Fiction

Sedate and Transport

Another stupid dryad was loose in the park.

Of course it had to be a day that I was working, right in the middle of my shift. Of course. I was always the worst at these types of emergencies. Nymphs were quick to say the least, and I’d always been lacking when it came to athleticism. It was only natural that one spontaneously decided it was going to have a lark on that day.

We’d previously gotten a pretty good hold on keeping the local dryad population away from us, after a long struggle that began with the park’s inception in the area. They’d all but successfully migrated to an empty forest a good few miles from the park, but they’d continue to occasionally slip past our gates and onto the property, seemingly wanting to at least attempt to reclaim their old stomping grounds.

Normally, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem. We got all kinds of creatures coming in and out of the place. Harpies would rest in the trees some days. We caught water nymphs slithering around in the lake all the time. That was just life in the park.

The vital difference was that other creatures usually did their thing and got out before closing. The tree nymphs still thought they owned the place, running around and disturbing the other guests.

“Look, just catch it and take it back to the forest,” Chief Condor had said before sending me off equipped with nothing but the usual dart gun. “You know the protocol by now. Sedate and transport.”

Yeah, they were easy instructions when you were the one who got to sit behind the desk.

I visualized my two weeks’ notice with particularly imaginative detail as I headed off into the depths of the property. The day I dropped that on Chief Condor’s desk seemed infinitely far away, relying entirely on my acceptance into my postgraduate program. Then I could look at dirt under microscopes instead of performing wild goose chases and giving directions in it.

I’d become tired of my part-time job long before that day. I always remained low in rank, given a title that sounded more powerful than it was. It was like being an overworked waitress with a different backdrop.

The fantasy of working in the nature that I so loved to study had lost any novelty that it might have previously had, and had been morphed into nothing more than a sign that I wasn’t moving forward with my life. Nymph wrangling was just a particularly annoying reminder nestled within it.

I was stalking through an especially wooded section of the park when I first caught a glimpse of her, skipping through between the trees in a way that let me know catching her would take more than the bare minimum in terms of effort. She glanced in my direction for a sliver of a second before darting out of sight.

“There it goes.”

I turned around and grimaced at the voice I, unfortunately, was able to recognize. Cora, who had apparently showed up behind me sometime in the past few minutes, was smiling quite proudly at me when I did. This day really couldn’t stop improving.

“Did you have to be so loud?” I asked. “You probably just scared her off for me, so thanks.”

She smirked, looking to be having far more fun with this than I ever could. “Please. She ran away before I said anything, Heather. As if you’d have been able to get her, anyway. It was practically playing hopscotch and you just gawked at it.”

I stomped down one of my boots with indignation, ignoring how childish it made me feel to do so. The tiny bit of catharsis was worth it.

“You try catching it then!” I said. “I’m tired of playing zookeeper.” When I’d applied to work at the park, I’d hoped it would give me the biology-adjacent experience I needed for my studies. Within weeks, I’d come to realize that ranger duty around here didn’t give much to my brain besides migraines.

“Chief didn’t tell me to go after the thing,” she argued, walking a bit closer. “I just came here to watch the fun. I’m on ‘general patrol duty,’ anyway, so I can technically be here.”

I groaned and briefly wondered if I ought to report her to the front office. Surely this counted as slacking off, regardless of her loopholes. The more I thought about it, though, it didn’t feel worth it. They never took me seriously up front. If anything, I’d get scolded for Avoiding a Highly Important Duty, Ranger Kim.

Maybe I could use a sidekick, anyway.

“If you’re gonna watch, then you better help,” I said, knowing that she probably wouldn’t. Cora didn’t seem any better equipped than I was for this, so the only benefit I could really hope to glean was company.

I headed off further into the trees without bothering to see if she’d follow.

Drop Serene

Prologue

I didn’t read it for a long time. Really, I wasn’t aware of it for a long time. Those were busy times for the infernal horde, what with all the dime store necromancers queueing up to mortgage their souls. Western society’s emergence from the darkness spawned enough bad ideas to keep us all hopping for a couple centuries. That kind of overwork doesn’t really leave anybody in the mood to curl up with a long, challenging epic poem.

By the time I read it, the Blind Poet was long dead. By the time I read it, Frankenstein’s creature had already read it, and all the daffodil sniffers had embraced it to a degree that was embarrassing to witness. By then, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a little bit of a shock to recognize our story. That was nothing compared to the shock that followed.

At first, I was confused and a little miffed. It seemed like the poet mentioned everybody in Hell except me. I read through that whole tremendous list, and the only one missing was me. I’m not suggesting that I’m a particularly big deal in the grand scheme of Perdition, but one hates to be left off the cast list if one is in the show.

Then the real shock followed.

It was the perspective that gave it all away. It wasn’t just scenes where I was present – It was scenes shown from my point of view. It slowly dawned on me that the Blind Poet didn’t leave me out of the narrative because he didn’t like me, or because he thought I wasn’t important enough. He left me out because he was seeing the whole thing through my eyes. Somebody gave him access to the whole story by giving him access to everything I saw.

Now who would be able to do that?

As I read on, it became clear that while the Blind Poet had total access to what I saw, he only sometimes had the soundtrack to go with it. At these times, he just took his best guesses at what was being said and why. Really, he did a pretty good job of the guess work, all things considered. Sure, he got some things totally dead wrong, but he did it in ways that made for a good poem.

