TCL is Looking For First Readers

The Colored Lens is looking for a First Reader to join our team. All of us at The Colored Lens are volunteers, so this isn’t a paid position. There are significant benefits, though. Working as a First Reader gives you excellent insights into the editorial process as well as what editors look for in the slush pile.

We pride ourselves on our 100% personal responses, and aim to have a 48 hour response time for rejections. To do this, we ask readers to read around ten stories a week and provide short personalized responses that include both positive features and the reasons it’s being rejected.

Stories are typically in the 3000-5000 word range, but we accept stories as long as 20,000 words. First reading is handled on an “as able” basis, meaning that whenever a reader has time, he/she logs into the database and selects the next unread story. If a reader doesn’t have time to read on a particular day, they simply let the rest of the team know and then don’t read.

If you are interested in the position, first send us an email at dawn@thecoloredlens.com giving a short overview of your writing experience and attach a writing sample. If you have submitted to us previously, you can simply direct us to your submission instead. We will respond, and the next step is to review the stories on our site and let us know two to three of your favorites and why you liked them, and to write a sample rejection for two to three stories that you don’t like as well.

The New Nomad

“Chih-Tih!” Nall squeals, probing the translucent air bladder.

“Yes, baby, Chitlids.” My voice comes out tight. The spring has been so late, so cold—I’d thought we’d seen the last of the Chitlids. But this morning we awoke to hundreds of them, dragging their long tentacles through the air between the swaying dandular trunks.

Nall grasps at a Chitlid that puffs just out of xer reach. Pursuing, xe runs through a patch of yellow irrenes, spore pods bursting, and I hurry after. A rustling from a large spench bush pulls xer up short. A turam bolts from it, long legs and orange spots flashing as it disappears into the dandulars.

“Jaff!” Nall cries, clapping with glee.

“It does look like a giraffe, doesn’t it?” I laugh. “But giraffes are from Earth, baby. That’s a turam calf. Tu-ram.”

“Tuhm,” xe repeats, breathless with wonder, and my heart cracks. The turam’s diet relies heavily on spench berries. As our summers shorten, spench yields drop.

A familiar dread settles in my stomach, as I imagine the day I’ll have to explain to Nall that all the animals xe’s learning to name so lovingly will soon be gone. “We didn’t know,” I’ll tell xer. “Not until you were nine months big in my belly. We didn’t know that a solar system away, a star was collapsing, wrenching Coron from its orbit.”

Past the dandular canopy, our sun shines at high noon, a few dozen light-years farther away than it was at this time last year. Next year, it’ll be farther still. And ten years from now, after the last perihelion, we’ll be too far gone for it to ever pull us back. All the humans on Coron will descend into the subterranean caverns we are fervently constructing, to live off geothermal energy as Coron hurtles into deep space.

I wrench my mind back to the present, to Coron’s surface, where it’s, “nap time!” for this toddler.

I carry Nall back to the habitat as xe howls and makes xer joints all loose in their sockets, trying to slip from my arms. If Nall had xer way, we’d never come indoors. We’d explore gladial patches and hunt cardizes until xe passed out from exhaustion.

Back in the nursery, I dim the walls and set them thrumming with white noise. Nall calms down as soon as xe starts to nurse. Our bodies curl together on the bed, and I bury my nose in xer hair, wishing we were simple beasts. Turam and calf. Ignorant of the terrible future. When xer breathing slows to a snore, and my nipple slips from xer lips, I ease up out of bed.

But as I stand, the room reels. My vision clouds with spots, and I have to fight for consciousness. After a few moments, the dizzy spell passes, and I creep from the room, sealing the door behind me.

I must be anemic again. I’ve been breastfeeding Nall for almost two years now, and I get so sick of the daily nutrient injections. The med-droid will remind me to get my postnatal shots, and I’ll snooze its alert again and again, sometimes accidentally shutting it off for weeks at a time. So I keep making myself sick like this.

Now I summon the med-droid from its storage alcove and press my fingertip to the quick-read sensor, flinching at the prick. My vital stats appear on its face. Iron count could be higher, but I’m not quite anemic. I need some B12 too. One line of my health report is flashing red, and the information there is so unexpected that my brain takes long moments to process it.

Human Chorionic Gonadotropin detected.

For a thousand years, we’ve known that HCG in the blood means one and only one thing.

I’m pregnant.

The Cold Heart of the Sky

The accretion disc glowed from below, lighting Kazban’s way through the vast emptiness. He set his intention, and the ship Celerity responded in flight, drifting toward the heartring.

Before them the shape grew of the greatest station on the heartring, the Palace. It was situated as a set of concentric tori, on a plane tangent to the heartring so that the inner half always faced the black hole called the Heart.

Kazban angled toward the center of the tori, to the docks. A lesser ship would have required a pilot skilled in maneuvering, but Celerity responded to Kazban’s desire, twisting itself toward the port that opened to receive them. It slid its skids into the grooves of the station until the ship came to a halt.

Kazban climbed down the ramp that slid out Celerity’s aft. It had landed among the needle-like machines of the Royal Fleet, composed of brassy-looking alloys shot through with veins of jewel tones. Celerity, the latest the rim could offer, was dusty and dun. She spread out in a boxy V shape. Wires spilled out of her conduits.

Two dockhands came up. Their faces were narrow, and their eyes too close together even accounting for that, giving them an insectoid look. Even as laborers they must have Royal blood, here at the center of the system.

Kazban waved at the two crates at the top of the ramp. They were packed with vernadia, a potent medicine grown on his homeworld. Nearly all that was produced was sent here to the Palace, to extend the already long life of the Royals.

“I need to take these to the Royal Quartermaster.”

One of the laborers, taller than the other, looked at his slate, then nodded. “We can take you.”

He went up the ramp, nearly tripping as the ramp jerked. Kazban felt a shock of anxiety. Not his own, but Celerity’s. The ship did not like strangers aboard. Kazban took a deep breath and thought of floating in the serene darkness, the gentle glow of the disc beneath. Celerity calmed.

The dockhands took Kazban through a maze of corridors, pushing the crates that floated above the enameled copper floors on cushions of magnetic eddy currents. The two made small talk with each other, some old fashioned sport that hadn’t been followed on the rim for centuries.

They came to a closed doorway with a pair of guards. Each wore armor in the style of the Succession Wars, padded at the thighs, abs, and pecs, but the metals and ceramics that showed were of the latest variety. Close-hung eyes stared out of visors in their brassy helmets. They gripped some sort of polearms, forked at the tip with green crystals entwined.

The one on the left spoke. He wore the insignia of Ensign. “Halt. Outsiders are restricted to the dock level.”

Kazban looked him up and down, noting his slim build, before staring evenly at him.

“My instructions are to deliver this shipment directly to the Royal Quartermaster.”

