Fiction

The Labyrinth Disme

There’s a ghost in my bed. She’s crying. She is the first, and it has been three days since my Burning—a ritual of my people that resulted in an ashen wound down my back. It healed into the literal shape of a ship on a sea of smoke.

When Nylin saw the ship, she said she always knew I’d be a Ferrier. Nylin’s always right, of course, like most Watchers.

“Don’t take me,” pleads the ghost. “I can’t leave them. My family.”

“I have to,” I say.

The ghost stifles her tears and rubs at her cloudy face. “What’s your name?”

I tell her my name is Gavin, but it feels like a lie. I chose the name for myself two years ago and haven’t used it since. It feels foreign to my ears, in my own voice, but the ghost doesn’t seem to notice. The Disme people don’t need names before they turn eleven.

Her name is Sen. It feels soft, like the feathered edges of her soul.

Sen is maybe nine or ten. I don’t ask because I’ll know soon.

I pluck my dime off the stack of striped, folded tarp beside my bed. Nylin had given it to me, as well as the clothes on my back, the thin mattress beneath me, the lamp that burns only one simple shade of pulsing dim, like a heartbeat.

The dime fits perfectly in my palm, despite not being a perfect circle. It is more akin to a broken ten-piece than uniform currency. The cold metal weighs heavy in my palm and I try not to tremble with it.

I hold my palm flat between Sen and me, then I call my Disme Mark forth, the way Nylin taught me.

The burn comes off my naked back in a wave of chills, as if a cold finger is running a nail down my spine. I roll my shoulders, tense, and my spine pops. The sound echoes around my tent like canon fire. My Disme Mark coils and folds over my head in swirls of black smoke, like a hood being drawn.

It crawls down my face and creeps across my arm. The Mark plateaus on the dime displayed in my palm. It is an empty, silent ship, made of smoke and charred flesh. It is as real as I am.

My ship curls itself around Sen’s wispy, white frame, collecting her. With its first passenger, the Disme ship returns to me, pasting itself onto my back where it had been burned into me not three days before, on my thirteenth birthday.

Sen is no longer in my bed, but she isn’t gone. She is on my ship and for a time, I am ten.

Sourdough

“This is disgusting.”

“You’re just being difficult.” He always accuses me of being difficult.

“No, it’s disgusting.”

“Would you just go with it? This is supposed to help you.” He shifted his weight to his other foot, that way he does when he’s trying to look like he’s not pouting.

I sighed and rolled my eyes at him, even granted him a little smirk. Partly because he’s still cute – the salt-and-pepper at his temples is probably my fault – and partly because the hip-shift caused a weird little disturbance in the hologram being shot up by a hundred little projectors embedded in the floor. “Fine.” I could survive this. I was promised pizza afterward.

“Thank god.” He turned and started a little at the projection he had interrupted. There was part of a woman there, jaw agape in surprise. When he stepped back, the rest of the image was unimpeded, and her arm materialized in front of her. This exhibit was supposed to be solemn. I giggled anyways.

“This isn’t funny.” His pout gone, he now had on his stern eyes.

“I’m sorry.” I hoped it sounded genuine.

“This isn’t going to work unless you at least try to be serious.”

“I know, I know.”

He considered the hologram woman for a moment, now that he wasn’t standing inside her. She was lit up from the front, and her line of sight indicated something horrifying behind us. I knew what it was. I didn’t want to look yet.

“Michael Whitmore.” He read the tag that hovered next to the woman frozen in fright, her hand covering her face.

“Her name was ‘Michael?’” I tried the smirk again.

“Stop.” He sounded real serious this time.

“You like this sort of thing. You brought me here.”

“Because your therapist thought it would be a good idea.”

Pepperoni. “Right.”

He looked down at the glossy pamphlet he held tight in both hands, then back up at me. “It’s a safe way – ”

“It’s a safe way to relive a traumatic event, allowing me to process it with higher-order thinking skills, to help the healing process.” She’d been feeding me that shit for weeks now, ever since the financing came through.

“It could help.”

“This has nothing to do with – ”

“Stop. We both know why she recommended this.”

“Yeah, but you secretly love it. It’s like the Hiroshima museum.” I wasn’t going to go down without saying my piece.

“You’re deflecting.”

“Fine.” I leaned my head way back, stretching my neck. He could have this one. Besides, he did love museums. Who was I to deny him this?

“Michael Whitmore.” He faced the woman again. “She was a zookeeper, meeting the Thai ambassador to discuss breeding a captive Asian Golden Cat.”

“Boring.” I could taste the crust, flaky on the outside, steamy on the inside.

“She was a mother of two. Over there was where the shooting started. At least in this building. She was the first victim.” A red line on the floor indicated her eyeline, just in case visitors were too dense to figure out what she’d be looking at.

A man in a light brown t-shirt very obviously pointed a rifle in her direction. Only, the rifle wasn’t displayed in the hologram. So he just stood there like an ass with one hand twisted up by his nipple and the other cradling the air in front of him. Something about trigger warnings. Triggers. We could have opted into the tour that showed everything, but the therapist had other thoughts about that. Baby steps.

A blue square resolved a few meters beyond the woman, a crowd of people appearing with it, all responding to the same empty-handed assailant. There was a fat man with an unoccupied holster at his belt. He was frozen for all eternity trying to retrieve nothing out of it. Or until they needed the building for something else. Nothing lasts forever.

“Whitman,” he read the security guard’s badge. “He’s the only one named in the group. These were the – ”

“Whitmore and Whitman. No relation.” I tried to get him to crack a smile. “Whitmore and Whitman, attourneys at law? Nothing?”

“Babe.” He tilted his head to the side. Tired now. Another reaction for the bingo card.

“Okay,” I sighed, a little more dramatically than I intended, and he turned away.

I’d been through worse. And there was cheese and tomato at the end of this rainbow.

Cedar

Cedar means love, never forget that. I made the rockers from cedar.

Aunt Suzie died before the fire, and Uncle Henry’s heart with her. I was glad of the burning, since it hid what I had done.

Black walnut boughs blown down in the forest with stripped bark and green moss, they did well for the arms.

The stomach cancer ate her up, the docs cut her open and stitched in a steel mesh for half her belly but that didn’t stop anything. Uncle Henry wasn’t gonna tell her but how could she not know? She faded from busy farm wife to bedridden frailty in the course of months, unable to keep down but a little this and a little that. Henry went from farmer to nurse, or rather both at once, out of his mind with worry over his wife and panic about his herd of milch cows and neglected fields of corn, not yet waist-high and still needing care. He called me in to help, which must have made him crazy after years of disparaging my living, wildcrafting the woods, harvesting the roots and herbs and berries, living in my own cozy place deeper in the hollow. Their house stood on a hill and I climbed it to sit by Suzie as she died.

