Sky took a step forward. Her leg stretched out toward the desolate horizon, then came down behind her. She wobbled and half-fell before she regained her balance. She closed her eyes, but it didn’t help.
She’d never been comfortable in her body, but this was ridiculous.
Oil slick-purple clouds rumbled, then dumped sheets of rain that billowed like sails. They smelled like burnt sugar and felt like feathers on her upturned face.
Sky stood, let it drench her. She glanced down at her naked body, trying not to hope and failing.
It was still wrong. Unchanged. Still her familiar, male prison. Reality itself bent and broke around her, but her body remained stubbornly unaltered.
Her tears tasted like cilantro.
Bare trees loomed to her left, and a herd of horses lumbered by, competent if not graceful on their lengthening legs.
Sky watched them, hoping to catch the trick of it.
“You’re new,” a voice said.
A woman floated toward her. Her long blond hair curled and billowed around her naked body, and her pale, bare breasts reminded Sky of how wrong her own body was.
“Yes,” she said. To her delight, her own voice sounded different. Feminine, like she’d always heard it in her head.
The woman blinked. “How strange you are.”
Sky had always been strange. She had thought no one would notice, here. “I’m sorry.” Her voice wavered, new and old within single syllables.
The woman shrugged. “Strange is not bad.”
“Oh,” Sky said. “Good.”
“What is your name?”
“I’m called Celina.” She floated around Sky, looking her up and down. “I’d like to have sex with you. Your body is very fine.”
Sky’s hated penis twitched. It stretched to the horizon, then returned to normal. “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not. I hate this body. I hoped I might change, here.”
Celina frowned. “I don’t understand. Your body is lovely and strong.”
Sky shrugged. She was tired of explaining herself.
“Well, things do change here.”
Celina shrugged. “Why would I wish to?”
Jealousy twisted Sky’s stomach. If she looked like Celina, she wouldn’t want to change either.
“Is there a secret to walking?” Sky asked.
Celina shrugged. “I’m sure there is. But I never bothered to learn it.” She floated in a fast circle around Sky, smirking as Sky’s head turned all the way around to watch. “I float instead. I can teach you.”
“You are interesting, and I am bored. And I am selfish and optimistic enough to maintain designs on sex.”
The person who stops to help me leaves their headlights on, and I can see my body folded up in a way that makes me certain I’m dying.
I can’t move.
This must be what going into shock feels like: nothing at all. But I know I should be feeling something because my left arm bone is sticking through my leather jacket. And I have all these thoughts queued up—the things I know I’m supposed to be thinking about while dying—but all I can think right now is how stupid this fucking jacket is.
Ride or Die. Really?
The man gets out his phone to make a call. I can’t hear anything, but I assume it’s to 911. Then he paces for a bit, probably working up the nerve to comfort me in my last moments, putting on his mask of false-positivity, because he must also know I’m dying.
Then he holds up his phone and walks toward me. I hear the muffled scuffing of his shoes against the asphalt as he approaches, sounds that are far away but close at the same time; or maybe I don’t hear anything. He takes one step back as the glistening pool of my blood almost touches his shoes. He’s still holding up his phone.
Is he filming me?
And now I’m thinking about what I should be thinking about: my family, and how my daughter is only two years old, and how my wife is the most beautiful soul in the universe, and how I am—how I was—so lucky, and how I’m hurting them by leaving them, and how I’m so so so sorry that I’m leaving them, and is this fucking guy actually filming me?
The man is expressionless, his mouth a hard line, his eyes a thousand-yard stare. I try to scream at him, try to yell help!, even though I know he can’t do anything for me. Nothing happens; I don’t move or make a sound.
He continues to circle me, a timid coyote passing out of my field of vision and then back in. He sweeps his camera over the pieces of my motorcycle strewn about the street, then he fixes it back on me again. He stays that way for what feels like the rest of my life.
I still can’t feel anything, but somehow I know my breathing has slowed and I’m getting close to my last moment. And my last moment is going to be with this guy caring more about getting a good shot than me going peacefully. Part of me doesn’t care, but another part feels more alone than ever, and I can’t do anything except lie here and keep on dying, can’t do anything but think things like what’s going to happen after this?, and what if my family sees this video?, and I can’t let that happen. And I get so angry I start to rage inside and think why are you doing this?, and I’m dying!, and leave!, and fuck off! fuck off! fuck off!