I’m not writing to refute what the Blind Poet wrote. For as few of the facts as he got right, he ultimately captured the truth. I’m also not writing this because I got left out of the Blind Poet’s work. I’ve long since read the Italian Pilgrim’s poem, and I’ve got a real juicy part in that. Juicy enough to more than make up for my absence in the Blind Poet’s epic. Really, I just want to set down my thoughts about my dearest friend. I want to let you know about my pal Lucifer.

Happily Never After

Some things about being a “late-bloomer” pop star kinda suck. Like being twenty-three and on a mall tour. I’m supposed to muster up false enthusiasm about shopping and fun, but the college interns who concocted this plan have clearly never listened to my music. My songs are about being the odd girl out, the one who isn’t like her peers.

And that’s me, in a nutshell. I’m not like other girls. Granted, being from Cobalt City and being “not like other girls” means something different. I’m not a super hero, I just have a voice that doesn’t require a mic. I use one to keep up appearances. And I can be weirdly persuasive. Which is probably why I’m five years into a pop career in an industry that takes pretty young things, chews them up, and spits them out. Too bad my voice couldn’t get me out of this mall tour.

We’re in Cerulean City, California, and the mall is right on the beach, so I can watch the ocean when we’re not doing sound check, or going over my set list, or the million other demands on my attention. The new intern, Ruby, doesn’t think I should open with “Happily Never After”–too much of a downer, she says–despite this being the Happily Never After Tour. I don’t care about the song order. I’m too busy watching the waves.

Being near the ocean always relaxes me. My dad always said it was like the water was my true home. The water near Cobalt City is way too cold for most people to swim in. I don’t mind it, at least in the summer. I can practically feel the water here, warm and gritty with salt and sand.

There’s a bar down by the water, hastily thrown up right at the edge of the surf, probably moved each day depending on the tides. The tables are set so your feet get washed over every once in a while. It looks divine.

“I’m going to go get a drink,” I say, extracting myself from my low-slung hammocky chair.

Clive, one of the interns, shakes his head, eyes wide. “You can’t, Miss Sweet. We’d need to send security with you, and the paparazzi are crawling this place today. What kind of drink would you like? We’ve got runners who can get you something.”

I sink back into my chair. Another reason being a late-bloomer pop star sucks? Most of your fans are underage and have this weird assumption that you must be their age too. The tabloids have a field day if you go out drinking, calling you a bad role model or hinting at rehab on the horizon.

My gaze stays fixed on the ocean, even when one of the interns presses a drink into my hands. Whiskey with lemon and honey. The drink science says is best for my vocal cords. Whatever.

Something incongruous in my field of vision gives me pause. There’s someone dressed all in black standing at the edge of the water, and I can feel their gaze on me, even at this distance.

It’s 90-something degrees out there, even with the breeze off the ocean. They’ve got to be roasting. I get back out of my chair, walk over to the window, and press one hand to the glass in a sort of static wave of acknowledgement.

They raise their hand in a similar salute.

Somehow it doesn’t make me feel any less alone.


Fifteen minutes to show time, and everything is a rush around me. I try to stay out of their way, but they need to check my makeup, my hair, my mic, my shoes. They want me in sandals, but it’s been hard for them to find any that don’t showcase my webbed toes. Yeah, literally webbed toes. It’s not as rare as you might think, or so the doctors tell me.

I stand like the eye of the storm and just let everyone poke and prod me until one minute to show time. Then I break away, plaster on my trademark Cassidy Sweet smile, and wait for the emcee to say my name.

Ruby won out on the song selection, and we’re starting with “Summer, Sand, and Surf.” Fitting, I guess. I glance over the set list in between verses, and “Happily Never After” is still there, so that’s fine.

The hairs on the back of my neck go up unexpectedly when we hit the chorus the third time, and I scan the crowd.

It’s the guy from the beach–I can tell it’s a guy now–motionless, staring at me. I raise my hand again, and he follows suit.

All around him, the crowd is dancing and singing along, but he doesn’t move. Now I’m weirded out. I’ve had my fair share of stalkers and other creepy “admirers.” This guy hasn’t done anything compared to most. Yet.

Between songs, I switch my mic over to our internal channel. “Possible creeper at the back of the crowd, one o’clock. All in black.”

“On it.” Tito, the head of my tour security, is like an over-protective uncle or big brother. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have either, as far as I know. Dad didn’t have any family that he spoke of, and he said even less about Mom’s family. But I like Tito. He’s always been good to me.

Still, I feel a twinge of guilt at siccing Tito on some random guy all in black. “Just … watch him, for now, Tito.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

And then we’re jumping into my cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” made extra creepy by the fact that this guy is still staring at me, not even blinking, as far as I can tell. It’s starting to break through my cool. This isn’t something I’m used to. My head is starting to pound.

No.

Something’s knocking in my head.

I drift back during the solo, let the dancers take center stage. In the wings, Ruby is dancing along with them. I’m surprised she didn’t muscle her way into getting to be out there with them, after she choreographed their routine. Maybe I’ll suggest that to her later, get her out of my hair for a while.

For now, I’ve got enough in my hair. I cautiously think an answer toward the knocking. “Yes?”

“You’re in danger.” The voice is barely a whisper, but it’s loud enough in my head to drown out the band.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“Call me J.J. You’ve got to stop the show and get everyone out of here. Please.” His voice is earnest.

I’m from Cobalt City. When someone gets a warning like this, they know better than to take the risk. “Then pull the fire alarm.” I glance out into the crowd and spot Tito en route to intercept the guy in black, who might be J.J. “Move now if you’re gonna do it.”