Her weathered old rocking chair sat idle in a corner and her bed was stacked with a pile of quilts twice as thick or more than her own body. She’d never been a beauty, plain and tall and proud and with ivory colored hair that hung to her knees. Illness didn’t lend a deathbed glow, just carved her away from her own bones. I saw her with love and she was beautiful for being familiar, my aunt who’d sat me on her lap when she rocked in that rocker and read me Bible stories and sung me choir songs. No more songs, not even words through those ragged lips. I touched her hand so she knew she wasn’t alone.

She passed along a note. She must have written it long before, the writing was steady and measured. A recipe for soup. And a little something extra.

I pressed it back to her.

She didn’t have the strength of illness so often mentioned in stories but she had the persistence of a successful farm wife, used to running a house and a farm and hired help and a husband. Four or five times later I bowed my head and accepted the chore. “Tomorrow,” I said.

She couldn’t reply. She couldn’t nod. But she opened her eyes at me and I swear I saw relief.

The seat was a stone, flecked granite from the hill, carved deep with blue and gray lichen.

I poured the soup, herbs, marrow, mushroom, into a fat blue coffee cup sitting unused in the kitchen. I held the mug to her lips and she sipped, slow and steady, the first meal in ages. The last. I closed her eyes with a penny each and settled her hair and clothes and quilts then sat and rocked. Henry would return from the fields soon enough, no reason to bother him now.

The back was a tangle of morning glory vines. In time they’d take over if they got ahold.

Henry knew what I’d done, of course he did, why else ask me there? He beat me and drug me from the house. He followed a few minutes later, leaving behind flickers of flame. We stood and watched the house light up and burn down, the shingles smelling rich of cedar. Henry stood thin in his cotton shirt and overalls and boots and said, “Nothing left.” I think he went to sleep in the barn.

I waited the flames out. Morning dew damped the embers though the ruin was still hot. Heat never bothered me none. I found her room, her bed, her body under the quilts, and I gathered her up. I’m neither big nor strong but I was sufficient to the task. Henry had prepared the plot and I set her down in it. And got to work on that rocker.

A body needs a place to rest and so does a soul. Suzie’s rocker was her headstone, now.

He raged his way across the field yelling how dare I and too soon and leave her be and when he saw the rocker he stopped cold. He raced up the knock it over and stopped cold again.

“What are those?”

“Dunno.” He meant the crystals lighting up like fireflies but I meant the new-sprung flowers and herbs I’d never met before.

There was no breeze and yet the rocker rocked. No breeze yet the wind of its passage riffled my hair and dried the cold sweat on the nape of my neck. The scent of her perfume grew large, overflowing the rocker, engulfing me. I believe it was her silent voice that said thank you.

The Spider and the Rose

I hadn’t liked Aultmar Artos much when I’d worked for him in the past, and studying his flickering image now reminded me why. Something about those deep-set, hooded eyes in that long, lugubrious face resembled a serpent; and what I knew of his cold, calculating personality did not help much. Rumor said the Chairman of the StellarCast combine rarely smiled and never, ever laughed. I was fully inclined to believe it.

However, our business together had been mutually profitable despite my dislike–a sentiment I suspected was returned. I also suspected he did not care for the position in which he now found himself: supplicant to the Pantheon. But I could only guess at that, for I could read nothing in his expressionless face.

“It’s been a while, Chairman,” I said.

“The same, Athena.”

“I received a message from the Pantheon informing me you had requested my services.” A loose network for those of us who did black work and had risen to the top–the best of the best, and proud of it–the Pantheon gave those clients who could afford us an easy way to find us while preserving our own secrecy.

Those steely gray eyes blinked–eyes as gray as mine, and supposedly as artificial as they looked. Rumor had it that his eyes–along with almost every other part of his body, including his heart–had been replaced, modified, amplified, so that there was very little of him that was human.

Almost as little as there is of me. I buried the thought.

“I have a contract for you. If you will accept it, of course.” It must have cost Aultmar to ask that; he was not a man accustomed to asking if his will would be carried out.

“Details?” While I spoke, my mind accessed the starnet, pulling up background information on Aultmar: partners, associates, colleagues–not friends, for he had none. Info feeds scrolled directly through my mind, characters flashing in fully-formed, three-dimensional images, then dissipating.

His lips compressed. “There is a woman.”

That narrows it down. A little. Even cut in half, Aultmar Artos’ enemies list was truly impressive.

“Her name is Arakhne. She lives on Arcadia.”

Arcadia. Hmmm. I’d heard of the planet–a recent acquisition of the StellarCast combine–and after a moment I was able to call up some information on Arakhne. “An artist, is she not? A light-weaver?”

“Yes.” Those lips compressed further. “Find her. And kill her.”

“For a simple killing of a simple weaver, you don’t need me. Or my fee. What else?”

Those eyes flickered down toward my fingertips. “I want her memories.”

Now it starts to make sense. Perimortem memory capture was a skill very few possessed, and among those few, I would vouch with no false modesty that I was the best.

“That might be tricky. I’ve told you before, the process is not always precise or accurate.”

“I understand. Your standard fee if you simply kill her, double if you bring her memories back.”

My curiosity rose. The only reason Aultmar might want her memories would be if he suspected they contained something damaging. But what could a weaver know that would trouble him? I would dearly have loved to ask, but that would have been unprofessional.

“I’ll do it,” I said. “Usual conditions. I’ll inform you when it’s done.”

He nodded. “Thank you. And give my regards to the rest of the Pantheon.”

“I will. Zeus and Hera in particular have spoken of you with great regard.”

“That is pleasant to hear. Until next time.” He leaned forward and touched a control. Aultmar’s image winked out before me. And I was left with a mystery. Who is this Arakhne of Arcadia and why on earth does Altmar want her dead?

Consequences

Carriel felt like a cloud of gloom hovering over a parade. The morning sun cast the snow into piles of glitter. Excited, bubbly people swarmed around her sister, Lionye’s golden child, winner of the Emberithshire Skating Championship, Junior Division. Bree laughed and chatted with friends, rivals, and fans.

Even Garray looked excited. Well, of course he did. Their grasping brother had set up this race to give himself another reason to gamble. He’d be thrilled all day, unless their little sister lost.

A whisper, like a sudden gust of wind, ran through the crowd. She turned, following the ripple. The crowd shifted, allowing a woman and a girl about Bree’s size to cross the park to the pond. She shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun on the snow, but even standing on tiptoes, she couldn’t catch more than a glimpse of the competition’s knit cap through the press.

