Fiction

The Girl in the Glass Block Window

My grandfather shoved me into the basement and locked the door behind me. The cold, damp smell wrapped around me, and thin sunlight slipped in through glass block windows set high into the walls.

He didn’t like having me underfoot, so I spent a lot of time in the basement.

In the summer, I could sit on stairs and read. But it was late January, and too cold to be still, even wrapped in the cedar-scented wool blanket that I’d stolen from the dusty room where he stored the other things that my mother had left behind.

I jogged around the rotting workbench, hugging the blanket tight.

Between one step and another, I saw her, fragmented into a thousand pieces by the panes inside the glass blocks. A girl, older than me, with long black hair and shadowed eyes.

I dragged a broken chair over to the wall and balanced on it, face even with the window.

She stared back at me from a hundred angles, her face twisted into a plea for help.

I fell off the chair.


She was always there, after that. Maybe she’d always been there, waiting for someone to see her. But I’d seen horror movies, and I knew that I couldn’t trust her. She probably wanted to steal my body. She couldn’t have a body herself, trapped inside that window.

Still, it was hard to face her.


I snuck into the closed room and stripped the sheets off of the bed. I pulled the quilt back up over the bare mattress and smoothed it out.

I pictured my mother’s hand, smoothing the same spot.

The sheets made serviceable curtains. The basement was darker, but I felt better with the windows covered.


I dreamed that my mother came back for me, but she had the girl from the window’s eyes.


Time slipped by. My grandfather sent me to the basement anytime he noticed me, so I made myself quiet and small. I didn’t try to make friends–it didn’t seem worth the effort. And trusting people had never worked out for me.

I ran away on my 15th birthday. I took the wool blanket and $400 that my grandfather had hidden in a pickle jar. I hid in the woods for a week and lived on food I bought in the gas station. I should have gone to the city, should have had a destination. My mother knew where she was going when she left.

But I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I slept under the stars and felt giddy with freedom.

I was standing next to the Hostess rack, trying to decide what snack cake I wanted for breakfast, when a friendly voice said, “I imagine there’s someone looking for you, honey.”

I bolted, but the cops were already outside. They put me into the back of their car, and I wept all the way back to my grandfather’s house.

He pushed me straight into the basement.

I tore the curtains down and stared at the girl in the window. She hadn’t aged–hadn’t changed at all since I’d covered her up.

“If you want my life, you can have it,” I said. She pressed a distorted hand to a hundred surfaces inside the glass block. Her dark eyes glittered like stars.

My grandfather had a battered set of golf clubs in one corner, and I swung one at the window. The club bounced back, leaving a single white chip in the middle of the center block. I swung again with a cry of frustrated rage. The window cracked, a splintered spider web that spread across the panes. I waited for the girl to flow into me, to take over my body and thrust me out.

Nothing happened.

I stared at the window, at each place where I’d seen her pleading face and bottomless eyes.

She was gone.

She was free.

And I had freed her.

I slumped beneath the broken window and cried.

The next day, I saw a glimpse of her, reflected in Tina Thompson’s glasses. Maybe–maybe I could try trusting someone. What else did I have to lose?

I met Tina’s eyes and smiled. “Hey. Did you do the homework? What did you get for number 4?”

She smiled back, and told me.

Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 130 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Cast of Wonders. She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, and her science fiction novella, Moving Forward, are available on Amazon.com. Her debut novel, Left-Hand Gods is available from Hadley Rille Books. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

A Wizard of Kospora

The cowbell on the gate cut through the music. Mela’s mom stopped in the middle of a sentence. Glanced at dad. He looked sharply at Verry, who set his fiddle against the wall and disappeared inside. Lyran caught Mela’s hand and the two stepped back into the shadows. Her brother returned carrying two crossbows as the three strangers reached the light coming from the porch.

“You’re trespassing on private property.” Her dad and brother aimed at the mercenaries to either side of a cloaked man.

The man held up both hands. “We mean no harm. I am Kippis, Wizard of Kospora. My companions are King’s Guards, Tatkin and Doresse. Have we reached the farm of Lennert of Lomn?”

Dad nodded stiffly, but didn’t lower his crossbow. “I’m Lennert.”

Mela’s brow furrowed. Kospora had no king. Hadn’t in hundreds of years. And wizards were the stuff of stories.

Kippis smiled. “We’re seeking someone very important to all of Kospora. A great danger has arisen in the South. We’ve seen signs that the Shayden are rebuilding their army. The winds bring tales that they’ve uncovered an old grimoire and seek to raise terrors last seen in the War of Etwese to reclaim their power.

“Here in Kospora, a new generation of wizards has reformed the Council of the Enlightened. Just like the wizards of old, they are sworn to do everything they can to protect our kingdom. Our land stands to this day only because King Illys, Ninth of his Name, unlocked the seals of Xew and awoke the Winter Knights from their eternal slumber.

“Only one of his bloodline would be able to repeat that feat. My brethren and I scour the land, chasing rumors. Studying town records to find any trace of the remnants of his line. One of my colleagues, a great seer, consulted the stars, the cards, the runes. All auguries agree: we seek an orphan living somewhere in the Okerns.”

Lyran and Mela exchanged an excited look. Nothing ever happened in the sleepy, agrarian Okerns.

“Unfortunately, auguries being what they are, they could give no better advice. But we have other resources and those led us here. We believe your niece Lyran could be the one week seek.”

Everyone turned to stare at Lyran, who shook her head. Her hand crushed Mela’s.

Lennert snorted. “Lyran’s hardly an orphan. My brother is still quite alive.”

As far as they knew. A sailor’s life was never guaranteed. But then again, no one’s was.

“But her mother?” Kippis asked, an eyebrow quirked. “Died in childbirth, no? Do you know her line? Her family’s history?”

