TCL #23 – Spring 2017

Ladder of Ashes

I tried to meet Mom’s flickering, pixellated gaze as it skittered across the screen, and to parse meaning from snippets as her voice shifted in and out of audibility, “Lots of people asked about you… with this fever… won’t let me… bloodwork… don’t know how long I’ll be here… have to come home for high school in September if Dad can’t find you a tutor…”

The trip-planning sites all warned that Myanmar had the worst connectivity in Asia. No lie. We were waiting for delivery of a satellite dish, but in this part of the country, the electrical supply was as much an issue as the signal.

Mom had gone back to Toronto for cancer treatment, leaving me stranded in Mawlamyin with Dad as he carried on converting the old rubber plantation into a museum/hotel–certain that it would attract a steady and lucrative stream of cultural and academic tourists.

Twelve Oaks Estate sat in the center of a pegboard orchard of old and stingy rubber trees – a morning wagon’s ride west of the enclave of colonial mansions known as little England. As far as I knew, there wasn’t an actual oak tree within 1,000 klicks. The house was a vast block of stone that had long since lost most of its balconies and porches and canopies to rot and rust.

The day I met Lawrence, was the first day of the rewiring, so all the electrical power in the house was switched off – no air conditioning, no TV, no computer. The contractor doing the reno didn’t want the boss’ son “underfoot,” so I didn’t have access to most of the house. I couldn’t go outside because the gatherers didn’t want people wandering the grounds of the plantation – outside of organized tours – for fear they would get in the way of the tappers or inadvertently contaminate the cup things they collect the latex in. Even though Dad had let me shadow him one day, he made it clear that I was a big distraction that couldn’t happen often. And he didn’t trust me to go into town on my own.

Dad had augmented the library with books he’d collected for display at the hotel – antiques and early editions to augment the immersive experience of living in a British colonial mansion: Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Dafoe, Rudyard Kipling. I read them mostly because there was nothing else to do.

And I slept.

I dreamed of boarding the subway at Museum Station. There were no other passengers except for a young woman at the far end of the train. As I walked toward her, she stood and I saw that she was wearing a deep green Edwardian dress with lace across the décolletage, her long dark hair twirled atop her head with emerald combs. The air around her was a stale, slightly rotten potpourri of disquiet and despair. As beautiful as she was, there was no joy in her demeanor. Sadness clung to her, emanated from her. And need – an unfed hunger that sucked up the light as she put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. Darkness reached up in tendrils from between the seats, clinging to me, crawling up my arms, caressing my face. My breathing grew shallow.

“I can feel him near, my Henry,” she said, then handed me a coconut shell and sighed. “If you see him, give him this.”

The subway doors opened into jungle, I followed her out onto what should have been the platform, but she almost instantly vanished in the trees. The shell opened like a book. In its cavity, nested an India rubber ball, milky purple shading to amber, like a heart that’s drained of blood. It gave a larval twitch, squirmed, lengthened and dropped to the ground. I turned to get back on the train, but it had vanished and the platform had turned into a churning swamp of translucent worms that sucked me down. I woke up gasping for breath, face buried in a sweaty pillow.

Big Blue

When the documentarian comes over the ridge, the biologist is already unpacked and fussing over a bag.

He descends the slope, knees akimbo against the treacherous scree. His shadow tremulous in Nafthalar’s diffuse sunlight. The biologist’s tent is already up—a violence of silver amidst the giant teal fungi and strange trees like giant eyestalks. She does not look up when he approaches, though he knows she heard him.

He stops a few feet away, and swallows, and says, “Hi.”

She straightens and turns and bows briefly. She is wearing a breather and he knows that behind it she is pursing her lips. Her standard greeting. Rendered unfamiliar by the alien sun and the alien air and the technology keeping them alive.

She does not say anything.

“When did you arrive?” he asks.

“Not long ago,” she says.

“You look hot.”

“It is hot.”

He looks around.

“Here, then?”

“Yes. To begin with.”

“Where is he?”

She gestures with her head. She has cut her hair into a fierce bob and it looks good on her, he thinks, but does not say so.

“Over there. Down by the river.”

“How’s he looking?”

“Older.”

“Well that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”

She shrugs.