Whistles sounded. Cheers erupted. Her sister flashed an elated grin. The head of the Lionye’s Skating Commission stepped away from the judges’ table and raised a megaphone to his lips.

“Welcome to today’s special event race. We’re pitting our very own Bree, the Winter Wind, against Tayla of the Peolline district of Feballiase.”

The crowd roared. Bree waved to her cheering fans. Tayla turned at her name and gave a tentative smile. Carriel blinked. What?

“Ladies, please take your places at the starting line.”

Snapping out of her shock, she grabbed her sister’s arm before she could hobble more than a couple of steps towards the starting line.

“What?” A bemused smile on her face, Bree turned. She clearly expected wishes of luck or advice. The usual before a race.

“She’s not human.”

“Huh?” Her sister glanced at the starting line.

“She’s some sort of winter Fae. I think she’s an ice sprite.”

Wild excitement filled her sister’s face. “Really?”

She gritted her teeth. “I know what I see.”

“Bree of Lionye, please join us at the starting line.” The ice sprite already stood there. She smiled, too innocently to be believed, when they looked at her.

“I’ve got to go.”

“You can’t–”

“So she’s an ice sprite. It’s just a race.”

“Bree–”

“It’ll be a laugh. Tell Stacia.”

“You cannot hope to win.”

Her smirk turned mischievous. “Tell my coach. Let the word spread. Think about it. Racing an ice sprite? Sure I can’t win, but depending on how close I come? How fast and famous does that make me?”

The officials called for Bree again. Laughing, she spun and hobbled quickly to the ice sprite.

Carriel dashed over to her sister’s coach. Stacia cursed at the news and ran to the alert the head of Lionye’s Skating Commission. Blood drained from his face. Stacia continued to talk for a few minutes. The Commission Head turned and raised his whistle to his lips. One bleat.

Ice sprayed from their skates. The crowd roared. Neck and neck as they neared the first curve.

Carriel’s heart pounded. This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t have allowed this.

The ice sprite pulled ahead on the first curve. On the opposite side of the pond, the ice sprite lengthened her lead. The crowd screamed for their Winter Wind to speed up.

A determined frown creased Bree’s face. Carriel had watched her sister skate enough times to pick up the minute increase in speed. She skated as fast as she could, perhaps faster than her fastest time. They wouldn’t know for sure on that until she crossed the finish line.

Which she did a good forty-five seconds after the ice sprite.

A crack echoed across the park.

Bree flashed out of existence.

The ice sprite pivoted. The glee on her face twisted into a good facsimile of shock.

A Ghosted Story

When Eliza returns from the bathroom, after fifteen minutes that saw me sliding from calm to fretful, she looks pale underneath the low lights produced by the restaurant’s chandeliers. Moving listlessly and a little awkwardly, she drifts along until she pauses in the empty stretch of hardwood floor between the kitchen and the dense puzzle of tables. A distracted waiter nearly runs her over, apologizes, but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes roam through space like she’s forgotten why she’s there. They glaze over me, unseeing, and I raise a self-concious hand, give it a few limp waves. Eliza misses it but starts heading my way, the essence of noncommittal.

She sits down, but doesn’t pull her chair into the table. Her eyes fall on the candle flickering at its center, beside the bottle of wine, half of which has been distributed into our glasses.

“Are you okay?” I ask. I’m careful with the next sentence, lest I offend her. “You don’t look like you’re feeling so great.”

That’s an understatement. Eliza’s so pale I’m worried she’s about to fall out of her chair. She slumps back in it, half-dead in the face, and doesn’t answer my question.

“We can go if you want,” I say. “If you’re not well we don’t have to stay. I’ll pay for the wine and we’ll get out of here.”

She doesn’t say anything.

“Eliza.”

Still nothing. I lean back in my chair, brushing my cheek with my knuckles, aware that something’s gone terribly wrong.

The restaurant, which I selected, is a newish place surfing on a wave of delayed hype, the kind of place everyone talks about for a week but no one remembers to actually visit until a couple of months later. In response to rising demand, the powers that be have crammed in as many tables as possible, creating a maze through which the staff careens, running glasses and plates back and forth with manic intensity, near-misses happening all the time. It’s anxiety-inducing to watch, but beautiful in a way.

To the left and right of our table, couples dine so close I could reach out and touch their shoulders without locking my elbow. At a loss with Eliza, I shift my head to the man sitting on a diagonal from my right. Catching me, he raises his eyebrows.

“Are you really not going to say anything?” I return to Eliza to find she’s tilted her head back, to stare up at the distant ceiling. “If something’s wrong, you can tell me. I’m not going to mind.”

The woman at the table to my left is studying me, but when we meet eyes she drops hers, embarrassed.

Perhaps she’s wondering if she’s witnessing a first-date trainwreck. She’s not. Eliza and I have been seeing each other two or three times a week for a couple of months now, ever since our introduction at a brunch outing with mutual friends. It’s been going well, or so I’d thought until the moment she returned from the bathroom–well enough that I was inspired to hope for the first time since Mikayla and I broke up, plunging me into a morass of bad dates, poorly conceived Tinder messages, and too much drinking on weekday evenings. Eliza and I had similar views of life and relationships, our failures in each inspiring a healthy cynicism that still couldn’t break our natural tendencies toward optimism. She laughed at my bad jokes. I listened to stories about her narcissistic parents. We went to movies, to plays, to bars, to the planetarium. When we weren’t together, we texted regularly, sharing the little things that happened to us on average mornings and typical afternoons, things that didn’t usually leave our heads. I thought we were becoming something. When I rounded onto Congress Street and saw her waiting for me beneath the awning, in her black dress and denim jacket, the pulse in my neck started going faster, and sweat leaked out of my palms.

But now the speeding train has derailed. I observe the wreckage, which doesn’t amount to much–we were in the restaurant only fifteen minutes before she got up to find the restroom–and try to locate the fault, the crack where blame might fit. Our evening had been going well, at least as well as the others. Eliza referenced a joke from our text messages. I complained about my dentist’s appointment. She complimented my new shirt. I told her about the colors in the sky that morning, how I’d meant to send her a photograph like the one she’d sent me.

The waiter comes over. He introduced himself when he brought us glasses of water, but I’ve forgotten his name.

“How we doing over here?” he asks. “How’s the wine?”

“It’s good,” I say, taking a sip as if to prove it. When I ordered the bottle, Eliza giggled at my clumsy pronunciation. “I like it.”

“Excellent. Would you like to put in any appetizers, or should I give you a couple of minutes?”

Between my initial rapture with Eliza and my current state of confusion, I haven’t even glanced at the menu.

“A couple of minutes.”

“Certainly. I’ll be back.”