Their parents exchanged a look that clearly showed how startled they were by the question.

“They were from the next village over. Of course, we knew them.”

The wizard and his companions exchanged a significant look.

“Knew. As in dead? Bennan said the line had dwindled,” Kippis said, more to his companions than the family. Lyran’s grip tightened on her hand. Mela glanced over and caught her pleading look.

“But Lyran is not an orphan. She cannot be the one you’re looking for,” she said.

Their mom smiled. Wrinkles smoothing on her face. “My daughter speaks the truth. Lyran has a father and family. We can’t help you.”

The wizard’s hand fluttered dismissively. “Oracles are vague. They might not have meant ‘orphan.’ Orphan might have been the only word they could find for motherless and abandoned by her father.”

Mom’s lips thinned. Dad’s eyes narrowed. They’d raised Lyran since birth, and Mela knew they considered her as much their child and Mela and her brother. How dare these strangers barge in here and judge her family?

“My brother did not abandon his child.” Dad’s voice was steely. Lyran’s free left hand went to the pendant hanging around her throat. Uncle Tavall sent it for Lyran’s birthday only five months back when she turned fifteen.

“We do have a way to prove the Methinald bloodline.” The wizard swung his pack around, shoved his hand down into the depths, and withdrew an object wrapped in a shimmery purple silk.

The fabric unwound to reveal a silver coronet shaped like a bird. A crow. They were sacred in Kospora. The Methinald kings had taken crows as their sigil. Its head bent to the side and beak opened to clasp a brilliant ruby. Wings spread to either side creating the round sides of the coronet.

“This was the coronet of the king-to-be. Upon the head of the chosen heir of the land, the stone will glow.” Eyebrows raised, he held the coronet up and faced Lyran.

She made a tiny squeak of dismay that Mela didn’t think anyone else heard. Their parents looked at each other.

Mela slipped her hand free and took the coronet. The wizard frowned, but he let her take it. She gave Lyran a funny smile, meant to be reassuring, as she set the coronet on Lyran’s head.

Tension slipped from Mela’s shoulders. The silver coronet sat there and did noth–a faint red glow appeared in the heart of the ruby. Startled, she took a step back. Watching the hope die in Lyran’s eyes broke her heart.

The wizard and his companions fell to their knees. “Your Highness.”

Her cousin ripped the coronet off her head and stared at the now brightly glowing ruby. The light faded in her hands.

“I’m not.” She shot beseeching looks at their parents, at Mela.

Kippis stood slowly. “My dear, you are the hope of all Kospora. Without you, the Shayden will swallow us whole. You must come with us to Kressler.”

“Now wait a minute here,” dad said. “You’re not taking my niece anywhere.”

“Sir, please hear what we are saying. We’re not the only ones looking for her. We can’t be. The Shayden know that only one of the Methinald can summon the Winter Knights. They were winning in the War of Etwese until Illys brought the Winter Knights into the war. Without the Knights, we don’t stand a chance and they know it.

“What better way to ensure our loss than kill off every last Methinald? Can you protect her when Shadows slip into your farm in the dark of night, armed with their blackblades, crawling across your ceilings to her bedroom?

“Are you and your son crack shots with those crossbows and proficient in swordplay? I don’t think your village has so much as a lawman. Do you know anyone in a fifty-mile radius skilled in any sort of combat? Do you think they’ll assassinate only Lyran? You have an entire family to protect.”

Dad’s face had creased into a worried frown, but at those last words he glowered. “You think I would sacrifice my niece to protect my other children?”

“No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.” The wizard shook his head.

“He only meant if you let us protect Lyran, all your loved ones will be safe. Lyran included,” the guard Doresse said.

“This isn’t something to decide tonight–”

“But the Shayden–”

“If they kill us all in our sleep tonight, feel free to gloat,” dad said. “Kids, it’s time for bed.”

He took the coronet from Lyran and shoved it back into the hands of the wizard. She pivoted and dashed into the house. Mela hurried after her. Her cousin’s feet pounded down the hall overhead before she reached the stairs.

Though she ran upstairs, her cousin was already in bed, under the covers. Tossing looks over her shoulder every few minutes at her still and quiet cousin, she undressed and turned out the light.

“I am NOT leaving.”

“It might be safest.”

An outraged huff. “You would send me away with them?”

“If they’re right–”

“I can’t believe you.”

Mela threw a pillow at her. “Would you let me talk? That crown lit up. You’re not safe here. If the South’s really rising, they will send assassins for you. I’m not saying you should go off alone with them. I’ll come with you. Maybe Verry will come too.”

“Dad needs him on the farm. He needs you both.”

“Needs all of us, I’d say.”

“Exactly. Which is why I intend to stay right here in Lomn.”

“You know you can’t. We’ll all die. I will go with you. Even if no one else can. We’ll send word to Uncle Tavall. Kressler’s one of his ports of call. He’ll come as soon as he can. You won’t be alone with them.”

The Pull of the Earth

Kenese Umaga had not yet gotten used to the twists and turns of corridors in Alpha station, even after a year. She wouldn’t say she was lost, exactly. Not on the way to the lab that she worked at every day. No.

Confused maybe. Turned around. Not lost.

She put it down to trying to walk and talk at the same time.

“I thought you said this would only take an hour,” she said into her comm as she hesitated at the junction of sections two and three. A passing technician gave her a small smile and a gentle head tilt in the direction she should be going and she took a moment to nod in thanks.

“We had problems with some of the core concepts,” Martine said in her ear. “Look, I can turn the translator back on for you, but it will delay my work by a day if I don’t get this done before third shift.”

“Martine, I need these samples, and I can’t take them if he can’t understand what I’m asking for.”

“You really need to be able to talk to him? You’ve done this a hundred times.”

