Stephens drops his voice and leans closer to Roberts. “Emotional, I mean. Do you think he was conscious, when his family died? It took the EMTs twenty minutes to get there.”
A coldness slips across my new skin. I want to close my ears, forget what I’ve heard, what I’ve done. I need to get out of this place. My heart beats faster, and my fingers twitch.
“Look.” Roberts walks closer. “We’ve got progress.”
I want to tell Roberts that she’s wrong. This isn’t progress. But my lips won’t move.
The weight of the neural processor presses against my skull. Having trouble bridging the gap, they said. I focus on my reflection, the false brown eyes and the hairy chest. I know this technology. It has flaws. I can exploit them.
“Something’s happening.” Stephens’ voice edges up a notch. “He’s slipping back into episodic memory.”
“Keep monitoring,” Roberts says, but her voice comes from underwater. Their faces, the machines, the room all fade to white.
I blink through the sunlight. My heartbeat slows.
“Let’s play hooky.”
Jessie’s fingers are like tiny ballerinas against my skin. Outside, a Stellar’s Jay sings a quiet song. I grab Jessie’s hand and hold it against my face, soak in her warmth and her strength. Her aliveness.
I open my mouth to respond, when the room trembles. A fissure forms across the ceiling, revealing an impenetrable abyss.
“Resuming cerebral scans,” a voice says. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
I blink. The fissure is gone. I look back at Jessie, draw her body closer.
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s play hooky.”
Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up writing to kick the habit.
Sophie is in the first grade when she finds it hiding in the rocks beside the koi pond. She has never seen one before. She reaches out to touch it with two fingers, the way she has been taught to pet animals at the zoo. It is slimy and soft, but not unpleasant to touch. It reminds her of a manta ray’s back, or the way a live fish feels when it tries to jump out of your hands. Its limbs wave weakly in response to her touch. Watching them, Sophie feels sick and slightly afraid.
Sophie goes inside to tell her mother what she has found. Her mother is eating a salad.
“I found something in the garden,” Sophie says.
Her mother drops her fork. “What did it look like?” she asks.
“Like a jellyfish in the shape of a person. It felt like the manta rays at the aquarium.”
“You touched it.” Her mother shudders and pushes her plate away. “Where did you find it?”
“By the koi pond,” Sophie says, wondering if there is going to be trouble. If this is like the time her bug collection fell over and worms and everything spilled out on the floor and her mother had to clean it all up.
Sophie’s mother walks to the back door and locks it. “Don’t play in the backyard any more today, Sweetheart,” she says. “Stay inside until your father comes home.”
Sophie’s father is a large man with sad eyes and broad shoulders. He sits in his favorite chair while his wife paces back and forth. “Those things give me the creeps,” Sophie’s mother says. “I can’t sleep with it in the yard. I keep picturing the way it must look in the moonlight, like an aborted baby in a piscine eggsack. The color of something that was born in a cave and never saw light.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?” Sophie’s father asks.
“I know better than to expect you to do anything.” Sophie’s mother crosses the room again. “What really gets me, you know what really gets me is the eyes. Those black beady eyes. And the way their limbs just sort of flop around.”
“They’re harmless,” Sophie’s father says. “Even if I could get rid of it, I wouldn’t, Lisle. It isn’t hurting anyone.”
Sophie’s mother sighs. “I can’t think straight with that thing in the yard,” she says.
The wagon lurched and leaned up the crooked road to the dry bluffs. There, on ground of splintered shale and rust-colored lichen, where bull thistle twisted between the cracks of the earth, lay the disused home of Wallace Whitton’s father. Wallace, atop the wagon with reins in hand, smiled at his son and motioned to the firepit-gray ocean, where he hoped the boy might wish to play. He tried to seem sincere in his enthusiasm, but gained no like response. The boy stared ahead and drummed his thin fingers in an intricate rhythm upon the wagon’s rails.
When they stopped before the home, Wallace kept his watery smile in place. Their former guest house had been more expansive than this, and in far better repair. He hoped his son couldn’t read his disappointment, but the boy had seen so much. How could he know one truth and not grasp another?
The son touched at his fingertips. Each looked as if it had been dipped into a rhubarb pandowdy.
Wallace caught the boy’s hands and held them tight. “You mustn’t.”
The boy watched the sky, its clouds smeared over an expanse as pale as memory.
“Do you hear?” Wallace asked.
The boy answered that he did.
“Our things are inside. Go and see.”