As he dashes off to tend to his other tables, I realize that he never once looked at Eliza. On the far side of the table, she’s sitting upright, with an expression of waiting-room boredom. Her roaming eyes never once land on me. And it might be a trick of the light, or of the wine, but I swear she looks less defined than she did, like she’s steadily fading from view.

“I should’ve slapped him,” says the woman to my left to the man across the table, who’s leaning on his elbows. “I would have, too, but my friend was, like, dragging me away.”

Determined to ignore Eliza as she’s ignoring me–an unsatisfying form of revenge, because I know she’s not going to care–I make a point of inspecting everything in the room with an expression of casual interest, as if that could make her reconsider how she’s treating me. Inside, meanwhile, I’m threatening to boil. In an abstract place behind my stomach, a box that doesn’t really exist contains all the worst parts of me–penchants for self-pity, revolting neediness, and narcissistic anger, all of which I can’t help but indulge, self-flagellation working as an excuse for emotional self-pleasure. These fragments of my narcissism, unleashed by whatever minor stimulus–a message gone ignored, another guy’s joke laughed at, an offhand comment interpreted as a slight–have spoiled every relationship I’ve ever managed to start. With Mikayla I became a seething, touchy, obsessive shell of a person; in the aftermath, I vowed to shut my bad parts away, to weigh them down and bury them somewhere from which they might never resurface. But as I don’t look at Eliza, with pressure mounting behind my eyes, the anchors fail and the box drifts free. Its flaps open and its contents release into my chest, where they merge into a storm. The closest point of egress is my mouth. For five seconds, I fight off words I know I’ll regret.

Darwinian Butterflies in My Stomach

“I’ve made you an appointment at The Clinic,” her mother announced as they finished luncheon on their private terrace– the one that overlooked the south pond. “With Dr. Gabedian. He’ll see you this afternoon.”

Gabedian. Thayta’s hand nervously drifted to her stomach. Her mother saw and pointedly averted her eyes. Thayta pretended she meant to remove her napkin from her lap. “I have a doctor, Mother. The one who–”

“Gabedian has agreed. He says it can only help his reputation. Lord knows what it will do to ours.” Her mother rose, signaling that the conversation was over.

“Would you like to come?” Thayta called after her.

Regal as ever, her mother turned, hands lightly clasped under her bosom. “Why,” she said in glacial tones, “don’t you ask Finchly’s mother to join you?” She didn’t wait for an answer but disappeared into the house.

Thayta had known her mother was embarrassed by her, maybe even ashamed; still, she’d hoped the high-handed appointment-making meant a thaw in the permafrost. Her hand drifted back to rest on her belly. Oh, Finchly!

The Monster with Many Eyes

Mallory couldn’t pinpoint when she’d first noticed the monster. She supposed she’d heard it scuttling around in the walls for weeks before it had first attacked, but she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it. Though she knew it was stupid, a part of her hoped that if she ignored it, it would turn out to be a figment of her imagination.

It wasn’t.

When Mallory stumbled back to her apartment one evening after a long day of classes followed by a busy shift at work, it sprang out of nowhere and tackled her. Mallory’s back hit the floor, and she caught a glimpse of a shiny black exoskeleton and many, many eyes before it savaged her. Claws cut into her legs and sides, and teeth bit brutally into her shoulder. She screamed and flailed, but it made no difference. She could only close her eyes and cry until it ended.

Eventually, the monster crawled away, leaving Mallory a sobbing wreck on the floor. Nearly thirty minutes passed before she managed to pick herself up and limp to the shower. Once she was clean, she rifled through her cabinets and found the first-aid kit, every shadow and creak making her jump. But the monster didn’t attack again. She bandaged her wounds and went to bed, but the hours passed sleeplessly. She could hear the monster scuttling behind the walls.

If anyone noticed her limp or the dark circles under her eyes the next day, they didn’t say anything. When she finally got home, her hands shook so hard that she could barely unlock the front door. She slunk cautiously inside, the muscles of her back so tense they hurt. Whipping her head around, she looked for any sign of the monster. Nothing. Was it gone? She couldn’t be so lucky.

She sat on the couch, waiting for it to appear and attack, every second that passed making her feel more nauseous. But the minutes ticked by with no sign of it. Eventually, she opened her web design textbook and tried to read tonight’s assigned chapter, but she couldn’t concentrate. She kept glancing up and looking over her shoulder.

By the time she got ready for bed, she thought that maybe—just maybe—the monster had left. But then she opened the linen closet and saw its many eyes gleaming from the shadows behind a stack of towels. Mallory slammed the door shut and stumbled back, gasping for air. The monster didn’t burst out of the closet and attack, but it didn’t have to. Mallory knew it was there and barely slept all night.

It went on like that for weeks. Sometimes, the monster would attack; other times, it would just lurk. There was no pattern that Mallory could detect. It happened in the morning, afternoon, and even the middle of the night. An entire week went by once with barely any sign of it, but then it attacked three days in a row. It happened on good days, bad days, and every kind of day in between.

The constant fear and worry ate away at her like termites gradually gnawing down wood. Her grades slipped, and she appeared so lethargic and worn at work that her boss asked if she needed to cut back on her hours. Mallory couldn’t afford that. Falling behind on rent and getting kicked out of her apartment would be tempting if she didn’t know in her bones that the monster would follow her wherever she went.

She slept-walked through her days, exhausted from the anxious nights and constant attacks. After class, when she talked to Grace Cheung—the girl with vibrant blue hair who usually sat next to her—it wasn’t until the conversation ended that Mallory realized she’d agreed to have Grace over for a study session tomorrow.

Cue the panic. Mallory couldn’t let anyone else come into the apartment. Grace wasn’t in any danger—somehow, Mallory knew it was her own personal monster and would only attack her—but Mallory couldn’t bear to let anyone see the ugly, awful thing she’d let come into her life. Her face heated with shame just thinking about it.

Lying was her first instinct. She could text Grace and say something else had come up, but she’d only been going through the motions when she’d written down Grace’s number, and she couldn’t read the scrawl of her own shaky handwriting. All night, Mallory tossed and turned, debating every option from suggesting a coffee shop instead of her apartment to dropping the class and running away. Hearing the clicking of the monster’s pincers as it lurked in her bedroom corner, watching, didn’t help.

By the time Grace knocked on her door the next day, Mallory had thrown up in the toilet twice and was trembling from head to toe. She looked over her shoulder as she shuffled to the door. The monster was nowhere in sight, and she prayed it would stay that way. When she opened the door, it took her a moment to gather the courage to open her mouth and propose the coffee shop down the street, and by then, Grace had already come inside, complaining about their professor and whatever sadist had invented grading on a curve.