Kenese sighed in frustration, but quietly so Martine wouldn’t hear. “I can’t just walk in there and start sticking him with needles. It wouldn’t be polite.”

“The samples will have to wait then,” Martine said briskly. “Anyway, I know you had other plans for this afternoon, Manny was going on about it in rec yesterday.”

Kenese had forgotten she had plans.

She finally turned the corner to Eli’s corridor and stopped, just before walking in front of the glass wall that made up one side of his quarters. “Shit,” she said. “Okay Martine, I can leave these samples until later. You think you’ll only need an hour for the translator update to be finished?”

“Less than that.”

“Good.”

Kenese switched off her comm, still standing just outside Eli’s line of sight. The glass wall that made up one entire side of his cell could be made opaque, if he should wish it. Eli never asked for privacy, however. There might have been a time, when he first joined them, when one of the scientists could have flipped the switch themselves — given him the privacy he possibly wanted but did not have the language with which to ask.

That time passed, however, and now the corridor to what most called his cell was avoided by all who could manage it, and traversed quickly by those who could not.

Kenese’s comm crackled and Manifred’s deep, amused voice sounded in her ear. “I’m waiting in Airlock Q with a space suit that is far too small for me, Umaga,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Manny,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

The Off Switch

I just beat Keith Jeffers out of the cafeteria. Call Guinness! Jeffers, The Great Lightspeed, nipping at my heels for once, not the other way around. He wouldn’t even pass for a jock–scrawny, weasel-faced, reddish mop of hair. I can smell his body odor. Any closer, and his legs’ll get tangled up in mine. My bell-bottoms flap around my ankles.

“No way!” he guffaws. Keith’s the only one in gym class who actually laughs his way around the wide, wide track while the rest of us lag behind, wheezing.

Here comes Mark Walford with his bowl haircut, juggling an armful of books, looking everywhere but where he’s going. I give him a shove. Down he goes, books flying.

That costs me my lead; Keith matches me step for step now. “You and Sandee going out tonight?” he asks. Today’s Friday.

“Tomorrow.” He knows I never miss Chico and the Man. We slow to a walk, knowing what’s up ahead. By the time we reach the first floor, we’re practically crawling.

“Metal,” I growl, “shop.”

Where the teacher is paddle-happy, especially if you’re late. But they can’t crook their little fingers and make me show up whenever they want! I know my Constitutional rights as an American citizen.

All right, no paddling–substitute teacher today. Final bell, released for the day: I lose Keith in the mob of erupting, laughing, spitball-shooting classmates. Home to dinner. After Stepmom–mom to me, really–serves up potato stroganoff Hamburger Helper transformed into something you couldn’t match in any fancy restaurant, and I help her with the dishes and haul out the garbage, I move our phone from the kitchen counter to the kitchen table, tip back in my chair until I touch the wall, and spin Sandee’s number.

“Have you heard?” she asks.

“What’s that?”

“Mark Walford. He said he’s going to kill himself.”


Mark Walford. Round moon-face, taller than Keith but shorter than me–not many people tower over me–overweight enough for Keith to yell “Hey Meatball!,” sheepish enough for Joe Teal to tag him “Dork,” and enough into all those radiation-spawned city-stomping monsters for me to call him “Godzilla.”

Actually, before that, I called him Wallflower. Somewhere along the line, I changed it. It was me who dubbed Keith The Great Lightspeed, and that caught on, but I guess lightning doesn’t strike twice. Meatball was what everyone called Mark, including me, though I still kind of hope they’ll start using Godzilla.

Sandee’s in Walford’s Third Bell English class, and she saw it all. Mark raised his hand, and when called on, stood up and made his announcement.

“What did Mrs. Olson do?” I asked.

“She just asked him to sit down. Had him stay after class for a talk.”

“He’s clowning.”

“Do you know how he said he’d do it?”

She waits. Finally I ask, “How?”

“He thinks that somewhere on the human body, there’s something like an off switch. Press it, trip it, and that’s it. No pain, no mess. You’re just dead.”

One Hundred Years and Five Minutes

He reminds me of myself on my first ride. Leg bounces up and down. Sweat builds around the edges of the black suit. Doesn’t know which way to look. I can’t help but smile. I have to say something to break the tension.

“Hey, kid.”

He snaps his head around from staring out the window at nothing.

“Sir?” Respectful. I like that.

“Here’s a little something my mentor told me during my first day at the big show. He said, ‘There used to be an old saying. Death waits for no man. But today…’” He leans in, expecting something meaningful. “…it waits for us.’”

He settles back in his seat, thinking. “What does that mean exactly, sir?”

“Damned if I know.” I offer the old belly laugh that causes him to twitch, shocked by just how loud I can get.

He gives a nervous chuckle because it’s what he knows he should do.

I switch to a more comfortable subject. “You have everything?”

His reader and test kit are out in a flash.

“Yes, sir. But, sir?”

In my best fake, stern voice: “Recruit?”

“Do I administer both tests before I take out the reader, or do I do one, check it, then go for the other?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

We hit the expressway. Cars move out of the way as usual. A bus load of young students gawk and point with fear and awe.

The kid starts up again, “Yeah, but the manual states…”

“Relax. You do whatever feels natural.”

He takes a second to process with a shake of his head. “Okay, sir. I guess I can do that. But, oh, there’s another thing I’m worried about, sir.”

I chuckle. His eyes are really bugging out of his skull now.

“What if he’s a runner?”

I take Exit 36, Mara Street, and move through the lights. Some more stares from people out in the streets. It’s a beautiful day – sun, just a couple clouds.

“Sir? I asked…”

“He won’t run. Nobody runs.”

“But…”

“In thirty-five years nobody’s run.”

“Nobody, sir?”