The Ensign shook his head. “I’ll sign for it.”

“I need the Quartermaster’s signature.”

The Ensign raised his faceplate. “Listen, convict.” He sneered, nearly spat. “I’ll take it from here. We don’t need your kind on Royal ground.”

Kazban’s back straightened. He felt his fingers twitch toward his belt, but his plasma pistol wouldn’t be there. It was in prison lockdown, back at the rim.

Kazban pulled out his slate. Through clenched teeth, Kazban said. “My directive comes from the Rimward Viceroy of Isle Yotta-12.” He showed the documents to the Ensign.

The man didn’t look. He stared at Kazban through narrowed eyes.

“You’ve heard my orders, convict. Leave your crates and get back on your ship.”

Kazban clenched his fist, and the Ensign smiled and shifted his foot back, taking his helmet off with one hand and leaning his polearm against the inner lip of the door with the other. A dockworker put a hand on Kazban’s shoulder, but he shrugged it off. Distantly, Kazban could feel Celerity respond to his feelings, turning on lights and rumbling its engines.

There was a sound of two voices beyond the doors. One high and loud, the other soft and low.

The doors parted. The Ensign and the other guard turned to see the two interlopers. The man was tall and gangly, hunched over in purple robes and wearing a bullet-shaped hat. He was half turned toward the other as he walked, a small girl, perhaps just reaching her teens. Emerald green locks spilled over her ears. Her eyes were barely separated by the bridge of her nose. Her head seemed to cut the air like an axe as she walked, legs kicking at voluminous skirts.

She stopped short, turning to look at the Ensign and Kazban, sensing the mood and seeing the Ensign with an incomplete uniform.

“What is happening here?” she demanded.

The Ensign bowed his head, staring at his toes. “We have a criminal rimlander attempting to access our inner station, Your Grace.”

The Princess caught Kazban’s gaze, sizing him up. “Is this true? Are you dangerous, sir?”

The man in the purple robes grabbed the back of Kazban’s head and tried to force him to look down. Kazban knocked his arm aside and pushed him back a step. The second guard lowered his polearm toward him.

It was unnerving to stare the Princess in the eyes, but he’d be damned before he looked away now.

“I am paroled, Your Highness. I am here at your government’s command.”

He handed her his slate. She read it with a furrowed brow.

“This isn’t parole, Your Grace,” said The Ensign. “This is his sentence.”

She waved him away, handing Kazban back his slate.

“Percilus,” she said. The man in purple bowed. “Take this man to the Quartermaster.”

“But, Your Highness,” he began.

She turned on him and held out her left hand. On her pinky she wore a ring that bore a stone that glowed with a Cherenkov sapphire.

Percilus bowed again, face pale.

“Come,” he waved at Kazban and the dockhands. They went through the doors. The Princess didn’t follow, but the Ensign’s glare did.

How Long the Night, Awake

We approached Xuthos, me carrying Bacenor on my back.

“What is that place?” said Bacenor, pulling at my ears. “Speak, you wretched slave!”

“That is Xuthos,” I said, “The City of Sleep.”

“Sleep? Sleep?” He dug his knees excitedly into my sides. “Do they have sleep contests, dream races? I’m no good at sleeping, you know!”

“I know.”

“Then why are we going there, slave? Do you think you will humiliate me?”

“You asked me to bring you, sir. Maybe they can cure you.”

“Cure what?”

“You haven’t slept for a thousand days.”

We hoped to cure his sleeping problem. But his addled memory might be beyond the healing arts. I served to help him remember. That was my function as his servant.

Xuthos sat like a traveler’s trunk on a mesa above the Arcadian Plain. It had three gates: one of iron, one of tin, and one of bronze. Iron for blood, tin for commerce, bronze for health.

We followed heavy foot traffic, up the switchback road carved out of the side of the mesa, then leading to the gate of iron. Carts pulled by work hounds carried produce for the markets or sometimes the very rich, who lay hopelessly awake in beds of useless comfort; mothers pushed carriages with infants or toddlers who could not sleep; men and women, of any age but with a distribution toward the oldest, shuffled and stumbled and sometimes conversed with the gods that only they could see, and a few other slave-master pairs like us approached the gate. Of note, one black-shrouded crone, fastened by a leather harness to a female, the girl tall but her chiton short and her thighs muscular and tanned bronze. They paid the entrance tax and disappeared through the gate before I could get a better look.

“Are you afraid, you wretch?” demanded Bacenor. “Your heart is beating harder.”

“No, sir. I just saw a girl.”

“Keep hiking, slave. I don’t pay you to be moonstruck.”

“You don’t pay me at all.”

We reached the gate of iron. Four hoplites stood guard, two each side the portcullis, their breastplates flashy and their helmets crested with blue peacock feathers. The guards looked green but their spears were sharp and while I could have taken out one or two, all four would have proved a problem. They eyed me nervously as I stooped before the metal-barred window in the wall. Bacenor pulled a coin from his purse and gave it to the tiller.

We were in.

In the city there were sleepers, the carved sleepers in the friezes on building walls, in one square the great marble sculpture of Athena on her divan, supine in a nightdress, yellow-painted hair let down, her armor shed beside her and her smiling face suggesting she had found bliss in dreams. Below her, ten or twelve sleepless men and women mimicked her posture, lying on the paved street of red brick, resting their heads on bedrolls or cushions. Mimicking her but poorly, for they fidgeted and groaned and did not smile. One man opened his eyes: eyes blue as the sky flashed hatred at us.

“What’s the matter?” Bacenor asked. “You resent your betters?”

I moved away before the man responded.

“Why did he look so angry?” Bacenor asked me. “Is it because I am a rich man?”

“No doubt,” I said, though in truth I doubted it very much.

“How rich am I?” he asked.

“Rich enough to buy this town,” I lied.

“Good. But we are here for sleeping. Over there—Zeus!”

He meant another plaza with another statue, this one of iron, thrice life size and with a bed to match, so big there were at least four sleepless on it, nestled against the metal god as if he might consent to cuddle.

“I’ve got a better idea.” I could smell lamb roasting in the distance. “We need to eat.”

Bacenor grumbled but let me take him to the city agora a few blocks away. Here a press of sleepless people, red-eyed, unkempt, and rank of odor, haggled with vendors for the accouterments of sleep—pillows, candle wax for ears, elephant bladders which inflated could serve as mattresses, music boxes which when opened featured tiny puppets singing lullabies. I pushed beyond them to the food vendors. From a barrel-chested Nubian with a golden earring I bought grapes and olives and a plate of cubed lamb that had been roasted with onions on a skewer. For Bacenor I bought chicken on pita bread and a flagon of white grape juice.

“What is this child’s drink?” Bacenor groused. “Get me wine, you ingrate.”

“They don’t sell it here,” I said.