“Yup.”

She turns and resumes her fumbling. He lingers a few moments and then puts his backpack on the ground and takes out his drone. It skitters around on spindle thin mechanical legs, whirring and twittering like a mechanical rodent. Finally it straightens and fixes its lens on him.

“Online,” it says.

“Establish campsite,” he says.

He turns and wanders off because he cannot think of anything else to do. He can hear the drone working behind him. The shuffle shuffle of pebbles and the dry hiss of the tent. He cannot see it but he knows it is blooming behind him like a ripening dewdrop.

He peers down at the valley but he cannot see their quarry. After a few moments she wanders up next to him with a scanner.

“So, how are things?” he asks.

“Things?”

“Yeah. You know. Stuff.”

“Same as always.”

“How’s the new place?”

“The lab?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s good.”

“Just good?”

“It’s a lab.”

Silence.

And then, “You don’t miss Earth?”

“I’ll be back soon enough.”

“You will?”

Finally she turns to look at him.

“Soon enough,” she says.

“Well, I’m glad you’re happy out there.”

“Happy enough.”

“I’m doing well too.”

For a moment he thinks maybe she will draw near or at least smile, but she does neither. She just nods and says, “We’ll strike out just before dawn. Keep within a mile of him at all times. He’s old now so I don’t expect him to move very fast. But you never know.”

“Right.”

“Don’t get too close either.”

“I know.”

And with that she turns and walks to her tent and leaves him there with nothing but the answers he had prepared to the questions that she had not asked.

Willingly and with Joy

Waves smashed into boulders strewn like a giant’s bread crumbs in front of the seawall. Caught by the setting sun, the spray glittered gold as it was cast into the air and fell in drops of citrine. Zeninna laughed and raised her arms to catch the wild energy. Wind tangled her unbound black hair and billowed her clothes. Though the wind tried, the gusts lacked the strength to knock her from her perch on the seawall.

“I did it, you old hags! I got in!”

The roar of wind and angry waves along Landis’ empty seawall gave Zeninna the courage to yell her triumph to the sea. She pealed with laughter, delighted with her success.

She’d sworn she could. Stood up before the Iridescent Court and scoffed at those who mocked her as too young, too wild, too loud. Unruly as the sea in storm, her own mother screeched at her. Zeninna’s supporters begged her to keep her temper leashed. She hadn’t. She couldn’t. The old hags made her too angry. But she won the right to try.

And she’d succeeded. She pressed her hand over her heart and felt the papers stashed inside her coat crinkle. Her acceptance papers. Tomorrow morning, she would enter the Great Library of Cerulea as an Acolyte.

“I did it!” She screamed once more into the wind and waves.

A dark shape popped out of the water between two of the boulders. Zeninna’s heart stopped as a wave crashed over the rocks. Had she just seen…? Ahead of the next wave, her cousin Viridis hopped half out of the water onto a bowl in the rock.

Shock held Zeninna momentarily speechless. She’d spent too long around well-fed, healthy humans. Viridis looked green and positively skeletal.

“Are you crazy?” Zeninna looked wildly up and down the seawall. Relief tempered her outrage. Viridis, not her best friend Perseah. Perseah was safe at home.

“I would hope you wouldn’t be screaming at the top of your lungs if there were humans in the vicinity to hear.”

“That they can’t hear over the wind and waves doesn’t mean they can’t see you from a window.” Zeninna gestured wildly at the town behind her.

Viridis smirked. “Human sight isn’t that good. I’ll take your message to the Court. How long before they should expect you?”

Screaming reminders at herself not to give Viridis reason to suspect anything, Zeninna forced herself to take a deep breath. Her mind rocketed about and found the perfect way to spin the answer. “I’ll know better after Orientation tomorrow.”

“Should I meet you here at dusk then?” Viridis raised her eyebrows.

Zeninna frowned. It wasn’t like Viridis to offer to play messenger. She shook her head. “You can come. I can’t promise I’ll be able to get away.”

Viridis narrowed her eyes. “Don’t forget the importance of your mission.”

