Bo Balder

Dear editors, Please consider my 5000 word short story "The Knack Bomb" for The Colored Lens. I've published stories in Penumbra, 4starstories and several anthologies, ao Stitches, Witches and Bitches (Evil Girlfriend Media). I've also published a Dutch language YA novel(Daughter of the Djinn, BOF, 2011). I'm a graduate of Viable Paradise. Thank you, Bo Balder Contact information: Bo Balder Homeruslaan 65 3581 ME Utrecht Netherlands +31302544919 bnbalder@hotmail.com

Amsterdam’s Gods

Malachite, carrying her ailing father on her back, walked towards the city of Amsterdam over the ancient ringway. It had been ten years since she and Father had fled the ruins of their old life over this very road. She couldn’t remember anything about that journey.

“It’s easier to get into Amsterdam than out,” her father quoted the old adage in her ear, brandishing his stick in front of her eyes to underline the wisdom in his words.

The raised highway was blocked-in by ruined, overgrown edifices on both sides, so it was impossible to see where they were going. The old road was surprisingly passable for travelers on foot, but in spite of that few people were using it. Which suited Father, because he said the business of revenge flourished better without advertisement.

Malachite would have liked to speak to the other travelers, to get a feel for the city of their destination, but Father wanted speed and silence. She’d promised him she’d get him back to Amsterdam and to help him avenge her mother and her sisters. Malachite shifted Father’s fragile bones around to a more comfortable position on her back.

At the end of a day’s walking, there was seldom any comfort left. But at least she was seeing something of the world.

“We got out back then,” Malachite said, trying to fathom what the ruined castles lining the broken highway had once been used for. Forts, she guessed, to protect and oversee the great road. She had heard people could shoot from that far away those days, even without special divine powers.

“We did,” her father said. His hand clawed into her shoulder in a way that said, I don’t want to talk about it.

And he didn’t need to. Malachite had been ten years old when they’d left, wise enough to understand her mother and her sisters had died and that they had to flee from the god who had broken its promise. A guilty god was deadlier than an angry god.

Still, it felt uncomfortable to be out of the demesnes of Otte en Liet, the powerful gods of Rotterdam, after ten years of safety. She and her father carried small vials of river water for protection, in brittle but intact plastic bottles that had once been her sisters’, but in the end they’d be on their own. It would be just their wits to go up against Aterscha, the god that had betrayed them and caused their family to die.

The destruction of the known world hadn’t stopped Amsterdam being a home to many gods besides Aterscha, gods of all kinds, big and small, friendly and unfriendly. No other city was as god-rich, no other gods worked so hard to keep their promises and keep their many followers happy. No other cities had a god of fashion, a god of good hair and several gods of great shopping. Said Father.

“Are we going to get there before nightfall?” Malachite asked as she looked at the western sky. She didn’t want to be outside city walls at night, prey to the wild godlets that roamed the open countryside.

“It’s a big town, Mal. Bigger than what’s left of Rotterdam. Older and stronger and with more magic.”

Malachite shivered. She didn’t like magic, never had. She worked in the harbor with her strong back and her big hands. If she never had business with any god but friendly Otte it would be fine with her. Except for this: she still burned with anger for the god that had killed her family and forced them to leave their hometown. For revenge, she would follow her father’s crazy plans.

Father picked the off-ramps he wanted to use. They’d have to walk inwards on the spokes of the imaginary wheel that was Amsterdam.

“Otte and Liet gave us specific instructions,” Father said. “We’d better stick to them. Promises go both ways.”

Malachite knew. One of her best friends when she was little hadn’t delivered the pink hair ribbon she’d promised to the god Oopgoot in exchange for curing her sick bunny, and the girl had ended up hairy, pink-eyed and dead by Christmas.

“This one.”

Here the ancient road descended from the elevated highway and segued into a bridge across the river Amstel.

Two steps on the bridge, Malachite halted. “Shouldn’t we pay homage to the river god?”

She walked over to the parapet to offer some spit, but Father pulled her ear to stop her. “No. Feel it. This is a dead river. Some other god killed Amstel a long time ago, and no one’s managed to claim her territory yet.”

Malachite pushed forward through the muffled, dead air on the bridge. So different from the sparkling exhalations over Otte and Liet. “I’ve never heard of a dead god before.”

“She probably reneged on a promise and all her adorers left her,” Father said.

Malachite shrugged. She couldn’t feel pity for a god. With great power came a great sense of entitlement and whimsy.

At the end of the bridge, she slammed her nose against an invisible barrier. “Ow!”

“I should have looked up the bridge god,” Father said. “Sorry.”

“What tribute does it want?” Malachite said, rubbing her nose.

Father flipped through his precious notebook. He could read and write, something Malachite had never taken to. “Here it is. Mstel bridge, a few drops of blood.”

Guess who was going to offer them? Malachite wiped her bleeding nose and flipped a few drops on the crumbling tarmac. Then she offered a few more for Father.

“Mstel Bridge, can we cross?” Father asked loudly.