“Anything can be bought.”

“Not wine in Xuthos,” I said. “It won’t help your sleep.”

“But it will!” Bacenor whined.

“It will push you to the edge of sleep, but not over. And then you will be more awake and hungover.”

“Lies! Cruel beast, why do you torture me?”

He twisted my ear till it hurt.

I grunted to give him satisfaction, and he let go.

At the center of the agora there was a fountain encircled by a granite bench. We sat there to eat our lunch. Bacenor beside me looked worse for our five days of travel. The hunch of his crooked back looked larger. Sun-reddened flesh hung loosely at his throat and around his eyes, as if he had climbed into the skin of a much larger man. Brown age spots on his scalp showed through his thin white hair. He scratched his jaw; he had a five-day growth of bristly white whiskers. “What happened to my beard? Didn’t I have a beard?”

“You had me shave it off,” I said.

“You cur! Why do such a thing?”

“You thought that you would sleep like a youth, if you had no beard like a youth.”

“Foolishness!” He busied himself eating, his gnarled arthritic fingers dropping clumps of meat onto his knobby sunburned knees. I turned my attention toward the crowd. He asked: “What are you looking at?”

I saw the tall girl again: her bronzed thighs, her breasts which filled her chiton, her uncovered sun-bleached hair, in contrast to the silver hair, mostly covered by a black shroud, of the crone upon her back. The girl was buying fruit—a mango and a pear—from a produce stand. I wished she would look my way.

“What are you staring at?” Bacenor asked. “Tell me!”

I ate another olive, chasing it down with a swallow of water, then said, “Beyond the red building—the Temple of Ares—is the Temple of Hypnos. The god of sleep. Let’s go there.”

“Hypnos? Do I know him? Do I pray to him?”

“You pray to Ploutos, the god of wealth.”

“Ah. He favors me, for I am a rich man.”

“A very rich man,” I agreed.

I carried him past the Temple of Ares, ochre-painted and poorly maintained, for what man makes offerings to the God of War for sleep? Next to it the Temple of Hypnos gleamed, polished white marble of its exterior contrasting with the dark within. I lugged Bacenor up the staircase and past the blue-painted Doric columns into the cool shadowed space of the interior. Hypnos, carved from unpainted obsidian, reclined on his side atop a bed of ebony shot through with veins of gold. Unlike the other gods in Xuthos he seemed awake, not sleeping, the strange little wings coming out of his brow like the erect ears of a dog. “Can he fly with those?” Bacenor asked.

“A little,” I said. “When he flaps them it makes a soporific breeze.”

He snorted at my little joke, and a middle-aged woman in a knee-length hair shirt regarded him judgmentally. No one else paid us attention, except for a guard in leather armor and a red chiton, who told us that slaves were not permitted to carry masters inside because it was not respectful to the god Hypnos. “The god Hypnos,” Bacenor sneered when the guard was out of earshot. “Who has even heard of such a god?”

Despite his sneers he climbed down and stood beside me, bow-legged and pigeon-toed, clutching my elbow for balance. We stood in a queue of fifteen or so sleepless. Unshaven, hollow-eyed, smelling of musty unwashed bedclothes. Grooming and cleanliness are the handmaids of good sleep. “What are we waiting for?” Bacenor said. There was a green door, before which stood a priest or clerk in a blue himation. Presently the door opened, and the first man in the queue was motioned in. “What’s in there?” Bacenor asked me. “A sanctum? Do they make an offering, slice open a sheep’s liver?”

“There’s a physician in there,” I said. “He treats insomnia with the latest in the healing arts.”

“Art? He plays the music of the spheres?”

“He performs medical techniques so as to make you amenable to messages from Hypnos.”

“Pshaw! Pshaw and poppycock!”

“The poppy, incidentally, is his flower.” I waved toward the jet-black planters set in sconces in the walls, orange petals vivid even in the gloom. “Narcotics come from the unripe fruit of the poppy.”

“Ah, yes, Nepenthes, the stuff is called.” Bacenor grinned triumphantly. “I remember the name! Buy me some.”

“You were addicted to it, master. After a fortnight of use it works badly and it gives you awful dreams. It gives you constipation, also. And it made your memory far worse.”

“You scoundrel!” He pinched me, digging his long yellow fingernails into my forearm. If I could get him to sleep I would cut those nails short. “Why torture me with these tales?”

“Only to caution you, that you might make better choices.”

“I pay you good money for this impertinence?”

“I am your slave, not your employee. Sometimes on festival days, you give me a drachma for a gift.”

“Yes. How likely.”

We waited in the queue, a few more went in to see the Physician, one came out. Bacenor asked me why so many went in without coming out. I told him that the building had a level beneath us and that the rooms down there had walls so thick that a battle could be fought in the streets without you hearing anything inside. Each room had a bed for a patient to sleep in and for the Physician to observe the patient and to try his treatments. It might take a few days to find the correct treatment.

“Hah! Thus to milk us poor insomniacs for as much money as he can!”

“I do not know if he charges for anything but results.”

He fell asleep momentarily, literally fell, collapsing but waking even as I caught him. “Where am I? Who am I?” Panic-stricken, bulging frightened eyes.

“You are Bacenor, a rich man. You are at the Temple of Hypnos to—”

“—to get my insomnia cured,” he said.

“Exactly.” I was relieved. Sometimes his memory could be very bad after he had these little sleeps.

“Who is she?” he asked about the woman in the hair shirt. “Is she Cybele?”

Cybele was his wife. Or she had been, for she was long dead, having perished with their son Timotheus when Bacenor’s ship, carrying a cargo of ninety amphora of tawny wine, sunk off the coast of Rhodes. Bacenor and I were the only survivors.

This woman turned. She did have Cybele’s long aquiline nose, but her face was broader, her hair was white where Cybele’s had been silver, and her hair shirt—of stiff brindle horse-hair that left the skin of her throat raw—was nothing like the soft purple and white robes Cybele had loved to wear. “I’m not your goddess,” she said. “I’m a barren old woman.”

Cybele is also the goddess of fertility.

“See?” I asked him. “She’s not your wife.”

“Then Cybele—” He remembered, lips drooping, eyes downcast, forehead furrowing with anguish. “The water—the storm—the cold night—my wife—my boy. He was only eighteen. My boy—why did he drown?”

“He stayed on the ship too long,” I said. “He tried to unlock the chains of the rowers.”

“Rowers? Slaves?”

“There were forty of them. The ship was already half-sunken. As the slaves screamed he dived down with the key so that he could unlock their chain. But the ship sank so quickly that it sucked him down and he could not save a single man.”

“My son died to save slaves? Say rather that the slaves killed him! Monsters, beasts! They lured him to his death!”

The woman ahead of us looked appalled, whether at the story or Bacenor’s lamentation I could not tell.

