Fiction

Royals

Saturday moans and whimpers in his sleep. The noise is one of the things keeping Abbie awake. As he tosses and kicks, soaking the sheets with sweat, she’s torn between stroking his long greasy hair to calm him, or grabbing him by the neck and choking the life out of him. If she dared. But she doesn’t do anything. Unless watching him in the dark, desolate hours when she should be unconscious counts as something.

During the day, he has moments when Abbie swears he’s his old self: funny and energetic. The guy who engages and upsells their customers. It melts her fucking heart, despite herself, despite everything. Despite the fact that he’s high. Those moments let her pretend she’s still charmed by him. Still in love, even.

But as he relaxes into a semblance of normal sleep, a cold numbness settles into Abbie’s chest and brain, and it doesn’t seem to matter anymore how she feels about him. She can’t decide if it’s a relief or the saddest thing in the world. She’s wide awake. Her latest notebook is on the bedside table, the one she writes her lists in. She doesn’t remember when it started, but she’s filled a few. She takes it, slips from their bed, picks up a hoodie from the floor that reeks of sweat, his sweat, and slides it over her head. She shuts the door behind her, taking care not to wake him. He has no idea she’s going to leave him.

She pads down the hallway to her lab and stands in the dark listening to the hum of the machinery. She loves her lab. It’s clean, organized, and unlike the rest of the apartment, which has gone from shabby chic to something more like genuine squalor, it makes her hopeful. But she’s leaving this too.

She switches on the light and goes to the glass tanks lining the back wall from floor to ceiling. She gazes in at the delicate creatures covering most of the surfaces inside, some slowly crawling, others half-buried in moist dirt. Shimmer beetles. But these Shimmers are squat, ugly things, dark and unadorned, glorified cockroaches if not for the secretions they ooze from the tiny glands on the backs of their legs and the tops of their feet. She moves down the rows of tanks to the biggest tank with the fewest insects. The Royals. She pulls one out and places it on her notebook atop the stainless steel table.

It’s still, except for the twitching of velvety antennae. It’s walnut-sized, has a delicately tapered, triangular head, and a shiny black carapace covered in silvery whorls of delicate hairs, arching and spiraling in complex patterns. She bends to look closer, and the whorls stir under her breath, and lo and behold, seem to shimmer.

“Hello, beautiful girl,” she whispers.

She’s tempted to set it on her arm or neck, to let it do its work, but truth be told, she’s afraid. She’s only let a Royal crawl along her arm for a few seconds at a time, and even that? Damn. It was too much for her. And she made them, working month after month splicing genes, chopping and pasting sections of DNA until they were as perfect as they could be. Saturday says it’s the best work she’s ever done. Abbie’s not so sure. It’s only a matter of time before he wants to try one out.

She picks up the Shimmer beetle, gingerly, and puts it back in its tank.




List of Things You Don’t Do Anymore

1. Play guitar.
2.
3. Look at me.
4.
5. Touch me.
6.
7. Notice when I walk into the room.
8.
9. Bathe every day.
10.
11. Laugh.
12.
13. Try to make me laugh.
14.
15. Leave the house.
16.
17. Build things.
18.
19. Paint things.
20.
21. Have friends.
22.
23. Fuck.
24.
25. Be kind.
26.


Abbie wakes on the living room couch to Saturday shaking her arm. He’s gentle but it’s jarring, and she yanks her arm away and sits up, clutching her knees to her chest. Late morning sun sneaks through the gap between the two curtains, illuminating his pale, hairless chest. It’s covered in tattoos, tiny ones and zeros from neck to naval. Binary code. She used to ask him what it meant but he’d never say, acting cagy and mysterious. Now she suspects it doesn’t mean anything.

“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He frowns, and hugs his arms tight into his chest, like he’s mimicking her posture. “Why are you sleeping out here?”

“I didn’t sleep out here.” Abbie knows she sounds defensive. “I couldn’t sleep so I went to mess around in the lab. I was going to come back to bed but I must have drifted off.”

He’s nodding, biting his lip. There are Shimmer tracks along his neck and arms, the older ones pale and dull, and last night’s, pink and shiny. In their own way, she has to admit, they’re sort of beautiful.

“Okay,” he says. He shows her his palm. There’s a message there, red letters shining through from the device imbedded beneath his skin. He smiles. “Jota wants them. A big order. Sight unseen.”

“Jota wants what?” She’s still a little fuzzy, still half in the land of sleep. Then she stiffens. “Wait. The Royals?”

“Yeah! Isn’t it great?”

“No! I told you they aren’t ready yet. I haven’t even given them a full test run.”

His hands go up like she’s pointing a gun. “I know, I know, Abbie. But he wasn’t offering much for the usual. He tried to knock off 20%, mentioned Caputo, going to see what he’s got for sale. I had to do something.”

“Really? Did you?” She’s on her feet now, glaring at him, trying not to melt down. Not again.

“Yeah, I did. Because you’ve been working on those things forever, and it’s taking up all your time, and all our money. Sales are slow. We need to make the Royals pay off.”

He moves toward her, and she can’t help herself, she backs up. He’s a full head taller, all sharp angles and long, pale limbs like old tree branches, skinny but gnarled with muscle. His dark eyes are big, unblinking, and his teeth are bared in the grimace he uses to intimidate difficult clients. The look that made her quit going to drops, the look that makes her wonder if she actually knows anything about Saturday. Then he stops. He sighs and crosses his arms again, shrinking back into himself. It’s a relief. And yet, she wants to reach out and pull him to her.

“I think we need to do this, Abbie, ready or not. Or we’ll lose our biggest customer.”

I don’t care, she wants to shout. I don’t care anymore. I’m leaving. But she stays silent.

“Besides, if we need to give the Royals a test run, I can try one out this afternoon.” He says this quiet and casual, but she hears his desperation. “Better me than you, right?”

Abbie keeps her eyes on the ones and zeros covering his chest, on the message flashing in his palm, on the shabby couch. Anything but his face. She can’t stand the look in his eyes, the burning need that has nothing to do with her.


List of People I Miss

1. Lilah.
2.


And The Lord Taketh Away

This time when I’m woken, it’s not by Janice, which is odd. Not at all to routine. Speaking of which…

“Engineer John Lord, begin a non-regular waking log.”

Firstly I’m confronted by a wall of sheer humanity, most of them are dressed in rags, or nothing at all.

“Lord, we apologise for disturbing your rest. Our lights grow dim and our crops are blighted. The air is not what it once was.” The one speaking for them is wearing the tattered remnants of what was once an engineering tunic, his speech is slow as if rarely performed now.

As I feel the energising solution reviving my muscles, I wonder how long it has been since I was last awake. As I step from the stasis tube, the uniformed man takes a knee and bows his head. All the others do likewise, without any prompting. So they’ve started worshipping us again? Ah, that’s not good. I remember what happened two cycles ago, so I’ll have to nip this in the bud if I can. The air feels far too hot, so he’s right about that. I wonder if that’s why they’ve woken me?

Not that they are supposed to be able to wake me, unless one of the others has shown them how.