And now I’m thinking in pictures. Pictures of all the things I want to see just one more time before I’m gone, but I’m thinking them right at him: a picture of me lying on the couch with my daughter asleep on my chest, of my wife with her hair all messed up in the morning and how it makes her look like a lion, of my daughter hugging our cat a little too tightly, of my cat being fine with it, of my wife in the shower, of my wife squinting because she can’t see me without her glasses, of the three of us sitting around the TV, eating pizza and watching cartoons.
This last thought is a whip lashing out of me, and the man staggers. His eyes go wide and he struggles to regain his footing.
But he still has his phone held up, and my anger becomes a sun in my chest; a fiery star that burns burns burns, then shrinks, waits, and detonates.
The supernova is a bursting series of images, the colors of it lighting up the street: an image of us quietly drinking coffee and my daughter still asleep, of my daughter insisting that I pick her up, of me picking her up, of my wife insisting that I pick her up, too, of both of them laughing, of me laughing with them, of me asking my parents questions that I’ll never get to, of my brothers and sisters, of me telling them I love them, of my little girl’s cheeks, of my wife’s eyes, of their hands and feet, of them happy, of them happy without me, after this, not forgetting me, but being happy.
For a second I forget the man as he’s swallowed up by the spectacle, but when the colors fade I see his hands are shaking so violently that he drops his phone. He’s looking me right in my eyes for the first time, and his face drains of all color. It’s as if he’s just now realizing I’m not an alien. His phone hits the blacktop, and I hear it crack before I actually see it crack.
And now he’s kneeling next to me, his hands still shaking as he takes mine into his. “I’m so sorry, buddy,” he says, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Then he starts saying all the things he should be saying, and I realize I wasn’t the only one in shock.
He says, “It’s going to be okay-ay.”
And, “Y-you hang in the-there.”
And, “Thambulance is on sway.”
And, “Withwith st-stay with me stay me with…”
Drew Rogers is an indie game designer and has been writing short fiction for about two years.
The day before I left to go to sea, I went to visit Alana. She was an aunt or cousin of some distance, but when I was a boy my city was at war and my parents had sent me to stay with her, through the mountains to where the slopes dipped into the sea.
I knocked on the door, though I should have known better. She was not the type to be sitting quietly inside, knitting or reading like my mother, especially on a sunny day like this when the wind rocked the water into gentle waves. Finding no answer at the door, I looked to the garden, where she had once taught me the healing properties of various herbs, where we had once sung the old shaman songs together to encourage the plants to grow.
The garden overflowed with bright blooms, but Alana wasn’t there. I found her sitting on a rock by the shore. She didn’t turn when I sat beside her. Her face looked blissful, her eyes softly focused on the ocean waves.
“I had a dream you’d come,” she said.
“You didn’t get my letter?”
“Mmm,” she said. “Maybe that was it.” Her eyes crinkled. “No, it was a dream. We were watching the whales together, just like now.”
I followed her gaze to the water. The wind pulled the waves up into white tips. I watched for the spout of a whale’s breath, for the emergence of a dark flapping tail.
A few minutes passed before I said, “I don’t see any whales.”
“They’re everywhere,” she said. “Hundreds of them. Look!”
She pointed to a large whitecap, then clasped her hands in delight. It wasn’t her eyesight. She had been old as long as I’d known her, and she’d never had to squint to identify faces or read signs. It was the way she saw.
I tried to see the waves like she did, wanting to believe that her way was right, that there were hundreds of whales cavorting right there in the bay. Maybe they were whales of a different dimension, the songs of their bodies vibrating on a different scale than the songs of our world, and she could see them because she had one foot in that world too, like the shamans who had long disappeared. I tried, but the whales always turned back into waves for me. Just white caps created by the wind.
I kissed her head, the gray strands of her hair soft under my lips. She wrapped both her hands around one of mine. We sat there for another hour, me watching the waves, she watching the whales, until the sun flashed green as it disappeared into the sea.
Let me just freshen your glass, Lera darling, and we’ll go into the garden to see my latest treasure! But can I trust you with a secret?