Fury propelled Zeninna off the wall. Imbecile! Viridis couldn’t possibly understand the importance of Zeninna’s mission to the Irides! Viridis only knew the Court’s version of the task, not the actual plan. The gall of her brainless cousin to attempt to remind her what was at stake! Whipping back around, Zeninna sneered at Viridis. “I will not forget. Now I must go. I’ll be missed.”

Wouldn’t You Rather

For most of the year, Diner 66 is frequented almost entirely by regulars. It’s in the early fall that the reporter first shows up, the last week of September, just as the leaves begin to turn and the early-bird tourists infiltrate the restaurant on their way north. That’s probably why no one pays him any mind. He seems to float in on the breeze with the others. The out-of-towners don’t know the regulars from the tourists, and the regulars merely assumed he’d leave with the rest of the flock, but he continues to frequent their establishment into late October.

He’s impeccably dressed in his tan trench coat and black leather gloves, the fedora atop his head and the spiral notepad in hand like a journalist from a black-and-white movie of days past. The fifties themed diner seems to swallow him up that way. His outdated dress and odd mannerisms make the locals feel more out of place than he seems to be, despite his anomalous presence.

After most of the through traffic has made its way north and back south again, Clay, like the rest of the locals who frequent Diner 66, can’t help but take notice of him. He spends long hours hopping from table to table, countertop stool to window seat. He always spends money–powdered donuts and vanilla cappuccinos, or bear claws and hot chocolate–and he tips well. Well enough, anyway, for the staff to turn a blind eye to his constantly pestering the customers, though they have a tendency to play along with his often absurd interview questions regardless.

It’s not that Clay has any particular interest in eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to pick up the man’s smooth, unfamiliar voice, like the low hum of a cello cutting through the clanking dishes and quiet laughter of the other patrons’ conversations. Even his stride sets him apart. His movements are fluid and conducted with unusual gaiety as he slides into the burgundy faux-leather booth near the door. There’s something about it that bugs Clay. The man always seems like he’s half-a-second from erupting into emasculating giggles.

“We’ll start with an easy one, shall we?” The reporter asks the woman across from him with a wide smile, pen poised over his notepad. “Would you rather take a trip to the beach, or go skiing?”

“Oh, the beach, definitely,” Cindy Hoffman replies instantly, smoothing her hair back in a way that reminds Clay of a preening bird. “I hate being stuck in the cold all winter.”

He hums sympathetically, his attention undivided as he scribbles detailed notes. When he seems satisfied with the transcription, he turns to Cindy’s husband, his eyes briefly flitting to the uneaten donut on his plate.

“I suppose a more difficult question is in order, then. If you don’t mind, sir?”

“Not at all.” Carl sounds just as pleased to be considered important enough for the article.

“Excellent! Well, then, let’s see here… would you rather save a loved one’s life from cancer, or win the lottery?”

Carl catches Cindy’s look, but he still asks, “Which loved one?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“Oh, no contest, then.” Carl forcefully slaps a meaty palm down on the table, rattling the silverware. “The first one.”

“Interesting. Yes, good choice, I should think…”

Clay, watching discreetly from the breakfast bar, can’t help but roll his eyes. Everyone is completely infatuated with the man. It’s part of the dilemma of living in a small town like this one–everyone’s starved for attention. There’s never been anything or anyone in North Park worth making the papers until he showed up. Now, everyone seems to be of the utmost interest and all too happy to oblige this stranger’s odd solicitations, so much so that his interviewees have yet to ask him what it is, exactly, he’s writing about. Maybe they’re afraid the story won’t be as grand and emotionally compelling as they hoped. Clay thinks they’d probably be right.

When Carl and Cindy stand to leave after pleasantries and handshakes are exchanged, the reporter remains behind, his wrist seizing over the paper below like an inspired artist. Then he puts the pen down on the table, drawing himself up with a deep inhalation. His eyes once again return to the donut left on Carl’s plate. He seems to be considering it until he notices Cindy’s lipstick is smudged on the edge of her Coke glass. The reporter picks it up and holds it to the light as if expecting to find flakes of gold in her cheap make-up. Maybe he does. The pen is back in his grasping fingers in an instant.

“What the hell’s this guy think he is now? A scientist?” Clay mutters, turning back to his coffee. The clatter of the saucer when he sets the cup down belies his frustration.