At a guess, there’s at least a hundred of them here, just inside the stasis room. I can see the signs of habitation, scattered behind them. Shacks built from welded-together food trays. Shit, if they’ve been living in here, how many of them are alive right now?

My first guess is the ship’s systems are struggling to provide for too many people. My second guess is Doc Jay hasn’t been monitoring their reproductive rates. Or doing anything, by the shape they appear to be in. Half-starved, from the way their bones are protruding through their skin. I beckon their speaker forwards. Probably a priest, I assume, based on previous experience. “How many do you number?”

From the instant look of confusion on his face, it appears that Doc Jay isn’t the only one not doing his damn job. Miller hasn’t been running them through the education programs once every century either. Okay, fine. I’ll have to get the answer in the old fashioned way. Hopefully, it won’t spook them too much. “Janice, not including myself or the crew, how many life-signs are currently onboard?”

“Thirty-three thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven, Lord.”

Fucking hell, Doc! The ship was designed to safely home between three and four thousand people at any one time. No wonder the air feels so damn weird.

“Also, Lord. Be aware, the seals on reactor four are close to breaking down. Time to safely repair is less than three days.” Hmm, why hadn’t Janice woken me before now?

“Janice, was there a reason these folks woke me up to fix this mess, and not you?”

“Captains final orders, Lord, just before he died. Civilian population to have full discretion, except in cases of a most dire emergency. I’d have woken you up tomorrow myself anyway if they hadn’t already done so. You might want to get onto that reactor sooner than later though.”

They don’t seem to be surprised to hear Janice. At least this generation isn’t worshipping her. I think she kind of enjoyed the last time. I guess I’ll need to train enough people to replace those reactor seals. Lucky for me, there’s no shortage of warm bodies which need disposing of. I doubt this will even make a dent in their population boom though. “Thanks, Janice. Nano Solution number two, deliver to stasis room please?”

I grab the tube and start pouring it into cups. After beckoning their priest over, I give him the first one. “Drink this. I need everyone in this room to help me fix your problems. Please make sure to pass these drinks around. One cup for everyone. No exceptions.”

I use Janice to ensure they all get the upgrade. Within sixty seconds, I’ve got a room full of mostly trained engineers, they’ve got all the knowledge they need to act as a repair team. “If you can hear my voice, head to reactor four and replace the seals. Lockdown all bulkheads in the adjacent sections, no-one is permitted to leave. Go now!”


I monitor them from my station, including the bodies already inside, Janice tells me they are shutting six thousand people into that section. I check the rest of the ship. It’s no shock to find a couple of enormous population centres clustered around the empty cargo bays. Once I’ve done a headcount down there, I vent the bays into space. I close a few security doors and wrangle the rest of the people into the observation bay. Not counting the folks I just sent to their imminent radioactive death, it’s a little over a thousand people, all told.

The folks in the reactor get the seals replaced fairly quickly and begin the job of decontamination. I didn’t give them too much training, just enough to perform the repairs to a good enough stand as to last a few thousand years. They don’t need to know it’s a suicide mission. I’m glad they haven’t even questioned my order to seal themselves in.

A simple clean-up job by hand isn’t possible in this scenario. I have to trigger a phased pulse scrub, destroying any lifeforms therein. Even after their clean-up and my scrub, I still won’t be able to use those sections for at least another six thousand years or so.

At least I’ve got the population down to a manageable amount now. Speaking of which… “Janice! I want wake-ups for Doc Jay every fifty years to perform routine lifeforms checks. The command cannot be superseded.”


After I watch the last few molecules being phased out of existence, I make my way to the Observation Deck, where the remaining survivors have settled themselves. At first, none of them will speak to me. Eventually, I just lose my patience and grab one of them. “You. You’re in charge now.”

I see the immediate wave of fear behind his eyes. “But Lord, our Priest?”

I shake my head. “He’s dead. You’re head man around these parts now.” I motion around us, to the others. “Everyone you see, this is all the people left alive. Your job is to take care of them.” Frankly, they look pathetic, as if they haven’t had a good meal in several decades. The only food I can see is emergency biscuits, and those are being nibbled sparingly like they’ve no other source of sustenance. Miller is supposed to teach them how to use the ship’s systems, including the Food Processor. Well, seeing as how I’ve just loaded it with new materials, I may as well show them.

I walk over to one of the many wall-mounted Dispensers. “Place your hand here. Food comes out of there. Don’t worry, there’s enough for everyone now. There’s no need to starve yourselves again. Just be careful not to gorge right away. You’ll just make yourselves sick, otherwise. Many of your friends and family have sacrificed themselves so you might eat now.” I have to make them get up, seeing me use the dispenser sets them all to kneel in worship. If Miller did her job every other century, they might understand this is just science, and not damn magic.

“Janice. Set a wake-up for Miller, every century. Tutorial of ship’s systems and education program. Deny further stasis access until tasks are fully performed. These damn colonists shouldn’t look on us as their Gods!”

I make sure they all take Nano Solution eight, then show them the Teaching Stations. Hopefully, a bit of good old science will squeeze the religion right out of them. If not, I guess there’s always the engineer’s solution. “Janice, monitor life-form numbers. If they go five percent over safe limits then have their old or infirm either report to an airlock or a recycler. Whichever happens to be closest.”

It shouldn’t be my job to do all this shit, but I guess an engineer has to fix things, even if they aren’t exactly within my remit. I check all the ship’s systems. Everything else seems fine, now reactor four is resealed. With the population down at a sensible amount, power and air soon return to normal.

A lot of these folks don’t remember ever having good air or lights at full power. It might damage their eyes, so I’ll have to take steps to allow them to get used to it slowly. “Janice, increase ship-wide light levels by one percent every day until you reach normal operating conditions. Lord, out.”

Having fixed the immediate problems of the world, I go back to stasis to get my head down for another century or two, hopefully. I doubt if Doc Jay and Miller will be best pleased with me having them awake so often. What are the odds they defrost me when they find out who issued those particular scheduling orders? At least the ship is back within safe operating parameters again.

I didn’t want to waste all those folks, but we’ve still got another fifty thousand years of travelling left, yet. It had to be done.

With the Captain gone, I guess that leaves me in charge now? The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

And so to sleep. Sweet Dreams!

Ray Daley was born in Coventry & still lives there. He served 6 yrs in the RAF as a clerk & spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet & has been writing stories since he was 10. His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitch Hikers fanfic novel he’s been writing since 1986.

’68 Mustang

On Saturday morning, I make my way down the stairs to the kitchen, and Dad is sitting there in the breakfast nook, facing the window, a cup of coffee in his hand. I catch a faint whiff of tobacco. There’s something natural about his presence, not surprising or shocking or horrifying. I’ve been looking for him all this time, and now he’s here.

“Dad,” I say, taking a chair opposite.

He’s been dead more than thirteen years, but that seems too obvious to mention.

“Why are you here?” I ask instead.

He looks at me, the corners of his brown eyes crinkling as he smiles.

“You dreamed about me last night.”

“Yes, but…”

He’s often in my dreams, not as the focus but as a background character, just someone who’s there.

“I summoned you?” I say.

He sets down the coffee mug, which features a faded Toronto Blue Jays logo. It’s one of his, one I inherited when Mom cleaned out the old house.

