The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- The Cartographer Gene by J. J. Roth
- The Houses They Became by Tamoha Sengupta
- The Quantum Watchmaker by David Cleden
- When Bloodwater Boils by Peter Ryan
- The Pen by Mark Bilsborough
- Ladder of Ashes by Dale L. Sproule
- Wouldn’t You Rather by Serena Johe
- Big Blue by Subodhana Wijeyeratne
- Wanted by Madeline Olsen
- The Monk’s Grimoire by A.P. Miller
- Willingly and with Joy by Lynn Rushlau
- Crows and Galahs by Jamie D. Munro
- The Colored Lens Interviews: Jarod K Anderson
The Cartographer Gene
By J. J. Roth
Jordan Sofer’s sixteen-year-old daughter appeared in his office crying one rainy Tuesday in March, sparking a chain of events that sent his life’s trajectory hurtling down a long, serpentine fuse toward a powder keg.
Jordan, Helion Engineering’s Director of Cartographic Solutions, sat at his workstation in a San Francisco office tower, correcting a topographic map of Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano. An intern had used 2005 elevation data, which didn’t account for the height added in 2010 when molten rock last spewed from Arenal. “You need a little boost,” Jordan said aloud to the volcano rendered on his display.
As he redrew contour lines, Jordan became aware of muffled sobs behind him. Millie huddled on the floor in the corner, her knees, naked under her short denim skirt, drawn to her chest.
She hadn’t used the door. Whatever made Millie cry had also filled her with the familiar, overpowering urge to draw.
“What happened?” Jordan glanced out the vertical glass panel beside his office door to the hallway, empty except for framed antique maps on the walls. No one had seen Millie materialize. He knelt beside Millie and kissed the top of her black-haired head, pushing the soft curls she inherited through Carole’s Haitian ancestry from her light-skinned forehead, the genetic contribution of Jordan’s Eastern European Jewish heritage. Millie smelled fresh, like honeydew. Her tears dampened Jordan’s blue Oxford shirt, leaving translucent streaks in the cotton.
“Tyler,” she said. “After school, he said if he couldn’t have me, no one could. Ben caught up to us and Tyler started shouting. I ran to tell Mr. Kramer. Then into an empty classroom.” Jordan felt for her index finger, still tacky with blood.
Millie didn’t have to tell Jordan what happened in that empty classroom; he’d have done the same if he feared for his physical safety. He pictured Millie searching for notebook paper, or perhaps cardboard, an index card, a discarded paper bag, anything on which to draw. Then rummaging for a pen, or a pencil, chalk, crayon, anything to mark that surface.
In Millie’s highly agitated state, details poured from her memory with photographic accuracy. She drew, as she could only when desperate–without training, without straight edges, protractors, compasses, CAD programs or reference materials, without erasures or strike-throughs–a professional-quality floor plan of her father’s office. A place she’d been before and felt safe. She’d pricked her skin, closed her eyes, and laid her bloody finger on the map.
Jordan tapped his iPhone. His son, Ben, Millie’s twin, answered on the second ring. “Where are you?” Jordan asked.
“Home,” Ben said, his mouth full.
He’d be in the kitchen of their San Carlos house, on a quiet hillside twenty-five minutes from downtown San Francisco, in front of the open side-by-side refrigerator. Pouring cornflakes into his mouth straight from the box. Washing them down with milk straight from the plastic gallon jug.
Carole would have made Ben get a bowl. After Carole succumbed to breast cancer four years ago, Jordan became lax about minor rules infractions. A single parent had to pick his battles. With Ben, Jordan dumped all his discipline points into one bucket: listening. The kid’s ears, like broken antennae, seemed unable to tune to the frequency of Jordan’s voice.
“Millie’s here,” Jordan said. “You okay?”
“Kramer came out before Tyler could slug me. He’s suspended for three days. It sucks having to stand up to bullies instead of just teleporting the hell out of there, like some people I know.”
Always with the barbs, that kid. The who-cares attitude worn like a flak jacket, envy smoldering underneath. Why did it always have to be fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, one with the ability, one without? Ben was so much like Jordan’s twin sister, Sarah. They both lacked what the family called the “Cartographer Gene” though its origins, whether in biology or something more arcane, were obscure. And they both resented their siblings and parents’ power. Jordan wondered whether all “Cartographer” families–the population’s tiny fraction across all races and ethnicities believed to have this trait —- experienced the same fractured dynamic.
He deflected Ben’s remark, finding it much easier to keep Ben at arm’s length than to engage.
“We’ll be there soon,” Jordan said.
Jordan didn’t press Millie on the drive home. She stopped crying, but sat silently in the passenger seat. Her honeydew scent mingled with a hint of Freon from the aging Land Rover’s air conditioner and wet asphalt from the rain-slicked freeway. He knew he should talk to her more, try harder to reach her. He stole glimpses of Millie while she gazed out the window at the rolling green hills now grey under the overcast sky.
It had not escaped Jordan’s notice that even after puberty, Millie wasn’t interested in boys. With each passing year, more girls phoned Ben. Millie never mentioned anyone special. Jordan knew Millie was gay, but she never broached the subject, and he never asked. He hoped she understood he loved her; that he’d find offensive the suggestion her sexual orientation would make him feel otherwise. Though he did worry that Millie’s gayness might further complicate the Tyler situation.
When they entered the family room, they found Ben hunched over an X-Box controller playing a first person shooter. Fake machine gun fire and grenade explosions thundered in surround sound, rattling the sliding glass door to the redwood deck. “Turn that off,” Jordan said. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Millie sat on the black leather sofa, hands cupped in her lap. Ben locked and loaded his virtual bolt-action rifle and aimed at a pixelated terrorist. Unable to find the remote, Jordan strode to the television and touched the power switch.
“I know none of us are any good at this,” Jordan said. “But we have to talk.”
Ben tossed the game controller to the sofa’s far end. He crossed his arms over his orange T-shirt so only the words “Radio” and “tour” showed. Was that a skull tattooed on his wrist, or merely a mishap with a felt tip pen? His black-heeled boot clanked against the glass coffee table, and he crossed his legs at the ankle. Jordan stared at the boots until Ben smirked and eased them from the table to the maple hardwood.
“I thought this thing with Tyler was over, Millie,” Jordan said. “That after that incident in the library, you’d stopped being his orientation buddy and Mr. Kramer told him to stay away from you.”
“You didn’t tell him?” Ben asked Millie.
She shrugged, fingering a blue thread bracelet around her thin wrist. A gift from her friend, Hannah? “I thought I could handle it.”
“Handle what?” A small knot of dread formed in Jordan’s midsection and pulsed, dully.
Millie twisted the bracelet until it snapped apart. “Tyler’s still mad about the dance.”
“That was before the library,” Jordan said. “When he was told to leave you alone. Have I got the chronology wrong?”
Jordan recounted the history. Tyler started at San Carlos High six months ago when his family moved to the neighborhood from Nashville, Tennessee. The change proved something of a culture shock to Tyler. He showed up for his first day at San Carlos high wearing a Confederate Flag T-shirt, which made him the subject of whispering and avoidance, including from Ben. Millie took it upon herself to do the opposite, to try to help Tyler acclimate. He mistook her kindness for a different signal and asked her to the Halloween dance.
Millie tried to explain her refusal wasn’t personal. Jordan suspected, though he didn’t say so, that Millie told Tyler what she wouldn’t tell her own father. The next day, in the library, Millie was telling Tyler she’d be participating in the Anti-Defamation League’s “Becoming an Ally” workshop at the school next week. He grabbed her wrists, squeezing until her skin blanched. “He argued with himself,” she’d said. “Then he kissed me. I tried to get away, but he pushed me onto the carpet. Just then, some kids came in. He let me go. I ran to the girls’ bathroom to draw a map.”
There followed conferences with Mr. Kramer and Tyler’s parents. Jordan came away from those with the understanding Tyler was to have nothing more to do with Millie.
“Yeah,” Millie said. “All that’s right, except Tyler didn’t leave me alone. He’s been shoving notes through the vents in my locker. Love letters, weird ones, about me, him and some voice in his head, Denton. Disgusting comics of us naked, scrawled with ‘How do you know if you haven’t tried?’ He’s been sending emails–pictures he’s taken of me without me even knowing. Creepy messages, like ‘You and your brother brought this on everyone.'”
Jordan turned to Ben. “You knew about this?”
“Since last week,” he said. “Only because I overheard her telling Hannah.”
The kernel of dread snowballed in Jordan’s gut, gathering a layer of sadness here, anger there, until a cold boulder pressed against his chest’s walls, trying to burst him apart. How did he not know?
Because he didn’t want to know. He’d have to get close to them to know.
“I’m calling Mr. Kramer,” Jordan said. “Then Tyler’s parents, again. And the police. This has to stop.”
Neither of the twins replied. Millie texted. Ben dug the remote from between the sofa cushions and restarted his game. Jordan took his iPhone onto the deck and slid the glass door shut behind him, lowering the decibel level of Ben’s virtual combat zone to a pale echo.
As Mr. Kramer’s voice mail greeting droned in Jordan’s ear, Sarah phoned from her bio-engineering lab in Boston. Jordan switched to Sarah’s call, intending to try Mr. Kramer again after he’d spoken to his sister.
But the fuse, lit with Millie’s news, snaked around another s-curve, the fire creeping steadily toward an explosive end.
Jordan’s mother had died.
“I’m on my way to Houston to make arrangements,” Sarah said. “You’ll come?”
Sarah sounded faint and distracted, liked she’d taken Valium with Merlot. Or perhaps it was exhaustion from the chemo. No sarcastic jabs, no “map on over to Houston, brother, or for that matter, Paris or the moon.” He longed for normalcy, for words thrust like foils in a fencing match. As though his mother would still be alive if only Sarah made him remind her for the thousandth time that those with the Cartographer trait could only teleport places they’d already been, and then only while fearing for their safety. As though his mother wouldn’t have died if only he could jab Sarah back for owning her own company, pulling down seven figures, and being able to afford jetting anywhere she wanted.
But Sarah just thanked Jordan like he’d offered to pick up her dry cleaning, not like he shared her shock and grief at having their mother stripped from their lives. The hub whose love reached out like spokes to all of them —- Jordan, Sarah, Millie, Ben, Jordan’s father–even as the connections between those on the wheel’s periphery became dry and brittle.
In the flurry of phone calls to arrange flights, inform bosses and teachers, cancel appointments; in the commotion of three hastily packed suitcases and a hurried drive to SFO; in the surreal consciousness that the loving presence who’d laughed with him on the phone just two days ago no longer resided in this world; in the exquisite pain of losing forever the one person whose love he’d never questioned and never had to earn; in the wake of it all, certain plans were, to be generous, tabled. In a less charitable view, they were forgotten.
Either way, despite his good intentions, Jordan did not phone Mr. Kramer, Tyler’s parents, or the police.
By the time Jordan and his kids arrived at the ranch-style house in southwest Houston where he and Sarah had grown up, most of the neighbors and friends bearing fruit plates and roast chickens had gone. Sarah let Millie take over answering the door; Ben went to nap in Jordan’s old room. Jordan pushed back in an olive green ’60s-era Naugahyde recliner, the one his father had always used.
“Isn’t it strange how life can just stop, with food in the refrigerator and letters to be mailed?” Sarah said.
Jordan hadn’t seen Sarah in the flesh in three years, long before her breast cancer diagnosis. The chemo had taken her dark, expressive eyebrows, leaving her face bland and unfinished. Tiny lines furrowed the space between where her eyebrows had been.
These lines hadn’t shown on Skype, not that Sarah and Jordan conferenced much, and neither had Sarah’s gauntness. Her engagement ring’s diamond, always perky atop her ring finger before, now drooped toward her palm. Sarah kept pushing the diamond upright with her thumb–Carole’s gesture, after the cancer spread to her spine. The sad irony that a variant of Carole’s disease now threatened Sarah made it impossible for Jordan to watch Sarah fiddling with the ring. To be reminded how Carole kept nothing down during chemo, how her cheeks, arms, and hips sharpened from healthy curves to angular points.
Jordan parked his gaze on a burn hole in the Naugahyde. He scraped its charred edges with his fingernail. “Where’s Steve?”
“He stayed in Boston with the girls,” Sarah said. “Things aren’t going so well with us.”
Jordan knew Sarah and her husband had been having trouble only because his mother had mentioned it. “I’m sorry.”
“I get it,” she said. “He’s scared. I’m scared, too. I just wish we could be scared together. It’s easier for him to handle if he distances himself.”
Jordan didn’t blame Steve; he wanted nothing more than to leave the room, as if more physical space would shield him against losing Sarah.
He stuck his fingertip through the burn hole, recalling the honeyed, nutty aroma of his father’s cigars. So many nights his father had sat in this chair, watching Upstairs, Downstairs on PBS and smoking, after spending the day in his beloved research lab, lecturing at the medical school, or writing a scientific paper. His father’s life had been his work.
And his mother’s life had been his father.
His parents talked in this room, after his mother put him and Sarah to bed. He didn’t hear the words, just the buzz of conversation and occasional laughter. He had wanted to speak to his father like that, to hear him laugh. To see him at Little League games and piano recitals like the other dads. But all his father’s meager affections went to Jordan’s mother.
When his father died, Jordan was still mourning Carole, still tangled in that loss. Regret sat heavy in his stomach, like a smooth, oval stone.
“I wish I’d been more ‘there’ for Mom,” Sarah said, voicing Jordan’s thoughts. “Too wrapped up in my own misery, I guess. She was never the same after Dad died. When I got here, I found full ash trays near her computer. Full fat cheddar in the refrigerator. Cobwebs and dust on the treadmill. All the things the doctors said to do to avoid another heart attack, she stopped doing. I found this, too.”
Sarah handed Jordan a careful, pencil-drawn plan of Beth Yeshurun cemetery, where tomorrow they would attend their mother’s funeral. The single roadway looping the neat plots. The white stone visitors’ benches. The majestic oak tree, under which his father’s headstone lay. The grassy nakedness of the adjacent plot, where his mother’s casket would be interred.
And a reddish-brown fingerprint, the whorls distinct as contour lines on a topographic map, over that empty plot.
“A caretaker found her when they opened yesterday,” Sarah said. “In that yellow knit suit with navy piping she loved so much. She must have sensed another attack, got scared and mapped to where she felt safest, next to Dad. Funny. No one seemed worried how she got there once the coroner ruled out foul play.”
How unfair that Sarah and Ben had to worry about protecting the family’s secret; a secret they could never use themselves. Feelings warred within Jordan. He wanted to thank Sarah for shouldering that burden. To tell her he was sorry they hadn’t been closer. He wanted to ask her about her prognosis, let her know he was pulling for her.
He wanted to walk out the door and keep walking until his Nikes wore through to his bare feet, somewhere near the Texas-Louisiana border. He pulled his finger from the burn hole, dislodging a vinyl fragment. He rolled the fragment between his thumb and fingers.
“I found this in a stack she’d planned to mail.” Sarah handed Jordan an envelope and excused herself to phone the funeral home.
The sealed envelope, addressed to Jordan in his mother’s neat architectural hand, writing common to all Cartographers–all capital letters at a slight angle, giving the illusion of motion–bore a Forever stamp.
Inside, he’d find a magazine or newspaper article with his mother’s editorial comments on a yellow Post-It. She’d have signed the note “Momcat,” a goofy nickname she adopted from a B. Kliban cartoon book. She started sending these when Jordan went to Stanford and never stopped after he graduated. At twenty-something, Jordan found these notes embarrassing; later he found them eccentrically cute. Now he’d never receive another. He wiped his eye with the back of his hand and ran his thumb under the flap.
You know how Daddy wouldn’t talk about the War? All he told me was the name of his town – Olomouc–in what’s now the Czech Republic. And that the Nazis rounded up his family during the War but he “made it out” of Theresienstadt. The rest of his family, including his twin sister, your Aunt Rebecca, died in Birkenau. Keep that in mind as you read this. Let me know what you think.
I love you better than stars or water,
Underneath the Post-It, on filmy paper cut from The New Republic, was a review of a children’s book about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist who taught secret drawing classes to the children of Theresienstadt as therapy.
According to the article, Dicker-Brandeis saved thousands of those drawings in two suitcases, hidden before they sent her to Birkenau. A decade after the war ended, the suitcases turned up; the art was displayed in the Jewish Museum in Prague and in Yad Vashem. Several sketches and paintings had been reproduced within the article: strange, haunting, beautiful depictions of people with bundles boarding trains, of humanoid fairies, of keyholes opening from a frightening, grey world of watchtowers, starvation and typhus onto a colorful paradise of fantastic creatures and children running free.
In the margin next to one drawing, Jordan’s mother had placed arrows and exclamation marks.
A professional-looking street map of Olomouc.
Jordan had never been to Olomouc, and he couldn’t read Czech. But he could make enough sense of the cognates to pick out a university, Wenceslas cathedral, the Olomouc Orthodox church. A ruined synagogue, notated with slanted, all capital printing –- Jordan understood only the word, “Kristallnacht.” He pulled up a Helion Engineering street map of Olomouc on his iPhone and laid it next to the picture. He found the medieval fortress walls around the city, the former site of an intricate astrological clock, the streets, unchanged since the 1940s.
An inset detailed the town center, including a winding street labeled Trida Svobody, itself the subject of another inset: a stately, white stone apartment building. The floor plan for a suite of rooms on the fourth floor, one labeled “Rivkah,” another marked “Shmuel.” A bed against the wall, a desk, an armoire.
Over the armoire, a single brick-colored smudge.
His father would have been only seven in 1942, but even an adult couldn’t have accomplished such cartographic sophistication without tools, unless the one drawing had the Cartographer Gene.
Jordan had no doubt. Samuel Sofer “made it out of Theresienstadt” through a map. Little Sam went home, and his map found its way into an art teacher’s suitcase.
What happened next? How long had he hidden in that armoire, in the vacant, high-ceilinged apartment the Nazis hadn’t yet commandeered? Did a brave neighbor hide him for the war’s duration? Did he seek help at the cathedral?
Seven-year-old Sam saved himself but not his twin, his family, or the other captive, doomed children. Jordan shuddered.
Something inside him split open, releasing a painful wave of understanding that pushed against years of anger and hurt.
His father had not been indifferent.
He had been afraid.
After the funeral, with Millie asleep in Sarah’s old room and Ben asleep in Jordan’s, Jordan and Sarah nibbled rugelach and sipped Australian Kosher wine, gifts from shiva callers, in their childhood living room. After the second glass of wine, Sarah’s old, acerbic self peeped through her veil of grief.
“I’ve always wondered why you became a professional cartographer,” she said. “Isn’t your day job being the same as your superpower too close for comfort?”
Jordan smiled, grateful for the familiar sarcasm. “What can I say? I love maps,” he said. “I’m lucky to make a living doing something I enjoy. Not as tony as your living, of course.”
Though she’d started the banter, Sarah cut him off.
“We’re orphans now,” she said.
Jordan thought she would cry, but she just leaned her head against his shoulder. His muscles tensed at her touch, but if she noticed, she didn’t show it. To distract himself, he took in the room. The Baldwin upright where they’d both practiced scales and arpeggios, Sarah more than Jordan. The now-antique RCA stereo in a cherry wood cabinet, speakers blown from the summer they discovered Led Zeppelin. The wine’s plush tannins dried his mouth; the alcohol warmed his chest. An aroma of warm brisket lingered in the house. He reached in his pocket for the article on Dicker-Brandeis and handed it to Sarah.
“Imagine saving only yourself,” Jordan said. “The guilt he must have felt. No wonder he wouldn’t let himself get close to us. Just Mom. She had that uncanny ability to break down any barriers any of us put up.”
Sarah finished reading and folded the paper. “I didn’t say anything because I’m not done. But before I got sick, my skunk works research project took an interesting turn. I didn’t isolate the elusive ‘Gene,’ but I found a similarity in the blood samples I took from Mom, you and Millie.
“You’re all AB negative, the rarest blood type —- have you read the crap on the internet? That it comes from aliens. From reptiles. That people who have it have ESP. Ridiculous, but what I found isn’t. You all lack a clotting factor. You should be hemophiliac, but you’re not. You all have abnormal protein levels, but you don’t have myeloma. Your blood is special, Jordan.”
Now it made sense–why his mother always took him to Cartographer doctors as a child. She made him promise to do the same as an adult, so his blood’s abnormalities would remain secret. “Is this a side effect, like our writing escaping the page?” Jordan asked.
He remembered the day, in happier times, when Carole sat the twin toddlers at the kitchen table and gave them each a sheet of manila art paper. Ben wielded a midnight blue Crayola, Millie a sea green one.
Carole lifted Ben’s scribbled-on paper and tilted it. The crayon marks stayed put. When she tilted Millie’s, the marks fell from the page, forming a scraggly, sea green bird’s nest on Millie’s Elmo place mat. That’s when they knew Millie had the Gene. Cartographers’ writing and drawing required several minutes to set. Carole, so proud, had said, “It’s Millie!” and held Jordan close. A memory so vivid, he could almost feel Carole’s warmth against him.
“I think it’s the opposite,” Sarah said. “The drawing compulsion, the prodigious mapmaking talent–those are side effects. The power’s in the blood. It would explain the rumored hidden ability to transport others. What if Cartographers’ blood could be used to transport non-Cartographers?“
Sarah’s words punctured Jordan’s memory, leaving a raw hole of guilt. She’d spent precious hours of her life chasing an explanation for the power he possessed yet she could never wield. And even a way to expand it. “No one’s ever done that.”
“But it’s part of the lore. All legends have a grain of truth. What if there’s always been a way, but it got lost. Like how to pronounce YHWH?”
Exhaustion knocked Jordan back. He was too drained to think how different things might have been if Sam had been able to rescue others as well as himself.
Sarah hugged him goodnight. She felt small against him, not much bigger than Millie.
Lying on the guest room’s ancient fold-out couch, Jordan made a promise to himself. The familial cycle of emotional distance would stop with him. He would open his heart to those he loved, no matter how much it hurt.
He closed his eyes. Carole slept with him on this thin, striped mattress years ago. He could detect nothing of the clean, lemon and lily fragrance she always wore in the aged kapok’s mustiness. The mattress’s buttons, hard against his back, dug into his skin. He wept, without sound, until he fell asleep.
The day after the Sofers returned from Houston, on a sunny, clear-skied afternoon, Jordan left work early to help Millie and Ben with an extra credit project. He’d agreed to coach their moot court teams for an upcoming competition. They met in the school auditorium to practice: Millie and her moot court partner, Hannah, and Ben and his partner, Enrique. Their case, based on New Jersey v. T.L.O, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, concerned the constitutionality of searching public school students.
Millie took the podium, flustered. Jordan had walked in to find her holding hands with Hannah. Millie snatched her hand away, a punch to Jordan’s gut. He hadn’t expected years of emotional distance to disappear overnight, but he had hoped for at least a modicum of progress.
At that moment, the circuitous fuse bent around one last curve, the fire hissing down the home stretch, picking up speed: Mr. Kramer’s voice came over the PA system.
“We are in lockdown. This is not a drill.”
In the background, someone screamed, “Tyler, please, no! Oh God!” Four sharp, rhythmic blasts followed. The PA microphone whined with feedback. Tyler spoke.
“You heard the man. This is not a drill, Millicent and Benjamin Sofer. I’m coming for you.”
But the drills had taught them well. Each of the four kids ran to one of the auditorium doors and shut it. Enrique doused the lights. “Do these lock?” he whispered, pointing to the steel door he’d shut. The other three fumbled with locked padlocks dangling from chains wrapped around the steel push bars. Ben said, “Not without keys.”
“Is there a door we can lock?” Jordan asked.
“I did a play with the drama group,” Hannah said. “The dressing room doors lock. They’re backstage.”
“Bring your stuff,” Jordan said. “It can’t look like we were here.”
They ran up the stage’s wooden stairs and behind the red velvet curtains. Right before the backstage exit, Hannah pushed open a grey steel door and flicked a light switch.
The long, narrow room was painted an institutional sherbet green. Globe lights surrounded several large wall mirrors that hung over an off-white Formica countertop. Three vanity chairs were pushed under the counter, each with gilt-painted wooden arm rests and greasepaint-stained, dark pink velvet seat cushions.
Costumes hung from a metal clothing rack in the room’s back. A red and white dotted Swiss hoop skirt with matching parasol. Two black and white gowns from My Fair Lady’s Ascot race scene. Several long, black coats and black hats with plastic wine bottles Velcroed to their crowns from last year’s Fiddler on the Roof production. Assorted tights, vests and pantaloons. A small shelf held dried sponges stained with pancake makeup in various skin tones. Crumbling cakes of eye shadow in blues, browns and pinks. Dried bottles of spirit gum. Some discarded safety pins.
Jordan pocketed one of the pins and gave another to Millie.
An ancient Clairol makeup mirror on the counter caught Jordan’s eye. He pressed the power button. The lights alongside the mirror flickered on, emitting a warm, amber glow. Enough to see by once their eyes adjusted, but too faint to show under the door. Jordan signaled, and Millie turned off the globe lights.
“Anyone have cell reception?” Jordan asked, thinking it unlikely given the windowless, concrete walls. They all shook their heads.
Jordan said, “Millie, you know what to do.”
“Not without you.” Her lower lip trembled.
“Open your pack.”
Millie took out her English notebook, ripped out a page, and unsheathed a black felt tip. “Dad, don’t make me leave by myself.” Even as she spoke, her fingers twitched. Jordan knew they wanted, more than anything, to draw.
“We’ll be right behind you. Aunt Sarah figured out how to transport non-Cartographers.” Jordan hoped he sounded convincing.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Enrique said.
“Millie, show them,” Jordan said. “It’s easier than explaining.”
“We’re not supposed to let anyone know.”
“Sweetie, please. It’s an emergency.”
Millie sketched the neighborhood, the Sofer’s street, an inset of their house’s floor plan. When she finished her room, she kissed her father and brother and held Hannah close. She pricked her finger, handed Ben the safety pin and touched the map.
“Holy crap,” Enrique said, eyes like hula hoops. “What just happened?”
Hannah waved her hand through the space where Millie had stood. “Whoa.”
Jordan tore another sheet from Millie’s notebook. The impulse overpowered him. He drew the family room’s leather sofas, the plasma screen television and X-Box, the fireplace.
“Dad,” Ben said. “Enrique’s never been to our house.”
Voices cried out, like distant crowd noise from AT&T Park after a homerun. Faint, staccato sounds, pok pok pok pok, followed. One of the kids, Jordan couldn’t tell who, choked on a sob.
“Ben’s right,” Jordan said. “Stupid of me. We need a place you’ve all been, where you feel safe.” He forced himself to stop drawing and turned the page over. His hand flexed and cramped as he fought the compulsion.
“Foster Park?” Ben asked.
“Works for me,” Enrique said.
“Not me,” Hannah whispered. “When I was seven, a man I didn’t know came up to me at the swings.” She buried her face in her hands.
Jordan patted Hannah’s arm. “It’s all good. We’ll pick someplace else.” More screams welled like a ghostly wind, closer this time. “Iolanthe Circle?”
They nodded. Iolanthe Circle: a favorite meditation and contemplation spot, on a hilltop not far from the school grounds. Because of budget cuts, it was closed on Tuesdays, but they’d bypass the visitor’s center and their landing place would be deserted. Jordan let the urge take over, his hand a blur like a video on fast forward. He placed the completed map across his knees to set.
“What are we waiting for?” Enrique said. “Let’s get out of here.” He grabbed the paper.
Jordan’s map, all of it –- Crestview Drive winding up the hill above the school; its circular terminus at the hilltop, parking spaces striped bold and white along the sides; the pebble path into the redwood grove; Iolanthe Circle itself, outlined in smooth grey standing stones two feet high; the wooden meditation benches and Zen labyrinth inside the circle–slid from the page. It sprinkled the floor and settled into a pile, black and fine, like iron filings.
They stared at the heap of dried ink, wordless. Enrique held out the blank page to Jordan. It rattled in his shaking hand. “I didn’t know.”
Jordan closed his own hands over Enrique’s and held them there until Enrique’s were still. “It’s okay,” Jordan said. “How could you have known?”
In the makeup mirror’s dusky light, shadows clung to their faces. Enrique, now immobile, his breath choppy, shallow and too fast. Hannah, wet trails glistening on her cheeks, tearing a black-painted fingernail with her teeth. Ben, his only son, leg jiggling a rapid vibration on the pink-cushioned seat. All on the brink of panic. He could lose them any second, and once he did, he’d never get them back. And none of them would stand a chance.
“Let’s try that again,” he said.
They circled him like the standing stones at Iolanthe. Without anyone suggesting it aloud, they held hands. As Jordan began again, a high, thin siren wail, then two, then three, their rise and fall tumbling over one another in an elaborate braid of sound, carried into the dressing room. “They’re coming,” Hannah said. “Help is coming.” No one said more.
Jordan drew with fast sure strokes, as though some occult energy possessed his hand. The circle took shape on the page again. “The power’s in the blood,” Sarah’d said. Let her be right. Please God, let her be right. He caught a glimpse of Ben’s face silhouetted in the murky light, vacant with terror. He wouldn’t leave the others behind, like his father had. They would face whatever happened, together.
Screams pierced the air, so near Ben said, “That was Ms. Yamamoto. That was her.” The music classroom across the hall? “Cover your ears,” Jordan hissed, and the kids complied, clamping their hands hard to their heads against the coming din. Four seconds of metallic cracks. Then silence, so much worse than sound.
They shivered now, their faces tear-stained and sticky, their open mouths stringy with mucous. The close, sour air smelled of decaying taffeta and velvet and the cloying, powdery perfume of stale makeup. Jordan’s mouth went dry.
He opened the safety pin, pricked his finger tip and squeezed out a round bulb of blood. He resisted calling to Ben. He wanted Ben safe, but what if something went wrong? He could experiment with someone else’s child or his own. A choice awful to contemplate, but Jordan made it, even so.
“Enrique, right hand,” he said. Jordan smeared Enrique’s fingertip with blood and positioned it over the Zen maze. “Close your eyes, picture the maze, and think ‘here.'” Enrique nodded, closed his eyes and touched his finger to the map.
With Jordan, with Millie and Carole, with all the Cartographers he knew, transport happened the instant blood touched the map. Yet Enrique still stood in front of them, eyes closed.
The heavy steel door to the auditorium clanged shut and Enrique’s eyes popped open. “Keep them closed,” Jordan said. “No matter what. Concentrate.”
“I’m trying,” Enrique said. “It’s a little hard to focus.”
Tyler’s shouts pinged off the auditorium’s wood paneled walls. “Where oh where are you, my little Sofer mongrels?”
“Try again,” Jordan said. “Now.” He squeezed another drop of blood onto Enrique’s finger.
For a while, nothing happened. Then the outline of Enrique’s body blurred, like water colors seeping past inked borders. His image faded, became transparent and lost definition, a colored mist hanging in the air.
“What’s this? A backpack? Which whiny snowflake’s is it?” Tyler again. “Yes, Denton. Let’s open it and see.”
“Dad,” Ben whispered. “It’s mine. You said bring our stuff, but I–I didn’t.”
Jordan held his palm up to silence Ben. Down the I-told-you-so path lay more precious minutes they couldn’t afford to lose.
The mist that had been Enrique lingered in the air a moment longer, then dissipated all at once, as though sucked away into a vacuum.
“Hannah, finger,” Jordan said.
In less than a minute, a Hannah-shaped vapor shimmered in front of the costumes on the clothing rack, until an invisible force drew it away.
“Ben,” Jordan said. “It’s time.”
“Denton, look.” Boots clomped on the wooden stairs. Tyler had reached the stage. If they were lucky, he would try the stage right dressing room first. “Ben Sofer’s Algebra II notebook. Your handwriting’s so messy, Ben Sofer. You should be ashamed. It’s your fault these people will die. How I’ll enjoy killing your justice warrior sister.”
Jordan squeezed his finger. The pinprick had already closed. He felt around for the safety pin, putting his hands on nothing, the seconds ticking like a bomb in his brain. He became conscious of Ben’s elbow nudging him, the second pin opened like a V between Ben’s fingers. He jabbed his finger with the pin and laid a thick layer of blood on Ben’s finger.
The knob to the dressing room door jiggled. “Hiding? So unoriginal, Ben Sofer. You disappoint me. Isn’t he a disappointment, Denton?”
Jordan took Ben’s head in both hands and kissed his forehead. “I love you. Go now. I’m right behind you.”
Ben touched the map, just as the shooting started.
Then it stopped, a hole blown in the door where the knob had been. Tyler swung the door open.
He wore combat boots, fatigues slung with cartridge belts and a small black backpack. He carried two handguns in holsters: one at the shoulder, the other at the hip. He held, what Jordan supposed, having seen them only in the movies, was a semi-automatic rifle. That rifle now pointed toward Jordan, who raised his hands, but kept squeezing his fingertip between two adjacent fingers to keep the blood flowing.
Tyler, puzzled, gestured with its muzzle toward Ben’s dissolving mist. “What’s that? Who’re you? Where’s Ben?”
The vapor’s residue sucked away. An electric bullhorn crackled on and a reedy voice projected into the auditorium. “Tyler Nickelton. This is the FBI. We know you can hear us, Tyler. No one else needs to get hurt.”
“You just missed him,” Jordan said.
“I recognize your voice,” Tyler said. “From the phone messages to my house. My parents made me listen, over and over.”
A female voice, quavering and strained, came over the bull horn. “Tyler, sweetheart, it’s Mama.”
Tyler kept the rifle trained on Jordan. “Just like you blue-state vermin to bring an innocent woman into a thing like this.”
A drop of Jordan’s blood trickled from his raised hand onto the green tile floor. Tyler’s head whipped toward the motion. In that tenth of a second, Jordan reached toward the map.
Gunfire deafened Jordan. Something slammed into his shoulder and knocked him to the ground.
He was on his back. Enrique, Hannah and Ben peered down at him. The late afternoon sun shone through the redwoods above their heads. Jordan squinted against its brightness.
“You’re bleeding,” Ben said.
“I’ll call 911,” Hannah said.
“No!” Ben and Jordan said. Ben fished in Jordan’s pocket for his phone, pressed the emergency contact number, and asked the answering service to page their family physician, Dr. Kim. Enrique stripped off his T-shirt and wrapped Jordan’s wound.
Jordan smelled the sweet, earthy metallic scent of his own blood. He felt no pain yet, only numbness. His ears rang. “It worked,” he said.
Ben smiled. “I’m calling Millie.”
A short while later, Millie ran into Iolanthe Circle. She held Jordan’s hand until Dr. Kim arrived with the ambulance.
They had it all planned. When the police and news reporters asked, they told the truth. They just left some things out.
Jordan didn’t have to ask Enrique and Hannah to keep the Cartographers’ secret. They worked out for themselves why those with the power concealed their abilities. Why most people wouldn’t believe, and if anyone did, why that would be dangerous for Jordan, Millie, and others like them. They told Jordan they owed him their lives. The least they could do was to avoid endangering his.
“We hid in a dressing room, but we left before Tyler got to us and headed for Iolanthe Circle,” Hannah said.
“I guess no one saw us leave because they were all focused on staying alive themselves,” Enrique said. “Who’d be looking out a window during lock down? That’s the first thing they tell you not to do.”
“I didn’t see my Dad get shot,” Ben said. “He told me to go and he’d be right behind me.”
“I didn’t see a blood trail from my Dad’s wound,” Millie said. “But I read somewhere gunshot wounds don’t necessarily bleed right away.”