You remember how, just before the last time I went back to being a girl, I went on the Grand Tour for seven months? With Teldon?
No, not a whisper from him, not since Ringwinter. And my spies tell me
I’m the one who should be asking you, darling, anyway! Well, I booked us a sinfully luxurious suite on the Andromeda, and we went everywhere: Valirette, Holalasha, Nuevo Perú, Yeldi, all the most exotic worlds you can imagine.
Yes, darling, it really is true about the night life on Valirette. Teldon went quite wild in the clubs – you know what he can be like! Of course, at our age, we’ve seen it all, haven’t we? And done it.
Let’s go out through the herb garden. Watch your step! Do try one of these leaves. It’s stensiga, just a nice buzz, hardly addictive at all. No? Well, maybe later?
Anyhow, as I was saying, Holalasha was an utter disappointment. We’d looked forward to seeing the Ice Caverns – well, doesn’t everyone? But after we landed, they told us that they were four hundred kilometers away, and no heliport! We’d have had to take a bus, and spend a night in a nasty local hotel. They showed us a stereo of the rooms, just so shuddersomely primitive: no sensies or even gravbeds! So I told Teldon, if he wanted to go he could, but I was going to stay on board in the suite I’d paid for. In the end he stayed: I think the silly boy thought I was angry with him about that birdgirl in the mud pit at the Casino Valirette.
Well, I may be a century-and-who’s-counting, but I’m not a prude. And besides, the last time this girl got seriously jealous over anything, Teldon wasn’t even born. After all, if I was the jealous type, we wouldn’t still be such good friends, would we, darling?
But Yeldi, now! You’ve seen stereocasts of the Yeldian Flower Jungle, haven’t you? That was one thing I was absolutely not going to miss. Even though the uncouth natives who run the so-called tourist agency there put us through the most absurd nonsense. (Do watch the thorns on that one! Very nasty.)
Before we even got off the ship, we got this idiotic lecture about not touching anything, and had to put on bodysuits with helmets – like space suits. No air tanks, just filters, but utterly, utterly uncomfortable, especially as my hair was right down to my derriere then, and it all had to fit into my helmet. And the stink – my dear! I don’t suppose they ever bother cleaning them, and I think they use the same ones for tourist class passengers. They said the suits were to keep the insectoids away from our skin. Apparently their venom puts you in a coma, and then they inject their larvae and – you don’t want to hear the rest. Trust me.
And after all that, the guide wasn’t even a botanist. Just an enormous Yeldian native, two meters tall, and she didn’t even speak System! Fortunately we had a crewman along to translate.
But the jungle itself? Lera, the stereocasts don’t show you the half of it. All the leaves are dark, dark reds, blues, and purples, like velvet. Even darker than these hexaploid coleus over here. We went at dusk, after Kinna, that’s the bigger sun, had set, so they looked even darker. And you have never, ever seen so many flowers! They came in every size, from huge flowers on the trees a meter across to shrubs with tiny flowerets you need a magnifier to see. And all in more colors than you can begin to imagine. Then Merax set too, and the flowers started to glow, pulsing slowly. And the scent! I was in heaven, darling. Heaven. Even Teldon was impressed.
There was one kind of flower, trumpet-shaped and the most perfect robin’s-egg blue. Each one was about half a meter long, only the narrow part was coiled up in a shape that made your eyes go all funny if you tried to follow it, like one of those clever exhibits in the Topology Room in the Imperial Museum. The guide took out a pocket light, and showed us insectoids, like flying jewels, as big as a fingernail, flying in and out. The odd thing was, if you watched some flowers, one insectoid after another would fly in, as if the flower was sucking them up and destroying them. Quite sinister. And other flowers were just the opposite; the bugs kept flying out, as if the flower was spawning them.
Teldon asked about that. He’s quite clever. About some things, anyway. The guide said something, very low and rumbly, and the translator said these insectoids were the ones that – well, you know. And then she said something else, and the translator said some nonsense about these flowers, all over the planet, being joined together in the fourth dimension. But maybe he hadn’t understood properly. Probably some local superstition or other.