Feeling as if she’d lost all control, Mallory reluctantly settled on the couch next to her and opened her notebook. They reviewed their notes and flipped through the chapters of their textbooks, discussing concepts and what was likely to be on the exam. Mallory didn’t have much to say; she was too busy checking the doorway to the bathroom, the space behind the TV, and the cracks in the couch cushions for any sign of the monster. Luckily, Grace was one of those talkative people who could carry a conversation practically by themselves and didn’t notice Mallory’s silence.

They paused for Mallory to make coffee, the hot liquid sloshing out of the mugs and onto her quivering hands as she carried them to the couch. She handed one mug to Grace and sat down. They were just getting back to work when movement caught her eye.

The monster emerged from the coat closet, squeezing its glistening black body under the door like oozing slime. Fear lodged itself in Mallory’s throat, cutting off her air. The monster’s numerous eyes were focused on her, and drool dripped from its mandible in anticipation. Then it shot across the floor towards her on its spider-like legs, and Mallory could only whimper.

That’s when Grace chucked her textbook at it.

The heavy book struck the monster in two of its evil eyes, and it reared back and shrieked. Grace was already on her feet and charged it.

“Hey! Get outta here! Go on!” She kicked it with her red sneaker.

The monster shrieked again. Then its thick claw shot out and clamped around Grace’s ankle. She hopped on one foot, trying to keep her balance.

“A little help?” she called back at Mallory.

Mallory had been frozen on the couch, coffee mug clutched in a death grip between her hands. For a moment, everything seemed to slow, from the monster’s flickering eyes, to Grace’s waving arms, to the very molecules of air in the room. Mallory’s stomach twisted into a knot so tight that it threatened to pull her into ball. She took a deep breath, forcing her diaphragm to expand as the world sped back up.

The mug was the only thing Mallory had, so she flung it at the monster. The steaming hot liquid splashed into its eyes as the heavy ceramic mug smacked it. The monster screeched, its legs twitching, and it leg go of Grace. She immediately stomped on it, and before Mallory knew what she was doing, she ran to help. Kicking and stomping, the two of them drove the monster into the coat closet. Limping, it squeezed itself back under the door, where it let out a muffled, chittering whine.

Mallory stood there, panting, unable to believe what had just happened. She’d fought it off! It was possible to fight it—it was possible to win! She turned to Grace, who was flushed but smiling.

Mallory’s euphoria crashed like a torn kite. Grace had seen it. She knew Mallory’s repulsive, shameful secret—one that Mallory had been too weak and pathetic to handle herself. She’d seen everything. She wouldn’t sit next to Mallory, wouldn’t want anything to do with her. Oh, God, what if she told other people what had happened?

“I’m sorry.” Mallory was crying before she knew it. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean— You shouldn’t— I—”

“Whoa, whoa, it’s okay.” Grace put a hand on her shoulder and led her back to the couch. Mallory sniffed and wiped away tears, her face hot.

“Really, it’s cool,” Grace said. “I’ve got one of those things, too—and mine has tentacles. I know it’s rough.”

“What?” Mallory would have never imagined Grace, with her bright blue hair and effortless confidence, could have her own monster.

“Yeah. They’re easier to deal with when you have someone’s help.” Grace looked at her thoughtfully. “Have you talked to anyone about it?”

Mallory shook her head forcefully.

“Well, think about it. Talking about them makes them weaker. Do you want to…?” Grace waved her hand, indicating they could talk now.

Mallory’s throat tightened just thinking about it. Her body was shaky and weak, and her mind was still reeling from shock. “No. I don’t think I could. I—I need more time. Thanks, though.”

“No problem.” She shrugged. “I’m around if you change your mind, and you should check out some forums online if you don’t want to talk face to face.” She walked over to where her textbook lay on the floor and flipped through the pages. “Let’s answer these last few questions, and then I’ll get out of your hair.”

They finished studying, and Mallory thanked Grace profusely while walking her to the door. Grace waved the whole thing off, and when she was gone, Mallory grabbed a plastic bottle of carpet cleaner to deal with the coffee stain on the floor. Scrubbing with a rag, she thought about what Grace had said about talking to people online. She’d never tried that before. Part of her had been afraid someone would find her search history and discover her secret. The rest of her had feared what she’d find: that she’d confirm there was no getting rid of the monster, or that its attacks would eventually kill her.

Now, though…

Mallory put away the carpet cleaner and grabbed her laptop. She would just find a forum and look tonight. Then, once she’d built up her courage, maybe she would post something herself.

She heard a scuttling in the walls as the monster moved from the closet, probably still licking its wounds. Mallory froze in instinct, hunching over, but then she caught herself and determinedly straightened up. It hadn’t left. Maybe it never would. But it didn’t have to rule her life anymore.

Smiling to herself, she clicked on a link and started reading.

The Glittering World

From far away they are coming, from far away they are coming.
From far away they are coming.

I am the child of Changing-Woman; they are coming
From the road below the East; they are coming,

Old age is coming for them; they are coming, from far away they are coming
From far away they are coming
From far away they are coming.

-The Old Age Spirits, Navajo Ceremonial Song


The Great Tree’s lethal foliage, blacker than jet, shades its dark inhabitants from the starlight. The branches merge and diverge above and below one another like the meeting of twisted highways. Small chittering beasts with angry red eyes, and smaller thorny insects sit amongst the leaves. The roots reach downward past layers of time, past Hell and the Underworld, and then farther down until the long black fingers dip into the deep wells of Earth’s molten core and feed upon it. The roots sip the liquid ores and convert them into fiery black magic that flows up through arteries. As it reaches the surface, it chars an obsidian gleam into the bark and wood. When lightning strikes the parched valley, it strikes this evil totem first, as if the gods of thunder and lightning hate the Great Tree and wish to watch it burn. But it never burns. And should any axe attempt to fell the Tree, that tool is shattered, its user cursed.

The land has travelled from Dark, to Blue, to Yellow, and then Man and Woman, guided by the black ants and climbing bamboo ladders, brought the Glittering World with them. The old spirits from the Dark World followed them. The Great Tree offered an oasis for Dark creatures in an ocean now drained, baked, and dried. Ancients lived in the sinister tree, primordial things that survived trapped by the change from ocean to land. Marooned from the early Dark World, they hated the Glittering World of Woman and Man. The English and Americans would call them Faerie; the Spanish, La Hada; the Diné call them Ch’indii. Once fair Yei spirits, they immolated their goodness and beauty in the pools of flames when Hashjeshjin, the Son of Fire and Comets, was young and creating the land. The Tree drinks from the calderas the Ch’indii once burned in when all was Dark and they were the only ones who could see. They were drawn to the sulfuric wooden heat; they couldn’t survive without it.

