First Readers – TCL is looking for volunteers

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 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’ll respond to confirm whether or not to move to the next step which is to read a group of sample stories and write personal rejections for each of them, as well as to write a note of whether you would likely reject the story outright or pass it on for another read and why.

Truth in Repetition

My fellow negotiator circled the map projected on the broad table in the center of the pool, her tentacles sloshing small, briny waves over my knees. I watched her movements, the way her lower limbs acted with complete independence from the upper arms.

If I hadn’t decided to work for the company, I could have joined one of the science teams coming to study her people. Instead, I knew just enough about them to convince her to sign a mining contract. I told myself, like I had on the other worlds, that she’d forgive me when she found out the truth.

It was one of the lies I repeated so often I almost believed it.

My encounter suit had the latest technology, the cost of which came out of my pay, but the chill of the water crept through to numb me to mid-thigh. The cold drained color from my skin, which helped me in these talks. With the environment safe for humans, at least for a while, I’d left the encounter suit open at the top so she could see my face, neck, and chest. For them, covering the skin during a negotiation showed dishonesty.

I’d spent the nine months of my journey studying what the company’s research teams had learned about her people. If I didn’t succeed, this would be my third failure. I’d be fired, debts unpaid.

A faint iridescence chased over her flat, gray torso. Her face had no brows to furrow, no nose to twitch. Her black eyes had no discernable pupils to dilate. Instead, her people looked at the colors on their skin as an emotional compass.

“I do not understand.” Finally, she spoke. Her mouth took in air and pushed sounds back through tubes on her back to hum through the air and water.

The translator bot was reliable but spoke without emotion. I looked to her skin to gauge her mood. Flares of yellow and orange stood out from the gentle swirls of color on her skin. Annoyance, and curiosity, which I could head off if I did everything right.

“Why would you stay such a short time, and only for this land?” She waved a webbed hand, thick and stubby and not human, at the map. “You offer us the technology and experiences of a hundred worlds, for a rock.”

I listened to the clicks and whistles of her speech and felt the vibrations from her voice. The complicated triumvirate of communication using skin pigmentation in addition to auditory signals that also caused vibrational patterns was entirely unique. Their art, their music, would be astounding. Non-human artistic expression had been my specialty. I could have learned so much if I’d kept on a scientific path.

It wouldn’t have paid my loans, which were accruing interest as we spoke. I took a deep breath to keep my heartbeat steady. A flush in my skin would put her on alert. The red color, to them, would mean anger or shame, emotions I should not be feeling. The wrong reaction and she would send me back.

“The land marked in blue is where we would like to buy from you.” I pronounced each word to be sure the translator bot would capture it as well as it could.

“I can read your language, and I understand this map. Better than you do, since it is my world.” Her speech tubes buzzed angrily, and orange flared down her neck and chest.

I couldn’t stop the flush this time and bowed my head, acknowledging regret, until the agitated hum faded from her breathing tubes. Even with my trained patience, I had to struggle to stay relaxed. If I could convince her to sign, I’d get two percent of the profits from selling this planet’s rich fields of beryllium ore. The success would be enough to pull me out of the hole I’d climbed into. If not, I’d have no way to pay off what I owed to school and company until the seven-year non-compete period ended. By which time the interest rate would have ballooned the sum to a number I couldn’t imagine.

I’d spend the rest of my life living in a charity pod so small I’d only be able to lie down one way. I swallowed hard to choke down the thought of what I’d have to do to stay alive. Human life was cheaper than robots, which left ways to earn money that would wear you down to nothing. The chill in my gut had nothing to do with the water or the wind off the ocean waves beating at the walls of the room. I never intended to be a liar, but when I had to choose between lying and the fear of a life of pointless pain, that’s exactly what I did.

“Beryllium is very valuable to our technology,” I said. “You don’t use it. The field of ore is in that area, so we don’t need to go anywhere else. We estimate it will take five sun cycles to extract most of the ore, at which time we can make further arrangements, or we could move on. You would own the ocean above, and we would limit our presence to the land nearby. As you can see, my people aren’t made to move in water like yours.”

I gestured to my legs, thick and clumsy in the waves. She watched me, unblinking. The edges of her solid black eyes crinkled. Darkness flickered amongst the iridescent swirls that flowed against her silver skin. That meant heavy thought, usually concern. Reasonable emotions, in this situation. No need to worry.

“A regret.” She opened her jaws to show a glimpse of pointed incisors – her people’s way of smiling. “We could teach you, if you stay.”

My heart lurched. There it was – the chance I’d have once given everything to take.

She moved again, passing between me and the map as she circled the room. I avoided looking at her, tongue tied and glad my skin wouldn’t show conflict.

“Perhaps.” It was all I could say.