Here we are, Lera! My prize! Yes, you guessed, didn’t you? I was very naughty, and smuggled back a few seeds from that gorgeous blue corkscrew-flower plant. They actually searched us, can you believe it? I planted the seeds this spring. Only one germinated, but isn’t it wonderful? And it’s flowering this week for the first time ever. Doesn’t it smell marvelous?
A bee? Bees aren’t green. No, of course I don’t know, angel. I’m a gardener, not an entomologist. How many legs does it have? Can you see?
Lera! Did it sting you? You really shouldn’t have got so close. You will understand if I stay over here, won’t you?
No, darling, I don’t think there’d be much point calling them. I don’t think there’s any treatment. And, do you know, I think I may have told you a fib. Maybe I was just the tiniest bit jealous about Teldon after all.
The surgeon hesitates, bathed in the harsh lights of the operating theater, scalpel poised above the patient’s exposed abdomen. The patient’s skin is slick and yellowed by the antiseptic swabs, not really human at all-–like the flesh of some alien creature. Now, as with every surgical procedure, he senses a moment, a turning point where outcomes are yet to be determined–and briefly revels in the uncertainty.
He will know soon enough. Just one touch will tell him. Success or failure, life or death–and all before an incision has even been made.
Distantly, he hears the drone of another wave of bombers heading out on a night raid, delivering their payload of terror and destruction by order of Bomber Command. Whose turn tonight, he wonders? Hamburg or Dresden or perhaps Berlin itself?
Around him, the anesthetist and theater nurses wait patiently for him to begin.
He feels paralyzed; unable to move. He cannot bring himself to touch the body. Seconds tick by. Minutes. There are anxious glances but no one dares disturb the silence.
At last he takes a long, shuddering breath, wills the trembling in his hands to cease, and makes an incision. He draws the scalpel downwards in a smooth motion, a line of red beading behind it. He repeats the movement, this time parting layers of subcutaneous fat with deft strokes. As he does so, the strangest feeling comes over him: the sensation of something pushing back, struggling to free itself from the body, slipping and wriggling out through the wound. For an instant he thinks he sees something move past his blade; insubstantial and tenuous, like a barely perceptible waft of smoke.
Hesitating, a nurse steps closer to swab sweat from his brow. He resumes his work, but now the tremors are back.
This will all be for naught, he thinks. The patient will die no matter what I do.
Ah yes. Just another turn of the wheel.
But one word crowds into his thoughts.
For most, it was impossible to walk the Paths of the Dead without first dying oneself. But for those who still practiced the old ways there were occasions when one of the living might walk amongst the spirits. It happened rarely; on long nights, when the moon was just a pale sliver behind dark clouds, and the air was icy as the breath of the dead.
Mati had spent days preparing herself for her journey to the Paths; fasting to the point of starvation, denying herself anything more than a few minutes’ worth of sleep at a time. She even refused water, and her mouth was so dry that her tongue felt like sand scraping the inside of her cheek.
Now she looked like a wild, starving beast, with ravenous red eyes and ropey muscle stretched around taut skin. The bones of her rib cage and shoulders protruded through her skin, and she looked lanky and gaunt, like the shriveled husk shed off by a molting insect.
She sat before a blazing campfire and slicked her hair back with mud she’d gathered from the riverbed. She did this until her hair was plastered flat across the back of her skull and down her neck. After this, she spread white ash across her skin until she was covered completely, and stood out against the backdrop of the night sky like a small knot of dense fog. She crushed bones with a mortar and pestle until they were a powder, mixed them with dried blood until they congealed into a paste, and then traced the mixture across every jutting bone of her ribcage, across her sharp cheekbones and the ridges above her eyes. After she was done Mati looked down into a basin filled with water; and when she looked into the murk and realized she could no longer recognize herself, and could only see the bones, she knew she was ready.
The intention of the ritual, handed down through generations by the elders of her village, was to take her to the brink of death. To ruin the body, but leave the mind intact. It would give her the strength of the dead, the strength to walk the Paths. But unlike the dead, she would retain her will, her purpose. Her mother had undertaken the same ritual, her grandmother; even Mati herself, years and years ago, though as a child she hadn’t grasped the symbolic nature of it. It had just been one more trial in a life full of hardships.
As the moon rose, casting its pale light down, as the wind swelled and shook the leaves from the trees, Mati could feel a chill spread through her body. Starting in her toes, and then crawling up her spine. She felt rejuvenated and sick all at the same time. The ritual had worked.