Once every century, always on the darkest moonless night of the year, the Ch’indii venture down the black trunk and creep spidery on all four of their lanky limbs towards the Diné sheltered in their circular fire-lit hogans. Their claws are hooked like fangs but leave no mark as they dig and scurry across the rocks and sand. Many stumble for they carry fruit plucked from the Great Tree, nightmares clutched tightly to their mangy chests. The terrors throw off their gait and make their snarls fierce and frenzied, while their hairy froglike faces cachinnate gleefully. Black beady studs rise on their bodies like warts on a Gila monster. Their wide flat teeth gnash and grin. They know the path to the Diné village by scent and only veer from it to play erotic games with the cactus needles and slap each other around on the succulents. They roam freely like in the Blue World, when they taught the animals how to kill. They rip the spines from lizards, eat newborn birds and mice from their nests, and repurpose many small unfortunates into bloody hoods to protect themselves from the blinding starlight.

They channel the speed of the Running-Pitch when the Jah-dokonth blasted all of the condensed saturation apart. The ritual must be completed, their hunger for fresh breath and new visions sprints them past the wind and down upon their prey.


Thankfully, the Diné, the Cultivators, friends of the well-mannered Peaceful Little Ones, sleep clustered together. The Ch’indii have dropped a few nightmares along the way, but still grip omens of Poverty, Old Age, Famine, Violence and Cold to their furry sunken ribs. They refuse to enter the hogan, as humans do- from the east where the sun rises. They hate the sun — the slayer of terror—Mother Dawn who dispatches Dark Creatures with her daggers of light. They trample the crops and scratch the animals, knocking them out. Their cackling awakens two people. As two men step out of the hogan, the Ch’indii’s pounce, ripping out the men’s eyes and stealing their voices. They suppress their happy grunting enough to form a straight line, and climb up the domicile to enter through the smoke vent exhaling from the center of the roof.

Their claws hook into the mud and pine ceiling, their drooling drips and collects on the floor. A few lose their grip and drop rolling themselves into furry shells, and bounce about unnoticed by the sleepers. Only embers remain of the communal fire. The slight firelight pains their eyes. The Ch’indii gravitate towards the lengthening shadows at the hogan’s inner circumference, circumambulating counterclockwise to stir up evil into the home. Couples, singles, children, and elders, no one sleeping more than an a few arm lengths apart from one another. They pull their blankets over their shoulders and chins, and drift closer together as the chill and effluvia spreads. The matriarchal sleeping arrangements assist in the spinning and casting of dreams and nightmares throughout the hogan.

The Ch’indii touch their nails gently to the temples of the youngest and oldest sleepers in the hogan and catch all the ages in between. They pull out the Great Tree’s fruit they had tucked away; microcosms of inevitabilities, small black eggs etched with molten constellations. The lumps are dropped into the mouths of the infants, toddlers and young children. The Ch’indii rub the children’s throats with their toe pads to encourage swallowing. They catch the human breath on their rotten lips and exhale it into the night; they steal more breath, again and again, and blow their own foul interior into the sleepers’ mouths. They inflate their neck pouches and a low rhythm hums from their voice boxes grating against their throats. Their chants lull the dreamers into a deeper sleep.

The fire has ended in a warm smoldering. The chanting shakes the air and quakes through the wooden beams. The Ch’indii’s former gill slits split open into ribboning crevices that ooze an oily tar, black sap hoarded from the Great Tree. They scrape the serrated inner edges with their claws and drip the foul nectar into the ears of the sleepers. They form a chain and swell their throat gratings so that the noise reverberates and swells. The dreamers swoon into a reverie as the Ch’indii wave their sinewy arms spinning Inevitable Truth by tight circles into the hypnotic web. Together, they could both see what is to come; the Diné could choose whether or not to believe.

Their chanting articulates into long drawn-out ghosts of words; “They are coming, from far away they are coming.”

The nightmare starts as a benign dream. The Men from Across the Water come at first starved, and then gleaming in impossible alloys and textiles. The Diné’s ears, eyes, noses and mouths fill with the pollen of precious things: magnificent crafts, jewelry, and trinkets, the inebriations that help them to forget. Consistent waves of people and things come from far away.

The Strange Men call them Apache, which means enemy to them.

“Navajo Diné.” They insist.

“Sí, Apache Navajo, pues.” The strange visitors answer.

Inevitability turns exciting new things nightmarish. Crossed pieces of wood and leather-bound sheets of pressed leaves hold a sacred power. The God provides Mercy, for His People need it. The Wet Death comes and wastes Navajo bodies. They survive. Friendly masks are removed so that demands can be made face-to-face. They fight. The God practices His famed benevolence by receiving, redeeming, and forgiving souls. They kill, and the Diné witness their grandchildren kill too, mastering the new weaponry and animals. Teaching dominates learning; the war pitting the Spirits against the God is lost.

“They are coming, from far away they are coming,” the Ch’indii whisper into the dreamers’ ears.

Steaming segmented metal worm-serpents charge through the northern mountains and into the desert valley. They breathe fire and belch smoke, they vomit out a chaotic civilization that nevertheless flourishes, or at least seems flourishing from the embellished style of dress, building, and living. There are more objects than people. The metal worm-snakes bring more and more so they lose the war of numbers, and the villages lose the war against the towns. The strangers dominate the valley and the Navajo lose the mountains.

“They are coming, from far away they are coming.”

The visions are terrible because they will be true. There will be mines that strip and degrade and create wastelands land with an ingenuity that kills magic. What the Diné have begun with their tools the Men from Across the Water will end with their machines. Machines that will swallow the world into White created from everything sparkling at once.

The Diné watch their heritage and future generations shepherded on the Long Walk as the world around them marches faster. The Navajo are taken to a Round Forest, neither a forest nor round; the Pale Riders expect them to grow one and live off it. They are reserved there, and then somewhere else. The metal worm-serpents segment further, divide and charge like angry buffalo flattening the land. The Navajo integrate carrying their ways and traditions like shadows. The night loses its darkness. They find each other in the white brightness through voice, movement and feeling. The Ch’indii rake their claws softly on the inner arms and thighs of the dreamers, and they lose each other to the shadows again.

“They are coming. From far away, they are coming.” The dread in their gravel grinds to a climactic pitch.


The chanting stops. The Ch’indii abandon the dreamscape and release the dreamers from the conduction. The monsters gather bewildered by the true nature of the Glittering World.

“They will leave nothing but White light!” The oldest goblin starts.

The others hiss. “It will overshadow the stars and sun!”

“Poison the rain!”

“Level the mountains!”