“What if we do not approve of your work?” She moved on. “What if we want you to leave?”

An easy answer, one I’d rehearsed that allowed me to keep a hold on my emotions.

“Your people would observe as much as they wanted. You can halt the project at any time,” I said. “Everything is in the project proposal.”

“What you do is safe?”

Her body flipped in a graceful arc to turn to look at me, one pair of lids blinking as she leveled her stare. I imagined those eyes going dull, the chasing rainbows on her skin decaying to a sickly green. The natural, briny scent of the ocean changed to one of rot and chemicals in my nose. I knew that smell now, from visits to planets at the ends of their contracts. The fine print did not specify how the minerals would be extracted, only that it would be done “safely, with minimal impact.” The company chose planets that were part of no alliances and would not know to ask for specifics. With a contract willingly signed, they had no legal recourse with our government.

“We have done this many times, and safety is our first concern,” I said, the approved words stumbling from my lips while I tried to think.

“This is the truth?” She watched my skin, not my eyes, waiting for it to give me away. All I had to do was to let my heart beat faster and she would know when I lied.

The truth was that her people would be poisoned by the process of extracting minerals. Beryllium particles would float through the water and into their lungs. Only some would die, but their world and their society would be changed forever. The truth was that the company specified a five-year period because they estimated, from experience, it would take that long before they couldn’t hide what they were doing to the planet.

If I told her, she might expel me for the lies. The company would fire me, and I’d fall into a slow death, and for what? I’d be replaced with someone else as they moved to the next planet on their list.

Or I could tell the truth and ask for sanctuary. I could expose the company to anyone who might care. I could do what I’d always wanted and stop lying.

Wind came in from the sea outside, as cold as a splash of ice water. Nothing in the file told me if she would be merciful and let me stay. But I knew exactly how merciful the company would be.

I looked up and smiled. My breath came easily, steady with confidence in my choice. The warm beginning of a flush faded from my skin. As she watched me, yellow whorls of doubt dissipated from her body.

“Of course it’s safe.” I smiled and lied to myself that I didn’t feel regret. “You have my word.”

Elizabeth Rankin is the daughter of a librarian and grew up telling stories in the stacks. She worked in publishing before transitioning to marketing for a company that makes technical materials, which provides lots of story ideas. When not writing, she might be trying out new recipes, volunteering for more than she should, or playing with her dogs. She lives with her husband in their eventual dream house in Cleveland, Ohio, USA


Know Thy Roommate

The first week in my house, Hermann ate my bookshelf.

Overgrowing his ceramic pot, his green leaves and tentacly vines encroached on the shelves, one by one, covering my books with ivy-like foliage.

Hermann is a plant. At least, I thought he was. Now, I’m not so sure.

He was an odd find at a yard sale eight weeks ago, and I couldn’t leave such a lonely, over-pruned plant sitting in the cold rain. The sight hurt my heart, as if someone had given the Queen’s roses a buzz cut during full bloom.

It needed a loving home. So, I brought it to my house and named it Hermann.

Today, he sits as if plant-purring at me, draped between my bookshelf and curio cabinet, resting the way plants might, if planning. I wonder what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s preening in the cabinet mirror, or trying to figure out how hinges work so he can make his viny way through the door. I have a feeling he might get there someday.

I haven’t tried to rein him in. Maybe I should—but I’m a strong advocate for freedom of all living things. That includes plants, doesn’t it? Maybe I should be more careful, but I like letting Hermann wander around the house. I think he deserves a chance.

Now, Hermann’s vines cover the entire bookshelf and he’s headed for the sofa and end table. Tiny leaves curl around my bookmarks. I imagine his little humming plant thoughts working away at titles, choosing this one or that one—I can almost hear them. Do plants read? Hermann didn’t seem interested in books at first, at least not three weeks ago. Then, I noticed a slight disarray on the shelves, as if small fingers were tipping out volumes and then pushing them back. A week later, Hermann managed to knock selected works off the shelves in alphabetical order. I think he’s getting smarter.

I think he’s trying to tell me something.

Last week, he went for Shakespeare.

Maybe he’s hungry for knowledge.

Three days ago, I started reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn out loud to him. I thought he might like it. He didn’t rustle for hours afterward, but he’d consumed the end table by morning. I’d also left my copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel on it.

This morning, his fallen leaves spelled out my name on the floor. I’m touched, but I’m getting a little nervous. When I come home from work today, I think I’ll talk with him.

I climb the last steps to my front door, thinking about Hermann, as I have all day. As I place my key in the lock and turn it, leaves curl out from under the door, arranging themselves into the word “Bienvenue” on my doormat. A tiny vine threads through the crack in the door and winds around my key. As I apprehensively push open the door, a tendril drops from above, sliding over my shoulder. It coils around my wrist and I’m tugged inside my house, into evening darkness, hearing a distinct rustle of approaching familiar leaves.