To the west the sun had sunk below the treeline, and long, web-like shadows stretched across the plains. Mati ran towards the sun with no clothing to protect her from the cold, no shoes to guard her feet from the rocks and brambles. The only possessions she brought with her from the living world were a small red pendant which she clutched in her right hand, and a sharp, ivory handled knife she gripped tightly in her left. The knife, she knew, would afford her little protection where she was going. But it made her feel at ease just to hold it.
The red pendant, though, that was of the utmost importance. The pendant, and what it carried. Without it all that she’d done, and all that she was about to do, would be for nothing.
Mati had only been to the Paths once before, as a child. It had been a rite of passage in her village, back when they still practiced the old ways. She’d only been escorted as far as the outskirts of town, then told she had to go the rest of the way on her own. “It’s our most important lesson.” Her mother, Tante, had told her. “Loss of a loved one should always hurt. It should never be easy to forget. The good memories always come with pain.”
And pain there had been.
Mati lept over the decayed remnants of fallen trees as she ran, snapping brittle branches and slicing through thick vines if they threatened to slow her pace. It began to rain fiercely, but the jungle was so thick with vegetation that scarce few raindrops were able to pierce the canopy. Lightning flashed high above, imperceptible as the echo of a whisper. Most of the rain simply slid down branches and dripped off of thick, flat leaves; glistening like thousands of spider-webs in the faint light of the moon.
When I got home from school Dad was hunched over a jar of peanut butter at the kitchen counter. I hadn’t seen him in a while so I grabbed an apple and leaned in the doorway.
“Hi, honey,” he said, wiping his mouth. “How was school?”
I shrugged and bit into my apple.
His face was stubbled, his hair was a mess, and it looked like he hadn’t showered since the last time I saw him. When he’s onto something big he can be gone for days at a time, coming home just long enough to shower and stuff his face with whatever he could find in the cabinets. Mom didn’t like him going out and she wasn’t shy about telling him. He was too old, she said. He had a family to think about. I never said anything, but I kind of agreed. Sometimes I had nightmares about him leaving and not coming back. Still, I wasn’t as worried as Mom. A lot of girls like to think their dads are superheroes. Mine actually is.
So I should tell you that my dad’s the Sentinel. Like the Sentinel. It’s not like anybody knows his identity or anything, but try having a date over when your dad’s standing there—and I’m not even kidding, his head almost touches the ceiling—with his meaty fists crossed over his chest, cracking his knuckles every two seconds and grunting like a silverback gorilla.
So when I invited Scott Peters over I was kind of hoping that Dad wouldn’t even be in the same zip code. The thing is, I’d had a crush on Scott all year. He had this blue car that was so shiny you could see your reflection in it, and his hair. Sometimes in class he put his feet on his desk and leaned back, and his hair fell across his shoulders like a movie star’s.
“I invited a friend over tonight,” I said. “Hope that’s okay.”
“Of course it is,” Dad said. “Which friend? Laura?”
I cleared my throat. “Scott,” I said.
Dad paused with a spoonful of peanut butter halfway to his mouth. I could see his wheels turning, but I was his daughter and he loved me, and that meant leverage.
We held eyes. We’d played this game before and I was better at it. I cocked an eyebrow and took another bite of my apple. “And it would be so cool if you’d give us a little time to watch a movie and maybe study,” I said. “I know you’re really busy, anyway.”
“You mean leave you alone?” Dad said. “With a boy?”
“Don’t you trust me?” I said, batting my eyes. This was a trick he’d taught me when I was little. It was my most effective weapon against him.
He grunted something unintelligible and I knew I’d won. He brought the peanut butter the rest of the way to his mouth. It fell off his spoon and plopped on the counter.
Scott pulled up at six. Dad stayed just long enough to grill Scott with questions and glare at him a little. “I’ll be back in a couple hours,” he said. “If you need anything, just call.” He lingered at the door a moment. “I probably don’t have to tell you this, but don’t do anything crazy. And if you get hungry I left potato wedges in the—“
“Dad,” I said, crossing my arms.