The Old One speaks again, “Lightening and thunder will be stolen and reshaped into unrelenting brightness. Even their God will lose His luster to the Glittering. There will be no Dark spaces left. No purpose, no power left for us, only White.” The White, The Last World, the final expansive bang before the universe contracts to start all over again in the Dark. Fresh breath will not be enough to restrain the forthcoming human tidal wave, they will need fresh life.

A sacrifice. The Diné will receive black magic, and in return, give up a son or daughter to follow the Coyote by walking in its skin. The effulgence towards White could be delayed by merging the powers of the Dark and the Glittering. The Ch’indii scurry about and find a boy a few years in age, just beyond toddling, with enough mettle to endure the liquid fires of the Great Tree. They pull themselves up to the shoulders of the mother cradling her son. The Ch’indii massage the temples of both to increase the weight of their dreaming.

“They are coming, they are coming. From far away, they are coming.” They whisper to each other.

The Old One hobbles forward, about the same height and width as the young human, although far more horrible and hairy. He explores the soft body with the tips of his nails as if drawing a map. He sniffs under the arms, neck, and legs, and uses his breath, nose and tongue to taste and smell the cavities and skin. He lifts the mother’s arm as his comrades pull the child away and settles into the vacancy. He is in the crook, just before the small feet are swept away, and lowers her arm upon his mangy shoulders.

The skinniest runt jumps forward, extends his long thin arm, and carefully, like a surgeon, reaches into the child’s mouth. Reaching deep, and, carefully, so as not to grace the sides of the gullet or mouth, the runt retrieves the fruit they had planted earlier, frees the nightmare from its host, and holds it up for the others to view. The tiny fruit had voluminous depth packed with stormy red seeds.

The runt holds high the shrunken universe of pain, as another opens the lips of the mother with a gentle pull on her chin.

“Fear makes delusion,” the runt whispers placing the nightmare on her tongue and caressing it down her throat.

The Ch’indii bring the human child, headfirst over to the changeling so that he and the wide sleuthing grin are face to face.

“Breathe.” The Old One says.

The child obeys and the monster’s cavity inflates like a ribbed bladder and deflates the inhalations back into child. He captures the young breath and it charges his power. He breathes it back into the newborn.

The tough hair and mange sheds to the ground and dissolves in cinders. The Changeling’s features become rounder and his skin smoothens into pliable softness. He grows a thick patch of feathery black hair on the top of his head and eyebrows to match. A perfect replicated likeness to the child. Only the rolling eyes and crooked grin, the impulses to impale grasshoppers could alarm the Diné family and tribe to his innate wickedness.

The Ch’indii bear the child, level as a casket, out the eastern entrance they despise. The blue hints in the night hurt their eyes.

“Yah-zheh-kih!”

“Dawn Light!”

They curse the Mother of Coyote and they quicken their pace; the two devilish critters at front can hardly keep the head balanced, their fingers petting the supple forehead so that the dreams remain unsettled.

They cry out as the color seeps back into the landscape and dark blue creeps into the sky. The unburdened wretches race past the others, charge up the Great Tree’s trunk, and hop on the branches like fat excited monkeys howling at their brothers and sisters to move faster.

The first crest of the sun peeks over the horizon and the air loses humidity as the temperature rises. The Ch’indii bearing the child grow tired. Their skin tightens and sinks into their bony skeletons. Horripilation, the fur bundles twist together and harden into barbed spines. The white streaks in the sky hit their backs searing them. They bite their tongues and scratch their bellies to distract themselves. They rush down the last slope and slow at the slight hill hosting the Tree. Their arms are unsteady and shaking the child, sometimes dragging an arm or leg.

The Ch’indii at the front lose their hold on the child’s head. It hits the ground with an eruption of throaty anger that scares away the carriers.

“Graahgyyye!” They scream and dash away; a few make it up the trunk of the Tree and are helped by their brethren.

Two of the most determined monsters turn around, they stumble and pull themselves forward flat to the ground, their hides cracking and steaming. They fail to reach the child and roll into scaly blistering balls screaming into the ground.

The Great Tree shakes with murderous, ravenous activity. They hug the trunk and stretch their tongues to collect the fiery sap between the bark, replenishing themselves.

The blue above them shoots quivers down their knees. They had seen all too clearly the full regalia of the Glittering World. The machines that would refine and sack the same raw energy the Ch’indii thrived on. It would not end in fighting or violence, just sucked dry and run over. Their ultimate defense lies on the ground writhing and crying: their Skin Walker, the warrior of both Dark and Glittering. Charged off the hatred in the Tree they bark and nudge each other off the branches.

A few courageous Ch’indii jump to the ground, scramble to the crying child and match its screaming. They maneuver their arms under his back and lift him. Their bodies steam and crackle, their eyes pool and boil. They drag the child by the arms, banging the soft head on the roots as it continues to bawl. Joints stiffen in their arms and lock their legs, but they still manage to drag the child until the base of the Great Tree and rest him against its trunk. Their muscles stick to their skeleton and harden against their shells. Their last wells of energy are spent climbing by the tips of their claws up into the Tree. There are still two Ch’indii laying exhausted at the roots, Daybreak has sent the Lady Rays of Sunlight, their nemesis, Mother of Women, and she strikes them down— blasts them into the ground as they gag on their melting organs.


The child’s howling reaches the Ch’indii’s in the Tree and tears through their earholes. They cover them and slough away from the great sun-daggers. The effort has claimed more than half the tribe.

The Ch’indii feel the Men from Across the Water crossing it, breaking through the unanimous blue. Eventually, they will destroy even that vastness. They will leave no mystery unrevealed; obliterate every unknown.

The child squelches his crying enough to turn over and begin crawling and walking away from his kidnappers.

The Ch’indii watch their last hope amble away. A sacrifice has never returned to the people. The child was too strong and willful. The Changeling will lose his magic if the son is reunited with his mother. The valley will lose both Witch Doctor and Skin Walker.

The ancient spirits huddle deeper into the leaves of the last Dark refuge shaking and quivering, too fearful and alert to sleep though their exhaustion demands it.

One of the last five remaining Ch’indii leans against the Tree’s rough trunk, stands and gestures at his brethren, their crooked arms and legs singed, slung and hanging from the branches. He licks his burnt lips with a dry tongue; the black iris in crystalline red is lazy, fixed upwards and to the right, as if betraying a lie. His voice is a high snare, a sustained death rattle. He speaks in words that predate language and linger in the air like smoke petroglyphs.

“They are coming, we will wait. We will hunger, we will shrink. Man and Woman are weak. They will doubt and they will die, we will hate and survive. We are older than Death, younger than the End. The Slayer of Monsters will die too, the Dawn Mother and Dusk Father will be eclipsed and forgotten. We will wait. Let us return to the Tree and sleep in the fire, for they are coming.”