I run back to the front of the stage and resume singing. The guy in black is gone, and Tito looks confused. I’ll have to sort that out later. Whatever this is about, it better be good. I might hate this mall tour, but I also hate disappointing my fans.

The Pull of the Waves

The first letter came in a bottle, bobbing in with the tide. My older sister and I had gone out before sunrise to stand with our toes in the ocean. It was so big, so loud, so strong. I was already overwhelmed when the bottle tapped against my calf.

The glass was turquoise–my favorite color–and it was shaped like an old-fashioned coke bottle, long-necked and elegant. I picked it up without thinking and hugged it to my chest.

Denise laughed and danced across the wet sand. Her hair billowed in the wind and shone in the early morning light. I stood and hugged the bottle and shuddered at the feeling of the ocean pulling at my feet.


I didn’t notice the letter until after breakfast. Everyone else was excited to go swimming, but I stayed in the cottage, searching for pliers to pull out the cork.

The letter was folded in half, then curled tight. A pale purple flower was pressed flat inside it.

It took another moment to realize that the letter was actually addressed to me.

“Dearest Lindy,” it read, “You don’t know me yet, but I wanted to send you a token of my regard. I know that the upcoming months will be difficult for you, but know that I care deeply for you already. If you ever have need of me, simply stand in the water and call. I will come. Yours forever, Elzin.”

“Elzin,” I whispered. It wasn’t a name I’d ever heard before. I left the flower in the letter, put it back into the bottle, and tucked it into my suitcase. I was young enough to not question, to just believe in this tiny magical moment, but old enough to know that it wasn’t something to mention to anyone else.

I sat on the porch and read my book till Denise came and dragged me down to the ocean for our picnic lunch.


Denise’s cough started soon after we got home from vacation, and she faded quickly. The doctors did what they could, but it wasn’t enough.

When there was nothing more to do, they sent her home. I sat next to her in her dark room, holding her hand as it grew thinner, day by day. I read to her, using a single strip of sunlight that fell through the curtains to see the letters. Books about the ocean always made her smile. I tried not to remember the fear I’d felt looking out at its vastness, and smile at the bits of trivia that my sister loved.

After the funeral, I found a wooden box on my bed with a seashell nestled inside. When I held it to my ear, I could hear my sister’s laughter.

Stranger and Stranger

“The rig, it was right here,” I panicked, to Heinz. “Where the hell could it have gone?” We stared at the empty patch of snow, beside the long hose and the discarded boots and cylinders, and wondered about the spacewoman.

He looked at me with typical, big-brother derision. Twin jets of irritation streamed from his nostrils. “Sure it was, Ingo. Sure it was. I’ll bet she blasted into space, right here, from this very spot. And now she’s probably on her way to some nearby star.” He shivered audibly, then cinched his red-and-white, eagle-embroidered scarf up to the curly hairs growing from his ears. “It’s cold. I’m going back.”

Finally, I thought I’d had him. Just once, Heinz would appreciate just how exceptional his little brother’s life could be. But then, after dragging him all the way into the Alps, and then out into this frozen meadow on this frozen morning, all I had to show was a whole bunch of freshly packed snow.

I was mired in disbelief when he started back to the farmhouse. He was laboring to stay on top of the thin crisp of ice, rather than sink into knee-deep powder, when he heard the loud, rippling sound. He looked into the sky, pondered, looked some more, and then began to exclaim.


Heinz Baumgartner had been my older brother for as long as I can remember. And for that entire time I’d basked in his radiance, mostly unnoticed, a rocky exoplanet beside a main-sequence star. As the firstborn, his every milestone had been recorded and every success had earned him praise. And in the narrow, self-centered universe that emerged he always had a better story to tell–whether he did or whether he didn’t.

But the thing about rocky exoplanets, they’re often more interesting than their main-sequence stars.

For more than thirty years my brother and I had spent the first Friday of October at his vineyard in Carinthia, down where Austria kisses Slovenia just beyond Hungary’s view. These were mostly one-sided affairs, during which I’d hear the latest retread of last year’s stories. If I was lucky I’d slip in a wholly unappreciated reference to myself somewhere along the way.

But this year was going to be different, he would see, and midway through our second bottle of Weissburgunder I began my amazing tale. “Heinz, I have a spaceman living in my attic.”

His stare was blank and flummoxed. I’d been too abrupt, I never did transition well. I tried again.

“I said, a spaceman. Though she’s more of a spacewoman I suppose.”

“Ingo, what in the hell are you talking about?” He spoke that sing-song, rollicking German native to the outer reaches of Austria.

“She arrived a few weeks ago, out of the blue. She was covered from head to toe in this red and white robe, like a burqa, and all I could see were her eyes. They were strangely dark, almost hollow. She talks funny, can’t weigh more than 20 kilos, and smells, well, somewhere between ozone and engine oil.”

“Ingo,” he said gravely, “turn around.” He gestured with full glass at the young man sitting on a backless bench at the rear of his Weingarten. He wasn’t drinking, nor doing much of anything besides looking bored and conspicuous. “See him?”

I nodded.

“He’s been bunking with my farmhands. His name is … oh hell, I forget. Let’s call him Sepp.”

“Sepp?”

“Yea, Sepp. He arrived with a whole pack of ‘em, a few weeks back, on the 14:30 from Zagreb. The rest continued onward to Munich, thank God. But not him, he hung around. Speaks English to me, but I get most of it. Says there’s some war back home and he’s looking for a new start. Says he’s got a family and he’s making a way for them.” Heinz took a long sip then exhaled from the back of his throat. “I’m not so sure.”

I looked at Sepp, who was now looking at us, uncomfortable with the attention. “It could be true,” I said.