“What’s the point? The system gives us the green light to start the process with the flick of a button whether he’s there or not. We all know how much time we’ve got left. So, where are you going to run to?”

I turn down Keres. Just a couple more streets now. I check the time. Perfect like always.

“I just thought some would run, that some people wouldn’t want to face it. I know I’d be afraid,” the kid says as he adjusts his dark tie in the side mirror.

Final left onto Donn. A neighbor getting their mail watches as we pull up across the street. I kill the engine and slowly turn to the kid.

“We’re all afraid. But, you’ll see. People are stronger than you think when it comes to this stuff. It’s our job to keep ‘um that way.”

We hold onto a stare that probably has some profound meaning behind it for him. Maybe not. I turn away and chuckle.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, nothing,” I contain myself. Return to professionalism.

“Time?”

“Four-fifty-eight.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

We exit in unison. I walk around to the kid’s side of the car that’s facing the quaint, brick house. More neighbors are out now watching from porches and windows. Some pretend to walk a pet or get something from their car. We’re the best show in town – a preview of coming attractions they just can’t miss.

That’s when I notice the kid is breathing hard with these strong, uneasy breaths. Stage fright. I take one of his hands and pull his attention away from the growing crowd.

“Remember, I do all the talking for this first one.” He nods. “You just worry about the samples.”

The kid takes a final, deep breath. He settles. I let go of his hand. His foot starts tapping again as he starts looking around. I turn to him and hold him by the shoulders, getting eye to eye.

“We’re not here for them,” I hear the creak of the front door. “We’re here for him.”

We turn to face the doorway. The kid snaps to the prescribed pose: hand over hand at the belt.

The patron is out on his front steps, his family and friends behind him. He’s a tall guy, thick shock of black hair, lean but with some muscle, just a few wrinkles. Looks good for one-hundred. Hell, everybody looks good nowadays.

The patron exchanges final hugs and begins the long, slow walk down his rock footpath. The crunch of stones is the only sound throughout the neighborhood. The sun feels nice.

The kid reaches for his tools. I stay his hand. Not yet, not until he’s made his way because – then it happens. The patron’s wife sprints off the porch.

“Michael,” she gasps and grabs onto him.

They hold each other tight, who knows how many years of joy are in that embrace. They kiss. He whispers something she’ll never tell another soul. He wipes away her tears but they return. Eventually, she is joined by other relatives and friends who have to work to pull her back. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

Everyone has instinctively gravitated towards the patron by this point. Even his neighbors are closing in as if attracted by some energy they can’t deny. The best show in town.

The patron finally approaches.

“Michael Paul DeLeo?” I say in a soft yet presentational tone.

“That’s me,” he manages to get out and forces a smile.

“My assistant will now administer an identification check.”

He nods.

The kid carefully tugs a strand of the patron’s hair with his tweezers then swabs the inside of his mouth. He feeds both samples into the reader. It was warm for that time of year. After a moment, the kid gives me a nod. I extend my arm, motioning at the backseat door. The kid opens it for the patron.

“What do you guys think,” the patron says with a sly grin, “should I look back?”

“Your call, sir,” I say, returning the smile.

The patron turns and waves once to all the onlookers. He blows a kiss to his wife and waits for her to catch it. He gets in, wiping away tears. The kid shuts the door and gets in the front seat. I take my time shuffling to the driver’s side.

When we’re all settled, I meet eyes with the patron in the rearview mirror.

“Musical preference, sir?”

The kid shoots a horrified look my way. I keep my eyes on the patron.

“Hadn’t thought of that,” the patron says as he continues to stare out the tinted windows. He pauses, thinking. “Got any Elvis?”

“Love Elvis. Any song?”

“How about, Fools Rush In.”

“Excellent choice.”

I find the song on my music player before pulling away. The patron watches out the back window as his family and friends run behind the car. I keep it slow until he turns away as we take a right on Aker. When he faces forward, he’s crying again.

Now he needs my help. “Can I ask you something, sir?”

I can see the patron is breathing hard. His hands are shaking. Bravery only takes you so far.

“Huh? Okay?” he mumbles, somewhat puzzled. I get more daggers from the kid but continue to ignore them.

“I’m retiring soon and I’m thinking about traveling. Seeing the world. Any recommendations?”

The kid begins to say something, but I catch him the moment I hear him clear his throat. I put a hand on his and it quiets him.

“I’m not so…” the patron begins, but stops himself. He sits back, wiping away the last of his tears. He’s looking around this way and that, hands fumbling in his lap.

I continue, trying to keep eye contact: “I heard there is a lot to see in Europe?”

“I’m not, I don’t…” the patron tries to eke out. He shakes his head.

“Just whatever comes to mind,” I say softly. “Man, I love this song.”

“Yeah, me too,” he says.

Something clicks.

“You know what,” the patron exclaims as he leans forward and puts his arms between me and the kid on our headrest. Now I’ve got him. “I know a place, lovely, great little place. Have you ever heard of Montepulciano?”

“Nope, you?” I say, bringing the kid into the conversation. He shakes his head, still angry.

The patron keeps talking: “It’s this gorgeous city in Northern Italy, about an hour outside of Rome.”

“Italy, huh?”

“Yeah. Absolutely beautiful.” He’s smiling now. “A fairytale.”

“How’s that?”

“Oh, God. It was this medieval mountain top town with these tight, cobblestone streets, cute, little houses with those terra-cotta roofs, all nestled tightly together. And the view of the Tuscan countryside, man. I can still see it.”

“Yeah, a sight to see?”

His hands finally settle as he leans away from us into the backseat.

“My wife and I went for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We actually met there in college…” The patron keeps reliving the memory.

The kid takes out his reader. The assignment has been approved. We are ready to start the process. I nod for the kid to go ahead. He taps his reader’s screen.