From his right, Paige laughs under her breath. “What’s so wrong with that? He’s just doing his job.”

“What kind of reporter asks such ridiculous questions?”

She shrugs. “Maybe it’s an editorial.”

Editorial, Clay repeats the word in his head. Editorial my ass, he thinks. What could possibly be so important about whether Collin wants a dog or a cat, or if Ms. McGruder would rather win a new car than the Pulitzer Prize? What’s so important about that? He scowls at the yellow stripes of the countertop. That kind of smart-ass questioning is just how people like that reporter, people that think they’re smarter than everyone else, get their kicks.

“Are you sure you’re not just jealous?” Paige tries not to smile at the grumpy look on his face. “If you want to do an interview, you could just go ask him, you know.”

Clay gives her an impatient sidelong glance. “Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“Sounds like fun to me.”

“Yeah, I bet it does.”

“Oh, sweet love of mine,” Paige sighs theatrically, grabbing the last half of her bagel and dropping a few bills beside her plate. “I love it when you insult me. See you after work?”

Clay gives her an exasperated look, but she still wins a small smile from him, at least.

“Yeah. After work,” he agrees, giving her a chaste kiss. He watches her exit, the little silver bell atop the door announcing her departure, and then returns his attention to the reporter.

He’s eating the donut. The syrupy glaze clings to the fingers of his leather gloves, and when the pastry is gone, he looks down at his hand and blinks confusedly at it, as if he genuinely hadn’t expected the sugar to stick to him. Then he dunks his sticky fingers into Carl’s water glass and wipes it on his coat.

That’s it, Clay thinks, getting up from his seat. He snatches his keys and shoves his EpiPen into his pocket with his wallet. There must be something wrong with this guy, what with his weird mannerisms and strange questions, and if that’s the case, it’s the townspeople’s responsibility to investigate. This stranger’s been here for almost a month and not a single person can even say where he lives. For all he knows, this man might be dangerous.

The Pen

They say success is one part talent, two parts application and three parts luck. Well until that dark November night I had no cause to believe otherwise, and every cause to bemoan my fate. I was a writer with talent in abundance, and a steady determination, but good fortune had at that point been as elusive as snow in summer.

I returned to my rooms late, having spent the evening in a tavern at the end of the road called, ironically, the Shakespeare, a name which was undoubtedly given to mock me. I had been moderately, pleasantly drunk until it became my turn to stand a round, and then, discovering that I had but one farthing to my name, had to suffer the ignominy of being thrown out onto the street by men I believed to be friends.

My attic room was up three flights of stairs and in my drunken state I had quite forgotten the creaking floorboard outside my landlady’s quarters. She must have been waiting for me to return, for she had her speech carefully planned.

“Mr. Humbolt, if I might have a word?”

My landlady was a comely widow not yet into middle age and normally a delight to gaze upon, but that evening I could not bear to face her. “It is very late, Mrs. Prentice.”

“It’s about the rent.”

“Tomorrow. It is far too late now.”

“So is the rent. And you promised it tomorrow three weeks ago.”

She was still talking as I slammed my door and struggled to remove my boots. Her subsequent knock was far from timid.

“When I sell my next story, Mrs. Prentice. Then you will have your rent.”

“Tomorrow, Mr. Humbolt,” she shouted through the thick wood. “Or you will need to find new lodgings.”

My fire had grown cold, grey coals barely glowing. I didn’t bother checking the pail for more. Those were the last. There was barely enough heat in them to light a taper for my candles. I shivered with the realization that these, too, needed to be rationed.

It had not always been that way. When I first came to London to seek out the great Mr. Dickens I felt my fortune was assured. My parents had predicted otherwise but I had not really believed my father when he said ‘come back a raging success or do not come back at all’. But my letters asking for support went unanswered and my fortunes became ever more precarious.

I first saw the great writer in a salon off the Charing Cross Road, giving a public reading of his most recent success, an oversentimental serialized tale called David Copperfield. I was mesmerized, and could barely summon the courage to approach him after his performance. I had hoped he would take me under his wing, but instead as soon as I announced myself a fellow writer his face took on a haunted look and he peered ostentatiously at his pocket watch. But I was dogged in my pursuit and eventually he offered me the crumb of an introduction to his editor, a redoubtable looking fellow by the name of John Forster, before departing hurriedly to his carriage, leaving the grim faced editor behind to respond to my entreaties.