The boy climbed down from the wagon and made his way into the house. The dismal structure was all that remained of the Whitton fortune, enduring only because it had lain outside the field of battle. If only they had all been so blessed. Viridis, the former Savannah vineyard, had been smashed, stolen, and eaten by Grant and his Hessians. While the rumble of their march faded to the south, Wallace Whitton had knelt amongst the ruins and, with his own cultured hands, dug through the cinders of his past, the cooling ashes of his family’s legacy, to grasp Nettie’s unanswering fingers.
As Wallace hefted their last load of belongings to the ground, a plinked melody of single keys struck by a single finger sounded from the house’s corner room. The boy had found it. Wallace headed inside to bandage his boy’s fingers before they stained the ivory.
Frances heard a shriek as she approached the cottage door. Joseph hovered outside the threshold, twisting his cap in his hands. “She’s bad, Frances. Says she can’t take the pain.”
The old woman gave him a dismissive wave. “Ah, she’ll be fine, lad. It’s nature’s way.”
“What should I do?” He was barely more than a boy, less than a year married. His face, normally nut brown from working in the fields all day, had a grey cast to it.
Frances shouldered past him, Margaret right behind her. “Just stay out of the way, boy, and let us work. I’ve never lost a baby nor a mama yet, and I don’t intend today to be my first.”
Inside the cottage was dark, air thick with the smells of smoke, sweat, and urine. Frances could dimly make out Essie’s form writhing on the small bed against the far wall. “Margaret, get the window open and put on water to boil,” she said, rummaging in her bag of supplies. The packets of powders and herbs went on the cottage’s rickety table; Margaret would know without being told how to mix them.
Frances carried the birthing stool and linen to the bedside. “Now then, young Essie, let’s have a look at you.”
Essie’s round face glistened, her cornsilk hair flattened against her scalp. “Oh, Frances, it hurts something terrible. I think something’s wrong.”
Frances pushed back the blanket and peered between Essie’s legs, pressing one hand against the swollen belly. “Nonsense, girl. Your mother said the same thing when she birthed you, and you were no trouble at all. We’ve time yet.”
While Margaret boiled water and brewed the herbs, Frances got Essie out of bed and on her feet. At first she resisted, but Frances eventually got her to walk a circle around the small room. When Essie’s next labor pains struck, the old woman helped her sink into a squatting position on the low birthing stool. “Margaret, hold her up.”
Margaret set aside the cup of brewed herbs and moved to support Essie’s lower back. She was a thin, fragile-looking girl, but Frances knew she was far stronger than she seemed, and holding up Essie’s limp weight posed no challenge. Frances eased down onto one knee, wincing at the stiffness in her bad hip. Pushing up Essie’s skirt, she leaned down to check her again.
At first glance, it appeared to be the start of a normal crowning. The lips of the vulva were stretched over a round, smooth surface, one a little bigger than a balled-up fist. Then Frances frowned and took a closer look. It was the right size to be the baby’s head, true, but it was too dark, too shiny. Even if Essie had been bleeding, it wouldn’t have stained the scalp that deep, gleaming black.
When Frances leaned up, Margaret’s sharp brown eyes were watching her. Breech? she mouthed from behind Essie. The midwife shook her head.
“Essie, bite down on this, now. I’ve got to reach in.” She passed Margaret a leather strap and smeared her fingers with goose grease from a small jar.
Essie tensed and let out a groan when Frances slipped her fingers past the mass. Frances felt around the sides of the object, pulse quickening with each moment that passed. The shape her fingers traced was a smooth ovoid. No limbs, no face, no bones. In place of soft, yielding flesh was a slick carapace or shell, hard as stone under Frances’ fingers. As she explored, there was a flutter, some tapping from within, a pulse or a kick.
“What is it? What’s wrong with him?” Essie’s voice came out shrill and garbled around the strip of leather.
Frances forced herself to meet Essie’s eyes. Poor girl, she thought. And it’s her first. “We can’t know till you’ve birthed,” she said, and could see that Essie was too scared to ask again.
The rest of the labor Frances handled like any other, instructing Margaret to rub Essie’s back when the pains came, applying salve to prevent tearing and blood loss. When the time came to push, Margaret moved to ready the linens. Frances watched her face, could see the shock pass over her features when she saw what was coming out. But then the girl steeled herself and looked away, busying herself with preparations. Frances took Essie’s hand in her own arthritic fingers, not allowing herself to wince no matter how hard the girl squeezed.