“I remember we went to this little corner restaurant one evening…”

And he’s gone. Slumped over, eyes closed. The kid’s alarm goes off. He’s quick to quiet it. I turn off The King.

“Time?”

The kid barks: “What the hell was that, sir? You know how many codes you just violated?”

“Time?” I repeat a little louder.

“For starters, the manual says, Article Six, Section Two, no extra conversation beyond what is necessary or at the request of…”

“Time?” I scream, staring him down.

We move down another side street, edging toward the highway.

The kid checks his reader. “Five past five.”

“Good. Mark it.”

The kid fiddles with some buttons.

“Marked. Announcement sent.”

There’s a silent moment of tension between us I know it’s my duty to break. “Let me ask you something. Why did you want this job?”

Without thinking he responds: “Because it’s important. It’s noble. We all deserve this and it has to be done.”

“You’re right,” I say, grinning. I swear he’s my clone. “But you’ve still got a lot to learn.”

He looks in the rearview at the patron. He starts readjusting his tie again, pretending he’s not looking, but he can’t take his eyes off him. We are all only so brave. I rub his shoulder.

“It’s okay, kid. The first one is tough.”

He takes his time with the words. “Jesus, he’s really dead, isn’t he?”

We storm up the highway, the engine revving up to speed. Beautiful day to be driving.

“Take a good long look, kid.” I gun it into the fast lane. “And think about what you want your last five minutes to be like.”

Jonathan Pickering is an emerging writer and teacher from a suburb of Boston. He is the author of 20/20: The Iraq and Afghanistan Narratives, a collection of oral histories from the men and women who served in these conflicts. For more from Jon, please visit www.jonathanpickering.com.

Doing business

The lift was crowded, and Bertrand felt sorry for the tramp squeezing his way from passenger to passenger with his dirty hat. The fellow looked more deserving than some he could name. But it was money; Bertrand looked away, hoping the tramp wouldn’t get to him. Then the lift stopped with a, ding!, everyone else got out, and the tramp confronted him squarely. “Any change, gov’nor?”

Bertrand dug into his pocket and handed over a pound coin with as good grace as he could muster. And as he stepped out into the twelfth floor lobby of Brascobank, heading for Operations, he heard a wheezed, “Thank you”.

There were no more thank-yous that morning. None from the Chief Executive’s hustlers shaking their collection boxes (one pound each), nor from Sandra with her biscuits at reception (fifty pee), nor from Bill the security guard with his sandwiches (two pounds each). Bernard didn’t fancy the sandwiches, and he dropped one into the hat of Big John, who sat in the corridor leading to Operations, huge limbs tucked up under his chin, and at least gave a grateful nod.

Bertrand tried to give the other sandwich to his boss Irene in exchange for one of her cakes (‘Freshly-baked – Family to support!’), but it was returned with a firm smile, and he had to dig into his pocket (another pound – and the cake was gooey!). The sandwich was no more use with Cindy when she accosted him, scantily-clad, in the corridor. And Bertrand didn’t even try it with Sam and Chaz from Accounts – who, like Scylla and Charybdis, threatened passers-by from either side of the narrow aisle.

“Come on guys, I’ve got deals to process,” Bertrand appealed.

It was no use. “We’re here to help,” Sam said, manoeuvring between Bertrand and his cubicle.

“We protect you,” said Chaz. “And we make sure your deals get booked,” he added with a wink.

There was nothing for it: Bertrand fished out another pound.

“Ta!” said Sam, closing his palm on the coin. “And one more.” He held out his other hand.

Bertrand grimaced, tried his pocket again, but found only a fifty pence piece. This time Sam closed his fist, so the coin bounced off his knuckles onto the floor.

“Not getting cheap, are we?” Chaz came up menacingly.

Exasperated, Bertrand pulled a fiver from his wallet and asked for change.

“That’ll do nicely,” Chaz said, snatching the banknote. “Pleasure to do business with you.” And he and his mate lumbered off down the aisle to shake down someone else.

Bertrand stood fuming as he looked after the departing pair. If he were five years younger…. But discretion – and the hope that he could now get on with his work – took the better part of valour: he stayed by his cubicle. Yet it hurt. Sixteen quid down just getting to his desk – and the whole day still ahead. It made working a marginal proposition, as his wife would say.

Bertrand switched on his PC, and as he sat down, Brasco’s motto, ‘Let’s do business!’, whirled across the screen. He felt something on the seat; he looked down, and it was the sandwich, rather squashed in its clingfilm wrap. He might as well give that to Big John too, along with Irene’s cake.

Then Irene came by and asked for sponsorship for her daughter’s school fees.

Bertrand groaned. “Aren’t you supposed to…” (how to put it to his own boss?) “…to give me something in return? Like a business thing?” Brasco was trying to encourage entrepreneurialism, but this was just extortion.

“If you want to make an issue of it…,” Irene said, fingering her jewellery.

Well! Bertrand, on the brink, considered doing just that. But he needed the job, and the whistle-blower programme was hardly secure (and you had to pay there too). No, he had to swallow it. Taking out his wallet, he asked the going rate.

“Whatever you like. It’s voluntary, and much appreciated,” Irene murmured, fixing him with a steady gaze.

Bertrand found a fiver, and to his relief that was enough. With a little sniff his boss took herself off, skirt swishing down the aisle.

Smarting under this latest blow, Bertrand didn’t even see Internal Audit. Only a discreet cough alerted him to yet another caller on his finances. He didn’t have to pretend when he said he was cleaned out, and so Internal Audit took himself off whistling, with a promise to be back the following day.

What a start to the morning! Bertrand struggled to get into his work. As lunchtime approached, his eye fell on the squashed sandwich and the cake which still lay sadly on his desk. And he had an idea.