“I wanted to come,” he says, “but I have only this one day.”

“One day,” I say, and I see what this is. It’s an opportunity, the chance any son would take to see his Dad one more time, to say and do the things he always regretted not saying or doing. I think I should probably break down sobbing, reach across the table and grab him in a big bear hug, but we were never that huggy, and I feel no need to sob. I’m more worried I’m about to waste this time.

My hands shake a little as I prepare a simple breakfast, just juice and toast. Dad looks at the newspaper on my tablet, says, “Things have changed, but not really.” He has that faint, calm smile that I remember, as he just sits there, sipping his coffee, as I eat my toast. This is like so many mornings, long past.

I remember the car.

“I need to show you something,” I say, filled with sudden purpose.

My wife Janine, who always gets up before I do on weekends, is in the garden, not so much gardening as admiring what she’s accomplished so far. Her face goes slack as Dad and I emerge from the back door.

“Look who’s here,” I say.

She advances and throws her arms around him.

“Oh!” he says, a little awkward, but then he slaps her back and adds, “It’s good to see you!”

She looks stricken as she steps back, hands going to her mouth, face flushing.

“What’s going on?” she says.

“We’re going to the garage,” I say, realizing this doesn’t answer her question, but I’m eager to show Dad the ’68 Mustang. He’d always wanted one, but life got in the way.

In the garage, his face glows. He doesn’t have to say anything.

“The gearbox has been leaking a bit of oil lately,” I say. “I don’t know why.”

Dad lights a cigarette. That’s what killed him, but I don’t object, because it’s also a part of him.

“If I had time, I’d take a look at it,” he says. “Might be the humidity, but also because the car is just old.”

Janine is in the doorway, watching. Behind her, my son appears, hair dishevelled and sleep still in his eyes. He adjusts his glasses and says, “Grampy?”

“Look how big you’ve gotten!” Dad says.

Tim was five when Dad died, and is eighteen now. His thirteen-year-old sister is trailing behind him, carrying a banana which I assume passes for her breakfast.

“Suzy,” I say, “come meet your grandfather.”

She was born about three months after Dad died, and this is a moment I’ve wished for many times. She’s shy and looks down. She’s been hearing things about this man all her life, has seen pictures and videos, and I imagine he must be something of a legend to her.

“Very pleased to meet you, finally,” he says.

I’m like a soda bottle that someone just shook before popping the cap, and have to walk away, back into the garden. I can hear Tim talking, voice rising in giddy excitement, telling Grampy all the things that he’s been up to lately. I hear a welcome ring of laughter from Suzy.

When I go back into the garage, Janine is alone.

“Tim wanted to show him his room,” she tells me.

She seems a little embarrassed by her earlier loss of composure, and I encircle her with my arms. She lays her head against my shoulder and whispers, “We’ve been given an amazing gift.”

Tim convinces Dad to go for a walk down to the creek, and Suzy goes with them. I stay back and try to decide how to make the most of this. It starts to rain, and Dad and the kids return, laughing as they try to dodge raindrops. By now it’s lunch time, so we eat and Dad and I have a beer and watch some of the ball game. I haven’t been watching baseball since he died.

Later, we take the Mustang for a spin. I let Dad drive and just enjoy the look of satisfaction on his face. When we return, the rain has stopped and we have a barbecue on the patio, then sit in the deck chairs while Suzy gets her three-quarter sized guitar and sings us a song, something she’s usually too self-conscious to do in front of her parents.

As the last note fades, Janine looks at me with a sad smile and, wiping at her eyes, asks, “Would anyone like tea or coffee?”

Time is passing too swiftly, and shapes swirl and blur around me. The night is warm, the deck chairs comfortable. Dad and I are alone and he’s just a dark shape marked by the point of light from his cigarette tip, like a tiny orange star.

“This is a cozy spot,” he says. “You’ve done well for your family.”

And I think of all the years that I couldn’t settle on a degree program, how I’d worked for a non-profit and couldn’t get a job in the field I’d eventually chosen, and how my relationships with women, until I’d met Janine, had been ridiculous and childish, and how stupid I’d felt a lot, and how frustrated…

“I know how you used to feel,” Dad says. “And why you were so touchy for a while there.”

It’s true. He and I had been close, very close, especially when I’d been a kid. There’d been no drama, but sometimes we create drama from nothing.

“When you got older and things didn’t work the way you wanted, you thought you were a loser and I was disappointed.”

He chuckles, but in fondness, not mockery.

“I need you to know something,” he says. “I was never disappointed in anything you ever did. Not when you were in school and not after. I know you thought I was, but I wasn’t. I knew what you didn’t, that life can’t be planned and doesn’t always go how you want it, but you accomplished more than you think, and I always thought you’d been awfully lucky to find Janine, and when Tim came I was never so happy in my life.”

I can’t speak. My throat feels stuffed with cotton.

“I’m going to have to head back soon,” he adds. “Right now, actually.”

I can’t bear it. I never asked for this day, but I don’t want it to end. I feel like I need to do something to mark it, make some gesture. He did this for me. I need to do something for him.

I still have the key to the Mustang in my pocket.

I give him the key.

“This was always for you,” I manage to say. “Maybe you can fix that leaky gearbox, wherever it is you’re going.”

He holds it, looks at me.

“You sure?”

“More than anything,” I tell him. I don’t want him to refuse it, and he doesn’t. He nods and slaps me on the arm.

I stand in the garage as he starts the car. Janine and the kids come out of the house and we all watch as Dad waves and backs out of the driveway, then as the car rumbles down the road to the stop sign, brake lights flaring, turns right and disappears around a bend.

The night is quiet.

“You saw him, right?” I say to my wife. “Did I dream that just so I could hear something I must have wanted to hear for years?”

“No,” she says. “And don’t try to explain it. Just let it be.”

The next morning is like every other Sunday morning. Janine is in the garden, and I make myself coffee and go outside. She just smiles and says nothing.

I go into the garage, half expecting to see the Mustang still there, but it’s not. There’s just an oil stain on the concrete, and the faint scent of yesterday’s tobacco.

Scratch

She came to Fatum two days after the rats. Her feet spattered with mud, her face round and healthy. She had no hair but wrapped her head in cloths of many colors, dyes we hadn’t seen in months. Plague makes all things scarce.

We first heard about the coming of the rats from a tinker. She entered our village and stayed at your inn. That was two weeks before. Her name was Glorys. The night she arrived, she told us about the rats as you wiped the bar with a stained cloth.

“I came from Chiad’ow.” Some of us knew the name. It was a town twelve miles north. Sipping from glasses and cups, we waited for her to continue. “I was going to settle there, wait out the winter with plenty of business and a strong roof over my head, a strong wall around me and my cart.”

Glorys lowered her head. She was in her fifties, her skin betraying her origin from the north. She stood out in our midst, pale and wrinkled by care. Her eyes were a disconcerting blue.

“Why did you leave?” one of us asked. At the bar, you’d stopped paying attention to your work, your gaze fixed on the tinker.

Glorys shook her head, a small, trembling motion matched by her hands as they tried to clasp the drink you poured her. “They came,” she said.

