Tess is furious, screaming at me in those moments before the rental car goes off the road. It is on auto-drive but nonetheless I stare forward into the flickering silhouettes of the pines, my fingers knotted tight around the wheel.
The shouting reaches its crescendo a minute before the crash. “Just tell me who the fuck you are, if you’ve done something terrible, whatever, we can work through that, but tell me–” her voice is pulled hard, a voice I only hear when the office calls her with some other-time-zone banking crisis in Tokyo, Berlin, Taipei, and she answers, sharp and hollowed of tenderness.
This voice makes me tremble inside, a little boy who wants nothing more than to look down at his shoes and say sorry. I almost blurt it all out right there, the truth, imagining the lightness I’d feel. The unburdening of all these fictions I have conjured for no reason other than that I can make people believe them.
But how weak, how vulnerable that position, naked of the smokescreens and labyrinths I clothe myself in. Instead I cobble an armor of silent, simmering anger and refuse to engage, having no idea how I will talk my way out of this.
I hack into her retinal display and watch it in the corner of my eye. She riffles back through images of us stored in her cloud cache; the rush of encounters our life has been. I see flickers of weekends in one city or another, half way between where she and I must be the following Monday. We are at dinner, or in the shade of palm tree, or holding hands on a snowy evening beneath a street light, trying to grasp our relationship together against the demands of our work.
She begins to delete them, one by one, our smiles, a tableau of warmth dissolving into so much binary. Unbearable to see, I snatch and secret them into an archive, though their safety offers no protection against the threat of weeping like a child.
She scrabbles, amateurishly, into the sprawl of social media, looking for traces of my identity though she knows I have little to nothing there. I explained that absence away four years back, when we first met, saying it was protection against identity theft, necessary for my work.
“Did your parents really drown? Is that true? Is your job real?” She slashes at the undergrowth of my fictions as if she will blunder into a clearing of truth. “All this shit at work and now… I need you to be…”
Her voice almost waivers then but she wrenches it tight and suddenly she is doing something I did not expect. Something I’m not sure I can protect myself against, here on the fly. Buried in an encrypted window she logs into the bank’s employee net, bringing up a secure line to an anti-fraud application, a precursor of which I myself had a hand in testing. She is spitting my details into it, photos, dates, times, and it is trawling databases the public only dimly know exist.
I am panicking, scraping at the depths of my boxes of tricks for a way to foil her. And then the auto-drive clicks off and the wheel jerks in my hand and the car skids, thuds and we are spinning, floating, clattering into the darkness.
Springer the dog howled like a wolf when the ambulance arrived. I clapped my hands to my ears but her sorrow broke through to my heart. She was an old dog, Roberto’s dog, and followed him around the grounds of the former church and theater auditorium and kitchen like a piece of his own self. When she barked, not a rare thing, Roberto laughed a bit and shushed the dog, which almost never worked. She didn’t shush this time either, since Roberto was on the kitchen floor, unconscious. The ambulance was for him.
The gang of three alley Chihuahuas echoed Springer’s howls. They were always yowling about something, lonely, I believed, that they weren’t invited into the circus. The ambulance plowed into the back lot, scattering the suddenly-voiceless Chihuahuas and raising a dust devil that picked up bits of raked leaves and discarded plastic. The ambulance’s brakes squealed, competing with Springer’s howls. Half a dozen men poured out of the wagon and I thought about clown cars but did not grin. Some went around to the back of the wagon and removed the gurney. The others carried heavy briefcases that I identified from television shows: heart defibrillator, scan monitors, cases with saline and needles and bandages.
A destructively-handsome man – curly dark hair, blue eyes, Adonis-sculpted muscles – asked where the victim was. Victim. He meant Roberto. I jerked my chin towards the kitchen. The bunch of them flooded into the kitchen. They were quiet and deliberate and quick.
Springer stood over Roberto and howled again. She did not have an aggressive bone in her body but she was not going to budge.
“Can you move the dog, please, miss? And what happened? Can you describe the event?”
I clipped a leash onto Springer’s collar and pulled her away. Roberto, conscious but not alert, followed the dog with his eyes. Men bent over him, cutting his tee-shirt and placing monitors, wrapping a cuff around his upper arm. I was not sure he noticed them. He did not say anything. No one else spoke up, either.
“He fell down,” I said. “Apoplexy.”
The paramedic threw me an odd glance. I remembered that ‘apoplexy’ was an old word. I shrugged.