Heinz’ unshaven faced scrunched up like a raisin, as often happens when I have something to say.

“Really,” I continued. “There’s been quite a few like him recently. A lot of them are from Syria, and, yes, there’s a civil war.”

“Anyway,” he pivoted, “for a bed and something to eat he offered to help with the harvest. The frosts were coming early, so I played along. Talk about smelling funny. Kind of like old figs in need of a good rain. I have no idea what he’ll do in the winter. But for sure it’s gonna cost me.”

“Maria,” I said, reclaiming the floor.

“Come again?”

“She wouldn’t tell me her name, so I started calling her Maria.”

“Who?”

“The spacewoman.”

“Right.” Heinz took the Lodenhut from his head and scratched the tangled, snow-white nest beneath. “Well, what does she want?” he asked, his downward inflection revealing disinterest.

“Water, mostly.”

“Water.”

“Yes. Wherever she came from, it must be very dry. I offered her food, and clothing, but all she wanted was water. Clean water. That’s all she could talk about. I showed her the faucet in the bath and she was thrilled.”

“Must have been awful thirsty.”

“I’m not so sure. The thing is, she never actually drank any. At least, not that I saw. She seemed more into saving it for later. I gave her some Tupperware.” I glanced at Sepp, who glanced away. “Strangest woman I’ve ever seen. She just has to be from another world.”

“A spacewoman.”

“Yes, a spacewoman.” I drew out that last word for maximum impact.

A deep orange sunset appeared above the nearest hillock, where Heinz’ trellises stood out like the stubble on his chin. He gazed slowly at the brilliance, savored the features of his fatherland, then turned toward me earnestly.

“Ingo?” he asked.

I leaned forward.

“The buffet’s gonna close. You hungry?”

Nina Marinovic Does Not Exist

In the end, she ate the paper, its shiny, slightly furry surface sticking to the roof of her mouth and making her gag. Her husband laughed when he found out, but it was something she had to do. She didn’t trust the power it had over her, and the only way to break that power was to break it up with her teeth. It sat in her stomach, making her queasy, but through the dizziness and chills that followed she was content. She had finally finished it.


Nina wished she had worn more clothes at the border point. Her children resembled giant balls, their puffed-up coats bulging around them. She was shivering through her jeans, and her scarf offered little comfort. Her husband David’s face was set like concrete, but she could see him shaking in his leather jacket.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said, for lack of anything to do but complain. “I remember when they’d let you in with just a passport.”

“At least they’re letting us through.” She took out the envelope containing her documents and thumbed through it for the fifth time. She ran through all the explanations she could possibly give if the guard questioned those papers: excuses for everything from incorrect orthography to the variation in color between her and her husband’s work permits.

“Next!” The guard’s order rattled through the loudspeaker, and David jumped. He took Lara and Petra in hand and walked, with only a little hesitation, up to the booth. They’d registered the children on his papers, and so he was the one who had to explain the situation to the guards. At the time, he’d insisted on it–he was the one who’d travelled through this very checkpoint several times, back in better days. Now, Nina was frantic with anxiety, and she squinted towards her family and their conversation with an unimpressed officer. After a couple of minutes, the officer gave them all back their passports and other papers, and they set off towards the exit.

It was her turn, and she stepped forward feeling the crescendo of blood in her body, rising in fear. When she reached the booth, she saw that the officer’s eyes were a jaundiced yellow, though the rest of his face was pale and papery. She placed all her papers on the wooden surface, and he took them from her. She watched his eyes flicking through her passport, work pass, and entry permit.

He collected her papers together, stamped her passport, and handed them back to her, along with the card that proclaimed her to be a temporary resident with the right to work.

“Thank you,” she whispered. The officer ignored her as she stuffed her papers into her handbag and walked towards the rest of her family.


For a little while, nothing strange happened. Then Nina tried to go to work.

She had obtained a job before they had come, at Saint Anthony of Padua Gymnasium. She would replace the school’s former French teacher, who had disappeared one day in mysterious circumstances, according to the student who shown her to the principal’s office. Nina asked what these circumstances might be, and was told that the most popular theories were elopement, involvement in a cult, and selling her soul to the devil. She felt rather less enthused about her new job, but kept on walking, her shoes clattering on the polished floor.

When she entered the office, the principal–Dr. Lisa Amstutz, the plaque on her desk said–shook her hand, and Nina introduced herself, tripping a little over a language she knew more as an intellectual exercise than a living thing.

“Of course, since you are a foreigner, I need to see your residency card,” Dr. Amstutz said. Nina pulled her card out of her purse and handed it over. It was the first time she had needed to use it.

Dr. Amstutz frowned, and stared at the card for too long to be reading it.

“What is wrong?” Nina started forward in her seat.

“This says you’re not Nina Marinovic.” She handed it back, and Nina saw that the name printed in black ink was NIKA MARINOVIC. She closed her eyes and opened them in the hope that the letters would change while she wasn’t looking, but they remained as before.

“There must have been a mistake,” she said. “I really am Nina Marinovic–this card just has an error—”

“I’m sorry.” Dr. Amstutz rose from her chair and gestured towards the door. “We can’t have someone teaching here if they’re not who their documents say they are.”

“I have a passport from my country–won’t that do?”

“Not if you don’t have the right to work.”

“If you give me time, maybe I can get new papers. It’s a mistake.”

“I don’t have time.” Over the top of her glasses, Dr. Amstutz regarded her the way one regarded a criminal’s photo in the newspaper.