He pulls apart the Great Tree’s black bark with his last remaining strength and breathes in the heat and hatred radiating from the core. The rest of the Ch’indii decrease to the size of upright pockmarked mice and trunkle into the red-orange glow. The last shrinks and steps through the bark curtains before they seal behind him.

The child loses his momentum halfway back to the tribe, and surrenders belly and cheek down to the ground. The vultures circle above him, swooping lower and lower to inspect the breathing carrion.


The Diné have awakened each feeling a bit disturbed, as if someone had rearranged them in their sleep. They find the men made blind and mute. Their looms, baskets, gourds and pottery are shattered and broken. The sand paintings are scratched away and their crops and food storage are ruined, trampled and fouled by excrement. The sheep are prematurely shorn by hacking strokes and shivering, and the goats are upturned with their legs waving in the air, their horns fast into the ground. They scout the surrounding area and follow a lizard-like trail of tracks to the wake of vultures pecking at some fallen life. They shoo away the raptors. The child is passed out, bloody and scraped but still alive. They wrap him in a blanket and carry him back to the village.

The tribe gathers around the mysterious child and they all recognize him and bring forth the mother carrying the Changeling. It cries, spits, writhes and slaps its face in her arms. She sees her son cradled by her brother and screams. The creature’s skin crackles and cooks, it dries, blackens and grows too hot to hold. The mother drops the feverish body and the tribe step back as the Old One bursts into flames and charges towards the bloodied sacrifice. The warrior holding his nephew stamps out the shrieking flames before it can pounce.

The mother takes her son and cleans away the dirt, grime and blood and feeds him. She kisses his bruises. As he takes mouthfuls of water, he rests his sniffling head on her breast— she can feel the nightmare that they had shared lodged deep within her chest. There is dread, a precariousness that hadn’t been there before; a fear they will carry with them as they weave mystery into story.

They hide the name Yehtso-lapai, the grey fish-eyed monsters, and call their visitors Ch’indii, Old Ghost Spirits. Cover the nightmares with dreams of better places and better things. They have no use for Dark magic, for they are the Diné of the Glittering World, and they had yet to meet anyone who could shine brighter.

Travel Onward, Funani

The video was well-preserved, and when Commander Arie stared into the camera, it was like she was looking into your eyes, divining the desires of your heart.

“The stars are not the distant dreams they were in the past,” Arie said, and her voice cut like a sliver of diamond, and it made you tremble to hear her voice. “The stars are our neighbors, and I will not rest until I have met every neighbor, and seen their backyards, and sat in their homes, and welcomed them into mine.”

Arie dropped her gaze, and when she looked up again her normally stony glare twinkled with a light and warmth that made her look twenty instead of a formidable forty-five. Years had distinguished her, and maybe her beauty faded a little, but her presence had outgrown her slender frame.

“I pride myself on being the perfect hostess.”

The reporters laughed. They asked her questions about Star Cluster 9, and Alpha Zeta, and Satellite Planet 41-003, and she smoothed down her long hair, already silver, a respectable color on her, and she answered their questions with a steady stream of knowledge, glowing with the wonder she felt whenever she visited a planet, the wonder she wanted all of Earth to feel. And they did feel it. At least, Funani felt it, and even when she was six years old, watching this video in her little bedroom covered in posters of galaxies instead of from the inside of her small quarters on an exploratory space vessel, she knew that she would follow Arie into the darkest hole of space.

Funani turned off the video.

“Nolwazi, how much longer until we arrive?” she asked her vessel.

“In three point two hours, we will reach the destination,” answered Nolwazi.

When Funani travelled with other astronauts, they complained that Nolwazi’s voice was too cold, too stern, but Funani designed the AI to be like another woman she respected. She designed her voice to sound like the familiar cut of a diamond. Nolwazi did not share Arie’s passion, but she shared her vast knowledge of the mysteries of space.

Funani turned on another video.

Arie was smiling in this one, and she rarely smiled, possibly because she was embarrassed by her crooked teeth, though Funani guessed she could afford the technology that would fix her smile instantaneously. Arie was not smiling at the camera, she was smiling at a creature nearly twice her size that seemed to be composed entirely of tar. The blob creature had a gaping hole near the top of its shapeless body that could have been a mouth, and several blobby appendages that could have been arms, but it was probably just Funani’s mind trying to understand a shape that was entirely foreign to her.

“Arie!” a reporter off-screen shouted. “How did you manage to decipher the language of the people of Sept Printemps?”

“Most of the deciphering was done by the Sept Printempians,” said Arie. “I am just honored that they chose to reach out to me for first contact.”

The Sept Printempian gurgled, spitting a tarry blob at Arie’s feet. Are smiled, and shook his hand, and did not cringe or gag as her hand was engulfed in the creature’s gelatinous exterior. She pulled away, her arm stained black, and reached into a large blue duffel. She always brought her large blue duffel when she was meeting a new alien. Funani thought of the duffel as a treasure chest when she was a little girl, and it was still hard to see it as anything else. Arie pulled out a small bag, presenting it to the Sept Printempian, and the reporters laughed.

“You think aliens like maple candy, Arie?”

Apparently they did, because the Sept Printempian ate the entire bag, including the plastic wrap.

Funani loved that video. She loved any video of Arie meeting aliens, because Arie enjoyed it so much. Arie inspired Funani to become an astronaut, then join the exploratory astronaut’s league led by Arie. Funani missed home, she missed Earth, she missed people that looked like people and planets that looked like civilization, but if Arie was leading her, she would continue to travel deeper and deeper into the unknown.

Though the league followed Arie from planet to planet, they were always a few planets behind her, then a few more, until their leader no longer responded to their efforts to reach out to her. The other ships gave her up as lost, for forty years they gave her up as lost. But Funani refused to give up. If they gave up, then she was just far from home, and terribly homesick, with nothing guiding her forward. If Arie was not pulling her forward, then Earth was pulling her back.

She turned on another video of Arie.

“We will reach our destination in one hour,” said Nolwazi.

The others had given up. They had programmed their vessels to search for Arie’s form, copied from thousands of videos, but there was nothing like Arie in the universe. Then they programmed their vessels to search for life forms in the deepest, most sterile parts of the neighboring galaxies, and they found life forms they would have never believed could exist, but they did not find Arie. They decided to keep her alive through their exploration, and leave the hopeless search to Funani. Funani instructed Nolwazi to search for a blue duffel, far from any other signs of human civilization, and Nolwazi found it.

In this video, Arie was pulling a long scarf out of her bag, and wrapping it around a wide-eyed, multi-eyed, slug. The duffel was a treasure chest. And Funani followed Nolwazi’s treasure map to her hero.