Alas, Forster proved no judge of talent and my work was swiftly rejected. I was not to be deterred, however, and soon sent other work, and found other editors and sent them my stories too.

To no avail. So that chill evening I sat in fading candlelight contemplating eviction and disgrace. There was nothing more I could do.

There was, though, one more action I could take. I had often stood in the middle of Tower Bridge late into the evening looking out over the dirty water of the Thames and listened to the cold, siren cry of the murky eddies entreating the unwary and despairing to join them. Now I, too, was in that sorry state of desolation and hopelessness. My path was clear.

The Quantum Watchmaker

In the summer heat, the clocks ran slow and the very substance of time seemed to drag. All watchmakers knew this, but only the very best–of which M. Guilbert was perhaps the greatest–were clever enough to engineer compensatory mechanisms into their creations. His accuracy was legendary. It was as though time itself was forced to do this watchmaker’s bidding. Some said I was privileged to witness a master at his work, but what did they know of the burdens he forced me to carry?

I served my apprenticeship in unprepossessing circumstances. A kind of perpetual gloom existed inside the watchmaker’s shop, the kind that eventually seeped deep into one’s soul. M. Guilbert worked in a windowless back room, a black velvet curtain always drawn across the doorway. Misshapen stubs of candles erupted like toadstools from every available surface so that he might see to do his work. The air was thick with the smell of burnt tallow.

He would not talk to me of his strange mechanisms, and certainly he taught me nothing of their design. How was an apprentice to learn from a master such as this? I glimpsed intricate components of brass and silver but these bizarre mechanisms grew larger than any mere watch or clock, like rampant weeds sprouting where a delicate flower had once been. And I saw other things too, materials which no ordinary watchmaker had need of.

How could I not help but feel disconsolate? My days were long, fumbling with tiny cogs and fragile movements, clumsily assembling the workmanlike pieces that kept us fed, until my fingers were sore and my eyes ached from the strain. The bustle of the town square glimpsed through the shop’s mullioned windows was as remote as a foreign land. Long days passed with no customers to break the silence or disturb the dust settling thickly on our bare wooden floors. It seemed I had become no more than a ghost trapped in this place, yearning for escape.

In time I learned that none was to be found.


One day, the little bell above the door gave a harsh, muted jangle, protesting its long period of inactivity. The open door threw a sudden, startling beam of sunlight across the plain wooden boards. A bubble of summer warmth wafted in, stirring the dust into swirls.

I straightened from behind the counter, blinking as I removed the jeweler’s eyepiece and set down my tools. The silhouetted stranger advanced. I saw expensive clothes, glimpsed beyond the door a fine carriage, and heard the impatient snort of a waiting mare. The man took a long moment to peruse the timepieces arrayed on the shelves. I tried to follow his gaze, to see where it lingered and gauge his interest. Those would be the pieces M. Guilbert would do well to haggle over. Times were hard and paying customers the rarest of creatures.

For an instant I imagined I saw the watchmaker’s shop through this stranger’s eyes: a gloomy interior, shabby furnishings, an air of genteel neglect. The little silver and gold timepieces: each exquisitely crafted, yet carelessly scattered across every conceivable surface, many lying forgotten on high shelves where they gathered dust–of which there was no shortage. And what of us? The master and his apprentice: equally gloomy, shabby inhabitants of this place.

“Why do none of these mechanisms work?” the stranger inquired, completing his inventory.

“Oh but they do,” I assured him, hurrying out from behind the counter. I glanced towards the inner sanctum of my master’s workshop, willing him to appear and relieve me of the burden of dealing with this self-important stranger. M. Guilbert never closed the door but the thick black curtain was always drawn when he was inside.

“In every other watchmaker’s premises I have ever attended,” the gentleman said, “my ears have been assaulted by the ticking, whirring and chiming of a hundred timepieces. But not so here. Do your mechanisms keep time insufficiently well that you dare not set them running?”