A lamp turns on. I look up to find Hermann towering above me—he’s grown! I must have left plant fertilizer in an unlocked cabinet. But the foliage bends aside and the tendril tugs me over to the sofa. There, I find a hot cup of tea awaiting and Les Miserables sitting open on the coffee table.

A page is marked.

I look at Hermann. He rustles a little, as if waiting expectantly. “Thank you,” I say. I sit on the sofa and pick up the book, the fragrance of lemon tea wafting around me. As I read aloud about prisons and escapes and freedom, Hermann’s tendrils creep past me, rustling over to the window. Framing it with his vines and leaves, he seems to peer wistfully outside.

I close the book in sudden realization.

“I understand, Hermann.”


I go search for a shovel. Some living things simply aren’t meant to be contained. I’m so glad he told me. I know a perfect spot he’d like in the back garden, where he’ll never be enclosed again: in the sun, and at the edge of the forest, if he chooses to explore farther. I’d like him to have a choice. I’m sure he’ll tell me when he’s ready to move on. And, in the meantime, I have some lovely books about the outdoors that I think he’ll enjoy.

Sandra Siegienski is a speech pathologist in the Pacific Northwest. Her fiction has appeared in The Colored Lens and The Timberline Review, and has placed in multiple contests, including the Mike Resnick Memorial Award and the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. An enthusiastic student of languages, culture, dance, and history, Sandra is currently writing a variety of sci-fi/ fantasy and young adult novels as well as short stories.

The Moon, She Sings

Daniel pried his son’s grip from the windowsill. “I told you to stay down,” he said. “It’s not safe.” Gnarled impressions of carpet pressed into Daniel’s bare calves beneath William’s weight. They sat on the floor, William in his lap, tucked in the shadows behind the sleeper sofa. The full moon’s light shone through the windows despite blinds, curtains, pillows, and furniture.

How many days? He’d lost track. More than twenty.

Daniel stroked his son’s soft black hair. William’s breaths were quick, shallow. Emerging from the basement was risky, but Daniel couldn’t see Susan from the basement. She’ll be back soon. His wife had run after Annabelle, who’d escaped. She promised.

William’s feverish, first-grader eyes looked up at Daniel, then kept rolling until white. “The moon wants to see me.” The boy jerked in a near-seizure, back locked in an arch.

“I know son,” Daniel said, embracing William tighter, biceps aching from days of restraint. “But the moon isn’t good for you.”

Isn’t good for anyone. What did they call it? Supramoon. Fucking thing wouldn’t set, wouldn’t dim, wouldn’t let the damn sun come out. Just shine and shine and—


Screams in the street.

Sometimes the screams cut short. Sometimes they didn’t. Daniel couldn’t help but listen to the woman’s long wail—a police siren from the throat blaring an emergency that couldn’t be undone. There were silvery-skinned prowlers in the streets—nightcrawlers snatching moon-fevered children who chased the sky. A week ago, Daniel saw the neighbor’s twins, Reggie and Regina, break through their living room bay windows and run into the streets, heedless of the blood pouring from their arms and faces. The nightcrawlers grabbed the children, whisked them away into the sky, lost in the light.

Daniel spied a dented, unopened can of Diet Coke on the lopsided IKEA coffee table. Snack-sized pretzels and overturned plasticware littered the carpet. They never did get to watch the Superbowl. Did the Seahawks win? They probably lost. Everything was lost. He wished Susan and Annabelle would come back.

No—no more wishes.

Wishes were dangerous. Wish upon a star. Never again.

William squirmed in his lap. Daniel quietly hummed William’s favorite song from Pinocchio. They sat together for a while, William struggling, Daniel humming and clinching until William finally settled, exhausted. But William wouldn’t sleep—couldn’t sleep now. The moon’s lure was too strong. Daniel didn’t dare sleep either. He stared at the Diet Coke. Diet. Susan and her fucking diets. He wanted sugar, but at least the soda had caffeine.

Daniel leaned slowly, carefully, arm outstretched, grasping. The can was just out of reach. He shifted, leaning on one hip. The can spun clockwise against his fingertips. So close.

William erupted violently, flailing elbows and knees. Off balance, Daniel fell backward. “William!” He managed to snag his son’s shirt, but William pulled away, ripping out of it and Daniel’s one-armed grasp.

Daniel froze.

William’s skin shined moonlight. The boy ripped the barricade aside and smashed the window, silver running from the cuts.

“William,” Daniel whispered, terrified.

William turned. In place of eyes, perfect visages of the moon stared at Daniel. Then the boy leaped out the window, squeaky voice singing the lullaby into the night.