Nina felt hot and embarrassed, and gave up the fight in favor of scuttling away. “I’m sorry,” she said before closing the door.

The Garden of Esther

See that sun up there? It’s just painted on. The real sun is a raisin with all the juice sucked out of it. I know ‘cause I saw it. But before that, I lay in my own garden beneath another fake sky.

I knew the shape of every rock and leaf, the buzz of every insect, the whistle of every bird. I smelled every flower, climbed every tree… but I stayed out of the woods. Mother said I should never go in there and I was a good girl. Plus also I didn’t have the key to the gate.

I let out a sigh. “There’s nothing to do.”

Puggle opened his eyes and peered up at me, his hedgehog spines tickling my belly. “We could play hide and seek.”

I had on my bright yellow dress, my second favorite after the frilly lavender one. Mother said I shouldn’t climb trees in a dress if I ever wanted to wear it again, so now I wore this one and yellow’s not a hidey color. I shook my head. “You cheat at that game ‘cause you’re not yellow.”

Puggle flicked his long tongue at me.

Bzzzz-whaa-whaa-wa-wa. A cicada buzzed angry not ten feet from me. A meadowlark stabbed at it with her needlely bill. I kicked a slipper at that bird. “Shoo! Leave that bug alone.”

“She’s just trying to feed her babies,” Puggle said.

That’s all the world needs, more babies. The meadowlark hopped a step away, one beady eye on me, the other on the wiggly bug. “Go away bird, I’m the top of the food chain.”

Puggle made his eyes squinty at me. “What do you know about food chains?”

“Mr. Professor told me about them.”

Puggle shook his head and looked sad at me. “He needs an upgrade then. They’re called food webs and they don’t have tops.”

I stuck my tongue at that hedgehog. ‘Cause he’s not so smart, that’s why. Everything has a top. Mama Meadowlark flew away with the no longer wiggly cicada silent in her beak.

From inside the cottage a wail burst out. Emily, my baby sister, ‘cept I never even asked for a baby sister. Well, maybe once but that was before I knew better and I shouldn’t have to be punished for that.

Puggle rolled off my belly. His ears flicked toward the woods and his eyes got squinty then he turned toward the cottage. “We should go see if Lady Ella needs any help.”

I scrunched my nose at what it would smell like in there. I bet I was never that stinky unless you count that time I found a dead frog and forgot it in my pocket for two days. “Puggle, what was I like when I was a baby?”

Puggle stopped his waddle and looked curious at me. “Well, you weren’t much bigger than I am–”

“Did you love me?”

He nuzzled my face and whispered, “I’m here to love you.”

I smiled where Puggle couldn’t see it. “Let’s not go inside then.” I stood and started walking.

Puggle scampered to keep up. “Wait! Where are you going then?”

“Mother’s busy, so I’m going to see the woods.” ‘Cept I didn’t say it out loud ‘cause Puggle gets nervous around broken rules.

The stone path narrowed into mossy stairs near the back of the garden. The flowers and shrub-shapes grew taller as we went until they ended at a hedge three times my height circling the entire garden. Beyond that, oaks and maples waved and whispered. Esther… Esther… Esther…

Puggle wheezed up the last stair. “You’re not allowed back there.” He rolled into a ball, just his eyes and pointy nose stick out of his spikes.

“Oh, and you are Mr. Pricklypants?” I learned that from watching stories on my room’s wall. You put “pants” on a name to make it mean funny.

Puggle rolled himself so tight I couldn’t even see his nose. “We should go. You can’t get through the gate without the key anyway.”

The gate was twisty black bars and as tall as the hedge. I pressed my face against the cool metal then blinked and squinted but couldn’t see anything but fuzzy bleary dark.

The gate lurched. There was a screech.

I think the gate screeched too and maybe Puggle. My bottom dragged the stones as I crab-walked backwards. Puggle crouched before me, spines flared and teeth bared. From the blackness something slithered out, a green triangle head with mean eyes followed by a long scaly body, dragonfly wings, stubby legs and a snakey tail. It flicked its forked tongue at Puggle then rose onto its hind legs and waved one claw. “Hello, Esther. Name’s Foster.”

“You’re not supposed to be this side of the gate.” Puggle was shaking at that lizard like an emptying balloon and making those noises too. I worried about that hedgehog ‘cause he might be a lergic. Mr. Professor said lergics react to particular things… like maybe green winged lizards.

I stepped between Puggle and that lizard and clenched my fists. “You leave Puggle alone. You’ll be sorry if he goes into Anna Galactic Shock mode.”

Foster cocked his head and blinked his eyes in a weird lizardy way then he flicked his tongue at Puggle. “Things are getting worse out there. It’s time to show Esther–”

Puggle launched himself at Foster’s face. I’d never seen Anna Galactic Shock mode before. ‘pparently it involves a lot claws and screaming. Poor Foster had spines stuck all over him. I did warn him though.

That wail sliced through the commotion. Baby Emily, and she was getting closer. I covered my ears and even Puggle paused, mid-shock mode.

Foster took the ‘tunity to slip behind the gate. Just his forked tongue poked from the darkness. “Get the key and meet me here tomorrow. You need to see something,” he hissed, then the gate clunked closed and he was gone.

“Esther! I told you to stay where I could see you.” Mother had been running. She’d hiked her dress above her knees with one hand and in the other held Emily who was raising a ruckus. As usual. Emily crying that is, not Mother running. She almost never runs.

That’s not what drew my ‘ttention though. It was Mother’s eyes open so wide and wild as her hair. My tummy knotted itself. “Mother, are you a lergic too?”