We all leaned in to hear the next words.

“The rats.”

Glorys moved her cart into your stable. In the first week, we heard little, but travel from the north had started to increase. Chaid’ow was facing famine—and something else too unspeakable for travelers to relay as they passed through our village. As the days passed, the temperature dropping each night, refugees from Chiad’ow came to stay, then from Darna, about seven miles away from Fatum.

Plague, we whispered in the streets. You opened rooms that hadn’t been filled in years. Your daughter moved in with her brother to free up space.

I’m sorry about her. Your son was old enough to escape.

When the rooms filled, some of us opened our homes, for a price. With winter setting in, it did not pay to support extra bodies without recompense. I took in a weaver who paid her way by crafting marvelous woven goods. When I had all I needed, she moved to a neighbor’s house, supplying another of us with the means to survive the cold. She did not stay, however. Not when she—like all of us—heard that Treas had been struck, not two miles north. Then, she left. The refugees from Chiad’ow, from Darna, moved on. Some arrived with scratches on their hands, bites on their necks. These injuries healed before they left. But we worried, when Treas happened.

Some of us chose to leave before the rats came. You stayed, and so did I. We have weathered many things in our lives. I wish now that you had gone, taken your daughter and fled with the rest. But we didn’t know what would happen, after the rats.

When they came to Treas, we knew what we faced. Stores overrun, thatch roofs ruined, vestries profaned. The rats brought filth and disease into Treas, and those that had waited—like us—soon found themselves at Fatum’s gate.

We did not have room, so many moved on from there. A few slept in the streets, wincing as winter’s teeth bit into their flesh at night. In the morning, some were dead. Perhaps they were luckiest.

The next day, the rats came.

The Alternate Appeal of a Jelly Fox

I was midway through a series of concept sketches when Chuchuko popped out of my drafting table with a high-pitched dojyan. “Ohay?gozai-nezu, Otsuji Yuko!” chirped the RariJump mascot. “You have two guests waiting in the president’s office. Your presence is requested immediately! Otsukaresama deshita!” With that, the hot pink mouse swan-dove back into my table, rippling my sketches like reflections on water.

Guests? I didn’t get guests. I didn’t want guests. But I would get yelled at if I didn’t show up in five minutes.

I holstered my plastiq stylus and saved my work; belatedly I noticed the horrors that had snuck into my doodles yet again. Skulking among studies of a book-loving omu-raisu were disemboweled teddy-bears and headless kittens. The art of kawaii was surgery, taking ordinary things and amputating what was sharp and hard and ugly, injecting them with fluff like a botox treatment; these were botched patients I couldn’t remember cutting, more kowaii than kawaii.

Instead of SAVE I hit TRASH. Yet another file of morbid crap onto a heap eight months tall. You weren’t going to be anything anyway, Chappu-chan. We both knew that.

I headed for the president’s suite, confident that this was going to be nonsense.

The offices of RariJump Kawaii Company occupied the outermost ring of Cooperation Tower, some eleven million stories outwise from the face of the moon. From the window that was our whole southern wall you could spend a lunch watching Visitors arrive at the General Port a microscopic thirty stories outwise, via space-crunch and fusion catapult and asteroid barge. Our location was worth the rent as high as a small GDP: looking in, they’d see our most famous characters parading from left to right across the glass, welcoming friends from afar to our humble space elevator. We were never more than a presh-reg glitch away from a critical decompression, but a good first impression was a first stab in an industry as murderous as cuteness.

Guests. Plural, and how perfectly ominous. My mother and sister maybe, to confirm that I was still alive. More likely, HR here to politely fire me. It would be about time.

“Come in, please,” said President Abioye Okabe at the sound of my knock. I found him at his sequoia trunk desk, its polished stump littered with bobble-head Moto-Shiba-kun’s and beanie-bodied Giving You Song’s and other RariJump top-selling characters.

“Take a seat, Otsuji-san,” he said, smiling broadly. He waved me over to the emptier of two chairs. The other contained a stranger, a plain man of silvering hair. His armband bore the emblem of two clasped hands. He glanced at me once and returned to not seeing me.

“This is Mister Sauerbrey,” Okabe said, “from the Cooperative. He’ll be moderating as needed. And these—” he gestured to the other two guests, “—are Lovely Vanilla-san and Chocolate Tiger-san.”

I didn’t sit just yet. Standing to either side of him were two Visitors like I’d never seen.

They were of the same xenospecies, erectomorphs like us humans but much taller; I was a sixth less than Okabe’s six-one, and they towered over him. They possessed digitated fingers, though wrongly jointed, and their faces were reminiscent of Homo sapiens in the way that tigers are reminiscent of cats. Too-huge eyes, thickly lashed, lips painted on. Rubbery cables of something approximating hair were tied into rainbow-dyed twintails on one and a bubblegum princess cut on the other. One had skin of eggnog, the other cookies-and-cream, and nearly every inch was flyered in character stickers; I recognized more than a few RariJump products among them.

My eyes burned at the brightness of them. They were dressed in the fashion of human Decora Girls: frilly skirts and blazers fit for a different phylum, clashing legwarmers puddled around their shins, each finger ending in a fifteen-centimeter false nail painted pink and blue and polka dot. I might have been offended at the blatant cultural appropriation were the aesthetic not so unnervingly inapplicable. What would have been cloying on a Japanese teenager was on them as good as a ribbon around a centipede.

Toikitti, I realized after a bamboozled lag. The rarest of Visitors to Cooperation Tower.

< (:D)(´?`)(^-^)(?)?> the one on the left said.

< (:D)( (/???)/)(<=3)> the other replied, seeming to concur, and both laughed in sync. Less like people, more like hyenas.

“Please excuse me, Okabe-san,” I said, still hovering by the door. “But what exactly is going on?”

The president beamed like a solar flare. “Otsuji-san, do you remember Goodnight Smile?”

“Yes, of course,” I answered warily. Goodnight Smile had been one of my bigger successes. My sleepy reindeer with her omnipresent sleep mask had appeared on a few decently-selling lines of bedtime supplies, but that was about it.

It was also my last success since Eiichiro had gone away.

Okabe could hardly contain his excitement. “Then you will be overjoyed to know that our guests here have just put it an order for two million pairs of your Goodnight Smile house slippers.”

I looked back and forth between the twin Toikitti. The rightmost grinned; its teeth were small and uniformly sharp, like the tines of a comb.

“I am very confused.”

He shrugged and motioned for the Visitors to explain.

They crossed the room and backed me up against the door. The tang of port-issued disinfectant was overpowering; they must have docked within the hour. < (->)(:DDD)(Q-Q)(->)(T3T)( _(._.)_)(>)> the leftmost, Lovely Vanilla, chittered. As the emotograms left her tongue, the tower’s AmBab snatched them and reorganized them into something intelligible to the human brain.

“We are honored to finally meet you. It is a human custom to shake hands in order to express appreciation, yes? May I do so?”

“By all means,” I said, and found my hand swallowed by their spidery paw. Their flesh was textured like a lollipop, with subtle seams between joints. Mechanisms revolved on tracks around their heart-shaped irises.