Phillip E. Dixon is an English Professor from Las Vegas. He holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, speaks lousy German to his two cats, and spends his rent money on coffee as a good addict should.

Risky Magic

Part One: The Accident

It smelled of cinnamon and smoke. The cinnamon came from the scented candles. The smoke from everything else.

“And the fireball came through that window over there?”

A. Haverford Gibbons, sinewy dark hair thinning by the minute, gestured at a gash in the side of the brick-and-mortar walls of the candle factory wide enough to wrangle cattle through. The minefield of twisted glass knots below suggested that there used to be a window there.

“Yessah. The first fireball, anyway. A couple others came through the roof.” The gruff, overalled factory owner waggled a fat finger at the gaping skylight above, through which a roasting summer sun poured down. “And then the one with the moustache, the Count, he raised Rog, my foreman, from the dead and Rog started disassembling some of the machinery into a weapon.”

“And did Rog do any damage?” Hav asked.

“Not really. He was very polite about it, like he felt all guilty about being a zombie, y’know. Even swept up the spare parts into a trashcan, which was a little hard, cause the fireball had taken his arm, ya see,” the owner pantomimed sweeping with one arm, and then shuffling a dustpan, and then sweeping again. “But then he got hit by a second fireball.”

Haverford—Hav for short—sighed, readjusting the thin, wire-rimmed glasses that hooked his ears. He took precise, clean notes in his pressed black notebook. Precision was important in this job. It was the details that ensured solvency.

He counted the figures internally. This would be expensive. The machinery could be replaced easily enough. But the structural integrity of the building seemed jeopardized. A probing finger tested one of the support beams, which wobbled like gelatin. Both he and the factory owner shared an eyebrows-at-the-roof-of-their-foreheads stare as they waited to see if the wobble would collapse the entire frame.

Death by rubble would at least have been a relief from his financial troubles. They would have to raze the building from the ground and begin anew. And then there was the liability for the zombie. The lucky cremation would cut down on funeral costs, but he had a widow. The whole ordeal would easily burst through the policy ceiling.

“Would you like some coffee?” The owner asked.

Hav nodded. “With a pinch of sugar and a dash of whiskey if you have it.”

The man laughed. “Just the sugar, I think.” He stepped carefully over with a tin cup, brimming with rich brown, smelling faintly of burning. Or maybe that was just the innards of the building, deformed and cooked. Hav hated that smell, couldn’t separate it from the memories that it carried. Why did it always have to be fire?

Archwizard Frizzell Fantastic had only moved to Huddleton six months ago but the damage toll he had racked up had been substantial. Sure, it was nice that the necromancers and warlocks and blood demons that used to occasionally pop up and possess or sacrifice or torture their poor denizens were being rounded up and set ablaze. But did the Archwizard need to level a city block to do it? Was it worth trading the occasional ghoul attack for this constant rain of fire?

And why did they keep having to be his buildings. Why couldn’t the good Archwizard explode a factory insured by the white-heeled toffs over at Zane, Zephyr, and Zotts? Even their slogan was aggravating—We Don’t Sleep at Night, So You Can. But no, it seemed every crime the damned wizard managed to foil happened to be inside of, or adjacent to, or within the vicinity of a property covered by his policies. And Frizzell Fantastic had to set them alight to stop it.

Hav closed his little, black book of figures and sipped the coffee again. It tasted strong and sour, just like he enjoyed it, just like Margery used to make it.

The Most Famous Noosemaker of that Moving Country

The first I saw of her was three minutes of video surreptitiously taken before the camcorder was confiscated. All footage of her unique act was strictly controlled. I remember losing the need to breathe as the sunlight runneling off the stained-glass spine of Tessadorma Cathedral broke into a billion particles across her taut scapulae. I understood why men gave up food for art. Each small motion of her brutal-angled body declared her mastery of it as she strode across her stage. This woman had honed herself into the devoted tool of her profession. Even as she gripped the rope in both of those strong hands and hoisted her subject kicking into the air, I knew that my life would be a disappointment if it did not, however fleetingly, intersect with hers.

The most famous noosemaker of Vizhilly was waiting for me when I emerged from the terminal three hours delayed. The sight of her loitering on the curb beside her autocar like a common chauffeur stopped me short and smacked me silent.

“Are you the reporter then?” she asked, in accented but professorial Anglic. She was taller than me by a few inches and similarly broader. Black hair braided into thick bulbs piled upon her strong shoulders, that musculature a testimony to a lifetime of physical labor. She wore a peacock-colored avgeré, like a saree that tied into a bow at the chest, and a pair of leather driving gloves. Flecks of gold jewelry glinted modestly from her ears, lips, and brow. There was an aquiline sharpness to her features, an inherent disapproval of everything, and her lavender eyes seemed to scold me for staring.