“On the contrary,” I said, with one last futile glance at the drawn curtain. “M. Guilbert makes devices of only the greatest precision. But my master believes it is… disrespectful… to wind a timepiece that does not yet have a purpose. Would you not agree?”

“Indeed. Perhaps.” The gentleman seemed entirely unpersuaded.

“Allow me to show you the truth of it for yourself.”

The stranger fingered the fob watch I proffered with no more than mild curiosity. “I am not the prospective buyer. But M. Guilbert’s reputation has reached the ears of my master.”

Your master?” It seemed unlikely someone dressed in such finery would serve any master.

“The Comte Bachellaix desires to purchase a timepiece. He has heard that M. Guilbert’s skills are second to none.”

“Indeed!” I said, thinking of the sheaf of unpaid bills stuffed into the ledger book.

“A timepiece suitably decorous for a lady, is what the Comte desires. You have such things?” he asked, looking doubtfully at the shelves.

“But of course! M. Guilbert will be greatly honored to equip the Comtess with the finest, most delicate watch ever assembled.”

The man smiled thinly. “Yes. For the purposes of expedience, let us assume this will indeed be a gift for the Comtess.” He paused and in the silence the town hall clock in the square could be clearly heard striking eleven. The gentleman glanced around the silent interior of the shop, frowning. No echoing chimes came from the dozen or so carriage clocks, not a single one. Hurriedly I said, “M. Guilbert will ensure there is a fine selection for the Comte’s perusal. I shall wind them personally.”

The gentleman grunted. He wafted a gloved hand ineffectually at the dust hanging in the air. “See that you are prepared for the Comte’s arrival. He will come at noon tomorrow.”

He left and gloomy silence fell over the shop again. I hesitated by the curtain, knowing better than to draw it back uninvited. As though reading my thoughts, M. Guilbert snatched it aside and pushed past me.

“Damn you, Boy. Why did you not send him away?”

“The Comte is an important man. And we have bills to pay.”

“Bills. Pah.” He rummaged in a drawer beneath the counter, returned brandishing a thin jeweler’s blade which he waved in my face as though I had purposefully hidden it from him. “Why does everyone insist on disturbing my work?”

“Perhaps if you would let me assist you?” I asked without much hope. What use was an apprentice whose master would not put him to good use? Who would not teach all that he knew? Lately I had begun to dream about M. Guilbert’s mechanism that he worked on so furtively. Its little brass parts–the myriad wheels and ratchets and pinions–gleamed with a light brighter than any mere reflection and when the mechanism moved, it purred rather than ticked, like some slumbering creature. Lying in my bedchamber tucked under the shop’s eaves, I would stare into the darkness and feel the irresistible pull of the device, stronger even than the gravity drawing me to my bed. I burned to learn more about it.

“I think not,” M. Guilbert said with a final withering stare. He thrust the curtain back into place behind him.

“These people you so despise are called customers,” I called. There was no answer. The mechanism on the bench was already devouring all his attention.

I sighed. The Comte’s visit could be the making of our fortunes, if we played our cards right. But it had occurred to me that it could be our undoing, too.

The Houses They Became

The house, which had once been Tina’s mother, did not stir even once as she passed. Earlier, a window used to open, or the door creaked, whenever Tina would be in sight—a confirmation that her mother recognized who she was.

Ma was wholly a house now—a house filled with the personality of those who lived there.

Tina never knew what triggered the change. Maybe it was age, or maybe it was being thwarted in love a second time, or maybe it was something else.

Maybe it was the talks of the war and the fear that her son would be called to fight.

Within a week, she became a stone house that had found a safe place on an empty patch of ground in the marketplace. The owner of the land had allowed the house there, in return for his condition.

“We get the house for free.”

Tina knew that she, and her twin brother, Thomas, would become houses too one day, that one day she would wake up and feel the heaviness in her body, the desire to remain still, rooted to the ground. At least, that was what Ma had told them.

“Long ago, it was your Grandma who had first turned into a house. But the house she turned into grew wings, or so they say.”

“Where did she fly?”

“It’s just a saying, Tina. Houses don’t fly. There are many types of houses you can become, depending on who you are. But have you heard of flying houses?”

Tina shook her head. “Maybe it was only Grandma.”