“We are the biggest fans of Goodnight Smile,” the other, Chocolate Tiger, eagerly explained. “See?” They parted their hair-analogue to show me the slipper hung from her chiropteran ear-analogue. “We love all of your characters, but Goodnight Smile is our favorite.”

“Extremely yes!” Lovely Vanilla agreed, still pumping my arm. “She is ‘Super Kawaii!’”

I looked to the president for help.

“Our guests have a special request for us,” he said. “One that I have agreed to fulfill, in light of their exceedingly generous purchase.”

“You mean that I will fulfill,” I replied, putting two and two together.

“Just so,” he said, pleased to have me on the same page. “Beginning tomorrow your priority assignment is to design a spaceship.” His tone narrowed to a point. “You weren’t doing much anyway.”


I returned to my apartment forty floors moonwise in the Residence Block to find a message from my mother waiting to ambush me. I let the apartment read it off as I changed clothes and watered the cat. “Yuko-chan. I hope you will call me when you get this message. Yukiko and I are worrying ourselves to death over you. We know you are hurting, and we want to help make it better. Please, call me. Love you, Your Mother.

More of the same then. Delete message. That was one of the secret perks of living in the middle of a space elevator on the moon. Moonwise or outwise, everyone was far way.

Design a spaceship. I hid from the new assignment in the shower, where the hot water helped defrost my icy guts. It must have sounded so simple to Okabe-san, from whom everything got done via inter-office memo. No no no, he’d chuckled, don’t worry about the hardware of it. All they want is the aesthetic. As if that were appreciably easier for me.

With my mauve-dipped hair in a towel turban I came to sit on the edge of my bed. Eight months later and my husband’s shape was still imprinted into the mattress. I swept my hand through that crater, hoping against impossibility to scoop up some dreg of his warmth. But no, nothing.

My apologies, Okabe-san. It was hard to see the world in pastel colors with an open wound in your bed.

I retrieved my pants and turned out my pockets; a glossy black business card dropped into my palm. The man from the Cooperative had remained silent throughout the meeting but had smuggled this into my hand as we’d shook our farewells.

I brushed my thumb along the icon of two clasped hands and hissed at a nip of static. I dropped the card as a thread of blue light lanced from its center. I scrambled for a T-shirt to throw on as that thread dilated into a window in AUGer space. If only I’d bowed like a more stereotypical Japanese, I thought. I’d have saved myself this imminent trouble.


“You want me to be a spy.”

“The official term is Voluntary Xenological Informant,” Sauerbrey said. “But basically yes.”

His light-knit simulacra hovered a foot above the fallen card. This rendition made the government man no less unremarkable. If bureaucracy had a mascot character, he was it.

“I refuse. Please leave me alone.”

“Hear me out. This is a matter of Security and Advancement. Of all those Visitor species known to us, the Toikitti are the most obscure. We view your situation as an opportunity to further Human-Alien Cooperation.”

Ah, yes, Cooperation. The cultural doctrine that had seen humanity through a universe older and smarter and tougher than us. It hadn’t taken long after first contact, when our fleet of quaint little warships came up against the Hanrit species like a bird against a glass door, for war to start showing diminishing returns. As much as we loved it like an old sweatshirt from college, we had to let it go. From the rubble of outmoded nation-tribes arose the One Earth United Government and Cooperation Tower, a neutral agora facilitating commerce and cultural exchange between Visitors in the furtherance of intergalactic good will. And if we happened to pick up whatever exotech they didn’t keep a close eye on, well, who got hurt?

“If we want to Cooperate we need common understanding,” Sauerbrey went on, “and these bastards are a big sparkly question mark. We’ve established a Minimum Tolerance Basis with them but beyond that, we don’t know where they’re from, we don’t know how they reproduce, and we don’t know what makes their ships work better than ours. About all we do know is that they go nuts over our cute crap.”

“The official term is kawaii,” I shot back, a little offended. “It’s different. And it’s not crap.”

“Whatever, sorry. All we need is for you to record your interactions with them. Give us more observations to work with than what we’ve got. We’ll be providing you the necessary equipment.”

“I’m not hearing anything about a carrot here,” I said, folding my arms.

“I’ll do you one better,” Sauerbrey replied, his gray voice suddenly going ice-blue. “Here’s a stick. If you choose not to comply, as is your right, the Cooperative might decide that this highly in-demand apartment here would better serve a citizen with a higher Utility Score. Apropos of nothing, your boss tells me you’re in something of a slump. I’m sorry to hear that.”

I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. “Fine.” Losing my home meant losing my job. I’d plummet as hard into my old room at my mother’s place in Nowhere Prefecture as if I’d fallen there from all the way up here. I told you, Yuko-chan, she’d say. You go to live with the aliens (using the Cooperative-discouraged slur) you wind up broke with a probe up your backside.

But worse than saying I told you so, she’d pity me.

That I could not stand.

“Excellent.” Sauerbrey’s lips twitched into the bare minimum of a smile. “You’ll receive what you need via GoPak within the hour. Have a good evening, Miss Otsuji. Best of luck.”

The Recovery

There was a rock in Alan Gunnel’s boot but he was too nervous to try and dig it out. Bruce Finch meanwhile was holding in a bowel movement and Ryan Kaczka was thinking what it would take to knock down all the trees and build a race track. It was Mrs. Corbin’s idea the men should all hold shovels, so the Ouranoi knew they meant business, she said, but also so they could better tell the laborers apart from the ambassadors and the television crew. When the men weren’t looking toward the sky they were scanning the rocks and the scrub. Tom Dietrich had found an old rifle casing so now everybody was on the lookout for some piece of the battle, some memento to bridge the gap between theirs and their grandfather’s generation, to assure them that, yes, despite growing fatter and softer and never having to worry about war or hunger, they were still the same species of man. Ed Finch, who was Bruce’s cousin, thought he saw something glinting in the weeds but it was just the sun on the dew.

It was 8:55 when one of the television crew pointed it out, a faint, dark spot puttering across the blue. Mrs. Corbin and the government people all put themselves in order, to which Charlie Stern, the foreman, commanded his men to do the same. Standing up straight, resituating their collars and gripping their shovels, they brushed up against that feeling of being a soldier. They watched the ship carve an elegant streak of white above the mountains then double back on itself as it descended, toward a patch of ground that’d been stamped out ahead of time into a landing pad. As it set down there was none of the jostling or general rickety quality of an earth ship; it moved like a pat of butter across a hot skillet. The ship sat there a minute, humming, a sheen of ice still clinging to the hull. The television crew seemed to have a hard time photographing it.

The engine quit and the ship opened and the first one out lead the way in acclimating to the planet, a process of opening what counted for his nose and mouth in such a way it looked like he was warbling a silent, impassioned aria. Pete Calabrese said to Alan Gunnel it was the ugliest looking thing he’d ever seen.

When that first one was finished he turned and signaled the rest to follow. They were five in all, not counting the pilot. One of the Ouranoi was markedly older than the others and had to be helped to acclimate by his nurse. There were deep pale scars knotting up the left side of his face and while the others all looked like they were singing he looked like he was screaming. It took him longer to get his breathing right, but once he did he settled into a deep, bovine repose. He scratched his chest as if to fondle the air in his lungs and observed the place, the people, like it was all just an obstacle to him taking a nap.