“It happened so fast,” Jordan said. “My shoulder was shattered. I was in shock. I can’t tell you how we got out. I’m just glad we did.”
They saw the rest on the news.
Tyler didn’t wait for SWAT to take him down. He had a pipe bomb in that black backpack. He detonated it there in the dressing room, among the black felt hats adorned with feathers, the green and gold brocade gowns, the worn calfskin character shoes, and the pointed, velveteen slippers, toes curled like the tongues of yawning cats. The dressing room burned before the Fire Department arrived, longer than necessary to reduce two blood-streaked maps to ash.
In Tyler’s room, investigators found hundreds of digital photographs of Millie; the early ones evoking a sense of shameful attraction, the later ones edited to depict violent fantasies. They found reams of what the news called Tyler’s manifesto, and videos of him arguing with Denton, who’d commanded violence against the school and blamed Millie and Ben.
Tyler’s English teacher told reporters his writings demonstrated a rare talent. A psychiatric expert said they, along with the photos and videos, revealed Tyler as psychotic; obsessed with Millie yet full of self-loathing because she wasn’t white, unable to accept her rejection, and plagued by auditory hallucinations.
The weapons came from an underground dealer Tyler found on the internet, in exchange for information about neighborhood homes whose owners were on vacation and vulnerable to burglary.
“You were right,” Jordan said.
Sarah, still in her lab coat, smiled from his workstation display, in front of a dining table covered with books, papers and dirty dishes. Two untidy tween girls squealed, ran through the room shouting, “Hi, Uncle Jordan,” and disappeared, giggling, into the back of the house.
“I wish Dad had known,” she said. “And I wish something in that blood could heal me.”
“Me too,” Jordan said.
Sarah removed her wig and scratched her bald head. “Chemo’s over in two weeks. My oncologist says I’m responding well. She thinks my chances are good.”
“You’ve looked better, brother.”
A blue canvas sling and swathe immobilized Jordan’s reconstructed shoulder. His second surgery, to install a metal pin, had gone well, but a third loomed on the horizon.
“They’ll love me at airports now,” he said. He hesitated. Then he took the leap. “Sarah, thank you.”
She winked twice, the greeting they’d invented in kindergarten. The last time they’d been truly close.
Jordan winked twice back and signed off.
Then he booked plane tickets to Boston for the weekend after Sarah’s chemo ended, for himself, Ben and Millie.
Eighteen people died in the shooting at San Carlos High. Mr. Kramer was one of them, as was Ms. Yamamoto, Ben’s favorite teacher. Many young people the twins had known since pre-school perished that day. The Sofers mourned with the community and, with them, took the first slow steps toward healing.
The day of terror ended for most residents with the pipe bomb blast. A definitive finish to the course set in motion that wet, dreary Tuesday.
For Jordan Sofer, that day signified a beginning–an unreserved commitment to the vow he’d made in Houston, to be there, fully, for the people he loved for as long as they were on this Earth with him.
Several weeks later, while Ben was at baseball practice, Jordan and Millie sat together on a wooden bench in Iolanthe Circle.
“I know you know I’m a lesbian, though we never really discussed it.”
“In case you’re worried about grandchildren, I want you to know I’m planning to have kids when I grow up.”
“Kids are cool. Besides, I want to pass on the Cartographer Gene. It’s too awesome not to.”
The wind whistled through the redwoods. Jordan squeezed Millie’s shoulder. “That’s great, if that’s what you want.”
“I just worry that when the time comes, I won’t be able to find a Cartographer sperm donor. I see myself finding a wife.”
The breeze ruffled Jordan’s hair. He remembered a quiet black woman who came to sit next to him in a class at Stanford. Despite her shyness, she’d made a beeline for him. When no one was looking, she tilted the paper on which she’d been taking notes in neat, architectural printing. The words dropped into her hand. She poured the pile of spiky black ink into his palm. It crumbled into dust, softer than confectioner’s sugar. “I’m Carole,” she said.
“These things have a way of working out,” Jordan said.
Jordan took his daughter’s hand. He felt not even the slightest urge to draw as they went down the hill, on foot, toward the comfort and safety of home.
The Houses They Became
By Tamoha Sengupta
The house, which had once been Tina’s mother, did not stir even once as she passed. Earlier, a window used to open, or the door creaked, whenever Tina would be in sight—a confirmation that her mother recognized who she was.
Ma was wholly a house now—a house filled with the personality of those who lived there.
Tina never knew what triggered the change. Maybe it was age, or maybe it was being thwarted in love a second time, or maybe it was something else.
Maybe it was the talks of the war and the fear that her son would be called to fight.
Within a week, she became a stone house that had found a safe place on an empty patch of ground in the marketplace. The owner of the land had allowed the house there, in return for his condition.
“We get the house for free.”
Tina knew that she, and her twin brother, Thomas, would become houses too one day, that one day she would wake up and feel the heaviness in her body, the desire to remain still, rooted to the ground. At least, that was what Ma had told them.
“Long ago, it was your Grandma who had first turned into a house. But the house she turned into grew wings, or so they say.”
“Where did she fly?”
“It’s just a saying, Tina. Houses don’t fly. There are many types of houses you can become, depending on who you are. But have you heard of flying houses?”
Tina shook her head. “Maybe it was only Grandma.”
Ma shook her head. “Houses don’t move, dear.”
“Will you take me to the house Papa has become?” she had asked her mother then.
Ma’s hands had tightened a little more around her. “Papa didn’t become a house. He—left.”
“Because when I got pregnant with you and your brother, I told your Papa that I could transform, because the transformation’s always brought about by some major changes in life. He couldn’t face it. Coward.”
“Do you think he would have stayed if we were normal, Thomas?” Tina asked her brother later, the day after Ma had changed.
Thomas smiled and put an arm around her. “We are normal, Tina.”
“Normal people don’t change into houses.”
“They all change into something. It’s not always visible.” Thomas said.
Tina smiled and hugged her brother. Thomas always knew the right thing to say. Ma hadn’t been able to afford school for the two of them, but Thomas had taught himself to read and write from the newspapers he found in dustbins. He’d taught Tina too, and nowadays, whenever they were free, they would read to each other the various events of the day.
“One day I’ll open a library, or a school. Or maybe I’ll become one.” Thomas said, laughter in his eyes. Tina smiled along with him, but in her heart she felt something heavy.
Tina still ran the flower shop her mother used to run. But really, with war approaching, she didn’t see how people would still buy flowers. They’d have to find other ways. Schools were being shut down, turned into shelters for soldiers, and Tina wondered whether she and Thomas could go to people’s houses and teach their children in exchange for a little food. Surely there would still be people who wanted their children to learn things other than gunshots and bombs and yells.
One evening, she returned home and saw Thomas waiting for her with a letter in his hands.
He met her eyes as he spoke.
“They’ve called me to the front. I have to go. Tomorrow.”
Silence followed his words as Tina stared back at him, unable to speak, unable to move.
Thomas was still speaking. “I have to report at the station in the next town, because our town doesn’t have one. And then—”
The next morning, before night had fully vanished, he was gone, a backpack on his shoulder, the imprint of his body still on the bed.
Tina didn’t even say goodbye before he left. She wasn’t able to.
Her brother was gone, along with countless others, to save the country. Who had gone to save them?
That afternoon, when she finally had the courage to get up from bed and face the day, she felt her hands being weighed down by something. She looked down. Her hands were larger than she remembered them being, and their color was not that of skin anymore, but wood.
Her heart sank. Her transformation had begun.
She didn’t have a plot of land she could belong to. Neither did she have any intention of sitting in one place, waiting to fade out in the shadows of the people who would come to live there.
She needed to be there. For Thomas. What if the transformation had started for him too? What if his hands felt heavy and his feet dragged? What if they thought he was useless and killed him? What if he never got a chance to fight, to defend himself, to defend someone he had become close to?
Thomas had always protected her. He was six minutes younger than her, but he had been her savior, the one who got bloody knuckles by fighting off bullies, the one who sat with her and played with dolls when she had no friends, just to see her smile. The one who had gently stood by her when Ma had gone.
It took an eternity for Tina to rub away the tears from her eyes. Her wooden hands left scratches on her cheeks. But it didn’t take long for her to decide.
She was going to meet her brother. She was going to save him.
But her feet dragged. She had become taller now, and she could see past the tops of some trees. In the distance she could see the world, blackened with smoke, meeting the gray sky.
Going through the forest beside her town would be the fastest way to reach the railway tracks. Passing the forests was agony. So much soil for her to sink into, to just remain rooted.
I’m going to be my own sort of house, she told herself as she walked, the soil cool beneath her feet. Her body creaked as she walked, never stopping, though her body became heavier by the second.
Night fell, but still she trudged on. She spoke to herself, in her mind, to remind herself who she was. My own sort of house. My own sort of house.
The wood in her body groaned with fatigue. By the time she reached the end of the forest, another day was dawning, and her eyes had disappeared. But she could still feel the surroundings.
She could follow the railway tracks to wherever her brother had gone. She was changing fast, but she could still feel herself. She was still Tina, her heart nestled in the foundations of the house. Her mind remembered Grandma and her wings. How Grandma had traveled the world in those stories, how she’d housed those who had needed it.
Tina didn’t have wings. But she hoped she would. She was a moving house, and maybe she could house those who needed her, like Grandma had, if only in stories. She’d hold the sick and the wounded close to her, and protect her brother.
The house moved forward, one step at a time, a smile opening the door wide.
The Quantum Watchmaker
By David Cleden
In the summer heat, the clocks ran slow and the very substance of time seemed to drag. All watchmakers knew this, but only the very best–of which M. Guilbert was perhaps the greatest–were clever enough to engineer compensatory mechanisms into their creations. His accuracy was legendary. It was as though time itself was forced to do this watchmaker’s bidding. Some said I was privileged to witness a master at his work, but what did they know of the burdens he forced me to carry?
I served my apprenticeship in unprepossessing circumstances. A kind of perpetual gloom existed inside the watchmaker’s shop, the kind that eventually seeped deep into one’s soul. M. Guilbert worked in a windowless back room, a black velvet curtain always drawn across the doorway. Misshapen stubs of candles erupted like toadstools from every available surface so that he might see to do his work. The air was thick with the smell of burnt tallow.
He would not talk to me of his strange mechanisms, and certainly he taught me nothing of their design. How was an apprentice to learn from a master such as this? I glimpsed intricate components of brass and silver but these bizarre mechanisms grew larger than any mere watch or clock, like rampant weeds sprouting where a delicate flower had once been. And I saw other things too, materials which no ordinary watchmaker had need of.
How could I not help but feel disconsolate? My days were long, fumbling with tiny cogs and fragile movements, clumsily assembling the workmanlike pieces that kept us fed, until my fingers were sore and my eyes ached from the strain. The bustle of the town square glimpsed through the shop’s mullioned windows was as remote as a foreign land. Long days passed with no customers to break the silence or disturb the dust settling thickly on our bare wooden floors. It seemed I had become no more than a ghost trapped in this place, yearning for escape.
In time I learned that none was to be found.
One day, the little bell above the door gave a harsh, muted jangle, protesting its long period of inactivity. The open door threw a sudden, startling beam of sunlight across the plain wooden boards. A bubble of summer warmth wafted in, stirring the dust into swirls.
I straightened from behind the counter, blinking as I removed the jeweler’s eyepiece and set down my tools. The silhouetted stranger advanced. I saw expensive clothes, glimpsed beyond the door a fine carriage, and heard the impatient snort of a waiting mare. The man took a long moment to peruse the timepieces arrayed on the shelves. I tried to follow his gaze, to see where it lingered and gauge his interest. Those would be the pieces M. Guilbert would do well to haggle over. Times were hard and paying customers the rarest of creatures.
For an instant I imagined I saw the watchmaker’s shop through this stranger’s eyes: a gloomy interior, shabby furnishings, an air of genteel neglect. The little silver and gold timepieces: each exquisitely crafted, yet carelessly scattered across every conceivable surface, many lying forgotten on high shelves where they gathered dust–of which there was no shortage. And what of us? The master and his apprentice: equally gloomy, shabby inhabitants of this place.
“Why do none of these mechanisms work?” the stranger inquired, completing his inventory.
“Oh but they do,” I assured him, hurrying out from behind the counter. I glanced towards the inner sanctum of my master’s workshop, willing him to appear and relieve me of the burden of dealing with this self-important stranger. M. Guilbert never closed the door but the thick black curtain was always drawn when he was inside.
“In every other watchmaker’s premises I have ever attended,” the gentleman said, “my ears have been assaulted by the ticking, whirring and chiming of a hundred timepieces. But not so here. Do your mechanisms keep time insufficiently well that you dare not set them running?”
“On the contrary,” I said, with one last futile glance at the drawn curtain. “M. Guilbert makes devices of only the greatest precision. But my master believes it is… disrespectful… to wind a timepiece that does not yet have a purpose. Would you not agree?”
“Indeed. Perhaps.” The gentleman seemed entirely unpersuaded.
“Allow me to show you the truth of it for yourself.”
The stranger fingered the fob watch I proffered with no more than mild curiosity. “I am not the prospective buyer. But M. Guilbert’s reputation has reached the ears of my master.”
“Your master?” It seemed unlikely someone dressed in such finery would serve any master.
“The Comte Bachellaix desires to purchase a timepiece. He has heard that M. Guilbert’s skills are second to none.”
“Indeed!” I said, thinking of the sheaf of unpaid bills stuffed into the ledger book.
“A timepiece suitably decorous for a lady, is what the Comte desires. You have such things?” he asked, looking doubtfully at the shelves.
“But of course! M. Guilbert will be greatly honored to equip the Comtess with the finest, most delicate watch ever assembled.”
The man smiled thinly. “Yes. For the purposes of expedience, let us assume this will indeed be a gift for the Comtess.” He paused and in the silence the town hall clock in the square could be clearly heard striking eleven. The gentleman glanced around the silent interior of the shop, frowning. No echoing chimes came from the dozen or so carriage clocks, not a single one. Hurriedly I said, “M. Guilbert will ensure there is a fine selection for the Comte’s perusal. I shall wind them personally.”
The gentleman grunted. He wafted a gloved hand ineffectually at the dust hanging in the air. “See that you are prepared for the Comte’s arrival. He will come at noon tomorrow.”
He left and gloomy silence fell over the shop again. I hesitated by the curtain, knowing better than to draw it back uninvited. As though reading my thoughts, M. Guilbert snatched it aside and pushed past me.
“Damn you, Boy. Why did you not send him away?”
“The Comte is an important man. And we have bills to pay.”
“Bills. Pah.” He rummaged in a drawer beneath the counter, returned brandishing a thin jeweler’s blade which he waved in my face as though I had purposefully hidden it from him. “Why does everyone insist on disturbing my work?”
“Perhaps if you would let me assist you?” I asked without much hope. What use was an apprentice whose master would not put him to good use? Who would not teach all that he knew? Lately I had begun to dream about M. Guilbert’s mechanism that he worked on so furtively. Its little brass parts–the myriad wheels and ratchets and pinions–gleamed with a light brighter than any mere reflection and when the mechanism moved, it purred rather than ticked, like some slumbering creature. Lying in my bedchamber tucked under the shop’s eaves, I would stare into the darkness and feel the irresistible pull of the device, stronger even than the gravity drawing me to my bed. I burned to learn more about it.
“I think not,” M. Guilbert said with a final withering stare. He thrust the curtain back into place behind him.
“These people you so despise are called customers,” I called. There was no answer. The mechanism on the bench was already devouring all his attention.
I sighed. The Comte’s visit could be the making of our fortunes, if we played our cards right. But it had occurred to me that it could be our undoing, too.
The Comte was not a tall man. Even bewigged, the top of his head did not reach to my shoulders. Were it not for the ornate embroidery of his cloak, the jewels on his pudgy fingers and the swagger with which he entered our shop, I might have mistaken him for an over-pompous page.
M. Guilbert stood scowling as I stepped round the counter and paid the Comte the courtesy of a low, formal bow.
Into the awkward silence that followed, the Comte’s aide, the gentleman who had visited the previous day, made a small irritated gesture at me and I hurried to produce the little red velvet pouch. From within I carefully withdrew a silver disk no larger than a sovereign. It caught the weak rays of light slanting through the freshly scrubbed windows and glinted in my proffered palm.
The aide stepped forward, his face flushed. “What is this? You dare offer the Comte a silver coin as though he has need of money? Why, that is–”
“Allow me to enlighten,” said M. Guilbert, stepping between us. With surprisingly dextrous fingers, he flipped open the upper surface of the disk and we all leaned forwards to get a better look at the miniature dial and delicate clockwork glimpsed within. “Those who cannot recognize a mechanism for what it is can scarce have the wit to make use of it.” I saw the aide grow red with anger. “But,” M. Guilbert continued, “I am sure the Comte has no such difficulties.”
I held my breath. The Comte fumbled for a moment, then found the tiny beveled winder and gave it a twist.
“Ah!” The Comte raised the watch, the better to hear the smooth purr of its motion now that he had set it going. “That is indeed most pleasing. So small! It scarcely seems possible such a thing could have been wrought by human hands.”
M. Guilbert accepted the compliments with a small nod. Perhaps he had forgotten how much of the craftsmanship in that particular device had been my own–skills that ought to have earned me a journeyman accreditation from the Guild had M. Guilbert remembered to put my name forward, which he had not.
“And does it keep time?” the aide asked, a touch sharply as he tried to recover his poise.
“As well as any sailor’s chronometer. Better, even,” M. Guilbert assured him.
“Yet so tiny…” the Comte mused.
They perused a dozen or more timepieces, each having been opened and wound by me an hour before the Comte’s arrival, but always his attention returned to the tiny watch fashioned like a silver sovereign. Every time the Comte’s gaze settled on it, I thought of those unpaid bills and how good it would be to free ourselves from debt, and my heart skipped a beat.
Business was concluded with a nod from the Comte. Without a word to us, he left the shop, disappearing behind the lace-curtained windows of his waiting coach. Pointedly ignoring me, the aide led M. Guilbert to the rear of the shop where they held a whispered conversation. Then the aide slipped the red velvet pouch containing the watch into a pocket and coolly bade us good day.
I turned to my master. “How much did it fetch?”
“What a fool the Comte is! He does not recognize true value even when it is right beneath his nose. I had no compunction making him pay a fine price for his ignorance.”
I smiled. “What did it fetch?”
“A fine price!” M. Guilbert’s eyes sparkled. It was rare to see him so animated unless admiring a particularly smooth rotator arm or fine-toothed escapement. “The Comte has come into possession of the library of one of the keenest thinkers of our generation. Yet he does not value books of science and engineering and thought to offer them as a trade. I have heard of this scholar’s reputation and now it seems I shall own his priceless notebooks! If the Comte only knew what he had exchanged so lightly. They will be shipped from the palace forthwith.”
“Books? We have sold one of the finest watches ever crafted not for a king’s ransom–which, by the way is its true worth–but for a pile of old books?”
M. Guilbert’s smile hardened. “Not just books. Knowledge. Beyond price.”
“How will books settle our debts?”
But M. Guilbert twitched the black velvet curtain aside and disappeared behind it, and there was nothing more to be said.
“He will not teach me. I learn nothing that I have not taught myself through patience and observation and practice.”
“Poor Johannes. You are wasted in his service,” Adrienne said. As a grocer’s daughter she knew something of what it meant to be in service, yet her words made me ill at ease. She traced the lines of the model ship with her fingers, each sliver of wood so perfectly shaped and fitted to the next that the surface was as smooth as polished marble. “This is a thing of beauty,” she said, truthfully. Fine silk served as sails, cotton thread for the rigging. Beneath the varnished decks, unseen except by me, were cabins and galleys, furniture and stores, tiny hammocks pitched in rows, baking ovens–all fashioned from shards of wood and metal and paste, accurate to the last. It was not such an unusual boyhood dream: to yearn to sail the seas and taste freedom upon the waves, yet how strange that fate landed me in a place three days’ ride from the nearest shores.
“You have such clever hands,” Adrienne said. “Such patience.”
“I am apprentice to a watchmaker,” I told her, taking back the model galleon. “Dexterity and precision are my trade. I must find ways to keep them honed.”
“Surely M. Guilbert tasks you sufficiently?”
“M. Guilbert has no use for me!”
I had meant to keep my anger in check, but suddenly it was all there, boiling to the surface. “Day after day, he toils at his pet projects, his mechanisms that we can never sell. I am the one left to mend the clocks and watches brought to us, as best I can. I am the one who must try to balance the books! Me, the apprentice! Customers come because they hear word of the great M. Guilbert. But if ever they should discover the truth of the craftsmanship they claim to admire, that it is the work of a mere apprentice, what then?” I made an effort to unclench my fists. “M. Guilbert claims he has no time to teach. No time for anything but his obsessions–which he hides from me. What use is it to be apprenticed to a master who will not teach?”
Sweetly, Adrienne took my hand in hers and immediately the warmth of her touch calmed me. “Then you should leave. Find another master you can apprentice to.”
I half-turned, glancing back across the square as though the little shop might somehow be watching or listening. “I should,” I agreed. Yet I knew I could not.
The books arrived in a cart, a great stack of them. I wondered aloud where we would find room to store them. I placed the half-finished hull of a Portuguese man-o’-war on a stool out of harm’s way and opened one of the books at random. I saw only page after page of incomprehensible equations, meaningless hieroglyphs. “Why, these are not even printed books! Nothing more than jottings in a journal.”
M. Guilbert retrieved the book from my hands and set it with the others in a wobbling column on the counter. “They are windows onto the thoughts of a great mind,” he said.
“What is a quantum?” I asked, pointing at the spine of the top-most volume and refusing to be pacified. M. Guilbert harrumphed and I thought he meant to ignore my question. Then he said rather grudgingly, “It is the smallest quantity of some physical property. The least possible amount that can suffice.”
“And what use is that to a watchmaker?”
He shook his head. “You wear your ignorance as though it is a badge of honor, Johannes. You know very well the watchmaker’s skill concerns the measurement of the very small. We strive to divide and subdivide a second into ever smaller parts, the better to measure its passing.”
“Yes. But with copper and brass and frictionless bearings and ingenious designs. What use are these mathematical ravings to any of that?” I was remembering the hours of work I had put into the Comte’s watch. It hadn’t brought the silver it deserved, only these worthless bundles of paper.
M. Guilbert sighed. “You complain so bitterly of my neglect in tutoring you. Here then, is a lesson. Let us see what you are truly capable of understanding.” He seized some items from the counter. “See? A grandpater.” He held up a little brass wheel with its sixty four glittering teeth. “And here, the pater.” He waved a smaller wheel. “Combine them and see what happens?” I nodded impatiently, unwilling to be patronized in this way. “Through the watchmaker’s skill, the almost imperceptible unwinding of a spring becomes a measure of a passing second. I have read in these notebooks you so despise that time and position are coupled, and it would seem to be so. The stately movement of a gearwheel becomes inextricably linked to the passing of a second within our clockwork mechanisms. What then, is the smallest such movement we can amplify and measure? The most fleeting instant of time that we can trap? Is there some theoretical limit in our pursuit of–” He seemed about to say ‘perfection’ but stopped himself. “Accuracy. A tenth, a hundredth, a thousandth of a second? How far can we continue to gear and divide until somewhere the tiniest, almost imperceptible movement of a cog signifies an infinitesimally brief passage of time?”
“Perhaps there is no limit?” I ventured.
M. Guilbert was silent a long time. “Perhaps there is,” he said at last. “And if intimate knowledge of time dulls our perception of space? What then?”
“Is this how your mechanism functions?” I asked.
He stared at me, whether in exasperation or pity I was not entirely sure.
“No. Not like that at all. Have you heard nothing that I have said?”
I shrugged. “You have said nothing I didn’t already know. When did you ever teach me anything?”
If he was angered by my impertinence, he hid it well, turning back to the counter and beginning to tidy away tools. “I have taught you that knowledge is dangerous in the hands of the ignorant. That the things we learn become us, and the things we do change us. And those changes cannot always be undone.” He seemed to tire suddenly, his whole posture slumping into an old man’s stoop. He collapsed onto a nearby stool and there was a brief splintering sound. M. Guilbert half rose, brushed the seat clear, as if the shards of matchstick were just breadcrumbs left behind from some meal, and sat again.
“The most important lessons you will have to learn yourself,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
I crept in darkness needing no light to guide me, finding my way by touch and instinct alone. I knew every board that creaked, every mis-step that might betray my presence. The mechanism was the only beacon I needed.
I had waited patiently at M. Guilbert’s door, listening. He was a light sleeper but sometime in the darkest hours after midnight, I heard the pattern of his breathing change into something steadier, deeper. Yet even now I hesitated to pull back the velvet curtain.
The mechanism called to me. I had lain in my narrow bed, sleep a distant prospect, my thoughts filled only with tiny cogs and ratchets and shiny brass pins and coiled springs. I had to see it. More than that, I felt the need to comprehend its design, no matter how far beyond my grasp. The mechanism itself demanded to be understood.
Weak moonlight spilling through the shop window was enough to guide me. I drew back the curtain.
The scale of it took my breath away. Those furtive glimpses had revealed but a fraction of its size and none of its complexity. M. Guilbert had wasted no time on ornate cases; a simple iron frame held bracketed segments of the mechanism in place. A couple of brass plates had been unscrewed, revealing what lay within just as a surgeon’s scalpel might have laid bare internal organs on a mortuary slab.
The mechanism sprawled across two workbenches pushed together, layer upon layer of finely crafted clockwork and… other strange devices that I could not identify. So many different parts, each poised to spin in their tiny orbits: rocking, clicking, unwinding. The complexity of it overwhelmed me. How could I begin to understand more than a fraction of this grand design? This was no chronometer, no mere timepiece. This was… The truth was, I had no idea.
M. Guilbert had told me it was not yet finished but clearly there was a mechanism of considerable substance here, of purpose. Some parts I could recognize: flywheel accumulators with their springs slackened, manifold gearing mechanisms, bejewelled rotators. What an easy thing it would be to prime one of those helical springs, to watch the flywheels spin and hear the tick and whir of a mechanism I could not fathom. Dare I?
What harm could it do?
I reached out a hand and caressed the smooth brass surfaces. My fingertips felt the sharp bite of tiny-toothed pinions, and the slackness in the unwound springs–metal that felt warm and alive beneath my fingers. I had the strangest sense that the mechanism itself wished to be set in motion, to be set free.
–A small sound came from the room above. I froze. I heard footsteps on the stairs and slipped out of the workroom, pressing myself into the darkest corner beneath the counter. A moment later M. Guilbert passed only inches from me, a stub of candle throwing dancing shadows in his wake. I did not doubt M. Guilbert’s capacity for anger or that such flagrant disobedience might lose me my apprenticeship no matter how well I had served.
I heard the curtain twitch into place and the clink of tools being moved and silently released a pent-up breath. M. Guilbert often worked through until dawn on those nights when he could not sleep.
I waited until I could bear the silence no longer then crept back up the stairs to my own bed.
Sleep would not come. My mind was alive with images of the mechanism and with my own unanswered questions. The act of observing had changed me in some fundamental way. I felt as if the device had spoken to me and something deep within had answered.
The shop door crashed open. An unusual time for a customer, so late in the afternoon. I looked up to see Adrienne, hair disheveled and the most fearful look in her eyes. “The town is aflame!” she yelled. “Run for your lives!”
With the door flung wide, the acrid tang of smoke was unmistakable. I peered outside and saw bright red flames dancing along the rooftops not fifty yards down the street. I seized Adrienne’s arm as she turned away. “Where are you going?”
“I only came to warn you. My father needs me if we’re to save what stock we can before his shop burns to the ground.” Her expression was wretched. She pushed a strand of hair from across her face, leaving behind a sooty smear. Who else, I wondered, would have even bothered to warn us?
“Let me go back with you.”
“You’ll stay here, Johannes.” M. Guilbert had emerged from behind the curtain, face flushed, expression cold.
Adrienne pulled free and was already halfway out the door. “The fire’s seized hold of the town and isn’t about to let go,” she said. “Go now while you still can.”
I turned back to M. Guilbert, making a pleading gesture to let me follow.
“Close and shutter the door!” M. Guilbert ordered, the tone of command in his voice brooking no argument.
“Look for yourself! We must leave now or we will surely burn!” I glanced around. “Perhaps we can save some of the watches and clocks.”
“As if they mattered. Come with me.”
I followed him behind the curtain where the mechanism lay like some slumbering creature. M. Guilbert barked a series of orders and I fetched him tools and parts and held the candles closer when he needed more light, and all the while the air grew warmer and the tang of burning wood ever stronger. M. Guilbert ignored it, bending over his workbench, making tiny adjustments with a jeweller’s blade here, carefully winding a spring there, like a gardener tending to seedlings, nurturing growth where it was to be encouraged, pinching out where it was not.
While the fire raged close by, M. Guilbert worked on as if this were just another day–and I fetched and carried for him. Madness! The irony was not lost on me: here at last I was serving as apprentice to my master, perhaps in the last few minutes we had left together on this earth.
From outside came the sound of muted screams, the braying of terrified horses and the sound of running feet on the cobbles. When I peeked round the curtain, I saw little fiery flecks of ash falling like glowing snowflakes beyond the shop windows. How easily the town burned, I thought. How easy it was to destroy. How unjust when it took so long to build and construct. I fetched several buckets of water and doused the door and window frames, water puddling around me. It was something, but I doubted it would be enough to save us when the fire reached our little shop.
My master beckoned me back into his inner sanctum, bade me draw the curtain across and close the door that lay behind it.
“M. Guilbert! I beg you, we must leave!”
Instead of answering, M. Guilbert drew me closer. “See here? Where this gearing mechanism increments according to the bias of its companion until the pinion moves?” I bent closer and nodded. “And this compensator? See how this rod slides to adjust for irregularities? And here–a movement which compensates for any deviation in the compensator?” He talked on in this fashion, though much of it I barely heard, my mind swamped by fear. It grew hot in that little room; the air foul. Yet gradually, despite everything that was happening around us, I found myself transfixed by the intricacies of the mechanism’s design, the ingenuity of its execution–things that had been forbidden to me for so long. I thought I began to understand then. This was no clock, no crude device for telling the time. The passing of a second–or rather the passing of half that time, and half the remainder–and again and again, each tiny half-increment faithfully accumulated until somewhere deep within the mechanism a wheel turned the tiniest amount, registered the briefest instant imaginable–and in so doing, laid bare a little of the thread from which time’s fabric was stitched.
For what purpose had M. Guilbert designed this? I could not begin to imagine.
His voice had dropped so low it was scarcely more than a mutter. He was no longer talking to me I realized, only to himself. His words sounded like a confession.
And somewhere beyond, the town burned. Smoke wafted in the air between us, and the crack of beams in neighboring houses shattering in the heat sounded like cannon-fire–yet distant and intangible. I began to feel light-headed and it was so very, very hot. Yet M. Guilbert worked on. I knew the fire was upon us, surrounding us. I knew too that the old wooden rafters of the shop would condemn us; I had seen flames shooting skywards and consuming all in their path. But I couldn’t leave now. Was it M. Guilbert or the mechanism itself I could not bring myself to abandon?
The candles spluttered and shrank to tiny, indifferent flames as though in defeat. The smoke thickened until I could not make out details across the room. Every burning breath felt like it might be my last. Yet still M. Guilbert muttered about time and space, and talked of duality and uncertainty and the quantum nature of time–and I understood none of it, nor even cared. I thought it possible I might have died and that this was some kind of antechamber to hell: a place of heat and sulfurous fires where M. Guilbert would lecture me on things I could never understand for the rest of eternity.
Then I saw him wind the mechanism. –Just a little, a minuscule tightening of a spring here, a flick of a fingertip to set a wheel spinning there. Even above the fierce crackle of flames outside, I heard the sudden chattering, whirring sound as the mechanism stirred.
I must have reached for the door for M. Guilbert’s hand was suddenly upon mine. “The outcome is changed by the observer,” he said cryptically. “You must not look outside.”
The world grew hazy. Perhaps I fainted. Certainly I remember feeling the heat of the floorboards pressing against the side of my face and in a strange way feeling comforted by it. I saw a shaft of light beneath the door where the drafts blew in and the curtain did not fall straight. Where I lay, I could glimpse the world beyond through that narrow slit. M. Guilbert had bade me not to look but I could not help myself. I saw… Something. Perhaps I saw flames licking at the walls, or smoke rolling like ocean waves down the street, and yet I rather think I saw nothing at all.
I remember too, in the delirium of the moment, hearing sounds from outside that could not be–screeches like the cry of seagulls, the lap and draw of the tide on a beach, the snap of sails catching the breeze.
At some point I must have crawled into the little cot in the corner where M. Guilbert sometimes napped. I slept as I had never done before, waking briefly several times yet knowing I must still be dreaming. Once I thought I heard the hiss of snowflakes driven against the windows of the shop and shivered as tendrils of cold percolated beneath the door. Another time I heard a constant, high-pitched scratching sound, like the chorus of a million insects serenading me. I felt an oppressive heat settle across the room and heard the calls of unidentifiable creatures carried on moisture-laden air.
I drifted in and out of consciousness, and the world drifted with me.
Much later, when some of the townsfolk came searching, they expected to find only our charred bodies. When I stirred and sat up, face black with soot, one of the men screamed as though I were a ghoul rising from the grave. M. Guilbert sat quietly in the corner next to the stilled mechanism, now covered by its dust-sheet. The little watchmaker’s shop, scorched and singed by fire, had been the only dwelling in the street to survive virtually unscathed. In the following weeks as the town began to rebuild what had been lost, there were many who shook their heads and called it a miracle that the shop had not been taken by the flames.
But there were some who muttered different words under their breath.
The fire had exacted a terrible toll on the town but not so terrible that it broke the townsfolk’s spirit. The stalwart men and women had seen their town scarred by war and disease and times of great hardship. This was nothing that could not be put right with patient hard work and they began to rebuild even while embers still glowed in the streets ravaged by fire. I knew I should be helping the less fortunate but I felt uneasy leaving the shop unless absolutely necessary. Naturally I was curious to know who had perished. Sometimes I looked for familiar faces–or more tellingly their absence–through the little windows of the watchmaker’s shop but mostly I saw only strangers, as though the memories of people I once knew had already faded. Hadn’t there been a girl who had come to warn us? But try as I might I could not recall her name and in truth her fate no longer seemed important.
Then too, M. Guilbert kept me busy, and that was gratifying. Smoke and heat had damaged some timepieces and it fell to me to clean and repair those that were salvageable.
If I expected new bonds to have been forged between us, I soon realized my mistake. M. Guilbert would occasionally inspect a piece that I worked upon, offering words of advice, or guiding my hand as I beat or filed tiny slivers of brass into shape. But he would not speak of his own work, nor let me near the mechanism again. I caught him watching me covertly many times, the look on his face both suspicious and perplexed as though I had done something to vex him.
I wrote down all that I could recall M. Guilbert saying during his frantic work on the mechanism, but none of it made sense. I had heard him speak of certain principles that could never be known with utter certainty, that if we knew precisely where then we could never know when–as though to measure one with absolute precision inevitably meant relinquishing control over the other. But I could see no sense behind it all. Time and place were just… time and place. And now my frustration was worse than before. For a brief moment I had felt like the apprentice to a great master. Now I was nothing again: the apprentice whose master kept his secrets to himself.
And so I began to formulate my plan.