Ma shook her head. “Houses don’t move, dear.”

“Will you take me to the house Papa has become?” she had asked her mother then.

Ma’s hands had tightened a little more around her. “Papa didn’t become a house. He—left.”

“Why?”

“Because when I got pregnant with you and your brother, I told your Papa that I could transform, because the transformation’s always brought about by some major changes in life. He couldn’t face it. Coward.”

“Do you think he would have stayed if we were normal, Thomas?” Tina asked her brother later, the day after Ma had changed.

Thomas smiled and put an arm around her. “We are normal, Tina.”

“Normal people don’t change into houses.”

“They all change into something. It’s not always visible.” Thomas said.

Tina smiled and hugged her brother. Thomas always knew the right thing to say. Ma hadn’t been able to afford school for the two of them, but Thomas had taught himself to read and write from the newspapers he found in dustbins. He’d taught Tina too, and nowadays, whenever they were free, they would read to each other the various events of the day.

“One day I’ll open a library, or a school. Or maybe I’ll become one.” Thomas said, laughter in his eyes. Tina smiled along with him, but in her heart she felt something heavy.

Tina still ran the flower shop her mother used to run. But really, with war approaching, she didn’t see how people would still buy flowers. They’d have to find other ways. Schools were being shut down, turned into shelters for soldiers, and Tina wondered whether she and Thomas could go to people’s houses and teach their children in exchange for a little food. Surely there would still be people who wanted their children to learn things other than gunshots and bombs and yells.

One evening, she returned home and saw Thomas waiting for her with a letter in his hands.

He met her eyes as he spoke.

“They’ve called me to the front. I have to go. Tomorrow.”

Silence followed his words as Tina stared back at him, unable to speak, unable to move.

Thomas was still speaking. “I have to report at the station in the next town, because our town doesn’t have one. And then—”

The next morning, before night had fully vanished, he was gone, a backpack on his shoulder, the imprint of his body still on the bed.

Tina didn’t even say goodbye before he left. She wasn’t able to.

Her brother was gone, along with countless others, to save the country. Who had gone to save them?

That afternoon, when she finally had the courage to get up from bed and face the day, she felt her hands being weighed down by something. She looked down. Her hands were larger than she remembered them being, and their color was not that of skin anymore, but wood.

Her heart sank. Her transformation had begun.

She didn’t have a plot of land she could belong to. Neither did she have any intention of sitting in one place, waiting to fade out in the shadows of the people who would come to live there.

She needed to be there. For Thomas. What if the transformation had started for him too? What if his hands felt heavy and his feet dragged? What if they thought he was useless and killed him? What if he never got a chance to fight, to defend himself, to defend someone he had become close to?

Thomas had always protected her. He was six minutes younger than her, but he had been her savior, the one who got bloody knuckles by fighting off bullies, the one who sat with her and played with dolls when she had no friends, just to see her smile. The one who had gently stood by her when Ma had gone.

It took an eternity for Tina to rub away the tears from her eyes. Her wooden hands left scratches on her cheeks. But it didn’t take long for her to decide.

She was going to meet her brother. She was going to save him.

But her feet dragged. She had become taller now, and she could see past the tops of some trees. In the distance she could see the world, blackened with smoke, meeting the gray sky.

Going through the forest beside her town would be the fastest way to reach the railway tracks. Passing the forests was agony. So much soil for her to sink into, to just remain rooted.

I’m going to be my own sort of house, she told herself as she walked, the soil cool beneath her feet. Her body creaked as she walked, never stopping, though her body became heavier by the second.

Night fell, but still she trudged on. She spoke to herself, in her mind, to remind herself who she was. My own sort of house. My own sort of house.

The wood in her body groaned with fatigue. By the time she reached the end of the forest, another day was dawning, and her eyes had disappeared. But she could still feel the surroundings.

She could follow the railway tracks to wherever her brother had gone. She was changing fast, but she could still feel herself. She was still Tina, her heart nestled in the foundations of the house. Her mind remembered Grandma and her wings. How Grandma had traveled the world in those stories, how she’d housed those who had needed it.

Tina didn’t have wings. But she hoped she would. She was a moving house, and maybe she could house those who needed her, like Grandma had, if only in stories. She’d hold the sick and the wounded close to her, and protect her brother.