Roberto’s wandering gaze accused me every time his eyes met mine. Even as the ambulance guys and the circus people and Vicky, his wife, pushed me and Springer further away from Roberto I could not stop staring at him as though I had never left his side. I swallowed the excuses and apologies that wanted to flow from my mouth, my throat, my heart. Nothing here was my fault. He had made a deal with the devil and the deal fell through. He needed someone to blame. I was convenient.
But I was not at fault.
Roberto whispered instructions while the ambulance guys – medics – stuck needles into his arms and placed monitor leads and inflated the blood pressure cuff.
“Alice,” he gasped. “Take care of Vicky.” He pushed aside the oxygen mask.
“I will,” I promised from across the room. Roberto could not have heard me.
The ambulance guy, Adonis with the cold blue eyes, pushed him flat again. So gentle, yet implacable. Roberto did not resist. From across the breadth of the kitchen commons, I saw him give up. Stop. Lay back and accept help against whatever came next.
In the blink of an eye, or so it seemed to me, the room emptied. Roberto on a gurney, the hilarious number of medics, the circus performers, herded along by Vicky, all uncommonly quiet, all fled the room. Chasing off to the hospital.
Springer curled around my feet. Her hurt and puzzlement washed over me. I bent down and rubbed her ears. What I had to give, I gave to her. Some peace and some love, some reassurance. Nothing miraculous.
Just a few days ago I had smelled my brother’s miracles and followed his stench to this place. A church, unconsecrated. A circus, dedicated to performance art. A sign in the front window heralding miracles with every show. Another sign, smaller, advertising rooms for rent. A tall wooden door, brown paint peeling off in strips, represented my choice: enter and fight again, or walk away.
I’m tired, I cried wordlessly. I am not ready. I glanced at the tar road behind me. Then I faced forward and knocked.
Roberto had opened the door, but Springer let me stay. I sat at the big wooden table while Roberto had discussed ifs and maybes and possibilities. We don’t usually rent to women, he said. The dog had walked into the room. Springer. She held her human-given name in the first layer of her soul. I plumbed it easily enough. She stopped in mid-step, her left paw raised, and gazed at me with her caramel eyes. When her inspection ended she padded over to me and licked my bare ankle. Then she sauntered over to Roberto and laid out flat next to his chair.
“Good enough for me!” Roberto exclaimed. “Any friend of Springer’s can’t be all bad. You’re in.”
He assumed I was one of the desperate homeless and I didn’t disillusion him. I did offer him money. He took half. He told me where to get free food and medical attention, gave me a sheet of paper listing the rules. ‘Don’t hang out in the theater’ was number one with a bullet.
“I can’t go into the theater?” I said. I was here because of the theater, or rather because of what my brother had done with the theater. Because of the miracles.
“It’s for the performers only, the artists.” His assessment that I was no performance artist was accurate and instant, though it hurt a bit. Who doesn’t want to be a circus performer, somewhere in their soul? I nodded dumbly.
“You can join the audience during the shows, though. Free. There’s a show tomorrow.”
He walked me through the dirt-packed compound to my trailer, a cold metal bullet every bit as unpleasant as I had expected it to be. I had a small sack of possessions: a change of clothes, a book. Roberto loaned me a blanket, well-worn and multiply-mended, but clean.
I wrapped myself in the blanket and sat cross-legged on the floor, waiting through the night. But my brother didn’t show himself then. He was far too wily.
I’d find him, my brother, my adversary. I’d find out about these miracles of his. He was the devil to my angel and I’d fight him if I had to. I hoped I wouldn’t have to fight. I was tired. Winning would not be a certain thing.
I closed my eyes to listen to the world around me.
The muezzin at the mosque across the black tar road sang his final night call to prayer. His mind strayed from God and into his creature comforts, dinner, soft clothes, where he was happy. Content. His content flowed around me like a sweet breeze.
The theater was louder than his song, discordant.
Someone played a honky tonk piano riff.
Someone else strummed a nylon string guitar through a few cowboy chords.
Someone, no: two people, a man and a woman, threw pins at each other, meaty thuds each time a hand caught one, shouted ‘Ha’s as they tossed them again.
Someone sang breathlessly while balancing on a skateboard balanced on a box on a chair on a bucket. He juggled tennis balls above his head. All those sounds, song click roll thump, mixed in a rhythm. Ah! That was how he did it, synchronizing all those rhythms.
But I heard nothing of my brother.
Alan Shepard’s teeth were falling out for the third time this week.
To Jess’s left, her trainee, Steven, tried not to retch as they watched Shepard tear loose another piece of dangling gristle from his mouth and drop it into the bathroom sink.