Tessellated

Mom was a jigsaw puzzle. I don’t mean a mystery or a riddle or that you couldn’t discern the meaning behind her rare smile. Her skin was grooved into interlocking, thin, wood-like pieces and tessellated over a green felt dermis.

She liked to read on the couch on Sunday afternoons while I assembled moon bases with Legos on the coffee table. Once, I climbed up next to her to show her the rover I’d built and banged my head against her arm, knocking the book from her hands and a tile from her forearm onto the floor. I scrabbled onto the carpet and handed her the chestnut piece. She laughed and slipped it back onto her underlayment. “See,” she said, “all better.”

Dad would come home from the local dive smelling like rum with a dash of cigarette ash. He’d crush mom’s hand while he slurred about his boss keeping him down; how he never got a fair shake. The tabs on the pieces of mom’s fingers became worn and delaminated, lifting like hang nails from each time she’d extracted herself from him and escaped to her bedroom.

One night, she pulled away too quickly. He jerked her towards him, grabbed the back of her neck and slammed her down onto her knees. Pieces of her sheared off under his grip and scattered across the floor, exposing islands of her deep, green felt. I stepped forward, trembling, wanting to scoop them up but the defiant crease of her mouth kept me from crying out for him to stop. Dad let go and kicked the scraps of her across the room before weaving into her bedroom and passing out on the bed.

Mom picked up her tiles and put them into a box with the money she’d been hiding under a floor vent cover. We left the next morning to stay with her mother. Dad showed up, later, begging for us to return. When Grandma’s door remained closed, he raged.

“Who the fuck do you think is going to want you, bitch?”

Grandma covered my ears while mom phoned the police. I bawled when they took Dad away. With Grandma’s help, we moved to Toronto and mom found a job at the local public school.

We settled in and over the months and years she took each tile Dad had knocked loose, five pieces from her knees, another from her left arm, seven from behind her neck and smoothed them back into place. She was whole again, except for the pieces above her heart. They wouldn’t lie flush like before, no matter how hard she forced them down.

By the time I entered high school, S-shaped fault lines had breached the surface of my stomach and worked their way up my chest and down my arms – compartmentalizing my skin with each new experience I had or book I read. I hid them under long-sleeved shirts.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Anjalee.” Mom said one morning at breakfast. I stared at my cereal and didn’t answer. “It doesn’t mean we’re weak.”

At night I traced the new channels between the pieces and wished they’d vanish in the wake of my fingers. “Who’s going to want you?” I’d mouth to the dark.

Mom was there, two years later, when I came out of my room ready for junior prom wearing a black dress that revealed my scribed arms. We conceded, after an hour of waiting, that I’d been stood up. My chest hung concave and loose, on the brink of crumbling inwards with each shuddering breath.

“It’s okay,” she whispered into my hair as she held me on the couch, “Cry tonight. Tomorrow, you’ll put yourself back together.”

Our tiles became more intricate, more difficult to keep in place. Mom went back to school and became a reading recovery specialist; I, an Engineer. And whenever there were breakups, financial hardships, even the dissolution of my own marriage, we’d spend months, bent over the kitchen table repairing ourselves – re-adhering each piece with flour based glues, sealing our surfaces with beeswax or coconut oil.

Mom’s older now. I visit her twice a week with Vikas, my little boy. She calls out to us when I open the door and we usually find her seated in front of the television with a box of her tiles that have come loose.

Today, she let Vikas play with them. He holds them up in his tiny hands, a tile from mom’s fingertip, a piece from just below her nose. She recounts the memories they carry – the light weft of my grandmother’s bright saris, the sweet sawdust scent of me as a newborn. Vikas scrunches his eyebrows as he tries to fit these incongruous pieces together.

“Soon he’ll have his own fragments to reckon with,” Mom says with a rueful smile. I help her replace her tiles. The pieces don’t fit as snugly as they used to; the verdant felt between her seams is visible.

“The day will come when they all fall off,” she says as we walk to the front door.

I kiss her head. “Don’t worry. I’ll pick them up for you.”

She puts her hand on her chest where the tiles still bow upward. “You can’t keep me whole, Anjalee.”

I hug her goodbye then Vikas gives her a kiss. She waves as I help him into the car but her hand clips the porch railing. A piece of her wrist dislodges and sails into a potted geranium. She eases onto her knees to look for it, the shallow dent of worry on her brow.

Before I can run up the front steps, she pulls the tile from the dirt and holds it up, a weak smile curving her lips.

“Will Grandma be okay?” Vikas asks when I return to the car. I look at his still un-etched skin. The corners of my lips slip downward.

“I hope so Vikas, I hope so.”

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Suzan Palumbo is an ESL teacher and free lance writer living in Ontario, Canada. She has had work published at Diabolical Plots and is a first reader for Shimmer.

Been There, Done That

Dr. Rafsanjani:

Please let me be your guinea pig.

I am volunteering for service as a test subject in your program. I recognize that this may be a problem, given that no one outside of your university is supposed to know your project exists, and especially given that I am a man with a criminal record. I am not a spy or saboteur; I know what you’re doing only because your theories are correct. The process you have envisioned will work, though imperfectly.

How do I know? Because I’ve been there, Dr. Rafsanjani. I’ve done that. Indeed, in a sense, my entire life, from the age of fifteen onwards, has been a byproduct of your experiment.


I was fifteen years old, sitting in John’s garage, watching him drive nails through a piece of particle board. John was perfect. Green eyes flecked with gold, thick, wavy black hair, and cheekbones you could cut glass with. But John’s romantic interests lay elsewhere, and with the opposite gender. So: best friends. I kept him close, if not as close as I’d have liked.