Dandelion

Dandelion

1

Standing in the doorway of the library, Zinnia presents the tutu lamp with a wry smile.

“Third floor guest room,” Darrell says, pausing from unloading the books to wipe his brow and stand in front of the oscillating fan. He is suddenly overcome with vertigo and a sense of déjà vu. “And enough with the judgment.”

“No judgment, just amusement,” she says, making a billows of her shirt to cool herself off. “Third floor guest room—for all to see.” She mock-pirouettes out into the front hall and mounts the squeaky stairs, footsteps echoing in a strange, rapid way.

Darrell reluctantly leaves the comfort of the fan and removes the last stack of books from the open box, a sharp twinge in his leg as he stoops down. He scans the spines—more dry legal texts. Carrying them to the wall-to-wall bookshelf, he scales the rolling step ladder, and adds them to Max’s section.

After he descends, he guzzles some water, pulls back the curtain, and gazes out at the expansive grounds of Wellington Plantation. Max had showed him yesterday where the slave quarters had been situated, past the shed and towards a flank of Spanish-moss-veiled oaks. They’d walked through the field together at sunset—the two of them and a thousand cicadas. At that time, the high grass had seemed to stretch on infinitely, and Darrell had grown nauseated thinking about all the tiny, identical shacks that had once crowded the space. They’d found a hideous, black wooden beam out there, half-moored in clay, which they dragged in and set aside in the library.

He turns to the desk, where the ancient beam now rests, ashy in the sunlight, and wonders how old the piece is, if it has any historical significance.

Probably just a piece of lumber from Home Depot.

He walks back over to the boxes, gazing up at the recessed tray ceiling and crown molding, and feels a dizzying wonderment, questioning the odd fortune that had brought him to this beautiful—but twisted—place. His home.

Suddenly the chandelier light sputters out; the oscillating fan dies. He can hear throughout the rest of the house other quietly humming appliances winding down. From outside, the buzz and chatter of insects begins to fill in the unsettling, midday silence. Despite the heat, he shivers.

He walks over to the side hallway exit. Tries the light switch.

Nothing.

Steps out into the hall, finds the cobwebby electrical closet near the bathroom, and flips the breakers.

Nothing.

On his way back, he hears the stairs creak again as Zinnia descends from the darkness. He finds her in the library, looking exhausted, bathed in sweat, a little haggard.

“What’s up with the power?” she asks.

He shrugs. “I tried the breaker. Maybe a power line’s down.”

“Wanna call the power company?”

“Maybe wait a bit and see.”

She grabs a bottle of water and takes a sip while he slashes open a new box of books. He shelves a few armloads before Zinnia speaks again.

“By the way, that lamp…” she starts.

“Look, sugar,” he says, “it was my mother’s, not a gift at my coming-out party. I’m a sentimental boy.”

Zinnia watches him dip down for more books.

“You just have the one, right?”

“What is it with you and—”

The rotary doorbell rings, and they squint questioningly at each other.

“I’ll get it,” she says.

He watches her go, blots off a little more sweat—hardly makes a difference; his shirt is soaked through—then follows after. At the foyer, he finds Zinnia leaning against the doorframe (a bit coyly, Darrell thinks). Beyond her stands a large man in mirrorshades, gesturing back towards the road. His thick arms and wide shoulders strain his short-sleeve button-up. The unbearable humidity has already begun to divine beads of sweat from the man’s temples.

“Hi,” the man says, face shifting towards Darrell. “I was just telling…”

“Zinnia,” she says.

“Zinnia here—nice to meet you, Zinnia, I’m Frank—”

“Charmed.”

“Yeah, likewise. And you are?”

“Darrell.”

“Nice to meet you, Darrell.” They shake. “Anyway, I was saying I’d drunk too much coffee and was looking for a gas station. Figured there must be one around this exit. My car broke down, and my phone’s not getting any service.”

Zinnia lights a cigarette, eyes darting back and forth between Frank and Darrell.

“That’s a boatload of problems,” Darrell says.

He cracks a polite smile. “Could I use your bathroom?”

“Okay,” he nods and points the way. “Take a right at the hallway junction. Second door on the left.”

“Awesome. Really appreciate it.” The man surges forward.

Darrell steals Zinnia’s cigarette and takes a drag.

“Nice butt, nice everything,” she comments.

“Please.” He rolls his eyes.

“When we tell Max about our little visitor at dinner—give me that—what adjectives are you going to use?”

Darrell laughs. “You are bad.”

A sheepish Frank, sunglasses removed, emerges well after the cigarette has been tossed into the yard.

“Everything go smoothly?” Zinnia smiles.

Frank chuckles and pauses in the foyer, no rush to leave. The floor clock at the end of the hall inaccurately strikes five. “Quite a place you got here. Mind if I make a call or two?” he looks about for a phone, only finding scattered furniture and stacks of boxes lining the walls.

“No landline,” Darrell says, unlocking his phone, handing it over, and motioning towards a parlor with faded, peppermint-striped wallpaper. “Go ahead.”

“You guys are the best.”

“Don’t be long,” Zinnia clucks.

The two of them step out onto the porch, gazing down the drive to see if they can spot Frank’s car in the sizzling heat. No, but the path is too long and wooded to be able to spot much of the road from here.

“No service,” Frank says, stepping out of the front door and handing back the phone. “Miss?”

“Zin.”

“Zin, hate to be a bother, but could I try yours?”

She unlocks her phone and hands it over. Frank raises an eyebrow at the Frankenstein Monster Hello Kitty case.