“Okay, okay,” he said, shouldering a duffel bag. For a second I wondered where he was going, but the thought disappeared quickly. I had more important things to worry about.
I was there in the room when the policeman told my wife I was dead.
“A terrible accident,” he said. “An explosion. There couldn’t have been much warning, the particle collider…” he trailed away. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”
I wanted to shout, to scream. Instead I held my hands before me and saw nothing but the crimson carpet. I wept and wondered that even my tears were invisible.
I was there when Hannah told Lisa that her daddy wouldn’t be coming home. They held each other until they both fell asleep, their eyes red and their faces pale.
“I’m here, Hannah,” I could have said. “I’m here with you.” But instead I held my silence, ashamed and afraid of my condition.
I attended my own funeral and wept as the empty coffin was carried away.
“Such a terrible thing,” Uncle Joseph had consoled Hannah. “So terrible.”
But, as is the wont of terrible things, time passed and they became less terrible. Hannah began to smile more and Lisa didn’t cry herself to sleep so often. The trees in the garden turned a burnished orange and then powdered white and then a flushing green and occasional laughter could be heard through the house and it made my heart cold to hear it.
I should have felt joy in their happiness, but a man can turn melancholy, drifting quiet and alone in his own house, unnoticed and unseen.
Was I a ghost? Was I truly dead? Was this some kind of hell I had brought upon myself?
But I couldn’t be dead, could I? Did the dead eat? Did they drink? I had to do both, and then hide in the basement, shivering against the cold until I had digested the food.
“Lisa, you’re sleeping at your Nan’s tonight.” Hannah stood in front of the mirror putting on her earrings. She was wearing makeup and a red dress. The trees in the garden were heavy with snow.
I roused myself in the corner. What day was it? Every day merged into one when there was nothing to do but wander disconsolately around the house.
“Lisa?” Hannah shouted. “You going to get ready?” Hannah sighed and checked herself in the mirror, turning sideways to look at her figure.
His name was Steven and he smiled a lot.
Lisa would look at him with serious eyes and Steven would smile and tell jokes and help around the house.
Nobody smiled that much. Had I ever smiled that much? When they were out, I would go through the photographs and see myself smiling. I stood in front of mirrors and saw nothing.
“When’s Steven coming?” Lisa called out. “He should be here by now.”
I started in my corner. Had I fallen asleep? My head hurt. Lisa sounded excited.
“He’ll be here in a minute.” Hannah smiled as she washed the pots.
I clasped a hand to my head. Lisa liked this guy. She was only six. Or was she seven now? The birds chattered on budding trees and sunlight streamed through the kitchen window. The brightness hurt my eyes and my head.
My family. I had to protect my family.
Lisa was asleep when they returned and Steven carried her from the car and into the house. The sight made me weep and clench my fists.
I sneaked into the car and it seemed a long time before he came from the house.
He was evil, this man. An intruder. I wanted to kill him as he drove. No, first I wanted proof of his evil intentions. I wanted to know what it was I was saving my family from.
I lay on the back seat and watched the ghastly glow of the streetlights smear the darkness of the night.
Steven’s lair was a fashionable apartment overlooking a fashionable canal. I imagined pornography parading on walls and handcuffs hanging from bedposts. Instead I got an apartment that was neat and fashionably sparse.
He checked his messages when he got in. Five calls to his mother. He would ignore them and chat to women on dating sites. But instead he called his mum on his mobile.
He sat in a reclining chair, loosening his tie. “I do have a mobile, Mum.” He took off his shoes and placed them next to his chair. “Well, if you used the one I bought you.”
I looked at a bookshelf. He liked history and sports biographies.
“I’ve been out. Yeah, with a woman.”
The kitchen was tidy. The fridge had lots of meals for one.
“I’ve had women before, just never wanted to tell you about them. This one’s different.”
I could tell he was smiling as he spoke.
“No, just different. A widow. Poor guy died in an accident.”
I looked in the bedroom. Flowers on the table.
“One. She’s sweet. Misses her dad, course she does.” He laughed. “She’s great. Hannah. No, I don’t want to rush it, but I think we could make a go of it. Listen, are you going to be in on Sunday? I’d like you to meet her.”
My head hurt and my heart hurt. I slipped out through the door, closing it quietly behind me.