“He died a hero’s death,” I said.

“My wife—why did she die?”

“She could not swim. I had to let her go.”

“You were there? You let her go? A huge strong man like you? You let her drown?”

I whispered to Bacenor. “I was just a boy of ten. I was strong enough to carry only you.”

“I can swim!”

“You were drunk, and half-passed out.”

“Don’t lie, slave.”

I breathed deeply. The woman was not looking at us but had the erect posture of someone who was listening with intent. “You would get seasick on your trading voyages, and would break into the trading stock to find wine to calm your stomach. But wine is a poor medicine for nausea. It would roil your stomach, not soothe it, and you would drink more to compensate. You drank seven bowls the night of the shipwreck.”

His eyes rolled back in his head and he gripped my elbow as though he meant to pull me down or climb me. But he was not having an epileptic fit. He was merely thinking hard. He said, “Hypnos is the brother of Death?”

“Death is called Thanatos.”

“Maybe I should pray to Hypnos? Does he talk to Thanatos? Would he be able to get a message to my wife and my boy, asking them to forgive me?”

“Forgive you for what?” I asked.

“For bringing them on that fateful journey.”

“I can talk to the priest about that while you see the Physician. Maybe he can make a sacrifice.”

He let me go so he could pull out a ten drachma coin for the priest.

“Isn’t that too much?” I said.

“I am a rich man, am I not? Take it!”

I put the coin in the leather pouch that I kept tied around my neck.

Not much later the silver-haired woman was admitted to the sleeping ward and then it was our turn to be interviewed. The clerk, in a blue himation, bald, black-bearded, and officious, stood behind a high desk with a goose-feather pen in his hand. He wrote into a vellum ledger as he asked us questions. Who are you? Where are you from? How long since you last slept? He asked Bacenor at first but as I was the one who answered. He directed the balance of his questions to me. “Does he take stimulants or sedatives?”

“No longer,” I said.

“And do you ferry him everywhere, or does he walk on his own?”

“Almost always I carry—”

“I am a rich man!” Bacenor cried out. “Only hoi polloi walk!”

The clerk nodded and entered a mark into his ledger. “But he can walk if necessary?”

I affirmed he could.

“You can go through that door,” the clerk said. Bacenor gestured at me to stoop so I could carry him, but the clerk said, “No, you must go in alone.”

“But my slave is my memory,” Bacenor said.

“Your memory will improve once Dr. Phobetor has treated you.”

“Ahh,” he said uncertainly. He stared at me, his face twisted by confusion and fear, then found some remnant of dignity, and stood up straight as he could given his hunchback, and walked through the doorway.

The clerk told me the name of a cheap inn I could go to where slaves could sleep. Bacenor’s treatment, he said, would take at least one full day and night.

Always a Sunrise

Forgive me. This story’s a jumbled mess. I guess the drugs got the better of me. No idea where to start this, so I’ll start with the uniformed lady with a face like white dogshit.

“Miss Lynch. Why do you want to go to Mars?”

Why indeed? Nobody sane wants to go to Mars. All good. I’d practiced this line before, even drunk, even stoned, like I was right then. “I always dreamed of exploring the stars.”

“Your family, your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues? You’ll never hug them or shake their hands again. Only video chats with a three minute lag. You’ll miss birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Are you willing to make that sacrifice?”

I hoped the sunglasses covered my bloodshot eyes. I hoped my breath and armpits, reeking of Bombay Sapphire, didn’t carry. “Yes.”

“No more blue beaches, you’ll never feel the cool ocean swallow your toes in the warm sand, no more green forests full of fog and silence and rain so faint it tickles as it touches, no more snowy peaks that tower over the clouds and awe you to silence. You’ll never see anything but rusty red craters and white dry-icecaps. You really want that future?”

I never gave half a shit about the stars or the planets or anything like that, I wasn’t one of those kids with my neck craned skyward, those kids who ate up movies and stories about space, the final fucking frontier. Wonder was never a word in my world. “I’m an explorer at heart.”

“You’ll never run through an open field without a suit, and only hours at a time, lest the radiation bake you. You’ll never see a breathtaking pink or orange or red sunrise or sunset again, just a tiny gray smear on the Martian horizon. You’ll miss out on what it means to be human. Why do you want to go to Mars?”

Because dad had found me. “I love space, loved it since childhood.”

A window opened behind her. A rocket forty stories tall loomed on the launchpad and rolled my heart along a gravel path. She smiled. “You step aboard, goodbye Earth. Life flutters away forever. You’re really going to throw it all away?”

She wouldn’t stop me. If anyone’d stop me, it’d be me. A thousand people before me’d gotten weak-kneed at the sight of that rocket and turned back. I was about to too. What the hell was I doing?

Dad’d pinged my private email days ago. I’d read his brief words about wanting to reconnect and my chest clenched and my childhood came back and I cried. I recalled a warm summer day when I, bruises ringing my neck, crept to the garage and took one of dad’s rifles, the old breechloader he called the forty-five seventy, and placed the barrel in my mouth. It tasted cold on my tongue, it tasted of motor oil, it tasted bitter and burned a little, and it smelled of synthetic orange-citrus, that cleaning solvent I loved to sniff. The barrel was too long for my hand, so I braced the gun on the ground and stuck my big toe on the cold trigger. I laughed and wailed at the same time. It’d be so easy to stop the pain, but I couldn’t do it, as if an invisible, immovable hand clenched my big toe and stopped it from twitching a titch to throw my brains across the garage ceiling. I was eleven.

“I want to go to Mars.”

The lady with the white dogshit face nodded. “Very well. Sign here, and it’s all over.”

My hand hovered, pen ready. I was afraid that invisible hand would stop me again, stop me from signing the form, stop me from this long-overdue suicide. I thought about the beauty and ugliness Earth offered. I thought about my coffin-sized flat that gave me panic attacks, and thought about how much worse it’d be on Mars. I thought about all those bowls of kush and bottles of Bombay Sapphire and acid blotters that’d colored my life, drugs I’d never find on Mars. I thought about the times I’d escaped the social credit ratings, only to return to buy bread or be deemed “not a deviant” on the dating nets or to snag a bottom feeder job to earn a few dollars to dream with. I thought about how dad’d found me no matter how many times I tried to disappear from Earth.

I took a deep breath. I signed the waiver.

Zombies Can’t Take the Train

Autobiographical Case Histories from the Abridged 2055 Multimedia History Project on the Plague Year: Documenting the Rapid Sclerosis Pandemic. Society for Research and Education of the Global Open Forum Recovery Group.

Case Contents: Selections from the subject’s journal and an interview with a surviving member of the fire and rescue squad that quarantined the subject.

Subject: Steven Smith. North American (Northeast Coastal Ecoregion) male Caucasian. Age 41 at time of infection in the city of New Haven on May 14, 2027.