“That’s me, ma’am,” I stammered. I’d spent the overnight flight constructing my perfect first impression, and it currently lay in pieces at my feet.

“Good,” she said tersely but not unkindly, and opened the passenger’s door. “Come along. We’re behind schedule.”

Her voice carried the same authority as the nuns who’d thrashed me through four years of Yeshuite school. I hurried to throw my luggage inside and myself after it.

I’d dialed my editor Ian moments after I’d seen her on that video. I hadn’t expected to be so much as humored. I’d put in my time covering separatist rallies in Azovian Rus and labor protests in B?izh?u, but the New Anglund Post was still a callow upstart in the court of journalism, and a deep-dive on one of the world’s most reclusive celebrities seemed like reaching at stars from the bottom of a well. Yet two weeks later I was presented with a ticket to the country where she plied her trade. “A shot in the dark doesn’t always miss,” Ian had said, sounding just as dumbfounded as I was.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said, as she took us on to the road.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” she replied sidelong, fastidiously studying the traffic. “Such is the reality of a country like mine.”

True enough. It was difficult as it was to land an aeroplane on a stationary target, much less one in perpetual, unpredictable motion. The country of Vizhilly, that restless landmass, was presently squelching like a kidney stone between the borders of Cumanistan and Gurkanistan on its way westward, and the conflicting airspaces of those two rival nations had made my decent more of an action movie than I could enjoy.

As the freeway emerged from a tunnel, it took us in a descending swoop over the capital city of Tessadorma. A heavy, hot rain beat down upon its rolling terra-cotta surface, courtesy of the atmospheric confusion whipped up by the country’s motion. The guidebooks called it the Seasonless City; so close to Vizhilly’s hindmost border no climate was guaranteed. This land snared winds on its dorsal mountains as it traveled, abducting and releasing at whim, the same as it purloined culture and architecture from those nations it visited or had fleetingly conquered it. This high above the depressed cityscape I could make out pagodas lifted from B?izh?u, aqueducts pilfered from the Reman Empire before its collapse. An old city patched with modernity, like Edo or Parisius, but old from many times more deposits of age. I felt fleetingly nauseous when I pulled my eyes away, as though I teetered over a thousand compounded vistas instead of one.

I recalled the famous words that the Emperor Gaius Caesarion had uttered upon his coming to this land: Ita vero. Mundus hie agit. Tis true, the world does flow here.

“Motion sickness is to be expected,” the noosemaker said, noticing my reaction. “It should pass quickly. If not, there are pills.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, probably lying. “I didn’t expect you to pick me up in person. Don’t you have people?”

“Of course,” she replied. “But when I saw that we were to lose plenty of time as it was, I decided not to waste any more sending a driver here and back. I thought we might begin the preliminary interview now, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I said, hurriedly producing my digital recorder. “Whenever you’re ready.”

She did not take her eyes off the road but did lean in slightly, to be heard. “My name is Chella Gipzodi,” she said, enunciating carefully. “I am thirty-three years old, and I execute people beautifully.”

Three-Piece String Assassination

Chrysanthemum Montgomery: the baddest bitch on any side of any river. Period. Full stop. She lounged into the bar, a goon on each arm. She dripped danger, oozed glamour, and fixed every eye upon her without the need for any kind of magic.

For a moment, the song flew from my mind, and there was nothing but Chrysanthemum, spotlighted in the doorway, a crime queen entering stage left.

Come on, Betty, keep your cool. You’re just the music, hired strings. You ain’t got no business knowin’ who that lady is, just play your Baby, croon your tune. Lull the mood. Don’t let nobody know you’re here to kill Montgomery.

I closed my eyes, finished the song with what I hoped was the same gusto I started it. The applause was more than we’d earned all night, and I took a bow with my beautiful upright bass – my Baby – swirling at my side, so she too could get her due.

It was Angelica’s turn to belt out a ballad. She shot me a wink, smiling as we shuffled into place, me and my Baby at the back, holding down the beat, she in front, boom-chucking on her guitar while sweet alto melody slipped ‘cross her lips into the inebriated air.

Carla had closed her eyes, finally finding some semblance of unity as she coaxed fills out of her fiddle. I eased into the background, just where I liked to hang, letting my eyes rove over the audience, who gradually grew more attentive as the night drifted on. I tried not to stare at Chrysanthemum any longer than any of the rest, but it was mighty hard not to stare. Not just cuz she was the mark, our golden goose, our ticket to a cush gig with the Agency (or a walk in the river with concrete shoes, if we failed). She was gorgeous.

I waited for a clear shot from the stage to the booth where she sat, martini held in an effortlessly elegant hand. But the air between my eyes and hers blurred frequently with patrons passing to the bar, by waitstaff selling their service for the hope of plump tips, by bickering couples cutting date night short. Our set ended with Chrysanthemum Montgomery still very much alive and applauding us with a jangle of bangles and a glint of rings.