And John was perfect in the technical sense as well. At school, at work, at play, his every action was sure and capable. Even his carpentry was perfect: I watched him set each tenpenny nail precisely in its place, and then drive it through the quarter-inch of wood with a single, surgical tap of the hammer, leaving the head flush with the wood’s surface and the point extruded.

Even his attitude had been perfect, at one point. He’d been the consummate overachiever throughout middle school. And then, almost from the moment he’d seen her, at the start of our freshman year, he had devolved into a completely different person. He shunned sports and activities. He made no attempt to make new friends; our old social circle disintegrated. He was as kind to me as ever, but he had no apparent interest in or time for the rest of the world. Instead, I watched him while away the hours in his garage, hammering out strange, ugly objects, equally inartistic and non-functional. Such as today’s project. I’d dubbed it “Spiny Norman, the Roadkill Hedgehog,” which had earned me a laugh, and a fond grin that had almost stopped my heart.

“So,” I said to him, trying to strike another spark. “All-school assembly on Monday. Our big moment. Class of the year!” The high school John and I attended conducted a year-long competition between the four classes in which we earned points for various activities and accomplishments—class GPA, attendance, the canned food drive and so forth. The winning class got a day off in May. A victory for the seniors was usually a given. That year, the impossible had happened. We won it. We, the freshmen.

In August, the three hundred members of the freshman class had stumbled through the doors not knowing which way was up or even how to open our lockers. Then Dani Tannig had entered our lives, swooping in from some tiny private middle school, a tornado of positivity. By September, she was our class President. By November, we were a well-oiled machine, everybody’s unique talents identified and catalogued. We moved steadily up in the class rankings. With March came Spring Olympics, and when the duct tape fastening Emma Czerznowski to the gymnasium wall came undone and the senior tumbled to the floor, leaving only our own Ashley Jackson still attached, our section of the bleachers dissolved into pandemonium; we had done the impossible. I remembered jumping up and down like a meth-addicted kangaroo, and turning to John to celebrate—only to see him staring silently at Dani in the front row as the other class officers dogpiled on top of her. He had been an island of stillness amidst our storm of joy, with that sad little half-smile on his face. It was the expression he always seemed to wear when looking at Dani.

And John spent a lot of time looking at Dani.

“Never been done before,” I said to him, as he sat cross-legged on the cement, placing another nail. “We made history!”

“Yep,” he muttered. THUNK went the hammer.

I opened my mouth again to speak, but hesitated. I knew I ought to avoid the subject; it was too painful for me to think about. Yet I had to probe at it, the way your tongue prods at a sore tooth, or the way you pick at a scab. “Big moment for Daniiiii…” I drew my voice out suggestively. He paused for a moment, then glanced up at me. No resentment. Just that sad half-smile.

“Hey, don’t blame me,” I said. “You could be with her, if you’d only put yourself out there. Just…be the guy you were in middle school! Star quarterback, straight A’s. Guys wanted to be you, girls loved you. She’d love you, if you gave her the chance. Just…” My free hand flailed aimlessly at the air.

“Engage again. Be part of the world.” He finished my sentence for me, using exactly the words I’d been about to use. It’s scary, how often he does that, I thought. It’s part of the connection we share. It’s proof that we’re meant to be together.

I turned to him, and found those impossibly green eyes locked on mine. “Been there, Eddie,” he said tonelessly. “Done that.”

I shook my head. “Love sucks,” I said, my voice dripping with a fifteen-year-old’s profound wisdom.

But John was already face-down in his project again, picking out another nail. “Not so, buddy,” he replied. “One perfect love lasts a thousand lifetimes. Love comes to those who deserve it. And love is worth the wait.” He glanced up at me. “You deserve love, Eddie. And it will come for you, in time. I promise.”

I felt a shiver run up my spine. “But…” I stammered. “…how can you say that, and then act like this? You’re just gonna moon over her? You’re just gonna stew in a corner, like you have been all year?” I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. I was mad at him, angry that he was being less than himself, angry that he was cheating the world of the amazing person I knew him to be. “You’re gonna do nothing?”

He sat there, his face a blank slate. “I,” he responded, “am going to do nothing effectively.”

Like Brownies

We’re lucky we had kids before the Antiglians brought us here. All creatures, save for the most beautiful, had been sterilized upon arrival.

They placed us with other human families in a small section of the sprawling interplanetary refuge. I haven’t seen any other Earth animals, but sometimes I swear an elephant’s trumpet rises above the mix of alien sounds. My wife, Maura, shrugs. It’s all white noise to me, Noah.

Our new home is a cookie-cutter four bedroom with all the creature comforts—except a roof. I’ve gotten used to alien faces hovering above when I eat, bathe, hell, even when I take a dump, but I couldn’t stand those columns of eyeballs watching me have sex. I can only do it completely under the covers. I miss seeing Maura’s body.

Jim slams a toy Ferrari into my foot and mutters, “Sorry, Dad.”

“Ooh!” Cindy says in that way kids have when they expect their siblings to get in trouble. She clutches a stuffed puppy that reminds me of Tuppins, who died just before we left Earth.

I rub my foot. “It’s okay, but why don’t you put the car away so we can work on long division?”
“No.” Jim scowls. “I’m never gonna need it.”

I’d said the same thing to my mom when I was his age. She told me that no one in our family had ever gotten a degree, that I could be the first.

I never expected to be the last.

Jim is already on the other side of the room, chasing Cindy with the car. She trips, sending the dog flying through the air, and a group of Antiglians point their quivering, anemone-tipped appendages at my daughter. I scoop her up to shield her from their view.

“Put me down, Dad!” She wriggles free. “I’m fine.”

A thump-plop-thump outside sends the kids rushing to the window. Our trough brims with roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and a pumpkin pie. It’s always seventy-two degrees in the habitat, but it must be November on Earth. Antiglians are obsessed with customs and calendars. This is our first Thanksgiving here.