The house moved forward, one step at a time, a smile opening the door wide.

Tamoha Sengupta lives in India. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Zetetic: A Record Of Unusual Inquiry and elsewhere. She tweets @sengupta_tamoha.

The Cartographer Gene

Jordan Sofer’s sixteen-year-old daughter appeared in his office crying one rainy Tuesday in March, sparking a chain of events that sent his life’s trajectory hurtling down a long, serpentine fuse toward a powder keg.

Jordan, Helion Engineering’s Director of Cartographic Solutions, sat at his workstation in a San Francisco office tower, correcting a topographic map of Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano. An intern had used 2005 elevation data, which didn’t account for the height added in 2010 when molten rock last spewed from Arenal. “You need a little boost,” Jordan said aloud to the volcano rendered on his display.

As he redrew contour lines, Jordan became aware of muffled sobs behind him. Millie huddled on the floor in the corner, her knees, naked under her short denim skirt, drawn to her chest.

She hadn’t used the door. Whatever made Millie cry had also filled her with the familiar, overpowering urge to draw.

“What happened?” Jordan glanced out the vertical glass panel beside his office door to the hallway, empty except for framed antique maps on the walls. No one had seen Millie materialize. He knelt beside Millie and kissed the top of her black-haired head, pushing the soft curls she inherited through Carole’s Haitian ancestry from her light-skinned forehead, the genetic contribution of Jordan’s Eastern European Jewish heritage. Millie smelled fresh, like honeydew. Her tears dampened Jordan’s blue Oxford shirt, leaving translucent streaks in the cotton.

“Tyler,” she said. “After school, he said if he couldn’t have me, no one could. Ben caught up to us and Tyler started shouting. I ran to tell Mr. Kramer. Then into an empty classroom.” Jordan felt for her index finger, still tacky with blood.

Millie didn’t have to tell Jordan what happened in that empty classroom; he’d have done the same if he feared for his physical safety. He pictured Millie searching for notebook paper, or perhaps cardboard, an index card, a discarded paper bag, anything on which to draw. Then rummaging for a pen, or a pencil, chalk, crayon, anything to mark that surface.

In Millie’s highly agitated state, details poured from her memory with photographic accuracy. She drew, as she could only when desperate–without training, without straight edges, protractors, compasses, CAD programs or reference materials, without erasures or strike-throughs–a professional-quality floor plan of her father’s office. A place she’d been before and felt safe. She’d pricked her skin, closed her eyes, and laid her bloody finger on the map.

Jordan tapped his iPhone. His son, Ben, Millie’s twin, answered on the second ring. “Where are you?” Jordan asked.

“Home,” Ben said, his mouth full.

He’d be in the kitchen of their San Carlos house, on a quiet hillside twenty-five minutes from downtown San Francisco, in front of the open side-by-side refrigerator. Pouring cornflakes into his mouth straight from the box. Washing them down with milk straight from the plastic gallon jug.

Carole would have made Ben get a bowl. After Carole succumbed to breast cancer four years ago, Jordan became lax about minor rules infractions. A single parent had to pick his battles. With Ben, Jordan dumped all his discipline points into one bucket: listening. The kid’s ears, like broken antennae, seemed unable to tune to the frequency of Jordan’s voice.

“Millie’s here,” Jordan said. “You okay?”

“Kramer came out before Tyler could slug me. He’s suspended for three days. It sucks having to stand up to bullies instead of just teleporting the hell out of there, like some people I know.”

Always with the barbs, that kid. The who-cares attitude worn like a flak jacket, envy smoldering underneath. Why did it always have to be fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, one with the ability, one without? Ben was so much like Jordan’s twin sister, Sarah. They both lacked what the family called the “Cartographer Gene” though its origins, whether in biology or something more arcane, were obscure. And they both resented their siblings and parents’ power. Jordan wondered whether all “Cartographer” families–the population’s tiny fraction across all races and ethnicities believed to have this trait —- experienced the same fractured dynamic.

He deflected Ben’s remark, finding it much easier to keep Ben at arm’s length than to engage.

“We’ll be there soon,” Jordan said.