M. Guilbert no longer slept in his room. He worked late every night, eventually dozing next to the mechanism before rising at dawn to begin work again. Yet he seemed to have abandoned the mechanism for his books. I saw no tools out of place, no parts scattered across the work surface. The mechanism stayed hidden beneath its shroud. At noon I would prepare a simple lunch for my master and occasionally he would nap for an hour in the comfort of his proper bed before resuming his studies and reading long into the night. That hour afforded me my opportunity. If the master would not teach, then I would have to learn for myself.
For all its burgeoning complexity and strange function, the mechanism was still at heart a timepiece. I could see that much. I recognized movements, torsion balances, escapements, pinions–items familiar enough to any half-competent watchmaker. Fine-toothed gears meshed, gear trains transported movement across the device, tiny jewel-mounted oscillators sat ready to vibrate the moment their springs were wound. But for each element I recognized and understood, a dozen more were a mystery. I intuited that M. Guilbert had constructed layer upon layer of correctional elements, each resolving ever finer gradations of time until he measured and trapped the smallest possible interval, if such a thing could even exist. Was there even now somewhere in the heart of this device a subtle movement of a cog, a single tick of the great device that would signify such an instant?
I remembered M. Guilbert’s description of the thing he called ‘quantum.’ The least possible amount that can suffice. Suffice for what, I wondered?
And I wondered too, what would happen were the mechanism to be properly wound and set going.
One morning I rose to find the curtain to M. Guilbert’s workspace drawn back, unusual in itself. My master was bent over the mechanism and I felt my heartbeat quicken to see him working on it again. But I sensed a change.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He turned, and I saw the hollow eyes, the lines on his face. I had always thought of M. Guilbert as an old man, but never this old. “I have been a fool,” he told me. “I let myself become obsessed by the art of the possible and lost sight of the dangers. Some ideas are better left unexplored.” He reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “I am sorry too if I have neglected my duties as teacher, though I think you have learnt more than you realize. But to put you in such danger was unforgivable.”
“What danger? What are you talking about?”
He blinked, turning his attention back to the tiny screwdriver he was inserting deep into the workings. I swear I saw the glitter of tears in his eyes before he turned away. I had witnessed his many moods over the years: stubbornness, irascibility, child-like delight at some piece of cleverness in one of his designs–but never had I seen this kind of emotion laid so bare.
“Johannes, I will make it up to you. We will make a journeyman of you yet.”
“But what are you doing?” I persisted.
“I am dismantling the mechanism,” he said, without turning round.
I tried to distract him: irrelevant questions about commissions yet to be fulfilled, supplies to be ordered, even what meals I should prepare. He brushed all these aside. If anything, he worked with even greater application than before, teasing apart the mechanism, neatly stacking components back in their drawers and trays. Were it not for the mechanism’s sheer size and complexity, the task might have been completed quickly, but it was clear to me it would take days to carry out this slow dismembering.
While M. Guilbert napped, I spent every moment poring over the new sections that he had exposed, trying to see how the pieces fit together. In my head, I kept a plan as best I could, wondering if I would ever have the skill to somehow rebuild what was slowly being lost.
Then with no warning M. Guilbert fell ill, complaining of stomach pains and a headache. He struggled on until the discomfiture grew so strong he was forced to climb the stairs with heavy steps and retire to his bedchamber. I brought him hot broth at regular intervals, though he was able to keep little enough down. I cared for him as best I could and made him comfortable.
Here, at last, was my chance.
Several days passed and M. Guilbert grew a little worse, not better. I began to worry that the tincture I had carefully measured and stirred into M. Guilbert’s meals–paints and dyes I used on my model ships–had been more strongly acting than I realized. He slept for all but a few hours of the day, and his skin grew pallid and grey. I supposed I should send for a doctor, but I was afraid the cause of his sickness might be discovered. I did not mean for M. Guilbert to die, and yet…
And yet it afforded me the time and space to work on the mechanism unfettered. I kept the shop door barred and shuttered. I worked from first light until late into the night when my eyes became too gritty and unfocused to allow me to continue my work. It was clear I did not have M. Guilbert’s finesse nor his understanding. Despite my careful observations, not all the pieces seemed to fit as I would wish, so I fashioned new ones, adapting the design to one of my own. It took me days to repair the damage done but I thought I understood enough. And who was there to stop me?
M. Guilbert clung to life, barely. His breathing was so shallow as to be imperceptible. Sometimes I stood by his bed, convinced he had slipped away, only to see a twitch of muscle or hear a murmur escape his lips. Once, I thought he might be trying to say something and leant closer. “An observer–” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, “changes the outcome. Remember that.” A hand grasped my arm with shocking suddenness, those long, delicate fingers still powerful enough to leave bruises in my flesh. “Don’t… look!”
I had no idea what he meant. There were a dozen questions on my tongue but the effort of speaking had exhausted him and he slipped into unconsciousness once more.
I felt the call of the mechanism stronger than ever. The work was nearly done; the end of the matter so close. I could sense the physical bulk of it in the room below, a latent presence like a living thing about to be born. I obeyed its call because to do anything else would be inconceivable.
It had grown late by the time I laid aside the last of my tools. My head pounded and fatigue had settled over me, dulling my thoughts. Yet it was done. I hefted the little brass key, no bigger than my index finger, and wondered if I should wait for the morning and a clear head. But how could I sleep knowing that the mechanism sat ready, needing only to be wound? The mechanism would never let me rest.
I slipped the key onto the spindle and gave it a half twist.
It pleased me beyond words to think that I shared some small measure of credit for this mechanism. To be sure, M. Guilbert’s genius had conceived it, but my labors had rebuilt those parts that had been disassembled. No hand had guided mine, only my instinctive grasp of its form and function. My efforts were crude and rough-edged compared to the elegant precision of my master’s handiwork, but good enough, I believed. And far beyond the work of a mere apprentice.
I twisted the key again, a touch more savagely this time.
Was it too much to hope that my name might one day be spoken of in exalted circles? Or would it still be M. Guilbert who got all the credit?
Another full turn. I could feel how tight the spring was becoming, ready to release its energy the moment I let go of the key.
The blame for this was M. Guilbert’s. He should have instructed me more diligently in his craft. Trusted me. Had I not been a willing pupil? Instead, when he had deigned to notice me, all I received were his patronizing words. Johannes. You do not understand the lessons you have already learned.
The key was becoming harder to turn now, quivering in my grip as I fought the spring’s tension. I let my hand drop and took a step back.
For a moment the mechanism was utterly still. I wondered if my repairs had failed after all. Then I became aware of a change, like a gentle ripple spreading through the clockwork. I recalled that some of M. Guilbert’s finer pocket watches had movements so smooth they could not be said to tick; rather they hummed. If so, then this device sang. It was surely a song no human ears had ever heard before.
I looked closer, seeing tiny wheels deep inside the mechanism turning so fast as to blur. Accumulators shunted against their ratchets. Everywhere I looked, brass glinted in the candlelight as gearwheels spun, clicked and oscillated like some creature come to life. Flawed though it might be by my crude craftsmanship, I had breathed life into this clockwork.
I had a sudden fear then: of powers within the universe I did not understand, of time itself as some unfathomable quantity. What was it that M. Guilbert had read in those notebooks of his that had scared him so badly he had begun to dismantle his life’s work?
The mechanism whirred, trapping and meting out time in quantum intervals for purposes I would never understand. The least possible amount that would suffice. And even so…
The world did not end.
Time did not stand still.
My heart continued to beat. I watched my chest move with each breath. Dust stirred on currents of air.
Suddenly heady with elation I threw open the door of the watchmaker’s shop to draw a breath of fresh air and feel the morning sun on my skin.
I looked outside.
But outside was nothing, just a vast, blank grayness.
Time and place. Place and time. Did it follow with some kind of relentless logic that to measure one with absolute precision was to banish the other completely? Then I remembered M. Guilbert’s words. The outcome is changed by the observer.
I had set the mechanism going and it had measured a quantum of time, laid bare the detail of its warp and weft, the very threads from which it was stitched.
And now we were nowhere, nowhere at all.
When Bloodwater Boils
By Peter Ryan
Thirsty are the lips that taste the ocean. Sick is the belly that braves the stream. Dirty are the hands that bathe in bloodwater.
It had been one of his mother’s favorite things to say. What it meant would depend on the occasion. It could mean: you shouldn’t have drunk that, it’ll make you sick. Or: whatever trouble it is you’re in, you have only yourself to blame. She also could mean it literally. As in: don’t touch the bloodwater, it’ll dirty your hands.
But Nisean had weak arms, which meant he was no good for the mines. His sight was too poor for the rangers. He couldn’t read or write, and in any case, the shopkeepers had never liked the looks of him, with his filthy black hair and that scar from lip to chin where a horse had once kicked him. He looked like the sort that would rob them blind. And he might have, if it came down to it.
But there was money in bloodwater. Even for a boy with no skills.
It wouldn’t be the first time he’d ignored his mother’s advice.
The old man sniffed suspiciously at the day’s catch, which Nisean carefully laid out across his counter. He had wrapped them in his own undershirts, since he had no paper.
“What did you bring me?” the merchant demanded, though the answer was plain. They were fish, but not ordinary fish. Their scales sparkled green, with flashes of red when they caught the sun at the right angle.
“If you can name them,” the boy answered, “then you know your fish better than me. I’ve never seen the like.”
Nisean was thirteen. He was tall for his age, but his voice was still high and thin.
“Three coppers?” the man demanded skeptically, his eyes directed to the scales, as if the fish themselves might name their price.
“Six,” Nisean countered.
“Six!” the man repeated, “Six if they swallowed your mother’s pearls. What would you say to four?”
Nisean nodded hesitantly.
“You’ve robbed me!” the man cried with feigned bitterness. Then he dropped the coins onto the counter one at a time. They clattered noisily against the wood.
The boy smiled. He had no way of knowing the fish were worth five times that sum. He was on his own now, and he had to make do with what wits were left to him.
His mother had succumbed to the Nuisance. That’s what people were calling it now, but when she had been struck with it, it had no name. She just started bleeding for no reason—a little at first, dabbing her nose from time to time, but then in a steady, gushing stream.
They said you should steer clear of the houses where the illness had taken hold.
Nisean hadn’t left. He had washed her linens, made her soup, and wiped the blood from her nose, her eyes, and her ears. He had tended to her until her last day. He’d loved her, but he also hadn’t known what else to do.
There was a hole dug by a dire rat just beneath Master Tarogan’s barn. The burrow was nearly tall enough to stand in, and the rat died or moved on, so Nisean claimed it as his own.
He could get a room at the inn for six coppers, or he could eat for the next six days—soup and hard cheese even, not just bread. He was smart enough, at least, to prefer a full belly to a soft pillow. So he cozied into the rat’s nest, letting the sound of the rain pouring down over Tarogan’s cornfields lull him to sleep.
Some said the bloodwater came from the other side of the ocean, where the men lived wild and free. Some argued it was the water from the land of the dead. Others still claimed it came from the ancient past, when men, apes, and wolves all traveled in the same pack, and giants roamed the hills. One thing everyone agreed on was that if you went under the bloodwater, you never came back again.
It cropped up everywhere, like a weed. You could find bloodwater sometimes in puddles or in the middle of the ocean. If you poured a pitcher of water into a bowl, it might take on the same reddish hue.
It was never hard to find in the marshes. Beyond a thicket of reeds, Nisean found a patch large enough to wade in. He shuffled over to its outer edge. Then he rolled his sleeve up all the way to his shoulder, knelt down in the swamp where it was muddy but still somewhat clear, and plunged his arm into the opaque crimson depths.
Nisean stretched his arm as far as he could, until he thought his bones might pop from his joint, but he felt only water at the tips of his fingers. Then, without warning, something slimy brushed up against him, and he yanked his hand out of the water.
It’s just a fish, he reminded himself, Just a fish.
He dunked his arm back in to see if it would bite. He felt a nibble at his fingers. Whatever it was, it was big.
Nisean felt a sharp sting between his wrist and his elbow, as though a hundred tiny hooks had clung to his flesh. He pulled up, but it hurt worse when he did, and his arm didn’t budge. The fish yanked hard and pulled him in, all but his legs. He screamed, the air bubbles spitting out from his mouth and tickling his cheek. He pulled back again, but this only made the fish tug down harder, until he was fully submerged.
What surprised him the most was that the water was not entirely dark. There were bursts of light all around him, like fireworks seen through a murky red glass. He heard a creaking sound, like a ship capsizing, and voices singing without words. The melody was alarming in its simplicity: two notes, one high and one low.
Nisean kicked and kicked until he had set himself free, breaking to the surface. He pulled himself back up into the swamp, grasping at reeds. The bloodwater shrank behind him, until the black patch was gone. He began spitting into the air and dry heaving in case any of it had gotten down his throat. Three teaspoons of bloodwater was said to be enough to cripple a man, and four to kill him.
There was a chill that didn’t leave him, even after he had spent several hours drying in the sun.
Walking back to town, it began to rain again. A kindly looking woman herded her cattle back into the barn near the road, and Nisean had half a mind to ask her if he could join them, but her face curdled like old milk when she saw the question forming on his lips. He cast his eyes silently back down to the road in front of him.
He felt the copper coins in his pocket, tracing his finger around the face of the Emperor. As precious as they were to him, they were of no greater worth now than a bed, or a piping hot bath. He headed to the inn.
When he woke the next morning, the pillow beneath him had turned mostly red. He dabbed his nose and his finger returned with blood on it. He felt no pain.
His mother had lived six months from the time of her first symptoms, he reminded himself, but for some reason, this seemed only to add to his burden. Six months of scraping by. Sleeping in the open air. Eating stale bread. He would work and struggle right up to the end.
Yesterday’s discovery weighed suddenly heavy on his mind. It was a lie that one could not enter the bloodwater and return. A lie is an opportunity to tell the truth had been another one of his mother’s favorite sayings. But it seemed to him now more like an opportunity for profit.
He returned to the swamp in earnest. It was hot and the water steamed, creating a thick, soupy fog. The air cleared when he hit upon a small island of mud and brambles. He could see a bit of bloodwater a little further. The opening was just wide enough for him to slip through.
He placed his hands at his sides and dove in feet first. His head dipped beneath the water but then bobbed up again. He grabbed at the muddy soil and attempted to push himself back down again, kicking frantically to dig deeper into the water.
He saw a flash of yellow light. Then one of blue and green. The lights were everywhere, like fireflies on a warm summer night. He pushed himself deeper and deeper into the water, keeping his eyes wide open and alert.
He heard the creaking again, the sound of wood under pressure, no different really than the way the stairs at the inn had buckled beneath his weight. With it, came the two notes, high and low.
As he burrowed deeper into the water, he could see the ship. The quick flashes of light seemed to be concentrated there, as if they were feeding off the wreckage. When they lit up, many at a time, he could see it dimly. Otherwise, it blended in with the dark.
He hit the bottom, sand kicking up beneath him from an eel that zigzagged out from its hiding place between two large stones. There was no gold and no jewels there, as far as he could see.
The ship was tilted toward him. There was an enormous crack in the hull and he swam through it. He knew he would either find something to scavenge immediately or return to the surface empty handed. He was running out of air.
The flashes of light here had gathered around a door. He could see the bodies now of these fish, if that’s what one would call them. They had bubbly, transparent skin, revealing intricate pink organs within. They were the source of the sounds—some sang high, some low, each attracting the other.
Nisean tugged at the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He leveraged his foot against the wall and tried again, with the full weight of his body. The door cracked open. The boat creaked and the bubbles of light made circles around the door, trying to push their way in. Three bodies poured out, pressing into Nisean. They were mostly bone by now, with patches of flesh and fabric here and there oddly preserved, sticking to the bone like egg sticks to a pan.
He frantically kicked them off, as if the corpses were attempting to devour him. Then he felt a sting on his shoulder. One of the fish, the bubbles of light, had bitten him.
He pushed his way out of the boat, and launched himself towards the surface, realizing only now how difficult it might be to find his way back to the opening through which he had come.
He felt a bite on his cheek and another on his abdomen. Then, just above, he caught a glimpse of natural light.
He broke to the surface, gasping for breath, and then he pulled himself up out of the bloodwater and into the swamp.
He crawled to the small island of mud and brambles, nursing his wounds. Then he cried.
Nisean spent the night in the hole beneath Master Tarogan’s barn. In the morning, he could hear boots crunching their way through the corn stalks.
“Get out,” Master Tarogan shouted. He stood many feet away from the burrow and peered into the dark uncertainly, from a distance.
Nisean crawled out of his hole. The man immediately began to cough. Blood gushed out from his throat onto his chin, drenching his beard. He fell to the ground, heaving.
Nisean started to rush to his side, but the man held up his hand to stop him.
“Stay away boy,” he growled irritably. Then he stomped up the cobbled path to his house.
“I’ve got it!” the boy cried.
The man turned. His eyes narrowed with suspicion. When he saw that Nisean was serious, they softened. Then he cast them like stones to the ground, avoiding his gaze. He seemed saddened or ashamed.
“Same as you,” Nisean said, “I’ve got the Nuisance. But it’s early for me yet. I could take care of things for a time. Make you comfortable. Like I did for my Ma.”
The man looked up, his face no less ashen, but his curiosity piqued.
“How was she,” he asked, “At the end?”
“Brave,” the boy lied, “To the last.”
They hung the kettle above an enormous fire in the hearth. Nisean and the man sat together in ornately carved wooden chairs, cushioned with red pillows stuffed with feathers. It was cozy, and it was warm. But when Nisean checked the water to see how it was coming along, it had turned crimson.
“Bloodwater,” the boy groaned.
“Pour it out,” Master Tarogan instructed, “Start again.”
Nisean took the kettle outside and dumped it into the grass. He refilled it from a jug and placed it again over the fire.
“Death comes to tea,” the man called out, “when bloodwater boils.”
Nisean returned to his seat.
“My mother always used to say that,” he explained.
He sat in silence for awhile. The dead quiet held the room for so long that Nisean came to think that the man had fallen asleep.
“What would you do,” Master Tarogan asked abruptly, perking up in his chair, “If you could do anything?”
Nisean considered. “Live a good, long life.”
“I mean,” he said, “In the time that you had. If you had all the money you needed to do whatever you want.”
Nisean furrowed his brow in concentration.
“Dunno,” he said, “I’d like to sail the sea.”
The man laughed.
“No offense,” he said, “I was a seaman for many years. You don’t have the arms.”
Nisean nodded and stared at the fire. They were quiet for a time.
“I have a small boat,” Master Tarogan added, “I’ll take you on the water tomorrow in the morning, should God grant me the strength.”
The boy smiled appreciatively, but he knew that when morning came, the odds of the man feeling up to this were slim.
“It is important to see all the good things in this world,” the man concluded, “before they are gone.”
The logs cracked in the fire, splitting in two. Master Tarogan was asleep in his chair long before the water was ready. Nisean set the kettle aside and brought the man a blanket, covering him lap to chin.
He turned his thoughts to the ocean. To ships and sails. Islands with clear blue water and beaches of white sand. Endless days drifting and the yearning for the shore.
If not tomorrow, then soon, he promised himself, he would set sail. The winds would take him wherever they willed. And for a short while, he would be content.
It seemed like an eternity before the kettle whistled with steam.
By Mark Bilsborough
They say success is one part talent, two parts application and three parts luck. Well until that dark November night I had no cause to believe otherwise, and every cause to bemoan my fate. I was a writer with talent in abundance, and a steady determination, but good fortune had at that point been as elusive as snow in summer.
I returned to my rooms late, having spent the evening in a tavern at the end of the road called, ironically, the Shakespeare, a name which was undoubtedly given to mock me. I had been moderately, pleasantly drunk until it became my turn to stand a round, and then, discovering that I had but one farthing to my name, had to suffer the ignominy of being thrown out onto the street by men I believed to be friends.
My attic room was up three flights of stairs and in my drunken state I had quite forgotten the creaking floorboard outside my landlady’s quarters. She must have been waiting for me to return, for she had her speech carefully planned.
“Mr. Humbolt, if I might have a word?”
My landlady was a comely widow not yet into middle age and normally a delight to gaze upon, but that evening I could not bear to face her. “It is very late, Mrs. Prentice.”
“It’s about the rent.”
“Tomorrow. It is far too late now.”
“So is the rent. And you promised it tomorrow three weeks ago.”
She was still talking as I slammed my door and struggled to remove my boots. Her subsequent knock was far from timid.
“When I sell my next story, Mrs. Prentice. Then you will have your rent.”
“Tomorrow, Mr. Humbolt,” she shouted through the thick wood. “Or you will need to find new lodgings.”
My fire had grown cold, grey coals barely glowing. I didn’t bother checking the pail for more. Those were the last. There was barely enough heat in them to light a taper for my candles. I shivered with the realization that these, too, needed to be rationed.
It had not always been that way. When I first came to London to seek out the great Mr. Dickens I felt my fortune was assured. My parents had predicted otherwise but I had not really believed my father when he said ‘come back a raging success or do not come back at all’. But my letters asking for support went unanswered and my fortunes became ever more precarious.
I first saw the great writer in a salon off the Charing Cross Road, giving a public reading of his most recent success, an oversentimental serialized tale called David Copperfield. I was mesmerized, and could barely summon the courage to approach him after his performance. I had hoped he would take me under his wing, but instead as soon as I announced myself a fellow writer his face took on a haunted look and he peered ostentatiously at his pocket watch. But I was dogged in my pursuit and eventually he offered me the crumb of an introduction to his editor, a redoubtable looking fellow by the name of John Forster, before departing hurriedly to his carriage, leaving the grim faced editor behind to respond to my entreaties.
Alas, Forster proved no judge of talent and my work was swiftly rejected. I was not to be deterred, however, and soon sent other work, and found other editors and sent them my stories too.
To no avail. So that chill evening I sat in fading candlelight contemplating eviction and disgrace. There was nothing more I could do.
There was, though, one more action I could take. I had often stood in the middle of Tower Bridge late into the evening looking out over the dirty water of the Thames and listened to the cold, siren cry of the murky eddies entreating the unwary and despairing to join them. Now I, too, was in that sorry state of desolation and hopelessness. My path was clear.
Invigorated by my new resolve, I decided to write a long note, which would no doubt be published to great acclaim posthumously, for what kind of writer would I be if I did not take the opportunity for one final flourish.
Alas my inkwell was dry. Frustrated, I began searching the drawers of my writing desk for fresh supplies, but to no avail. Was I to be denied the satisfaction of my final flourish simply because I had run out of ink?
I had a newfound determination though, now that I was on my final chapter. I recalled that it had been the fashion when this desk was built to include secret drawers and hidden compartments. I had not found any to date, but then, I had barely looked. Now, though, I examined the inlays in great detail. At the side, on the right, obscured by carved filigree, I found what I was looking for.
It opened with a slight push and clicked back, as if sprung. It was a thin shelf, capable of holding little more than a sheaf of letters. At first I thought it empty, but then I saw a faint gleam emanating from the very back of the drawer. I looked closely. It was a pen, with a smooth wooden shaft and bright, golden inlays. The gold encircled the pen and as I turned it I could make out the words ‘creatio ex nihilo’ in elaborate script.
I had no idea how the pen got there. I acquired the desk from a second hand emporium on the Portobello Road and could only surmise that it had been there all along, forgotten by the previous owner.
There was something else at the back of the drawer, wedged between bottom and top. A small bottle of ink. I could at last write my final note.
I filled my inkwell then paused. Perhaps, with a fine pen such as that, there was one more story within me. So with the resignation of repeated rejection I lifted the pen and dipped it in the ink. It was light to my touch, and as I began writing I felt my mood lighten as well. With all my previous stories I had needed copious notes beforehand, and hours of quiet contemplation in front of a roaring log fire, brandy in hand. This time, however, the words came immediately, and I found myself writing a fantastic story of supernatural intrigue, as worthy as anything from the pen of Mr. Poe or Mr. Hawthorne. Or even, if I may be immodest, Mr. Dickens himself.
I did not sleep that night. Instead, I filled page after page with thrilling prose and knew then that desperation had given me my muse. With restored spirits I dashed down the stairs, manuscript in hand, and ran out into the street.
It was barely eight o’clock when I arrived at the offices of Bentley’s Miscellany and I did not leave until well into the evening, when they had agreed to accept my story for a fee which exceeded my wildest expectations.
Elated, I ran half way across London back to my lodgings to tell Mrs. Prentice the good news. She was dubious at first, but with contract in hand I soon won her over and, with the added persuasion of a glass or two of Burgundy from my last remaining bottle, all talk of rent due was duly postponed.
The story was a huge success, and there were more to follow. With my pen in hand I spent my days writing feverishly, page upon page of mesmeric storytelling. I wrote of dark spirits and soaring battles, of men laid low by war and entranced by victory. I wrote of obsession and compulsion, great achievement and heart-breaking tragedy, and of a man, not unlike myself, achieving the greatness due to him and the respect and admiration of a grateful society.
In short, I had achieved all that I set out to do.
Perhaps that was why, one summer afternoon, I slumped exhausted in my seat and gazed longingly at the bright blue sky outside, wanting nothing more than to sit in St James’ Park staring at the ducks in the lake whilst drinking in the sunshine. I could do none of that, though, for my writing compulsion was too strong. Every day since I found the pen I had written page after page and, suddenly weary, I realized I needed a rest. Why not take some time to enjoy the rewards of success?
My hand moved across the page, spinning some yarn about a man constructing wings wide enough to fly to the heavens, but my heart was not in it. I willed myself to stop writing, but to no avail. Angrily I tore my hand away and in the violence of my movement, banged it hard against the edge of my heavy marble mantelpiece. I cried in pain, knowing instantly that something was broken, but that pain was tempered with elation as I realized I would not be able to write again for some time. I was released from my compulsion.
I headed for the door, eager to head for the park, but as I reached for the latch I heard a dull scratching behind me and, turning, saw the pen moving completely of its own volition across the paper!
I was stunned. As I watched, the pen continued my story, in my handwriting, as if I were guiding it myself. I concluded, as any sane man would, that the pain in my hand had dulled my perceptions and I was hallucinating. I needed medical treatment.
When I returned from the hospital in a state of euphoric sedation and with a heavily bandaged hand I noted with some detachment that the story was complete, and the pen was in the process of writing another.
The pen’s stories were every bit as lauded as my own. Indeed, I began to suspect that the tales I thought of as mine also sprang from the pen. Even after my hand had healed I had no need to pick up the pen. It seemed perfectly content to write on its own, provided I kept it supplied with paper and ink.
It was at that point that I started drinking absinthe hoping, perhaps, to gain an insight on those strange occurrences. The stories the pen was writing were undoubtedly the kind of tales I would have written, only better executed, and that realization hit me hard. I was redundant save as supplier of materials and delivery man to my publisher and although my fame was assured and growing, it began to feel increasingly hollow and fraudulent.
One night, on a chill November night not unlike the one in which I first discovered the hateful thing, in drunken delirium I became enraged by its incessant scratching, audible over the sound of the cracking flames from the fire. I snatched the almost completed manuscript and began reading.
It was a tale about a vain, arrogant man who believed himself to be more talented than he actually was, who stumbled on the kind of success others had to work hard for, and wasted that success on petty indulgences.
My hands shook. With fury I headed over to the fire with the intention of thrusting the odious story into the flames. But something drew my attention, just at the last moment. I turned to see the pen impossibly suspended in mid-air, and I imagined it looking at me as if in reproach. I pulled my arms back, ready to throw the sheaf of paper. But as I did so, the pen turned in the air until its nib pointed straight at me. It moved backwards, and, like a catapult bolt, flew across the room. Startled, I lost my footing as the pen impaled itself in my chest, digging deep into my heart.
As I lay dying I could hear the pen, ignoring me once more, scratching away.
Joshua Humbolt wrote this story posthumously, of course. Or, rather, I wrote it for him. I found in Mrs. Prentice a willing supplier of paper and patience, and unlike the unfortunate Mr. Humbolt she has no pretentions to talent of her own. Instead, she is content to let me draw stories from her, to be my inspiration and my public face. In return she is happy to reap the not inconsiderable rewards that brings. She no longer has to take in lodgers, and I am free to write. She does not have the same dark brooding arrogance that my Humbolt-tinged tales could project, but there is a ready market for stories flavored with hope and beauty, and I find the change of tone pleasing.
One day, of course, Mrs. Prentice will no longer be here and someone else will find me, in a drawer in a desk at a junkshop, just waiting to be picked up.
And then there will be new stories.
Ladder of Ashes
By Dale L. Sproule
I tried to meet Mom’s flickering, pixellated gaze as it skittered across the screen, and to parse meaning from snippets as her voice shifted in and out of audibility, “Lots of people asked about you… with this fever… won’t let me… bloodwork… don’t know how long I’ll be here… have to come home for high school in September if Dad can’t find you a tutor…”
The trip-planning sites all warned that Myanmar had the worst connectivity in Asia. No lie. We were waiting for delivery of a satellite dish, but in this part of the country, the electrical supply was as much an issue as the signal.
Mom had gone back to Toronto for cancer treatment, leaving me stranded in Mawlamyin with Dad as he carried on converting the old rubber plantation into a museum/hotel–certain that it would attract a steady and lucrative stream of cultural and academic tourists.
Twelve Oaks Estate sat in the center of a pegboard orchard of old and stingy rubber trees – a morning wagon’s ride west of the enclave of colonial mansions known as little England. As far as I knew, there wasn’t an actual oak tree within 1,000 klicks. The house was a vast block of stone that had long since lost most of its balconies and porches and canopies to rot and rust.
The day I met Lawrence, was the first day of the rewiring, so all the electrical power in the house was switched off – no air conditioning, no TV, no computer. The contractor doing the reno didn’t want the boss’ son “underfoot,” so I didn’t have access to most of the house. I couldn’t go outside because the gatherers didn’t want people wandering the grounds of the plantation – outside of organized tours – for fear they would get in the way of the tappers or inadvertently contaminate the cup things they collect the latex in. Even though Dad had let me shadow him one day, he made it clear that I was a big distraction that couldn’t happen often. And he didn’t trust me to go into town on my own.
Dad had augmented the library with books he’d collected for display at the hotel – antiques and early editions to augment the immersive experience of living in a British colonial mansion: Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Dafoe, Rudyard Kipling. I read them mostly because there was nothing else to do.
And I slept.
I dreamed of boarding the subway at Museum Station. There were no other passengers except for a young woman at the far end of the train. As I walked toward her, she stood and I saw that she was wearing a deep green Edwardian dress with lace across the décolletage, her long dark hair twirled atop her head with emerald combs. The air around her was a stale, slightly rotten potpourri of disquiet and despair. As beautiful as she was, there was no joy in her demeanor. Sadness clung to her, emanated from her. And need – an unfed hunger that sucked up the light as she put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. Darkness reached up in tendrils from between the seats, clinging to me, crawling up my arms, caressing my face. My breathing grew shallow.
“I can feel him near, my Henry,” she said, then handed me a coconut shell and sighed. “If you see him, give him this.”
The subway doors opened into jungle, I followed her out onto what should have been the platform, but she almost instantly vanished in the trees. The shell opened like a book. In its cavity, nested an India rubber ball, milky purple shading to amber, like a heart that’s drained of blood. It gave a larval twitch, squirmed, lengthened and dropped to the ground. I turned to get back on the train, but it had vanished and the platform had turned into a churning swamp of translucent worms that sucked me down. I woke up gasping for breath, face buried in a sweaty pillow.
Climbing out of bed, I stumbled through the thick air to the stairs. It grew cooler, almost bearable as I descended, then turned the corner into a kitchen swathed in shadows.
Dad was at the table, and the man across from him stood. “Brent, this is Lawrence Pelham. He comes highly recommended by the Mawlamyine Board of Trade as the best English speaking tutor in the area.”
Rumpled and groggy, I simply grunted as I plodded past them toward the fridge, the door barely open before Dad snapped, “Don’t open it when the power’s off. The food will spoil.” Blah, blah, blah. “There’s bread in the breadbox and fruit on the counter. And our guest brought us some local cheese.”
Hearing that word, I turned with a smile. I hadn’t had cheese in weeks.
“Leicester–British cheese–made locally since 1820. You see, I raise dairy cows – on the side. Tutor, rancher, entrepreneur. At any rate, felicitations, young man! Delighted to meet you,” said Lawrence, straightening his curved spine to achieve an impressive height while proffering a handshake that conveyed little of the intended enthusiasm of his words. His long fingered hands were unnaturally slender, arms so long that his bony wrists were entirely visible beyond the cuff of his white suit. He looked like Ebenezer Scrooge on a prison camp regimen – skin fish-belly white, and a long fringe of yellow feather duster hair surrounding his liver-spotted head. But the thing that struck me most was his voice – piping and proper, with a strange, slurpy British accent and a hint of a lisp. “As I understand it, getting you out of the house is our first order of business. And being your local dairy connection, I know a shop just an hour’s drive from here that makes primo Italiano gelato.” He turned back to Dad. “I’ll have him back by seven.”
“A trial run then.” Dad nodded. “Until the weekend.”
I didn’t seem to have any say in the decision. Which was okay I guess. Lawrence’s ancient Mercedes had state-of-the-art AC and despite being creepy looking, the old tutor was like a walking collection of interesting quirks. During the drive, he mostly just got me to talk about myself, but I also learned a bit about him, most surprisingly that he had been born and raised in Mawlamyine and spoke no other language than his peculiar and meticulous English.
He shrugged, the moist corners of his lips curling into a smile. “The street I grew up on was a closed community of old British families. My grandfather was a friend of Rudyard Kipling. My uncle was a counselor when George Orwell was on the local police force.”
“Like, the writer, Orwell?” My English teacher had loaned me Animal Farm and Orwell’s tale had absorbed me.
“Just like that, yes,” Lawrence grinned broadly. “We knew him as Captain Eric Blair. He had blue circles tattooed on his knuckles but he never said what they were all about.”
“You knew him personally?” I asked, trying to calculate how old that would make him. That would have to be like the 1930s!
“Perhaps not.” Lawrence laughed. “But my father’s stories were vivid enough I can almost remember being there.”
After that we talked about books. At least until we saw the giant Buddha reclining on the hillside ahead–at which point the conversation turned to local culture and the eclecticism of the Buddhist way. As we grew closer to the slumbering deity, life sized painted statues of monks carrying alms bowls appeared on the verge of the highway just before we took the turn off for the gelato shop. It was in a tiny cluster of wooden houses, mostly selling different representations of the reclining Buddha, none very well made or expensive. The gelato itself was pretty runny and lumpy with mango, but cold and good just the same.
After that, he took me to the monument that housed the Win-sein-Taw-Ya Shrine. It was filled with colorful dioramas of people being tortured and swimming in lava and turning into animals. “There’s another nearby shrine that’s rather like a carnival – with neon fountains and bowls moving across the landscape that the children can aim at. Doesn’t seem very dignified for a great religion, really. But who am I to judge?”
I admitted to Lawrence that I didn’t understand Christianity or Islam much better than Buddhism and he simply nodded, shrugged and said, “Religion is the opium of the people.”
To which I responded brightly, “Ernest Hemingway,” and enjoyed the admiring way he looked at me while people around us jostled and prayed and filled the many fountains with coins.
He said to me, “Such a relief. Someone of your generation who cares about literary masterworks. We should get along smashingly.”