“We’ll be back in fifteen minutes with another set,” Carla said into the mic while Angelica wiped down her strings. “Feel free to come up and say howdy. We’ll be at our merch table.” She pointed to the little folding card table we’d outfitted with a thrift-store suitcase to display our wares: CDs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, ball caps.

I spun and dipped my Baby onto her side and slid the footpeg in so no one could trip over it. No god could save the soul who broke my Baby’s bridge. I was gulping down water when one of Chrysanthemum’s goons hopped up on stage, a spread of muscle thinly veiled under white cotton and blue denim.

“If you want merch, I’ll be right there.” I tried not to show the mix of peeved and scared at war behind my eyes: did Chrysanthemum know she was marked?

“Mamma C wants a word.” Mr. Muscles jerked a thumb over his shoulder at his boss, who tilted her head, smiled, and gave me a delicious little finger wave when she saw me looking.

“Sure.” I gulped. We were blown. This night wasn’t gonna end with us making pay dirt and a contract, but with our brains minced across the back alley, and our instruments disintegrated on the asphalt.

I followed Mr. Muscles, trying not to piss my tights. Relax. Just relax. You’re a badass bass player. You’re a sonomancer. What have you got to fear?

Angelica cast me a worried glance from the bar where she waited to collect our free beers. I gave her the tiniest shrug and shook my head. Stand by, sister. I don’t know what’s up just yet.

Mr. Muscles deposited me in front of Chrysanthemum’s table and slouched back into his place as one of his boss’s bookends. “Ms. Betty, right?” Chrysanthemum extended one of her hands with its long dainty fingers perfect for gouging out eyes. “You can call me Mamma C.”

I fought the urge to curtsey over that hand and gave it what I hoped was a standard, not-at-all-nervous shake. “Pleasure,” I managed through a closing throat. “How’re you enjoying your evening?”

She smiled, dropping my hand, and if I hadn’t been so scared shitless, I might have swooned right then and there. God, her teeth were pretty. And those eyes. Man. I could’ve stared into those eyes until eternity came and tapped me on the shoulder to tell me time was up.

“Y’all are fantastic,” said Mamma C. “Top notch. I love me some lady song-slingers.” She seemed to mean it, the smile crinkling the corners of her eyes, which only made them more transfixing.

“Thank you,” Only long practice at accepting bullshit compliments from drunk dudes tryin’ to land themselves in my pants kept me from blushing like a schoolgirl at the genuine, bona fide compliment she’d paid me. “I’m glad you’re havin’ a good time.” Thinking that was all she wanted to say, I turned to head back to supervising the sale of merch, but a butter-warm, silk-soft hand tightened on my arm, like a python constricting her prey.

“Just a minute,” said Mamma C. “I was wondering if y’all are free next Saturday. I’m throwin’ a party and my band canceled on me.” She pouted, and it was all I could do to keep from biting my lip.

“Next Saturday?” I asked, voice shooting up an octave while I found where my scattered thoughts had gone.

“Mmm hmm.”

Did they turn up the heat in here, or was it just me? “Yeah, yeah, we’re free.” We weren’t but how could we turn down the chance to make private party money? And, it’d be the perfect cover for completing our contract: one bird, two paychecks. Easy, right? We’d just give the Agency a little call, explain the situation. It wasn’t like we’d blow the kill; we’d just postpone it.

It’d be fine.

“Perfect,” Mamma C smiled that lazy predatory smile that promised to eat me all the way up. “Do you have a card? I’ll email you the details.”

My cold limp fingers somehow managed to slip into my dress pocket, scrounged past the digital tuner and the rosin to the stack of business cards I’d miraculously managed to load in there. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” Another smile, and I could finally make my retreat.

“The heck was that all about?” Carla whispered in my ear as Angelica handed me my beer.

“We need to cancel that bar gig next Saturday.” My hands seeped sweat, and no amount of thigh-rubbing seemed to dry them. “Mamma C wants us to play a party for her.”

My band sisters blinked at me. “But the contract?” Carla asked.

“We ask Vasili and the Agency for an extension,” I said. “This is a big gig. We slay it, and who knows how many of Mamma C’s fancy friends will want to hire us next?” Whether as assassins or musicians didn’t matter much; a paying gig was a paying gig.

Carla crossed her arms. “Mamma C, is it now?” Her frown intensified from concern to girl-you’ve-gone-crazy. “You’re not getting cold feet at the prospect of blasting a pretty face, now are you?”

I shook my head, perhaps a little too vehemently. “No, this is strictly about the exposure.”

Carla snorted. “You know what they say about exposure, right?”