Maura helps me set the table. “Everything smells wonderful, Noah. A delicious feast with no pots and pans to scrub. What could be better?”

“It’s engineered.”

She takes a bite of stuffing. “Mmm. Well, they can engineer my food until the day I die.”
Jim scoops massive heaps of everything on his plate. I serve little Cindy.

“This is so good, but I really hope we get pizza tomorrow,” Jim says between bites. “The pizza here is out of this world.”

Maura and Cindy laugh.

“Well, technically, it is in this world. It’s out of our world.”

Jim rolls his eyes. “Not mine. Everything here is better.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you’d backpacked through the Rockies. Eaten a peach fresh off the tree.” My voice catches. “You’ve never even seen the ocean.”

“Yeah?” Jim glares. “Well at least here I—”

“Boys! Quiet.” Maura almost never raises her voice.

“Sorry, Mom,” Jim mumbles.

She turns to me. “Do you have something to say, Noah?”

“I thought you wanted me to be quiet.”

Maura mutters something about stubborn, old mules, and I feel like an ass.

“Sorry.” I kiss her cheek.

“Scoundrel,” she says with a shake of her head.

“Who wants to play shuttle racer on the Holo after dinner?” I ask.

Jim grins. “You’re going down, Dad!”

He makes good on his threat. We all play until the sleeping signal flashes.

The kids scamper off to their bedrooms so they’ll be rested for the morning petting session: two hours in a pen while the Antiglians feed us treats that taste like brownies. Those who put on a show get the most.

I don’t dance.

Maura settles into bed while I toss and turn.

“Noah?” She yawns. “Did you skip your sleep aid?”

“Yeah. I feel like thinking.” I stare at the sky. With the artificial lights, it never gets dark enough in the enclosure to see the stars. A couple Antigilans skitter by above, tentacles entwined.
“Earth again? I don’t know why you romanticize the place. You had to wear a bulletproof vest to go outside and scrounge for food.”

I snuggle against her. “Don’t you remember when we used to sit on the dock, dip our toes into the water, and listen to the loons?”

“We were teenagers.” She turns to face me and takes my hands. “Don’t you remember the stench of the dead fish? The loons didn’t last much longer.” Her voice fades as her eyes close. “It’s Thanksgiving. We’re together, and I’m thankful…”

Restless, I head toward the family room. Everyone was allowed to bring one memento, and I chose my college degree. I need to hold it, to feel like a Bachelor of Mathematics, not some exotic novelty.
Halfway down the hall, I slip and land with a thud. That stupid Ferrari. I stifle a curse, hoping I hadn’t woken anyone up. Whimpers and soft footsteps grow closer. Damn.

“Daddy.” Sobbing, Cindy throws her arms around me.

“Shh, baby. It’s okay.”

“The noises.” She pulls back, eyes wide with fear. “Are the soldiers here?”

“No, sweetheart. They’re light years away. They can’t hurt us.”

I carry her back to her room, tuck her in, and place the dog in her arms. “You’re safe.” I stroke the silky wisps of her hair until her eyes flutter closed. “You’re safe.”

Last Thanksgiving, we shared a can of room-temperature soup. The hollows of Tuppins’ ribs danced like tiger stripes in the light of our only candle—spring blossom scent or something like that—so artificial it made me queasy. I hadn’t even seen a goddamn flower since before Cindy was born. She’ll be five soon.

They gave us a cake for Jim’s birthday. The kids’ faces were round and happy as we sang, their voices clear and strong. Back in my own room, I pull the covers up to my shoulders. Tomorrow, I’d teach Cindy to add. I could use pizza to explain fractions.

I turn back to Maura, sleeping sweet and peaceful, close my eyes, and remember her words.
We’re together, and I’m thankful.

I’ve always liked brownies.

Michelle Kaseler is a software engineer by trade, but can be whatever she wants to be when she reads and writes. A two-time Boston Marathon qualifier, the only thing that matches her enthusiasm for creating stories is running. And cheesecake.

The Jade Star

A bright moon glistens in a velvet black sky. An unseen dog barks bloody murder as a Clean-Bot 2100 purrs its way through a wide and spotless street.

Around the street there are no cars, no signs of life except for a lone woman. She frantically runs ahead of the Clean-Bot as if she fears it will suck her up like trash.

The woman, her ginger hair swinging from side to side, reaches the end of the street where there is a tall water tower, at least fifty feet high. Painted on the tower’s side, in vibrant red and blue, is a big “Milton Brothers Studios.”

Frantically the woman climbs the first rung of the tower’s ladder then the second and the third.

At the top of the water tower there are no eyes on the ginger haired starlet, no studio cameras, no klieg lights, no adoring fans. There is only a clear view of the back lot with its twenty-three cavernous soundstages, dozens of cranes, trucks, fake palm trees, sword and sandal set backdrops, even a water tank that could hold the Titanic.

The Milton Brothers Studios, maker of the latest and greatest in filmed entertainment, is at rest for a few hours. Perhaps a security camera has caught her exit from her dressing room. More likely the guards are asleep on the job.

At the top, along a small guardrail, the ginger haired woman does not look out at the whole of Bollywood West, does not admire the view.

Instead, she fights, kicks, flails.

Someone, or something, a shape of shimmering light is next to her, pushing her, grabbing at her, tearing into her leg.

She loses her balance, falls over the guardrail. Her hands go out to her side, as if she is Esther Williams diving into a pool, ready to synchronize with a bevy of bathing beauties.

Only it’s not water below; it’s a concrete jungle.

By her ginger haired head, spilling over the black pavement, a pool of crimson blood forms like a seahorse drifting toward a distant ocean.

With an efficient silence the Clean-Bot 2100 rolls back and sucks up the blood around her head.