The next day, he assessed my math skills by setting out a bunch of questions that involved my buying video games in Myanmar currency. All of his lessons were tied to real life – and when I went shopping in Yangon that weekend, I’m sure I saved about $40 buying games. Our attempts to contact Mom were a bit more successful and we talked for hours that weekend, but with that came the bad news that she had several more chemo treatments that would keep her grounded in Canada for months. I gave my new tutor a rave review and she helped convince Dad to keep Lawrence on, at least for the time being.
We got home early Sunday evening, and I excused myself right after dinner to go upstairs and install the new games on my computer. But as my bedroom door closed behind me, I realized it wasn’t eagerness that compelled me up the stairs. The instant the door closed behind me, it was like someone had opened a spigot in my chest and drained out every ounce of energy. I leaned back against the wall and slid toward the floor, and even before sleep had completely claimed me, the dream started pulling me in.
The woman in green was rushing toward me from the far end of the subway train. Leaning over me, she asked, “Did you find Henry?”
I reached into my shopping bag and pulled out a coconut shell like the one she’d given me in the previous dream. Instead of a larva inside, there was a face – Lawrence’s face – waxy and distorted. Red rimmed eyes peered out at me from deep within the sockets. The lips wrapped themselves around words, “Still here, Penelope, my love. Only you can see me, know me, release me. And I, in turn, release you. Can you hear me? Come to me?”
“Tell him, yes,” said the woman urgently, but it wasn’t until I saw my reflection in the wardrobe mirror that I realized it was actually me saying it. In true dream fashion, I had become Penelope. I put my hand to my belly, empty of the child it had once contained. Our child. I shook my head, confused as I heard myself saying, “We will be together again.”
My eyes fluttered open, and I sat staring at the reflection of a fifteen year old boy, sitting on the floor, clinging to a shopping bag. After a brief check to reassure myself it contained no coconut shells, I hung the bag from my chair. Any urge to check out the new games had long since dissipated, so I lay on the bed, listening to the pounding of my heart, until I finally drifted back to sleep. As far as I can remember, it was a totally normal sleep.
On Monday, with the power down again, we went to Lawrence’s house. Being wood frame, it had not survived the ravages of time and typhoon as tidily as Twelve Oaks. The teak interior had remained intact, but it had lost its gleam, fading almost to grey and creaking like a tall ship whenever you walked down a hallway or went up the stairs.
After retrieving some books from his library, we stopped off at a massive wooden wardrobe in the hall, where Lawrence seemed to have a sort of epiphany and threw open the doors with the flair of a game show presenter. The interior was filled with the crisp white suits that Lawrence always wore, each in its own plastic dry-cleaning bag. “They were purchased for the house staff – when we still had a staff. When I still had a family for that matter. Extremely well-tailored. The Burmen are slighter, so there are almost certainly smaller sizes that would fit you if you’re interested.”
Imagining myself in one of these suits, I had to put my hand over my mouth to hide my smile. I smiled so seldom back then that the braces felt weird against my lips and I was aware of them for the first time in a long time. “I’m good, Lawrence. But thanks.”
“All right then,” he declared throwing his hands in the air. “You don’t want a free suit. No accounting for modern tastes.
A few hours later, he said out of the blue, “Do I understand that your pater is trying to restore Twelve Oaks as a working plantation? If so, I have something he might be interested in. It’s called a steam mangle. They’re also called wringers. This one compresses slabs of rubber between rollers. And it’s steam powered. Perhaps even predating the dawn of the 20th century. I have an idea of how much it would sell for through Sotheby’s, so I shan’t let it go for a song. But I’m sure we can work something out, maybe even some manner of rental arrangement. Would you like to see it?”
I shrugged. “He doesn’t exactly confide in me, but he needs this sort of thing for the restoration. So he’d probably be interested.”
“I have a perfectly adequate hand mangle,” he explained, “so I don’t need this monstrosity. Come down for a look-see.”
I trailed him down the basement stairs into the darkness. When he flipped a bank of switches at the bottom of the stairs, I expected a glare like a football stadium, but the few shaded lamps that were still working merely struggled to make certain parts of the room a bit less dark than others. A thick sliver of light sliced into the room from between the big barn doors that opened into the yard.
Lawrence was delivering an enthusiastic sales pitch. “You can let him know what excellent shape it’s in. I bought some fresh thick-slab from a local gatherer and ran a few sheets through.”
As Lawrence stepped into the darkness to retrieve a sheet of rubber from the wire where it hung, I remembered the dream and asked, “Do you know anyone named Henry or Penelope?”
Lawrence stiffened as he reached up to take a slab off the drying line, then said, “So someone has told you the story? Or did you always know?”
“About the ghost at Twelve Oaks. Penelope MacGregor. Nothing like a good ghost story to attract tourists of a certain type? Any type, really.” He shook his head. “Poor Penelope. Always looking, looking, looking for her Henry. More sad than tragic, I suppose. Very romantic.”
“I didn’t know there was a story,” I said. “I’ve just been having dreams about her.”
He raised a brow. “You must have heard the story, even unconsciously. To remember the names like that.”
“Nope,” I shook my head. “It’s all in the dream. She’s always asking about Henry. Sure that I’ve seen him. Giving me messages and gifts to pass along.”
Even though he stood just a few steps away, Lawrence’s face seemed as featureless as the rectangular slabs hanging from the racks like meat in an abattoir. “What kind of gifts?” he asked. “Physical objects? Books or letters?”
I told him about the coconut shells in the dream, the larva and the face. “But nothing real. In the dream, you were Henry, only younger.”
“At least that’s how you remember it. Dreams are curious that way. Always changing.”
“The face spoke to me, but I don’t remember what it said.”
“You don’t seem as spooked about the prospect of a ghost as one might expect.”
“They’re just dreams,” I shrugged. “If I saw an actual ghost, I’d probably be more freaked out. But it might be pretty cool.”
Lawrence stepped out into the light, carrying a sheet of rubber the size of a bathmat. “Let’s take this sample to show your da how well the machine works.”
I took the rubber from him, surprised at its weight, given that it wasn’t much thicker than a cotton blanket. I draped it over my arm, but as I followed Lawrence back upstairs, I felt overwhelmed with curiosity about what would happen if I draped the sheet of rubber over my head – wondering if it would conform to my features.
As I came out of the doorway at the top of the stairs, I was shocked by Lawrence’s outburst as he shouted, “Take it off.”
As I spun it to look out through the gap, Lawrence grabbed the edge of the sheet and angrily pulled it off, nearly ripping my head off with it. The force slammed me into the wall and I stood there rubbing my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” said Lawrence immediately, “About the unintentional roughhousing. I didn’t mean to do that. Rubber attracts mold spores. No telling what kind of jungle fever it may give you.”
I grimaced at his silhouette in the light funneling in from the far end of the narrow hall.
After a while, he said, quietly, “I do apologize. I did ask you to remove it. Are you… quite alright?”
I glared at him – surprised how strong he was for an old man. “Maybe you should take me home. We could do the math lesson there.”
“There’s not enough light at your house. Perhaps when the power comes back on.”
“It’s bright in my room.”
Lawrence smiled and said, “Wise tutors avoid going into their students’ bedrooms. Why don’t we just go into town? The Martaban Museum is displaying some newly acquired Mon relics. We can have curry for lunch at the Khit Thit and I might even buy you a beer as long as you don’t tell your dear da.”
As he spoke, the sheet of rubber dangled from his forearm like a big awkward wing. Within its flaps and drapes and jiggles, I saw the contours of a face looking out at me from the pliant surface–not my face, but Penelope’s.
It vanished into the folds as Lawrence turned away from me. I followed him out the front door and as he locked it behind me, I said, “On the way into town you can tell me the story.”
He gave me a blank, wordless look, so I went on. “You can’t just drop the bomb that there’s a ghost in my house and then not tell me the story.”
“I suppose I did open that can of worms.”
As we pulled the Mercedes out onto the highway, Lawrence said, “I’d have told you earlier, but didn’t want to frighten you unnecessarily. The locals call them preta, which translates to hungry ghost. Spirits that desire things they can never have. Twelve Oaks has its very own preta. Simply put, Penelope MacGregor died under mysterious circumstances after receiving news of the demise of her betrothed, my great-uncle, Major Henry Pelham. And she’s been waiting for him ever since.”
“That’s the whole story? I mean, Henry’s your uncle. Have you done any ghost-hunting? Has she ever come looking for him at your estate?”
“Why would she do that?”
I shrugged, “maybe her ghost tracked down his ghost.”
Lawrence shook his head. “Henry is long gone.”
“How can we be sure?” I said. “There has to be more you can tell me.”
“I know more details, background sort of thing. Major Henry Pelham was appointed to head up the front line garrison in Mandalay and tasked with quelling the latest round of unrest–both real and rumored – within the Raj. Family legend has it that my namesake, Lawrence Pelham, went out of his way to look in on and look after his elder brother’s fiancée while Henry was away. The young Lawrence adored her, her kindness, her beauty, even her faithfulness to his brother and knew there was nothing he could do to win her favor or her romantic interest.
She made it abundantly clear that she could hardly wait until Henry either returned from his post or called her to Rangoon to live with him. Then Henry died on the front. Suffocated in a burning barrack after an attack by insurgents. But even after he died–after his funeral–Penelope kept waiting for him and him alone, and is waiting still they say. She was delusional, hysterical, eventually institutionalized.”
“Is it possible that Henry wasn’t really dead?”
“The army couldn’t ship his body back for burial, but I’ve seen the casting that they made–a death-mask that’s entombed in his crypt.”
“If it was entombed, how did you see it?”
After a long silence, he said, “The crypt was damaged in a storm. It’s been resealed.”
“Did you know that he sent her letters, after he had supposedly died,” I asked.
Lawrence shook his head. “Do you have any of these actual letters, or did you just learn about them in a dream?”
I shrugged, unable to explain how I knew about the letters in the first place. But I remembered their neat script, their luminous words, Even in death, you consume me. How can I pass unto that cold land without us ever consummating our bond that made each day on Earth worth living? At the mercy of the seraphims who believe in love above all else, I have been given human form in which to come to you.
“Even in death, you consume me,” I said. “That’s how the first one began. He sent them after he died.”
“Ahhh, ghost letters! There’s a new theory.”
“She couldn’t tell anyone,” I explained. “The letter said that if their union became known to any mortal soul, it would become no more than a memory. The letter bid her to burn his letters so that he could climb the ladder of ash to her room.”
Lawrence’s voice croaked a bit as he said, “I’m not sure it’s safe for you to stay in that room. What if she draws you into her dementia?”
“Where else am I going to stay?” I put to him, realizing as I did so that the prospect of communicating with the ghost excited more than terrified me.
The next day, my dad sent a truck and three men to pick up the mangler. While everyone else was outside, hoisting the machine onto the truck, I explored the cellar. In an unlit corner, I found a cabinet that was nowhere near as dusty as everything around it. As I reached out, I was startled by a noise a hissing and slithering through the darkness. The ground seemed to squirm at my feet and I jumped back.
“It’s Henry,” the snakes hissed and slithered. “He’ssss here. Henry? Henry? Henry? Sssssssssssssssso near.”
A hand clamped over my shoulder and I just about jumped out of my skin as Lawrence said, “So we’re all done here.”
“Do you have snakes down here?”
He laughed. “There are probably snakes living under most of the houses in Burma. Did you see one?”
“It spoke to me,” I almost told him, but instead I said nothing.
That night on the dream train, Penelope sat down beside me.
“I don’t think I truly believed Henry would come back to me until the night he came knocking at my door,” Penelope whispered. Through her eyes, I saw his face perched upon the pillow. With her fingertips, I traced the curve of his jaw. Although all the features were Lawrence’s features, this was not him. It was Henry. Of course it was Henry, who had declared his immortal love, who had broached the greatest chasm to be with her for one beautiful night. It was Henry who had entered her and spilled his angelic seed inside her–completing their bond. It was Henry–right up until that awful moment when it wasn’t.
She handed me a book instead of a coconut shell. I awakened, certain I had seen a copy of that book, Pride and Prejudice, somewhere in the house. I got out of bed and started searching through the bookshelves, finding it in the living room. When I opened it, two envelopes, along with a yellowed, scallop-edged photograph slid out from behind the vellum frontispiece. It was a picture of a man in uniform – of Lawrence to be precise. On the back was inscribed, “Counting the heartbeats until you are back in my arms. All my love, Henry.”
“Look in his cellar,” an urgent whisper awakened me from the dream. The first thing I saw upon opening my eyes was Penelope’s face, inches from my own – locking her gaze with me, as she repeated, “the cellar.”
The next morning. Lawrence drove up and honked for me rather than coming in as usual.
“Did you dream of Penelope again last night?”
“She gave me something to show you.”
“Another coconut shell?”
“Something real this time. She told me where to find it.”
I refused to show it to him until we sat down in his living room. He read the inscription on the back then flipped it over and stared into his own eyes. “The resemblance is uncanny, I’ll give you that. He shrugged, smirked. “Genetics I suppose.”
I shook my head. “She told me to look in your basement.”
“Look for what?”
“Hell if I know.” I said, “But do you mind if we go down and look. Our personal ghost adventure awaits, right down these stairs.”
I grasped the knob, opened the door and stepped down. The surfeit of creaking behind me made me turn my head in time to see Lawrence coming up behind me, swinging a fireplace poker down toward my head, but I stepped aside and his downward arc carried him off balance and he tumbled past me down the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, I flicked on the bank of feeble lights to find Lawrence sprawled, face down on the concrete floor. One leg had snapped and was bent sideways. In the fall, he had dropped something that was now lying just beyond his outstretched fingertips – looking like the pupae from my dream. I nudged it with my shoe, and it unfolded as it rolled over.
It was Lawrence’s face, or rather, a rubber mask of his face – distorted and hollow eyed. I picked it up and stared into the empty eye sockets. Behind me, the man moaned and lifted his head. What was left of the features on his skull stood out like inflamed scabs on stretched white parchment. The creature gestured toward the mask, imploring me to give it back, which made me grip it tighter.
As I tried to step around him to get to the stairs, a strong hand clamped around my ankle. I didn’t fall, but as I struggled to free myself, he grabbed the mask, tearing it from my grip so violently that I was left clinging to a rubber ear and part of a jaw.
He toppled me onto my back. As he pulled what was left of the mask tightly over his skull, I could see his body begin to instantly repair itself, the broken leg bending and straightening back into shape as he climbed to his feet and took a clumsy step toward me.
I watched his rubber lips move, his eyes blink, almost normal again. “You found my masks, didn’t you? Yesterday? You better not have done anything to them or I’ll make a death-mask of you.” Blood poured down his neck from the missing ear and I glanced down at the bloody bit of cartilage in my hand.
He backed me to the corner where I had heard “the snake.” On the upper shelf was a plaster mask – the deathmask, I assumed. On the bottom shelf were rubber castings, a dozen masks at least – all with Henry’s features.
He pulled off the one he was wearing and threw it to the floor with a bloody splat. While he was replacing it with a fresh mask, smoothing it into place, I took advantage of the distraction, running past him, unbolting the swinging door and bursting out. As I glanced over my shoulder, it was not the elderly tutor my father had hired who I saw standing there, but rather the young colonial soldier whose face had supplied the mould. Lawrence had somehow become 40 years younger.
I ran through the rubber grove, screaming for help from anyone who might be out there, but seeing no one, no gatherers, no construction workers, or cowherds. As I paused, disorientated, the creature that was Lawrence caught up to me, hauling me down and straddling me. But coming up through the well of panic inside me, I felt a presence, and like in the dreams where I became Penelope, she stepped into my head.
I don’t know what Lawrence saw when I spoke in her voice, “Henry, you’re back.”
He stared back down and said, “You can’t possibly still be waiting?”
“And why wouldn’t I be?” said Penelope. “You have always been everything to me.”
He seemed paralyzed with shock and disbelief. Frozen enough at least that I was able to squirm out of his grasp and buck him off me. He jumped to his feet, but instead of attacking me again, he ran back into the house, slamming the basement door behind him. A moment later, I saw motion though an upstairs window, in the trophy room near Henry’s crypt. Penelope imagined him loading an antique rifle and since she was inside of me, I shared that supposition. I stood swaying in the hot morning sun, trying to convince myself to turn and flee, but she clung to me, refusing to let go.
“I’ve finally found him,” she told me. “I need you now.”
My eyes fluttered shut and I struggled to escape the waking dream, but she remained in front of me. “It’s not really Henry.” I said. “He’s Lawrence, he was….”
Her stark words hung in the air. “I know what he really is. There’s one honest thing he told me. If a mortal learns the truth it comes undone. Now that you know about him, he will come for you. If you run away, there’s no telling what he would do to silence you. He’d kill your father, I’m sure. But right now, we have the upper hand. We can destroy him.”
“But what is it I know?” I said to the ghost. “I’m so confused.”
“Come with me.”
My shock and terror was finally beginning to ebb, as Penelope’s outrage and hunger for vengeance filled me. I ducked down into a crouch and began running through the grove, not towards Twelve Oaks, but rather, circling back toward Lawrence’s house. Of course all the doors were locked. I was leaning back against the basement wall wondering how to proceed, when the door swung open. Thinking that he’d caught us and half-expecting a bullet through the chest, I staggered back, but the figure in the doorway cocked a sly brow at me as she turned to smoke. As I felt her flow back into me, I thought (or at least felt her thinking), there are some advantages to being a ghost.
I could hear Lawrence stomping and shuffling across the floor above me, walking as though he hadn’t just broken his leg. My breath caught in my throat as he moved back toward the stairs. The cabinet door was open and the shelves were empty. There on the floor, looking up at me, was the mask that Lawrence had discarded – the torn face that I had gotten to know as Lawrence.
I picked it up.
“Put it on,” said Penelope’s voice in my head.
She held it out to me, a layer of raw, bleeding flesh dimming its translucence.
I felt like puking on the floor or shouting what the hell do you want from me lady? Or just curling into a ball. But I knew what she wanted, and required me to turn the mask over, and lower my face into the bloody mess as though it was a hot towel.
Henry’s final memories flooded into me, of being dragged by his wrists out of a fire that was enveloping the barracks at the camp where he was stationed. He had regained consciousness, opening his bleary eyes to find himself lying in a box. The smell of plaster was overwhelming, the last face he saw before the viscous fluid flowed over his forehead filling his eyes was his younger brother’s long gaunt face. Henry opened his mouth to scream and the substance filled him, choked him, drowned him–trapping his soul in that living deathmask.
Inside me, Penelope writhed, her hunger for the truth undermined by its bitterness. In the same way that a part of Henry’s soul had been captured in the deathmask and transferred to the rubber copies, the thoughts and recollections now racing through my mind were from Lawrence’s perspective – far fresher, more fervid than Henry’s comparatively petrified memories. The whole story was laid out before her now, a banquet of poisons.
Through my senses, she experienced Lawrence’s nightly vigil while he watched, in a rapture of adoration and devotion, as Penelope prayed and got ready for bed.
We accompanied Lawrence on his journey to the shrine of the demon, Kama-Mara, in a huge hollow baobab bole in the jungle, vividly recalling the moment he pushed aside a great curtain of moss, to be enveloped in a haze of earthy incense that reeked like dung and mud and fungus. Unlike Buddha, who never greets you personally at the door, Kama-Mara was waiting cross legged in his thorny robes and grateful for their visit. When he took Lawrence’s hands in his, the young man staggered back and the demon laughed companionably. “You must let me feel your need. The better I understand it, the better I can help with your problem. Show me the depth of your desire.”
Lawrence had wanted his brother’s life. He had wanted Penelope. And so, the deal was struck, the steps were taken: the kidnapping from the battlefield, the making of the mold while Henry’s lungs filled with plaster, and the letter to Penelope in a very good approximation of his dead brother’s hand, (for Lawrence had practiced many years) declaring that death had not freed him from her love, the ink running where his tears spilled onto the page.
Putting his plan into action had been a gradual thing. There had been many letters, growing bolder each time. Explaining how difficult it was to cross between the realms, convincing her that she was pulling him inexorably into the mortal world by following his instructions – going out onto her balcony, touching herself in certain ways so he could watch. Henry’s dress uniform had hung large on him the first time he stepped out into the faint light that permeated the gardens of the estate, making sure she glimpsed him before stepping back into the shadows.
Then finally putting on the mask, on the night of the winter dance at the Anglican Church when he had convinced her to stay home alone. The love and longing in her eyes, the most powerful thing Lawrence had ever felt. As they kissed, all his worries were washed away in a tide of fulfillment and desire. She gave herself to him again and again and again, as they both forgot that the rest of the world existed.
Until a knock came at her bedroom door.
“We heard noises. Are you alright my dear?” came her father’s voice.
Lawrence whispered to her, “If they see me, then I will never be able to come back.”
“I’ll keep them away, my love.”
As he hid, he began to sweat and the mask no longer adhered to his skin. He tried desperately to put the disguise back on. When it didn’t work, he dressed quickly.
“What is going on in here?” her father demanded, bursting into the room. The mask slipped from Lawrence’s fingers, and with it, all pretense.
“Lawrence?” came the father’s voice. “What are you doing here?”
Penelope gazed at him with widening eyes as he fastened his belt. “Why are you wearing his clothes? Where is Henry?”
“Listen here young man! What are you doing in my daughter’s room?”
Wordlessly, Lawrence fled, leaving behind a crowd of open-mouthed onlookers and a wailing and very confused and grief-stricken young woman.
In the aftermath, she denied ever letting Lawrence into her bedroom and refused to believe that Henry was dead. She had seen him, made love with him…and as it turned out, was carrying his child. The family confined her to the house, ashamed of both her pregnancy and her growing madness. And Lawrence, having once tasted her, was both sated and banned from Twelve Oaks.
One moment I knew none of this, the next the memories were part of me. I even shared in the feeling of relief he’d felt upon hearing the news that Penelope had hanged herself following her return from the asylum.
Her screams of anguish and fury erupted from inside me. Her treasured memories of her final tryst with the man she loved now fully exposed.
I opened my eyes to see Lawrence coming down the stairs, holding an elephant gun he had shown off to me earlier in the week.
“What’s that on your face?” Lawrence demanded. “That’s not yours. That’s mine! Take it off!”
He pulled the trigger–and I’m not at all sure what followed.
There were curtains of rubber between us, which the bullets couldn’t seem to penetrate. They hit the barriers, unearthly and inviolable, and simply dropped out of the air, mingling with the shell casings on the floor.
As Lawrence stared stupidly at the empty gun, his face grew longer, mouth gaping stupidly, eye-sockets emptying of all sensibility as the final lies fell away.
“I know everything about you now,” I said. “And so does Penelope.”
As her name escaped my lips, her spirit seemed to billow out from my chest – her long arms reaching, her cold hands grasping his ankles as she pulled him back down the stairs, his enfeebled hands clawing, fingers snapping off, fingertips crumbling to dust. It screamed as she reached into him and tore out his life-force like gutting a fish.
Now knowing where Lawrence had put the masks, I ran up the stairs, opened the vault beneath the Henry’s monument and pulled them out. When I smashed the plaster deathmask onto the flagstones, I felt Henry’s spirit, pouring from the rents, rising up between the pieces. Penelope was there to gather them, And I left the two of them there, spirits swirling as I went back down to the basement to prepare an acid bath for the rubber faces–which were now no more than faces, with Henry’s spirit having escaped at last.
You might think I’d have been covered in his blood, but Lawrence had apparently lived a bloodless life. There was nothing left of him beyond the ash smeared white suit crumpled on the floor. The police investigation was over in a heartbeat. For all of his unnatural years, it seems that Lawrence did not make much of an impression upon the world.
Wouldn’t You Rather
By Serena Johe
For most of the year, Diner 66 is frequented almost entirely by regulars. It’s in the early fall that the reporter first shows up, the last week of September, just as the leaves begin to turn and the early-bird tourists infiltrate the restaurant on their way north. That’s probably why no one pays him any mind. He seems to float in on the breeze with the others. The out-of-towners don’t know the regulars from the tourists, and the regulars merely assumed he’d leave with the rest of the flock, but he continues to frequent their establishment into late October.
He’s impeccably dressed in his tan trench coat and black leather gloves, the fedora atop his head and the spiral notepad in hand like a journalist from a black-and-white movie of days past. The fifties themed diner seems to swallow him up that way. His outdated dress and odd mannerisms make the locals feel more out of place than he seems to be, despite his anomalous presence.
After most of the through traffic has made its way north and back south again, Clay, like the rest of the locals who frequent Diner 66, can’t help but take notice of him. He spends long hours hopping from table to table, countertop stool to window seat. He always spends money–powdered donuts and vanilla cappuccinos, or bear claws and hot chocolate–and he tips well. Well enough, anyway, for the staff to turn a blind eye to his constantly pestering the customers, though they have a tendency to play along with his often absurd interview questions regardless.
It’s not that Clay has any particular interest in eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to pick up the man’s smooth, unfamiliar voice, like the low hum of a cello cutting through the clanking dishes and quiet laughter of the other patrons’ conversations. Even his stride sets him apart. His movements are fluid and conducted with unusual gaiety as he slides into the burgundy faux-leather booth near the door. There’s something about it that bugs Clay. The man always seems like he’s half-a-second from erupting into emasculating giggles.
“We’ll start with an easy one, shall we?” The reporter asks the woman across from him with a wide smile, pen poised over his notepad. “Would you rather take a trip to the beach, or go skiing?”
“Oh, the beach, definitely,” Cindy Hoffman replies instantly, smoothing her hair back in a way that reminds Clay of a preening bird. “I hate being stuck in the cold all winter.”
He hums sympathetically, his attention undivided as he scribbles detailed notes. When he seems satisfied with the transcription, he turns to Cindy’s husband, his eyes briefly flitting to the uneaten donut on his plate.
“I suppose a more difficult question is in order, then. If you don’t mind, sir?”
“Not at all.” Carl sounds just as pleased to be considered important enough for the article.
“Excellent! Well, then, let’s see here… would you rather save a loved one’s life from cancer, or win the lottery?”
Carl catches Cindy’s look, but he still asks, “Which loved one?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Oh, no contest, then.” Carl forcefully slaps a meaty palm down on the table, rattling the silverware. “The first one.”
“Interesting. Yes, good choice, I should think…”
Clay, watching discreetly from the breakfast bar, can’t help but roll his eyes. Everyone is completely infatuated with the man. It’s part of the dilemma of living in a small town like this one–everyone’s starved for attention. There’s never been anything or anyone in North Park worth making the papers until he showed up. Now, everyone seems to be of the utmost interest and all too happy to oblige this stranger’s odd solicitations, so much so that his interviewees have yet to ask him what it is, exactly, he’s writing about. Maybe they’re afraid the story won’t be as grand and emotionally compelling as they hoped. Clay thinks they’d probably be right.
When Carl and Cindy stand to leave after pleasantries and handshakes are exchanged, the reporter remains behind, his wrist seizing over the paper below like an inspired artist. Then he puts the pen down on the table, drawing himself up with a deep inhalation. His eyes once again return to the donut left on Carl’s plate. He seems to be considering it until he notices Cindy’s lipstick is smudged on the edge of her Coke glass. The reporter picks it up and holds it to the light as if expecting to find flakes of gold in her cheap make-up. Maybe he does. The pen is back in his grasping fingers in an instant.
“What the hell’s this guy think he is now? A scientist?” Clay mutters, turning back to his coffee. The clatter of the saucer when he sets the cup down belies his frustration.
From his right, Paige laughs under her breath. “What’s so wrong with that? He’s just doing his job.”
“What kind of reporter asks such ridiculous questions?”
She shrugs. “Maybe it’s an editorial.”
Editorial, Clay repeats the word in his head. Editorial my ass, he thinks. What could possibly be so important about whether Collin wants a dog or a cat, or if Ms. McGruder would rather win a new car than the Pulitzer Prize? What’s so important about that? He scowls at the yellow stripes of the countertop. That kind of smart-ass questioning is just how people like that reporter, people that think they’re smarter than everyone else, get their kicks.
“Are you sure you’re not just jealous?” Paige tries not to smile at the grumpy look on his face. “If you want to do an interview, you could just go ask him, you know.”
Clay gives her an impatient sidelong glance. “Why the hell would I want to do that?”
“Sounds like fun to me.”
“Yeah, I bet it does.”
“Oh, sweet love of mine,” Paige sighs theatrically, grabbing the last half of her bagel and dropping a few bills beside her plate. “I love it when you insult me. See you after work?”
Clay gives her an exasperated look, but she still wins a small smile from him, at least.
“Yeah. After work,” he agrees, giving her a chaste kiss. He watches her exit, the little silver bell atop the door announcing her departure, and then returns his attention to the reporter.
He’s eating the donut. The syrupy glaze clings to the fingers of his leather gloves, and when the pastry is gone, he looks down at his hand and blinks confusedly at it, as if he genuinely hadn’t expected the sugar to stick to him. Then he dunks his sticky fingers into Carl’s water glass and wipes it on his coat.
That’s it, Clay thinks, getting up from his seat. He snatches his keys and shoves his EpiPen into his pocket with his wallet. There must be something wrong with this guy, what with his weird mannerisms and strange questions, and if that’s the case, it’s the townspeople’s responsibility to investigate. This stranger’s been here for almost a month and not a single person can even say where he lives. For all he knows, this man might be dangerous.
Clay slides into the booth, setting his coffee cup on the table to stick out his hand.
“Jack,” the man smiles widely. His damp fingers are unpleasantly cold.
There’s an extended silence as Clay tries to figure out an angle. Jack, meanwhile, only continues to smile in that gleeful way, like a man about to leave on a long vacation. Eventually, his gaze once again drifts down to the tabletop, jumping from left over morsel to left over morsel, presumably in search of something to eat. The grin never leaves his face, though. It’s only his eyes that move.
“What are you writing about?” Clay asks at last, if only to get the reporter to stop looking a cat in a field of mice.
But Jack just flaps a hand at him. “Oh, you know. This and that.”
“You ask awfully strange questions, you know.”
There’s a piece of pancake on Cindy’s plate, sodden with syrup. Jack eyes it for only a moment before snatching it up.
“I love sweets,” he explains at the other man’s incredulous look. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Clay? Do you like dessert?”
“I didn’t sit here to talk about dessert.”
Jack’s smile grows. “An interview, then?”
“I don’t want one of your ludicrous interviews either.” Clay rolls his tongue behind his teeth agitatedly. “I want to know what you’re doing here. In my town.”
“Is that so…?”
At last, the expression on Jack’s face changes into something other than blithe indifference. He leans forward with his elbows on the table, chin resting in his hands. His head is cocked slightly in a way that reminds Clay of a young lady enamored with her date, and he can’t help but find it unnerving. Jack doesn’t seem to notice, however; he’s studying Clay’s face. His eyes are glittering with suppressed humor. The smile just barely tugging up the corners of his mouth is one a mother might give a child whose put all his clothes on backwards.
“Well, Clay,” Jack breaks the silence, snapping back into his normal posture so abruptly, like his joints are spring loaded, that Clay jumps. His knees hit the underside of the table and rattle the dishes. “I must be honest with you. I think you already know the answer to your own inquiry.”
He waits, but Jack apparently needs prompting. “Which is?”
“I’m here to ask questions.”
“Yeah,” Clay draws out the word. “But what for?”
“Answers to what?”
“Why, questions, of course!”
“But…” he stops himself. The look on Jack’s face is infuriatingly smug. Clay stands stiffly, leaving his unfinished coffee settled between plates, his jaw flexed in irritation. “Screw you, buddy.”
He drops the other half of the check over Paige’s bills and leaves without another word. Jack’s eyes are on him the whole way out, but he doesn’t turn to look.
Who has time for that kind of nonsense?
Clay avoids the diner for two weeks. The reporter makes him distinctly uncomfortable in a way that he can’t quite describe. No man smiles that much, he thinks resolutely, unless he’s got that much to smile about, and whatever it is that’s got Jack so happy, Clay doesn’t want any part of it. Especially not after being caught in one of his idiotic games.
It’s baffling to him that there are so many others who continue to willingly subject themselves to Jack’s laughable line of questioning, though, but people do. He catches snippets of conversations throughout town and at work, and despite his desertion of the diner, Paige continues to drink coffee there while she writes. When they find each other after work, she informs him that Jack is still there doing much the same thing.
“I don’t know why you’re being such a baby about this,” she teases him over dinner, but Clay stubbornly refuses to go back.
“I just don’t like the guy. There’s something off about him.”
“Well, yeah,” Paige agrees, “but he’s not going to jump across the diner and kill you or anything. I just don’t see what the problem is.”
It’s a matter of principle, really. There’s just something wrong about a man wandering into town and bugging the locals, asking questions for his own gain and offering nothing in return. It doesn’t seem fair. Besides, even if Jack won’t spill the beans, Clay is more than certain that whatever he’s writing about is as empty-headed as the man doing the writing, so the fact that all these people are lining up to be a part of it is just plain disturbing. Surely Jack will leave soon anyway.
At the end of the second week, however, something else begins to bother him. He’d listened to Jack’s inane questions for nearly three weeks before confronting him. Of course he’d remember a few conversations. So, it’s strange, he thinks, when Collin gets a cat, but perhaps Jack’s question put the idea in his head. That wouldn’t explain Ms. McGruder’s winning a car in a magazine sweepstakes, though, or Cindy’s free airline tickets to Florida, or Carl’s mother’s cancer scare that turned out to be a benign lump.
There are others, too. His neighbor loses his great grandfather’s lighter but finds a thousand dollars sewn into his mattress while searching for it. Paige’s best friend drops twenty pounds in ten days. Oddities begin to pile up, and perhaps it’s because Clay spent so long eavesdropping on the interviews that he’s the only one that puts it together. Now, if only he could figure out what it is, exactly, that he’s put together.
On Monday morning, Clay returns to the diner. He’s not entirely sure what he’s come here to ask, let alone how he’s going to ask it, but the point is that there’s something that needs to be asked and somebody has to do the asking. Besides, he figures, Jack loves questions. Maybe he’ll like answering them too.
He finds Jack engaged in conversation at the back of the diner. The woman across from him is answering a question, something about jail or a coma. There’s a plate full of powdered raspberry donuts in front of him that he’s casually demolishing at a speed normally reserved for competitive eating. One of the donuts is leaking jelly, and this one, he picks up, squeezing it slightly and watching the bright red, sugary substance gather atop it like a kid watching Santa come down the chimney. He’s so intensely focused on the food that he evidently forgets the woman across the table until she remarks on the odd behavior.
“I love sweets,” Jack says with that broad smile. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Becca? Do you like dessert?”
Clay waits for them to finish up the interview. In the meantime, he pays for half-a-dozen strawberry croissants and two cups of hot chocolate, carefully balancing the platter of pastries on his wrist as he approaches the booth once Becca makes her way out. He slides the plate over the previous, now empty, one.
He’s obviously made the right choice. Jack wiggles his fingers delightedly.
“What a pleasant surprise!” He announces, clearly giddy, and immediately begins tearing into the first pastry. “Clay, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
He tries to make himself feel as sure as he sounds. “I want to know how you’re doing this.”
Clay inhales deeply. His fingers drum pensively against the table.
“Look,” he says with the exhale, “I can’t help but notice that these questions of yours–that the answers matter.”
“Well, of course they matter,” Jack says patiently. “Why would I ask them if they didn’t?”
“But I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. That’s why I’m the one asking the questions.”
“But, you,” Clay rubs his hands over his face, “how is it that when you ask someone something, the way they answer the question actually happens?”
“You mean that their choice results in its own fruition.”
“Yes,” Clay affirms, perhaps a bit exasperatedly.