Document Status: Except for bloodstains, the journal was unaltered when recovered. Society members have added footnotes. This document is a primary source for post-peak studies. A full copy of the journal and the interview auditory file are available at qqq.ccss.GOF.aubiohist for a small contribution to your community labor pool.

May 16, 2027

Two days ago, I woke up so numb that it was as if I floated over my bed. The morning sun highlighted Cindy’s slender figure and auburn hair as she looked down at me and her lips curled into an I’ve-been-naughty smile. Noticing her blood-speckled cheeks and the chewed-off stump where my left hand used to be, I rolled out of the bed. She laughed as I struggled to stand, unable to feel where my ass ended and the hard floor began. Freakazoiding, I fumbled into my super-sized safari suit and stumbled around the room searching for my boots, unsure when she’d get the Hunger again. I should’ve put her down, but I’d never killed anyone, just written about it. As I edged forward to grab my boots, located just under the bed, her emerald eyes twinkled and she picked up my index finger to suck the gristle off it in a provocative manner. The parasites that had begun to burrow along my neural pathways must have done more than cauterize my injury and numb my body. Although I was terrified, I was not angry. Instead of righteous rage, I felt that considering everything, it was nice of Cindy to remember that I was right-handed.

Pausing by the bedroom door, I stuffed the boots into the survival pack I’d placed there and turned back towards Cindy. As my eyes roamed over her perfections the last time, I blamed myself. Someone so beautiful and sweet wouldn’t throw themselves at an obese oddball who writes appliance manuals for a living. She tensed for a leap. I wriggled into my pack’s straps, breathed deep, and decided that I didn’t care why she’d given me the two best weeks of my life. It was okay if it wasn’t all the secrets and hopes we’d shared, that it was because parasites had transformed her from a reserved sociology graduate student into an insatiable seeker of sexual delights. Until the hunger for human flesh overcomes you, the disease monorails your desires, creating one maniacal need. For Cindy, I now knew that need was sex; for me, well, I missed my mom.

Cindy made her move. I slammed the door and yanked a couch in front of it. My asthma kicked in as I leapt down the stairs. While the couch scraped my hardwood floor, I unlocked my security gate and fumbled open the front door. I scurried outside as she pounded down the stairs. The gate clanged shut and the lock clicked into place behind me. Shouted pleas of, “Don’t desert me!” and “I’ll make everything right again,” issued through the gate. From one of my safari suit’s many pockets, I pulled an inhaler and puffed twice. Breathing again and relieved that Cindy was stuck behind security gates and window grills that I had the sole keys for, I rested against an elm tree. I was trying to ignore her pleas and assess my situation when a Golden Doodle dragged a human femur into the condo parking lot and began to bark at me. Afraid the noise would draw more feral frou-frou dogs or worse, I fled. My bare feet found every sharp pebble as I ran across the too-sunny lot and through the Guptas’ open backdoor. I said, “Oh…Oh no,” as I shut the door behind me. A bloody smear began on the kitchen floor, where little Sabita’s Cookie Monster doll lay abandoned, and ended at the backdoor.

Shaking my head, I walked through their glass and chrome living room and went upstairs to Ms. Gupta’s office. Her built-in shelves were stuffed with accounting books and Ganesh statues. I shook my pack off my shoulders, letting it fall onto the red shag carpet, and dropped into her swivel chair. My thoughts starting to race and my heart to pound — over Sabita and everything else — I pulled a Valium bottle from a shirt pocket and popped several. As I zoned out, I stared at a dancing Ganesh and wondered what he was so happy about.

An hour later, full consciousness came upon me like a slow-motion landslide. Hoping to avoid being buried by anxiety and despair, I decided to focus on the little things that I could control. My first decision was to stay the night. The numbness would soon wear off and I’d be at my most vulnerable. Anyway, before I traveled, I had to figure out how to lace my boots. Curious about what I would face later, I stood to look out the window. To do so, I leaned on the edge of the desktop with my bad arm. The desktop, a sheet of glass that sat on two chrome sawhorses, tilted. Not at my brightest, I watched everything on it slide onto the floor. As the sheet of glass began to move towards my mid-section, I came to my senses and removed my weight from it. The desktop slammed back down. I stared at it for a moment before blurting, “What the what,” as I stood to jerk the blinds open.

My guilt for messing up Ms. Gupta’s office evaporated upon looking outside. Shattered storefront windows lined State Street and a telephone pole topped with ax heads leaned against the wall of Inner Peace and Extreme Survival Studio. It was as if a giant had sucked up mailboxes, trees, signs, cars, and human beings, chewed them up, and spit them back out. Drums, saxophones, and guitars strewn near Dr. Katz’s Animal Clinic stirred memories of the early plague days: endless awful singing by Western civilization’s worst creation, the pop-star wannabe, that was intermittently interrupted by elderly country bands and cheerleader squads. It was like living on the American Idol1 set. Too scared to go out, I kept my crank radio blaring. Intrepid reporters, or Compulsives trying to be reporters, described all-night baseball and midnight gardening, acts of altruism and awfulness, impossible scientific and artistic projects, and entrepreneurs catering to desperate Compulsives. Those Compulsives included computer gamers seeking electricity, shoppers frantic to discover bargains, foodies searching for five-star meals, and what should have been a warning to me, lovers hoping to find their last love. The radio reports all noted the Compulsives’ perseverance, no matter their injuries. However, when enough time passed the parasites changed all the Compulsives into Eaters, just as they had transformed Cindy.

A salty taste filled my mouth as I sat back down and pressed my eyes shut. Still numb, I’d bitten my lip to try to block memories of what came next, when the Eaters finished off most of the remaining Compulsives and yet-to-be-infected Cleans. No matter my efforts, memories of those horrific days swarmed into my mind, days in which I’d shut off the radio and tried to imagine that my condo was a pocket universe. It had been impossible. The end of the world made it through the walls of the basement safe-room I huddled in: the sirens, shots, and horrific screams. Later, it smelled like I was stuck in a busted freezer filled with sour milk and rotten meat. A shameful combination of cowardice and selfishness prevented me from helping anyone. The terror and guilt were worse than the discomforts: eating raw pasta and potatoes to save Sterno; creeping around the condo to maintain my rainwater collection system and chemical toilet; being unable to phone, text, or Facebook; not bathing or shaving; wearing dirty clothes; and missing therapist appointments.