It was a long way home under dark skies and glaring streetlights.
I slipped into the bed as quietly as I could. Hannah rested her head on my shoulder, snuggling in and breathing deep. “Dan,” she whispered, half smiling. “Dan.” She draped an arm across my chest.
I smelled her hair and held her close.
When the first breath of sunlight touched the window, I went to see Lisa. She was fast asleep clutching a toy bear. I stroked her hair. “I love you,” I whispered. She clutched the bear tighter and smiled.
My hand shook as I opened the door. The morning sun was shining, and as I took one last look back at the house, I saw my footprints were already fading in the dew-wet grass.
It started with a hint dropped in the depths of my stomach, like a key, while I was asleep. When I awoke, my senses were sharper, as if my body had been nearsighted for years and I finally found the right prescription.
Later that day, my new wife–we’d been married just shy of six months—was getting ready to go out. She was talking to me out of the closet over the music of metal hangers sliding.
“Lisa’s man dumped her. She needs a shoulder,” she said, and immediately followed with an exclamation point of a hanger roll. I came and stood by the closet door. She was wearing a black bra and blue panties, mismatched, just the way I liked it, and her thin arms moved through the clothes fast, searching like trained dogs. She turned.
“Oh Henry, you scared me.”
I stood quietly, thinking. Her hands rested on a navy blue silk blouse, fingers feeling the fabric.
“What?” She asked.
A hint of color bloomed on her pale face. “My friend,” she said, tasting the words.
I wanted to say, you don’t have any friends, but that seemed rude, so I said, “Where’d you meet?”
“At the coffee shop,” she answered too fast.
I nodded. It was possible. But as I began thinking, I realized, she’d been going out every night for the past month, or longer. How could I have missed it?
“What about last night?” I asked.
“What about it?” She said, chewing a nail.
“Did Lisa’s man dump her yesterday too?”
“No, just today.”
“What did you do last night then?” I asked. I wanted to ask “what was your excuse last night,” but I was afraid to, in case my suspicions were true. What would I do? Would I leave her? I didn’t think I could. But could I live knowing she’s sleeping around?
“Last night, I went shopping for clothes. Honestly, Henry, you’re being weird. You never cared before,” she turned back to her task.
Again Elton stretched his fingers out over the far edge of his desk, and again they curled. Shy, in their own way.
Her voice hammered down.
“You impertinent little devil! What did I say?”
Elton blubbered, setting the boys in the class to snickering. He pressed his palms to the smooth oak top and pointed ten times at the chalkboard.
Miss Humphreys’ willow switch cracked down too fast to see. Elton leapt yelping to his feet and flapped his fingers in the air.
“Nose to the corner,” Miss Humphreys said. “For the rest of this Lord’s day.” She pointed with the switch, as if Elton and every other student didn’t already know which corner she meant.
Elton looked down at Royce with his slickened hair parted in a gentlemanly fashion. Royce shuffled in his desk and smiled softly.
“Please,” Elton stammered. “No. I—”
“Ah! So soon? Such moxie!”
Elton knelt by his desk and spread his fingers again but Mrs. Humphreys had seen enough. She grabbed him with a twist to the ear, adding in a pinch of her nails for good measure and, ignoring Elton’s squeals, deposited him at the front corner of the room next to the shelf of readers tattered and worn, behind the chipped enamel globe, far away from the heat of the pot-bellied stove.
“Kneel,” Miss Humphreys said, “if it suits you so. Pray for absolution. Think only of your shame.”
Elton mumbled from the corner but Miss Humphreys turned away.
“Now, where were we?” she asked.
A score of students focused upon their slates.
For the remainder of the morning, whenever Miss Humphreys was sure to be distracted, hesitant glances were cast at Elton’s back. His forehead stayed pressed to the corner. His arms hung slack at his sides.
During arithmetic facts and figures, he never turned around.
When Fabius Maximus targeted supply lines like a rabid Mescalero, Elton kept his shoulders stone-still.
Even when cinnamon-pigtailed Genevieve, whom it was rumored Elton favored, went up front to gather and pass out the readers, he didn’t offer the slightest twitch.
At recess the wind blew chill and steady through the dry grass and bottlebrush. The older children stole to the eastern side of the school.