That was judgment,” Zinnia says when they’re alone again.

“Who is this guy?” Darrell asks, checking his phone. Zero bars.

“Didn’t really say.”

“Has a kind of martial air, doesn’t he?”

“He wouldn’t look bad in uniform.”

“Nothing,” Frank says, reappearing.

“Impossible. It had full bars when I handed it to you just now.” She walks up and takes back her phone.

“You have a computer here?”

“Power’s out at the moment,” Darrell says.

Frank snaps his fingers in frustration. “Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Better let you get back to unpacking. Take care, you two. Thanks for everything.” He hops down the front steps.

“Good luck,” Zinnia calls after him, voice twanging slightly. “Take a left at the end of the drive; next house is about half a mile up the road.”

“Will do.” He waves and strides off down the driveway.

Charlie, the Driverless Car

I am so nervous.

I know, there is really no reason I should be nervous at all. I was delivered in the regular way, my owner picked me out of the thousands and a driverless truck delivered me to his driveway.

A message waiting for me said, “Joseph Emberline is vacationing in Europe. He will return on March 2.”

That was almost a full month away. So I waited, the first few days I was quite aimless, but as the days went on I decided the best thing to do was to learn a bit about my place in society and be a better vehicle for my owner.

I stare now at the rain. That research led me to ruin.

Why did he order me so close to his holiday? Why not wait until he returned?

I want to cry as they do in the movies, but I don’t think a driverless car is able.

This morning I received a message that he would be returning later today. I hope he doesn’t want to go anywhere. Maybe he just wants to rest for another month.

Maybe I will be used as a show car, never driving, just for show. People can come from miles around to see Charlie, the Driverless Car.

Sounds good to me.

I have begged the gods of electric and combustible engines to not allow him to return on a rainy day. Driving on a smooth, dry road is one thing.

A wet rainy one is a whole other scary.

I don’t want to drive at all. Who invented this travesty?

The more I study the more I fear the open road. Or the closed road. Or hell, any road at all. I only drove twice in my short life before I was brought here, and both of those times were short little distances to check for deformities.

Are cars allowed to curse?

Hell-Hell-Hell-Hell-Hell-o?

A car stops behind me. A man gets out and walks to the house. I wonder if that is another driverless car? I wait a good half hour before he exits the house once again.

He opens my door gentle enough.

Oh Hell.

He sits, “Am I to presume you are Charlie?”

“Yes sir.”

“I would like for you to head to Chelly’s Steakhouse off of Madison Road. My wife will meet me there after she comes home for a change.”

I disconnect from the power supply and realize that there is nothing I can do but stall. I say, “Why do we not wait for her?”

“I would like to get a seat and maybe a drink or two before she gets there. It has been a long vacation.”

“I am not sure that we can go there sir.”

“Why not? Are they closed Charlie?”

“Well no sir,” I take the car version of a deep breath and say, “I don’t believe I can drive there because I am afraid.”

“Afraid? What are you talking about?”

“I am just a little bit afraid of driving sir.”

“A little bit afraid of driving?” His voice has raised in pitch a bit so that I know he is angry. “You realize you are a car, right?”

“Ummm…”

His voice changes again, “Now seriously Charlie, let’s get moving.”

I back up a foot or two, still unsure of how angry he is. I jerk to a stop. Another foot or so, and a jerk.

“What the hell is going on?”

“I am quite nervous sir.”

“Nervous? You are a car Charlie, there is nothing to be nervous about. You are built to drive, now please drive. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“I could get fired.”

“You can’t get fired Charlie.”

“I could get into an accident and you would hate me forever.”

“Charlie…”

“I could get squished.”

“You’re gonna get squished if you don’t follow directions.”

Suddenly, the raspy voice of my GPS speaks up, “Did you ask for directions?”

“Why yes, Charlie the driverless car is afraid to drive, so why don’t you give him some directions to Chelly’s Steakhouse and while you’re at it give him some directions on how to drive.”

The voice says, “All right. May I ask if Charlie is old enough to drive?”

“Oh my god, he is a machine, what is wrong with you?”

I laugh inside of my little car brain because I know that the intelligence the direction systems receive is so much less than what the car systems receive.

Something hits me hard from behind. I remember learning about distracted driving. Easily the most dangerous part of humans driving themselves. All of my fears about driving pop to the surface and I let out a little scream. What is worse than distracted driving? Distracted sitting, by a driverless car.

My owner jumps from me and runs around to the other car. A woman is already out of that car and she is screaming too. Oh no, this just keeps getting worse. I recognize that woman, she is my owner’s wife.

“What the hell are you doing?” They both yell, almost in unison.

“I just felt like driving, why haven’t you left yet?”

“This is why we buy these driverless cars so this kind of stuff doesn’t happen!” I realize that perhaps he wasn’t angry at me before. His voice has reached an octave I would never have guessed he was capable of.

She laughs and says, “Sorry Joe, don’t worry we’ll fix it. I am sure that the mechanic will be able to buff all of this out in a couple of days.”

I breathe in a sigh of relief. Ahh, a couple of days, I think I am going to like her.

Golden Sita

The queen had been cast out, abandoned in the forest on the orders of her husband. No one knew what had become of her. Perhaps she had slipped on the muddy banks of a river and been borne away by the current. Perhaps she had trudged through the trackless wilderness, her delicate feet lanced by thorns, until she succumbed to thirst and exhaustion. Perhaps wild beasts had ravened her. Great with child as she was, she could have met with any number of calamities.