“Oh. Oh, I see.” The bell signaling an order is ready chimes loudly in the emptying diner. Jack, momentarily distracted, pauses with his mouth open. When he sees the plate of roast beef up on the metal counter separating the kitchen, he turns back to Clay, his usual smile in place. “Yes. That’s me.”
They spend a moment in contemplative silence. Jack’s expression remains frozen in place as his hand begins to slide toward another pastry, as if he doesn’t realize it’s happening. The inappropriateness of it jars Clay back into the situation.
When he speaks, it’s clear his sensibilities have been offended.
“Maybe for you.”
“No,” Clay says firmly. “No one can do that.”
Jack tuts disapprovingly. “It sounds like you’ve made a lot of assumptions.”
“It’s impossible,” he repeats, getting annoyed, but Jack merely tips his head toward the front of the diner. Clay hesitantly peeks around the booth, neck craned to see out the glass door and catch a glimpse of the sudden commotion out front.
Becca’s hands are cuffed behind her back. When Clay numbly slides back into his seat, he finds Jack looking quite pleased with himself.
“Okay,” Clay says shakily. “Okay. Okay.” And then, after a moment more, “What the hell are you?”
His earlier hopes are apparently for naught. Jack does not like to answer questions except with more questions.
“Would you rather know that,” he begins while Clay’s heart sinks into his stomach with dread, “or be able to choose the means of your own death?”
The word “death” coming out of this thing’s powdered sugar covered mouth is utterly disquieting. Everything about Jack, in fact, is disquieting. His brown eyes reflect his jubilant disposition. There’s stubble along his jaw. A pink tinge on his cheeks affirms his constant amusement, and his hair, dark shades of mahogany slicked back with pomade, contrasts all of his mannerisms in a way that is roguishly charming. He looks utterly human.
“What if I don’t answer?” Clay ventures, heavily disliking the way his voice quivers.
Jack’s body twitches to life suddenly. His elbows snap to his sides and his shoulders roll back in an instant. Clay’s knees hit the edge of the table again, exactly reminiscent of their first conversation.
“Then I’ll answer for you.”
There’s no way Clay’s about to let that happen. Besides, in this case, the question is an easy one. Nobody ever gets to choose the means of his death, anyway. It sounds more like a curse than a blessing.
“I want to know the answer,” Clay finally responds. Jack’s face lights up excitedly.
“Oh, good! I was hoping you’d pick that one,” he trills. “Alright, Clay, the truth is that I’m a scientist. An observer of sorts.” He pauses here to sip his hot chocolate and, finding the flavor too pleasing to resist, he finishes the cup in one swig. “Long story short, I’m conducting an experiment to learn about human behavior. I ask a question, then I observe both realities in order to see how reliably a human can judge itself.”
“Observe both realities?” Clay repeats, ignoring the rest of the odd wording. He wishes Paige were here. This is far more her field than his.
“That’s right. I watch the reality of this alternative, and the reality in which the other alternative happened instead. Some of you know yourselves quite well. Others. Well.” His eyes slide briefly to the door. Becca is long gone.
Okay, Clay thinks, clinging to the one word mantra. Okay. Okay.
What does all this mean?
Distractedly, he zeroes in on the details of Jack’s face. He’s got crow’s feet from smiling so much. The guy probably shops at Banana Republic for God’s sake.
“So, hypothetically,” the words come slowly, “if you asked me a question, and I answered it, you could tell me what would’ve happened if I’d made the other choice.”
“And a few weeks ago, when Sandra said she’d rather win a million dollars than be able to fly anywhere for free…”
“Tomorrow,” Jack confirms cheerfully. “She found a lottery ticket in her gutter this morning.”
A million dollars. That’s a lot of money. Hell, Carl could’ve won the whole jackpot if he’d been more heartless. And then there’s his neighbor with the thousand dollars, and Ms. McGruder with her new car.
“So, if I asked you to ask me a question –“
“Oh, no, no, no, no,” Jack interrupts emphatically, his finger wagging. “That wouldn’t be very scientific at all. It only works if I choose the questions.”
Of course that would be the case, Clay realizes. Otherwise he’d just be granting wishes. Still, he finds himself considering the words against his better judgment. For the most part, Becca aside, Jack’s inquiries generally seem to run the gamut of favorable outcomes and benign ones. The risk is certainly there. It’s just a matter of the reward.
A million dollars is a lot of money.
He taps his finger against his mug and asks before he can stop himself, “Would you ask me a question, then?”
“That doesn’t sound like a good idea for you.”
“Why?” He goes rigid in his seat. He hadn’t realized he’d been sweating, but the faux-leather clings to his skin through the thin fabric of his shirt. “Are you going to ask me something terrible?”
“I had no intention of doing that, but this is about foresight, Clay, and I’m sure you said you didn’t want an interview.”
“Yeah, well, I changed my mind.”
Jack’s grin widens minutely. Clay pretends not to notice. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” he insists, his nervousness fueling his impatience.
“Alright then!” Jack wastes no time grabbing his pen. He tips the notepad up toward him, obscuring his scribbles. “Let’s start with a fun one, shall we? Something very simple. If you could choose between falling in love or finding something you’ve lost, which would you pick?”
Clay’s posture droops at the question. He’s relieved and disappointed by the options. “But I’m already in love.”
“Paige. My girlfriend.”
“The–oh, I see, the woman you–oh,” Jack draws out the vowel. His hand rises up to his mouth in a rather dainty and theatrical display of awkwardness. “How silly of me! I guess I’ll just have to save that one for later. Let’s see here.” He trails off momentarily, tapping his chin. Clay can easily imagine the light bulb clicking on above his head when he sticks his finger up in a moment of inspiration.
“I’ve got it. Would you rather marry the woman you’re dating now, or lose her to another man?”
“What?” Clay jolts halfway out of his seat, knocking over a half-empty glass of water. The waitress gives him a pointed glance and he slowly lowers himself back down. “What kind of a question is that?”
Jack looks mildly offended. “Well, I thought it was an interesting one.”
“Yours to make,” he replies lightly.
Some choice. Clay wrings his hands in his lap. He should’ve kept his mouth shut. So much for a million dollars, he laments, because this is certainly going to be his last question. He’s suddenly glad that Paige isn’t here despite his earlier wish.
It’s not that he doesn’t love her, he reminds himself, woodenly sipping his hot chocolate and watching Jack coo over his dwindling plate of sweets. It’s not a matter of love, though. It’s a matter of life. Which is long. At twenty-six, he can reasonably expect to live for another fifty years, and to be with the same woman for the entirety of it is something he hadn’t considered. Forever is a long time to be tied down, and then, there would eventually be kids. He’d be stuck in this town without ever getting to see what else the world had to offer.
But that’s not fair, is it? What would Paige pick? Clay chews his tongue irately. Damn Jack, he thinks, and his damn questions. He and Paige have been dating for nearly two years, and while he’s enjoyed it, how could he reasonably assume that would remain true for the next five decades? There are a lot of people in the world. Not to mention possibilities, places to see, people to meet. If something like Jack can exist, there’s no telling what he might be barring himself from. If he marries Paige, he’ll never get the chance to find out.
“I pick the second one,” he finally mutters.
“Oh?” Jack gradually lowers the croissant just before it reaches his mouth. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Clay tenses, immediately defensive, “I love her, but how can I be sure that I will when I’m thirty, or forty, or fifty-years-old?”
“That’s a good point,” he concedes after a moment’s thought.
And then he resumes eating. Clay waits for something to happen, some Adonis to drop out of the sky, but there’s nothing but the scraping of forks against plates and the quiet chatter of the sparse diners. Jack is licking his fingers clean.
“So?” Clay asks impatiently.
“So? Would you like another one?”
“No! I just–is that all?”
“Well, I mean, are you going to finish your hot chocolate?”
Bordering on furious now, he shoves the mug across the table. Some of the liquid sloshes up over the rim of the cup, but Jack doesn’t seem to care.
Clay yanks his jacket on and leaves without another word.
It takes three weeks. Three agonizing weeks. Clay wishes it would’ve been over with the moment he answered the question, but no. Time passes sluggishly in a daze of anxious paranoia. It feels to him that he spends the next twenty-one days wading through corn syrup.
It begins with the text messages, or so he thinks. He never finds concrete proof. Still, when Paige’s phone buzzes against the dresser at three in the morning, his hand immediately reaches for it, typing in her password at a near frenzied pace.
She merely raises an eyebrow at him. She’s barely visible in the dark, hopefully missing his panicked expression, and he replaces the phone back on the nightstand. It’s her sister.
The one reassurance doesn’t help. Each time her phone vibrates, an alarm bell in his head rattles along with it. After a few days, it’s enough to make her angry, and they fight for the first time in six months when she finds him scrolling through her text messages again. He’s on the couch, hunched over the screen. Paige stands on the other side of the coffee table and waits for him to notice.
When he does, she says impatiently, “Are you finished?” Her tone suggests that he promptly say yes. Clay nods, but his apologetic look hardly abates her frustration. “What has gotten into you?”
Clay puts the phone in her waiting hand and keeps his eyes in the table. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that a few weeks ago, you were so distant I wasn’t sure you cared anymore, and now you’re acting like I’m the one who’s about to disappear on you.”
“Well, I obviously care a lot then,” he tries to lighten the mood, but in the face of her anger, he may as well have told a knock-knock joke to a brick wall. She shakes her head, shoves her phone in her pocket, and grabs the car keys.
He makes no move to stop her. Paige pauses with one hand on the doorknob, the other on her hip. “You’d better figure yourself out, Clay, because I sure as hell can’t.”
He’s in the middle of asking her where she’s going when she shuts the door. The fight only exacerbates his worries. He turns her drawers inside out in search of a different brand of condoms, or new lingerie, or anything incriminating, but there’s never anything there. He apologizes at the end of every argument. He buys her flowers. He absorbs the tones and lilts of her voice, commits her jokes to memory, studies her face while she sleeps, right up until the end of the third week when she sits him down, her lips set in a grim line.
“We need to talk.”
It’s over, she says. She’s fallen in love with someone else.
Long before that moment, Clay knows he’s made a mistake. He storms into the diner early the next morning, his hands fisted resolutely in the pockets of his leather jacket, and takes a seat at the counter. It feels as though he’s been emptied out and filled with cement. He can hardly turn his head when the door chime announces the entrance of a new patron, and when Jack at last arrives in a flurry of good cheer, he hardly makes it four steps before Clay is grabbing him by the sleeve of his coat and sitting him down in a booth.
“I’m hungry, Clay.” Jack is smiling, but his words don’t sound very friendly. Clay wisely orders a dozen assorted pastries and two mochas. It’s only after the food arrives that Jack speaks again, and whatever emotion he’d hidden beneath his plastic smile seems to dissipate at the first sugary bite. “So, what can I help you with? Are you here for another interview?”
Clay is hardly in the mood for games. His tone is blunt. “I want my girlfriend back.”
“That’s not what you said a few weeks ago,” Jack answers easily.
Clay slams his fist against the table, ignoring the looks of the waitresses. “I don’t care! How could I have known which choice to make? You tricked me.”
“Why, Clay.” Jack gives him a sympathetic look as he tears a sugar cookie in two. “I don’t know anything about that, remember? I’m just an observer.”
There is no reply. Jack dips the cookie into his drink, watching fascinatedly as the coffee drips from the sweet, forming a thin layer of buttery oil on the top of the liquid in his mug. When he takes a bite, his eyes light up, and he becomes immediately engrossed in repeating the process. It’s apparent he’s not going to answer.
“I want another question,” Clay says firmly.
“That’s not really what you want.”
“Yes it is! I want to fix this!”
Jack still doesn’t look up from his food. “Fine, then. If you could pick between being you, or being the man your girlfriend is in love with, which would you choose?”
Clay slams his hand on the table again. He shoots the staff a glance that has them quickly turning away. “That’s not fixing it.”
“I thought you said you just wanted to be with her.”
“It’s not the same!”
Jack shrugs. He doesn’t look concerned in the slightest. “So, you pick you, then?”
“I really wish you’d stop doing that,” he remarks nonchalantly, waving a hand at Clay’s fist still pushed into the tabletop.
“I wish you would just give me a choice that makes any damn sense.”
“It’s hardly my fault that you don’t know yourself.”
When Clay’s hand comes down again, Jack’s smile fades. Just a little. He wipes his gloves on a napkin and laces his fingers together. If he’s angry, his tone doesn’t reflect it.
“I’ll level with you, Clay, and ask you outright. What is it that you think you want from me?”
“I already told you,” he replies through gritted teeth. “I want my girlfriend back.”
“I don’t have to be a scientist to tell you that’s obviously not true, not that you would know,” Jack continues before he can be interrupted, stopping Clay’s ready retort. “Would you rather kill your girlfriend’s lover and win her back, or leave things as they are?”
He trails off. This is yet another bad idea, but it’s not like he has a choice. The available decisions are bleak: rely on Jack’s questions to resolve the situation, or walk away. Clay puts his head in his hands, pressing his palms into his eyes to try and soothe a headache, and attempts to think through the rapidly escalating stress. He can hear the scraping of empty plates around him. The kitchen staff shouts in the background. The diner fills over the next ten minutes, the breakfast crowd multiplying as it nears close to eight in the morning. Jack mumbles quietly to the waitress, and Clay feels the table vibrate as she sets down another full platter.
It feels like there should be an obvious answer to this question, he thinks irritably, but there isn’t. Paige’s lover wouldn’t be the only one getting hurt if he died, and Clay has no intention of killing anyone. But he won’t lose her either.
When he finally looks up, Jack is tonguing the inside of a Bavarian cream donut in a rather suggestive way. He’s holding it above his head like he’s emptying a pitcher of water into his mouth. His trench coat separates slightly around the middle button, and it only takes a moment for Clay to realize that Jack is naked underneath it. The absurdity almost makes him laugh, but it’s hard to find anything funny right now.
“I would never hurt her like that,” he interrupts the spectacle before him.
“Really?” Jack removes his tongue from the pastry. He licks the sugar from his lips thoughtfully. “It’s funny you should say that. In another reality, your answers actually led you to kill her. Oh, don’t give me that look,” he chides, tapping Clay on the nose with a sticky finger like he’s teasing a child. “You had a reason. It’s a long story, but it involved the misinterpretation of some romantic poetry, and then there was this bear at the zoo, and she contracted this strange disease that–oh, nevermind,” Jack cuts himself off, forgoing the rest. “I’m sure you can figure it out from there.”
Clay can’t, of course, but he’s not concerned with trying. “I would never do that.”
“You have no idea what you’d do.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“But you di-id!” Jack singsongs in a wavering, high-pitched voice. “There’s no point in arguing about it, anyway. What’s your choice?”
Clay flexes his fingers around his mug, not quite meeting the eyes of the man across from him. “I don’t think those are very fair choices.”
“If choices were fair, they’d be easy to make, Clay, and I wouldn’t have a study at all.”
“I won’t choose.”
“Then I’ll choose for you.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Oh?” Jack tilts his head. “And why is that?”
“Because, if you did that, then you won’t know what I would’ve picked. It doesn’t fit in with your experiment.”
Jack stops eating. A pastry drops from his grasp and rolls. The corner of his mouth twitches. Like a marionette’s, his hands slide off the table and into his lap, and Clay wonders not for the first time if Jack is not, in fact, in control of his limbs.
“That’s very clever of you,” he admits. His shoulders convulse in an attempted shrug, but he doesn’t seem to notice the unnatural movement. “Tell you what, Clay. I don’t particularly like this situation you’ve created, but I’ll admit that your deduction is reasonable, given what you know, so I’ll offer you one last question and not a single one more than that. Do you accept?”
Clay nods, satisfied with both the option and that he’s taken Jack down a peg. Men like that, who think they can manipulate others so easily, deserve to be outsmarted once in a while.
“Alright, then. Let’s shake on it. No funny business, now, this question is very simple,” Jack explains, and after they’ve shaken hands, Jack’s fingers clenching and unclenching like ungreased hinges, he asks, “Would you rather die by the end of the week, or have you and Paige fall happily in love at the cost of someone else’s life instead?”
The question is immediate. “Who?”
“No one you know.”
“I thought you said I couldn’t choose my death,” Clay points out suspiciously, but Jack just smiles benignly at him. His eyes have started drifting to the pile of powdered donuts on the table again.
“Like I said, it’s a very simple question.”
The answer is easy, then. “Fine. I pick the second option.”
Once again, Jack returns to his food, and Clay waits once more to see if he’ll say anything else, but he seems completely uninterested in him, now. There’s powdered sugar forming a ring around his mouth. Some cream filling dots the corner of his lips. When he catches Clay looking at him, he grins widely.
“I love sweets,” he says. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Clay? Do you like dessert?”
Clay shudders. He shoves his mug away and stands. “You can finish that.”
“Oh, how kind of you!”
Jack’s giggling follows him out the door.
The same evening, Clay answers the door to find Paige outside, her eyes red-rimmed and wet with tears.
She’s made a mistake, she says. Clay replies that he knows a thing or two about that. At his insistence, they find new places for their breakfast dates, far from Jack and Diner 66. On Wednesday, four days later, they have breakfast in bed. On Thursday, they drive into the city to get brunch at a white tablecloth restaurant. Paige makes a joke about marriage, and Clay’s hand slides over the small box in his jacket, dampening the velvet against his sweaty palm. It’s still in his pocket when they get home. They have plenty of time now, he thinks, with the rest of their lives ahead of them, and there’s not telling what might change. There’s no need to rush an uncertain future. He leaves the ring in the drawer of his nightstand.
On Friday, they have a celebratory picnic in unusually warm weather.
Clay is picking her a flower when he’s stung by a bee.
Too bad he’s lost his EpiPen.
By Subodhana Wijeyeratne
When the documentarian comes over the ridge, the biologist is already unpacked and fussing over a bag.
He descends the slope, knees akimbo against the treacherous scree. His shadow tremulous in Nafthalar’s diffuse sunlight. The biologist’s tent is already up—a violence of silver amidst the giant teal fungi and strange trees like giant eyestalks. She does not look up when he approaches, though he knows she heard him.
He stops a few feet away, and swallows, and says, “Hi.”
She straightens and turns and bows briefly. She is wearing a breather and he knows that behind it she is pursing her lips. Her standard greeting. Rendered unfamiliar by the alien sun and the alien air and the technology keeping them alive.
She does not say anything.
“When did you arrive?” he asks.
“Not long ago,” she says.
“You look hot.”
“It is hot.”
He looks around.
“Yes. To begin with.”
“Where is he?”
She gestures with her head. She has cut her hair into a fierce bob and it looks good on her, he thinks, but does not say so.
“Over there. Down by the river.”
“How’s he looking?”
“Well that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”
She turns and resumes her fumbling. He lingers a few moments and then puts his backpack on the ground and takes out his drone. It skitters around on spindle thin mechanical legs, whirring and twittering like a mechanical rodent. Finally it straightens and fixes its lens on him.
“Online,” it says.
“Establish campsite,” he says.
He turns and wanders off because he cannot think of anything else to do. He can hear the drone working behind him. The shuffle shuffle of pebbles and the dry hiss of the tent. He cannot see it but he knows it is blooming behind him like a ripening dewdrop.
He peers down at the valley but he cannot see their quarry. After a few moments she wanders up next to him with a scanner.
“So, how are things?” he asks.
“Yeah. You know. Stuff.”
“Same as always.”
“How’s the new place?”
“It’s a lab.”
And then, “You don’t miss Earth?”
“I’ll be back soon enough.”
Finally she turns to look at him.
“Soon enough,” she says.
“Well, I’m glad you’re happy out there.”
“I’m doing well too.”
For a moment he thinks maybe she will draw near or at least smile, but she does neither. She just nods and says, “We’ll strike out just before dawn. Keep within a mile of him at all times. He’s old now so I don’t expect him to move very fast. But you never know.”
“Don’t get too close either.”
And with that she turns and walks to her tent and leaves him there with nothing but the answers he had prepared to the questions that she had not asked.
The nights of Nafthalar are long and absolute. No moon to illuminate the gloom and the stars so cold and so far. Nothing but creeping shadows upon the darkness and winds slow and directionless like the spirits of a lost army still searching for battle. He remembers how lonely it had been the first time he was here, and thinks how lonely it is now, though many years have passed and he is much changed.
He sleeps, but not for long. When he wakes he is alert and fretful. He reads the news a while, his face a topography of blue and black in the sharp light of the screen. After a while he gets dressed and clamps the breather over his mouth and heads outside.
Already a frost is forming on the ground and there is a thin swirl of snow in the air. He turns on his chest light and his pheromone pump and immediately something clatters away in the night with the sound of claws on stone. He walks away from the camp and up a ridge. Slipping sometimes on the ice underfoot. It takes him longer than expected but he is determined not to go back. Then finally near the summit he sees a hint of blue light and the excitement overwhelms him and he clambers up to the top on all fours as he did the first time and perhaps, he thinks, he is not so changed after all.
When he is finally at the top he stops and puts his hands on his hips, panting, and laughs.
Big Blue is there.
He is sleeping. A colossal bioluminescent explosion of tentacles and gently swaying cilia the size of a man. His airsac, twenty meters across, deflated in the cold. Great flaps of glowing flesh, gossamer thin and rippling with light. A vast mass of life possessed of neither head nor tail nor left nor right.
He is still beautiful.
The documentarian sits on the ridge and ignores the cold clawing at his buttocks and watches Big Blue slumbering. Yes, older, he thinks. Some of those vast fleshy flaps frayed at the edges. Scars on his elephant-legs, each fifteen meters high and as vast around as tree trunks. Smaller creatures sneak around it, seeking warmth and a meal of parasites, or perhaps just entranced by the glimmer and shimmer of those lights that chase themselves over its skin like they too were alive and had intent and places to go.
The documentarian turns up his pump and turns off his light and watches. Time passes and the glowing decreases as the fire of the sun finally leaves the animal’s flesh. Presently it begins to snow in earnest, fat spidery flakes, so heavy he can feel them coming to rest on his naked head.
When he returns to the camp a while later he sees that the lights are on in the biologist’s tent. He thinks of approaching but when he draws near her door he sees footsteps in snow. Footsteps heading towards the ridge. He follows them and sees she has taken a route just a few meters from his. Up to the ridge, where he just was. She must have slipped past him in the dark.
Suddenly he is very tired and he returns to his tent and dry swallows some pills and a few moments later is deep in a sleep as dreamless as Nafthalar’s night is dark.
The next day she is standing at the top of the ridge with her scanner when he comes out. Her bag packed and her drone a few feet behind her with a little cart hitched to its back. She descends clumsily and falls a couple of times but he knows better than to offer assistance.
“He’s warming up,” she says. “We have an hour or so.”
“Do you ever sleep?”
“Sleep is for the weak.”
He yawns and chokes immediately and begins to cough.
“Better get your breather on,” she says.
“I already ate.”
“Of course you did.”
He is in his tent when he hears the deep rumble of Big Blue’s call. The squawking overhead of alarmed skyjackals. And then, the thud of a giant foot on the ground.
He comes out with his toothbrush still in his mouth in time to see the creature lumbering past like some titanic god from a time before reason or order. Its pillar legs not ten feet away. Its airsac distending rapidly as it goes, ozone blue like a Portuguese man o’war. In its transparent belly colossal coils of innards sliding in aureate ichor. He is stuck to the spot and a little dribble of toothpaste dollops fatly from the corner of his lip onto his jumpsuit but he does not care.
They head off after it, the drones buzzing and humming behind them. Twenty minutes behind schedule, the biologist chides, but the creature is not moving fast. They climb up the ridge and down and then over another. There is a little stream at the bottom, over-blue water and rippling sheets of living things half-plant and half-animal and altogether alien. Little scurrying creatures chasing each other in play or in hunger with equal violence. The biologist stops occasionally and crouches by some rock or pond and runs her scanner over the ground and mutters something into it and then looks at him and nods and they keep on. Never losing sight of Big Blue’s great crest like some gargantuan electric blossom up ahead.
“Sixteen hours to sunset,” she says. “We should take turns taking naps.”
“I’m going to try to make it all the way through,” says the documentarian.
They continue on. To the east a vast valley, flat and dull grey, with a river meandering through it in multitudinous mercury streams. The odd squat tree with crowns as flat and uniform as a mushroom’s hood. In the clearing sky motes that could be flying creatures or something else.
A little while longer in silence and the documentarian says, “Are you going to be like this for the rest of the trip?”
The biologist glances at him and doesn’t say anything.
“So you are, then.”
“Let’s just get this done.”
The documentarian sighs. “I know you didn’t expect this but I didn’t expect you to be so difficult.”
“I’m not being difficult.”
“Yes you are. I know you well enough to tell.”
“Maybe you don’t know me very well.”
“Bullshit. I know you as well as I know myself.”
“Maybe you don’t know yourself very well.”
She holds up her hand.
“No, listen. Can you hear that?”
They have come to a stop, all of them. Up ahead Big Blue’s tentacles all turn and point east. Their tips splayed and quivering.
“Skyjackals!” says the documentarian, and turns to his drone. “Shit.”
They lie flat on their bellies, pheromone pumps turned up high. The rich scent of the stuff in their noses, like sweat and pollen. The documentarian whispers something and his drone spits four small orbs of black into the air which zip off towards Big Blue.
“What’re you doing?” says the biologist. “You’re going to lose them.”
He doesn’t say anything. He is holding a small screen to his face and in it the flying things from the east are resolving into shape. Hummingbird-like wings, four each, and slung between them a carnivore. Vicious teeth in elongated snouts and the staring eyes of all things that kill to live. They zoom towards Big Blue and the colossal creature shudders and the flaps on its body open up like sails run through with vivid violet veins.
“Sixteen of them,” says the documentarian. “Two alphas. See that? Two alphas!”
“I see it,” says the biologist.
The creatures bear down on Big Blue and orbit him, as tiny as flies against his colossal flanks. Then one or two of them fly straight in between his flaps to the delicate flesh of his torso and hover there a while, scratching at the skin and nuzzling it. Then another slips in, and another. Soon all are deep in Big Blue’s folds, busy at some task neither human can see.
“I’m going in closer,” says the documentarian.
“I’m going in closer.”
They stare at their screens, and after a few moments the biologist says, “Are those parasites?”
“Looks like it.”
“Wow, look at them go!”
A deep rumble, and Big Blue’s flaps quiver. Shimmering colors all over his body, turquoise and deep blue and crimson like fresh blood. Then he shudders and a thin spray erupts from him in an aerosol haze. With it a strange aroma not quite of vinegar and not quite of flowers. The skyjackals scatter in chattering rage and then circle back and slip back up to Big Blue’s hide and get back to their feast.
The biologists laughs. “He loves it! Look at him. Look at that flushing!”
“Old boy’s got some new tricks.”
“Yeah,” says the biologist. “Who’d’ve thought?”
Though the documentarian cannot see it, she is smiling.
They make camp not soon after the end of Nafthalar’s lingering dusk and Big Blue has settled for the evening in the lee of a low hill. The biologist disappears into her tent as soon as it is erect with a nod and nothing else. The documentarian lingers watching the stars wink into view in the moonless sky and eventually the rim of the Milky Way fades into view and blazes above like it were the revelation of all revelations.
When the cold begins to bite he goes to his tent and extracts a little cooker and a packet of bacon and some bread and a small bottle of black sauce and a little pan. A few minutes later he hears a tapping over the rustling of the fat and the oil.
“Hold on,” he says and takes a plaster and covers the ring on his right hand. “Come in.”
The biologist’s head peeks in and for an instant he remembers an occasion just like this from long ago and feels a nostalgia that evaporates as she starts to speak.
“Is that bacon?” she says.
She steps in and zips the door of the tent up behind her. A brief hiss as it repressurizes.
“You brought bacon?”
“Yeah. Who’d leave Earth without bacon?”
“So, you want some?”
She plonks to the floor, cross legged, across from him. The sizzling meat between them. It crackles and curls at the edges and the fat turns from milky to brownish and finally to clear gold. The biologist opens her mouth but before she can speak the documentarian has extracted three dripping rashers and placed them on a slice of bread and squeezed a thin line of brown sauce over them with the flourish of an artist savoring the last few strokes of a masterpiece. He holds the plate out to her and she takes it from him and folds the slice in half. The crunch of the stuff as she takes her first bite. The slow roll of her jaws as she chews luxuriously.
He throws a couple of rashers more into the spitting oil and leans back against his bed. “Must be weird living on a station. My skin always dries up on those things.”
The biologist takes another bite and looks up at him. “As if you’d know. You’ve never spent more than a week on one.”
“Wrong. I spent six months on Chandra.”
“Last year. Filming cockroaches.”
“Someone paid you to film cockroaches on a space station?”
“Apparently it’s a problem.”
“My parents still can’t get their head around it. I think it confirmed all their wildest concerns about what I do when I told them I was off to space to film bugs.”
The biologist chuckles and takes another huge bite and sighs. They sit in silence awhile, watching the bacon cook.
“How are they?” she asks.
“They’re good. Retired now.”
“Yeah. Back on Earth. In Brazil, would you believe?”
“That was always the plan, right?”
He looks at her and frowns and she pauses halfway through a bite when she notices. A little smear of brown sauce at the corner of her mouth. Then she swallows and says “What?
“I’m just surprised you remembered.”
She doesn’t say anything.
“My brother got married.”
He turns off the flame and puts the bacon on a slice of bread.
“He invited you, you know.”
“To his wedding?”
“Yes. He sent you an invitation.”
“He probably sent it to the wrong address.”
“That’s what I said.”
The biologist pops the last of the sandwich into her mouth and swallows and wipes her hands on her trousers and stands up. The little dab of sauce still at the corner of her lips. The documentarian points to the pan. “More?”
“No. Thank you, though.”
“You’ve got some sauce on your mouth.”
She wipes it away.
“Thank you very much.”
She walks to the exit and unzips it and for a moment the documentarian thinks that is all she will say before she leaves. But she pauses, halfway through, and turns to him and says, “Tell him I’m sorry, will you? I would love to have been there but…well.”
“You’d’ve been welcome,” says the documentarian.
She stares at him, still and inscrutable, and then for the briefest of moments her face softens.
“I know,” she says quietly. “That’s why I couldn’t have come.”
And with that, she is gone.
They walk in silence the next day as Big Blue stomps with massive dignity over the tributaries of the river. After a while the documentarian activates a drone and sends it off to the west, into the narrow valleys and crevasses that scar the hillsides where fleshy leaves droop in the gathering heat and insect analogues buzz and quarrel endlessly.
“Five days from the beach,” says the biologist after a while. “He won’t make it without feeding.”
“There’ll be something nearby.”
“I wonder why he’s so far inland.”
“Not a clue. He’s not the only one, though.”
“Two other males, at least. The drones caught them.”
“I wonder if he remembers us.”
“I doubt it.”
“Do they even have memories? They don’t even have a central nervous system.”
“Doesn’t mean they don’t have memories.”
“We’re probably just a clutch of weird smelling chemicals to him.”
“So maybe he remembers that.”
“Yeah, but that’s not us.”
“People are just clutches of weird smelling chemicals.”
The documentarian sucks in air through his teeth and says, “Wow. That’s dark.”
They descend into the valley and carry on over the grey-black earth, water welling up around their boots, ink, black and glossy with alluvium.
“Whoa,” says the documentarian. “Look at this.”
He patches the feed from the drone through to the biologist. A shuddering chaos of a bare stone cliff face. Smears of lichen like emerald blood on the rock. And then suddenly an explosion of pink. There is a cluster of living things in a small fissure. Opalescent blobs clinging to the rock face. Tentacles as slim as leaves and moving against the wind.
“Wow,” says the biologist. “Never seen those before.”
She turns and heads up the hillside.
“Where’re you going?”
“What, you’re just going to climb up that cliff face?”
She is already halfway up, clambering on all fours, her drone alarmed and buzzing behind her, chattering.
“Yes. You don’t have to come.”
“I’m not going to.”
“And what am I supposed to do when you fall off and break your legs?”
“Summon the pod. It’ll take me to safety.”
She stops and looks down at him. Her face obscured in her own shadow. Like the silhouette of some old prophet descending in rage from the mountaintop.
“Stop it,” she says, and continues on.
He is alone for the next few hours, trudging along behind Big Blue, slipping and cursing and avoiding the great circular puddles the creature has left in its wake. The sun rides high and bakes the ground solid. Every now and then the documentarian stops and looks back over his shoulder to see if the biologist is behind him, but she never is.
Then in the middle of the long afternoon Big Blue lumbers up to a patch of huge pitcher plants, amphora shaped and ten feet tall. The vague shapes of half-digested skyjackals inside, dark and inert. Big Blue comes to a halt and extends a giant proboscis and dips it into one of them. The documentarian can see the nectar as it enters the creature’s body and delicate tendrils of it osmosing greenly through its insides. He dispatches three drones and films intently and does not notice the biologist coming up behind him.
“Worth it?” he says.
She holds up a small tub with one of the anemone creatures inside, wobbling like a living blancmange.
“Worth it.” She looks at Big Blue. “He’s hungry.”
“Must be exhausting, all this walking around on land.”
“Tell me about it.”
They watch the spectacle a while. Then he says, “Do you think he’s going to make it?”
“I don’t know. He’s quite old.”
“Well, if there’s no other male there…”
“On a beach like that? There will be.”
“That’s what I thought.” And then, “Remember last time?”
“Remember how we didn’t think he’d make it then?”
“Maybe he’ll make it this time too.”
The documentarian frowns. “God, you’re so negative.”
“It’s pronounced “realistic”.”
The biologist shrugs. “If you say so.”
“This is just like last time.”
“You weren’t so whiny back then.”
“And you were just as obstinate.”
The documentarian snorts and walks away.
The biologist chuckles. “Yep,” she says. “Just like last time.”
It is just before nightfall that they see the other male on the horizon. A shapeless silhouette lumbering slowly in their direction, glowing neon and fluorescent on a horizon slowly bleeding from blue to black. Big Blue stops dead in its tracks, membranes rigid, tentacles pointed at the interloper.
“Holy shit,” says the biologist, scrambling for her gear.
“On it,” says the documentarian.
Six drones buzz up and off into the gathering murk and as they do Big Blue begins to call. The sound so deep it seems to rise out of the earth like the drums of the underworld. The pebbles at their feet dancing against the vibrations. Then abruptly it ends and leaves the air shuddering and the biologist and the documentarian breathless.
The male on the horizon stops.
“He’s a big one,” says the documentarian.
“Let me see.”
The biologist leans into him and peers at the screen.
“Wow,” she says, and looks up at Big Blue. “You think he can handle it?”
“Yeah, he can handle it,” says the documentarian, grinning.
Already the response is upon them, the earthquake-low rumble, and Big Blue is enraged. He unfurls his membranes and sweeps them up and down, iridescing in the darkness like a fallen aurora.
“Here we go,” says the biologist.
Big Blue stomps the ground twice and begins to shake. The earth shaking with him. A rumble and boom erupting from beneath them louder than before and more forceful. The pebbles spring hither and thither. The sound rises until they can barely stand it and Big Blue whips the gossamer substance of his body with rising fervor until the world is illuminated with his rage and his call is so loud the biologist and the documentarian have to cover their ears.
When he is done, they cheer.
He finishes with four stamps on the ground and his body slowly subsides to limpness but the other male’s response is already thundering out of the east. Diminished by distance and perhaps not as strong to begin with. Yet the ground still shakes and on the horizon he blazes a while, redder and brighter than Big Blue. And then Big Blue starts up again and so the two behemoths go on backwards and forwards getting louder and brighter until the biologist and documentarian feel sure they are about to explode and scatter themselves bodily all over the valley. At last the male in the distance lets out a forlorn bellow and its light diminishes and it disappears into the far distant darkness without a trace.