“Can you see ‘em?” Genevieve asked.
“Shh.” Oliver, the tallest eighth grader, stood on his toes and peeked through the window. “He’s there.”
Oliver ducked down quickly. The other dozen students followed suit. “She’s heatin’ a coffee atop the stove.”
The group walked back to the school’s front porch. They pressed close to the peeling white woodwork, out of the wind’s reach.
Genevieve glared at Royce. “What’d you tell him?”
“Nothin’,” Royce said.
“You said somethin’ that got him scared.”
“Royce Kroupa, you ain’t ever goin’ to heaven!”
Royce chuckled. “You want to know too?”
“Tell us,” Oliver said. The crowd of kids were in like agreement.
“All right then.” Royce sniffed and squinted at October’s bare horizon. “I had a tutor for a spell.”
“Yeah,” Genevieve said. “Like you ain’t brought that up none.”
“Well, it’s true and he told me stuff, on account of he knows how teachers think. ‘Cause he sorta is one, follow?”
The group agreed.
“There’s reasons why they choose the corner, and not say, the stoop or the recitin’ bench.”
Royce looked slowly from eye to eye. No one interrupted.
“There’s somethin’ there,” he said.
“What are you on about?” Genevieve asked with blatant doubt.
“In olden times. Like the General Whatsit—”
“Maximus?” Oliver offered.
Royce snapped his fingers. “Maximus. Back then they done it too. That’s where the teachers learned it. They’d perch a kid in the corner with his nose up close where he can smell the woodwork, right?”
The group muttered. They’d all had a stint in the corner at one time or another.
“Well,” Royce said. “It’s a test, see? There’s something in the corner. In every corner.” His excitement continued to build. “And when it sees a young’un that’s unwanted, just a burden on the world, why sometimes, if it’s particu-airily hungry, it reaches out and snatches ‘em up!”
“From the corner,” Genevieve said slowly with her lids half-closed.
“You bet. It’s a paper man. It sidles out edgewise. Anything in the corner is its. You stand there long enough and you’re in a serious way.”
“Paper?” Oliver asked. “That ain’t worth frettin’.”
“Naw, but it’s witchy and edge-sharp. Prunes the fingers of pilferin’ nibblers and takes the tongues of fibbers. Then, before you know what’s yours, it rumples you up like a pleat. Swallows you down then and there or fobs you in its pocket for later snackin’.”
“I oughta tell your pa,” Genevieve said. “Let him know how you spin lies and stories.”
Royce chuckled dryly.
Though Oliver also seemed unimpressed, the other students were quiet. The wind kicked up in a bluster, whipping hair and loose clothing about, yet Royce’s perfect part stayed in place.
“I’ll prove it’s so,” he said. “Watch.”
Miss Humphreys rang the class bell to end morning recess and the children hurried back inside. Elton still hadn’t moved from his place up front. Miss Humphreys gave him all the attention of a foot stool. While the next lesson was being prepared Royce raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr. Kroupa?” Miss Humphreys asked.
“I was a-wonderin’—”
“Wondering,” she corrected.
“Yes’m. In olden times, those codger Romans?”
Miss Humphreys blinked rapidly, perhaps a bit taken aback that anyone in the class wanted to know more, this student in particular.
“They had teachers and such back then?” Royce asked.
“They set up the how and why of schoolin’.”
“Well—” Miss Humphreys rubbed the bridge of her long nose. She pushed her glasses back high. “To some extent, yes. The Greeks and the Romans taught us the value of a learned society.”
“But,” Royce said, his tone dramatically falling, “they had dark ways.”
“And who told you that?”
“Genny, she did.”
Genevieve pressed her lips into a dour frown.
“Well,” Miss Humphreys said, “she would be correct.”
“She says they used to fodder their kids to the coyotes.”
“Wolves. That may be—”
“Like offal. If’n a kid wasn’t fit and kelter, they had ways. Weird rites and sacrificin’. Ain’t—isn’t that so?”
Miss Humphreys gave Genevieve a knowing look. “Yes, they were most unchristian, and we will speak no more of that.”
“Sinister,” Royce said.
“I said, no more.”
Royce let the issue drop but turned with nods and winks. The younger students fidgeted in their front row seats. Elton still hadn’t moved.