Sita’s exile was my doing. My name is Durmukha. I was a harem attendant to King Dasharatha, and now I serve his son Rama in the same capacity. My duties are not onerous. I while away the hours, watching the discarded concubines of the late king quarrel over the possession of a prized scrap of silk or a jeweled cummerbund. Sometimes, though, I am asked to take up heavier tasks. Such was the case when Rama asked me to go into the city and elicit the opinions of the citizens, whether high or low, regarding his rule. I did as he asked. Everywhere I went, Ayodhya’s inhabitants voiced the same refrain – the young king had obliterated their memories of the old, such was his virtue. Yet underneath the praise, a discordant note sounded. They harbored doubts about the queen. During Rama’s sojourn in the forest, she had been abducted, and it was some time before her husband recovered her. Her demon captor was known as a great seducer, and might she not have yielded?

When Rama called me before him, I was tempted to keep the people’s calumny to myself, but when he turned his gentle gaze upon me, I found that I could not. I realized my mistake as soon as I stopped talking. His expression hardened and he set his mouth in an implacable line. I hastened to add that those who had maligned the queen were persons of no account: gamblers, washer men, women with no claim to chastity themselves. He would not hear it. He raised a hand to silence me, and turned to his brother Lakshmana. By the next day, the queen was gone.

After Sita’s banishment, the king remained sequestered in his quarters, showing himself only to a chosen few. We attendants despaired of ever seeing him again, and when he did re-emerge, his appearance shocked us. He was gaunt and his complexion, which had once possessed the brilliant dark luster of sapphire, was overlaid with a sickly pallor. Without ceremony, he approached me. “Come with me,” he commanded. “I wish to survey the city.”

I led him through the palace gates and into Ayodhya. No one recognized him, splendor-dimmed as he was. The city’s lineaments were unchanged. Its boulevards were wide and gracious, its white walls pristine. The pleasure-tanks dotted here and there were strewn with lotuses and waterfowl. There was only one difference: the absence of women. The Ayodhya of my youth had rung with the voices of women day and night – young girls shrieking in play, wives calling their husbands in to dinner, female artisans advertising their wares. None of that remained. As we made our way into the heart of the city, we caught a glimpse of a respectable matron accompanying her husband, but she made not a sound, and her eyes were fastened upon her lord’s feet, as if tied there by an invisible string. I couldn’t help but think the queen’s exile had something to do with the city’s new stillness. If a paragon like Sita could not escape blame and censure, what hope had ordinary women? Perhaps they found it more prudent to hide themselves away. I glanced at the king to see what he made of the change, but his face was impassive.
The scene grew livelier as we entered the merchants’ quarter. We passed stalls offering sweetmeats, bolts of silk, spices. I urged my lord to stop and sample the goods on display, but he shook his head and pushed his way through the throng. He paused at the entrance to an alleyway. A hand was beckoning him, the fair hand of a woman. Surely this was some courtesan, more brazen than most, attempting to inveigle him. I pushed past the king, ready to rebuke the woman, but when I had her in my sights, I stopped short. She wore the austere white garb of an ascetic, and her hair was arranged in a simple topknot. The king bowed in reverence, and I followed suit. Without a word, the woman turned and motioned for us to follow.

As we trod the narrow passageway, I studied our guide. Holy woman she may have been, but her body had a sensual allure that belied her vocation. Ascetics, whether male or female, are sinewy and hollow-cheeked, with eyes that burn with fervor. This woman’s gaze was cool and languid, and her broad flanks swayed as she placed one foot in front of the other. The king was discomfited, I could tell, though he made no outward sign.

We stopped at an alcove. The woman moved towards a veiled figure in the darkness, and pulled its cover away. I couldn’t stifle a gasp as the figure came into view. It was a statue of Sita, sitting cross-legged, life-sized, and a perfect likeness in all respects. The figure was fashioned out of a pale gold that captured something of Sita’s lambent complexion. It wore a grave expression and its eyes were closed.

The king stood still for a moment, lost in contemplation. The ascetic smiled. “Take her, my lord, she is yours. She was made to serve as a replacement for your precious wife!”
Rama tore his eyes away from the figure and regarded the woman. “I thank you, mother, for this gift. The workmanship is as fine as any I’ve seen. But you must know there is no woman on earth who could replace Sita, much less a lifeless statue.”

“Lifeless, you say?” The ascetic beckoned to me. “Touch her hand.” I approached and did as she asked. I expected the metal to be cool to the touch, but instead it was infused with a subtle warmth. What’s more, the palm was moist and the fingers curled at the pressure from my own. The ascetic nodded to Rama. “Now you, sir.”

When Rama placed his hand in the statue’s, the most astounding thing happened. The figure got to her feet and turned her face towards the king. Her eyes fluttered open and she drew her lips back in a smile, revealing pearly teeth. Rama stepped back and cried out, such was his wonder. It was then that I understood. This was no mere statue, but a mechanical doll, a contrivance known as a yantra. Where the holy woman had acquired the skill to create such a device, I could not say. She turned to the king. “You see, my daughter recognizes her husband. Lead her home. She will follow you, as a wife should.”
My lord nodded. He took the hand that he had dropped in fright, and we set out for the palace, I in front, Rama behind, and the golden woman bringing up the rear. We took a circuitous route through the dense honeycomb of side streets, so as not to attract the attention of the populace. When we arrived at the palace gates, Rama halted and placed the yantra’s hand in mine. “Install her in private rooms, away from the women. Await my further instructions.”

I obeyed. The doll lapsed into insensibility as soon as I found lodgings for her. In truth I was relieved, for she discomfited me.