Big Blue stomps the ground a few more times and launches into another display, but he too is exhausted and his colors less vibrant and he ends the show halfway through the cycle. The fizzing light of his flesh dissipating into the night. Naught now but the sound of his alien huffing and the hormones flooding in torrents from his skin.
“You gotta see this,” says the documentarian.
They watch the footage from the cameras, nestled at the bottom of a hill. Leaning in together conspiratorially and laughing and high-fiving in delight. The drones stand by in silence, undirected and unaware. It is not until the cold winds of the evening slip across the valley floor and onto them that they stir and begin to pitch the tents.
The biologist tries to sleep but she can’t. Scattered visions of the night crowding her head. The confines of her tent semidark and expansive and empty. When she realizes what she is going to do the tension rises in her and after a while wrestling with it she gets up and reaches into her bag. She pulls out a bottle of dark amber liquid and dons her breather and heads out into the frosty night.
The documentarian is sitting on the floor by his bed when she goes in. Reading something from an old book. Older, she thinks, and going to fat. The hair on his head receding, his forehead high and pitted. He looks up at her, eyebrows raised, and she remembers that this is what he does when he does not know how to react.
She smiles and holds up the bottle. “Drink?” she says.
She turns to leave.
“No, wait. I don’t have any glasses though.”
“Just wipe it when you hand it back.”
She sits opposite him, cross-legged, and opens the bottle with a crack. She takes a swig and it is deep and fiery and hot as sulphur in her throat. She hands the bottle to him gasping with the force of it and he takes it and sips a little.
“What happened to your finger?”
She points at his hand. “That plaster.”
“Oh. I skinned it.”
They drink in silence but for the crackle of the tent cloth. She takes a good hard look at his face and he does not seem to mind. She does not remember his eyes being so small, or his lips being so full. She does not remember him having flecks of silver in his beard and in his hair, and then remembers that her memories are of long ago, and perhaps of a different person.
He takes another swig and hands her back the bottle and she takes a drink without wiping the mouth and puts the bottle down next to her. Then she lies down and looks up at the rippling tent cloth overhead. The creeping warmth of the booze on her skin and in her heart. She stretches and says, “Just like last time.”
“We’re older now.”
She shrugs. “We all get wiser.”
“Not so sure about that.”
She props herself up on one arm and looks over at him. He is gazing off into a dark corner of the tent, chewing his lip. Face half lost in shadow. He has not noticed her looking at him and for a moment she sees him unpoised and wonders if this is how he really is now. Old and melancholy and a little lost.
“How are you?” she asks.
He snaps his head around at her like a bird.
“I’m good! You?”
“No. I mean, how are you, really?”
He looks away. And then, “You want the real answer?”
“Just not bad?”
“Just not bad.”
“You seem so busy.”
“How do you know?”
She shrugs. “I read the news.”
“Oh. For a moment there I thought you took an interest.”
She nearly tells him the truth but instead she holds the bottle out to him and he stares into its dark amber depths for a few moments before taking a swig and grimacing. And again they look at each other and open their mouths at the same time and get through half a syllable each before chuckling in unison.
The documentarian leans back and says, “Please.”
“No, you go.”
“I talk enough as it is.”
“I like listening to you talk.”
“That’s a lie.”
“No, it’s not. The only problem is you talk too much.”
The documentarian smiles and looks away and is silent for a good long time. The biologist begins to think he has got lost in a daydream and she is about to prod him when he says, quietly and barely audible over the crackling of the tent, “It’s good to see you.”
She reaches out and takes the bottle and takes another drink. The hearty glug of the liquid in her throat. She does not say anything but lies silently in that twilight, watching him with what could have been sadness for him, or else sadness for herself. She cannot be sure which.
She is only awake for a few moments before she realizes she is hung over. Her tongue fat in her mouth and a dry pain at the front of her skull. She opens her eyes and realizes she is not in her tent and in a panic looks to her side. But the documentarian is asleep on the floor a few feet away, fully dressed and mouth pressed to the ground and drooling slightly like a remora come loose.
She steps shoeless and silent across the tent floor and checks the time as she goes. It is already bright outside, and hot. She checks the time and whispers “Shit!” and prods the documentarian with her foot.
“Oh god,” he groans. “Oh sweet Jesus in the manger.”
“Wake up. We’re late.”
He rolls over onto his front, yes cherry red. The side of his face wrinkled like cloth. “What was that shit? You said it was whiskey. Not…demon semen. ’
“Stop whining. Get ready.”
She turns and zips open the tent. The heat and the light and the moistureless wind in an explosion as sudden and violent as a grenade. She steps blindly into the world and finds herself unexpectedly in shadow. She opens her eyes slowly and looks up at the sight before her and screams and then clamps her hands over her mouth. After a few seconds she reaches back into the tent with her foot and whips it around a bit. The frantic rustling of the material like static.
“Hey!” she hisses.
“Get your camera and come out quietly.”
“Just get out here!”
The documentarian staggers out a few seconds later and gasps and falls backwards into the tent.
Big Blue is barely twenty meters away. His bulk towering overhead. The patter of his secretions on the floor like gentle rain. He sways gently and tastes the air. All of his tentacles pointed at the two, some rigid, some rippling slowly with eerie octopus flexibility.
The biologist stretches out her hand and steps forward. The documentarian hisses and grabs her shirt but she pinches his wrist and he whips his hand back. The tentacles draw near her. Flushing now, purple and blue and pink. The biologist reaches out and touches them. Smooth and warm under her fingertips and pulsating organically. They caress her skin and wrap slowly around her hand. A tingle on her skin like a gentle current.
Then suddenly she is young and long haired and clambering over Nafthalar’s topography in amazement because she had never seen rocks so big or creatures so strange. Silver clad and quick like she were a drop of starlight come to life. And behind her another figure. A slower presence and kinder perhaps. Both tiny together in this strange world.
The vision lasts just an instant.
When she opens her eyes she sees Big Blue’s huge tentacle rising up into the air and his column-legs bending with slow majesty as he begins to trundle away.
“He remembers us,” she whispers.
“He remembers you,” says the documentarian.
“No, us,” she says and wipes the tears from her eyes. “Us.”
“Those were the same colors it flashed last time, right?” asks the documentarian.
“Dunno,” she says. “Best get ready. He’ll be off soon.”
“You think he waited for us?”
The documentarian goes to say something else but the biologist strides straight into her tent, face averted, unzips it, and slips inside. The clutter of silver devices and notes on the floor. The winking lights of her drone lying motionless in the corner. It comes awake when she walks over to her bed but she waves it away and sits on the edge of her bed and buries her face in her hands and weeps. The documentarian taps on the tent door but when he opens she hisses and waves him away too.
When she emerges a little while later he is packed and fiddling with a console. He looks up at her, chewing on his lip. Like a little boy caught red handed in some mischief. He gets up when she approaches and she is about to say something when she notices a glimmer of gold on his right hand. He notices her notice an instant too late and goes to hide his hand behind his back but then gives up.
“What the hell is that?” she says.
She raises her eyebrows and points at his hand. “That.”
He knows what she is pointing at but he lifts his hand to his face and takes a good hard look at the ring as if he had never seen it before.
“That’s not ours, is it?” she asks.
The documentarian nods.
“We should get going,” he says.
“Why are you here?” asks the biologist.
“Why are you here?”
He points at Big Blue. “To film him. Why else?”
“I’m not lying.”
“Then why are you here? You don’t have to film him. You could have sent some drones. Or someone else. Why are you here?”
“I thought it would be nice. To see you.”
“Why? Why the hell would you want to see me? Why?”
The biologist rolls her eyes and crosses her arms. Her brow furrowed over her breather. Her eyes narrowed and fierce.
“What do you want from me, man?”
“Jesus, Miriam, calm down. I don’t want anything from you.”
“Then why would you want to see me?”
The documentarian holds up his hands palm outwards and steps away as if she were coming at him blade drawn and murderous.
“Listen, I don’t want anything from you, I just thought it would be nice to see you again, that’s all.”
“Bullshit. Why haven’t you taken it off? Do you realize how weird that is?”
“It’s not weird. I just…needed some time.”
He cannot maintain eye contact and after a few second he turns away and stares across the valley. Golden blue and bereft of foliage. A landscape with nowhere to hide. The biologist stares at the back of his neck, mute with fury and grief. She draws her crossed arms tighter around her body and looks over at Big Blue’s figure disappearing down the valley. Then she turns and grabs her bag and starts marching up the hillside.
“Wait!” says the documentarian.
She wheels around and glares.
“Don’t follow me.”
“I’m going on ahead. You follow Big Blue. Down in the valley.”
“Jesus, why’re you so angry, anyway? I’m the one who got fucked.”
She freezes, her back to him, silhouetted against the blue grey hillside.
“Go to hell, Mazin,” she says, not looking back.
She storms up the hillside kicking pebbles down in little avalanches. The clouds now streaming in above her as if her temper were churning the skies themselves. And then she disappears over that elevated horizon and the documentarian is left alone to stare at his ring.
She walks, unflagging, through that long Nafthalian afternoon. The sunlight perforating a veil of cloud but no less oppressively hot for all the shade. Soon she is sweating. To her left, a thin sliver of grey beach, and beyond that the sea, wrinkled and static and endless. By mid-afternoon she is well past Big Blue. By the time the shadows begin to creep out to her right, elongating and black as tar, she has lost sight of him completely.
She finally arrives at the beach. Up above, a flock of cawing motes, and the tangy smell of sea creatures on the air. Here and there there are large holes in the sand, clustered in pairs, rimmed with detritus. Dead fish and glistening patches of some organic liquid. Occasionally a bird analogue settles in chattering cacophony and pokes about and takes flight again, pursued by its kin, something squirming in its beak.
She chooses a vantage spot halfway down the beach and settles about fifty meters up a hillside. It is cooler in the shade but not cool enough so she attaches a small packet of juice to her breather and lies down and closes her eyes for a moment. Then she feels a deep rumble in the ground and sitting up, sees something emerging from the sea. Something a lot like Big Blue but bigger still and tinged purple. Another male. Slowly rising out of the water like a nightmare from the depths. Great cataracts of water flooding off its body. It steps onto the sand and its feet sink deep.
Behind her, her drone clicks to life and starts filming.
The male approaches a pair of holes, dripping water and hormones. Its proboscis extends, pearly white and spasming in peristaltic rhythm. Another proboscis emerges from the hole, larger and wider, its tip flared like a trumpet and ringed with little feathery cilia. The male’s organ settles above it and contracts and empties a torrent of matter into it. A crimson and pink gush of liquid nutrients. She can smell it where she is, a rankness undiminished by the distance.
Then something emerges out of the other hole—another giant tube, but this one pink and purple and stinking of pheromones. The male swings another tentacle over it. Its anemone-arms rigid and quivering in anticipation. The two appendages fasten together and the instant the male has finished emptying his crop he shakes his whole body and empties his seed too. Thick ropes of slimy stuff coursing from one to the other and trickling in excess down their bodies and onto the sand.
Then another rumble, and the whole thing is over. The female’s organs slide back into the sand with the steady grace of a ship sinking in calm seas.
The biologist reaches up to her communicator and then stops. One of the male’s tentacles is extended towards her, crown flared and swaying gently. She can hear Big Blue’s footsteps, a distant thud thud thud barely audible above the swelling of the sea. The other male is still now, airsac dirigible, vast and rippling in the wind. It stomps its leg and calls.
A few seconds later, Big Blue responds.
The biologist’s communicator buzzes.
“Did you hear that?” says the documentarian. “Where are you?”
“On the beach. There’s another male.”
“Oh.” Silence. And then, “Is it big?”
She turns off the communicator and begins to take notes. After a few moments she gives up and tosses her console aside and just watches as the beachmaster walks along the beach, vast and oblivious and beautiful beyond reason.
It is nearly twilight by the time Big Blue arrives. The documentarian is not far behind, flustered and sweaty. He sits down beside her and fiddles silently with his console for a few minutes before looking up and saying, “Shit, that is huge.”
The biologist doesn’t say anything.
“Do you think they’ll go at it today?”
“I doubt it,” she says. “It’ll be night time soon and they’ll want to rest.”
“Right. Better set up camp then.”
But no sooner has he said that than the beachmaster stomps the ground twice and let’s rip a great bellowing cry. An instant later Big Blue steps out onto the beach, his body taut and flashing and tentacles flailing, and the ground rumbles with earthquake intensity under the clashing calls of the two males.
“Guess I was wrong,” says the biologist, clambering to her feet.
They ascend the hillside to a small ledge rimmed with fleshy black plants. The last light of the sun garish on the underside of the cloud cover.
“That thing’s huge,” says the documentarian. “Look at it.”
“Have faith,” says the biologist.
Big Blue is heading towards the beachmaster at full tilt, body flashing firework-bright. But the beachmaster is responding in kind and his light is brighter and his bellowing louder. The documentarian smiles.
“Look at him go,” he says.
The two creatures exchange challenges for a few minutes and then abruptly cease. The biologist gets to her feet and fixes a pair of goggles to her eyes and says, “They’re going to fight.”
“I’m getting it all.”
The two great beasts collide with a crunch that sends the sand on the beach billowing off in sheets. A great cloud of fluids exploding from each. They flail at each other with their tentacles and the humans three hundred meters away can feel every blow in their bones. Across the beach females’ tentacles emerge from the sand with crowns of feelers extended.
Big Blue swings one giant appendage around and it crashes into the beachmaster’s leg and sends the creature down onto its side. The documentarian and the biologist cheer. But then the next instant the beachmaster has wrapped his own feelers around Big Blue’s leg and brought him crashing down to the sand too and with groaning effort brings himself back up onto all fours and extends his proboscis. Big Blue reaches for it but the beachmaster stomps on his flattening belly and sends his innards spilling out onto the beach, glimmering neon like celestial snakes released from long captivity. And then it plunges its proboscis deep into Big Blue’s body, and again, and again, and holds it there until his foe stops struggling and twitching and the wind pauses for an instant and there is nothing but silence and the female’s organs now perfectly still and the two humans on the hillside with their hands on their heads and their eyes full of tears.
For a few minutes they sit in silence and then the biologist leans over to the documentarian and puts her arms around him and sobs.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
The documentarian hugs her back and puts his chin on her head and does not ask her why.
They spend part of the long night together in silence, wrapped up in each other and watching Big Blue’s body turn dark. Then when the cold is too intense they part company for a while. But not long after she slips back into his tent and curls up next to him and says, “I just don’t want to be alone.”
“I know,” he says.
“Don’t try anything.”
“I’ll kill you.”
“You already did.”
After a few moments, she says “I never meant to, you know.”
“I thought you hated me.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Never. Never ever.”
“That’s not normal.”
He takes a deep breath and rolls over onto his back and closes his eyes.
“Neither of us are normal.”
They wake late the next day and eat in silence punctuated only by a brief smiles. He expects her to cry when she takes samples but she pins her hair back and dons her gloves and sets about her work with professional precision and does not stop until she has filled all of her receptacles. He remembers the first time her saw her like this and thinks how magnificent it is to see someone so utterly at one with what they do. And soon afterwards other thoughts follow and he decides it is time to leave.
His pod arrives first. Settling like a great smoking spider soon after Nafthalar’s dazzling noon.
“I’d better get going,” he says.
The documentarian walks over the great carcass, so dull now in death, and wrestles the ring off his finger and tosses it into the great membranes hanging off the creature’s side like layers of wet cloth. Then he comes up to her and she stiffens when he puts his arms on her shoulder and leans in. She moves away for an instant and then realizes what he is doing and lets him plant a single kiss on her cheek.
“Good bye,” he says. “Good luck.”
He turns to go.
“Hey,” she calls after him.
“It was good to see you too.”
He frowns. “You don’t have to lie.”
“No really. It was.”
He nods. “Right.”
“Do you suppose…they’d, maybe, want to see me again?”
“They’d love to.”
“OK.” She smiles at him. “I’ll send them a message.”
“They’ll be very happy.”
He watches her for a few moments and then smiles and gives her a thumbs up.
After he is gone and the smoke from his pod has dissipated into an acrid miasma she orders her drone to start packing up and wanders down over to Big Blue’s body. The sand yielding and rough between her toes. The creature’s ozone aroma strong in her nostrils. She runs her fingers along one of its body flaps and leans in and presses her lips to its already cold hide.
“Goodbye, old friend,” she says.
And then, above, the sonic boom of her returning pod.
By Madeline Olsen
At fifteen, her heart got tired of wanting things. At least if you asked her to pinpoint when it all went down, that’s what she’d say. That year, Tad Gardner, Chance Philmont, and James Adams had dumped her, launching her into a string of hours spent locking the bathroom door and turning the sink up full-blast—tricks she’d inherited from ballet class. She’d snapped the curdled-milk pearl necklace her mother gave her and thrown the rocks so hard they’d plunked against the pink pastoral wallpaper in her living room like firing bullets. She’d glued her lips together with Elmer’s No Mess before school each morning and painted them jet. She’d shaved the thinning hair patches from her head and declared juvenile emancipation and tattooed two crooked lines above each knuckle of her right hand. Why two? Why lines? Why the right hand? Well, why the hell not. She’d blab about them representing something—siblings, boyfriends, spiritual conversions—later in life, as all good citizens with tattoos do, but, really, a crooked line is a crooked line. They didn’t mean anything.
But to say three middle-school boys stopped a beating heart seems irrational. Impossible, even, considering only ten percent know how to zip their flies and the other ninety percent equate their waists with their knees—pull up your pants, kid, please. In reality though, hope and wanting had begun to feel as dirty as kitchen sink water after a meat spaghetti dinner long before age fifteen. When did hoping, wanting ever do any good, really? As a child she’d wanted a lot of little things—soft caramel-chocolate bars suited in purple foil; the silver unicorn stuffed animal at that carnival; a ride on the cheetah at the zoo carousel. As she grew up she’d wanted a lot of big things, abstract things like love and beauty and friendship and even book smarts from time to time. But she never got anything. Three boys dumped her in a year. Some brat in a beret cried until she gave up her seat on the cheetah.
So when the doctor offered to remove her heart at age sixteen for a wad of cash, she said yeah, go for it. They took the bloody mass out and replaced it with some sort of metal cog thing—she couldn’t remember what it was called. And she hadn’t wanted anything since. Until now, that is. Now, she wanted something. She wanted out of this damn shit-pot of a circular prison.
She looked at her pointer finger, bitten to chunks of skin and blood. She pressed it against the stone and slid down, almost missing the scrap of long French-tipped nails. Nine hundred slashes of red caked the wall. One hundred more remained to be drawn. Then she would leave this place.
A guard stalked past, and the slat in the glass door grated open. A bowl clambered toward her, bouncing when it smacked the cracks in the cement. She scrambled forward, scooped it into her lap, and dipped her finger into the grey puddle. The blood on her finger salted the mush, and for a minute she could almost force herself to think it tasted good, a kind of low-quality good, you know, like canned sardines or cheap dried kale. Her butterfly lungs beat and fluttered. She choked out a cough.
She stared out the windowed wall at the watchtower that grew from the center of the panopticon. They were watching; she was sure of it, even though she couldn’t see them. God, they were always watching. They had probably watched her draw her mark on the wall and written it down—silent notes kept in a little book of her behaviors. You couldn’t get away with anything here. Her eyes glazed, blurring black rock and brown and windowpane, and she shoveled the grainy goop into her mouth, letting the liquid dribbles sting her chapped lips. When she got out of here, she was jetting to Paris and going to that pastry shop, that one in Marais with the lemon madeleines, warm as sunset and honey-buttered, and the mille feuilles that exploded chocolate and custard with each forkful—if you had the patience and politeness to use a fork, that is. She couldn’t remember the name of the place, but she’d find it. And then she’d sit at some restaurant, the priciest one around, and she’d eat mutton so soaked in cream it melted at the touch of your tongue like a sixteen-year old school boy.
Her teeth sank down into a phantom mutton morsel, accidentally clamping onto her finger instead. She wrenched it out, coughed, and spat pink-tinted spit.
She shouldn’t have killed him, she supposed. Then she wouldn’t be trapped suffocating in a two by four half-glass box. But she’d spent her life suffocated. She’d gotten tired of that doctor stalking after her for the past ten years. He’d taken out her heart, sure, but that didn’t give him the right to monitor her every action. Lord, she couldn’t even eat a jam sandwich without him noting her heart palpitations down in that damn yellow, blue-lined notepad. Pity he didn’t note the speed of her heart when she imagined smashing his glasses into his face every night as he watched her sleeping. Maybe then that frown of surprise wouldn’t have flashed on his face when she’d finally lost it. And now, they—the other doctors, the government, someone—had thrown her in here as punishment. Because there’s no better way to monitor your pet project than by throwing it in jail.
They were watching her now; she could feel the eyes piercing from the watchtower into her cell, into her body. She shook her head, crusted hair scratching her cheeks, and crawled into the corner as far from the tower as she could get. It didn’t matter how she got into this place. It was just another mistake, just a mangled body. All that mattered was one hundred more days. She leaned her head back to rest against the wall as the dank air crept into her lungs. Her throat throttled out another cough.
Her eyes fell shut; her mind unleashed itself to indulge in imaginings. In one hundred days she’d have a washing machine and a dryer and a queen-sized mattress and a toaster. In one hundred days she’d lie in the sun and feel its heat bite into her translucent skin while she poured strawberry margaritas down her throat. In one hundred days she’d walk into a fluorescent white-lit supermarket at midnight and she’d buy a bag of cheese-coated corn chips and a bottle of diet cola. And some cough medicine. The thought tickled at the metal, machine-filled cavity in her chest. If she had a heart, it’d be bloated with rushing blood and heat—hope, if you’d like to assign a word to the feeling.
She didn’t have the strength to smash the feeling down, to wrap her fingers around it and squeeze until it smothered down into the usual dull emptiness, angst, and overall eye-rolling boredom. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling a leg span from her head, and she thought about calling to whatever deity sat around up there. Maybe if she said thanks for putting me in here, it’d find a way to reduce her sentence. Maybe it’d sweep down and gather her up and take her to the clouds. She laughed. She coughed.
A scream raked her ears, sending prickling hot shivers down her arms. She crawled to the door and pressed her ear against the glass. Booted feet slapped against the floor outside on level two, the level below her cell. She couldn’t see them. They could see her from their tower, but she couldn’t see them. She could never see them. But she heard the scratch of coarse, swishing fabric—guards, off to regulate the cause of the shout. The feet stopped.
“Oh my god.”
“Do you . . . do you think? No, that’s not possible. Nah. It couldn’t be.”
“I don’t know. Looks like it to me.”
The voices dropped to a murmur, low and deep as a heartbeat. She pushed her cheek against the door and closed her eyes as if cutting off that worthless sense would improve her hearing. It didn’t. But her ears snagged one word—doctor. And then the boots shuffled away to some other side of the circle. A door slammed.
She slunk back into the shadowed corner. She’d known her fair share of doctors. When she was ten, she jumped from the top of the school monkey bars and crushed the edge of her foot. A doctor gave her crutches. When she was twelve, she danced on the top of a counter, slipped, and slit her jaw a pinkie fingertip deep. A doctor gave her stitches. And when she was sixteen, of course, a doctor cut out her heart. They’d called it a miracle. Somebody could live with a machine for a heart, yet remain human in most of the other ways—blood, nerves, broken bones. And maybe it was a miracle, though she hadn’t done it to be called miraculous; she did it for the thousand-dollar cash reward advertised by a monotone-voiced man on the radio. They’d wanted to manufacture more like her. Apparently machines last—live—longer than regular humans, and what’s a successful society if not a close to immortal one? God was immortal. We should be too. They’d failed though. She’d heard that people had died seizuring during the operation—the doctors couldn’t figure out what it was about her metal heart that made it stick, that made it compatible with all the rest of her humanness.
A door slammed. Feet shuffled. A cough. She crawled to the window-door. A silence thick as rye bread flooded the air.
“Well, is it?” a voice, a guard, asked.
She waited for the response, but heard nothing. The doctor was nodding, perhaps, or shaking his head.
The doctor had nodded, then. But about what?
“Oh god, oh god. This, no, but, but, I thought? What’s going to happen to us? What can we do about it?”
“Nothing. We can’t do anything about it,” the doctor said.
She ripped her head from the door and punched her knuckles into its surface. “What the hell is going on out there? What can’t we do anything about?”
No response. So they didn’t think she deserved to know? Like hell was she going to accept silence. She kept punching, wrists crunching, popping with each hit. The glass shook, but held firm. The hall vibrated with echoes deep as tribal war drums as the other inmates, each trapped in their hovel windowed hells, joined her song.
A guard rounded the corner. She stood, meeting his heavy-lidded eyes.
“Shut the hell up,” he said, “You’re causing problems. They saw you start this from the watchtower.”
“You shut the hell up. I wouldn’t have yelled if I hadn’t heard the panic below us. What’s going on down there?”
“An inmate died, that’s all.”
“You seriously expect me to believe that shit? One of you guards was having a panic attack, and somebody went for a doctor. What was all that for?”
“I told you. An inmate died.” The guard coughed. “That’s all.”
“Died of what?”
“People die here, that’s the nature of the institution. I would’ve thought you’d been in that box long enough to figure that out by now.”
“Yeah, I have been in this box long enough to figure that out. And I’m getting out soon enough, too.”
His chin tipped up as he laughed. He laughed and laughed and then coughed.
“I can tell you one thing: you’re not leaving.”
“You’re not leaving.”
“But my sentence is up in one hundred days! You can’t keep me here. By law you can’t make me stay here.”
He shook his head. “You’re not leaving. I’m not leaving. And we’ll be long dried up dead by one hundred days.”
He nodded. “Long dried up dead, I tell you. You think you’re so invincible, so much better than the rest of us with that little machine heart, but in a few days that machine heart will be the only thing left of you. The cough’s the beginning.”
“I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about,” she said. “Is this about the inmate that died downstairs?”
A pit knotted in her stomach, she tried coughing it out like a hairball, but nothing could dislodge the squeezing sensation. “What did he die of? Are you going to tell me?”
“That blood coughing disease that all those artists died from? They have medicine for that these days.”
“Not for this strain. It broke out last week in a village thirty miles north of here, the one where we get our milk. It wiped away the place in three days. Drugs did nothing.”
“And now it’s here,” she said, her mouth dry as honey oat granola.
“They’re putting the whole prison under quarantine. Nobody leaves or more of the world gets infected.”
“So we’re all just going to die here? You can’t do that! You can’t make me stay longer than one hundred days!”
“I already told you that you’ll be dead by then. You’re infected already. I can hear it in your breath.”
She swallowed gulps of air, fighting the pulsing cough creeping into her lungs. “No. I’m getting out. I’m getting out and going to Paris and eating pastries.”
“How do you think you’re getting out?”
“I’ll kill myself.”
“And we’ll stop you. We’ll see you.” He pointed to the watchtower. “You never know when they’re watching you, and so they’re always watching you.”
She stared at his steel grey eyes. “Don’t you want to get out? Don’t you have a family to go home to? You’ll never see them again.”
He blinked. “Sometimes we must lose the weak to become strong.”
She’d never been the weak one before. Never. She’d cut her heart out so that she would never be the weak one. Yet, here she was, stuck in a glass jail box. She looked up. “At least we’ll die together, the jailed and the jailor. Sounds like karma to me. You’ve heard the phrase. What goes around comes around.”
“Maybe. But at least I get a bed and three bowls of soup for dinner.”
He turned and walked away, disappearing down the circle’s edge. She coughed, and her hand swept to cover her mouth. She pulled her fingers away, staring at the bloodstained skeins of mucus coating her palm. And she knew that no amount of hope and wanting Parisian pastries could save her.
Two men stepped over a body.
“God, it’s creepy in here. There are skeletons everywhere. Are you sure it’s safe? We’re not going to catch anything?”
“It’s safe, I’m sure.”
The man looked at the watchtower. “I feel like someone’s watching us.”
“They’re all dead.”
“Fine. But let’s get out of here as soon as we can. Where was her cell?”
The two men stopped. The stale air stank of mold and death. They listened. And then they heard it, the tick clink of a cog, a beating mechanical heart.
They walked up the stairs and entered one of the glass boxes. A skeleton rotted into the floor, a metal box wrapped in its ribcage. One of the men reached down and picked the contraption up.
“Here it is. It’s still good. We’ll try putting it in someone else.”
The Monk’s Grimoire
By A.P. Miller
The look on the Abbot’s face was telling. “Come in,” he said. “Hurry up Flint, I haven’t got all day.”
Flint lingered in the doorway for a moment. He was not ready for another tongue-lashing from the old man. “Is something the matter?”
“Close the door behind you.” The Abbot sat behind an ancient desk that gave the man a distinct aura of wisdom and authority.
Something unpleasant was coming, that much was certain. The Abbot rarely called the adjuncts into his office, and this was the third time Flint had been summoned inside a month. Flint pulled the door shut with trembling hands.
“I think you already know why you’re here,” the Abbot said. His impassive eyes studied Flint. “It’s the same problem we’ve had since you started.”
“The research,” Flint said, looking down.
“You need to produce something. I understand that you are busy teaching. But so are all of the monks. You need to find some balance between class and your research. We can’t keep you on as an adjunct if you don’t produce something original.”
The words did not register immediately. Flint shook his head. “Can’t keep me on? You mean you’re going to dismiss me?”
“I have no choice!” the Abbot said. “You’re a fine teacher, but this is a research monastery. How will it look if my monks are not broadening our knowledge of the occult?”
“But I’m buried in work! You have me teaching more classes than any other monk by half. It’s not that I don’t want to study. I just don’t have the time.”
“Are you telling me you can’t do the job?” The old man placed a heavy hand on his desk.
Flint’s mouth hung open, and he waited for words to come out.
“Look,” the Abbot said. “I’m not unreasonable.” He shifted in his seat, and his eyes filled with an uncharacteristic guile. “I’d be willing to give you some extra time, if you are willing to do me a favor. Brother Godfrey has been working on a side project for almost a year now.” The Abbot sighed. “A full year. And no one has any idea what he’s actually doing.”
“I’ve heard,” Flint said, shrugging.
“You and everyone else. But it’s my responsibility to know, and that’s the trouble. Brother Godfrey is brilliant, but he’s stubborn as an ass. And he’s tenured. He won’t say a word. He wouldn’t even tell me where he’s working.”
“That’s the favor? You want me to find out where he’s researching?”
“And what, if you can. Do that, and I’ll give you a pass on your work for the next few months.” The Abbot pointed a finger at Flint. “But listen. I don’t want to hear about you breaking any rules, or using the occult to manipulate him. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” The Abbot put his hand back on the desk. “Why don’t you see if he’ll take you on as his research assistant? That would put you right where you need to be.”
“I don’t know,” Flint said. “He’s so secretive. Do you really think he would consider it?”
“Go find out,” the Abbot said in a tone that told Flint the conversation was over.
Flint tried to hide his worry. He pulled open the door and stepped out into the empty corridor.
“And Flint,” the Abbot said. “This is the third time I’ve had you in my office. This is your last chance.”
Flint looked through the open door and into Godfrey’s lecture hall. Godfrey stood in front of a large body of students, where gray light filtered in through the windows and onto his brown robes.
Godfrey cleared his throat. “Now, there are some things that divine studies have yet to achieve. Some of these things have not been achieved because they are physically impossible to accomplish. Others have not been adequately studied because they are beyond the pale. They are considered too dark or too dangerous. Some, here at the university, are afraid to push past these boundaries. But I am not one of them. Our next lecture will touch on one of these topics. I think you will find it enlightening.”
Flint cocked his head to one side. Godfrey’s cavalier attitude sat well on him, despite his scholarly appearance.
A young student, hardly old enough to grow a beard, raised his hand. “Brother, aren’t there some subjects that are best left untouched?”
“Perhaps,” Godfrey said, resting a hard look on the apprentice. “But those studies are well beyond the capabilities of first-year students.” The school-bell’s low chime echoed overhead, and Godfrey looked up. “Looks like that will be all for today. Class dismissed.” The students poured into the corridor, leaving Godfrey alone.
Flint strode past the empty desks. “Brother Godfrey,” he said as he approached. “Good evening.”
Godfrey wiped at the blackboard with a rag. “Evening.”
“How goes the work?”
Godfrey answered automatically. “Fine. Just fine.”
The two stood in an uncomfortable silence.
“Godfrey, I have a favor to ask.”
Godfrey regarded Flint. “A favor?”
“You probably don’t know, but I’ve been struggling with my research lately.”
Godfrey scoffed. “Of course I know. Everyone knows.”
The comment caught Flint off-guard, and he recoiled behind a well-maintained facade. “Everyone… Well, it’s been difficult finding time to study when I’m pulled in so many directions.”
“Then make time. Late nights. Weekends. Whatever you have to do. No one is going to hold your hand. I do most of my best work when the moon is out.”
“Actually, that’s what I want to ask you. Would you be willing to let me work with you? I’ve been dying to know what your project is all about.”
Godfrey’s face fell. “Did the Abbot send you in here after me? I knew that fool would start prying sooner or later.”
“He said that you might be willing to take me on as a research assistant. Help me get a foothold in some meaningful work.”
“Take you on as an informant, you mean. He’s trying to find out what I’m onto, isn’t he?”
“Godfrey, please. I’m already up every night grading. The Abbot is going to fire me if I don’t deliver something soon.”
Godfrey scowled. “Sorry,” he said. “My work is too sensitive. You’ll have to make do on your own.”
Hope melted from Flint, and he left to wander the corridors.
“I’m not surprised,” Gloria said. She moved her leather schoolbag to the ground, and Flint set his plate in its place. “He’s never been particularly pleasant.” Gloria spooned up the last of her dinner. “And he’s always been strange, too. Especially when it comes to his work.”
Flint slammed a fist on the table. “He’s paranoid, that’s what he is! He was so preoccupied thinking about the Abbot that he didn’t even listen to what I was asking him.”
Gloria’s spoon stopped halfway to her mouth, and she glanced around the dining hall. The students at the table next to them looked startled. She nodded to appease them. “Take it easy,” she said. “You’ll figure something out.”
Flint shook his head. “You don’t understand. I have nothing outside of the Priory. Nothing. I’ll be on the streets if I lose my job here. Out on Beggars’ Row next to the drunks, shaking a cup at you when you walk to work in the mornings.”
Gloria’s quiet lasted too long.
“What?” Flint said.
She looked around and said, “Don’t be obtuse. You know you won’t be on the streets. But I wouldn’t be walking by you anyway. I’m leaving the Priory soon. That’s why I can’t help you. I’m going to tell the Abbot tomorrow.”
Flint’s face was placid, though a storm brewed behind his eyes. He looked at Gloria with the intensity of a brokenhearted man. “Leaving? But why? I thought you were happy here. You’ve only just earned your tenure.”
“It’s this place, Flint,” Gloria said. “These people. Every one of them is pretentious. They think they’re better than the rest of the world because of their studies. I need a real experience. Something outside of these walls.” She set her lovely hand on Flint’s.
The pace of Flint’s heart quickened. He looked down at her hand, then at her face.
“I want you to come with me,” she said.
Flint shook his head in dismay. “I… I can’t.”
“I can make something of myself here,” Flint said. “You can make something of yourself here. I know it’s not perfect, but there is so much to experience here. The longer I study, the more I realize that we know almost nothing about the occult. You and I can explore it all together.”