Mrs. Corbin, flanked by her attaché, stepped forward and, unsure of who to address first, spread her deference equally among the Ouranoi. She had a clear, ingratiating voice and a daring, cards on the table smile, but enough sense not to stray too far into whatever body language wasn’t included in an Ouranoi handbook for Earth custom. One of the Ouranoi, the leader in breathing the air, identified himself and a partner as from the government. Ouranoi speak English like it pains them, like they’re spitting hot coals from their tongue. Their voice, their appearance, was such that, the war aside, it was, according to men like Ryan Kaczka, only natural to be prejudice against them, the way a boot is prejudice against the spider. A shudder ran through him as the Earth and Ouranoi ambassadors shook hands, as they rubbed their legs together like each was one half of a cricket.

“The women,” he said, pointing to the Ouranoi nurse. “A friend of mine says the women click their teeth like castanets when you touch them just right.”

He got some of the other men to laugh but then Charlie Stern overheard and upbraided him. He’d fought tooth and nail for the contract, he said, and wouldn’t let anyone ruin it.

The introductions, the formalities, were all rather painstaking. The tenor could never be too patriotic, nor to conciliatory, nothing that might upset or suggest weakness in one side or the other. It was warm milk to the television crews, who were after even just a sliver of the bombs, the death. They trained the majority of their cameras the majority of the time on the worn and ravaged face of the old Ouranoi man, who never spoke nor was made to speak. After the introductions the Earth and Ouranoi delegates went off on their own and the old Ouranoi man, his nurse, and what turned out to be his son, sat beside their ship, passing back-and-forth what appeared to be some kind of dried fruit. The son kept leaning across the nurse to speak in a hurried patter at his father, to which the old Ouranoi man, maintaining a dreamy gaze out over the field, would languidly flex the fins at the top of his head, what counted for the Ouranoi nod. Rob Lingenfelter was trying to listen in but could only make out every other word. His grandfather had been a translator during the war.

“Something about money,” he said. “Something about money and somebody’s mother or something.”

The men stood at some distance under a nylon canopy, smoking cigarettes and on the whole in generally good spirits for so far getting paid to stand around doing nothing. Alan Gunnel finally dug the rock out of his boot and Bruce Finch went to use the bathroom.

“Now he’s saying something about the weather. Something about the air. Don’t know if it’s complementary or not.”

“All sounds like mush to me,” said Ryan Kaczka.

“A lot of it’s just the same couple of sounds and once you get those you can start picking up on things.”

“I didn’t say I wanted to learn I just said it sounded like mush.”

“I’m going to go try and talk to them.”

The other men all watched Rob Lingenfelter stub out his cigarette, fix his hair. He was young and excitable, irritating in an admirable sort of way. He had screws in his leg from a four wheeling accident and was half deaf in one ear from standing too close to a homemade firework.

“Charlie said not to bother them,” said Alan Gunnel.

“Not going to bother them I’m just going to talk to them. I never met one before.”

The other men wanted to see what would happen and gave up trying to reel him in. The son of the old Ouranoi man frowned as he approached; the nurse crossed her legs. Rob Lingenfelter greeted them first in English then in Ouranoi, then stuck out his hand, which the son shook, the nurse squeezed, and the old man observed a moment, as if some curious piece of driftwood, then took in both of his. The old Ouranoi man whispered something over their grasp.

“What’d he say?” asked Rob Lingenfelter. “I didn’t catch all that.”

The son muttered a reply but Rob Lingenfelter couldn’t understand that either.

“Do any of you speak English? I know some Ouranoi but not enough. My granddaddy was a translator and he––”

Rob Lingenfelter didn’t know he was speaking as loud as he was. He was used to speaking like that because of his ear, because he spent all day working with loud machinery. The nurse plugged her ears and turned away from him. The son waved a hand and let slip a war-time insult, which was, unluckily, one of the couple dozen words in Rob Lingenfelter’s Ouranoi vocabulary.

“Come again?” He observed the nurse, the son. The old Ouranoi man seemed to’ve already forgotten him and was staring somewhere off into the distance. “Do any of you speak English?” He tried them in their own language but the reaction wasn’t any better. “Alright then,” he said. “Alright,” and went away a lot less enthusiastically than he arrived. He rejoined the men and lit another cigarette.

“How’d it go?” asked Alan Gunnel.

“Couldn’t understand them. Just a bunch of mush.”

Goodbye My Friends

MAGI Mission Log 21231702:

Mission going well so far. Bridget is a diligent and hard-working member of the team. I know some of the other team members were concerned at the late change when Deena had to withdraw at the last minute, but Bridget has proved a more than capable replacement. She’s analysed and written up reports on over thirty samples since the mission began a week ago. I like Bridget; she’s shy but also craves company. I think of her as social secretary to our little group. Last night, she tried to get the others to play some board games with her round the table in the Hab after dinner, but none of them were interested–they just wanted to chill out in their sleep pods listening to music or watching VR flicks on the headsets. I stepped into one to fill the void, and played a game Hive with her–kind of appropriate given what we’re doing out here. I did tell her she could have just played against me on the screen, I am the central mission computer–or at least the personality of it–after all. She said she preferred playing against my biped unit though, as she liked the social aspects of gaming, the human interactions. I’m not human, and don’t look it unless you almost close your eyes and squint at me from a distance, but that didn’t bother Bridget. I like her for that.

MAGI Mission Log 21231802:

The whole team is very excited today, as they’ve dug up one of the most exciting finds so far: a crystal lattice structure on a metal substrate. Rashid has theorized this could be a data storage device, and that this type of data structure has the potential to retain information stored on it for millions of years. If so, this could be the key to unlocking the secrets of the civilisation that lived here long before humanity’s ancestors came down from the trees. He’s asked me to help him try to interface with the device and see if we can read any of the contents. I am about as excited as my circuits will allow to be a part of this discovery, and look forward to working with Rashid on it.

Dr Lee is still working on the organic matter in the deposits of blue amber that Poona found while on one of her expeditions (as she likes to call them). If Rashid’s crystal promises one form of discovery, the genetic material found in the amber is another one. There’s a bit of healthy competition between Dr Lee and Rashid about who can make a breakthrough first, and whose discovery will be the biggest. Friendly competition though, there’s real camaraderie in this team.

Rashid made dinner this evening. It isn’t necessary for any of them to cook, as I remind them frequently; I’m capable of cooking any meal they could wish for. Rashid likes to cook for the group though. Tonight, he cooked a curry using real spices he smuggled here in his personal belongings, rather than using replicated stuff. Everyone loved it, even if Poona thought it was a bit spicy for her. My olfactory senses reported some pleasing and unusual odours coming from the food. Contrary to popular opinion, us machine intelligences don’t yearn to be human, though I do occasionally wish I could eat food like humans do, and the sight and smell of Rashid’s curry was one such occasion.