It came out smoothly, and Frances could see right away that Essie was in no danger. Margaret caught it as it slipped from between Essie’s legs, a perfectly even, black shape, like obsidian with the edges smoothed away. There was no cord, nothing attaching it to Essie’s body. Margaret’s hands trembled as they held it, her throat working as she swallowed convulsively.
“Why isn’t he crying?” Essie gasped. “Why isn’t he crying?”
She leaned forward and saw what she had delivered into the world, and the scream that ripped from her throat seemed to pierce Frances down to her bones.
I meet the man in a hotel outside of town. Room 304, just like he said. He’s there when I arrive, watching football on the television. “Shut the door,” he says, and I do.
He opens a briefcase and shows it to me: seven ounces of flesh suspended in liquid and plastic. “We good?” he says.
I reach into my purse and unfurl the bundle of money. Six hundred pounds, made up mostly of fives and tens, scraps of cash collected over the months, small enough to avoid drawing any attention.
We make the exchange, and the man walks towards the door.
“I don’t know how to do it.” I hesitate. “Can you help?”
“It’ll cost more.”
“Another two hundred.”
“I don’t have that much.”
He sighs. “How much you got?”
The forty pounds left in my purse is for groceries, but I can worry about that later. I hold it out to him.
He takes it, opens his briefcase, and finds a bottle of clear liquid with a syringe. “You got a knife? Needle and thread?”
He passes me the bottle. “Use this before you begin. Rest’s up to you.”
When I get home, it’s ten o’clock. I should have an hour before my husband gets back. I work quickly, checking diagrams on the internet before injecting the liquid into my side, just above one of my bruises. I use a kitchen knife, sterilised in boiling water. It stings at first, but the injection takes most of the pain away. I slice and carve with the knife, using a mirror to guide my trembling fingers until I make the final cut. For a moment, my senses plummet and the room feels darker, smaller, like all the texture has been buffed off the edge of the world. I make the switch.
He could be home any minute. I stitch myself back together with needle and thread, and it’s only then that I realize I haven’t thought about what to do with my old heart. I bury it in the garden.
I wait for the thump of his footsteps on the staircase, the sound of him fumbling at his clothes and climbing into bed. The smell of his breath, stale alcohol and smoke, his fingers in my hair and on my body. But the door never opens.
In the morning I find him asleep on the sofa. There’s a beer can on the floor, and a pool of sticky liquid where the dregs have drained out. I clean it quickly before making breakfast, and when he wakes he’s in one of his good moods, so things are okay.
When he leaves for work, I examine the stitching. It’s already healed. The lines I drew with the knife have come back together, and my new heart beats underneath.
Things feel different now, like someone has turned the volume down by a couple of notches, like they’ve gone into the settings and fiddled with the contrast.
In the garden, a flower has grown on the spot where I buried my heart. There’s a single rose at its head, red like blood.
The rest of the week is okay. I keep to my normal routines, making sure the house is clean and dinner is on the table when he gets back from work. The days blur into each other, a steady grey.
One day he throws a plate at the wall. It takes ages to clean all the grease, but I know he doesn’t like his meat cooked that way so it’s my own fault, really. He apologises later.
In the evenings, while he sits on the sofa watching television, I bring him drinks but I keep the pace slow so he never goes beyond the dulling stage. He touches me in bed, but if there are any marks still left on my chest, his groping fingers don’t find them. On Friday he comes home with flowers and a bottle of my favourite wine. The weather is fine so we eat outside in the warm air. I try to enjoy the wine but it doesn’t taste of anything. While we sit there he says it reminds him of one of our earliest dates. I see the rose in the garden and I wonder.
On Saturday night he goes out with the guys. He kisses me when he leaves, but when he returns in the small hours he slams the door and I know it’s time. He swipes at me clumsily, but when he tries to grab my arm his sweaty fingers slip and I escape into the kitchen. I grab a knife with one hand, the cordless phone with the other. I tell him to leave.
He smiles stupidly and slurs his words. “Come on, baby, why all this?”
In my chest, my heart is steady. “If you come near me, I’ll use this knife, and if you don’t leave, I’ll call the police. I mean it.”
“You’re feisty tonight, eh?”
I begin to dial the number.
He holds his hands up, smirking. “Okay, okay …”
When he’s out the door, I put it on the latch and speak through the gap. “I don’t want you to come back. Not ever. It’s over. I mean it.”
He laughs. “You can’t live without me, honey. You know that, and I know that. We love each other. We need each other.” He walks away. “I’ll see you soon,” he says.
When he’s out of view, I close the door.
He thinks it’s going to happen like all the other times. He’ll come back grovelling, tell me how much he loves me. That he’s sorry, that it will never happen again. And I’ll take him back.