The summons bell rung for evening class. “I have to go,” Gloria said.
Flint watched the flow of her long hair as she walked away. He sat at the table, brooding, until his food was cold. After a time, he shook his head and pushed his chair back.
A familiar brown bag lay under the table.
Flint picked it up, and looked inside to confirm that it belonged to Gloria. Her lecture notes, her quills, and her small key ring hid inside.
He left the dining hall for his dormitory with the bag under his arm, winding through the eastern wing where a disused entryway let in the cold.
Godfrey stood in the half-open door. He carried a small pack full of travel supplies and was wrapped in a mass of heavy cloaks to ward off the cold. He tried to leave before Flint could interrupt him.
“Out for the night?” Flint said.
“Going to visit my daughter in town. I’ll be back before class tomorrow.” He pulled a hood over his head.
“Any chance you’d reconsider what we talked about earlier?”
Godfrey disappeared into the snowy night, leaving the door open behind him.
Flint ran his fingers over Gloria’s bag. A key to the tenured monks’ common room rested inside – the common room attached to Godfrey’s private chambers. Flint lingered at the door for a time, as if struggling with a decision, then reached in the bag and removed the key.
The key slid home, and Flint peeked around the edge of the common room door. The fireplace offered the only light, but it was enough to show that the room was empty. All of the senior monks had retired to their rooms. Flint crept in, keeping to the shadowy corners where he might be able to disappear should someone interrupt him.
Godfrey’s private chambers were on the far side of the common area, opposite a tidy circle of leather armchairs and writing desks.
Flint slunk past a closed door, wincing when the wood floor groaned under his weight.
Someone stirred behind the heavy oak. The handle rattled, and the door swung open, hiding Flint from whoever stood on the other side.
Flint’s breath caught in his throat, and he froze.
The fat, dark-skinned monk who lumbered out could only have been Brother Harken. Harken threw the door shut without a backward glance and strode across the room. He picked up a stack of parchment from one of the desks and sat at the fireplace with his back to Flint.
Flint waited until the man had shut out the world around him, dragging his round fingers across lines of scrawling text and murmuring to himself. Flint inched along the perimeter, stopping short every time the man moved to turn a page or tend to the fire.
His hand found Godfrey’s doorknob, but it hung against the lock. Flint squeezed the brass and narrowed his eyes, concentrating on something far away and unseen.
But nothing happened. Flint glanced down at his hands, puzzled, as if he had expected a reaction. He closed his eyes and tried again. A mass of black magic laced in wisps of purple smoke enclosed Flint’s hand. The lock’s tumblers fell into place with a terrifying click. Flint dared a glance over his shoulder to see if the sound caught Harken’s attention, but it was lost in the crack and pop of the fire.
Flint pulled the door open gingerly, but the hinges screamed. He slipped through the narrow aperture and passed out of sight behind it.
Godfrey’s room was lit only by a sliver of firelight and the moon behind the snow. “I thought you were going into town for the night,” Harken said from the other side of the door.
“Me?” The Abbot was in the common room, not twenty feet away from Flint.
“Good evening, Abbot. Gloria,” Harken said. “No, not you. I just heard Godfrey at his door. I think he’s in there, anyway.”
“Strange,” Gloria said. “I saw him leaving just a little while ago.” Her soft footsteps echoed across the common room, drawing nearer to Godfrey’s room. “Godfrey? Knock, knock.”
Flint could not find the mindfulness to hide, and he stood in the middle of the room like a fool when Gloria put her head inside. Their eyes met and Flint shook his head, putting a finger over his lips before she could speak.
“He in there?” the Abbot said.
Gloria hesitated. “No…No. He’s not here.”
“Well someone opened the door,” Harken said, and he heaved himself out of his chair to investigate.
“Hide!” Gloria mouthed.
Flint dropped to the ground and crawled like a spider under the bed. Cold air rose from the cracks between floorboards. His fingertips brushed over a small metal ring resting flush in the wood. When he lifted it, the square outline of an enchanted trapdoor cut into the floor, and a whisper of sawdust fell through to a hollow place beneath.
Flint pulled, and the hatch opened. The unfinished wood dug splinters into his back as he scraped through. Godfrey’s room brightened, and Flint saw feet shuffle inside. He lowered the hatch over the top of himself, taking refuge in the dark once more.
Flint sat at the top of a dust-covered stair, wedged between the trap door and steps that dropped out of sight into black emptiness an impossible distance below. The monks’ muffled voices quieted and eventually disappeared from Godfrey’s room.
Flint pushed on the trapdoor, but it would not budge. He groped at the wood above his head, searching for its edges, but he found only unbroken slats. The magic had faded, and the door was gone.
Apprentices spoke of the undercroft in whispers and the monks not at all. The disused basements were a remnant of the Priory’s earlier and more wicked days. It was a bad chance that Flint’s escape was through one of the fabled long-forgotten doors.
He held up a hand, trying to will forth a glow of ethereal light, but none would come. Flint looked at his palms. Down into the darkness was his only option. He descended thousands of steps, running a hand along the wall’s sharp masonry to keep his bearings until his feet found a packed earthen floor. He wandered aimlessly in the darkness for an age, languishing in the fear that time would kill him if he could not find his way.
The air cleared and grew colder in the depths. The dark lessened, and water lapped against a shore somewhere ahead. Flint’s breaths came in short white plumes as he emerged into a man-made cavern.
He gazed up at a vaulted ceiling rich with stalactites. Ahead, a saltwater canal disappeared into a winding crevasse of wet bedrock. Small waves broke against a pier that jutted from the embankment where he stood. A dingy grimoire bound in engraved leather rested between sheaves of heavily-inked parchment on a workbench further down, illuminated by a dying brazier.
Curiosity overcame his baser instincts, and Flint moved to examine it. He lifted a piece of parchment and began to read private research notes written in Godfrey’s untidy script. Flint lost all account of time as he poured through them, and the cold and damp crept under his clothes.
“What do you think you are doing?” Godfrey said from the darkness.
Flint jumped and dropped the parchment in the dirt. He spun around. A rowboat bobbed in the canal behind Godfrey. He glared at Flint. “I’m sorry,” Flint said. “I was just curious.”
“How did you get down here?”
“I accidentally found a way into the undercroft. I got lost. Wound up here.”
“Accidentally? And you came down here and thought you would just read my private notes.” Godfrey stepped forward. “Find anything interesting?”
“I see why you won’t let anybody know what you’re onto.”
Godfrey scowled. “They wouldn’t understand. Not a single one of them. Bunch of self-serving swine.”
“This grimoire affects the roots of the occult, doesn’t it?” Flint put his hand on its leather, feeling the power within. “The deepest parts of it. It can destroy our power altogether if you want it to. I’ve felt it already. I was lost just now because I couldn’t make light.”
“It’s a single incantation, but terribly long and complex,” Godfrey said. “I don’t believe anything like it has ever been attempted. But you’re wrong. I don’t mean destroy anything. Quite the contrary in fact. I just want to harness the foundations of the occult. Center it on this book.”
Godfrey’s laugh was edged with madness. “Because I need hope. I need the power to change things I can’t otherwise change.”
“Hope for what?” Flint said. “Godfrey, you have to stop. What if something goes wrong? The power you’re talking about is…dangerous.”
“My child is sick. My daughter. She’s, sick and no medicine can help. But I can save her, Flint. I can change the course of fate with this. It’s almost finished. Almost.”
Flint watched the man shrink from boldness to desperation. Godfrey’s secret was a heavy burden. He looked older than he had, sallower and more worn.
“Are you going to tell the Abbot?” Godfrey said.
Flint narrowed his eyes. “What will you do after you heal your daughter?”
Godfrey raised his hands. “Lock it away. Show the Priory what I’ve created and what miracles can be done with it.”
The decision was more difficult than any Flint had faced. He rubbed his black beard. “I can give you a week. But I have to be the one to tell the Abbot what you’ve been working on. And this is too dangerous for me to just walk away from. You need to take me on as your assistant.”
“Done,” Godfrey said.
The men moved to the workbench to discuss the course of things to come.
Arctic currents swirled in the ocean, carrying opaque-blue glaciers dusted in white.
Flint’s glazed eyes watched them through the glass of his dormitory window. Godfrey was still a hundred fathoms below where the water met the base of the Priory Cliffs, writing in the grimoire. It would be ready tonight.
Someone knocked on the door. “Flint? It’s me,” Gloria said through the wood.
Flint opened it.
“May I come in?”
Flint tried to smile and stepped aside. “Of course.”
Gloria took Flint’s place by the window. She turned, and her dark eyes cut through him. “What were you doing last night?”
“You already know,” Flint said. “I was trying to figure out what Godfrey is up to.”
“How did you get inside anyway?” Gloria chewed on her lip. “The common room door is hexed. It’s impossible to open without that key.”
“You left your bag in the dining hall last night.”
“You have it? I’ve been looking everywhere.” Gloria glared at Flint. “Wait, you mean you used my key to get in?”
“I’m sorry Gloria. I know it was wrong, but I was desperate.” Flint looked down at the woven carpet beneath his feet. It bore the image of a whaling ship being torn asunder by a leviathan. “Godfrey came around. He’s taking me on as his research assistant.”
Gloria’s brow furrowed. “He changed his mind just like that?”
Gloria turned back to the window and said nothing for a long while. “How did you get out of there anyway? I waited for you in the common room all night.”
Flint put his arms around Gloria, and her hands found his. He told her everything.
“But,” Gloria said. “Godfrey’s daughter died last year.”
Flint recoiled. “What?”
“Her boat overturned in a storm. They found her body under the ice the next morning.”
“He must have another daughter then.”
Gloria shook her head. “She was his only child. Flint, what Godfrey is trying to do can’t be done safely. He’s manipulating the fabric of the occult. We have to tell the Abbot.”
“Do you think he wants to… bring her back?”
“I don’t know. But this sort of thing has been tried before, and people have been killed.”
The worry on Gloria’s face convinced Flint in the end, and they walked hand-in-hand to find the Abbot.
The Abbot walked across the Priory’s courtyard, taking in the sharp late-afternoon air. A fresh crop of snow flurries lit upon the overgrown whiskers that pushed out from under his hood.
Flint watched the Abbot from the foyer. “Why don’t you stay here? I can tell him by myself.”
“Are you sure?” Gloria said.
“I don’t want you to get caught up in this if he doesn’t take it well.”
“All right. I’ll be here. Good luck.”
Flint buttoned his cloak and went out into the cold. “Abbot!” he said.
The Abbot scowled when Flint admitted to trespassing in Godfrey’s quarters, and the bitterness stayed on his face until the story was finished. “Flint,” the Abbot said. “I warned you not to break the rules. And now you’re telling me that you stole another professor’s key, then used a forbidden incantation to trespass in another’s private chambers?”
“Abbot, Godfrey…” Flint said.
“We are not talking about Godfrey. We are talking about you.” The Abbot brushed a pile of snow from his wiry beard. “That man has been an institution at the Priory for almost twenty years. You, on the other hand, can’t even keep yourself from breaking the law!”
“This is it for you Flint. You’re finished. I won’t keep you here any longer.”
“Fine.” Flint’s face flushed, and he raised his chin. “But you’re wrong. You have to listen to me.”
The Abbot’s eyes turned black. “I don’t have to do anything.” His voice grew not in volume but in presence, delivered with the power of his station. “I will not be ordered around. And certainly not by an outcast.”
Flint saw nothing but the void of the Abbot’s eyes. He shrunk from the glare and fell backwards into the snow. His voice trembled. “We have to do something. You have to do something.”
“Roderick, Isabelle.” The Abbot beckoned to a pair of monks crossing the courtyard. “I need your assistance. Please escort Flint to his dormitory so he can collect his belongings. Then show him off of the Priory grounds. He has been dismissed.”
“But…” Flint said, but the Abbot turned his back.
The monks looked at each other, then at Flint. “What happened?” Isabelle said after the Abbot had walked out of earshot.
He had to get to Godfrey. Flint climbed to his feet and began to walk toward the Priory, looking up at its time-worn spires and stained glass. “Nothing,” he said.
Gloria shot Flint a questioning look when the trio passed through the door.
“I’ve been dismissed,” he said to her. “The Abbot doesn’t believe me.”
Gloria considered Roderick and Isabelle. “What are you going to do?” she asked Flint.
“I’m going after Godfrey.” Flint took a breath and clapped his hands.
The sound shook the room, reverberating in his chest like a violent clap of thunder. Sooty black smoke poured into being and Flint was blinded. He staggered through the clouds, searching for an exit. Gloria coughed close by, but Flint ignored her. The smoke cleared near the edge of the room and Flint ran, pulling the common room key from his pocket.
Godfrey read the grimoire by the brazier’s smoldering light. He flipped through its pages with increasing speed, chanting the inscriptions without pause for breath. The fire ebbed and flowed with his words. Sparks spit forth in gouts of red and turned to ash in the cold water nearby. An endless torrent of occult energy flowed into the grimoire, black and hazy.
Flint saw it when he ran across the wharf. A coffin, black and still nailed shut, near the brazier. “Godfrey!” Flint said. “Stop! This is madness!”
But Godfrey turned the final page and snapped together the grimoire’s heavy covers. He hugged the book in his arms and raised his eyebrows. “Why? Why is it so mad to want to be with the one you love?” he said. “Doesn’t every man want the same? I’d wager you’d give much to keep Gloria at the Priory.”
Flint faltered. “But this is unnatural.” Flint’s face faded further with a profound realization. “At this moment, nobody in the world can manipulate the occult but you.” He lifted his hands, as if to prove himself incapable.
“A small cost. Perhaps things will return to the way they were. Perhaps not. At least I’ll have my girl.” Godfrey face was wet with tears. He turned to the painted box and raised a hand.
“Godfrey, I’m trying to help you,” Flint said.
The grimoire shook in Godfrey’s arm and the space between his hand and the coffin disappeared in black fog.
Flint lunged at Godfrey, clawing at the book, but Godfrey had already turned around. Something heavy flew from his hand collided with Flint’s chest.
Flint’s ribs cracked, and he flew backwards into the canal. Water flooded over him. Flint struggled to find the surface, beating at the water before his saturated cloak could pull him further down. His hand landed on the pier and he pulled himself to the embankment, coughing and retching from the pain in his side. He peered over the stony edge.
Godfrey stood over the coffin. Something inside it moved.
“Godfrey?” Gloria said from the far entryway. “Are you all right?”
“Of course,” Godfrey smiled.
Flint crept across the wharf, low and silent. He winced with each step. Splintered ribs grated against each other and he almost cried out.
“What are you doing?” Gloria said, locking eyes with Godfrey.
“Just finishing my project,” Godfrey said. “I’m think I’m….”
Flint pulled the grimoire from Godfrey’s grasp. Godfrey spun on his heels, his face shining bright with panic and rage. He raised his hand, poised to murder. But nothing happened.
The grimoire was heavy in Flint’s arms. Heavier than it should have been. Flint looked at Godfrey and pitched it into the brazier.
“No!” Godfrey said, scrambling for the hot coals. Flint used the last of his strength to shoulder him aside and they fell together to the ground.
The grimoire burned to ash before Godfrey found his feet.
The Abbot went to his office when he learned what had happened, and he barred the door. Days and weeks passed before anyone saw his face again.
Flint scratched a piece of gypsum across the blackboard. The classroom glowed from the sun on the snow outside. “As you know, the longer an incantation is, the more powerful. Or was, rather.”
A student raised her hand. “Why should we bother with this anymore? We can’t do anything with it.”
“No, at this moment we can’t. But we have to preserve our knowledge. What if the power of the occult returns in a hundred years?”
The bell chimed a somber tone in the towers far above.
“Right. Well, that’s it then. We’ll pick back up tomorrow.”
The students left the classroom, and Flint leaned to tidy the lectern. His hand shot to his side where the ribs had broken. When he was able to straighten himself out again, he found the Abbot standing in the doorway. “Abbot,” Flint said.
The Abbot looked his age, though more sorrowful than most old men. “I should have listened,” he said.
“You couldn’t have known,” Flint said.
“I’m glad you didn’t leave. I just wanted to tell you. And that I was wrong.” His head fell.
“Thank you. But Gloria left a few weeks ago and I’m going with her. I’ve already begun to pack my things.” Flint drew the sun-faded curtains, darkening the room. “I’ve found that… there is more to life than this.”
“The Priory will close. There is no hope for us here.” The Abbot slouched against the doorframe.
“There is always hope. Some things have funny ways of healing themselves. Just give it time.” A translucent wisp of light in Flint’s hand illuminated his smile.
Willingly and with Joy
By Lynn Rushlau
Waves smashed into boulders strewn like a giant’s bread crumbs in front of the seawall. Caught by the setting sun, the spray glittered gold as it was cast into the air and fell in drops of citrine. Zeninna laughed and raised her arms to catch the wild energy. Wind tangled her unbound black hair and billowed her clothes. Though the wind tried, the gusts lacked the strength to knock her from her perch on the seawall.
“I did it, you old hags! I got in!”
The roar of wind and angry waves along Landis’ empty seawall gave Zeninna the courage to yell her triumph to the sea. She pealed with laughter, delighted with her success.
She’d sworn she could. Stood up before the Iridescent Court and scoffed at those who mocked her as too young, too wild, too loud. Unruly as the sea in storm, her own mother screeched at her. Zeninna’s supporters begged her to keep her temper leashed. She hadn’t. She couldn’t. The old hags made her too angry. But she won the right to try.
And she’d succeeded. She pressed her hand over her heart and felt the papers stashed inside her coat crinkle. Her acceptance papers. Tomorrow morning, she would enter the Great Library of Cerulea as an Acolyte.
“I did it!” She screamed once more into the wind and waves.
A dark shape popped out of the water between two of the boulders. Zeninna’s heart stopped as a wave crashed over the rocks. Had she just seen…? Ahead of the next wave, her cousin Viridis hopped half out of the water onto a bowl in the rock.
Shock held Zeninna momentarily speechless. She’d spent too long around well-fed, healthy humans. Viridis looked green and positively skeletal.
“Are you crazy?” Zeninna looked wildly up and down the seawall. Relief tempered her outrage. Viridis, not her best friend Perseah. Perseah was safe at home.
“I would hope you wouldn’t be screaming at the top of your lungs if there were humans in the vicinity to hear.”
“That they can’t hear over the wind and waves doesn’t mean they can’t see you from a window.” Zeninna gestured wildly at the town behind her.
Viridis smirked. “Human sight isn’t that good. I’ll take your message to the Court. How long before they should expect you?”
Screaming reminders at herself not to give Viridis reason to suspect anything, Zeninna forced herself to take a deep breath. Her mind rocketed about and found the perfect way to spin the answer. “I’ll know better after Orientation tomorrow.”
“Should I meet you here at dusk then?” Viridis raised her eyebrows.
Zeninna frowned. It wasn’t like Viridis to offer to play messenger. She shook her head. “You can come. I can’t promise I’ll be able to get away.”
Viridis narrowed her eyes. “Don’t forget the importance of your mission.”
Fury propelled Zeninna off the wall. Imbecile! Viridis couldn’t possibly understand the importance of Zeninna’s mission to the Irides! Viridis only knew the Court’s version of the task, not the actual plan. The gall of her brainless cousin to attempt to remind her what was at stake! Whipping back around, Zeninna sneered at Viridis. “I will not forget. Now I must go. I’ll be missed.”
Zeninna knew herself to be less rash than the Iridescent Court labeled her. She understood that Orientation would not be the time to even attempt her mission. Her duty might be at the back of her mind at all times, but today she pretended that she simply was another acolyte with dreams of becoming a librarian or curator or even director of the Library.
So she listened to the welcoming speeches, what was expected, where they’d live, what their days would be like. She introduced herself to her roommates–not one too thin from years of sickness or malnutrition–and gave them a vague location up the northwest coast as her home. That area of Cerulea was scarcely populated, which should keep anyone here from knowing enough to catch her in a lie and explain any lack of knowledge of custom on her part.
Plus the Iridescent Court was northwest of here.
Her five roommates seemed wholly enraptured in their acceptance into the Library. The human children shouldn’t cause Zeninna any problems, which was good because their junior advisor looked ready to.
The suspicious stare Adlai gave Zeninna when they met sent a shiver down Zeninna’s spine. Was Adlai Sighted? Few people in Cerulea were these days, but few meant few, not no one.
Cephalo of the Deep couldn’t be so cruel as to give Zeninna a Sighted junior advisor. She must want Zeninna’s mission to succeed. Hadn’t the Irides Nixies suffered enough? Didn’t that suffering affect their Goddess?
Zeninna’s entire point of being here was to fulfill a promise to Cephalo of the Deep. Over the last months, the Irides made significant offerings and their priestesses prayed nonstop. Such great displays of worship should have Cephalo inclined to help not hinder.
Zeninna closed her eyes briefly and offered a quick, silent prayer, a plea, that none of the humans would guess what she was. Most humans refused to accept any of the other peoples of the world as people. She’d be lucky to not end up in a zoo if they caught her. Though that imprisonment might be better than being hunted for sport. At least there’d be the possibility of escape. She opened her eyes to find Adlai staring at her with a raised eyebrow. Adlai looked away as she moved on to her next topic.
The instructions and expectations dragged on half the morning. Zeninna’s stomach growled long before Adlai escorted them to lunch. Not that hunger interfered with her ability to listen. She was used to being hungry.
Lunch amazed her. An oyster soup, ten times more delicious than any Zeninna had ever eaten at home. She couldn’t understand how this was possible. Wouldn’t all oysters come from the same sickened sea? Still she took hope from the soup, took it as an omen that she would succeed. That health for the sea would be found here on land.
After lunch, they entered the Hall of Enlightenment. Adlai swept them past the guards with their salamander-sniffers, past the check-in desks, straight to the rotunda where floors and floors of bookshelves encircled them. All the way up to the dome six stories overhead. Zeninna gaped with her classmates at the vivid painted story of how writing and stories were given to humans.
Special collections and archives filled the first floor. Staircases behind locked doors led to the stacks in the basement. New acolytes had no need of either.
Adlai led them to the map carved on a stone that squatted at the top of the stairs on the second floor. She walked them through the map, before leading them on a tour, pointing out the sections they’d need for most of their assignments at this stage in their learning.
By sunset, Zeninna’s feet screamed with pain. They’d wandered through countless wings and almost every floor of the Hall of Enlightenment. Seen many human treasures, sacred texts, rare books, even scrolls from the founding of the kingdom. And gone to no other buildings. Come nowhere near the one that held the Magnificence of the Sea exhibit.
Zeninna sat with her chattering, excited roommates, but ate her dinner in silence. She glanced at the windows set high in the walls of the hall. The world was dusky blue. She’d missed her rendezvous with Viridis, not that she’d ever planned to make it. She picked the fish out of the flatbread and smiled at Linden, her tallest roommate, who regaled them with a tale of her village school. Linden laughed, throwing back her head and putting Adlai in Zeninna’s line of sight.
From the next table, Adlai stared at Zeninna, a perplexed little frown wrinkling her brow.
Zeninna smiled. She couldn’t think what else to do. Turning her attention to her blond roommate Teddy, she stabbed a piece of fish with her fork. Teddy gushed about something they’d seen today. Zeninna missed what, but she swallowed and muttered her agreement. It didn’t matter what Teddy was thrilled about. The others thought everything here was wonderful, so Zeninna agreed.
A couple of hours before dawn, Zeninna woke. She crept to the washroom and back without anyone else waking. She’d planned to try this in a few days, but she was awake now. And no one else was.
She only knew the way through maps. A week, a month from now, that might still be the case. Nothing outlined yesterday included visiting the Magnificence of the Sea. Zeninna hovered in the doorway. She could feel where she needed to go. The Peral Dagger sang to her. Why waste another two or three days here if she could go now?
Why deprive her people of their most holy artifact for even two more hours? Decades had passed since the dagger was stolen by one of their own to impress a human she thought would keep her as a lover. The seas had sickened slowly as the nixies failed to offer the sacrifice to usher in the new year. The execution of the traitor’s lover had been a rejected by Cephalo of the Deep, as had every offering without the dagger since.
She slipped into the hall. The door closed without a sound. She tiptoed through the dark corridor of closed doors. At the staircase, a shiver ran down her spine. Zeninna spun. Adlai stared at her from three doors back.
She jumped–and regretted that immediately, but couldn’t have helped it. How did Adlai move without a sound?
Zeninna plastered her biggest smile on her face. “Adlai! Good morning.”
“It’s not really morning. It’s still dark.”
Zeninna faked a big sigh, rolled her eyes, and walked closer to Adlai. “I think it’s morning back at home though. I’ve woken way before everyone every morning since I got to Landis. I thought I’d go down to the social room. Didn’t want to wake anyone.”
She deliberately looked Adlai up and down, pretending to notice her junior advisor’s robe and nightshirt. Zeninna dropped a hand over mouth. “Did I wake you? I was trying to be so quiet!”
Adlai shook her head. “You should go back to your dorm room. If you can’t sleep, rest until it’s time to wake.”
“Oh. Okay.” Zeninna hoped her frustration remained hidden. Talk about boring. Why would she want to lay on her bed and stare at a ceiling she couldn’t see? She allowed herself to drag her feet on the way back to her room.
At her door, she looked back down the hall. Adlai remained outside hers. Zeninna gave her junior advisor a bright smile and entered the room. She’d obey thus far, but had no intention of wasting the next two hours doing nothing. Trying not to rustle a piece of paper, she collected all her handouts about the Library.
By the time her roommates stirred, Zeninna had a new plan.
An hour after lunch, the new acolytes gathered in study hall. They’d been given several short papers to write, a page each on topics related to their morning lectures.
Zeninna sat with her roommates and wrote her first paper. She slid the finished paper into the folder she’d been given for completed assignments and drew out a fresh page. A look around confirmed her study of the map correct. No washroom inside the study hall itself.
“What’s wrong?” Linden asked.
“I could use a washroom.” Zeninna strained to see the far corners of the room, where no washroom materialized to ruin her plan.
“Think there’s one just down the hall outside,” Teddy offered.
The hall supervisors let her leave without displaying any suspicion. Zeninna took an immediate left and trotted off down the hall, head swinging back and forth as if she searched for the sign for a washroom. At the corner, she took another left and zigzagged her way towards the stairs. She turned another corner and came face to face with a Scholar.
“Acolyte! What are you doing down here?”
Hoping her fury didn’t show on her face, Zeninna looked right and left. “They told me in study hall I could find a washroom around here. Somewhere? This way?”
The Scholar smiled. “Oh, you missed a turn. Come this way. I’ll show you.”
She escorted Zeninna to the washroom and remained outside waiting when Zeninna exited. Zeninna smiled and pointed back the way she’d come. “This way, no?”
The scholar nodded and smiled. Zeninna thanked her and headed back to the hall. She rounded the last corner.
“Where have you been?” Adlai hissed as she stormed down the hall.
“I needed the washroom.”
“You’ve been gone forever!”
“I got a little lost.”
“Lost?” Adlai raised an eyebrow.
Zeninna sighed dramatically. “I know those who work in the Library have to be able to navigate it without getting lost, but this is the first time I’ve been in this building. I didn’t study the maps for this area.”
Adlai rolled her eyes. “Go finish your work.”
For five days, Zeninna pretended to be an Acolyte. She read books, wrote short essays, and studied maps. Her roommates teased that her dedication made them look bad. But five days in their company was five days too long. Every last one of her roommates thought Zeninna odd. It would only get worse.
And then there was Adlai.
Zeninna caught the junior advisor staring at her at least ten times a day. Adlai watched her when she ate, when she studied. She couldn’t set foot outside her dorm room without Adlai popping out to see what she wanted.
Zeninna couldn’t slip out in the night. She couldn’t escape during the day. Even if she could, the mission would be completely impossible by daylight. She couldn’t do anything while the Library was open. Not with people everywhere. Docents, Curates, Librarians and Archivists all going about their jobs, not to mention the hundreds of visitors the Library saw on a daily basis. She blushed to remember her attempt to sneak out during study hall. What had she thought to do?
But none of that mattered. She’d worked out a solid plan over these last five days.
They had clam chowder for dinner. Zeninna picked at it, though the chowder was much better than the land animal dishes they’d served the past two nights–or any of the thin soups they’d have at home. She wished she didn’t have to pretend to be sick tonight, but food wasn’t incentive enough to change her plans.
Of course, Adlai noticed, but this time Zeninna meant her to. “Is something wrong with your dinner?”
“I don’t feel very well. I’m kind of queasy.” Zeninna listlessly twirled her spoon around the bowl.
Adlai frowned. “Do you need the nurse?”
“Maybe.” Zeninna frowned and set the spoon aside. “That might be a good idea.”
“Come on. I’ll escort you.”
They walked out of the dining hall, left the building and crossed a courtyard with a fountain of leaping dolphins to a building on the other side of the auditorium.
“Through here.” Adlai opened a green door into a lobby which contained an empty desk and a few scattered chairs. Zeninna offered a small prayer of thanks to Cephalo. Whether someone always staffed the check-in desk had been one of the uncontrollable, unknowable parts of her plan.
Adlai struck a bell on the desk. A nurse bustled into the room about half a minute later.
“What can I do for you?” She looked from Adlai to Zeninna.
Zeninna looked at Adlai, who flushed and gestured for Zeninna to go on.
“I’m feeling kind of nauseated.”
The nurse smiled sympathetically. “Come on back. I’ll take a look at you.”
“Thanks for escorting me, Adlai.” Zeninna gave her advisor a weary smile before turning to leave with the nurse.
She held her breath as they walked past the desk and entered a small room. The door banged shut behind Adlai leaving a few seconds later. Thank Cephalo. Zeninna had hoped that Adlai wouldn’t be able to abandon her roommates, however much she might want to stay and spy on Zeninna.
The nurse laid the back of her hand on Zeninna’s brow. “You don’t feel feverish. Do you have any other symptoms?”
“My head aches a bit, and I felt a little dizzy when I stood up to walk over here.”
“Hmm.” The nurse took her pulse and checked her eyes, ears and throat. “I’m not seeing anything. Perhaps it’s simply your headache making you feel ill? Let me get you a headache tonic and we’ll have you rest here tonight. See if that takes care of everything.”
Zeninna sniffed the cup. Hoping the contents wouldn’t kill her, she drank the potion down and curled up on her side on the bed. The nurse doused the lights and left the door slightly ajar. Her footsteps receded, moving deeper into the building. Zeninna smiled over that.
She closed her eyes and began to pray. The nurse came to check on her about half an hour later. Zeninna suppressed a smirk and continued with her silent chant.
Another thirty minutes and the nurse popped in, felt Zeninna’s forehead, and left. This time Zeninna snored slightly in hopes the nurse would not feel the need to check again tonight.
She counted off five minutes, not wanting to rush out and be caught by the nurse making notes on her chart just outside the door. The door squeaked a bit as Zeninna pushed it open. She flinched and froze. No sound of footsteps. No sign of anyone. She crossed the empty lobby and tiptoed out the door.
Her luck held. Adlai was not waiting outside.
Reciting the start of the ritual in her head, she turned left and hurried along the small alleyway between the buildings. The ritual should be performed in stillness and peace, but Zeninna couldn’t count on having time when she reached the Magnificence of the Sea. Someone might see her and follow. Security might chose the exact wrong time to walk by that wing.
The Pilgrim’s Garden was empty. Zeninna’s feet crunched softly as she walked the twisting paths, the second prayer of the ritual ringing in her head. At the gate, she ducked so as not to set any of the wind chimes singing. Twenty yards from the Pilgrim’s Garden’s exit stood the Orirs Building, home of The Magnificence of the Sea.
Slipping through shadows, Zeninna skirted the boundaries of the courtyard. She looped around the side of the building and stepped up to a staff entrance, where she stood silently until she finished the second prayer. Whispering a soft plea to Cephalo, she tried the handle. Locked.
Why? Zeninna cursed softly. Not an exterior door in any of the buildings where they lived or had classes bore locks. Nor had the Hall of Enlightenment. Why this one? The treasures it held would be esteemed no more than the rare and sacred books.
Of course, the stacks had been locked. Zeninna raised her head slowly. This was a staff entrance. It led to offices and workrooms and backways that likely were locked away from the public areas too.
Heart fluttering madly, she crept back to the front of the building and raced up the steps. Two steps from the top, an owl hooted. Zeninna jumped a good foot into the air, came down between steps and fell, bashing her shin. Tears filled her eyes. She hobbled to the door and yanked the handle, forgetting in her pain to pray first. The handle turned freely.
Limping inside, she forced herself to concentrate and recite the third prayer of the ritual. Only a few low lanterns in the entry hall and over the stairs provided light. They glittered off royal jewels and artifacts in the exhibits to either side.
Zeninna’s destination lay upstairs. Praying fervently, she dragged herself upwards. At the turn before the third floor, muffled voices shocked her into stillness.
“Do you realize how ludicrous this sounds?”
“Why do you think I didn’t go get a supervisor?” Adlai asked.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. Why can’t we check at the nurse’s?”
“We won’t have time. She’ll come here.”
“I cannot believe you think one of the acolytes is a nymph of some sort. Or that I let you drag me out after curfew. Do you know how much trouble we’ll get in if we’re caught?”
Ignoring her throbbing shin, Zeninna broke into a run. She took the remaining stairs two at a time and raced across the third floor. Her pounding footsteps drowned out all other sounds. They might hear her, but she dared not waste time. She began the fourth prayer.
The sign for the Magnificence of the Sea was shrouded in darkness, but Zeninna didn’t need to read it to know she’d reached her goal. To the left of the entrance stood a statue that was supposed to be a mermaid. It wasn’t quite right, but still recognizable. Whoever carved the one on the left, though, they got a nixie perfect.
Zeninna reached out and traced the nixie’s face. Had someone modeled for this? History was strewn with tales of nixies befriending humans. Letting them know too much, see too much. The theft Zeninna sought to rectify tonight supported banning such friendships entirely. Her entire world was dying because an infatuated nixie allowed a human to run off with one of the Irides’ most sacred artifacts.
She slipped inside and hurried past displays of items from shipwrecks and of sharks’ and whales’ jawbones. The golden trident of some unknown merpeople made Zeninna shake her head in wonder, but she didn’t have time to pause and look at it. Oh, and there hung three enormous oceanscapes by Tersola, the greatest painter of seascapes the world had ever known. The stairs creaked. Voices murmured.
Regret filled Zeninna’s sigh. She hadn’t the time to stop and admire the paintings. Crossing into the next room, she hurried to the display in the corner on her left. To the Peral Dagger.
Her breath caught. Awe washed over her. Zeninna closed her eyes and took two deep breaths. She’d done her best to meditate the last three nights after her roommates fell asleep. She’d recited all prayers in her head getting here, all but the final one.
“Cephalo of the Deep, I come to you in open arms. I offer homage of your beauty. I offer praise of your wisdom. I am young, but I am strong. I am ignorant, but I am faithful. I seek you willingly and with joy.
“Accept this sacrifice on behalf of the Irides. We only wish to honor You. We ask your guidance. Your help. Your return. We would remake the oceans. Return the seas to their pure state in Your honor. In Your Name.
“I offer my life force. I offer all the centuries I have yet to live. Use my life to purify the seas. Bring back balance.
“I beg You. Accept this sacrifice which I offer freely in my abiding love of You. You are my will, my heart, my life. I return all to You. In love. In honor. In hope.”