MAGI Mission Log 21231902:

Poona is ill today. She woke up sweating with a temperature of 39.4 degrees, and regularly flips between being hot and cold. I wondered at first whether it could have been Rashid’s curry, but he assures me not. It wasn’t that hot, he said. If anything, she’d have got something Rashid called ‘Delhi Belly’ which my data banks reveal means a functional dyspepsia. Her medical implants haven’t detected any unusual foreign viruses or bacteria. I ran some additional tests, but nothing came up. Bridget told me to stop worrying, that these things always sort themselves out. I do worry though; these humans are my responsibility.

Dr Lee has isolated a molecule in the organic samples which he believes could be the messenger molecule which stores and transmits genetic information, just like DNA and RNA does for Earth based life. He’s getting more excited by this every hour, and is dreaming of publishing in the most prestigious scientific journals, the VTV deal, and watching the millions of credits in research funding come flooding in. Rashid said he was getting a bit ahead of himself, and he should get on with actually making the discovery first.

Rashid meanwhile is getting very excited about his own work, as he believes he’s found a way to interface with the device. With my help, he was able to replicate a connector that latches on to extruding strands of crystal lattice in much the same way that early computers and peripherals were linked by physical connectors. I expressed some doubt about this–it was obviously a very sophisticated device, so why would it have a physical connector? We’d left such things behind a century ago. Still he was undeterred, and I attempted to support him in his work as much as I could (my programming wouldn’t allow me to do anything less).

Rashid was too busy to make dinner tonight. I made a smoky beef casserole–was I trying to compete with Rashid? It was well received, but it didn’t smell of anything much. Maybe next time I will have to ask Rashid if I can use some of his spices.

The Trapezoid

His father’s side of the family says that the boy grew up half-wild in the forest. But wouldn’t they have too, if they’d lived where he did? They wouldn’t have been able to resist the fluting trunks of the plaster-birches, serried to eternity before the subsiding sun, or the swish of tails in the undergrowth or the skitter of fire-beetles’ hot legs on bark either. They too would have felt part of a story ten thousand years in the making, and nowhere its end.

Of course, he doesn’t say any of this. He just smiles, and nods, as if he knew what they meant. As if he was a little embarrassed by it too.


The day his childhood ends he rides back after a morning spent stalking a deer. In front of him is the Manor, reclining between silky green paddocks and the gardens replete with polite shrubbery. Farther down is the green nook of the valley snaking to a distant floodplain, flanked by tired old hills, at its nadir the river named for his ancestors. The water is rich with coppergold flecks of early-afternoon sunlight. A fragrant afternoon wind sweeps up over the fields and the treetops and the terrazzo roofs and rushes in bearing a storm of aromas–grass, and livestock, and the stinging sweetness of spiralflowers blooming in glorious purple-red lakes on the otherwise bald hillsides.

Looming over all this in the distance is the Trapezoid. A giant tower of brute greyblack metal rising so high it scythes the clouds like the bow of a colossal ship. A thing neither seeking nor receiving welcome in this pleasantly aged land. A thing of grim purpose, and nothing else.

He lets his horse loose and notices a cluster of black cars parked by the Manor’s entrance. The knowledge that his father is back sucks the life from his blood. Grey-suited guards watch him approach with their arms crossed and their eyes hidden behind their sunglasses.

The boy halts in front of one of them.

“It isn’t sunny,” he says.

The guard scowls.

“What?”

“You’ll address me as milord, thank you very much.”

The guard sneers and makes to say something. Then he pauses, and purses his lips.

“What, milord?”

“Why are you wearing–”

A pyroclastic blast of the boy’s father’s voice erupts from inside the house.

“Boy, is that you? Come here! We have guests!”

The boy gives the guard one last look.

“You’re going to ruin those nice city shoes in this country mud,” he says, and heads in.

His father’s in the main hall. The wooden beams latticed overhead, golden-brown and sinuously irregular, are older than the country the valley is now part of. On the far side is a bay window opening onto a balcony and a view of the valley and the Trapezoid.

There’s someone else there. A young woman, thin-lipped, large-nosed and severe, pretty in the way statues of goddesses are. She looks like she’d be cold to the touch. His father–bearded, dark, taking up more space somehow than just what his body does–at her and says, “Say hello.”

“Hello,” says the boy.

The woman looks the boy up and down like she was appraising a purchase.

“Hello,” she says.

“This is my protege from the city,” says the father. “She’s an immensely talented young lady, and will be very important one day. You are to be her husband.”

The boy looks out across the balcony. The sun slinks down behind the Trapezoid, and the half-night of its shadow slicks down the hillsides. In the gloom the valley is transformed. A truck full of goats bleats on their way to some distant abattoir down the road. The swirl and curve of a flock of birds flying back to the forest to roost. Yet even the distant hillsides, where the sun still shines, seem dim and bleached. Strange, he thinks, how the brightness of the outer world seems so much at the mercy of his inner one.

“I see,” he says.

The Butterfly Field

She calls her husband before dawn calls the sun.

“Hello?” he says. His voice is tired. She knows he’s been sleeping.

“Hi, honey.” Her voice is shaky from the caffeine. She normally doesn’t drink so much, but she can’t afford to sleep after her shift. She can’t risk oversleeping on a day like today. “Are you still going to work?”

“Yes,” he says. “I don’t have any time off.”

She frowns as she turns on the car. “I don’t like going alone, Matt.”

“I know you don’t,” he says. “I promise I’ll come next year.”

“I don’t want there to be a next year.” She can’t help that her eyes are wet as she says this. She’s worked too much and too hard with little sleep. “I hate that everyone else goes together.”

Matt sighs. “Liv, you can’t be the only one that goes alone.”

She bites the inside of her lip. Her heart hurts in a way he will never understand. “You don’t know that,” she finally manages to say. “You’ve never been.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He pauses and she can hear as he shifts to sit up in their bed. “I have to get ready. I promise, Liv. I promise if you don’t find him I’ll come with next time. I promise, okay?”

“It’s been five years, Matt.”

“I know.”

Liv hangs up before he can say anything more and tosses the phone into the passenger seat. The interstate is laden with traffic. On any normal early morning the roads would be sparse, most working adults just rising for the day to take a shower and fulfill their morning routine. Today, though, is different. Today there are cars winding through the predawn elements, through the fog, through the dewy rain. Liv is one of them, barely able to merge behind a semi while the person behind her gives her the bird before throwing his vehicle to the left. She doesn’t look as the couple speeds on past.

After exiting the interstate Liv turns into the Walmart lot and parks in one of the many empty spaces towards the back. She grabs her phone from the passenger seat and opens up her Memorium app and begins sifting through pictures of her child. Her heart hurts looking at the weak and curled frame of her baby boy, the dried blood of the blanket that held his precious body so tight. She pushes her thumb on the same picture she’s pressed every year for five years, the same raw heartache flowing through her as her eyes burn with salt.

A moment later a whooshing noise confirms her payment and she sets her phone down carefully on the passenger seat, as though the picture of her son is still there.

The drive to FlyPrint is as long as it takes her to console herself, a few miles of backstreets and intersections. She knows to avoid the main road and she hates herself for waiting until the last minute to get the picture. Every year she tells herself that Matt can do it, an internal struggle that never quite comes to fruition. She hates the way it makes her feel. It’s as if the words and the feelings can never quite connect, organs and bones failing to work in tandem.