I opened my eyes and spewed bloody spit on Ms. Gupta’s desk. To address my ever-multiplying psychological needs all I could do was to scribble in this journal. Writing fiction was no longer an option since the only thing I’d ever written were stories of post-apocalyptic heroes and I wasn’t being one. Nothing had happened like my survivalist stories, which consisted of macho cleverness and a lack of gun-control laws. Even my self-published masterpieces, Tales of the Rescue of a Techno Maiden and The Parking Garage Pirates of Putnam Street, didn’t hint at the traumas and tedious drudgery of actual survival. I thought I wrote the stories because they immersed me in a world in which no one told you what to do and where you were special just because you had survived. Remembering that Cindy had broken through that thin explanation, I used my hand to wipe the blood off my chin and stood to check on her.

With my binoculars, I left the office and walked across the landing and into the master bedroom. Dr. Gupta’s shriveled remains were on an oak four-poster bed; an empty hypodermic needle dangled from his withered arm. While I examined him, I thought about the big Texan “howdy” he always greeted me with and how he loved to grill shitake mushrooms or Tandoori chicken on summer Sunday afternoons. Now I’d never be able to pay him back for the time he drove me to the hospital after diagnosing my hernia. I yanked the blanket, to try to roll him up in it. He fell with an unpleasant thump onto the floor. After several deep breaths, I threw the blanket over him and went to the window, unsure of what I’d do when my sense of smell returned.

I peered through the Venetian blinds and saw that Cindy had opened all my drapes. But why? With my binoculars, I saw why, and shouted, “Shit soup!” Still undressed, she was emptying my cupboards of their delicacies. Done, she lopped the tops off Apple Jacks, Fruit Loops, and Cap’n Crunch boxes2 with my samurai knife and leaned back to empty one box after another into her mouth. My eyes teared up as Cindy’s curvy figure was outlined in a candy-colored shower of sugary treasure; beautiful blissful bits of sweetness bounced off her and onto the ungrateful kitchen tiles. My stomach lurched each time she slammed an eight pound can of chocolate syrup against a counter edge, only stopping when the priceless chocolate sprayed the kitchen and herself. In silent shock, sweat dripping from under my arms, I watched her lift the huge sharp-edged container to her delicate lips. Her small mouth filled with the life-giving liquid; it flowed down her cheeks and cascaded like a slow-motion velvety waterfall down her neck, chest, and legs, to pool at her feet. The food-massacre went on for what seemed forever — a bottle of peppermint schnapps tasted and spilled, Slim Jims bitten and discarded, Hostess Cup Cakes sampled, a bag of pork rinds scattered after one bite, a gallon jar of maraschino cherries smashed, creating a blood-red tide that flowed across the kitchen floor. With each wasted calorie, primordial pain flowed through my veins and the temptation to save my darlings increased. She attacked my favorites, yanking the tops off a row of small, colorful boxes and ripping open the shiny packages within to stuff their contents into her face. Prefab pastries of every flavor fragmented and fell, surrounding her with what looked like the remnants of a bombed paint factory. I cried out in disbelief, “The bitch is eating my Pop-Tarts!” However, I knew she wasn’t enjoying her last lucid moments, that she wanted me to end her suffering. Cindy was past the Compulsive stage, during which one has some normal desires, and was experiencing a hyper-aggressive form of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to retrieve the Glock in my pack. But how do you shoot someone, especially Cindy? When she collapsed to the kitchen floor — now a sweet swamp with islands of cans, boxes, and bottles — and sobbed, I decided to do it. I loved her too much to let her suffer and I’d promised her I’d do it.

I need to stop writing, even though the sun is up and I haven’t finished telling you about the two worst days of my life. I bet you also want to know how I’ll reach Mom. Don’t worry, I have a plan. But I can’t tell you now. I need to eat my last two packets of freeze-dried ice cream and cry a little. Writing about everything helps, but, can only do so much.

Walking the Line

Eleanora was in trouble again, though “again” did not seem like the right word. It was more that she was constantly in trouble, and her mother’s familiar lecture chased her from her home. She had hoped to be alone, but despite the darkness and the unseasonable chilliness, she was not the only one out on Poetto Beach.

“Would you like some company?”

The boy was blond, and Eleanora preferred brown or black hair, but she was really not supposed to prefer any boy at all. If her mother saw her smile at him it would set off another lecture, but her mother was not here, so she smiled.

“I would love some company,” said Eleanora.

The light of the moon reflected on the water, the only light out tonight. Eleanora still sat on her hands, just in case, though there was nothing she could do about her hair. It probably looked wet.

It probably looked like she had taken a midnight swim. She probably looked very romantic, and the thought put a damper on her almost rising mood.

“You speak English very well,” said the boy.

“I speak many languages very well,” said Eleanora. “Italian, Sardinian, and some much older.”

“Latin?” asked the boy.

“Not Latin,” said Eleanora.

Even the name of the language left her mouth feeling singed. Which meant her mother was right.

If she kept slipping, there may be no coming back. Her mother said she had to stop kissing the boys, no matter how much she wanted them. Why did the boy have to initiate the kiss? Would it really make so much of a difference? Eleanora could not imagine that it would feel any different, that it would stop the changes taking place.

“It’s so beautiful here,” said the boy. “I wish I could stay.”

Eleanor wished that her smile was sharp spikes instead of these domesticated stubs that filled her mouth and demanded she abstain from raw flesh.

Her sisters, her mother, her grandmothers, they used to be feared, even worshipped. They still had happiness in the past, they still had their men, but they also had freedom, and power, and blood and the night. They did not have to go to school, what was school to the Gianes? There was no education that could not be learned from dancing along the salt lakes, that could not be tasted in a young man’s blood, or absorbed in his embrace. What was the world of mortals to a child who was neither fairy nor demon, a creature that walked the line between life and death, love and murder? Why did the generations that had gone before her deny Eleanora that pleasure?

“You could stay here a little longer,” said Eleanora. “Sometimes just a little longer is enough to make everything feel okay.”

The boy smiled and sat down on the sand next to her, and his body was warm, and she tried to want it, want it for her own selfish pleasure and her own feast, and not want it for company, for love, for family.

They were upsetting, intrusive thoughts.

If she were a true Giane, she would straddle him on this beach, she would tear out his heart, she would let his blood spray across her cheeks and breasts, and taste a salt like the ocean but richer. If she was a true Giane, she would push this boy away when he rested against her shoulder, like he did now, and flay him, expose him, devour him.

Eleanora told herself it was her mother’s lecture still ringing in her ears that stopped her. She told herself it was not her own will, but a decision that had been made long before she was born; to be weak, to be companions, to be loved. She told herself that if she ran the wild hills, if she saw the boats of men intent on tearing her island upside down, she would not have given in to their charms. She would not have given up her wildness for their children.

She had nearly broken through, so many times, so close that her nails were already curving into claws, her hair was already matting into scales that hung in rough curls down her back, and maybe if she kissed another boy so deeply again, her teeth would break the skin of her lips and she could run on the sand as more creature than girl. A part of her, bred so deep, so long ago, held off, did not want that abandon, did not want that wildness, and Eleanora could not will it to quiet its appeal for love, for comfort, for domesticity.