No answer came.

Father shrugged. “I guess we’re good.” A little gingerly they crossed the spot where Malachite had hit her nose, but nothing happened this time.

Father relaxed and ruffled her hair, which she hated. “See? We can do this.”

The Knack Bomb

When the bomb hit, I was almost inside the ladies’ clothing store where I work. If I hadn’t paused to check out a cute bicycle courier I would have been safe. The bomb detonated silently, coating the street with a brief yellow burst like the mother of all paintball hits. As far as I could see, everything and everybody bloomed yellow, the cars, the houses, the early shoppers. In the next eye blink, the yellow became patchy, and the passers-by, still frozen from shock, wore it like partially melted slickers. The last of the yellow goo evaporated and I was left standing in the doorway with the strangest tingling in my right hand, from the elbow down. The only sound was the scooter accelerating in the direction of the Rijksmuseum. The messenger’s helmet was as yellow as the goo had been.

A knack bomb hit. I’d never been this close before. I’d been two blocks over from the balloon lady who made a mess of last King’s day, filling the whole of Dam Square with orange balloons in the shape of the king’s head and apparently scaring people a lot. It might seem like a fun knack to have, but she had ended up in Detox Camp. What would I get?

It looked normal. My hand. But what I knew about other knack bombs warned me that anything might happen. I closed the door with my left hand, holding the tainted one aloft like it had touched something nasty. I shouldered through to the bathroom, rinsing the evil hand twice and rubbing it dry until it turned red. One eye on the clock – only 10 minutes until the arrival of the Alpha Bitch.

Alpha Bitch, Angelique Roussignon, was the owner of the shop. She loved dressing me in purple satin party dresses to entice the customers. She says. She knows I like minimalist styles and plain dark colors, and I say she just likes torturing me. I don’t call slapping sequins, tassels, lace and embroidery on synthetic taffeta designing, but knowing better won’t pay my bills, so I eat crow and do her bidding.
The shop door ding-donged. Angelique. She wore canary yellow fake Chanel. She sailed through to the back with a garment bag over her arm.

“Look Inge, darling, especially for you, from my Christmas line.” She whipped out something red and sparkly and boned; with white fake fur trim everywhere trim was remotely possible.

I forced down the bad hand, which I was still holding up as if it was contaminated. I kept sneaking peeks at it, but it looked normal. Maybe the knack bomb had been a hallucination. Nothing might have happened, except too much to drink last night and one too many stiff espressos on the way here. Could be.

I didn’t know how to check if I actually had a strange new knack. I wanted time for myself so I could experiment and freak out in peace. I could have slipped off to the bathroom again, but knack couldn’t be washed off anyway. The only thing I could do now was put the freaking-out off until six o’clock.

Angelique tapped her shoe, her red lacquered claws carefully held away from the satin fabric. She never snagged it, I have to say. I didn’t like being touched by her slippery, over-moisturized hands, but I sighed and slipped out of my black sheath, into the red monstrosity. Angelique zipped me up, one hand on my shoulder.

The fabric seemed to tighten around me. I gasped for breath. Black dots danced before my eyes, like when you’ve stood up too fast.

Angelique looked at me oddly.

“What?” I said.

She gestured along my body. “I think this is my best work to date,” she said, awe in her voice. “Incredible. You look – fabulous. Here.” She stepped aside to let me look at myself in the mirrored shop wall.

Wow. I did look fabulous. I looked down at the dress. Still synthetic satin, still overdesigned and overdecorated. But my mirror image showed someone utterly magic and fabulous, like one of these pre-war actresses seen through Vaselined lenses. A glow hung around me and my suddenly hourglass shaped figure. A magic dress.

A knack dress! My eyes flicked to mirror Angelique, staring rapt at her own creation. She didn’t look that different, except maybe a little fuzzy around the edges. She gave me a blood red lipstick to match the dress.

“Get some shoes, will you? I think the red sequin Jimmy Choos.”

The fuzziness of her outline sharpened a bit. Hm.

I looked back at myself. Definitely not me. Still hourglassed and fabulous, though. A slow suspicion trickled through me. Angelique had come in only minutes after me. Maybe she had been caught in the knack bomb. And her newfangled knack was glamouring her own ugly dresses into fabulous creations. When I looked at them, my critical faculties just shut up. I tried thinking about the dress with my eyes closed, and managed to muster something like, derivative. Under normal circumstances I could have written a thousand words why every fashion designer and consumer ought to hate the dress.

I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. The dress held my waist and ribs in their unnatural wasp shape. I felt a great desire to rinse my mouth, but the tingle of the shop bell warned me about an early customer.

I turned to walk towards her, and caught a glimpse of grace and elegance in the mirror I’d never possessed before. Sheesh. The fake satin draped like silk.. Old Hollywood meets Valentino. It would have looked right on Queen Máxima.

I waited all day for sirens and policemen in white hazmat suits to show up, but nothing happened. Had none of the good citizens reported the bomb? Maybe the Knack Bombardiers had more popular support than the papers suggested.