“Ah, okay,” Steven said, “I’m supposed to figure out what this means, right?” He rubbed his chin with his fingers and stared up at the stained ceiling of the hotel room. In the meantime, another of Shepard’s teeth bounced off the ceramic and circled the drain.
“I have no idea what this means.” Steven concluded. “It’s just gross.”
“Mr. Shepard recently lost a loved one,” Jess said. “He’s starting to realize that he’s getting older, and his own death is drawing closer. Being forced to confront his own mortality, and trying to ignore it during the day, is making these concerns manifest in his subconscious mind.”
“You can tell all that just from watching someone’s teeth falling out in a dream?”
“I can tell all that because I read it in his file. Just like you were supposed to.” Jess frowned. “We’re not here to figure out what the dream means. We have analysts for that. Our job is to just observe and record.”
Jess had been observing the dreams of company employees for years. Part of their worker efficiency program–finding psychological issues in workers at an early stage increased productivity overall, and was also an indicator of which workers could be sent off to “early retirement” when it came time for budget cuts.
The dreams were observed via an interface that translated brainwave patterns into 3D holographic images. Jess didn’t know how the machine worked. It was built back before the world went to shit, by people now long since dead. She did know that the machine was intended to aid in the treatment of mental patients, but that all changed when the private sector bought out the technology and decided to monetize it to make a better return on their investment.
Jess liked her job, by and large. The gruesome sights, the nightmares–none of it really bothered her. Sometimes the sex dreams were awkward. But sifting through people’s subconscious thoughts was easier than talking to them while they were awake. Her anti-social tendencies made her uniquely qualified to deal with the often disturbing imagery dwelling within the human mind. No matter what she saw, Jess never got too immersed. She always knew that it wasn’t real. And she recognized the most important fact–that people had very little control over all the thoughts and fears bouncing around inside their heads.
If anything, the truth was the exact opposite. All the fears, the neuroses, they controlled us.
Minutes passed, or they seemed to, and Mr. Shepard’s sink was now overflowing with blood and saliva-slick teeth. No matter how many came loose and fell out of his jaw, more sprouted from his gums, shiny and wet, to take their place.
Jess put a finger to her earpiece. “Have you got what you need yet?”
After several moments, an analyst’s voice answered back. “We’ve got what we need. You’re free to extract.”
“We can leave?” Steven asked, looking pale. “Thank God.”
Mr. Shepard, the grimy hotel room, they all faded away in a flash, leaving Jess and Steven standing in an empty white room.
Jess dismissed Steven and made her way to the control room. Or, as the analysts mockingly referred to it, “the place where dreams are made”.
The control room was a maze of monitors and cabinet sized computers made up of spinning reels and blinking lights. Jess was greeted by Dale, a thin, mousy looking man in a sweat stained white shirt. Dale was many things, but he wasn’t annoying, and for that, Jess tolerated his company.
“How’s the trainee working out?” Dale asked.
“Steven?” Jess asked. “He doesn’t have the stomach for the work, and I don’t have the time to babysit.”
“Shame.” Dale shook his head. “I know you could use the help. Have you seen how packed the schedule is for next week?”
Jess wasn’t listening. Her attention was on the setting sun, falling below the horizon line, being swallowed up by the ocean waves. Another day gone. In the past, cities were all lit up at night. Corporate towers glowed more fiercely than the brightest stars, neon signs cast waves of light out onto the streets. Now when night came the candle flames were snuffed, the lamps dimmed, and the whole world was gently swallowed up by the encroaching dark.
“Long day, huh?” Dale placed a hand on Jess’s shoulder. She tried her hardest not to recoil from his touch. “What’s on your mind?”
Jess sighed. “Just thinking about how a place can change you. There was a time when I wouldn’t go near a corporate city-state. I can’t tell you how many business towers I’ve set fire to. And now…”
Jess didn’t finish her sentence.
“If that’s true, how did you ever end up in a city like Eidum? And working for the Aeus family, no less?” Dale said.
“Rebel organizations, so-called ‘Eco-Terrorists.’ For all their admirable qualities, they don’t offer healthcare plans. I had to grow up sometime.” Jess turned to walk away.
“Wait!” Dale shouted after her. “What about Alan Shepard? The guy you just observed?”
Jess stopped walking but didn’t turn back around to face Dale. “Don’t bother waking him,” she said. “Upper management made up their mind before today’s observation session even started. We were just there to gather data to reinforce their decision. Existential crises aren’t good for workplace morale. Someone will be along to flush him in the morning.”
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.