Her words seem to ring off the walls. Her skin tingled. She could feel Cephalo. She’d never felt Her presence so intensely before. She was here. She waited for Zeninna.
Voices scratched the edges of Zeninna’s awareness. Irrelevant now. Zeninna belonged to Cephalo.
Zeninna reached out and lifted the Peral Dagger. She caressed the hilt and laid a kiss on its blade.
“For my people,” she whispered as she turned the blade so that its point hovered over her heart.
Time to return the dagger to the sea. Cephalo would bless them. The Irides Nixies would prosper once again.
The intruding noises grew closer. Grew louder.
No matter. If Cephalo rejected Zeninna as unworthy, they’d find a dead nixie with the Peral Dagger protruding from her heart. If Cephalo accepted this sacrifice, they’d find nothing but sea foam on the floor.
She plunged the dagger into her heart.
Crows and Galahs
By Jamie D. Munro
Jake rested in the passenger seat to the purr of the car’s engine, his head gently vibrating against the window. His father held the steering wheel in one hand and hung his other arm out the window, letting a warm breeze dishevel his greying hair. An endless row of barbed wire and wooden posts separated the highway from the fields of canola, blurring past like a yellow brushstroke on blue canvass.
A kangaroo leapt in front of them. The car skidded, launching them into their seat belts. The kangaroo crossed long before they stopped. The smell of burnt rubber drifted through the car.
Images flashed through Jake’s mind.
The premonition returned.
His mother followed the chain of taillights through the city in her pink hatchback. Piano music played on the radio while rain roared outside. With a half-smile and vacant stare, she was heading home after a long day at work.
Swerving across lanes, the four-wheel drive screeched with each turn. It sped through a red light and slammed into his mother’s car in an explosion of glass and twisting steel.
Slumped through her smashed window, across the blood-smeared white hood of the four-wheel drive, his mother’s sky-blue eyes looked forever to the dark clouds.
His eyes snapped open. “Huh?”
“We missed it.” His father drove off. “It’s okay.”
Jake’s trembling fingers pulled at wisps of blonde hair on his chin. Nothing was okay anymore.
“You looked like you were lost in your own world again.”
“J—just th—thinking about Mum.” The sun flashed in his side mirror, reminding him how far their all-day drive had taken them from home – from the place they had all shared. Every day since, and every mile now driven, pulled him further from the family they once had.
“She’s always on my mind too.” His father wiped a tear from Jake’s eye. “Look at you. Ya know, your mother always said grey eyes were some special family secret.”
“Yeah, s—she always said nice things.”
“I’ve been real worried about you. Your schooling…at home…you’ve been distant.” His father reached over and rubbed his knee. “You’re meant to be upset. But…it’s like there’s more going on.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know what’s eating at ya.”
I wish I could stop these thoughts in my head coming true.
“Jake.” His father shook his leg. “I don’t know what more I can do.”
Jake clawed his seat to control his shaking. “There’s nothing.”
“You and me, we need to work through this together…ya know.”
Jake looked at his father and saw three months of worry written into his bloodshot, dark-ringed eyes. Eyes that once shined with happiness – when they were all together. He wished things had not changed. Guilt stung him inside. If only he had done something. “I just wish I could have been there.”
“I’m glad you weren’t.”
“To help her.”
“No one could have done anything.” His father sniffed. “It was over in a heartbeat for her.”
Jake shifted away. “To warn her.”
“Oh, Jake, they said she didn’t even see the other car coming.”
I saw it coming.
His father grimaced. “We’ve been over this. I love you, but this is killing me.” He sighed. “What could you have possibly done?”
He fixed his father a stare. “I kn—knew it was going to happen…b—beforehand.”
His father strangled the steering wheel. “Are you crazy?” He punched the roof. “I’m sorry…I just don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to help…and with our money situation on top of things…it’s all been too much.” He sighed. “I’m just hoping this trip to the country helps.”
A hot flush coursed through Jake’s cheeks. He folded his lanky arms and turned away. Darkness cast by trees in the setting sun blanketed their journey ahead. He wondered if his father would ever understand him. No one else did.
A storm of stones awoke Jake as they pulled into a gravel driveway. A farmhouse sat on a rise in the distance, surrounded by a sea of wheat. They parked in a work yard adjoining the home.
His father turned and yawned.
“I’ll show you I’m not crazy.”
“I’m sure you will.” His father forced a thin smile and mussed Jake’s curls.
A red-orange glow on the horizon stretched across the fields, lighting up a face weathered by seventy seasons farming under the Australian sun. An old man sat perched on the veranda steps, stroking a lamb curled up by his work boots. A chorus of cicadas kept them company.
He stood with a groan and the lamb bleated. “Now shush, Lucky, you’ve ‘ad your pat,” he said in a drawn-out voice. He stroked the lamb and then extended a grease-etched hand to Jake’s father. “Karl.”
“Good to see you again, Crow.”
“Yep. It was a hell’ava time at Claire’s funeral, but it was great to see you guys.” Crow stroked his beard. “Ten years with nothin’. Now I see ya both again within a few months.”
“Coming out for harvest was a great idea.” Karl rested his hand on his son’s back. “Especially for Jake…ya know.”
“How was your drive, Jakey?” Crow asked.
Despite Jake being sixteen, he stood taller than most adults, yet Crow towered a foot higher than him. Jake dropped his face and fidgeted.
A callused hand lifted his chin, and Crow’s ash-grey eyes locked onto Jake’s. “I’m glad you didn’t hit that ‘roo.” Crow grinned.
Shadows leapt into his mind.
Darkness enveloped Crow. A shotgun exploded with a flash, lighting the night. He doubled-over and fell to the dirt.
The porch light shone off Crow’s white hair and his smile pulled at a cobweb of wrinkles. Fear surged through Jake, trembling his body. He did not want any more premonitions. His legs led him backwards. His father stepped forward, reaching out. Jake sprinted to the car, slapped his hands on the hood, and closed his eyes.
“What now?” his father shouted.
“Leave him be,” Crow said, still calm.
Jake burned inside with embarrassment at letting his father down again. “I d—don’t want to be here.” He glanced at his father. “I w—want to go.”
His father approached and whispered, “Pull yourself together. He’s a good man.”
That’s why I have to go.
A firm hand pressed on Jake’s back. “Don’t worry yerself,” said Crow, “this place will bring out the bes’ of ya. I’ll see to that. Just settle in and make a fresh start tomorra’.”
Jake crept outside at dawn to the screeching from a flock of galahs. An explosion of pink and grey wings filled the canopy of a giant gum tree in the backyard. His father sat in a tilted-back chair, gazing across the fields. A crisp breeze carried the aroma of coffee from a cup held in his lap.
“How’re you feeling today?” His father smiled, pulling out a chair between them.
“Ah…fine.” Jake scanned the empty work yard.
“Something’s on your mind.”
“Getting the header ready. How ‘bout you help him today?”
Heat flushed through Jake. “No.”
A corrugated iron shed rattled in the work yard. A harvester rumbled out, leaving a cloud of red dust and exhaust glowing in the morning light.
Jake backed up.
His father raised his voice over the engine. “Well, I think his farmhand, Nick, is out somewhere in the ute. I’d like you to get involved somewhere…ya know.”
Crow opened the cab door and waved Jake in. Jake snapped his head away, leapt down the stairs, and dashed across the back yard.
Lucky stood in the far corner, chewing at withered plants clinging to a rusted fence. A four-wheel drive utility loaded with hay bales on the rear tray skidded to a stop on the other side. The lamb scurried away. The driver wound down his window and shouted, “Bro, Old Crow said you can help ‘im or come out wid me.” He laughed. “But I reckon you better come ‘long wid me.”
He looked from Nick to Crow like a rabbit caught between two foxes.
Nick pushed his sunglasses up onto the stubble on his head and revved the engine. “Oi, get the fuck in already.”
Jake ducked between the strands of fence, catching his shirt on the barbs as he went through. The rust-spotted door groaned as he opened it and climbed in.
“Shut the fuckin’ door, you’re lettin’ the air con out.” They skidded off.
Jake grappled with his seatbelt in the bouncing car.
“Bro, you don’t need to belt-up, you dumb arse.” He snickered, swerving along the road.
Jake clenched his door handle.
“Out ‘ere you can drive how you want ‘n shit. Cops can’t get you.” His tattooed arm wound down the window and he spat outside. “We’re headin’ out to a far paddock to feed some sheep.” He burped up the stench of stale beer. “I’ll let ya know when to get out and open the gates ‘n shit.”
A cry burst into Jake’s head. He threw his hands to his ears and clenched his eyes.
Hobbling in a frantic circle, a sheep struggled to walk. Crying out, its twisted back leg etched a trail of blood along the dirt.
“Oi, what the fuck, bro.” Nick screwed his acne-scarred face.
They sped along the edge of the fields until reaching a barren paddock. A distant mob of sheep marched across the sun-baked earth, chewing at scraps of dry stalk.
Jake looked back and forth between Nick and the sheep.
“H—hey, s-slow down.”
Nick laughed. “H—h—h—hey.” He jerked the steering wheel side to side, throwing Jake around in his seat.
They skidded to a stop, and the mob surrounded them amongst a cloud of drifting dust. “Bro, get out and push the hay off.”
Jake forced his door open against the sheep, climbed into the back tray, pinching his nose at the stench of manure. The utility crept forward. He pushed the bales off one by one into a cacophony of bleats.
Speeding up, the car swayed from side to side. He gripped the bales and squatted. The sheep stampeded behind. Nick braked, launching Jake into the back windscreen. Laughter erupted inside.
Jake slapped the driver’s window. “S—stop it, y—you’re going to run them over.”
The car jolted into reverse. Wailing sheep competed with the roar of the engine. Nick slammed on the brakes, throwing Jake to the dirt.
Bleating frantically, an ewe lay on its side. Jake pushed himself up and wiped the taste of manure from his mouth. The sheep hobbled away, dragging a broken and bloody back leg, before collapsing.
The horn beeped. “Oi, get in.”
Jake knelt by the ewe, reached out to touch it, and hesitated, not knowing how to help. His hands shook. Crying out, the animal stared at him. Jake glared at Nick. “Help it.”
Nick sped off, coating Jake in a shower of stones.
The sun crawled through the clear sky to mid-point as the sheep’s bleats quietened to an occasional moan through bubbling saliva. Jake rested against the sheep’s sweat-soaked back, stroking its head. The sheep vision tormented him, reminding Jake he could not avoid his premonitions even when he tried.
The utility crested the horizon.
Jake sprung up, sending a cloud of flies buzzing around them. His heart thumped in his chest, beating faster as the engine grew louder.
Crow burst out before the car had stopped. “Why did ‘e leave ya ‘ere?” He ran over to them. “He said ya wanted to walk back.” He chuckled. “But I didn’t think you’d wanna trek five k’s in this heat.”
“He ran it over,” Jake rasped through a dry throat. “I knew he was going to.” He looked up at Crow. “But I couldn’t stop him.”
“Hmm.” Crow shook his head. “He’s some piece o’ work.” He went to the utility and took out a shotgun.
A blast of terror shot through Jake. His body locked in place, his mind racing with the vision of Crow.
Collapsed on the dirt and gasping, blood pooled around Crow.
Crow approached, casting a shadow over Jake. “I needa put ‘er down.”
The ewe panted.
Jake stood and dragged himself away. Decaying fences crisscrossed arid paddocks, stretching to the horizon in every direction.
An explosion blew through Jake.
“Jakey.” Crow raised his voice. “Come back with me.” Crow grunted and the utility’s tray banged as the dead sheep landed inside.
A scorching wind stirred up wisps of sand, stinging his bare legs. Crow drove alongside. “Come on, ya can’t ‘void me forever. An’ besides, too much sun is no good for ya.” He scratched a dark mole on his cheek. “Trus’ me.”
“I’m not avoiding you.” He walked on, scraping his boots with each step.
“Well, climb in.” Crow slapped the outside of his door.
Jake stopped and stroked his sunburnt neck. “I just want a ride back.” He climbed in, burning his legs on the vinyl seat.
“Let me take ya somewhere betta.” Crow wiped his forehead with a sweat-stained hat.
“I want to be alone.” He folded his arms and turned away.
“No, ya don’t. People like us are alone enough already…Trus’ me.”
They drove along a track lined with bush on both sides. A tapestry woven with every shade of green whirred past. Crow gently steered around the holes and corrugations in the track as a plume of dust trailed behind.
A crow stood on the road in the distance, diving its beak in and out of a squashed galah. It watched their approach between bites. Jake looked from the bird to Crow, his heart rate increasing. The crow stepped aside at the last moment, and then strolled back after they passed.
Crow raised his voice over the hot wind howling through the windows. “Do ya know where we get the saying ‘silly galah’ from?”
Jake turned further away.
“Well, in the country ya get an understandin’ of the birds. The galahs are the dumbest. They’re at the bottom of the peckin’ order far as intelligence is. You could be drivin’ along and a whole flock will take flight in front of ya, only to turn back and fly straight into ya.” He leaned over. “They’re stupid.” He focused ahead. “All other birds are just that little bit smarter as ya go ‘long. And then there’s the crow.” He grinned. “Nothin’ surprises the crow. They always see what’s comin’.”
They stopped by a granite rock, sitting like an island in an ocean of wheat. The sunburnt-red monolith blocked out half the sky, casting a cool shadow.
“You’re gonna need to learn ta shoot on the farm.” Crow took the shotgun and climbed out.
Jake’s pulse beat in his ears. He hesitated, before following.
Crow demonstrated how to load and work the action. He fired a succession of shots, interspersed with quick pumps. The blasts echoed off the rock and reverberated through Jake long after each discharge.
He pushed the gun into Jake’s hands. “Just aim at somethin’ and ‘ave a go. Just don’t shoot me.” He chuckled.
Jake clasped the gun and aimed at a tree. It swayed in the sights. The moment before pulling the trigger stretched for an eternity. His breaths grew louder and his eye glossed over. His sweaty finger slid off the trigger and he lowered the gun.
“You can do it, Jakey.” Crow steadied the gun. “Just point ‘n shoot. Ya can’t miss with this one.”
He touched the trigger. The butt exploded back into his shoulder. A pungent burning smell filled the air. He pumped the action, unable to contain his grin.
“Way to go.” Crow took the gun and returned it to the car. “Let’s check on the crop.”
He followed Crow into the wheat. Drooping seed-heads caressed his arms as they waded through a waist-high golden field. Crow broke off a seed-head, rubbed it between his hands, and handed it to Jake. “Eat it.” Jake ate the nutty tasting grain.
“Dry and crunchy? We’ll start harvest after the full moon.” He caught Jake’s eye. “Unless the storm comes.”
Crow turned to the rock. A breeze rustled the field, carrying the sweet smell of sun-baked grain. “That’s where I asked my dear Maggie to marry me.” He took a deep breath. “We came ‘ere every year ‘round this time to check the wheat.” He rubbed Jake’s back. “I know you’re suff’rin’ over your mother. I can see it, and I know how you feel.”
“Yeah?” he murmured. No one knew how he felt.
“I lost Maggie before last seedin’ to cancer. It’s a—” He choked. “It’s a hell’ava way to go. Trouble for me was I knew it was comin’ and there was nothin’ I could do to help ‘er.”
Jake knew that feeling. “I wish I had said something to Mum. It’s like I knew something was going to happen.” He quietened his voice. “But, I didn’t ‘cause Dad thinks I’m an idiot.”
Crow gripped Jake’s shoulder. “I wish I could turn back time too. I wish I had been there for Maggie. I was so torn up before she went that I ignored her. Worst part is I’m now havin’ my own medical dilemma…so I kinda know what she went through.”
Crow wiped his eyes. “Maggie and I had a good fifty seasons. I never…I never wanted to have a harvest without her.” His chin quivered. “I ‘aven’t told anyone this, Jakey, but after she died I came ‘ere and nearly ate a mouthful of lead.”
Jake paused. Finally someone knew how he felt. “I wish I had of done more.”
“Your father tells me you became close to yer mum before she passed on…That’s somethin’.”
“Look at me.” Crow stood in front of Jake, looking him in the eyes. “I know ya feel real bad ‘bout your mum’s passin’. But you’re not responsible.”
“Someone else is.” Crow grinned. “And that someone will get his in the end.” Crow nodded as the sun silhouetted behind, surrounding him in a brilliant glow.
Jake placed a palm on Crow’s chest and a burning sensation radiated along his arm. He closed his eyes and released all thoughts.
Grasping at his chest, Crow lay on the dirt. A shadow cast in the moonlight stood over him.
Sunlight filtered in. He clenched his eyes, turning his head back and forth.
The figure turned away, shotgun hung by its side, its footsteps crunching on the gravel.
He opened his eyes, mouth agape.
Crow smiled. “Come on, we betta check the others.”
The premonition haunted the return journey. Muzzled by doubt, he caged his concern for Crow. His father thought he was crazy, and so would everyone else. Crow seemed to understand him, and he would keep it that way.
They found Nick repairing a collapsed fence where the track bordered a salt lake. Skeletal trees punched through the parched landscape amongst waves of shimmering heat.
“Come ‘long, Jakey, I want ya to see somethin’.” He winked.
Crow approached Nick, with Jake trailing in his shadow. “Hey, ya clown,” said Crow.
Nick snapped upright, throwing down a pair of pliers. “What?”
Crow stopped an inch from Nick, leaning over him. “What’s with leavin’ the boy out there?”
Squeezing his fists and bobbing up and down, Nick shouted, “Bugger off, he wouldn’t fuckin’ get back in.”
Crow stood firm.
Jake stepped back.
“Well, I’m holdin’ off ya pay,” said Crow.
Glaring at Jake, Nick stepped over and jabbed him in the chest with a bony finger. “What did you say, ya little faggot?” Sweat dripped off Nick’s nose.
Jake held up his palms. “I—I—”
Darkness flickered into his mind.
Moonlight flared in Nick’s dilated pupils. With a twisted face, he thrust forward a shotgun, looming over Crow.
Sunlight fluttered Jake’s eyes. “I d—didn’t …”
Laughter burst through Nick’s rotten teeth.
Jake turned and tripped, grazing his hands on the salt-encrusted ground.
“What…the…fuck.” Nick strolled away. “You’ll pay me, Old Man.”
Crow leant down beside Jake’s quivering face. “Don’t worry ‘bout him. He’s jus’ a silly galah.” He lifted Jake with one hand.
Jake faced Crow, unblinking and heaving for air.
“It’s all right, Jakey.”
“N—N—Nick …” Pressure built in his head and the ground swayed. “He—“ His knees buckled and he fell into darkness.
A sizzling barbeque aroused Jake to the smell of cooked lamb. Nick raged in his head. The vision had opened his cage of self-doubt, and now with the final feather in place, his mind flew free on a path to help Crow. He dashed outside and found Crow on the veranda.
Jake dived onto a chair next to him.
“How ya feelin’?” Crow asked.
He put his face in his hands, not knowing where to start. “Huh?”
“You passed out.”
He dropped his arms. “Where’s Nick?”
“Out fencin’ with your father.” Crow set down two plates of lamb chops and salad. “I was hopin’ you’d eat—“
He pushed his meal away. “Where’s your guns?”
“Locked in the shed.”
Jake scraped his chair back. “I hate Nick.”
Crow grinned. “Me too.”
“Well…why is he here?” He held his breath.
“He has a purpose ‘ere at the moment.” Crow chewed on a chop. “When he’s done his job, he’ll be on his way.” He slapped a fly on the table so hard the plates jumped. “You can be sure of that.”
“But he’s dangerous.”
Crow sipped a beer like time did not matter.
Jake sprang up. “I just know it.”
“Well, I know stuff too, Jakey, and I have a feelin’ we need his help ‘ere.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and leant back.
“I have a feeling too…and…and he’s got to go.”
“Listen.” Crow exhaled. “I was passin’ through town a couple of weeks back and I jus’ had an urge,” he picked up his beer, “and stopped at the pub. That’s where I found ‘im. Said he was tryin’ to get away from the city.” He took a long swig. “I hadn’t really been too focused on harvest this year, but I took one look at ‘im and knew he could help me out. Then I ran with the idea and got you and ya dad up too.”
Jake marched into the backyard, trying to contain his frustration, dry grass scratching his bare feet. The sun had just set. He took a deep breath and turned back. The iron roof of the home glowed under a full moon. A chill crawled up his back like a spider.
The rumble of a tractor approached.
He ran back. “The full moon’s tonight?”
He spun to the work yard. A tractor drove in, followed by the utility. He whipped his head back. “Nick’s back.”
Crow collected the plates. “Everything will be fine. Trus’ me. Why don’t you get yerself an early night? You’ll need it.”
Jake paused, defeated. “J—just be careful.” He went to his bedroom and peered through the curtains.
Walking like every muscle cramped, his father returned to the house. Nick strutted to his caravan in the work yard.
Jake paced the room.
His father staggered in and slumped onto his bed on the other side of the room. “How’s your day?”
“D—Dad.” Jake stood still.
“Yeah?” His father sat up and rubbed his beard stubble.
He struggled to swallow. “Remember I said I knew Mum’s crash was going to happen?” He dove his fidgeting hands into his pockets.
Karl let his face drop and exhaled. “Yeah.”
“And y—you said I w—was crazy?”
“I don’t think you’re crazy…ya know.” He cupped his hands on his face. “You’re just not well… Not well at all.”
“D—Dad.” His body trembled. “I knew Mum was going to die and I did nothing about it.” He wiped his sleeve across his nose. “Because people think I’m mad.” He threw his arms up. “I see things all the time…Bad things…Before they happen.”
His father shook his head. “Shit, Jake. I’m ready to go home.”
“Dad, Nick is going to shoot Crow…tonight.” He burned with rage.
He stepped closer. “I want your help.”
“What the hell are you on about? We’re not doing anything.” He laid back down. “If I wasn’t so knackered I’d leave now. Go to sleep.”
Jake climbed into his blankets. His body shuddered. He knew he was on his own. He tossed and turned for hours at a loss for what to do.
A tapping at the window cut through the silence. Jake scurried to the bedhead. His hands trembled. He snatched the curtains aside. A crow perched on the windowsill, staring at him with its midnight-black eye. It cawed and flew away into the darkness. Jake jumped back.
Moonlight slipped through a gap in the curtains, lighting Jake’s father snoring in bed. Jake crept past and out of the room. Floorboards creaked and the back door groaned open.
A lightning storm danced on the horizon.
Gravel crunched underfoot across the work yard and into the shed. Jake tugged the cold steel handle on the safe and it held firm.
He crept back towards the house. Shadows cast in the moonlight stretched across the work yard like dark claws. Goosebumps crawled up his arms.
Nick’s caravan door screeched.
Jake froze. Sweat burst through every pore on his body.
Nick swayed in the doorway, the interior light throwing his shadow over Jake. Nick sucked on a glass pipe whilst holding a lighter to the end. He pulled the pipe out. “What ‘cha doing sneakin’ ‘round, you little pussy?” Nick fell back with a crash and laughed.
Jake sprinted inside and pulled the covers over his head, straining to slow his breaths.
Footsteps creaked on the veranda, each step shooting fear into him. He peered through the window. Nick snatched open the back door. Jake leapt off the bed and pressed himself against the bedroom door. Drawers and cupboards opened around the home. A set of keys rattled.
The footsteps disappeared outside. Jake sprang to the window and fogged it with his breath. A dark figure went into the shed.
Just be quiet, just be—
Crow walked outside.
He placed a shotgun by Jake’s window, and strolled into the shed.
Jake launched out of bed, crashing onto the floor in a tangle of blankets. He scrambled outside, picked up the gun, and scurried to the side of the shed. He leant back against the corrugated iron wall. Sweat trickled into his mouth.
The thunderstorm rumbled.
The gun safe clanked open.
“Nick,” said Crow with his calm voice.
“Oi, what the fuck?” yelled Nick.
Jake strained to stand, but his trembling legs collapsed and he slumped to the dirt. The gun barrel shook in front of his face. The smell of oiled metal churned his stomach.
“You’re nuthin’ but a thief…and a murd’rin’ coward.”
“What? Hey…hey, Old Man. There’s been no murder.” A shrill laugh erupted. “Not yet anyways.”
“I know who you are.”
“You know fuck all…Old Cunt. You should’a paid me…I need my fix. I just need it. Okay. Now I’m taking this shit and your ute too.”
“You’re goin’ all right,” said Crow, “but not where you think.”
“You killed my niece.”
Nick went silent.
Thunder clapped overhead.
“You killed ‘er in that crash and ran ‘way like the coward ya are.”
Images crashed into Jake’s mind.
Nick leapt from the four-wheel drive into the blood-stained shattered glass on the road and ran away.
“Wh—“ Nick’s voice quietened.
“And I aint lettin’ ya get away with it.”
“You aint doin’ shit, Old Man.”
Jake’s heart pounded.
“Nick, do it,” Crow screamed. “Do it, you murd’rin’—“
An explosion shook the shed.
Jake’s eyes snapped open. Lightning streaked across the sky. He leapt to his feet. He pulled the gun’s stock into his shoulder and steered the sights into the work yard.
Nick wandered between the sights, saw Jake, and stopped. He grinned and lowered his own gun. “Pussy.”
Jake held his aim firm.
The back door slammed open. “Jake,” yelled his father.
Nick looked to Karl.
“Nick,” shouted Jake.
Karl halted. “What happened?”
“Fuck off.” Nick raised his gun at Karl.
Jake snatched the trigger. Nick flew sideways. He yanked the action back and forth, clenched the trigger, and repeated the cycle until the last few pulls ended with empty clicks.
Nick’s twisted body lay face-down, gargling and choking.
Jake’s ears rung. Adrenaline surged through him. He dropped the gun and ran to Crow.
Crow lay on his back, caressing a wound on his chest. “Jakey.” He gasped.
Jake trembled a sob.
Blood trickled out the corner of Crow’s mouth. “You did it.”
“No, I didn’t. You’re shot. I did nothing.” Jake dropped to his knees and put a hand on Crow’s wound. “Yet again.”
“I have cancer and it was ‘bout to kill me.” Crow gasped. “I chose to go on my terms.”
Warm blood oozed through Jake’s fingers. “What?”
Crow’s hands slumped to his sides. “I have visions too, Jakey. Like the crow, you and I always see what’s comin’.” He chuckled.
Jake cried. “I can’t do anything about them.”
“You’re not meant to.” Crow coughed a spray of blood. “Jus’ make the most of the time ya have. You became close with your mum…before she passed. You did good.” He gasped and air sucked through a hole in his chest. “Now, don’t push your father away.” He reached up and caressed Jake’s cheek with a wet hand. Jake laid his hand over Crow’s. “Look after my farm.” His hand fell.
Crow went still.
The Colored Lens Interviews: Jarod K Anderson
The Colored Lens: What inspired the individual stories you’ve published with us?
Jarod: It’s often hard for me to pin down a single inspiration for my stories. I think my inspiration is usually more of a melding of several (often random) concepts that interest me at any given time. I’m a curious person, so I often get obsessed with new topics that catch my attention. For example, I recently went through a phase in which I was dedicated to learning how to pick locks. Will that end up in one of my stories? Probably, but I have no clue how.
Beyond a general love of mad scientists, I’m not sure what inspired “A Junker’s Kiss.” I guess it’s sort of a confluence of my interests in body modification and absurd science. As for “The Shallows,” that story was inspired more by a location. I spend a week or so in Florida every year and, as a lifelong resident of Ohio, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the open sea. I look at the sky reflected in an Ohio pond and I have some pretty good guesses about what might be beneath the surface. When I stare out into the ocean, I feel an immense amount of uncertainty about what might be swimming below. For me, nothing is as inspiring as a mystery.
The Colored Lens: Family relationships often seem to play a role in your stories. Do you feel that’s a common theme in your writing? Or what would you consider some of the common themes?
Jarod: I hope relationships are a common theme in my stories. I love fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but I’m not particularly interested in vivid descriptions of monsters or magical landscapes unless they are paired with empathetic characters struggling with fundamentally human problems. A monster alone in a vacuum is nowhere near as interesting as a monster hiding in the back of a loving family’s minivan. Believable human interaction is the real fuel that gives power to writers’ elements of the fantastical.
The Colored Lens: When you start writing a story, do you know how it’s going to end? If not, can you give us an example (ideally from a story you’ve published with us so our readers can make the connection) of a story you expected to go in one direction that went somewhere else?
Jarod: It depends. How’s that for an unhelpful answer? Sometimes I start a story because I’ve thought of a punchy ending. Sometimes I just have the broad outline of a conflict in mind. I think for “The Shallows” I just had a rough sketch when I started. A man in a small boat goes fishing and encounters merpeople. On its own, that premise probably isn’t interesting enough to carry a narrative, so I knew I needed to do more than simply make the protagonist a victim. Somewhere in the writing process I introduced some good ol’ vampire/werewolf transformation mechanics into the mix and found the unexpected complication I needed.
The Colored Lens: What would you like to read more of & what are you tired of in general in speculative fiction?
Jarod: I could use more humor. I empathize more with characters who aren’t afraid to be the butt of the joke. Take Harry Dresden (of The Dresden Files) for example. Those books have plenty of real fear and struggle and tragedy, but Harry’s wisecracks do a lot to humanize magic and ground the fantastical elements in believable reality. The Expanse series does a good job of walking that line as well. I guess that leads me to what I’m tired of in fiction. If I’m starting a new fantasy book and the first twenty pages are setting, you’ve lost me. Once I’m invested in the characters, I’m willing to learn more about the geography of the dread Mountains of the Wailing Cheese and the Mystic Caverns of Gorp. Characters and tension needs to come first. The fantastical world should come second (or third).
The Colored Lens: What was the first speculative work that really captured your attention and got you interested in the genre?
Jarod: I had an audio version of The Hobbit that I probably listened to a few hundred times as a kid hiding under my blankets with my boombox (I’m old). That led to Lord of the Rings. That led to living with piles and piles of books.
The Colored Lens: You also mention an upcoming story in Pseudopod below. How do you feel audiobooks relate or compare to paper books in terms of reader experience? Do you write with either audio or written form in mind when you write a story? Or do you think some of your stories are more suited to one or the other?
Jarod: On an average weekday I commute for over two hours, so I’m a big fan of audiobooks. They are a different experience from paper books, but I love both experiences equally. For example, I love the novel Moby Dick, but when I recommend it to someone I typically recommend the audio version. I find that dense and sometimes difficult works like Moby Dick benefit from audio because the reader isn’t allowed to get slowed or frustrated. The language rolls along and sweeps the listener along with it. I also recommend audio for works like Paradise Lost, works in which the musicality of the language adds to the experience. That said, there is a wonderful intimacy between the reader and a physical book. Audio has a bit more distance to it.
I have never written a story specifically for audio and I absolutely get squirmy when I hear my work read aloud. Squirmy feeling aside, I love publishing in audio formats. I love it partly because I’m such an avid consumer of audio fiction and partly because I feel like the act of performing a piece lends some extra weight to the thing.
The Colored Lens: What’s a typical day like for you, either including writing or not?
Jarod: I work at a university in marketing and fundraising during the day. I do most of my writing in the evening. I also spend time playing with my two, oddball, rescued mutts and hanging out with my lovely, oddball, writer wife.
The Colored Lens: Who’s the better writer, you or your wife? 🙂
Jarod: The short answer is “she is.” The longer answer is “it depends what genre/style/form you’re talking about.” Since you gave me an opening, I will say this: You need to read Leslie’s poetry. I know I’m married to her so my opinion is suspect, but she is my favorite poet and would be even if I’d never met her. Check out her collection An Inheritance of Stone and prepare to be surprised when poems about space exploration and science fiction make you cry.
The Colored Lens: How does your relationship as writers affect your relationship as a married couple, and vice versa?
Jarod: Well, we do peer pressure each other into writing more. For example, I might be sitting down to play a video game and look over to see Leslie tapping away on her laptop and think, “well, if she’s writing, I should probably be writing too.”
The Colored Lens: Have you ever/would you consider writing something together?
Jarod: You bet! We have very different processes, but we do like to collaborate. We’ve written a couple books of writing prompts together and right now we’re working on an epistolary horror novella together.
The Colored Lens: To what extent do your personal experiences (job, family, or odd things that have happened to you) influence your stories?
Jarod: Well, I don’t really think I can separate my imagination from my experiences. I think if I were to say that my personal experiences don’t shape my writing, it would mean more about my lack of self reflection than give any real insight into my creative process.
The Colored Lens: What’s the most frustrating thing about the writing process and the publishing industry for you?
Jarod: Writing is hard. It was always hard and, while I’m enthusiastic about it, I don’t believe it ever gets any easier. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing. It’s just the kind of love that also makes me want to punch a wall sometimes. Occasionally, aspiring writers ask me for advice and I usually tell them some version of, “You often won’t feel like writing because it’s hard and lonely and usually involves very little reward. You also need to find ways to make yourself do it every day anyway if you want to be a writer.” On a positive note, I like to remind myself that nothing really creatively rewarding is ever easy. Plus, if it wasn’t so challenging it would get boring.
The Colored Lens: Do you have any upcoming projects that we should watch for?
Jarod: I have a flash fiction piece in the current episode of Pseudopod. Also, my middle grade novel is currently being considered by several agents (fingers crossed) and I have a poem in an upcoming issue of Asimov’s.
The Colored Lens: Congratulations on those, and good luck with the novel. It seems you’re primarily a short story writer. Do you think this is an accurate statement? And how would you compare writing novels and short stories?
Jarod: I’ve written two novels and a third one is on the way. The thing is, I’m aiming for a pretty traditional publishing path, so you aren’t likely to see my novels unless I find a novel publisher with whom I’m excited to work. Yes, I think it’s accurate to say that I’m mostly a short story writer… for now. Novels and short stories are pretty night and day for me. Short stories are about economy of language and building a satisfying narrative in a compact space. A novel lets you stretch out and experiment and play around a lot more than short fiction.
The Colored Lens: Finally, unrelated to writing, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done? And what achievement are you most proud of?
Jarod: I once fought off a carjacker with a knife and I’m pretty proud of earning my MA in literature.
The Colored Lens: Wow, we’re glad you were successful. Can you tell us a bit more of the story of the carjacking? And do you think having an MA in literature affects the way you read or write speculative fiction?
Jarod: I was a college student and I gave a hitchhiker a ride. The guy asked me to pull over so that he could use his cell phone at one point. You know… because you can’t use a phone and ride in a car at the same time (this guy was not a master criminal). He pulled a knife on me and demanded that I get out of the car. I was young and on the boxing team at my school and I decided I’d rather fight him than give up my car. Thankfully, I won. In reality, I probably should have just given him the car. It was a piece of junk and not worth risking my life. I did get a pretty good little story out of it though.
I’m sure my MA has an effect on the way I write and read, but I don’t think it’s a massive difference from anybody who doesn’t have a MA in literature. I’ve just spent a lot of hours studying various ways to think about stories. I think that investment of time enhances my enjoyment of reading and occasionally provides me with a trick or two when I’m writing. It can also be a little distracting because I’m in the habit of looking for essay topics.
The Colored Lens: So you’ve published a couple books of writing prompts. Do you often use writing prompts in your own writing?
Jarod: I don’t, actually. Coming up with the idea is never the hard part for me. I never run out of ideas. Putting in the hours to actually get the idea down on paper and polished into something a person might want to read is the hard part. For me, inspiration is cheap. Follow-through is the important part.
The Colored Lens: Finally, are you a dog person or a cat person?
Jarod: Definitely a dog person. I like cats, but I am very, very, very, very, very allergic to them.