But it did not matter what she wanted, because the boy’s lips were her on hers, and his tongue was in her mouth. She did not initiate the kiss, but she could have pulled away. She could have, and she chose not to. Eleanora felt her mind filling with darkness and her mouth filling with spikes that did not break her own lips, but they did break the boy’s tongue.

Traveling by Starlight: A Journey of Two Ways

When the otherworldly visitors arrived, I had my hands full with their unusual needs: no salt, everything baked or boiled until it was pure–what did that mean?–and only cream to drink. While the rest of the castle whispered about their motives and admired every nuance of their behavior, I rushed about the kitchen, commander of an army of cooks and cutlery. I was as curious as the next person, but I had a job to do.

After a welcome feast of venison curry and roast peacock, I slumped in my chair by the servant’s courtyard and wished I could make myself move. Sticky summer air pressed down on my body, settling into the same places the heat of cook fires had blasted earlier. I thought about stripping, but it was too much effort to reach the ties.

“Are you all right, Verel?” a raspy baritone asked. “I heard bloodcurdling screams from the direction of the kitchen.”

I sat up sharply, feeling hot in a third, not entirely unpleasant way. Delin stood in the stone archway, outlined by the moonlight–lean, perfectly proportioned, a face like rock. We had been friends for years, and when I first realized I was attracted to him, I had stared at that face, hoping to remind myself of our friendship in the familiarity of hazel eyes. Then I discovered I enjoyed staring too much.

“If you wish to know if there was blood in the red velvet cake,” I said, “the answer is yes. How else do you think I achieved that color?”

Delin laughed. “That will put me off my dinner.”

“Tell me about the feast,” I said.

He dropped on the well-trod dirt of the courtyard, absently fingering a hoof print. “The best of the known world–especially from the kitchen,” he added with a nod to me. “But all the guests were tense, trying to be better than their natures.”

“And…?” I prodded.

“Our visitors are beautiful, but not in the way of anything human,” he said. The excitement came off him in waves. I basked in it as I listened. “Their speech is–sometimes I cannot be sure it is words at all, and we choose to hear the familiar. The king tried to get them to agree to an alliance,” he continued. “But they said we were primitive and crude, with our iron weapons and our deafness to the natural world.”

“That was rude of them,” I said.

“No–they’re right.” Delin sighed. “But there’s hope. They want to take a few people with them, to live in their cities, learn their ways, and bring that wisdom back.” He fidgeted as if he could hardly hold the thought in. “I want to be one of them.”

My heart took a step off the castle parapet. “But people abducted in the past were gone for decades,” I said. “They left and returned only when their friends had become old and grey-” when I was old and grey, I wanted to shout, “-and the world they knew had crumbled to dust.”

“But young,” Delin countered. “And still with all the possibilities in the world to pursue. And the chance to see their home realm!”

“You’re needed here,” I said. I wasn’t sure who perturbed me more: Delin or these mysterious visitors. The question of the unknown and the imagined–cities of glass, places where everyone flew on gossamer wings; powers that could cure any sickness–was as heady as the king’s anniversary wine… but I was sobered by the idea of how much one would leave behind. Delin, apparently, had no such concerns.

“Needed?” He shook his head. “I’m the junior healer, and there are plenty of young faces waiting to replace me. Anyhow, it’s not assured. They want to pick from a group of candidates.” He slid forward, catching my hands. “I want you to come stand with me, Verel. For support, and maybe…” He hesitated.

It was foolish, but the little catch in his voice turned everything the other way around. He wanted me with him, and a journey into the unknown with a good friend–never mind more–was less daunting, even conceivable. As long as they let me cook, and who knew what arcane ingredients and obscure techniques the visitors might use for their food?

“Of course I will,” I said. Meanwhile, a portion of my brain wondered how long I could hold onto him before he noticed. I waited until the last to free my hands.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll feel better with someone I can trust at my side. Not so inclined to run away, maybe.” His smile was sheepish.

He was trying to make a joke, but he was anxious. “I will be there for you,” I said firmly. “Even if you run.”

He laughed. “With a show of confidence like that, Verel,” he said. “What could go wrong?”

The Water Dragon

It was never the monsters hiding under the bed. Neither was it the dark of her bedroom when the lights went out. It was never the zombies that could clamber out of the packed earth and find and eat the little girls who played hide-and-seek in the graveyard. It wasn’t any of the things her best friend Clara had divulged to her once as they’d perched on the cobblestone wall that ran around the village. For Evangeline, it was the pitter-patter of raindrops on her head that caused her heart to seize.

Her mother, June, would be waiting by the back door, of course, wringing her hands until her daughter arrived, flushed and out of breath from running.

“Praise, God,” she would whisper, before crossing herself. Bustling Evangeline inside, the two of them would then huddle together by the kitchen window, uttering prayers for the clouds to part and sunny skies to bless them once more.

Sometimes, her mother would berate her for taking the rainless days for granted.

“You haven’t been praying hard enough,” she told Evangeline at the table, their hands still clasped from saying grace. “You’re not even trying.”

So Evangeline was always careful, after crossing all her fingers and toes, that her last thought before sleep overcame her was that she would awake to the pleasant heat of the sun on her face and the sight of a brilliant blue sky peeking through her curtains.

Yet although Evangeline deemed herself old enough now to know that zombies and ghosts could never hurt her, as long as she was home before dark, of course, for the life of her she could not explain why they should be so afraid of rain. Indeed, Evangeline had been sodden before when she had once ventured too far from the cottage and the storm had taken her by surprise. All she had felt whilst her mother had bundled her in towels were as if she’d just stepped out of a very cold bath.

“It doesn’t look so scary from in here,” she’d observed, cross-legged by the fire; not even while it had lashed against the window panes in droves and lightning had crackled across the sky.

“Well, you would be a fool not to be afraid,” said her mother.

Sometimes their garden would be ruined, reduced to a mushy, mulchy mess of sodden foliage. When Evangeline was younger, she used to believe that there were such things as giants that would use the cover of thunder to enter the garden and destroy all the pretty flowers. Her mother never used to tell her otherwise, and so Evangeline still had to scold herself whenever she could’ve sworn she’d seen a footprint the size of a dustbin lid left in the soil.

It was Monday morning, and Evangeline was peering at one of these very such indentations by the churchyard wall when someone called out to her and Clara. Glancing up, she caught sight of Mr. Reed striding past them on his way to the fields.

“I would start making my way home now, girls. You’re too close to the boundary wall when the sky’s looking this murky. That means you, too, sweetheart.”

“Yes, father,” her best friend mumbled.

Evangeline jumped to her feet, wiping her hands on her skirt.