I waved the cliché away. “Yeah, yeah. This ain’t some coffee house gig where they pay in doughnuts and drink cards. This is a fancy-ass house party where all the up and ups in organized crime will be watching us. Plus, Mamma C pays good.” I didn’t know that, but a lady who could afford that manicure could afford to shell out for a band.

“Fine,” said Carla. “But you get to tell Vasili.” Her finger hung in the air before my nose, a symbol of her seriousness. “And update the Agency.”

I nodded, and we began our second set.

Factory Reset

My double mouse click bounces off the polished concrete floor and bare brick walls. The silence swallows it after a time, leaving behind the patter of tiny rain drops against the only window in the apartment. The cursor on screen is a small blue circle and spins with a Sisyphean determination. All I can do is wait and listen to the never-ending rain and think of you.

Your lopsided smile accompanied your braying laughter as we walked through mist—both of us without jackets—and you explained that if I wanted to seem like a native of the city I must never get caught with an umbrella, even when it pours. I asked about the dangers of rusting. You laughed again and said every robot here has a little bit of rust on them.

A dialog box pops up with instructions to plug myself into the CPU via a hyperlink USB. The cord already dangles down the side of the computer tower, an end plugged into one of the four slots at the top next to the power switch. The other end reflects the green LEDs that light the CPU’s guts, ready whenever I am.

With trembling fingers, I plug myself in.

The first box disappears, and another appears in its place.

Begin factory reset?

Without giving my servos time to rationalize their way out of it, I strike enter and release a definitive click from the mechanical keyboard. A sound that used to bring me so much joy now reverberates numbly in my hollow chest.

A third box.

WARNING. Performing factory reset will clear all short and long term memory caches except those essential for base function. Are you sure you wish to proceed?

I had to put in a request for the hyperlink USB needed to complete a factory reset. It takes a year for these requests to be approved, per governmental regulations. Robots can’t go around resetting themselves all willy-nilly, after all. During the wait period, I had to go to four different government mandated counseling sessions to prove I was serious about wanting a reset. Show the powers that be that I was sure I knew what I was getting myself into.

I was sure a year ago. I’m sure now.

Sure about losing the 5074 movies we saw together. Sure about rewatching forty-eight thousand hours of television at our typical double speed in an attempt to rediscover my favorite shows. Sure about forgetting the lyrics to myriad songs intrinsically attached to you. Sure about not remembering the house we bought and moved into and loved inside of. Sure about looking at our cats as three strays who broke into my cold studio apartment and brought their own litter boxes and food with them.

So sure about all of it, as long as it finally gets you out of my head. Because I can live without those things. But living without you is impossible.

I hit enter again, and once the sound fades, nothing remains but the rain.


“Hey,” comes the Discord message popping into the corner of my screen.

My eyes flick towards it, shifting away from the bright colors of my game client. The username is unfamiliar to me, complete gibberish in white text.

I’m sure I never added this guy. But he must have heard a glimmer of my voice in an innocuous group call on a mutual server. That’s always how it begins.

“Hello,” I reluctantly reply, allowing myself to take the first step in the familiar dance.

“So, what rank are you?” he asks.

I’m taken aback. Who starts a conversation like that? Rank is an agonizingly sensitive subject to anyone who has ever stared at a screen until sunrise, chasing a win, attempting to muster that latest guide they watched to climb to a place where they could at least close their eyes satisfied. Most people have the couth to at least warm up with small talk.

“Gold four,” I answer anyway. If I wanted to, I could let myself get insecure of the recent loss streak that had dragged me down two tiers and ruined my weekend. But acknowledging insecurity is the first step towards doing something stupid.

“I could coach you, babe. We could reach platinum together at least,” he says.

“That’s nice of you,” I reply, “But I’m not looking for a coach.”

Predictably, he is not deterred. I could have responded with any possible combination of letters, and it wouldn’t have mattered. “This is my main account,” he says, posting a link.

I don’t bother clicking on it. It could be anyone’s account. Honesty is never a high priority on the internet.

“But I’ll need something in return,” he continues.

A grimace slides onto my face like tar. “Like what?” I type.

I click back to my game, hoping that I can make this guy stop existing if I ignore him. But his response is immediate.

“Do you have an insta?” he asks.

I sigh. “No,” I reply.

“That’s too bad,” he types, “Your voice is so cute.”

“Thanks?” I respond.

“Send me some pics?” he asks, “I bet you’re so pretty.”

“…” is all I reply. Anyone with tact would know that these weird compliments are far from flattering. I wonder if he thinks I’m blushing in my chair.

Predictably, my obvious discomfort is ignored. “Send me something sexy?” he asks.

A familiar disgust floods my stomach. “Not a chance,” I type as quickly as my fingers will move.

There is a microscopic chance of him actually accepting no for an answer. They never do.