This time the locksmith will be here in an hour. This time I’ll change my details at the bank. This time I’ll go to the courts, get one of those orders. And this time I won’t feel anything.
A thud of rock woke Sykeet, followed by a rattling of dislodged crystals against the woven walls of her hanging hut. There were no fire pots in her lower reach of the rookery. No light from the moons, either: a storm beat against the suspended village. Her wings twitched in the dark.
There was cursing, then a shriek of panic, “The fledglings!”
Sykeet darted from her hut like a harpoon, flying blind toward the crèche net. Her long wings beat the air, lifting her upward. Sleet hissed against rock, giving her only a minimal sense of location in the dark. More rocks thudded above. She heard the twangs of over-stretched ropes snapping.
She called shrilly to her daughter, “Kyree!”
There were voices in the dark: other mothers and the faint cries of fledglings. Then from above, a wild flapping of fabric and netting. She couldn’t see a thing.
The falling canopy hit her, a glancing blow that knocked loose feathers and sent her tumbling in the dark. She heard waves crashing against the rocky base of the spire below.
Sykeet caught air in her wings, regaining control. Still blind. The plummeting crèche net had fallen below her. She pulled her wings against her body and dove into what she hoped was open air.
“Kyree!” she called again.
The panicked brood, trapped in the net, screeched as they fell toward the sea.
Sykeet followed their cries. The net hadn’t snagged on the crystal-crusted spire. If she could catch it with the talons of her feet or wings, she might slow its fall.
But a gust from the storm blew her sideways, away from the screams. She beat air frantically, trying to get back.
There was a splash as net and brood plunged into the sea.
Cold sleet crusted her feathers, numbing muscles. Spray from the waves blew against her as she fought to stay above them, circling blindly and calling, trying to find her daughter.
Unable to see, she slammed into the spire. Pain shot through her. Dazed and disoriented, she grabbed hold, talons clutching crystals. Fragments cracked loose from the rock. She slipped closer to the waves. Sea spray filled her open beak as she turned toward the water. She choked and coughed.
Sykeet could only cling there, shivering from pain and cold, too numb to take flight. She listened for fledglings, hearing only the roar of wind. Waves pounded the rocky base below her. Her eyes stung from sleet and spray. When she tried to climb lower, more crystals broke off, nearly dropping her into the cold sea.
She folded her wings close against her to conserve heat, and pressed her head against the rock. The world had gone dark, taking the thing she cherished.
She shivered through the night, praying for some sign that her daughter had survived. She saw nothing, heard nothing.
But in the dark hours of early morning, she suddenly dreamt she was elsewhere. Sleet and spray still beat against her, but instead of the rocky spire, she felt she was pressed against something smooth. A net held her down.
Then the dream was gone, as quickly as it had come.
Patricia gathered her savings and took the number 58 bus downtown.
She held the bag in her lap, watching the city pass by. Their neighborhood had gone from nice to terrible, from kids smoking under a streetlight to kids shooting each other over drugs. But she had never suggested they move, and neither had Samuel. The church needed them, and God knew, the neighborhood needed the church.
There was a car sitting in the driveway and it had been sitting there a long time. Her brother told her she should at least start it once a week, to keep it fresh, but Patricia had trouble finding the keys. And when she did, she saw the keyring, she saw the name on it.
He’d written it himself. One weekend the grandchildren were staying over and her granddaughter wrote her name on everything she thought was hers. Patricia had started to yell, until Samuel put a hand on her shoulder and asked for the pen.
“Good idea,” he said, winking at their granddaughter. He took the pen and wrote his name on the keyring. “That’s mine.” And he and his granddaughter had taken turns marking whatever they wanted, with the granddaughter’s wants far outnumbering Samuel’s.
He had his name on his toothbrush — he’d made sure to mark that, while their granddaughter had claimed Patricia’s toothbrush as her own. Samuel’s toothbrush stood in a holder beside Patricia’s. She hadn’t touched it since he fell.
The bus bounced. It was cheaper than driving. Faster too, if you were headed downtown. Her brother had warned her of the people who rode the bus. People only take public transportation in big cities, he’d told her, and Norfolk isn’t a big city. That’s what he’d said. She knew what he meant: the law-abiding only take the bus in places like New York, and Norfolk is no New York. It’s Norfolk, a city on life support by the grace of the military bases every which way you turn.
Her brother was full of opinions. Especially about this. The bus chimed. It slowed.
She got her bag ready.