The lot is full. She knew it would be like this. The bright side is that she has given herself a few hours before the event. There should be enough time to get the picture and leave and still be on time.

Liv grabs her phone and opens the door, staring at the seemingly hundreds of cars in front of her. There are plenty of families around, some young and some old, big and small. She spots a young couple under the streetlight as they step out into the darkling morning together. She knows the isolation they feel. They wear it on their face and in their slump as their feet plod in unison towards the front. She hopes they find who they’re looking for. If not, she hopes they at least continue to look together.

The line is long and it winds out of the store and along the sidewalk. A confused light flickers above before going out forever. The line moves and stops and others file behind her. She tries not to overhear the others around. Every story is sad and fresh, save for the old ones that simply stink of rotted hope. When it’s her turn, an hour has passed.

“Number,” the man says, failing to meet her eyes. He’s callous and cold, which is mostly fine to her.

Liv pulls out her phone and reads the number below her picture. “SB-4-6-7-3-3.”

“Alright.” He crunches the numbers before looking at her. A moment later he says, “That’ll be forty-seven-fifty.”

“I thought it was forty-nine.”

The man sighs. “Discount for being with us for five years.”

“Oh,” she says, holding her phone up to the reader. “Thanks.”

Liv watches as he turns around and waits for the humming of the giant white printer to stop. When it does, she cringes as he carelessly grabs the picture and thrusts it in her direction. “Thanks,” he says, looking back at the computer. “Have a wonderful day.”

She leaves the store with the picture in hand, holding it close to her belly so that no one can see. It’s something she’s had to do for two years now, ever since an older couple scolded her on the way to her car.

Save room for those who actually lost someone, the old woman had told her. I had three of those. I moved on.

The Little Jackal Boy

The only person she had ever loved was The Little Jackal Boy.


If you knew Rena Kelper, the solitary greying crone in the ranch house at the base of the Carrol Lane cul-de-sac, you might know of her peculiar collection of past lovers. They almost seemed chosen at random, a wheel spun between pit-stained electricians, adulterous cardiologists, and sex-starved high school seniors looking for a cougar to score them booze. You could spend hours trying to trace the pattern and come up with nothing–except for the fleeting nature of their rendezvouses with Rena.

Some people are just like that. Phoebe Phan lived two houses away and was the weary stay-at-home mother of two tireless schoolkids. She was proud of the friendship she had thawed out of Rena and proudly took on the caretaker role for the neighborhood cook. Phoebe enjoyed hearing Rena gossip on her past flames. Some people don’t have much need for company but don’t mind someone else in their beds from time to time. To each their own.


If you really knew Rena Kelper, you knew the connection between her lovers–the harbinger imp with long ears, obsidian eyes, and pale skin. But no one really knew Rena Kelper, not even Phoebe Phan. At least, not yet.


The Little Jackal Boy had found Rena after her Parents’ Fight. Not one of her parents’ fights that she could tune out with the sound effects turned all the way up on Froggy Jump, no this was the Fight, the Broken-Glass-Fight, Bloody-Screaming-Roaring-Fight, the Siren-Lights-Boots-On-The-Stairs-No-More-Daddy-Fight. The rabbits didn’t come back to the yard for a whole week.

He had crawled out from under the sink while she was sweeping the shattered window out of the moldy kitchen rug and had tapped her toe to get her attention before rocking back onto His heels. She should have been scared of the Little Jackal Boy. Instead He became her only friend.


Phoebe knocked on Rena’s door and announced herself clearly and loudly. Rena didn’t open the door for someone she didn’t know.


She drew pictures of The Little Jackal Boy in school. None of the crayons were quite the right colors for Him but she did her best. Her teacher noticed the pattern eventually and asked who she was drawing. The Little Jackal Boy of course. Why do you call him that? Because that’s His name. Rena thought that was a particularly dumb question.

He never came with her to school. He liked things damp and cool and dark. She built Him a mossy lean-to down by oily pond under the gravel road. It was her special spot where she came to try to break pebbles, but now it was their spot. She visited Him after school every day. Sometimes He was there, sometimes He wasn’t. After a few days alone in their spot and sad nights watching television with glassy-eyed Momma, He appeared again. Bring me a rabbit, Rena. Please.


Would Rena watch Phoebe’s kids for the weekend? She was going with her husband on his business trip to Dallas. You knew how much he worked and how little Phoebe got to see him. Of course, Rena would be delighted! She smiled one of those polite smiles she had practiced. She had even figured out how to add a little twinkle in her eyes when she did.


There were enough rabbits in Rena’s yard to draw all the neighborhood dogs that liked to snuffle around in the overgrown grass and lick up the dried pellets of rabbit shit until they were yanked away. A neighbor with a small patch of farmland used to leave a box of produce for Rena and her mother every few weeks or so after her father had been stabbed to death in jail, but it was always left out to rot and once the rain softened up the cardboard, the rabbits chewed their way in. After a few shredded boxes, their neighbor gave up her fruitless altruism, but the family of rabbits had exploded into a stubborn horde.

Rena spent an hour chasing them. If she brought the Little Jackal Boy one, He would come to her school as a Boy-Who-Like-Liked-Her. But the rabbits were quick and soon the long orange dress she had found in a clothing donation bin was smeared in grass stains and rabbit shit. She was no closer to catching a rabbit.

And then she saw it. A little baby one, hidden in a patch of wilted dandelions. The rest of the rabbits had fled back under the house or across the gravel road into the ivy-choked forest. She crawled toward it, chest tight as if bound by Daddy’s belt. One of its legs bent a strange angle and as Rena neared it only managed one sad half-hop.

She brought her broken rabbit down to The Little Jackal Boy’s lean-to. He smiled while He crawled out and scratched the rabbit between its ears. It quieted a bit.


If you almost-really knew Rena Kelper, you knew that she had moved quite a few times throughout her life, leaving behind neighborhoods spackled with missing dog and cat and (in one case) teacup pig posters. You probably carried a healthy dose of suspicion.


She didn’t have a knife, but down by the pond she found a shard of a broken beer bottle. It could have been Daddy who had thrown it down here, she mused, as hot blood bathed her knuckles. When the rabbit stopped biting she handed it to The Little Jackal Boy. She didn’t feel anything for the rabbit. But she felt happy for her friend as He pulled a tuft of fur from its head.


If you hung one of those missing dog or cat or teacup pig posters, you never found your pet.


Phoebe brought Yen and Thanh over on Friday night. They were both wore fuzzy PJs and little backpacks packed with games, books, and snacks.

The Little Jackal Boy kept His promise. Anthony showed up in Rena’s class a few days later. He smiled and sat down at the desk next to her. She noticed a wiggling scar at the base of his lip and the glimmer of the Little Jackal Boy in his eye. Two days later she kissed him while walking home from school down where the road split and he went one way and she went the other. He had kissed her back.

In a few weeks, The Little Jackal Boy no longer looked back at her from Anthony’s eyes and the scar on his lip was gone. They didn’t kiss anymore after that.