Boxcar Witchcraft

On the morning after Prohibition went the way of the dodo, the Hobo Witch-king came to call. I stood in the narrow alley behind the brothel where I was raised, pissing away the sour mash demons that hadn’t quite let go. Only long johns and the carryover warmth from my bedroll protected me from the freezing Chicago air. I knew it must be something serious. King never called on anyone. He rode the rails from jungle to jungle, held court, and the hobos and road kids with the traveling craft called on him. I still had my pecker out when I heard his familiar voice behind me.

“Something wrong with the toilets in that fancy house o’ yours?” he asked.

I couldn’t stop a grin from spreading ear-to-ear as I tucked myself away and turned to face him. Before me stood a gaunt man who looked more like a downtown banker than a hobo. Three times my own twenty years, at least, he wore a fancy gentleman’s suit years out-of-date but showing little wear; his shoes had no holes and the fresh shine gleamed. Beneath his full head of bone white hair, coal black eyes twinkled with mischief. I grabbed the old man and pulled him in for a hug. When I caught a whiff of his cologne, I became all too aware of my own sweat and whiskey stench, but it didn’t matter. King was dear to me, and I wanted to hug him for as long as I could.

“I’ve missed you; it’s been too long,” I said.

“I’ve had to get my affairs in order,” he said with a bit less twinkle in his eye.

My heart cracked. “King, no!” Before I knew it, tears streaked my cheeks.

“Don’t weep for me, St. Valentine. I’ve outlived far too many younger hobos. It’s my time.”

“How can you be sure? Not a doctor, right?”

“It’s true, can’t trust no doctor’s opinion of my health, but I gave myself a reading and the cards of the Hobo ‘Ro don’t lie.”

As I stood there like an idiot, teeth chattering and knees knocking in between sniffs and sobs, the back door opened and Tildy, one of my witch mothers, leaned out.

“Robby Ray Johnson, why are you running around outside in your skivvies? You’ll freeze,” she said.

“The pots inside were full up with witches and sales ladies. Unless you wanted me in there with ‘em, it was head outside in my drawers. And you’re supposed to call me St. Valentine now.”

“Ain’t no way I’m calling you St. Anything,” she scoffed and pointed at my crotch. “That thing of yours finds warm and welcoming beds the way a dowsing rod finds water.”

She wasn’t judging me, just having some fun at my expense. No one who lived in the house cared a lick how someone got their kicks, but my ears burned anyway. Even as a grown man, the witches who raised me had a way of making me feel twelve again, and I got real embarrassed with her talking about my ding-dong like that. She gave me a sly wink that only made matters worse. King’s melodious chuckle followed.

“So true, Miss Tildy,” he said. “More than once, I’ve hoisted Valentine into a moving boxcar to escape the pursuit of angry fathers and brothers.”

“It’s not my fault,” I said with exaggerated indignation, my sadness and embarrassment giving way to the casual comfort of friends and family. “It’s usually their idea, and I’m always sure to do the right charms and cantrips to make sure I’m shooting blanks.” If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned men could often be assholes, and I had vowed long ago not to be an asshole.

“Come on inside, you two,” Tildy scolded. “I can’t feed you, King Robby’s eaten everything in sight, and no one’s been to the market yet, but there’s a fresh pot of coffee brewed.”

“Thank you kindly” King said. Before he crossed the threshold behind me, I heard him pray to the Goddess, “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust.

Tildy grabbed the coffee and a couple of mugs. She indicated King and I should sit at the kitchen table, set the mugs on the table with a clank, and filled them. I rolled up the blankets still laid out on the kitchen floor. To give a boxcar witch like me a more permanent place in the house would spoil the energy of the hearth-and-home rituals. The home of my youth could now only serve as an occasional flop house.

“I need you to catch-out with me,” King said, “and bring some of your boys too. I gotta take the NP to Seattle.”

“Jesus, that’s a long way to ride the rails up north in winter. Especially if you’re sick.”

“I was born by Puget Sound, and I want to die by it, but I don’t have much time.”

I felt tears well up in my eyes again and batted them away harshly, angry that I couldn’t be stronger for King. More followed. “Booker T and Cool Papa are working the World’s Fair with me. I think Brother Mulligan is in town too.”

“I need a couple o’ weeks,” King said, “but I want to catch-out soon after that. Can you and the other boys be ready then?”

Tildy looked both sad and relieved. My witch mothers love me, but it drains them to keep me under their roof. When a couple of Capone’s men had hid with us after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the women turned me out claiming if the cops came, they’d assume I was in on it too. In truth, the growing strength and untamed nature of my traveling craft had begun putting the whole house at risk, even then.

“Of course,” I said. “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust,” I whispered to the Goddess and then got to work making plans.