“I don’t know why you try and run off so fast, Eve,” Clara told her as they began making their way back towards the centre of the village, deciding that they would stop by at Mr. Graham’s shop to buy toffee if they hurried. “We’ve both got caught in the rain so many times now and it’s never hurt us.”

Evangeline hushed her, peering up and down the lane. Old Mrs. Simmons was pruning her roses, but everyone knew that her ears were shot. They passed by her garden and she raised a gnarled hand at them in greeting, lips pulling to reveal a toothless crevasse.

“It’s just when you’re out in it for too long,” whispered Evangeline, “or when you go out on purpose. I don’t know what happens to you but all I know is that I don’t want to find out.”

Clara giggled, and they stopped in the middle of the path.

“See?” she said. “What’s so bad about rain, Eve? It makes everything damp and sometimes it makes the grass really slippery. And you can throw stones in the puddles! Why should we be afraid?”

Huffing, Evangeline readied her best grown-up voice. “Because that’s what we’ve been told. It’s all we’ve ever known. To run home as soon as the rain starts.”

“Eve. We both know zombies can eat you. Ghosts can scare you to death. What does rain do?”

They walked in thoughtful silence until they arrived at the shop. Clara went in first, as always, and they went up to the counter, contemplating the shelves of sweet jars behind Mr. Graham in his red-and-white stripy apron. He was already bagging up some liquorice for old Mr. Partridge, the same corduroy trousers flapping about his bow legs. The two of them were conversing quietly, and Evangeline’s ears pricked at some of the words. She felt a gentle nudge at her side, and she turned to see Clara slipping into one of the nearby aisles. She followed, and together, they listened.

“So what are they saying happened to the poor child?” murmured Mr. Partridge.

“That perhaps she tried to go swimming in the river. My Daisy asked if she could once when we were on a walk near the marshlands, and of course I told her that it was forbidden. It was beautiful weather and I know it’s tempting, especially when it’s as nice as it was on Friday.”

“Oh, it was beautiful weather Friday,” Mr. Partridge agreed in a rasp.

“Anyway, as you make your way further out, the current gets stronger. The girl was probably caught unawares some time Friday afternoon and got swept away.”

Mr. Partridge made a noise of anguish.

“Yes, I know,” said Mr. Graham. “I heard a child calling it The River Fury. Some kind of water dragon that is forever angry and tempts children to try and ride it. If they can do it, only then will the waters calm. Something like that.”

In her pocket, Evangeline clenched her palm around the pound coin her mother had given her for toffee. She remembered it had rained that Friday afternoon.

“I thought we’d seen the last of this ten years ago,” said Mr. Partridge sadly, before shuffling out of the shop. Exchanging looks, Evangeline and Clara stepped out from the aisle and approached the counter once more, though Evangeline wasn’t sure either of them were now in the mood for sweets.

“You must never try and ride the water dragon,” said Mr. Graham, and they blinked up at him in surprise. His eyes were hard. “Understand?”

Evangeline nodded. Besides, neither of them would ever be able to tame a dragon.

The Barber and the Black Canary

I’ve always known that the hotel was haunted, though not necessarily the neighborhood. Nevertheless, there it was, all laid out nice and neat in the snow, a very pretty death. We were two blocks from the hotel. At the long empty stretch where the dry goods store would be built in spring. Nothing in the lot but dead trees covered in vines, and beyond it, a marsh that spread out dark and bumpy all the way to Lake Michigan.

The doctor spotted it after me. “Hold up,” he said.

I shoved my fists deeper into my coat pockets and obeyed. Spirits in my place of employment didn’t bother me any (some are the spirits of my ancestors, and as such, they protect me). And just before dawn in Chicago, like anyone, I would rather be indoors than out in the bone-cracking cold.

“Intentional.” The doctor stooped closer, careful to stay on the boardwalk. “Look at the way it’s arranged symmetrically. No animal did that.” He waved a hand without looking up. “Light a match.”

Orders. I told myself, he’s a doctor, he treats everyone like this.

I stepped off the boardwalk and crunched two steps through snow-crusted grass to the edge of the street’s gaslight. I struck a match and held it so we could see every detail: a plucked and charred bird, wings evenly outstretched, throat slashed. Its dark eyes stared up at the fading full moon. Blue-gray feathers surrounded it, projecting outward. The icy blood sparkled.

“A pigeon,” I said. The match flickered out.

“A bad egg was messing about here.” The doctor wrenched his black hat down against the wind. “Someone all-possessed, like.”

I shrugged. Perhaps he was right, a human did it. There were some bad ones.

“What do the tracks mean?” The doctor gestured at boot prints in the frozen mud.

“Don’t know.”

“No, you can say.” A nicer tone. Maybe like I was his friend, not his barber.

“Don’t know.” I said it more firmly. The mud marks were impenetrable to me. The doctor had no way of knowing that, of course. I just trimmed his white sideburns once a week, after the doctor had checked on the slow death of Edgar Mulgrave, the hotel’s owner.

An eagle screamed. We jerked our heads up at the sound. The eagle flew low, as if it wanted us to see it, made a circle, and disappeared into a cloud.

That sign I understood. So, a man did this after all. And the spirits were angry.

The doctor glanced at me and chopped a hand at the dead pigeon. “Do something about it.”

That I would not do. I stepped back to the boardwalk.

The doctor clicked his tongue. Without a care or a prayer, he stepped onto the hard ground himself and mashed the bird under his boot. The breastbone snapped and I tried not to gag. The rest squished and blood leaked out like syrup. He messed up the feathers. He scraped the slime off his boot using the edge of the boardwalk. He did it all very slowly and casually, like he was teaching something to me.

“A dog’ll get it now,” I said. “Would’ve scared people.” Now I felt concerned. Maybe it would help if the spirits knew why the doctor had just done this.

“Maybe people should be scared.” The doctor rubbed his chin. “A hotel guest did it, perhaps. Someone from out East. Off his head, to do that to a bird.”

I frowned, first at the doctor and then at the hotel. The Royal Chicago loomed taller than any building on the avenue, a flesh and blood colored stone palace that Mulgrave’s almost-widow had opened last year. The wind kicked up stronger, into the kind that aches ears and spits rain. That is not what worried me. I took off toward the hotel with quick strides.

“Get back here,” the doctor called out. “You’re my windbreak, Nate.”

Employees weren’t supposed to use the front entrance but I ignored the rule. I could explain the situation to Mrs. Mulgrave, if need be. I took the hotel’s grand steps two at a time and strode through the lobby and main promenade. I pulled out a key and opened the door to the hotel’s barbershop.

My boots squeaked on the tile floor. The crystal chandeliers were dark and the red leather chairs stood empty. I went to a domed cage sitting on a pedestal and whisked off the cage’s black felt cover.

A single yellow canary sat inside on a carved wooden bar. It blinked, stretched its wings, and tweeted.